Thursday, December 5, 2019

Writing from Hobby to Career--Part 2

I've always wanted to be a writer.  When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor.  (And I was already writing stories.)  By the time I was a teenager, I wanted to be a doctor-writer.  I read my mom's copy of Prince of Tides and imagined my days as both a psychiatrist and an author.  I went away to college (full pre-med track but also an English Lit major) and saved all my science textbooks and notes for future use in fiction.

Fortunately, I realized that "it sounds fun and also might make for good stories" wasn't good enough reason to go to medical school.  (If it were free, I'd totally still go.  Medical school still sounds fun to me! But I still don't want to actually work as a doctor.)

I want to work as a writer.  So, here's how I took my writing from hobby status to career status.

Hobby status.  I wrote novels (4+ of them), short stories, and essays.  I blogged daily.  I threw myself into NaNoWriMo.  I drafted in a cafe while my daughter was at preschool.  I participated in a critique group.  I read a lot.  I followed industry blogs and websites.  I took classes on campus and online.  I joined a writing group and attended a convention.  Pretty serious hobby, right?

Career status.  I got more serious about all of the above.  I wrote three more novels, each time identifying my weakest tendencies and attacking them.  I don't like hurting my precious characters?  Fine.  Next novel has DEAD CHILDREN in the backstory.  My close-third-person perspective isn't close enough?  Fine.  Next novel is first person, present tense.  My pacing is soggy?  Fine.  I'll outline a novel I love and map my own outline/character/story to the pacing of the published novel I like.  I began writing year 'round, not just when it fit into my schedule.  I threw myself into a weekly critique group then joined a monthly critique group on top of that.  I submitted work to contests and first page reads for feedback.  I had headshots taken and a website developed.  I became more thoughtful and intentional in my social media presence.  I joined a second writing organization (and a goaltenders group and a writing accountability group).  I started querying my critiqued manuscripts to agents.

But the biggest switch was mental.  I stopped thinking of writing as a "some day" activity.  I stopped putting everything else in my life first.  I stopped apologizing for the time and money I spend on writing.  I started acting like writing was my job.  "I won't be here when you get home from school, because I'll be with my writing group.  Let yourself in and text me--I'll be home soon."  "No, I'm sorry, I can't volunteer in the school library on Tuesday afternoons--I'm in critique group then."  I began thinking of myself as a writer.

And you know what?  I am a writer.  I have many career goals I have yet to achieve, but I'm doing the work I can do to achieve them.  My writing is far better than it was ten years ago, but hopefully nowhere near as good as it will be ten year from now.

In the meantime, as they say, "Writers write."

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Writing from Hobby to Career--Part I

Twitter is full of writers feeling guilty for not writing.  In the evenings.  Over weekends.  On vacation.

Lots of people in more traditional jobs work from home on evenings/weekends/vacations.  Does your career commonly have the "I should always be working" guilt that writing has for many authors?

I have a hypothesis about why so many writers feel this way.

Most of us start writing as a "hobby" before we go pro.  We write late at night, after our families are asleep.  Or we wake early to write in the pre-dawn quiet.  We might borrow thirty minutes of our lunch breaks at work.  Grab the opportunity provided by waiting in the car-rider pick-up line at school.  We plot during exercise.  Draft during kids' TV shows.  Edit aloud in the shower.

And most authors never fully leave that space.  Many keep a "day" job until they retire.  But, even if an author is fortunate enough to be able to chose to make writing their only job, the mentality of writing fitting into every free moment, every liminal space, every unstructured corner of our lives is hard to lose.

Our practice of writing is from its inception entwined with borrowed, stolen, and found moments.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

NaNoWriMo

It's National Novel Writing Month!  And I'm, well, I'm writing.  Hopefully 50,000 new words before December 1st.  I don't start a new project each November.  What I do is work on a novel throughout the spring/summer/fall then finish a first draft in a furious 50,000 word burst.

In some ways, that's easier than doing a proper NaNoWriMo--I already know my characters, voice, and story.  On the other hand, beginnings are easiest and most exciting.  Middles are challenging--keep them tight and not at all soggy!  And endings are tricky--pick up all the threads you've introduced intentionally or subconsciously and tie all the pieces together.

In December, I'm a soggy noodle.  A soggy noodle with a lot of Christmas/end-of-year stuff to accomplish.  But it's worth it to have written a book a year for the past few years.  I revisit each chapter as I send it to my critique group, so the draft is solid by the end of the chapter-level-critique process each spring.

I love the camaraderie of critique groups, writing groups, and accountability groups--including NaNoWriMo--in what can be a solitary occupation.  I wouldn't change a thing.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Is Querying Hard?

That's what writers who've been through the process say.  "Querying is hard."  I always thought they meant that rejection is hard.  And that's true--rejection is not a lot of fun.  I wrote novels (and edited and critiqued and workshopped them) for twelve years before I was both a strong enough writer and also ready to weather the waves of rejection.

Still, the process seemed overwhelming, and I wasn't sure how to start.  Bearing in mind that I'm new to querying and am far from expert at the process, here's how I've approached the task of finding an agent.  The below notes are for fiction only.

1) Complete your novel.  Revise it.  Work it through critique groups and beta readers.  Enter contests to get feedback.  Polish it until it shines.  When you can't make it any better without professional/editorial feedback, move on to step two.

2) Why query agents?  If you want to indie/self publish, or you're pursuing small-press publication, you can maybe skip querying agents with your manuscript.  But, if you're hoping to be published by a major publishing house, you'll probably need a literary agent.  Most editors/big houses do not accept unsolicited submissions.

3) According to QueryTracker.net, there are about 2,000 literary agents.  Which one is right for you?  And how do you know?  I started at QueryTracker.  Agents > Search for Agents > Advanced Search > Genres.  Selecting my genre narrowed 2000 agents to 117.  This is a far more manageable number.  What next?

4) One of my critique partners, John Frain, spent much of last year searching for an agent.  He created a table to help keep track of various factors to help him determine which agents were likely to be good fits for his work and career goals.  I took his table, tweaked the headings, and asked Paul to make it into a spreadsheet for me.  Now, bear in mind that my categories are completely arbitrary and possibly wrong.  I needed a place to start.  The first two columns are Agent Name and Agency.  I've removed those from the attached image, but I've found including Agency as a separate column is critical.  Many agencies have "only query one agent at a time" or "a no from one is a no from all" policies, so being able to sort by Agency is important in the AgentTracker spreadsheet.



5) Now, I know who to query first!  I started with "matches" of 8 and above and am working my way thought the list, sending several queries a week.  But, how do I keep track of all my submissions?  That's a different spreadsheet.  Again, Agent Name and Agency columns are redacted.  Also, some agents use QueryManager rather than email for submissions.  I include those links within my Agent Query Submissions spreadsheet, but removed them for this image.  I use colors to differentiate the two different novels I'm querying right now.  (I've also learned to send only one project to each agent.)



6) The query!  Finally!  I worked on my query letters for weeks.  I read Query Shark and other industry blogs/columns until my eyes blurred.  I went through several drafts of each letter.  I ran them past my critique partners and, for one project, a professional editor.  I continually tweak the letters.  But even a solid query letter isn't enough.  In my experience, a personalized query earns more personalized responses (both personalized rejections and requests for more).  By "personalized query," I mean more than simply addressing the letter to its intended recipient.  That's a given.  I mean: I'm querying you because you represent this author whose career I admire and here's why.  Or: your website says you're looking for projects like this and here's how my project does that.

Populating the AgentTracker spreadsheet took me easily 60 hours of work.  But each customized query takes the better part of an hour by itself.

So far, perhaps because I was so ready for it, the rejection hasn't been too hard to handle.  Still, querying is hard (time-consuming, creatively demanding) work.  It's also--dare I say it?--a lot of fun.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Autumnal Mood

I feel melancholic in autumn.

I always have.

And I love it.

In college, a small, wooded area stretched beside the field between the sophomore and senior dorms.  I'd escape into a copse of trees, sit against a trunk, and cry into the rain.  

Autumn is a time of beginnings: new school years, my birthday, a reprieve from stifling summer heat. 

It’s also a time of endings as the leaves wither and fall, I grow another year older, and the calendar year wanes. 

I love the scent of rain, the threat of an impending storm, the invigorating tempest, the soothing pattern of a drizzle. But I hate the humid aftermath. 

The muggy wake of a storm front feels like my head after crying--after the dam has burst and the excitement has past. I’m dehydrated and yet swollen. Puffy eyes, mucous breath. 


So too the air seems after the rain passes, and I’m left wondering: what’s next to look forward to?

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Improving Craft--and Acumen

I started what would become my first full-length novel during NaNoWriMo in 2007, almost twelve years ago.  At the time, I had a preschooler and an infant.  I'd just stopped working (in health sciences publishing) to stay home with the girls.

I still love the idea of that book, Seek Ye First.  It's a scavenger-hunt mystery set partially around St. Louis and partially in an online gaming world called Poirot.  But the writing wasn't great.  I had a literature degree!  I read a lot.  At the time, I kept a daily blog.  I should have been able to write, right?  But no.  What all that knowledge and experience enabled me to do was to recognize (eventually) that my writing wasn't great.

My POV was too distant, my verbs too weak, my stakes too low. (I created these awesome characters and didn't want to hurt them.)  Tell, not show--I had a great fondness for summarizing scenes.

To be honest, I haven't perfected my writing.  But, it's significantly better in 2019 than it was in 2007.  In the intervening years, I've written four additional novels that will live in the box under my desk until our leaky roof destroys them.

I've also written two novels that I am proud of.  Finally!  And I'm very excited by the novel I'm writing now.  And the one I'm outlining to write next.

In addition to reading and writing books, over the past twelve years, I've taken writing classes (online and on campus).  I've participated in several critique groups.  I've read a lot of industry blogs.  I joined local/national writers' groups.  I've found beta readers and entered contests.  In short, I went from being an aspiring writer to treating my writing as a profession.

Maybe I waited longer than I needed to start sending my work to agents.  I thought I was ready twelve years ago.  I wasn't.  I'm ready now.