I Was a Teenage Writer
I started writing fan fiction at the age of eleven. I’ll try to keep total embarrassment at bay and refrain from mentioning what kind of fanfic I wrote, but I spent hours every day at the computer, writing stories and reading others’.
By age thirteen, I’d moved on to Harry Potter fan fiction, which instead of slowing me down, only made things worse. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words in a few short years, and I loved every single comment I got. Even the bad ones.
By age fifteen, I started to write my own original novel. It was terrible. Let’s just leave it at that. But I continued to write and write and write, more hundreds of thousands of words per year, some original and some fanfic. And once I realized that this was something that people could do for a living, I became convinced that in order to be noticed and published, I would have to get an agent and a publishing contract when I was still in my teens. Preferably high school, of course, since seventeen and a high school junior is much more impressive than eighteen and a college freshman. (This is my own teenage brain talking here. Both are seriously impressive.)
By the time I graduated from high school, I’d written half a dozen novel-length stories. Most of them I shoved in the drawer, but a few of them I did try to shop around to agents. I had a few bites and one agent I worked with for two years, but I never signed anything. Not in high school.
I was horrified. How was I supposed to be a successful writer if I wasn’t published by the time I went to college?
Miracle of miracles, I signed with an agent as a college freshman. Finally, someone had seen my potential. Eighteen wasn’t seventeen, but it would have to do. Except that contract only lasted a day before, due to circumstances likely beyond her control, the agent had to take back her offer.
Talk about painful. It was four years before I could bring myself to submit again, even though I continued to write. Inwardly I’d always known my work would have to stand alone and not just stand out because of my age. Who wants to be told “You write well for your age!” anyway? It always seemed a bit of a backhanded compliment to me, but there you have it. I still wanted to be traditionally published as a teenager.
The pressure was enormous –not because of any my father put on me, or even society. It was pressure I put on myself. I had to get this done now, else I’d never be good enough without the hook of being a teenager to lure readers in, and I didn’t want to be a failure at age twenty. But on my twentieth birthday, that’s exactly what it felt like. My birthday not only came with a new digit in front of my age, but also the realization that I was never going to be a teenage author like Amelia Atwater-Rhodes or S.E. Hinton. And it was crushing. I’d failed something monumentally important to me, and there was no possible way I was ever going to be published now.
Two years later, I was signed by one of the best kid-lit agents in the business. A year after that, I signed my first publishing contract.
But that all seemed impossible on my twentieth birthday. If I wasn’t a teenage author, then what was I?
I’m not alone. A lot of teenagers spend their lives writing and hoping for that big sale when they’re still young enough for it to stand out. Maybe it’s that extra push it would give them for marketing. Maybe, like me, it’s that fear that if they’re not young enough to be an oddity, they’ll never get published at all.
But here’s the thing: if you work hard at it, if you keep it up, if you learn your craft and don’t let anyone tell you your time is up…well, there’s still no guarantee. It’s kind of like medicine: there’s never any guarantee. But the only way to make sure you fail is to stop trying.
The pressure for teenagers to be great, especially in this day and age, can be crushing. Whether it’s athletics or GPAs or popularity or writing, it feels like a race. There are so many milestones in those first twenty-two years — important birthdays, graduation, more important birthdays, more graduations — that it’s easy to set a mile marker for yourself and say “If I’m not published by X, I’m going to quit.”
Don’t. Unless you can. Then stop.
You have to love what you’re doing, and if you’re writing for the joy of it, no one should ever be able to tell you to stop. Not even the DMV, when you receive that first driver’s license that doesn’t have MINOR printed on it. If you’re writing to win a race with yourself, stop. Or at least stop the race. Life isn’t a race, and success at too young an age, before you’re mentally prepared —
How terrible would it be to be like one of those child stars? To hit your peek at age sixteen and to spend the rest of your life trying to match it? Or even come close. Imagine what the likes of Stephenie Meyer face now: the entire world expects excellence from her, and how is she going to live up to that with her next book? What about JK Rowling? Christopher Paolini?
Setting goals for yourself is important, but setting time limits — and that’s exactly what they are, limits — is only going to hinder you. And make you feel like a failure when you haven’t reached them. Failure’s all well and good (see this awesome speech by JK Rowling), but there’s no use in setting yourself up for it. Being a teenager — or any age when you’ve only been writing for a few years — is a time when you should be learning, not setting difficult hurdles. Concentrate on doing what you love, and you’ll give yourself the best chance of success in the long run.
As anyone who’s ever been around me when I’m trying to come up with a title knows, I’m crap at them. The original title of The Goddess Test was Persephone, and it only changed after an excruciatingly difficult brainstorming session. My titles for the next two books are equally as bad, and I’m positive they’re going to change somewhere down the road. The manuscript I wrote shortly after I finished TGT was called The Fake Princess, and yes, it was as bad as it sounds.
But tonight, thanks to my co-workers, an online thesaurus, and lots of bad jokes, I came up with titles for the next trilogy I’ve been working on, the one that evolved from the basic story of TFP, called Masked. That’s the first title I’ve been proud of in a long time. And now the next two–especially the one I have planned for the third–thrill me. The new titles tells me where the story’s going, and it gives me a goal to shoot for.
A lot of people judge books by their covers. I’m a title girl. If the title doesn’t grab me, it’ll be that much harder for me to pick it up. Artwork is great, and a lot of times that makes the book iconic (Twilight, anyone?), but in the end, what matters most to me about a book is its title.
The funny thing is, a title is so flexible. Changing the title doesn’t change the content. You could call a book a million things, but there’s usually only going to be one that jumps out at you. There were nearly twenty words on that online thesaurus that could have worked, but only one made me stand up straight and say “That’s totally it.” Well, okay, two.
But the important thing here is, they’re titles I love. Titles I could definitely live with on the shelf. I struggle with titles to the point where I get anxious when I have to think up another, but even before these books are written, I feel like I have something wonderful to look forward to, and to me, that’s a huge relief.
It’s kind of like…
Teenagers are forced to fight to the death in a government-sanctioned arena with media watching their every move, backpacks full of supplies, and only the last one standing gets to live.
You’ve read that before, right? I mean, I know I’m not the only person who’d read and loved The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. But it isn’t The Hunger Games I’m talking about – it’s about a little-known (in America, at least) book called Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami.
Both have similar premises. Both have similar elements. There has been much hoo-ha raised over this all over the net, and if you’ve read review of The Hunger Games on Amazon, it’s kind of hard to avoid hearing about Battle Royale.
However, at the end of the day, they are not and will never be the same book. Despite their similarities, these two stories are executed in such different ways: one with one culture in mind, and the second with another, completely different culture in the forefront. Just reading the first chapters of each makes this abundantly clear.
Battle Royale hasn’t stopped the tidal wave that is The Hunger Games, and I’d wager that The Hunger Games‘ popularity has even helped the sales of Battle Royale in America. So why all the fuss? Even if Collins was aware of Battle Royale before she wrote her books, so what? They aren’t the same book. Yes, there are similar ideas, but frankly if you pick up any two books in the same genre – especially within the YA subset – you will probably find similarities between them.
Just because there’s another book out that’s similar to an idea you had, whether you had it before or after you became aware of that book, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write your story. You will, without a doubt, execute the story differently than the other author, and frankly teens love fads. Once they read a book they love, they’re eager to gobble up every other book like it on the market. Riding coattails isn’t exactly what every writer dreams of, but if it’s a story you’re passionate about and desperately want to tell, then write it anyway. The worst thing that can happen is it doesn’t get published.
But isn’t that better than having a story eating away at you? Than having to deal with what if I had written that anyway?
Write the story you want to write. As long as it’s not about a boy wizard going to a magical school called Hogwarts, where they play a game on broomsticks and an evil Dark Lord wants to kill him, or about a girl who moves to a small town in Washington and falls in love with a vampire who looks eerily like Cedric Diggory, chances are you’ll be okay.
And if you’re not, so what? At least you have that story off your back, and there is no better way to learn to write than to write as much as you can – and to learn from the mistakes you made while doing so.
Your book should have its own flavor, its own twist, its own feel, its own characters – and it will, simply because you are not Suzanne Collins or JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. But if you have a semi-similar premise, don’t sweat it. The market is rife with teenagers meeting their supernatural soulmates in biology class, given a second chance after dying to fix the wrongs in their lives, or extraordinary teens going to special schools (or camps, cough, Rick Riordan) to help develop their talents. And you’d never compare Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series to Harry Potter, would you?
Once upon a time, on the first day of a screenwriting class I took, we were each asked to go around the room and pitch our stories by comparing it to other movies. Twilight meets When Harry Met Sally, or Titanic meets The Little Mermaid – it’s considered a good thing to be able to do that and set off bells in the producer/executive’s mind, not in the least because they know that the movies you’re talking about have been successful, and therefore there is a good chance that the story you’re pitching will be successful as well.
As long as it’s executed correctly, that is, and isn’t actually Twilight meets Shallow Hal or something.
The point is, don’t purposely mine other books for ideas, but if something strikes you because of a book you’ve read, you don’t have to ignore it, either. There is no such thing as the original idea. Even Collins (and undoubtedly Takami) were influenced by Greek mythology and Roman gladiators. And if you happen to write a book that complements a bestseller nicely, you never know; maybe yours is the one those readers will pick up after they finish.
Worry about writing the best story you possibly can and making that story your own. Let others decide whether or not it’s too similar to be marketable, because you never know if it is until you’ve written it.
I’m a terrible first reader.
I say that honestly, not because I’m asking for people to disagree. For years, I was the youngest writer by decades in various round table critique groups or classes I’ve taken. People handled me with kid gloves because they thought I needed encouragement, not solid advice and honest opinions about what was and wasn’t wrong with my work.
As a result, I developed a habit of being brutally honest and pulling no punches when I critiqued their work in hopes that they would get angry enough at me to rip mine apart the way I wanted it to be.
Unfortunately a lot of writers take a critique of their work to be a critique of who they are as a person, and that just isn’t true. Still, the way I critique can and has reduced people to tears. I’m not proud of it, and lord knows I’m not always right (or even right some of the time). I know the way I see things is only one person’s point of view, and I don’t mind when the writer whose work I critique decides that she doesn’t agree with something I’ve said.
What gets to me, however – and not just when I’m critiquing, but when other people critique – is when the writer doesn’t listen at all.
Instead of weighing the critique and asking herself why the reader had a problem with a certain thing, she immediately goes on the defensive. She doesn’t stop to consider that the people critiquing are also the people who may one day see her book on shelves and decide whether or not to buy it.
Fact of the matter is, when you do this, you’re only hurting yourself and your chances of being published.
Learning to take constructive criticism is hard. It took me years to learn to sit down and shut up while other people were talking about my stuff. Having someone, whether they’re a perfect stranger or your best friend, rip up something you’ve worked so hard on, something that oftentimes reflects you, is hellish. It never gets better. It always stings. Sometimes you will cry. There’s no shame in that.
But never, ever, ever disregard them completely, unless they:
1.) Are legitimately out to sabotage you. And no, these people are not a dime a dozen. In fact, unless you’ve ruined their marriage, run over their dog, and sabotaged their career, chances are this person doesn’t exist. And anyway, why on earth would you ask that kind of person for a critique?
2.) There is no 2.
Taking critique is hard. We all know that. But what you have to remember is that with every critique comes an opportunity to improve your work.
To make it better.
To turn it into something that hordes of people will pick up off the shelf and shell out their hard-earned money to buy.
This is why you should be excited about getting opinions – not because you think that someone will tell you that your story is the best thing they’ve ever read. (If they have, you should probably ditch that person as a first reader, or at the very least keep someone else around who will tell you the truth.)
Editing is a chance to improve. No one gets everything right the first time, the second time, the third time, the fourth time… I can’t tell you how many drafts I’ve done of The Goddess Test at all stages. Close to twenty. Not all drafts have included major changes, but I never read through something I’ve written without making some kind of change. And getting someone’s opinion on what to change is not only invaluable and oftentimes gives me even more ideas on how to improve the story, but it could mean the difference between getting signed and not.
Think about it – who would you rather have catch the issues in your story? A first reader or an agent? Or worse, an editor?
Let me tell you, getting rejection after rejection from various editors was not fun. It hurt a hell of a lot more than getting rejected by agents.
Speaking of, we get so focused on writing for agents and editors that sometimes we forget that while they’re a very important part of the equation, they don’t decide whether you sink or swim. The reader does.
I have two fantastic first readers: Caitlin and Sarah. They read my material quickly, they give me honest feedback, and I couldn’t be more thankful for them and the work they do.
They also have two very different styles of critiquing. Sometimes, when one of them mentions an issue I don’t think is there, I’ll wait for the second critique to come in, and if the second one make no mention of it, I’ll ask her directly what they think of the problem the first person brought up. And even if the second person tells me the first is imagining things, I’ll still consider it and often come back to it on a later draft.
Occasionally they bring up something that, while they think is off, I think works, and I can give solid reasons why I think it works. (Whether I’m right or not…) But you know what I’ve learned?
First readers are almost always right.
Sometimes they get it wrong, but you know what? If they bring up a problem, they bring it up for a reason. Something feels off to them, and maybe they’re not entirely sure what it is yet, but something is wrong.
And trust me, something is always wrong. It might not be the exact thing they pinpointed, but something is off, and as the writer, my job is not to sit there and defend my work for hours upon hours. You don’t get to do that when it’s off in the real world. My job is to read my own writing with a critical eye and figure out where I went wrong. Maybe it’s something small, or maybe it’s something big. And if it’s something big, that can very easily mean the difference between a contract and nada, so you bet your ass that I’m going to do everything I can to fix the problem.
I want to write things people want to read. Not every writer does, but I do, and a huge part of my process is getting feedback. It isn’t easy, and it hurts, but you know what?
In the end, I am always thankful for the people who took the time – sometimes hours out of their busy schedules – to read what I wrote and tell me what they thought.
Because the moment you stop appreciating the effort they put into your work and listening to what they have to say – really listening and weighing their opinions – that’s the moment you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
Don’t do that.
How Publishing is Like American Idol (and why I love Simon)
Think about it. On American Idol, you have four basic stages of competition:
1. The audition process, where they go around from city to city and hear thousands of auditions.
2. Hollywood Week, where the field is narrowed from usually around 150 to anywhere from 24 to 36 contestants.
3. The Top 24/36, where four contestants are kicked off each week.
4. The Top Twelve, where one contestant is kicked off each week until we finally have Our Next American Idol.
Every audition process is like this, and in publishing a writer must first audition before they can find any measure of interest or success. Actors and singers go to dozens, hundreds, thousands of auditions in their lifetime, depending on how devoted they are to their craft. Writers send out query letters, which brings us to our first stage.
Stage One – Auditions
On American Idol, hopeful singers fill stadiums to have the chance to perform for Simon, Kara, and Randy. What most casual viewers don’t realize is that those auditions are spread out over several weeks, and those prospective singers audition for producers first. They queue up and have around ten seconds to wow those judges, else they’re dismissed.
In publishing, most agents have assistants who filter through the massive amount of queries they receive to find the good stuff.
On American Idol, once you get past the rounds with the producers, you finally get to go up and see the big guys, the faces we all recognize from our TVs. Randy will undoubtedly say ‘dawg’ one too many times and use the made-up word ‘pitchy’, and the advice he gives is spectacularly vague. The guest judge will be helpful, snotty, or too busy basking in their own fame to notice the cameras aren’t always on them. If you’re a cute guy with long hair and a drawl, Kara will flirt and possibly unbutton her shirt. And Simon will tell you whether you really have a chance or not.
Agents can pretty much be summed up in those four categories as well.
Randy: “Not for me.”
Guest Judge: No reply, because they’re too busy being their awesome selves (or your query just wasn’t right for them). Also the ones who reply to your query two years after you sent it.
Kara: The ones who pounce on you and later mention their fee (avoid!).
Simon: The ones who take the time to tell you why they didn’t like your query. Alternatively, the ones who request further materials. Ever notice that if the vote’s split 2-2, Simon’s the deciding voice? There’s a reason for that.
During this process, most of the wannabes get weeded out. Why? Because they either can’t sing, didn’t pick the right song (more on this later), or just don’t have “it”, whatever “it” is.
After lots of tears, multiple offenders, crazies, and lots of bleeping and blurring, the ones who have a chance are passed into the next round, which leads us to…
Stage Two – Hollywood Week
Who doesn’t love Hollywood Week? The people who go through it, that’s who. Lots of tension. Tons of waiting. More song and dance than you can swallow. At each stage, more and more people are cut, until the number dwindles closer to the elusive 24.
In publishing, this is called having partials or fulls requested. Super-exciting, right? Someone saw something in your writing that made them want to read more. They might like you! They might love you! You could be rocketing to the top in no time, with a New York Times bestseller and eighty foreign countries selling your books —
Oh. Wait. Rejected.
Lots of tears, lots of bleeping, and lots of blurring. Sometimes the occasional crazy gets through, but for the most part, these are the ones who have been singing for a while. Some of them have raw talent; others have developed their talent over the years. Some of them are ready; others are asked to come back next year after practising. Sometimes we agree with the judges; sometimes we don’t.
When it all boils down to the Walk of Fame and Shame as the Top 24 are chosen, sometimes the judges’ decisions seem so arbitrary as to be nothing more than an excuse to say no. Sometimes an agent’s list is so full that even though you might have written a good book, it just isn’t great enough for her to make room.
But what if, when you sit down in front of those judges, they say they’re going to see more of you? What if they say they love you? What if they say yes, they want to represent you, and would you please sign on the dotted line?
Stage Three – The Top 24
The thing no one tells you when you’re in the querying stage is that just because you sign with an agent doesn’t mean you’re going to sell that book. Or the next one. Or the next one. I read a statistic once that said only one out of five manuscripts an agent shops around is actually sold. True? I don’t know. It seems off to me, but I’m not on that side of the fence.
This is where the Top 24 comes in. You’ve gotten the amazing news — you’re going to be on TV represented by a real, live literary agent! You’ve beaten the odds! Fame and fortune is within your reach!
And then the real work begins. The edits, the revisions, the rewriting — if you thought querying was tough, try getting your manuscript into tip-top shape. Yeah, it was good when you submitted it if you’re at this point, but good doesn’t cut it. You need to be great.
Then the submission process starts, and the real show begins.
The Top 24 (and 20, 16…) sing each week and try to dazzle the audience, who votes for whether or not they’ll stay. Over the next three rounds, each week they survive, their odds of making the Top 12 get better.
When agents send materials out on the submission process, a minimum of three things needs to happen to stay in the game.
Round 1: The first reader/editor’s assistant must love it.
Round 2: The editor herself must love it.
Round 3: The rest of the editing team, including the editor’s boss, must love it and think they can make a profit on you. They need to believe that you’re a good business deal.
So, well, are you? Do you have a chance of making it into the Top 12?
What happens if you really do survive all three weeks? You make it into…
Stage Four – The Top 12
Okay, dude. Not only are you on national TV, but you’re part of the Top 12 of this season of American Idol. Your name will be splashed across websites and newspapers. People will dig deep into your background to figure out who you are. You might even become a trending Twitter topic. The possibilities are endless.
Bottom line is, you’re going to be published. Let’s say it again — you’re going to be published. How cool is that?
Everyone says they’re just grateful to be there — on stage, in the publishing world, etc. They’re grateful for the opportunity. And you know what? They are. We are. If you’re not grateful, this isn’t the right place for you. It takes a village to bring a book to fruition, and that village will bust their asses for you if you have the real thing. Their time and money are on the line as well, and they have a vested interest in seeing your book succeed. Every single member of your publishing team, including your agent, have each had a hand in crafting your manuscript into the polished book that will eventually sit on the shelves. You’d better be grateful, because without them, you’d still be at the bottom of the slush pile.
You don’t make it into the Top 12 by accident. If you’ve made it this far, you know what you’re doing, and as grateful as you might be, you’re in it to win it. You want to see your name in lights. You want thousands of people screaming your name and buying your record. You don’t want to be a one-hit-wonder or flash in the pan. No one wants to be the first to go home.
Getting a publishing contract is just the beginning. The Top 12 have twelve weeks of singing and dancing and marketing themselves and their music to gain votes and impress the audience. They aim to be The Next American Idol, not the guy who didn’t even make it on tour.
Each week, things get tougher, but the reward is greater. The more you do to spread the word and the better your story is, the higher you’ll climb. Sometimes people listen to the judges and reviewers. A good critique might help you gain a few votes and sell a few stories, but most people know how to think for themselves and judge what they like. In order to become a bestseller and become that American Idol, you need to write something people want to read.
We all want to be the next Harry Potter or Twilight or Hunger Games. But for every Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, there’s a Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard. Even if we win, we don’t want our careers to end with that first book. You need to keep working, and you need to get better and grow as a writer. If you want success, you have no other choice. The audience is fickle and in it for themselves, and you need to keep them constantly in mind.
As for why I love Simon? He’s the only judge who will say what the audience is thinking. He doesn’t coddle the contestants. He isn’t your father, your uncle, your boyfriend, your friend — he’s someone who gives a damn what kind of material the show produces, and he’s not afraid to cut out the fat. Everyone needs a Simon in their life.
Oh, and don’t forget the golden rule of American Idol: choose the right song. I don’t care how well you sing. If didn’t like the song, I’m not going to vote for you or download it off of iTunes. I don’t care how well you write either. If your plot isn’t full of conflict and tension, I’m not shelling out $15-20 of my hard-earned cash to buy your book.
You can’t control who votes for you and who doesn’t. You can’t control what the judges say. You can’t control how far you get or how much success you have after. But you can control how you approach that first audition and every audition after. Never forget the importance of that query letter, because it might be the only chance you have at grabbing the judges’ attention.
And remember — if you don’t audition in the first place, the judges can’t say no. Problem is, they can’t say yes, either.
Agents and Anxiety
After Sarah Reck’s blog post on The Agent Game, I thought I would talk about what I did pre-agent and how I wound up with the wonderful Rosemary Stimola. I’ll warn you, this is a long one, because like most writers, there’s a lot to tell.
My introduction into the business aspect of writing fiction came in the form of the Maui Writers Conference and Retreat (now the Hawaii Writers Conference). I went when I was seventeen, and it opened my eyes to what the publishing process really meant. I’d had a vague idea of what publishing took, but these were professionals who lived and breathed this stuff.
They had one-on-one meetings with agents and editors, and I met with a few, having no idea what I was getting myself into. A few took interest, so when I got home, I sent them requested materials. Easy, right?
Not even close. One agent – let’s call him Agent A – took an interest, but asked me to write something else. Awesome, right? That’s supposed to be a huge compliment, and it supposedly meant my writing was good enough. I wrote another story over the next several months and sent it, but he wasn’t happy with that either, so he had me write something else. He liked that, but it wasn’t quite what he was looking for, so could I revise it?
He kept that offer dangling while asking me for more and more rewrites for almost two years.
Fast-forward to the beginning of my first year of college. When I was eighteen, I decided to send out regular queries for another manuscript. Lo and behold, I got an offer of representation from an agent – let’s call her Agent B. Agent B was terrific – very kind, supportive, and extremely enthusiastic about my manuscript. We spoke over the phone once or twice, and I debated whether or not to take her up on her offer and drop Agent A .
Finally, I did. The agency Agent B was with had a few best-sellers, and they seemed to really know what they were doing. Awesome, right? I mean, at eighteen, I was going to be represented by a real, live agent. And after only three years of writing original stuff, too!
I signed the contract and sent it off. Finally, I felt a sense of accomplishment. All of my writing hadn’t been in vain after all. We celebrated, I told my friends, and everything was great.
The next day, I received an email from Agent B apologizing, but the senior agents at her agency decided that she couldn’t represent me after all.
I was crushed. At eighteen years old, I thought I’d completely failed as an author, and any chance I had at becoming successful were so miniscule that I shouldn’t bother trying. I’d also withdrawn my manuscripts from Agent A as well, so this left me with nothing.
From 2003-2007, I attended the Maui Writers Conference (and occasional Retreat). During this time, I queried agents I’d met with who were interested, thinking that that was the only way they were going to pay any attention to my stuff. Some of my work was decent; some of it wasn’t. When I was nineteen, another agent, Agent C, was so excited about a prologue that she insisted I send her the entire manuscript right away. The only problem was, I didn’t have the entire manuscript written. I didn’t have more than that prologue done. I’d written it in the Retreat just a few days earlier, which I’d mentioned, and while I had the story planned out…yeah.
So I wrote the story, revised it, and sent it to Agent C. She was very apologetic about it, but it just wasn’t what she was looking for. Translation: it wasn’t good enough. Part of me had known that when I’d sent it to her, and I’d done it anyway because she’d been so excited. Another really stupid mistake.
That was my beginning. Lots of hope, lots of reasons to hope, but nothing ever panned out. Unfortunately all I ever got was disappointment, over and over and over again. I questioned whether this was what I really wanted to do, but a funny thing happened. I kept writing. Whether I was published or not, I was going to keep telling stories any way I could.
I tried plays in college and found a small amount of success. I tried screenplays afterward and fell in love. For the next few years, I concentrated on college, switched majors twice, and tried in vain to come up with something I wanted to do that didn’t include writing, since it was clear I was never going to get published.
And then I wrote a story called Persephone. It took countless outlines and several revisions, but everything clicked into place. I loved writing it. And the more I wrote, the more I realized that this was a story I would read. I still wasn’t convinced it was good enough, but when I gave it to my father to read, he insisted it was the best I’d ever written.
Armed with the kind of hope I hadn’t let myself feel in years, without telling anyone, I wrote a query letter and sent it out.
The first batch was about Persephone. I knew the title didn’t work, but I’m not very good at them. Every single agent who bothered to respond said no thanks.
After a brainstorming session with Dad, we came up with The Goddess Test, and on August 8, 2008 (8/8/08!) I sent out a new batch with only the title changed, nothing else. Would you believe that over 70% of the agents I sent it to asked for a partial or a full? I didn’t, not until later, when I looked over my list and counted.
Rosemary was one of the first to respond. She asked for a partial, then a full, and she gave me a list of revisions. Once again, I was getting my hopes up, and I was also simultaneously preparing to hear the words “thanks, but…”. Every email I opened from the agents who’d requested it, every ding of the inbox, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach. Expecting disappointment is so ingrained in me that to this day I expect bad news every time I open an email about my books.
But you know what? Rosemary never said “thanks, but…”. To my utter shock, she and two other agents offered me representation, and having done all the research I possibly could during those few weeks (yes, weeks! Not months! Not even one!), I knew Rosemary was the best for me.
In early September 2008, I signed a contract, and this time it stuck.
When Life Gets In the Way
As ideal as writing 24/7 would be, we all have a life outside of the keyboard and the worlds we create. Eating and sleeping in particular are important, but other things like family, other jobs, and normal, day-to-day tasks prevent us from planting our butts in front of the computer and constantly working.
Those are the things we have to learn to work around. We find an hour here, an hour there, or we set specific times during the day when we work. Everyone does it differently in order to meet their daily/weekly/monthly goals, but what happens when something happens that disrupts your routine?
My father had a heart attack in early December, and he had a triple bypass over the Christmas holiday. I’m also in the middle of a manuscript and edits. The thing no one tells you is that writing is infinitely more difficult when you’re under contract. There are expectations and fears that weren’t there before. My deadline is in several months, so I have time and could have easily put it off, but this wasn’t just a week. Post-op, he’s been having a hard time, and now he’s back in the hospital. It could be months before things are back to normal, and there’s no telling what problems I’ll run into while working on this manuscript.
So now what? I have every excuse to put the rest of this manuscript off. My writing time’s been significantly cut, and my focus is (rightly so) on my father. But there’s still downtime – when he’s resting or has sent me home, or when he’s watching television or the doctors are running tests. There is time. There is always time, even if it’s just a few minutes. And when I’m not writing, I think about scenes and what needs to happen in order for the story to be the best I can make it be.
Everyone has a choice when life happens: put the writing aside, or find ways to continue including it at whatever level we can. There is no wrong answer, of course. We handle the hurdles life throws at us as best we can, no matter what it takes, and sometimes that means setting writing aside for a little while.
But my choice is to continue writing, because everything else has been turned upside down and shaken until it’s unrecognizable, and I badly want something familiar to still be there. I want writing to still be there no matter how hard it is to fit it in. There will always be downtime, and I can worry incessantly and drive myself crazy, or I can keep busy with something I love.
So, something I love it is.
Conflict and Tension
I don’t know how other writers work, so whenever I talk about writing subjects (which will presumably be most of the time, all things considered), keep in mind that this is just how I do things. There are a zillion different ways to create, and do what works for you.
One of the benefits of taking a lot of writing classes from a lot of different instructors (off the top of my head, fourteen, though all that says is that I’m crazy enough to keep coming back for more) is getting a variety of advice. They all have different methods and different versions of their own writing bible. In a strange way, it’s kind of like religion, if you’ll excuse the comparison – you have a wide variety that covers just about everything you can think of, but even with that diversity, there’s still a common thread. And there’s one common thread in every single class I’ve taken, book on writing I’ve read, and advice I’ve seen in writing blogs:
Conflict drives the story, and every single scene in every single chapter in every single story you write needs some form of it.
I’m sure there are exceptions, but as a reader, in my experience if a scene doesn’t have tension, chances are I’m going to skip it. We’re not talking life or death here – just enough to push the reader forward, to entice, to compel. To make them come back for more.
You can write a beautiful, romantic scene about a girl surprising her sick boyfriend at his place with some chicken soup and his homework. They lay on the couch all afternoon, watch a movie, and she kisses him even though he’s a germy mess.
Or that same girl can surprise her sick boyfriend with some chicken soup and homework, only to discover she’s not the only thoughtful girl at school. Who is the other girl? Is the boyfriend fighting off another girl who has a crush on him? Or is he cheating? Or is it someone who hates him so much that she’s trying to poison him? And if so, what did he do to deserve it?
Extreme example and a little out there, but same point. A lesser example:
1. Girl is getting ready for her first day of school. She has the perfect outfit, she woke up two hours early to do her hair, she has new shoes, perfect makeup, and the latest in fashion hanging off her arm. Her perfect boyfriend picks her up from her perfect house in her perfect neighborhood, and they go to their rich private school where they’re king and queen of the seniors.
2. Girl is getting ready for her first day of school. Her alarm clock didn’t go off, she’s running late, her mother’s screaming for her to get her butt out of bed, and she can’t find her hairbrush – which she left at her father’s house across town the day before in her rush to leave him, his new wife, and their screaming baby. Not to mention the guy she’s in love with is the one picking up Miss Perfect from the first example.
Who’s more interesting? There’s something to be said for the first example. Who doesn’t want that life? Who doesn’t want to be perfect? But that’s a fantasy, not a layered story that will keep readers turning pages. If you’re solely writing to play out a fantasy, then have at it. But if you’re writing for an audience and to possibly sell your work, you need some form of conflict in everything you do.
The second character should feel more defined and easier to relate to. Someone who could exist. Why? Because of the conflict. Because not everything goes right all the time, and people don’t generally pick up books to read 60,000 words about Miss Perfect. They pick up books to read about a character who struggles against conflicts, whatever they happen to be, and whose journey interests them enough to read every single one of those words.
So if you’re having trouble with a particular part of your story that feels flat or boring, one of the first things you should look at is how to increase the conflict and tension. Ramp it up. Don’t be afraid of it. Look at the conflict in scenes you already have and explore other options to see if you can’t make things a little more tense, like the girl with the chicken soup. And you never know – you might surprise yourself and find a new plot point that makes your story even more fantastic.
The first and only sequel I’ve written was back in 2003. I was a junior in high school and adorably oblivious to exactly how sequels work. Frankly I’m still mystified.
But I have a two book contract. Not one, but two – which means it’s time to write the sequel to The Goddess Test. It’s something I want to write, which makes this easier, but it’s also something I’m scared to write, because what if I overestimated how much story there is to tell and it’s boring? What if I mess something up or create a plot point that directly contradicts something I included in the first book? Or worse, what if it just plain sucks?
But there are good things about it too, exciting things to look forward to. Getting to revisit these characters, for instance, and fleshing them out more, especially given the circumstances in the first book (you’ll see, don’t give me that look). Getting to go somewhere that is only mentioned in the first. Expanding on the relationships between characters. And the ending – if there’s one part I’m looking forward to writing the most, it’s those last few paragraphs. Not for the obvious reasons (that ‘just finished a manuscript’ high), but because…well, I can’t say. But I’m excited.
I’ve outlined it. Gone through the outline to add in parts to make the boring parts not so boring. Added plot elements that ramp up tension and conflict. Added three new characters, one that just fits so unbelievably perfectly (you’ll see). Discovered plot lines for the minor characters that don’t just fit naturally into the overall story, but become essential to it. I even have a title, though that’s subject to change. But at least I have something to call the file.
So in short, everything’s falling into place. But that doesn’t mean I’m any less nervous – just really excited, too.
That One Character
Please note that this post includes spoilers for the show Criminal Minds and the series Harry Potter. Especially the latter.
Over the past week, I’ve been inhaling episodes of the CBS show Criminal Minds. I’m watching them generally in order, but a friend who loves the show sent me a master list of ones to watch, ones to skip, and ones that deal with one specific character, to follow his arc over the four and a half seasons so far. I’ve heard her go on and on about this series for as long as we’ve been friends, so I finally relented and took a week off to watch it. Because really, is there any better way to take in a series?
This character is one Dr. Spencer Reid, played by Matthew Gray Gubler (who deserves an Emmy). He’s kind of the Doogie Howser of the B.A.U., the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the F.B.I. Except instead of being a fifteen-year-old doctor, Reid is a twenty-something year old genius with an IQ of 187, an eidetic memory, a heart-breaking childhood, a penchant for putting himself in harm’s way, and next to zero social skills. And really awesome hair.
I should probably state up front that I’m not big on violence or procedurals. Sometimes it’s amazing stuff, like with Castle or House, which I’m pretty sure are the only procedurals I watch on a regular basis, but the thing with those two shows is the main character. I wouldn’t watch Castle without Castle, and I wouldn’t watch House without House. I’ve tried stuff like NCIS and CSI; I watched CSI for multiple seasons until the violence became too much, and I watch NCIS with my family when it’s on. Then again, NCIS has Abby, DiNozzo, McGee, Gibbs, Ducky – you get the point.
The title is Criminal Minds, not Reid. It’s an ensemble, and the other characters are interesting. They have diverse backgrounds, suffer trauma and go through tragedy, have fears and history, and are entertaining to watch. After all, that’s the point, right? Entertainment.
But Reid stands out, partially because of the writing and partially because of how brilliantly Gubler plays him. This character has trauma not just in his history, but in his present, too. He’s quiet, but he’s also the smartest guy in the room. He cares about his teammates, and we’ve seen him relate to unsubs (unknown subjects/the perps) in a way that speaks volumes about the character. And in those moments when he opens up, he becomes vulnerable and human. He’s a sympathetic character, and the audience cares about him. Never underestimate that power.
In my opinion, every story needs one of those characters. There might be blood and conflict and violence all around the protagonist, whose struggle and goals we care about, but somewhere in there is a character whom the audience/reader really feels for. Ideally all characters would have this kind of impact, and I’m sure someone somewhere is thinking about how the audience has to care deeply for every character, but not even the best do that.
Don’t get me wrong – everyone has different tastes and prefers different characters. But for example, look at the Harry Potter series. Here’s this scarred orphan who finds out he has to defeat the most evil Dark Wizard of all time on his own, and we want him to succeed. We want him to succeed so badly that we follow his story for seven enormous books. Well, okay, four enormous books and three normal-sized books. We care about him, and we want him to succeed.
But the vast majority of fans I know, when asked who their favorite character is, don’t name Harry. Normally someone who does is the kind of reader who has only read the series once or twice, and therefore Harry is their favorite by default, since we spend the most time with him. But there are characters in the series who have emotional arcs who the readers really grow attached to, more so than Harry or Ron or Hermione.
For instance, Neville Longbottom. The other ‘chosen one’, whose parents were tortured into insanity by Death Eaters. There’s a scene in Order of the Phoenix where he’s in the hospital visiting his parents, and his mother gives him a bubble gum wrapper. His grandmother tells him to throw it away, but instead Neville puts it into his pocket. I don’t reread all of OOTP, but I do reread that scene whenever I go back to that book. Neville doesn’t have to say a word, but I dare anyone to read that scene and not feel for him.
Another example would be Remus Lupin. He’s incredibly sympathetic; he’s a werewolf whose self-loathing never allowed him to really let people into his life after the deaths and betrayals of his best friends, until Nymphadora Tonks shows up and badgers her way past his barriers. Given the way he’s been treated in society all his life, it’s no surprise that he tries to push her away, but she keeps coming back because she loves him. They marry, she becomes pregnant, and he tries to take off to protect her and his unborn child. Not because he doesn’t love her (puppy shippers), but because he loves her so much that he’s willing to sacrifice his own happiness to keep her and their child safe. Long story short, Harry knocks some sense into him, and he comes back. At the end, just before the final battle of Hogwarts, Remus shows Harry a photograph of his newborn son. This scene is the last time we see Remus until he’s lying dead in the Great Hall next to his wife, their infant son left an orphan like Harry. I haven’t reread Deathly Hallows and likely never will, and it’s because of that scene, knowing what’s to come for their family. It hurts.
Reid’s story hurts. You don’t have to know first-hand what his experience is like in order to feel it. You don’t have to be an isolated, socially-awkward genius to feel for him and relate to what he’s been through. But that character is so well-written and so well-acted and so utterly human in a world full of monsters that I’ve waded through the never-ending violence just to see Reid play out, and he is the reason I will continue to do so.
Create a character like that, and you’ll have me every time.