My blog turns 3!

blog birthday3yrs

Thank you to all my readers: you mean so, so much to me!  What was the first post you remember reading on my website?

Image credit: A♥, modified by me

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The Art of NOT Writing: Breaks, Blocks, & Boredom

A lot of blog readers have asked– in some form or another– how I deal with writer’s block, and also what I do when I simply don’t feel like writing.

First of all, I must admit to you that I wrote almost every single day from spring 2008 to winter 2013. In January of this year, my wunderkind writing guru Judy Hougen gave me permission to not write, and I started to take some much-needed breaks.

Secondly, you should know that I did not write from fall 2003 to fall 2006. I had just graduated from a creative writing program which had required me to put my heart through a meat grinder, and I was exhausted.

With those disclaimers out in the open, let’s dive in.

not writing2

BREAKS.

I think there’s a time and place for taking a break from writing. I have never regretted my three-year hiatus after finishing undergrad, but then again, it was still a creatively productive time. I used those three years to read like a maniac. Of course, I had read a lot of incredible work for my English major, but it was so good to start reading for pleasure again and not for homework. I devoured books during those three years, and I did it with purpose. I always felt like a writer during those three years; I merely viewed the time as a season where I was cultivating my creative soil for future planting and growth. And that’s exactly what it was.

These days, I take a purposeful writing sabbatical on Mondays: no writing allowed, and the time is devoted to reading. It’s been a good experience so far. As I said above, I have only recently (this year) allowed myself breaks from writing, and for me, it’s essentially a spiritual practice of trust. For so long, I was worried that if I took a break, I would “lose everything.” But that’s not true: taking purposeful breaks allows me to trust God that my gifts won’t fly out the window the moment I open my fist.

Middle-range breaks (staying away from my manuscript for 2-6 weeks) can be a little hard for me to bounce back from, but I’m learning it’s less about the talent disappearing and more about fear showing up.

All that to say, is it okay to take breaks from writing? Yes. For me, it’s best when they are purposeful and still used to intentionally foster creativity.

BLOCKS.

I have to be honest here: I don’t get the traditional writer’s block anymore– you know, where you sit down to write but nothing comes. I can remember that, though, from high school and even in college, and it’s a horrible feeling. These days, I have built such a strong writing routine that it’s quite rare for me to experience writer’s block the way many people think of it.

Of course, I still get stuck while I’m writing, but it’s different. At least, it feels different to me.

Regardless, the following are things that I do when I get stuck/blocked.

1. Pray/brainstorm. For me, this is sort of one thing. Parts of my prayer journal could easily be mistaken for a writer’s processing notebook. This all happens by hand (basically the only writing I do away from the computer anymore) and in my bed, and often involves scrawling HELP!!! in giant, frantic letters across my journal. Then God and I brainstorm. It’s honestly one of the most amazing and satisfying parts of my writing life because, well, I am imbued supernaturally with ideas. Truest’s byline really should read

written by God Almighty

with Jackie Lea Sommers

because it’s such a team effort, and he has the best ideas.

2. Freewrite. I take whatever topic/area is stumping me and I make myself write about it for ten minutes. Natalie Goldberg and her “Ten minutes. Go.” have given me a perpetual exercise in beating back blocks. In freewriting, I have to type and type and type without stopping for ten minutes. There’s almost always one or two gems that find their way onto the page when this happens.

(Freewrites are also what I do when I’m out of sync with writing and need to loosen up that writing muscle again. They work. They really do.)

3. Have conversations. I hope you’re as lucky as I am to have such selfless friends who are willing to have long, drawn-out conversations about fictional people and situations and choices. When I get stuck, I will ask my friends to dialogue with me about whatever is stumping me. These conversations help me push through barriers and also help me know and understand my friends more deeply. (I’m so grateful.)

4. Make a plan. What do I need to do before I can dive back into my project? Maybe I’ve realized that I don’t know enough about the history of my characters to write an honest scene about their friendship. I’ll put a sub-project onto my list: “Create history for X and Y.” Then I’ll take a time-out from the manuscript to write up a whole separate history for my characters, much of which will never make it into the novel but which needs to exist before I can move forward.

BOREDOM.

What if I just don’t feel like writing?

Well, you’re going to have to assess the situation. Are you in need of an intentional break (#1) or are you just being lazy?

Writers write.

When I get in these moods, I do the following:

1. Freewrite. See above. This is the answer to so many writing questions, I believe.

2. Research. And when I say “research,” I mean spend time learning about things that are fascinating to you. I will click the “random article” button on Wikipedia until I land on something that gnaws on my brain. I will read through incredible quotations. I’ll spend hours on the internet finding something that clobbers me and drives the boredom out of my life because it’s just so amazing that I have to know more and want to write about it. Ideas wake me up.

3. Get away. Get out of your house or apartment and hole up in a coffeeshop or the back corner of Panera. Sometimes I’m not bored by writing, but I’m distracted by everything else. If I can change my setting and eliminate distractions, it will help me get back into the zone.

4. Read. Something so incredible and delicious that the excitement (and envy) starts building in my gut. Something where the characters make me laugh and cry and fill me with questions of How can I do that in my own style

5. Switch projects. Not entirely. I just might need to set aside the novel for a while and do some blogging instead. Or maybe work on a poem or something completely different. Although, who am I to say? For some people, this might mean abandoning a project entirely. If it’s not keeping your attention, there’s a good chance it won’t keep others’.

But mostly …

6. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Sometimes I just need to put on my big-girl pants and fake it till I make it.

Image credit: Unsplash, modified by me

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The Dance of Uncertainty & Faith

How do you reconcile the uncertainty inherent in OCD with your faith in God?

I had planned to write an entire blog post about this, but then I remembered that Anne Lamott had already said in just five sentences what would take me a muddy, fumbly, long-winded essay to say, so I will let her quote do its thing:

I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.

I welcome your thoughts.

uncertainty and faith

Image credit: Matthew Smith

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Chicago Regret

eir3

Blue line to O’Hare
and all alone;
he hates to see her cry.

But the platform is cold,
and their bed had been
so warm

So Warm

that he dials the number,
rushing toward anything
like the famous L.

Image credit: Erica Murriel Davis

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Querying Literary Agents: My Story

querying literary agentsIf you are a writer and are interested in traditional publishing (as opposed to self-publishing), you’ll need a literary agent. Very few publishers these days will read unsolicited manuscripts, but editors will look at manuscripts that come from a literary agent they trust. An agent thus is the the “middle man” that you need in order to get your story in the hands of editors.

I’m no expert on querying, but I can share my own experience and how I went about it.

WARNING: THIS POST IS GOING TO BE LONG AND DETAILED.

First, I had to learn about writing a query letter. Writing a query letter is an entirely different beast from writing a novel and– in some ways– harder. You have to take off your regular writer hat and put on one that is more suited to someone in business, specifically marketing. You also have to boil an entire book down into one or two sentences. I learned most of what I know about query letters from Rachelle Gardner’s blog.

I suggest you start with these posts:
How to Write a Query Letter
Writing a One-Sentence Summary
Top Ten Query Mistakes

I also spent a considerable amount of time reading the query critiques at Query Shark. In addition, I read successful query letters (along with agent commentary) in Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters.

Query letters consist of “the hook, the book, the cook.” In other words, your book in one flashy, catchy sentence or phrase, your book in a paragraph or two, and your author’s bio. The hardest part? The hook. HANDS DOWN.

Here are some YA books and their hook:

Divergent: One choice can transform you
Awaken: Death is just getting warmed up
My Life Next Door: A boy.  A secret.  A choice.
Under the Never Sky: A million ways to die. One way to live.

After tons of research, I drafted a query letter. Then another draft. Then another. I worked on my query for maybe a couple months. I tried various hooks out on my friend Elyse.

Here were some of my discarded ideas for Truest‘s hook:

Three friends.  Two choices.  One summer.
When static is in the air, lightning is bound to strike.

Second, I had to research which agents to query. I wanted a long list; I told myself I wanted the list to be 100 agents long– my final list had 101 on it.

I started with Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents. I went through the entire directory of agents (more than once) and, when I found an agency that represented YA fiction, I went to the agency’s website and researched the agency and the various agents, choosing which one would be best for me to query, and adding him/her to my agent spreadsheet.  On my spreadsheet, I listed the agency name, the agent I’d chosen as the best fit for me and Truest, any notes on the agent or agency that I wanted to remember or could reference in my query letter*, a link to the submission guidelines, and what “tier” this agent would be in for me (I made four tiers).

* For example, “mentions YA, religion, and LWW” (of course I would personalize my query to mention how much I also loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe!), “dark and/or funny YA project” (this would turn into “I saw on your website that you were looking for a dark and/or funny YA project. I believe Truest is both.”), “Rainbow Rowell’s agent” (I would mention how much I love RR’s work), etc. This allows me to connect personally with the agent and prove I’ve done my research.

I also found out about a lot of newer agents through the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents BLOG. It has a New Agent Alert!

I looked in the acknowledgements of my favorite books to see the author thank his or her agent– then pounced on the websites, did my research, continued to fill out the spreadsheet.

I also used the “backward search” of Query Tracker, which let me look up an author and then would show me whom their agent was.  Then again, more online research, more additions for the spreadsheet.

Also, I needed to write a synopsis and an author bio. These items, along with my query, my spreadsheet, my resume, and sample chapters were all the items I needed to query.

Then, I put them all together. Personalize every query. Revisit the submission guidelines and send anything they needed. Some wanted just the query, some wanted query + synopsis + three chapters, some wanted query + bio + ten pages, some wanted everything. One asked for an entire proposal, which I had no idea how to create, but I found a sample on Rachelle Gardner’s blog and figured it out! I prayed before every one before I clicked send.

I started by querying tier one and two. (I didn’t want to feel forced to accept a tier three or four agent before I’d given the top tiers a fair shot!  And thankfully, I didn’t have to dip into tier three or four, hooray!)

The first response came that same night, asking for the full manuscript! After that, I started to get requests for the entire manuscript or the first fifty pages or more information about myself. I followed instructions explicitly, prayed my heart out, and hoped like mad.

Here is the query letter I sent to Steven, who would eventually become my agent (and I’m adding “hook, book, cook, connect” to try to delineate it further– those words were [obviously] not in the actually query):

Dear Mr. Chudney:

Summer love, small-town secrets—and the darker side of philosophy. (HOOK)

Seventeen-year-old Westlin Beck is dreading this last summer before her senior year, but everything changes when the Hart twins move into town.  Silas, a prodigious young writer, is friendly with everyone but West, and Laurel, his mysterious sister, appears to be sick with an illness no one—and especially not Silas—will discuss. Forced to team up with Silas in a summer business, West and Silas begin to forge a friendship (and maybe something more).  But when West comes face-to-face with Laurel’s devastating secret, the summer changes into a rescue mission—one with unexpected results.

TRUEST is a coming-of-age young adult novel that explores dark themes with humor and redemption—and is told in alternating tenses: both before and after the summer’s tragic conclusion.  It is complete at 77,000 words. (BOOK)

I will begin my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts in January.  I have been honored to be published in multiple literary journals, to be selected as a recent recipient of an artist residency, and to be chosen as a winner of an international creative expression contest.  I also author the Lights All Around blog, which averages over xxxx individual views each month. (COOK)

I noticed on your website that you are open to stories about spirituality but not religion.  As my definition may vary from yours, I am submitting my query to you, as my story has deep themes of faith though the characters are not interested in the rule-keeping of traditional religion.  Please let me know if you would be interested in reading part or all of TRUEST.  Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you. (CONNECT)

 

From there, Steven asked me to snail mail him the first fifty pages, along with the answers to some questions on his website. I did. He read them and asked for me to mail the rest of the manuscript. I did.

27 days after I sent that initial query, I got this email:

Dear Jackie, I have competed reading your novel, and I really enjoyed it! You’re a wonderful writer, and I’m so glad you thought of me for this novel. The writing is really strong, and although the structure is non-linear, you handle that very nicely (reminding me of the novel 34 Pieces of You I had worked on). I’ll be curious to see one day how editors feel about the amount of religion in the novel, too.

Thus, I’d like to make you an offer of representation, and hope we can soon have a conversation about that and your lovely novel. I’m attaching my agency’s agreement here for your review. If your schedule is open, let’s talk on Thursday or Friday.
All the best, Steven

And after that my story of querying turns into a story of getting a book deal. (!!!)

 

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How to Write AND Have a Life [from someone who is still figuring it out]

time management3A lot of people have asked how I manage to pack so much in: writing, blogging, reading, working full-time, while maintaining relationships with friends and family. I’m by no means an expert– and since I’m single and don’t have kids, my minutes aren’t swallowed by family demands– but here are my thoughts on the matter.

1. Learn to say no. I had to learn how to STOP making plans I didn’t want to keep. I’m so, so blessed to have a huge circle of friends, but when my writing life gets wild, only my inner circle makes it onto my schedule.

2. Be upfront with your friends. When things are crazy with revisions, I tell my friends right away that I’m going to be MIA for a while. Thankfully, I have incredibly gracious friends who respect that!

3. Schedule your blog posts. I hammer out a month’s worth of blog posts in about two or three evenings. Then, like the Showtime Rotisserie Grill, I can “set it and forget it” for another month. Yes, that’s right– I post about 12-15 times a month, but I only work on my blog posts for a couple days. I am always collecting ideas for blog posts and adding them to my blog ideas list on Wunderlist (see #4). Then, about halfway through each month, I will go into my blog, set the schedule and write the title for the entire next month’s blog posts. Over the course of the next day or so, I will systematically go through all those pre-programmed, pre-titled posts and write the actual post. The only other post I have to worry about is my “Dear Diary” post at the end of the month, where I summarize what I’ve been up to.

4. Make lists. I use Wunderlist, and I’ve detailed the amazingness of that here.

5. Listen to audiobooks. I listen during almost any mundane activity I do, most notably driving. Or else I’m calling my mom. Double-duty those commutes!

6. Writing sabbaths. I don’t let myself write on Mondays (usually after a tempestuous weekend full of it). I try to set aside Monday evenings for reading.

7. Overcommunicate. Again, I’m so lucky to have friends to whom I can explain, “I’d love to get coffee and catch up, but I can only stay for two hours.” I often set really clear parameters for what I have time for– not always, but when I’m especially busy.

8. Nap. I wouldn’t be able to power through everything if I didn’t sneak in naps wherever I can find time.

9. Stay connected to God. For me, a necessity. While I try to pray consistently, I find that I actually pray far more when I’m in depths of a creative project … that would be the very worst time for me to disregard my direct connection to the one who embodies creativity. (In fact, when I am doing intense writing or revision, I usually begin with a time of communion with Christ and any time I get stuck or scared or confused or need to brainstorm, it’s back to the prayer journal. I do the majority of my brainstorming with God. Ask me about it.)

10. Turn off the TV. I almost never watch TV, though I will take in an episode of Law & Order: SVU if my roommate is watching and I’m doing something else simultaneously (researching, for example). I can’t write with the TV on or while watching a movie.

11. Sacrifice. I just can’t do everything I want to do. This, I believe, is just part of the artistic life.

 

Image credit: Robert Mehlan, modified by me

 

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OCD & Fiction

Will I ever write a book about OCD?

I have … and I think I will again. Someday.

I spent four years working on a novel about a young woman with OCD. The story picked up after she’d already been diagnosed but before she’d found the right treatment. It was the first novel I ever wrote, and it’s quite obvious that I was figuring out how to write fiction as I went.  (Interestingly, I was figuring out OCD treatment as I went too … I started the book before I went through ERP and finished the story after ERP was over.  Needless to say, it dramatically changed the story.)  I’ve set that story aside for now, though I have been known to send it to people in the OCD community who ask nicely. :-)

I’ve wondered if there will come a time where I will want to go back to that first novel and revise it for publication.  Maybe.  Not yet.

Meanwhile, two characters have been stirring to life in my mind: an adventurous young woman named Rowen, and her best friend Jess, a young man who is a mathematics prodigy … and who has OCD.  It will be a while till I will get to write their story, but that’s okay, I think.

For now, they are just waking up inside of me, yawning, stretching out like satisfied kittens, blithely unaware of what tortures lie ahead.

#MEANAUTHOR

(But to have a book at all requires conflict. The poor, sweet lambs! I have been known to cry over the situations I get my characters into.)

Meanwhile, Truest.  My final edits are due SOON. (Note: final developmental edits … there will still be copyediting ahead.)

OCD and fiction

Image credit: Anselm23

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