A friend of mine from my MFA Program emailed me over the weekend, which I'll just add a quick aside and tell you that is one of the biggest benefits of an MFA Program. A writing community. No matter where you're writing, you'll need a community of likeminded people to act as a writing network (who is taking submissions), a social network, and a soft place to land when you get one more rejection. But I digress.
My friend is a charming southern writer with an incredible wit and an amazing voice in his creative nonfiction writing. And like most writers, he's stressed that the agent/editor process is so stinking slow. He asked for advice, which if you haven't figured it out, I'm pretty happy to dole out in long missives, but he also asked if I would introduce him to my agent. Here's my long-winded answer to his questions on querying, agents, and submissions:
The techniques I suggested to my friend will work for you once you finish a project and start hunting a publisher or agent. But there's more here than just how to find an agent. Writing is a solitary practice, and for some of us, that's reason enough to write, but even the introverts among us need to build a tribe of creative people as part of their writing community. My friend who emailed this week has written reference letters for me, let me know when there was a job opening at his university, and critiqued my cover letter and CV. We help each other, because that's what communities do.
Maybe publishing wouldn't be so hard if we worked together rather than wandering around the publishing wilderness alone.
Years ago, as a new single mom, I got a job working in the optical department at Wal-Mart. First off, that’s a really weird and unexpected place to find a writer, and second, it wasn’t exactly in my career plan, but I needed a job, and Wal-Mart was hiring.
We had to go through a week of classes and group discussions with other new hires back in the HR section. One discussion asked us to introduce ourselves and say why we wanted to work at Wal-Mart. Note the phrasing: wanted. Along the way, we each told socially acceptable lies about why we wanted (not needed) to work at the big box store in the sky. One young man, with messy dark hair and sad eyes, broke the mold, however. He looked around the table at the eight of us sitting there, and said, “I graduated from college… and then… life didn’t go as planned.”
Truer words, my friend.
That moment when life doesn't go as planned? That's conflict
Conflict “arises because something is not going as expected” (Kress 13). Conflict belongs in the early part of your story, so readers want to know what happens next. If nothing happens, if life goes as planned, where’s the conflict? Where’s the interest? “But no matter what kind of conflict your story explores, its nature should be hinted at in your opening, even though the development of the conflict won’t occur until later” (Kress 13).
Let’s take a look at my favorite Harry Potter. There is an implied conflict from the outset as Professor McGonagall, who we don’t know much about yet, says that the Dursleys are the “worst sort of Muggles” in the movie version, and that you “couldn’t find two people who are less like us” (Rowling 13) in the book. Readers see the conflict developing within the first chapter, and that conflict between Harry and the Dursleys goes until the last book in the series.
Along with that conflict, the larger conflict with Voldemort is implied here as well. McGonagall mentions that the only one Voldemort is afraid of is Dumbledore. She relates that Harry’s parents have been killed, by Voldemort, and somehow, a baby—Harry—survived. He was the boy that lived.
As writers, we need to establish that conflict early so the reader wants to stick with our story. We don’t always know—going in—the various layers of conflict within our story, so once we finish the draft, we need to evaluate the level of conflict and where it begins.
The novel I’m working on now is a straight fiction novel (as opposed to romantic suspense). The first time through, in the original draft, I wrote quickly and recognized some of the conflicts right away, but it wasn’t until I finished the novel that I recognized the conflict that wound from the beginning to the end. On the rewrite, I’m adding in hints of this conflict throughout, including the first chapter, so I can ensure the conflict is enough to sustain the reader.
Looking back at our Harry Potter book, we see conflict in the first paragraph: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense” (Rowling 1).
The implied promise here is a conflict between the Dursley’s expectation of “perfectly normal” and the “strange” and “mysterious.”
For your own writing:
Kress, Nancy. Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles, & Ends. Writer’s Digest Books, 2011.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic Press, 1997.
You're only human
Many (although certainly not all) writers are perfectionists. We (as I include myself in that number) want everything to be perfect.
But, there's that whole "human" thing going on behind the scenes is messing with our stats, and not a single story, poem, song lyric, or novel will be as good as that "perfect" image in our head. And it will kill us if we don't let it go.
No, I'm not exemplifying hyperbole. The kind of stress perfectionism places on the human psyche has real consequences on our health.
Amanda Ruggeri writers in February of this year, "The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential" (BBC.com), and the physical manifestation of our perfectionism includes depression, anxiety, self-harm, OCD, binge eating, anorexia, PTSD, insomnia, fatigue, headaches, and early mortality.
I have a writer friend with far more publications than my own, and who writes for a major traditional publisher. Each time this writer gets edits from the editor (sometimes numbering in the thousands of comments in MS Word), this friend goes into a deep depression and can't even finish reading the revision letter before running for the M&Ms. And I completely understand that level of angst.
I was raised with the middle-class work ethic of my parents and grandparents, to whom complaining was weakness and giving compliments to their children was coddling. Obviously, they had some serious issues to work out (or they were editors in the making), but the idea behind their work ethic has remained an indelible part of American culture. Work hard, play hard, write hard, create as fast as you can.
But creativity doesn't work the same way as body building or climbing the corporate ladder.
In past posts I've mentioned my crazy publication schedule, which, BTW, was my own dang fault. I had already gone through an MA program and was in the process of shopping a novel when I joined my MFA program. The book sold, and was coincidentally released while I was at my first MFA residency in the summer of 2015. Between 2015-2017, I completed all my coursework while maintaining an intense publication schedule that included writing and publishing 6 novels and a novella, in addition to my creative nonfiction essay collection which I am currently submitting to publishers.
In many ways, that crazy publication schedule while attending school AND working up to 4 jobs and raising my kids was a result of my upbringing and the expectations of a strong work ethic. It was also the result of fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, impostor syndrome... The list goes on and on.
And once I graduated with my MFA, I crashed. There was no creativity left. I had expended it all and didn't take the time to refill my well, as Julia Cameron would say (The Artist's Way). I had attempted to impose my middle-class work ethic on my creative muse, and she was not amused. The creative crash was the natural result of my actions.
Writers everywhere struggle with perfectionism. In a perfect world (pun intended), we would continue to write as we struggled for elusive perfection, but in reality, perfectionism stifles our natural talents and creative impulses into what some would call Writer's Block.
So let's stop seeking perfection. Let's stop worrying about perfect grades, perfect essays, perfect stories, and perfect lives. None of those things exist, or if they exist (as in a 4.0 GPA), they will injure us in the process of attainment.
The result of chasing perfection is a creative coma, and we are better off to write at a slow and steady rate than to burn in the fire of frantic production.
As you head into the next season of your writing, and whatever that entails for you, consider the cost of perfectionism. Of course we want to write our best, we want our editor and publisher to like our work, but we can't control their feelings. We can only control the work.
The goal here is not perfection. The goal is growth.
What perfectionist tendencies do you have? Which perfectionist goal can you leave behind and replace with creative growth?
Reading as a writer changes us, both as writers and readers. When I first started writing (but a decade before I was published), I would read and re-read my favorite author to try to get a feel for her rhythm in pacing, sentence length, paragraph length, and chapter length, but the reading and re-reading wasn't active enough, so I started typing out the first 3 chapters of her book to try to get a sense of her pacing at the opening of a novel. Since I'm a fast typist, I started to get an intuitive feel for her natural patterns. She was an historical writer, and at the time I thought that's where my interest lay, and it helped me in big ways and small. I still have a natural feel for chapter length, scene length, and how to start a book.
What I was doing wasn't mimicry, but more like a painter who learns the brush strokes and techniques of a master painter before s/he is ready to paint her/his own masterpiece.
When I went into my MFA program, we had to read and write a critical response on THREE books each month (for two years). At the time, I was so exhausted, I didn't see what I was learning until it was over, but it taught me to read critically and in such a way that it's hard to turn off. I honestly don't want to read every text critically. Sometimes, I want to shut off the writer-mode and enjoy a good book in the same way I enjoy Rom-Com and Action Adventure movies. I just want to enjoy them for what they are. They're not critically acclaimed think pieces, but they give me some much needed laughter and relief from life stresses.
Years after I started the writing process, I finally acknowledged that I wasn't an historical writer. I wanted to be, and I still enjoy reading them, but I don't have the right voice and tone for historical, and it took years of trial and error to find my true genre home. I still read widely, as I did when I worked for the library, in nearly every genre (except horror...because I would never sleep if I did). When I've gone through several disappointing "new" books, I often turn to my favorite authors and re-read novels that I enjoyed, but when I'm reading them for the second time, that little writer voice in my head comes out and starts intruding on my reading time. I catch myself mentally editing, or noticing that particular writer's tic. And it dampens my reading pleasure.
I've learned my writing craft--honed my writer's toolkit--by reading and re-reading books and passages, but when it comes time to simply read, I often have to find a new book so I can read purely for enjoyment. Eventually, I'll get around to thinking about the book as a writer, but sometimes, a writer simply needs to turn off the criticism and enjoy the book for what it is.
In what ways has reading as a writer changed you as a writer? As a reader? And is that a good thing, or bad?
Happy Writer Wednesday. I'm cross posting a video this week as I'm on the road taking my daughter to college (cue crocodile tears). See my video and follow up with the link below for questions you can ask when you're critiquing or being critiqued.
Happy Wednesday, writers!
This is probably the most controversial part of my RWA conference round-up, so I thought I'd put it first. :)
While at RWA, during the Rita ceremony (the Rita's are the romance industry awards), Suzanne Brockman gave a speech that polarized and edified at the same time. (minute :56 if it doesn't autostart in the right place).
And this additional acceptance speech by Kristin Hannah (I saved this at 1:53. I tried to get it to auto start there, but I'm not sure that translated).
Brockman had very specific and personal complaints about the way in which we shy away from diverse characters in the romance writing industry, as did Rita winner Kristin Hannah (see 1:53 in the video).
I do value diversity and believe we have to work to create a diverse environment in our real world and our writing world. In addition to my teaching at SNHU, I also teach at a community college. We deal with some of these same issues, so I start every semester with the video below. I want my students to know my expectations for the ways in which we treat each other based on "labels" that cannot begin to define a person.
Is there a connection between our lives and the story we are writing?
In an obvious sense yes. And no. Yes, of course it revolves around the writer's experience, but no, it is not a poorly disguised autobiography. I'm reading The Hidden Machinery by Margot Livesey, a gift from my MFA mentor. In the first essay, she discusses both Henry James and E.M. Forester. Forester, she claims, could have finished A Passage to India when he first started the book in 1913. The pieces were all in place, he had four novels under his belt, so he had the skills, but Forester was never happy with it. Until he was.
Why did this novel take Forester longer?
"He needed certain things to happen--a war, a massacre, the discovery of his own sexual nature and of how he too could be corrupted by the white man's power in India--before he knew where the [book] was going." --M. Livesey
He had to mature, essentially, to the point where the novel made sense. He first had to experience the things which would became central to the story.
The writer's life informs and reforms the writing. I could only write Untouchable after going through a hellish divorce. I have a novel in a drawer that languished, waiting for me to get over the hurdle at the first turning point. And since I didn't get through the barrier in my life, the character failed to thrive.
"Both inner and outer events were required before he could write [the] novel."
It's not just physical events, like Forester's return trip to India. It's internal change in the mind and spirit of the writer that impact the writing. I've written eight novels. Seven are published and they are the result of who I was and what I believed at the time they were written. But that one book that's not yet published makes me wonder.
Where do I need to be, what do I need to experience, what must I observe before the book is ready for birth?
What inner or outer events must take place before I feel satisfied with this book? And can I nudge those events into place faster so I can finish it already?
I haven't gotten that far in Livesey's book, but I'm guessing that no, I can't shove myself into the fire to force the inspiration. Instead, I must keep writing and writing, putting in my time and wallowing in the characters, before those internal and external events converge.
Between my last MFA Residency (July 27-Aug 6) and the start of the new semester (Aug 29), I had big plans to write "lots." Yep, my plan was definitive. Lots. After all, I'm used to writing significant amounts in the found spaces of my life. I wrote 6 of my 7 novels while working multiple jobs and studying/writing for my Master of Fine Arts, so 3 weeks in limbo sounded like a finished novel. Right?
Ha. We plan and the writing gods laugh.
First, I had surgery to remove kidney stones (I'm still recovering, but in denial).
Second, I needed a break. The past two years were an amazing feat and I'm thrilled that my first book published in July 2015 has turned into two book series and seven novels, but my creative well is bone dry. I couldn't plot my way out of a B-rated horror movie right now.
Third, I had business stuff, like writing some nonfiction articles and teaching my novel writing class (if you guys/gals are reading this, I love you and I do in fact enjoy it), but that's one more "to-do" that isn't writing.
And the new semester starts Monday. 😲 Somehow I lost 3 weeks and I'll never get them back! I don't feel well rested, I didn't get a suntan or a vacation, and I didn't catch up with housecleaning (my desk is worse than normal peeps!).
I have 3 days until the new semester begins. I'll teach a full load of 6 classes. I'm thankful. I love my students and my kids like to eat, so it's a win-win situation, but... writing? New plan.
It reminded me that I didn't write those last six books with "a lot" of spare time. I wrote it in the spaces of an already crowded life. I used writing sprints, 30-40 minutes at a time to write one sentence, page, scene, or chapter at a time.
In a way, I feel as if my lost time was a waste, but maybe it was good for me to realize that excessive amounts of time actually lead me to excessive amounts of internet. I work best when I'm rushed, pressured like a lump of coal turning into a diamond.
How do you work best?
10 meetings, 1 novel writing class. 21C Writers this one is all for you. Here's the plan:
Writer Reference (Blogroll)
Genre by any other name
He for She
A Little is Enough
Writing 17 minutes at a time
The Unlisted List:
The best women nonfiction writers.
Aubrey Hirsh' Beginner's Guide to publishing with format templates and more
Agent Query 15 posts on writing query ltrs
Platform Action Plan
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.