Aug20, 2019 |
Now that I’m established in my career as an author, I’m more frequently asked what my advice is for aspiring writers. After putting together a response for one lovely reader, I thought it might be helpful to share these notes more broadly. Without further ado, here are a few broad pieces of advice that have helped me along my writing journey.
1) Write a terrible first draft. Even your most favorite published writers write horrible (or at least imperfect) first drafts, and if they claim otherwise, they’re probably lying. Anne Lamott’s book Bird By Bird sums this up well. Here’s the relevant excerpt in case you don’t have the book on hand. Give yourself permission to write a bad first draft, knowing that when you revise it you can make it shine and do justice to your great ideas.
Caveat: some people do better writing fast/sloppy first drafts, and others find more success writing slowly and polishing as they go. Use the method that works best for you; the takeaway is that it is okay to write bad first drafts because words on the page you can edit and polish (either at the end or as you go) are always better than a blank page.
2) Stop writing for the day in the middle of an interesting or exciting scene. If I end a writing session without completing a scene I find compelling and exciting, it will help me dive back into the writing the next day with lots of momentum. If I stop at the conclusion of a scene I had fun with, I often struggle to dive back in the next day and end up procrastibaking five dozen cookies and scrubbing the bathroom tile and ultimately failing to get anything done on my novel.
3) Lean on your friends. People like to romanticize writing as a solitary art–the creative genius sitting alone in his/her/zir/their room churning out material that is publishable without a single minute of revision (lies!). Some writers work well in isolation. Many do not at all. I like to feel like I can do anything by myself, so it took me a long time to accept that I need help from my friends to write books. But the truth is that I write much better when I look to my friends for inspiration and support. Lean on them and let their faith in you carry you through. They can help you talk through plot problems or alpha read and give positive feedback. (Yes, it is totally okay to have alpha readers who read for the sole purpose of positive reinforcement. Fanfiction is also great for this.)
4) Self accept; don’t self-reject. It is so, so easy to tell yourself you are not good enough or can’t execute an idea you know is great. However, that will get you nowhere. Write that terrible first draft anyway! Every book you write will make you a better writer. You will learn more by actually writing than from reading any book about craft or from anyone’s advice (including mine). You don’t have to be perfect at the outset. Just remember that YOU are the only one who can write your particular book in your particular voice and help bring to life the ideas you have. The only way you fail is by telling yourself you can’t do it. I spent a lot of time in high school telling myself I wasn’t good enough and therefore not trying, and I regret all that wasted time.
Good luck, and I wish you all the best with your writing!
PS: The sequel to Of Fire and Stars is finally out! Here are some places you can buy it if you’re so inclined.
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| TAGS:writing, writing advice
Everyone has to start their journey from writing to publication somewhere.
I wrote a book. Then I wrote four more. Yet still I didn’t consider myself a real writer, and the manuscripts got dumped in a drawer. But for some reason, the third of the five manuscripts wouldn’t let me go. The story needed to be told.
So I revised like a person possessed. I found critique partners and beta readers. I attended the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging Writers and had the privilege of studying with Malinda Lo. I entered Pitch Wars and ended up with amazing mentor Elizabeth Briggs. And as a result of the feedback, support, and constructive criticism I received, my book evolved and changed into something better and stronger.
Finally, when I felt I could do no more to improve the manuscript, I sent out some queries, attempting to follow the conventional wisdom and guidelines.
I got rejected.
And then one day, just as I was thinking about trunking the manuscript and moving on to the next book, a different kind of email hit my inbox.
An agent said she loved the manuscript and wanted to talk to me.
We scheduled the call for the next day.
We talked about the manuscript and my writing career and got a feel for one another’s style.
And came to this conclusion.
But then there was another offer!
So I had to think things through. After some panic, due diligence, and deliberation, I realized that while both agents were great choices, there was only one I couldn’t live without. She’s brilliant, passionate, and most importantly, understands the very heart of my book.
To all you other writers writing, dreaming, querying, and feeling uncertain that things will ever pan out for you–don’t ever give up. Keep working to be the best writer you can be.
One day you’ll get there.
Disclaimer: none of these gifs are owned/were made by me. Thanks to the talented people of Tumblr!
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| TAGS:agent, publishing, querying, writing
I am not fearless.
Even after training two horses from the ground up, some dark fantasy strikes me every time I swing into the saddle. I picture myself tangled in barbed wire, impaled on a jump standard, or lying in the sand with a broken neck. My memory is happy to call up the times I’ve been stepped on, thrown into jumps, smashed into walls, and bucked off onto cement. And my body reminds me of all those incidents with a collection of aches that only worsen with time.
Even as a kid I was risk-averse. I was the one afraid to canter, terrified to trail ride, too fearful to take the big jump, and would collapse in on myself when an instructor pushed too hard. But the drive for perfection kept me going, and I continued to learn, read, and ride, even with fear digging its claws into my back.
Suddenly it’s been twenty years.
Now for every one of those moments where fear ruled me exist a hundred that were the opposite: keeping my seat through a spook and realizing it was no big deal, being the first on the back of a horse I trained myself, swimming beside my horse at the lake, or galloping through an open field with my arms spread like wings.
But even now—I am afraid.
I eventually grew restless after the sale of my mare last fall and started taking jumping lessons. Halfway through my first lesson as the instructor put up the jumps, it was time to come clean.
“I’m nervous,” I said. It was my first jumping lesson in more than fifteen years. Every time I approached a fence the lizard part of my brain wanted to grab mane, shut my eyes, and cross myself until it was over—because that’s the only kind of courage I know. Hang on, get through it, and eventually the fear will retreat.
But the instructor didn’t respond the way I expected.
“You aren’t riding like you’re nervous,” she said.
Either my riding was better than I thought, or I’d become a master of lies told with my body.
By my third lesson, just last week, I found myself on a big, scopey Thoroughbred borrowed from the barn owner for the second time, trying not to piss myself every time I pointed him at a jump. He was forward and game, but soft in my hands and seat even when he rushed or got a little goofy with his head. Still, every tiny crossrail felt like a mess. My release wasn’t in a consistent place, and my nervousness and anticipation often drove me ahead of the motion. Even as I grew more confident my equitation still seemed sloppy. The voices in my head asked why I bothered to try.
I’ve done this with my writing too. Crippling self-doubt makes me work to be better, but it also once caused me to quit for years. And at the root of it is always fear—the fear of not being good enough, particularly when I’ve done my best. It’s disguised in a certain level of pragmatism. There will always be someone better than me, and less fearful than me, because that’s how the world works.
One of our last times over the tiny crossrail, one of the other riding students snapped a photo. She caught us right at the peak of the jump, in the moment where nervous anticipation had ended and my vicious cycle of self-criticism had yet to begin.
When I saw that photo, everything changed.
My head is up, my heels are down, and the horse has a proper release. We’re flying and it’s beautiful, even if it wasn’t perfect, even if I was scared. And because I was so afraid of making mistakes, of not doing everything right, I missed the magic of those few airborne seconds even though it’s right there in the picture.
Being brave isn’t closing my eyes, tossing away the reins, and hanging on for dear life and praying I make it. It’s certainly not quitting before I can fail or succeed. It’s trotting to the jump with my head up. Breathing. Finding stillness. Keeping my eyes open. Seeking improvement, not perfection. Knowing that the next jump will be better.
From now on I will be brave—and imperfect.
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| TAGS:bravery, courage, fear, horses, jumping, life, writing
There were two reasons for my lack of posts in December.
- Wonderful things happened.
- Horrible things happened.
In late November I submitted to the Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction through the MSFV blog and was selected as a winner, which put me among sixty authors whose loglines and first pages were put up for bidding by agents in early December. Through that contest I received some great feedback and also a couple of agent bids. Shortly after that, I also won my way into Pitch Wars, which is a contest hosted by the fabulous Brenda Drake. For more details on what the contest is, check out the Pitch Wars page on her blog.
The Pitch Wars mentor who selected me is Elizabeth Briggs. Her comments on my manuscript are insightful and detailed, and I couldn’t be more delighted to be working with her. The agent round for Pitch Wars happens at the end of January, so by then I should have an even more polished manuscript ready to go. Through Pitch Wars I’ve met many new writing friends, and have enjoyed giving and receiving feedback and watching as other writers hone their work. The online writing community is filled with lovely, supportive people.
While 2013 was good to me as a writer, it was a year of great loss for my friends and family. A lot of people died, many of them young. December wrapped up with three deaths in the space of a week. A heaviness rests in my bones that I’m not sure when I will be able to shake. There is no upside to the tragic loss of people you love, or of recognizing how little you can do in the face of someone else’s grief. It is humbling. May 2014 be kind to us all.
| TAGS:contest, death, grief, loss, pitch wars, writing
On my list of favorite things, fantasy books rank right up there with dark chocolate ice cream smothered in hot fudge. Part of the reason I like fantasy books is because, as one of my critique partners pointed out, many of them take place in a Vaguely Medieval Land Where Everyone Rides Horses Always,* and I love horses. Unfortunately, a lot of fantasy writers aren’t necessarily knowledgeable about horses, which can result in cringe-worthy errors.
Not every writer has to be a horse expert (we can’t all be experts on everything, after all), but the reason getting horse facts right is important is because this is a real life example of what happens when people who know nothing about horses decide to go on an Epic Quest: (WARNING, GRAPHIC PHOTOS). The men responsible have since been charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty. Here are a few useful facts to help avoid common horse-related pitfalls in writing:
- Horses do not whinny and paw all the time to express themselves to humans. Movies are full of this rubbish, and it makes me want to hurl manure at the television. Horses whinny to communicate with one another, particularly when they are at a distance from the herd. They may nicker when you show up with treats, or if another horse is approaching. A horse with a fractious personality may paw if tied at the hitching rail for a long period of time, or bang on the stall door with a front hoof when impatient for his dinner. Beyond that, horses are extremely quiet for such large creatures.
- You can’t gallop your horse all day. The four basic gaits that the average horse has are walk, trot, canter, and gallop. One of the mistakes I see most often is horses galloping over rough terrain or for extended periods of time. It’s definitely possible for a horse to gallop for a few miles, but it’s very strenuous. The absolute limit is about ten miles, and that horse is going to be exhausted at the end even if it started out in peak condition. A brisk trot is a good, ground-covering pace for a long ride, even if it’s likely to make your characters’ butts sore.
- Horses can’t vomit. It is physically impossible. If a horse ingests something poisonous, they’re most likely to colic (get a stomachache). Part of the reason colic is such a serious problem is that horses can’t throw up to get rid of whatever toxin they ate. A colicky horse may lie down and refuse to get up, roll, or bite at its sides. Many horses are also fussy eaters. Unless they’re very hungry, they aren’t likely to eat something toxic that is offered to them (i.e., moldy hay or a poisonous plant).
- Horses eat a lot. You know that saying, “eat like a horse?” It’s true. A horse in regular exercise is probably going to need a minimum of about 10lbs of hay or grass per day. On an Epic Quest, where a horse is being ridden heavily, it would need more than that. Grass is more important than grain, so a handful of oats isn’t going to cut it when your heroes are winding through a treacherous mountain pass for days on end.
- Horses are claustrophobic by nature. Even an exceptionally trained horse is probably not going to want to go into the Scary Dragon Cave, even if it’s the only way to hide from the Impending Stormpocalypse.
- Tying horses by the reins is unsafe. If your characters are knowledgeable horse people, they should always tie horses by their halters. A horse that shies and tries to run away while tied by the reins could do devastating damage to its mouth and even slice through the tongue depending on the type of bit it wears. (A halter is what you put on the horse’s head to lead it, with a rope attached under the chin. A bridle is what you use to ride, and the reins are attached to a metal bit in the horse’s mouth).
- Stallions: just say no. Most colts should be gelded at a relatively young age. There are not that many horses that should be passing on their genes unless they are truly stunning examples of their breed and are also accomplished in the discipline for which they were bred. Stallions tend to be sensitive, hormonal creatures that are 95% focused on breeding the nearest breedable thing. They certainly can make good riding horses, and often compete at the top of their disciplines, but they require consistent, expert handling to get there. Your King or Your Hero should not go charging into battle on a stallion unless he or she is an exceptional horse person.
The moral of this story is that if horses play a significant role in your book, try to keep things at a broad, high level, and fact-check carefully. The best solution is to find a beta reader who is an experienced horse person and can let you know where you may have gone astray. If you’re more the do-it-yourself type, consider taking a few lessons at a reputable stable near you. That said, there’s only so much you can learn in a short period of time. I’ve been riding and training horses for over twenty years and there is no limit to what I still have to learn. That’s what makes horses so magical.
Have a horse question? Drop me a note and I’ll write about it for a future post!
*The lack of diversity among fantasy book settings is a problem in and of itself that deserves another post.
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| TAGS:fantasy, horses, writing
Hordes of writers near and far are stocking up on coffee and wine and are installing fresh padding on the walls of their writing caves for the month of November. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is officially upon us. It’s time for a month of writing intense enough to wear one’s fingers to bloody stumps and the ingestion of enough caffeine to create a violent eye twitch that will linger well into December.
The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days.
Every November seems so fresh and new to me that sometimes I forget my veteran status. This will be my ninth year as a participant. Now that I’ve been around the 50,000-word block a few times, I’d like to share some survival tips I’ve accumulated over the years.
- Don’t edit. I’m serious. Don’t even edit the last two sentences you wrote at the end of your previous writing session when you pick up to keep going. Just read them for context and move on. If you don’t let the words pour out of you like pure literary vomit, 50k will elude you like a greased sardine.
- When you stop writing for the day, stop in the middle of a scene. It will make it much easier to pick back up and gain momentum as opposed to trying to start a new chapter the next day.
- Whether you plot everything out in advance or write by the seat of your pants, have at least one thing you know you’re writing toward that happens near the end of the book. Knowing that Character A and Character B are going to have to pull a pterodactyl wishbone for dominance and the fate of the universe while standing in a pool of baby seal tears at the climax of your book will help keep you always writing toward that scene.
- If you ever get stuck, ask yourself what the worst thing is that could happen to your characters. Then do it to them. It’ll keep things moving and drive the plot forward. Never be afraid to make your characters suffer, particularly at the hands of 3,000 axe-wielding space weasels. Getting characters untangled from bad situations is one of the best ways to work your creative muscles and increase wordcount.
- Bank extra words before Thanksgiving if you reside in the USA. Even if you’re on track up until that point, Thanksgiving weekend can decimate your wordcount, especially if you are visiting family or friends. It’s particularly important this year since Thanksgiving falls right at the very end of the month with little time to recover afterward.
- Word war your way out of a wordcount hole (no, that’s not a euphemism). If your wordcount is so far in the latrine that it seems that all hope is lost, gather a few other NaNoWriMo pals or some strangers on the internet and do a word war. Short, intense sprints tend to work the best (between 15 and 30 minutes). You’ll be shocked by how fast your word count will build if you do 2-3 sprints per hour with relaxing breaks in between to giggle manaiacally at cat gifs while chugging your favored form of caffeine.
See you at the finish line!
PS: If you’re in need of some quick and dirty plotting tips, check out Deanna Roy’s post on the Nine Box method of structuring your novel. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet is also an excellent tool to map out your story.
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| TAGS:nanowrimo, writing
Malinda Lo has been doing a fantastic series for YA Pride this month. As part of that, I am featured today as a guest blogger! Head on over to Malinda’s blog to read about how her book Ash inspired me, and why it’s important to write what you crave as a reader.
| TAGS:reading, writing
Last Saturday morning I popped out of bed with the energy of a squirrel on crack to spend a fun-filled day at the Austin Teen Book Festival. It’s awesome to live in a city that has such a big YA book event, even if the heat tries to obliterate my will to live every summer.
- I bought my first gay boy book, Openly Straight, and was reminded how important it is to support LGBTQ authors of all stripes. Bill Konigsberg was a delight on his panel and fun to talk to at the signing table.
- One of my friends listed off many of the famous YA authors with whom she has peed in public restrooms.
- Lauren Myracle tenderly touched the battered cover of my copy of Kissing Kate and marveled that I had the version with the original cover. Kissing Kate was her first published book. She signed it, “To Audrey, who was there from the very beginning.”
- On the Tales of Tomorrow panel, Malinda Lo put hoverboards and other material things aside and said that equality was her dream for the future—equality for people of color and LGBTQ people. EQUALITY. Can we get a slow-clap?
- Rae Carson gave me a look of skepticism when I requested profanity in my book personalization. It quickly morphed into delight when she realized I was serious.
- I made a total mouth-breathing assclam of myself in front of a well-known agent. He has now insisted I query him, and I look forward to his rejection.
For those of you out there who are avid readers of YA, I encourage you to find local book events to attend. Hearing what authors have to say about their books and about the publication process is always interesting, and the panels usually end up being hilarious. YA authors have a great sense of humor and are a wonderfully supportive and fun community.
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| TAGS:authors, books, festivals, reading, writing
Descriptions are not my favorite aspect of writing novels. Given the choice, I’d rather write dialogue. However, while my characters can talk about rocket powered raccoon carcasses all day, what fun would that be without a detailed description of said raccoons?
I blame my fondness for dialogue on my former life as a music nerd, which developed my auditory ability with little regard for the rest of the senses. Dialogue I can hear in my head. Good descriptions go far beyond that. There are two main things I use to help make my descriptions more interesting.
1. Use active verbs (avoid is, was).
There are times when “is” or “was” makes sense to use, but active verbs can help make descriptions livelier. Objects that are doing something are always more interesting than those that are not. For example:
A1: The spaceship was silver. It had long silver tentacles that were reaching for him. The aliens were small, round, and blue.
A2: The silver spaceship thrummed overhead, its long silver tentacles reaching down to close around his wrists. Aliens rolled from the gaping mouth of the ship, their blue fur tickling him as they tumbled around his ankles like sentient basketballs.
It’s also often good to avoid the construction “was/is/were/are with a verb ending in -ing” when you can just use the verb. It’s more economical and makes for stronger sentences.
- He was reaching for me.
He reached for me.
- Her fingers are tapping on the table.
Her fingers tap on the table.
- The raccoon carcass rocket is awaiting deployment.
The raccoon carcass rocket awaits deployment.
2. Incorporate smell, taste, touch, and sound.
Descriptions are not all about how something looks. Taste, smell, sound, and touch are as or more important than a visual image and add extra depth to the world you build. This is particularly important when writing fantasy or science fiction. Your secondary world will come to life more fully if all senses are incorporated. It’s not enough to tell us that the bushes are bubblegum pink. Do they also smell like bubblegum? Or do they reek of desiccated fish? Either one adds a completely new dimension to the scene. For example:
B1: The pine trees were dark green ahead and the sun was out in the blue sky. There was no sign of the mutant vulture that had been chasing her. A bird was singing in the forest. The pine needles underfoot were sharp as she walked into the woods.
B2: The cool scent of pine washed over her as she strode toward the forest. The lonely song of a bird called out as she neared the shelter of the trees, almost making her feel safe. She squinted into the blue sky, nervously searching for any sign of the mutant vulture. Dry pine needles stabbed into her feet as she hurried into the woods.
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| TAGS:descriptions, editing, novels, writing
There’s only one important piece of advice I can give anyone how to write the first draft of a novel (or anything, for that matter):
If you have nothing written, you have nothing to revise. There isn’t any magic trick to finishing a book other than dedication. It’s okay to make mistakes and messes, and it’s okay to know you’ll have to come back later and do a better description of the flying rainbow whirligig in chapter 8. The most important thing is to finish.
Revising isn’t so simple. Since returning from Los Angeles, I’ve been deep in the bowels of revision hell putting to use some of the excellent feedback I got at the retreat. It’s both thrilling and agonizing—thrilling because I can see my book getting closer to something I’ll be proud to query, and agonizing because there are still days when I feel like I will never get there.
I’ve learned more about writing from revising this book than I did by drafting my other four novels combined. I don’t think there is any one right way to revise (or to draft for that matter) as every writer’s process is different. However, I do suggest the following:
- Set aside a first draft for a while before attempting any revision at all.
- Always make major changes to plot/structure before trying to line edit.
- Find a critique partner or beta reader who gives honest, detailed feedback.
- Be kind to your beta/critique partner—wait to send out your draft until you truly feel it is the best you can make it on your own. The same applies to querying agents.
- Revise ruthlessly, but also be kind to yourself during the process. After all, both you and your book are works in progress.