I repeat: writing a book is hard.

I know I just recently blogged about this, but I just wanted to emphasize it again.  Not to toot my own horn (ummm, I don’t even have a book deal yet!), but to wave some sort of banner over those who are DOING IT.

Writing a book means this: days that turn into months that turn into years of writing and revising, hours upon hours invested into researching minute details, the sacrifice (and also joy) of building a platform from the ground up, giving up evenings with friends to stay home and research literary agents, headaches, crafting the perfect query or proposal, taking a permanent seat on an emotional rollercoaster.

Kristin Cashore is a YA author I admire.  She wrote GracelingFire, and Bitterblue.  Click here to read about the journey it was to get Bitterblue to where it needed to be (hint: after three years on a first draft, her editor suggested she start over from scratch).  There are even pictures.  Read this, and you’ll better understand the agony of writing.

bukowski

 

Frozen

Not literally.  (Not yet– although today was a rainy and cool Minnesota autumn day.)

But a little paralyzed about moving forward with my new novel idea.  (Is “a little paralyzed” an oxymoron?)

I have done my pseudo-writing.

I found an idea I’m really excited about.  (Surprise [to you and me]: it’s not at all what I thought it would be.)

I am armed with a first draft manifesto to wield against doubts, poor choices, and bad writing.

Heck, I even thought out the entire storyline.  I’m generally a pantser, so this is extreme, folks.

BUT …

I’m scared to commit to this idea.

And I’m intimidated by other great writers.

And I don’t know where to start.

HOWEVER …

That’s what my creative process looks like.  I need to trust it.

It’s just another go-around on the writing rollercoaster.

Here I goooooooooooooooooo!!!

crappyfirstdraft

Win-Win-Win?

My big question as of late was this:

How do I honor God, myself, and my agent when we seem to want different things?

A little backstory: my novel has significant religious themes, ones that are important to me.  (Like, the-core-of-who-I-am important.)  My agent thought it all needed to be toned down in order to sell.  At first, I thought I was going to refuse.  I really did.  I didn’t even look at my manuscript for over a week.

Then, one night, I had an epiphany.  I had thought epiphanies were accompanied by a choir of angels or a visible light bulb illuminated over one’s head, but it turns out that they can be just as quiet as a word crawling into your mind while you try to sleep and making a nest for itself there.

The word was parables.

In scripture, Christ told stories all the time.  Parables.  Lots of people believe that parables were intended to make things easier for people to understand, but that’s not actually what the Bible says.  Essentially, scripture says that parables were meant for some to see … and some to not.

I wondered, Can I bury these truths so deep in my story that those who want to see them will see them– and those who don’t want to won’t?

It seemed like the one and only way to satisfy my agent while also honoring the story I wanted to tell.  It also seemed terrifically difficult.  Shooting for such a minuscule target.  I knew I wasn’t good enough writer to do these edits without help.

So I prayed.  A lot.  And spent time in scripture.  A lot.  And wrote an okay new first draft, a better second draft, third …, showed it to my writing group, wrote another draft or so, and after two weeks of attempting to create a parable, I sent my revisions off to my agent.

Heard from him today.  Thumbs up.

He’s going to send the manuscript out to editors on Monday.

win win

 P.S. If you’re a person who prays, would you pray for my manuscript to find favor with an editor?  I’m sooooooo nervous!

On the writing front …

I thought I’d give you all a little update on what I’ve been up to, creativity-wise.writer

I just attended a children’s and YA writing conference.  It was held right here in Minneapolis, so I thought I’d take advantage of its being local, and I’m so glad I did.  The keynote speakers (husband-and-wife team David Small and Sarah Stewart spoke on Saturday, and Donna Bray of Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins spoke on Sunday) were all absolutely incredible.  I also attended four classes, including one on Sex and YA Literature, which I think I’m going to blog about soon.

I have a draft of my novel that is ready for line edits.  I will be working with Ben again, the same editor I’ve been working with since last Christmas.  At the time, I blogged about how risky it was for me to purchase that mentorship, but I am so glad to report that it was MORE than worth it!

I am in the middle of writing a short story.  It’s about four teenaged wards of the state living in hospice care.  Morbid much?  But I feel very invested in these thirteen pages, very passionate about these four friends who have no one but each other as their time is running out.  My writing group is helping me with the next draft, and I’m hoping to enter it into a contest before the month is over.

I started another new short story just this week.  This one is about two half-sisters, Fightest and Lou, and, in the words of Judy Hougen, I’m writing till I know.

I am trying my hand at short works of poetry and flash fiction.  It’s helping me to keep limber while I wait to dive back into novel work.

I have put hours upon hours of research into creating a list of agents to query.  My list is about 80 deep.  I am so hoping that someone in that group will take an interest in my manuscript– but who knows?  No matter what, I will not stop writing.

I have been researching hooks and re-drafting my query letter like crazy.  The query letter is proving to be more difficult than writing the novel itself– and far less enjoyable.  The “hook” is a short sentence that is intended to pique the interest of the reader; it’s usually the tagline on the front of the novel.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything more difficult to write.  

Plus blogging, always blogging …

pans in the fire

Today is my spiritual birthday!  I gave my life over to Jesus Christ on this day seventeen years ago.  Best decision of my life.

I have a lot going on in my life right now– things I’m really excited about– but it’s a little stressful at times.  Here’s the download:

1. The Big Sur Writing Workshop is held each March and December, and it focuses entirely on children’s and young adult literature.  I have been wanting to go to one of these for a long time now, and I finally took the plunge.  Signed up, bought my airline ticket, got really excited to go when the following happened.

2.  Remember when I told you I purchased a mentorship with a Minneapolis editor?  He has been awesome.  He appreciates my vision for the novel and enjoys my characters.  He also asked me to make some pretty intense changes, which amount to a total re-structuring of my novel.  I have been working so hard at the revision because I really want the draft to be polished before Big Sur.  That gave me six weeks for the revision.  SIX. WEEKS.  Yikes.

3. I am also thinking a lot about going to grad school, and I’m looking specifically at a program that focuses on the writing of children’s and YA lit.  It looks incredible.  I’ve been crunching numbers and processing the idea of returning to the land of student loan debt and homework.  I have had my reasons over the last 4-5 years for not going to graduate school, but this program seems to eliminate the big ones (like not getting to work on projects that I deem important).  I’ve been going back and forth, trying to decide if I would resent grad school once I was actually in it and having to churn out drafts for homework again, but my friend Hannah asked me, “Would you go if it was free?” and my immediate response was, “YES!”  She said, “So it’s the money that is the real issue.”  Talk about a revealing moment!  I needed that split-second question to show me what I was really thinking!  If I do go, it will probably be in January 2014.  In the meantime, I have to apply and see if I can even get in!  (It’s a selective school.)  And, of course, I have no time to apply until after Big Sur.

4. My roommate Desiree got engaged!  It’s very exciting, and I’m really happy for her and her fiance.  Des and I have lived together for about six years, so her marriage will really change both of our lives.  I’m in the market for a new roommate for the first time in a long while.  (I thought about living alone, but I just don’t think it would be healthy for me.)

5. I am planning an event, and I am the world’s most stressed-out event planner.  I am pulling together an Easter arts experience with music, poetry, and art, all connected to the death and resurrection of Christ.  (I’m an Easter fanatic!)  VERY excited about this, but I’m also pretty nervous about pulling it all off.  If you live in the Twin Cities and want to come, let me know, and I’ll get you more details.

So that’s life in a nutshell for me.  I’d appreciate your prayers– and advice, if you have any!

Just realized that in my spiritual life, today I am 17, the age of most of the kiddos I’m recruiting.  Gosh, it feels good to be 17.  Good and busy.

to do

 

accidental novelist

I never meant to become a novelist.

While pursuing my creative writing degree, I took the stance of an archer and aimed my arrows at poetry.  Sure, I took a semester-long class in fiction and even one in the writing of young adult literature, but when the time came for me to set my goals for my senior project, it was all poetry and creative non-fiction.

Years later, in the throes of an intense, prolonged obsession, I found myself jotting down tiny thoughts here and there.  Just chicken-scratches really.  I was heartsick and frantic and depressed, and I couldn’t handle much more than a thought here or there.  Perhaps a month or so later, I looked at that collection of lines and thought, What if I collected them into a book?  Thoughts, poems, short stories, all related to OCD.  Someone would want to read that, right?

For six months or so, I collected stories from life: my thoughts and experiences, poems I wrote about my obsessions, little stories from life.  It was more like a journal than a manuscript, but it felt great.  I was writing every day, a regular at the coffee shop near the university where I work, their very own “writer-in-residence,” as the baristas would tease me and ask me to include them in my book.

It was a mess of thoughts, with little order to it.  I printed off the whole shebang, cut all the parts up, and quite literally sorted each into various categories, trying to force some semblance of order onto it.

cutting apart

After it was all re-grouped, I gave it to my friend Anna for her review.

She said, “Yeahhhhh … it doesn’t work.  Why don’t you ever include real dialogue from your life?”

“I might not get it exactly right,” I told her.  “And that would be like lying.”  It could have become an obsession so easily; instead I avoided it completely by not including dialogue.

“It needs dialogue,” she said.  “It needs to be more of a story and less of a collection of random thoughts.”

But I was months away from the therapy that would give me that kind of freedom, and I knew that I couldn’t make it my own story because I wouldn’t get every detail right, and that would be wrong.  So I decided to make it fiction, which would allow me to invent as much as I wanted.

It took years to transform that original journal into a novel.  I had no idea what I was doing.  Anna kept telling me I was still writing like a memoirist instead of a novelist, and I thought, What’s the difference?  I honestly didn’t know.  I plowed through that like someone wading in a foot of water with cement blocks strapped to her feet.  It was really hard.

But somewhere in the midst of those years, something both incredible and strange happened: I became addicted.

Addicted to writing fiction, to the limitless creativity available to novelists, to the act of creating something out of nothing— trying my hardest to in a small way mimic God in those earliest days of earth.

One year ago, and hooked beyond rescue on fiction (and with no desire for such a rescue), I started a young adult novel.  I gave myself six months for the first draft, and when six months was over, I was shocked that it was a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.  At the end of six months with the first story, I had a jumbled collection of journalled thoughts.

So I was learning.

Now, a year into this writing, I asked for help from an editor.  Sometimes my life feels like it’s on repeat: he said, “Yeahhhhhh … it doesn’t work.”  Essentially.

It’s okay.  I know that I can massage it into something workable, something publishable, something excellent.  It’s just going to take a lot longer than I first thought.  I want to plead the excuse, “Well, what did you expect?  I’m a poet.”

But not really.  I still love, read, and write poetry, but it’s not the right descriptor anymore.

I am a novelist.

On accident, but a novelist nevertheless.  A clueless one, but learning every day.  Discouraged, but never enough to stop.

I love this identity.

novelist

 

 

where the music comes from

Early that next week, with my head still spinning, I sat with the Conner family for Ellen’s first jazz concert of the year—her three younger brothers sandwiched between their parents and me next to Mrs. Conner, feeling guilty that I’d been avoiding her daughter.  It was pretty obvious that, between the six of us, only Mrs. Conner and I actually wanted to be there, but Mr. Conner dutifully tried to keep the boys quiet and entertained.

“Ellen looks gorgeous,” I whispered to Mrs. Conner when the jazz band made its way onto the stage.  Ellen wore a knee-length black dress with long sleeves and a scooped neckline.  Her mom had forced her to take off the leather choker for the evening.

“She’s miserable,” Mrs. Conner whispered back.  “We go through concert dress woes every year.”  She rolled her eyes.  I smiled and looked back to the band members, who were tuning their instruments to Ellen, the lead saxophone.  They began with a few big band arrangements, followed by a swing tune, then a ballad.  “Ellen has a solo in this one,” whispered Mrs. Conner.

When the band fell into the background, Ellen stood up and a giant spotlight shone on her.  She played effortlessly, a beautiful, full tone, with perfect rhythm.  The concert band director had begged Ellen to join their group as well, but she just wasn’t interested.  “In jazz,” she’d told me, “you can actually lean into a wrong note and make it sound right.  It’s not like concert band, where you have to be perfect.”

“She’s got this down,” I commented to Mrs. Conner.

“It’s actually improv,” she offered back.

My eyes widened.  I could hardly believe that this picture-perfect sound being pushed along the ceiling by an alto sax was being invented on the fly.  I imagined myself standing in front of tonight’s crowd, looking not at a sheet of music but letting it flow out of me like rays of sunlight.  I shivered in the audience—not from any chill but from the fear conjured up by the brief imagination.

Dr. Foster is right, I thought.  I am definitely uncomfortable with uncertainty.  It upset me a little to see how far-reaching it went.

“Jazz and fantasy both push the limits,” Ellen had said to me once.  I’d had to think about it for awhile before it sat right with me.  Tonight I could see that Ellen was just a teenager who wanted no boundaries.  She needed improvisation, needed those grace notes.

A dark stage, a young girl in a black dress.  The spotlight’s mouth circling her in a perfect O as she gazed straight ahead.  It reminded me of the stormy night that Matt played his keyboard for me, the way his eyes too had found that particular secret spot where the music comes from.

saxophone

my writing process

Having recently plowed through all three of Kristin Cashore’s books, I ventured over to her blog and found this fascinating post on her writing process.  I thought maybe I’d share the details of my own with whoever might be interested (all three of you, haha).

In general, I need the following things in order to write: time, a distraction-free zone, and my laptop.

Time: I am not one of those writers who is able to write for five minutes at the drop of a hat.  I need to have at least an hour of open time yawning in front of me … better yet, five or six hours.

No distractions: I can listen to music but sometimes only without lyrics.  I can write with friends, but only if they have their own projects.  I cannot write while there is a movie on.  It just isn’t going to happen.  This does not, somehow, apply to the internet.

Laptop: I can’t write freehand anymore.  My thoughts are too fast, and I edit so furiously that I would shred the paper with my pen.  Plus, the idea of having to transcribe it into the computer seems like a terrible waste of my limited time.  I like to keep everything in its place.  (I don’t even like to edit a copy on my work laptop during my lunch break because then I have to make sure to copy and paste it into the right document on my personal laptop.)  Such a hassle.  I just need to have my laptop.  If I am without it, I will journal thoughts here and there on pieces of scratch paper, but I won’t tackle actual novel work.

I have to have access to the internet.  I go absolutely insane without it.  I can have Facebook and Gmail and Words with Friends all open, and it just blends into my whole writing program.  I do a lot of in-the-moment research, so I need to have access to the web (for example, I will just NEED TO KNOW in that EXACT moment what that heavy bib is that you wear during an X-ray … lead apron.  Okay, lead apron.  Moving on.).

I start with characters.  In fact, I like to start with names.  And then I find a picture of that person.  (Sure, it’s some random picture from Google images, but I find a picture that matches the name and the image in my head.)  And then I write down a few thoughts about that person.  I keep this document with me the whole duration of the writing and refer to it often (mostly since I am terrible at descriptions and need to use the photos for inspiration).

With this last novel, I gave myself six months to write a first draft– and didn’t allow myself to rag on myself while I did so.  The first draft is just the bones (and probably weak ones) of the story– I still don’t know my characters super well until the first draft is done.  Only then can I go back and know them well enough to see how they really would react to the situations that took place.  (I know that seems backward … but it’s not.)

I trust my writing group and other creative friends to catch the glaring imperfections for me.  You’d be shocked at what things seem clearly obvious to the plot that would have never been included if a friend hadn’t said, Um, this needs to happen here.

I can write from my couch, but it’s better if I am at a coffeeshop or Barnes & Noble.  There’s no laundry waiting to be done there.  If I am particularly inspired, though, I can sit at my kitchen table for 10-15 hours.  I am not joking.

I am terrified of losing any edits I make, so I email myself my draft after every writing session, and if I am not at home, I email it to myself before I leave the coffeeshop, etc., just in case I get into a car accident or my laptop (or car my laptop is in) is stolen by bandits or the laptop has a total meltdown.  My latest draft is always safe and labelled in the right folder in my Gmail account.  I have been working on my current story for a year, and there are 176 emails in that folder.

When I decide to cut something that I kinda liked, I save it in a separate document called “extries.”  Over the months, this file grows ridiculously large itself.  Also, if I am completely re-doing a scene, I have to edit the scene in the extries file and then copy/paste it into the actual document file.  This seems to go against what I said earlier about keeping things in one place, but it doesn’t: same laptop counts.

I am always thinking about my story, particular scenes that are giving me trouble, my characters I don’t know how to help.  I pray when I get stuck.  I cry.  I ask close friends to discuss problems with me so that they can help me muddle my way through.  Whenever I get an idea and I’m not around my laptop, it goes into my phone.  Later, I dump all of those ideas into the extries file and work through them.  The ones I write down at 3 am sometimes make no sense.

I also keep a fake calendar of the time the story takes place and list out events on the calendar to make sure I’m keeping track of time right.  (There can’t be 6 weeks in June.)

And the whole time I am riding the world’s longest rollercoaster … I love what I wrote tonight! … I am a terrible writer who will never be published … people like this story … it’s not good enough.  The lows are hard, but the highs are fantastic.  And I love the process.  I love the act of creation.  LOVE IT.  My characters and I feel each other out, and they make some of the decisions, but I usually get the final say.  Usually.

Writing a book is kind of like volunteering to be crazy.  Not just to spent time in the loonybin … but to legitimately be crazy.  But then again, maybe that’s already a given if you’re a writer and writing a book is just your way of acknowledging it.

Gah, no laptop!!

Gah, no laptop!!

 

looking back … and ahead

2012 was a good year.

In January, I had just aside my OCD manuscript and was 50 pages into writing adult fiction about a woman who was a late discovery adoptee when I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  The book walloped me in the best way possible, inspiring me to drop the LDA story and try my hand at young adult literature.  12 months later, I am head-over-heels in love with writing for this demographic– not to mention deeply in love with the characters in my book.

In February, I posted one of my most frequented links, about how medication is scary.

In March, my friend Ashley encouraged me to get serious about my blogging, and the rest is history.  I started blogging with a lot more frequency after that, trying to refine and define what exactly Lights All Around was about.  In the end, it boils down to three things: faith, creativity, and OCD.

I believe it was in April that I wrote and submitted a post for the Rage Against the Minivan blog, never guessing that it would actually be chosen and posted months and months later.

In May, I left my job in management, moving into my old role as an admission counselor only.  At the time, it was devastating to me, but in the months since, I have come to realize it was a true blessing in disguise.  I had wondered if it might, but it was hard to see past the sadness.

In June, I spent a week tucked away in an apartment above a Wisconsin garage, writing like a maniac and finishing the first draft of Truest.  It was a bad draft, but that’s what first drafts are supposed to be.  At least it was in the computer.

July, I nursed my crush on the Olympian Michael Phelps and posted a mildly scandalous short story about Adam and Eve, one of my most-commented-on posts.

In August, I read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which, alongside The Fault in Our Stars, was one of the best books I read all year.  (I love that I can measure my months by the words I encountered.)

September marked the end of an era as I ventured to the University of Minnesota Medical Center to meet with my beloved psychiatrist for the final time before he retired.

In October, the International OCD Foundation flew me out to an event of theirs in Boston to read an excerpt from my OCD novel that had won an international creative expression contest.  There, I fell in love with the IOCDF.

November I decided to speak out even louder than usual about cognitive-behavioral therapy, explaining to blog readers what my life was like before and after CBT and also details of what my CBT experience was like.  I got emails from people after this, asking for even more details, even some fellow Minnesotans wondering specifically about my own therapist.

In December, I finished yet another draft of Truest while on an artist retreat I had been selected for.  I am committed to this story.  My writing group has helped and continues to help me SO MUCH with revisions, and I decided to purchase a short mentorship with a Minneapolis editor.

Which brings us to now.  And what’s ahead for me?

I have gotten into the habit of blogging, and I love it.  I will keep speaking loudly about OCD and CBT and ERP.  God has been so good and so faithful to me, and even today, when I was feeling very low, I was still able to be grateful that I have a permanent love in my savior.  I will keep reading as much as I possibly can and review the books here on my blog.  I will keep writing– because I love it, and because I crave it, and because I have to.  I will continue to meet with my brilliant writing group and start my online mentorship next month.

2012 was good.  Here’s to an amazing 2013.

20122013

dream argument

I could have guessed the tiny Green Lake Library in City Hall wouldn’t have any Billy Collins books.  I asked Janice Boggs, the librarian, to request a few from another branch, then headed out to Legacy House, since Gordon Leimbach had a book collection to rival the library.

“Billy Collins, you say?” he asked.  “I know I have a few of his collections, over there on the middle shelf of the barrister—just go ahead and lift the knob.  The whole glass front panel swings out and tucks right back into the shelf.  See anything there?”

Through the glass fronts of the antique bookcase, I could see the whole thing was dedicated to poetry. Langston Hughes and John Keats.  Calvin Miller.  Robert Frost.  Dickinson and Whitman and Donne.  I saw a few books by Collins, took one off the shelf, then closed the barrister behind me and sat down on Gordon’s couch.  He sat in his rocker and started to pack his pipe.

“Gordon, why do you keep so many books around if you can’t see the pages anymore?”

“They’re just good company,” he said simply.  “Read something aloud, would you?”

I chose a poem called “The First Dream,” which ended with a woman puzzling over her original experience of the phenomenon.  I could hear my voice listing with her as I read:

except that the curve of her young shoulders
and the tilt of her downcast head
would make her appear to be terribly alone,
and if you were there to notice this,

you might have gone down as the first person
to ever fall in love with the sadness of another.

“Brilliant,” said Gordon, pipe now between his teeth, dark glasses on, looking for all the world like some jazz hepcat.  “Mmm.  Brilliant.  Yes?”

“Yes,” I agreed.

“Makes me think of the week on August Arms all about dreams.  Back in, oh, maybe January or February, remember?”

“I do.”  It had been a fascinating week in which I had learned that the faces we see in dreams are all ones we have seen in real life and that those who have gone blind after birth can still dream in images.  Gordon had told me then that his late wife Mavis was the one face that had never faded from his memory after he’d lost his sight.

But Gordon was thinking of a different episode.  “René Descartes’s dream argument,” he said.  “I can’t remember if we discussed it.”

“Briefly,” I said.  “I’m not much of a philosopher.”

Gordon smiled.  “I just find think it’s fascinating, the way people can sort these massive existential topics into numbered statements.  One, if I have experiences in waking life similar to the ones I have in dream life, and two, there is nothing to help me distinguish between the two, then three, it is possible I am dreaming now.”

“Oh, that,” I said, his words prompting a distant recollection.  “I sort of remember that episode.  I guess I never understood why he thought it was so important to go there—you know, to take it that far.”

“Well,” said Gordon, now in his professorial element, “he was trying to establish doubt.  Universal doubt.  You know his famous statement, ‘I think; therefore, I am’?”

“Yes.”

“It was all en route to arriving at that point, which we call the Cogito.  If you strip things down and start with the Cogito, then your philosophy—however you re-build it—is not connected to tradition.”

“But is that a good thing?” I asked, doubtfully.  “I’m not so sure.”

Gordon grinned with pride.  “And you say you’re not a philosopher.”