Breathe (This Makes Me Wanna Listen to Michelle Branch)

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So, it’s been a minute. I know, really, it’s been a lot of them. But I’m forever learning that life doesn’t always go the way you plan. Things most certainly don’t unfold in the dramatic scenes you play in your head, and, unfortunately, there’s a lot of disappointment down the road. Not to be cheesy, but there is beauty in that, too. I guess there’s just a lot of lessons to be learned.

Lately, I haven’t been in the mood for the world to prove me wrong. For the sake of my ego–and my mental health–sometimes you just gotta take things as they come. As I’ve learned many times in the past year, you can’t control everything.

Recently, my life has pulled me away from creating. It’s a weird headspace for me, being so focused on practical things–saving money to move out, trying to figure out where I even want to go, if I can handle moving to another state and leaving behind my family, what I even want to do these days–that I’ve lost that part of me that loves to create.

The further I drift from writing, the further I drift from myself. Me not writing is a reflection of my brain.

All I want is to get back into the fun (and hell) of a first draft. I want the mess, the characters that do whatever they want, the plot holes, and that feeling of being so involved in the story that hours go by without me noticing.

Countless times I’ve started and scrapped something. I even made it fifty pages into a draft before I stepped away because I couldn’t work my way through the plot.

This new idea scares me. It’s intimidating. In size. In emotional heftiness. In all of the world-building it’ll require. In all of the essential character development. In maybe prying open a wound I’ve left festering for too long. Also, in this new idea, my characters are older. It’s even a different genre. So this is way out of my comfort zone, which is exciting yet terrifying.

Ultimately, I think this is about me not getting ahead of myself. I have all sorts of ideas, and I need to remind myself that writing is about the adventure. About the love I have for it. How it has saved me time and time again. That it’s okay to take a break. That I will find my way back to it when I’m ready.

I mean, in May of 2017, I thought I would never write again. And then I opened a random Scrivener document and there was nothing but a single note about a basic plot idea. That sparked the novel I’ve spent the past year working on, a novel that I will always love regardless if it goes anywhere.

So, maybe, I should just breathe.

Let life do its thing.

And see how it all works out in the end.

The Now What Stage

It’s the morning after I sent out my first round of queries. Admittedly, I’ve had very little sleep because not only was the whole process terrifying, it was exhilarating. I couldn’t sleep afterwards, and was up until two-thirty stress-eating cheese in bed while watching The Great British Baking Show again.

Earlier this week, I talked about my feelings of dread for the query letter, and now that I’ve sent one out, I feel somehow worse and better at the same time. Worse because you can never really know whether or not an agent is going to respond (and I don’t mean like via e-mail, but emotionally) to your query no matter what you do to it. Not to mention, some agencies only give you a few pages, I’m talking like three, to capture their attention, and if you’re anything like me, those first three pages are the absolute hardest to nail. Anyway, the whole process is really just one giant risk, because you could have an incredible novel at your hands and they could still reject you.

Like, think about those first agents that rejected J.K. Rowling. I bet one of their biggest regrets in life is not giving her a chance. But, also, once again, the whole thing is subjective. Not everyone out there is going to respond to your novel. There’s always going to be at least one person who can find something wrong with it, or it simply isn’t appealing to them. Of course, this is why I research the agents—their current and past deals, their Manuscript Wishlist accounts, their submission guidelines, their Twitter and other social media, and their blogs—so that hopefully I’m sending them something they could very potentially be interested in.

One of my close friends said something interesting to me last night when I sent her a text with a lot of vomiting emojis. Basically, she said that as I move on, I should think of every inevitable (she didn’t say this, but I’m being realistic) rejection is just proof that I’m working hard and sending out my work. And it’s true. Writers get rejected all of the time, and I cannot sit here and write this with my head so far up in the clouds that I think that I’m going to get snatched up on the first few queries I’ve sent out.

But it’s strange and a little worrisome. For the next several weeks, I’m going to have anxiety about opening my email. I’m going to remind myself that Stephen King was rejected a whole bunch of times before he ever got published. And it’s not like I haven’t experienced rejection before with my writing. I epically failed with sending out my last novel. I just really really hope that this one is different.

Now that I’ve begun querying, I’ve entered this weird in-between stage. My novel is “finished,” filed away on a USB and also on my desktop, so I even though I keep finding myself gravitating to it, wanting to work on it, I have to remind myself that I’ve done what I believe is a ton of work, and I should let it breathe as I continue sending out my queries. This also leads me to another interesting thing I heard during a chat with a Penguin editor via a monthly book box subscription I get. One of the authors on the chat said that she knew when to start sending out her novel because she was no longer making it better, just different. That’s what I’m doing. Lots of nitpicking at this point, changing things just for the sake of changing.

So, I decided to start querying. I’ve had people critique my query letter, I’ve workshopped several drafts of my novel, and now it’s time to take the plunge. Which I’m currently doing in waves, so that every week, the novel lands in 5-10 new inboxes, and that’s 5-10 more chances of acceptance or rejection.

I’ve thought about the ideas rattling around in my head. I am very much a person who, if she doesn’t write at least once a day, she is absolutely positively cranky. Really, though, I’m so fresh out of this novel that I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I believe I’ll be blogging a bit more. I mean, I’ve already started! Two posts in one week? That’s incredible for me!

I also think I’m going to try and read more. I mean, I do tend to read a lot already, but I’ll be posting some reviews here, mostly YA, looking at novels from a writer’s standpoint and hopefully concentrating on some debut novels. Sometime next week I’m going to be posting something I’ve already written (!!!) about the importance of reviews for authors, and then hopefully finally getting around to the pile of novels I’ve recently read and need to write my feelings about.

Also, Bookcon is coming up, and I cannot contain my excitement. But that’s in next week’s post as well, and I’m getting ahead of myself.

For now, I need to enjoy my time in this weird, Upside Down-type of place I’m in (sans Demagorgon) and take a breather.

The Dreaded Query Letter

In the background of today’s writing session is a thunderstorm. There’s nothing quite like thunder, and rain has always been my favorite weather despite its tendency to ruin plans. Perhaps that’s exactly why I like it, because then I have an excuse to stay in bed and read, and as of late, obsessively watch The Great British Baking Show.

Last month, I somehow managed to read six books, which for me, is a lot. I never read that many, because after being a literature major/philosophy minor in undergrad, I read slowly because I tend to write comments in the margins and highlight the crap out of passages/books I love. Yes, I’m one of those readers who loves her books so much she breaks the spine, dogears the pages, writes in ink. I love when I can tell books are loved.

Anyway, my point is that lately, I haven’t been reading much, and that has to do with the topic of today’s post: the dreaded query letter. I have finally achieved a draft that feels right. I have plans to try one more structural tweak before I send off the first few pages to my list of agents, but my beta-readers have been incredibly helpful. Honestly, I just feel really loved, and their comments and insights have been incredibly helpful these past few months getting this manuscript into great shape.

It might be a little risky, given just last week I was talking about not rushing things. But, this will be Draft Six, and though there are probably some things I’ve missed, I’m hoping to work with an editorial agent who is willing help me with this difficult novel.

Thus begins the process of writing a query letter. Two things I’ve noticed since the last time I wrote one: a) I forgot how to do so, and b) writing a query letter for a contemporary versus a fantasy is insanely different. When I was writing the one for my first novel, it came so easy because I knew exactly what was at stake, I knew which books I could comp it with, and I knew the structure was linear and easy to follow.

This time around, not so much. I think it’s because I’m so much more attached to this novel, and that when I let myself run around daydreams of the publishing world, it’s this novel that’s my debut. Which is a scary freaking thing. But I think that’s why the query is so hard to nail. It’s the thing that stands between your writing getting into the hands of an agent.

Honestly, I feel like it’s an antiquated bit of the publishing world, but I do understand its function and necessity. It’s the first (now, often virtual) impression you’re making on someone you may eventually begin to build a professional relationship with. If you can’t summarize your own book, that often means you don’t understand the heart of it just yet. Also, just a bit of advice, almost all agencies have guidelines on querying. Read through and follow them, or risk your query getting deleted without being read.

One of my professors during Thesis Seminar once told us that writers wear a lot of hats. At that point, some were just beginning to write their thesis and others were editing. She pointed that out, that you’re using different parts of your brain for each task. When I’m writing, I try not to think about mistakes. I just write. When I’m editing, I’m thinking about structure, the function of scenes, the necessity of scenes and characters.

So, writing queries also falls into the collection of hats we wear. It’s a frustrating one, to be honest. The kind that itches, the kind that falls down over our eyes whenever we duck our heads, the one that make it hard to hear the outside world. I also feel kind of stuffy when I wear this hat, because I’m trying to be businesslike, but also not lose the heart of my novel.

There are just so many ideas and opinions on the query letter these days, that you have to go in it just knowing that what you absolutely have to have is a great hook. Make the agent want to read more, make them wonder what will happen in the book. Some agents may pay more attention to the query than others, mostly because they’re trying to see if a) you can summarize your book, b) you listen to instruction, and, most importantly, c) you know how to sell your book.

Some of my fellow writers who are querying are relying on their pages to make up for their query letter. I’ve seen manuscripts picked up regardless of how garbage their query actually is, but I personally am too scared to take that risk. I want to show that I can do both, that I can wear all of the hats–not at once, of course, because then I would look ridiculous (Dobby from Harry Potter comes to mind)–even if this is all metaphorical.

Knowing that you’re about to make a first impression on someone is intimidating. Especially when you feel like you’re packing up all of your hard work and dreams into a little package and sending it for judgment. The whole process is subjective, something that was once included in a rejection email I received last time around. It was probably the most helpful piece of advice I had received, because it was a good reminder that even though no one offered to sign me, it didn’t mean I wasn’t talented or didn’t have any chance at getting published. It just meant that that project wasn’t the right one for this particular agent. I guess, really, that’s what you have to remember through this process.

Gosh, I know this post is insanely long, so thanks for reading. I guess I just had way more feelings–i.e. dread–about the query letter than I initially thought. But it is important to have faith in yourself. Writing and publishing really is about the journey, and someday, you’ll look back and be thankful you took your time, you wrote the best manuscript you could. So, to all of you querying, I wish you luck.

When Writing Feels Like a Competition

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First off, I finally finished Draft(s) Three and Four of my novel. The fourth one was just to fix a small plot thing that I had found while writing Draft Three and couldn’t resist fixing before I sent it out to my readers this time around. It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, but also not, and this post is pretty much to talk about why.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately as fellow writers’ manuscripts come in and out of my inbox that at some point, writing becomes this weird competitive thing. Especially coming out of a MFA program, where almost all of your friends want the same thing.

We’re a year out. It’s sort of hard to believe that we’ve been out for a year, and honestly, I’m still not sure what I’ve done with that time. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been feeling extra uninspired lately, and a little off-kilter. I’ve spent so much time thinking about who I was then and who I am now, and reliving many of my mistakes. That’s a post for another time.

But, right now, I’m thinking about my class as a collective. At the end, we scattered, the wind blowing many of us in different directions across the country (and maybe other countries because one or two have fallen off the radar). Some are published, some are teaching, some are writing blogs, some are making music, one for sure is agented, some are running amazing indie presses, some are living together, some are working in bookstores and in marketing, some are actively writing, and some have given up on writing altogether. For a short two years, we shared classrooms and airplanes, Pittsburgh and bars, cigarettes and tequila, jokes and tears. We gave the most personal bits of ourselves on the page, only to have other people critique us. And now, now many of us don’t share anything except Instagram pictures and short texts.

I try my hardest to keep in touch. I read manuscripts when people send them my way, and most of them are from my fellow children’s writers. It’s getting to the point where we all have manuscripts, almost complete ones, and we’re hyping ourselves up to query. Or, at least, we want to be querying.

As I talk to them about their desires for the future, I find I’m both happy and hesitantly disappointed. Jealous, really. Because though none of us will be the first from our year to land an agent–that honor has gone to one of my critique partners who is seriously a writing goddess–it seems like there’s a weird storm brewing.

Some of my friends from the program are actively querying, and I’ve been reading a lot for them–query letters and summaries and first ten pages and author bios. And as I continue to read, I panic. Because I thought I’d be further than this, thought I had finally found my footing in this damn novel, but, like all writers, I’ve experienced several setbacks.

I thought I had a strong manuscript, thought I was making good progress and getting closer and closer to querying. I say this all of the time, but this is the story of my heart. It’s the story of my soul. I would be all cliche and scream it from the rooftops so the whole world could hear it. I can’t. It’s scary, because I’m ready to share this oh-so-personal novel with the world, but the novel isn’t ready to be shared.

And as my friends continue to write and as they get more excited about querying agents, I panic more. It’s really freaking stupid to be honest, because it’s not like there aren’t a lot of agents out there, and the time it takes for me to get one isn’t a reflection on me as a writer. There are a whole lot of variables that come into play when querying–I’ve seen it firsthand, as I was an intern for an agent for the past year–and sometimes, it has nothing to do with the writing, and almost never the writer. (Unless they do something stupid, like not read the guidelines or CC several agents on one query.)

I know who my dream agent is, have a nice long list of ones that I feel like I could not only grow an author/agent relationship with, but someone who can help me learn, who will help me navigate not only my (hopefully future) writing career but also life. These are the ones who resonate with me not just as agents, but as people. I’ve read their bios and websites and their Manuscript Wishlist posts and their blogs and I can see my novel in their hands and trust them to make it better.

I don’t know, though. I’ve posted before about not rushing the process, about taking my time, and despite the urge that I feel to just send out my novel, I won’t do it. It’s just weird, because I don’t want to feel like I’m in a competition with my friends. When one of them (and they all will) lands an agent and then a book deal, I want to be happy for them. Their biggest fan.

So, for now, I guess it’s about the writing. Knowing that I’ll get there eventually, too.

This is for Me, But Also for You

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I know there will come a day when I wish I had started this sooner. If only I had been paying closer attention from the very beginning, watching my writing grow and writing about the process of writing a novel. But, in my twenty-four years on this planet, I’ve come to accept that I am habitually late: to work, to hanging out with my friends, to understanding my emotions, to acting on those emotions, to surprise parties, to meetings with people I respect. I’ve also accepted that perspective always changes in hindsight. So, whereas I normally feel guilty about all of the above, I’m letting this one slide.

For those of you who don’t know, and at this point, none of you do, I’m a writer living in the rural outskirts of Pittsburgh. I have a MFA in Creative Writing, and my speciality was children’s literature, along with publishing and travel writing. My heart is in writing for young adults. It’s one of those markets that’s flourishing as it grows, and as of many recent publications, it’s starting to do things that other areas in the lit world haven’t quite caught on to yet. (So, I’ll say it right now. This is a blog that celebrates all aspects of diverse writing, diverse characters, and the continuous push for own voices and marginalized writers. Every child/teen/person deserves to see themselves on the page.) I have hope that YA Lit will continue to harness respect from other genres, and that when I talk to people about what I write, I’m not ashamed to tell the truth.

That, alone, is a post for another time. Which makes me excited for all of the things I want to write about more in-depth.

Anyway, for the past nine months–at this point, ten–I have been writing a YA contemporary novel. For now, I’m keeping the details and title to myself. It was a big step, going from writing fantasy to writing contemporary. I spent a lot of time researching YA contemporary novels in order to better understand how they told their stories, because mine is very much a character-driven story. And when you’re used to writing lots of plot, it all just feels. So. Slow.

I took a different approach with this novel. I just wrote. I withheld from my usual habit of editing as I went about forming the draft. And on January 25th, 2018, I finished the first draft at around 3:30 a.m.

It was scary, because this one felt different. It still feels different. Like it has more potential to go places. Of course, it’s not ready yet. It’s been through several read-throughs by other writer friends, a round of editing, as well as structural revisions. It’s about to depart from my inbox to another round of reading by my critique partner. (Who I met through grad school and is an amazing person and writer, btw.)

I guess all of that is why I’m writing this blog. I want to document this journey. The one of finishing a novel, of polishing it, of researching agents and querying. It might be one that ends drastically, but also, there’s a chance I might prevail. It could be the adventure I’ve always dreamed about. Except with maybe less dragons, which is probably the most disappointing thing about it.

In the end, I would love it if you stuck around! Maybe you’re about to embark on this process as well, maybe you’re published, and maybe you’re not a writer at all. Either way, welcome.