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Whatever Happens, Stay Busy.

Happy Thanksgiving, fellow Americans! Hope you’ve been enjoying your leftovers and have a lovely (and possibly lazy) weekend! I cooked the bird yesterday due to the Scotsman being away for work on Thursday, but it was lovely having friends over and even watching of bit of the Macy’s parade online.

I’m about to admit something I’m not proud of. This week, I did what I’ve done the past several years, and that’s listen to the little voice whispering in my ear that the holidays means people don’t really read emails or have the chance to consider them until into the New Year, and that somehow negatively affects me.

Why does this make me worry? Well, in my head, I feel like it’s time where I won’t hear answers, and therefore can’t make progress — but worse is the fear I’ll be forgotten and shuffled into a pile of dustbunnies in the corner, because HOLIDAYS, and therefore, any answers I might be waiting on will blink out of the realm of potential.

Falmouth sunrise
Falmouth sunrise

What a negative viewpoint, right? And how self-centered! I can hear you thinking it. Honestly, I should be focused on my family and making holiday memories rather than worrying about the career goal and dreams I’ve been working toward all these years … right? Or can’t I do both?

I realized after sharing my concerns with a friend how accustomed I am to finding yet more ways to worry about what I’m waiting for. It’s a timely blunder as I’m currently reading Wendy Pope’s inspiring and uplifting WAIT AND SEE.

Every day is a chance to keep up that progress I want to see on my end — and that’s all I can EVER do. So I can’t worry about things like this. It’s out of my control — it was never IN my control, no matter what time of year it is. I’m also reminded again of my favourite read of last year, BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert:

  • You’re afraid somebody else already did it better. You’re afraid everybody else already did it better.
  • The results of my work don’t have much to do with me. I can only be in charge of producing the work itself.
  • 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 (emphasis mine); you just have to reach them at the right moment. But since the moment is unknowable, you must maximize your chances. Play the odds. Put yourself forward in stubborn cheer, and then do it again and again and again.
  • Whatever else happens, stay busy.

So instead of finding new ways to worry that actually only eat away at the very progress I’m concerned about, I’m spending this weekend doing the things that refuel my tank for the writing that happens throughout the week, and focusing my mind on what I can control. And wishing everyone a hopeful holiday season this year as we look for ways to help others in the days, weeks, and months to come. Roll on, 2017. <3

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Twitter & Missing Out

This year has been a difficult one in a lot of ways, but a busy (in a mostly good way) one, too. Which means I haven’t spent endless hours scrolling through Twitter like I used to.

Gratuitous autumnal Allegany State Park shot of a beaver swimming toward me.
Gratuitous autumnal Allegany State Park shot of a swimming beaver.

This is definitely not an anti-Twitter post – I am so grateful for what it’s made possible! I’ve met so many amazing writer friends and critique partners through Twitter, through contests and writing groups. In fact, I think I’ve met all of my CPs, past and present, through Twitter one way or another.

And the supportive writing community is immense. How encouraging is it to know, as a writer, you can peruse Twitter at any hour of the day or night and find others around the world also writing, editing, struggling with a draft, and celebrating over a finished scene? Even if you’re not interacting personally, hashtags like #amwriting or #amediting or any of the thousands of writing groups out there are such an unbelievable source of encouragement we’re privileged to have access to right now.

However.

Because this has been a really crazy year for me, and because I’ve committed to accomplishing more this year than in years past, I’ve not spent time on TweetDeck and kept up with the fifteen columns I have on there like before. I check in maybe once a day, sometimes once a week, and have a look at my top three lists for a minute, and that’s it. Occasionally I spend more than a minute – just now I scrolled around for about five, and instead of feeling enlightened about whatever topics are being discussed or who ate what for lunch, I felt like I was missing out.

This post is basically me having a stern talk with myself.

It’s not just that I’ve not had time therefore I’m missing all the info-sharing and friendly banter . . .  that’s been a constant for the past year for me. I also felt I was missing out because everyone on Twitter is telling me the good stuff – their book deals, their agent signings, their book tours, their awards, their cover reveals.

I want to keep up with it all, and I want to celebrate with them, but if I don’t religiously check in, I’m sure to miss tons of this news, and by the time I see it, I feel like a jerk for not having commented sooner. And yes, I do feel the temptation to compare where I’m at with their fabulous news. But I just can’t. Life is too short. Life’s too short to spend all of it on social media – but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it. When I do check in, I love seeing what’s making people laugh and what people are excited about. It’s the greatest way to be involved and encouraging and encouraged without even leaving the house, and sometimes, you just can’t.

This is everyone on Twitter celebrating all the good stuff.
This is everyone on Twitter celebrating all the good stuff.

 

This is me.
This is me.

But everyone’s day is different, everyone has different priorities, and if it’s a choice between spending 6 hours editing my current manuscript, getting to the gym, and having dinner with my husband and maybe meeting up with a friend, or being online throughout the day but not meeting my work goals, I have to choose the former.

I wish I had an extra hour a day to spend solely on the long-distance, never-ending conversation. Especially as one who has emigrated from her home country to a new one. The vast majority of my friends are still in the U.S., and I have to be online to be in touch with them. But that’s the struggle (if it’s a struggle – I think it’s also a blessing that we’re *able* to keep in touch across such distance in such an immediate way) that comes with moving around in the world.

All this to say, if you’re anything like me and maybe you’ve been choosing to spend more time on your own work, and on your immediate circumstances, it’s okay to do that, and to not feel guilty. I envy people who seem to be able to do it ALL: get the agent, the book deal, write and edit all day, go to workout classes, spend time with their families and friends, AND get online and have a massive community around them to engage with – daily.

Until I figure out how to fit all that plus sleep and me-time into 24 hours, I have to accept that there are choices to make, and most days – until I get the book deal and need to be promoting, that is (*heh*) – I need to mostly focus on the immediate work in front of me.

Second gratuitous autumnal Allegany State Park shot.
Second gratuitous autumnal Allegany State Park shot.

I know I need to make more time for the online relationships I’ve been grateful to be part of. I certainly don’t want to lose them! But I think social media stress is A THING, and finding that balance between nurturing relationships vs. living solely online and slashing productivity is a real challenge.

If you have any suggestions or tips on how to balance this stuff, feel free to share! 🙂 Until next time x

 

 

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Must Be Nice.

Yesterday at a social gathering, a few people near me were discussing their similar careers and companies. After several minutes of this, one of them — someone I don’t know well but see a few times a month — turned to me and said, “Well, what do you do?”

I have grown to hate this question, and that’s really sad, because I love what I do with every fibre of my being. But experience has taught me that 75% of the time, the response to my answer is not something I’m good at dealing with.

I told this person I’m a part-time freelance writer/editor, and write novels from home, his response was the perennial favourite,

“It must be nice.”

In case you’re thinking he said this in a wistful manner, let me gently nudge you more toward sarcastic with a hint of judgment and a dash of superiority, as he looked around at the other two he’d been chatting with.

It must be nice? What must be nice? That I don’t work a 9-5 job with a respectable paycheck, therefore I live on some kind of perma-holiday?

What I wish people who don’t write or create art knew about those that do is its often thankless. We do it because there’s an overpowering desire in our heart — not for money, or prestige, and certainly not fame — and if we didn’t siphon things out of this well inside us on a regular basis, we would go stark raving mad. Or as my friend and critique partner Megan Peterson recently put it, it would poison our whole being.

“It must be nice” infers we sit around in our jim-jams watching Netflix and letting the laundry pile up around our heads while we’re chugging back beers and covered in biscuit crumbs.

Let me be the billionth writer to say, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

On top of this, his comment was, in a word, degrading. But I suppose if I stepped back from the situation I could say the question reflects on him more than it does on me, or any of us who choose to pursue something that garners very little acclaim or money or, in most circles, respect. For reasons like this — as if we twiddle our thumbs and play Candy Crush (I don’t even know what that is) all day.

Not as if I work my butt off, taking online classes, studying craft books or published novels daily, working with critique partners through their own manuscripts, researching, enrolling in bootcamps and shelling out bucks to get professional feedback as often as means allow.

Not as if I get my heart ripped out after putting it on the page and then having to light it on fire and start over again on a regular basis.

Not as if I get next to no recognition for pursuing this dream that I love and believe will matter someday, and maybe inspire one other person to dream and write and create worlds that they love as well.

It makes me wonder, what’s harder? Working in a field that will always need employees, is guaranteed a nice paycheque, holidays, and a retirement plan? Or putting your heart and soul into a misshapen lump — one that you hammer out day after day, with no one overseeing your work or making sure you’re DOING the work (or making sure you’re taking breaks for your physical and mental health), with no accolades, no guaranteed paycheque, no water-cooler socialisation, very little respect, endless assumptions and suspicions about how you spend your time and your “REAL” motivation, cyclical self-doubt, the desire to change one little word or one entire character from the moment you wake up until you finally fall asleep at night (usually quite late) — all with the hope that one day that lump will become a shining work of art that you’re proud of, grateful to have been able to construct, and hopeful will inspire others, whether through the imagination, the entertainment, or simply the craft used to cobble it all together. Hopeful that the work will someday make it all up to the family and friends who were your moral support from day one.

The answer? I don’t think one is harder than the other. I think people are best suited to one or the other. I’ve been on the 9-5 desk job side of things, with the decent, reliable paycheque and the retirement options and the healthcare package. I know that that is bloody hard work, and most times, work that you don’t actually care about but need to do in order to live.

On the flip-side, another person at this gathering who I know even less well and see maybe twice a year not only remembered that I’m a writer, but asked me how it was going, and encouraged me with supportive comments about my current (positive) set of circumstances. I wanted to hug her. These sorts of responses are few and far between, but I’m beginning to learn not to expect them. And again, that’s sad. But that’s life. What matters is I believe in what I’m doing. I am confident in what I do. I just wish I could come up with a better response in the midst of conversation to people who say, “It must be nice.”

. . . But then, that’s why I’m a writer. Because I can’t come up with this stuff on the spur of the moment as the words are falling from someone else’s lips. They form in my head and are put down on a screen, and edited, and critiqued, and polished, and torn apart, and edited again, instead of coming out of my mouth and lingering on the air, unable to be taken back or fixed.

If that’s my choice, I’ll take it.

And I suppose the best response to this comment is it’s more than nice (and since I’m a writer, I don’t use words like “nice”, right? *grin*). I am grateful to be able to spend the majority of my time doing a job that I LOVE, and will never grow tired of. A job that challenges me every day, and when I face a hint of sarcasm or judgement, it only works to remind me that despite what anyone else thinks, I’m not going to give up.

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“So, any luck in the job department?” or how failure is making me see what matters most.

IMG_3529
Under the Golden Gate, March 2013

This month isn’t turning out quite how I hoped. When does it ever?

I planned on a 3-week online course on women’s fiction, but unfortunately this was cancelled the day it was meant to begin (the day after I booked it), so I had to re-think my use of this month’s writing time.

This weekend I’m attending the Psychologies Writing Weekend put on by Writers & Artists at Bloomsbury in London. I’m really excited as it’s my first foray into writers’ conferences (though I do wish I had a buddy going with me!). I’m looking forward to meeting other writers and getting a chance to do some workshops. I’m also attending a live webinar with literary agent Kate McKean entitled “How to Submit Your Book To Agents.” It’s on May 2nd if you want to join me! 

All that to say, most of my time has been devoted to writing. I can’t lie. I graduated in June 2010, and I’ve been endlessly applying for jobs, interviewing, and trying to network since then. A few contracts here, an internship there, but it is has been, without a doubt, the biggest anticlimax of my life.

Why? Well, when you return to university as a mature student — in a foreign country, to boot — you’ve by that time built pretty high expectations and demands of yourself. You’ve missed chances and been unable to focus on one thing in the past, so when this amazing opportunity comes around to make something of yourself, you want perfection. I’ve said it before on here. I worked my butt off to do the best I could on that degree, and some might’ve suggested I put too much pressure on myself, for things that, in the grand scheme of things, haven’t mattered so much. But I did it to prove to myself I could, and whether you scoff at a Film BA or not, getting that 1st is the thing I’m most proud of.

I didn’t expect to meet my future husband before my course even began, let alone that he would be someone who already had his act together (certainly not been my previous experience!). My plan of moving to London and living in a cardboard box until I got a proper job in film died an early death, for a variety of reasons, mostly practical.

If only my path were this clear.
If only my path were this clear.

I’ve had interviews at some fantastic companies and organisations, and been told countless times, “You were this close!” and “It was between you and one other person.” The number of times the door has been shut, slammed, or locked right in my face is just unbelievable, especially for someone who never interviewed for a job she wasn’t offered in the past. All this time I thought a degree would be the key, along with the work I put into it and work experience, etc.

Nope. God has had other plans. I can’t say I understand them, but life throws you surprises and you have to accept them, no matter how unbelievable. And when I say I’ve been applying everywhere, I mean everywhere. Jobs I’m totally overqualified for that I’ve dumbed down my CV for, jobs that I’m underqualified for that I’ve aimed for anyhow, jobs I’m perfect for either in an industry I care about or not, and still, every door has been closed.

Do I know why? Nope. My name? My nationality? My age? The economy? All these things? Or just that God has another plan?

I read a devotional email today that said in all our struggles and fears, it’s vital we yield to God. When I’m weak, He is strong. I’ve prayed many times, Your will be done. Whatever it is You want me to do, and to want, I want it. Show me how.

But I’ll pray it again today, and every day. I want to do what God wants me to do, just so I’m finally at that place in my life where I’m confident in my path. I felt confident at uni, but that had a countdown that expired on the day I graduated. It was a shadow of the real thing.

Writing has been the one thing that’s been consistent in my life since I was young. I’ve always had stories flowing out of my head onto the screen, and the more I learn about writing and publishing, the more I write and read and talk with others about it, the more I feel confident that if nothing else in all this struggle, God’s given me this passion, bigger than any other one. I can’t ignore that, and if people look at me and say, “Why doesn’t she have a job yet? What’s wrong with her? Is she just irresponsible and lazy? She must not really want it, I have to remind myself that their opinions and judgements aren’t relevant. I have to stop worrying about that.

My closest friends know how hard and frustrating this time has been, but they also encourage me to use the time not spent applying for jobs on writing. To those friends, thank you for believing in me, and not making me worry you think I’m lazy, or ridiculous, or irresponsible.

Words cannot express how exasperating, how humiliating, and how confidence-destroying these last few years have been. But if they’ve taught me anything — once I look past the self-doubt — it’s that the thing we have passion for, the thing we don’t feel we’re wasting time doing, whether it pays into a pension or not, it nurtures the spirit to do it. So I will keep writing, learning, networking and reading because it’s the one arena in which I feel I truly belong.

This is a mighty long post, and if you’ve gotten this far, thanks for hanging in. It felt like time for reflection again on what’s been going on. I leave you with some snippets from JK Rowling’s Harvard Speech, which is one of the best things I’ve ever read:

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it.So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

Lacock Abbey, filming location for Harry Potter, June 2006

Why yes, I am wearing an I Love Sirius Black t-shirt.

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What I Learned As A Publishing Intern

This should really be called, “What I was reminded by being a publishing intern,” but I’ll get to that in a minute 🙂

It’s certainly all happening this time of year. NaNoWriMo began two days ago (if you’re involved, let’s be buddies! :)), this is a #WriteMotivation month and yesterday I returned from a month-long part-time internship at Black & White Publishing in Edinburgh. It was a fantastic experience. I’m so grateful to the wonderful staff there for having me!

Edinburgh is gorgeous any time of year.

I’ve worked in three publishing companies in various roles including assistant to director of operations, subscriber services, accounts payable, and QA at two magazine publishers (VoxCorp, Inc., in Nashville, TN; and Future Publishing in Bath) and one book publisher (Walnut Grove Press in Nashville). This was my first chance to get a proper look at how book publishing marketing and submissions work from the other side. It strengthened my desire to work with authors, be it developing stories from the editorial standpoint, or within a literary agency. I was reminded what a competitive industry publishing is, particularly in the UK where there are so fewer companies than in the US.

There were a lot of interesting fly-on-the-wall things I was privy to, such as seeing potential models for a book cover design, marketing techniques, approaching booksellers, book signings (one that I attended, more on that in a future blog), and some seriously delicious gingerbread cookies 🙂

Here’s what I learned from a writer’s standpoint though, as writing is, after all, my biggest goal, first and foremost. So here are a few items that stood out, with regards to submissions:

1. Synopsis: Many people didn’t even include one, despite it being in the company’s submission instructions. Following instructions can win you massive brownie points 🙂 And the synopsis itself – if you can get it down to 2 pages, perfect, because I want to know right away what happens, the overall story arc, and the end – without loads of details or side plots/secondary characters’ lives magnified. Now that I’ve seen how a good, succinct 2-page synopsis can work, I’m determined to shorten and tighten mine. I didn’t fully understand the power a good synopsis can wield until having read dozens.

2. So. Many. Prologues. They do work in some books. In Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, we get a glimpse of Harry as a baby and the characters who worked to get him to the Dursley’s, hinting at so many things to come that we wouldn’t fully understand until future chapters or future books. This worked, at least, for me. This wasn’t called a Prologue, but is simply Chapter 1, and maybe that’s why. It wasn’t forced on me as being outside of a narrative I’ve not yet even entered. On the internship, I read countless submissions with prologues that made no sense to me, even after reading the first 3 chapters. I’m not sure why, but people seem to think that in order to make their story’s present have significance, something external from the main narrative needs to be described. I don’t think this is the case, in most stories, but that’s my personal feeling for it. When you read submission after submission with some Big Things hinted at in an enigmatic setting between characters not mentioned again for over thirty pages, it begins to drag on and doesn’t–in fact–stand out the way an author might think, “I know what’ll catch their eye!”

3. Just bad writing. To put it bluntly, the majority of submissions were full of poor (or missing) punctuation, spelling errors, bad sentence syntax, misuse of apostrophes, and sadly, screwy formatting. Something as simple as indenting paragraphs (and not halfway across the page….one tab’ll do!) can really just put me right off a story. These are such simple mistakes, for the most part. So okay, not everyone is a grammar freak and adheres to all the rules about fragmented sentences or the list of words not to begin a sentence with – but to my mind, this is all relevant to specific context. Things like separating or indenting new paragraphs, learning how to use commas and apostrophes, and not capitalising random words for No good Reason, would put you in the 5 or so percent of manuscripts that are easy and worthwhile reading. A mistake here or there didn’t stand out to me, but when it’s clear someone doesn’t understand the difference between a comma and a period, it’s another on the NO pile.

4. First page – For it to grab me, it either has to:

  • give me a situation or emotions I can relate to/sympathise with;
  • give me an immediately likeable or interesting character (good or bad); or
  • give me an intriguing idea.

Those are three pretty simple ideas, but if you can do one of those three on the first page, I’m hooked. By the end of the chapter, if you’ve done one really well, I’ll keep reading. If you’ve managed all three, even better! I’m taking this and applying it to everything I write from now on. It sounds like, “DUH! Total given!” but reading sample pages over a whole range of genres, that’s the first thing that struck me: why do I care?

Agents harp about this repeatedly on blogs and Twitter. “Why do I care?” Query Shark asks that all the time. So you’ve got a 16-year-old girl with divorced parents, facing the struggles of high school. So what? We want readers to care about our story immediately. There’s no point in saving all the goods for Chapter 4. The slushpile reader/agent/publisher may never get that far. Give me one thing, even the tiniest glimmer of appeal, and I’m good.

Most of the pages I read had a first page, or even chapter, that was like reading a newspaper article. Just the facts, ma’am.

“John Doe worked in the city, and had a beautiful wife and three kids named Sue, Pete, and Bob. Bob liked to play with tanks, Sue was good at swimming, and Pete preferred to watch TV. John’s wife, Anna, worked in accounting and was considering retiring early. On Saturdays, the family often….”

You get the point. Snoozeville. And I was shocked at how many submissions were like this. Most of them. I feel bad being critical at all, as a writer myself. Believe me. The first few days of the internship, I wanted to give every single writer whose submission I read a huge hug and a box of cookies, and sit down with them and say what I thought. It’s not that I’m any expert by any means, but it certainly made a few well-worn writing tip-cliches come to life for me. By the internship’s end, I was feeling like a lot of writers out there sit down to write a story when they’ve read maybe 3 books in the past 5 years. Because it seems easy. Because they can do it from home. Because their brother-in-law said they’d be good at it.

Emailing rejections was hard, but I think I have a better appreciation for what agents/editors deal with. I can understand completely now why my first sets of queries were totally ignored. Something really needs to stand out, and what that is will obviously be different for different readers. Another intern was working at the same time as I, on different days, and some of the things she liked, I thought were boring or needed more work than was going to be practical. And vice versa, no doubt. But some things just stand out immediately. The author might rely on a key phrase or two too often, or might have a few grammar ticks to be made aware of, but overall, you know right away whether you feel confident in the author’s ability to lead you through this believable world.

Princes Street at night

One author compared himself to Steinbeck, Douglas Adams, and Dickens in his cover letter. It can be helpful to be told up front what sort of readership you might appeal to, but there are good ways and bad ways to go about this. I’ll leave it to you to guess how I felt about this way 😉

Well, that’s my long-winded roundup. It was a worthwhile and lovely experience, I met some great people, and really feel like I gained an insight into how a smaller publishing company works. From the writing side, it was just good reading experience. They always say that reading everything you can get your hands on is integral to being a successful writer. I read genres I never go near, stories I’d never have picked up, and it all opened my eyes. So, thank you, Black & White! And I hope some of those submissions I read get their time in the limelight they so definitely deserve 🙂

Monday I’ll be back to blogging about #WriteMotivation and my NaNo progress (such as it is, so far), using Meredith McCardle’s borrowed questionnaire to log where I’m at in the process 🙂 If you’re doing NaNo, I wish you success this month!

I’ll also be holding a blog giveaway contest after reviewing one of Black & White’s titles in the near future. And the lovely Alexandra Diane has tagged me in a blog hop, so I will get to that, too (sorry for being late!) Busy month! 🙂

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