With a Little Help from My Friends

HelpingSo, this last year I had the personal goal to earn the Writer of the Year award through the Alaska Writers Guild. To do this, I had to accumulate the most points of anyone who entered the Guild’s anonymous bimonthly writing contest for members, wherein entrants write within rotating categories, and see how close to the deadline they can turn in a piece without getting disqualified. (Oh, wait, was that last part just me?)

Now I’m not all that super at nonfiction, and I truly suck at poetry, but, hands down, the hardest one of the contests for me to write was the category of Alaska Mystery. I think I’m getting phantom chest pains just thinking about it.

Two months seems like it should be plenty of time to write a story with a maximum of 2500 words, but that can seem like a mighty tight deadline when you spend the first six weeks of it feverishly drafting and then summarily executing- I kid you not- twelve different story ideas. It was very easy to feel very discouraged very quickly. And so I did, verily. With hardly more than a week left before the deadline, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But the trouble was that I keep this pesky husband. And we sometimes talk to each other about our goals and stuff. He knew what I was working toward, and he knew how important it was for me to enter every contest, even the difficult ones.

That man gave me no rest.

Every time I sat down, he’d start pestering me. “What are you working on? Are you doing the one with the mountains? With the serial killer? With the fox? What are you doing? Why? Why not? (Have a cookie.) What are you working on?” The man was relentless. And he would hear not a word of giving up, not on my goal and not on this Alaska mystery contest.

And that was before he started telling everyone we know about it, too. *shudders*

I don’t know about you, but I have confidence problems sometimes. Sometimes too much, most times not enough. My husband, and a few close friends like him, give me the kick in the pants when I want to lie down and surrender, and the tackle of forbearance when I’m full steam ahead on a really bad idea.

The secret weapon of all successful writers is tenacity. And for some of us, a little of that tenacity can be sponged off others. I tend to break down my cheerleading squad into two broad categories: writers, and nonwriters.

Writers Your fellow writers are the monarchs of commiseration. They understand what it’s like to be blocked. They know the brain-addled madness of waiting- for beta readers, for query answers, for book reviews, for sales reports. They understand the pain of rejections. They also know when a story of yours isn’t working, and are usually able to articulate what’s wrong. They’re widely read and industry savvy. Your writer friends are ideal when you have a piece that you’re working on and could use a little guidance in making it presentable.

Nonwriters These are the people who, although maybe they enjoy reading, don’t do any writing themselves. And as well as being legion in numbers, they’re also chattier than a giggling high school clique back from spring break. Once you let one of them know (cough, cough, husband, cough), they’ll all know, and they’ll all want to know why you’re not done yet. They don’t know how long drafting takes, let alone editing and submissions. And they don’t care. Your nonwriter friends are ideal when you have a concrete goal combined with motivation issues.

So there you have it: my fail-proof formula for squeezing out a piece even when it hurts. One part cheerleader, one part drill sergeant, writers and nonwriters alike are always at the ready to help their buds with what is important to them. Of course, you still have to want to reach your writing goals yourself, and be willing to put in the work, but the endless harassment loving encouragement of your friends, family, mail carrier, and grocery clerk can be the final nudge to help you get that story out the door and into the wide world.

(And it works, too- I did win Writer of the Year at the 2017 guild conference! Yay!)

So if you find yourself struggling, whether with improving a piece, or just summing up the motivation to work at it, clue in your pals! They’ll hold your feet to the fire in a way you never could for yourself, and they’ll cheer you at every victory along the way.

Happy writing!

Parting Jill with Money, and Other Miracles

fresh_bread_loavesAnyone who knows me well knows that the only things I willingly spend money on are secondhand books and delicious, delicious foodstuffs. I am more or less the absolute tightest of tightwads in Fairbanks, if not the whole of the Northern Hemisphere.

In January, I was floundering in the depths of writing depression and wanting to throw in the towel, and wanting to cling to the towel forever, and wanting to at least maybe put the towel in a closet somewhere for a few months, and being generally indecisive and pathetic. I was drowning. I wasn’t making any writing headway and I felt like the only way to make that stop was to just sink and be done with it all.

Amongst the zillions of newsletters, blog posts, and announcements clogging up my inbox (it seems I check my emails less when I’m depressed too) was a notice from the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators that they were doing a ten page manuscript critique with various literary agents and the deadline was coming up soon. I get notices for these things all the time, but always ignore them. But I figured there wasn’t any harm in just checking how much it cost, right? Maybe this was the lifeline I had been hoping for.

Fifty whole dollars. If this says anything about my brain, I think of dollars in terms of the food they can buy me. (Not even kidding. This is absolutely true.) Fifty dollars can get me nine and a half gallons of almondmilk. Fifty dollars is twenty-eight heads of romaine lettuce or, if I’m feeling really fancy, fourteen pounds of arugula. Fifty dollars is fifty-eight pounds of whole wheat flour, which is enough for seventy-six loaves of fresh, hot bread odiferizing my house. Fifty is a lot of dollars.

After the smelling salts burned awareness back into my nostrils, I came to and swore it off. No. No way. Fifty bucks? Think of the groceries! But my husband was a little tired of the nightly tirade about my worthlessness and stupidity and general suckage, and gently encouraged me to just try it. So I figured, ‘Okay. I’ll call it a birthday gift. Maybe I do need this.’ I flung my credit card at SCBWI and ran away sobbing.

A few days later, I chose my critiquer, signed up for the casual group critique as well, sent in my packet, and then did my best not to think about it for the next few weeks. I was so successful at this endeavor that a fresh email from SCBWI caught me by surprise (a mere two days after the pep rally with Paul Greci and the AWG). Cringing, I opened the email to see what my seventy-six-loaves-of-bread dollars had gotten me.

It wasn’t glowing- she didn’t rave about it and beg me to sign with her on the spot. But it wasn’t a let-down either- which is really saying something because when I get in the dumps, I’m hunting for let-downs. My critiquer kindly balanced what was good (and there was more than I was expecting) with what was bad (and there was actually less than I was expecting). She gave me gobs of inline edits, and even more in general thoughts, hopes, problems, and what she loved and wanted more of.gollum27

Like I’d guzzled too much soda, a little bubble of hope welled up in my belly. Maybe the story wasn’t garbage. Maybe I wasn’t garbage. Grumps the Goblin (the voice in the back of my head- he looks like Gollum but with more and pointier teeth) assured me this couldn’t possibly be true, but there was one more chance to test it out. The group critique.

Since a mere handful of us live in the scattered wilds of Not-Anchorage, Alaska, we gathered in a Skype meeting to pick at each other’s scabs. But I didn’t find myself bleeding. Once again, I received generally positive reviews with only a few problems that I already knew about. Even the gal who didn’t like fantasy had good things to say about it. (Take that, Grumps!) Upon request, I shared the critiquer’s review and got another round of feedback, and came out of the whole ordeal feeling shockingly happy.

The icing on the cake? One of the ladies in the critique group- the one who doesn’t like fantasy- emailed me later and told me, “You know, that last line in your critique sounded an awful lot like an invitation to query.” I had thought so too at first, until Grumps had convinced me otherwise. But hearing it from another person opened up the possibility again. Maybe it was. Maybe I should try regardless.

I’m not saying you should all rush out and throw dollars at the first Writer’s Digest class you can find. Flinging money at problems isn’t always the best solution. But in this instance, paying an agent to look at my stuff and tell me it wasn’t trash was helpful. Between this and Paul Greci’s presentation just a few days before, I finally felt ready to start working on publication again. And that extra bit of confidence and encouragement was definitely worth fifty bucks.

Rewrites and Roadblocks

First off, THE REPORT:

Writing with the writing bud: Check.

Daily hour of writing: Check.

Chapters of Dead Timmy edited: Four.

This post: Done.

RoadblockTHIS POST

Years writing City of the Dead: Six.

Years revising City of the Dead: Ten.

Yep. I’m not proud of it. But there you go. I started writing City of the Dead when I was twelve years old and finally got through the behemoth of a book when I was just shy of eighteen. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life rewriting it over and over. It’s only in the last year that I finally started querying and branching out into other projects.

Assuming that the entire Star Daughter series (which was originally one book) is 300,000 words (total guess), that’s a writing average of 137 words a day. The words preceding this sentence total 136. They took me about two minutes to write. So the problem is clearly not in my fingers’ ability to pound out letters.

I know I’m not alone in this. Why do we writers do this to ourselves? Why spend such a hideously long time on a single project? (I mean, sixteen years. Sixteen years. That’s more than half my life!) I could blame a million little speed bumps along the way, but it really boils down to two major road blocks.

The first was a lack of confidence. Writing was a closet hobby, right back there with my Sailor Moon obsession (possibly even behind my Sailor Moon obsession, if I’m being honest), and I was very eager to not let anybody know about it save for three people. Total. For a decade. It’s kind of hard to decide a project is ready when you know in your heart of hearts that it sucks and everyone’s going to laugh at it and it’s better to just snuggle it in the darkness and pretend it doesn’t exist when someone notices. Getting over that sort of thinking is pretty vital in the publication process.

The second reason it took so long to finish (haha, finish, that’s so cute) is that I didn’t have a clear goal in mind for the book. Or for the entire series. Or my course and goals as a writer. It was all free to meander. So meander it did.

Either one of these problems would have been hard to overcome. Combined, they were crippling. I spent years thinking my writing was both terrible and pointless. (To be fair, it was at first. But I could have streamlined the fixing quite a bit.) Writing was something I did when I was taking an emotional beating and needed fictional people to take it out on. It had no value beyond personal catharsis. And personal catharsis is great and all, but eventually it wasn’t enough anymore. So I knew it was time to break down some barriers.

The first one to come down was the lack of clear goal. Signing up for NaNoWriMo knocked that sucker down quicker than Mohammad Ali can knock down a drunken beanpole in a night club. My first year of participation was a ridiculously close call. Suddenly, 137 words a day wasn’t enough. It wasn’t a tenth of enough. I staggered across the finish line with about ten words and two minutes to spare. I was better prepared the next year. I had an outline. A plan. And a grim determination to knock that 50k out of the park. Which I did. It felt good. Furthermore, it felt easy. Pretty soon I was averaging 3-4k a day, no problem.

But there was still that other problem. That confidence problem. And that one took a little more coaxing out of the way.

It’d be lying if I claimed it wasn’t an issue anymore. It’s not necessarily a problem like it was before, but it’s still there, lurking at the edges of my mind while my fingers lilt over the keyboard. It took a while to change that hulking monster breathing down my neck into a manageable little tamagotchi in my pocket, but that too was a necessary step in overcoming my inability to produce decent writing on a decent time frame. And unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet solution for it either.

Each writer has to approach that demon in their own way. For me, it involved learning to trust the opinions of my three confidants. It involved letting them finagle my death-grip off of the manuscript and hand it out for me. And then trusting the opinions of those their objective friends as well. Pretty soon I had perfect strangers looking at it who claimed that they liked it. So if they could love the ugly little thing, why shouldn’t I? And if there were parts that I knew were bad, what was stopping me from making them good?

Writers should never be completely comfortable with their craft. They should never feel like they can’t possibly get any better. But they should feel confident enough in their writing to let others see it.

If you just can’t muster up the confidence to let anyone look at a piece of writing, ask yourself why. If you don’t think it’s good, why not fix it up? Why not clean up the parts that you know are fluffy or confusing or just plain bad? If it’s still too intimidating, maybe try handing it out to just a couple of people that you trust. Or to internet strangers you’ll never have to look in the eye. Or maybe pass it around just a few pieces at a time: a first chapter or two, a short story. Something small and easy to digest. Maybe something you’re even a little proud of. Reception won’t always be glowing, but it probably won’t be as bad as you imagine. At least, such was my experience.

How about you folks? What are some ways you’ve whipped up a little more confidence in your work? What are some things about your own writing that you think you do well? Please share in the comments!