Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

It's Friday; It's a Good Thing

The week is over. It's been exactly seven days since I sent out my first query. It's a brutal process. I suppose there are probably many writers, many good ones even, that are weeded out through this. It reminds me of the calculus classes at college, not really meant to test whether students were qualified to be engineers but whether or not they wanted it badly enough.

The first days are a high. The first few queries a thrill. This is what I've waited for. This is the beginning of my writing being more than just a document on my hard drive. This is the end of one phase and the beginning of a new one.

But a week later, the thrill is less thrilling. Even the really good personal rejections, the ones that say I am "a talented writer" or say they are no longer taking clients but specifically refer me to another agent... these are good rejections in the scheme of things, and yet rejections nonetheless. And looming over this is the silence of all the other agents, who may have already read the query and my chapters stuck in at the end, and opted to pass without even a word to let me know.

It's brutal. It's easy to get depressed. And for this reason it's important to come back to the things I love, that I am so thankful for. Time again for It's Friday; It's a Good Thing.

What am I particularly thankful for today?

1. A critique group that is better than a cheerleading squad. I cherish every email we get, especially the days when our banter adds up to 60 some emails a day.

2. Fall weather. It's beautiful. Like a breath of fresh, cool air. It's invigorating. It's change and hope and possibility.

3. The gym. While running and weight lifting, I can't think of anything except taking the next breath. No worries, no planning, no thinking at all. Just me and breathing. It's like an hour escape from the rest of the world.

4. A really good life. While the media wants to paint America in an economic implosion, restaurants are full, movie theatres are packed, malls are bustling. My husband has a job. We have a house we can afford. We have food to eat and gas enough to get us where we want to go. We have lots of things we don't need: TV's and CD's and bicycles. We have computers and high speed internet, books, cameras, toys. I remember when we had little, when my husband had been laid off and I was pregnant with two toddlers, and for eight months we watched every penny. And even then, we made it. We don't always have a lot, but we have enough.

5. Words. I love words. I love that the English language has such fun words, beautiful words, visual words. I love that there is often a choice of words. A plethora. My favorite word I heard in the last five minutes? Festooned. How fun is that? Say it out loud. I dare you not to smile.

6. People who are so enthusiastic about Penn State that they honk at me on the highway and wave Sports Illustrated's out the window and give me a huge grin and a thumb's up.

7. Magnetic Nittany Lion's I can put on the car that lead random people to honk and wave SI's out the window and give me huge grins and thumb's up.

8. Football. I love it. And it isn't hurting that Penn State's doing pretty well this year.

Gosh, I'm feeling better already. This counting your blessings thing really works. Have a great weekend, and don't forget to notice those little things that are good around you.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why My Life Is Like A Reality Show

Tonight Survivor begins a new season. For those of you who don't get American reality TV, Survivor is the show where 16 people (give or take) are dropped in the middle of nowhere and left to fend for themselves with little more than a knife - and a bag of rice if they are really lucky. They compete in goofy obstacle courses and games and vote each other off one by one.

It's one of my few TV addictions. It's a silly one, I know. And most of them I start watching thinking, "This isn't nearly as good as last season," and I can't remember anyone's names, but I keep watching, and by the end I am completely hooked again.

I'm not sure what it is that keeps me coming back. Perhaps that side of me that wonders if I could survive living in the wild without food or shelter.

When I was first diagnosed with diabetes, this was the thought that went through my mind. If a plane went down and I ended up stranded on some island in the middle of the ocean, I'd die for lack of insulin before I starved. I wrote that into my book because it was such a vivid memory of that day, and my sister called after reading it and said, "I can't believe you remembered that!" Turns out, she thought that exact thing when she was diagnosed twenty-five years ago.

Perhaps I keep coming back to the show because it's more than physical survival. It's about who has the mental and emotional fortitude to stick with it when the going gets tough. It's a bunch of people watching the others around them voted off one by one and saying, "It's not going to be me."

Which brings me to my own life.

I have closed the writing and revising phase and opened the querying phase. And I feel like the plane has gone down and I am fighting to be the one left standing.

Last time around, I gave in around 16 queries. Like telling the jury, just vote me off. I'm tired of doing this. This time, I'm hanging in for the long haul. No giving up so easily. It's time to shimmy up to the reward table and swallow that fetid fish or giant scorpion. It's time to swim that obstacle and row that canoe until my arms are about to fall off, because I am not giving up this time.

The people who survive are those who have what it takes, and baby I've got it. And no one can convince me that getting a few rejections is harder than sleeping outside in a monsoon and going without food for thirty days. I could do them both. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it!

Monday, September 22, 2008

What I Mean When I Say I'm Done

I have totally confused just about everyone in my life.

In August I announced to my blogging buddies, "I'm done!" To my family, "I'm done!" On skype, "DONE!!!!!" On facebook, "I've finished my book!"

Then in September, I started writing on the same book again. And everyone except my writing group went, "huh?"

So let me explain. In August I finished my first draft. Unlike other books I've worked on, when I finished it, it was pretty complete. It needed some shoring up near the end and fleshing out one of the characters better, but overall, it was in complete shape. And when I put the final word on the page, it felt done. Not clean and neat, but done.

In September I started "rewrites." On my first book (which I'll now call my "trial book") rewriting was actually rewriting. Massive amounts of rewriting went on. About 100 new pages were added, story lines changed around a bit, new plot lines developed. And the more I read about how to write a publishable book, the more the book changed, until I no longer had a hold on it anymore and put it away for good.

This book, SOME KIND OF NORMAL, needed much less work. Mostly tightening, fixing errors in voice, correcting typos and strengthening plotlines that seemed a little weak or unfinished. Despite the fact that the book grew about 11,000 words this month, it is still essentially the same book as it was in August. Only better. (I hope!)

So today I wrote the final scene that needed to be stuck in the middle of the last section. I merged my three documents into one. I ran spellcheck and grammar check one last time. I added chapter numbers. And I printed it out.

And now I can say, hopefully for the last time on this book, I'm DONE!

I'm ready to send it out.

I thought it would feel more significant than this. It's strange that the first "done" evoked more elation than this one. Perhaps it's the dread of the coming rejections, or the panic of it not being good enough. Perhaps it's because, now that I've come to the end, the control is to some extent out of my hands, and that is scary. or because the query process is just as much work as the writing. In any case, it feels rather anticlimactic. And what writer likes things to be anticlimactic?

When I got close enough to finishing that "trial book" I reserved three bottles of champagne: one for the day I finished; one for the day I sent my first query out; and one for the day I received my first rejection. I couldn't even see past then (and what was the point of buying a bottle for getting an agent, when that was completely out of my hands?). In a strange twist of timing, all three of those events came on the same day. And by the time I came home I had such a raging migraine from the emotional roller coaster that I didn't drink a drop.

This time, I have no champagne. (Well, there is one, maybe two bottles left actually, but they aren't so designated anymore!). I think I'll reserve any real celebrating until I get some positive feedback. The first time: I just set out to write a book. Finishing was worth celebrating. This time, I set out to write a book I could get published. And, for now, that remains to be seen.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tomorrow's Another Day

Sometimes, I push myself too hard.

For the last three weeks I have lived, eaten, breathed running and writing. Every free hour. And a few that weren't free. And today, my body said enough is enough!

My foot, recently healed from its ten month stint in braces and on drugs, is back to its usual tricks, and I only made it two miles today, hobbling the rest of the day and sorely tempted by the last of the pills I stopped taking two months ago.

And my brain, spurred on for weeks by caffeine and endorphins, seized up today and I came to the realization that I can't cram this baby in by the weekend and throw a few queries out the door. Not that all of Nathan's posts on being patient weren't sign enough that I needed to slow down and take my time, but today, with one teeny tiny hurdle to overcome enough to be ready, I just couldn't do it. I tried. I wrote, and deleted. Wrote more, deleted that. My teeny tiny scene is becoming big, huge trouble.

What I have is okay, but it can be better. It can always be better. Everytime I read through it, or someone else reads it, there is more to do. My husband keeps saying, "At some point, you gotta just trust what you've done is good and let it go, or you'll keep tweaking it forever." He's right. I have a novel with six different first chapters to prove that. But this one... I know exactly what needs to be done, and I don't want to peddle it without it looking it's best. That way, if I get the rejections, I don't have to question if it would have been better if I waited.



A little sleep.

Maybe one or two more days here might help.

Tomorrow will be better.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I'm getting Impatient!

Both Jennifer Blom and Nathan Bransford wrote posts about being impatient with the writing/publishing process today. It was as if they've crawled inside my tiny and too crowded head and were screaming warnings at me.

Patience is something I vowed to have with this book. I rushed the last one. Not the writing end. Heavens, that took two years of on-again-off-again writing. But the revision part, where I didn't let the book sit before I rewrote and then rewrote again and then, instead of listening to the small voice in my head that said, this needs a little distance and a better vision, I listened to the big voice that said, Let's get this thing going! And I sent out an awesome query that invited agents to read a book that wasn't quite good enough.

When I started this one, my mantra was, Not this time. I am getting it right, even when I want to steam ahead. I'm going to be patient and let this be the best it can be. And, up until now, I feel like I've done the process justice. Even though it's been much quicker, just 6 months start to finish, it's been thorough, and I've spent probably an average of 4-6 hours a day on it. Lots of research, lots of plotting and character development went into this before a single word went down on the page.

And I feel like I am at the end now. I feel like the first 230 pages are really strong. Edited, clean, direct, purposeful. It's been read by others, and every comment taken into consideration, the majority of them implemented. The last 80 pages I still have in front of me, and I am starting, just the last few days, to really want to rush it. I want to be done already, and start to query.

And when the itch is just so great I'm about to scratch.... Jen and Nathan. Gentle reminders. It's not about querying. It's about writing and hopefully publishing the very best book I can write. And that's not going to happen if I have a great 230 pages that end with a weak 80.

The closer I get to the end, the harder it is to focus.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remembering 9-11

When our family went back to New York this summer, it was the first time I'd been back since the towers fell. Even though I knew they would be gone, though I've seen photos of it since, I found myself looking around for them. To see the profile of the city without them took my breath away each time I turned around. I loved being back in the city. But I couldn't shake the sadness that caught me every now and then in this great feeling of loss.

My husband was in those towers the first time it was bombed, back in 1993. He was living there then, working for Dean Witter, and I remember the phone call, and how he came off the airplane covered in black soot with nothing except the clothes on his back. Evacuation had been swift, and the place he'd lived near the towers shut down.

When we went back this summer, there was a day of remembering for us. Walking around, seeing where he used to eat, get coffee in the morning, cross the street... all of it now gone or changed. For those who live there, life goes on, but for us, time has stood still. The changes in the landscape are jarring.

Here where we live we pass the Pentagon every day. The color of the granite is whiter and brighter on the section rebuilt.... a reverse scar of sorts that you just can't turn away from. Planes still fly over the highway, so low they almost scrape the tops of the building, heading into Reagan International Airport, and my heart stops each time I see them. My father watched the smoke billowing out of it from his office window that morning.

There was a time, for a while afterwards, when we all flew our American flags, and took care of each other, and stopped being republicans and democrats and independents and factions. We were all Americans, and, for a small time, that was enough. It was everything.

I suppose it is in our nature to look at what we disagree with instead of what we have in common. Like noticing the whiter granite and the gaping hole in the skyline. We cannot choose a new president if we don't know how the candidates differ. But I do get tired of the hatred and anger... We have more in common than what separates us. And I hate to think it takes a terrorist and a true American tragedy to remind us of that.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lost: Main Character. Please Come Home!

Well, I finished editing/rewriting the second third of my book! I am ahead of schedule, which would make sense I suppose since I do basically nothing all day except go to the gym and then come home and sit on my tush and write. It's a fantastic feeling, seeing it buzz along, and feeling really good about it.

My snag, though, is that I seem to have lost one of my characters. I realized this yesterday as I was trying to "fix" my narrator's husband. Both the wonderful and difficult part of writing this book is that absolutely no one in the book is based, even in the teensiest way, on any real person. Not even an actor. They are completely made up. Which is great fun, except that Travis, for some reason, never really got fleshed out very well. My wonderful critique group pointed this out in a very nice way ("um... he seems kinda boring. Is he supposed to be this way?"), and so as I've been editing/rewriting, I have been trying to really nail him down. Except last night I realize, I have no idea who he really is. (Except he is really not anything like that picture!)

When I began writing Some Kind Of Normal (which may soon have a different name, but more on that another time), I had a good idea of who Travis was. I saw him in my mind. I saw his favorite lazy chair. I saw his nightly dozing in front of NASCAR, his love of pork rinds and grits and his well-worn Willie Nelson tape. What I couldn't see was his face, and what I totally didn't see coming was his strength. And now I am trying to reconcile the character I created with the character the story demands he be. And I'm not sure I'm doing that part very well.

While everything else is falling into place, I find myself thinking about Travis, and trying to figure out who he really is. He isn't a hugely main character in the book, but he's big enough I should at least have a really good feel for him. (For instance, in any everyday situation, I could tell you immediately what Babs would do. Stuck behind a lousy driver? She'd honk and yell out the window. Travis? I have no idea.)

In all this editing, though, I am getting much closer to querying. Even writing that makes my heart skip a beat! I've started perusing agent websites again, jotting down books I love and finding their agents, reading Miss Snark again, just for fun. I'm starting my dream list. I think my query is ready to go as soon as the book is. I'm trying not to rush this. Really I am.

But I think this one is it. I do. And maybe one day I will have to come back and erase this part of the post in embarrassment, but I feel really strongly about this book right now, like nothing else I've ever written. And I'm just so darn excited!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Update on the Bon Bons and Talk Shows

Turns out, I don't have time for them at all!

The new schedule is working out like a dream! After dropping off my kids at the school, I hit the gym and then I come home and write/edit for about four hours. You think I'd be done with the book already, but in five days I've added over 4,000 words and edited almost half the manuscript.

Unlike my first novel, I don't feel like I am spinning my wheels on this rewrite. For one, I'm keeping the vast majority of the original and making mostly small, word-choice changes along with adding some supporting details. But no major changes. And even on this read through, when I usually am groaning over everything, I feel like this one is strong.

What surprised me? How fabulously fun this is!

But after reading JKB's blog about editing for an agent, I realize the hardest work is yet to come. It's easy to identify what I think is wrong and fix it. It's much harder to have someone else give suggestions and try to edit to satisfy them.

But one step at a time. Finish my rewrites. Send queries. Get agent.

Then the hard work begins.

Bring it on!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Cleaning Up After Non-Hurricane Hanna

You see that nasty little red circle there in the picture? That's my weekend, about to disintegrate.

I never realized how much I talk about weather until I started blogging. For a blog about writing, I do a lot of posts on weather! I think it's because this past year has been a little weather crazy... and I've been in the path of a hurricane twice in the past month, which wouldn't be any big deal if I lived in Florida, but for a gal in Virginia, it's been a wild ride!

So this week Hanna headed towards the U.S. and we were told it would hit Virginia on Saturday, possibly hard. But then it weakened. Then it strengthened. Then it weakened again. It was a category 2. Then maybe a three. But then only a 1. Then it was just a tropical storm. Good grief... just like a girl, changing her mind all the time!

By the time she arrived, we could have cared less. We had company coming for dinner, and the storm was suppose to be enough to the west of us that we wouldn't get much more than rain. And some wind. You know, typical tropical storm stuff.

Friday night it rained, and rained, and by Saturday we were surrounded by a river flowing through our front yard. We filled the bathtubs in case the power went out, (we get our water from a well - no power, no water), and called our friends and said, "Dinner's still on!"

Then the septic system filled with water, and started to stink. As did our house. And then the power went out. And a tree fell. And from there, the day went downhill.

I was frustrated and cranky, which is so not me in a storm. I have great memories of being a kid and the power going out, and pretending to be Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie (a favorite book series of mine as a kid). I try to make the best of power outages so that my kids have these great memories as well. Even my daughter said, "You're the fun mom!"

Not Saturday.

My husband wisely canceled dinner plans, called the septic company, and took the family out of the stinky house to the mall, where the kids practiced skating in their new Heelies and I tried to forget about the food for twelve going bad. He took me out to eat. We watched the water rise all around us, the trees swaying in the gusts, thankful the storm was just a tropical storm, and we could at least get out of the house.

The good thing about where we live is that water flows very fast. It's hilly; I suppose this is the reason water doesn't just sit. So it floods, but empties quickly, and by the time we finished lazing around the restaurant long enough to get stares, the roads cleared a bit and were safe enough to get home.

By evening I was in a much better mood, and by eight o'clock the power was back on, the stink had completely dissipated, and I salvaged most of the food.

Today, we decided to walk down into our woods to see where all that water went, and how many trees we lost. It was pretty clear that rapids had taken over the entire creek bed and that it rose up fairly high into the woods, but most it was gone today, flowing directly into the river not too far away, and so we walk around climbing across the creek on downed trees and skipping stones.

We have a "normal" backyard, complete with grass and a patio, fire-pit and swing-set. But it's bordered all around by woods that go back about five acres. We don't go down into them as often as we'd like. When we do, we are always asking why we don't do it more.

It's quiet - completely isolated - and so serene.

I'm so thankful the storm was so quick, did so little damage (other than spoiling a perfectly good dinner party), and left so little for us to clean up. Mostly, we were just left with a beautiful afternoon.

Tomorrow, back to work!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

I Have CDO; It's Like OCD Except the Letters Are In Alphabetical Order... The Way They Should Be!

I love lists. I live by lists. I have dozens of them at any one time. Food I need at the grocery store. Things to accomplish during the day. Places I need to stop after I drop off the kids. Plots holes I need to fill in my book. Agents I want to query. Dreams.

I get detailed, too. None of this general stuff for me. Because if I write laundry on the list of things to do and I wash and dry a load but don't get it folded or put away, I face the question of whether or not I get to cross it off. If I do, it's like a little lie. If I don't, I go to bed thinking I've done nothing during the day. So my list looks something like this:

wash whites
dry whites
fold whites
put whites away
wash darks
dry darks
fold darks.....

you get the picture. Then, at the end of the day I can check, check, check, and I feel like I've accomplished a lot - which, if you've ever tried to do laundry with three young kids demanding attention and catering to their own schedules, and do it with a dryer that takes two and a half hours to dry one load, you understand that the small things need celebrating!

When I was a new mom and found myself at home all day for the first time ever, I got to the end of my day feeling completely unaccomplished, my husband told me to write down everything I did during the day. Everything.

It read something like this:

changed 12 diapers
nursed 7 times
changed baby's clothes three times
read 15 baby books
sang 14 lullabies
danced with baby until he stopped crying
rocked baby for 2 hours and 45 minutes when he got colic
fixed breakfast, lunch and dinner for us
ate breakfast, lunch and dinner
did dishes three times
swept floor three times
cleaned table and counters three times
took baby on walk with dog

you get the idea. And when I looked at the list at the end of the day, I realized how much I really did during the day and when I looked at my tiny baby sleeping soundly, I realized how important each and every one of those mundane things were.

As my writing group has been looking at our dreams, visualizing the future, I've started writing those picky lists for how I need to get there. Unlike most of the public's perception, a writer doesn't just write a book and then it appears on the bookshelves in a prominent position at Borders. It's even more difficult than write a book, get an agent, get published. And between the decision to write and the bookshelf at Borders there are a million little steps. A million steps even between getting published, and being successful with that book.

By starting to write these baby steps down, I can feel a sense of accomplishment along the way. I know I am moving forward with my dream of being published, even if I can't check the big ones off yet. If my only list for writing looked like this:

write a book
query and secure agent
get book published
go to many book signings and get famous

I'd feel like every day I was falling behind, getting nowhere. Instead, my list for tomorrow looks like this:

read through pages 70-110
replace all formal verb forms with contractions
find places where doesn't and aren't should be replaced with don't and ain't
introduce Logan's troubles at school
intensify church involvement at the hospital
fix typos
check for slips in tense
tighten and remove unnecessary words
check that every word is one Babs would use

This is only part of the list. But knowing what I have to do makes the doing easier, it makes my limited time more focused, it makes the manuscript better, it makes me feel like I am doing something to make my dreams come true.

I may be obsessive, but I'm okay with that. I hope one day that obsession will land me in a bookstore somewhere near you.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"Change Is Not a Destination, and Hope Is Not a Strategy"

My new motto.

For politics.
For writing.
For life.

Not that these things, change and hope, are bad things. They are among the best things. But they are not a plan for the future.

In 4Corners writing group we have been talking a lot about dreams. In our most private, most wildest dreams, where do we want to see ourselves next year... ten years... twenty years from now? It has been a fabulous exercise. We've let ourselves let go of fears and see a huge, huge future ahead. There are houses, and bookstores, and world tours, and Oprah couch jumping.

But we all know dreams aren't enough. We aren't poking around and just hoping it will all happen. We are working our tails off, cramming writing into already impossibly full schedules, critiquing each other late at night, tweaking queries, researching, listing, agent-hunting, planning. We have the step-by-step journey from writing on our couches to jumping on Oprah's. And that journey is part of the dream.

Have you written out your wildest dreams? Are you dreaming big enough? And then, are you figuring out how to make them come true?

Monday, September 1, 2008

The End of Summer

Summer is finally over. The beach towels are washed and folded and put away. Bathing suits are tucked in the back of drawers and the bathroom no longer smells of chlorine. Long, lazy days of sleeping in and staying up late are gone, and the alarm is set for an alarmingly early morning wake-up call. Lunch boxes are packed. Back packs are stuffed with sharpened pencils and bright, new erasers.

Tomorrow a new year starts. I will send my baby off to her first year in public education. It will be the first time in ten years that I don't have at least one child at home. It is a new world for her, and a new one for me as well.

Every fall the schedules in our family change, and we adjust. Another child in school. Another activity to carpool to. A different Bible study on a different day. I love routine. I thrive on it. This yearly shaking up of our lives unnerves me a bit. I spend a few very unsettled weeks trying to find my niche again and figure out how to fit it all in.

I get a bit annoyed when well-meaning people ask me, "What will you do with all your free time this year?" I admit, much to my own shame, I secretly thought this about other stay-at-home mothers years ago; I am pleased that I never actually voiced the words out loud, maybe somehow knowing deep down that they would come back to haunt me.

Part of my annoyance is because I don't consider myself suddenly "unemployed." I could easily spend the rest of this year, six hours a day, trying to recover our home from the chaos that ensued when three children came into our lives and brought with them more clothes and toys and games and art supplies and books than I could have possibly imagined three young children could accumulate in such a short time. Besides this, cooking, dishes, laundry, vacuuming... the mundane tasks of keeping a home running would be enough.

But above this, I consider myself a writer, and I consider writing a job, and now, hopefully, my hours have shifted from the late night hours to the more traditional (and probably productive) daytime. I'm not planning on watching TV talk shows and eating bon bons. I'm planning on working from home. In a very real sense, I feel like I am going back to work.

Tonight the kids laid out their clothes for tomorrow, double-checked their supply lists and summer reading logs. I am laying out my plan for editing the novel I finished this summer. I am planning rewrites, and query letters, and agents. I am writing a new schedule for my day, so that I don't neglect writing in exchange for child-free grocery shopping trips or neglect cleaning bathrooms for writing. Finding the balance is always the hardest part for me.

Tomorrow is a new day. A new year, with bright possibilities and full of big dreams. It is the first day of the rest of the year, and I am more ready than I have every been.

Nervous as I am, anxious about change, I am also excited. Let's bring it on!