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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

Reflection on my 2-Year Anniversary of My Book Deal

So, today is not actually the anniversary of my book deal. That was two days ago. But today is the day that I announced it on social media. And while congratulations and accolades were pouring in from all over, I was experiencing my first panic attack.

I’m still not sure if I should call those experiences in late 2013 panic attacks. They were certainly brought on by panic. And they were certainly extremely physical. If there’s a better way for me to label it, please let me know.

It’s weird to look back on it now. On this day in 2013, I talked to my beloved editor for the first time. It was a wonderful call. She told me how much she loved my characters and my story, how excited she was to work with me. And then, she mentioned– almost in passing– such a significant change to my story that, later that night, I experienced the most visceral, physical reaction I’ve maybe ever gone through.

Just another reminder how much social media lies. In my memory, I was replying to comments about how excited I was– while I was sobbing in my apartment, praying my guts out, my heart racing, my mind racing, everything racing.

This pattern would unfortunately continue for a few months. Finally, I talked to my psychiatrist about the panic, about how I wanted something– anything– that would reduce the physical reaction. That’s when I first got my prescription for Ativan (Lorezapam). I continue to take this very sparingly, usually just a few times a month, though sometimes more than once in a day.

This also prompted me to go back into therapy. I started meeting with Amanda, my darling therapist, who has been a voice of reason, a true supporter, and– best yet– someone who legitimately likes me. I am still meeting with her, although now it’s about once a month, whereas we used to meet once a week.

And here’s the thing: I survived. I learned how to communicate with my editor. I learned how we are partners. I took nearly all of her suggestions– but I held out on that one, the one thing that caused that first night of extreme panic. And in the end, I can truly say that I love my novel. I’m so happy with how it turned out, so proud of it.

I’ve learned such a tremendous amount about publishing and writing and myself over the last two years. And I’m not ashamed of the Ativan or of the therapy; how could I be ashamed of getting myself help when I recognized I needed it? I’ve learned how to partner with an editor. I’ve learned how and when to disagree with an editor. I’m a better, smarter person and a better, cleverer writer and have a better, clearer understanding of my emotional and chemical make-up.

The last two years were some of the hardest of my life. But some of the best.

Being a Creator is Uncomfortable

Writing a novel is a long, difficult journey full of emotions. Some days I’m thrilled with my work; some days it disgusts me. Sometimes I feel a sort of writer’s high; often I am in a slump.

But amidst all the join and pain of writing, I experience this level of … discomfort. Discomfort is probably the best word for it.

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I’ve been thinking a little bit about it, and I have a few random thoughts. Do you care if I use bullet points? Thanks.

  • My discomfort stems from having something incomplete. I understand that the nature of creation is that something is being created and that likely doesn’t happen in a moment. But I hate having messy drafts. I want to know that if I got hit by a bus today, something could still be done with my manuscript. (Gruesome much, Sommers?)
  • I think this discomfort is a huge reason for how driven I am in writing. I go into beast mode as I write and revise. And it’s all because I want to get the manuscript back to a modicum of order.
  • Does this say something about my innate desire for order? Maybe. (Though you would not think that if you looked at my bedroom. #tornado)
  • I’m thinking about God creating– some think he made the world in a literal six days (and rested on the seventh), some think those days are just metaphors, some think there is no God. But I’m intrigued at the idea of him hammering through all this creative work and then finally getting a chance to rest. Sometimes I feel that way too. I have to get this work done before I can properly rest and recover.
  • I understand that I need to learn to live with this discomfort. It’s been the major lesson of my adult life: learning to embrace uncertainty, learning to stay knee-deep in discomfort until I acclimate. I am trying to stretch these lessons to my creative life. I tell myself I only need to revise 1000 words a day … but then I barrel through and do 10k because I can and because it’s uncomfortable and because I want to get things back to good. But how much more will I learn if I stay in the discomfort? I don’t know.

Just some thoughts for you. Would love to hear if these ideas prompted any reaction in you.

Thanks for being lovely.