That Gross Feeling in the Pit of Your Stomach

Does anyone else get that gross feeling in the pit of your stomach when getting feedback? I do and it’s terrible. It makes me want to binge eat a bag of chocolate (check) and wash it down with too much wine (check check!).

Feedback is SO HARD because so much of what we’re really looking for when we ask someone to read our stuff is just a feeling of not being alone, that I’m-in-this-car-with-you-no-matter-where-you-want-to-go feeling. And getting feedback can sometimes feel like your passenger is all like, “Stop! Don’t go there! Don’t take those turns that way! What are you doing? Can you even drive this thing?”

Hence the gross stomach thing.

But there is a difference between the kind of feedback we like to get (Don’t change a thing!) and the kind we need (WerkWerkWerkWerkWerk). And while it’s nice to have someone read and make us feel special, what we need is someone to read our work and make us be better.

So as someone who gives a lot of feedback (and gets a fair amount!), here are my top three strategies for getting feedback:

(1) HONE IN ON THE POSITIVE THINGS FIRST. Ask your CP or Betas which parts they liked and get them to expand on why they liked those aspects. Oftentimes as CPs, we are so interested in helping to improve the work, we forget to say why the piece is worth improving.

(2) LISTEN FOR THE SPIRIT BEHIND THEIR CRITIQUES. So many times, I get feedback like, “You should change that girl’s clothing.” And if I took the feedback at face value, I would interpret that as: MY CP doesn’t like my character’s dress. Well screw her, I like pink! But the more important question to ask is, What is behind that comment? Why doesn’t my CP like that dress? What, for example, is discordant about it and the character? By pushing your CPs and your Betas to get at the spirit behind their comments rather than the comments themselves, you can get the most out of your feedback.

(3) REMEMBER THAT THIS IS WHY YOU WRITE. Your book is not a diary. It is not sealed with a dime-store lock, meant for your eyes only. It is a thing that exists to be read and to be reacted to and to be engaged with. So take a second to remind yourself, that that is exactly what is happening. You are an author of your WIP and these are your first readers. You are writing for them just as much as you are writing for the nameless, faceless human beings who will pick your book up at a B&N someday. So enjoy it. As much as possible.

The Ears Have It

I scratched my cornea. Not on purpose. I was chasing a chicken (all my best stories start that way…) and as I lurched at Queen Eleanor under the forsythia bush, a branch insinuated itself into my right eye. It was more like a ‘stab’ than an insinuation, but you get the idea.

One trip to the ER (antibiotic, white-knuckle debris extraction, percocet, home) later I was in bed, unable to do any of the things I like to do when I’m laid up, namely read, crit, write, (read) watch movies. NOTHING OCULAR was on the menu.

Which is why I turned to my sometime-forgotten friends, my ears.

WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI by Sandhya Menon
Audiobooks are at least 50% only as good as the narrator – and these narrators are amazing. And the story -it’s a love story and those who know me know that THAT is not my thing. It’s also hopeful, funny, awkward and sweet – all things that are not my things. But D&R are definitely my thing. I love listening to them fall in love.

(PUB)LISHING CRAWL
Thank the good gods that Kelly and JJ are back from their hiatus with full episodes of their podcast on all things writerly. Listening to them is like sitting next to publishing people at the bar and eavesdropping on their conversation because you’re stuck with your day-job work friends, who are doing shots of limoncello and crying about not hooking up with Ross from accounting. What I’m saying is, it’s a balm for the writing soul and absolutely a must listen.

WRITER WRITER PANTS ON FIRE
I started listening to WWPOF while reading Mindy McGinnis’ awesome book, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES. The handling of gender norms in that book is so intriguing, I wanted to know more about Mindy. There’s a lot to know. She’s a prolific writer, blogger and podcaster and has tons of resources on he website including book reviews and interviews with published authors – which are amazing because they really try to reveal something new about the publishing process. Every Monday morning I listen as Mindy asks unexpected questions and gets unusual answers from established and debut authors. Definitely add Writer Writer to your playlist.

And so, puffed up eyeball or no, I *worked* today. I soaked my brain in words and craft and ate lots of Utz potato chips. Which is probably due to the percocet.

What are your best kept audio secrets?

NJSCBWI Conference Or…

…a drink at 11:30AM is fine if you are learning!

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pool hall girls

This past weekend I put my job and family life in a box, shoved it under the bed and went all the way to beautiful downtown New Brunswick to get my author game ON.

Maybe (like when Jenny and Lynda Gene and I tried to play pool in the 15 minutes between sessions and did so, badly) it wasn’t always pretty. But it was enlightening. Invigorating. Inspirational and damn. good. fun.

This is why writing conferences are so important. You can nerd out to your heart’s content about the things that usually bore your friends and family. Your conference family UNDERSTANDS that you want to talk about how hard it is to write that perfect query letter. Or how you are having legit heart palpitations because you’re about to do your first ever agent pitch. Or how it’s okay to have your mouth full of dessert at dinner because the agent sitting next to you does too. It feels awesome to ‘come home.’

Among an embarrassment of wonderful workshops, here are my favorites:

Let’s Talk Marketing with Doreen McGettigan
Doreen unleashed a metric ton of amazing information on us. My hand could not write fast enough to keep up with her – no fault of hers, there was just a lot to take in! I need a marketing plan for my book. I need to learn what goes into that marketing plan! Doreen had the answers and even better, questions that I need to ask myself about what I want and what I can do. It was an amazing start to the conference and got Jenny and I revved up! Check out Doreen’s site here.

Writing Marginalized Voices in Children’s Books w/ Emma Otheguy & Andrea Loney
Okay, first of all, look at this amazing:

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Andrea Loney’s lovely BUNNYBEAR about a bear that is very different… and very sweet. Emma Otheguy’s MARTÍ’S SONG FOR FREEDOM is BILINGUAL which I love! It’s also wonderful. Both these books have gone on youngest’s bookshelf.

It was a joy hearing Andrea and Emma talk about marginalized voices and how writing books for  all kinds of children (and bears and bunnies too) gives those children a mirror to see themselves reflected in the world. It tells our kids, you have a place. Your stories are important.

It was a no judgement zone and an important discussion about how to write marginalized characters (representation) and how not to (appropriation) and lots of other good stuff in between. I heart these ladies. Find Andrea here and Emma here.

Developing a Gay or Questioning Character in Middle-Grade Fiction with
Mary E. Cronin
This was my favorite workshop. Mary Cronin has such a generous way of ‘teaching’ that it feels less like knowledge transfer and more like talking to a *really* smart person over cups of tea and pound cake.* I’ve been aware for a while (and have worked to be inclusive in my own work) of LGBTQ characters in YA, but there’s less representation in Middle Grade. I suspect that comes from a misunderstanding of what sexual identity means and when it develops (spoiler alert, doesn’t equate having sex) or a general ignorance on the part of readers. I’ve had the experience of hearing that my daughter’s friend’s mom didn’t allow her to read Raina Telgemeier’s DRAMA because there was a gay character in it and that ‘wasn’t appropriate for her age.’ Can you imagine being 11 and being told, implicitly or not, that your feelings are not appropriate? I am not on board with that. NOPE.

Mary had so many wonderful ideas on how, where and what kinds of experiences would make wonderful parts of a character’s discovery of self – and make a great story. Got me excited to try writing an MG! You can find Mary here.

Of course my brain is bursting with ideas from this conference. I’m practically drooling words over here. That’s the good work that going to a good conference does. So where are YOU going this summer?

*or gin and cheese straws. I’m up for either.

Rochester Teen Book Fest 2017 & What Makes a Successful Writer

Writers are, by nature, curious people. One of the biggest areas of curiosity for us is what is the difference between a successful writer and one that is not. Is it talent? Is it persistence? Is it connections and slippery palms? What better way to answer this question than by meeting super successful writers in real life and analyzing their success.

Last week, I went to the Rochester Teen Book Festival, and here’s what I learned.

Successful writers are:

(1) Not the ones with the most degrees. They are the ones who never stop writing. A.G. Howard, author of Splintered, talked about how she only did one semester of college before realizing it wasn’t for her. Instead, she did her own thing. And she wrote. Like, a ton. She wrote her first book 12 times in two years. She wrote another 6 books after that before she finally got one published. If you don’t have that kind of stamina, and that kind of belief in yourself, you need to find it.

(2) The ones who get carried away by what is possible, not inhibited by what is not. Sarah J. Maas spoke about a book that she had meant to write as a novella–you know, a little 30k word piece, about a side character who gets to be the star of his own story. The result? She wrote a 100k+ novel that may be spinning into its own series. If she had been the “checkbox” type writer, that paint-by-number type writer who only wants to do what will make them $$, she never would have written that book. But she let herself be carried away by something different. As a result, she got to enjoy the act of writing and create something truly unique.

(3) The ones who know how to connect with their readers. Whether it was Sara Shepard, author of Pretty Little Liars, giving props to the fashion sense of the girls on her show, or Renee Ahdieh swooning over girls who kill, all these successful authors knew why readers came to their books, and they harnessed those qualities when speaking. It was a sight to see–watching all of these young girls go all fan girl on these authors because they were exactly the people who, from reading their books, the readers expected them to be. The cynical may call it successful branding. I call it knowing how to connect. Because as an author, you represent something more to your readers than just your book. You are their friend too.

What’s Next?

You could say I spend most of my time in an alternate reality (as writers do) in order to escape reality, but actually, it’s to understand reality.

Reality is HARD. BAFFLING. Often it’s ridiculous enough to seem like fiction. Lately, reality has been pulling me away from my beautiful fiction. Yeah, I’m using the word ‘reality’ as a stand-in for ‘politics’. You guys are smart.

One of my cures for politics (other than being a pain-in-the-ass to elected officials) is to watch THE WEST WING. Martin Sheen is my TV dad. Watching him in anything is a joy. But watching him as the president. It soothes, it really does.

I love when he says, What’s Next? If you’ve seen the TV show at all you know that means “What’s next?” and ALSO means “I’m done talking about the other thing, we’re moving on.”

THIS IS HARD when you are a writer. Moving on to another book when you’ve spent months if not YEARS on that book is freaking HARD.

But there comes a point where your job is over. You need to pass your baby off to the next stage of it’s development. It could be to beta readers. It could be to agents you are querying. Whatever that pass off looks like, it will be painful. How do you know you are done? How do you know it’s ready? How do you know it’s the right time?

You don’t.

Or rather, you can’t know that, until you pass the word-baby along. And because people aren’t (yet) robots, it will take time for them to get back to you with any kind of feedback. You cannot wait for them. Time is a finite resource, friends. You need to ask yourself, “What’s Next?”

Even if it’s half-assed, even if you only have the vaguest notion of what you’ll write next, or if you LITERALLY have not even thought of it, Think Of It. You’ve been stuck in the alternate reality of your book for a very long time. It seems realer to you than any other story you can conceive of. You may even feel like any other ideas are flimsy in comparison (of course they are; they’re embryo-ideas). Regardless, you have to pull your head out of your fully gestated book and start noodling around for the next book.

Maybe your goal was to write ONE BOOK. If so and you did it, go ahead and knock off. Drink a beer or a Red Bull or a White Lady, you’ve earned it. But if you plan, as I do, to have a Sustainable Writing Life, you need to say, in your best Martin Sheen voice:

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Patience, Fortitude

I recently got a tattoo of a lion on my back. Like, from my shoulder to my hip. Like, seriously huge.

I did it all because of the New York Public Library.

If you haven’t been, there are these two lions out front named Patience and Fortitude. I got the tattoo because these are the qualities I struggle with most as a writer. Likewise, as an agent, these are the qualities that I see writers struggle with the most:

  1. Lack of Patience: We all want our books to be in the hands of agents/editors/the world right now now now. We want someone to tell us we’re good enough. We want our book to have a pub date and a cover and fans. The future can’t come soon enough.
  2. Lack of Fortitude: Many of us think that if our book doesn’t sell, then we will never write anything again. This is it! This is all we are! How silly of us to dream.

 

I got the tattoo because I needed to be reminded that unless I am patient with the development of my manuscript, unless I am strong in the face of rejection, I will never be a writer. Ever. Even if I get a book deal right out of the gate.

Here’s why: I see writers’ dreams come true every damned day. They get the book deal and they feel like Cinder-fucking-ella. But then the pub date is 2 years away. Then their edits take way too long. Then they get reviews and some of those reviews are bad and Good Morning America says their book isn’t good enough to be on their show.

And it is frustrating. And soul crushing. And it takes the joy out of the thing we’ve all been dreaming about since we were kids so that authors wonder why they’re even doing this at all.

Maybe you don’t have to get a lion tattooed over the entirety of your back (honestly, it may have been a mistake??). But develop these skills. Remember that even if it feels like you are treading water, waiting for your “future life” as an author to begin, you are learning how to have a sustainable life as a writer.

And that’s pretty heroic.

Some would call it lionlike.

Are Writing Conferences Worth the Cost?

I belong to a SCBWI writers’ group in Pennsylvania and had the pleasure of meeting with them this week to discuss, among other things, making and keeping writing goals.

Our fearless leader had a list of things that can distract us from our goals (internet, family, dirty laundry – my old nemesis), and a list of things that can help us achieve goals (writing groups, deadlines, conferences.)

But one person in our group thought conferences might belong in the ‘distractions’ column. After all, it’s a weekend where you are emphatically not writing. You’re talking, you’re listening, (if you are me, you are drinking) you’re absorbing – basically the opposite of writing.

If you are not at the stage where you are actively looking for an agent or editor—whether because you have not finished a manuscript, or because you already have one of those mythical unicorn-type people in your corner—it might seem like a conference is a waste of time.

Also, the expense, lord save us all. THE EXPENSE. If you get out of the experience losing only a few hundred dollars, you have gotten a BARGAIN. Travel costs, the basics of the workshop and add-ons like ms. reviews, round tables, dinner with faculty. It’s A Lot.

So, is it worth it? It can be. Here’s what I think can make conference going worthwhile.

  1. You’ve done all the hard work of getting your writing in good shape. You’ve polished the scat out of it. It’s ready for new eyes.
  2. You are ready to expand your circle of writerly-friends. From my first conference, I met the very talented Ramona Defelice Long and Becky Levine. Becky is an incredible crit partner and Ramona is just a joy. Neither of them live close to me. I wouldn’t have met them if I hadn’t gone to my first conference.*
  3. You want to try to pitch to agents. Personally, I hate pitching. I am terrible at all sports and this sounds like sports + the Inquisition. But nothing will focus the mind like knowing you have to reduce your book to its essence and make that essence sing. It’s scary. You may not be good at it. You have to try.
  4. The workshops speak to you. Some workshops will not be your cup of tea. You could never get me to go to Yoga For Writers. NEVER. But, Building an Online Platform? Revision the Right Way? LGBTQ in Middle Grade? Sign me up! The workshop descriptions should rev you up.
  5. The faculty are people you respect. You know how you know you’re ready for a conference? You have already (nicely, respectfully) stalked some of these people online. Meaning, you follow their twitter accounts, you’ve read their blogs, you know what books they represent and who they publish. Like the most amazing Hermione Granger ever, you have ‘swotted up’ and know all about them. Now it’s time to make those connections in person.

And of course, you have to be able to afford the conference. But – here’s the trick – there are A MILLION** conferences for you to choose from. There are the big ones once or twice a year (SCBWI, Writers Digest, Thrillfest, Bouchercon, just to name a few) and much smaller ones – one day workshops, weekend retreats that are primarily self guided. You can find some listings at the back of the latest issue of Writers Digest and you can find some at Shaw Guides (though, be careful. Some ‘conferences’ are really just dolled up B&B experiences without the faculty or experts on hand to make it worthwhile. Buyer beware.)

Another way to find conferences is to join an association (Sisters in Crime; SCBWI for children’s book writers), that either hosts conferences/workshops, or can list them on their site. Finally, look for regional conferences near where you live, to cut down on travel expenses.

So far, I have never regretted attending a conference. I have always made connections, learned something and come away a better writer. Your mileage may vary, but if you’ve never attended one before, take the plunge, if you can. If you are willing to work for it, it will be worth it.

I’m at two conferences this Spring;

Color of Children’s Literature, NYC April 8th

NJ SCBWI Annual Conference, New Brunswick, NJ, June 3rd.

Are you going to any conferences this year? Any that you have loved or loathed? Or are all conferences evil drains of your precious writing time? Let me know!

*I also met my agent Barbara Poelle at my first writers conference. I impressed her, I think, with the large quantities of bacon I was eating at breakfast. Somehow, she still chose to represent me.
**Not a million. I made that up.

Sometimes all you want is validation

I grew up in the rural Midwest where people didn’t have “careers” or “callings”; they had (have) jobs.

These were jobs they clocked in and out of every day, jobs that forced them into overtime and gave them two weeks vacation a year. When retirement from these jobs came, it was cause for celebration that–finally–they earned their break.

Having grown up in this world of practical strivings, writing fiction can seem silly. Self-indulgent. Privileged. It’s the reason why, after writing for years, I still haven’t “come out” as a writer. I keep thinking that as soon as I’ve written something good enough to sell, as soon as I can attach a dollar sign to my work, then I can tell my parents and my friends and my colleagues what I do. Because then it’s not silly. It’s a job that pays. That they can understand.

For so long I’ve thought that if I got the Big Publishing Deal then I’d have the validation necessary for me to come out. But what I didn’t realize was that validation doesn’t come from $$ but from connecting to readers.

I recently gave my WIP to beta readers. Which means that besides me, four other people have now read (at least large parts of) my book. Spoiler alert: there are problems. Big you-have-to-fix-this-now problems. But each and every one of them said a version of “you’ve got something really special here. Whatever you do, don’t stop.” And hearing that, after so many years of keeping my writing unshared and often unfinished, was revelatory.

It meant that I’d succeeded ,even though writing has never made me any $$.

What about you? Do you feel “successful” as a writer? Why or why not?

In The Hopper: Podcasts

This is a hopper:

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It’s basically a funnel type thing where you add stuff to other stuff. It’s also my term for putting stuff into my writing brain.

Because if you thought that reading books was enough to write books, well I’m here to tell you that you are – maybe right? I don’t know. Some people write that way. And some people never have to look at other kind of art or information to gain inspiration. Those people’s inner lives are so rich, so incredibly streaked with gold ore that they need put nothing in the hopper to turn out pure goodness.

Those people probably are really boring at parties BTW, since the last TV show they saw was Murder She Wrote. In primetime.

And those people aren’t me. I need raw material to go into the funnel-type things that are my senses so that when I’m writing, I can pull out half-macerated ideas that fit in with my story.

A news story about wearables that treat PTSD. Binge watching DeGrassi: Next Class. Remembering the way my cousin could sing a Journey song in perfect English, even though she doesn’t speak a word of English. All those pieces of information went into my hopper and made it into my last book.

I put stuff in the hopper. Add time and/or alcohol. Magical story-grade ore comes out.

So I thought I’d start a series called In The Hopper to call out types of raw material I use to keep this creaky version of Howl’s Moving Castle up on it’s chicken legs.

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PODCASTS

I listen to a lot of media. Audiobooks, NPR, radioplays and lots and lots of podcasts (which, I keep wanting to spell as ‘podcats’ so forgive me if that happens. I like the look of ‘podcats’).

I have two favorite podcasts right now; one for the WRITER the other for the AUTHOR. (Writer is who I am when I’m writing and thinking story; Author is who I am when I’m writing blog posts and thinking about the business of writing and reading.)

RADIO AMBULANTE

Okay, it’s in Spanish, so slight drawback if you don’t speak that language. But it’s SO GOOD. I wish I could give everyone I know a Douglas Adams style bablefish JUST so they could listen to RADIO AMBULANTE. It’s like Radio Lab for Latin America, but I find it even more interesting, more VITAL than Radio Lab or even This American Life. And the stories will kill you and make you laugh and cry and then make you hungry. That’s maybe just me.

You can read about their series here in English.

PUB CRAWL

Am I the last writer on earth to know about Publishing Crawl? I read a lot of blogs and am constantly Googling around town trying to avoid my newsfeed of doom. How did I miss this blog AND podcast for FIVE YEARS? Because I suck, I hear you say. Verily.

I love the podcasts because they are deep, deep dives into the business of being a writer. Told from agent, editor, publicist perspectives, it’s like you have a direct line to publishing insiders. There’s nothing the co-hosts Kelly Van Sant and S. Jae-Jones won’t discuss. Some of it is terrifyingly frank – and if you don’t want to know how the sausage is made, this may not be the podcast for you. But if you want to understand publishing as a business and how you fit (hopefully) inside that business, it’s a must listen.

There are also wonderful craft-focused podcasts and awesome recommendations for other things to put into the hopper from these very talented ladies.

You can read Pub Crawl here and listen to their podcats* on SoundCloud here.

So. What do you put in the hopper? Where do you turn to for inspiration?

*totally did that on purpose.

 

 

“The higher a monkey climbs, the more exposed is his backside.” ―Jamaican Proverb

I know that Writing is Hard, but what I sometimes forget is that it is humiliating too. This is especially true the more you write and the better you get at it because now people are actually reading your work! They are giving you feedback! And they have opinions. So many opinions. And you have to fight against those opinions or accept them or shut them out. And it is hard work.

But, as with anything, the thing that keeps me sane is to remember that everyone feels exposed like this, even the best writers I know. Here is a gem from an interview with Sabaa Tahir:

Washington Post: Where did you get the confidence to go forward with your idea?

Sabaa Tahir: I didn’t have a lot of confidence. It was almost like it was stubbornness more than anything else. If you are willing to sit down and spend time on a story and make it work, no matter how unconfident you are on the surface, deep down somewhere you think this story is worth telling [so it’s] worth the effort, the blood, the sweat, the tears, the embarrassment, the humiliation.

And even if its total schadenfreude, I got a secret thrill out of reading that. By writing and by exposing my truth, I too am engaged in this act of bravery, armored with the feeling that even if my words fail me, even if they expose me, even if they humiliate me, the point of what I’m trying to say is so important that it will protect me. Though with every word + word, with every request for feedback, I reveal more for public scrutiny, I am also closer to expressing my truth.

That makes it worth it.

That’s what makes us writers.