Friday, December 20, 2013

A Debut Writer Reflects on the First Year

The other day my son, home on break from his sophomore year, shared a big realization. He was bummed about how he did in one of his classes. It was a hard class and he'd worked his butt off but the bummer of it was that there were things he could've done to improve his performance--things that he didn't figure out until the end of the semester.

The TAs, for example, offered help sessions that weren't simply help sessions--but mini classes, where crucial information was given out, and all along, the professor had been offering students the chance to redo homework assignments.

Somehow, my son had missed these opportunities. The help was out there, but for whatever reason, it just wasn't on his radar.

Because I am the type of mom who hears something like this and ends up making a connection to writing, I told my son about the Hero's Journey. (Some other day I will blog about how this kind of thing probably drives my kids crazy.)

But anyhoo, there's a point where the hero leaves the comforts or discomforts of the Ordinary World and crosses the threshold into the Special World. This new world has a whole different set of rules and challenges that the hero has to learn in order to navigate through successfully. See, it's like college, I told my son. It's like anything in life. Whenever you move onto another stage--school, job, marriage, whatever--there are rules and challenges and things you've got to figure out in order to be successful.

What's nice is that you don't have to flounder alone. In the Hero's Journey, the hero has a mentor. That's what my son needed, I told him, a friend who'd been through this Special World pressure cooker of a college and who could share the crucial bits of wisdom and experience.

As I was blathering about this and watching my son's eyes glaze over, I had a flash of myself crossing over the threshold into Publishing Land. This year as a debut writer has been a big-time introduction into another world.

And I am so grateful for the mentors I had along the way.

Now I'd like to pay some of this back to any writers out there who are on the verge. So without further blathering, here are the crucial bits I learned this year:

1. Make connections-- with other writers, librarians, bookstore folks, and teachers. Do this NOW, wherever you may be in the publication process.

Why this is important: My connections to bookstores led to book launches and signings. Teachers invited me to visit their classrooms. Librarians asked me to speak and teach workshops. My communication with other writers led to interviews and guest blogs and blurbs on my book. Writers have shared helpful info about contracts and speaking opportunities too. All of these are real connections, by the way. Many of these people have become my good friends.

Corollary to number one: Make a list of contacts--every single person you have ever interacted with who might be interested in your book.

Why this is important: Some of these people will read your book and love it and want to help you promote it. I have been truly amazed and humbled by the responses I've gotten from family, friends--both old and new--who've stepped up to help me.

2. Interact on social media. Dip your toe into a few sites-- Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr etc. (New to the Twitter game? Here is THE best description of it I've read, from YA writer Patty Blount) Be a lurker for a while until you figure out the rules of social etiquette for that site (believe me: there ARE rules, even if they aren't explicitly posted, and people will gleefully let you know when you break them).

Why this is important: the party line is that social media is the way to promote your book. This is true-ish, but there's so much more to it than telling people to buy your book (by the way, NEVER do that.)

Social media is a way to find out the news in this business. I follow editors and agents, publishing companies, other writers, readers, reviewers, bloggers and librarians. These people post on social media about books and everything related to writing, reading, and marketing. Social media is how I've found out about conferences, book awards and deadlines, reviews and interview opportunities. It's a cool community, where a writer can feel not so alone struggling though a revision or reeling over a bad review or worrying over an impending book deal. Also, you can share your love of books with other book lovers.

Be careful though. It is a GIGANTIC TIME SUCKER. 

Corollary to number two: think about the "interacting" part of social media and how you want to present yourself online. Whether you consciously consider it or not, you DO have an online persona. How will you respond to negative reviews? To good reviews? How will you handle blogger requests for ARCs and/or interviews? If you are a blogger/reviewer yourself, will you review books by writers you know? What if you don't, um, like those books?

A word about dealing with bad reviews. Most writers say they don't read them. In fact, many writers don't read any of their reviews. Last year at this time, I didn't understand this policy. Each time a review or rating went up on Goodreads, I'd read it and experience a brief high. Someone I don't know likes my book! This was my dream come true goal--to have readers read something I'd written. Here's what I figured out along the way: the book, my book, is out of my hands now, being read or not being read, being loved or not being loved, being gushed about or being immediately forgotten. There is a certain point where the newness/excitement/nausea/horror fades.

And you stop reading reviews.

3. Figure out what kinds of book festivals are going on in your area and apply to be a part of them. I was lucky, and many opportunities fell into my lap. Another writer told me about an annual bookfair in Ohio that I'd never heard of. A bookstore owner told me about a book festival in a nearby city. A person I used to teach with was on the board of a different book fair and they invited me to apply. None of these things were on my radar last year at this time.

Why it's important: book fairs and festivals are a way to sell books, of course, (and you will sell a lot at some and maybe not so many at others). But they are also a way to meet other writers in your area and to make connections with readers, many of whom are teachers and librarians--which can lead to other opportunities. I met the woman in charge of programming at the Thurber House at a book festival, for example, and this fall she asked me to present a writing workshop for them.

Side note: you will not know about every single thing going on, and there will be some missed opportunities. Oh well.

4. Find your balance between writing and promoting. This is incredibly difficult and I know I still haven't gotten it right.

Last year my agent gave me some advice. I asked her what my goal was and she said point blank that I had two: Earn back my advance and sell another book.

Everything I've done this year, everything I've taken on or passed on, I tried to keep these goals in mind. To earn back my advance I have to promote my book. To sell another book, I have to, uh, write one. The difficult thing, I've learned, is that these two goals don't quite work together. Promoting takes time. Travel. Money. There are details to work out and email correspondence and phone calls.

But writing takes time too--long stretches for pondering and dreaming and drafting and revising and brainstorming and reflecting.  And there's another part of this balance equation too that I haven't touched on--my day to day life, where I have a family and a house to clean (or not clean) and meals to cook and pets to walk and de-flea.  

How do other professional writers do it all?

I do not know. But I promise, dear writers and readers who have been following me as I travel along on my journey, I will tell you as soon as I figure it out!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Teen Guest Post: WHO AM I? by Sidney C.

As promised here, I'm hosting a guest blog series called WHO AM I? and have invited teen writers to contribute.  

And a shout out to my artistic teen neighbor Courtney Berger for designing the awesome banner.


Who Am I?
by Sidney C., guest blogger/artist

If your life was drawn out,
Tell me,
What would I see?
You were given a blank canvas
To create who you want to be
But others have folded you
Into a bird with no wings
Can’t you see?
You’re locked inside a cage
Why not set yourself free?
You’re crumbling, broken.
You keep quiet
Your pain remains unspoken.
These thing that you’ve started,
They’ve become a routine.
Two things:
Who you are and
Who they want you to be
And you’re stuck right in-between.
You want to change
You really do
But there is no way, it seems
What if no one likes the real you?
But then you see it
Just like it's in your dreams
Life is a map without a compass
You’re a ship without a sail
You’re a bird with clipped wings
It’s your choice to choose
You can hide behind something fake
Or let yourself shine through.
You realize you were never really alone,
And you kind of always knew,
That there was someone watching over you
Waiting for you to see
That the only person worth being is the one you were meant to be.
After reading this maybe you’ll see,
I like who I am.
I like being me.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ah, the Joy of Playing around with a Messy First Draft

I used to hate revising. In school I wrote papers the night before. Revising, in my mind, meant looking over the spelling before turning a paper in. In college when I took creative writing workshops, I still didn't understand revision. I'd write my stories in a burst (typically, the night before).

There'd be talk in class about what could be done to make a story better. "In the revision, you could try this," the professor would suggest. "Or you might think about this." I'd nod and take notes, but I never bothered to try any of those suggestions. To me, the story was done. I was bored with it and ready to move on. Maybe I'd apply what I learned to the next story I had to write.

I didn't truly understand revision until I heard a talk about it at a writer's conference. The speaker, a guy named Andy Gutelle, pointed out that many beginning writers struggle with revision. They have their finished draft in front of them, and they start from page one and edit along, tightening up passages or cutting a few things, fixing punctuation and typos. But this isn't really revision, he said.

Revision begins by looking at the entire novel at once. It asks big questions like:

What is this story about?
Who is your main character and what does she want?
Do all of your scenes contribute to the arc of the story? Does each one develop your main character and/or move the plot along?

He suggested revising in layers. Read through the book asking the big questions and then read through it again, zeroing in at the scene level, and finally at the smaller sentence by sentence level.

I had never thought about revision in this way. I was used to writing short stories, where I could hold the entire picture of the narrative arc in my head at once. Scene, scene, scene. Character, conflict, realization.

I had never done that with a novel. It's too big! But it made sense. Writing a first draft is often an exercise in discovering what it is you are writing about in the first place. Your initial idea can change a little or a lot. Characters that seemed important disappear. New characters emerge. Strands and subplots fade away. Revelations plop in out of nowhere.

Starting from the beginning and zeroing in on grammar errors is not going to help you get your novel into shape. To do that, you have to see what you actually have on the page (as opposed to the initial vision of the book that you hold in your head).

It's not a pleasant experience to read your first draft through for the first time. The fear going into it is that it's going to be a horrible, unfixable mess. What ends up happening, I'm happy to tell you, is that it IS kind of a mess, but it is fixable.

If it makes you feel any better, other writers go through this too:

"All writing," says Jane Yolen, "is about the gap--no that chasm--between the expectation and final product. Expect it, sidestep it, move on."

How do you DO revision, though? How do you take a big thing like a novel and see it for what it is--all the characters and strands and scenes and meanderings?

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird describes printing out every page of a draft and spreading it all over her apartment.

Other writers write out their scenes on index cards.

(this is from YA author Nova Ren Suma--working on a draft at a writer's retreat)

They create elaborate maps.

(Check out Laurie Halse Anderson's revision road map. If you want to know more about Laurie's revision process, see her blog on her website Mad Woman in the Forest

They write on their walls.

(This is a wall in William Faulkner's house. Yes. Even Faulkner's novels did not spring from his head fully formed.)

Revising is like doing a puzzle. With your first draft complete, you've got most of the pieces out of the box and spread out on the table. You turn them over, examine what you have and think about how they might fit together. You chuck out the pieces that don't seem to belong to this puzzle. You assemble and realize which pieces are missing.

Uh oh. A character disappears? I'll rewrite the scenes at the beginning and take her out. A sub plot begins on page 100? Let's see if I can work that in earlier.

This can be fun or painstaking, angsty or exciting, depending on how you look at it. It takes time and work to put together a puzzle. Also, unfortunately, they don't come already assembled.

This is the truth about the work that is involved in writing a novel. It takes time. It takes logical thinking. It takes leaps of faith.

I heard David Wiesner speak at a conference this summer. He's an author/illustrator who's known for his award winning picture books Tuesday, Flostam, and Art & Max. He told us about his latest book, tracing the steps he went through from idea to development to revision. It was fascinating.

One day, he said, a very cool idea popped into his head. It was an image of a tiny spaceship landing in a child's sandbox. He immediately drew the picture and began to storyboard out the story arc. He showed us the sample and it seemed pretty good to me, but Wiesner said it wasn't right.

He drew the story out again, beginning with the spaceship in the sandbox. Still not right. And again. Again. He put the failed manuscript away. He wrote another book. He came back to it. Each time starting with the spaceship in the sandbox. That was the originating idea and he couldn't let it go. But for whatever reason, it just didn't work.

He quit on it again. He wrote other things. During a break he watched his cat not play with his toys. He wondered what a cat would do if he found a tiny spaceship. He drew out another story board. That story, after multiple revisions, became Mr. Wuffles. 

Check it out. It's clever and hilarious. It came to be because David Wiesner did not give up on his story. He let go of the original idea and took a leap of faith.

His parting words: Don't just think about an idea. Do the work.

PS. Anyone who would like my notes from Andy Gutelle's revision talk, email me at jodycasella (@) yahoo (.) com

Friday, December 6, 2013

I confess that I have no idea what I am doing when it comes to writing...

Also, probably, when it comes to life. (But I will leave that confession for some other day.)

I don't know why this is such a big revelation. Maybe because you think--or at least I thought--that when I got to a certain point, after I'd written a certain number of books, gone through the process enough times, I'd get to the end and, um, KNOW WHAT I AM DOING!!!

All the years that I was writing and rewriting and submitting and absorbing rejections and then repeating that fun loop, I kept thinking I was on the verge of understanding how it all worked, like there was some magical answer to becoming a published writer and once I figured that out, Wah lah! I'd cross over to the other side. And just Be There, I guess, smiling and waving and signing my pile of books for adoring fans.

I had these turning points along the way, mini revelations about writing and how my process worked, and whenever I'd figure out something new, I'd cling to it like it was a life raft.

I must write 1250 words per day.
I mean, 1500.
I mean, 2000.

I must revise as I go and make my draft as perfect as possible the first time through.
Who am I kidding? I should write without worrying where it will go and revise the mess later.
I'm an idiot. I should have made an outline.

But after ten "finished" manuscripts, more than 10,000 hours of time spent on writing, and one published novel, there are times when I still feel like a novice.

Every day is hard to sit down and write, to rework or to let things go, to plan or to allow my words gush out.

Every day there are distractions. The internet. The dishes. A horrifying college bill to pay. My daughter's forgotten lunch that must be brought to school. The dog yakking on the carpet.

Every day there are things that can potentially derail me. Before it was stuff like a rejection. A pass from an agent or editor who had requested something. An agent quitting. An editor changing her mind. Now it's a meh review or a  bizarrely fluctuating Amazon rating.

Blah di blah di blah.

I could go on about the inner angsty-ness, but I am starting to bore myself, so I will spare you.

Here is something I DO know:

There IS a magic answer.

Something that makes the doubts and the distractions and the outside evaluations disappear.

Something that I actually did learn along the way and know for sure.

Something that ALWAYS works when I am angsting or stressing or reeling.

It is the one and only thing that I can control as a writer.

I sit down. I open up my lap top.

I write.