Word by Word

I’ve been in a rut. Deep down a writing well, or ditch, of sorts. I’ve been here before, and I’m sure I’ll be here again. But I have forgotten how unsettling it is – to know you have words inside you, ready to be put down, and to not be able TO GET THEM OUT OF YOUR HEAD.

In part I blame my first line obsession. Actually it’s less an obsession I suppose, more a philosophy about how I write. In my experience, regardless of whether I’m working on a novel, or a magazine article, or a piece of corporate marketing for a website, until I get that first line down I am useless. Everything else I write sucks. Big time. So I meander along, writing bits here and there. All of it terrible, with no connectedness. I hate every word I put down, and no, I am not exaggerating. And inevitably, I begin to doubt I can actually write. In fact, I’m quite certain I can’t. Up to this point, it’s all been a fluke, I tell myself.

Talk about drama, right?

Because I can write (at least I’m pretty sure I can, most days). I even have an award saying so (shameless boastful moment – that National Magazine award nomination I wrote about? Well, I won. Which is super duper exciting, and as expected, has not changed my life one iota aside from being able to update my bio). Yet, as I sit with a blank page in front of me (or worse in some ways, pages filled with lifeless sentences), I’m sure this is the time when I will be discovered. That it’s all just an illusion.

So to get out of the current ditch I’ve done a few things. One, I’ve ranted about it to a critique partner, who has kindly listened to my bellyaching without once telling me to shut up and just get over it (Thank you, Rosey!). I declared I’m giving up fiction writing (of course I’m not, I love it too much even if it doesn’t always love me). I said I’m spending all summer reading; writing what I have to for work, but nothing else. I’ve outlined my frustrations in 140 characters more than once (sorry to my followers). I’m writing this blog post. And I pulled out one of my favourite books, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott.

Bird by Bird is in one word, brilliant. If you are a writer, or aspire to be one, this is the book YOU MUST READ. I’ve read it before, but years ago and back when I only dreamed of getting published in magazines and my first novel was little more than 500 words in a word document on my laptop (that book, for the record, is now gathering dust on the proverbial shelf where first novels go to die). It didn’t mean to me back then what it does now. Now it’s like Anne Lamott is inside my brain. Writing down everything I’m thinking and feeling, to help me get out of my rut. Because once you see it so clearly stated in front of you, the angst and fear gets puts in its place.

One of the things she talks about in the book is to avoid focusing on the entire project. If you do, overwhelm will quickly set in and you’ll be paralyzed, fingers at the ready above your keyboard, quivering with the desire to write but waiting for your brain to deliver the words. So instead, she suggests you write “bird by bird”. She tells the story of how her brother had three months to write a school project on birds, but he procrastinated, so that the night before it was due he sat paralyzed, surrounded by papers, his bird books, and no idea how to get it done. Their father, a writer, told him to just take it bird by bird and to see what happens (he got it done). So simple; so effective.

When I get lost in my writing, sure it’s never going to become anything worthy with even  the best word massaging skills, I remember to write “bird by bird” … and to be patient. Because I’ve been here before, and I’ll be here again.

Thankfully, I’ve clambered out of the ditch — where it really sucks, for the record — and have managed to eke out 10,000 words and a solid outline on one project (that I’m L.O.V.I.N.G), and a few thousands words and an outline for another one I can’t wait to get to.

Bird by bird. Word by word. You get the idea.

For the Love of Books

Disclaimer: I *borrowed* this post from my other blog. Which is totally okay, because I’m only stealing my own content. Plus, who doesn’t love a post about books, and reading? (If you don’t, this is probably not the best place for you to visit … but thanks for stopping by!)

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love reading. I would stay up long past my bedtime, snuggled under my blankets with a flashlight and whatever story I was devouring at the moment. My mom used to drop my sister and me off at our little town library (we lived in a small, farming community) while she went grocery shopping, and I would fill my arms with books I couldn’t wait to read. I loved library time at school, and spent hours during my summer holidays reading on the dock — only taking breaks for a quick dip to cool off, or a snack when I remembered to eat.

I adore books. There is something so magical about getting lost in a story. Forgetting to do basic things like eat, sleep, and even pee, because you.just.can’t.put.the.book.down. As a writer, I try to remember I’m writing for the reader — not myself. Although the lines get blurry from time to time, especially when I’m writing super early in the morning or late at night, when my consciousness isn’t as sharp.

So I thought I’d share my top 10 favourite books — the ones I loved as a kid, and the ones I still think about as an adult, long after I’ve read them (the first time!)

My Top 10 Favourite Childhood Books (in no particular order):

  1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
  2. Where the Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls
  3. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle
  4. Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson
  5. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
  6. Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbitt
  7. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
  8. Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder
  9. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – Judy Blume
  10. Every one of the Nancy Drew series – Caroline Keene

Top 10 Favourite Books as a Grown-Up (once again, in no particular order):

  1. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  2. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  3. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
  4. A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
  5. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  6. Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel
  7. Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
  8. The Shipping News – Annie Proulx
  9. Harry Potter (the series) – J.K. Rowling — *Yes, I realize some of you may mock me for including these, but reading Harry Potter made me feel like that kid again, lost in the magic and hiding under my covers with a flashlight.)
  10. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  11. *Bonus one because I couldn’t pick just 10* Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood – Rebecca Wells

So tell me…what are your must reads? I’d love to add a few more to my list!

How not to become a query cautionary tale …

I’m always amazed when I see comments from agents on Twitter about querying writers going off the rails or making (very, very basic) mistakes in their queries. The agents usually give specific examples (like a recent “Dir Sirs,” salutation), and often include a handy-dandy hashtag (#querytip, for example) to help others who might be about to hit ‘send’ a tad prematurely.

Agents are nice people. They WANT us writers to succeed. After all, we have a symbiotic relationship, and success is good for all. So because of that, let’s all try to make our communications with those in the publishing world courteous at a minimum, and enlightened whenever possible. Deal?

To help with this, I’ve compiled a list of “10 ways to make sure your query doesn’t end up on a ‘what not to do’ list on Twitter“:

  1. Be professional: Think of each query you send out like a resume for a job you WOULD DIE TO HAVE. Have you double and triple checked for grammar and spelling boo boos? Did you fill in the agent’s name correctly (on this note, always go with the Mr. or Ms. + Last Name salutation, unless you have a previous correspondence where you know FOR CERTAIN using his/her first name would be preferred — by them, not you, just to be clear).
  2. Never lie: Okay, maybe I should have put this one first? Regardless, never (ever) lie in your query. Don’t say you know so and so if you don’t; don’t say your manuscript is finished if it isn’t; and don’t claim you have the next bestseller (you just might, but unless you can predict the future, this one won’t get you far).
  3. Be sure you have the right agent: Crazy, I know, but agents tend to put their submission wishlists on their websites or blogs. Or tweet about what they can’t wait to read next. Or mention in interviews what they’re dying to see in their slushpiles. Sending an agent a genre they don’t represent is an instant rejection, and wastes everyone’s time. You can also check out sites like Query Tracker, which allows you to search agents by genres. Also? Read interviews to learn quirks, likes, and dislikes. If your book is about a future world run by corrupt unicorns, it’s helpful to know if any of the agents on your list have a hate-on for unicorns (if that’s even possible…I mean, c’mon, unicorns are the COOLEST…)
  4. Write a great query letter: I’m going to leave it at that. If you want to know HOW to write a great query letter, check out this article from Writer’s Digest or visit one of my fave sites, Query Shark, to see real query letters getting put through the wringer. Also, enlisting help is a fab idea. I relied heavily on my amazing critique partners, and hired someone to help me polish my query letter (Lauren Spieller, who was AWESOME and definitely worth the investment).
  5. Have someone other than your mom (or cat) read said query letter: Unless your mom is an ex English teacher with a passion for grammar (like mine), be sure to get some extra eyes on that letter before you send it out. After reading something so many times (like, 101), your brain starts to skim over words that look familiar … including words with errors.
  6. Don’t become a stalker: Be friendly with agents you follow on Twitter, but for the love of God, do not tweet one minute after sending your query telling them to check their inbox, or send a Facebook friend request, or call just to find out if they did in fact get your query, or send multiple DMs with random questions … just relax, okay? If they like what they read, they’ll ask to see more. Then you can send a lovely and excited email with your REQUESTED submission.
  7. Keep it together: You will get rejected. Lots. So be prepared. Gather your chocolate, single malt scotch, tub o’ ice cream, or whatever else you keep around for those low moments. And KEEP IT TOGETHER when you get a “Dear Author, Thanks for thinking of us but we don’t feel it’s right for us at this time…” email in the inbox you’ve been refreshing every 5 minutes since you sent the query. It doesn’t feel good to be rejected (because when you hit send you were SO SURE that agent would love the premise and jump on a request), but it’s all part of the game.
  8. Go OFFLINE to rant: Part of keeping it together is having someone to vent to when you feel frustrated about the querying process, and you’re long out of feel-better chocolate. And keeping the rants offline is critical — whatever you put on Twitter is there for all to see. So unless your goal is to piss off Agent X who rejected your query a full two minutes after you sent it, do not take your frustrations out online. It’s bad practice, and you will be remembered for it versus any future brilliant book idea you come up with.
  9. Remember it’s a business: Rejections are business decisions. They don’t mean you can’t write, or that another agent won’t want to see your manuscript, but agents are in the business of selling books. And if an agent doesn’t feel she can sell your story, for whatever reason, she can’t take you on. It’s not personal. Unless you’ve engaged in social media public shaming of said agent, or one of her friends … then it’s probably personal.
  10. Try to remember it’s not the end of the world: I’ve said it before — no one NEEDS to write a book or be published. I certainly want those things, and I’m going to keep writing and querying until I make that happen, but I’m not losing perspective while I do. Life will carry on, even if I send out 1000 queries and get 1000 rejections … but if you ever see me writing about my “999th” query letter going out, “fingers crossed!”, please do me a favour and suggest I STOP IMMEDIATELY. Thanks.



While I wait, I write.

I’m in the query trenches right now, alternating between feeling like this:


And this:


And a little of this:

So while I wait, and wait, and hope, and wait, I’ve started working seriously on my next book. It is truly the best cure for the query hangover that comes in the morning when you open your inbox to a rejection…or two (or more), depending on the day.

And while part of me is exhausted at the idea of starting OVER AT THE BEGINNING AGAIN, I’m also VERY EXCITED. There is nothing like the thrill of an idea forming; the satisfaction of getting that first line down. Being able to see the scenes play out in your head, even if the threads between them don’t yet exist. This next book is ambitious — it has a hook that will be tricky to write, and I hope I’m up for the task.

Of course, if writing isn’t helping the rejection headache, I’ve also found chocolate and alcohol (in moderation) work well, along with celebrating good news of other writers. And with each rejection, send out another query. Because if you’re not ready to deal with the rejection, you’re just not ready to be querying.

As one of my lovely critique partners says, “Just keeping going. It’s bad until it’s good.”

Wise words.

Querying: Sticks and Stones (and dodgeballs)

About a week ago I finished revisions. For the eighth (give or take) time. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a single word in my manuscript that I haven’t touched or retouched. I was lucky through this round to have fresh eyes on the story, and can’t thank my critique partners (Abby, Rosey, Kate, and Kristy) enough for sticking with me (and not telling me to STOP.SENDING.THEM.EMAILS).

So now I query. And toughen up, because I forgot how hard querying can be. I liken it to putting a bunch of strangers in a room, handing out rocks, and asking them to throw the stones at you (repeatedly) … for fun. Or like playing solo against a really good dodgeball team, sort of like this:


Why do we do this? Because let’s be honest, no one NEEDS to write a book. No one NEEDS to be published. Authors do this for all kinds of reasons, probably ranging from “why not?” to fulfilling a lifelong passion that won’t let them rest. As for me, I write because I love it. Stones and all.

There’s this pervasive saying amongst authors looking for agents … it’s always some variation of keeping at it until you find the right agent for your book. Which basically suggests there’s a right fit agent for nearly every book, and every writer. I’m here to suggest that is simply not true. I wrote two books when I was in middle school. My mom had both bound, and my daughter loves reading them with me (she’s also quite impressed by my illustrations of mice, toadstools and ice skating elephants). However, I guarantee there is no right agent for those picture books. They are not books that have (much of) an audience outside the walls of my home. And that’s okay.

Believing this ‘right agent’ myth is akin to believing there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or that it’s good luck when it rains on your wedding day. While there’s nothing wrong with a little magic, and having a positive attitude goes a long (long) way, it also pays to be realistic … even if I desperately want for there to be unicorns, fairies, pots of gold, and for Hogwarts to send me my admission letter by owl.

I do believe there is an agent for (nearly) every well-written, thought-provoking, fresh concept, well-told story out there … as long as its author is prepared to do the work, and refine the manuscript until it’s so shiny it hurts to look directly at it.

So as I sit here today, a few queries out, a full manuscript requested (and subsequently rejected), I remind myself that my book is only as good as the work I’ve put into it (which, for the record, is a lot). And that hopefully there is a right agent out there who sees its potential and wants to team up with me in making it even better.

And that maybe this time I’ve been smart enough to hand out soft rubber balls, rather than stones …