Pants vs. Plans

I am stuck.

This novel…eeeeuuugggghhhhhh.

That’s the sound I make when I’m frustrated.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my novel. I think it has a good beginning and a very strong ending, it’s just that, like almost 35% of people in Mississippi, it has a pretty wobbly middle.

Middles are notoriously hard. I have read many a blog post about the middle. My last instructor, Bill, bemoaned the middle of the novel. I’m starting to think that this is where the real ‘work’ part of writing lies. Beginnings are exciting; you’re introducing characters, the world they live in, the problems they face, and the conflict that arises. Endings are satisfying (to write). You tie up all the loose ends, you get to give your last powerful thematic punch, and then there’s the sense of accomplishment of hey! I finished my novel! 

Middles are messy. It’s where things can get lost or convoluted, or where the writer can change her mind, or where it can all seem so, so idiotic. I reached the middle of my novel on Sunday and since then I haven’t been writing so much as I’ve been doing this:

johnny depp slinky

And we all know how things ended for him (Spoiler Alert: not good).

Now I don’t necessarily have writer’s block, but I have reached some sort of obstacle in my planning. And I am a planner. I’ve been planning this novel meticulously since workshop. I have an outline with holes in it and I don’t know how to fill the holes. I know what I want my characters to realize, I know how I want them to change, I just don’t know how. There are too many options and not enough options all at once and I don’t know what to do.

Up until recently, I was known in writer world as a “panster” (my Mac keeps wanting to change that to ‘panther’ which would be much cooler). This means that I didn’t plot my novels when approaching them. Instead, I just wrote them from start to finish, making it up as I went along, raising the stakes, etc. It was mostly just to get words on the page. And it worked for me. I wrote four novels in three years. Bad novels collecting dust on my hard drive, but still. Novels.

I’m starting to wonder if I should retire the index cards and sharpies until I reach the last part of my novel, the part that I’m sure about, and just write. Planning worked in the beginning because I had to set a foundation, to set the stage for a novel that would take you on a journey with three other characters. It was immensely helpful. Maybe, for my middle, I need to trust my pants more than my plans. This is hard for me. I like to plan. I’m not a big fan of pants. I wear leggings as pants all the time because I don’t like real pants They aren’t as comfortable! I like to be comfortable and plans make me comfortable! WHY CAN’T I JUST PLAN IT AND THEN IT ALL GO ACCORDING TO PLAN?!?!?!

jon stewart paper and frustration

I think I’d be less frustrated if I knew pantsing was going to work. I could pants this thing and then I could still be stuck. Or I could write something terrible that I’d throw out and I will have wasted time. And aren’t you supposed to plan the whole way or pants the whole way and not do a combo of both?! Can I do a combo of both….?

Whatever. I’ll just try it. Who knows, it might help. It might get me un-stuck. At the very least it will show me what not to do.

We shall see I guess.

So here’s to flying by the seat of your pants. I’m out.

Four takeaways from lunch with an agent

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon with a real-life literary agent. This was pretty exciting for me because up until this point I’ve actually never met an agent. I’ve really only ever interacted with them via the internet. Also, I use the term interact loosely. I mostly mean ‘I’ve only read their blog/article/tweet.’

I digress. Sara Megibow was our speaker. She’s an agent who works here in Denver for Nelson Literary LLC. She was a great person to speak because she brought great energy to the hour plus we spent with her. I’m kinda intimidated by agents (they have so much power!), but she is not an intimidating person in the slightest. She obviously loves books and publishing and that shows. I found a lot of what she said to be helpful, but here are my four big takeaways:

1. Publishing the old fashioned way is still alive and well

The big debate (or one of the big debates) in the book world is whether or not self-publishing is the new way to go. Ms. Megibow broke it down for us. It’s a definite option for some people, but publishing the old fashioned way is still alive and well. Agents are important, too. They find you a publisher, obviously, but they also do things like negotiate the ebook, audio, and international rights. And the movie rights (ooo!). They also help get you reviews in those niche publications (or snazzy ones like Entertainment Weekly). When you have a publisher, they take care of a lot of thing “in-house” such as marketing for the book, so you’ve got all those people in your corner, too. There are some pros to self-publishing, but Sara’s obviously still a firm believer in the traditional way. People are making money (not buckets of money, but still) and books are being bought. And hey, it’s working. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

2. The most important thing for your novel to have is a strong narrative voice (bells and whistles be damned)

Some of the questions tossed around were “should my book have ____?” Fill in that blank with whatever trope from Young Adult fiction you want. Love interest? A vampire? A zombie? A sassy best friend? For Ms. Megibow, the answer is ‘no.’ So what does your novel need to have? For her, it’s a well-developed world and a strong narrative voice. Basically, if you strip away all the bells and whistles, is there still a good story? The answer should always be yes.

3. Different strokes for different folks

What works for one agent does not always work for another. Sara was upfront with the fact that she passed of Maggie Stiefvater’s ‘Shiver’ trilogy, which became a bestseller and now she has a pretty good book deal for herself with Scholastic. Sara says she doesn’t regret it though because it simply wasn’t her thing and that Maggie’s success is good for Maggie. An agent can only represent what they really love and since books are totally subjective, not everybody will love everything. So when the time comes to find an agent, you gotta find someone that’s right for you because that’s when the magic happens (this also kinda sounds like dating).

4. Take the time for your craft

So there’s a lot that goes on in trying to get your book published. You have to have the format right, word count, summaries, outlines, query letters, elevator pitches, (you get my drift I think), but it’s also important to take time for your craft. Or simply, take time to just write and improve as a writer. As was illustrated in my second point, it’s the story that ultimately sells. As writers, we should never shy away from dedicating some time to it.

Last but not least, she said something that really stuck with me and made me hopeful (and like I said earlier, you need lots of hope in this process): “the only people who don’t get book deals are the people who give up.”

So on that high note, I’m out.

Now I have to write this thing

Workshop is over! Hooray!

neil and elmo dancing

I so enjoyed it. Aside from the people who have poor workshop etiquette, I learned so much from my classmates, got some great feedback to chew on, and received some encouragement (always helpful to this insecure writer). In even better news, my workshop instructor told me that I’m ready for the more advanced workshop in the fall! In other words, time to play with the big kids.

That starts in August. Like August 19th. I have to have my novel reworked and completed by then.

AHHHH.

bettersheldonwithbag

When I got home (after stopping at the Tattered Cover to treat myself, of course), I sat in my kitchen so overwhelmed that I could barely eat my lunch.

I’m sure some of you are like, ‘Emily, that is two months away and that’s plenty of time. Calm yourself.’

That is very true, time is on my side. But I see that date on the calendar and I’m like ‘I have a wedding and bachelorette parties and vacation and a job and maybe even another job and I’m trying to have a social life so I don’t become a shut-in like Emily Dickinson and do you know how long it takes to write a novel?!

So it will be a bit of a crunch to finish with something that I think is workshoppable (is that a word? Well, it is now), but it can be done. I just had to devise a plan. So I went to my desk, pulled out my markers and fun-colored sharpies, turned on Spotify, and wrote myself a goals sheet and then a weekly task sheet*. This is a little excessive, but I am a born planner. Having a plan calms me down because it enables me to see where I’m going. I can see the big things I have to do as well as all the little things that will help me get there.

I know where I’m going. I have direction. It will all be okay.

There are four BIG GOALS I wrote on my sheet. The first is to write up to the inciting incident**. I then broke out my weekly task sheet and wrote down the scenes I will write each day to get me there. Then I added some other fun things like ‘if you have time, do this’ and ‘when done, reward self with cookie.’

Once I finish that, it’s on to the next one (I get a lot of life advice from Jay-Z). And I just keep going. As the Roommate said the other night, “I don’t know much about writing, but I do know you have to keep going.” Wise words, Roommate. Wise words.

And, hopefully, disasters notwithstanding, I will finish and be ready to workshop and I’ll tackle the next phase…

LIKE A BOSS

I like my encouragement in gif form, too.

On that note, I’ll wrap this up. I have some serious writing to do! Have a great week everyone. I’m out.

*Markers and sharpies make everything more fun. Old teacher habits die hard.
**The inciting incident is the part of the novel that puts everything into motion for the rest of the story. Say the characters are driving down a road and then a skunk crosses their path and from there on out their road trip is forever affected by the skunk. The skunk’s appearance is in the inciting incident because it changes the characters would be trajectories into the rest of your novel. This is a verbose definition, I know.

I need a pick me up

Recently my friend Sarah posted about her reading habits in our book club discussion on Goodreads, and it got me thinking about my own reading habits. I looked back over the previous books I read and the book I’m currently reading and I noticed pretty quickly that all of these books are kinda depressing.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the last book I read (“Cutting for Stone”) very much and I’m enjoying “And the Mountains Echoed” a lot, but talk about stories that break your heart. Oi.

I notice that what I read sometimes affects my mental state. I’m a very sensitive person and if I read something depressing, well, it’ll make me depressed and I can’t have that. This happens a lot when I read something sad at night. I read the sad thing, think about the sad thing while I try to fall asleep, dream about the sad thing, and then wake up thinking about how I dreamt about the sad thing. It’s a sick cycle, I know.

So I am currently on the hunt for things that are not depressing. I’m about to finish a book of essays by Chuck Klosterman, whom I love, and I’m saving the Rembert Explains America installments for then, too, but I need something else.

This is where I turn to the lovely, faithful readers of my newborn blog. Any suggestions for things that won’t make me lie awake questioning humanity/my own personal life? I am open to any suggestions, whether they be fun YA books, lighter fiction, nonfiction, short stories, biographies, poetry, or anything else you can think of. My friends and fellow readers have great taste, so I trust you guys.

Thanks in advance for the recommendations! With that, I’m out.

Three things fellow writers can do to make me not hate you*

Having done a couple of workshops, classes, and even (briefly) been a member of a writers group, there is one thing that I’m reminded of time and time again, at every single class and meeting.

I hate other writers.

Ok, fine. Hate is a strong word. And this isn’t necessarily true.

It’s like when I was a teacher and my students, all of whom I loved, would do something questionable/obnoxious/immature/gross. I loved them, but I didn’t love their behavior.

This is how I feel about the other writers I’ve met. Now I don’t know these writers well enough to love or to hate, but sometimes their actions, words, and general disposition drive me nuts. Like bang-my-head-on-the antique-writers-table nuts.

Before I get on my high horse, I should say some of the people I’ve met in workshop, especially the one I’m currently in, I actually like. They are smart, interesting people who love writing, have fascinating backgrounds and ideas, and are respectful with their feedback. It’s also pretty shallow of me to say I hate them when I don’t really know them. Also not very fair. They may not even like me, after all. I can be pretty annoying, too (I also don’t really care, but that’s a different topic).

And I do have writing friends (i.e. my writing friend Katherine) who are awesome, smart, and lovely and friends who write that are talented (hi Newswire alums!), so I’m not a total hater on other writers. That would be beyond stupid. It’s just those certain writer behaviors….*twitches*

So if you are going into a workshop, class, or writing group, here are three things not to do unless you want people to secretly plot your death.

1. Don’t be a Debbie-Downer

Debbie Downer

Debbie Downer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was in a writers group and sat in on some when I was in Cincinnati and though it’s meant to be a helpful experience of critiquing, it left me feeling pretty depressed about writing. The people in these groups are downtrodden and exhausted. I can’t blame them. Writing is hard and getting published is even harder. It requires plowing through lots of depressing and frustrating things, the biggest and ugliest of them being rejection. A lot of published authors preach the simple ‘just keep working hard and it will all be ok!’ and they do because it worked for them. But, when you’re the unpublished author, it’s beyond frustrating. To think the baby you made and birthed on your computer was a total waste of time? Well, that’s heartbreaking.

But if you focus on all the negatives, they prevent you from going anywhere. They just hold you back. I know well enough that misery loves company and it’s pretty easy to slide into commiserating with people who understand exactly where you’re coming from, but PLEASE STOP. Dwelling and wallowing gets you nowhere, it freaks everyone else out, and it makes you look like you’re just plain giving up, when no one likes a quitter. Or someone who’s complaining constantly. When I hear the whining I want to stop the whiner in the middle of their sentence and ask them, “so why are you doing this again?”

No sane person tries to write and publish a novel thinking that it’s going to be the easiest thing in the world. We sympathize and understand the frustrations from first hand experience, and we don’t need to be reminded of it. It’s not exciting or productive. What is good for you is to discuss new opportunities, ideas, and tips to keep going.

It never hurts to be optimistic. My writing friend Katherine once said in an email that “one day our book will be on a shelf next to theirs” when referencing some things that we enjoyed reading. I loved that sentence and obviously think about it a lot. It’s hopeful and yet not totally outrageous.

2. Be humble

This is a hard thing for writers to do, especially when we rely so heavily on ourselves for our livelihood. Humility is something that I think about a lot, especially in classes and in workshop. In my previous class one of my fellow classmates actually said the phrase, “well I am just so creative.” Rage boiled inside of me. No shit you’re creative, so is everyone else in this class or we wouldn’t be here! Also, I am a firm believer that everyone is creative in some way or another (there’s the former teacher coming out in me), or as my friend Brock puts it, everyone has an art. You being creative does not set you apart from the other nine people in the class.

To quote a sign that hung in the office of my college newspaper for years, “you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the other people in my workshop or former classes or groups were talented. They were! It’s just that we are not in class to stroke your ego. We’re in class to be better writers. Check your pretentiousness at the door, people.

I sort of sympathize with my classmate that spoke so highly of herself because she clearly was in search of validation, which I am guilty of searching for as well, but a class is not a place to get it. A class is a place to learn and get better as a writer because even though you may have that special spark of creativity, you shouldn’t go into a class thinking you know everything. That is a huge lie and you will get nothing out of the class if you think you are special because you can craft a sentence like Hemingway, or you have an agent, or you finished a novel, or anything like that. Go in with a blank slate, learn, and apply what you learn to the best of your abilities. If you are a willing learner and participant in class, validation will come along without having to search for it. I figured that one out on my own. Also the desire for that validation will get smaller, too.

3. Be respectful of the people in your workshop/class

This is one of those things where you lovely readers might say to yourself ‘really, Emily? You just spent a plethora of paragraphs venting about how you hate the people in the workshop and class. And you definitely used the word hate.‘ This is true, but I do not outwardly express my frustrations to my classmates. I keep my mouth shut like the polite lady I was raised to be.

But when someone in your class is disrespectful to you, then it will make you LIVID as I am right now.

What really blows my mind is that it’s very easy to be respectful in a writing class. Here are some things you can do to be nice to other writers.

  • Listen to what they have to say, especially if it’s something they wrote! If you blow them off it makes you the biggest of A-holes
  • Ask them questions about their work if you are unclear on it. Questions are totally ok!
  • Offer suggestions if you have legit ideas
  • Discuss something you have in common
  • Offer them a recommendation of something they would like

Basically what I’ve learned from workshopping so far is this: it’s about you, but it’s also not about you. You’re there to improve your work and learn new things and get that wonderful varied feedback, but you’re also a part of the workshop as a reader, so you in turn must give that wonderful feedback to the other writers. You have to listen and question and comment and respond. It’s boils down to the Golden Rule, people! Treat other writers the way you want to be treated as a writer. For me, it’s ‘respectfully and with good feedback.’

I am not perfect though. I have to work on this, too, and I am trying. Sometimes I don’t want to pay attention to my fellow writers’ questions because it doesn’t apply to my novel, but when I force myself to, I actually can get something out of their question or get something out of the instructor’s response. Those cliched reasons your third grade teacher listed for listening to others people’s questions still apply when you’re a grown-ass adult in a writing workshop.

So that’s me, on my soapbox, complaining about my own kind. Typical.

Anyways, I should probably go keep my ego in check and get back to writing. I hope none of you think I am a completely terrible person. Trust me, I am only sometimes terrible.

Have a blessed Monday, everybody. I’m out.

*I can use colloquial/Internet slang in my titles. My blog, my rules. So calm yo’selves grammar geeks.

Getting ready to workshop

Happy Monday everyone!

As I sit here at my desk (and it feels great to type that because I’ve been parted from my favorite piece of furniture for far too long), sipping my tea, I am thinking about the week ahead. There’s a nice to-do list for my job, a party on Saturday, and oh! Workshopping!

That faint sound you hear is the sound of my anxiety.

First, I should explain what workshopping is to people who are unfamiliar with the term as it applies to writers. Basically you take the novel you’re working on, you sit in a room with an instructor and a few fellow writers who have all read your work before class, and then they rip it to shreds in front of you. Sounds like fun, right?

Well, sort of. It’s not fun to receive criticism, but as many people will tell you, it’s necessary, especially to improve your work and your abilities as a writer. That doesn’t make it any less nerve-wracking. The last workshop I took was an intro one, where the class focused on exercises for writing, setting goals, and generally trying not to get bogged down by all the negativity surrounding the passion for writing. It was a great class and I learned so much, but it was definitely a ‘let’s sit around the campfire, hold hands, sing kumbaya’ kind of thing. Which is great to start off, but the class definitely left me hungry for more.

The class I start on Saturday is an intensive, meaning that it’s a shortened time frame with long classes and lots of work in between. It’s also taught by a guy who looks super friendly in his bio picture and is a published writer. The thing that made me sign up and fork over the coin for this class was the fact that I’d be getting direct feedback on my idea and writing. That, to me, is priceless. It’s exciting because I’ll hopefully get some much needed direction, advice, and a little excitement injected in my system. I need it. At the same time, it also makes me want to barf.

Sometimes I feel like there is some sort of smarmy, pessimistic, evil miniature vulture sitting on my shoulder whispering sweet negatives into my ear. One of those negatives is that I’m going to go into this class extremely hopeful and optimistic and this William fellow is going to tell me either I suck at writing, or I’m too young to be doing this, or my ideas are shit, etc. I know it will send me spiraling too, considering how much I have set aside, rearranged, and just plain abandoned to put the writing thing at the top of my list of life priorities.

I still feel all of this even after I’ve received pretty good validation that I should be a writer (humble, I know).  It’s scary to start this part of the process. But I can’t let the fear overshadow the excitement, which is the reigning feeling, at least five days out (perhaps that will shift to fear as we get closer). The vulture sits on my shoulder, but he sits on lots of people’s shoulders. I am not unique in having doubts and worries. Being scared says something about you, but I’ve always been more interested in what you do even though you are scared. That says more.

I’ll be sure to update on how workshop goes (cross your fingers for me!). Until then, I’m out.