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Where Is the Finish Line?

How Do You Know When You're Done?

Where Is the Finish Line?

How does an artist know when a project is finished? For a writer, when is the revision process complete? I've watched dozens of Olympic athletes cross the finish line over the past few weeks, so I've been thinking about endings. It sounds strange that one of my favorite jobs as a teacher was running the xerox machine during my duty period. But there was a finite amount of work, and you knew when you were done - not true of many other teaching tasks. The hubs says the same thing about cutting the grass; you know when you're done, and you can see the results of your work.

The truth is you're never completely done with that creation. There are endless tweaks, revisions, cuts, additions, corrections and general improvements you could make, even when you feel you should be finished. It's a problem for me because there are SO many variables in each sentence and each paragraph, and I want to get it JUST RIGHT. Every time I think I've finally completed a particular chapter, I realize on rereading a few days later that there are changes I want to make.

But I've learned that, at some point you have to call it. At some point you have to stop. I've learned a few things that have helped me find the finish line. I know it's time to type "THE END":

1. When I make changes, then go back and delete the changes to return to the original phrase because I've reached a point where I'm overworking my prose.

2. When I look at my notes and don't find plot points or details I want to add.

3. When I've read the entire book out loud and changed wording that sounds awkward to the ear.

4. When I'm no longer finding typos, misspellings, mechanical problems on rereading.

5. When I have to MAKE myself reread one more time and it's hard to focus because I've practically memorized it.

6. When I've let it simmer for several weeks without peeking, and I'm still satisfied with it when I read it once more.

7. When I'm starting to get excited about other people reading the book.

Eventually, I know I have to STOP because it will NEVER be finished to the satisfaction of an insecure lover of words. I used to  inwardly cringe, when I read from my work in public, at diction I wished I could tweak - because no book is perfect and there will always be improvements that could be made. But I've learned to ignore that inner editor and block out the critic so I can focus on lending drama and emotion to my characters. I remind myself that each opportunity to interpret my story for listeners is a gift. A reading isn't about perfection; it's about drawing your audience into the story, offering them an invitation - through a sample - to experience everything your book has to offer.

I'm sure this problem with endings plagues all artists. How do you know when you've finished a song? a drawing? a painting? a poem? a website? a sermon? a dance routine? a piece of furniture? a house you're renovating? a garden design? a cake decoration? a blog entry? 

This blog entry's done. I'm calling it. Let me know if you have advice on crossing the finish line.

The End


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Posted in August, 2012


One Writer’s Crazy Ride to Publication

Thanks for all your questions and comments about THIS IS NOT A DRILL, my upcoming YA debut novel (Oct. 25, 2012) from Nancy Paulsen Books of Penguin Group. In an industry that’s slow as continental drift, my path to publication was a zipline ride. I sailed from query to agent to first offer in two days, and thanks to the amazing Jill Corcoran, the powerhouse of energy who is now my agent, I landed with one of the most respected editors in the business within two weeks of submission. Here’s a quick run-down of what happened last summer (starting July 7) :

Thursday: After a year of writing and revising my novel, I held my breath and hit “Send,” submitting to my top 7 agent picks on 7-7 (a winning combination, I hoped.) Jill Corcoran of Herman Agency requested the full manuscript within an HOUR of receiving my query letter and sample pages.

Friday: I woke to a note from Jill (written 1:30 am her time) - she was “absolutely loving” the book and had trouble putting it down to sleep. By noon she emailed me offering representation; she said she knew I had the work still out with several other agents, but she wanted to sign me if I was ready to say yes. I paused my happy dance just long enough to type “yes.” Jill has an English degree from Stanford and an MBA in Finance and Marketing from the University of Chicago. She’s not only worked in advertising, but teaches writing workshops and writes books of her own. I knew she’d understand the bumps in the writing road and could guide me through the marketing maze, too. She sent me a contract, and I emailed the other agents I’d queried that I’d accepted representation so they wouldn’t spend time reading my work.

Saturday: Jill and I talked by email, and I tried not to obsess over my new agent. She friended me on Facebook and I followed her on Twitter, loving all the glowing comments from her clients.

Sunday: Jill emailed me that she felt THIS IS NOT A DRILL was ready to go out without further revisions (amazing!), and she’d be submitting it to editors THE NEXT DAY! I was elated – and terrified.

Monday: Jill sent me a list of the editors she’d subbed to, and I tried not to freak out. I cleaned house all day to keep from going mad and went to bed that night with my head clogged from dust I’d stirred up.

Tuesday: I googled Jill’s clients, googled each editor on the list, googled my name to see what editors would find, and finally got in the car and left the house to stop the googling madness.

Wednesday: Jill called. I loved her sense of humor about her kids and her cat, and her competence and knowledge base were obvious. We chatted and hung up. She called back an hour later. I was surprised. “Did you just hang up on me?” she said. “I hope not, ‘cause I have some of the biggest news of your life.” I explained that my phone didn’t even ring, we’d been having trouble with our cell carrier, and I was so sorry if she - WAIT, did you say you had NEWS? “We have an offer coming in!” she said. I tried to listen from my spot on the ceiling, but thank God I wrote it all down ‘cause I was WAY too excited to really hear what she said.

Within days there were multiple offers and I was in the wildly unanticipated position of choosing the editor I felt was the best fit for my book. When I signed with Nancy Paulsen at Penguin, I felt Velveteen Rabbit “real” as a writer.

Hold on a second! Before any of you throw erasers at the screen, there’s something you should know. All this happened fast, but I am no overnight success – not this girl. My whirlwind week came after five years of writing, one shelved manuscript with about 25 rejection slips tucked inside, another agent who unsuccessfully submitted another book of mine (ON the day that became known as Black Wednesday in the publishing world - could there BE any rottener luck?), lots of broken plates in my backyard (my secret catharsis), six weekend writing conferences from Nashville to LA, and hours, days, weeks, months and years of studying the craft through books, articles, blogs, and websites on writing - not to mention countless novels I picked apart to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

There, feel better? If you’re interested in writing for publication, read books on how to write (like Stephen King’s ON WRITING , Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, and AnnIe Dilard’s THE WRITING LIFE, my faves), study books in your genre, read blogs like Jill’s and Nathan Bransford’s and Kristin Nelson’s to learn about queries and agents and opening pages and point of view, and write every day to improve your style and voice. (How do you learn to play tennis? Play a lot. How do you learn to write? Write - a lot.) The secret is and always has been: butt in chair, fingers on keys.

The good news is persistence pays off. Keep reading, keep honing your craft, keep believing, and if you work hard enough and learn from your mistakes, something good will happen. I can’t wait to hear YOUR story when it does.

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Posted in August, 2012


9 Tips for Writers

9 Tips for Writers

I've been amazed and impressed at the number of people who've contacted me on Facebook or by email to ask for advice. Some are friends of friends, but there are many I've known for years  without knowing they've been writing quietly - like me - waiting for the right time to send off their work. It's so exciting that all that creativity is swirling around us. Keep working, y'all. Those award winners and best sellers started with a computer and a quiet room and a little bit of time - just like you.

Here's the advice I've given those who've written me. If you're not already writing, maybe this will inspire you to start. It's fun . . . and frustrating, rewarding . . . and draining, exciting . . . and terrifying. I hope these tips on how to get started (and keep going in the face of rejection) will help.

1. Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keys. Nothing happens if you don't start. Make a decision NOW to spend at least 3 days a week at the keyboard for 30 minutes for the next 3 weeks at least. If nothing comes to you, just sit there while you train your brain to seek stories. The muse will come eventually. I promise.

2. Don't Get it Right, Just Get It Down. Make your peace with the fact that your first draft will be terrible. Don't worry. Just get the story down; you can make it pretty later. Fear of what Anne Lamott calls "Shitty First Drafts" keeps so many potential writers from ever getting started.

3. Tell someone else's story. It sounds strange but the easiest way for me to start was to write down anecdotes other people had told me and change them up to suit myself. This worked better than writing from my own life because I wasn't so tied to the truth. Personal writing is often hindered by our reluctance to change details we know are accurate.

3. Read books on craft. My favorites are ON WRITING by Stephen King, BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott, and THE WRITING LIFE by Annie Dillard. These are short, easy reads full of great information and inspiration. I probably read 30 books on writing. That thing people say about how you can't learn to write from a book? That's laziness. Do your homework. It helps.

4. Join the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and attend the conference closest to you. Not writing children's books? Doesn't matter. The things you'll learn about writing and revising and submitting to agents are universal. You can pick the sessions that you're most interested in and get advice and critiques of your work from visitng professionals in the industry. You will learn A TON and you'll meet other like-minded souls who will encourage you. (For AL/MS/GA, google SCBWI Southern Breeze; there's a fall conference in B'ham, a spring one in Atlanta, and several local ones during the year. The Nashville conference is under Midsouth SCBWI.) There are tons of regional chapters across the US. And if you can go to the national meetings in NYC or LA, I highly recommend them.

5. Read blogs and online info about writing, getting an agent, and/or self-publishing. Google is your friend. Some good blogs full of tips on every aspect (like writing query letters, ugh) are Nathan Bransford's, Kristin Nelson's Pub Rants, and my agent's, Jill Corcoran's. Agentquery,  AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler, and Verla Kay's Message Boards are good resources, also.

6. Find a writing group or organize one or seek out other writer friends. Having others critique your work can be really eye-opening, and having writer buds keeps you from being lonely in a fairly solitary line of work.

7. Turn off your inner voices. The ones that say you can't do it. In this business, you must believe to achieve. The same drive that pushes you to write will serve you well in training yourself to do it. Don't let self-doubt hold you back. Rejection is a part of the process. That agent isn't saying your work isn't good - just that it's not what he's looking for right now. They typically get 50-100 submission a day and take on 30-50 new clients a year. You can increase your chances in this massive lottery by working hard, but there's a certain amount of luck and timing involved. (And don't believe people who say you have to know someone. My agent plucked THIS IS NOT A DRILL  right out of the slush pile.)

8. Practice, practice, practice. One of the hardest lessons is that you will write hundreds of pages that may never see the light of day. Most writers (moi aussi) have an entire novel in a drawer, one that never got picked up by an agent or editor. You MUST focus on process and not product. You are teaching yourself a skill and time spent writing is never wasted. Just like playing tennis or piano, you hone your skills through lots of practice. The average time to break into traditional publishing is said to be 10 years. It took me 5, but I worked really hard for many long hours. Patience is not just a virtue; in this business, it's a life preserver. You can't rush the kind of work this goal involves. Perseverance is everything!

9. Build an online presence. Having a self-published book (LAST BUS OUT) helped me do that, but you can submit articles to magazines, essays to contests, guest blog entries to bloggers. And you can chat with other writers and readers through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, and other sites. Don't just promote yourself. Let people know who you are and post interesting links to information they might like. And promote others; we're all in this together. 

Good luck, everyone! Hang in there. If you care enough to work and study and believe, it'll happen for you! Can't wait to hear about your book when it does.

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Posted in August, 2012


Elvis Is in the House

Elvis Is in the House

One of the most frustrating things about writing is chasing the elusive muse. Some days the ideas pour from my fingertips (okay, rarely), and some days the creative spirit seems to mock me from afar. There is no predicting whether tomorrow will be a diamond or coal. I’ve learned that it’s best to adjust my expectations after an hour of work. People sometimes ask if I push myself to write a certain number of words or pages a day, and the answer is no. This process, for me, requires flexibility and patience.

I’ve learned a lesson or two about the phenomena of chasing the muse from Elvis, the neighborhood cat. Barbie, next door, said she was adopting him when he showed up, a self-sufficient stray, on our street some months back. But Elvis belongs to no one -- and to all of us. He occasionally appears at our door and when we open it, he wanders in. He never stays long and he doesn’t let anyone get close. He’s not that kind of cat. He lived on his own long enough to be disdainful of cuddles and strokes. But if you’re really still and you leave him alone, he’ll grace your home with his presence just for a little while. We’re always happy to see Elvis -- a diligent enemy of squirrels and chipmunks -- in our yard, and if he chooses to come in, we welcome him and pour him some milk - which he drinks, or not. He roams around for a little while, then exits without fanfare through the door we leave open for his convenience.

The muse can’t be forced. The muse can’t be invited or cajoled. The muse is as elusive as February 29. But if you leave the door open, allow your mind to float free, he’ll often appear. And if you’re really lucky, he might let you get close. The good news is, even when he’s been gone awhile, he always comes back at some point if you let him in and treat him right.

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Posted in February, 2012


Is Memory Your Enemy?

Is Memory Your Enemy?

I remember thinking, at some point, that I couldn't be a good writer because I don't have a good memory. My Aunt Betty used to say, when my family members were remembering a past event fondly, "Just tell me one thing. Did I have a good time?" But the truth I've learned is that memory can get in the way. If we're too literal about the way things were, we'll never find out how they might have been.

Most of us have had the experience of writing something exactly as it happened, only to have an agent or editor tell us it's not "realistic." But it actually happened, we protest -- pretty much exactly that way. John Gardner in THE ART OF FICTION says, "The fact that the story is true, of course, does not relieve the novelist of the responsibility of making the characters and events convincing."

If you're looking for a good writing exercise, try your hand at making a true story "truer" this week. Use one that's been in the family for years, but force yourself to take shocking liberties in the retelling. Change some of the details, add a few new sensory descriptions you might have noticed if you'd been there, make the dialogue a little more compelling by adding a comment or two. You might even add a character you've invented.

Can you place your reader there by fictionalizing the event - just a bit? Sometimes a good story is too dependent on the hearers' -- or readers' -- familiarity with the personalities involved. See if you can distance yourself from a story you've heard retold again and again and see it in a new light. You might just like your "poetic license" version even better. If you're a beginning writer, it's a great way to ease into fiction writing. If you're a novelist, it might become a scene in your next book. Either way, don't let memory become your master!

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Posted in February, 2012

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