What it’s like to be on deadline for a novel

I handed in the draft of the jumbies sequel a day early, and promptly scooped myself some ice cream and felt my shoulders relax. There were plenty of days I did not think I would make it. Back in November when we set the deadline, I thought I’d have the whole thing done by April 1st. Good thing my agent pushed it back to June. By February, when I thought I would have the first draft done (you know, the one where you get all the words on the page but not many of them make sense, or are in the right order, and there are lots of notes to yourself like “something better here” and “what???”) I was panicked and depressed. I thought, “I’ve never written a sequel before! What was I thinking?” Some wise writer friends advised me to talk to my agent or editor and get the deadline pushed back. But no, the Catholic schoolgirl in me DOES NOT MISS DEADLINES!!! So I decided to push on silently. It didn’t help that when people asked if I could do a guest blog post, or an hour-long keynote, or edit their entire novel, I didn’t say no. Those nuns really messed me up. Then I unexpectedly had to be in and out of doctor’s offices in April and May. Plus recovery time for all the poking and prodding, which forced me to cancel a couple of events.

About two weeks ago, I was nearly done, but putting in long hours editing, rewriting, doing the back-and-forth thing where when you change one word in chapter 15, you have to go back and tweak 10 other things in previous chapters to make that one word work. My back ached, I had a permanent headache, and I was crying. A LOT. But on Friday I sent the draft to my agent, with a long email note about all the things I was yet to fix, mainly because it would be the first time anyone read the entire thing. She returned it on Sunday with (mercifully brief) notes, and I sent it back on Tuesday morning. Then it went out. A day early. I felt so relieved.

With apologies for the curse word, this chart is DEAD ACCURATE.

With apologies for the curse word, this chart is DEAD ACCURATE.

This was my first experience being on deadline. Having gone through it, if there’s a next time, I’ll definitely plan my time better. I’ll try to say no to stuff. But the likelihood is that I will be struck with the same sense of panic, and feelings of being a fraud and a hack, and I’ll probably still say yes to doing a zillion things because CATHOLIC SCHOOLGIRL. But at least the next time I’ll know that I’ve done it before, and maybe that will help me trust that I can do it again.


Cartography for writers

A couple of weeks ago I found out that some of my novel would be illustrated, so I offered to dredge up a map I made of the island in the novel. After combing through several old notebooks, I turned up this horror:

Original map 2

So since I’d already promised one, it meant that I’d have to make another, better, more readable map. Out came the giant craft paper, and cue to me sitting on my dining table in gloom for about eight hours.

It turns out that playing “find the city” on a world map with my school chums was not an adequate lesson in cartography. No wonder people like Tolkien and Lewis turned to a pro for theirs. Though even my crude attempt helped me to put a few things in perspective for early drafts. I could map out where characters were at different points in the book, how long it would take them to get from one place to another, what kind of terrain they would have to cut through to get to the next scene, that sort of thing.

My final-ish map attempt is different from the original map in my notebook, but it confirms that I relied on some internal map while writing, even though I was ill-equipped to put it to paper.

Hopefully the new map will be of some use to the illustrator. Whoever it is, I heartily apologize. I did the best I could.

Maybe I should have paid more attention to this New Yorker article on the allure of maps for writers, and this book on world-building, which is a recent acquisition with some promising (and helpful?) illustrations.

So tell me, do you put your characters on a map?

5 steps to a (nearly) stress-free submission

Yes. I have stared at the screen like this for a looooong time before clicking "send" (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Yes. I have stared at the screen like this for a looooong time before clicking “send” (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The only thing harder than writing, is sending your writing out to be judged by the masses, be that your beta readers, an agent, an editor, or worse, your mom. After years of submissions (including the revised manuscript I sent to my publisher yesterday) I still hesitate over the “send” button. But I’ve come to realize that there are a few things that make clicking send that much easier.

1) Know your stuff. If you are submitting to an agent or a publisher, this means knowing who you are sending it to and what they are looking for. It also means knowing how to write a query letter or synopsis , and basics like the difference between rhythm and rhyme (that’s for you picture book folks). If you don’t know this stuff, you’ll save yourself a lot of stress if you find out and implement it in your work first.

2) Rally your troops. Writing groups are good for that (I assume, since I’ve never belonged to a writing group for more than 1 day). Chat with other writers that you’ve befriended at conferences over your submission anxiety (assuming you’ve been nice and made friends). And failing all of those, you have your family to rely on to say things like “they’re going to call you back so fast your head will spin!” or “you’re going to be the next J.K. Rowling!” or some other totally inaccurate thing that shows they know nothing about the publishing industry, but have plenty of love for you.

3) Get comfy. We all have something we do to make ourselves feel better. It might be retail therapy at the local mall. “Ooh, look at the pretty watches!” Or food therapy at the local bakery. “Ooh, look at the pretty macaroons!” Or people watching on the interwebs or in person. “Ooh, look at that. It’s not pretty. Not pretty at all!” Whatever your comfort thing is, go do it. You’ll feel better which will get you to step 4.

4) Move the H on. No piece of writing is perfect. No reader is going to love all of it. In fact, readers will wildly disagree about what works and doesn’t in your writing. So know that this will happen, be prepared for it, but move on. Once you’ve put the work out there the criticism will come. What separates the pros from the amateurs is knowing how to deal with the criticism.

5) Do something else. Sitting there thinking about what you’ve sent out is going to drive you nuts. Better to move on to the next thing. It might be the next piece of writing, it might be the dinner you neglected to check on the stove, or scraping out the pan of the dinner that you forgot on the stove, or going out to buy a pizza before your children starve to death. While they’re yelling toppings at you, you’ll be too exasperated to even remember…um…what were we talking about?

Writer anxiety

There are many different scenarios that set off a bout of writer anxiety. All of mine can be traced back to my ambition and a feeling of “when is all of this writing going to start paying off?” To wit:

typewriter detail1) Reading articles about all the books being released by favorite authors, or those who write in your genre. (I’m looking at you, Neil Gaiman.)

2) Facebook/Twitter posts by authors about their awesome writer life. (Like randomly meeting a fan buying your book at the checkout of a bookstore. Yes, Jay Asher, your coolness gives me anxiety.)

3) A blank page.

4) A filled page with nothing discernibly useful.

5) Friends asking how that book that’s been on submission is faring. (This never comes from family. At least not immediate family. They are well aware of the anxiety it causes.)

6) Anyone asking about your current WIP.

7) Catching a glimpse of your wake-up face/hair the morning after working late at night/in the wee hours of the morning on a manuscript…when you still have to get to that day job.

8) A deadline. Even the self-imposed ones.

9) Waiting when you’re querying/when you’re on submission/for feedback from your beta readers/for a response from your agent/for your contract/for notes from your editor…(I could go on).

10) Awesome story ideas that pop into your head when you haven’t had a chance to write down the last few awesome story ideas that have popped into your head.

What else gives you writer anxiety?


Between technology and mindfulness

franzenMost people in the publishing industry spent yesterday reading, discussing, and responding to Jonathan Franzen’s Guardian essay What’s wrong with the modern world. Franzen acknowledges being called a Luddite, but insists that he isn’t. Rather, he pushes back against technology that seems smug. As a result, he’s a PC user who prefers the Nook over the Kindle. While I see Franzen’s point, and find it amusing that we have something in common (I also prefer the PC and Nook) it’s also annoyingly clear that this is the essay of a privileged person. Do you think the people in Syria are concerned with whether using a smartphone at dinner is ruining their culture? There are so many other things to be concerned about, like the shooting at the Navy Yard and the impotence of this country’s leaders to reduce gun violence. And then there are all the things that technology is so good for, like saving low-lying areas from the inevitable devastation of global warming.

Technology feels like it’s dehumanizing us sometimes, but it also gives us access to human things we would not otherwise be a part of. Remember when profiles turned green on Twitter to support the Iran election in ’09? Or how you can talk to your grandma over Skype even though she lives thousands of miles away? And how old school chums are finding each other on Facebook and getting together to laugh about old times?

7 of 9But like Franzen, technology does not feel like natural integration. It’s like that thing over Seven of Nine’s eyebrow. It’s handy, but distracting. Enter: mindfulness, the total opposite of technology. And the thing that so many of the famously successful have turned to, like Oprah, and inexplicably, Rupert Murdoch. I’m not much for meditation, but I see the value in being still for 20 minutes, without the phone or my shiny new Surface machine. My own version of mindfulness has been found in a familiar place. Ballet class. There’s peacefulness for me in the plié, and in finding the steps in the music.

The place between technology and mindfulness happens when I warm up with my earbuds in, and my smartphone tucked into the top of my tights, listening to old recordings of Sting.

Yeah. That’s the stuff.

What are you working with?

We all deal in language, us writers. We are limited by the alphabet, by punctuation, and the curve of the font. Yet, some vowels, commas, and deckle-edged pages come together in such a way as to produce magic. Spun gold that leaves the rest of us wondering if some people are working with better materials than others.

You might argue that artistry is about innovation. And that’s true. But isn’t artistry also about availability? You have to work with what you have, but what if you don’t have everything you need to elevate? To wit:

gold insect

I came across this image today. It’s fly larvae that made cocoons out of gold leaf and precious stones that were provided by a forward-thinking artist. Ever thought fly larvae interesting? Me either. But suddenly….

I realize there is no way to literally gild writing. But writers sometimes short-change themselves of the most precious of all commodities: time. We rush, we waste, we stall, and all the time, that material is slipping through our fingers.

Why is it so hard?

I see the light.

I see the light.

This weekend was devoted to finishing edits to my novel. A novel that I started maybe ten years ago. One that I spent the last six years or so trying to raise from the muck. I had wanted to write this story for such a long time, but I never seemed able to start it, or when I did, to get it quite right. I had plenty of encouragement from some editor friends, and from my own book-loving pals. I thought I was there, but my first agent was lukewarm about it. We parted ways. I continued working, then sent it out to a few agents. Several asked for partials and fulls. One asked for edits. I was game. The edits took me several months but when I returned them, I got a polite no. I did another round of changes, sent queries again, and got similar responses. The third time was the charm, though by then I felt completely burned out. In all, I had 21 rejections. Then I found Marie, who believed as I did that this story was something special.

But she too had some changes in mind.

I got her notes on December 12th, but didn’t start working until January. Today, I finished typing up the last edits.

It’s not over yet. I still need to do a final read and there will certainly be some tweaking. But I see the light at the end of the tunnel. And boy am I glad to see it.

The stages of NaNoPrepMo

So far, my method for getting ready for NaNoWriMo has been:

Stage 1: Hubris. (I’m absolutely going to come up with an idea this month AND organize it.)

Stage 2: Fear. (Why I got no ideas?)

Stage 3: Adrenaline. (I got an idea. Look! It’s so good! See how it squishes into Scrivener perfectly. If I keep waking up to work at 4 a.m. I will have an actual outline in days!)

That pumpkin is mocking me.

Stage 4: Hubris revisited. (Yeah I got this. I got it so much in fact, I don’t even have to outline anymore.)

Stage 5: Fear. (Oh crap. November is next week?)

I believe there will be a stage 6. A candy-eating stage. Good thing the night before NaNo is Halloween. I hope my children won’t mind if I eat their stash.


As I desperately try to summon an idea for NaNoWriMo, I realize that October is not just for switching over your closet, dusting off your boots, getting dressed in outrageous costumes, and eating loads of candy. It’s also time to prep for NaNoWriMo, so for me at least, it’s NaNoPrepMo. I talked a big game about taking time off to outline at the beginning of the month, but I didn’t come up with anything. I was beginning to panic. Well, not panic exactly, but worry. You know, the kind of worry that makes you eat an entire bagful of “fun sized” Kit Kats. (Damn, those were good.)

But then this weekend I guess my brain had enough time to digest that I was in fact going to do NaNoWriMo whether or not I actually had a plan, and also that I did have a couple of burgeoning ideas that needed to come out in the light of day. So on Saturday, I actually started writing up some notes using Scrivener, my new writing buddy. Then if that was not enough, somewhere around 4am on Sunday morning, I guess my brain had a few more ideas, so I wound up back on my computer for another productive round of novel planning. (Just let me say this: I love that my brain works on things by itself while I’m busy doing other stuff, like dusting furniture. But also, I wish my brain would let me sleep. 4am is not cool, brain. Not cool at all.)

Now two days do not a pattern make, so I’m not going to make any predictions about my progress based on one weekend. But, I now have more ideas and direction than I had on Friday, so I’m pretty happy with myself. Whether or not this will translate into NaNoWriMo success, time will only tell.

It might help if I came up with a title.

What’s my story about? Well, it’s about space travel. I don’t have much more than that right now. It’s only been 2 days! Sheesh!

The thing with magic…

Scars on my leg from the burn; on my chest from the port access for chemo.

So the house is cleansed. As a parting shot, whatever blight was on its way out caused me to burn my leg. It hurt like the dickens and will probably leave a permanent mark. That’s OK. I can take a hit. I have plenty of other scars and I love them ALL. They’re proof I’m badass, have done shit, have taken blows and survived.

Immediately following the cleansing, I began to feel better–about everything–though nothing in my life had changed, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The positive vibes, including the ones from all of you, were everywhere. It all helped. I was feeling lucky and grateful, something I hadn’t felt in months despite getting to the end of cancer treatments a little over two months ago. So this morning I was looking for a quote about writing and magic and found this one:

“That’s the thing with magic. You’ve got to know it’s still here, around us, or it just stays invisible for you.” — Charles de Lint

So today, my wish for all of us is that we believe in our own magic so that it stays visible all around us, and transforms the impossible into possible, the negative into positive, the block into flow.

As for me, I am writing again. I believe in the possibility of creating again. I penned a truly horrible poem just to prove that I wasn’t taking it all so seriously (a. No, I was not purposefully trying to make it bad, it just came out that way, and b. Don’t worry, I will not deface your eyeballs with it). And for the foreseeable future, as far as my writing is concerned, I’m just going to do whatever the hell I want.