Are You a Success? By Whose Standards?

November 4, 2013

I’m still a little bleary-eyed and disjointed from odd train schedules and driving throughout the night — I just got back from the annual Call To Action conference, where I came up with ideas for at least two blog posts for Young Adult Catholics, so overall, I think it was a fruitful trip. Between audiobooks on the drive and traditional books on the train (not to mention a 7-hour wait at the station), I also finished three books–one of my favorite parts about traveling–including APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, which I’ll review here by next week.

Source: Flickr: Jim Henson’s Fantastic World

On the drive home this morning, I was listening to the new biography on Jim Henson. I’m always a bit nervous when I pick up biographies of creative geniuses, afraid that I’ll feel woefully inadequate by the time I’m done. I thought that would be the case with this one; Jim was already well on his way to the legacy that would become The Muppets by the time that he was in college. But as I follow the story more deeply, I realize that success to the rest of the world and success to Jim weren’t necessarily the same thing. Jim’s characters are recognized and beloved around the world, yet he spent years trying to break beyond being “a puppet guy”–even before he worked on Sesame Street, launched The Muppet Show, or created any of his feature-length films. He wanted to expand into doing “arty” films, including experimental videography, live action, and ambiguous messaging. He only attained moderate success in that arena, with many of the projects he wrote and devoted himself to during this time failing to find an audience. Those that did find an audience met with mixed reviews, and have faded into obscurity today.

It reminded me of the article I found most intriguing in Write Good or Die, “Success” by Kristine Kathryn Rush. In it, she talked about how many writers who are outwardly successful didn’t consider themselves successes because they hadn’t achieved what they really wanted to do. I can relate to this. I used to think being published in something besides a student journal would designate me “successful.” When I hit that milestone at age 21, I wanted to have something published in a book, then write for a wider audience, then publish fiction. Around this time last year, I even ended up with my name on the cover of a book (although I didn’t write it), and I felt as though I were a “real” writer for about a week.

There are other external measures of success, too. While I’ve never made a ton of money, I’ve been privileged to find work I enjoy ever since college, not to mention work that is in my field. My current combination of working part-time as an employee for a news organization and freelancing to round out my time and my income is my “sweet spot” as far as work-life balance is concerned. By my own standards, I consider myself pretty lucky. I know others who are as smart, talented, and educated as I am who have not been so lucky in their work lives, and I remind myself often that I’ve got nothing to complaint about.

Except. I don’t really consider myself a success. My dream of publishing a novel, which I’ve cherished since I was about 10, is still out of reach. And it’s hard to feel successful after spending over half my life writing books and still feeling like I don’t have the right answer to the question, “Have you been published?” or “What have you written?” I feel that the answer to what I’ve published and what I’ve written are not really the same, although there’s the tiniest bit of overlap.

I believe that writing is its own reward; in fact, it’s so rewarding that I have a lot of trouble getting myself to devote as much time to submitting my work as I devote to writing it. The E in APE totally freaks me out. But I know that if I go through life without publishing a novel, I will feel like I’ve failed at my own measure of success, regardless of what else I might accomplish. And if I do publish one? I have a feeling I’ll be plagued by wishes that more people had read it, that it got better reviews, that it sold more copies.

This all might seem like a rather discouraging thread, but its effect on me is the opposite. It helps me keep things in perspective. Even Jim Henson received three years’ worth of rejections on a project he loved that never did get produced. I hope that at the end of his too-short life, he was able to appreciate everything he had done, and not dwell too much on what he hadn’t. I hope I’ll be able to as well.

Because ultimately, the next dream will always be out of reach. That’s the definition of dreaming. And maybe that’s why so many people who were “success stories” by the world’s standards felt like they fell short of their own. And maybe that’s not as depressing as it seems.


The Only Cure for Writer’s Block? Writing.

August 26, 2013

When I teach writing, I always tell people that the only cure for writer’s block is writing.

Now it’s time for me to buck up and follow my own advice.

I’ve read all the Dark Crystal books I can get my hands on, cover-to-cover, poring over the pictures and taking notes. I have enough bare bones to begin writing my contest entry. There’s no more excuse now for putting it off. Except that I’m intimidated.

The world of the Dark Crystal is lush and complex and ancient and, above all, visually stunning. A world meant for the eyes to devour. And capturing that same sense of awe and beauty in writing will be difficult, so difficult that the task of transforming a blank computer screen into something similar seems almost impossible.

But starting a new project always feels impossible. And by not writing, I’m not using the part of my brain that knows how to make those connections, that can break through writer’s block. There are things that can happen in your mind when you write that just won’t happen when you’re just thinking. That’s why writing through writer’s block works. It gets your mind engaged in the right way again, and even if you have to write pages of crap, usually in the midst of it there’s an “aha!” moment that you never would have uncovered if you just tried to solve the issue while washing dishes or walking the dog, staying in your mind, not using the tools that you will need to break through this wall. You can’t nail a board back onto the deck by just thinking about a hammer, and you can’t break through writer’s block by just thinking about it, either.

Mondays are my blogging days, which give me a reprieve. And tomorrow I blog for Young Adult Catholics. But on Wednesday morning, my task is clear: I will be writing my outline for the Dark Crystal’s Authorquest. Here’s hoping that will help my story “crystalize” enough to write those crucial 10,000 words.


Tuscany Prize Winner – Free E-book!

March 11, 2013

Hey, folks! Do you remember many moons ago when I entered the Tuscany Press contest for Catholic fiction? Although my manuscript was retained (and later rejected) for their young adult fiction startup, I did not win any of the prizes. But now you can all check out who did! For tomorrow and Wednesday only (probably today and tomorrow by the time most of you read this, so let’s just say March 12 & 13 to make it less confusing), you can download the winning novella, The Book of Jotham, on Kindle for free. If you need to know more about the book then that it’s FREE, here’s a synopsis:

Jotham is a mentally challenged man-child who, like the other apostles, follows Jesus as Christ carries out his ministry and experiences death by crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Yet the other apostles—the dedicated Mary, Peter, Thomas, and the rest—while they care for Jotham and look out for him, don’t understand why Jesus loves him so. Thomas even says, after Jesus offers a parable, “I don’t see why all the pots can’t be strong and beautiful.”

Jotham may be different, but through him, we come to see Jesus and Jotham not just with our eyes, but also with our hearts.

You can bet I’ll be gettin’ one!

On the editing front, I am loving NaNoEdMo and immersing myself in Rapunzel without the stress of having to write it for the first time. But as is wont to happen in the course of revision, there are times when I have to write something totally new. This has been fun for me when it constitutes adding new content or significantly changing content in scenes I’ve already written, but today I had to write my first scene totally from scratch, and man did I balk! It’s still not finished, but it’s hard to go back to that “first-time-out” stage again, without the abandon of NaNoWriMo. My inner editor is here, guys, and you want me to write something new?

I didn’t finish the scene, but I’ve got a whole hour and a half for it tomorrow.


Writing Groups, Critiques, Scrivener, and Long Drives

January 28, 2013

Photo courtesy of Jim Brekke — unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera on the trip.

I’ve had an incredibly enriching weekend for my writing life. On Friday I put my dog in the back of the car and made a 7-hour trek up to my old stomping grounds in Duluth, Minnesota. Along the way, I stopped to visit a friend that I met at writer’s camp when we were both 15, and I received some more valuable feedback for my Rumplestiltskin retelling. I’m excited to put it through another round or revisions this month, and possibly start submitting it this year. I’m particularly interested in submitting this to ebook markets because of its awkward length (it’s neither a short story or a novel at about 28,000 words.) If you know of a market that might be a good fit, I’d love to know about it!

My friend has also just finished her degree in graphic and web design, so we got the opportunity to brainstorm the webpage I want to set up soon for my freelance work.

In Duluth, I met with my speculative fiction writing group in person for the first time in almost a year (one of whom has just started her own blog here). What a treat! There’s so much more laughter when I get to be there in person and can catch everyone’s facial expressions and the nuances in their voices. I submitted the first eight pages of my Rapunzel retelling, and it was eye-opening to have some thoughts other than my own on the piece. It’s always fascinating, and enlightening, to see what other minds and eyes find in the words you’ve written. I’m realizing more and more how complicated this revision is going to be. But I’m still looking forward to it!

Which leads to a few more of my thoughts on using Scrivener for writing. I didn’t like that there wasn’t an easy way for me to export just part of the document to another format (.doc or .rtf), so that to convert just a few pages to submit to the group, I had to either copy and paste them or export more than I needed and then delete everything that wasn’t ready for review. Also, the font conversion was absolutely appalling when I opened it in Windows, with weird spacing issues every time I used an apostrophe. So I’m still on the fence about whether using Scrivener for rewrites is a good fit. (I do think the conversions would have been a little cleaner if I hadn’t already stripped formatting to import the document into Scrivener in the first place.)

HOWEVER, I also used Scrivener for brainstorming and outlining a set of concept albums I’m working on when I had to wait for new tires to be put on my car Friday morning (and thank goodness, because I needed those good tires to get me through Winter Storm Luna on my drive home last night). And I LOVED Scrivener’s features for this part of the creation process. I loved being able to create a notecard for each plot development, with the option to include as much or as little information about the scene as I wanted. And I love how easy it is to move ideas around and resort them as I develop the story around the music I’m using. This isn’t a writing project per se, in that the songs will tell the story and I”m just stringing them together, but it’s still too big for me to hold in my brain. And right now, Scrivener is holding all those details quite nicely, and making this step of the process very easy and energizing rather than overwhelming. Because the initial creation process is always the most daunting to me, Scrivener might be just what I need to get through it with less stress.

While in Duluth, I stayed in a bedroom above a friend’s shop out in the woods. Quiet, private, and the perfect place to read Thomas Merton and journal about my return to the city I love more than any other. And of course, all that driving time isn’t bad for getting the creative juices flowing, either. The hardest part is finding the time to implement them all once I’m back home.


New Year’s Resolution off to a Shaky (?) Start

January 7, 2013

Last week I wrote about how I want to submit once a week in 2013. I attempted this in 2009, and it lasted a few weeks. Last year, I did okay committing to one submission a month, but even that was a bit of a challenge. Because, like many writers, I really dislike the submission process. My introverted nature makes me uncomfortable with “selling myself,” even though I really do believe in the stories I have to tell, and even though it’s clearer than ever to me now that what I truly want to be is a writer.

But there’s a certain despair from knowing something will never be perfect, that there are in fact hundreds of ways to tell the same story, and you could go crazy uncovering which one is “right.” I began submitting Ever This Day after I had put it through enough rounds that it felt “done” to me. All the writing advice urges you to revise, revise, and revise some more. But revision can be a black hole; if you’re so paralyzed about whether the story is the best it can possibly be, it’s still just as unpublished as something you’ve created as a one-off first draft. At some point, you need to “abandon” revisions and see how the world responds. (Orson Scott Card is a little notorious for wanting to revise his books after they’ve already been published, proof that that urge never really goes away.)

So the question weighing on my mind is: at what point do you stop revising? I told myself I would submit Ever This Day for a year; after that, I would re-evaluate it, possibly considering whether I wanted to put it through another round or two of revisions before submitting it again. That year is up now, and the book has earned about 10 rejections — which, in the big scheme of things, isn’t actually that many. I read once that you shouldn’t make major changes or assume something isn’t ready for publication until you get at least 30 rejections; up to that point, you can assume rejections are just a matter of personal taste. So I’m tempted to make 30 rejections, rather than a year, my new “benchmark.”

Here’s what it comes down to: my intent to re-evaluate Ever This Day after a year of sending it out and my intent to submit once a week in 2013 are at odds with one another. And the truth is, I balk at the thought of revising ETD again without professional guidance (meaning, I’d be more than happy to give it a major rework on the advice of an agent or editor). I’m not ready to be done with the story; it still hooks into me in a way that keeps me believing in it. But I don’t want to revise it right now. I’d rather start a reworking of my Rapunzel story from NaNoWriMo, which has managed to get me more excited than any fiction has in a long, long time. I don’t want to lose that momentum. And, on a more short-term note, I really want to have a bit of it ready to show my writers group when I meet with them in person at the end of the month.

So I’m going to keep submitting Ever This Day this year, while revising the Rapunzel and Rumplestiltskin stories, blogging, engaging in various promotions for Hungering and Thirsting for Justice (which recently got a good review here and a mention in the National Catholic Reporter), and continuing to study the craft and the industry. Already, my writing energy is divided in so many directions — but at the same time, I feel like I’ve never loved or wanted to do this more.

I’ve debated posting my query here before, and I’ve ultimately decided to reserve it for agents’ and editors’ eyes, especially since each submission is tailored to the recipient. But I am going to post the synopsis below (which is revised from the one I used last year), in case anyone is curious about what this story is actually about. Feedback is welcome.

All Maddy wants is for life to go back to how it was.

Before her dad lost his job. Before her mom was working all the time. Before the bullying. And before an experimental kiss with her best friend that cost her their friendship.

When she falls into the stream behind her house after her thirteenth birthday, she decides not to come up for air.

But then the angel appears.

Maddy is convinced the angel is Katherine, her mother’s sister who died as a baby. After their brief encounter, Maddy becomes obsessed with bringing Katherine back. When she finally returns, it comes at a high price: she’s now trapped on earth.

But Maddy promises to be at the angel’s side throughout her exile. Soon, Katherine fills every empty space in Maddy’s life. She’s as loyal as a best friend, as nurturing as a parent, and as exciting as a new crush. Maddy learns to ignore the bullying and distance herself from her family’s hardships. She shares Katherine with only one person: her two-year-old sister, Kiana.

When Kiana develops a life-threatening illness, Maddy turns to Katherine for help. Katherine refuses, and Maddy sees a dark side of the angel that may be worse than the reality Maddy sought to escape. Maddy focuses on saving Kiana first. Then, she must find a way to face life on her own—and set the angel free.


New Year’s Writing Resolutions 2013

December 31, 2012

Well, I hope I’m not jumping the gun too much when I say that the world didn’t end in 2012 — which is great, because it means I have more time to write (and even to write about the world ending!). So without further ado, these are my writing resolutions for 2013:

  1. To up the ante on submissions from once a month to once a week.
  2. To bring Rumpled through one more round of revisions, and hopefully have it “submission-ready” at some point this year.
  3. To begin revising my Rapunzel retelling.

My New Year’s Resolution last year was to submit once a month, which I mostly pulled off with eleven submissions for the year. I missed April. Weddings are not good for writing (but marriage is!) Although it’s not an official resolution, I’ve found myself recommitted to journaling after my Writing Our Way Toward Wholeness workshop, so I’m hoping to journal more often in 2013 as well.

All this time off for the holidays has been nice, but it’s been a plague for my writing, which thrives in routine. I’m looking forward to establishing my routine again after the New Year begins. For Christmas, though, I did get this nice article from the National Catholic Reporter, which mentions Hungering and Thirsting for Justice.

I hope you’ve all had lovely holidays, and I wish you a happy New Year. Feel free to share your writing resolutions if you have them!


Dusting off the Query for 2013

December 10, 2012

In 2012, it was my goal to submit my work at least once a month. Ever This Day was held briefly by a new Catholic press beginning a young adult line, but ultimately they passed on it. That didn’t come as too much of a disappointment, as I was a little nervous an “officially” Catholic press might urge me to “straightwash” it, which I’m not willing to do. Although Ever This Day doesn’t have overt queer themes, it does deal with homophobia, and a shared, experimental kiss between two 13-year-old girls figures into the plot fairly prominently. Still, I worry I may continue to face the issue that another good friend of mine, who writes more overtly Christian fiction, might face, when she says, “It’s hard to find a home for my work because it’s too secular for the Christian market, and too Christian for the secular market.”

Sounds familiar. But luckily, I’ve read a lot of books that tackle thought-provoking issues of faith published by secular presses. So I’ll hold out. I’m also going to up the ante a bit in 2013, and send my query out once a week rather than once a month. I sent it out twice last week to make up for the fact that I didn’t get it out at all in November.

Also, speaking of submissions, Random House recently launched three new imprints for genre ebooks in the fantasy/sci-fi, mystery, and “new adult” genres, in addition to their existing ebook imprint for romance. What’s most exciting about this is that the imprints appear to accept unagented work, which is nearly unheard of with the big publishing houses. I’m keeping them in mind for future submissions as well, although not for Ever This Day.

Last week, I finally set up my author page on Amazon.com, too. Here’s hoping 2013 brings more titles to add onto it!