How I Got My Agent

I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M WRITING THIS POST.

Seriously, cannot.

I’ve been walking like in a dream world for the last week, not even able to process this is real but I’m told it is so I guess I’ll try to tell you how I got here.

I recommend getting snacks. This is a long story.

In the spring of 2014, I was living in Madison, Wisconsin finishing grad school and I was utterly miserable. I lived in a terrible place, I had an internship I felt lost in, had a job I didn’t enjoy, and was sick with a mysterious neurological illness that left me weak and unable to rely on my body in any way, shape, or form.

I had been writing seriously for about 1.5 years by then, with an eye toward maybe someday possibly trying to get a book published, and I’d written six full length novels in that time- 2 MG, 3 YA, and 1 adult. There might have been a few others in here too, at the time I whipped out drafts and then spun right on to the next one so it’s impossible to say. All but two of them were terrible. The MG I’d entered in a contest and won a place in it, and even took through an R & R with a wonderfully kind agent who ultimately ended up rejecting it. For incomprehensible reasons, I never queried that book much- maybe 10 queries total, five then and one here and there whenever I got discouraged about other projects.

Hey, I said this was my story about getting an agent, not about making good life choices.

But I digress.

Pen and Muse, a writing website, ran a showcase that year on their blog and I decided to enter it. I wrote a short story called Strings and Shadows about a girl who played the violin and a boy who might have been a ghost. You can actually still find it there if you look hard enough.

That story blossomed into a book.

It shouldn’t have worked, because I am notorious for dropping projects in the face of major life transitions, and over the course of writing that book I graduated with my master’s degree, quit my job, moved back in with my parents, went to Florida, got a new job, attended the Midwest Writers Conference, and bought a house. I couldn’t stop writing or talking about the story though, and by the time it was done it was a full fledged book, almost 90k long, and it was a retelling of Phantom of the Opera set in a modern day Southern youth orchestra.

It was not good.

But it had good bones.

In Fall 2014 I entered Pitch Wars and was chosen by the lovely Brianna Shrum as an alternate. She helped me polish up the query and first chapter, and Margarita Montimore, my PW mentee teammate, helped me write some amazing pitches I used in multitude of contests to come.

I had a few bites in PW, but ultimately they came back as rejections. I had a finished book though, so I dove deep into the querying trenches. Again – this is all about what I did, not what I should have done. Don’t try this at home.
Along the way, I wrote a book about a girl who ran a radio station and a boy taking a cross country road trip to meet his dying grandfather.

Y’all, I tried to piece together that stretch of time from late 2014- mid 2015 and I can’t even. All I can say for sure is I sent somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 queries and had an even mix of rejections, partials, and full requests. Every single one eventually was rejected, but I was fortunate enough to receive some fairly specific feedback along the way and decided to tear the whole book apart and start over.

I mean, why revise when you can just write a new book?

On my birthday in summer 2015, I received a request for a partial from an agent I was wild over. She loved musicals and even played the violin so I knew immediately I wanted to query her, plus from her Twitter and interviews she seemed really fun and like someone I’d be comfortable with.

An aside- as a cantankerous medium-anxious introvert, finding someone I think I’ll be comfortable with is a MASSIVE cause for celebration.

The trouble with this birthday request was that I had just ripped my book all to shreds and was doing my best to paste them all back together. Having stalked, um, done my research, I knew this agent had specifically mentioned not always enjoying when people said they had a new version of a book as that was often an indication of not being prepared when they queried in the first place. Side note: I probably wasn’t ready. This will inevitably happen to you, because unfortunately, querying is the kind of thing you only get good at as you go, so you won’t know how bad you are until you do it for awhile. Anyways I sent the amazing agent a nervous email saying since I had so much feedback from so many agents, all indicating the same thing, I was revising, but I’d be happy to send it to her when it was done.

Waiting was agony.

She sent me an email just a couple days later saying she’d be happy to wait and see what I came up with. Two weeks after that I sent her an email with my revisions and settled in.

Y’ALL. I had no idea what the next year would bring.

I sent that email in August and continued querying, with the same kind of success- partials and fulls in fairly steady rates with my rejections, but never an offer. There was always, always a but: liked but not loved, enjoyed but didn’t connect, liked prose but not character, couldn’t get into it, didn’t love enough. I went through really rough periods of wanting to give up completely- on that book, on writing in general, on everything everywhere.

I read all the blogs I could find – call stories, posts about the Almost But Not Quite stage, quotes about the gap between knowing how you want your writing to be and how it is when you’re first starting out. Some days I successfully managed all my feelings, and some days I ate a LOT of cookies.

Earlier that spring I’d written an alternate history about a girl who led a revolution, so to take my mind off my troubles I polished it up and tried to enter PW 2015. I didn’t get in.

I spent the fall racking up all the rejections, both on my Phantom book and on another pair of projects I queried haphazardly, desperate to feel all the work was worth it. I literally. cannot. Tell you. how many rejections I got. It is a number well over 100 but after that they all blur together.

I told you this was not a story about making good choices. Don’t do this, kids.

For NaNo 2015, for a change of pace, I wrote 50k of a beautiful, complicated adult fantasy full of politics and intrigue and beautiful dresses. I took all of December off and decided to start new in 2016.

2016 was not a good writing year.

I started fresh with an amazing idea I loved, about a magical garden and an angry boy and a Spanish-speaking girl with a terrible addiction to knives. The first draft fizzled out slowly, painfully, at 40ishk. I shook myself off, racked up a bunch more rejections on various projects, and tackled the knife book again. The second draft failed miserably at 30k. Remember, in the past I’d written 3-7 books per year. Granted I never revised a word and they were all terrible, but I was a finisher. And now I couldn’t finish anything.

I took a break. I wrote a short story for spring showcase again. I wrote a short story for an anthology, about a pizza shop in space. I did anything and everything to try to feels single shred of hope but mostly I was in despair.

By then I was running out of agents to query with PHANTOM. I had promised myself I’d shelve it, but it kept sneaking back out, a query here, a query there. I kept dragging it back out for every pitch contest. Everyone I’d been friends with in the beginning had agents now. Some had book deals. Some were mentors in contests I couldn’t even get into. I was certain I was done. I was wasting my time and when the infinitely patient and long suffering Rena Olsen told me I wasn’t, that the work would pay off and the ability was there, I politely informed her that she was insane and I was done.

SO DONE.

But PHANTOM was still there, lurking. I joked that this book about ghosts and obsession was my ghost, haunting me all the time.

Finally I threw up my hands and said FINE ONE LAST TIME YOU STUPID BOOK LET’S TRY IT ONE MORE TIME.

I was fresh off of a second R & R getting rejected and just as I was starting to revise, a third R & R didn’t pan out. I was absolutely positively certainly convinced I was the worst writer in the entire universe. WHO LOSES THREE OPPORTUNITIES LIKE THAT?? I was so close, always so close, but never quite there. I finished the revision and felt like it might be stronger but was so disillusioned and sick of the book and sad of spirit I couldn’t even tell anymore if it was good at all.

I set it aside for what I swore would be the last time. It was time to accept this book, that I had poured two years of my life into, wasn’t my book.

I tried knife book again, full of despair and certain I would fail.

I also traveled a bajillion miles down to Tennessee to stay in a cabin clinging to the side of a mountain surrounded by perfect strangers – I went to the 2016 Madcap Aspiring Writers retreat.

It changed my life.

It was the most terrifying, horrifying, what have I done experience ever. I’ve mentioned I’m an anxious and cantankerous introvert, and I was at the lowest point of my entire writing career. When I arrived, I thought I was going to pass out of sheer terror and What Am I Even Doing Here I Can’t Write I Need To Lay Down And Eat Cookies. It’s a real condition I promise.

However, there was one thing that made walking through that door easier. The day before I left for Tennessee I got an email.

Remember that agent? The one I’d sent my partial to 13 months before, the one who was so utterly perfect?

She wanted to know if I’d do an R & R.

I took a few days to answer, distracted by sheer terror and by huge questions. Did I really want to dig into PHANTOM again? This book was RUINING MY LIFE. I COULDN’T WRITE ANYWAYS! Not to mention it had been so long that I’d already been through two more drafts in those 13 months.

Madcap was absolutely amazing. It made writing feel real, and the community that grew up in that cabin happened so fast and so well that even I was at ease and felt like I belonged. Most importantly, every writer there talked about failure. They told real, humble stories of their struggles and their failures and all the sweat and tears and hurt it took for them to achieve their dreams.

I emailed the agent and said yes. I went out on a limb and shared with her all my hopes and dreams for the book, everything I wanted it to be and knew it wasn’t yet. I was terrified I was being presumptuous or needy or way too bold. I almost fainted when I hit send.

But a few days later she told me she was excited and she’d get me a letter, and a week or two after that I had my R & R letter from her.

By that point I was up to my neck in knife book and desperate to finish *something* in the hell of 2016. I read her letter almost every day, meshing it with changes I’d already made, digging deep into things I needed to make better and big questions I needed to ask, letting the back of my brain work away on that project as I labored through and finally at long last finished the third draft of the knife book. The agent’s letter for PHANTOM was perfect, hitting on things I knew I needed to fix and approaching issues in brand new ways that somehow, impossibly, got me excited about this ghostly albatross of a book again.

Then I went to work.

October 2016 came and I’d made all the changes I could think of. The pacing, always a huge problem for me, was much tighter, the relationships were more real, and the main character was her fullest self. Instead of making her easier to relate to, more likeable, or less intense as so many past rejections has suggested, I made her 1000% herself. I felt good, or at least as good as I knew how to feel then, but I hadn’t quite solved all the issues in the letter and I was stalled out.

Oh, and by the way, I also threw an MS in the ring for PW 2016. I didn’t get in.

Y’all. 2016 was not a good year. Can we all just agree on that?

Then I got an email.

This amazing agent who I so loved ASKED ME HOW THE REVISION WAS GOING. She liked me and my book ENOUGH TO CHECK IN. After all the leaping and flailing, I set about the heart-in-throat task of telling her I had a new and much more powerful draft, but was struggling with a few aspects.

I thought for sure she wouldn’t want to help me anymore. I couldn’t expect her to, just the R & R alone was such a great opportunity. I was in despair, certain I’d let a fourth R & R slip through my hands and hating myself for all my faults, as a writer and as a human, real and imagined.

Then I got an email.

THE AMAZING AGENT OFFERED TO READ WHAT I’D WRITTEN EVEN THOUGH IT WASN’T TOTALLY RIGHT.

I sent a number of joyous and awed texts to friends, ate a bunch of cookies, then with my heart in my throat (all my vital organs kind of rearranged themselves around that time) I sent her my draft.

And then there was silence.

For NaNo 2016 I channeled all my angst and failure into 50k of an adult thriller about a woman who returns to her small town after years away only to find she must work to cover up a crime she committed a decade ago.

I took December off, as is now my routine, and when 2017 arrived I started with the audacious goal of writing every single day. I had an idea, a flash of a scene involving a valley of bones coming alive, and a woman driving a cart of bones through a wild, fierce land, and a book that took place in war but wasn’t necessarily about war. For the first time ever I outlined the book before writing it, and then I set to work. After a horrible year of failures and anger and grief and every word being agony, this new book slipped into the world like actual magic. It was everything I wanted it to be, a true book of my heart, and while it has definite issues and needs work, I finished it in less than two months.

At last, writing and I weren’t enemies anymore. I was at peace with having shelved PHANTOM, and yet, not quite ready to query again. I knew the agent might have forgotten about me, after all, it had been four months and wouldn’t she have responded right away if she’d actually liked it? Wasn’t it stupid to put all my eggs in one basket? I knew I should query and try things, but I just wanted to work with her so much. And besides, I couldn’t be any less agented than I was…

While I tried to decide what to do, I threw my hat into the Pitch Madness ring with a different ms. I started a chapterbook about a girl named Peach who has ADHD and lives in a trailer park and tries to figure out life, an updated Junie B Jones basically.

Then on March 2 I got an email.

It was from the dream agent saying she’d read about half of Phantom so far and she loved it. SHE. LOVED. IT. She was still reading but wanted me to know she was pleased with the revisions and she’d talk to me soon.

Cue all the panicking and flailing and excitement and befuddlement.

I finished the first chapterbook and started a sequel. I played with some words about a girl who controls the weather with her moods and the hapless boy who loves her. I checked my email 187 times per day. I reread all her interviews I could find, checked her Twitter for any sign.

In many ways I was waiting for the let down. The almost but not quite. The thanks but no thanks.

After all, this agent had never read the end before and WHAT IF SHE HATED IT SO MUCH I JUST NEVER HEARD FROM HER AGAIN?

Then came St. Patrick’s Day.

I see about 100 kids per week at my day job, and Friday was an epically difficult day in an epically difficult week. I was exhausted and stressed and dizzy with trying to keep track of deadlines and meetings and behavior approaches and curriculum writing.

As I was wearily packing up to finally go home, my phone – ever at odds with the thick cement walls – registered a 2 hour old voicemail from a number I didn’t recognize.

Immediately my hands started shaking. I don’t answer numbers I don’t recognize even when I do have service, but why would this one leave me a voicemail? I opened my computer back up and googled the number.

The area code was the agent’s area code.

I immediately grabbed all my stuff and galloped out to my car- last one in the lot on a late Friday afternoon.

My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking so hard I dropped the phone twice. I decided to take it slow.

I went on the agent’s Twitter and saw a tweet about a sub making her buy a new violin case.

My book is very very violiny. But still. It could have been anyone’s.

Then I opened my email.

There was a message from her saying she’d left me a voicemail and would like to talk as soon as I was available.

By this point I legitimately thought I was going to have a heart attack. My pulse was about to explode out of my wrists and the SHAKING like FULL BODY TREMBLES. My head was clinging to a last shred of logic but my body was full on emotion.

Finally I listened to her voicemail. She was looking forward to talking to me at my earliest convenience.

GOOD LORD ALMIGHTY I WAS GOING TO DIE IN THE PARKING LOT AT WORK.

My brain was spinning. I told myself it could still be a rejection because we’d worked together quite a bit and maybe she wanted to explain “in person” why she couldn’t take it on.

It could be anther R & R. More fixing, more polishing and tightening, maybe adding the things I hadn’t figured out how to add from the letter.

I knew if I didn’t call her right then I was just going to never ever ever find the courage and also that I might actually truly have a heart attack.

So I hit call.

And waited, holding one hand up with the other because of the shaking.

And then when she picked up, it wasn’t to reject, and it wasn’t to talk about the work it still needs, though it does need more work.

It was to offer representation.

1.5 years after my original query, I am absolutely dizzyingly overjoyed to say I am now represented by Moe Ferrara of BookEnds Literary. And she signed me for a ghostly albatross of a book I thought nobody but me would ever love.

It all still feels like a dream, like it’s happening to someone else. I can’t BELIEVE that I’ve been given the incredible privilege and honor of achieving the huge first step in reaching my dream of holding my own book in my hands someday. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to way more people than I can ever name. Moe gets my book, and she makes me feel comfortable, and I can’t WAIT to see what we’re going to accomplish together.

If you’re out there and you feel like a failure, like it’s just a series of hurts and mistakes and like this weird, wonderful dream you have is something you have no right to, no hope of achieving, I hope this story- all it’s craziness, all its unexpectedness, all its anxieties and sadness and thrills and twists, gives you hope. Every road has a bend in it. You have NO IDEA what might be just around the very next one.

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Favorite Things 17-1

Mondays always need more good, so I thought I’d make a quick list of things I’m liking and/or inspired by lately. It’s my last week of work before I take a vacation, and I have approximately 15.779 thousand meetings so lists are about all I can do right now. I just really like lists, okay? I like them maybe even a little more than my planner, which I love. So. Now you know.

1)These cookies from Victoria Schwab’s blog. They taste like pure magic which makes sense considering the recipe source.

2) This picture, which may or may not be related to a new project of mine.
Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

3)The Settle Your Glitter app, which is free and spectacular if you are a generally nervous sort of person or if you happen to be going through a nervous-making time.

4)Hickory Hearth candles – I got mine at Target and it’s the perfect storytelling kind of smell.

5) My new May Designs planner. I’m still deciding if it’s the perfect fit – I’ll have to use it for a few months before I’ll know for sure but it’s functional and pretty which is my favorite mashup.

6) Hawaii Five – O. I’ve been on a binge for weeks and I can’t get anything else done, good thing I’ve only got three episodes left on Netflix!

7)Work This Body by Walk the Moon. It’s just a really danceable song and sometimes you just need a super danceable song, you know?

What’s on your list this week?

Resurrection Stories

You all thought I crashed and burned or maybe got buried in a mound of my own candy wrappers, didn’t you?

I mean, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Eating candy IS my principal hobby, and I also am a very poor operator of motor vehicles. But here’s what really happened.

I got tired.

2016 is the last time I blogged – like over a year ago, my how time flies when you’re not paying any attention to it! Let’s review.

In 2016, I had my worst creative year EVER.

I wrote a book. It didn’t work at all and fizzled out maybe halfway through? The troubling thing was that I usually fizzle out at 10 or 15k if something isn’t going to work, so the fact that I fizzled at almost 40k was terrifying to me. I was scared the book was a huge waste of time and maybe I’d forgotten how to write because I’d spent so much time tearing apart and putting back together the book before this that maybe my brain didn’t know how to make new things anymore.

I took a break and tried it again, this time fizzling out around 20k with a draft that absolutely one hundred percent was not working whatsoever. I revisited that same first book and tore it apart and put it back together yet again.

Then I came back to the knife book. It was, by then, a solid six – seven months into 2016 and I had exactly nothing to show for it – nothing but a whole lot of thrown-away words and a story idea that was maybe just too hard for me.

In this stretch of time I went to a writing retreat, which I’ll blog about more soon because HELLO LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCE, but while there I finally gave knife book a third chance.
And at LAST I managed to finish the draft. It’s not a great book and idk if I’ll come back to it but IT EXISTS and I FINISHED SOMETHING.

I word vomited a 50k draft of an adult novel for NaNo and then, exhausted, I took all of December off and tried to recover, mentally and emotionally, from what was essentially a torturous year.

This brings us to 2017. Here’s a summary of these three months so far:

1) Read 14.5 books
2) Wrote over 100,000 words, including finishing a draft of a YA fantasy and a draft of a chapterbook somewhat related to my dayjob.
3)Celebrated one year of learning that my neurological symptoms were largely caused by food allergies and being able to have good health again.
4)Plotted out a new book that gets my storytelling heart all fluttery.
5)A few other things I’ll blog about in the future.

I guess the main point of this post is to plant a flag for a fresh start. And maybe to assure you that fresh starts are still possibilities. I am not a good blogger, as a rule, but I want to be. Last year I didn’t think I had anything in me. No humor, no words of advice, no strength. It was my year of absorbing strength from others and spending the introvert time I needed to grow and flourish inside myself. Now I’m ready to put back into the world, in thanks for all I’ve received, and in celebration of the fact that new beginnings happen all the time, just when you least expect them.

One year ago, in March, I was at the beginning of a very big, bold journey. I’ll tell you about it sometime. It has to do with my physical health, with releasing old mental and emotional fears and wounds that resulted from years of struggling with my physical health, and with the relationship between creativity and courage. Now I’m not nearly at the end, but I’m far enough along to see how long the road is and REJOICE over it, instead of mourn. As my favorite literary heroine Anne Shirley says, every road has a bend in it, and it’s possible to be excited about what’s around the next one.

Okay, enough seriousness and also enough words because HELLO VERY LONG POST. As I prepare to actually start using this thing again, is there anything you want me to blog about, friends? Anything you really want to know, or want advice about, or just have a burning desire to discuss?

Here’s to words and rainy days and ALL THE COFFEE

Lastest Obsessions

Hi friends!

You’ll probably all laugh at me when I say I’ve been meaning to get back to blogging regularly, because when has that ever happened? But I do kind of miss when I used to blog more than once a month, and I’m working on all kinds of things in all kinds of places, so maybe I’ll get better at sharing them with you too.
Stranger things have happened.

I don’t really know if stranger things have actually happened, but it seems appropriate.

I’ve been coming across/using/experiencing all kinds of fabulous things lately so I thought it would be a good time to share some with you. Here’s the top five things I’ve been obsessed with this week, and if y’all find this helpful or useful, maybe I’ll try to do it more regularly.

1) My Fitbit! My work is doing this health promotion something or other so we could sing up for a free fitbit and do a six week challenge. Not only have I realized just how much I underestimate the caloric value of half a bag of Skittles or takeout Chinese, but I’ve been weirdly motivated to get my 10k steps and 10 flights of stairs which is hopefully going to help with the whole preferring my couch to anything else problem. The feature I love best is the sleep tracker. According to it, even when I think I gave myself a good 5-5.5 hours of sleep, I’m only getting decent sleep for about 3.5 hours a night. I guess that’s why I yawn all the time? Hard to say. Anyways, it’s a fun way to get more tuned in to my health, and has a bonus of giving me all kinds of sci-fi ideas!

2) “My Shot” from the Hamilton soundtrack and “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark” by Fallout Boy. I looooooove the first one for walking to (as I walk in actual circles in my living room to get my 10k steps until I’m too dizzy to go on) and in general when you need a pick me up. The second one I’ve been writing to for a couple days now – there’s almost always at least a few Fallout Boy songs on my various writing playlists, but this one is giving life to a challenging scene where I have to explain the fundamental underpinnings of the kind of magic kind of not in a non-boring way. Plus it’s just catchy and makes me chair dance. Good thing I write at 5 am so no one sees me.

3) Along the writing refrain, I am LOVING the Writer Igniter tool from DIY MFA. I recently wrote a draft of a short story to submit to an anthology, and I’m eying a couple other short story opportunities, but I have trouble coming up with ideas that don’t require 80k of explanation. This generator pulls together the elements of a story in a way that gives me something intriguing to work with but helps me stay just a little detatched from it so I can play with words without getting so invested and deep into the work. It’s a really relaxing way to play with words, which is something I haven’t historically been very good at.

4) My Kindle! I just got this in December, and I’m still not big on reading fiction on screen. I got terrible headaches from reading on screens before and I think I just have a phobia now, plus my eyes get tired after a while. But what I LOVE my Kindle for is reading nonfiction! I am a huge fan of productivity, creativity, and business/marketing/organization books, but nonfiction can be really expensive. With my Kindle, I can use Overdrive to find almost all the nonfiction books I could want and read them for free. This has really helped accelerate my nonfiction reading, and the bonus is that it’s small and light – my movement disorder has affected my hand strength, and sometimes books make my hands cramp up. No such problem with my Kindle!

5) Making “art”. I put this in quotes because there has never been nor will there ever be someone who can call the kind of drawing I do art. I call my style MidAmerican Kindergartner, but that’s probably overselling it. However, I’m finding a LOT of relaxation and fun in getting out my sketchbook and a pack of papermate bright color felt tipped markers and just doodling until it makes something. I did this while listening to an audiobook last night, and found it the most relaxing, easy night ever. I am not good at sitting still or relaxing or any of those things, and audiobooks have never worked for me before because I can’t hold my attention on them. However, drawing gave me just enough of something else to focus on without getting totally swept into it and I managed to listen for over an hour. It’s kind of nice to do something so terribly I know there’s no hope of improvement. It gives me permission to just play.

A theme of this week’s obsessions is finding ways to defeat my own…drive? I don’t even know what word to use, but I am generally someone who either doesn’t do something or does it with every single ounce of energy and pursuit of quality I can. I think this works out in my career, but as a general life strategy it can be a little exhausting sometimes, and I catch myself diving into projects even when I know I’m tired or don’t have the right mindset yet. I’m hoping that with things like making “art” and playing with short stories from outside ideas I’m not so invested in, I can teach myself to have fun in a way that still feeds the productive side of myself.
As I type that I realize that still probably doesn’t sound right as a method for enjoying things but alas. Such is my superpower.

Anyways, there you have it – my obsessions of the week. Are any of these new to you? What obsessions of your should I look into?

The One Where I Wake Up

I have always loved the start of a new year- new goals, renewed commitments, a thoughtful review of the past and a hopeful eye for the future. This year is no different, and as we wrap up the first full week, I am feeling pretty excited about my new, improved but not perfected, routine.
I share because I think I’m not alone in constantly trying to find the right balance of work and rest, creative expression and creative restoration, output and input. It’s a challenge to figure out not just how you write best but also how to make that work with the realities of your life. My new method won’t be for everyone, certainly. Right now I’m able to enjoy the advantages of not having wee babes placing buckets of demands on my time and attention, and I only work one full time job. YMMV of course, but perhaps this will still prove useful in some way and help you think about where you could change something to better satisfy you and fit your creativity and life together.

The new schedule: I wake up at 4:45 am. As a lifelong night owl and hater of mornings, this is the most radical change. I write for the first 1/2 hour-45 minutes, however long it takes to journal a page and then add 1k to my MS. Then I spend roughly half an hour doing my quiet time, which fits my resolution to return to some practices of my faith that I’ve neglected the past couple years. Then I make some kind of breakfast, usually slow-cooked eggs and either toast or a bagel with peanut butter, get dressed, find a lunch, and generally prepare for the day, with an aim of leaving between 7:00 and 7:20 am. This allows me to get to work 15-20 minutes early to do some work-related reading and prep for the day beforehand instead of flying along haphazardly as I used to.

What went well:
At the same time as I started this new schedule, I decided to make the switch to fair trade coffee after a number of articles and books and blogs about the atrocities of modern slavery in most major coffee supply chains crossed my path. It usually takes me a few times of hearing something for it to catch my attention, but over six months this issue came up several times and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I decided to switch, but fair trade is, obviously and rightly, more expensive, and I can’t afford dependence on it. Shockingly, I was still able to function. I was tired several times and almost drifted off at work once, but on the whole I’m impressed with how much less caffeine I’ve taken in while waking so early.

I also managed to get up all five days! Six, because I got up this morning also just to keep the momentum going. Usually in all my morning initiatives I’ve petered out by day three, four at the max.
I’ve stayed off social media until after the first two hours of being awake, which was important to me and I’m proud of.

I ate three meals per day all five days. Most of this year I’ve had the very unhealthy habit of skipping all but supper, and suffering the consequences in my metabolism and energy.

I’ve slept EXTREMELY soundly 4/6 nights which for me is a huge deal. Normally I have a terrible time falling asleep and am plagued by extreme nightmares, night sweats, frequent waking, sometimes racing thoughts or restlessness, and generally unsatisfying sleep. Now that I’ve cut down to 5 or 5.5 hours per night, it’s not a perfect fix but I’ve had much more success and haven’t even needed melatonin.

The writing itself has been fairly smooth. I’ve written 6k and read 1/3 of a craft book so far, plus journaled about my sleepiness and my book every morning, and because it’s so early and because it’s just the expectation that I work, without room for not feeling like it, it’s easier to just sit down and begin.

I have loved feeling less rushed. It’s been very nice to have a slow, satisfying, accomplishing morning and feel like things are under control. I used to dread early meetings because I knew it wold be a mad rush and I’d probably be late, and now I don’t have to. I’m ready and my mind is engaged, which is really nice.

What hasn’t gone as well:
Exercising. And cleaning, for that matter. When I get home around 5 or 6, I’ve been so exhausted that even cooking a real dinner has been a struggle. My house is a mess and I’ve gotten zero exercise, which is something I was hoping to incorporate, so I’ve felt a little like a failure for not being able to find a place for either of these things- or, to be completely honest, not finding enough leftover willpower for accomplishing these things.

Reading. Same problem, too tired to read, but I’m also just going through the slump that often happens to me when I start a new book. I’m trying to keep reading some every day, and to let myself start as many books as I want while trusting I’ll eventually get through them all. I did finish one today and I’m in the middle of 3 or 4 others.

Stamina. Monday Tuesday and Wednesday I was exhausted but did a great job staying off of social media more all throughout the day, staying away from caffeine more, getting up after just one or two alarms so I was actually ahead of schedule, and feeling positive about the project. By Thursday and Friday it was really work to prep my mind for the idea of getting up, though I did it, and I drank more caffeine. Friday I slept through nine minutes of a song blasting through my bedroom as the first alarm, and while I build in time for these problems in my routine, it was a little concerning as this is precisely what I’m trying to avoid by getting up outside the window of time that has been so groggy for me historically. I also poked around more Friday morning and only got to work 15 mins early which wasn’t enough to do anything worthwhile.
This morning I got up and did some things but then said since it as Saturday I could take a nap- and slept from 6:30 to 10:45. Oops.

Things to improve: I would like to try and routinize my evening a bit more. If it’s a plan and commitment, as my morning is, perhaps I’d be better at following through. The problem is my work schedule is long and somewhat unpredictable- this week I work until 7 pm two nights, 5 pm one night, 6 pm one night, and anywhere between 4 and 5 pm the last night. It’s not ideal, as it’s both harder to develop a routine and, by virtue of being 10 and 11 hours workdays, leaves me completely exhausted. But I might try making a routine from say 8:30 to 10:30 pm, which are the hours that are for sure within my control. I definitely want to find a way to do less tv and less social media, and more reading plus making sure I cook at least 3/5 nights and fit some kind of exercise in somewhere.

So that is a massively long recap of week one of the Hunger Games. I mean, week one of my new routine. If you’ve hung in there with me, what kinds of routines and rituals have you built into your day to allow you time to work on writing? What elements of your day mean the most to you? Do you have suggestions and ideas for how to fit more in or how to structure am evening routine?

Eying the coffee with hungry eyes,

J

Editor’s note: I wrote this on Saturday, and WordPress was The Worst and wouldn’t post it. Today, Sunday, I take a sabbath from the time I wake up until 6 or so, so I didn’t follow the new schedule. I’ll judge tomorrow if that will work or if I need to get up every morning to keep from losing momentum.

Seeing Shadows

I’m a nomad by circumstance, if not by nature. Throughout my life, for whatever reason, circumstances have conspired so I haven’t spent longer than two years in any one setting, academic or professional, since seventh grade. It has never been my intention, but whether because of a career change, graduate school, or pursuit of the bigger and better, I have been in a perpetual state of change that has come with a consistent timeline. And now, my brain and heart, well-tuned to the seasons and the routines of my life, are noticing it’s almost time to pick up stakes again.

Only, I’m not sure it is. See, I am both nomad and settler. I long to feel I belong, and live in terror of sameness. I search out the unique, the unusual, and the fresh, and yet some place inside hungers for a true sense of home. These parts of me seem to be at war with each other. I haven’t found the right balance, the right place and time and circumstance where I feel safe and at rest, and yet not bored. It’s a boundary cloaked in confusion, even for me.

What I’ve noticed, in my years of nomading, is that the shadows become easier to see with time. I’m a social worker by trade, and most of my professional career has been spent in small towns. Here’s the thing about social work, which is also a Thing about writing: it deals with the deepest and darkest. The work I have chosen for myself, both with the person and on the page, is about diving into the secret places, the hidden things, the private and personal and often ugly. And what I’ve realized is that the longer I stay in a place, or with a project, the easier it becomes to see that darkness, and to have that darkness slowly cover everything else.

You’re probably a writer, if you’re here. Maybe you’re a social worker. STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED. But I’m wondering if it’s possible that you, too, have begun to see the shadows more clearly than the light. That’s thing about any profession that confronts truth. Truth is often cloaked in shadows, and reluctant to give up it’s cover. Spend enough time in the shadows, and you begin to forget what it is you’re pursuing there. The shadows become heavy. They crowd out other images – other experiences, the balance of the good, the joy you usually use as armor – and they wrap themselves around you with conviction.

The longer I spend in a town who’s secrets have become familiar to me, the more I see the cracked foundations, the sidewalk that lists to the left, the burned out streetlight near the park. I see the sagging front porches, the darkened windows, the plastic bags tossing in the breeze across yards of browned grass and abandoned toys.

The longer I spend in a writing project, the more I see it’s flaws. I see the listless plot points, the characters who either lack fullness or perhaps are full and yet are despicable somehow, because aren’t we all in some way? I get mired in a draft, loss in the restlessness of the middle or an unresolved end; I find myself stagnating in revisions, when I’ve torn a book apart and start to wonder if there’s any life left in it. It’s nothing but ugly truths and shifting shadows.

Here’s a truth I’ve learned in all my nomading, through books and lives and towns, through relationships and places and versions of myself, too: The ability to see beyond the shadows is a skill to be developed and maintained. How difficult it is to obtain in the first place depends on a myriad of factors, not least of which is your unique brain chemistry, your genetics, your temperament, your personal history, and your general inclination to see either darkness or light. How difficult it is to maintain depends on all those things, and one more – your awareness of the shadows themselves.

You can’t fight something you’re not aware of. You can’t push shadows back if you believe they’re fact. Immoveable. You can’t chase the shadows away if you believe the world to be comprised of nothing else.

The shadows are real. Small towns harbor plenty of sorrows, stories are broken, the world can be a dark and sad place. But shadows are neither reality nor truth. Somewhere beneath them, under a slithering mass of slippery darkness, hidden in the depths of the smooth midnight mists and all the broken things, is a truth far bigger than the shadows hiding it. Even a cracked and barren earth can bring forth flowers in the unlikeliest of places. Even a town with rough edges holds a hundred beautiful souls. Even a slashed up, shredded apart story will become something lovely and true.

Don’t forget about the shadows, my friends. If you, like me, have been feeling a little lost, a little broken, a little lonely, a little confused, lift up your hands and press the night away. Enlist help. Take your time. Truth will be there on the other side, no matter how long it takes you to find it.

 

 

 

A World In The Palm of My Hand

I was talking about writing with a lovely friend tonight, and we were discussing how to build the world of a story. We agreed that one of the most terrifying things is the sensation that you’re writing yourself into a corner and you’ll never be able to get yourself or your characters out. We talked about taking risks, making false starts, and all those other fun adventures books tend to take us on.

Then we started talking about how to move forward in a story when we’re not sure what happens next. There’s a lot of buzz about character-driven stories and letting the characters lead, and I completely agree with that. But something I realized through this last round of revisions I did was that usually, in order to write a character-driven story, we must explore the unknown through the eyes of the character. That can be frustrating and confusing, though, when you don’t KNOW how a character might see something, not to mention why. So I thought I’d share a little trick with you that I’ve only just started using in my writing, and you can tell me how it goes!

My education is in social work, and one of the myriad theoretical foundations for the practice of social work is something called systems theory. Systems Theory is a way of viewing the world with the idea that people exist in a series of systems, both internal and external. These systems act on people who in turn act upon the systems, and the more people and systems involved, the more complicated both the problems and the solutions. This theory is summed up by the phrase, “Person in Environment,” which is a solutions-focused concept that suggests problem solving begins by recognizing that a person is influenced by everything from their country down to whether or not they have a stomachache, and that solving the problem requires recognition and analysis of systems first. It’s a way of understanding not just what has happened but the nuances of why and how, and a way of recognizing that certain solutions to problems may only create more problems in other systems.

This gets much more complicated, and I’d actually encourage you to research it if the idea is interesting to you, because I rely heavily on it both in my day job and in my writing. But hearing about theoretical concepts can get confusing, so let’s give it some legs.

Parks and Rec is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and the episode where Leslie is trying to keep the Parks budget from being cut is an excellent example of systems going awry. Leslie convinces a councilman not to cut the Parks budget, but because the money must come from somewhere, she learns the animal shelter will be closed to obtain the funds. She doesn’t want that to happen, so she does some research and finds some unnecessary jobs to get rid of which will make room in the budget. However, when she does that, her best friend’s job gets cut.

I won’t tell you more because some of you guys might be crazy and not have watched every single episode eighteen times, but you can already see the issues. Leslie wants to solve the problem right in front of her, and she sees that problem only from her perspective as a Parks employee. She makes her decision from a position where the systems exterior to her are the state, the city, the local government, the parks department, her immediate friends, her neighborhood, etc. Interior systems are her passion for the parks, her loyalty to city/government, her drive to solve problems, etc. Because of her unique perspective and relationship to the systems around her, Leslie doesn’t see the problem or her first (or even second) solution clearly which causes a whole string of new problems.

This is where it benefits you as a writer – your character exists within some kind of array of systems, and every one of them exercises some level of impact on your character. When you get stuck and don’t know what happens next, or you’re having trouble figuring out motivations or who your character is, think about systems. How is your character impacted by her geographic location? The times in which she lives? The political, religious, cultural surroundings? How do these things shape her reaction to your plot events, and how does it shape the choices she makes in response to those events?

I recently used these ideas in my own revisions. I realized that most of the book as it used to be was just my character being acted upon by the other characters and floating along, always reacting to other choices and not making her own. I knew I didn’t want that and I read everything I could get my hands on about making characters more active, but I still struggled because I felt like I didn’t know enough about her to know what she might do when NOT just reacting. It wasn’t until I thought more about her background of poverty, and how that might cause her not to trust the systems around her, to distrust sources of help someone else might naturally turn to, and to view the world as being against her, that I could begin to understand how she might think and act. Revisions were still difficult – are they ever not? – but I finally understood my character, and that moved the story forward. I understand how my character saw the world until I figured out how that world has shaped her view.

Maybe this’ll open up a flood of new ideas for you and maybe it’s just confusing, but if you decide to give it a shot, let me know how it goes!