Learning to Rest

I often have a hard time resting when things around me are messy or chaotic. How that plays out in real life is that in any small amounts of time during the day I have to rest (few and far between, actually), I find myself cleaning or straightening so that everything is neat before I can sit down and rest. Folding clothes, picking up toys, sweeping crumbs--this all takes precedence. Now, I know sometimes house chores do need to come first, but sometimes a mental health break is more necessary than the to-do list. And I have such a hard time getting this across to myself. I do all those things to make the environment around me neater and less messy, to make my nest a little cozier so I can rest (usually read or write) better, but what actually happens is that I squander that rest time so that when I do actually sit down, I have five minutes until I need to wake Sela up or start dinner or pick Kate up from school. It happens time and time again, and honestly, it's so frustrating. This plays into my writing life as well. I tend to get to a place in my stories where things are flowing well, then all of the sudden, it feels like I hit a wall. The usual culprit is that I've been listening too much to the "rules," to the illusive "they" who say you have to pack the story with action, stay out of the characters' heads, use cliffhangers, ratchet up the tension, use third person, no, use first person, keep it light, add more depth. It all adds up to me freaking out and thinking I've written 114 pages of total crap that no one is going to want to read. So I usually start going back through the story and picking it apart, thinking I need to change the tense, use more or fewer POVs, maybe change the setting, add an extra character to add conflict, anything to make things work better. I can spin my wheels for weeks trying to make everything in those beginning pages perfect so I can make forward progress. "Only when everything is perfect and clean can I go forward with the rest of the story."

It's not a way to go through life and it's not a way to write a novel. Well, it's a way, but not a very good one. Sometimes, in both life and in writing, it's necessary to forget about the mess and just press forward. Let yourself rest even if things around you aren't perfect. Let yourself feel your way through a story--even stream of consciousness, if that's how it comes--and worry about the fine-tuning and following the "rules" later.

(I put "rules" in quotation marks because there really are no hard and fast rules. Follow them, break them, it doesn't matter as long as you tell a good story well.)

I recently read a quote by Anne Lamott that I LOVE: "Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns." This reminds me that nothing is going to be perfect in this broken world. There will always be mess, emptiness, and discomfort. What matters is the constant pushing forward to the light. Trusting that the light will come, and it will illuminate all our dark corners.

The Friday 5

1. First things first. Unbelievable, shocking, knee-weakening, heavens-opening-up-and-shining-down news hit us out of the blue yesterday. We all cried tears of disbelief and relief and thankfulness. As my mom said, the English language doesn't have enough words to explain how we feel. "Thankful" falls pitifully short.  

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FullSizeRender

That above is my mom. This is how she's feeling right about now. It's how we're all feeling.

On to other things...

2. It is snowing. In Birmingham. I know this because I am at home, not in Tennessee, where Matt and I were supposed to be today. He was going to be running in a 12-hour trail race tomorrow in a little town outside Murfreesboro, but we made the call late this morning to not go, due to the general messiness of Tennessee today. We were a little concerned about icy roads. Our girls were already prepared to spend the weekend at their grandparents' house, so we went ahead and took them out there. As such, right now, Matt and I are huddled in blankets, watching a movie (the wonders of Joe Versus the Volcano) and reading (I just started The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler.) I'm happy to be watching the snow from inside my warm nest instead of gearing up for spending all day tomorrow in a tent, possibly reading and writing, but probably huddled under a down sleeping bag, teeth chattering, mumbling under my (frozen) breath about the Black Toe Run. 

(That was a little dramatic, but as I've said before, I'm a certified cold person.)

3. The book I've mentioned here a few times, Voyage to the Star Kingdom, is now available to order.

star voyage

star voyage

An incredible amount of people have already bought it and passed it around. If you're interested, find it on Amazon here. The author is putting all proceeds into a fund for the family this book is based on.

4. I just finished reading a wonderful book called Margot, by Jillian Cantor.

margot

margot

It tells the fictional story of what life may have been like for Margot, Anne Frank's sister, if she hadn't died in Bergen-Belsen, as records show she did, but instead escaped the Nazis and fled to America. It's a great story, and I sunk completely into the character of Margot (or Margie, as she calls herself in her new American life), but what made it really important and tense and dramatic was how it portrayed life for Jews who immigrated to the US in the 40s and 50s. They had escaped the horrors of being a Jew in Nazi Europe, but then arrived here to find that people still nailed flaming torches to synagogues, taunted Jewish schoolchildren, treated them unfairly in the work place. It was a quiet book, but like I said, tense and important. In fact, I think it could be as important a read as Anne Frank's diary. It just portrays a different direction someone's life could have gone after hiding from the Nazis for so long, and the farther we get from the atrocities of the Holocaust, the more important it is to keep telling those stories. Anne was a real girl with a head full of dreams and hopes and desires, as we all know because of her diary that was found and published. But Margot was a real girl too, and because her diary was never found, we know virtually nothing of her. She was snuffed out too soon. This book gives her a life, even if it's a fictional one.

5. I had lunch at a new little place downtown this week called Feast and Forest, owned partly by Kristen Farmer Hall. If you live in Birmingham, check it out. It's just off 2nd Avenue North on 24th Street, sort of behind Urban Standard. I had the "Ham Sammich" and potato soup and it was lovely. And the whole vibe of the place is perfect--it's really tiny inside, but warm and cozy and inviting. Here's more on Kristen and her partner opening Feast and Forest.

Have a great weekend, play in the snow if you get some, and don't buy all the bread.

The Hideaway comes out in just a little over a year!!

Seriously. I've been throwing around "a year and a half" but really, it's only about a year and two months. That's crazy. So I need to stop saying a year and a half. Closer to one year sounds much closer. In the interest of full disclosure about how this whole publishing process works, I'll tell you about my first official "work" for my editor! (Other than, you know, writing the book.) She, Karli, emailed me the Advance Marketing and Sales Information sheet. This document will help with the titling and packaging meetings the team will have to discuss, well, how to package my book. The title and cover are so important when selling a book. How many times have you pulled a book off the bookshelf (or the virtual bookshelf on Amazon) just because you like the title or the cover is amazing. That's what we're aiming for. The title has to carry just the right amount of weight, has to hint at the story inside without being too on the nose and giving too much away. On the other hand, you don't want it to be so vague that it doesn't mean anything.

Similarly, the photo and design on the cover needs to evoke the emotions you want the reader to have when they read the book. It has to strike the right chords and mesh with the title well so that the reader has a sense of what they're getting into, but again, it's not so specific that it gives the story away. (Sort of like a movie trailer that tells you way too much. I've seen book covers that show two people hand in hand, kissing, in love--then read on the back cover that the whole book is about whether or not these two people will end up together. Well, thanks, you just showed me on the cover that they in fact do end up together, and happily, so no need to read the book.)

So in this information sheet, they had me brainstorm a lot of title and cover ideas; dig into the themes and ideas in the story; talk about the main characters, their physical appearances and personalities; and think about what emotions and "takeaways" I want the reader to have and feel when reading the story.

I realize this can all sound a little silly--brainstorming emotions--but it was really fun for me to get back into the story and put into words what I actually want my book to say, what I want readers to think of it. I'm so very excited to get The Hideaway (which may not remain the title) out into the world and into your hands!

I gave lots google images of what I have in mind for cover possibilities, as well as other book titles I like that could be similar to what we want for mine. Also, because I tend to be a little long-winded (my 30-second "elevator pitch" for the book is currently at about three minutes), I gave Karli about thirty title possibilities. They said I could use the space to brainstorm, and boy did I. I wasn't sure if it was going to be helpful, or if everyone in that titling meeting would look at each other and think, "what have we got ourselves into with this girl?" But Karli said it was a great jumping-off point and that it'd be a big help. Whew.

So, first assignment done. I'm not sure when the meeting is, but she'll let me know how it goes and what ideas they come up with for title and cover. Hopefully, we'll be thinking along the same lines.

 

Neither plotter not pantser be

I realize that I run the risk of offending and/or alienating some readers by what I'm about to say, but I'm feeling strongly about it today, so I'm just going to go ahead and say it. I think outlines, especially rigid ones, can hurt the writing process instead of help it. There. I said it.

Now, a caveat to that: I know there are tons of authors in the world of publishing who have a concrete outlining process that works for them. And that's just it--it works for them. It may not work for someone else, but it helps them crank out books, and I'm all for that. I suppose my issue today is with the myriad (it seems) programs and people out there who promise that if you follow their 40-point outline or their all-inclusive "get to know your characters" regimen, or the "ten steps to a writing bestseller" program, you are all but guaranteed a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark novel.

Pssst. It's never that easy. 

Sure, there are the James Patterson's of the world who churn out a book or more a year--I'm sure he and others like him have a set process that (obviously) works. But as a relatively new author, I know how tempting those programs are. "I can use this outline and it'll result in a full, complete, all-plot-holes-tied-up novel? Sign me up."

I've yet to find one that works for me. They all begin to seem too rigid, too set in stone, sometimes even formulaic. In most of the outlines I've glanced through, there are pretty similar plot points you have to hit, at the same points, and with a similar number of characters. I agree that certain things need to happen in a novel to make it a good story--rising action, climax, falling action, all that. (A "denouement" is in there somewhere--I remember that from high school English, although it's probably called something else now.) Yes, these things make a novel. But everything else is up for consideration, as far as I'm concerned.

I was just telling a friend the other day that before I sit down to write, the story is clear in my head. But, like a dream that dissipates as soon as you try to talk about it, that crystal clear vision in my head goes up in smoke as soon as I start to write, and I feel like I'm fumbling, trying to tie shoelaces while wearing thick gloves.

It's a similar thing for me with outlines. I know in my head what's going to happen in the story because I've spent time thinking about who these people are and writing random notes about them. (As an aside, these notes are everywhere--in the 'notes' section of my phone, on the back of receipts in my purse, on post-its on the kitchen counter, in the margins of my calendar.) I know who the characters are, what the main conflict is, the characters' desires, what's thwarting those desires, and how it all wraps up. But as soon as I start to fit that information into one of those formulaic outlines, all the goodness and spontaneity and magic goes out the window. I'm shoving a foot into a glove or a hand into a sock. Fumbling with the light off.

So, I'm not a total outliner (or "plotter" if you will), but neither am I a total "pantser" (i.e., flying by the seat of my pants, or opening a fresh Word doc and just seeing what happens.) I like to know where I'm going. I usually have a pretty good idea (if not the exact idea) of how the story will end before I write the first word. I don't outline, but I do pre-plan. To that end, I recently read an article by Laura Drake on the website Writers in the Storm that has helped me tremendously with that pre-planning. If you're a writer, I heartily recommend reading it.

In it, she summarizes a Michael Hauge conference she went to, so I suppose much of the credit goes to him, but I love how Laura explains it all. Instead of being an outline, it includes "12 components of a good story." There's no "you must hit this plot-point by page 100 of your novel or else" business. It's not an outline so much as it is a list of points to keep in mind as you are thinking through your story. It's loose enough that I can hang with it, but it also serves as a sort of connect-the-dots. With my current WIP, I'm finding that the more I reflect on my characters and figure them out, the more I can connect the dots. Hopefully that'll help me bring the reader with me on my main characters' journeys from where they started to where they will end--not too tied up with a pretty bow, but satisfying, nonetheless.

 

The Friday 5: Blurbs, Books, and back to regular life

The kids went back to school this week--woohoo! It was a "short" week, meaning four days of school instead of five (and two instead of three for my preschooler) but the parental readjustment to making lunches and getting myself dressed before 8 more than made up for whatever shortness the school people intended. I have to say though--at the end of this holiday break, I wasn't as at the end of my rope as I have been in the past. The girls (age 6 and 3.5) played together more and better than ever before. Sure, they were often dancing on the fine line between total contentment and total angry hysteria, but they stayed on the right side of that line more than the wrong side. So for that, I was hugely thankful. Anyway, end of babbling. The Friday 5...

1. Nothing is really happening yet with The Hideaway (book #1), but in February, I think we (me + my "team" at HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson) will start to talk about preliminary marketing things. My agent suggested I come up with a list of authors we could contact for blurbs and/or endorsements for my book. This is a wee bit uncomfortable (basically asking for praise) but I think it'll be part of the job, so I better get used to it. And all authors do it, and probably all authors get asked to do it, so it won't be anything new. I've put together a list of people I'd like to contact--some are total pie-in-the-sky authors who could possibly just sniff at me, and some are a little more accessible, and hopefully more likely to be willing to help. Or who knows, maybe those big-time authors will take it as a chance to help out a little writer like me.

Every since I heard a writer tell the story of how she asked Fannie Flagg to write a blurb for her book and Fannie basically told her to write the blurb herself and she'd sign off on it, I've been sort of wishy-washy about blurbs. They don't necessarily make me buy a book, but I know they are important to some readers, as in, "If Danielle Steele/John Grisham/E.L. James says this is a good book, then by golly, I'm gonna read it." For those readers, it'll be nice to have some authors who write similar types of southern fiction to say nice things about my book. And if, I don't know, let's say Rick Bragg happens to read my book and has anything even remotely positive to say about it, that'd be okay by me.

2. I just today signed up for Hoover library's Southern Voices book festival. If you've never been and you like books and you live anywhere bear Birmingham, you should come to it. They have a handful of authors who speak every year and I promise you, it's interesting whether or not you're a writer. These are great writers, but also great speakers. I'm most excited to hear Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, the husband/wife team who wrote The Tilted World, about the 1927 flood in Mississippi. Beth Ann is a poet and Tom is a novelist. (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is one of my favorites.) I'm also looking forward to hearing Laura Lane McNeal, author of Dollbaby. I haven't read this yet, but it takes place in New Orleans, so that automatically makes me a fan. (I love New Orleans and part of The Hideaway takes place there.) But the cool thing is, after Katrina came through and wrecked things, Laura took a different direction with her life and decided to pursue her passion of writing. Dollybaby is her debut and it's gotten a LOT of attention. I'm hoping to glean lots of wisdom and inspiration from her.

As a side note, I planned to attend the Friday night talk with Erik Larson. He writes nonfiction that reads like fiction--like supercharged, edge-of-your-seat fiction. Pick up Dead Wake or Devil in the White City (or probably any of his others) and you won't be able to put it down. I got online at 9:02 to order tix (they went on sale at 9.) I went through the whole payment system on my phone, entered my info, got all the way to the end, then got a message that said payment didn't go through due to a problem with the system and to please try again in a few moments. Well, a few moments later I was working my rear off in YCross, so I waited an hour until class was over. And Friday night was sold out. (Sad face.)

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3. For those of you following what's going on with my mom, she's just finishing up her fourth out of six week-long chemo treatments. She'll go home tomorrow for what we hope and pray is two weeks of rest, good food, relaxation, and visits with friends and family before she goes back in for her fifth week of inpatient chemo. Cancer is bad. Chemo is bad (I mean, it's good, but seriously, it's so bad). But I read something today that offered some calm:It's really hard to not worry, not FRET, not be anxious. But that's what Jesus tells us to do. DO NOT worry. DO NOT be anxious. It's hard, but we try.

4. My friend Anne Riley has written a children's book based on the story of a family friend of hers. It's beautifully written and illustrated, and it will be released in the next couple of weeks. As Anne says in her press release, "Inspired by a real-life family, Voyage to the Star Kingdom is a vivid reminder that our stories don't end in death, and that the King is indeed making all things new."

star voyage

star voyage

Here's the gorgeous cover: 

This is her blog post that tells all about the book and the family that inspired it. Rather than me paraphrasing everything, just read it from her. Heads up, you may need some tissues.

(And PS, Anne is also a YA writer and her second book PULL is coming out in FEBRUARY! I've already preordered it on Amazon!)

tami-and-eric-taylor

tami-and-eric-taylor

5. Eric and Tami Taylor have the best marriage that's ever been on TV, I'm convinced. A real, honest, loving, patient, selfless, imperfect but hardworking marriage. That's not common. Long live Mr and Mrs. Coach Taylor. (And the Dillon Panthers.) 

See y'all next week.

Friday 5 on Wednesday: Adding my "Best of" to the pile

*Note: Instead of posting my "Friday 5" on Friday, I’m posting it today, the day before Christmas Eve. Chances are I’d forget to post it tomorrow or Friday, so today it is.** Apparently this is the time of year that anyone with a blog and/or half an interest in reading posts their “best of” lists of books from 2015. And apparently, I’m no different. Over the last few months, several Goodreads friends got their “goal met” badges, having read all fifty-two books they pledged to read in 2015. I didn’t post a goal for the same reason I don’t make New Years’ resolutions—why put that much pressure on yourself?! Instead, I just read as much as I could, which is pretty much what I do all the time. And if I do say so myself, I read some awesome books. It’s hard to whittle them down to the five best, but in the spirit of my Friday 5, here are five books I really, really enjoyed this year. I highly recommend them. (And because I’m not a trend-of-the-moment kind of girl, not all of these were published in 2015.)

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  1. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. Yes, this is a relative oldie. But oh, is it a good one. I put it off, mainly because I thought it was the book Robinson wrote about the death of her husband, a subject I wasn’t eager to read about. When the book club I participate in when I’m not in the middle of another book I don’t want to stop reading (seriously, I’m a bad book club member) chose this book, I decided to give it a go. It sucked me in at the beginning and held me tight until the end. I was so engrossed in John Ames meandering thoughts and discussions, covering everything from a father’s love and devotion to deep spiritual conversations and holy humor. When I finished, I had at least twenty pages dog-eared where I’d found quotes I didn’t want to lose. Like this one: (he’s writing this to his young son)

“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. This is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world—your mother excepted, of course—and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.”

Break my heart a thousand times.

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2. My Sunshine Away, M.O. Walsh. I found out about this author and book on Twitter. He’s a Southern author (Baton Rouge) and many people who *know* Southern books had recommended this one. I took it with me when my husband ran a three-day trail race in Tennessee. I had three chunks of time, each a few hours long, where I could read, nap, write, swing in a hammock. The hammock and napping didn’t happen because I was too busy keeping watch for strange bugs—things like four-inch-long walking sticks, bright red fire ants, and other creepy crawly things that came out in hordes when the runners left and everything got quiet. I didn’t write either—I got sucked into this book instead. It is dark and gritty and funny and raw and I devoured it. The ending was heartbreakingly sweet and emotional and I didn’t see it coming. Check this guy out. I’ll be looking for his next book.

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3. Rainbow Rowell. I know, this is an author, not a book. I read two of her books this year—Fangirl and Eleanor & Park—and there’s no way I can choose between them. I’m in love with her YA characters. I haven’t read one of her adult books (that sounds so dirty) yet, but I probably will. She has cornered the market as far as I’m concerned on creating youngish characters who are achingly real and flawed and earnest and hopeful and delicious.

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4. Lost Lake, Sarah Addison Allen. SAA writes magical realism—a genre I knew nothing about before reading her Garden Spells—based in luscious Southern settings. I loved Lost Lake because it had characters I wanted to root for, a lovely cast of old/elderly characters which I love if the author gets them right, a sweet romance, an enchanted setting of lakeside cottages, and just the right touch of magic. I’d love to see this one on the big screen.

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5. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. I almost hesitate to add this one because—duh. Most everyone has read it and everyone knows it’s good. But it’s not just good. It’s spectacular. I was so engrossed in the story and the various settings—the apartment in Paris, the home in Saint Malo, the school in Germany, the sound of the bombs and gunshots, the fear, Marie-Laure’s fingers on the braille, the snails in the shallow water, her great-uncle’s voice transmitted over the crackly radio—I had to reorient myself to my living room, or my bedroom, or wherever I was when I shut the book. I was completely transported.

I still don’t plan to set a reading goal on Goodreads, because—pressure. But I will continue to read as much as I can, as widely as I can. When I find myself hiding in the kitchen under the guise of unloading the dishwasher or working really hard on dinner but I’m really crouched on the floor so I can finish one more chapter—I know I’ve found a good one.

How It All Went Down

Everyone knows the process of publishing a book is a long slog. Even I know that and I’m still at the bottom of the hill. Maybe a few steps up from the bottom, but significantly closer to the bottom than I am to the top. I always like to read about how a person goes from hopeful writer to published author—who was a slush-pile standout, who had an awesome connection, who got their agent through a writers’ conference or other face-to-face meeting, who won a contest. Because there may be someone reading this blog who also likes to know the order in which things happened to catapult a hopeful writer into “the publishing world,” I’m going to outline what happened to me. (This is also to have a record for me, so I can look back and remember how all this came about. Because details tend to fly out of my head sometimes.) And first, let me say I always wanted to be one of those slush-pile standouts. I wanted to be able to tell other hopeful writers—“See?! It happened to me, it can happen to you too!” I can still say that (because what happened to me really is sort of random and unorthodox), but it didn’t involve the slush pile. (Although I can’t even count how many query letters I wrote that no doubt languished in slush piles all over New York City. In fact, I still get random rejection emails from agents who are really behind on their query letter reading.)

So, without further ado…

February(ish) 2013—I began writing The Hideaway.

June (ish) 2013—got sort of stuck in the middle and panicked because I loved the story and the characters and I really didn’t want to lose the story, so I enrolled in a Fiction Workshop class at Samford University, taught by the wonderful Denise Trimm. I took two courses of this workshop, which was priceless. Through the workshop (and the writers’ group that came out of this workshop), I was able to hone The Hideaway into something worth sending to agents. I honestly think if it hadn’t been for this group of people, I wouldn’t have had a novel worth anything.

December 2013—finished first draft.

January 2014—began process of editing and revising. Some of this was on my own, but a lot of it was with the workshop/writing group. They gave such valuable feedback at every level. Also sent manuscripts to beta readers—some were other writers, some were just readers.

June 6, 2014—I entered a query critique contest through Writers Digest. I had just barely begun tinkering with a query letter (since I knew I was nearing the end of my revisions). I won the contest and hurriedly went over my query letter, taking out unnecessary words and streamlining it as much as possible, and sent it off to the agent. All she had to do was read the query and send some feedback—that’s all the contest offered—but she said she wanted to see it again once I made her changes. Then she requested the first 50 pages. (Cue mic drop.) I sent them.

June 24—With a burst of excitement due to the first agent’s enthusiasm, I decide to query my TOP CHOICE AGENT! I’d researched her, knew she liked and had repped Southern fiction, and I liked her demeanor and humor on Twitter. I crafted an awesome query personalized just for her (I mentioned something she’d recently said on Twitter), and sent it off. The NEXT MORNING at 6 am, she emailed me back asking me for my full. I ran to the bathroom where my husband was showering, told him she requested the full, and then burst into tears. Happy tears, mind you, but I was elated like nothing I’d experienced in quite a while. (Other than my wedding, the birth of my children, etc.)

After spending a day finetooth-ing the manuscript, I sent it to her. Or I thought I did. I actually sent her a blank email without the manuscript attached. Then I realized it the next day and sent it to her for real. Then I sat back and waited for my ship to come in.

August 6 2014—Top Choice Agent sent a very nice rejection email. She gave helpful feedback that I ultimately, as in several months later, took, but she was kind, and I appreciated that.

August 15 2014—Hadn’t heard anything back from Contest Agent about the requested 50 pages, so I asked if I could send a revised 50 pages (I did this a lot—asking agents if I could send revised partials. Rookie mistake.) She said yes.

Between August and end of the year, 2014—I queried a whole bunch of agents. I started off with the ones I really wanted, as evidenced by my querying my TOP CHOICE AGENT first. I went down the list querying the ones I’d starred as ones I really thought would be a good fit for my type of story. Some people tell you to start with your top choices, others (many others) say to start somewhere in the middle so you can use their feedback to finetune, then query other higher-choice agents. I went with my top choices first because I figured I might as well get them out of the way first, then I could move onto other, more likely agents. I don’t know—I had to pick a route, so I chose that one. Hindsight, and all that, but that’s what I did.

October 2014—I had coffee with Patti Callahan Henry. She is the author of a large handful of lovely Southern novels, and she happens to live in Birmingham. I’d been keeping track of her (in a very non-creepy way) for a while, and finally met her at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. We made plans to meet for coffee. We chatted about life and writerly things, then she asked about my book. I gave her the rundown, and she asked me to send her the query and synopsis. I did, and she emailed and asked if she could send the query and synopsis to an editor friend of hers, Ami McConnell, at Thomas Nelson, a division of Harper Collins. Obviously, I said yes.

November 2014—Patti connected me and Ami. Ami read my query and asked for the full manuscript. I sent it.

November 2014—Contest Agent finally sent a rejection email. She gave feedback similar to what my Top Choice Agent gave.

December 2014—participated in PitMad, a pitch contest on twitter where agents request manuscripts based on a short Twitter-sized pitch. I got several requests. I highly recommend these because they give you a chance to hone your pitches, query letters, and manuscript.

February 2015—Participated in SunVsSnow, another Twitter pitch contest. An agent who requested my manuscript during PitMad (and ultimately rejected it) requested it again. I’d made some revisions, so I sent it on with a note saying she’d read an earlier version. She rejected it again but gave me a key piece of advice—she suggested I cut the first two chapters entirely and start with chapter 3, because that was where the action really started. This resonated with what the very first two agents had told me—so I did it. Manuscript now begins with chapter 3. Much tighter and makes a lot of sense.

Early part of 2015—querying, querying, querying. Never heard back from Patti’s editor friend. I read in Publisher’s Lunch that she moved to another publishing house. I assumed my manuscript had gotten lost in the shuffle.

April 2015—I got an email from Karli Jackson, an editor at Thomas Nelson. She told me the editor friend of Patti Henry had gotten had passed my manuscript on to her before she left the company, saying she liked it and wanted another set of eyes on it. Karli said my manuscript was still bouncing around their offices and she wanted to know if I’d have any luck in the agent department. (Cue mic drop #2.) I told her no agent yet but that I had several partials and a couple fulls out and was hopeful. I asked if I could send her my revised manuscript, since what she had still had those first two chapters I’d decided to cut. I sent her the revised ms.

May 2015—Got a rejection from an agent who had been very promising. Emailed Karli to ask if she had any suggestions for agents she knew who might be interested in my type of novel. (Usually I would never ask an editor that, but this was already an unusual situation and Karli had been super helpful and encouraging. I figured I had nothing to lose, but possibly a good deal to gain by asking.)

June 5 2015—Karli emailed to say my novel would be discussed at the next week’s acquisitions meeting. EEEEKKKK! I got on the horn (as an old boyfriend used to say) and emailed all the agents who had a query, partial, or full and let them know of the development. I put *Editor Interest* in the subject line to get their attention. A couple passed right then, and a few thanked me for letting them know and said they’d read what they had asap.

June 6—I looked at some of the Thomas Nelson authors who write women’s fiction and looked up who their agents were. One name, Karen Solem, stood out, and when I looked her up, I was shocked to find that she was looking for the exact type of story I had written. I didn’t know how I hadn’t run across her in my agent search. So I sent her a query and first three chapters, explaining that my story would be in TN’s acquisitions meeting, and that I was still hoping to find an agent who believed in me and my story.

June 8—Karen wrote me back saying she was very interested in the story and would read asap.

June 9—Karen wrote saying she loved what I sent and set up a time for us to talk the next day.

June 10—we spoke on the phone. She told me she loved the synopsis and first three chapters and offered to represent me. (Eeeekk!) I did what I had been advised by every writer’s blog and discussion thread from here to the moon and told her I needed time to let the other agents know and said I’d give her my answer in two weeks. I could tell she wasn’t too pleased with the wait time! (In hindsight, I should have said I’d give them a few days. If they wanted the story bad enough, they could have made their mind up very quickly!) I also told her I was thrilled she loved the first three chapters, and that I was even more excited to know how she felt after reading the whole thing.

In next two weeks, I waited for answers from agents who had queries/partials, particularly one agent who had a full and who I also thought would be a good fit for me. I’d originally queried her back in May but never heard from her. I’d written her again with “Offer of Rep” in subject line.

June 22—spoke on the phone to the other agent I’d been waiting for. She offered rep. We spoke for an hour and clicked really well. She liked my book a lot, had some suggestions, and hoped to work with me.

(FYI, I was at the beach with my family at this time. Totally freaking out.)

2:00—phone call with Karli and two others at Thomas Nelson. Discussed how my book would fit into their audience and vision. Told them I was trying to decide between Karen and the other agent who had offered me rep. Great conversation that left me super excited. They had not yet made the decision to offer me a contract, but things were looking good.

After a LOT of pacing and thinking and making an actual pro/con list, I decided to work with Karen—she’s been in the business a long time, she’s worked extensively with Thomas Nelson and knows the editors, and everyone I talked to about her (other writers) thought it was a BIG deal that she offered me representation. Called her and gave her the news—she was super pumped. Called the other agent and told her the news—she was disappointed, but said good luck. I decided I did not like being on the other side—the one actually giving the rejection.

July 9 2015—Karli emailed me and Karen telling us the team at Thomas Nelson had decided to move forward with The Hideaway. The next step was to talk to the sales team.

July 29—Karli emailed saying they received all the feedback they needed and everyone was in full support of my little novel! (Eeeeekkk!) They would begin circulating all the necessary paperwork and hoped to send an offer soon.

August 11—morning of both of my kids’ meet the teacher orientations at school and I got a phone call from Karen saying she’d gotten the offer from Thomas Nelson—a two-book deal with the first book coming out spring of 2017, next book a year after that. My brain was fried for the rest of the day.

August 12—spoke to Karli on the phone and had a great conversation. She’s super easy to talk to, very excited about my book(s), and we totally clicked. Couldn’t be more excited! (Thinking back on this conversation even now makes me smile.)

Between August and November I tried to be very patient. Emailed Karen once a month to check in (which means I tried not to sound like a bothersome nag but I really wanted to get my signature on the proverbial dotted line!)

November 9 2015—finally got the actual contract. Read through it, talked to Karen about it, then signed four copies and mailed them back to Nashville. Woohoo.

So where am I now? I am not writing! To be more specific, I’m taking time off from writing—time to enjoy the holidays, read, watch Friday Night Lights, notice Christmas before it passes by and is gone for another year. Just before Thanksgiving, I finished a supremely rough draft of what I’d originally thought would be book two, but now I’m thinking I will work on something else in January—a story I previously started but paused because I thought it was too heavy for a second book. Now though, in light of the pain and grief I’ve seen people go through over the last little while (including my own family as my sweet mom has been diagnosed with the beast of cancer), I’m thinking a book with teeth and meat on its bones is what’s in order. It’s tentatively titled Hurricane Season, and I love the idea of it. (And I’m experienced enough with this sort of thing to know that part of the reason I love it is because I haven’t yet really gotten into it, and any book seems bright and shiny and full of hope and promise before you actually begin writing it.)

Until next time, folks.

 

The Friday Five: Tim Riggins, Twinkle Lights, & Inventing Confidence

  1. If asked what my biggest fear is, I’d have three—the dark (which is probably just a fear of what goes bump in the night when all the lights are off), roaches (don’t even get me started), and public speaking. This last one is a biggie, but fortunately, it’s not one that affects me all too much, mainly because I just avoid the issue. But with the publication of a book in a year and a half and the ensuing book tour, speaking in public will be firmly on my agenda. I’ve heard countless ways in which a person can try to overcome this type of fear, but the one that’s stuck with me the most is “invent your confidence.” It sounds a little like a take on “fake it until you make it.” Pretend you are confident, act like you are confident, and no one will know you feel like you’re about to throw up. Good thing for me I have a long time to work on it!
  2. I went over to a friend’s house the other day for a little visit. This friend is super stylish and gorgeous, and her house is the same way. Every time I’ve been there, it’s this little cozy den of style and beauty. Well, this time when I went, we’d been standing by her dining room table for a few minutes when she laughed and reached over to the center of the table and picked up one of her husband’s athletic socks. It had been lying in the center of the table right by her pretty candlesticks and Christmas decorations. I hadn’t noticed at all, but she did—and apologized profusely. The thing was—I loved it! It was a like a little nugget of reality in the middle of something beautiful. All beauty has a rough side and everything rough has beauty, even if it’s buried down deep. In this season where everything and everyone is decked out to the nines, if a friend stops by, or even if you have a party or gathering at your house, don’t fret if something is left out of place or isn’t perfect. Instead of offending people, it’ll more likely make your guests feel more at home, like they aren’t the only ones with a life that isn’t picture-perfect and magazine-worthy. (Come to think of it, maybe more magazines and Pinterest pics should show those stray socks and spills. It’ll make the rest of us feel more normal!)
  3. Everything is better with twinkle lights.
  4. Since I’m taking a break from writing this month, I’ve been revisiting Dillon, Texas, during my youngest child’s quiet time in the afternoons, and I’m loving it quite a bit. I binge-watched Friday Night Lights a couple summers ago and decided it was high time to visit the Panthers again. They don’t disappoint.
  5. I continue to be amazed by the children’s department at our local library. They are always putting on special activities, shows, and events for kids and their families, and the only thing they are guaranteed to get in return is a room full of spilled snacks, crayon drawings on the tables, and overturned drinks. Their sole purpose in putting these events on is to draw people to the library, to get people reading, to engage with the community. How cool is that?! #IWishIWereALibrarian

See y'all next week!

Parenting, zombies, and cussing: The Friday Five (on Saturday!)

*This Friday Five installment is brought to you on Saturday because of the utter craziness of my Friday.

1. Y’all, parenting feels like a battle these days. Yes, good is mixed in too, but with a 6 year old who is learning to be quite sassy and a 3 year old who loves both her sister and pestering her sister (and neither of whom love to listen to parental guidance), I feel like I’m coming up against a wall over and over. I pulled this book out a few days ago—time for a re-read.

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I love this book because it’s not a how-to manual for parents. It doesn’t give Five Steps to Make Parenting Easy, or Ten Things to do to Make Your Kids Listen to You NOW, or Here’s What You’re Doing Wrong in Your Parenting World. Instead, it basically tells you how to manage *yourself* during parenting. It’s good to remind myself that my job as a parent—the purpose to having kids—is to raise little people who love Jesus. When I think of it that way, it’s a little easier to get my own selfishness out of the way. (ie, it’s not all about me and how if I could JUST get five seconds of not being asked a thousand questions and breaking up a dozen silly arguments about how she stole that toy from me, that toy that came from Chick Fil A four years ago and has been under the couch since the day we brought it home…then I’d be a sane woman.) Newsflash: they are little humans whom Jesus loves fiercely and who deserve respect, not just a mama at the end of her rope.

2. This book.

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Read it. (Sorry for the doodles across the front--courtesy of my 3 year old.) I think you could glean oodles of wisdom out of it even if you’re not a writer. It has such beautiful nuggets tucked in on every page that apply to life as a whole. It blows me away with its wisdom and grace every time I pick it up. I mean, listen to this: “Middles are where you have to tough things out. Ideas fall apart. All that promise vanishes when facing the cold, harsh light of making something out of it. Middles challenges us to find our tenacity and our patience, to remind ourselves that it is within this struggle—often just at the height of hopelessness, frustration, and despair—that we find the most hidden and valuable gifts in the process. Just as in life.” See what I mean?

3. Lest you think I’m always reading such fine self-help books that show me how to “love my kids with the love of Jesus” or how I must daily summon “stamina, optimism, discipline, and hope,” I’ll let you in on a secret. Every Sunday night, after a beautiful church service, my husband and I watch zombies. We’ve been doing it for years. In the crush and chaos of feeding and bathing the kids in the half hour we have between getting home from church and the kids’ bedtime, one of us will remember that it’s Walking Dead night, meaning as soon as the kids are down, we get our cups of ice cream and land on the couch for an hour of something my mom would be shocked and awed by if she knew I watched it. I binge watched the first several seasons on Netflix over the course of one summer. I was so deeply engaged with the Walking Dead world, I’d find myself out in our backyard, hear a rustle in the bushes, and for just a split second—half that, really—I’d think, “Zombie.” It’s not like that now though. This season is lagging, slow and uneventful. However, on Thanksgiving day, we were at my husband’s aunt and uncle’s large spread of land outside of Birmingham. We were in a truck riding through his wooded property—nothing but trees and leaves and hills—and we both thought it’d made a good place to escape—you know, in case of a zombie apocalypse. It’d be a little hard to protect, but we could make it work.

4. I’m writing this post in an incredibly quiet house. It’s just me, my fingers tapping on the keys, and the heater clicking on and off. My kids are at their grandparents’ house! And Matt and I had a fun date last night with another couple who we really love. We met for drinks first at this swanky bar downtown (What?! Meeting for drinks before dinner? Whose life is this?!) then ate guacamole and quesadillas at El Barrio, a hip, cool Mexican place that’s not really Mexican, more like fresh Latin/Mexican foods with cool ingredients and a good beer list. It was an outstanding night. I love my kids, but man, did I love getting dressed without being interrupted eighty-two times, driving downtown with my handsome husband, slipping into a dark booth, and having good drinks, good food, and fun conversation.

5. I saw a button on someone’s Facebook page that made me laugh. I tried to cut and paste it here, but since I'm super non-techy, it wouldn't work for me. It said, "I love Jesus but I cuss a little." I think it sort of, in a way, describes me—I love Jesus but close your ears if I stub my toe or if something startles me. I love Jesus, but I’m not gonna lie—some days, I can hardly wait for 5:00 when I can have a drink and not feel guilty. (Sometimes the early winter darkness bumps that time up a bit.) I love Jesus, but I’m not a beautiful, shining thing, untarnished and gleaming. I have some dirt around my edges. He doesn’t let me stay in my dirt—I have to wrestle with it and over and over drop it in His lap—but He loves me anyway and for that, I’m thankful.

FYI, I plan to add some Spotlight posts on authors, readers, other bloggers, and book reviewers in the coming months. If you'd like to be included, let me know in the comments!

See you next week, friends.

The Inaugural Edition of The Friday Five!

And without much ado at all, I give you the very first edition of The Friday Five, in which I tell you about five things I like, don’t like, am obsessing over, think you should look into, think you should avoid, want to know more about, wish I’d never heard about, or generally think are worth your time. Or maybe they’ll just be five random, disconnected thoughts that are floating through my brain and want to come out in some way, shape, or form! At any rate, it’s a way for me to share a bit about myself and hopefully connect with you, dear friend. So, here goes.

 

  • Today I found a Christmas card on the side of the road in a pile of leaves. It was during my morning walk, and my eyes were on the ground because I’d been picking up random sale papers that had fallen out of a newspaper bag (see—more Black Friday mess. The sale papers were littering our neighborhood!) So the red and green of the card caught my eye, so I picked it up. Here it is. I just thought it was such a throw back to how Christmas cards used to be. No smiling, picture-perfect family, no professional photographers, just “Merry Christmas from the four of us.” Inside was a handwritten note from the family. I love seeing those smiling faces of my friends and family, but there’s something about the simplicity of this card that I like. Even if decorating a tree is nothing like this. Here, the kids are all, “Here’s the wreath, Mom,” all calm and well-behaved. At our house, we’ll be trying to keep the kids from climbing the tree and breaking all the ornaments.

 

  • This is a picture of our three-year-old. She was sent to her room to “cool off” after frantically fighting gently bickering with her older sister over a Black Friday sale paper depicting a Barbie in various states of undress. This is her tiptoeing out of her room dressed as a “horseowldinosaur,” according to our nephew. Obviously, “time-out” doesn’t mean much to her. At least not when her dress up box is in her room.

 

  • This is my beautiful mom. She has cancer and spent Thanksgiving week in the hospital for her second round of week-long chemo treatment. I am driving to my hometown of Mobile today to visit her and my dad. I’m going to make them dinner, help them get the house in order, and generally make as much merriment and offer as much peace as I can. Because they deserve it and cancer stinks. (But God is still good.)

 

  • This was the sky yesterday on my morning walk. I hope it was as beautiful and clear wherever you were, or are today.

Thanks for reading, friends. Let’s do this again.

Writing as a balm for real life

I began this blog as a way to document my journey to what I hoped would be publication of my first novel. Things are good in that realm, and while I wait for the official okay to give more details about that, I need to write about something in my non-writing life, because of how it will affect my writing life. I’ve just found out my mom has cancer. And it’s likely pretty advanced. To say it’s heartbreaking is a profound understatement. I was thinking about it yesterday on a long solo (as in stroller-less) walk I took yesterday afternoon. So far in my life, probably the hardest thing that’s happened to me is our “journey” (sometimes I hate that word) through infertility. But that process was a slow dawning of realization, a creeping acceptance that took time—months, years—then finally, it was over. But this? A kick in the gut that came out of nowhere. We were all tra-la-la,-ing through life, then BAM. We all (the four of us and my brother and his family) dropped everything and drove home to see my parents on Friday forty-eight hours after hearing the news. We don’t know many details yet—hopefully more will come soon. Because if waiting for fertility procedures and waiting for publication news is hard, it’s nothing like waiting to hear your precious mom’s diagnosis and prognosis. It’s excruciating.

Interestingly, ideas for both my current story and the one I’ve put on pause until I finish this one have been coming fast and furious over the last few days. I’ve been scribbling notes hither and yon, little bits of conversation, small snapshots of life in these places I’ve created in my mind. Little things I don’t want to forget, so I can run back to the computer and type them up. I’m also thinking of books I want to read. It’s like I’m mentally stacking them up, saving them for later when things are hard and shutting my brain off is preferable to real life. I’m making a list in my head of very non-scary books—things like The Rosie Project. A Walk in the Woods. Maybe rereading Where’d You Go Bernadette. Good books, but nothing that will make me cry.

I realized this weekend that reading and writing—two of my favorite things—may help get me through this. They, along with copious amounts of prayer, may serve as my coping mechanisms. Yes, I realize it’s unhealthy to shut down when things get hard, but it’s also a form of self-preservation. Reading has always been a form of escape for me—a way to shut out real life or a long day and let myself get carried away with someone else’s story. Writing is my way of creating those stories for other people. Additionally, the thought of giving my mom something great to read while she’s in treatment gives me even more motivation to keep my butt in the chair and write as much as possible. Finish this draft of my WIP so I can polish it, then start on the next. For me and for her. Keep them coming, so she’ll have fun things to read and I can have this imaginary dream world to escape to when my own world is too harsh and jagged. Keep writing and keep praying—not just for healing and faith, peace and strength, but also for the real end—for Jesus to return to get us all out of this mess. Life is beautiful, but sometimes it feels like walking on broken glass with bare feet—hopping around trying to dodge the pain, but knowing it’s coming sometime. It’s also not home. I long for home more and more every day. Reading stories where things mostly work out in the end, and writing those same stories, is a way to bring a little bit of heaven to readers—and to myself. The books I read and the ones I write aren’t heavenly by any means, but they speak of love and family, community and hope. We surround ourselves with those things to stave off evil in the world—evil that comes to us through news reports of faraway places, and evil that comes to us through an innocuous phone call on a Wednesday morning about something, someone very near to us that changes our world.

I’m not always very good at dealing with emotions—especially hard ones, like grief and sadness. I don’t like to cry, especially not in front of other people. But right now, say the wrong thing to me, and the tears come faster than I can blink them away. It may be like that for a while. Who knows, I may be like that from here on out! But I also know things that help. Prayer is one. That’s where I find hope and peace, so it is—He is—where I go when I need to drink from water that heals—or at least band-aids—my broken heart. My husband is one—he’ll likely be the one who takes the brunt of my pain so I can put on somewhat of a brave face for the world.

And reading and writing will help too. Discarding my own life for even just a few minutes and putting on someone else’s, dealing with someone else’s hardships, humor, and mysteries instead of my own. Being choosy about what I read. Creating stories that end just how I want them to. Life doesn’t give us that option, so I’m thankful I have a “job” that allows me to choose how to things work out in the end. I’m also thankful that ultimately, things will work out—there will be peace, joy, healing, and no more tears. A gut-punch like this reminds me even more to pray for that day to come swiftly. While I wait—for all kinds of news—I’ll keep creating stories that give other people a chance to lay their burdens down and escape.

A little bit about rest

My children have an uncanny ability to sense the exact moment I try to squeeze in even a few seconds of rest. They know when I open a book, when I sit down with my (warm for the moment) breakfast, when I dare to prop my legs up on the ottoman. Mind you, I only attempt these incredible feats when I know the girls are playing happily, either together or separately, and there isn’t some other pressing chore I need to accomplish. They can be in another room entirely and if they get even a whiff of Mama’s moment of rest, they come running. All of the sudden, she took my toy, or she came in my room without asking, or she yelled at me. As an adult, it can be hard to find time for real rest. Either we are surrounded by little people who demand our time and energy, or we’re at work facing deadlines and customers, clients and budgets. We have meetings, obligations, exercise schedules, lunch dates. We strive to make sure our kids get all the sleep they need while neglecting our own bodies and minds that need rest as well. We push ourselves to get just a little bit more done before work, before the kids get up, before we go to sleep.

For me, at least, a mental break, if not a physical one, is crucial to my ability to get through the day in one piece. If we’re going-going-going, I find my attention and patience wanes the farther I get from rest. This rest doesn’t always come from actual sleep, because who can really fine extra hours to sleep? A few mornings of “sleeping in” instead of my usual 5:15 wake-up time is nice, but the rest can also come from other things—things either added in or taken away.

A month ago when school started back up, our schedule was packed with Meet the Teachers, Parent Nights, and figuring out how early we all had to get up and go to bed. There were decisions galore—what to make for school lunches, whether to let my new kindergartener go through the lunch line, how not to lose my mind if my sweet, tiny 5 year old cried at drop-off. Not to mention some big book news that occurred at the beginning of that very packed week that sent my already frazzled mind in a zillion different directions. (I’ll have details soon!)

By Friday of the first week, my brain was shot. I had one of those “if I don’t get to the couch right now, I will fall asleep standing up” moments. I successfully got my youngest tucked into bed for her nap, then I collapsed on the couch until time to pick up my oldest. That crash made me realize that during a time of extra-busyness—perhaps especially when it’s mental and emotional busyness—it’s so important to be gentle with ourselves. To let ourselves take a mental break when necessary. To not beat ourselves up for skipping out on something in order to arve out time for that rest. For me, it meant taking a break from the rigid early-morning writing schedule and letting myself sleep in a little, then just read for a week or so. In any down time at home, I picked up a book and let myself get lost in another world, instead of feeling like I had to Get to the computer! Fold laundry! Clean the bathtub! The extra hour or so of sleep in the mornings and the blank space in my head helped soothe my mind so I didn’t feel so frayed. Then slowly, I found myself back on solid footing again. Not with feet slipping here and there, but more confident and in control. Still emotional at random times, but that probably comes with the territory: my kids are growing up (although I know 3 and 5 doesn’t sound grown up to many people!), good things are happening in my writing life (good things can cause stress too, right?), it’s a new season of life, and I’m trying to hold it together and do what I can to be a good wife, mom, daughter, sister, friend. As we all are. Just forgive me if you find me conked out on the couch for a hour with a book in my hands.

On Life-Balancing and the Social Media Vortex

I have a very inconsistent relationship with social media, in all its forms. I love the people-stalking aspect of Facebook—it’s how most people relay information: new babies, weddings, career changes, what they had for dinner last night. I love the lack of status updates on Instagram. There’s no “your friend Sheila liked this,” followed by a random news article from a site called “The Realest News on the Planet—Seriously.” I love the tiny snippets of info on Twitter—bite-sized nuggets my mind can take in and spit out, with not much making a lasting impression. What I don’t love about social media is the addiction. Yes, I said addiction. If someone is addicted to alcohol or marijuana or whatever else, don’t they often say something like: “I can handle it. Just a little bit won’t hurt this time”? Ever said to yourself, “I’ll just take a peek for a few minutes while I wait for the oven to warm up/the kids to get their shoes on/the mechanic to change the oil” then find yourself still scrolling half an hour later? When that happens, can you honestly say you read something that changed your world? That altered your views on something? That made a change in your heart that is real and lasting? Or does it just make you compare yourself to all the slick photos, the peppy status updates, and the celebrations of accomplishments?

I’m asking these questions rhetorically, of course, and I’m not even really asking you. I’m preaching to myself. I slip into the internet vortex all the time, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. It’s a way to turn your brain off, to go slack, to tune out. The problem for me is when I find myself tuning out when my family is around. When the kids are around. When I should be doing other things. Oftentimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it—it’s not until someone calls my name that I realize I’ve slipped. And then comes the guilt. All at once, all those articles I’ve read about unplugging and hands-free parenting come flooding back to me and I feel like the most miserable speck of a mother, wife, human.

“My mom didn’t have to deal with this addictive distraction!” I’ll think, wishing I were parenting back before the internet. But I suppose those parents probably had their own means of distraction. TV? Books? Who knows? (Speaking of books, I don’t feel nearly as guilty if I’m “caught” hiding in the kitchen with my nose in a book. I figure if my kids see me so enthralled in reading a book, maybe that’ll push them even more toward a life of books and reading, something that would thrill me to no end.)

As a writer, social media is important. Twitter, especially, has been very valuable to me over the last couple of years. It’s a fantastic way to hear from other authors, to learn about what agents and editors are looking for, and to keep up with trends and changes in the publishing industry. Authors use Facebook as a way to give updates on upcoming books, book tours, and their writing lives. Can you be a writer and not be on social media? Of course you can. It might even be advantageous, to some degree. For example, writing my first two novels was easier, in many ways, than the one I’m working on now. Reason? I wasn’t on Twitter very much, therefore I didn’t read all those articles on the importance of the first line, the first five pages, and the first chapter; the hook, logline, and elevator pitch; the narrative arcs, inciting moments, and plotting devices. However, now that I know these things, I can’t un-know them. They inform my writing, but they also hinder the almost stream of consciousness writing that’s no necessary in a first draft.

Yet I think Twitter and FB are too important for me to cut them completely out of my life as a writer. With the book news that’s coming soon (I know, I know, annoying vagueness—details to come, I promise), I’ll just have to figure out a way to absorb the necessary information (while filtering out the junk) and connect with readers as much as possible while not letting it take over my life and all my time. How I’ll do that, I’m not sure. But I have to try. I’m an adult raising children—if I’ve learned anything, it’s how to balance several things at once. I don’t always do a good job, but it’s the trying that counts, right? Isn’t that what we teach our kids? Don’t throw in the towel, don’t be satisfied with a half-hearted effort. This life-balancing stuff definitely requires a full-hearted effort.

I was reading Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing this morning and she again wrote something that made me pull out my pen and take notice. She talks about being present both in the life you’ve created in your mind (in whatever story you’re writing) and in the life that’s happening all around you. She says, “Because if I’m present, I will miss nothing.” My mind amended that to say, “If I’m in my present, I will miss nothing.” Slipping into the social media vortex and absorbing all those photos, status updates, and tweets only results in me being present in someone else’s life. I’d rather be present in my own, thank you very much. What’s so important about anyone else’s life that it keeps me from living my own? Even if at that moment, living my own life means waiting patiently while the oven warms, the kids get dressed, or the mechanic changes the oil. That’s my life, and if my eyes are open to what’s around me (instead of down at what my fingers are scrolling through), I will miss nothing.

Tempering my Excitement (aka Good Things are in the Works!)

When I was pregnant with my first daughter Kate, I refused to register for baby things until I absolutely had to. I waited until I had a baby shower coming up, when I knew friends and family would want to buy us things we needed. I’m not sure I ever said it out loud to anyone, but I couldn’t allow myself to get too excited. Not when I felt things were still so not-guaranteed. So much could still go wrong—you heard sad stories every day of mamas losing babies, miscarriages, stillbirths, etc. I didn’t even write the due date on my calendar. At all. I couldn’t stomach the thought of turning to the November page and seeing “Kate’s due date!” staring up at me all covered in hearts and stars if in fact something bad had happened and she didn’t make it to her due date. Instead, I wrote it in after she was born. I can see how this hesitation to allow myself to feel excitement could look like pessimism or “the sky is falling” or a glass-half-empty outlook on life. I don’t think that’s it though. Much of this hesitation was likely due to the fact that we went through a couple of years of fertility *stuff* before getting pregnant with Kate. There were oodles of disappointments, and through that process, I learned to temper my excitement. It hurt to get my hopes up and allow myself to start thinking pink and blue thoughts, then have it turn out just like the month before. I found it was easier to expect the worst, then if the worst didn’t happen, it’d be that much better.

Now, before you think I missed out on all the excitement of the birth of my first child, rest assured, I didn’t. There was plenty of excitement, laughter, and happy tears before she was born, at the hospital, and after we got home. But there was something about having physical things—written or tangible—associated with her before she actually came that made me quiver with nervousness.

I have a similar feeling these days about my book and the possibility of its publication. It’s why I’ve waited a couple weeks before even attempting to write this “I Have an Agent!” post, and why it still may be weeks before I actually hit “post”: I’m afraid to get too excited about the possibility because I know things in publishing fall apart all the time.

I know, I know, usually it would be too early to worry about anything falling apart when nothing has actually happened to fall apart. Usually, when an author signs with an agent, the agent starts from scratch sending out letters and proposals to editors. My story is a tad different in that there was already an interested publisher (can't say who) before I signed with the agent (Karen Solem of Spencerhill Associates!) I was able to send my query to Karen with the subject line: *editor interest*, and she got back with me within a couple of days instead of my query getting warm and cozy in the slush pile as usual. I queried her in particular because I saw that she was the agent of another book similar to mine, and when I looked her up, her agency website said she was looking for the exact kind of story I had. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t found her and queried her earlier. She offered to represent my book pretty much right away, and since then, I’ve been mystified as to everyone’s interest in the book and me as an author!

Now, it’s not that I don’t think my book is good or worthy of anyone’s attention, because I do. I love the story, the characters, and the setting. It’s the kind of book I’d like to read, filled with sights and sounds and voices I’d love to sink into. I’m thrilled my agent believes in this story and me, and that the publisher in question does too. It’s just that a big part of me is sitting here waiting for the bad news (or the shoe to drop, the sky to fall, or however you want to say it!). Maybe the interested publisher backs out and no other publishers are interested. Maybe Karen says she can’t sell the book and for me to just work hard on book #2 and we’ll hope for that one. Honestly, I’ve prepared myself for all these eventualities. Not because I’m expecting them to happen, but as I said earlier, it’s easier for me to prepare for them, then enjoy the surprise and fun if they don’t happen. Even if something bigger than I can imagine happens. Because, despite all the doom and gloom I’ve set up here, I do believe big, exciting, wonderful, hopeful things can happen—even to me!

Stay tuned…

On dejection and preserving the light

I'm writing to admit something. I am in the middle of a significant writing slump. Although slump probably isn't the right word. It's a writing brick wall--but not writer's block persay, because I'm not writing much. You'd have to be writing to be blocked. Maybe it's more writer's dejection. You see, I got The Hideaway to a place where I was really happy with it. I'd edited and revised it to the point that I didn't think I could do any more--or I didn't want to do any more--without some professional intervention. (I mean an agent, although a professional for my mindset might be helpful too!) I didn't want to blindly take advice from well-meaning folks who had subjective suggestions about what I might want to think about changing. Like I said, it's all been well-meaning, and earlier in the process it was *crucial*, but I got to a point where I didn't think it was wise to make changes at whim, not knowing if it was a change that would further my chances at a "publishable" novel and securing an agent. I queried a lot between the end of the year and February. I think at this point, I'm at about 45 queries. So that means about 43 rejections. (I think I may still have a couple partial or fulls out right now, I can't remember without looking at my color-coded spreadsheet!)

I've had many partial and full requests, several personalized rejections which are great, and a couple of agents who said they'd like to see more of my writing down the line. But no takers, and honestly, I thought by this time, I'd have an agent. Maybe it was naïve of me to think like that, but there it is.

I found another reader through WFWA to read my manuscript. I thought someone with fresh eyes who knew nothing about the story would be helpful--and it was. It just wasn't what I wanted to hear! She was so detailed in her analysis of my story--really, exactly what you want in a beta reader. I think part of it was that we discussed her concerns and suggestions for the story in the middle of a week where almost everyone at my house was sick, including me, and I was already at a fairly low place. After our conversation, I was like a balloon with a hole, all the air leaking out. (And this was in NO way her fault! I'm still glad for her analysis!)

So those couple of sick weeks coupled with the disappointing story comments really put the brakes on my writing. You usually hear writers talking about contemplating stopping writing because of all the rejection. That's not my problem. I knew there would be a lot of rejection from the get go. I was prepared for it. I know I still have dozens and dozens of agents left who rep what I write and who I could potentially query. I haven't exhausted the list yet. No, the rejection isn't the problem. The lack of confidence in my writing skills is the problem. It's a new problem for me, and frankly, it puts me in a pretty scary place. I worry I don't have the storytelling ability to create a story that will appeal "to the masses." I know I'm a good writer. And no, I don't think I'm being egotistical to say that. I can write, but am I a good storyteller? There's a difference, and these days, there are so many books that zoom to the top of lists, books that *everyone* is talking about (at least on Twitter) that (in my humble opinion) aren't very well-written, but have the *hook* everyone wants. So the story trumps the writing.

Now, obviously there are books out there with both the great writing and the great storytelling. I crave those books. In fact, I tend to lose patience with (and be snarky about) books I read that are full of cliches and stereotyped characters and poor writing but that have those jump-off-the-page hooks or jaw-dropping cliffhangers, etc etc.

And I know you need both. I don't want to read 300 pages of beautiful sentences about nothing, just like the average reader doesn't.

I think I'm rambling now. And I'm on a soapbox, so I'll step down. Suffice it to say, I've lost confidence in my ability to write a compelling story. I feel like I've lost that drive I had at one point to write the kind of stories I like to read. I love reading Southern fiction, stories about families, friendships, marriages, humor, the Southern world that is so familiar to me. I used to think I could add to what's already out there, but now I'm not so sure. Part of it is the fault of Twitter, I think. I use Twitter to follow writers and agents so I'll know what's going on in the industry, and it's been very helpful. It's introduced me to agents I otherwise wouldn't have known of or cared about. But it's also worn me down. All the posts about books that zip up the charts, the cover reveals, posts about writers getting "the call," agents railing about this type of story or that type of query. Helpful stuff, but somehow, it's gotten tangled up in my mind so much that it's buried my original desire to write. I don't know what I want to say anymore or how to move forward with writing another story.

I started my next novel during the querying process of The Hideaway. I got about 60 pages in then got stuck. My damn indecision (and this is a recurring problem for me that shows up in many areas of my life) has glued my feet to the ground. Or glued my brain. I have about ten different directions the story can go and instead of being able to just pick the one that sits well with me, that feels right, I'm stuck worrying about whether it has the hook agents (and readers) want. When I was writing The Hideaway (and the bad novel before that), I didn't yet know enough to worry about the hook. I think that was very freeing. I wish I could clear my mind of all the clutter and just write the story I want to read. That's what I did with The Hideaway--I wrote the story I wanted to read. And I still love the story. But my ability to choose a direction with this next story (or the other one I started when this one stalled) has me glued down and it is so frustrating. I just don't trust myself or my writing. And I wonder about all the time I've spent working toward something that truly may never come to fruition. Yes, I write because I love it (or I did before all this started) and it feels like a part of me, like another arm or something, but my goal isn't just to put words on the page and feel good about it. It's to have my books on a bookshelf. To be a writer of books. To add, in some small, insignificant way, to the world of literature. To scratch out my own little corner of The Library of Congress!

I'm coming off about a three-week break of writing. It started when the kids got sick, then I got sick, then the slump/brick wall hit. It just wasn't fun, I needed the sleep instead of the 5am wake up call, and I felt like the writing was a pointless endeavor. Truly. So I didn't open my computer for a little while. Then I went to the Southern Voices festival at the Hoover Library. I heard six or seven authors talk about their books and their writing journeys. It was inspiring, as usual, to be around so many book people. One writer in particular said he was rejected by 100 agents. He finally found success with a small press. The festival renewed me a bit. Enough to crack open my computer again this week. I still felt like I was pushing against that brick wall, but I suppose it may feel like that for a while. If I submit to the brick wall and quit writing, what will that prove? Only that I let the voice of the world around me silence my own inner light. (That's what my desire to write stories feels like sometimes--like a candle burning deep inside me somewhere.) And that applies to other parts of my life too. Our impermanent, flighty, short-attention-span world tries to snuff out all kinds of lights. "You're too fat, too thin, your breasts aren't big enough, you don't wear that quite right, you have wrinkles, your books are too "quiet," I don't want to keep turning your pages, I'm uninterested in you and your quiet self, you don't have enough friends, you should join this group or that group, you're in the wrong group..." If I submit to that brick wall, it'll just be one more way of giving in to the loud voices of the world around me. Instead, I should fight to keep that inner candle glowing and try as much as I can to transcribe that light onto the page.

So that is what I'll try to do. It may be a while before I get back to a place where I'm willingly up every morning at 5 to write. (That actually was a glorious place and it's what helped me crank out The Hideaway and stick with it through the editing and revising.) But I cannot ignore the siren call of the blank page. I'll try to meet it when I can and get down the words and fictional worlds that roll around in my head. Maybe it'll all come together sometime into a cohesive story, maybe not. But I can't submit. It feels too much like a failure on my part. That I'm failing me--the Lauren who years ago stuck her stake in the ground and said she wanted to be a writer of books.

Embracing the Chaos of Life

I've learned something crucial about myself over the last few months, and I think it all stems from writing. I have a very hard time letting myself rest and relax, even when my body (not to mention my mind) needs it. Starting in August, both my daughters have been going to preschool three days a week. I was so excited about having the four hours, three mornings a week to write and read. Do you know how many of those hours I've spent actually writing or reading? Less than five, I'm sure. Granted, I have to take advantage of that time to do some of the things that are easier to do without kids in tow, but that still leaves some hours left to fill however I choose. I thought it would be much easier for me to fill those hours working on writing or editing projects. Instead, I'm finding myself "busying" my way through the hours--cleaning those crumbs off the floor, tackling the bathrooms, organizing everyone's fall clothes, making a grocery list--things that need to be done and are easier to do without the kids around, but things that totally zap any "me" time I thought I'd get. Then BAM, it's time to pick up the kids and continue with the busying and scurrying--putting away their school stuff, folding laundry, playing with blocks, preparing dinner, eating dinner, cleaning up from dinner, bath, etc etc etc, then finally bed for the kids. That leaves me about an hour and a half to take a shower, eat some ice cream (because, come on), talk to my husband, catch up on a TV show and/or read a bit, then fall into bed.

This process has drained me! I'm feeling pretty ragged and fidgety, and it's stemming from this apparent inability I have to let myself to relax. So I'm on a mission to force myself to STOP the scurrying, and do what's necessary to let myself sit down, have some minutes to do whatever the hell I want to do--whether it's catch up on Project Runway, read a book, take a nap--whatever. I'm trying to see these three kid-free mornings a week as a teeny bit of reward of "working" at home with two very small, stubborn, and sweet bosses. I need to take the rewards when they come.

As I said, part of this craziness in my brain stems from writing. I think part of the fidgety-ness, part of my inability to focus, is that I'm not in the middle of a big writing project, and that makes me feel a bit rudder-less. I've finished The Hideaway, and while I have played around with a few different beginnings to stories, nothing is holding my attention, so I haven't been able to really dive into a new story. The Hideaway came at me almost fully formed--or at least a rough outline did--so I'm waiting for that to hit me out of the blue again. In the meantime, I'm trying to keep my rear in the writing chair so my fingers are moving and my brain is working in that direction. When the "muse" comes (or whatever happens), I want to be in front of my computer so I can catch it. Or at least have a scratch piece of paper lying around so I can jot it down!

This antsy feeling when I'm not in the middle of writing a novel shows me that writing is a part of my life--a part of me--that's not likely going to go away. On the one hand, I'm thankful that it's a part of my life--I love creating stories and writing them down (even though Good Lord, it is so hard)-- but it also scares me a little because of this present feeling of purposeless-ness. I don't particularly want to spend the next fifty years of my life either feeling like I need to rush to the computer all the time to write just a little bit more, or feeling like banging my head against the wall because the words JUST WON'T COME! I'd like to be a little more even-keeled! I may look even-keeled, but usually, what's going on in my mind is anything but that. But I'm trying to rest in the waiting, rest in the chaos, embrace all that is in my life--good and bad writing days, messy floors, crumbs on the table, Frozen music blaring out of my daughter's room at all hours. After all, just living life--embracing it, savoring it, paying attention to it--probably gives the best fodder for stories.

And now my day begins. My two-year-old daughter just crawled out of her crib and is likely pulling the clothes out of her dresser drawers (I can hear her on the monitor.) My almost five-year-old daughter just ran into the "baby"s room saying, "Hey there!" Their sweet voices mingle together, making me smile. But if I don't hurry, the baby will find her way into the diaper rash ointment--again--and decide to taste it, even though she found out the first time that that wasn't a great idea.

Put it to bed (better late than never)

I've started querying again. But the difference is, this time around, I'm not running to the phone every time my email dings and I'm not waiting with suspended breath for those responses to come in. The first time around was exhilarating. When I got my first request for a full, I ran into the bathroom where my husband was taking a shower, blurted it out to him, then promptly started crying! I don't think that will happen again! (The crying, not the full request--I do hope that comes again.) I think I was so raw the first time around, it being the first time I'd send my little "baby" out into the world--kind of like the first time you send your child off to school, hoping she is happy and makes friends and people like her. SoI sent the original batch of queries (10-12 in all, over a period of about 4 weeks) and waited. It didn't take as long to get responses back as I thought it would. That's part of why I went ahead and sent a big handful out--I'd heard over and over how it can take months to hear anything back. My novel was finished, but I admit, there was still a bit of fine-tuning to be done. I was counting on those agents taking forever to get to my little query in the slush pile! When the first agent asked for the full less than 48 hours after I sent it, I was so elated, I didn't pause to think about the fine-tuning in the back of my mind. I was satisfied with my story as a whole.

But the feedback she gave me was so valuable. Among the good things she said, she pointed out that she thought there was too much backstory at the beginning. My first thought was, "Man, if she thought this had a lot of backstory, she should have read my first (under the bed) novel!" That thing had pages and pages of unnecessary backstory, and I used that novel as a lesson to myself to not include as much in The Hideaway. Except that once I started thinking about what she said, and browsing through my ms, I realized, "Sh*t! It's here too!"

So I did a revision. I printed the whole thing out, highlighted blocks of unnecessary backstory, and cut chunks of explanation and character histories. Nothing about the plot changed, but I ended up CUTTING OUT the first two chapters of the novel. Now, the novel starts with what was chapter 3, and it has *6,000* fewer words! It is mean, lean, and ready for action. I thought the novel was in a finished state before, but now I truly know it is. I do think you can edit a thing to death, so I have stacked up my two-and-a-half-inch thick stacks of paper, added a title page with the completed word count, and resumed querying. This time, I am more confident in my story's potential. I sent a revised 50 pages to the agent who had originally requested them, and another agent has a partial as well.

I will say this though--it was HARD to cut out most of those 6,000 words. Probably 2,000 were easy to lose, but cutting the rest really taught me the meaning of "murder your darlings." I thought I knew what it meant, but cutting some of  my favorite parts of text was super hard. I saved them all in an "unused stuff" file, so if I ever want to reread it, it's there, but it was hard to take it out of the story. But I do think the book as a whole is better for it.

So, onward. I sat down at the computer this morning and wasn't sure exactly what to do. In the waiting period after sending my first batch of queries and before I did the revision, I'd started writing something else, but I'm finding it hard to get back to that. My past experience is that once I start a story, I have to keep rolling with it every day or I lose steam. Hopefully I can find some tendril of steam to pick up on and get back to that story. My fingers itch to write, not just edit and revise.

Good writing vibes to everyone!

Lauren