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On Growing Ideas From Inspirations to Novels

A long-time reader and friend (who wants to one day perhaps venture into novel-writing) asked me to write a post detailing how an initial inspiration becomes an entire novel. Therefore, in this post I talk about where ideas come from, how to get them, and how to turn some of them into full-fledged, novel-length stories.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s the question writers are asked over and over, and the answer is inevitably the same: Everywhere! (Further delineated into: Dreams! Conversations! Books! It popped into my head!) But what does ‘idea’ really mean? What happens after the initial idea is found? Why do some ideas become novels and others… don’t? Here are my thoughts:

Continue reading “On Growing Ideas From Inspirations to Novels”

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On Endings

Disclaimer: I really wanted to write this with a sassy spin and lots of swearing. But I try to keep it PG-13 around here, so insert your own swear words at will.

I was asked to share my thoughts on writing endings, but here’s the thing: I’m not an endings expert. If I had to pick, I’d say I’m pretty much on Team Kickass Beginnings. Some writers struggle with hooks, or starting the story in the right place, but I’ve got that stuff on lockdown. Endings, though? Not my strong point.

Then I realized the reason I don’t think they’re my strong point is because I’ve struggled with them so much in the past, which actually means I’ve had to learn how to write good endings instead of relying on instinct. So these are the things I know about endings:

Continue reading “On Endings”

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Things I’ve Learned After 9.5 Years of Writing

This is my list of things I’ve learned about writing that I didn’t know the first time I wrote a book:

Sleep is paramount. I’ve learned the hard way that not enough sleep equals absolutely no energy to be creative with. If I want to write after work, I must have slept well the night before.

Reading feeds your subconscious. Where does writing come from? The subconscious. You have to feed yours if you want it to spit out amazing ideas. I’ve learned that if I don’t read new work consistently I sputter into non-creativity.

You must be true to the vision, not the words themselves. This is a tough lesson for every writer to learn, but eventually you do learn that your words are not sacred. And yes, you will have to kill your darlings. You will have to swallow the fact that your readers all agree a certain scene or phrasing isn’t working for them, and give up the individual words to make the brain-picture you desire come across clearer.

Speaking of readers, let me quote this article about John Green where he says, “We must strike down the insidious lie that a book is the creation of an individual soul labouring in isolation.” Everyone gets edited. Even presidents. Even the Pope. Even best-sellers. Even Stephen King. We all NEED editing because of the blindness in our own brains.  We cannot create gold in the darkness. We need the light of other peoples’ eyes to make a great book. Good critique partners will improve your work every time.

I have also learned that people who love books but don’t have any publishing knowledge don’t make the best critique partners. Use people who know about selling books, not just reading them.

You should know acceptable manuscript lengths, and chapter lengths, BEFORE you start writing.

I was fine with being a pantser when I was younger, but now that my writing time is shorter and I’m more focused on creating a sellable product, I’m definitely a plotter. I want to make sure the story works, and is marketable, before I put hundreds of hours of effort into it.

If I can’t envision the first scene, the story probably won’t work out. This is something it actually took me 9.5 years to figure out. For all of the books I actually finished, I had a definite starting point in mind. For all the ideas that are glorious but occur midway through the story, I never actually figure out how to write.

Essentially, if I’m thinking of the book in sentences, we’re good to go. If I only have pictures in my mind, it’s a dead end.

Trust your instincts. If you get advice that doesn’t resonate, don’t take it. (Of course, sometimes you get advice you don’t LIKE, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t resonate.) If you get that suspicion your plot isn’t working, figure out why.

Let your characters tell you what they truly want, instead of trying to wedge them into your plot. Usually what they really want is far more interesting than what you had planned anyway.

Sometimes you have to be firm with your writing space and schedule, and not let anyone pull you away, and not give in to your own need for distractions.

Everyone works differently. You don’t have to be a word machine to be successful. You don’t have to write a 500-page worldbuilding document before you begin, although some find it helpful. You are not any other writer, and your path will not be the same.

There is no singular throne. No one has to be toppled for you to succeed. There is only your own glorious ascension ;-)

~~~

In personal news, I’m renovating my guest bedroom for when my BFF comes to visit for a week next month. I’m also finishing up the last edits on ACORAS (this battle scene was killing me omg). Other than that, I’m very boring right now.

What have you learned about writing that you didn’t know before your first book?

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That I Would Be Good

I saw this article floating around the Twittersphere, and for writers in all stages of their career I encourage you to read it. It was wonderful to see reflections like this from a writer who’s spent 10 years in the YA business. I feel like most of the community I interact with are new and upcoming authors.

To my perspective, the YA industry is overflowing with good news, big announcements, and new deals. Everything is new, new, new, and shiny, and exciting, and squee-worthy.

But it will end. And there will come a day, for all of us, that our books, once so shiny and new, will go out of print.

All we’ll be left with is the experience. And the writing itself.

The writing will never go away. And I realized in contemplating this that over the course of my lifetime it really doesn’t matter so much if I get published and have a stellar career, as I still strive for. Even if it never works out, I will have my stories. I will have the accomplishment of finishing my work and making it the best it can be.

There is a special joy to read something of yours you haven’t read in a few years. You surprise yourself. I look forward to the day when I can read my own work as a new reader would, delighted by this story that was so very personally built for my enjoyment.

That is important. Writing my whole life and loving what I do is important. Accepting that this thing I have in me that creates worlds will never go away, and will continue to overflow as long as I am alive and sane… that is important.

It puts me in mind of this song by Alanis Morissette, which I encourage you to listen to.

So often we judge ourselves by our career progress. Do I have an agent yet, do I  have a deal yet, am I a NYT best-seller, do I have a second deal… And sometimes we forget that we are Good even without those things.

I am Good. I hope you are, too.

<3, Savannah

~

Do you feel Good? Tell me what you think about the article above. Tell me about your moments of self-acceptance.

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Post-Debut: A Reflection on the Nature of Writing After the First Book Comes Out

Recently I got the opportunity to live vicariously through my friend Kat at her first book signing!

I had a teensy part in the development of WHAT’S LEFT OF ME, and my friendship with Kat gave me a front-row view to the publishing and debut process. Watching her go through this journey and being present for a few significant moments in her writing career definitely revealed to me the reality behind book deals and debuts.

You see articles every now and then talking about it, but until I ‘experienced’ it for myself I never believed them: The debut is not life-changing. It is not a permanent fulfillment of your dreams. It is not a miraculous, ecstasy-filled moment where you attain nirvana and then magically graduate into an exclusive club of authors who always feel confident and talented.

The book deal, the debut, the signing… none of it makes your life or writing any easier.

I knew this stuff logically, but feeling and believing it was a different story. I counted down the days to WLOM’s debut (last Tuesday). I made a blog post, I saw the brief explosion of congratulations and announcements. Some pictures started showing up of Kat’s book in stores. But then it was over.

Amazon rankings don’t jump immediately (though they do increase steadily). When you think about it, everyone who was going to pre-order has already pre-ordered. Sales go up, of course, but it might be weeks, months, years before you truly know if your book ‘succeeded’ or not.

Meanwhile, during the countdown to release, I’ve interacted with Kat every day as she works on Book 2, returns to college, and studies. WLOM was going to debut in a week, OHMYGOOOOOOD, but Kat was also deep in the trenches of edits for Book 2.

Life. Went. On.

Deadlines had to be met. Class had to be attended. Groceries had to be bought. The debut didn’t lift one worry from Kat’s mind, or give her even a minute’s extra rest.

As for the signing, we arrived at the Barnes & Noble early. They had a table set up for her in the cafeteria, surrounded by people on their laptops with headphones in.

Kat had a beautiful cake made with a print-out of her book’s cover, but the B&N didn’t have plates for us, so I went to the Rite Aid across the streets and bought some. An Assistant Manager brought over a bag of plastic forks. We tested the pens to make sure they worked. Then we waited.

Biljana ‘Billy’ Likic (member of Pub Crawl who flew down from Canada to be at the signing) and I sat at a table adjacent to Kat’s; the ‘VIP’ table, as we called it, but let’s face it… we were all college-aged kids in jeans and jean-shorts and T-shirts, cutting our own cake and taking our own pictures.

2:00 hit and Kat’s readers started pouring in. Kat was alive with smiles and energy, and she looked so beautiful. For a magical hour and a half she greeted people, some of whom she knew, and some she didn’t. She wrote notes to them, they signed her guest book, then Billy and I ushered them into taking a piece of cake, gradually cutting up Kat’s beautiful cover.

  

At 3:30 the tide had ebbed, so we packed up, washed the frosting from our hands, thanked the Assistant Manager for the forks, and gave her the spare cake to give to the B&N employees in the break room. We went back to Kat’s dorm, exhausted from the event. It was just an hour and a half, but so tense! We were actually watching Kat at her first signing. She was actually making out books to people who were so excited to read what she’d written. My friend had made it.

Then she rested, Billy worked on homework, and I tinkered with the ACORAS revision. And that’s when it hit me.

What all those published writers said was true: The publicity, the events, even the touring when it happens – none of it changes your working life. You still have to sit down at the computer and get out the words.

Driving the 2 hours back this is all I thought of: Writing itself must truly be your passion, because you won’t get your fulfillment from the promotional events. They’re too fleeting. They’re too mired in the normalcy of our own lives. When we were at the signing, we weren’t glamorous or fabulous. We were just ourselves. Nervous no one would come. Thrilled they did. Stomachaches from too much sugar.

The experience has really changed my outlook on my career. Before I’ve wanted to be published so bad it hits me like a physical pain. It’s a combination of envy and desire, a need to prove myself, a need to join everyone who seems to be moving on without me. But once it comes – and it will come – it really won’t change anything, will it?

I will be in this house, in this room, at this desk, with this laptop. I will be scribbling in these same notebooks and dreaming these same dreams at night. All the lines of readers in the world won’t affect the characters in my head and my relationship with them. J. K. Rowling herself has to shut out the adoring fans and get some actual work done.

Writing is solitary work. It’s private. It’s a personal art.

I’m so grateful Kat’s graciousness allowed me to experience and understand this before it was my turn. I hope it gives me the zen to navigate my publishing journey while keeping my sanity and composure. I’ll try to keep in mind that The Big Day is just another day. A day with cake in it, to be sure, but still just another day that you have to get the words down.

Because that’s all there really is.

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Community Part 1: My Deepest Desire

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series on being part of the writing/publishing community – wanting it, finding it, what it taught me, and some brief commentary on how it affects the number of female vs. male YA writers.

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I remember the moment I knew I was a writer.

I’d suspected for a while that there was something different about my approach to writing. My friends liked to create, and we all liked to read, but writing always seemed like my inevitable career choice. I’d been writing fan fiction for a year or so, and was just getting into my first, real novel. I had these feelings inside no one around me understood, a sort of magic that didn’t fit in with what my school said writing was like.

I thought for a long time I was just being pretentious, or crazy (growing up as the only INTJ I knew certainly made me feel broken a lot of the time). And yet these feelings existed, I knew they did! Was I the only one like this in the world? Wasn’t there another creature out there like me?

And then I found one.

In the back of a tiny little book called Fahrenheit 451, there was a scholarly interview with Ray Bradbury. In it, Ray mentioned feeling like he just followed his characters around and wrote down what they did.

It was a simple statement. I read it in a normal classroom, in a normal school. But everything had changed.

I stared at the words on the page, read them over and over. Here was someone who understood. Here was someone who had experienced what I had. I wasn’t alone. No, in fact one of my worst fears has been completely dissolved. Not only was there someone like me out there, but it turns out I was a real writer! These feelings inside, this weird craziness that made writing feel like talking to other people inside my brain, it was all normal, and beyond that, it was evidence that I was legit!

(And so I understand why it’s a cliche in querying that lots of writers talk about how much they feel they belong to writing, instead of telling the agent about the story. For someone with no publishing credits, often the only ‘proof’ they have that they’re the real deal is those feelings inside that whisper or shout that this is what they’re supposed to be doing with their life.)

It wasn’t until later I realized I was still alone. All throughout high school I never met another ‘real’ writer. Sometimes new friends would give me hope, but ultimately writing wasn’t their greatest talent or their passion, let alone their call in life. I felt like an endangered species – special and rare, and incredibly, incredibly lonely.

I tried to find companionship in books, which helped, obviously. I sought out writers’ autobiographies, just to feel connected. But you can’t ask a book your questions, and googling was hopeless. I couldn’t vocalize what I was looking for. I was a member of FictionPress and FanFiction.net, but those didn’t make me feel connected. Writing forums online were full of pleas to read badly-written first chapters and hard-and-fast rules I didn’t want to follow. Publishing was a vague, intimidating idea in the future someone; I’d never heard of a literary agent.

How do you find what you’re looking for when you don’t even know what it is? When there’s not a word in any language you know for that feeling you get? When all you want is someone to shriek with and say ‘OMG me too!’

Even when I eventually found out about literary agents and signed with one, the only guiding source I had was agentquery.com. My agency sisters didn’t write in my genre (at the time), and I still felt like an outsider. Imagine that; even signing with an agent didn’t give me the sense of home I desired.

But in the end, community found me.

It came in the form of an invitation to join Let The Words Flow. Over the course of a few days I became connected to girls my age who felt what I did, who were serious about their writing, and out there making it happen! It was mind-blowing! For the first time since Ray Bradbury I didn’t feel so alone.

As LTWF expanded so did my sense of community. I started to feel out its shape, learning the ins and outs of industry and where various sub-communities overlapped or pulled away from each other. I started to learn about the lives of other writers, and finally all my old questions were answered: What are your favorite books? Where do you work? What do you wear? Do you write like me? Do you use the same methods I do? Programs? Laptop brands?! What do you eat for breakfast?! 1% or 2%???

To this day I can’t get enough of writers and their lives. I guess I still haven’t gotten over those years when all I wanted was the companionship of other writers. And that’s also why I’m so open about my own writing and why I try to be open about my life (when it’s not incredibly boring). That’s why I love telling my stories and reaching out to young writers, because I remember that loneliness, and the desire to belong.

Even if I never got published, holding onto this sense of belonging would be enough. Because it validates my internal purpose. Because when I’m here I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. Because writing is home, and I am there.

<3, Savannah.

What about you? Where is your desire to belong? Where is the place, virtual or real, that you go when you want to feel home?

~~~

NEXT POST: How to plug into the writing community, and what being a part of it has taught me!

POST AFTER THAT: How community helps you succeed – and why it might be a contributor to the gender-gap in publishing.

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The Big Pause

Recently I read this article by Jaye Wells, and it cleared something up for me about writer’s block and how I write.

Usually when I’m working on a novel I encounter a point I call The Big Pause. It occurs 75% of the way through the story, when all the meat is out of the way and all that’s left is to write the big finale.

I stop.

I tell myself it’s because I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen next, and how can I write it if I don’t know what to write, but that’s not really the reason. I know how it all ends up. I don’t have a firm grasp on the details, but I never do for any scene. Somewhere in all the work it just magically comes together.

But the above-mentioned article pointed out what was really going on: The Big Pause is my moment of fear. It’s the point where the book is about to turn into a reality. Soon it’s going to be a finished product, not something I’m just working on for fun. I’m going to have to show it off. Be responsible for its perfection. And that’s scary.

But not the only thing that scares me. The biggest reason I have a Big Pause is that I’m afraid what I’m going to write is total crap.

I don’t have this problem in the first three quarters of the book. As a friend once put it, I write really clean first drafts. I’m not saying everything comes out sparkling, and there have definitely been some scenes I’ve had to cut or seriously modify. But to put it in perspective, for the sleeping beauty story there was only one scene I really struggled with. One that got completely rewritten out of a whole book.

So when I have to face the prospect of writing just to get it done, I freeze up. I love the idea of writing messy and cleaning it up, or maybe I love the idea of getting into that mental space where you know, as the creator, exactly what needs to go, what can stay, and what just needs to be fixed. But when the moment comes I really struggle with writing a sentence I’m not happy with the first time around.

(This is starting to sound like I’m not capable of editing, and let me say that’s definitely not true. After everything I’ve gone through with NAMELESS I feel confident in stating I absolutely know how to edit and mix things up ;-)

My Pause usually lasts a few weeks, and by that time I’ve gestated the issues in my mind well enough to know how to sprint towards the finish. But I don’t want that to turn into a habit. I want to learn to let go, and give myself permission to write the story clearly not perfect, because it can always be fixed later.

It can always be fixed later.

That’s what editing is for, after all. I now declare The Big Pause officially over!

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Your Hand in Magic

Last Valentine’s Day I posted about my own love story. A few short weeks later that story experienced what I thought was a horrible ending, but it turns out that chapter in my life was precisely that – just a chapter. While I still believed it was an ending, I felt cut off from my dreams, not only of a life with the person I love, but of a life with writing.

I couldn’t write. I couldn’t imagine. I couldn’t even read.

I started journaling again, trying to find a way back to myself, and eventually everything worked out. These days I’m flowing over with ideas and inspirations, and passing through the fire gave me the perspective to realize how awesome that is.

Today, in a fit of brainstorming that has become the norm again, I grabbed up a random notebook to scribble on and discovered it was the same one from this summer. Flipping through it, I found a note to my writing self, written during a time when I was still struggling to figure out if that part of me was even alive anymore.

My writing side was the first love of my life before any humans (though I did have a rather enthusiastic crush on Batman as a kid), and so I’d like to share an excerpt from that note as a late Valentine’s Day post, in honor of the bond we have with our creative selves:

I’m asking for your hand in magic.
I want you to make me fly again.
At least come and press the treadle in my mind;
cause little moments to flare
like the eyes of animals at night.
Teach me again to approach them at an angle
that sees the shimmer.
Shine me on to a better, more holy land.

If you didn’t have anyone for Valentine’s Day, you still have yourself, and your stories. Trust me, they’re a better gift that most earthly bonds you’ll create, though I admit there’s still some they can’t top ( ;-) ).

I hope you had a lovely day yesterday <3

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Knowing What Your Dreams Are in the First Place

I didn’t always want to be a writer. In fact, I think I might happily trade writing for my first love and obsession: unassisted flight.

To 9-year-old me, flight without the baggage of airplanes and jetpacks was the highest accomplishment a human being could achieve, and I pursued my obsession with the religious fervor of saints (as much as a 9-year-old could). I knew that if I believed strongly enough, if I could jump off the deck with my arms spread wide enough and my heart filled with the nine feet of air beneath my heels, that I would float magically and divinely about the backyard.

I always fell.

After battling through the depression of my age turning double digits for the first time, I accepted with grudging bitterness that I would never fly without the help of some clunky, man-made device. I resolved next, briefly, to be an astronaut so that I might have the privilege of floating (which is like flying), but failing math in fourth grade kind of killed that dream (I later went on to be quite proficient at mathematics, in case you were wondering).

I then settled down to my true destiny and focused on becoming an author. I didn’t start reading at a particularly young age (though I talked abnormally quickly and proceeded to tell everyone the storied I’d made up, so… basically the same thing) but I loved stories, and found in them the merging of the normal with the magical that I so despondently lacked in real life. After the dream of true flight, what else could there be but to disappear into worlds where all sorts of miracles were possible?

To her credit, my mother always believed in me, but everyone else looked upon my dreams with skepticism. Everyone was so afraid I’d end up a starving hippie artist that they tried to steer me into more practical career solutions.

“You like to write? Never mind with being a novelist, how about a journalist?”

So I tried my hand at that. I even won an award from the Journalism Education Association based on a contest I did at a convention while I was in high school. The only problem is that I truly despised journalism. The award wasn’t so much based on my investigative skills -it was a feature article!- as my instinct for rearranging sentences into pleasurable reading.

Journalism -that hateful beast- finally out of the way, advice talks turned to other forms of professional writing: contract, technical, copy, etc. Anything, ANYTHING but creative writing! A well-meaning relative once told me in no uncertain terms that if I liked and was good at writing then I should be a judge (yes, as in courts), because they wrote all the time (summaries of cases and stuff like that).

I was perplexed by the massive misunderstandings of the adults in my life. Was creative writing really such a dead-end career path that they were throwing me any lifesaver alternate they could think of? Or did they simply not understand the depth of passion and dedication I felt towards novel writing? I guess non-writers face a bit of a challenge in trying to understand why writers feel compelled to write.

Though I was willing to consider other suggestions, and might have expressed excited interest in a topic I really didn’t care for just in order to make a well-meaning adviser go away, I never wavered in the belief that what I really wanted to do was make books. If I had to work full time at a job I hated or become a trophy wife (if I was even eligible for such an occupation) in order to survive while I got my novelist career started, so be it. Writing was always inevitable, no matter what I had to do around the time I wasn’t actually writing.

And no one but other writers seemed to understand that.

I thought I’d put this out here tonight in case anyone was feeling the frustration that results when everyone around you is doubtful of what you are so certain. When you want something as bad as I wanted writing, you just want it, and no logic or scare tactics are going to keep you away. And that’s perfectly all right. :-)

~~~

Also, last weekend I went and hung out with my friend and fellow LTWF blog contributor, Susan Dennard. She was wonderful and I had a fabulous time just hanging out. I put some pics up on Facebook if you’re interested in seeing someone else’s pictures of animals at an aquarium ;-)

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Who I’m Writing For

Yesterday Chris and I went out to dinner with his family to celebrate his sister’s birthday. Half way through the meal I looked across the restaurant and saw a girl who just broke my heart.

She couldn’t have been more than 8, and a miraculous mix between what I looked like at that age, and what my littlest sister looked like a few years ago. Slightly chubby, bangs too short and sticking up, bright blond hair, round, pink cheeks, and hyperactive. When she smiled I saw my same teeth pattern. But her mother was very overweight, and I saw the same future for her. I could trace her path through middle and high school, and it wasn’t pretty. Not because being overweight (how do we define that anyway?) is necessarily bad, but because kids are cruel and loneliness is crushing.

She was the most beautiful little girl in the world to me. I wanted to talk to her so strongly I was almost crying. I wanted to tell her what it was like growing up, what she’ll have to watch out for, and that all the bullshit waiting for her didn’t mean a thing as long as she could be happy with herself.

Something was telling me I needed to talk to her. You know that feeling you get when you see someone and know that they desperately need someone to say the right thing to them? Or you just happen to be in the right place and right time to change someone’s life, and it’s like there’s a force guiding you through it? I’ve been a little off-balance lately, but as soon as I made my peace with God miraculous things started happening, and this feeling was the latest in a string of them.

I felt bad all through dinner because I didn’t have the courage to go over to that table and tell her mother that she had a beautiful daughter, who looked a lot like me when I was younger. But I finally got my chance afterwards, as both our families met in the bill paying area. I got to say hi to her, and hearing her speak was spooky, because it was the same voice I heard when I played old home videos of me.

Like most things in my life, I related this experience directly to writing, and a suspicion I’ve had for some time: I’m not writing for anyone but myself, especially past versions of me.

All of my stories are designed to entertain young!Savannah specifically. I know it’s more altruistic to say that I write for teenagers in general, or those who are misunderstood, or who escape in books, etc., but the truth is I’m just writing the books I would have loved with a burning passion if I had read them when I was younger.

If they appeal to you, too -hooray! I’m so glad we found a way to connect! But even if no one else in the world enjoyed my stories, I’d keep making them.

I guess it all goes back around to my favorite writing quote, and the one that guides me the most: “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written, then you must write it.” -Toni Morrison.

What is your personal writing philosophy?