Tuesday, October 31, 2017

And the winner is....


If you've been following our contest for long, you probably know the sad truth that I almost always win, even though Mahon's technical skills are often (though not always) better than mine. Every year, I say I'm sure he's going to win... and almost every year, I'm proved wrong. In our ten years of contests, he's only one twice.

Until now.

Yes, my friends, Mahon is the carver of the fantastically awesome Te Ka Pumpkin B! And with a final tally of 56-13, he takes it in a LANDSLIDE. (...Lavaslide?)


Guys, I can't even be a tiny bit resentful. Even if his pumpkin hadn't been clearly better than mine this year (my vision definitely did not translate as well as I'd hoped), the poor man seriously deserves a victory.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Cast Your Vote In The Eleventh Annual Pumpkin Carving Contest!


Picture this, my friends: The year is 2007. Our heroine, a young college sophomore, has been invited to dinner and pumpkin carving with the family of the boy that she's definitely not dating. And, because the awkwardness of their deeply ambiguous relationship is best masked by rivalry, he issues the invitation thusly:

"I bet I can carve a better pumpkin than you."

Little do our young definitely-not-lovers know, but this will be the start not just of an annual pumpkin carving contest tradition—but of a relationship that will produce one marriage certificate, a string of moves across the American West, and one outsized-personality daughter.

In fact, the night of this very first pumpkin carving contest, as it happens, will be the very first night that our heroine will turn and look at our hero and think: Maybe I could fall in love with him.

The rest, as they say, is history.

.   .   .   .   .

Ten years later, we still celebrate Halloween with a carving contest; these days, we have a theme that we both have to carve to. And each year, we allow all and sundry to cast their votes via my blog. (Previous years can be found under this label, and at my old blog, here!)

This year's theme? Well, we let Kate pick, and it really shouldn't shock you that she immediately shouted "MOANA!" 

So Moana it is.

As always, all descriptions are written by me, and all photos are a joint effort between us both. (And actually, uh, this year I conceptualized both pumpkins, too, though Mahon came up with the design for his entirely.) This years rules, as in previous years, are:

1. Just ONE vote per person... no cheating! If you don't have a Google or OpenID account and so you're voting anonymously, make sure to sign your vote. Unsigned anonymous votes may be deleted. I'll tally votes here, on Facebook, and on Instagram, but please only vote in one place!

2. DO NOT reveal who carved which pumpkin! If you suspect that you may know which pumpkin was carved by whom, DO NOT share that information in the comments. Any comment that tries to spill the carver's identities will be quickly deleted. (Also, we really DON'T recommend attempting to guess whose pumpkin is whose. In the past, guessers have tried to swing the vote for one person or another, and guessed wrong, with disastrous [but hilarious] results. So really, just vote for which pumpkin you actually like better and leave it at that, okay???)

3. Get all your friends and family to cast their votes too! Share on social media! Bug your co-workers!

And now, for the pumpkins.

There's a line where the sky meets the sea, and it calls you—right to Pumpkin AThis year's Carver A decided to depict the quintessential scene: Moana herself, fearlessly wayfinding through the wildest of seas, never deterred from her quest to restore peace to her island. Her hair (which, can we just say, #hairgoals!) blows in the wind as she navigates her craft with its distinctive sail, not for one second scared by the looming wave curling over her boat's bow. Note Carver A's playful attention to textures, as well as the swirling symbol adorning the sail—which, Carver A is not ashamed to say, nearly broke his or her brain in two.



Unfortunately for our young princess—sorry, "daughter of the chief"—on the other side of her horizon awaits this fearsome demon of fire and rock, this year's Pumpkin B. Ever defeat a lava monster? Yeah, me neither. With careful wielding of tools and laborious time and effort, this year's Carver B has brought the fearsome Te Ka to pyroclastic life, complete with both her fiery aura and her desperately angry demeanor. Make special note of Carver B's exquisite attention to detail, particularly in the depiction of Te Ka's charcoal-esque stone skin, through which you can see her molten rage threatening to break free at any moment. Here, our fell foe prepares any second to launch a flaming lava ball towards Moana's boat... and none may know who will triumph!



And only you, my friends, may know who will triumph in this year's pumpkin carving contest! 
Voting will close by 9pm PDT on Halloween night.

You're a long ways past the reef—might as well go vote!

Postscript: On no account may you cast a vote for this pumpkin (all votes for this one will be rejected, so don't even try it!), but we figured we'd show you the cuteness anyway. (Face carved by Daddy, design thought up and spots painted by Kate.)


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I love sharing your friendship. I don't want to share your germs.

How I dress for church in the fall/winter
months to try to stay cold-free

For many years, I've shared a post about the importance of staying home when you're sick as soon as the first autumn colds start to circulate. As a cystic fibrosis patient, my immune system is compromised, and I have a tendency to pick up any viruses within a hundred-mile radius—at least, that's what it often feels like! Not only am I more likely to get colds and other illnesses in the first place, but those illnesses are nearly always much, much worse for me than for a regular person. What may be a case of the sniffles for you typically turns into a lung infection for me, nearly always requiring antibiotics and frequently requiring a hospitalization or course of home IV antibiotic therapy.

And don't even get me started on more serious viruses, like influenza, which can be a literal death sentence for CF patients. In 2007, while I was engaged, I caught the flu; I was almost immediately hospitalized, and ended up going into the hospital something like 7 times over the next 18 months. It took me at least that long, if not longer, to feel like I was back on my feet health-wise.

Every winter, I personally know far too many people with CF who die—and quite often, the infection that leads to their decline is caused by a cold, influenza, or other virus. And death is only the most dramatic result. Every winter, I also see far too many friends spending months in the hospital, enduring cycle after cycle of body-destroying extra-strength antibiotics, and, like me, finding themselves unable to engage with life at all because their strength is so totally zapped by dealing with persistent infections.

CF patients aren't the only population at risk, either. Cancer patients, transplant recipients, and medically fragile children and adults all can have life-threatening reactions to a virus that, for you, manifests as an annoying case of sniffles.

Every year when I blog about this, I get push back in two primary ways: from people with kids who are sick all the time, and from people who don't have the option of taking sick leave from work. I get that, I really do. I've been that parent before - there have been times where Kate was sick over and over for months in a row. And I understand, also, that there are lots of jobs where a worker is penalized or let go for missing work, regardless of the excuse.

In light of those issues, here are some things that you can do to mitigate the effect of your illnesses.


1. If you can stay home, do so. Postpone the shopping trip. Get takeout instead of eating at a restaurant. Stay home from church—truly. Church is one of the big danger zones for me, because people have a tendency to come regardless of how they feel. Really truly, you can nearly always find someone to fill in if you have something to do, and those of us with compromised immune systems will thank you. If you really cannot get out of a responsibility and must go sick, see #2 and #3.

2. Be honest. If you're going to a gathering where you know that someone with a compromised immune system (or a baby) will be, let them know how you're feeling. Describe your symptoms and let them tell you what they feel comfortable with. Work out a plan you both feel okay with.

3. Wear a cheap mask. You can get inexpensive disposable surgical masks at any drug store. Did you know that wearing a standard paper mask won't actually protect the wearer from viruses? That's why I don't wear one when I'm out during cold and flu season (I actually just purchased a pricey fitted mask in the hopes that it can help me stay safe this winter, but that's not an option everyone has). However, what those paper masks do very well is protecting the people around you from your germs while you're wearing it. If you have to go out while you're still symptomatic, consider wearing one. Also, use hand sanitizer, wash hands frequently, try not to sit close to anyone else, and make sure to cover a cough.

4. Learn to tell the difference between allergies and a cold. If you or your kid has a stuffy or runny nose that isn't going away after several weeks but has never been accompanied by a fever, body aches, or a cough, it's probably allergies... But if that runny nose just started, give it at least a few days before deciding it isn't a cold. Contrary to popular wisdom, a clear runny nose is no safer than a green one, and it actually usually comes at the point when a cold is most contagious (ie the beginning).

Remember how Smoky the Bear said "only you can prevent forest fires"? The same might be said in this case: only you have the power to help make public spaces a safe place for those of us with compromised immune systems to be!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Interview with Akemi Dawn Bowman, author of STARFISH



Today I have the immense privilege of participating in the blog tour for Akemi Dawn Bowman's luminously incredible debut novel, Starfish. Ever since I saw the cover reveal for this book, I've wanted to read it—it's truly one of the most beautifully captivating covers I've ever seen. And the book itself didn't disappoint; Bowman's language is so lyrical and rich, and her story so gripping and lovely, that I absolutely couldn't put it down and read it cover to cover in twenty-four hours (which happens much less than it did before I had a kid!). Starfish is hands-down one of my favorite reads of the year, and I am so excited to recommend this book right and left!

If you're a fan of contemporary young adult, you must add this.  (And make sure you read to the bottom—there's a giveaway involved!)

What's it about?

Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.

But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.

From debut author Akemi Dawn Bowman comes a luminous, heartbreaking story of identity, family, and the beauty that emerges when we embrace our true selves.

Interview with Akemi

1. What was your journey to publication like? Was Starfish the first book you tried to sell?

My journey was definitely long—it was years of consistent hard work, and refusing to give up. It took me four manuscripts to get an agent, and the fifth book I wrote (Starfish) was the one that got me a book deal. I’ve always been very stubborn, so when the agent rejections piled in with the first few manuscripts, I didn’t want to accept defeat. I just told myself I’d write a new book and try again. I did a lot of writing and re-writing, and coming up with new ideas when the old ones weren’t working. And eventually, it worked!

2. What was the seed of inspiration for Starfish? Did it start with a character, a plot, a scene, or something else completely?

Starfish is the book I needed most as a teen. It’s the book that would’ve helped me to feel “seen,” which is something I really struggled with when I was younger. It was very difficult to find books with characters that were experiencing similar things to me, particularly when it came to being biracial and living with social anxiety. And so I wrote this book hoping it would act as a mirror for the people who need it most today.

3. One of my favorite things about Starfish were the gorgeously lyrical descriptions of the artwork, and the way the pictures themselves tell a story throughout the book. Do you have a background in visual art?

Thank you so much! I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember, though I’m nowhere near as talented as Kiko. I took two years of ceramics in high school, and a year of painting too. I have a big set of Copic markers, and I occasionally like to get them out and draw a Pok√©mon or two. There’s something about Bulbasaur’s cute little face that relaxes me!

4. What Hogwarts houses would your characters belong in?

Kiko – Ravenclaw

Jamie – Gryffindor

Hiroshi – Hufflepuff

Kiko’s mom – Slytherin

Though, I’ve heard some readers think Jamie should be in Hufflepuff, so my guess isn’t set in stone. I could see him in either!

5. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Keep writing, and don’t give up. And toughen your heart a little bit because rejections don’t stop once you find an agent. You’ll get editor rejections. Your agent might reject your next manuscript. You’ll get negative reviews. Your book might not get promoted as much as others do. The list goes on and on. There can be a lot of heartbreak ahead, but also so much joy and excitement too. Just remember to celebrate every single win that comes your way—even if it’s as simple as finishing your revisions! Remember to be proud of your accomplishments, and don’t let outside noise keep you from writing your stories. You can’t control everything about your writing journey, but you can control when your next book gets finished. So stay focused, and write!

Giveaway!

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

overwhelming abundance

I had an experience this afternoon that shook me, and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind.

My family spent the day here working incredibly hard (er, harder than anyone anticipated thanks to our rock solid clay soil) to help us start a deck. I went to Panda Express to get lunch for everyone. The nearby shopping center where the Panda is is a frequent panhandler haunt; it's pretty well trafficked and so especially in summer, people fly signs on the street corners there. I've never seen as many as today—from the man with a purloined shopping cart filled with belongings sleeping, exhausted, in the shade on a hill, to a life-worn woman with curly hair and a dusty vest.

But the people that really caught me off guard was the little family sitting on the median: a blue-eyed mom, two beautiful little girls, a six-week old baby in a stroller, and the dad, who held a sign saying that they had no job and needed to make their rent. I couldn't stop looking at them. Even if this was some kind of scam, I thought, you'd have to be pretty desperate to haul your whole family to a median and sit at cars drove past, drivers studiously averting their eyes.

I took them some lunch and some water bottles. The mother thanked me in heavily accented English. I went back to my car and cried. The car I sat in is our old car—old because we have a new, second car, one we bought because we could afford it and it was convenient. I drove back to our house that is so much space for our little family of three, whose mortgage payment we have never truly struggled to meet.

These moments in life truly pierce me. Sometimes I get caught up in scarcity mentality, worrying about retirement and braces for Kate and other far-off things that are so tangential compared to food and shelter. I feel paralyzed, wishing so desperately that I could somehow make a true difference for the myriad people I know and see who struggle.

There isn't really a point to this post. Nor is there a conclusion—except that life is sweet and life is bitter, and that I wanted to share the portrait of this family with you, because they are burned into my heart.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

on turning twenty-nine for the first, and only, time


Today was my twenty-ninth birthday—for real. We celebrated well at my parents' house, with gorditas, five-layer Chinese bakery rainbow cake, and an impressive Mormon minibar (aka build-your-own Italian sodas). 

My dad teared up talking about how 28.5 years ago, when I was in the process of being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, they found an outdated book in the library that said I wouldn't live past nine. Later, when the doctor gave them an official prognosis, it wasn't much better—nineteen. 

It's amazing to be a full decade past that, on the cusp of thirty. 

I found myself thinking tonight about my dear friend Kristi, whom I still miss daily, who died unexpectedly nearly a year and a half ago. She was a few years older than I am—already on the other side of thirty—but she, like so many of my friends, will not live to have another birthday.

Our culture has been subsumed by the cult of agelessness; adult birthdays are less joyful celebration and more occasions of dread, and millions of women walk around coyly saying they're turning "twenty nine—again." Every time I hear something like this I find myself wanting to grab the speaker by the shoulders and shake them. Don't you know how lucky you are? Don't you know never to take a single birthday for granted?

So here I am: heading into my thirtieth year of life, determined to live in gratitude, without taking these years for granted. I cannot wait to close out my twenties, to head into a new decade, to swim forward toward numbers I never thought I'd reach. 

And ten or twenty years from now, if I should be so lucky to still breathe, when my silver hairs have taken over, when you ask me how old I am, I will not be answering 'twenty-nine.'

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Revision Breakdown Part 2 (Semi-Optional Step): Map Out Your Story

The second thing I do when I'm revising is to map out my story—in other words, I create a scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter reverse outline. Sometimes, if I'm doing a fairly light edit or if my original outline still lines up pretty well with the story's trajectory, I will skip this step. It's not as necessary if the edits I'm going to make aren't substantial ones that make changes to the plot structure. For the last book I edited—the developmental edits for Where the Watermelons Grow with my editor at HarperCollins—I didn't make any massive changes, and so didn't do this step. Right now, though, I'm in the middle of mapping out one of my WIPs so that I can revise it based on feedback from my agent, because some of the changes I'm going to make are larger ones that will impact plotlines and overall plot structure.

Often, though, my outline changes and evolves as I write my first draft, and so I need to update it to have a really clear picture of what exists in the draft I'm about to revise. This is especially helpful if—as I mentioned doing in my last post—I haven't read through the book prior to starting the revision pass; it allows me to hold the story in an easily-visible format while revising.

Reverse-outlining my story also helps me figure out in real-time where I should make changes to the novel once I begin really revising. As I outline, I'll usually make little notes to myself, like "Make sure to add stuff about the theme of visibility here" or "Could Queenie be in this scene somewhere?" (Both real notes taken from the revision that I'm beginning for one of my works in progress!)

This step is fairly straightforward, but can be time-consuming and, honestly, kind of boring. It's so helpful, though, to have the map to guide me as I dive into revision. Between this and my self-written edit letter, I'm easily able to see what I need to change, where I need to change it, and what I've already changed in the past.

I use the notecard function in Scrivener for this. Here's what I have so far on the reverse-outline for my WIP (I'm about halfway through):


I also know people who do this with actual notecards, white boards, notebooks, or Word documents. Whatever you have access to and whatever is easy for you to reference will work well!

In my next post, I'll be talking about how I start my actual revision pass.

If you missed Step 1 in this revision process, find the post here:
Revision Breakdown Part 1: Write Your Own Edit Letter

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Revision Breakdown Part 1: Write Your Own Edit Letter


Revision is not something that comes naturally to me. I had written four manuscripts before I finally cracked what it means to really revise a novel, rather than check for typos and move a few scenes around. It took me years to figure out how to get down to the bones of my story, identify weak spots, incorporate CP feedback, and figure out how to strengthen the parts of my story structure that were failing. For a long time I'd draft a book, mess around with it for awhile, and then hit this point where I knew there was still stuff wrong with it because it wasn't getting agent interest, but I couldn't figure out how to fix it.

If any of the above describes you, dear writer, take heart! Over the next little while, I'm going to do a series of blog posts breaking down how I revise, going in-depth on each point. Every author has their own revision process, and mine may not be yours—but hopefully these posts will provide a jumping-off point to give you a better feel for what a revision process can look like.

Today's post deals with my very first revision step: I write my own edit letter.

For a lot of people, the first step in revision is to print or upload a complete draft of their story and then read it and make notes. I will be up-front and say that while this used to be my first step always, it's not anymore. I've learned that a) I have a finite number of times I can read my book in rapid succession without losing my ability to spot problems, and b) I'm not very good at picking up on the big-picture structural changes my book needs when I'm reading through it. On a read-through, I have a tendency to get hung up on smaller things, and miss the crucial big-picture ones. Therefore, while there are definitely rounds of revision that start with me reading my book through cover to cover, I tend to use them both randomly and judiciously. If I have recently read it, or otherwise feel like I'm doing a decent job of holding the story in my head, or feel like a read-through would be more valuable after I've applied the changes, then I hold off.

My true first step—really a pre-revision step—is that I almost always let my book sit for awhile and send it to CPs before I dive into revision. The exception is when I've made big changes to the plot while drafting and the draft wouldn't even make sense to a CP; for instance, with Where the Watermelons Grow, I was 3/4 through drafting before I decided I was bored of writing a straight contemporary story and wanted to add magic bees. Because the plot changed dramatically at that 3/4 point, I went back through and added the magical element from the beginning before I sent it off to critique partners.

But after I've finished drafting, let the book rest a little, and gotten feedback from CPs, my agent, or my editor (depending on which round of revision I'm on), my first step is always writing myself an edit letter.

Once you have an agent or an editor (often, even once you've got some good CPs), you will start receiving edit letters to help guide your revisions. Most agents and editors don't use Track Changes or other in-text comments to give feedback on big-picture issues that need to be changed; instead, they write an edit letter, a paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of the things they feel need to be changed or strengthened as you revise.

I get easily overwhelmed by the revision process and always need to spend a few days making a solid revision plan before I dive in; I'm totally not capable of holding everything in my head. As such, the first thing I do is write myself what essentially amounts to an edit letter—to myself, from myself. It's usually not as in-depth as edit letters I get from my agent, editor, or CPs, because I can use shorthand and still know what I mean later on. But it's essential for me to have a to-do list before I start revising, especially if I'm trying to collate feedback from multiple CPs, or if I've had ideas I want to change in addition to what my agent or editor asked for, or if my agent or editor pointed out a weakness in my story and I then brainstormed a new way to solve it.

I begin by combing through all the feedback I've received so far and writing it down, along with any ideas I've had independently. Sometimes this looks like a checklist; sometimes it looks more like a paragraph-by-paragraph freewrite of my story's problems. Unless it's a very, very light line edit, I usually will organize the revision items by size—big changes (changes that affect whole story threads, whole characters, or the structure of the plot itself) and small changes (things that generally only affect one scene, or require only a line or two of difference throughout the book). If I have a lot of items on my list, I'll even split them into big, medium, and small.

Here's an example of the first edit letter I wrote myself for one of my current works in progress:

This was a fairly light revision pass; sometimes I end up with a lot more points on that list. (Though the font size here is small so that it can all fit into one screenshot, so there really were more items than there might seem to be at first glance.)

Starting like this lets me organize my thoughts, collate feedback from different sources, and keep track of what I've done and what I have yet to do, since I will usually "check off" items on my list (usually by italicizing them) as I go. It also lets me draw attention to thinks I think I might forget, or things that will take a lot of work or finesse; these I usually bold. Mostly, starting like this helps me to work up the courage to dive into the revision pool—something that's always really intimidating to me when I'm preparing to start a big revision!

In my next post, I'll discuss mapping my book to figure out where the weak spots lie!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

So You've Written A Book. Now What?


Since my book deal went public last year, I've had a definite increase in the number of people who have come to me asking for tips on getting an agent/publishing deal. I totally get it—I spent years as that writer who never seemed quite able to break in, but couldn't figure out why not. When you're in that space, it can feel like being lost in the middle of a forest, unable to even figure out how to begin to reach your destination because everything is so confusing and the world is filled with so many contradictory directions.

On that note, I thought I'd share some of my advice to aspiring authors—especially those who have just finished their first manuscripts and aren't sure what to do next.

First, let me say: Congratulations! As far as I'm concerned, there is no publishing milestone more important than finishing that first book. Now that you've finished a book, you know that you can do it. You've figure out how to beat through the thicket of your muddy middle and emerge on the other side of "The End." That is an enormous accomplishment, and one that deserves to be celebrated!

Except—now what do you do?

1. First, let the book sit for a bit. I don't know a single successful writer who can finish a draft and then immediately dive into revisions the next day. Or rather, I don't know a single successful writer who can do that and make revisions that are really what the book needs. Drafting and revising are two totally different creative processes, and you really need to gain a bit of distance from the one before your brain can switch into the other. So before you come back to your finished manuscript, set it aside for a few weeks or a few months. Work on something new, cultivate a non-writing project, or...

2. Find critique partners, stat. A critique partner is different from a general writing buddy. A critique partner definitely isn't your mom, best friend (unless your best friend is also a talented writer who doesn't pull punches in giving you feedback), or spouse. Almost without fail, when I've talked to writers over the last year who didn't know where to go after finishing their book, they've told me something along the lines of, "My mom/best friend/husband has read it five times and they can't find anything else to fix." Let me preface this by saying that it's great if your close friends and family want to read. It's fun, they often give encouragement that helps you keep going, and they're usually good at spotting typos and grammatical mistakes and other small but embarrassing details.

However, if you want to truly succeed in publishing, you really need your book to be read by several critique partners before you ever send out a single agent query. And, I hate to say it, you particularly need your book to be read by CPs who are strong in places that you're weak, which can take a lot of trial and error to find. For several years before I signed with my agent, I really struggled to connect with CPs that pushed me beyond what I could do myself. I had one or two really fantastic CPs, but a lot of the people I had read and critique my work had the same weaknesses I did, which meant that they weren't able to pick apart the places I really needed help. I have always loved line-level writing—the way sentences sound when you read them—and so by the time I started trying to get published, I was great at that... but I couldn't write a strong plot to save my life. Because my CPs at the time also struggled with plot structure, they couldn't point out the places my plots were falling apart. And because of that, my manuscripts never quite made it to the point where they were able to attract agent and editor attention.

Once I got into Pitch Wars in 2015 and connected with lots of CPs who were plotting mavens, that changed. My next book was WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, and thanks to the help from my new CPs, that book ended up with ten agent offers and a publishing house auction. That was no accident—I had all the tools I needed to take my writing to the next level, but it wasn't until I found the right CPs that I was able to unlock that potential.

If you want help connecting with good CPs, I shared some resources here. There's also other authors on Twitter who will periodically host CP matchups. The most important thing to know is this: Sometimes, it's just going to take time. I've traded manuscripts with people who didn't end up helping me much, but it wasn't until after their feedback that I realized that. Sometimes, you have to trade first chapters or whole manuscripts with several different people before you find some who have the savvy you need. Also, if you're like me, just trading first chapters might not be enough; because plot structure is my weakness, things don't usually fall apart in my stories until about a quarter of the way through, so trading beginnings doesn't help me that much.

3. Study the craft. While you're letting your manuscript sit/finding good CPs/starting a new project, make sure that you're studying the craft. This is not an optional step. I will be totally honest with you: I went for a lot of years being kind of full of myself and thinking that I'd basically learned all that I needed to know about the craft of writing. (HA. Please don't be like me, guys. You know what they say about pride and falls.) Because of this, I didn't pay enough attention at conferences, I didn't seek out craft books, I didn't follow craft blogs. And you know what? My writing didn't really get better. For a long time, I thought that writing a lot was the best way to learn to write well, and while that's true, I can pretty much guarantee that you will never write supernally if you don't put in a lot of study hours, too.

And don't just study the aspects of craft that you're drawn to, either (another mistake I made). Study the things you don't necessarily think you'll need, because you might be surprised. If you're writing thrillers, study the conventions of literary prose; you might be surprised by how much extra punch your fast-paced stories carry if they're also written beautifully. If you're writing literary, character-driven stories, don't think—like I did for a long time—that that means you get a pass when it comes to studying commercial plot structure. A strong plot with good bones can take your quiet literary novel from "lovely" to "stupendous."

There are so many incredible resources online to help you study craft; I recommend finding a couple of authors whose work you really admire and whose style you'd like to emulate, and then going to their websites. Often, writers will have writing advice or resources, or at least a spot on social media where they talk about their own influences. Some writers, like K. M. Weiland, dedicate huge chunks of their career to educating other writers and have websites and books that are virtual treasure troves of helpful resources. There are also tons of resources on YouTube—bestselling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has the entire course list of classes he teaches on there, for instance. Googling will take you a lot of places; you can search for "writing craft books," "writing craft blogs," "tips for fiction writing," specific things you need help with, and so on.

4. Learn how to query agents (if you're shooting for traditional publishing). Learn how to write a query letter and a synopsis (sorry, guys, you can't get out of the dreaded synopsis; there WILL come a time when you need one, even after you're published!). Learn what literary agents do. Figure out whether traditional publishing, indie publishing, or small press publishing is right for you. Research agents who represent your favorite authors; research agents who rep authors in your genre; research agents who share your interests. (My favorite resources for researching agents are the Literary Rambles blog, Writer's Digest's New Agents section, and ManuscriptWishList.com.)

Then, once you have done all the other steps on this list, have your CPs read your query letter and synopsis... and start querying!

5. Consider online contests. There are new online contests cropping up all the time, and while they're definitely a mixed bag, some are really fantastic—not only because they give you the chance to get your work before agents, but because they help connect you to other writers, as well. I was a mentee in Pitch Wars in 2015, and then found my agent after the first #DVPit Twitter contest; not only did these experiences give me good industry connections, but they led me to my closest writing friends and strongest CPs. These days, there are contests just for teen writers, contests that take place in one day, contests that span over months, contests that give you feedback on your whole book or just a part of it. Some of the contests that I can personally vouch for are Pitch Wars, Query Kombat, Baker's Dozen, Nightmare on Query Street, and TeenPit, but there's lots I'm not familiar with that can also be good opportunities. There's also lots of Twitter pitch parties, like PitMad, KidPit, AdPit, and SFFPit, as well as DVPit, which is for marginalized (writers of color, queer writers, disabled writers, etc.) creators only.

My biggest advice if you're entering contests is this: Don't do it just for the agent exposure. That is a nice thing about it, but in my experience, by far the most valuable thing about writing contests is the chance to connect with other writers. No writer survives a publishing career without having a strong, vibrant, and thriving community; if you're serious about publishing, make sure you're also serious about building that community for yourself!

6. Consider conferences. Conferences can be invaluable chances to learn from more experienced writers and industry professionals, as well as making lasting friendships and connections. Conferences can also be chances to workshop or query with agents and editors, though just like with contests, it's important to focus as well on conferences as a chance to build your community, not just to meet agents.

You finished a book! Way to go! Now go forth and find yourself some critique partners!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Three Reasons I'll Never Leave Scrivener


Like a lot of writers, I spent years hearing about the mythical, magical beast that is the writing program Scrivener. When I finally took the plunge and bought it on sale a few years back, I was simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed. There was so much to learn! And it seemed really complicated! And it didn't jump out to me as being something that was going to especially help my writing! Was it really WORTH it, I wondered, sneaking back over to my precious Word documents?

Since then, though, I've become a diehard Scrivener convert. The moments when I have to go back to working in Word are painful. There are a lot of fancier functions on Scrivener that I skip completely because they are, for me, unnecessary or distracting—but the basic ones that I do use are transformative for me. Really truly, to navigate Scrivener to the extent that I do you basically need about 10 minutes of video tutorials and a few more minutes to play around. That's it.

Also, I started out using the "novel" format when I opened new documents, but that honestly introduces WAY more clutter than I ever actually use. I usually select "blank" when I create a new document these days.

Want to know how I use Scrivener and why I love it so much? Here you go!

1. I can keep a metric ton of information in one file

I typically have one document per book. That's it. In that document, I'm able to keep everything I need—multiple revision drafts; research pictures, notes, and websites; queries; pitches; and so forth. In my Scrivener file for WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, I've got

—4 revision drafts
—Research on farming, schizophrenia, and middle grade conventions
—Notes on characters
—The outline I made when before I wrote the book
—A timeline of events in the book that I made during my last revision
—Outtakes
—Multiple to-do lists for various revision passes
—The query
—The synopsis
—Twitter pitches used during #DVPit
—A brief summary I wrote before I wrote the book, to give myself an idea where I was going
—My dedication and acknowledgements
—Some notes on a possible companion book

This is what the sidebar for the WATERMELONS document looks like (with the draft folders collapsed because otherwise I couldn't possibly fit it into a screenshot):


This is really easy to do in Scrivener. You use the green "plus" button in the top left corner and long press it; it will give you the option to add a new page, a new folder, or import a web page. 



As a general rule, I use pages for small things like queries and such, and folders for drafts, research, and outline—anywhere that I want to collect multiple subpages into one area. Scrivener automatically has a special type of folder included for your draft—it looks like multiple pages together, instead of like the blue folder. I usually use that for whatever my active draft is. When it's time to revise and I need a new draft, I right-click that and hit "duplicate," then use the special folder type for my current draft. It doesn't make any difference that I can tell, it just looks different so I can always tell which draft I should make changes to. 



2. I can navigate around my current draft quickly and easily

It took me some time to get used to it, but now I LOVE the ability to divide my manuscript into subsections. I typically will split the document into new pages with each chapter and then type a very brief description into the sidebar so that I know what happens in that chapter for easy navigation. I also often use the colored flags on my chapters to show me where turning points happen, so that I can get an easy visual feel for whether one section of my story is getting way longer than the others. Here's what that looks like in my WIP, which I'm about 11,000 words into:


It makes it super easy to navigate between chapters, keep track of what's already happened, and so on. I often will find myself writing a new scene and want to refresh my memory about something in an older scene, and be able to find it really easily because I remember that the older scene took place in the chapter that was about the transmission, or whatever. This feature is helpful for both drafting and revision. In revision, I also use the flags in other ways—to show me where I've identified problems that I don't have time to fix right now, for instance. I'm a really visual person, and also not a super organized person, and being able to see everything laid out like this helps me SO much. Changing the symbols is really easy—you just right-click the icon and it gives you a bunch of options:



3. The corkboard feature is perfect for outlining

In a perfect world, I'd be using the corkboard feature in the way that it was intended, the way it's shown in how-to videos—to give a brief overview of what was in each chapter so that I could see the outline of my in-process book as I drafted or revised. Honestly, though, I've never found that that helpful. Instead, I typically start a new folder in my sidebar, completely separate from my draft document, and call it "outline."


I then switch my Scrivener to corkboard view—


and use subpages in that folder to make "notecards" for my outlining method.


(Side note: MAN the plot for WATERMELONS changed a whole lot between the outline and the final draft!!!)

If you highlight the folder itself and not the subpages—like I have in the screenshot above—they show up as notecards in corkboard view.

My outlines look like this:


(Obviously, my cards are usually expanded enough to read all the text on them—this is just so that it's easy to see a whole book's outline. If you want more info on how I outline, check out this post.)

And there you go! That's why I'm a diehard Scrivener user, even when much of the program's more complex functions I don't find particularly helpful. Also, software tutorials are NOT my strong suit, so I apologize if any of this has been confusing! I've found that Google is a wealth of Scrivener know-how, though, and that simple searches can turn up the answers to basically anything you need.

Monday, May 29, 2017

How To Know Which Publishing Path Is Right For You


Lately I've gotten into a bunch of different conversations with downhearted aspiring authors in which said author tells me dejectedly, "I just don't feel like I'm ever going to get an agent. And I don't deal well with rejections. I'm thinking of just putting my book on Amazon to see what happens."

And I get that. I totally do. Guess what? I gave up on my first query attempt after a whopping ten queries. The rejections were just soul-killing, and it was apparent very quickly from talking to industry professionals that that book never had a fighting chance, anyway. And while I queried my second book much more widely, after more than 100 rejections on that book, I came perilously close to quitting writing—forever.

I am going to venture a sweeping guess that there isn't a single published author out there, no matter how successful, who doesn't understand the toll waiting and rejection can take on a new writer's soul. Remember how J. K. Rowling got twelve publisher rejections (after she was already agented) before Harry Potter sold, and even then it basically sold because the daughter of a publisher liked it? No author achieves success unscarred.

For many authors, indie publishing is absolutely the right way to go. I have many friends who are happy, successful, fulfilled indie authors. I have indie author friends who are hitting lists, achieving bestseller status, earning indie industry awards. They love the way that they're publishing, and I'm so happy for them. But—and here's the big caveat—none of these authors just put a digital file on Amazon and walked away. All of these authors studied, invested in, and excelled at the skills needed to be a successful indie author. They knew that their genres sold well in their chosen format. They knew the tricks to use to build a readership base. And they also, by and large, write very quickly and are able to put out several books a year, something that can be crucial to an indie author's success.

When my discouraged aspiring author friends come to me and announce their intention to just put the book on Amazon to "see what happens," I cringe a little inside—because I've seen what it takes to make a successful indie career, and that being an indie author takes every bit as much work as being a traditional author. And what's more, I've seen that being an indie author also involves just as much rejection as being a traditional author. As an indie, you aren't getting rejected by agents and editors, but you are getting rejected by a host of people who can be even more scary: the general public. You're getting rejected every time you pitch your book to a bookstore and they won't carry it. You're getting rejected every time you do a signing event and nobody stops by your table. You're getting rejected every time you try to handsell your book and somebody walks away instead of buying.

Rejection is part and parcel of a writing career. There is no point at which you don't experience rejection. And so rather than choosing the publishing path that seems to be the easiest in the moment, let's sit down and examine a better way to choose the publishing path that's right for you.

What Are Your Goals?

When I'm counseling friends who aren't sure what kind of career they'd like to have, my first question is always this one. What are your goals? If you think about where you want your career to be in ten years, what do you see? What are the things that spell successful author to you?

By and large, your author goals will dictate your publishing path.

—If you harbor a deep dream of being able to walk into Barnes and Noble or your local indie and see your book on the shelf—that's not typically something you can get as an indie author (although there are definitely exceptions, particularly when it comes to local bookstores who know you as a local author).

—If you dream of starred reviews and mainstream award nominations, a traditional publishing path is a must. While indie markets have their own awards (like the Rone), and you will still be eligible for location- or affiliation-based awards (for example—if you're a Mormon author, as I am, you're eligible to be nominated for a yearly Whitney award whether you're trad or indie), the shiny stickers that most readers are familiar with (such as the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Newbery and Printz Medals, etc.) are only awarded to traditionally published authors.

—If you want to have the largest degree of creative control, traditional publishing is probably not where you'll be happiest. In trad publishing, things like cover design, your book's description, and many of the finer points of editing are things you'll be involved in but not have final say over. Indie authors, on the other hand, have full control over all aspects of the publishing process, from layout to marketing plan.

—If you're an entrepreneurial sort and love the idea of building your author career like a business, you'll love being an indie author.

—If you want to turn out a lot of books each year and not have to wait for contracts to expire or the excruciatingly slow pace of traditional publishing, indie authorship is a perfect fit.

—If you don't want to have to worry too much about the extraneous details of your career—like cover design—and if you want support in marketing your book without having to hire a private publicist, then being a traditional author is probably your best bet.

—If you want to write for readers younger than 14, it will be much harder to achieve success as an indie. For middle grade readers and younger, reading is often still driven by "gatekeepers"—teachers, librarians, booksellers, and parents. Many kids in this category still don't have smartphones or e-readers, they don't have unfettered access to transportation, and their parents often still want to screen their reading for objectionable content.

—If, on the other hand, you want to write something like adult romance? There's a huge and booming market for indie books and you'll likely do quite well.

—The most financially successful indie authors achieve success by honing in on a limited "brand" and putting out one or more books a year that fit that brand. If you're a jack-of-all-genres who likes to move between age categories and topics, you might have a more difficult time establishing yourself as an indie author. While traditional publishing often still expects you to follow your debut novel up with another in that genre, you typically have a little more flexibility and less pressure to put books out as quickly.

Obviously, there are exceptions to every "rule" on this list. Traditional authors still have to be heavily involved in their own marketing, and some indie authors achieve great success writing slowly or hopping from genre to genre. Many authors ("hybrid" authors) do both quite successfully—writing for traditional publishers and then pursuing novellas or other genres independently on the side.

This post is not intended to either dissuade people from pursuing indie publishing or imply that it's less worthy than traditional publishing. Both paths, however, take work, perseverance, and the ability to handle a good amount of rejection. And neither path will make you happy as a writer if it won't help you achieve your ultimate goals.

So next time you're feeling discouraged, get out a sheet of paper and jot down a list of your writer goals!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

a tale of early-morning derring-do

*technically these are degu. But whatever. Pretty close.

Guys, I'm feeling particularly awesome today.

Let me set the scene: A rustic home in the picturesque foothills of Oregon's Mount Hood. A mother and her four-year-old daughter tagging along with their extended family on a quick two-day jaunt for spring break. A very, very sleepy mother, who has been woken up twice in the night already to take her daughter, whose pull-ups she forgot, to the bathroom.

The clock strikes 6:50. The groggy mother is awoken by the daughter—who has been sleeping in a nest of blankets and pillows on the floor—standing beside her bed.

"Mommy!" the daughter says. "There is something CRAWLING UNDER THE BED! I think it is a very big spider or ant!"

(The daughter frequently speaks in capital letters.)

The mother peels her eyes open and sits up, only to ascertain about two seconds later that there is no spider or ant:

It is a mouse. A little brown mouse, scurrying frantically from one side to the other.

"A MOUSE!" The daughter exclaims in delighted surprise. "I never saw a MOUSE inside a HOUSE! It is so CUTE!"

The mother things, if we have to set up a mousetrap for this little dude, she is going to be scarred for life.

Thinking fast, she dashes into the kitchen and finds a cereal bowl. "Okay," she says when she's squeezed herself back into the bedroom and closed the door, through which the mouse has already tried and failed to escape. "We're going to trap it with this bowl. And then we'll figure out what to do with it."

"We will take it back to its friends and family!" the daughter declares. "It will miss its friends and family!"

Thence follows an exciting twenty minutes of chasing the mouse from one side of the room to another. Each time the mother gets close, the mouse darts back under the queen-sized bed and out of reach. The mother fruitlessly searches for peanut butter in the kitchen, finding none. "I just want to warn you," she says carefully to the daughter, "that if we can't catch it this way, we might have to use a mousetrap, and the mouse will probably die." 

The mother enlists the help of the grandfather, hoping he'll have a better idea. But just then, as they're waiting for him to arrive in the bedroom, the mouse scurries up the wall, and—

—with reflexes like lightning, the mother traps the mouse under the cereal bowl.

It takes her a few minutes to figure out what to do now that she's got the mouse immobilized under the cereal bowl. Heavy paper would work, but she's pretty sure that none exists in this simply-outfitted vacation home. Finally she remembers that she brought a paperback picture book to read to her daughter at night, and instructs the daughter to retrieve it from the shelf it's on. Ever so carefully, she slips the book behind the bowl, and—the mouse remains trapped.

"Now we can take it back to its friends and family!" the daughter cries. "But... do you know where its friends and family are?"

"I'm pretty sure," says the mother as she puts on her boots, "that they live in the trees on the other side of the street."

End Scene on a shot of the mother feeling sleepy but victorious, and seriously contemplating rechristening herself The Great Cindy, Valiant In The Face Of Speedy Rodents.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

this is what it feels like


This post has been bubbling around in my consciousness for months now. More than once, I've thought about writing it and then stopped myself. No, I've thought. I don't want to make people feel bad. I don't want to burn bridges. I don't want to deal with responses telling me that the way I'm feeling isn't valid. I don't have the oomph to listen to people tell me I'm wrong. I just don't have the energy.

But you know what? It's been months, and the grease-fire that is the healthcare debate in our country is just getting worse and worse. Today, the most hardline conservative members of the House of Representatives convinced the White House to strip even more protections out of an already-terrible healthcare reform bill, and they're after even more—including the piece of the law that bans insurance companies from charging more to people with chronic or genetic illnesses. Like, you know, me. And I am left with this burning desire to share these feelings, to speak plain words, to do whatever I can to give people a peek into what it feels like to be a chronically ill, disabled adult with close to half a million dollars a year in medical bills right now. And I'm posting it on my public-facing blog, because this is real. It is important. And I am done being silent about it.

I will not speak eloquently. My words will not be beautiful. They will probably be angry, and they will definitely be stark. And maybe they will make you mad. If that's the case, I'm sorry—except not that sorry, because maybe that anger will also give you understanding, offer a glimpse into the anger and fear and hurt and grief that I've been feeling these last months. Because there has been so much of all of that. So much that some days I feel like I can't function. So much that some days I sit on the couch trying to disengage from news headlines while I hide furtive tears from my daughter. So much that when I gather my nice words to post educational items about healthcare on Facebook, it feels like a Herculean effort, because all I want to do is cry and scream and rage against the world.

Because this is what it feels like, being me:

On November 8th, 2016, you start crying as election results come in and you do not stop for days. You cry in your sleep, which you didn't know was possible. You cry and you cry and you cry and you think, how could people that I know and love care for me so little as to vote in a man who has made it his life work to undo the laws that are the only reason I have healthcare right now?

In the months that follow, you have lots of days where you don't even want to go out in public, don't want to go to church, don't want to run into anybody you know, because if they ask you how you're doing you know that they don't want to hear that you're having an existential crisis over how calmly everybody is debating what your life is or isn't worth.

You have always loved your country. Independence Day is your favorite holiday. But lately, you find yourself hating living here with a passion, fantasizing about moving abroad—and not even because of the superior healthcare, but because you aren't sure you can take another day of living in a country in which people spend their days saying things like Why should I have to pay for somebody who's sick? and you know, even if they don't, that the subtext of that is Why should I care if sick people die?

You get angry sometimes, when friends gush about your adorable child. You want to take them by the shoulders and shake them and shout DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT THIS CHILD, THIS BEAUTIFUL GIRL WHO DANCES IN SUNLIGHT, IS EXACTLY WHAT'S AT STAKE? Don't you understand that I am fighting so that she can grow up with a mother, fighting so that I can live long enough to hold her own babies someday, as slim as that possibility might be?

You have had setbacks in your access to insurance in the past, but never before have you genuinely thought, I could truly die because of this. But now that thought is in the back of your mind always, always, without ceasing. You tell your husband to freeze your retirement for awhile, not to buy a new car, not to do anything with your first payment from your debut novel. You spend your time thinking of contingency plan after contingency plan. You pray all day some days. And other days, you don't pray at all, because you know that sometimes God allows people to suffer and you can't even bear to think that maybe he could allow your sweet daughter to suffer without a mother.

You cry typing these words. You cry and cry and cry.

Rich men with nothing at stake debate your fate in Congress. Patronizing friends and family assure you that "it will all work out," that "they have a plan to take care of everyone," that "it won't be as bad as you think," that "you have to be positive." And you want to yell, I have ALWAYS been positive. I am an optimist. But these months have buried my optimism so deep I don't even know where it's hiding.

People complain that their healthcare is expensive, and you think: Yeah. Healthcare IS expensive. Because for you, it has never not been expensive; there has almost never been a time at which you weren't paying at least 10% of your income in medical expenses.

People say I can't afford to use the health insurance I pay for, and you think: Good for you. It's lucky that you have that choice. Because no matter how high your deductible has been in the past, you have always had to meet it, because it was between expense and death. Because, in the end, you'd rather be broke than dead.

And through it all—through all the conversations and the headlines and the long, long nights of fear, you are never allowed to forget just how little your country values bodies like yours, just how little most people genuinely care. Sure, they might care about you, objectively, because you're related or because you write funny Facebook posts or because you have interesting conversations. But as a whole, your fellow Americans care only for bodies that are whole and strong and healthy. People talk about "making wise choices" and "saving for healthcare when you need it" and "taking care of your health so you don't need interventions" and you want to rage, scream, throw things, shout about how sometimes you're not lucky enough to be born with genes that work, and sometimes you cost half a million dollars a year in medical care for conditions that are interwoven with your DNA.

You think about all the tiny aggressions you've dealt with in your life—the people who snapped at you for using a disabled placard, or the professors who tried to flunk you because you missed all those classes due to repeated hospitalizations, or all the many, many people who simply haven't understood the reality of your limited, liminal life. And you think about how you always assumed that these were the outliers, the fringe wackos who lacked compassion, the few and far between.

And about how you were clearly wrong. Because now, those who lack compassion are not at the fringe. They are everywhere. They are controlling your government. They are making passionless decisions about whether a body like yours has any value at all.

And you are not sure you have ever felt so alone.

.   .   .   .   .

(Note: I'm disabling comments on this post, and while I don't have the ability to do that when sharing on Facebook, I will summarily delete any comments that tell me that I'm overreacting, that I'm wrong, or anything at all about the ACA legislation. Because this is the very deepest, rawest part of me, laid bare, and I am heartily done debating whether or not a life like mine has value. Period.)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

In Defense Of Kidlit: Why "Harry Potter" Qualifies As Great Literature


Over the weekend, my college-age brother had a rousing discussion on his Facebook page responding to the question "is Harry Potter 'great literature?'" The bulk of the questions were from his fellow college students, dryly opining about how Harry Potter couldn't possibly be considered great literature because it wasn't as "intellectually stimulating" as Shakespeare. 

Needless to say, after 24 hours of reading those posts, my little kidlit-writing, Harry-Potter-loving self was getting kind of steamed.

Yesterday afternoon Mahon took Kate to run a bunch of errands. Background info: I've been sick, really sick, for two weeks, and done almost nothing but lay on the couch in that time. So the combination of sick + alone + stir-crazy and bored led to something that could be interpreted as foolish: I spent twenty minutes writing an 1100-word manifesto in response to that Facebook thread on why I'm willing to bet that Harry Potter will, in time, be remembered as a classic.

Here are the six points (all of the other titles alluded to were works, or authors, previously brought up in the discussion), plus one added for the purposes of this blog post because I didn't think of it till just now:

1) You cannot compare Harry Potter to Shakespeare or even to Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson. Those are ALL DIFFERENT CATEGORIES. Harry Potter is children's fiction; the others are all adult (and one is adult stage plays which is completely different also). The only sorts of classics to which you could reasonably compare Harry Potter would be things like ALICE IN WONDERLAND or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA; both considered classics just as much as THE SCARLET LETTER is considered a classic. Trying to be like "Harry Potter is no Bronte!" is like saying "Man, my sock really doesn't make a very tasty sandwich." Children's literature has different rules, goals, and things that make it great than adult fiction does. End of story. Even adult genre fiction (Sanderson, Jordan) are very different than children's genre fiction.

2) Classic literature wasn't "classic" when it was being published. In fact, most of the greats we read in English classes today were the pulp popular fiction of their day. Jane Austen? Read far and wide by people who were slightly embarrassed to admit they were reading books about a woman instead of "important literature." Shakespeare? Many of his contemporaries scorned him as an intellectual lightweight who just pandered to popular opinion. (And they thought that the things we recognize today as innovative were just stupid.) The ones who weren't in this category were, by and large, overlooked. In other words... people said the same things about most of our "classics" that people say today about Harry Potter.

3) JK Rowling is no slouch. Her "single mom rags to riches" image—which, by the way, is part of book marketing; people are more likely to read something by somebody with a fantastic Cinderella story than by a savvy classical scholar—aside, she was an extremely well-educated woman who'd been practicing writing for awhile when she finally got her big break. (On average in creative industries it takes, like, a decade to become "an overnight success.") The symbolism and classical scholarship in her books goes MILES deep. Few modern children's authors have such a subtle and masterful grasp on using symbolism and fine-detail-work as Rowling does. People rag on them for being long, but there are pretty much no wasted details in the series: think about how many "huh?" moments there were in the movies when they removed a bunch of the smaller, "unimportant" moments from the book. For an example of the kind of mind-blowing meanings hidden in microscopic details that I'm talking about, check out this link, which got shared during the Facebook conversation.

Also, few authors in any genre have as good a handle on long-form series; think of how many trilogies kind of fizzle out before they even get to the end, and yet Rowling managed to craft a behemoth of a series without a lot of dull, lagging spots, and with each book having its own strong story arc while playing perfectly to the arc of the series as a whole. The themes in Harry Potter are also incredibly deep as well—layers and layers of different themes that touch on some of the biggest questions literature can touch on (death, afterlife, loss, handling grief gracefully, friendship, imperfect people in positions of authority, the frailty of the wisest, prejudice, classism/racism, the supernal nature of good vs evil, etc). So I'd argue that Rowling did do a lot structurally that was meaningful—done in both a way, and to a degree, that most writers have not been able to pull off.

4) At the end of the day, people hate on both genre literature (ie, fantasy) and children's literature ALL THE TIME. In the children's lit world, we sit around and vent to each other about the incredibly rude things people say to us (like, "Oh, that's nice—do you think you'll ever write a REAL novel?"), because it's such a prevalent attitude in society. But make no mistake: just because a children's novel is more accessible and quicker to read than an adult novel doesn't mean that it's automatically less-than. There's a reason that children's novels tend to be the ones that many adults remember and speak of most vividly, and it isn't (as much as we English majors might sometimes like to think it is) because the general population is too stupid to comprehend HEART OF DARKNESS. It's because children's literature is a profound part of what shapes us and makes us who we are. Good children's books inform our opinions, our empathies, our deep thoughts. Good children's books are also universal in nature, tapping into deep themes and emotions from people all across the age spectrum, which is why adults often still gravitate towards YA and children's fiction plenty of the time. Just because something is written for children doesn't make it either childish or Not An Important Book. Likewise with genre fiction; just because something involves magic, or a funny best friend, or dragons, doesn't mean it can't also contain deep and important reflections on the human condition.

5) Even if all the above were not true... things can be great literature even if they're not replete with deep symbolism and statements on the nature of mankind. There are plenty of books that are considered classics today that are classic just because the author was very witty, or because she was terrific at creating characters, or because it was the kind of book that people just genuinely enjoyed reading. And particularly in children's fiction, great literature can take all forms; what makes it great is the two-pronged effect of resonance and endurance—i.e., how much it resonates with people, makes them question what they've believed or come to know themselves or the world better, and also whether it's a "passing fad" kind of book or a "stands the test of time" one. There are certain books that have had almost as much popularity as HP which I'm willing to bet won't be remembered as classics, because they lacked one or both of those elements. But, by the same token, I'm willing to bet that Harry Potter will be one that endures, in the vein of Lewis Carrol or C. S. Lewis or any other classic children's literature.

6) Things also don't have to be Great Literature to be worthwhile (though, as I said at length in my overly wordy essay above, I think HP falls into that category). Particularly with kidlit, not all books are going to have that resonance or endurance, and that's OK; at the end of the day, the sacred responsibility of children's literature is creating readers

7) In the English literature world, we sometimes fall into this false dichotomy—assuming that something cannot be both enjoyable and meaningful, that if we're not working rigorously to access a piece of literature, then that means that it, in turn, is not rigorously challenging us. Likewise, we often have a false dichotomy about other things that are "good for us", like vegetables: our culture is filled with this idea that vegetables are something that we have to suffer through in order to grow strong. Personally, I don't know about you, but I think vegetables are divine. Properly cooked, a bowl of green beans or steamed broccoli stands up there with dessert, as far as I'm concerned. The idea that healthy foods can't also taste good is patently false, and I think the same holds true for the idea that Meaningful Works of Literature can't also be accessible, enjoyable, or fun. Quite often, the works of fiction that have the most wide-reaching and transformative effect are also the most exciting—the kinds of books that we want to dive into and stay in, while simultaneously having our worldview challenged and our empathy deepened. Something can be both fun and important, both delicious and healthy. It's not a zero-sum game, where only the Really Smart People can access Great Literature. 

In fact, I'd say that the truly greatest works of literature are the ones that draw regular people into them, inspiring them to engage with a book even if they're not really the "reading type," while subtly challenging their worldview, their sense of self, and forcing them to reevaluate and recommit to a meaningful life. Great literature does all of this while also masterfully using literary techniques and creating the kind of narrative that lingers with readers for the rest of their lives. By all these metrics? I'd say Harry Potter succeeds very well, indeed.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The World Is Wide Enough: Dealing With Jealousy In Your Writing Life


Let me just start this post off with a little honesty: generosity and the celebration of others' successes is not, shall we say, my strong suit. I am by nature a jealous person; I tend to have a lot of knee-jerk envy even in situations where envy is abjectly ridiculous. When I was on the agent hunt, I felt envious of friends who found agents before I did, or even people I didn't know who found agents before I did. When I was on submission (which was thankfully a very brief time for me, and so I definitely didn't have room for jealousy!), I felt envious of friends whose books sold in two days. When I was waiting to announce my book deal, I felt envious of friends who got to announce sooner than I did. Even now, in this happy place of my-dream-has-come-true and before the full anxiety of being a debut author has struck, I feel envious of silly things, things I won't even be eligible for for a long time: starred reviews, fancy author blurbs, second and third book deals.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I suspect that I'm not the only writer who struggles with the little green monster on the daily. And today, that's what I want to talk about.

When you're a struggling writer (and let's face it—we are all, at every point of the journey, struggling in one way or another), the sense of scarcity can be crippling. Every day, people are finding agents, getting book deals, holding their books in their hands, hitting bestseller lists. And with every author that achieves the milestone you're desperately seeking yourself, it can feel like your chance of succeeding just got a little further away.

But she signed with my dream agent, and now that agent won't be taking on new clients for awhile!

But if that editor offered on his book, surely she won't also offer on mine!

Her book is so similar to mine that surely no agent/editor/reader will want mine now!

His book is on more goodreads lists than mine, so it's sure to get more pre-publication buzz!

Her book sold for so much more money than mine, so she'll be a lead title and I won't!

I've been thinking a lot about this over the past two years, as I've battled my own jealousy demons. Often, a line from the very end of Hamilton comes back to my mind—just after Hamilton and Burr's infamous duel, as Burr realizes that their feud has cost him personally, as well as robbing the world of a fine and creative mind. I was too young and blind to see, he sings. I should've known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.

This is the thing I hold on to, the thing I remind myself of, when I'm in the grasp of envy. The world is wide enough. Another writer's success does not rob me of my own chance; the only thing stolen is the way my bitterness sucks away my joy, hopefulness, and inspiration. Sometimes, that reminder can be tough to hold on to—but for me, at least, it's been the only way to survive the emotional ups and downs of a writing career.

Here are my concrete tips for how I've learned to handle jealousy in writing relationships:

1. Allow yourself to feel what you feel.

Some people have the mysterious ability to take unpleasant emotions, look at them coolly, and then choose to discard them. My husband is one of these. I am most definitely not. I've found that the more I try to stuff icky feelings away, the more they tend to lash out in nasty and uncontrollable ways later. For me, a key part of overcoming jealousy is allowing myself to sit with that feeling, and having compassion for myself for feeling it in the first place, instead of lecturing myself about what a terrible person I am and trying to force myself to stop feeling what I'm feeling through sheer force of will.

2. What is the jealousy really telling you?

For me, jealousy is often a surface emotion, a glossy veneer over the thing I'm really feeling deep down inside: Fear. Fear that I'll never get an agent, or sell a book. Fear that my book will bomb and I'll lose the ability to do what I love on a professional level because of it. That fear can feel paralyzing, but often, being willing to name and confront it helps the jealousy that overlays it to subside.

3. Talk to a trusted friend.

I'm an extrovert, and I figure things out through talking through them. An important part of dealing with any difficult situation for me is finding a trusted friend or two with whom I can safely share my feelings. It's important that they're somebody who will neither condemn nor validate your feelings—they shouldn't be the kind of person who will say either "Oh yeah, you're SO much better than that other writer, YOU should've gotten the agent instead!" or "How could you be so small-minded? Just grow up and get over yourself!" My trusted friends are often fellow writers, who can intimately understand the struggles I'm sharing with them, but are enough removed from the situation that they're able to empathize without being drawn into the middle of the fray.

4. If it's appropriate, talk to the person who sparked the jealousy.

Often, this isn't the right course of action. But twice in my career, there have been times where having the vulnerability to be honest helped salvage relationships that were really important to me. Early last year, while I was at a really dark place in my agent search, one of my dearest friends got an agent in a pretty fast, fairytale scenario. It. Was. So. Hard. For days, I wrestled with bitterness and envy, until that friend and I finally talked it out. Not only did our friendship survive that shift, it grew stronger as a result. Likewise, this summer when my book sold quickly, that was tough on another dear friend who'd been on submission longer than I had. Luckily for me (since she's an awesome friend I would've been heartbroken to lose!), we both worked hard to make sure that we were on the same page in how we planned to deal with that transition.

If you're the one feeling jealous, be honest with your friend. Tell her that you love her, and that you're happy for her success, but explain why it's hard for you to hear. Try to come to an arrangement that works for both of you in terms of how, and how often, she brings up her exciting news to you.

On the other hand, if you're the one who's had success and you know your friend is struggling with it, be sensitive to her feelings. Ask her if she'd like to be kept abreast of your exciting developments, or if she'd rather not have all the details. Know that she's thrilled for you, but also sad for herself, and that both those emotions can exist together without invalidating each other.

5. Focus on the things you CAN control.

Sometimes, that might be drafting the book you're working on, or polishing up a certain aspect of craft you're struggling with. Sometimes, that might be offering to critique others' work as a way to both get out of your own head a little bit and grow as a writer—last year when I was struggling so much, I offered to crit more than I ever have in my life, and although on occasion that was tough, it was also immensely helpful both for strengthening my own writing and for feeling like I was doing something that was objectively, measurably helpful and successful. And other times, it might be focusing on something completely different: A non-writing-related hobby, or parenting, or your day job. Writing is a tough business, and it's imperative to place as much focus as you can on the things that are in your control, because—like it or not—many things just aren't.

6. If all else fails, fake it till you make it.

I won't lie, I kind of hate that advice in most contexts. Who honestly wants to be superficial and shallow in the face you present to the world? Still, there are times where this nugget of wisdom really is the right answer, and in my experience, jealousy is one of them. Relationships with critique partners, friends, and your writing community are precious; don't allow your jealousy to ruin them. If you're struggling with another's success, put on a smile the best you can and fake enthusiasm and congratulations until those feelings turn into something more genuine—especially if they're not a close enough friend for it to be appropriate for you to open up about your feelings. Recognize that jealousy is a real part of the writing journey, whatever point you may be at, and, in the immortal words of Elsa, be willing to do the best that you can and let it go.

.   .   .   .   .

Wherever you're at in your writing career, remember this: the world is wide enough. The world is wide enough for your stories and theirs, too. The world is wide enough for lots of starred reviews. The world is wide enough for you to find a new dream agent, even if the one you always thought you wanted turned you down. The world is wide enough, and being willing to cheer others along even when you're struggling is what will, in turn, ensure that you have a solid cheering section when your turn comes. And it will: Because the world is wide enough for your success.