Like most kids, I used to get sick. Strep throat, chicken pox, stomach flu. Nothing unusual, or even particularly frequent. I never minded. There was a delicious kind of routine to it. I’d tell my mother I felt bad, and she’d lay a cool hand on my forehead, and pronounce me sick. She’d immediately get all my favorite blankets and comforters and books and bring them downstairs to make a bed on the sofa so I could watch TV. She’d bring me special food, tell me ice cream was good for sore throats, and make her own cough remedy with equal parts honey, lemon juice, and some hard core alcohol—whatever they had on hand.
No matter how minor the illness, she was there. She held various jobs throughout my childhood, but whatever her responsibilities at the time, she’d be there to watch soap operas and I Love Lucy re-runs with me during my day of pampering. At night, when I’d feel worse, she’d stay up with me if my stomach roiled or my fever spiked, reading children’s poetry from a compilation she’d owned as a child with 1940s drawings of little girls in big hair-bows and boys in short pants.
I grew into my teen years. We fought plenty: over hairstyles and clothing styles and politics and TV shows (“I think Friends is stupid. All they do is talk.”). We screamed at each other. Sometimes we refused to speak to each other at all. We read together anyway – a tentative but permanent alliance over a love of words.
I went to college. She helped me move in and wiped away a tear while breathing a secret sigh of relief. From then on, we argued mostly over the phone. She had her opinions. I had mine. Neither of us was shy about sharing them.
I got married. My husband can’t afford sick time, so when I’m sick now—rarely, so rarely—I’m on my own. If I need a blanket, I get it myself. If I want honey-lemon cough remedy, I have to remember to pick up the ingredients at the grocery store myself. There is no one to feel my forehead.
My mom aged. Now she’s the one who’s sick. When I can, I go to be with her, but it’s not as often as I’d like. Her ailments can’t be cured by children’s poetry in the wee hours of the morning, anyway.
We’ve got history, but it’s mostly good. When I think of my mom, though, I always picture her late at night, shadowed in the light from that bedside lamp, reading poetry and standing guard, suffering through all feverish nights alongside me, the personification of safety.
It’s Mother’s Day. If you still can, go kiss your mom.
In the Greek myth, the gods of Olympus created Pandora as the first human woman. They gave her every advantage of wisdom and beauty, but they also gave her curiosity and a box (a jar in the original) full of all the woes of humanity. Her curiosity caused her to open it. All the woes—sickness, hatred, horror—flew out of the box, released into the world, except for one.
Hope is a beautiful thing. It is a child, about to be born. It is an unopened letter. It is a cake in the oven, rising. It is a flower bud. It’s a soap bubble, glistening in the sun.
It’s not always beautiful. It has another side. Hope can bring out razor-sharp edges and vicious claws. When its promises are empty—and they are, far more often than we can tolerate--nothing hurts more. The greater the hope, the greater the pain. The pain is so excruciating that we all have a coping method. We all clamp down, try to keep hope in that box, cut it down to size, so we don’t hope for something we might never get.
There’s a reason, in the myth, that hope is in a jar with all those other scourges.
Because hope is the worst scourge of all. Because the gods knew that without it, released from the jar, the world is black and cold. Futile. Lifeless. Unendurable. This, from a bunch of gods who thought nothing of making another man carry the world on his shoulders for all eternity.
Losing hope is worse than that.
We need it, no matter the pain. Hope is what allows a writer to send that first query. There’s a chance that the manuscript is awful. There’s the hope that it is genius. Without it, no one would write. No one would audition for a play. No one would apply to college. No one would invent anything. No one would fall in love, have children, start a new job, learn to drive, see the Pyramids. Hope creates art, builds foundations, creates societies. Hope is the engine, the one thing from which everything else grows.
A life without hope is a bleak one indeed.
Yep, I love Hamilton. Love, love, love Hamilton. That title is a quote from the musical, so credit is given where credit is due, but at the same time, it's amazing advice.
I've read a million articles on how to write. The importance of writing every day. People will tell you that you must treat writing like a job and accord it the corresponding importance. You'll see advice about having a dedicated writing space. They'll tell you to devote the same hours every day to writing. There are suggestions about how to explain to your family that they need to respect your craft.
This advice always makes me laugh. As if elementary school children are ever going to respect your craft. As if my house has room for a dedicated writing space. As if I live a life where I have even fifteen minutes I can count on every day.
This blog post is about fitting it in. Making it happen. If you're waiting until you have the perfect office and the respectful family and the four dedicated hours every day, it might never happen. Just write. Anywhere. Any time. Write as if you are running out of time--because we all are, in a way.
I have a full-time job. Two children who play sports and take lessons. A husband who likes to travel. Two dogs. Two parents and two in-laws. A house to clean. Groceries to acquire. Most of you do too, or equivalent things standing in your way. I can assure you that nobody respects my craft.
Yet. I write. I write in the cracks, in the down time, in the waits. I write in my car, the steering wheel supporting my laptop back, in the school pick-up line or while my child runs around a soccer field at practice (yes, I always watch the actual games). I wrote much of one manuscript at their fiddle lessons, inspired to write an Irish bar scene by the jigs they were learning to scratch out while I typed. I get up early on weekends and write before the sun rises and before the house comes to life. Sometimes I steal thirty minutes and write after work, at the end of the day, instead of walking straight out the door when five o'clock comes. I've written thousands of words sweating by the side of the pool while my children swim under the watchful eyes of swim coaches. I've even written in doctors' offices, after the waiting room, sitting on the exam table wearing a paper suit.
Once I even went to work on a weekend to write a racy scene on the theory that it's deeply awkward to do that while kids sneak up behind my armchair at home. Of course, the custodians chose that time to sneak up behind my office chair to clear my trashcan while at work.
The point is, if you're telling yourself you have no time to write--or learn French, or finally get around to reading Anna Karenina, or reconnecting with that high school friend, or whatever it is you're putting off--you may not be entirely correct. The world is full of waits. Use them.
Write. Like you're running out of time.
You never know everything there is to know about writing. You’re getting closer to success when you figure out you never will.
I grew up the child of two English teachers, one high school level and one college level. I imagine you can guess I wasn’t allowed to say “ain’t” and was expected to get the “and me/and I” distinction correct from about second grade. They edited my thank-you notes and Christmas list. I spent every free minute reading from the day I learned how to turn a page. I knew all the big words. I knew how to pronounce almost 75% of them. I knew everything.
And then I didn’t. Despite having achieved perfect grades in elementary school reading and spelling, I came in second in the middle school spelling bee. I didn’t know as much as I thought, or not, at least, as much as Christine Ecker did. I shook that off, though. I learned to spell the word I’d missed and moved on, recovering my confidence a little more every time somebody told me I was a good writer.
I’m here to tell you I knew nothing when I started writing fiction. Yes, I knew how to use quote marks and action verbs and to vary my sentence length and all the rest. It’s rare that I find a misspelled word in a manuscript, though I can tell you I did on Monday.
But I knew nothing about writing fiction. I thought I did, and I wrote two manuscripts before I realized it. Not surprisingly, the third one is better. I didn’t understand how to add depth to a character. I didn’t know how to write a riveting first sentence, first paragraph, or first page. I didn’t know how to keep a main character from veering too far into unlikable. I didn’t know how to walk the line between enough dialogue and enough narration. I didn’t know how much internal monologue is too much. I’d never thought about dialogue tags.
I had only the vaguest understanding of chapter structure, of narrative arc, of character journeys. I thought acts were only for plays. I didn’t see the problem when I added a character I needed at the 80% point. I assumed readers wouldn’t mind if I took a few pages to introduce the characters before I made anything happen to them. I didn’t understand that a main character has to have agency: she has to do things and not just watch things happen to her.
As if I needed any more icing on the clueless cake, I didn’t even know all the rules of mechanics I thought I did. I didn’t know to leave off the comma when a subject is the same in two clauses. I’d been fuzzier than I thought on when to use single quotes and when to use double ones. I used a lot fewer action verbs than I thought.
Keep learning. I’m only now beginning to understand all I don’t know. The universe of what I don’t know about writing shocks me with its enormity. The fact that I can see that now gives me hope that I’ve made progress.
Just keep writing.
I’ve said this on Twitter before: you cannot write a book without a critique partner (CP). A critique partner is a person who will read what you’ve written with an eye toward helping you improve it. Here’s a short list of people who read your work who are NOT critique partners: your best friend who never tells you when you have spinach in your teeth, anyone who says “I don’t really read a lot,” and your mom.
I have a lot of critique partners (CPs for short). It’s a lot of work to critique someone’s work properly, but you have to put in the time if you want someone else to do the same for you. (And you can learn a hell of a lot from reading other people’s writing.) My CPs are genius savior rock stars who easily number among the most important people in my life. If you plan to write anything (book, blog post, random email), take this advice if you take no other advice: GET A CRITIQUE PARTNER.
This post is about how to critique for someone in the most effective way. There are good ways to critique, and bad. Let’s talk about that.
First off, a proper critique generally doesn’t tell the writer that the manuscript is wonderful, perfect, better than J.K. Rowling, don’t change anything. This is not helpful. Or likely to be true. Almost all manuscripts can be improved. If you suspect that your writer friend wants only that kind of praise, tell her to send it to her mom or the friend who ignores her spinach-teeth.
Consider where in the editing process the manuscript you’re about to critique is. Is this the very first draft? If so, this is not the time to correct commas or make sure her Game of Thrones references are italicized. So much will be changed that there’s no point in worrying about this now.
What to look for in a first draft:
If you find fault in any of these areas (and you should—a perfect first draft is rare as a unicorn), you are not doing anyone a favor if you keep silent about these things. BE HONEST.
There are ways to say this that are better than others. First: THE PRAISE SANDWICH. Point out what works. Add comments in line where you laughed or cheered or particularly enjoyed. Is a particular line that struck you as poetic or lyrical? A scene that you loved? Say so. This serves two purposes: first, it will make your friend happy and reassured that she hasn’t written the worst thing ever. Second, it will make it more likely that she’ll keep the good parts when she revises.
When you point out what doesn’t work, suggest alternatives. Don’t say you hated the ending without telling her nicely what about it didn’t work. It’s even better if you suggest a way that might be better. She may not take your suggestion, but you might have helped her come up with yet another way.
What to look for in a later draft:
After you send it back: Write an overall letter to let them know your thoughts. Think Praise Sandwich. Even if you don’t know what it was that bothered you about a particular section or character, say that you were bothered. Offer to bat ideas back and forth. Then be available to do that. Brainstorming with someone who’s read your work is invaluable.
An important thing to remember when you’ve critiqued a manuscript is that you have no right to expect or demand that all your suggestions are taken. In the end, the manuscript belongs to the person who wrote it. You are only volunteering your time to help them.
Bottom line. Critiquing is all about the Golden Rule. Do Unto Others As You Would Have Done Unto You. I don’t send off my manuscripts to people to tell me they are wonderful as they are. (I have a mom for that.) I want them to help me make them better. I will never know everything I need to know. I want honesty with a dash of kindness and encouragement.
This probably doesn’t come as news to anyone reading this, but the holidays are slow in publishing. Slooooow. Glacial. Watch-icicles-form speed. There’s a good reason for this. Agents and editors frequently work in New York, which, in a lot of cases, is far from their hometowns, and they travel home during the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Like you, they have family obligations, holiday parties to go to, kids out of school far more often than usual, and a killer list of non-work tasks to accomplish. As a matter of course, most read their queries and requested/submitted materials at night. When nights are spent trimming a tree, going to obligatory cocktail parties, or baking cookies for the office exchange, there’s a LOT less time to read manuscripts. I know this sounds crazy, but many would prefer to actually talk to their families during the holidays than read your manuscript. I know, right?
Bottom line: expect no activity in your writing-related email box until the middle of January. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. Some agents and editors will surprise you and get back to you during December. Some like to clean off their desks before they leave to go home to Des Moines or wherever. Take all gifts like that as gifts. Appreciate, don’t expect.
What should you do to kill the time? Staring at your calendar or your inbox is not productive. It will induce panic and twitchiness. Trust me: I tried that last year. It didn’t work.
Instead, here are twenty things to do to distract yourself.
*Volunteer. At a food bank or a school or a charity or anywhere at all. Call them. They’ll be delighted to fill your hours.
*Find somewhere to ice skate. Fall down a lot.
*If you celebrate Christmas and decorate, try to incorporate a book theme.
*Bake some cookies. Eat them all.
*Bake more cookies. Give them away to unexpected people: the mailman, your child’s teacher, the receptionist at your work.
*Call your parents. Tell them you love them.
*Go for a hike outside of a city. Find somewhere with a view. Take deep breaths.
*Go to the mall and watch the children on Santa’s lap. You can see the full range of emotion written on their faces and those of their parents. It’s a character goldmine.
*Go to a concert. Any concert. Any kind. Music is good for the soul.
*Watch Love Actually. Greatest holiday movie ever.
*Listen to the Hamilton Broadway Cast recording. Discover that you are extremely interested in the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, who you vaguely remember is on the ten dollar bill. Cry.
*Stay off social media for a full twenty-four hours. Pretend you’re a time-traveler. Marvel at how much time you have to read.
*Talk to your own family. You’d be surprised how interesting they can be.
*Read. Challenge yourself to read four books in your genre before New Year’s and one far outside your genre.
*Swap manuscripts with someone. Help her get ready for January, and she’ll do the same for you.
*Put money in the Salvation Army red bucket. Add a note.
*Outline an idea for a book you will not allow yourself to start until January. Feel the thrill of germination when you can’t write it.
*Do three kind things for other people every day. Vary it up. Hold doors. Pay for the car behind you at the drive-thru. Give big tips. Say something nice to someone you don’t have to speak to.
*If you live where it snows, go out and play. Catch a snowflake on your tongue. Make snow angels. Throw a snowball. Then drink a hot beverage.
*Build a fire. Be warm. January is coming. I promise.
Sometimes writing, revising, and attempting publishing is so hard it feels like trying to bend a spoon with your mind. In theory it’s possible, but maybe only for those with superpowers. I’ve written before about the waiting, the self-doubt, the impatience, and the pain of the rejection. All of that is real. This post is not to diminish the difficulties of the writing life.
I went on vacation recently to Nantucket. I’d never been before, and I’d always wanted to go. I love islands, and the ocean, and historic preservation, and Nantucket is a perfect Venn diagram of all of those things. It is also one of the places where the threads of my family tree begin. Years ago, I survived a brief but expensive addiction to Ancestry.com. Go ahead. I dare you to walk away once you start. It turned out that some of my ancestors on my father’s side had settled Nantucket, and begun its whaling industry.
Until the discovery of petroleum in the mid-nineteenth century, whale oil from sperm whales was big business. Whales also produced stays for corsets and ambergris for the manufacture of perfume. It was the oil, though, that sent all the ships out of Nantucket Harbor. It lit houses in lanterns and candles, and lubricated the machinery of the world’s factories.
Sailors on whaling ships signed onto a ship and left home for up to five years. By the early 1800s, whales close by in the Atlantic had been overfished. Ships went further and further from home – to the coasts of South America and as far as Japan. Catching and killing a whale meant riding out in a rowboat with nothing but a harpoon and a long knife and riding the back of a creature much larger than the boat. Once harpooned, the whale would bolt, taking the attached rowboat on a hair-raising out-of-control ride of miles at speeds comparable to a speed boat until the whale was tired. Then they had to use the knife to kill it. Once dead, the whale would be towed miles back to the ship with no more power than four men at the oars, raised on scaffolding on its side, and harvested right then and there. It was nasty, smelly, filthy work of days with no sleep and little to eat.
Once the oil made it to the barrels, the ship would go off, in search of more whales. The men occupied themselves with shipboard tasks, scrimshaw, and letters home. Mail was rare and spotty, and most of the time, the sailors had no idea whether their pregnant wives had given birth, whether their parents had survived another month, or whether their houses had burned down with whole families lost. I’m sure they worried about these things, however.
For those of you who only dimly remember Moby Dick from high school, I recommend reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea for some insight into the history of whaling, and how even something as hard as that can get a thousand times worse. A movie of the latter, starring Chris Hemsworth, is coming out in December.
I came back from Nantucket in awe of the toughness of that life, for the sailors as well as their families, for my own ancestors who survived generations this way. My life, by comparison, is both easy and good. I can write and edit and fret in my warm house, clean and dry. My family is close by. I have as much support as I need.
I’m not saying the writing life isn’t hard. I am saying that sometimes it’s good to go out and get a little perspective. Try it.
Some days are easier than others.
Publishing is all about the waiting. You wait for the words to flow. (They tend to flow best when you’re driving, when your parents are talking to you on the phone, when you’re at work, or when a kid is demanding that you come and examine what he has built from Legos.)
You wait for responses from agents or small publishers on your queries. Sometimes this wait is minutes, more often weeks, but sometimes it takes much, much longer. No joke, I got a rejection in May 2015 for a query I sent in January of 2014. I had high hopes for that one, too.
If you’re lucky enough to be agented, you wait for responses from editors and updates from your agent, who is swamped and busy and trying to carve out approximately fifteen minutes of personal life per week, but is still probably 2000 queries behind.
If you get a book deal, you wait for the cover, for the blurb, for the new title, for the publication date, for the readers to find you. Then you wait to find out if you have another book deal.
It goes on and on. I’m both terrible at waiting and great at it. On the days when I show a real talent for waiting, I’m Zen. No eastern philosopher can spout more platitudes than I can on those days. I read—both published books and my friends’ manuscripts. I scroll through Twitter. I play touch football and go hiking. I cook and I enjoy it. I even examine the Lego creations with real non-faked interest.
During those days, the Zen days, I’m a delightful companion. I’m fun Mom. I’m loving Wife. I can say heartfelt supportive things to my fellow residents of Waitingville. I can write long stretches of my work in progress and read them and think they are wonderful.
It’s the other days that are not so good. The ones where I. Can’t. Stand. It. Another. Minute. The ones where I feel like storming the castle and demanding answers, in shouty caps with lots of exclamation points. Those days my kids know that I’ll let them watch way too much TV. My husband, with whom I go for a walk every evening, decides to go for a solo run instead. I eat too much and none of it is healthy. My online friends manufacture all kinds of refreshing outings in dark caves with no internet after they’ve tried fruitlessly to remind me that I signed on for this, that I knew what I was getting into when I first decided to pursue traditional publishing.
Fortunately for me, the Zen days outnumber the Not-Zen days. Just know, though, that when you have the Not-Zen day—and you will, if you’re trying to be published—you’re hardly alone.
I’ve been hiking many times with my husband and family and I love it. I’m a terrible athlete: I ducked and avoided the ball in softball, never managed to hit it in tennis, and can well recall my body screaming “Stop!” whenever I ran. I’m good at hiking, though. Miles disappear under my feet in the silence of the woods. The quiet is broken only by the regularity of my own breathing in time with my steps. Woods are good for both conversation or introspection, whichever mood strikes.
Most hikes are designed to take hikers over a mountain or three. After all, the views are better up there and the views are the carrots that take so many people up so many vertical miles. On occasion, the view at the top is so spectacular it takes your breath. You sit down, crack open your water, and feel glad to be alive. A lot more often, however, the view is only of a more distant peak. When that happens, there’s nothing to do but keep going if you want the spectacular. Hiking back down the mountain without reaching the true summit seems ridiculous, pointless, impossible, even.
Publishing is like that.
The first peak is finishing that novel, the one that 95% or whatever of people want to write but never do. You’ve done it. You’ve typed “The End.” Your word count is reasonable. Your concept is hooky. Your parents brag about you. Your spouse looks at you as if you were an eleven when you were only a ten before. Celebrate that view, but there’s another peak in sight.
The next one is finding an agent. I’ll be honest: this hike is twelve thousand miles long, or it seems like it. The trail rises and falls often, tiring you out and making you think about going home for dinner. Every time you decide to, though, there’s a little glimpse through the trees and someone you know waving at you from the top of that next peak.
A lot of hikers bite it during this part. Sometimes you have to write more than one book. Sometimes you have to write more than two. It’s a hell of a slog, but if you hang in there, learning and working, it’s achievable.
Even after that, there are plenty more peaks: getting a book deal, getting a second book deal, completing revisions to an editor’s satisfaction, meeting deadlines, and keeping away burn-out. Nobody ever reaches the end: there’s always another mountain in the distance.
I’ve learned, in both hiking and publishing, that good endurance is a must. It’s not a walk in the park. It’s the whole damn Appalachian Trail. Bring water and food. The only thing stopping you from reaching the spectacular is your determination and your feet. Take care of them.
I Love Jodi Picoult and Gillian Flynn, But This Time I’m In the Mood for Something With a Convention. And Kissing
It’s rare that I go to the bookstore with enough money to buy more than one book. When I manage to get to Barnes & Noble with cash and without hangers-on, I have to browse within a limited amount of time (because the kids, and the dry cleaning, and my stomach growling). I grab what I grab. I grab what looks most enticing, for the mood I’m in, and—here’s the important part – I walk away from thousands of amazing books, many of which are on my mental TBR list. I go to the cash register. One author gets that tiny little royalty check. The rest don’t.
And I bet you do that, too.
Pitch Wars is exactly the same. I received 127 submissions. Each of them is the story of somebody’s heart. Each of them was written with care, revised, revised again, spell-checked, and then revised again. Each had memorable characters, beautiful writing, a brilliant concept, amazing dialogue. A lot of them had all of those things.
I could only choose one. The one I chose hit me in lots of places where I could relate. It had all those things – characters, writing, concept, dialogue – but it also had things that just happened to be right for ME. It’s set at a major convention. I just came back from one. It has a main character who is awkward and uncomfortable at the convention. I was awkward and uncomfortable at mine. The main character has a thing for hot British guys. I have…you get the idea. (Hi, Dear Husband Who is Not British!)
The bottom line is that story grabbed me in the place I am. The fact that I chose that one has nothing whatsoever to do with any weaknesses in the writing or the concept or the marketability of the others. I grabbed what I grabbed. This is what SUBJECTIVITY means. You’ll hear it a lot when you query. It sounds like nonsense. It isn’t. You wrote a great book, but it didn’t happen to have a convention. I was in the mood for a convention. With a hot British guy. And kissing. Trust me: someone will be in the mood for your serial killer or investigator or overseas trip or Regency duke or dark family secret.
If you submitted to me, please know that I am truly humbled that you trusted me with your work and that you wanted my help with it. The weight of that responsibility made me cry at one point.
Since starting this writing journey myself, I’ve been amazed at the strength of community in the writing world. I want to support you – all of you, even if you didn’t submit to me. Please keep in touch. Wednesday is going to be rough for something like 95% of you. Support each other. Get off Twitter to lick your wounds if you need to. Eat a lot of ice cream. But please, come back. Reach out to me or any other mentor you feel comfortable talking to. We can cry together. Do it on Twitter, or here in the comments.
Remember that you didn’t write that book to get into Pitch Wars. You wrote it because you loved it and you couldn’t NOT write it. Trying to get published is hard. Try hard to remember why you started writing in the first place (hint: I bet it had nothing to do with getting published).
There are thousands of books in Barnes & Noble. Every one of those authors has been where you are. Hang in there.
LYING BENEATH THE OAKS, coming Jan. 15, 2019. Buy it by clicking below!