20170407_073450

Seven Sentences with Maggie Stiefvater

It has long been a dearly-held dream of mine to meet Maggie Stiefvater, and last weekend it finally happened.

Maggie and Courtney Stevens hosted a workshop called Seven Sentences that took place in a beautiful lodge on a lake outside of Nashville. Chris and I had stayed the night before up in Nashville due to a mini family reunion on his side that coincided perfectly with the seminar I’d signed up for months ago.

The things is… I was totally dreading it.

When you envision meeting your heroes, you imagine you’ll do it as your best version of yourself. Going into the workshop I felt like the opposite of that. My depression was better but still kept me quiet and dull, due to the emotional eating I’m not at a weight where I feel great about how I look, I hadn’t written anything new in a month, and I don’t even have the credibility of being signed with an agent right now. Even so, it turned out pretty good, and I’m glad I went instead of bailing, as I was tempted to do.

Maggie and Court were insightful, hilarious, and their presentation was incredibly well-prepared. They showed slides of their pictures from childhood, detailed examples of their own writing, and fun demonstrations of all the concepts we learned.

The theme of the workshop, of course, is that the first seven sentences set the reader expectations for the book. They are both hook and thesis statement, inciting curiosity and forming a connection with the reader instantly. But the workshop wasn’t so much about composing those seven sentences. Instead it was about getting in touch with our individual emotional expertise as a writer, how to frame scenes and plots to communicate a defined message, and the biggest lesson at all — that it’s okay to fail, and start over.

These are my favorite of the things we learned:

The Wheelhouse

In our workbook we were challenged to identify our personal Wheelhouses. What are the subjects you are an expert in? These subjects come in a variety of topics, including Relationships, Settings, Characters, Genres, Stories, Experiences, Moods, and Skills. It was totally awesome to see Maggie and Court put up their own personal wheelhouses. Here’s Maggie’s:

From here we explored what this really means, and how getting to the core of our expertise can translate to other stories. Here’s an example from Maggie:

In this way you can identify the emotional truths underneath your expertise and apply it to your stories.

Lenses

This lesson totally blew my mind.

Apparently each sentence addresses the reader through one of seven different lenses, from Stranger (presenting facts only) to the Character themselves (intimate personal experiences). Adjusting the lenses adjusts the tone, and even the speed at which a book can develop (Stranger is fastest, Character is slowest).

I loved this activity because a) it was an entirely new concept and b) it showed me that I often focus my writing between Best Friend and Character. I have conflated the creative, descriptive intimacy of Character with ‘good’ writing. Something to think about for the future.

Failure

During the entire presentation, a large stack of boxes arranged in a 7-foot tall Jenga tower waited ominously in the front of the room. I’d heard of this tower from one of the MadCap Retreats (in 2016 I think), and Maggie and Court frequently joked about how they’d encouraged attendees to pour their hearts onto the box… only to burn them on the final night.

Our demonstration was not nearly as fiery.

Instead, at the end of the seminar audience members were invited to come up and literally play Jenga. But the boxes were different sizes, and it soon became difficult to create the tower and keep it standing. Finally the tower grew so large that even when standing on chairs the other writers in the room weren’t able to get the boxes to the top.

“Do I have a tall friend in the audience that could help us out?” Court called.

My entire row looked to me. I knew my time had come:

As any long-time readers or friends know, I’m 6’2 and then some. After only two rounds of this the tower grew so unstable that with Court’s urging we let the tower lose a few levels, then she and Maggie knocked the whole thing down.

“What is the point of Jenga?” Court asked the audience. “To knock down the tower.”

We were so concerned about preserving the integrity of the tower, but nothing bad happens when it falls down.

The lesson?

It’s okay to fail when writing. Nobody dies. No one gets hurt. Don’t take it so seriously, and have fun.

I met several lovely, friendly, supportive writers, to whom I gave my apologies for not being my usual upbeat self. They were very kind and sympathetic, and have my gratitude <3

Also, I got to meet Maggie.

We were outside in the courtyard pictured above, many attendees already heading out. I wore my heart shaped sunglasses and she wore her aviators.

“The Raven Boys changed the trajectory of my writing,” I told her. I still clearly remember that moment in The Raven Boys when the gang enter Cabeswater for the first time. My whole body lit up with goosebumps. “This is magic,” I thought to myself. “I want to make magic like this.”

I have read The Anatomy of Curiosity, a book Maggie and her two friends wrote dissecting how they construct a story. I’ve seen Maggie deconstruct some scenes from The Scorpio Races. I never felt ready to enter that level of analysis with my writing, relying on my same old tricks of instinct. But now, after this seminar, I feel ready to take my writing to the next level.

Just a few more things to edit on Shotgun Girl, and it will be ready to send out into the world.

I’ll let you know how it goes ;-)

<3,

Savannah

20170407_073450

On the Subconscious

Anne Rie House selfie
Quick aside — me in front of Anne Rice’s house where she wrote The Witching Hour! October, 2016

Several months ago my mother and I were chatting about Anne Rice (whose series The Witching Hour we both adore), and she asked me this question: How, as a writer, do you possibly come up with such complicated worlds, characters, and plots?

I’m sure I gave some bland answer about working at it, or using character reference sheets, but I’ve been thinking more intensely lately about the creation process, especially as it comes to getting to know characters.

For context, at the time I started this blog post (the end of September) I was hard at work on Nameless drafting, after the last post’s announcement that I’d cut an unholy number of words from the manuscript. Many thousands of those words have made their way back in, so it’s not as drastic as I first thought, but the new chapters are filling me with all sorts of emotions. The over-arching one is wonder. I’m actually enjoying working on this book again, and creating new emotional plot beats that take this middle part to a new depth.

And yet I struggle. It’s an enjoyable struggle, and thus I’m fascinated by it. With each new chapter from the male character’s perspective, I end up outlining and ‘sketching’ about five different ways the scenes could go, trying to find the one plot line that feels the most exciting and true. I’ve found the abstract emotions; now I’m trying to translate them onto the page, and it’s just bloody difficult.

Why is that?

Why can one book, like The Cobworld, or Shotgun Girl, proceed at a lickety split pace, and if I need to tear it apart in edits afterward the pieces can mostly be reshuffled and re-stitched without significant damage to the overall emotional arc? But Nameless is definitely not a Team Shitty First Draft Novel. If I try to skip ahead, I lose the magic. Instead I have to build on what came before, molding emotions and editing scenes until they’re as right as I can make them for now. Then I can move on to the next thing.

It got me thinking about subconsciousness, and how it influences the building of a story.

We’ve all  heard some writers say they literally hear voices, or have a character show up and start speaking to them as if telepathically communicating. We all slip into this language, talking about our characters ‘complaining’ or saying how they want to go off in different directions than we planned.

How is this possible? How can what are entirely figments of our imagination get so far out of our control?

I think it comes down to this: Characters are a creation from our subconscious, but our conscious minds treat them like people we actually know. We know what they’d do or say about as well as we’d know the words or actions of a close friend or family member, in a given situation. You know what your best friend will find funny, what will make your significant other scrunch up their face, what gift will bring your parent the most joy. We don’t have telepathy, but we know them, by learning their patterns and habits over time. We can predict them.

Character creation works the same way. Our subconscious, trained to generate characters, plots, story emotions, etc., pushes forward someone for our conscious mind to meet. We get a sense of them, a vague sort of understanding of their energy, and we go from there. We pick names from baby books, we start fleshing out a family, and a mission, and a passion. We might try communing with our subconscious by filling out character interview questions. What’s your character’s favorite food? An automatic answer might pop up — blueberries!

Sometimes you can calculate a character, design them like building a house, and form them to the exact plot/theme you need. Perhaps some of the greats did that, but I don’t, and I think a lot of contemporary writers don’t either. We rely on our subconscious instead, teasing out details based on the mishmash stew of everything we’ve ever fed it, from real-life interactions, to the media we’ve consumed, to the thoughts we think.

When I struggle with a character’s actions, usually what I’m running up against is my conscious mind trying to make the character act in a way my subconscious says doesn’t ring true. This behavior doesn’t match the patterns I’ve been collecting and analyzing your whole life, is what my subconscious would say. So I’m gonna go ahead and make being creative really difficult for you until you figure out your mistake and listen to me.

So there you have it. Characters are amalgams of real people and their patterns of behavior, mixed up and repackaged. We both invented them and can increase our knowledge of them, conscious and subconscious minds passing information and instinct back and forth. Writers are both the creators and consumers of their media.

Now the only question remaining is where exactly ‘creativity’ comes from, but that’s a little out of my depth for now :-)

Since we last spoke I’ve switched back to working on Shotgun Girl, but it’s been slow going. I haven’t been feeling so great mentally here lately, probably due to the stress of working and going to school full time, plus writing, plus the other stresses and dramas of daily life. Today is the first day I feel like ‘myself’ in a few weeks, and I had a lovely session at the cafe this morning tearing apart and remaking the opening for Shotgun Girl. Wish me luck on continuing edits!

Here are some more pictures from when I took my sister to New Orleans at the end of October!

Miss Robicheaux's Academy where they filmed American Horror Story: Coven!
Miss Robicheaux’s Academy where they filmed American Horror Story: Coven!
Toms at Lafayette Cemetery. I highly recommend the Two Chicks Walking tour through the Garden District.
Toms at Lafayette Cemetery. I highly recommend the Two Chicks Walking tour through the Garden District.
Cemetery Wall
The inner wall of Lafayette Cemetery

PS: Got some cool media things happening in the next month or so that I can’t wait to share with you!

<3,

Savannah

20170407_073450

Nameless Check In

I have so many things to tell you after a blog silence of a few months (Las Vegas! Visiting Kat Zhang! Visiting Susan Dennard!) but today I want to talk about Nameless.

The last official update about Nameless was in January, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t end up working on it too long before switching over to Shotgun Girl. I finished the draft in June and completed my own edits in late July. I was supposed to turn my attention back to Nameless, but it was so hard.

I hated working on it. Like, hate-drove to the cafe, hate-set up my laptop, and hate-drafted for an hour each day. I assumed my problem was that I’d spent so long starting and stopping on this middle section that I was just bored of it. I decided to take up the rally cry of “Team Shitty First Draft!” once more and plow my way to the finish.

It did not go well.

You’re showing up, I told myself. You’ll start to feel better. Just finish the damn thing. And yeah, I was writing upwards of 1k per day, but the draft felt absolutely dead.

I was also re-reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC, and encountered the story where she talks about a project she’d put to the side turning up dead when she went to work on it again. Liz feels that if you don’t dedicate to an idea, it has the right to leave you and seek out someone else to help midwife it into the world. I don’t know about the rights of ideas, but suddenly I got The Fear:

What if I’d let Nameless sit for too long? What if I’d spent too many years pushing it to the side when something easier (and often more exciting) came along, and now it had finally left me for good?

I didn’t want to give Nameless up. I owe too much to myself, the readers, and the story itself. But it was agony to work on it, and I knew if I was having this much trouble, any future readers were definitely going to hate it. I even got to the point where I was considering drastic plot rehauls (yes, even now that the middle plot is the most condensed and action-y that it’s ever been), up to the point of discarding the whole Rebellion idea entirely and turning the book into a general sort of romance with no bigger societal conflict.

sav-and-susanThen I visited Susan.

Susan and I used to be in LTWF, and then Pub Crawl together, and I hadn’t seen her since Summer, 2011. She graciously invited me out to spend the night with her at a cabin in the woods of Georgia.

We hiked, visited the adorable local town, and ate some amazing food. And the whole time, we were talking. It was an amazing experience hanging out with her. Susan helped me heal from an old wound and exorcise some emotional demons I’d been carrying around.

I didn’t say much about it online, but the previous week I’d experienced something I can only describe as depression, and the experience was terrifying. Out of nowhere as I was driving home my mood tanked, like I could physically feel my hormone levels drop, and they didn’t come back for several days. I’ve never felt anything like it before. It felt like something curled up in my chest and died. Nothing was interesting, I didn’t want to do anything, not even something mindless like watching TV. Chris could convince me to go out, and I kept going to work, kept doing homework, but in the back of my mind my thoughts were always racing: what if this doesn’t go away?

bridgeI told Chris about it obviously, and my family, and my boss. If it continued or maintained I would have gone to a therapist for help. Thankfully it lifted on its own, and in hindsight might have been triggered by a stressful family situation, on top of working full time, on top of taking four classes this semester, on top of receiving a challenging edit letter from my agent concerning Shotgun Girl. I’m so relieved to return to my normal buoyant mood, but it really taught me something about the reality of folks fighting depression. I could easily see how a long-term existence like that could wring absolutely all enjoyment out of life. If you’re struggling with depression you have my every sympathy. Don’t be afraid to reach out — it’s really not your fault, and if all those traditional remedies like Eat Right! Exercise! Sleep! can’t help fight it off, please do go see a professional. *sympathy hug*

Anyway, thankfully this depressive episode lifted the day before I went to see Susan, but it was still good to talk it out with someone, and catch up on everything from the past few years. Our conversations were so healing I’m convinced they must have shaken loose a psychic cap on some part of my brain, because as soon as I got home some very interesting things started happening with Nameless.

soozPart of our conversations revolved around the latest discussions in the YA community (especially on Twitter) concerning diversity. I’m not an expert, but my understanding is that there have been many wonderful hashtags, groups, and blogs created to promote and support more diverse stories in publishing. This of course leads to discussions on privilege, tokenism, and inclusion. It’s been very educational, and it made me think more critically about how I’m representing people of different colors, races, sexualities, and physical abilities in my books.

Kat Zhang and I had had some similar discussions when I visited her in July (We went to the Zoo, took pictures in the botanical gardens, saw the new Ghostbusters which was hilarious, and spent several wonderful hours writing in cafes). One of the concerns I shared with Kat was my growing awareness that one of the minor characters in Nameless might unintentionally be seen as queerbaiting. Kat gave me the very wise advice that it’s still okay for the character to act the way he does as long as I include other queer characters, so we can see the diverse situations in which characters like this exist. Sorry about the vagueness, trying not to spoil too much!

kat-and-savKat was right–queer people exist in real life and I have ample opportunity in this story to represent this fact. In fact, I have the really cool opportunity to explore how the society in Nameless would see queer people, and how they would treat queer women different from queer men.

But after the supremely liberating conversations with Susan, I returned home and my characters started whispering. That’s a metaphor, of course–I don’t literally hear characters talking. But new ideas kept cropping up, new situations and new emotional reactions I’d never imagined before. I must admit at first I shied away from them–if this new scene I was picturing really went the way it was writing itself in my head, then it meant undoing so much of the book as it was already written.

Wouldn’t it be better, the lazy part of me asked, just to continue this hateful slog so at least the book is done? How many times have I ‘started over’ on this middle part? How many months have I been stuck on the same scenes, unable to move forward into the new territory I’m so excited and afraid to explore?

But I listened. It’s an experiment, I told myself. I can write this scene any way I feel, and no one says I have to include it in the book.

You can guess what happens next.

That scene plugged into an emotional resonance I hadn’t felt since the first part of the book (which is perfect and glorious and OMGGGG; it’s just the middle I can’t stand). Shit, I said to myself, realizing what I’d done when the scene was complete. I didn’t know they felt this way.

Once again, I’d been shoehorning these characters into the plot, a lesson I am ashamed to say I already learned three and a half years ago. Once again, my main male character has a mind of his own, and the emotional arc I thought he was on is not the one he really wants to be on.

So I cut 30,000 words.

They’re safe in a separate document, but that’s the total of what I extracted from the manuscript, backing it up to a point where the emotional resonance started to fade. This is probably the most extreme step I’ve ever taken with my writing, but I know in my bones it’s the right thing. I must admit I was also bolstered by the knowledge that my idol Maggie Stiefvater did something similar this past June:

The past few nights have been a mad dream of brainstorming, and I found myself praying out loud, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” yesterday as I sketched out a scene unlike anything that had ever existed in the draft. It allowed me to condense two chapters (always a good thing), explain more plot, and stay true to my character’s new emotional journey.

I’m still glad I wrote that 30k of crap because it did help me figure out the general order of events, and I can recycle some conversation rhythms or descriptions. There’s still tons more work to be done (and unfortunately I can’t put off homework any longer, or responsibly stay up far too late a third night in a row), but I don’t care. It’s coming fast and furious, and the best part of all…

Nameless is living again :-)

And so is my excitement for it.

And so is a new way of being more inclusive, and doing greater justice for these characters and their complicated relationship.

I had to be old enough, and educated on diversity enough to let myself go to that place. Once again I find myself so grateful Nameless isn’t under contract (and neither am I!) because I have the time and space to do it justice, even if my growth, and thus its own, has taken place over twelve years.

(Holy crap. I’ve been working on this book twelve years this month).

I’ve also fallen in love with a new band, Cigarettes After Sex, and actually listening to their songs while writing, which is something I absolutely do not normally do. Nameless is really difficult to find songs for, so this is thrilling news!

Thinking of you with love,

Savannah

PS: In regards to the two predictions the psychic made about my family in the last post — one came true! The other is supposed to happen this month. I’ll let you know!

20170407_073450

The Psychic

“Let me just tune in here,” she said, and I waited for one silent second on the phone. “You have stomach pain,” she said.

“Yes,” I affirmed.

“You really need to give up caffeine.”

I gave an exaggerated sigh. “I knowwww. Ugh. Fine. I will.”

For my birthday, I bought myself a session with the same psychic I visited in Seattle in 2013. Obviously, as I am in Alabama and Darleen is many hundreds of miles away, we did the reading over the phone. The first thing she did (after a lovely prayer) was a body check in, where she highlighted areas on my body that were hurting, or that I was ignoring were hurting. The biggest takeaway was a truth I knew, and just needed someone to definitively say: My espresso habit is giving me more trouble than it’s worth.

cafeAnd the tough part is that it’s worth a lot. Espresso is a magic potion, y’all. Look, I work full time and I’m taking four classes. I exercise after work and cook and want to spend time with my husband (still weird to say). This means my lunch breaks are sacred writing time. I go to the cafe, I order espresso mixed with green tea and cream (if I drink regular coffee my stomach will hurt, but somehow ‘hiding’ the espresso in the tea won’t give me full on stomach cramps), and it supercharges me to get work done.

But I knew it wasn’t good for me. I’m happy to report in the last month I’ve managed to give up caffeine except for an occasional cup if I run out of decaffeinated green tea.

After the body check, Darleen moved on to astrology. I was very excited for this part because the last time I visited her she brought up some recent friend-trauma I’d experienced, and gave me some tools that quite literally changed my life. I was able to let go of the hurt and resentment by learning to ‘send love’ to people instead of wishing them ill.

affirmations

Forgiveness is not for the other person. It’s for ourselves. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that hatred is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. It only affects us, so why should we subject ourselves to that?

Thankfully my life is in a really great place right now, and I didn’t come to the table with any seeping wounds or self-delusional behavior (except for the espresso!) As a result there weren’t any huge life lessons or new tools to receive, but that wasn’t really the point of this call.

I wanted affirmation. Sure, I enjoyed the thrill of someone telling me things about my life they couldn’t possibly know, but I also wanted to hear I’m on the right path. Whether psychics are frauds or not, whether movements of distant stars can influence our lives at all, I wanted someone to tell me things are going to work out.

And they are.

Chris and I were married on a day and time that speaks well of longevity (not that I had any doubts). A project I’d launched recently left my hands under a bad moon, and wouldn’t be successful, but from my own Tarot card readings I knew that already. Darleen advised I’d be entering ‘the cave’ soon — a place of intense focus and dedication to working.

She was absolutely right. On Saturday 6/18 I wrote 11k and finished my latest book, code named Shotgun Girl.

Yes, you read that right.

Eleven.

THOUSAND.

Words.

And because I’m a sucker for charts and statistics, I tracked the entire process and have these nerdily wonderful charts to show you:

SG stats

As you can see, it was an absolute whirlwind. The project was conceived at the end of April in 2013. I planned and plotted for THREE YEARS, sometimes regurgitating fully-formed chapters in the middle of the book, sometimes spending weeks just brainstorming and fleshing out characters or plot. After all that time the story and characters were so real in my head.

I love this book and the characters (Ellie with her dour sensibility, Jackson with his smirking craziness) and wanted it to be perfect, so I kept putting off writing it. I didn’t want to start too early and take a wrong path and stall out, as is very common in my process. I wanted to get it right.

And then things leaped entirely out of control:

I couldn’t stop writing. Just the first paragraphs, I told myself. Only since I came up with the perfect sentence to start it. Oh, and this description I just thought of is amazeballs, too. Wow, this is really working. How about I just introduce the first conflict, and then I’ll stop?

I did not stop. I averaged 900 words per day, not counting the outlier of the last day. As we speak I’m in recovery mode, taking the week off to relax and recharge, then diving into edits this Saturday. Holy cow was Darleen right about ‘the cave!’

Something else she told me has stuck with me, and I’ve been picking it over for the past few weeks. “You have a big perfectionist streak,” she said.

I was surprised.

I’m not a perfectionist, was my first thought. Aren’t perfectionists the people who can’t let stuff go if it’s not to their exact specifications? Isn’t perfectionism a symptom of anxiety, of low self-esteem, of OCD, of neurosis? I see so many writers online boldly and courageously speaking up about their mental struggles, particularly with anxiety and depression. I am so lucky that I have a lot of spoons now, and don’t suffer from those things. I know it makes my life easier, and I recognize that privilege.

So I didn’t want to claim the title of ‘perfectionist.’ I’m great at letting things go! My INTJ brain understands that ‘done’ is better than ‘perfect’ and I constantly compromise in my work and personal life, accepting that we’ve gotten close enough to vision to execute. Otherwise you just stay stuck in prep mode, too afraid to send something out into the world.

I still don’t think ‘perfectionist’ is the exact right word for me. It has too many connotations with a certain type of behavior or action that doesn’t really describe me. I’m fine with not being personally perfect. My house is frequently a mess, I don’t wash clothes as often as I should, I know where everything is but that doesn’t mean its organized, and sometimes I go to the store in my pajamas because I can’t be bothered to put on pants.

believe in this picture:

d54bd84afb99cedc6bb12ee2feb42575

I believe in imperfect selfies. In making goofy faces and posting them. In letting stuff go, and not worrying about it, and being yourself.

But with writing… It’s a little different.

Perfection isn’t the right word. Obsession is.

I am obsessed with creating amazing writing. I’m constantly reaching, trying to ascend the heights my favorite authors are at. I want to give someone the gift those books gave me. And I want to have the wisdom, the insight, the knowledge to get there. This year I’ve been studying books on craft, and studying my favorite books to see how they’re formed. I constantly compare my work to the work of my heroes, and that is where my perfectionism lies.

I fixate on my weak points. Sometimes I flounder. I get frustrated, I get terrified that I’m just repeating the same literary tricks over and over. I second-guess myself. I wonder what critics would say. Ultimately I can remember that ‘done is better than good’ and call something finished, but I don’t believe it’s good enough.

Because I want this, more than anything. I want a writing life, and to make amazing, heart-stopping, gut-punching, plot-obsessing books that people can’t put down. I don’t want you to see my seams. I want you to experience magic. My magic. To care about the characters and emotions that make themselves in my head, as much as I do.

“Yeahhh,” Darleen said in her breathy, excited way. “You have a lot of publishing in your chart.” Apparently my birth date and time is just chock full of creation and publishing. “Focus on staying positive,” she told me. “You have to believe in the work you send out into the world.”

I guess I’m a little prone to a defeatist attitude, as well. Telling people I look forward to my rejection letters, because they always say nice things, and at least it proves I’m out there, making it happen.

Well here’s an entirely new thought: I am done with rejection, Universe. Do you hear me? My projects are worthy, and I am worthy, and it’s going to happen for me. Soon.

“You have a big heart,” Darleen also told me. “You have so much potential to help people, especially families.”

I hope she means the family of my writing community and readers, because that’s where my heart is. Writing is so entwined with my journey through life as a person. I love sharing the lessons I learn, and hope the sharing can help others grow in their personal journeys, too.

So that’s where I’m at. Darleen made a few other cool predictions, which have come true. An influx in finances (Chris got a new job!), a big party in August (we’re going to Las Vegas for DefCon!), and two other predictions related to family I’ll have to wait and see about.

If you’re interested in a session with a psychic, I highly recommend her. Treat yourself to the full hour!

Wishing you all the joy your life can stand right now!

<3,

Savannah

20170407_073450

Defining Yourself by Work, not Success

These tidbits from the February 2016 Nelson Literary Agency Newsletter (not my agency but their newsletters are great!) really struck a chord with me:

Your Writing Should Not Be Your Main Source of Validation For Who You Are as a Person – Kristin Nelson

I think this can be the most debilitating mistakes an aspiring writer can make. There be dragons if you start down this mental path.

But here is the reason you need to start thinking like an agent and less like a writer when it comes to submitting your material. If someone passes on your work, that rejection is not a commentary on your qualities as a human being. In a lot of instances, it’s not even a commentary on your ability or talent as a writer!

No matter what an industry person’s response is to your written work, your writing is only one facet of who you are as a human being. Don’t make it everything, or you may lose your joy of writing and find the whole business very depressing indeed.

Ms. Nelson’s article is inspiring and reassuring, but I have a different perspective on her ultimate conclusion. Writing absolutely defines who I am–but my writing career does not, and the difference is an important one.

I used to define myself by my ‘career.’ Ever since I decided in fourth grade I was going to be a writer (abandoning dreams of ‘flying’ as an astronaut), I judged myself by my talents. For many years I was thankfully blind to my faults due to the attention I received from friends and English teachers. I say ‘thankfully’ because if I knew how bad I truly was I might not have written so much or dared to dream so big. And in high school it was fairly easy to shine–I even had an article published in TeenInk which bolstered my cockiness significantly, not to mention the medium-sized but sincere following at Fictionpress for Nameless.

Although it hurt my ego not to have a novel published while still a teenager, like my imaginary rival Christopher Paolini, I did sign with my agent at age 19 and that was a comfort. But even as my understanding of my weaknesses increased, so did my expectation that my worth was defined by my ‘success.’ And for the first year of having an agent, that was good enough. But selling a book just sort of… kept… not… happening. Around me, friends and colleagues were signing deals left and right. But it didn’t happen for me.

I’m on the far side of my twenties now. Still a baby, to most! But my perspective is a lot different than when I was on the other side. At the time, it seemed like there was no tomorrow. If I didn’t catch the debut circles of 2009… 2010… 2011…2012… Then I’d miss the boat entirely. No writing career. No success. Thanks for playing, goodbye.

Maybe it’s because I truly joined the industry in those years, and thought the writer circles I was aware of would be permanent and unchanging, that the big names of 2010 would be the big names for all time. That the incredible frenzy of debuting would always surround the new writers I’d come to know and admire.

But it doesn’t.

And slowly, my awareness expanded to realize that despite how it felt, writing isn’t a race. It’s a marathon. And you’re not really competing against anyone but yourself. Sure, you can see the other runners’ times if you want to, but the only marker for success is the one you place for yourself. Look, I’m 6’2. I weigh 200+ pounds. I’ll never be able to sprint along at an eight minute mile for miles at a time. But when I ran a single (12+ minute) mile without stopping for the first time in my life I was as proud as if I’d completed a full 26-mile marathon. For me, for my journey, that was a win.

Writing is the same. As Maggie Stiefvater put it, it’s not Maggie versus other writers, it’s Maggie versus Maggie. I’m not trying to keep up with anyone else anymore, I’m simply trying to do the best I can in comparison to myself. The market–that’s out of my control. You know what isn’t?

Writing. I can’t stop telling myself stories. I can’t stop imagining new situations, characters, heartbreaks, exchanges. It’s part of who I am. I don’t have a book deal, but that hasn’t stopped me from working on the novels clamoring to break out of me. I would keep writing books my whole life even if I never sold one, because that’s me.

And I think it’s okay to define myself like that. I’m a writer. I’m not an author–yet–but you know what? That word never really did it for me. Writing is exciting. It’s a personal journey with a magnificent destination at the end. It’s a way to share the things that grow inside my mind–A truly bizarre concept, by the way. Why on earth do I feel the need to express these made up scenarios just to describe a fabricated sense of emotion I’ve never felt in real life but want to synthesize because it’s fun? No idea. But having the kind of mind that creates those abstract things, and honing my skills so I can better express them–that’s an irrevocable part of who I am.

As I learned more about yoga and meditation last year I realized that writing is my spiritual practice. It’s expression and self-improvement rolled into one. It is the art that compels me to improve myself in all aspects, and to pursue wisdom about life and being human.

Writing is the garden I work in. Bearing fruit will be satisfying, but that’s only a few minutes of sweetness. Do you think any reasonable person would put in all those months of labor just to eat a single, consumable piece of fruit at the end? No, they’d trot down to the store and buy it instead. But I’m not laboring for the moment of fruition. Not really. I’m doing it for the work itself, for the deep satisfaction of growing something, especially because sometimes that something is me.

And yes, part of my spiritual practice is to keep my eyes on my own paper and focus on writing the best book I can, and to not worry about the rest of it.

Savannah versus Savannah.

Savannah is winning.

As long as I keep writing.

20170407_073450

Writing Revelation: Specificity and Courage

I had a very interesting writing experience with Nameless the other day that I’d like to both record and explore with this blog post.

Side note: Yes, Nameless!!! I’ve turned in edits on The Cobworld and launched immediately into continuing with the new draft on Nameless, which I’d last delved into this past July. This summer I added around 4k words, and I’ve added an additional 7.5k this month, so the total manuscript is now around 65k. Only 35k more to go (and hopefully less)!

A few nights ago I wrote a scene I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. It’s an action sequence involving a lot of people in a large area, and a pivotal moment in the book. I’d been picturing it, and telling myself the story of how it would feel to read, but hadn’t given much thought to the actual words. (In hindsight that’s a warning from my subconscious: if I’m thinking in pictures instead of words, either the scene isn’t ready, or I need to do some hard work to figure out the facts.)

And so, I wrote a thousand words describing what happened. Lots of movement, large groups of people, very little dialogue. It was more describing a flow of movement and crowd reactions versus what was going on with individual characters. I meant it to be sweeping, to have momentum.

It sucked.

I did a thing I’ve done lots of times over the years: I rush past details in an effort to trick the reader. I use long sentences, and gloss over descriptions. It feels like performing on a burning stage, dancing and singing as fast and as loud as I can to distract the audience from the catastrophe that’s really going on.

this is fine dog
Accurate description of my problem.

The writing isn’t technically bad. The sentences are formed correctly. Nothing is purple or over-the-top. But if I had to re-read it I would cringe because I know it’s the equivalent of being super loud and outgoing at a party because you’re afraid no one will like you.

And for years, I’d let this bad writing stay. It technically accomplishes its purpose, and it allows me to move on and finish the book, but eventually some brilliant person will come along behind me and say, “This isn’t working.” Then I’ll have to go figure out what it is I hate about this scene so much and why I’m struggling so hard.

And I finally figured out the universal truth of why.

One of the pieces of writing advice I try to follow is: When in doubt, go slower, not faster. This has helped snap me out of the above scenario in the past, but only sometimes. I recognized that I felt better about the writing when I slowed down and examined the character’s thoughts and actions, but it wasn’t quite the universal truth I needed.

26308619Then recently I read The Anatomy of Curiosity by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff. The book contains one short story by each author, with notes detailing their writing process and explanations for the choices they made in the writing process.

Something Maggie Stiefvater (whom I adore) said really stuck with me. It’s something to the effect of, “If I could be the fairy godmother to all new writers, I would whisper in their ears, ‘Be specific!'”

It is specificity that makes good writing. Anyone can describe a person. A good writer will point out the specific things about them that make them interesting. Anyone can write a scene like I did, wide and detached and from 20,000 feet. It is the up-close, micro-view that compels.

This ties in with another lesson I learned over the course of editing The Cobworld: I don’t have a problem with killing  my darlings. I have a problem with deleting bad or mediocre scenes because I’m afraid I can’t replace them with something better.

Specificity and Courage: my two antidotes to that terrible, squicky feeling of trying really hard to disguise bad writing.

So when that revelation barreled into me at a thousand miles per hour, I realized how to fix my bad scene. It’s not as simple as going slower and not faster. It’s about showing the reader how significant that scene really is, by getting very specific with the emotions and actions of the characters living it

And the ridiculous part is, I didn’t even consider how all this action was affecting my point of view character. I was so preoccupied with explaining the vast movement I didn’t think about all the super exciting things I could say about how it felt. Because there are exciting things to say.

I can’t wait to write them down.

Some housekeeping:

I’ve decided to save Fave Five posts for months when I have nothing new to report. If you see one it means I’m still writing, but don’t have any exciting revelations or personal news to share. I mean, this was a big moment for me recently:

 

<3,

Savannah

(Psst: Here’s a video of my gorgeous/hilarious Bella dog playing in the snow. Because I care about your happiness.)

20170407_073450

To Live Up to the Spirit That Is In Me

to live up to the spirit that is in meThis image has been the cover to my Pinterest board about life and writing ever since it was created. Some people have boards about life advice, and some people have boards for writing, but for me the two are so interconnected I didn’t want to separate them.

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot these days. I’ve been looking over my past posts, and particularly drafts of posts chronicling the long journey towards publication. I’ve had a lot of internal ups and downs, and when I’m finally able to make that exciting announcement about a book deal, I want to be able to share with you how I felt in those moments of hope or despair.

These days, however, mostly what I feel is calm. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to this point, and today I’d like to talk a little bit about that journey.

When I stepped down from Pub Crawl two years ago, I felt lost. I knew I needed out–out from the cycle of talking about writing instead of actually writing, out from the hamster wheel of social media, out from the sense that I was failing, stagnant, unwanted. I didn’t know it then but I’d reached a plateau with my writing, and the only way I knew how to fix it was to go back to my roots. I needed to be alone, to break my habit of watching TV instead of reading, to focus on me and my writing journey instead of constantly comparing myself to others.

Continue reading “To Live Up to the Spirit That Is In Me”

20170407_073450

Changing Perspective: An Outlining Revelation

I experienced a “eureka!” moment recently in regards to outlining, and I’d love to share it with you:

My outlines tend to falter, especially towards the end of books, because I’m not approaching them from the right perspective.

Have you ever played a video game where you can tilt your user perspective? You can watch like a distant god, peering from up high across all creation, or come down to character level and move throughout the game as if you were walking the land yourself.

When I outline, I tend to be at sky-level. Like a puppeteer, I’m peering down into my stage and figuring out how to move my marionettes around. Or like a Chessmaster examining my board and calculating where each piece will end up. I’m very good at technical outlining; I love charts, and diagrams, and color coded maps.

But all that organization and plotting and calculating so frequently fails me. I get to a scene and realize I have no idea why my character would want to make the move I envisioned for them, and suddenly my whole plot falls apart.

Why is that?

Continue reading “Changing Perspective: An Outlining Revelation”

20170407_073450

The Morality of Villain Writing

“Every villain is the hero in their own minds.”

I believe in writing villains that are shades of gray. I want the reader to empathize with the perspective of the villain, and choose the hero’s side anyway — to me that empathy adds depth to the story and makes the villain more realistic.

Moreover, I feel that in certain circumstances creating an entirely evil character is irresponsible. Here’s why:

Continue reading “The Morality of Villain Writing”

20170407_073450

5 Books That Formed Me As a Writer

I love reading the books my friends say helped form them, as either writers or people. Just recently in fact I read a friend’s ‘most favorite book of all time’ and was stunned by how similar it was to my friend’s current work, in terms of theme and style. Like looking at a child and then seeing their parent’s picture at the same age. It was a very, very good book, for the record, and I think if I’d read it when I was younger it would have had a strong impact on me, too. Clearly that book spoke to something inside my friend, showed her what rang true for herself, and had been a touchstone since that time as she developed as a writer.

Sometimes books act as our mentors, our guides. Sometimes they’re the distant point on the horizon we want to reach one day. I thought it might be fun to talk about the books that formed us, and of course since this is my post I’ll go first :)

Lanterns and Lances

My 8th grade English teacher had this book in her personal library from which students were allowed to borrow, but after reading this one I never returned it (sorry Mrs. Koonz!). James Thurber showed me what it was to play with language, and provided my first inkling into the minds of other writers. This book made me fall in love with my craft — not just with the work itself, but in discussing, sharing, and analyzing writing. I remember my chest aching with laughter and swelling with pride as I read this book, because James Thurber made writing hilarious and self-righteous and brilliant. It was just what I needed in a time when I felt so alone as a writer.

Beloved

This book came from that same English teacher’s library. Beloved introduced me to Toni Morrison, and became the standard of beauty against which I measure all my works. The combination of lyricism, tragedy, and horror left a deep mark on me. This was the first book that made me ache, that taught me what it was to ache for a story. I have tried to give my stories the same ache ever since.

For a book that looms so large in my mind, I realized after writing this post that Beloved actually has the shortest description. I guess I just want to say it’s probably the most important book to me on this list and my brevity in discussing it is not from lack of love, but probably inability to describe just how intensely I feel about it. This was the one that started everything, that made me think, ‘I want to write like that.’

Rant

Rant was the first Chuck Palahniuk book I read — yes, even before Fight Club. The Assistant Manager of the store I was working at was reading it, and found it utterly strange and incomprehensible. I borrowed her copy and consumed it.

Rant is, in my opinion, Palahniuk’s best book, and one of the best books I’ve ever read. No book has haunted me more than this weird, time-traveling, venom-addicting, car crashing, futuristic entertainment jacking, absolute heartbreaker of a book. Beloved inspired me; Rant haunted me. Rant is complicated and multi-layered, and I had to read it about five times before I really understood what was going on, and honestly I’m sure there are parts I’m still missing. I don’t desire to write like Palahniuk, but I strive to attain this level of awesome. Every day since I read Rant has been a day spent in waiting for the sequel to appear. I hope to one day have as unique ideas as appeared in Rant’s pages.

The Silence of the Lambs

The name can be intimidating, I know. Of course the movie captured me first, at an age when I was probably too young to watch it. The first time I read the book I felt like I was savoring pulling apart the petals of a fresh rose. Or undressing a mannequin swathed in couture. Or tasting, bite by bite, the most delicious, thousand-dollars-a-slice hot fudge cake there ever was. Harris wrote an amazingly descriptive and yet cuttingly sparse work that was, to me, a thing of minimalist beauty to behold. His blend of stark language and poetry (how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death?) taught me how emotions can be communicated by the stakes involved, not adverbs. I remember dialogue Clarice must have screamed, every nerve aflare and all her convictions quivering, that he left on the page with not even an exclamation point. The power of that communication shook me, and I aspire to that level of telepathy.

Furthermore, I have never had such a transportive moment as when I read this line from Red Dragon: “Francis sat silent at his place, opening and closing his hand on the memory of an eye blinking against his palm.” Perhaps it was growing up on a farm and knowing what that chicken blink felt like, but Harris took me away in that moment, and I’ve always remembered.

What exactly I took from Silence of the Lambs outside of these specific examples is hard to communicate. Originality, perhaps. Maybe motif, or mixing soft and hard. A touch of psychological horror, so much more real and dangerous than the fantastical horrors of Stephen King. King shows us the fears of our subconscious. Harris showed me the fear in my conscious mind.

Finnikin of the Rock

This is honestly an odd choice for this list, and I’ll tell you why: I read it just a few years ago. The other books I read before I had an agent, when I was still in my early formative years as a writer. Finnikin was the first book I read as a mostly-formed writer that changed how I viewed my writing. Finnikin showed me how to build passion, and how to demonstrate the closeness of family in ways I’d never seen before. It definitely threw down a gauntlet I’ve been working towards matching ever since.

Later came Melina’s other work, and then Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, which showed me most clearly what I desired my own writing to be like. But these five books… these five listed above are the ones whose ingredients can be tasted most strongly in the stew of my own work.

~~~

What books formed you, as either a reader or a writer? Careful, I may read them and then know all your secrets :-)