My Writing Dreams

A few days ago, fellow W.O.W blogger and friend, Charlene Jimenez, and I decided we could boost our writing morale by composing posts detailing our wildest (but hopefully not out of reach) writing dreams. Charlene posted hers yesterday, so check out her writing goals, too!

Recently I’ve realized that I would get more sleep if I had less ambition and, ironically enough, fewer dreams–at least of the variety that I want to turn into reality. In an attempt to maintain my motivation, and remind myself why I keep trading sleep for writing, here are my writing dreams, no holds barred!

November, 2018

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My whippet balls up close as I work on my novel late last fall. In my writing dreams, I get to do this every day. And someone pays me for it.

After a long morning walk with my dogs followed by a three-ish mile jog and a hot shower, I settle in under a plush blanket with some loose leaf hot tea. My beagle is snuggled into her lush dog bed on the floor. My whippet’s warm little body leans into my thigh. My laptop whirs quietly on my lap. I open it and log onto my blog, where I spend thirty minutes to an hour responding to the dozens (maybe hundreds!) of comments a handful of my several thousand followers have left on my last few posts. My tea cooling and my legs growing stiff, I ask my dogs if they “wanna go for a walk.” Tails wagging, they are all too eager. We take a brisk stroll through the neighborhood, and return to the couch, where I read and comment on a few of my favorite blogs before checking my social media for a few minutes. Before I have time to see how much revenue my blog has generated this month, my cell phone rings. It’s my agent.

“I’ve got the best news for you since finding a publisher for Goodbye For Now last year.”

Sitting up a little straighter, I anxiously scratch behind my whippet’s ear. That was pretty good news, and I am not really sure she can top it.

“I’m listening,” I tell her.

“It’s gonna be a movie!” She is practically screaming. I can almost see her now, both hands flailing, smile broad and toothy, eyes squeezed shut, muscles tense with excitement–and I wonder where she is, who can actually see her, and how, with all the hand flailing, she has managed not to drop her cell phone yet.

“What? What is?” Surely she isn’t telling me my debut novel, Goodbye For Now, published roughly one year ago, is going to appear on the big screen.

But she is. That is exactly what she’s telling me.

“And there’s more,” she breathes.

What could be more? My blog has gone viral. My recreational writing classes are always well-attended. My novel is published. My novel is going to become a movie. And there’s more?

Terry Gross wants to schedule an interview with you on NPR‘s Fresh Air!”

It takes an inhuman effort for me to control myself, and I can’t wait to get off the phone so I can stop trying, and start dancing around the family room and kitchen, both dogs hovering around my feet, the sound of their little talons on the hardwood and tile floors musical and festive.

January, 2020

(Note: I have no idea how long making a movie actually takes…)

Yesterday was my 36th birthday. Today, I will walk down the red carpet, my husband and dogs (I insisted they be allowed to come–family, after all) by my side, to see the movie premier of the book I wrote. I don’t know how to confirm this is my reality–this is my life. For so long it was a sometimes elusive-seeming dream. But it was a dream I never stopped believing in, never stopped working for, never stopped loving to dream. And maybe all that is what has made today–has made this life of mine–possible.

And the best part? It’s not over. I have a new novel in the works; an anthology of poetry due out in the spring, when I will spend several weeks in Florida with my sister’s family; a collection of personal narratives about to come out; a few articles set to run in The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with some other, smaller publications; and book signings, writing conferences, and lectures at schools and libraries pepper my calendar. And of course there will be those quiet days of peaceful writing, the dogs cuddling beside me, the candles burning, and maybe, on a really special day, a few flakes of snow drifting down in a sort of choreographed chaos outside my window.

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The sunrise over Lake Huron, as viewed from the breakwater in Lexington, Michigan, in August 2015. In my writing dreams, I get to spend a couple weeks each summer writing and reading along these shores.
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A view of the sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where I often walk my dogs. If my writing dreams come true, this is another place I would spend days at a time reading and writing–and getting paid for both.
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The Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia, just before it opens up into the Chesapeake Bay, as photographed this July. In my writing dreams, I get to spend weeks on this beach, or nearby, reading and writing and walking my dogs.

Come summer, I will take a break from formal appearances and teaching classes I designed to take my writing on the road, spending a few weeks writing on the shores of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, taking sunrise and sunset strolls on the breakwater with my dogs. Then, we’ll head to the sound side of the Outer Banks, where I will read and write from the screened porch overlooking the sound, the sun dipping into its waters just before disappearing, the frogs and bugs ushering in the moonlight. And of course I will spend countless days indulging my literary habits on my back deck at home in the sunshine, and in the rural Northern Neck of Virginia, home to farmers and fishermen alike.

April, 2034

My niece sits on a train somewhere in Europe, a few weeks into her study abroad adventure. Across the train car from her, a woman is reading a novel, Auf Wiedersehen fuer jetzt. My niece smiles, the homesickness she had been feeling just a few minutes before assuaged, at least for now. The woman glances up and their eyes meet. My niece smiles warmly, and the woman smiles back, over the top of her book.

“My aunt wrote that book,” my niece tells her over the clamor of the train, the landscape outside the window behind the woman a blur of green fields and gray skies, just brush strokes of color speeding by.

The woman sets the book down on her lap, keeping her place with a finger.

“Wirklich? Deine Tante?” Her eyes glimmer with star-struck disbelief.

“Ja. Meine Tante.” My niece nods, the warmth of pride and a sense of never being alone swelling up in her chest.

July, 2090

A great grandnephew I have never met browses a used bookstore in downtown Richmond. He and his girlfriend pull books off the shelf, smelling the pages and flipping curiously through them. His girlfriend pulls a book off the shelf, its pages yellowed, its cover well worn. She flips the pages  with her thumb, holds the book in front of her face, and takes a deep breath. The cover catches my great grandnephew’s eyes.

“Hey,” he says, gently taking the book from her hands. He turns the front cover towards her. “Look at this.” He points to the name of the author at the bottom.

“Amanda Sue Creasey,” his girlfriend slowly reads. “Creasey like you. Do you know her?”

“No. She died right before I was born, but she’s my great aunt.”

“Wow…” His girlfriend takes the book back. “That’s really cool.”

“It was made into a movie and everything.”

“Really? We need to buy this book–and we should watch that movie tonight.”

My great grandnephew smiles.

“Okay,” he says.

As they wait in the checkout line, the book held tightly against my great grandnephew’s chest, his girlfriend turns to him.

“Hey,” she says, “don’t you like to write, too?”

May all our writing dreams come true!

 

 

Patience, Persistence, and Pineapples

Maybe you’ve heard you can do anything you put your mind to. Maybe you’ve heard you can be anything you want to be. Maybe you’ve heard you can grow a pineapple by planting the crown of a store-bought fruit in soil. Maybe you’ve believed these things. Maybe you haven’t.

They’re all true.

Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.

Let’s start with the pineapple. When my dad handed me the crown of a fruit he’d just chopped into chunks and told me to plant it–it’d grown, I didn’t believe him. But, to humor him, I went ahead and plunked the “plant” in a pot of dirt. Imagine my surprise when days, weeks, months later, it wasn’t dead. Imagine my further surprise when years later, I had re-potted it several times, until it grew almost too heavy to move, and spread itself out almost four feet in diameter. But I got my biggest surprise from Mr. Pineapple, as

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The freshly-planted crowns of three freshly-chopped pineapple fruits await their delivery to new homes this spring. As of this writing, at least two have grown enough to require new pots.

my husband and I had taken to calling the plant (that’s right–the plant had seen me graduate from college, get married, buy a house, and start my career), when, upon watering him one day, I noticed what looked like a miniature pineapple sprouting from the center of his crown. Mr. Pineapple was pregnant! Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.

 

Since then, I’ve grown nearly a dozen pineapple plants, and enjoyed the homegrown sweetness of their plant-ripened fruit. But the reward is not without its pains. Through growing pineapples, I have learned a lot of things–about pineapples, and about life.

Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.

First, a newly-planted crown will often look sickly for weeks after it has been planted. But don’t give up on it. If even the slightest hint of green remains, it is alive, and silently biding its time, building its resources.  Just when you start to believe it is really dead, a miracle occurs and the plant comes alive, growing so quickly it will require multiple pots before it reaches maturity.

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After a minimum of two years, a pineapple plant is mature, and capable of producing a stunning flower, which sprouts on a stalk from the center of the plant.

Second, a plant will not produce fruit until it is at least two years old. Often, it takes longer. Even when the flower appears, the time from first flower to edible fruit is about six to seven months. But at the end, you will savor the absolute sweetest, juiciest fruit you have ever tasted. It’s better than candy.

 

Third, the creative cycle never ends. After you harvest its fruit, the plant lives on, and while it will not flower or fruit again, it will produce an offshoot capable of producing fruit. In addition, the crown from the harvested fruit contains its own potential to produce fruit. It needs only to be planted, water, and tended to a bit.

Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.

Perhaps you have already guessed where I am going with this: Goals and dreams are like pineapples.

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These three mature pineapples are all growing fruit, shown sprouting from stalks at the center of each plant. All three plants are between two and three years old. A pineapple plant must reach at least the age of two before it can produce fruit.

 

First, you must never give up on them, even when the outlook seems bleak. Remember, the darkest hour precedes the dawn–and the pineapple bursts into life just when it looks like it might die instead. Along those lines: Today, I received a rejection letter from a literary magazine to which I had submitted a short story. That was, to say the least, disappointing. But–today, an article I wrote appeared in the September issue of writeHackr, and an article by a friend of mine appeared in the local paper. Though I will for the course of my literary career assuredly receive more rejections than acceptances, I hold to my acceptances. Those are my “slightest hint of green,” and they mean my writing career is still alive. In addition, no agents have shown even the slightest bit of interest in my novel (yet), but I have not given up. I don’t even feel all that discouraged, actually. Instead, I have decide to revamp my query letter and restructure my novel–a complete overhaul. Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.

 

Second, be patient with the process. Progress might be slow. It might be invisible. Never wearying, you must patiently persevere, nurturing, cherishing, and waiting on success, quietly working in the background. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.

pineapple-fruits
After a six- to seven-month “incubation” period, from first flower to ripened fruit, the pineapple fruit is ready for consumption. Patience is a virtue in both the cultivation of pineapples, and in working to achieve goals.

What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them.

Third, reach your goal, reap the benefits, savor the fruit of your labor. And then don’t stop. What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them. Much like the crown of a pineapple, so easily discarded and forgotten, can be the start of another succulent fruit, a chapter you had to cut from your novel might prove the jumping-off point for your next big idea.

Just as I didn’t recognize the potential of that first pineapple crown years ago–had no idea what it was capable of–you might not know what stories, poems, novels, or screenplays you have stored up inside of you. Not, at least, until you cultivate them, nourish them, take the necessary steps to bring them to life. No matter what.

pineapple-chunks-at-river
After two to three years’ worth of watering, re-potting, transporting, trimming, and loving my pineapple plants, and six to seven months of watching the flowers bud, blossom, and ripen into fruit, I enjoy the juicy, fragrant fruits of my labor on the rocks of the James River–appropriately enough, on Labor Day.

 

My Ego and Constructive Criticism

Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.

My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).

In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.

They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.

They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.

In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.

And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.

It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing  or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.

A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.

At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.

But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.

An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.

When it comes to Beaches and Books, Never Give Up

Last Friday morning, my friend Lauren and I set out with my two dogs for a day trip to the Northern Neck of Virginia. We anticipated a day of sunshine and salty breezes, scouring the sand for sea glass and cooling our skin in the brackish water on the quiet beach, where the fresh waters of the Potomac River begin to mix with the saltier waves of the Chesapeake Bay. Our plan was to leave Richmond by 8 o’clock, landing ourselves on the warm sand by ten. We’d spend about four hours in a state of summer solitude, just two friends and two dogs soaking up the sunshine, catching up on each others’ lives, and strolling the strip of sand that is the beach. By 2 o’clock, we’d enjoy cruising the country roads home.

Last June, I equally optimistically started a different kind of journey: writing my first (and so far only) novel. I was convinced I could accomplish this goal before the end of the summer. I wrote almost every single day, anywhere from 500-3500 words a day. I spent hours outside on my back deck, typing away, bringing my characters and their circumstances to life, my whippet and beagle by my side. My plan was to have a near-perfect draft finished before another school year began in the fall.

After a pit stop or two, Lauren, the dogs, and I found ourselves finally on the road leading to the beach. This road is the absolute only way to reach the beach. As we rounded the last curve before the straightway to the water, we were greeted by three or four standing vehicles, a fire truck, a utility truck, and a few people pacing the street or leaning nonchalantly against their cars. The orange lights perched atop the utility truck were silently flashing, as were the lights atop the fire truck. Directly in front of the two emergency vehicles, a large, downed tree draped in power lines like tinsel on a Christmas tree blocked the road.

I slowed to a stop.

“Well,” I said. “This is probably the most exciting thing to happen here since forever.”

A man dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt approached and, hoping for an explanation, I rolled down my window and learned that though the fire department was on-scene, the power lines were still live, and the firefighters could do nothing about the downed tree or blocked road until the power company shut off power. No one knew when that might be.

“What do we do?” I said. “Do we just turn around and go home?” It seemed such a sad solution after driving so far, with such high hopes.

Lauren and I deliberated for a few minutes as to our other options, and adjusted our plans. At my parents’ recommendation, we drove to a small, public beach about 15 minutes away, hoping to let the dogs stretch their legs in the sand, and sit on the beach to eat the sack lunches we had packed. Then, perhaps we would revisit the scene of the fallen tree in hopes that everything had been cleared up, and the road reopened.

When the end of August arrived, my novel was closer to finished–but not actually so. That was okay, I told myself. The James River Writers Annual Conference was in October, and I could pitch to an agent then. I simply adjusted myself to the idea of a new deadline: October. As long as I was finished by October, and ready to pitch to an agent, I would be satisfied. And so, whenever I could find time between grading research papers and essays, I kept writing. The goal seemed achievable.

As we pulled into the little gravel parking lot at the end of the country road to Vir Mar Beach, the skies darkened slightly and the breeze picked up, the day feeling more like late October than late July.

“Watch. Now that we’ve finally found a beach, it’s gonna rain,” Lauren joked. No sooner had she spoken than a few stray drops landed with quiet taps on the windshield. Despite the spitting skies, I harnessed up the dogs and led them up the wooden steps, over the dune, and onto the beach.

Or at least what was left of it.

The tide must have been in, and it was so windy that the waves were rolling up almost to the sea grasses at the base of the dune, leaving only a small strip of damp sand, at its widest point perhaps a foot thick. In addition, the beach itself ran only about thirty to fifty feet in either direction before we were abruptly met with “Private Beach” signs, warning us back onto public sands. I walked the dogs to one end of the beach and back in less than three minutes, and Lauren and I ate our lunches in my parked car.

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After their short stroll on Vir Mar Beach, the pup dogs wait patiently for me to share my lunch, a picnic-on-the-beach-turned-picnic-in-the-parked-car.

I wasn’t done with my novel by October, though I did make my first (albeit sorry) attempt at a pitch to a kind agent at the James River Writers Annual Conference, who told me she couldn’t really do anything without a manuscript, but generously offered to read sample pages if I sent them her way when I had a completed draft. I left the conference feeling both discouraged and inspired. I had not met my second deadline: my novel was still incomplete. I had not met my goal: I did not have an agent. But I did have reason to keep writing. So I did.

As Lauren and I finished our lunches, the same breeze blowing water across the beach to effectively obscure it, became more helpful, and began blowing away the low, dark clouds to allow the sun to make an appearance.

“Should we go back and see if the tree and power lines are all taken care of?” I asked.

Lauren agreed, and we were pleased to round the curve and find a clear route to the beach.

Just two days before Christmas, I finally completed the first draft of my novel. Few accomplishments in my life have been so satisfying, and though I knew my work was not done, I could finally say it: I wrote a book.

Although we had a mere hour before we needed to head home in time to be ready for our separate evening obligations, Lauren and I were rewarded for our determination to reach the beach. The sun broke through the clouds and warmed the sand. The water was clear and not as roiling as it had been earlier in the day, when we had seen it spilling onto the sands of little Vir Mar Beach. We found handfuls of colorful sea glass, and the dogs gleefully sniffed and wandered and waded.

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Lauren’s celebratory selfie: We finally reached the beach!

By this June, I had completed three drafts of my novel, and felt ready to start the querying process. In July, I was thrilled to see an e-mail in my inbox from one of the agents to whom I had sent a query and some sample pages. My enthusiasm was dampened slightly when I opened the message, a polite and warmhearted thanks-but-no-thanks. I was not surprised, really, but I was somewhat disappointed. Still, I press on, more or less undaunted, and am currently working on the fourth draft, which I hope will fare better in its quest to find an agent, when the time comes.

While it was hard to go home so soon after finally reaching our destination, I found inspiration in the ultimate result of the day. Lauren, the dogs, and I had had to go through several obstacles to reach a goal we originally took for granted as easy to attain. We had had to be flexible. We had had to be persistent. We had had to remain steadfast in our goal despite many reasons to give in: a blocked road and seemingly inclement weather, with no clear end in sight for either. And because we had succeeded in all these, we had gotten an hour more on the beach than we would have gotten otherwise.

The connection between that Friday adventure and my writing is clear to me: We could have turned around, abandoning our goal altogether, at the first sign of trouble. But we didn’t. Many times in my writing process, I could have done the same. But I haven’t.

My dedication and determination to not only finish my book, but also to find an agent and publisher for it, once it is more polished, and Lauren’s and my dedication and determination to just make it to the beach are one in the same. I am confident that if, like Lauren and I last Friday, I can remain optimistic, perseverant, and dedicated, I will ultimately hold my book in my hand–and maybe someday, see it in the hands of others. And when that day comes, I will finally be able to sit back, turn my face to the sun, and bask on my own beach.

Just for a few minutes–before I start writing again.

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Our efforts were rewarded with an hour of this scene, enjoying the view from Virginia, standing on the shores of the Potomac River where it meets the Chesapeake Bay.

The Business Side of Writing: Record Keeping

In addition to the many writing techniques and skills I learned during my Master’s program in creative writing, I was introduced to the idea of a submissions spreadsheet. Although I had been submitting writing to contests and publishers as early as elementary school, when in fifth grade I entered (and won!) my first Young Authors competition, I was in my mid-twenties before it ever occurred to me to record my submission activities. Truth be told, it didn’t occur to me, exactly–a professor mentioned it in a course I was taking, and I thought: “Why didn’t I think of that?” And more, importantly: “Why haven’t I been doing that?” So, at the age of 25, fifteen years after beginning my publishing endeavors, I created a submissions spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel. Now, I keep it in two places: a flash drive in the original Excel file, and Google Sheets online.

What to Include in a Submissions Spreadsheet

At the very top of my spreadsheet appears the date I began keeping the record, in my case, September 21, 2009. Below, are categories of information I track.

Title of Work

The very first column in my file is the title of the piece. You may prefer to set up your record so that the first column lists a different detail of the work, but I find that the easiest way for me to quickly identify a work is by its title.

Genre

My second column lists the genre of the work–poem, novel, narrative essay, for example. This allows me to see which types of writing I have had the most success with, as well as which types I am most or least often submitting, or have most or least recently been submitting.

Submitted To

In the third column, I list the name of the agent, publisher, or publication to which I sent the work.

Date Submitted

The fourth column simply lists the date I submitted the work to the publisher, agent, or publication. Many publications will give you a time frame for when you can expect to hear back, 3-4 or 6-8 weeks, for example. If you know when you submitted work to them, you can also estimate when you can expect to hear back. As many agents and publications will respond only if they are interested in your work, knowing when the time frame has expired can be beneficial in letting you know when it is safe to send the piece elsewhere, especially when you are sending it to publications that may not allow simultaneous submissions.

Responds in…

My “Responds in…” column refers to how long I can expect to wait before hearing back from an agent, publisher, or publication, for example 3-4 weeks if interested, one month if interested, 6-8 weeks, etc. Knowing the date submitted as well as the “responds in,” or turnaround, time can help you determine when you should give up on a certain publisher, agent, or publication, and move on to other options.

If an agent, publisher, or publication responds, I return to this column and add the date I received the response and/or the amount of time that elapsed between my submission and the publisher’s/agent’s/publication’s response. This way, if I ever submit work to the same agent, publisher, or publication, I can estimate with even more accuracy when I might expect to hear back.

Accepted/Rejected

In this column, I track whether the piece was accepted for publication or not (I categorize pieces that were ignored as “rejected”). I have read of other writers who find the word “rejected” too harsh and discouraging, but I have found this whole writing business requires a tough skin, so if my writing is not accepted by an agent, publisher, or publication, I just call it what it is: rejected.

Date Published

If a piece of my writing is accepted for publication, I record the date it was published. This information comes in handy when updating my resume or my LinkedIn and Contently profiles, writing cover letters or query letters, or locating my work online. It also gives me an idea of when my dry spells and hot spells have been, allowing me to look for patterns and identify what factors might have led to publishing success in a certain time frame, but a lack of success in another.

Amount Earned

The last column of my spreadsheet details how much money, if any, I earned from a certain piece of writing. This can be helpful for tax purposes, budgeting purposes, etc.

You will need to decide what categories are most appropriate for your own submission spreadsheet based on your writing and your organizational style, but the above are some fundamental ones to consider in getting started. Others might include word-count or line-count, draft number, time elapsed from starting to finishing a piece, feedback received from publication/agent, etc.

 

Rookie Mistakes that Ruin your Writing

As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.

Inconsistent Tense

I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.

The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.

Unnatural Dialog

Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.

While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.

  2. Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.

  3. Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.

Clichéd Characters

Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:

  1. Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.

  2. Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.

  3. Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.

  4. Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.

  5. Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.

  6. Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.

  7. Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.

Weak Words

I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

Inconsistent Perspectives

First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.

Query Letters and Pitches: The Dos and Don’ts

Whenever you tell people you’re writing or have written a novel, they are (usually) instantly impressed. But if you’ve written or are writing a novel, then you know: Writing the novel was the easy part. Writing your query letter and crafting your pitch are infinitely more daunting tasks. The truly impressive achievement would be boiling your novel down to its core, to explain its marketability, significance, and plot in roughly one page–and so effectively that an agent, who has thousands of writers clamoring for his attention, decides he wants to devote it to you and your work. Because I truly do find writing a one-page query letter and delivering a 60- to 90-second pitch much more difficult than writing and revising a 110,000-word novel, I recently attended an Agile Writers of Richmond event called Beyond Agile Writers: The Elevator Pitch with Shanelle Calvin. Below are my takeaways.

Query Letters and Pitches: The Dos

  1. Know your audience. Research the agent(s) you plan to address. Know the genres they prefer to read, know their basic background information. One concept Ms. Calvin reiterated was that if you want agents to invest in you, you have to show you are willing to invest–and have invested–in them. (See “Don’t #1”)
  2. Be authentic. Your tone, whether during a pitch or within a query letter, should be the tone of the novel and the tone of your brand. Make sure this tone is consistent on your social media platforms, as well.
  3. Show, don’t tell. Through social media followings, reviews of your work, author recommendations, the tone of your letter and/or pitch, and strong verbs, prove your book is marketable.
  4. Be clear and specific. If you are sending a query letter via e-mail, make sure that both the e-mail’s subject line and the body of the e-mail clearly communicate that the purpose of your message is to query. Including the word “query” in your subject line is advisable.
  5. Follow the directions. Every agent to whom you send work will have different requirements. Some will request the first ten pages of the manuscript to be e-mailed with the query in an attachment. Others might instruct you to send the first twenty pages of the manuscript in the body of the e-mail, below the query. Make sure you carefully review what each individual agent requires, and follow those directions scrupulously.
  6. Provide a comparison. If you believe your work resembles the works of a well-known author, point out the similarity. For example, you might say something like, “In a novel comparable to the works of Mitch Albom…,” or “In a piece reminiscent of Fried Green Tomatoes…,” or “In the spirit of works such as…” (See Don’t #2)
  7. Be visible and present. On social media that is. You want agents to be able to find you. Whether you use LinkedIn, Facebook, Snapchat, Periscope; whether you maintain a blog or a website or both; it is important that agents can find you, as well as any works you may already have published. If you do maintain a blog or a website, directing an agent to it in your query can be helpful, provided it is relevant to the work you are pitching. (See Don’t #6)
  8. Dress the part. If you have a meeting or an appointment at a conference to pitch your novel, present yourself professionally. While wearing a suit and tie may not be consistent with your brand, and such a formal outfit may not be necessary, it is important to dress in a respectful, appropriate manner that will leave a positive impression. (See Don’t #7)
  9. Compel a response with a call to action. Make sure to end your pitch or query letter with a call to action. If the agent does not request a portion of the manuscript to be sent in with the query, for example, you might close with, “May I send you the first chapter of my manuscript?” If the agent’s query requirements already request a sample from the manuscript, you might close with something like, “I hope you will provide some feedback on my work.” Alternatively, you could close with questions you have for the agent. Anything that begs a response is helpful in maintaining the communication, and in letting an agent know what your ideal next steps would be.
  10. Include credentials. If you are a member of writing clubs or organizations, let agents know. If you have other work published, let agents know. If you have a degree in creative writing or have received a fellowship or other honors, let agents know.
  11. Include the conflict. Make sure the query or pitch clearly communicates your protagonists’ desire, as well as the obstacles to achieving that desire.
  12. Include statistics. Be sure to (accurately!) include the genre, target audience, and word count of your novel.

Query Letters and Pitches: The Don’ts

  1. Send a form letter, or send the exact same letter to multiple agents. Too often, this can result in errors fatal to your novels’ chances at publication. For example, you might remember to change the recipient’s name in the salutation of the letter, but forget that you mentioned names later in the query. Where you refer to the agent by his correct name in your greeting, later you address him as a woman–another agent to whom you sent the same query.
  2. Make outlandish and pompous claims and comparisons. While it may be acceptable to compare your work or your writing style to those of well-known authors (providing you are accurate), it is unwise (if not entirely delusional) to declare something like, “I am the next John Steinbeck” or “My book is a bestseller.”
  3. Be impatient. Most agents will give you a timeline during which you can expect to hear back from them, such as within 6-8 weeks. Let the amount of time they ask for elapse before you follow up.
  4. Be careless. Spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and poor grammar do not bode well for someone claiming to have written a marketable novel.
  5. Be long-winded. The art of both the pitch and the query lies in brevity (which is why I have not yet mastered either). You do not want to give too much away by including every detail, nor do you want to run over your allotted time during an appointment or meeting, or compose too lengthy a query letter. Any of these errors can make you seem unprepared, disorganized, and inconsiderate.
  6. Include links to irrelevant social media. While making an agent aware of your blog or website if it is consistent with your brand or pertinent to the subject matter of your work is helpful, directing them to your personal Facebook profile where you post mainly pictures of your dog is probably not helpful (unless, of course, you are pitching a book about dogs, or veterinary science, or some similar subject).
  7. Wear jeans and a T-shirt to pitch your novel. Even if your brand is casual, you want to avoid coming off as careless, sloppy, or amateur. If you want to remain consistent with a casual brand, think business casual: khakis and a polo with boat shoes, perhaps, for men.

Now, all that said, I am off to find out if I can practice what I preach by attempting to condense my nearly 110,000-word novel into a one-page query letter! I wish you happy writing (which should be easy) and happy querying (if that isn’t an oxymoron).

 

Achieving Emotional Impact: Advice from Experts

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From left to right: Moderator and author Robin Farmer listens as authors Shadeqa Johnson, Anne Blankman, and Ginger Moran respond to questions at the monthly James River Writers Writing Show. The topic of this month’s Writing Show was “Editing for Emotional Impact.”

The last Wednesday of every month, my local writing organization, James River Writers, puts on their Writing Show. Last Wednesday, I attended my second Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” hosted by author Robin Farmer, and featuring author Shadeqa Johnson, young adult author Anne Blankman, and author and book/creativity coach Ginger Moran.

I arrived at the Writing Show at 6:51, six minutes after the 6:45 start time. The lobby of the Firehouse Theater (the venue for the Writing Show) was empty, the 6 o’clock social hour in the lobby having already morphed into the presentation and moved into the auditorium. Someone from James River Writers quietly and warmly led me to what seemed to be the very last seat in the very first row. I didn’t get a program because they had already given away all 76 of them. I sat down gratefully, and settled in, optimistic that I would learn a few things I could apply to my own novel-in-progress. Despite my tardiness, my optimism was rewarded. Below, I share my lessons with you.

On Finding the Emotional Truth

As writers, part of our job is making sure our writing resonates with our readers. The most effective way to achieve this goal is to make sure our work elicits genuine emotions, and provides characters our readers can relate to. To keep a reader interested, we must make sure to hold their emotional attention–our readers must be emotionally invested in our characters. They have to cheer for them, cry with them, laugh with them. But how can we create characters and situations that foster this type of character-reader connection?

Johnson

Ms. Johnson advised that writers get themselves out of the way and listen to their characters. After you have your basic story idea figured out, she recommended you write character bios that include the characters’ vulnerabilities, what they want, and what they are willing to do to get it. She also reminded us that “the best fiction comes from truth.”

Blankman

Ms. Blankman said we need to ask ourselves: What one thing matters to the character most, and how can you threaten the safety of that one thing? She also advised to be careful to begin at the right part of the story. Make sure to reveal the character before he embarks on his emotional journey and change. What is he like before he starts to change? She cautions us not to start too late, but instead to allow our reader to meet the character before the story arc begins.

Moran

Ms. Moran, who spoke largely about nonfiction, reminded us that fiction rules also apply to nonfiction. She says her rule of thumb for plot is: It starts bad, gets worse, and then gets resolved.

On Achieving Emotional Variance

Our hostess, Robin Farmer, introduced this topic by explaining that one of the most common mistakes new novelists make is creating a protagonist who is too unhappy. Or too happy. Or too angry. Or too bitter. In short, new novelists sometimes create a character who is dominated by one character trait or mood, and is thus somewhat flat and static. Emotional variance, however, refers to the variety and spectrum of emotions people feel. In one day, even the most stable person likely experiences multiple emotions, ranging from concern to serenity, from fear to calm, from contentment to frustration.

Moran

Ms. Moran’s advise was simple: Your character needs to be likable before she is miserable.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman said she often creates an emotional checklist for her characters. One technique she uses is color coding. She assigns a certain color to each emotion, and then goes through her draft, highlighting or changing font colors accordingly. “You want a rainbow,” she said, indicating that a variety of colors implies balanced and believable emotional variance in your character.

In addition to color coding her drafts, Ms. Blankman discussed the method of creating what she termed a “peaks and valleys graph” by chapter or section. She describes plotting points on a graph according to high points (positive emotions) and low points (negative emotions). This visual can help you get a sense for how often your character is happy and how often she is sad–as well as the intensity of the joy or sorrow. A higher point would indicate a higher intensity of elation. A lower point, a deeper pit of gloom. Ideally, your chart would show several peaks and valleys, indicating you have achieved emotional variance.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson advises that the character’s emotion should change with each plot point in the outline of your story. She also recommends considering your own emotions throughout the day and “following the rhythm of life.”

On Knowing When You Are Done

While our ultimate goal is to always have that finished, polished piece, ready to send out for publication, or maybe just share with close friends and family, it can be very difficult to discern when a piece you have been working on is done–or at least as done as it’s going to get. The three authors on the panel explain how they decide when they are done below.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson described the feeling of being done as reading her work, and experiencing the sensation that someone else wrote it. She describes how the hair on her arms will stand up and says it seems as though the finished piece is “singing” to her. She knows she is done when she has nothing left to say. She also cautions us not to let our egos get in the way. Do not think, “I have to get the story out right.” Instead, realize that you are merely a conduit for the story. Sit down. Listen. Write.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman admits that she can often revise until she can no longer see her story clearly, and it becomes too familiar. She reads it so many times, she can no longer tell if it’s good or not. When she reaches this point, she either puts the piece away for a while, or sends it to a trusted critique partner.

She also advises that we need to do terrible things to our characters, and make them suffer.

Moran

Ms. Moran’s advice follows closely to the last tidbit from Ms. Blankman. To ascertain whether or not her work is finished, she asks herself the following questions:

  • Have I gone deep enough?

  • Does this hurt badly enough?

  • I let my character suffer, fail, take risks. Can I make it worse?

If she can answer yes to the first two and no to the last one, she is done. If not, she has more work to do.

On What to Avoid

It is one thing to make sure we are doing everything we should be doing, and quite another to make sure we aren’t doing everything we shouldn’t be doing. Here are some “don’t’s.”

Blankman

Ms. Blankman warns us not to be too easy on our characters. She also recommends reading books we don’t like, figuring out why we don’t like them, and then not doing whatever that is.

Moran

Ms. Moran cautions us not to focus solely on an external or an internal conflict. The best writing incorporates both.

On Books We Can Learn From

You may have heard the adage, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” Surely it is solid advice to say that one can become a much better writer through reading good authors. Below are some recommendations from the panel.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson has two requirements for books she reads: 1) they must entertain her, and 2) they must teach her something. She recommends reading Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom and Diane Whetstone’s Lazaretto.

Blankman

Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia is an excellent model because it is simple, spare, and stripped down. Raw, honest, and emotionally true. For YA she recommends Karen Cushman and Karen Hesse.

Moran

Moran’s list of models included:

Joan Didion

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Black Boy by Richard Wright

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Anne Lamott

David Sedaris

Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

On a Publisher’s Role in the Editing Process

Navigating the waters of publishing can be tricky. What are the steps? Who are the people? How do I do this? The unfortunate truth, and the reason why this process is so tricky, is: It’s different for everyone. Here is how our panelists have followed their pathways to publication.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson recommends hiring an outside editor, one not affiliated with a publisher, because they have more time to work with you than an in-house editor might.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman works with an in-house editor through Harper Collins, but says she has her manuscript pretty polished before her editor ever sees it. After she sends the work in, her editor responds with an editorial letter, which usually starts by listing all the piece’s virtues, and ends by explaining what needs to be improved or addressed. Ms. Blankman has never hired an outside editor, but she does share her work with trusted critique partners, and her agent is a former editor.

Moran

Ms. Moran advises that writers of young adult literature may not need to hire an outside editor. Because YA literature is so popular right now, a YA piece is likely to receive a lot of attention from in-house editors.Literary fiction, not so much–so if that’s what you write, you might want to consider finding your own outside editor. Lastly, Ms. Moran says you are wise to “invest in help.”

On Cutting Copy

Cutting copy is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process. How do you know what to cut and what to keep? What if you feel you must cut something you love? We all know the pain of trimming down our work.

Johnson

Johnson laughed as she said that what she was about to advise us to do, “none of you are gonna wanna do.” She was right, but it seems good advice, nonetheless. As part of her revising process, Ms. Johnson re-types every single draft. She prints it; reads it, taking notes as she goes; and then retypes it. This is helpful in cutting copy she says, because “you’ll only want to retype the good stuff.” If you find yourself thinking, as she sometimes does, “I’d rather kill myself than retype this paragraph over again,” you might not need that paragraph.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman reminds us to trust our readers. They don’t need the entire backstory. Let them fill in blanks while you drop clues for the first couple of chapters, or use flashback. She also advises not to use a prologue to tell backstory. The other authors concurred: prologues are often one of the first things an editor or publisher will cut.

Johnson

Give flashback and backstory when you need it to move forward. In other words, write your story forward until yo must go backward in order to go forward again.

Moran

Ms. Moran’s very straightforward advice was that most writers will end up needing to cut the first 40 to 130 pages of their manuscript.

(At this point in the show, an audience member recommended a book called Five Editors Tackle Twelve Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing.)

On Discovering your Characters

While our readers may not need to know every little detail of our characters’ lives, in order to tell an accurate, honest, and believable story, we do. Here is some advice on getting to know your characters.

Johnson

Write a letter to and from your character, or hold an imaginary conversation with your character.

Blankman

Write a scene where the main character isn’t the main character, a scene told from a different character’s point of view, as if he or she were actually the protagonist.

Moran

Consider all the mundane details of your character–from the kind of car she drives to the kinds of clothes in her closet. And read Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist.

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The monthly James River Writers Writing Show takes place at the Firehouse Theater in downtown Richmond. Above, writers pour out of the building after the May Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact.”