Ask Me Anything, Part 1

Lisa asks:

Okay, I want to know, since I’m moving from squeeze writing in when I can to making writing my actual JOB, how you work? Do you make daily goals for yourself for time or pages? Do you write in your home or do you like to go somewhere, like a coffee shop? Any tricks to stay away from the lure of the internet?

I will start with the short easy answers and get to the bigger question about discipline and balance, one of which I’m good at, the other at which I should win an Oscar for Suckage.

I don’t make daily goals for myself in terms of word counts or pages, though I know several writers who do and it works very well for them. For me, I write until a point in the story or the day where I’m all written out. Usually after about four or five hours of continual writing max, I’m starting to hit empty on the creativity tank—which is handy because that’s about the length of the kids’ school day. That said, I do a lot of pre-writing, i.e. being constantly preoccupied about my characters and thinking about the story all the time, much to the detriment of my family life (see balance suckage), so often when I get down to writing in the morning, I’ve been awake in bed since 4 a.m. thinking about the story so I’m raring to go.

I write at home now because the children aren’t here. I used to have to write in a café when my kids were home more or had babysitters but I hated that for several reasons: I always wound up over-caffeinating because I felt obliged to pay rent by ordering stuff. And it’s disruptive. And I like to work in my pajamas. For a while I worked in a writers’ room but that was far from home and I wasted an hour of precious time a day getting to and from the place. When you’re on such a tight schedule like I am, you don’t have those minutes to lose.

So, all of that kind of leads up to the larger question of allocating time. I’m very good at being disciplined with my time because I have such a limited quantity of it, so that when I’m writing or revising a novel, I feel like a racehorse coming out of the gate. The minute my kids are out the door for school or daycare, I’m off like a shot. I will check email first in the morning and answer it as it comes in but when I’m deep in a story, I don’t get distracted with blogs or newspapers (current events? huh?) and such, but definitely need the Google for research as I go. I think my  years as a freelance journalist have helped me be very disciplined about getting straight to work. And the fact that YA fiction writing feels like such a relative escape from the drudgery of everyday life that I look so forward to it, it also makes me eager to go. I know some writers turn off the Internet connection to keep from going online. I find that I need to do research as I go. When I get to the pen-and-paper part of editing, I like to be away from home and outside.

My problem is finding the time to do things like yoga and other “me” things. My littlest is in daycare three days a week. My husband is home Mondays. I have a three sometimes four day a week to work—and grocery shop and do laundry and all the other stuff of life. I am very bad about exercising or doing all that other nonessential stuff (including seeing my friends; I suck). And sometimes I wind up feeling pretty lousy as a result. Part of this is just a fact of life of having young kids. But I do spend time spinning my wheels online or rushing to write a chapter that could wait when I could be on a run or at a yoga class. And in fact, those breaks only help your writing. But I am lame at that. So shoot me. Lisa, I have faith you will figure out a routine that works for you. Hopefully one with yoga/running/swimming/hanging with your friends.

Alicia asks:

Okay I’m thinking about writing a novel, how do you do it, do you set page limits on yourself? Right now I just write Fan Fic’s but I’m flipping one and turning it into my own novel with my own characters. Do you use any special software to write or do you just use something like Word?

I think I already addressed the page limits for myself. I don’t usually have problems motivating but I think if you do, page limits can be helpful. Especially when you’re starting off. But be aware, sometimes you’ll wind up writing dreck for the sake of getting something done. That’s fine. Writing dreck is part of the process. Getting rid of the dreck is part of the process, too. It’s called revising.

But Alicia, you get at a larger, more complex issue: How do you write a novel? I don’t have an answer to that. It’s different for every person. But I do know that for me, nothing ever comes from inertia. I need to be working on something—even if it’s something that will never see the light of day; I have a long history of writing a wrong book to get to the right book—for ideas to spring up. I happen to think that there’s something to that. To the old adage of butt in chair, hands on keyboard, or however it goes. You can dream about a novel, talk about a novel, say you’re writing a novel, but that so-called magical muse, in my experience, she only visits during the act of writing. She favors the active.

As for software, I use Word. But this is a matter of preference. Some writers out there still write by hand—I cannot imagine this. We all have our methods and rituals. I write on screen and revise on screen until I feel it’s at a certain level and then I print it out. It always reads differently on paper. Then I edit on paper, input notes, do the whole process all over again and now, read on Kindle at the very end, until it reads clean. Then I read it aloud. Only when I can read aloud without barfing do I know something is done. Then my agent/editor read it and I start the whole process again.

The mysterious A. asks:

What did you do when you were getting rejections from agents, but some of them were requesting fulls, and then complimenting your ms and remarking that they expected to see it in print even as they passed on representing it themselves? How did you not go mad? Or kill yourself by consuming copious amounts of dark chocolate?

A, I’m going to get at some of this on the next post about submissions and query letters, but first, let us take a moment to rejoice in the good news: Agents are complimenting your work and predicting its eventual publication. If they really don’t like you, you get a form rejection. So this would seem to indicate that you have talent as a writer! That is fantastic and worth a treat of dark chocolate right there.

So, rejections. There are several different reasons why you might be getting rejections. The first one is that this just the way it goes. We’ve all heard stories by now of how many agents and publishers rejected JK Rowling (what is, 13? It is some big number.) Agents are generally looking for two things: Work that resonates with them. And work that they think will make them money. It is a hugely subjective process. Finding an agent who thinks your work both sings to him or her  personally and who sees dollar signs can take a while—see my next post. So you just have to keep plugging away. Also, are you being selective enough in your submissions process? Choosing agents who seem like a good fit for your book (i.e. ones who have repped similar books)? Stack the deck in your favor by going to agents who are looking for work like yours?

But, let us take a slightly gloomier look at the publishing industry. I am no publishing expert and there are a zillion blogs out there (Pimp My Novel, etc.) that deconstruct the industry at length. But I do know publishing is going through dark times right now and that many houses saw huge layoffs and cutbacks last year. They are acquiring fewer books and asking for things like revisions before buying manuscripts. In light of that, agents are being even more selective about taking on new clients. It doesn’t mean your work isn’t great. It doesn’t mean it won’t sell. It just means agents are extra cautious because they, like everyone in publishing, are jittery right now.

A third scenario: Are any of the rejections coming with constructive criticisms? If so, is there a common thread among them? If so, take those to heart. If you’re hearing no for the same reason, even if from just a few people, you’re being given a roadmap on how to make your manuscript stronger. Take that roadmap to your critique group or a class or to your own intense revision space and make that manuscript even better. Look, a few years ago, agents might’ve snapped you up and sold your book, and whatever issues it might have (and honey, all our books have issues) would’ve been ironed out in the editing process (or, not). But, in light of what’s going on in the industry, it seems like agents aren’t doing that so much anymore. They’re having to work that much harder to make any money off their existing clients, so I just think unless they’re extraordinarily in love with something or see huge commercial potential, they don’t go those extra ten miles. Certainly not established agents. Newbies trying to establish their lists might be more willing. Again, I’m not an industry expert. Just conjecturing here.

No matter what happens, take heart. You aren’t getting form letters. People think you can write. If it were me, I’d start work on something else and see what happens—see above about writing the wrong book to write the right book. I’m not saying the book you’ve finished won’t sell, but I think it can be helpful to sink your teeth into a new project rather than obsessing about why this one’s going nowhere. Inertia is the enemy of creativity, I think. All writers have shelved books. It doesn’t mean it’s dead in the water. I had a book that I thought was dead forever, but lately I’ve been hearing this little knocking on the casket and realize it’s a character and she’s like “hey, I’m still alive in here.” I’m going to exhume the body (manuscript) and see if there is a shot at life.

The short of it: you never know. Keep pushing forward. It is the only way.

Next up, query letters!

writingLauren Walters