Eighteen & Again

Someone posted something on Instagram recently (and now I can’t find it) about life at 18 vs. life now. It occurred to me that it’s been 18 years since I was 18, and of course that intrigued the writer in me. So I thought I’d explore the comparison of those two milestones in my life.

At 18 …
I wanted to be a published author, along with all the glamour that came with it
At 36 …
I am a published author, along with all the stress and anxiety that came with it

At 18 …
I had undiagnosed OCD
At 36 …
I’ve been in remission for a decade

At 18 …
I thought true love was just around the corner and I’d likely be married by 22
At 36 …
I still hope true love and marriage are just around the corner

At 18 …
I was so extroverted I had to force myself into 10 minutes of being alone each day, at the urging of my favorite professor
At 36 …
I am so introverted I have to force myself to make plans with people

At 18 …
I could eat breakfast food for every meal
At 36 …
I can eat breakfast food for every meal

At 18 …
I had always been ultra-thin, but felt like a kid
At 36 …
I’ve battled with weight issues for over a decade, but (usually) love my curves

At 18 …
I had almost no health issues (outside of OCD)
At 36 …
I’m a web of interrelated diagnoses

At 18 …
I wanted to know that God found me acceptable
At 36 …
I know he does

At 18 …
I had spent one semester at Northwestern
At 36 …
I have spent 18 years at Northwestern

At 18 …
I didn’t even know yet that I enjoyed the company of children or teens
At 36 …
Kids are my purest joy, and I write novels for teenagers because I love that stage of life

At 18 …
I hadn’t even met most of the people who would be my friends as an adult
At 36 …
I continue to amass the most incredible friends this earth has to offer

At 18 …
I had not yet read any of the books I would later say had changed my life (outside of the Bible)
At 36 …
I’m excited about what life-changing stories are still ahead

Thoughts on Writing: Query to Contract

thoughts on writing 2In part two of my Thoughts on Writing series, I wanted to share with you the details around getting a book deal.

As a young writer, I thought it went something like write a manuscript –> mail it to publishers –> if someone liked it, they would make it into a book. Voila!

Here’s the reality:

Querying
Very, very few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, and you’re told the way to get your story in front of an editor is via a literary agent, who will serve as a liaison between you and the publisher. So you begin your research, looking for agents who represent the kind of book you’ve written and whose brief wishlist on their website makes you think they might connect with your story. You start to think weird thoughts, like maybe you’re making a real connection with someone’s … online profile. Like maybe the matrix is glitching on you as you read this one because this is the one. You make a list of 100 agents, telling yourself that if all 100 say no, then this book is simply not ready for publication.

Meanwhile, you write a query letter, trying to be both professional and creative as you summarize your entire book into one paragraph, then into one sentence. You run hooks past all your friends to see which ones grab them, and it’s really impossible to tell because these same friends are so intimately acquainted with your story already that they are not at all objective.

(I’ve written in extreme detail about querying over here.)

On Submission
You start sending out the query letters– almost entirely via email, though every agent wants something different: query and synopsis and the first ten pages. Or query and chapter summary and the first three chapters. Or query alone, and you hope that one-page letter can find its feet.

It’s an emotional roller coaster. Some are interested, some are not. Some are silent and you won’t hear back from them until six months after your book has been published. Some ask for more chapters. Some ask for the whole manuscript. Some politely say no.

But someone says yes.

You sign with that agent, and– guess what– you get to keep your seat on that emotional roller coaster while your agent pitches your manuscript to editors. Rejection is likely, and you knew that, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still sting.

But then, one magical day, you get a call from your agent saying an editor loved it and has made an offer.

Everything feels surreal. You stand on the veranda outside of your office and call your dad and say, “I got a book deal.”

Contract
The contract comes later, so much later than you’d have guessed. It takes four months before you sign it, and even though you’ve already started on revisions with your editor, inking your signature onto those papers makes everything seem real. Maybe up till now you thought this was a trick or that you’d say something annoying and they’d call it all off.

Now it’s binding. You breathe a sigh of relief.

But relief doesn’t last long …
Next week: revisions, how advances work, choosing cover art, copy edits, ARCs, marketing, and release day!
Also in this series:
thoughts on writing 1
Part one 🙂

 

Writing Questions from Blog Readers!

Here a few questions blog readers asked me about writing:

What writing resource books you recommend?

emotional craft

Oh man, I have read so many great books about writing, both about the craft and the writing life. Here are some of my FAVORITES:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott *
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass *
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
The Art of Slow Writing by Louise deSalvo
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

* my favorites of my favorites

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? How did you develop your skills during your earlier years (such as during high school)?

I’m not sure I made a conscious decision about being a writer; writing (like wands) feels like something that chooses you. That said, I have always loved telling stories. I first decided I wanted to write a book when I was in 2nd grade. I tried my hand at fiction in 3rd grade (oh man, it is sooooo funny and dramatic!). In junior high, I wrote a soap opera in a notebook that I passed around to my friends, and in high school and college, I focused on poetry.

There are two things that writers have to do to develop their skills, no matter what age or writing-level they are at:

  1. Read. Fiction, non-fiction, in your genre and outside of it, with a healthy dose of poetry. Read like it’s your job. No, read like it’s your air.
  2. Write. It sounds silly, but just like with anything, practice is how we improve. This is true in sports and art and public speaking, in how to be a good listener, how to perform illusions, and how to train for a marathon. You have to write, write, write– and you will likely have to write a lot of crappy stuff first. But do it. Expel it. Get that time in on your training-wheels first.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to develop one’s writing! Advice/critique/feedback/workshopping (whatever you want to call it) is critical. And you can learn about techniques like metaphor and what sounds are most satisfying to the human ear and how to manipulate your readers’ emotions (manipulate is such a harsh-sounding word, but most fiction readers go into a book hoping for this!). Two of the books I listed above– The Emotional Craft of Fiction and The Anatomy of Story– are craft books that get into the nitty-gritty details.

But at any (and every) stage? Read and write.

What do you do (or tell yourself) when you are unmotivated to write? Are you ever overwhelmed with how much work it takes to write a book?

First of all, YES, I often get overwhelmed with how much time and energy goes into writing a full-length work of fiction. In fact, in college, I focused on poetry partly because a poem can be so short, whereas fiction is such a big undertaking. But that’s why I have to take a novel one word at a time, one day at a time, and why I have to split it up into about one trillion smaller tasks or, as Anne Lamott would call them, “short assignments.” (I actually do call them short assignments on my to-do list!)

When I am unmotivated to write, I go back to my lists. I either choose one small assignment I am excited about or, sometimes, I might not even be excited about it, but I tell myself, “Just 20 minutes. See what happens in 20 minutes.” In both of these cases, my wheels usually get spinning and three hours later I am sad to put the manuscript away for the evening.

How much of writing is intuitive?

10000 hoursGosh, I don’t know. Sometimes the things that feel so intuitive to me are the things my writing group and editor hate the most. Sometimes, though, those things are a stroke of brilliance– and not even a brilliance I can attribute to myself. When ideas like that come from nowhere, it truly does not feel like I deserve credit. For someone like me, whose spiritual life encompasses all other parts of my life, I can see God at work in my writing. I think, if one has read a lot of great literature and one has put in hours upon hours of writing practice (Malcolm Gladwell says you need to practice 10,000 hours to gain expertise in any field), that intuition is going to be built in you. And if you add an outside influence into that? Mmm.

What’s the most important part(s) of preparing a book for querying?

Every part.

If we are talking fiction here, the manuscript must be as polished and perfect as it can be prior to querying. Along with that, you have to write a query letter that is intriguing, plays by the rules of the agent, and ends up in the right agent’s inbox.

Have any inspiration for young writers or those just getting started?

Yes! I love this:

iraglass-sawyerhollenshead

Have other writing-related questions for me? Click here to ask me anything! 🙂

Bird by Bird, Buddy

I’ve been actually scared of writing, fearful of my manuscript, avoiding it at all costs. Some days it’s hard for me to understand how this could have happened: that I have learned to fear that which I once loved.

But deep inside, I know that I still love writing. It is all the other things that have added fear into the mix: deadlines, critique, even– in some ways– being paid for it.

Again and again, I have had to return to the advice of writing guru Anne Lamott: bird by bird, short assignments, shitty first drafts.

Bird by Bird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Short Assignments

“Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.”

Shitty First Drafts

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

And with that said– or remembered– I’m off to work on my novel. Think of me.

Love,
Jackie

P.S. If you haven’t read Bird by Bird, man, are you missing out: get it here.

guts over fear.jpg

So, you want to be a writer?

I got these great questions from a reader/Twitter pal/friend for her school project, and I thought people might have some interest in reading the responses. Just in case, I’m pasting them below!

1. What do you like most about your job and why?

Hearing from readers who were impacted by what I’ve written is always a highlight. It’s one of the main reasons why I write– in the hope that my stories will resonate with readers and make them think. It’s also fun when you get into a great writing groove and hours fly by like seconds. It’s so satisfying to enjoy what you’ve written.

2. What do you like least about your job and why? (Maybe revising? 😛 It’s not very fun!)

The middle part of writing a novel is probably the hardest part. The beginning is fun because you’re charging toward an idea, and the final touches are great too because you’re perfecting everything. But when you’re in the middle, it’s too early to see the finish line– plus, you’re too far past the starting line to easily change course. I can get a little crazy and sad during the middle of writing a novel– for me this is usually drafts two and three.

3. How did you decide to get into the writing field and how did you enter the field? What alternative ways could someone enter the writing field?

I’ve been a storyteller since I could speak and a writer since I learned my letters. I wrote all through junior high and high school, then studied writing in college.

There is no specific requirement to being a writer except to write well. Some people can do that without extensive training. For me, I studied creative writing as an undergraduate student, where I focused mostly on poetry. After college, I took a little break from writing before diving in to writing my first (unpublished) novel. The vast majority of stories about how people got published are the same: write a great book, write a great query letter, secure an agent, and let the agent secure a book deal. I have writer friends who never finished high school, and I have writer friends who have an MFA in writing, so there’s a wide range. It’s critical to spend lots of time reading incredible literature; this is an education in itself!

4. What training would you recommend for someone who wanted to enter this field now? What skills and background are needed to get into this field now?

As I mentioned above, there is no specific education necessary, although many find a college degree in writing very helpful (at least I did!). It helps to be an avid reader and someone with a great imagination. The writers I know are fascinating people who are usually fascinated by the world.

5. What is the salary range for a person in this field? Entry level to top salary? (I know that’s kind of a funky question, particularly for authors!)

When an author gets published traditionally, he or she is given an advance, which is a sum of money paid to the writer from the publisher upfront. The author then tries to “earn out the advance” in royalty sales; after earning out, all the royalties (minus the literary agent’s cut) go to the writer. Advances have an incredible range. One author might get a $5000 advance. One might get $2 million.

6. What personal qualities do you feel are most important in your work and why?

Since I identified as a poet before identifying as a young adult author, it’s really important to me to have great imagery and strong diction in my stories. Characters are of the utmost importance to me, as they are for many or most writers. I find that writers who write contemporary stories sometimes especially rely on characters, since our books have to build their own “magic,” as opposed to, say, a fantasy novel which might have “real” magic in it. Not to discount characterization for ANY writer. It is, in my opinion, the most important part of any great story.

The other things that I like in books (and try to include in mine) are opportunities to learn and encouragement to think.

7. What are the tasks you do in a typical workday? Would you describe them?

I work a day job (as most young writers do) from 8 to 4:30; then I go home, eat dinner and relax a little bit before I retreat into my home office to write. Some days this looks like generating material; some days this looks like revision; some days this is research; some days this is plotting. There are so many parts of writing a book that are not actually writing. Research takes up a lot of my time. My current work in progress takes place on an island; I spent a whole evening researching boats in the Pacific Northwest just so that I could write one convincing paragraph! But it’s worth it. Details matter! I will usually write from about 7-9 pm, although if things are going well, I will keep working till 10, 11, or midnight. I try to get 7-8 hours of sleep or else I screw everything else up. I also keep a process journal while I write too, in which I brainstorm, sketch ideas, plot, and the like.

8. What types of stress do you experience on the job?

EVERY KIND OF STRESS. Will my agent like this? Will my editor like this? Do I like this? Will it sell? Will I make money? Will I earn out my advance? How do I make sure this character changes enough by the end of the book? Will this story matter to people? AM I A FRAUD??

Plus, there’s a fair amount of public speaking, but I don’t mind that. I know a lot of people do though!!

9. What types of people survive and do well in the writing field?

People who persist. I’m not even joking. Many of the writers you know and love and whose books are on your shelves often wrote another book or two that didn’t get published before one finally did. It’s hard to pour yourself into a project for four or five years, only to have it not get an agent … then to turn around and just start a new project. Writers hear a lot of NOs before that one YES changes things.

This also applies to the writing itself. I use the phrase “show up,” and by that, I mean the actual hours of work put into a project. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by a project the size of a novel, and sometimes that fear is crippling. But showing up every day– putting in an hour or two or five of real work– keeps you moving toward your goal. You have to show up and persist in order to succeed at writing.

10. Are resumes important in getting a job? (or I guess query letters? :P)

The query letter is the key to getting a literary agent, and the literary agent is the key to getting a book deal. Query letters are, for novelists, a whole different type of writing. You spend years with a creative hat on, then need to put on a business/marketing hat to write the letter. A good query will only go so far though– the manuscript has to also be solid!

11. What are the opportunities for promotion? (another weird question for a writer, but it was in the book)

This looks different for different writers. “Moving up” might mean selling more books– or getting a higher advance– or going on a book tour– or having your book be optioned for a movie. Every writer has their own idea of personal success. Making the New York Times bestseller list. Getting starred reviews. Being a keynote speaker at a conference. It all depends.

12. Is the field of writing expanding or taking new directions?

I see writers taking tremendous creative risks lately, and I love it. Plus, there is the whole avenue of self-publishing, which is open to anyone now with things like Kindle Direct Publishing. Trends are constantly changing in the world of novels– best not to hop on trends: they will be long over before your book makes it to print.

13. What related occupations could I research?

Being a literary agent or an editor (for a publishing house or freelance. Copyediting. Public relations. Creative writing instructor. On the other side of the spectrum, technical writing. As I mentioned, most new writers work a “day job” in addition to their writing. If you have a degree in English, you have a lot of options you can go; such a degree teaches you to communicate well and think critically, and every employer wants that!

14. Is there anything else about being a writer that would be helpful for me to know?

It is a roller coaster of emotions. It can be a tough field for perfectionists or people who have anxiety. (But not impossible— I have both!) It’s tremendously rewarding. You spend a lot of time alone, more than you might guess. You have to be okay with things being icky and uncertain for long periods of time– but draft after draft after draft, it all comes together.

Resistance: The War of Art

war-of-art4I had in the past attempted to read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, but I’d been waylaid, I think due to the way he talks about mental illness in the book.

But this time I pressed through, and I really enjoyed it! I listened to the audio book on a long trip for work, and it only took about three hours from beginning to end. I probably could have read it even faster with the book in my hand.

The War of Art is about Resistance. It’s about anything that stops us from getting our creative work done– and about how to overcome it. Pressfield makes an extensive list of things that play into resistance: procrastination, of course, but also sex, trouble, drama, victimhood, self-doubt, fear, criticism, love, stardom. He’s not afraid to add things to the list that you and I would rather keep off it. This was pretty eye-opening for me.

war-of-art

In the second part of the book, he talks about “becoming a pro”– how to overcome Resistance. To be a professional, we need to show up, be prepared, be patient, ask for help, accept no excuses, among other things.

A quick excerpt:

In my younger days dodging the draft, I somehow wound up in the Marine Corps. There’s a myth that Marine training turns baby-faced recruits into bloodthirsty killers. Trust me, the Marine Crops is not that efficient. What it does teach, however, is a lot more useful.

The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable.

This is invaluable for an artist.

Wow. Pressfield goes on to say:

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.

Tell us how you really feel, Steven. 😉

But, honestly, this resonated with me. Writing is a mix of joy and misery; publication too. But what am I supposed to do? Ignore my calling? No. I need to become a pro.

war-of-art3

In the last part of his book, Pressfield talks about muses and angels– he takes the book to a whole other plane, reflecting on how the artist isn’t really in charge anyway. I’m sure he loses a lot of readers here, but not this girl. As a person of faith, I already believe something similar.

All told, this was a fast read and well worth it. In the days since finishing it, I’ve been able to recognize areas of Resistance in my life and to deal with them accordingly. Great, thoughtful book.

Doors Closed, Doors Opened

Hi friends. I’m having a bad, hard day. One where it was a battle to even climb out of bed, and in fact, one where I didn’t climb out of bed till early afternoon. Things have been going much better with my sleep since meeting with the insomnia doctor two weeks ago, but then I have a day like today, and I feel like a failure.

I know I’m not a failure. But there’s still this weird shame for me to not be able to get out of bed. I feel like I let everyone, including myself, down. But I’m trying to show myself grace. So I decided to look through my goals for 2016 and see where I’m at. Even though I know that I have not met most of them, I still feel good about my progress.

collage photos of doors on the old districts of Europe

Behind Door 1: a final manuscript of Salt Novel 

I have finally gotten back in the groove of writing. I am writing every day and loving it. I feel like that hadn’t happened yet in 2016. Eight months in, I have found a rhythm. I feel good about what I’m writing. I want to write. I am sitting down every night to do the hard, fulfilling work of wrestling through a manuscript and its issues. I am solving them as I encounter them, giving myself time and grace to find solutions. I have hope that this novel might be really special.

Behind Door 2: a first draft of my next novel.

I realized I already have this. It’s called Yes Novel.

Behind Door 3: three new story ideas, just the bare bones.

I have very thin ideas for Fox Novel, Ivy Novel, and Glass Novel.

Behind Door 4: a writing retreat.

I did this, but very, very low-scale. I usually go to Duluth for around a week each summer, but it just wouldn’t work out with finances and PTO this year, so I did a long weekend in my beautiful home office, and even though it was all brainstorming and plotting and no actual writing during those four days, I ended up about a thousand miles from where I began. It was amazing.

Behind Door 5: a day of creative exploration.

Does it count that I went to a really cool restaurant the other day? I still really want to do this. Okay, I just asked on Quora for some ideas.

Behind Door 6: a pruned TBR shelf, via reading and weeding.

I started off the year STRONG. I was brutal on my TBR shelf and made several trips to Half Price Books. I was also really good at not buying new books unless I really, really, really wanted them and had a gift card. In the second half of the year, I’ve gotten bad again, buying buying buying. Though I am using the library more than I have since I was in high school, so that’s smart! Okay, I am recommitting to being smarter about my book-buying habits.

Behind Door 7: a book of poetry every month.

Not happening. No matter how bad I want it to happen. I’m just not in the right spot to make this a thing right now.

Behind Door 8: a healthier writing lifestyle.

See Door 1! I feel like I’m doing so, so, so much better. Trying to be smarter about writing in small, two-hour chunks instead of killing myself with a twelve-hour writing marathon. Just trying to move forward every day. Reading The Art of Slow Writing was so good for me.

Thoughts

Okay, so I’m not a failure. I’ve plodded through deep waters this year, and I haven’t drowned yet. In fact (if I set aside how low and icky today was), I am on my way toward tremendous health. My OCD is in check. I haven’t needed to see my therapist in months. I am taking real steps to solve my sleep issues and those steps are, for the most part, working. I have healthy relationships. I have a writing project that fulfills me. I have committed to staying in my role in admissions for now and have lots of ideas to improve my recruiting. I’m not a failure. Today was a setback, but those are normal. Back on the horse, Sommers. Forward.

Up/Down

Hey peeps, hope you had a lovely Independence Day weekend! I sure did. I was able to rest and read, plus I put in lots of hours of writing.

I’ve had a lot of UPs lately:

I feel good about my novel outline. I’ve been enjoying writing and doing it regularly. Work is going great. I actually had an amazing and productive day yesterday that reminded me how much I love my job. My friends are so lovely, and so is my family. I had a heart-to-heart with my daddy. My coworkers are so fun and smart and terrific. My fingernails are a pretty pink.

I’ve had a couple DOWNs too:

There is a mouse somewhere in my house who is smarter than my EIGHT traps. There was a storm last night in which my city got three inches of rain in 45 minutes, and some of the rain found its way into my basement. I was not exactly loving homeownership last night, but thankfully, my roomie knew what to do. I have at least one morning each week where I wake up in a depressive funk that is unexplainable except for brain chemistry.

But that’s life, right? I’m feeling good and grateful, and I feel full of ideas and drive (usually) and feel like a sponge with all that I am learning (book research FTW!). I have a long way to go toward my ultimate goals (writing/health/work/etc.), but I’m on the road.

Wave as I drive past!

 

Perspective in Three Parts

I.

I keep letting a piece of my identity wipe out and overshadow the whole rest of my identity.

II.

This is still nothing compared to the old dark days of OCD.

III.

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

— St. Teresa of Avila

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time & books & paradoxes

As many of you regular blog readers already know, I just recently set aside the novel I spent the last 14 months working on and decided to instead focus on a different story.

Today my editor emailed me with a new timeline: Salt Novel will likely be published in summer 2018.

On the one hand, this is such a relief. I’m tremendously grateful for an editor who cares so much about putting out a quality piece of literature that she’s willing to give me the space to make it the best it can be. So many publishers seem to demand a book a year from their authors, and my life is just not conducive to that kind of rushed production. I’m lucky.

On the other hand, one of my writer-friends just announced today his book deal for books #3 and #4. He debuted with me last year. His second book comes out this year. The third in 2017, and the fourth in 2018. And I can’t help but think, Wow, he will have four books out when my second one is published. There’s a little bit of envy there, yes.

I don’t know. I’d love to be prolific, but the stress of producing a book a year doesn’t feel worth it or even realistic for me. I am so glad for the extended timeline, but then I wonder old books isolated on whiteif my career is going to be hampered by it.

Just sounding off tonight. Needed to type up my thoughts. Care to chime in?: do you get antsy when your favorite writers take a long time to write their books? Or do you appreciate it?