On Faith and Fiction

“Are you a person of  faith?” He leans out of the car window, his face searching mine. We’re newly neighbors, and this meeting in the grocery store parking lot is random.

What do I say to that? Last night, I stood in our backyard and talked over the fence with him about the night sky. He has a good telescope and I like him. What do I say to this question?

“Yes,” I say.

He nods, satisfied. “I knew you were,” he says.

A car pulls in behind him. I back away, wave goodbye so he can move on.

On the drive back, I think about my answer. Am I a person of faith? Not the way he meant it, I think. No every-Sunday-morning church, Wednesday-night Bible study, and evangelizing to the neighbors faith. I don’t stand on street corners with God is Great signs and I don’t ask my co-workers if they have found Jesus.

I suspect these are the sort of things my neighbor would count against my claim to faith. But am I a person of faith?

Not blind faith.

But am I a person of faith?

I think about that Sunday in Quaker Meeting, the epiphany that We Are Not Alone, even when everyone we trust abandons us. How I–or something, or Someone–purged the fear in my gut that day, shook it out of me in one great gush, replaced it with faith that Help Is On Its Way. How I walked forth in courage. Because I knew then that I am held in God’s hands, that we all are.

Am I a person of faith?

Last May, Annie and Glennon, two people I admire, said “Write for one hour a day,” and so I did, and I wrote a novel. Is that faith? Saying, “I’ll give it a shot” and then doing it, day after day after day, even when it’s hard, even when it feels pointless. Is that faith?

Let me tell you something about faith. I had very little when I started my book. Maybe as much as a mustard seed–ever seen a mustard seed? They’re small. Not microscopic or anything, but no bigger than the head of a pin, anyway. Small. That’s what my faith was like.

And it didn’t tell me what was in it, either, any more than an unlabeled mustard seed tells you it’ll turn into a mustard tree. My faith said: “Start writing. Do it every day. Something will happen.” It made no promises about what that Something would be.

Then the book started to grow. It grew to 5,000 words. Then 10,000. 20,000. It kept getting longer, and a story started to emerge. Around 40,000, it started to feel like an actual novel. Along with the novel, my faith grew. I could do this.

And it was a good thing, too, that my faith had grown roots, because after 95,000 words, it was time to revise. Revising is hard.

Some weeks, I spent days doing nothing making no measurable changes. I was writing character sheets, or developing a timeline, or literally cutting and taping the manuscript. Writing scenes I knew would never end up in the book, but that were necessary for me to understand what the characters were doing in other scenes and why.

Did I have faith? It didn’t feel like it. It felt frustrating. It felt like I’d never, ever ever be done. Like a sailboat in a lull, no momentum, and no motor to get it going again. Did I keep going, well, yeah. But only because… well, I guess you’d call it faith. But it didn’t feel like faith. It felt like paddling without an oar.

It did get done, though. Eventually I found myself with a completed second draft, a book organized and corralled into almost-presentable format. An actual novel.

Faith grew roots. It’s stronger now. Or maybe that’s not faith. Maybe what grew was confidence. But confidence feels rather like faith, don’t you think?

I’m now in second revisions (third draft), which means I’ve been through this before. When I stop changing the actual manuscript and start working on other things (right now I’m writing chapter synopses to get a handle on the order of events and better build tension in the right places), I don’t panic. It’s part of the process. I have faith that it is what I’m supposed to be doing. That it will all get done.

Am I a person of faith?

I believe in God, because I’ve experienced God in the Silence of Meeting for Worship, in the quiet of my heart. I’ve felt God take my hand when my hand most needed taking. Is that faith, or is that knowledge? (Superstition, whisper my atheist friends.)

I don’t actually know anything. I have no proof. I have only my heart, and experience, and faith that Something will happen if I just take the next step. And so far, every time I take that next step, Something happens. I’m not moving mountains, but if the pen is mightier than the sword perhaps it is also at least as mighty as a shovel. I’m writing books.

Am I a person of faith?

Maybe faith is just doing Something You Believe In, and stepping forward with the belief that Something Good will come of it. Which is another way of saying we are held in God’s hands.

Am I a person of faith?

Sure. You betcha.

P.S. Plant a mustard seed and Something will happen. But not a mustard tree. Mustard does not grow on trees, no matter what the preacher told you. Sometimes the Thing that Happens when we do Something We Believe In is not the Thing we were expecting. Often it’s far more beautiful.

It is kinda pretty, though.

How to Write a Blockbuster YA Novel

I am woefully behind the times in my reading. Ask me about the classics, and I’m all over it:

  • Sophocles (check)
  • Thucydides (indeed)
  • Aeschylus (yup)
  • Vergil (certainly)
  • Homer (you bet, and I even know this is out of chronological order)
  • Plato (uh-huh)
  • Xenophon (in Greek, love him–have you read his bit on horse training?)
  • Shakespeare (duh)
  • Milton (of course)
  • Chaucer (in the original Middle English, yes)
  • Too many to list (you betcha)

What about novels, you ask?

  • Mark Twain 
  • Hemingway
  • Jane Austin
  • Charles Dickens
  • Eudora Welty
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Heinlein
  • Lovecraft
  • Philip K. Dick
  • Harper Lee
  • Etc. Etc. Etc.

Now ask me about anything written in the past ten years, and, well, look:

  • Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter
  • Um.
  • Twilight (hangs her head in shame…)
  • Uh.
  • That’s it.
  • I think.
  • WAIT! The Magicians. Of course.
  • Yup.
  • That’s it.

twilight poster_9

I can’t un-read Twilight alas, but I can do penance by reading a whole bunch of other recent YA titles. My Amazon bill has grown ridiculous. But that’s okay, because I’m about to get rich. Because it turns out you don’t need to be original to write a blockbuster. All you need is a recipe. And I have the recipe.

Recipe for a Blockbuster YA Novel

  • Take one gorgeous but troubled female teenager who has no idea she’s beautiful, and put her in the center of the plot
  • Mix in insecurity, self-deprecation, and a selfless desire to please everyone at her own expense.
  • Add one gorgeous but troubled male teenager who is inaccessible due to a bad-boy reputation, his community/school role, or his own dark secrets.
  • Mix in a large pinch of “why do I like him?” angst.
  • Add a crisis that throws them inadvertently together, often in close physical proximity, and mix well with breathlessness each time their skin touches.
  • In another container, mix together a large quantity of possessiveness, controlling, and jealousy, add carefully to the male teenager, and disguise it with the sweetness of I Love You.
  • Gradually fold in a good reason why they can’t be together, that inevitably boils down to “I’m afraid I’ll hurt him” (because of her special talent, because the bad guys are after everyone she loves, because she also loves someone else, because she always hurts everyone she loves, or similar–you get to be a little original here if you want, but don’t go too crazy.)
  • Add heat.
  • When plot reaches a full boil, place a decision in the hands of female character–on the one hand, she can be with the boy forever; on the other hand, she can do something selfless that will serve to separate them forever. It’s okay if this one is a stretch, as long as she definitely has to choose and there is no middle option.
  • When she chooses the selfless act, remove story from heat.
  • When male & female settle out separately, leave them in proximity, but not mixed.
  • Cover with a cloth and leave to ferment. Will they end up together or not? That is the delicious finish everyone craves. Don’t answer.
  • Wait for film deals to roll in, along with riches.

Try it and let me know how it goes.

By the way, my WIP doesn’t follow this formula. There’s very little romance, way too many main characters, and not nearly enough teenage angst. They’re too busy trying to not be eaten or tortured to be overly concerned about pimples. Is my book YA? I’m no longer convinced.

Also, I’ll probably die poor.

13 Steps to Publishing a Novel (That I’m Glad I Didn’t Know Before I Started)

I began writing my work-in-progress (WIP, in the industry slang) in May 2013 because Annie Lamott said if I didn’t get started then, I never would. I promised myself one hour a day, and I stuck with that.

The first few weeks were delightful (I’m pretty sure my memory is foggy on this–it may have been delightful in the same way that the first few weeks of motherhood are delightful–painful, wet, stinky, sleepless, horrible, and now-I’ve-forgotten-all-that-and-only-remember-the-first-smile). I found I could write a little more than 1,000 words a day on average. Based on Google research, I only needed about 50,000 or so to make a complete young-people’s novel.

Math isn’t exactly my thing, but based on my sketchy understanding of how many hours there are in an hour, and how many days there are in a 30-day month, and how many 1,000s there are in 50 thousand, I guessed it would take me about two months or a little less to complete my novel.

Wow, whizz-bang, pow! as Stephen King would annoyingly say.

I’m pretty sure that’s what he would say because it’s the sort of thing a juvenile* says right before dropping a bomb.

The bomb: Writing a novel is way more than getting words down on the page. Writing a novel takes years. If I had known that this fact would apply to me before I got started, I would have begun with more humility. It’s also possible I wouldn’t have begun at all.

Note: October includes several weeks of planned downtime. Most months demonstrate the indicated one hour a day.

Note: October includes several weeks of planned downtime. Most months demonstrate the indicated one hour a day.

So read on with caution. If you’re contemplating becoming a novelist, this may dissuade you (don’t let it). Here are the approximate steps it takes to get from idea to finished, published novel. Time estimates are based on roughly one hour a day (your mileage may vary).

1. Vomit it up, aka first draft. It’s hard, and fun, and fast, and heartbreaking, and grueling. (Time: 2 months)

2. Tear it to pieces, aka first revisions/second draft. “Write drunk; edit sober”–gotta love Hemingway. I have nothing else to say about this except It’s Hard. (Time: 3 months)

3. Put it back together, aka second revisions/third draft. This is where I am now. It’s not as hard as step 2, just time-consuming. No adrenalin rush, all slog. (Time: At current pace, roughly 2 months)

4. Offer up your sacrifice on the altar of pain, aka beta release. This is where you send your baby to a few trusted readers and find out whether everything you’ve devoted the past seven months to is worth a sh*t. (Time: Depends on how fast your betas read/comment and what else is on their plates. Maybe 2 months?)

5. Go to hell, aka review feedback & revise again, aka completely rewrite the whole dang thing, probably. Or toss it. Whatever. (Time: I’m guessing about 2-3 months)

6. Seek a champion, aka research agents. Assuming you even get this far, most major publishing houses will not even glance at your book without an agent. Plus, the agent negotiates contract terms and other unsavory activities with which you wish not to sully yourself. Of course, as in any field that professes to help people, there are more shady agents than good ones. All you gotta do is sort out which are which, and who actually wants to see your book. Check the acknowledgements in similar types of books, read Writer’s Market, Google, check #pitmad and #mswl on Twitter. Go to conferences. (Time: Maybe a few weeks? Days? I dunno.)

7. Prostrate thyself, aka write a query letter & send it to agents. This one is no big deal–all you gotta do is take the 85,000 words you’ve slaved over for 12 months and condense them into 200 words that will jump off the page in such a manner that a good agent, whose inbox is packed with ten thousand story ideas they’ve received just this month, will decide she absolutely must read the rest of this particular book. No problem. (Time: Maybe a few weeks… months? I have no clue. I’ve been gradually honing my query letter as I go, since it also helps to refine my thinking about the book itself, so I guess maybe this could feasibly be complete while the book is out in beta and therefore not add anything to the total timeline)

8. Receive rejections aka receive dozens of rejections. Become depressed, but keep sending the query out anyway until someone bites. If you’re lucky. (Time: Weeks, months, years. Who knows)

8. Tear your hair out, aka revisions based on agent feedback. (Time: No clue. None. Just be glad you found an agent to take your work)

9. Wait. Once you have an agent, and you’ve done what they asked for to your manuscript, you wait for them to find the right publisher. (Time: Who knows. JK Rowling’s agent took a year to find her a publisher for The Philosopher’s Stone. Isn’t that encouraging?)

10. Celebrate. Briefly. Aka, you’ve got a publisher, and maybe an advance, and THIS IS WHAT YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR. Except:

11. Revise and edit. Again. No kidding. The publisher will have his or her own ideas about the book, and now you get to make even more changes. (Time: I wish I knew)

12. Wait. Again. It takes time to get cover art, typesetting, edits, and on and on and on… (Time: I’ll let you know someday)

13. Repeat.

*All evidence to the contrary, I actually really like Stephen King, especially his book “On Writing.” I think he’s a pretty amazing human being and if I didn’t actually like my dad even better, I’d want him for a dad. He can be pretty silly sometimes too. Pow!

P.S. My book has a title. Yes, I have a habit of burying big reveals at the bottom of long posts about other things. Maybe I’m shy. Maybe I just want you to get in the habit of reading the whole thing. Probably the former.

P.P.S. My book’s title is: COME BACK AS RAIN.

My 14-Step Process to Writing a Great YA Novel (Or Writing While Parenting Part Four)

YALLFest, Charleston’s young adult book festival, is November 9, and it’s loaded with a long list of top YA authors (including Lev Grossman). And if that’s not enough incentive to get you down there, guess who else will be there? Me.

Even better, unlike those other famous people who are making you wait and show up, I’m going to go ahead and give you my proprietary multi-step process for writing a YA book right now and you don’t even have to leave your desk. I win.

  1. Have a kid. Kids give you an excuse to read young adult fiction aloud every night and to speak proudly about it in mixed company. “I’m reading ‘Harry Potter’ to my kids at bedtime” is SO much more socially acceptable than “I LOVE ‘Twilight!’ I read it over and over again because I love it so much. Don’t you?”
  2. On second thought, don’t have kids just for that. Kids are work. Much easier to just grow a thick skin and love what you love. You can call it “research” if it makes you happier.
  3. If you do have a kid, raise him free range*, and un-school, so you don’t squash any of his native genius.
  4. Or whatever. It’s up to you. But if you do free range and un-school I guarantee your kids will blow you away every day. They might anyway. I wouldn’t know.
  5. Wait till they’re older. If you start thinking about writing while your kids are still little, don’t worry–they’ll squash that right out of you.
  6. When your child reaches the rough age of the character(s) in your planned book, begin writing. Assuming your characters are at least 9 years of age, this corresponds neatly to the approximate time when you start to feel human again after having a baby.
  7. When you get to a tough spot, interview your kid. Spend lots of time on this and record the sessions. Take notes, too. Pay close attention. Ask lots of questions and answer all of theirs.
  8. Be wowed when the boring chapter about waiting for something to happen becomes the interesting chapter about building a viable home out of scraps of tanned skin, a water bucket, and an over-sized plastic bench.
  9. Interview other kids too when you get a chance. By this time, if you’ve done it right, most of the kids in your town will be hanging out at your house anyway, because you’re the free range house and maybe you have Minecraft and enough computers to go around too.
  10. Read some YA.
  11. Write every day.
  12. Listen to your characters.
  13. Listen to your kids.
  14. Repeat. Start with step 7 though, because raising a new kid for each set of revisions on your novel is probably a bit overboard.
Writing with Eli

Writing with Eli

P.S. I don’t love Twilight. I feel like I should actually say that because I said “love what you love” and Twilight is not one of those things. I do think it’s well-written for what it is, though, and I have in fact read the entire series. And she made a lot of money on it, so there’s that.

P.P.S. There are a few other entries about writing while parenting. I called them “part one” “part two” etc. even though they’re only loosely connected. You can read them if you want: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

My Mind Turns to Query Letters

I edited/revised four pages of my WIP this morning. Yay, me! Sadly, at this pace, it will be another 2 months TWO MONTHS before I have a draft ready for beta.

When I began in May, I was delighted at how quickly the work went. Walking around the lake, my usual thinking place, I calculated obsessively how long until my book was done. At 1,000 words a day, a 50,000 word novel would be complete in just over a month. Amazing. I was so fast! So efficient! I could write 12 novels in a year in an hour a day! I was amazing!

95,000 words and 5 months later…

Revising the first draft took longer than writing it.

Now I’m editing, at approximately four pages a day (there are 237 total).

Then there will be beta readers.

Then more revisions.

Then query letters, elevator pitches, agent research.

If I’m lucky enough to get an agent, next is agent-requested edits.

Then, if I’m lucky enough to get a publisher, publisher-requested edits.

The next time you meet a published author, bow down and kiss the ground because now you know.

Anyway, my mind has turned to query letters because although I’m still revising/editing, I’ll be meeting authors and agents in my genre at YALLFest, so… yeah.

(I also ordered a stack of books last night because Must Read Books by the authors I’ll be meeting.)

Now, for the useful stuff. Here’s a sample query that, reportedly, garnered a lot of agent attention.

And here’s where you go when you are sure your query letter rocks, to have it torn to pieces and trampled on.

I don’t have any pictures of query letters so here’s a cute kitten.

That's why she's so happy.

This kitten is not writing a novel.
(Photo courtesy dezignhd.com/2013/01/beautiful-kitten-wallpapers.html)

Not Writing, Not Updating, Not Sure Why I’m Posting

Y’all.

I have not written in my book in weeks.

Weeks.

I don’t know what to tell you. There’s the fact that our house filled up with people–two separate friends who needed a place to stay are now more-or-less long-term residents in our home. We love them and love having them here, and their moving here also created upheaval. There are other things going on causing upheaval too that will be revealed in time (ahem we might be moving soon).

There’s the fact that my son brought home a newborn piglet who required around-the-clock nearly non-stop care and then died, prompting emergency vet visits and midday funerals and sadness.

There’s the fact that my other blog went mildly viral recently and so I had to spend all this time watching my stats skyrocket over there. Important work.

And the fact that my husband has become a performer and there are performances to attend, and childcare shifts to cover.

And the fact that my business is sucking up about ten hours a day.

All of which is to say that I haven’t been writing because I am making BULLSHIT excuses.

I’m not finding an hour a day to write because I’m not.

Tomorrow. I will begin again tomorrow.

Besides, YALLFest is Nov 9 and I will have SOMETHING to show. Maybe. I hope to meet Lev Grossman there finally. Get a book or two signed. Maybe meet an agent. Anyway. Maybe I’ll have a presentable draft? Odds are… crap. It won’t have been beta’d.

Anyway. Hi. Sorry for not updating in forever. Thank you for your patience. We now return to our regular programming.

Me and books

(Those books in the background? Were written by people who did not let bullshit excuses stop them from writing. None of them was me.)

Back to the Main

I have, like, 15 minutes, so I’m sorry if this sucks.

First, thank you THANK YOU to the wonderful people who provided feedback in the Game of Intros. It was awesome. Some of you gave me feedback offline too, and I appreciate all of it. I will probably go with Slave Chip because that is hands-down EVERYONE’s favorite that has said anything, AND I like the concept too–I mean, SLAVERY. What’s not to love?

And now, back to Jed and my current 85k WIP. Jed has decided that he must be allowed to speak in first person present. Good grief. Here’s how that happened.

So, yesterday, I sat down with my character model, 9-year-old Eli, whose personality I tried to capture in the guise of Jed (my MC, for those just joining us). So far, Jed’s story doesn’t exactly suck, according to my alpha reader (Carey), but he’s been “less interesting by far” than the other characters. In other words, he sucks. And that just will not DO. Will not.

So Eli & I sat down and we went scene-by-scene and I picked through the contents of his brain and it was awesome. I think he had fun too, because it was like a choose-your-own-adventure for him. I told him what was happening and he told me what he would think and do in each circumstance.

I wrote it down word for word and about halfway through, after writing so many “I think such-and-such” and “I wonder about who-and-who”s, I began to feel like Jed was telling me, maybe… maybe he wanted to be written that way, the way that Eli was talking. In first person present.

FIRST PERSON PRESENT, y’all. I hate first person present.

Except in The Hunger Games. I love it there.

So I went back and re-wrote the first scene in first person present. Let’s call that Version Two. And the original, the first/second draft version in third person past, is Version One. Then I created a Version Three, which is the exact same wording as Version Two except the pronouns & verbs all changed to third past. I thought maybe I could capture the immediacy of first present without all the awkwardness and difficulty and WEIRDNESS of one character in first present with all the others in third past.

Then I handed it all off to Carey and said, “Tell me what to think.”

He read Version Two (first present) and said, “That’s definitely more interesting.” Okay. Cool.

Then I handed him Version Three (EXACTLY the same as Version Two except with third past) and he said, “I don’t understand. Isn’t this your original version?” Remember, the version he thought was “definitely less interesting” than the other characters? He thought the EXACT SAME WORDS as Version Two were actually Version One after I changed it back to third past.

Then he re-read Version One, side-by-side with Version Three, and said Version Three sucks. Actually, he said he liked the original better than Version Three, which is the same thing, seeing as how the original didn’t exactly have him excited.

Then he said, “First person present is going to be really hard to do. But if you can pull it off, it’ll be frickin awesome.

Crap.

So first person present it is.

I’m afraid none of that exactly made sense, but the point is, Jed demands first person present and I always try to give my characters what they want, which is the least I can do for them given how many terrible things I put them through. So the new first chapter is mostly first person present now. It’s taking a while to re-write, but it’s fun. The most fun I’ve had since I started on this novel, I think.

I’m trying to work up the courage to share a snippet with you here. Okay. I have to. Okay, here goes. Gritting my teeth. Why is this so hard? Here’s the original third past:

Jed always thanked the bushes when he plucked their berries. When he found leafy greens, he never took the whole plant. And he never, ever dug up roots to eat. He couldn’t stand the sound of their screaming.

In the mornings, he and the other boys would leave the village together, laughing and shouting. Several of them had been born in the same summer nine years ago—it had been a good year for babies. So they knew each other well, and he liked them well enough. But by the time the sun was over the trees, he always found a reason to move off by himself into the woods. Nowadays, he tried to do it before they found anything to eat, because he didn’t want to hear them kill the plants, nor endure their ridicule when he tried to stop them.

Once alone, he would wander until he found a particularly beautiful meadow or clearing in the woods, where he could throw himself down in the grass, with his bare brown belly pressed against the earth, and lie still until his breath came slow and quiet. Then he could hear the plants whispering, and sometimes he imagined that if he thought hard enough, maybe they would hear him too.

And in first present:

I always thank the bushes, you know, when I take berries from them. I put leaves in my sack, too, if you can eat them—but never the whole plant. No, never the whole plant—the screaming is too awful.

The sun is coming up as I leave the village, and the other boys are laughing and shouting already. They’ll leave me alone if I’m quiet and if I remember not to say anything about the plants. When we get where the dirt path ends, I tell them bye and go up toward the meadow. I don’t want to hear when they find, well, edible roots and stuff.

There won’t be many berries yet, but at least there will be a few. Through these woods there’s a meadow and when I get there, I throw myself down in the grass, feel the cool dewy ground against my warm belly. When my breathing comes slow and quiet, I can hear the plants whispering. They’re so glad it’s morning and they’re alive—it makes me glad to be alive too. I wonder if they can hear me saying that to them?

I know that’s short. It’s all I have courage for.

And that’s all I got time for. See ya and THANK YOU.