Monday, May 29, 2017

How to Deal With Hard Seasons as a Writer



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.



Here's something I know is true for all writers: If we stay with writing for long enough, we all go through hard seasons.

When I was trying to get published, one of my rough seasons came after a particularly hard rejection. My book had been under consideration for months, had moved through several parts of the process, and then one day in the mail, a form rejection letter came. A form. All that waiting, all that hoping, and I got nothing more than a vague "Dear Author" letter that they had photocopied.

A short time later, I was at Barnes and Noble, and when I walked in, I felt overwhelmed with how many books were crammed onto the shelves. And I thought, "Why would anybody want to publish anything written by me? What can I possibly say that hasn't been said before?"

This was one of many hard seasons before being published, I've had many after being published, and I'm confident there are more dips and twists in the road ahead of me. If you're in such a season right now, I hope these ideas will encourage you. If you're not, I hope you'll tuck them away for a day in the future when you might need them.



Know it and name it.

Those words I spoke at Barnes and Noble over ten years ago? I heard them echo back to me just a few weeks ago.

I have a darling neighbor who has wanted to write for a long time, and as she was preparing to go to a conference, she said to me with a laugh, "I keep thinking it's silly. Who am I? What can I possibly say that hasn't been said before?" She doesn't feel like a "real" writer, and I told her, "Welcome to the club. None of us do. Especially in the beginning."

I think it's powerful when we can say, "Here's what I'm feeling." I think it's especially powerful when we can confess it to another writer:

Don't write alone!

When I've gone through dark creative times (and dark life times in general) my tendency is to shrink up, and close myself off. But I've yet to drag myself out of a funk with my own strength.

We need writer friends we can be vulnerable with. To whom we can say, "I'm struggling." If you don't have writer friends, friends who are creative can do the trick too. Or just friends who love you and understand what writing means to you.

Roseanna White and I have joked that after so many years of friendship and repeating advice back to each other, we should just create a form email for each of the following statements:

  • I thought this book was going to be my best yet, but it's such a mess! How will I ever fix this?
  • I saw so-and-so gave me a negative review...
  • Life is so busy that I hardly ever get to write. And when I do have time, I can't seem to get any words out.
Even if you know your friend so well that you know what they're going to say, it's still reassuring to hear the words.

Learn to celebrate with others.

One rough thing about having writer friends (or being a human being, really) is the tendency to compare. And sometimes, just like in life, we're going through a rough season while a friend is seeing a lot of success.

A few years ago, as I was struggling in both writing and my personal life, Roseanna was getting offers for contracts that she hadn't even asked for. I'm not kidding. Contracts seemed to be raining down on her.

I had to accept that it wasn't My Turn. That it was Roseanna's turn, and that it was my job to be supportive, encouraging, and even happy for her even though I was struggling. And even though Roseanna was receiving a lot of good news, she was still great about empathizing with me during my rough time.

We have to learn how to celebrate with those who are celebrating even when we're mourning, and to mourn with those who are mourning, even when we have a reason to celebrate.

Stay creative, even if it's not writing.

While it's true that sometimes I need to push through my laziness, get my booty in my chair, and write, there are other times when I need to give myself time away from my manuscript. Especially if what's hitting me hard is something like a rough critique or an unexpected rejection.

In Big Magic (which I think is a wonderful read for creatives, if you don't mind some language) Elizabeth Gilbert says it much better than I can:
Einstein called this tactic "combinatory play"--the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed. Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes.
There's something about continuing to pursue creativity, even if it's something different than the area you want to be creative in, that renews your energy.

Don't look to the world to tell you that you're successful.


Often when I'm in a hard season with writing, I find that at least part of my problem is I've lost track of what makes me successful. I've started looking for validation in the wrong places. 

I've talked about this before on the blog, but Shannon Dittemore forever changed my life when she gave me the question, "What kind of writer do I want to be?" 

That question protects me against guilt when I make decisions like limiting my work time so I can be more present to my children over the summer. Yes, there's a lot more I could be doing, but that would keep me from being the kind of writer I want to be. I don't want to be the kind of writer who works crazy hours.

You have to decide what success looks like to you, because the world will always push you to be more, do more, achieve more, want more, and so on.

Review your Ws:

Sometimes for me, my hard season is born out of me trying to ignore the reality around me. But life is full of different seasons with different demands, and it's helpful to review your Ws and see if part of the problem is your expectations.

Where am I in life right now?: Sometimes a hard season in writing is born out of a hard or busy season. There's no sense in pretending like your creativity isn't impacted by being a full-time student, or having health issues, or sharing a computer with five siblings, or having parents who are going through a divorce.

Also, where are you with writing? If you're working on your first book, it's not fair to expect yourself to be Tolkein. There's nothing wrong with being a beginner, and once you acknowledge the gap between your tastes and your abilities that Shannon talked about a few weeks ago, you will hopefully be able to relieve some of the pressure you're putting on yourself.

When can I write?: Few of us have as much control over our time and schedules as we'd like. If you share a computer, or you work, or you're in school and sports and theater, consider that when you set expectations for how much you should be able to produce.

What do I want to write?: When Roseanna had publishers chasing her with contracts, and I had publishers running away from me, I would say things to my husband like, "What's wrong with me? I can't seem to get anything going, and Roseanna gets new contract offers, like, every day."

"Roseanna writes historical romance for adults. Do you want to write historical romance for adults?"

"No."

"Okay, then. They're different genres with different demands and markets. Stop acting like that's a fair comparison."

Like he nearly always is, my husband was totally right. I was trying to ignore or shrug away the realities of writing in my chosen genre, and that wasn't fair.

Why do I write?: Sometimes when I'm in a hard writing place, it's because I've forgotten that I don't write for money or attention or critical acclaim or bragging rights. I write because I love it. I write because it's something that makes me more fully alive. 

Maybe that won't always be true. Maybe I will need to write for money at some point in my career. If I do, I'll have to make different choices than the ones I do now, but that's fine. The Ws are not static things, which is why they need reviewing from time to time.

Have you gone through creative dips or struggled with writing at times? What has helped you?

Friday, May 26, 2017

The First Go Teen Writers Instagram Challenge

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

YOU GUYS! Go Teen Writers has an Instagram account! We've spread the word on social media but realized we hadn't actually announced it here on the blog. Major fail!

To kick off our first full month on Instagram, we're going to launch an Instagram challenge for the month of June. Have you guys ever participated in one of these? If you haven't, let me tell you how it works.

First, you'll need the graphic we created. You'll find it here and on our Instagram profile: @goteenwriters. Post the graphic to your Instagram account this week to tell your followers that you'll be participating and to help us spread the word. The more, the merrier!




As you can see, each day of June has been given a prompt. Your job is to snap a picture that somehow addresses the prompt and maybe works in books and/or writing. You don't have to be super literal. Feel free to use the prompt as a jumping off point, and get creative. It's fun to stretch our wings and use our creativity in areas other than writing.

Once you've snapped your picture for the day, post it on Instagram and use the challenge's hashtag (#GTWJune17) in your caption. Throughout the challenge, we'll monitor the hashtag and share some of our favorite pictures on Fridays.

Make sense? If you have questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments section below and we'll do our best to get to them this week before the challenge kicks off on June 1st!

We're so excited, you guys! Come find us on Instagram! 

>>> It is TOTALLY okay to not have social media, you guys! I'm a mean mom and my kids aren't allowed to have Instagram just yet. But there are a decent amount of Go Teen Writers readers that are active on Instagram and we want to make sure we're having fun and providing content across all our platforms. So, please don't feel left out. If you're looking for a way to participate, you can absolutely use the challenge to provide you with daily writing prompts. THANK YOU ALL FOR LOVING US and for letting us stretch our wings a bit. <<<

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tracking Time: Analyzing Your Work Week For Maximum Productivity


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Last week I talked about 10 ways to increase your productivity. And, as promised, here is a breakdown I did of one of my work weeks and what I learned from it. If you can, I highly recommend keeping track of your hours working on one of your books, just to give you an idea as to how long it takes you and to reveal patterns of low and high productivity. So let's take a look at one of my weeks.





As I mentioned last week, I really struggled to finish my book King's War. Ever since we moved, my new schedule was sabotaging my efforts. First, let's examine my schedule, which looked something like this:

Monday- Babysit my charge from 7:30 am until about 1:00 pm. Write from 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm. Pick up son from 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm. Write in the afternoon.
Tuesday- Go Teen Writers blog post day. Write fiction when finished. Pick up son from 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm.
Wednesday- Babysit my charge from 7:30 am until about 1:00 pm. Write from 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm. Pick up son from 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm. Write in the afternoon.
Thursday- Home to work on book. Pick up son from 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm.
Friday- Occasional babysit my charge day (from 7:30 am until about 1:00 pm). Once a month writers meeting from 9:00 am - 12:00 noon. Otherwise, home to work on book. Pick up son from 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm.
Saturday- Random activities on the schedule. Often home to work on book.
Sunday- Day off.

Add to that schedule taking my son to school from 7:00 am to 7:30 am and a couple physical therapy appointments and you can see there isn't a lot of time that could be blocked out for writing. And ideally, I'd prefer not to work on Saturdays, but that hasn't been an option for me. I did my best, however, with this book, but things got stressful, especially every Monday through Wednesday.

Now I'd like to show you a sample of writing results from an average work week. I used Stephanie's free story workbook tutorial on this book, so I was able to keep track of my writing time, which helped me see where I was productive and where I was not. Here is a sample week:

Monday- 512 words. It's always hard to write coming off the weekend. So Mondays are usually down a little in word count. But on a babysitting day, it's especially difficult.
Tuesday- 2840 words. I did better this day, even with it being a GTW blog post day. It helped that I did some writing the previous day and I was home all day this particular Tuesday. No physical therapy or any other appointments.
Wednesday- 1547 words. Another babysitting day, so my word count was down.
Thursday- 1140 words. Home all day, but this chapter was a difficult one (a major battle) and it took me all day just to get this many words, though to be fair, I did delete quite a few other words too, so I bet I wrote closer to 1400. Still. Super tough scene.
Friday- 4860 words. I picked up easily this morning and got right into things. Did much better.
Saturday- 4449 words. This was an equally productive day.

From this I learned:
-I write better in the mornings.
-I am not so productive on Mondays
-I am not so productive on any day in which I didn't write the day before.
-I am not so productive on a babysitting day or on the day after a babysitting day.
-I am most productive when I am able to write for at least three days in a row. 

Mondays are rarely great writing days for me. I'm coming off the weekend, and I need to get back to work and back into my story. Plus I babysit on Monday mornings, so that makes it extra hard to get to work since I'm often exhausted when I do finally sit down (my charge is a three-year-old, quite active boy). Tuesdays are rarely good writing days. It depends on the blog post. I sometimes can write them in a couple hours, but often it takes me all day. But even if I do manage to get the post done in a few hours, it takes a different type of concentration for me to write fiction than it does to write nonfiction. So it's not easy for me to transition from one into the other.

Since I have been writing mostly on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons (after I finish babysitting or my GTW blog post), all day Thursday, and sometimes on Friday and/or Saturday, it has been tough to consistently get into my story. On the weeks when I didn't have to babysit on Friday and I had Saturday free as well, I did so much better. Having three full writing days in a row makes a huge difference. I'm able to draw progressively deeper into my storyeach day builds on the lastand I get a lot more done. To do my best fiction writing, I need to be immersed.

Since I like to write nonfiction writing books and have a few projects I want to start working on once I finish King's Blood, I'm going to embark upon a new trial season in which I'm going to alternate between projects. For example, I might set aside a month or two to write a nonficiton project, then switch to three or four months of fiction. I'm hoping that this method might make it easier for me to work deep and be more productive on each project than trying to switch back and forth in a day or even a week. I'm hoping I will no longer continually derail myself from trying to multitask. I don't know it it will work, but I'm hopeful. It's good to try new things to see what works and what doesn't.

Have you ever tracked your writing time to see where you are most productive? What works best for you? What is a hindrance? Any experiments you might like to try to be more productive? Share in the comments.

Monday, May 22, 2017

What an aspiring writer needs to know about editing, marketing, and publishing: An interview with editor Jillian Manning!

Stephanie here! I'm really excited that Jillian Manning, the acquisitions editor at Blink YA Books, is here with us today! Jillian was my editor for my 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, and is a rock start of an editor. Not only is she great at the red pen stuff, but she's super encouraging, and will even dress up for her authors:

Jillian and me at the ALA Midwinter Meeting. Wouldn't we have been great flappers?

Jillian was gracious enough to take time out of her schedule to answer a few questions for me about the unique struggles of trying to get your first book published. I wish I could have read her detailed answers back when I was a flailing and confused aspiring author!



Also, we're giving away a signed, hardback copy of The Lost Girl of Astor Street to one U.S. resident! Entry details can be found after my interview with Jillian.

Here's a little more about Jillian:

Jillian Manning is the acquisitions editor for Blink YA Books, where she acquires young adult titles across all genres. Jillian is passionate about helping authors create their best books and has had the honor of working with dozens of incredibly talented writers, New York Times bestsellers, YouTube stars, Olympic athletes, and more. In the stories she acquires, Jillian loves fresh voices, a dash of humor, and captivating protagonists. She does not love insta-love. Find Jillian on Twitter at @LillianJaine or on her blog at www.EditorSays.com.

SM: I talk with a lot of young writers who want to be traditionally published, but are kinda stressed out about the idea of needing a platform. When you're looking at a manuscript for a writer who hasn't been published, what kind of marketability do you like to see? What kind of social media numbers make you say, "Okay, we can work with that."

JM: Publishing is a business, and sales and marketing people want to know that the books editors bring them can be commercially viable—meaning they can sell! One of the ways to help sell a book is by being an author with a platform online, since that means you have a built-in fan base.

For a debut author, I definitely want to see a professional website/blog, as well as a minimum of 1,500 followers across a maximum of three platforms. Those three can be a mix of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube, and it helps to see a steady number of followers on each site, rather than 1,000 on Twitter and 10 on Facebook. (P.S. Editors know what a follow-for-follow account looks like, so someone who has 10K followers but is following 12K people will give us pause.)

I’ll admit, it’s a little scary when I get a manuscript in and when I go to look up the author online I find…nothing. No website, no blog, no social media. (And by social media, I mean professional social media, not a personal page for friends and family.) That being said, I know that someone who has never published a book won’t have the same draw to followers as a published author would have. So the only real “rule” I try to follow is to make sure the author has some form of professional presence online to use as a starting point.

SM: Lots of writers (me included) feel nervous about pitching a novel to an editor at a conference. Do you have any thoughts on this or advice that can help us chill out a bit?

JM: I have a blog post for that! The most important thing to remember is that you are talking to another human being who loves books and writing as much as you do. WE ARE YOUR PEOPLE! We are simply the people who hold the red pens, which does make us a little scary. But if you come with a polished manuscript and meet with someone who publishes books in your genre, you’re likely to have a great conversation.

SM: That "conversation" word is key, I think. When I first started pitching, I rehearsed so much that I kinda forgot it was supposed to be a conversation. The publishing process can feel really mysterious and confusing. Is there something you wish writers understood better about editors or how it all works?

JM: You know, the publishing world always feels a little bit like a secret club, which I think can make it tough for writers to know what’s going on behind the scenes. Here are a few things I often tell new writers about our little universe:

  • Most editors do not make unilateral decisions when it comes to acquiring a book. Even if I love a manuscript with all my heart and believe it will sell a billion copies, I still have to convince my publisher, my marketing team, and my sales team. And that convincing requires research, presentations, and a whole lot of data—not just beautiful words!
  • Companies can only publish a certain number of books each year. There are only so many people to do the work, and only so many books that can fit on the shelves. As a result, we have to be incredibly picky about which books we publish and when.
  • Publishing isn’t usually a speedy business. Sometimes it can take two years (or more, if you’re George R. R. Martin) to publish a book, even after the initial version is turned in. This is a result of the best timing to release a book (e.g. you always want to release a Christmas book around Christmastime), as well as the sheer number of hours it takes to edit, design, print, market, and distribute a book.
  • Last, and most importantly, editors can tell when you are turning in a first draft vs. a fourth draft. And on behalf of my people, please, please take the time to edit and revise your novel once on your own and once with a critique partner before submitting it. The whole process is more enjoyable when we can work with a polished draft.


SM: So, sometimes as a reader, I hear a concept for a book, and I think I'm going to LOVE it. But then the experience doesn't quite live up to my expectations. Does that ever happen to you with submissions. Have you ever requested a submission because you liked the story idea, but then when you receive the manuscript and start reading it, you don't connect to the story like you thought you would?

JM: Unfortunately this does happen. I’d say the most common reasons I have to say no to a good idea are:

  • Unpolished writing: Check out my rant on drafts in the fourth bullet above. Editors can work a lot of magic with a manuscript, but if we get sent something that contains obvious typos, major plot holes, or just mediocre writing, we’re not likely to want to spend the time and effort to get the book into presentable shape.
  • Poor execution: Great ideas are great, but great execution is better. If your pitch promises to be totally original and utterly fascinating, the entire book needs to live up to that—and I mean every single sentence. I’ve been excited about unique concepts before, only to find that the author has bitten off more than they can chew and the story ends up feeling weird or confusing.
  • Undeveloped characters: In YA especially, characters are hugely important. Due to the age of the protagonists, most YA novels feature coming of age stories, which means I need to see a character change and grow and learn (for better or for worse) throughout the story. If someone has an awesome pitch but a character that is one-dimensional, I quickly lose interest.


SM: Let's go back to that unpolished manuscript thing. Many writers struggle with editing their own novels. Obviously, there's no replacement for getting feedback and corrections from a professional editor, but do you have one or two tips for how to be a better self-editor?

JM: First and foremost, take a break—at least one month—from the time you finish your book until the time you edit it. In that month, read one or more books in your genre to inspire you…and also show you places where your story needs work. Then, when you go back to edit with fresh eyes, think about what you loved about those books (without copying them, of course!) and how you can improve your work.

Second, I recommend reading the book out loud. Not all of it, necessarily, but definitely the dialogue. That will help you catch spots that don’t quite feel like a normal conversation. Third, when you’re editing your book, pay attention to repetition of certain words and phrases. We all have ticks in our writing, and you might find you used the word “dangerously” 128 times, which, in my professional opinion, is about 120 times too many.

And last but not least, learn more about editing! There are tons of books and blogs that talk about the art of editing, and the more you learn, the better you will be when editing your work or someone else’s.

Stephanie here again. That's a perfect note to leave it on, because it gives me another chance to mention that Jillian has a fabulous blog that you should all be reading on a regular basis.


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Friday, May 19, 2017

Writing Exercise #12: Working Backward

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Since finishing my latest manuscript, I've had trouble settling into reading again. I blame it on Newton. His first law of motion says that "an object in motion stays in motion" and that has absolutely been the case for me.

After several weeks of pushing to the end of my manuscript, I've been unable to stop my brain from whirring and spinning. I try to sit still, try to rest--something I thought I had mastered--but my hands want to be busy, my legs twitch, and I find myself simply skimming the words of books instead of actually reading them.

There's not much to do but wait it out, I think. I'll get reading back. It'll happen. I just have to wait. There's a lot of waiting in writing. Did you know that?

Anyway, as I've been unable to sit still, I've been doing a fair amount of walking. And listening. To podcasts. To lectures about writing. To instructional videos. And one thing that's been surfacing again and again is this idea that you can (should?) start drafting your novel by writing the ending first.

I've touched on this idea before. There's conflicting advice out there--and that's totally normal--but it's never been easy for me to start my stories by writing the ending first. If I know how it ends, I get bored with the writing. I feel the ending should be earned by all the work that comes before it--both by the story's protagonist, and by me, the author. I fight my way there and it's a struggle I enjoy.

That said, the more I write, the more I choose my habits with self-preservation in mind.

"What do you mean?" you ask.

Well.

The truth is that the more you write, the better you get at it. And, in my case, the more I write, the more I realize I don't like rewriting scenes any more than necessary. Oh, I love editing. But editing my seventh or eight edit? That's a bit painful. And writing chapters and chapters that I'm going to end up cutting? It's almost like hacking off an arm.

It's not even about the words that I love. It's about the time that I lose. I hate losing time.

And so, from a self-preservation standpoint, the idea of starting at the end is an interesting one. Because when you start at the end, you know exactly where you're going. And you write to that moment. And, ideally, you don't waste too many words getting there.

Author Victoria Schwab--read her stuff, seriously--picked up video blogging again and in one of her recent videos she talks about how she writes the ending first. She does this for several reasons--go watch to find out--but one of her reasons beckoned to the self-preservationist in me.

She writes the ending first so that she can reverse engineer her characters.

Now, I do this too. Only, I do my reverse engineering after I've written an entire first draft. The idea of tackling it from the outset is compelling and I just may have to try.

Reverse engineering is practiced in all sorts of different fields. It's the process of taking apart a completed product to understand how it's put together. By doing this you can explain, and possibly replicate, what's been done.

When we talk about reverse engineering a character, we're talking about looking at that character at the end of the story and working backward to develop a story arc. I've done this, to some extent, for most of my books. And it does take a little practice.

So that's what we're going to do today.

Your task

 

1. Pick up a favorite book and flip to the last chapter--this is so you don't spoil a new book for yourself. Read that final chapter through.

2. After you've read it, create a list of questions that can be asked based on the information in this chapter alone. Do not attempt to answer these questions. Simply let yourself ask them. 

3. Leave your list of questions in the comments section below--PLEASE DO NOT GIVE US THE TITLE OF THE BOOK (and, if the characters have unique names like Katniss or Peeta, please replace the names with pronouns like he or she). We're not in the business of spoiling books here.

What we're looking for is proof that endings, inevitably, give us story fodder simply by existing. I think they just might.

Remember!!! If you participate in the writing exercise, you can use the Rafflecopter to enter our drawing. A winner will be selected next week and will have the opportunity to ask Jill, Steph and me a question for an upcoming episode of Go Teen Writers LIVE.