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.

Writing with Friends

We all know it–that fog we go into the minute our manuscript transforms from a tiny shapeless embryo blob into a magical creation with a life of its own. Suddenly our WIP has plot lines and characters and–ooh baby!–did our protagonist just show some sass?

We soon find that the only thing we care about is writing. Word counts creep up. Pages go from single to double to–oh god–TRIPLE digits. Our manuscript is a living, breathing thing, and all we want to do is to keep writing. Forever and ever and ever . . .

It is so damned easy to live in that WIP Black Hole forever, and with good reason. There, we are surrounded only by characters of our own creation. No one tells us our plot has holes in it, or that our sentences are cliche. Our manuscript is perfect. It is loved. WE are loved.

But, as much as you don’t want to, you need to get out of this WIP Black Hole. Here’s why:

(1) It is not sustainable to stop exercising, eat only peanut butter, sleep four hours a night, and to have blisters on both of your thumbs so you can only tap the spacebar at your peril. You are going to burn out. And be unhealthy.

(2) Your book is meant to be read. So you need to show it to people. As you’re writing. Before it’s ready. Before you know what it even is really. You need to see what people think. The fear is that this destroys your creativity (people *sniffle* told me *sniffle* my writing was baaaaad!), but it doesn’t stifle anything of the sort. When these conversations go well (and getting feedback is a conversation!), they offer you new perspectives on your work, exciting ones, that will only make you a better writer.

(3) Say the best thing in the world happens and your book is published, and it is on that bookshelf at B&N and there you are, at your folding table, Sharpie in-hand, ready to start signing. No one, at this point, will have read your book. And no one will want to buy it. So you are going to be holding that Sharpie aloft for a long time, and you are going to sign five copies.

UNLESS your readers already know you. Unless you contribute to their blogs. Unless you review their books. Unless you give ’em a damned retweet now and again. And that brings me to the final, most important reason why you need to re-enter the world and don’t become totally, can’t-think-of-anything-but-writing kind of writer:

(4) You have a responsibility to the people around them. To love them. To pay attention to the things they care about. To support other writers just as much as (you hope) they will someday support you. It’s not a strategic thing, folks, it’s a human thing. It’s a part of being a good writer member of the writing community. Because writing is hard and the pay is terrible and everyone who tries it–no matter their success–deserves your kindness. And your re-tweets.

Louise Penny’s Writing Advice

It takes us so long to find the right story, to be at the right place in our lives to be able to tell it, and then to have the time (and the community!) to make that story everything it can be. So it often takes authors by surprise when (1) Getting an agent is really hard, and (2) Even when they get the attention of an agent and their book gets published, it doesn’t actually give them the validation they were looking for. In A NOONDAY DEMON, Andrew Solomon recounts his greatest depression, which occurred after he’d published his first novel. For so long, he’d been living under the illusion that once he’d finally gotten his book in print, his life would stop being so damned hard. Then however, once his book was published and his life was still difficult, he had to confront the realization that publishing a novel wouldn’t bring about any magical restoration of his spirit.

Louise Penny is a great reality check for all of us.  Below is this talk she gave at Politics & Prose, which you should play in the background every time you open Facebook or Twitter or look at one more montage of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher as you are “thinking about the next scene.” Getting an agent, getting your book published, and then getting people to actually read your book is a truly absurd process. But Louise takes you through all that absurdity with joy, with a sense of humor, and with a belief that what we, as writers do, matters, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.