Words Count

Back in the fifth or sixth grade, I had the option of writing a story for a contest. Creative writing has been a love of mine since I was old enough to write my name, so I was in. Write a story – no problem. But there was a problem, and it was the word count. No more than 200 words. I think the only reason this has stuck with me is because of how ridiculous the word count seemed. My classmates groaned about the seeming impossibility of creating a story, no matter the length. To me, however, the limit of 200 words shot my dream of writing a winning story dead before I could even start.

In college, when I joined my first fiction workshop, I puzzled over how to write a story that was short enough. I struggled to shrink my first one to less than 20 pages, which I knew was problematic because the instructor read each story aloud during class. The day that a woman turned in a two-page story, I wondered how in the world it would amount to anything. Surely a two-page story would hardly be worth critiquing.

It was one of the best stories submitted that semester.

Eighteen years old, and I finally learned that longer is not necessarily better.

Of course, that’s not to say that I was unaware of being brevity-challenged. I’d heard about killing your darlings. I’d also heard of taking out the proverbial axe and chisel to finesse a piece of literary art. But my approach was always to write pell-mell on the first draft, then make sure the second draft was cut down by ten percent. The problem with this technique is that my first drafts are often much too long, and cutting ten percent is not enough. And when I started writing freelance, I had to learn how to hone my skills by writing articles with word limits.

It’s one thing to write a story and know that it needs to be around a certain length. It’s another to be assigned an article and know that you will be rejected if you go over 300 or 400 words. When I started writing articles for clients, I faced this challenge. And it turns out that I can write an article, prove a point, share an idea within a small space. A good thing, too, since many people will choose not to read an article if they see it runs onto a second page.

So, what then about novels? If you read my post last week, I complained (yes, I admit it) about my latest encounter with an agent. Her assignment was to help me fix problems with my novel’s opening, but when I submitted my excerpt to her with a note about how long my young adult manuscript was, I didn’t expect her to critique the novel’s length. But that’s just what she did. Cut it down by about 40,000 words, she said.

My first reaction was to be offended. Hadn’t she heard of Twilight, EragonHarry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, for crying out loud? These books blow average word counts out of the water. Granted, the first Harry Potter book was closer to what is considered normal, so by book five, J.K. Rowling could do whatever she wanted. But still, I thought, how do young adult authors break into the publishing world with longer-than-average novels?

Of course, my goal needs to be to make my novel the best it can be. Length isn’t the only factor, but it could be the one that consigns me to the slush pile yet again. While making my manuscript the best it can be, maybe I need to pull out the old axe again.

When I started editing my novel, although cutting words was a secondary goal, I was more concerned with making it clean and clarifying scenes that had confused my beta readers. But with my number one critique from the agent being the length (and after all, she does sell novels for a living, so I kind of have to lean toward her expertise on this one), I became hyper-aware of every word. I should have been making sure that each one counted from the beginning.

As of this post, I have cut almost 14,000 words – and I’ve added two scenes and am not even halfway through the book. There’s hope for me yet. If I can cut 30,000 words and make my prose shine, maybe there’s a chance that I’ll catch someone’s attention.

So, for those of you who don’t know where to start, here are some specifics:

  • Choose your adverbs with great prejudice. Sometimes you can’t cut the adverb out and get your message across. Sometimes it means rewording a section to avoid adverb usage (and adjectives, too, but adverbs are the bigger culprit). As a writing exercise, write a scene with no descriptors at all. Challenging? You bet. You’re welcome.
  • KISS (keep it simple, stupid). If you can make your point in three words, why use ten? Are you trying to impress someone with your use of words like “anthropomorphism” and “juxtaposition”? Give me a break. Likely, you’re only impressing yourself. Make your point, and move on.
  • Read your prose aloud. This is especially important for dialogue. It’s also a great technique for discovering when you’re using the same word or phrase too often.
  • Express yourself through punctuation. Need help? Check out Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style. You will be amazed by how much you can say without using words at all.
  • If you haven’t already, buy copies of The Elements of Style, On Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. There are many, many others, but these will give you a great start.
  • Kill your darlings. I’m so sorry. It could be that the line you’re most proud of is the one that needs to go. Once you start, you’ll find that it’s easier to keep cutting. If you’re afraid that you’ll regret your cuts, save each revision of your work as a separate document, so you can go back and put a line back in later if you decide you’d rather keep it.
  • If you’re writing an article, make a rough outline. Although I like to be a free spirit when it comes to fiction, when writing articles, you need to have a clear direction for your key points. Then, if space allows, you can add flourishes later.
  • Give your piece a rest. If there’s no hard deadline, take a vacation and work on something else for four to six weeks. You may find that something you thought integral to your manuscript before is unnecessary.
  • Hire an editor. I’m not just trying to get more work for myself; if you are serious about making your manuscript publication-ready and feel you’re not up to the task yourself, that’s why we’re here.

These all come down to making sure that every word counts. If it doesn’t further your story or article, it’s got to go. Only then can you write a winning story in under 200 words – or cut thousands of words from your novel without compromising important scenes. I have confidence that you can, and I’m certainly going to try to do it, too.

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Author

You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.

                                                                                                                                             –Truman Capote

 

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy (Photo credit: Darlene Acero)

 

Avid readers, do you remember a time when you discovered a new writer, fell in love with one book, then went crazy looking for all of his or her other publications?

This has happened a number of times with me, from my early days of reading with authors like Beverly Cleary and Louisa May Alcott, then ramping up to Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Crichton, and then Stephen King. In every case, I devoured their books, as many as I could get my hands on.

But sometimes… sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sure, every prolific author has an off-book or two. Even in the middle of bestseller series, it’s not uncommon to have a middle-of-the-road slump. (Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix comes to mind.)

Sometimes, it’s no fault of the author’s, though, because they get pigeonholed. They commit the unforgivable sin of writing outside of one particular genre and so get panned by masses of once-adoring fans.

This often happens with actors. Think about how many of them, in the effort to avoid being typecast, take on just about any role they’re offered to prove they can do something other than what originally made them famous. You might be disillusioned when your favorite child actor tries to show she’s all grown up by portraying a risqué character.

Now, authors aren’t going around in the nude to prove that they’re all grown up. But sometimes we treat them as if they’re doing just that. If you find out that your favorite children’s author has an adult title coming out soon, don’t be shocked that it’s not all “See Dick and Jane” anymore. Dick and Jane might be doing something that you don’t want your children to read about. And that’s fine. Writing for children doesn’t mean they have nothing else to offer the writing world.

The opposite it true for authors such as Stephen King. Many people shy away from him because he’s known primarily as an author of “horror” stories. But I’ve found that he actually writes much more fantasy and suspense than horror, not to mention moving love stories, at least one hard-boiled mystery, and one of the best non-fiction books on the craft of writing that I’ve ever read. (Check it out here.)

Truman Capote was right: we can’t blame writers for what their characters say and do. There is a certain amount of censoring that automatically happens if your story is meant for younger audiences, but the truth must always prevail. As Stephen R. Donaldson writes about the creative process:

[N]one of us can explain how it works. In a sense, writers don’t get ideas: ideas get writers. They happen to us. If we don’t submit to their power, we lose them; so by trying to control or censor them we can make the negative choice of encouraging them to leave us alone.

I don’t know about you, but it sounds very unattractive to tick off my muse by not letting the story be the story. I recently posted about striking gold with a story idea for this year’s NaNoWriMo. When this idea first occurred, I assumed that it would be another young adult novel. After all, the main characters are teenagers, and most of my stories end up going the middle grade or young adult route.

Yet the more I’ve thought about this new premise, I’ve realized that my novel might actually be for adults. That’s not to say that young adults wouldn’t ever read it – after all, I started reading Stephen King when I was 14 – but the amount of censoring I’d have to do to make it appropriate would change the intent and tone of the story. I suppose I could make it work, but would that be right?

This reminds me of a book I read recently, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. Oh, you’ve heard of her? Yeah, she wrote that itty bitty Harry Potter series that a few people around the world seem to like.

Okay, if you know me, you know that I’m a Harry Potter nut. I bought The Casual Vacancy, which Rowling published as an adult novel, with no illusions of it containing wand-wielding teenage wizards. In the early pages, I sometimes scratched my head over this being the same author of the seven books I so dearly love. True, there are teenagers in her new book, but they’re facing very real temptations and demons, not the fantastical kind. The language, the grittiness was sometimes hard to reconcile with my previous experience of this author.

But knowing how hard it is to force a story into a genre that it’s not, I had an easier time – making my preconceived notions of Rowling disappear into the background – than many other readers who gave up on the book when they discovered it’s not about adult wizards. Rowling still has her fingerprints all over it, but in the form of turns of phrase, descriptions, and little gems that claim her no matter what the genre.

As much as I love most things young adult and fantasy, what I love above all are characters that come to life on the page and stories that pull me in. When I allowed the story to take over, it both compelled and moved me. It took a lot of courage for Rowling to put herself out there and publish something so different than the series that made her a household name. I know of people she’s upset because they expected more of the same, but I admire her for letting the story take the lead.

If you’re an author wrestling with a story unlike anything you’ve ever written, here’s some great advice from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “[S]ome days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.”

Getting out of your own way means ditching those preconceived notions about what you can and should write. Let the story tell itself – at least in the first draft – and you can figure out what’s still appropriate to keep in the revision process.

And if you’re a reader who tends to pigeonhole, open your mind a little bit. Realize that the best authors, the ones that convey the truth through pages and pages of lies, are simply doing what Stephen R. Donaldson wrote about: they’re allowing the creative process to work as it should. To censor it, to hold back, would be to lie in the worst possible way.

For writers to deny themselves the chance to branch out into other genres and interests is to deny growth within the craft, to deny them doing what they’re meant to do.

Writers don’t just love to write – they must. Lamott also says:

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

Amen? Amen.

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Let’s Just Call Them “Crappy” First Drafts

"Writing", 22 November 2008

Writing (Photo credit: ed_needs_a_bicycle)

When I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life earlier this year, I found a plethora of writing truths in that amazing book. Not the least of which is how she describes stories’ first drafts. Now, I want this to be a family friendly blog, so I am just going to paraphrase and call them “crappy” first drafts. But I think you get the idea. And Lamott is absolutely right.

I don’t want to let the wind out of your sails, particularly if you’re enjoying NaNoWriMo like I am right now, but what we’re writing – what we always write the first time around – is full of all kinds of garbage that should be burned on the cutting room floor. And good riddance. But that doesn’t mean this material doesn’t have its place.

I have said before that I am terrible about starting a new story but then losing my enthusiasm and fizzling out. I have many half-written novels that may never see the light of day. NaNoWriMo presents quite a different challenge, one that has forced me to be productive in a way I never thought possible.

When I started last Friday, I had about a page of notes jotted down and several fully-formed scenes already bouncing around my head. Although one piece of NaNo advice that I read was to write a chapter-by-chapter outline of the whole book, I am not a big fan of giving myself such restrictions. Instead, what I did that first day was to write at least a portion of each of the scenes that were so vivid in my mind. Each received a brief, descriptive subtitle, which I’ll delete when I fill in all the scenes in between, and as I wrote, the shape of the story began to develop. Anything I was afraid I would forget I jotted in my notes.

Then, after the first three days or so, during which I typed like mad and had to force myself to go to bed every night, I hit my first challenge: writing those in between scenes. These connect the major events of my story and include many details that are important for me, the author, but probably aren’t fun for people to read. These expositional outpourings are a big part of what make first drafts so awful.

I can’t tell you how many times my characters turn and look at each other, shrug, smile, and have awkward little pauses – made even more awkward by the fact that I wrote them to begin with. But as one friend pointed out to me, the important part about NaNoWriMo is writing. It’s getting the words on the page. Editing has its place, but that’s when the whole story is out.

The whole purpose of NaNoWriMo is to write through the times when we would usually give up; get the entire first draft out, as crappy as it may be. Going back and looking over it may be painful, but it’s good to remember that

you don’t care about those first three pages; those you will throw out, those you needed to write to get to that fourth page, to get to that one long paragraph that was what you had in mind when you started, only you didn’t know that, couldn’t know that, until you got to it. And the story begins to materialize, and another thing is happening, which is that you are learning what you aren’t writing, and this is helping you to find out what you are writing. (Lamott, 9)

So far, at the beginning of day eight, I have written about 22,600 words. I remember when I blogged last week, I had little hope of even getting this far just because such concentrated writing was a new and intimidating experience for me. But knowing that I have only one month to complete my task has lit a fire under me that – even as a very self-motivated person – I’ve never been able to get myself to do. And it doesn’t hurt that self-publisher Create Space is offering two free, printed copies of novels for all NaNoWriMo winners. I have the feeling my novel is going to well exceed the 50,000-word requirement to finish, so my goal is to actually make it through my whole book, no matter how many more words it takes. Then, I’ll take a deep breath and read it. I’m sure I will cringe a lot and pull out my ax. Because even if every first draft is a crappy one, I would like to at least have something a little more respectable in print, even if I decide to hide it in a drawer forever.

So if you’re writing and feeling discouraged, if you know that the scene that gets you from point A to point B is really rough and will need fine-tuning in the future, write it anyway. And if you still feel doubtful, I’ll leave you with more wise words from Anne Lamott: “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later” (22).

Punctuation: It’s More Than Emoticons

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

In Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she has a particular problem with emoticons – you know, the colons and parentheses that make sideways smileys, as she calls them. I admit that I use them, but only for fun. I certainly don’t include them in cover letters or resumes. But there is a whole generation of kids right now who, without proper education, might never know that the colon has an actual use within a sentence.

Anyone interested in punctuation has a dual reason to feel aggrieved about smileys, [Truss writes,] because not only are they a paltry substitute for expressing oneself properly; they are also designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for an ornamental function. What’s this dot-on-top-of-a-dot thing for? What earthly good is it? Well, if you look at it sideways, it could be a pair of eyes. What’s this curvy thing for? It’s a mouth, look! Hey, I think we’re onto something.

: – (

Now it’s sad!

; –)

It looks like it’s winking! (193)

Why should we care, though? Why bother continuing to fight what seems a losing battle? Truss puts it pretty well early in her book.

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play. (20)

As a musician, I get it. Anyone who’s ever read lines from a script gets it, too. But what about everyone else, those who consider punctuation so much debris on the page? Think about ancient Hebrew, in which there was no punctuation, nor were there spaces between words – not even vowels! There have been nasty fights over translations of the Bible because of this. But by the time we began printing, we’d devised ways to help readers decipher the meaning of what they were reading. All these little marks, the periods and colons and dashes and hyphens, are aids; they’re here to help us.

When did things begin to fall apart? Truss gives her opinion on the matter, one well worth noting:

But to get back to those dark-side-of-the-moon years in British education when teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression, it is arguable that the timing of their grammatical apathy could not have been worse. In the 1970s, no educationist would have predicted the explosion in universal written communication caused by the personal computer, the internet and the key-pad of the mobile phone. But now, look what’s happened: everyone’s a writer!

[. . .] People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others. And there is no editing on the internet! (16-7)

That’s right; there are a lot of people claiming to be writers – educated people! – who make absolute fools of themselves online. Since anyone with access to a computer could be a virtual writer now, it is more important than ever to know the rules. How many times have you misread an e-mail because it’s just so hard to decipher tone and meaning via electronic communication? At least if the punctuation is right, that will go a long way toward making the meaning clearer.

After we learn the rules, we can flex our artistic muscles and enhance our writing with the stylistic uses of punctuation, as Noah Lukeman points out in A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. As I mentioned two posts ago, the only form of punctuation that he doesn’t cover is the apostrophe. He even considers paragraph breaks as a form of punctuation. And the way you apply (or don’t) all the different forms of punctuation tells something about you, the writer.

The semicolon, for instance. Aside from the winky face, what good is it? A semicolon separates two independent clauses when a comma and conjunction just don’t do the trick, and when two sentences separate those thoughts a little too much. But writers could choose one of the alternatives I’ve just listed and still be technically correct. Truss says that newspapers don’t use it,

[T]he official reason being that readers of newsprint prefer their sentences short, their paragraphs bite-sized and their columns of type uncluttered by wormy squiggles. It’s more likely that the real reasons are a pathetic editorial confusion about usage and a policy of distrusting contributors even when they demonstrably know their onions. (110)

Ouch. And Lukeman’s take is that

Artistically, the semicolon opens a world of possibilities, and can lend a huge impact. In this sense, it is the punctuation mark best suited for creative writers[. . .]

We use the semicolon for the same reason we trade cement floors for marble: cement floors are equally functional but not as elegant, not as aesthetically pleasing as marble. The semicolon elevates punctuation from the utilitarian (from punctuation that works) to the luxurious (to punctuation that transcends). Business memos do not need semicolons; creative writers do. (70)

It follows that creative writers are artists and might decide to get flowery with their punctuation, but I can easily imagine academic writers turning up their noses at such a notion. There are, however, necessary punctuation marks that everyone has to use, so it’s important to learn about them – and how to keep from overusing them. Lukeman subtitles a portion of his last chapter “Use Sparingly,” and included in this section are the question mark, exclamation point, italics, ellipses (you know: . . .), and the hyphen. Most of these make sense, but the question mark? It’s supposed to come at the end of a question, right? I mean, it wouldn’t be right to end a question with a period (although that doesn’t stop people from trying). In the publishing world, Lukeman says,

[A] publishing professional is looking to reject a manuscript as quickly as he can. [. . .] And an abundance of question marks in the first pages  [. . .] nearly always indicates amateur or melodramatic writing. For some reason, the poor question mark gets seized upon by the writer who is desperate to immediately hook the reader in a cheap way. (184)

Likewise, the exclamation point

[C]an be painfully misused. Like the question mark, it can be used as a crutch to create a heightened sense of drama, can be transformed into a screaming car salesman. As a rule, if you need an exclamation point to make a scene come alive, then you better reexamine that scene. (187)

I do like an example that Truss cites, however, that wouldn’t be possible without these two marks. She mentions “the French 19th-century novelist Victor Hugo, who – when he wanted to know how Les Miserables was selling – reportedly telegraphed his publisher with the simple inquiry ‘?’ and received in the expressive reply ‘!'” (136).

Those of us who care enough to properly and painstakingly choose between semicolons and colons must first learn the rules (and when to break them) and unite with fellow sticklers. I’m waving my electronic hand here, trying to catch the attention of anyone else who cares. As Truss says,

[M]y personal hunches about the state of the language were horribly correct: standards of punctuation in general in the UK are indeed approaching the point of illiteracy; self-justified philistines (“Get a life!”) are truly in the driving seat of our culture; and a lot of well-educated sensitive people really have been weeping friendlessly in caves for the past few years, praying for someone – anyone – to write a book about punctuation with a panda on the cover. (xix-xx)

Truss’s book has a lot of answers, as well as Lukeman’s (and he covers much more than I’ve been able to do here). Three other books that I highly recommend because they have greatly helped me with the craft are the old standby, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (4th Edition), Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and (believe it or not) Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft.

And I’ll let Noah Lukeman have the final word on making the case for proper punctuation:

[L]et your punctuation unfold organically, as the text demands. Punctuation should never be forced on a text, never be brought in to rescue you from confusing sentence construction. It is not here to save – it is here to complement. This is an important distinction. The sentence itself must do the work. If it does, the punctuation will coexist seamlessly, and you will never  have an awkward struggle to squeeze in a dash, or make a semicolon work. If you find yourself having a struggle, reexamine your sentence structure, your word choice. More likely than not, you will need to rewrite, not repunctuate. [. . . I]n the best writing the punctuation is seamless, invisible, at one with the text. It will never stand out. You know you are punctuating the best you possibly can when, ironically, you don’t even know it’s there. (200)

If I Die Before I Wake

English: Sloughan Glen A great place to spend ...

A quiet Sunday afternoon with the family (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that I’ve read more and more posts and memes lately about people—artists and innovators, particularly—pursuing their dreams so they won’t have any regrets at the ends of their lives. One was from Anne Lammot, and I gave her a resounding, “Yes!” After all, I was raised by parents who believe that it is more important to do something fulfilling than pocket-filling. My father has always been baffled by people who suffer through a miserable work week to make it to a weekend during which they will spend half their time bemoaning that it’s almost over. It is a wonderful ideal, to wake up excited about work every day. But what if it doesn’t pay the bills? There is a reason we’re called “starving artists.”

The question for the artist in me is: If I give up on a writing career, will I regret it when I’m eighty? But an even more important question is: If I die tomorrow, what regrets will I have? Put another way, if I knew I only had twenty-four hours left to live, what would I do?

This is a question that was posed to my mother’s Sunday school class twenty-nine or thirty years ago, when I was a baby. Her answer (in part, at least) was that she would still have the same number of diapers to change during that twenty-four hour period as during any other; even if she was leaving a number of unfulfilled dreams, she was still the mother of a dependent baby.

For myself, I would probably spend too much time writing instructions or creating spreadsheets of online usernames and passwords for my husband. What I cannot imagine saying is, “Gosh, I’m not published yet; I’d better get on it.” Mainly, I hope, I would want to be with my family. There are people every day who go home from hospitals, unable to be treated, and their only goal is to spend what time they have left with their families. Those who are left behind will have to survive on the memories made during that time.

As a healthy young woman, I could easily live another forty to fifty years. I could also easily pull out onto a busy street tomorrow and get hit by a careless driver. I apologize if this seems like a downer, and I certainly don’t want to live with my last will and testament in my back pocket, but I also don’t want to forget that life is so short and precious.

My husband and I pretty much follow Dave Ramsey’s guide to debt-free living (see The Total Money Makeover Workbook), and we’re well on our way. Ramsey promotes a lifestyle of delayed gratitude, which I think is healthy (the real world won’t give me a cookie just because I kick and scream for it), but in a way, it’s also sad that many people will never make it there. I don’t mean that a debt-free life is unattainable, just that it could possibly be attained and then not enjoyed. Several years ago, I met a woman who told me that she and her husband had everything they wanted after he retired. They finally had the means and time to travel, and they bought their dream house. It was there that he died, less than a year later, the victim of cancer. Sometimes, she said, they laughed hysterically at the irony of it all: they finally had the house in which they had always wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, yet the rest of their lives wasn’t long enough to enjoy everything for which they had saved.

I still follow the Dave Ramsey method to a point, but Thomas and I also decided that living on beans now so we can enjoy steak and lobster some thirty years down the road is not exactly how we want to live and raise our kids. If our vacations are modest road trips that only last a few days at a time, at least we hope to make good memories with our boys as long as we are able. And if we can achieve a more comfortable lifestyle in the future, so much the better.

With money and careers in mind, there is a part of me that has always said, “When I publish, I’ll finally prove that I’ve done something. The last piece of the puzzle will be in place.” But another part of me knows that I’ve already done a lot, and publishing does not guarantee authorial success, nor does it guarantee mansions or good health or unanimous acclaim.

About five years ago, I met an out-of-state friend for coffee. While we summarized everything we’d done and all we’d hoped we would do by that point in our lives, I lamented that a writing career seemed impossible to attain. I’d gone to a good school that turned out lawyers and doctors, and what was I doing? She pointed out that I was happily married and a mother. She couldn’t say either of those things for herself. Although she had achieved a level of success that I never hoped to claim for myself, she graded me according to different standards. I never thought someone would look at my life and think it enviable.

Similarly, in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, Abbie Deal gives up a possible musical career to marry the love of her life and raise a family. Her children never appreciate her true potential, how great she could have been. They don’t really understand her at all, in fact. Two of her daughters make conscious decisions to never have children and never marry, respectively, in order to pursue careers instead. Only the one who doesn’t marry regrets her decision later in life, when it’s too late to go back to the man who once loved her.

Abbie Deal made a choice that many people wouldn’t—and don’t—make. She chose something for herself—love—but something so much more than herself: she chose relationships, in this case, a relationship with her family. Abbie Deal lived a (fictional) life that I consider was without regret, even though it wasn’t what she initially wanted.

When I think about the people who are going home to spend their remaining time with their families, I realize how important yet how difficult it is to live in the present. What if the present is stressful? As much as I want to spend time with my little boys, my husband and I still have to earn enough money to keep them fed and clothed. And sometimes spending time with them isn’t what I want. I want something for me; I want to read or write or simply have a few moments’ peace.

There must be a balance. Whenever the end of my life is, if I have the luxury of any kind of reflection, I don’t want to wish that I’d spent more time with my family; I want to be thankful for all the time we did spend together. I don’t want them to say, “Well, we didn’t get to see her much, but thank goodness she had such a successful writing career.” (At this point, they won’t be saying that anyway, but they might lament that I spent too much time chasing said career.)

While I won’t for a minute say that I’m totally selfless, that I never make decisions based on what I want to make myself happy, I hope that I can share my life and my time with the people I love. Since I won’t be able to take anything with me anyway, I can leave a legacy of many meaningful memories. Besides, watching my two little boogers dive face-first into Nutella and recite Mother’s Day poems provide good fodder for creative writing, anyway.

What’s the Big Idea?

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

You’d think after ten years together, you’d know someone really well. And, no, I’m not talking about my husband. I’m talking about a character, and January marked ten years since she showed up out of nowhere, demanding I tell her story.

When eleven-year-old Emma popped into my imagination, it was shortly after I really got into reading young adult lit. I figured it was a sign that that was the writing path for me. Early drafts of her story were promising; readers liked it (and gave me a lot of constructive criticism). I finished writing the novel in nine months. That was a first for me: finishing a novel. I was good at beginnings and endings, but I always had trouble making that connection in the middle. But I finally felt ready to face the big boys; I learned everything I could about queries and began looking for a literary agent.

Then reality set in: no one was interested.

Rejection is discouraging, yes, especially when you know that your story has promise. But the wonderful thing, the part that makes me sure I’m not wasting my time, is that I never wanted to stop writing, even when I learned to expect that every SASE would come back containing a form rejection. I got excited when agents wrote something personal, even if the answer was no.

Each rejection I took as an opportunity to better my story; maybe it simply wasn’t ready yet. I continued revising, or sometimes it just sat and kind of stewed while I worked on other projects (like being a mom). Many authors recommend leaving the book for six weeks or so after revising, then coming back for a fresh look. To date, I’ve gone through ten major revisions (sometimes revisions within revisions) since I finished the first draft. Each time I’ve returned to my story, I’ve seen changes that I needed to make and might not have noticed if I hadn’t taken a break. I rediscovered clever bits of writing that I couldn’t believe I actually created (unless there’s a little word fairy that turns garbage into poetry when I’m not looking). It’s a fantasy novel, so I really delved into the world of the story and made up words in my own fictional language, gave my fictional kingdom its own history, wrote pages of backstory. I changed the title four times, and I think I finally have the one that fits.

With each revision, I felt like I was getting closer to my goal, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally felt satisfied with it. Even though all the components were there, including that tricky middle bit, I think part of my problem when querying was that I wasn’t completely confident. I was almost relieved by the rejections, as much as I wanted someone to love my book, because I didn’t know if I would be happy publishing it as it stood.

Then, last fall a friend clued me into a webinar given by a literary agent, which led to me buying the agent’s book and discovering perhaps the biggest roadblock in the way of me truly knowing my story—and thus being able to tell it. The agent is Mary Kole, her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit (which I recommend to all authors, not just those of “kidlit”). In it, Kole addresses many aspects to which I never gave conscious thought. Perhaps the biggest, aptly named, is the Big Idea of the story. Even if not clearly articulated in a novel, the Big Idea needs to shine through. It’s also something an author should be able to clearly state in a query letter. Well, I can tell you that every query I ever wrote before reading Kole’s advice was all over the map when it came to describing my book. I could not specifically pinpoint what it was about without giving a lengthy explanation of the plot (which is extremely difficult to pull off in a one-page query).

Other authors such as Madeleine L’Engle and Anne Lamott further encouraged me. (Click the links to read about them in previous posts.) I thought about my story, went to sleep and awoke in the middle of the night with Emma on my mind. One thing that always bothered me was that I had no idea what her middle name was. Now, Sarah, you’re probably thinking, how could you not know your own protagonist’s middle name? You made her up, how hard is it? The problem was that when I thought of Emma, a middle name automatically came to mind, but even though it sounded right, it wasn’t hers. The same thing happened with her hair color. My first, hand-written draft made it brown, but Emma’s hair isn’t brown, it’s red. Sometimes, there are things that authors try to force on their characters—attributes or bits of history—that don’t suit, and they have to go.

Then it came to me—the perfect name and with a perfectly logical reason for why Emma’s parents gave it to her. It’s a name that defines her. . . because she hates it. If you told me at the beginning what her middle name was, I would have laughed and said it was stupid. I hadn’t gotten to know my story yet.

And it turns out that Emma’s middle name has a lot to do with the Big Idea, which I only started to figure out a few months ago. With that final bit of requisite knowledge, I not only composed a better query letter, but I finally did so with confidence. For the first time, I have a firm grasp on what I wrote and what I need to do moving forward. Am I happy that it took me ten years to get here? Of course not, and if I’d known it would take so long all those years ago, it probably would have killed my spirit. Nor does it mean that I’m done making changes, finished struggling, or guaranteed a best seller. But I am satisfied and ready to share Emma’s story. And I think she is ready to share her middle name, even though she doesn’t like it.

What Ever Happened to Pen Pals?

“There are a lot of us, some published, some not, who think the literary life is the loveliest one possible, this life of reading and writing and corresponding.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

stationery box

Stationery Box (Photo credit: Spyderella)

When I read the above quote recently and got to the part about corresponding, it really made me stop and think. Granted, Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird in the mid-1990’s, so a lot has changed since then. Still, if writers don’t keep the art of correspondence alive, who will? There aren’t many great epistle writers anymore simply because there isn’t the necessity these days (one exception is my father—ask anyone who’s read one of his emails).

It is a sad reality that the art of letter-writing is becoming rather dinosaur-ish. An elderly woman I know who has bravely moved into the world of technology starts every email to me with “Dear Sarah,” and she ends with “Love,” followed by her name. She types it exactly as she would a letter, complete sentences and all. The first time I received one of these emails, I chuckled to myself, but I also appreciated the thoughtfulness behind her message. She sat down and carefully chose every word, and I’m sure she proofread it at least once. I am also sure that she hand-writes letters, too, probably on monogrammed stationery, and everyone who receives one of these feels special because of the time she takes. (Granted, she is a retired English teacher, but that means little these days. I can’t tell you how many of my college English professors sent emails full of typos, yet took points away if I so much as misplaced a comma in an in-class essay.)

Here’s what Aibeleen from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help has to say about writing:

I been writing my prayers since I was in junior high. When I tell my seventh-grade teacher I ain’t coming back to school cause I got to help out my mama, Miss Ross just about cried.

“You’re the smartest one in the class, Aibileen,” she say. “And the only way you’re going to keep sharp is to read and write every day.”

So I started writing my prayers down instead a saying em.

When I read this, I was struck by the novelty of writing prayers. The whole “use it or lose it” cliche applies here, and cliche or not, it’s absolutely true.

Of course, I do write a lot, always have. And I must confess that one of my weaknesses is stationery. As a girl—well, even now—I loved to go into bookstores and lose myself in the writer’s gift section. I’ve turned into a little bit of a Moleskine snob, but I still love looking at all the leather-bound journals, just waiting to be filled, or the fountain pens, fancy notebooks, writing cases, and all the different note cards. I used to scrape together what precious spending money I had to buy these little goodies, and when I was much younger, I used that stationery like it was going out of style, starting with my first pen pal. I guess I was in the second or third grade—old enough to write complete sentences and get annoyed when my pen pal couldn’t copy my address correctly (ever), much less get my name right. But I digress. I had a reason to use that stationery, and use it I did. It also gave me reason to practice writing cursive, which I loved, or as I got older, I experimented with different styles, changing the way I wrote A, E, S, and Z. When I separated from many friends after eight years at the same school, I spent the whole summer writing to a handful of them; I still got the occasional letter from one of them until well after I was married.

As for my sons, I wonder if they will enjoy this same activity. Or will they Facebook or text message each other? I admit, I love using Facebook to keep up with old friends without having to be too social. It’s a great way to keep tabs. But it’s also not very personal (or sometimes a little too personal, and that’s when that “Unsubscribe” option comes into play). Peter, who is five, loves getting things in the mail, though. And at his age, anything with his name on it is always positive. He doesn’t get bills or reminders for his annual eye exam. I can’t tell you how many times he walks with me to the mailbox, hopeful that something in there has his name on it. So is the art of correspondence going to survive his generation? When he’s old enough to fill out an address on the front of an envelope, will he have someone to write to? I fear that one of the reasons our country’s literacy rate is so low is because many people have given up. They don’t care, don’t see the value in it, especially when spell check (they think) will find all the errors for them.

I’m here to say that I care; I want to continue buying and using stationery. Besides, it’s not just the children who appreciate receiving letters in the mail, nor are they the only ones who need to be reminded how to write. I’m not going to let progress and this technological age turn my brain into a smooth glob of mush that only absorbs what it’s fed in one hundred forty character bites or only understands three-letter abbreviations. Oh my gosh, yes, I went there.