Happy Writing News

I have some really wonderful news.

But first I have to share the bad news I never shared.

Back in mid-August, I split from my literary agent. No drama. That relationship had simply run its course and it was time to move forward.

Okay, so I was a little sad, yes. I spent some time wallowing.

And then I opened my Macbook and got to work. I had a new manuscript and notes from CPs. This being the first manuscript I plotted BEFORE drafting, I had less to do revision-wise than I expected. It was already a second or third draft, so I did some tweaking here and there, wrote a query, and dove back into that wonderful slush pile swimming pool.

Wonderful may be sugarcoating it.

Just a bit.

See, when you have already had a literary agent and suddenly you are looking for a literary agent, it feels a bit like this…

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But this is 2016, y’all. This is my Year of Daring. I wasn’t going to sit the bench when I had come so close to scoring a touchdown… or a homerun… or I don’t know.

I’m not good at sports. I’m good at writing.

If my dreams don’t come true, it won’t be because I gave up on them. That much I know.

So I started sending queries for the new project and three weeks later I had an offer of representation.

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Last time, it took me about six months to get an offer, but those three weeks felt every bit as long as the previous six month experience. Time is relative when you are begging someone to love your book as much as you love your book.

The waiting is over and now the real work begins. I will be going back into my revision cave. There is cutting to be done. There is rewriting to be done. There is dreaming and plotting and scribbling and changing to be done.

I love it.

I am excited to announce that I am now represented by the fabulous Amy Tipton of Signature Literary.

 

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Preparing for a Challenge

When people find out I am a writer, they almost always ask about my book. What is it called? Where can they buy it?

One day, I will be very glad for this, because I will be able to give them the title and tell them where to buy it.

I’m not there yet. I’m still here.

The craftsmen of Solomon and Hiram and workers from Byblos cut and prepared the timber and stone for the building of the temple.” 1 Kings 5:18 (NIV)

It took a long time to build the temple, and before they ever laid a brick, they had to prepare the wood and stone and gold and silver.

The journey to publishing is long, and few outside of the industry have any clue how it works. I can’t blame them for that. My brother-in-law is a chemical engineer and I sure don’t know how to ask him about the ins and outs of his job. The best I could do is ask what project he’s working on. Probably, it’s something I won’t understand. Or else it’s something I could understand if I listened to him explain it in detail. I’m sure there are aspects of his job I would never imagine in a million years.

Right now, I am preparing to go on sub again. To “go on sub” is to have my agent actively submitting my manuscript to editors. How I prepare for this is by revising said manuscript. I need it shipshape for him to send out. This is one of many steps in the very long process of getting a book published. This particular manuscript is one I drafted two years ago. I have drafted other manuscripts since, but I have also returned to this one.

Again.

And again.

And again.

And, look at that, here I am again.

People who read my earliest draft will not recognize the story currently printed in a giant red binder, covered in yellow note tabs, scribbled all over, and ready to be rearranged once again.

I revise and edit to prepare my manuscript for submission.

But, before that, I have to prepare for revision.

This is the part I bet every single one of you can relate to on some level. You don’t have to have written a book to understand the panic and despair preceding a challenge.

I spent the last months of 2015 thinking over the kinds of changes I could make to get this manuscript ready to go on sub. I thought about it so often, I knew I would be ready and raring to go as soon as I got the green light from my agent. In January, he called, and we talked about the notes we’d each made while rereading the story. We discussed feedback we’d received and made a loose plan for my revision.

I was prepared for this, correct?

Yeah … no.

As soon as I hung up the phone, I deflated.

After two years of work on this manuscript, I am pretty attached to my characters, their small Mississippi town, and the things happening to them. Diving into the pages and rearranging their lives suddenly felt like too much to ask of me. What if I make the wrong changes and mess it all up? What if I exorcise the life right out of my story?

How do you feel when a big challenge presents itself?

That deflation? That deep-seated panic? That is my normal reaction to change.

Do you know what helps me move past the feeling of despair?

Preparing.

If I can’t bring myself to dive into the challenge itself, I can at least take baby steps of preparation.

In the case of another revision, I did things like rereading the manuscript, labeling the pages by character point-of-view, listing the important events from each chapter so I can see the structure more clearly, adding tabs to the start of chapters for easy page turning, etc.

As I worked on these tasks, the dread and despair slowly leaked away. I remembered how much I enjoy revising, how it is like a puzzle. I take my book apart and put it back together.

How do you prepare to face a big challenge?

If you find out you will have to move to a new town, maybe you spend time looking at real estate in the area. Maybe you research doctors and schools and libraries.

If you find out your oldest child will need surgery, I bet you question his doctor, read articles on the Internet and talk to friends who have experienced similar medical situations.

Even God prepared the way for Jesus by sending John the Baptist.

Today, look at whatever challenge you are facing and then search for a baby step of preparation. Before you know it, you will be ready for the next step.

 

*originally published on Middle Places

Igniting an Old Flame

It’s easy to forget you love something.

If you’d told 12-year-old me I could forget I loved something, I’d have laughed at you. Back then, love was this mystical idea of perfection. Love was all strong men sweeping women off their feet and so on and so forth.

That isn’t the kind of love I mean though. There’s a lot to be said about forgetting you love someone, but I am talking about something.

We all have objects or activities we love. An object might go missing and we forget it and then, months or years later, it turns up and we feel nostalgic and excited. We forgot how much we loved that book or sweater or pair of earrings.

The thing I most often forget I love? Writing.

When I was a kid, I wrote stories all the time. I filled notebooks with tales of alien princesses and teen girls using magic pens to write their future. I got swept up in stories, and reading them wasn’t enough. I had to write them. I had to tell them, mold them, shape them and share them.

In seventh grade, I wrote a novel. 247 pages handwritten. Every day, my friends would gather, and we’d discuss the story. They each had a character based on them. They told me what they wanted their character to do, and I made it happen. I made them fall in love and break up and have babies and even die. It was like our own RPG (real playing game).

By high school, I’d moved onto angsty poetry. I wrote it in the margins of my notebooks. I wrote it on receipt paper while sitting at my desk at work. I even got two poems published.

I loved it.

I carried writing with me, in some form or another, through marriage and motherhood. I tried writing articles for magazines. I sold a few pieces, but I didn’t enjoy that style of writing. Eventually, I returned to my first love. I wrote a story as a gift for my stepdaughter on her 12thbirthday. And writing it was so much fun.

I’d forgotten that I loved it.

With that story, I remembered. Then you couldn’t stop me. I pumped out novel after novel.

And it got hard.

I sent my precious manuscripts to agents, and agents rejected me. Then, I signed with an agent, and we moved onto editors rejecting me. And then I split from my agent and tried to find a new one and was back to being rejected. And then I signed with a new agent and dove back into those heartbreaking complimentary rejections from editors.

Sometimes, I forget I love to write.

I have to be reminded.

I bet you could say the same. I bet there are days you can’t remember why you went to school and got a job teaching fifth graders. You can’t remember why you attended seminary and became an ordained minister. You can’t remember why you flew around the world to be a missionary, or went back to school to get your doctorate, or opened that catering company, or invested so much money in art supplies.

We forget we fell in love.

We forget how that felt: how alive, how passionate, how invincible we were.

When he told me this story – especially the part about the jungle swallowing up the machines – chills ran up my arms. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for an instant, and I felt a little sick, a little dizzy. I felt like I was falling in love, or had just heard alarming news, or was looking over a precipice at something beautiful and mesmerizing, but dangerous. I’d experienced these symptoms before, so I knew immediately what was going on. Such an intense emotional and physiological reaction doesn’t strike me often, but it happens enough (and is consistent enough with symptoms reported by people all over the world, all throughout history) that I believe I can confidently call it by its name: inspiration.”  — Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

That’s what I was missing. I remembered inspiration. I remembered falling in love. There was a dream of living underwater, one I woke from certain I needed to use it. The images of the fish swimming past windows and the air tanks for leaving home stayed with me. I got an email about a contest. Could I write a short story that focused on climate change and the future of earth?

The passage in Big Magic came back to me. I had the chills and the hairs standing up on my neck and I felt a little dizzy, a little sick, a little like the boy I had the biggest crush on just asked for my phone number and the homecoming dance is two weeks away, and could he? Would he?

I fell in love again.

I don’t even need the story to win that contest because I already won. I remembered.

I remembered I love writing.

I love stories.

I love this thing I have chosen to do with my life.

What is it you have forgotten that you love? How can you recapture that feeling? Tell us your suggestions for igniting an old flame. Read a book by someone who loves the same thing you do. Find yourself surprised by how the sharing of their feelings will revive your own.

 

*originally published on Middle Places

Stained Glass Prayers

God, I miss her. It’s only been a few days. I haven’t decided where to spread her ashes or if maybe I should just keep them. I haven’t thought about a memorial service, because no one but me gave Mom the time of day. She lived in her tiny old house, sleeping one door away from my son and two doors away from me. I moved in with her when my husband left. She’s the only person who never did leave me. Even Sam, at five-years-old, packs his little suitcase every other weekend and drives away with his father.

“Susan?”

Speak of the devil and he shall appear.

“Susan, I know you’re in there.”

The downside of husbands knowing everything about you is now my ex-husband knows everything about me, including where I go when I need to think.

“I’m not coming out, Rick. Move on.” I watch the doorknob at the foot of the stairs. It won’t matter if he touches it. It’s locked.

“Come on, babe. Let me in. I know you’re hurting.”

I close my eyes and curl my fingers into the red shag carpet. Colors dance across my eyelids. Stained glass images of Jesus are burned there from the windows lining the wall above my head.

“I dropped Sam off at my mother’s,” Rick says. “She can keep him all weekend if you need some time to regroup.”

“I don’t need to regroup,” I practically shout. “I haven’t effing grouped in the first place.”

He tries the knob. I open my eyes and watch the metal glitter in light from the stained glass. The white door is covered in red triangles and blue curves to match the waves Jesus walked on. The gold of the knob reflects a halo.

I’ve come here since I was a kid, since back when it was still our church and my youth pastor had an office underneath this staircase. He gave me a key. I never gave it back.

“How do you stand it in there?” Rick asks.

I’m normally claustrophobic, and this stairwell is little more than a closet, but the dark walls feel more like a womb than a tomb, and the red carpet is soft as the quilt at home on Mom’s bed. It smells musty with a hundred years of prayers, like they’ve soaked into the wood and glass and metal all around me.

I run one finger down a crack in the wall. It’s been there for ages now, but it’s gotten longer. The church should have their foundation checked. I should’ve had my foundation checked. Maybe, if I’d noticed the cracks like this one when they first started forming, my ex-husband wouldn’t be on the other side of the door, because he’d be at home with me, in my bed, still my husband, holding me through this hard time.

And maybe I would’ve seen how the cancer was spreading. I could have taken Mom in sooner. I could have insisted she see a new doctor, tried a new drug, prayed a hundred years of stained glass prayers right here with me.

“I’m not going anywhere, Susan.” Rick’s voice is so soft it barely carries through the wood. It nestles in the carpet beside me, and my throat swells.

“Go away,” I whisper, but my own voice is hoarse. It tumbles from my lips to my chest and lodges there. Rick can’t hear me. Mom can’t hear me. Nobody can hear me anymore.

The colors shimmer on the door and disappear. My head snaps back and I get to my feet. High above me, the stained glass has gone dark. The shining face of Jesus doesn’t glitter anymore. Now his eyes are angry slashes across brown skin. Behind him, storm clouds gather on this Alabama afternoon. Lightning flashes. For a moment, I can’t remember if this is real or not. Am I in a church or on the Sea of Galilee?

The doorknob turns again. This time it opens.

“Rick?” I look down, but it’s not my ex standing on the stairs. It’s a man with a ponytail. He wears a tan jumpsuit and carries a large cross. “Jesus?”

“No, name’s Bill,” the man says.

“Susan,” Rick appears behind Bill.

I feel weak and put a hand on the wall. The crack bites into my flesh, and I wince.

“If I could just squeeze past you, ma’am.” Bill takes a step toward me. “I have to get this crucifix up to the attic.” He’s a janitor. Or a maintenance man. What do they call them now? I can’t remember.

“I’ve got her,” Rick reaches around Bill and puts a hand on my shoulder. He moves me to one side and Bill walks past, the foot of the cross dragging on the carpet, Jesus’s tattered body floating by me. I take my hand off the wall and put it on his wooden skin. Then Bill is gone, the cross is gone, Jesus is gone, and the thunder outside shakes the building.

“There’s a storm coming, babe. Let’s get you home before it hits.”

I sink to my knees and lean my head against Rick’s thighs. “I don’t have a home anymore.”

“What? Of course you do.” Rick kneels beside me, pulling me to his chest. “I saw the will. Your mother left you the house and her car and, well, everything.”

I shake my head. There’s a broken communion wafer on the ground, and it cuts into my knee, but I don’t shift my weight. I don’t move at all.

“The house doesn’t matter,” I sob. “Mom… Mom was my home.”

Show Up Scared

This past weekend, I went to a writers conference for the first time since getting a literary agent.

I love learning about my craft. I love challenging myself. I’d love to get my MFA in Creative Writing, but I don’t have my Bachelors and that complicates the matter a little. So I stick to classes and conferences. Conferences tend to be expensive, mostly due to travel, and it’s been a long time since I made it to one. This one was practically in my backyard, since we recently moved almost to Memphis. Big cities offer things I only dreamed about for the last seven years.

One of the most exciting things for me was this: I expected to feel confident at the conference. No more being a tag-along kid sister to the real writers. I have a business card with an agent’s name next to mine. Editors in NYC publishing houses have read and complimented my work.

I am Writer; hear me roar.

Right?

Wrong.

It took all of about ten minutes for me to realize nothing has changed inside me. I still feel like a kid, like I will be in the way, like no one will take me seriously.

It’s not like they meet you at the door and ask for credentials. No one can look at me and tell I have an agent. And I’m certain many of the un-agented writers in that building were as good as, even better than, I am. It was a pretty level playing field, all things considered. On top of that, I am new in the area. A lot of people there knew one another. I had a few twitter contacts, but no one who was excited to see me.

Add my social anxiety, which has gotten worse in the last few years and I found it hard to make myself speak up in the sessions. I couldn’t bring myself to even approach the one person I knew from Twitter who told me to find her while I was there.

I’m learning that the fear of rejection, on paper or in person, never really goes away.

There is no outside-of-myself validation that is going to cure this. Having an agent didn’t do it, and I will hazard a guess that a book deal won’t either. A best-seller? I bet not. Ten best-sellers? I will still have social anxiety and a fear of rejection.

So here is what I did:

I showed up scared.

When given the chance to read something I wrote, I read it. When the floor was opened for questions, I asked them. I tracked down writers on social media and connected with them. I looked up their work, just how I’d love them to look up mine. When spoken to, I smiled and engaged.

Basically, I kicked fear in the face with my red Converse sneakers.

As I drove away, I had mixed feelings. I’d hoped to magically slide into the Memphis Literary scene, to find myself at the center of the in-group, to end the day by maybe having dinner with some of the locals I’d met or some of the leaders. I was never popular in school. I didn’t have what it took to fit in with party girls and cheerleaders (I was a cheerleader for one season, and I couldn’t even fit in when I was technically one of them). But writers? Those are my people.

Instead, I left as I came, alone. But I know some of those people now. The next time I see them, they will be familiar faces. Maybe I will be a familiar face as well. Making friends takes time. In an InstaTweetBook life, we like things to happen quickly, but that isn’t reality.

Reality means showing up scared, reading even if my hands shake, accepting that no one but me really cares if I have an agent or not, eating humble pie and learning from any teacher I can.

This doesn’t only apply to me as a writer. This applies to so many aspects of life.

There are no shortcuts.

Fear doesn’t magically vanish.

You show up. You do the work. You take the time.

Where is this a problem for you? In what area of your life do you feel like, by now, you should be old hat at things? Parenting is a common one. Our careers and our families… we think we should have it all figured out.

Give yourself a break.

Show up scared.

 

*originally published on Middle Place

Taking My Time

I don’t regroup quickly.

Take this move, for instance. Even when it was clear to both my husband and myself that he had finished his time as a youth minister, I could not wrap my head around leaving the church we were serving. Slowly, God walked me into acceptance and then I was able to fully embrace the new path.

The key word there is “slowly.”

And, I admit, slow is relative. More than speed, my regrouping requires solitude. I don’t think clearly when someone is standing there waiting for me to think. I hate being asked, “Where should we have lunch?” I don’t know. If you had asked me yesterday and given me a day to think it over and research restaurants, maybe I would have a suggestion. But now you are waiting on me to decide and my brain has shut down.

If I struggle that much deciding on a place to eat, you can just imagine me working through big things like naming my children, picking which literary agent to sign with, choosing whether or not to homeschool, and figuring out my stance on controversial issues currently in the news.

There are very few people I will talk to about those issues while I am still working through them. I prefer to talk about things I already know. I like to write about the opinions I hold that I am sure of. How am I supposed to write about a situation that bothers me if I don’t even understand WHY it bothers me?

The thing is, sometimes writing about something is HOW I figure it out.

It’s a sort of joke in my marriage that our fights take weeks, because Corey talks and I write letters. It’s been a long time since we’ve had that kind of issue to work through, but when we do, Corey will explain what he’s feeling and then I will think about it. I will think and think and think, and then I’ll write him a letter telling him what I’m feeling about what he said. He will read it and talk to me, and give me time to think, and then I’ll write him another letter.

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I’ve admitted that I’d prefer to do my therapy by email… or even with a pen and notebook at a desk across from the therapist. I just express myself more truly when I can self-edit and rearrange my thoughts on paper or a screen.

I’m in a place right now where a lot of things chafe against my spirit, but I cannot clearly vocalize the reasons. I’ve been in this place a while, and it isn’t a comfortable spot.

I don’t suppose Jesus ever promised me comfort.

Last Sunday, I went into a worship service with my nerves raw from a weekend alone with my sons. They started the morning fighting, and I had not slept the night before. When my husband is out of town, I lie in bed, drifting in and out of that in-between place, begging my brain to just shut off already. Then, just before service began, I got an urgent text from my husband, telling me to call a friend who needed me. I did, and when I sneaked back into my pew later, my heart was wrecked for my friend.

My youngest was sitting with his buddies, and my oldest was sitting with his youth minister, leaving me alone near the back of the church. I pulled out my journal. I often take notes or write poetry sparked by the sermon. But this Sunday I was scribbling before we even reached the offertory. My body was trembling with a kind of fear I had not experienced since I was pregnant with my youngest son, sitting on the floor of our rented mill house in Alabama, facing the truth that the church does not always act like Jesus.

So I wrote, black ink flying onto the heavy cream pages of a pink leather journal I bought at Target. I bought it because it felt so soft, and I was there with my best friend, so the notebook holds good memories. I filled page after page with lines of prayer and anger and confusion.

And, finally, by the time we stood and sang our benediction, my hands were still. I was no closer to understanding what was happening to my friend or even to myself, but the very act of connecting my brain to a blank page had brought me back to the present. I was able to walk out of the church building and, simultaneously, out of that grey-carpeted mill house in my mind.

The trick is learning to let myself regroup, to not apologize for needing to regroup. It is okay to say, “I want to be on board with this vision, but I am not there yet. Let me sit with it for a while.”

Even if that means admitting that I missed most of a service calming my panicked heart with pen strokes. Perhaps someone in the pew behind me was appalled, as I bowed my head to the page, barely pausing for prayer and singing. That’s going to have to be okay.

Taking my time, however much time I need, is going to have to be okay. It is, after all, MY time to take.

 

*originally published on Middle Places

10 Things About My Writing

There is a lot of non-writing stuff going on in my life right now, and I am struggling to focus on much of anything. But my little blog was feeling neglected. Inspired by the lovely Tara Sim, I am going to share ten random things about my writing…

1. In between fiction projects, I focus on poetry. I think of it as a sorbet between courses. I truly believe my poetry makes my fiction better. Recently, I have been using the poem-a-day prompts from Poetic Asides to help me jumpstart my muse.

2. I dream of writing a series for kids, and I have the first manuscript already written. It is called Via & Fia, inspired by my best friend’s two daughters, Olivia and Sophia.

3. I go through phases with writing locations. I wrote most of my last completed manuscript sitting on my bed, but I did almost all of the revision work in my husband’s office at the intern’s desk. I also write in a recliner a lot, and I wrote one whole book at a desk in my kitchen.

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4. People buy me journals and I love journals. But I don’t do a lot of longhand writing. My hand cramps really quickly. I do usually write poetry by hand. I do that during sermons pretty often, and I like having a journal in my purse at all times. My journals are full of everything from poems to prayers to scenes for whatever book I’m working on.

5.  Most of my fiction somehow involves poetry. The last book relied heavily on Edna St. Vincent Millay and the book before that wrapped around “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” (Emily Dickinson).

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6. I have one manuscript that includes a dark brown cocker spaniel named Steven Tyler. In my dreams, someone tells him about the book and he laughs and I get to meet him.
7. When I finish a book-length project, it takes me a while to recover. I get to the point I am sure I will never have another idea and never feel passionate enough to start a new story. And then I hear a voice in my head and I have to write it down and before I know it, I am deeply engrossed in another project and feeling all alive and happy again.

8. I have a concept I want to use for a grown-up novel. I have a lot of the details worked out in my head but the very idea of writing something for adults makes me short of breath. For now, it will wait. I have details but no character talking in my head to give it voice. Once a character speaks, I will be able to work through the fear.

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9.  I struggle with what to read when I am writing. I can’t help but be influenced by whatever I am taking in, so I like it to be far away from what I am writing. I read poetry while writing fiction. I will read nonfiction work related to my story’s theme or details. I will read fantasy novels and mysteries… whatever is different.

10. I also struggle with reading while revising and editing. I find myself taking the books apart instead of enjoying them. This last time, I cured that by reading Mercedes Lackey. Her stories are so far from what I write, it is much easier to disappear into them.

It had been a while since I did a list post. They are always fun. Anything else you’d like to know 10 things about?