Pitching Helped Me Focus

A bit dusty around here, right?

I was away for 5 weeks in late March-April-early May, and it made this year start to fly, but also kept me off the internet. I missed a ton of #WIPMarathon posts, and generally feel like everything in the world happened on Twitter, and now it’s too late for me to catch up. But if I have to choose, I’d rather be living life then reading about it, and in April I was able to attend RT Booklovers Convention in Las Vegas with my sister (also a writer) 🙂  So it’s all good!

Book Fair at RT
Book Fair at RT

I wanted to review the convention but given it’s been a few months now, it feels outdated. I will say that for a first big American convention (since I’m in the UK and it’s not as easy to attend), I had an overall fantastic experience. I got to hang with one of my CPs (the fabulous Jessica Gunn, whose debut, GYRE, is out now), meet and pitch to agents, listen to some great teaching at the pre-con bootcamp as well as a handful of inspiring and motivating panels and workshops.

Look closely & you'll see my husband & sister on the zip wire at the Rio. I did not take part in this event.
Look closely & you’ll see my husband & sister on the zip wire at the Rio. I did not take part in this event.

One of the most memorable was a workshop on prose by Kate Brauning and Nicole Baart, about the sound of language, Latinate versus Germanic words (which I’m ashamed to admit I never considered before — if you want to see how Jane Austen used language to reveal character, check this out), synaesthesia (sense given to something abstract), transferred epithet, and much more.

Pocket Picard checking out Yosemite
Pocket Picard checking out Yosemite
“When you’re tired, you take a nap-a, you don’t MOVE to Napa.” – Carrie Bradshaw

It was a great opportunity to meet other writers at various points in their journeys, published authors, agents, and editors, and I am so grateful I was able to attend. Highly recommended! I appreciated that many of the writing workshops were not genre-specific, and there were a good handful aimed at SFF writers or targeted areas of the craft such as fight scenes.

Maybe the most useful outcome has been honing pitches. I pitched to agents in person for the first time, and I was ridiculously nervous. But after a few workshops and some advice from the supportive writing community around me, when I sat down to work, in about 20 minutes I put together a 3-minute pitch, managing what I hadn’t been able to do ever before: communicate the hook and meat of one of my manuscripts in under 3 minutes, comps included.

I can’t lie. I often struggle to be concise. My first drafts are about 30% longer than the final draft. But this exercise forced me to stamp down on the feeling that I HAVE to mention XYZ about my plot, oh, and this character’s arc, oh, and this bit of world-building, and this theme, and … and … Something just clicked in my head, and I’m confident that if I focus on what I can say in 3 minutes or less, I’ll have boiled down the concept and the hook and can stop right there. For me, it was about what I would say verbally to another person. I always stumbled over elevator pitches to friends and acquaintances who asked what my books were about, but this forced me to see it as a useful strategy for finding the focus of the story and sticking to it, throughout the writing, editing, and pitching process.

After RT, the Scotsman met me in Vegas for a California road trip through Death Valley (beautiful, especially seeing the highest and lowest points within the continental U.S. without moving my feet!), through Napa and down Highway 1, which I never drove all the time I lived in California. Despite the fun travels, this spring was a very difficult time for personal and family reasons, making 2016 the most stressful and challenging year I’ve ever had. It all made me more thankful for my friends than ever — I was able to meet up with seven old friends in California and Vegas, many of whom I haven’t seen in 10 years or more, as well as spend a weekend with both my sisters together. By the time this year is done, I’ll have seen every one of my dearest friends in the same year, which has *never* happened before. I’m reminded how amazing each one is, and that while distance sucks, it doesn’t stop us from picking up where we left off 🙂

I’ve been learning so much, not just about writing and publishing but about myself, where I want to be, and how and who I want to be. It’s a daily struggle, but I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve been able to learn and hopeful that I can implement them to make the rest of 2016 a more joyful and positive time. I think the theme for this year has been cutting away the unnecessary to get to what really matters. Practicing pitching has, in a strange way, helped me focus on what’s actually important in life as well as in my stories <3

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WIP Marathon February Check-In

A few days late. Fashionable, right?

These Falmouth clouds mean business.
Last Report WC For WIP:

59,988 on my WIP, SAPPHIRA RISING.

Current Report WC For WIP:

About 75k for SAPPHIRA RISING, 1,297 for New Story A I just started, and 2,384 for New Story B. I have never written simultaneous novel first drafts before. This should tell you something. (See below).

Writing Issues This Month:

I deleted and I wrote, and I wrestled. I had some amazing (for me) word count days: 4,234 one day, 6,043 another, 5,000 another. I’m really proud of the fact that despite how I’ve struggled with this manuscript like no other, the words came out like water from a faucet. It’s just… they weren’t grabbing me. I loved some of the character ideas and worldbuilding and backstory, but I didn’t feel this pulsing NEED to be in my chair writing it, like I did with my first three manuscripts.

I’m still in love with the initial idea, but the words all felt flat. Usually first drafts are the hardest for me, but I felt like I might as well just take a box of letters and toss them into the air and type out whatever landed and I’d have as deep an emotional connection to it.

Bill Bear, moral support on writing trips.
Bill Bear, moral support on writing trips.

So, I did some soul searching, some crying (and moaning to my lovely CPs) and more crying, and yes, I prayed about this hot mess. Lo and behold, the day after I basically surrendered the story, and writing in general — not given up, mind you, just *surrendered* … as in, if this is not what I should be doing, I’m all ears — the next day, I sat down with a notebook and a pen and told my husband to not let me leave my office until I’d written 5 full pages of brainstorming notes.

He didn’t hold me to that, but he didn’t need to. I wrote three pages, and that was enough to ignite me again. I had a shiny new idea — for New Story A. And I’m super excited about it. But I *also* managed to tease out what I didn’t like about SAPPHIRA, what wasn’t working, and I rewrote the entire prologue and backstory. And now I feel like a new person.

I still have a lot of work ahead of me. Out of that 75k, there are lots of ideas and snippets of dialogue that are salvageable, but I have to face the facts that it was all an exercise in finding the story.

You can't go wrong with the hot chocolate at Gylly Cafe.
You can’t go wrong with the hot chocolate at Gylly Cafe.

I’m a hybrid plotter/pantser through and through. Diana Gabaldon says she doesn’t write in a straight line. She writes what she sees happening, scenes and dialogue that come to her, and figures out where to slot them in as she goes. She does a truckload of research, of course, and this probably feeds into those somewhere-scenes, but I admire her for that. She’s not tied down to must create this in the order it is told on the page.

And why should we be? Maybe some people can ONLY work that way and that’s absolutely fine! But it’s so freeing to see, in practical terms, that this might be how I work best, too. Films are made that way, so why not books? Whatever scene can be practically shot next, whatever makes sense for the production crew and makeup and costume and locations and weather and everything else. So of COURSE books can be written the same way. It seems so simple, now that I’ve experienced it, and it gives me a kind of freedom I hadn’t expected.

All that to say, this is my first experience of writing so many words that I’m not keeping. I’ll open two Scrivener windows and as I go, see what bits I can save, but this isn’t about editing those 75k. It’s a fresh start. That’s really hard for an impatient person like me who feels like she’s been waiting a hundred years to find her agent and publisher and see a book of hers on a shelf. But that emotional connection is so critical. And I’m grateful to have found it!

Things I Learned About Writing This Month:

1) I can write more than one story at a time. In fact, switching gears actually seems to boost my creativity.

2) I can write short stories! At least, one! I took a Lit Reactor class with Richard Thomas and he managed to coax out of me my first ever completed short story! I used it as an exercise to flesh out backstory of a side plot in A SIGHT OF NEVERSEA, so it wasn’t completely new ideas, but it’s just over 4k and I’m stunned I managed to do it.

3) I learned that I can edit like a BOSS. While I was doing all this writing this month, I also managed to cut … wait for it … 5,000 words from one manuscript, and close to 4,000 from another. And that wasn’t cutting “unnecessary side plots” because I don’t think I have any of those left. That was cutting redundant phrases and adverbs. And wow. Does it make a difference.

4) Check out this post Chuck Wendig put up, if you haven’t already. He talks about simplicity in writing. It’s really perfect. But here are the highlights that spoke to me:

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 7.21.51 pm Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 7.22.00 pm

What distracted me this month when writing:

The fun stuff: I got a new tattoo! My first in about 11 years. And my first not with my friend’s husband who’s an amazing artist in Nashville, TN.

The unfun stuff: not knowing if I should carry on. Doubting my ability and my voice, which is the worst thing to doubt because I’ve been writing for the best part of ten years, seriously, and to doubt the way my voice has grown through that time is really painful. My voice will never be for everyone. I just hope and pray that it might be for some. Also unfun was considering trashing SAPPHIRA and moving on, until I reread bits of Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC, like this one which was incredibly apt:

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Goals For Next Month

I’d like to say finish the first draft of SAPPHIRA RISING but due to stuff happening at the end of the month, that’ll be very hard. I would be happy with 10k a week on SAPPHIRA and 5k a week on New Story A. And go from there.

I hope my fellow #WIPMarathon-ers had a successful February! Onwards and upwards!

Facing toward Swanpool in Falmouth.
Facing toward Swanpool in Falmouth.
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We can be heroes

It’s been over a month of the Earth spinning without David Bowie and Alan Rickman still on it, still creating art. I wanted to write about it right away, but it seemed too fresh, and now that time’s passed, I feel like I can better put into words what it’s meant.

Some people say it’s pointless to have “heroes” or look up to celebrities because they’re as fallible as the rest of us; that they’re “nobody special” and I didn’t know them personally nor they me, so why are my emotions involved?

Well, I can take that argument five steps further than most, because I *have* known some of my heroes personally. I dated one of them for half of my twenties. I can tell you that what you think you know about someone whose work you admire may be twenty miles from the truth. But what I can also say is, whether you have a real-life connection or not is not the point. The point is the work, and the gratitude you have for that person’s willingness to share it with the world. A person’s work can say different things, specific to each person who receives it. And that’s part of its beauty. That’s part of what makes living beautiful.

Like a lot of people from my generation, I suspect, Labyrinth was my childhood gateway to David Bowie. Still one of my favourite films, partly because my biggest creative hero in life, without realising it for many years, is Jim Henson. Sesame Street and the Muppet Show played a huge role in the kind of person I grew up to be. Sesame Street in the 70s & 80s was *magic* and it taught kids so much. It’s still teaching today. If you ever get the chance, check out Jim Henson’s biography by Brian Jay Jones, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

What Jim did was devote his life to his passion, through incredibly difficult times, through painful rejection on his most beloved projects that he put his entire heart and soul into, and he never gave up. He was also taken from us too soon, though it’s mind-boggling to think he could’ve given more than he did. He drew teams of other visionary artists around him, and they made worlds of education and love and storytelling come alive. People toss around the word “legacy” with little consideration for its weight, but Henson, Bowie, and Rickman truly have left us their legacies.

So Labyrinth was a big deal for me, and Bowie was genius casting. He was Jareth. He was a goblin king of both light and dark, unafraid to face both sides and question each. As I got older and played in bands, one band covered Ziggy Stardust, and our guitarist gave me the album as a present (thank you, Jeremy). I was enthralled. It had taken me that long to dive into Bowie’s music, and as trite as it sounds, he truly lives on in it. He’s not gone from this planet. He’s here for as long as we are.

If you missed it, another of my heroes, my favourite actor Gary Oldman, gave the most perfect and moving tribute to Bowie at the Brit Awards, along with Annie Lennox. I don’t think anyone could put it into better words than these two.

And Alan Rickman. Another of my favourite actors, This was such a hard week and I think I must have said, “No, that can’t be right,” in utter confusion for several minutes when scrolling through headlines. I loved Alan’s work since Die Hard, from music videos to personal projects to Hollywood blockbusters, to Snape, to my favourite philanderer in Love, Actually. He was also an artist who gave his everything, not for celebrity or red-carpet moments, but because his soul’s expression was through the characters he brought to life. You could see the passion written on his face. You believed him, every time, utterly. And if you read his quotes in recent tributes, you know he believed his talent was a responsibility. It was serious work, to him. It wasn’t a job – it was a calling in life that he could not refuse or ignore. He knew he had a platform to do good things, and he used it.

The similarity between Bowie and Rickman isn’t just that we lost both during that horrible week; it’s passion. Both reached inside and brought it out with every creation. There was no half-assing. They could do nothing BUT give us their all.

So why do I look up to the people I call my “heroes”? If they’re fallible and imperfect like the rest of us, and they just happened to be born with drive and talent and innovative minds, and they got money and fame in exchange for doing it, why do I look up to them?

Because they didn’t stifle their creative voice. They did something with it that’s inspired me to share my own. There are hundreds of pop songs, fun books, films, TV shows, theatrical shows, and actors I enjoy immensely — but there are only a *handful* of creative people I call heroes. They’re the ones who bring me true joy, who make me feel alive, whose work shows me something important about life. They’re the ones who’ve inspired me to live better, work harder, create more, and not give up on my own passion.

We all have passion inside us for something, but sadly, I don’t think we all chase it as though our life depends on it. These two did, and I’m grateful to God for it.

“A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.”
– Alan Rickman


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#WIP Marathon — January!

Last report word count:

When last I left my WIP, SAPPHIRA RISING, I was at about 20k, with a load of backstory and character arcs written out on top of that…

Current word count:

…but, somehow, despite feeling not *fabulous* about my progress in January — you know, berating myself for too many breaks, too many internet black-holes, not enough consistent daily habits — I somehow managed to get the WIP up to a whopping 59,988!

If this t-shirt would suit you like it would me (though I did a film degree, not English. Sentiment’s the same!) …


… then to help you out 😉 that means I somehow got almost 40k done in January! WOOHOO! Not including all the other stuff I wrote that WASN’T this WIP.

WIP Issues This Month:

I’ve been away from this WIP for since early summer, busy on other manuscripts and online writing classes. I realized the truth in something Delilah Dawson said in her LitReactor class on world building back in Nov/Dec. As I mentioned last month, she said she sees first drafts as carrying hot laundry from the dryer. You need to hold all of it tightly and walk as fast as you can. If you drop stuff, you have to go back and find it. If you go too slow, it gets cold.

I loved this analogy, but this month, I recognised its applicability. I let this WIP go cold, and as a result, had to work really hard to find any spark in it. I should have written it when the idea first came, but my writing brain was occupied by other stuff. I’m not 100% back in love with the original idea, but at least after January, I can say I’m rolling out the words again, and maybe a *new* spark for me — for this story — will ignite.

And as for first drafts, these two recent tweets spoke to my soul. Maybe you can relate, too:

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 2.14.38 pm
Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 2.14.16 pm

That’s the best way I’ve ever seen to summarise first drafts:

“Here’s the worst version of this scene I could write. Moving on.”

That should be my aim. In fact, I want to write that on a Post-It and stick it to my monitor whenever I’m first-drafting.

Four things I learned this month in writing:

Apart from the above, there’s also everything I read in Elizabeth Gilbert’s rad book, BIG MAGIC. Walk, do not run, to your nearest bookstore or Amazon and buy this book. I’ve never read EAT, PRAY, LOVE nor anything else by her. But this book picked me up from a dark place and put me on my feet. And each time negative thoughts have encroached on my flow, I’ve gone back to highlighted passages. I went to a café and copied all the best bits into the back of my daily planner, so they’re there, with me, all the time. Reminding me.

One of my favourites:

“The ones who stand at the gates of our dreams are not automatons. They are just people. They are just like us. There is no neat template that can ever predict what will capture any one person’s imagination, or when; you just have to reach them at the right moment. But since the moment is unknowable, you must maximise your chances. Play the odds. Put yourself forward in stubborn cheer, and then do it again and again and again.”

(emphasis mine).

What distracted me this month while writing:

David Bowie. Alan Rickman. The days we learned of the deaths of these two wonderful artists, I felt physically hit by a wave of loss. I’m writing a very belated blog post about this that I’ve not put up yet. That was an extremely emotional week, especially given of course that I didn’t know either personally, and I can’t begin to imagine what their families and loved ones are going through now. I’m just another fan and appreciator of all they did. But wow. I hadn’t expected the impact.

On the bright side, I dove into Bowie’s music and Rickman’s work with renewed love, and am inspired more than ever.

Gylly Beach, Falmouth, Cornwall
Sunrise on Gylly Beach, Falmouth, Cornwall

On another bright note, I then went to Falmouth, Cornwall for another writing retreat for five entire days. (I know, right? I’m trying to enjoy it while I can). I got a lot of thinking, reading, and writing done, so while this could have been a major distraction, the weather was decent enough that I got out for seaside walks but didn’t sit lost in people-watching all day. I actually sat in my closet of a hotel room most of the time, pounding away at the keyboard.

Goal for next month:

I’d hoped to get 50k written in my WIP during January, but since I got almost 40k + a few thousand on two separate stories, plus my first completed short story ever (4k) through a 2-week Lit Reactor class with Richard Thomas on short story mechanics, I’m absolutely thrilled with my progress so far in 2016. Praise God.

So for February, I’d like to finish my WIP first draft, and finish the edits on my last MS that I thought were long done. But no. An adverb hunt led from one thing to another. It’s amazing how in love you can grow with the adverbs that have been in your story since the beginning. You feel like they’re part of the DNA. I’m here to say, THEY ARE NOT. CUT. Cut the ones you don’t need! I’m leaving in a few that I think are integral to the tone, mostly in dialogue. I don’t think you need to cut them all, but just try it. Cut out an adverb you’ve been clinging to for months, and then re-read the entire paragraph, and come back and tell me it doesn’t sound cleaner, neater, more elegant. 🙂

Last 250 words:

This is so very first-drafty. But I haven’t done it in awhile, so here’s something.

“Fretting doesn’t suit you, Charon,” came Galen’s voice from the tank. “And it’s unnecessarily. It’s my fault. I told you people on Staffa were after me. I stole tech from Staffa when Arthur was still alive. He required help with a project, and that was the easiest source for the parts he needed. I got them, but not before being ID’ed, and banned from entering this sector. They only discovered it was me four years ago, but when they did, they had my commanding officer inject me with tracer fluid.”

“So if you flew in this sector, an alert would go up. Great. But why the hell did this affect Sapphira just now? What’s going on?” Jericho stood and leaned over the tank, glaring down at Galen’s face.

Galen sounded like he might shrug if he was attached to a body. “I went rogue, shortly after.”

“I can understand why,” said Charon.

“But why Sapphira?”

“I suspect those on Staffa raised an energy field when the tracer fluid set off alarm bells. The timing of the field raising must have coincided with your download of my memories back into my brain. This set off a reaction, like static electricity, only much more powerful, and as Sapphira was touching me . . .” His voice trailed off. “Also, you’ll find this cruiser is unable to pass out of the field.”

“Lovely,” muttered Jericho. “We’ll see about that.” He pulled up a chair to the comm panel and Charon got out of his way. “I’ll see what I can do. Charon, see if you can get that tracer fluid out of Galen’s head. We need to get the hell out of here before his old friends lock on.”

If you’re writing, I hope you have a fabulous and productive February 🙂 The days are getting longer! Hooray!

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Final Check-In for 2015

Hey, Merry Christmas!

I hope you’ve been enjoying a beautiful season. <3

Christmasy Harrods
Christmasy Harrods

This post is both a #WIPMarathon Check-in — the last for 2015 — and my declaration of New Year’s resolutions.

I’ve been the set-and-and-forget-it type when it comes to New Year’s resolutions in the past, but with the best of intentions. Usually it’s a few things I already really want to be doing but just lack the willpower. But I hope that stops here (a resolution in itself!)

Things I’m Glad I Did In 2015: Read more

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