Astronauts and Complications

On Saturday I went to an aeronautics expo. I heard Buzz, the astronaut who went to the moon with Neil Armstrong, speak. I talked to some crazy smart people, remembered I’ve always wanted to take flight lessons and got the info on it, and got a free squishy plane (highlight!)

I’ll probably never take flight lessons. I desperately want to, and I think it would be sweet to get a private pilot’s license and volunteer for the many charities around, but they cost so much I don’t think I could ever afford it. But I did also remember Saturday that I’m actually super interested in science and math, and I started toying with the idea of going back to school just one or two classes at a time and eventually working my way toward a degree in biochem.

BUT JAMIE, you cry aghast, YOU DO WHATEVER IS HUMANLY POSSIBLE TO AVOID MATH AND SCIENCE DON’T YOU? YOU WANT TO MAKE A LIVING OFF OF WORDS WHICH IS THE OPPOSITE BASICALLY.

This is largely true. I do want to make a living from words and I’ll never not be a writer first above all else. But I like the challenge of science and math. They frustrate me and make me mad and confuse me, but they’re also fascinating because of that difficulty.

This is something we talk a lot about as writers but sometimes forget- people are complicated. They are irrational, puzzling, fans of everything and nothing, disloyal, passionate, and spontaneous. You know what other things I want to do? Community theatre. Give piano lessons. Take violin lessons. Learn to drive a stick. Get a dog. Buy a condo. Start exercising. Get better at cooking.

None of those things really go together, except that I like them and want to try. Your characters should have this quality too- don’t be afraid to mix and match ideas, aspirations, and desires. Nobody is just one thing. Think outside the box, take them down unexpected ways, and don’t say no until you/they have tried something. That right there is the intersection of science and words.

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A Case Manager’s Thoughts on Agenting

Hi friends!

In case you don’t follow me on Twitter, I’ll share that this whole week I’ve been locked in a battle with a mouse in my apartment, and I am currently sitting on my bedroom floor behind a towel and bin at the door barricade in order to write this. For you.

Anyways, I’ve been thinking this week about agents and all the crazy things they have to do and keep up with, and it reminded me in some ways of my job. For most of my professional career I’ve worked for various nonprofits as a case manager, which is like another word for Person Who Connects People To Things, and so for this rainy Thursday I’ve come up with a short list of ways they are similar which might help you wrap your mind around the whole agent thing like it did me.

1) Both case managers and agents have limited time for a million needs

Right now I have a case load of approximately forty clients, which has been a relatively standard number in the various jobs I’ve had. Now, let’s recall that in theory there are forty hours in a workweek – this means I would have one hour per week per client, assuming I never went to any meetings, didn’t take lunch breaks, didn’t have to drive to get to any appointments, and had no other delays such as a malfunctioning computer. And that’s without adding any new clients, despite our waiting list. Now let’s imagine I have two clients. One is about to lose their home, and one needs help taking out the trash. It’s a simple fact of comparing the needs against each other that I have to help the one with the bigger issue first, and an even worse fact that that’s not a one hour issue and is going to chop into the time I might have otherwise used to connect the other client with someone to take their trash out for them. Multiply this by an entire case load and you have *explosion*.

Translating this to the agent world, many agents receive 300-500 queries PER WEEK…and none of them have anything to do with the clients they already have, who may be in the midst of contract negotiations, sending in new books, pub days, etc. Once I think about my own work week, which, let’s face it, forty hours? Please, and the number of clients I have versus an agent and the clients and hours they have, it is no longer so puzzling to me that things can take so much time.

2) Both case managers and agents are human beings

I like doing things besides work. I have bad days where I’m exhausted or upset and not as productive as usual. I like to go home and have a real meal, I like to read and work on my books. I’m in graduate school, which means hours and hours of homework. Work, while important, is just one piece of a full life.

Why would we think agents are any different?

3) Both case managers and agents are organized and deadline driven

I use no less than three calendars at work. I track application deadlines, benefit limits, appointments, meetings, follow up on tasks, emails, phone calls, and everything else. My calendar revolves around plugging in the big, important deadlines for paperwork and things that I absolutely cannot miss, then required appointments and meetings, then everything else.

Though I have of course never been an agent, I’d imagine of necessity it works the same way – first the deadlines, then the meetings and appointments that have to happen that month or else, and then everything else packed in around it.

Exhausting, you say? That’s not the exhausting part. The exhausting part of case management, and, I’d assume, of agenting, is that we work with people. People are wonderful and beautiful and kind and creative but they are also wildly unpredictable, and more often than not that beautiful schedule you created for yourself is toast by 9 am. I’ve learned to be comfortable with uncertainty and gray areas, and I’d imagine an agent has to be pretty comfortable there too.

4) Both case managers and agents can’t solve all the problems and may wrestle with guilt from time to time

When someone comes to me with an issue and I can’t help them, that’s a huge burden. Maybe the resources don’t exist, maybe they don’t qualify, or maybe they get denied for whatever reason, but the guilt that comes with not being able to help everyone with everything can be a consuming thing. There’s a sense that the work is never done, that maybe I should have just stayed one more hour, finished one more task, made one more call…and so on until I’m going crazy with it.

Take this and multiply it by however many thousands of people an agent comes in contact with, and that’s a massive weight to have on someone’s shoulders.  I’ve never read about a single agent who likes sending rejections, and the idea of having to say no to so many people every day makes me sad thinking about it. You might be angry, hurt, or offended by a rejection or other interaction, and I’m not saying you have to feel awesome, but don’t assume the world, or agents, are out to get you. You have no idea what sort of thought may have gone into that rejection, or why something is taking longer than you think it should. (and yes, there are some agents – and some case managers – who are just rude, nasty, not nice people. Because they are people, and sometimes people fail us. But the majority have good hearts.)

5) Both case mangers and agents do what they do because they are passionate about it

After all the things above – more work than we could ever accomplish in any decent time frame, the stress of managing a thousand things at once, the guilt over what we can’t do and when we have to say no, and the crazy balancing act of doing our best for everyone and staying on top of everything as best we can – why does a case manager or an agent keep doing their job?

Because of passion. Because we love people, or stories, or helping people find the one thing they need to achieve a goal, or making a dream come true, whatever. I have a passion for what I do, and even though some days I’m tired, cranky, or in dire need of a bag of chocolate, that passion sees me through. I think it’s safe to assume passion sees agents through their work too.

What do you think? Does what you do for a day job or in other circumstances help you understand some facet of publishing or writing?

Hangups #1

For the next couple of Wednesdays we’re talking about writing hangups- things that I, at least, struggle with in my own writing and how I’ve been attempting to improve. None of the advice I give is gospel or found in a fancy textbook or anything, just things I’ve tried with varying degrees of success.

Today’s topic is in betweens. I’m talking about the passages that get you from one place to another- there’s an epic argument that will be followed by an epic battle, but let’s say one side is going to immediately surrender- somehow you have to fill in the space in between these events and justify this action. Was the character or someone they love threatened? Is it a gift horse strategy? An attempt at disarming their foe? How and why and who?

I’m not great at drafting these. I want to go from moment to moment. After all, I know why they did it and that’s all that matters, right? Filling in all the whys and wherefores takes too much time and too many words.

One of the most helpful things I’ve done to combat that is write backwards. By the time I get about halfway through the book, I know what the end will look like. So, I write it, and then I start layering in the scenes between the middle and the end in a seesaw style, one forward and one backward, until they meet in the middle. This helps me see with new eyes and have a better grasp on what things need to be established, explained, and identified to lead to a satisfying ending.

Is this problem with the “interlude” type scenes a problem for you, too? What do you do about it?

The Well of Words

First things first: yes, I know I managed to miss an entire week of posts, and yes I apologize, and yes I will tell you what I was filling up my time with.

Unfortunately, it is a little bit of a tale of woe – but like all the best stories, it has a happy ending! I spent most of the week putting together a thirty minute presentation that functioned as the culmination of an entire school-year long internship and writing an analysis paper. To make it worse, this week I have to write another paper…but it will be my last one, not just of the entire semester but of my ENTIRE DEGREE!!! Graduation is just three weeks away y’all. We’ll get through this.

But the happy ending is that I also finished my book this week! This was my Camp Nano project, about a girl named Ruby who ends up needing to live with her grandparents – in their seniors only community – and a homeless boy named Glass. I wrote 60k in 19 days, and I have officially drafted 161k words in 2014. Three books. And that brings me to the point of this post.

Sometimes we’re going to run a little dry, my fellow writers. We like to think we can go on forever, chugging out words and spinning stories, but we’re not invincible and we’re not endless. I still have tons of ideas floating around and some new books to write that I am super incredibly excited about. But I’m holding back. First, because it’s absurd to have so many drafts sitting around without polishing them up into actual viable books, and second, because it’s time for a little rest. Ruby and Glass was a struggle in many ways, which I will share in future posts, but part of the trouble was as I got to the end, I could feel the well running dry.

I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I knew how the story went. And sometimes it was everything I had to find the words to tell it. This, my friends, happens to us all at some point, and it’s one of the clearest nudges we can get that it’s time for a drafting break.

Does it mean you can’t do revisions? No. But even those you might need to take a break from. Maybe it’s because, like me, you’ve spun out a seemingly impossible number of words in a short amount of time, and your brain just needs time to recharge. Maybe, also like me, you’ve got a million other things happening – I’m finishing grad school, trying to find a job, and getting ready to move five hours, all within the next month. I’m pretty good at setting those things aside, after all I see writing as both my passion and my rescue from all the other things that can happen in the world. It’s delightful to immerse myself in a universe over which I have ultimate control, even if most of the time my characters are constantly surprising me. But there are times when the world is going to demand our attention, especially with big events such as my graduation, my sister’s graduation, and my move, and we need to be okay with that. Those are events we don’t want to miss, events that feed our writing, and even if our brains didn’t tell us it was time to engage, we wouldn’t want to be so separate as to miss out on our own lives.

This is your reminder that you are a well of words. An ancient well, with still waters that run deep, but your well has to be filled from somewhere. If you’re feeling tired, or really struggling to bring a story to life, maybe it’s time to think about tapping into deeper springs, or let yourself be filled by the rain. My rain, today, is drafting this paper. Even though I don’t want to, I know it will help me move on from worrying about it. My rain is also watching Pride and Prejudice on this stormy afternoon, packing up parts of my apartment, and doing relaxed, no pressure brainstorming for future books as well as reading several great books. Whatever you need to fill up your well of words, make sure you make the time for it. You do no good as a desert wasteland in which no stories can grow. Take the time, tap into your deep springs, and fill your well.

About Naps and Being the Best

For a long time I thought I was way too lazy to be a workaholic. After all, I’m capable of sleeping 12-14 hours in a stretch and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have a mound of clean clothes waiting to be folded. But I’ve come to realize that I’m more of a lazy persons sleep system trapped inside a workaholics brain. I have a hard time resting, and accepting what I’ve done, and sitting still is not high on my list of character qualities.

Is this good? Sure, sometimes. I doubt I could have made it through a year of working, interning at two different places simultaneously, going to classes, keeping up with homework, and writing without that workaholic nature. If I’m really excited by what I’m doing, I can work with singular focus and accomplish a significant amount of work in very little time, and even have fun while I do it. Those things all come in usefully in the working world.

But the down side is feeling like you’ve never done your best. I’m not always sure I even know what my best is, and I always feel like I could have pushed just a little bit more and accomplished just one more thing. And that side of working, especially creative work like writing which requires every bit of you, isn’t healthy.

Being a hard worker often goes hand in hand with wanting control. I do want control in a sense, because I’m creating things with my name on them. I want a reputation for excellence, not to just hand off the first thing I can dish out. But the publishing world is rife with lack of control, and sometimes no matter how hard you work success may not look the way you were expecting, and to succeed you’re going to have to be okay with that.

Kate Brauning is a lovely writer and editor I’m privileged to have met through Twitter (@katebrauning) who posts #subtips regularly, and recently she reminded us that the only thing we’re in control of is the books we produce. Everything else is out of our hands except creating a great story and telling it well, and that as long as we’re doing that, we have something to be proud of, and we can feel like we’re working as hard as possible on the most essential piece of writing- the story.

This really resonated with me, because it speaks to that workaholic passion to be excellent, to produce quality and put my name to something I can be proud of. We can’t control everything, friends, not in publishing and not in life. But we do control the most important part- who we are and what we do with our circumstances. So whether you’re more workaholic or more couch surfer, whether you like control or have no problem living open-handed, remember: you control yourself, and your words. And you can always strive for balance and excellence in the things you do have control over.

But Process Sounds So Organized

Hi friends! Happy randomly late afternoon Monday!

I’ve been tagged by the lovely Michelle Hauk of Michelle4Laughs in the Writing Process series, so sit back and prepare for the secrets of the universe*.

1) What are you currently working on?

I’m currently writing a contemporary YA set in Florida:

Ruby Torrez’s mom has lost her marbles, and Ruby’s dad is nowhere to be found. But no one asks Ruby what to do. Instead, Ruby finds herself living at her grandparents home in their sunny Florida retirement community- where no one under eighteen is allowed.
It’s bad enough living like a fugitive, but when Ruby encounters a cautious boy whose home is nowhere and a wizened old man with an eagle eye, her summer turns even stranger than it already was. Ruby has always prided herself on being a survivor…but she never planned on having to save someone else too.

2) How does your work differ from others in its genre?

I like to build harsh realities as background, with the focus being on new adventures and on the resiliency and hope people find within themselves. I try not to shy away from showing the world as it is – homelessness, mental illness, prejudice, loss of loved ones- but also on friendship, trust, and a single courageous moment, the series of those single moments that eventually becomes a life of courage. All of us have failings and go through difficult experiences, but it’s how we come out on the other side that defines us, and all books, including kid lit, can show this.

3) Why do you write what you write?

I write for the ages I write for – MG, YA, and NA- because each age has such a unique set of impacting circumstances. There are specific journeys to undertake and lessons to learn, and it is fascinating to dive into the various stages of finding yourself, setting yourself apart, and sharing yourself with the world. I write diverse characters from all socioeconomic backgrounds and with all kinds of hurts and hangups because I believe any kid should be able to pick up a book and find themselves in it, and because I love the fact that the world is big,colorful, and filled with magic if we open our eyes to it.

4) How does your writing process work?

I’m a very haphazard writer. I tend to start with a snippet- usually a character and one particular scene or setting- and sometimes I come up with a general idea of where the story is going. I tend to draft half to two thirds of the book largely in order,occasionally stopping to note a scene further along if I get a very clear picture of it. When i reach tha half to two thirds point, I start drafting out of order, often by writing the last scene and then see sawing middle and end until I meet them together somewhere in the middle. This is also usually when I stop and do some outlining to make sure all the pieces get plugged in.
I tend to write about six days a week, and I average approximately 2k a day. If I’m very busy, tired, or stuck I just ask myself for 1k, if it’s a low homework week or I’m inspired, I’ll write 5-10k in a day. I write at my desk, or on the couch, or on the floor, or in a coffee shop, or on the train. I write to my playlist whenever possible, but in silence or in the middle of noise and conversation if needed. I write with paper and pen, or on my iPad, or on my computer.
When it comes to revisions, I let my book sit for one to two weeks, and then I do a simple revision, making sure all the scenes exist, are tied into each other, and have a decent beginning with a logical end. Then it’s off to readers, and when their comments come in I do a bigger revisions, incorporating their ideas and any new insights I’ve had. Another round of readers, more changes, and polishing complete the process**!

*not true.

**process also includes copious amounts of candy and coffee and a not insignificant number of naps

And there you are- a delightful mash up of crazy, whimsy, diversity, and candy. I’ve chosen to tag my fabulous friend Holly Faur, so be sure to visit her next Monday for her answers to the above questions. Happy Monday!

March Check In

Man it feels like these posts come crazy close to each other! Time is a wild thing this spring- well, always- but that’s good, it means lots going on and lots is more opportunities for amazing!

To sum up the month:

Books read: Four. (Averts gaze, directs your attention elsewhere) Two YAs, and NA, and an MG. Three I loved, and one I wanted to love but had major issues with the characters.

Words written: approximately 40,000

Projects worked on: I wrote a middle grade book this month about three siblings who are sent out to a cottage for the summer while their parents are away and encounter pirates, fairies, a mysterious nanny, mermaids, and for one of them, the secret he’s been hiding from his parents. I had such a good time with this book! I suspect the ending is far too cheesy but I can fix it later, for now I just love it 🙂 I also completed revisions on a short story. Also also I got feedback from beta readers on revisions I did last month and tidied up that book.

Incidentally I also passed my massive examination and wrote three papers this month. Just FYI.

Tips for the road: Surround yourselves with great people. No matter how much you love a book you will feel lost sometimes, and the people who will read things and give you ideas and reassurances are vital to your ability to go on.

Push yourself. If its more your style to write a few hundred excellent words in a day than a few thousand not so awesome ones, that’s fine, but if you don’t have a style or yours doesn’t seem to be working for you right now, go ahead and push yourself a little. Set some crazy goals and chase them.

Finally, don’t expect each book to be the same. My first MG I wrote at my kitchen table, in tidy 1k a day parts, and it went more or less the way I thought it would. This MG I wrote curled on the couch, in 2 and 3 and 5k bursts followed by days without words, and it took me almost a week to figure out the pivot point. It’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re failing, that you’ve lost your mojo, or that you’ve written yourself into a corner. It’s just different.

 

How was March for you guys?