DIY Bucket List

bucket_PNG7764In Come Away With Me Tegan and Gabe — still reeling from a horrible tragedy — embark on an Eat Pray Love-type of journey to three destinations from a wish list they came up with in happier times. The inspiration for this part of the story came from my own wish list, which I started when I was 17. It now has about 120 items on it (including my goal of writing and publishing a novel *CHECK!*), and has motivated and kept me looking forward for years. I love adding to it nearly as much as checking items off.

 

Maybe you have your own list – and maybe you’ve even written it down somewhere…if you could only remember where you put it…sound familiar? Or perhaps you want to start a bucket list but have no idea how. It sounds simple — write down the places you want to go, and the things you want to see and do — but like so many things simple doesn’t always = easy.

 

I believe a lot of people have bucket lists inside their heads, just waiting to be put on paper. So the first thing I would say is WRITE IT DOWN. You don’t need to go overachiever on your first attempt and make it one of those “100 things to do before you die” kind of lists. Although if that’s how you think about it, go for it. When I started my list it had about 15 items on it. And I just kept adding to it. Now it’s much bigger and categorized by Travel, Goals, and Experiences, which works for me.

 

So if you want to generate your own list, or dust off one you’ve already done, here are a few tips for creating it AND checking items off:

 

  1. Start with a top 10. You could even do top 10 in different categories, like Travel, Health, Family, or Hobbies, for example.
  2. To generate ideas, ask yourself questions: If I could quit my job, or take an extended leave, with no financial consequences, what would I do? Where would I go? Why is that important to me?
  3. Break the list up, regardless of number of items, into the top 1-3 things for a specific time period (like six months or a year). It’s much more likely you’ll get traction on at least one item if you look at it this way.
  4. Revisit your list every month (put a reminder in your calendar!) and keep it convenient to add items as they come to you. I have a hard copy in a journal my mom brought me back from Thailand, and a copy in a file on my laptop.
  5. Find a bucket list buddy. Invite friends or family in to join you. This makes you more accountable and there’s nothing like a shared experience for fun and lasting memories!
  6. Tell people what you’re doing. Putting it out there keeps you accountable for doing what you say you’re going to do, and you never know who can support one of your goals!

 

Along with these tips I have two must-haves for creating a wish list:

Make sure everything on your list is within your control.

Only write items down that either really excite or really inspire you.

 

Finally, write a list of 10 things that scare the living crap out of you but that intrigue you at the same time. I guarantee those are things you HAVE to do.

PitchWars 2014 is here. Have you Got what it takes?

I’m going to keep this as short as I can (which probably means not short at all), mostly because I’m currently running “Mommy Camp” (summer break = no break for mom) and my six-year-old daughter tends to prefer playing outside versus watching me tap at these keys (shocking, right?).  So if you have a Women’s Fiction, Literary, or Marriage Thriller book, and it’s fresh and shiny (to be clear, to me “shiny”=POLISHED, not first draft material) and you’re simply BURSTING to get a solid critique, PRETTY PLEASE SEND IT TO ME. No, really. Go to the submission form (on August 18th), put my name on it, and hit SEND. For everything you need to know about how to submit, including the amazing agents playing along, head on over to Brenda Drake’s blog.

But Karma, I can hear you saying — why would I choose you over any one of the other amazing/talented/accomplished/(and likely funnier and more clever with their bio) mentors? I’m so glad you asked.

1. I may be the most thorough critique out there. Well, perhaps I’m overstating this BUT my critique partners talk about my “cocoon” of notes. Meaning I line edit, focusing not only on the bigger things like themes, pacing, tension, and characterization, but also on the little details. I promise you a manuscript riddled with track changes. I am a, um, tough critique (consider yourself warned), but isn’t that exactly what you want out of an experience like this? (If you answered, “not really” to this last question might I suggest a different mentor?) Together we will make your manuscript the best it can be — if you’re in, I’m in. (Also, check out my mentee’s success story from the last PitchWars!)

2. I’ll be there for you after the contest ends. Seriously, ask any of my #TeamGoodKarma mentees from last year, and they’ll tell you we still exchange emails, and I’m happy to offer advice, give feedback, and tweet the heck out of their good news. Writing can be a lonely, isolating endeavour, so the more we can stay connected to one another and support each other the better.

3. I’m an avid reader, and a focused writer. While I write upmarket women’s fiction, my reading tastes vary from young adult, to (light) urban fantasy, to everything in between. I also read A LOT, even when I’m on deadline, and I think I might shrivel up and die if I couldn’t read. Is that melodramatic? Maybe, but it’s true. Which means I also love reading the books my critique partners write, and why I can’t wait to read your manuscript! As for my own writing, I get up nearly every morning at 5 am (if you’re an early morning writer and on Twitter check out #5amwritersclub — that crew has kept me going many an early morning) and write for a couple of hours before I have to put on my mom hat.

Want to know a bit more about me? I live near Toronto, Canada (if you would like to know the appropriate way to insert ‘eh’ into a conversation, I’m glad to help), am happily married, am mom to a beautiful daughter and an equally handsome labradoodle named Fred, and love to run, read, bake, and drink coffee (another one of the great pleasures of life). I also wish I could go to Hogwarts, am addicted to chocolate-covered jujubes, and haven’t slept in past 6am in, oh, six years. My day job is freelance writer, and I write mostly lifestyle/parenting articles for magazines. I’m also an 11-year cancer survivor, and pretty damned pleased to still be here to say that. I’m represented by Carolyn Forde, who is the most supportive and determined agent an author could ever ask for. I’ve blogged the twists and turns of my road to publication, in case you’re interested. My debut novel Come Away with Me will be out next July (Mira/Harlequin), and my second book will come out about a year later.

Me and the mini. This is pretty much how you’ll find me on any given day, unless I’m writing!

Now how about a wishlist? If I were to generalize, the books I’m most drawn to have complicated issues, big hearts, and pretty words.

What I’d love to see:

  • Women’s Fiction — think book club/upmarket (commercial with a literary feel, including those with magical realism, and in a perfect world, magic AND food): WHAT ALICE FORGOT (or anything by Liane Moriarty), AFTER I DO (Taylor Jenkins Reid), THE PILOT’S WIFE (Anita Shreve), ME BEFORE YOU (Jojo Moyes), WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE (Maria Semple), GARDEN SPELLS (Sarah Addison Allen), LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE (Laura Esquirel), PRACTICAL MAGIC (Alice Hoffman)
  • More literary (still with a commercial feel) — LITTLE BEE (Chris Cleave), THE DINNER (Herman Koch), THE NIGHT CIRCUS (Erin Morgenstern)
  • Marriage/Psychological Thrillers — GONE GIRL (Gillian Flynn), THE SILENT WIFE (A.S.A Harrison), and though it’s still on my TBR pile, if your book is anything like Natalie Young’s SEASON TO TASTE (look it up, trust me when I say this is a strange and compelling idea for a book), I would love to see it. I also just finished THE GOOD GIRL (Mary Kubica) and have determined I’m a psychological thriller fan. In truth, it’s pretty hard to scare me away with a concept!

What’s probably not for me (though you never know, I am open to having my mind changed…):

  • Fantasy & Sci-fi
  • Romance
  • Crime
  • Anything boring or not polished (wait, did I say that out loud?)

Also, if you own a tattered copy of ON WRITING by Stephen King, and have at one time or another mentioned something about “killing your darlings,” we are sure to get along.

I’m trying to curb my GIF addiction, but will leave you with one of my favourites (<= note the Canadian spelling) — this will be me, opening the submissions and finding THE book (your book?) I can’t wait to read and critique.

 

Don’t forget to check out the other mentors’ blogs — click below and start doing your homework …

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A Peek Behind the Scenes …

If there’s one thing I love about twitter, it’s how engaged the writing community is … and Dahlia Adler, uber-supportive blogger, editor, and author of the just released BEHIND THE SCENES (a contemp young adult novel, published by Spencer Hill Contemporary), is no exception. While I was querying, and going through offer decisions, and dealing with submission woes and highs, she was there to respond whenever I sent a message that usually started with something like, “So, now what do I do?”

So as part of helping her celebrate her book’s birthday this week, I’m participating in a blog hop where we each go “behind the scenes” about some aspect of our life … but first, here’s the blurb for Dahlia’s book, and where you can purchase your own copy:

High school senior Ally Duncan’s best friend may be the Vanessa Park – star of TV’s hottest new teen drama – but Ally’s not interested in following in her BFF’s Hollywood footsteps. In fact, the only thing Ally’s ever really wanted is to go to Columbia and study abroad in Paris. But when her father’s mounting medical bills threaten to stop her dream in its tracks, Ally nabs a position as Van’s on-set assistant to get the cash she needs.

Spending the extra time with Van turns out to be fun, and getting to know her sexy co-star Liam is an added bonus. But when the actors’ publicist arranges for Van and Liam to “date” for the tabloids just after he and Ally share their first kiss, Ally will have to decide exactly what role she’s capable of playing in their world of make believe. If she can’t play by Hollywood’s rules, she may lose her best friend, her dream future, and her first shot at love.

 Goodreads | Amazon | B & N | The Book Depository | Indiebound

As for a behind the scenes of my life, I had a few ideas — but then decided to skip the confessions of true love for alien-themed, angst-filled teen dramas, cheesy medical thriller novels, and hiding vegetables in everything I cook or bake — and will offer a brief glimpse into (my) life as a freelance journalist and writer.

I am not one of those writers who always wanted to be a writer, even if I have been writing since I was a child (haven’t we all, to some degree?). In journalism school I laughed when it was assumed by most that after graduation I’d set myself up at a newspaper as a reporter. I wanted to do television, and for a brief time really wanted to be a war correspondent. But then life took an interesting turn, as it often does, and though that’s a story for another day, I am now a writer. Specifically, I freelance — which essentially means I never get a regular paycheque, but I get to write about all kinds of cool things.

Most of my work is for magazines — though I do have some corporate clients — and generally speaking every story I write is a story I’ve pitched to an editor. Sure, some writers probably get assigned stories more often than I do … but essentially if you’re a freelance writer, you are your own rainmaker. So I spend a lot of my non-writing time — when I’m at my daughter’s swimming or gymnastics lessons, when I’m out for a run, or doing laundry, making dinner, walking the dog, etc. etc. — thinking up story ideas.

It’s been a fantastically fun career so far. It’s nowhere near lucrative, or even “pay all the bills” kind of stuff, but I’ve won a coveted award for a story that meant a lot to me, have written about everything from luxury resorts in Jamaica (now that was a press trip I wish I could do again!), to self-leveling concrete, to the state of frozen embryos in Canada, to going sugar-free for a month (an experiment my poor family was dragged into with me), to raising altruistic kids, to advocating for your own health, to onesie-style pjs for grownups, to how to make the perfect pie crust.

Every day is different, and I love what I do — especially because it offers flexibility to be home with our young daughter. Most days you’ll find me at my kitchen table or at the local coffee shop, on my MacBook Air that has been so well loved the keys have worn off, and drinking far too much coffee (though the secret is to switch to decaf after noon).

And being a freelancer has helped me so much with my novel writing. For one, I am very tuned into and disciplined about deadlines. Whether from a magazine editor, my agent, my book editor, or self-imposed, I treat all deadlines as non-negotiable. I get up every day at 5am (or at least most days) and write. I ALWAYS file pieces at least a day ahead of schedule. And I can honestly say I’ve never (ever) missed a deadline. There have been times when I’m panicked and stressed because life has thrown a curve ball and I have to move heaven and earth to get to my computer. Like that one time when my daughter had the stomach flu, and I was holding a bucket for her in one hand and typing with the other (at 3 am), trying to make sure I didn’t miss my deadline …

But that’s life, as they say. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Write. Rewrite. Repeat.

“Books aren’t written — they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” – Michael Crichton

(Nailed it, Michael.)

When I started writing my first novel (three books ago) my goal was to just get the first draft finished. Would I try to publish it? people asked. I used to shrug and say I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. Writing the first draft of that first book was hard. It took a long time. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t understand tension, pacing, character development, not to start my first chapter with my protagonist waking up (yes, I made that faux pas), how to show versus tell … I had a lot to learn. Fast forward a bunch of years and a bunch of drafts, and I get it. The first draft? Simple. You just keep laying down the words. Get the story out. Give yourself a deadline and stick to it. The words add up — and before you know it, you have a completed draft. Of course, simple doesn’t mean easy, but had I known just how many revisions a book takes to make it sparkle, well…it’s probably good I was so naive.

I’m doing revisions now for my editor — which thrills me to no end. You won’t hear me complain about going through my ENTIRE book for the 15th (20th?) time. It’s a process, and I’m giddy with excitement to have this opportunity.

This book, THE MEMORY OF US, will be published July 2015. Though I’ve revised the manuscript before (for my critique partners / for my agent / for submission), I’m now doing it on deadline … and I’ve been paid … and I have another book as part of my contract to write after this one is done. The game has changed, and so has my revision process. I have no idea if this is how I’ll approach revisions on my next book, but for now, this works:

  • TAKE A DEEP BREATH (or a few)

Despite my excitement to dive in, editorial letter and marked up manuscript at the ready, the above does a great job at showcasing how I was feeling about this round of revisions (MUST.NOT.EFF.THEM.UP.). So the first thing I did was read my editor’s letter again, go through her notes in the manuscript, and go for a run. That cleared my head and got me ready to jump in.

  • GATHER YOUR SHIT & GET EXCITED

This is the time to pull out the red pen, your post it notes / index cards / spreadsheets / notebooks, a hard copy of your book (I edit on both hard copy and digital files), and any sustenance you need (COFFEE), and get to work. Give yourself a pep talk (YOU CAN DO THIS, or die trying…), and get psyched. It’s likely going to be weeks (or months) before you hand your revisions in to your editor, so you need to find ways to keep your energy AND excitement levels up.


(Me, after my morning coffee…coffees.)

  • RUSH SERVICE IS FOR POSTAL DELIVERIES (step also known as, Calm the F**K down)

It’s oh-so tempting to race through the book. Not just on your first revision, but on all subsequent ones. Whether it’s because you’re dying to get it into your crit partners’ hands, or out for a contest, or to your agent, or to waiting editors, rushing is never a good strategy.

There’s a reason you set deadlines, or your editor sets them for you: everyone wants the best version of what you’ve got, and that takes time. When I revise, especially if I’m working on a new scene, I write it all down without stopping first. I do not edit as I go, or wordsmith, or get all up in my online thesaurus. I just write. Then I go back, a day later, and read it as critically as I can — again, without revising. I take notes with my trusty red pen on my post its or in my notebook, and only then do I go back and make changes. It’s amazing how differently I see a scene with a little distance between us.

  • STICK TO A SCHEDULE

For me, this falls into the ‘do what you say you’re going to do’ category. As a freelance writer, one of the most important ways to ensure I’ll be hired again is to NEVER MISS A DEADLINE. And I see my book deadlines the same — at a minimum, I will get the manuscript in two days early. Ideally, it will be even earlier than that. I treat revisions (and first draft writing, for the record) like a job, and even if I’m not feeling the creative vibe I force myself to sit down and write … because the discipline is as important as anything else, in my opinion. I set my alarm for 5 or 5:30 am, depending on the day and what I need to get done, pour my coffee, and dive in. Yes, there are mornings where I’d like to do this to my alarm:

But generally speaking, as long as I have coffee and my Twitter #5amwritersclub crew, I’ve trained myself to be able to write well in the morning. It’s a habit, like any other.

I should add that there have been plenty of moments through this process — which is not yet over, of course, so I expect I’ll have a few more — where I’m certain I can’t write, I’ve screwed up a scene or character, I’ll never figure out how to add in the plot twist I need to, or I’ve revised myself into a tight little corner I’m not sure how to get out of. But then I take a deep breath, go for a run, get out my notes, have another cup of coffee, and SLOW IT ALL DOWN, and generally, I’m back on my game.

What’s your revision process, or trick? I’d love to hear about it!

QUERY TIME: Hook, Book & Cook

For me, writing a query letter for my book(s) was more soul-sucking/frustrating/maddening/stressful/{insert expletive} difficult than writing the entire book(s).

Seriously.

The query is a 250-350 (or so) word letter that describes, quite succinctly, what your book is about and why someone (an agent, generally) would want to read it. It’s a requirement if you plan on doing anything with your book — even if you choose to self-publish without an agent, you’ll still need a blurb to get readers interested.

A query letter is meant to pique interest and make someone want to open your pages and read on. But it must be short. And fit to one-page in an email window. And not be sent to multiple agents at once (NEVER, EVER DO THIS, okay?). And be formatted properly (I’ve talked about this before here: How not to become a query cautionary tale, and here: Query, Query, quite contrary). And like much of the publishing business, subjectivity rules, so always have a look at the agent’s bio/agency website/blog to see if he/she has a preference in terms of format.

But it wasn’t until I came across the idea of HOOK, BOOK & COOK that query writing became less painful. This concept is all over the place, so I can neither take credit for it, nor find the first person who came up with this handy and catchy idea to give him/her credit.

So what does it look like? I’m so glad you asked! Let’s start with HOOK.

THE HOOK (first paragraph — approximately 50 words)

Though some people open their queries with the book title, genre, wordcount and why they’re querying a particular agent, in my experience starting right off with the hook is the best way to go. Literally hook that agent in, so she can’t wait to keep reading.

The hook is a one to two line description of the main conflict in your story — the thing that makes it special, and makes someone sit up a bit straighter, lean in towards the screen, and go, “Oh! Wow. I need to know more about this.”

Take your time with your hook. It should be tightly written without any unnecessary detail, be compelling, be descriptive, and tell your reader exactly what they can expect from your book. Tricky, right? You bet it is. But it’s a critical part of your querying journey and blurb writing, so work on it until you get tingles when you read it (also, make sure you get others to read it and ask them if they would be interested to read more).

THE BOOK (second and third paragraphs — approximately 200 words)

This is the meat of your book — again, without drowning the reader in detail, this is where you dig into what happens in your story. It’s the place to introduce main characters and major plot points. It needs to flow easily, with enough information so the reader isn’t confused, but not too much that he loses interest and tunes out. In some ways this is the hardest part of the query, because you’re taking a 90,000-word book and condensing it into about 150-250 words. In both queries I’ve written, I’d say this middle section required the most “love” (merciless hacking) — I easily rewrote it a hundred times (no, I am not joking here) for each book. But the end result was worth it.

This is also where I put in the book’s title, wordcount, and genre if it’s not obvious (but let’s be honest, genre/category should be obvious by now based on everything that has come before — if not, it’s probably time for another — you guessed it — revision), and any comparative titles you have for your book. Comparative titles are important, and again, there are MANY rules around what to use as a comp title — do your research, and for the love of all things good, READ YOUR COMP TITLES before putting them down.

THE COOK (final paragraph — approximately 50 words)

This is your bio, as the “cook” of this book. What makes you uniquely qualified to write this book (do you have a tie-in to the subject matter/story)? Add in any awards or accolades you’ve received (only include ones related to either writing or the subject matter), if this is your debut novel, and what your writing experience has been to this point (I’d probably leave out statements like, “I’ve been writing since before I could walk”). And finally, if it’s true, close out with, “I’m currently working on my next novel” but resist adding any more information about it. This query is meant to be for the book you have ready, not for any other book you’ve written or are writing currently. But letting an agent know you’re taking this whole writing thing seriously is always a good idea.

This format saved me. It offered a way to break down what felt like an impossible task — condensing my book into a short, easily consumable but quite intriguing “pitch” — and gave me a structure I could replicate. However, clever structure breakdown aside, I will stress the point that working on your query until you never want to see it again should be your aim.  IF YOU’VE DONE FIVE REVISIONS ON YOUR QUERY, IT’S PROBABLY NOT READY. If you’ve done 10+ versions and beta readers (particularly those who either, a) have not read your book, or b) don’t read your genre typically) are clear on what your book is about, and what happens, and still want to read … then it’s probably ready. Of course, it’s always possible you’re a genius at query writing, and maybe you nail it on draft one. If that’s the case, please tell me your secrets!

If you’re not a query-writing genius, don’t despair. Most of us aren’t. Like so many things in life, crafting a brilliant query takes practice and hard work. Good luck!

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