Posts Tagged ‘writing’
I asked my fellow YA and MG writers whose debut novels appeared in 2010 to answer a few questions about their publishing and writing lives today, three years after our books came out. Of the original 72 writers who were eligible to reply (they were in The Tenners), 23 responded anonymously between May 20 and June 14, 2013, and all of the respondents reported themselves as actively writing still. In case you’d like a hint to remember some of the new names from 2010, our year included Julie Kagawa (The Iron King), Leah Cypess (Mistwood), Kiersten White (Paranormalcy), Stephanie Perkins (Anna and the French Kiss), Jennifer Hubbard (The Secret Year), Teri Hall (The Line), and Becca Fitzpatrick (Hush, Hush).
While this survey admittedly captures a small sample and is not scientific, the results are still interesting. For instance, the results suggest that the turnover of a writer’s editors is more common than the turnover of her agents, and that many of these writers are satisfied with their writing lives. If you’ve ever thought that a writer doesn’t have to have a bestseller or earn a living writing to be satisfied with her writing, this small sample supports that theory.
My heartfelt thanks to the writers who completed my survey. I appreciate their honesty and admire their tenacity.
1. Are you actively writing now (10+ hours per week)?
Yes: 23 (100%)
2. Since your debut came out, how many more of your books have been released (not including the debut or any indie-pubbed books)?
Zero: 6 (26%)
1 or 2: 14 (61%)
3 or more: 3 (13%)
3. Do you currently have a contract for your next book?
Yes: 13 (57%)
4. Are you still working with the same editor you had in 2010?
Yes: 5 (22%)
No: 18 (78%)
5. If you had an agent in 2010, are you still working with the same one?
Yes: 16 (69%)
No: 5 (22%)
Had no agent: 2 (9%)
6. Do you now earn a living by your writing?
Yes: 8 (35%)
No: 15 (65%)
7. Have you had a NYT bestseller?
Yes: 2 (9%)
No: 21 (91%)
8. Have you indie-published since 2010?
Yes: 2 (9%)
No: 21 (91%)
9. Are you satisfied with your publishing life?
Yes: 14 (64%)
No: 8 (36%)
10. Are you satisfied with your writing life?
Yes: 21 (91%)
No: 2 (9%)
A: Yes. Regularly. It isn’t simply that they make choices I didn’t see coming or say surprising things. There’s this play between what I consciously expect them to do when faced with a problem and what spontaneously happens once they’re in a scene. Sometimes they do what I expect, but their reasoning for it is more complicated than I thought. Sometimes they say what I expect, but it turns out to be a lie.
What I especially like is the way characters keep evolving through different drafts. The layers help me better understand their motivations, and how they’ll feel in response to a comment from another character so I can convey that emotion.
For instance, I have a guy character who seems well adjusted and easy going. He’s smart, modest, and from an intact, wealthy family. I think of him as classy and deeply good, which presents a special challenge. It’s hard to generate a lot of interest for a guy who is good. If he’s predictable as well, he risks coming off as boring.
A bad guy who’s complex and conflicted can’t really hide that he has problems. Such a character is easier to write about, in a way, even if he’d be awful to live with, so it has been tempting to play around with making my good guy character secretly troubled. This morning, in a pivotal scene in Project Next, he let drop a comment about his righteous older sister, and all the sudden, I had a completely new glimpse into why he is the way he is, and the costs for that. Do I have him all figured out now? No. Will this completely change the entire novel? No. But this new angle of him changes how I see him and every interaction he has, and it is certain to shape how I revise from this point onward.
It helps to remember that characters are entitled to true personalities, and human personalities are a combination of the ways we change and don’t change over time. In real life, we can be surprised by people we know, but deep down, we know if they do something out of character. When a friend unexpectedly takes up dancing at age thirty, or decides to divorce her husband of forty years, it’s natural for us to wonder how well we knew her before and adjust our views. When book characters make big choices, they reveal their true personalities, and this liberates us to vicariously make choices, too. Those are the surprises I appreciate.
This may be just me, but I need occasional bright things in books. Once, when I read a string of YA dystopias back to back, the physically dark settings had me feeling like I lived in a cave, and I needed a break. By contrast, I was rereading Levine’s Ella Enchanted this spring, and I actively noticed the happy scenes of friendship, which were just as nourishing as physical brightness. Of course, it made the contrast all the worse when Ella lost those friendships and had to endure loneliness, but those bright spots had existed. I felt them within me, and I felt them in the balance and movement of the book.
I like writing grim stories where the trouble perpetually gets worse. It’s fun to work that way, and if I don’t have enough conflict in a section, I tend to feel like I’m doing something wrong. It makes me impatient. Questioning or tinkering with my conflict barometer feels risky to me, but I’m finding that taking a chance to lighten up a scene also gives me room to develop a relationship. It reminds me of how I revised Birthmarked, when the flashback scene with Gaia’s father and the development of several scenes with Leon came late to the framework, when it felt safe to hold back the action a moment to let the characters and relationships come forward.
It’s always about balance, isn’t it? This time, I have physically bright settings to work with, in spades. I have conflict, and the right characters to manipulate. I just have to find the right balance of bright and grim.
Sometimes, when my plot has become snarled in a traffic jam, I think of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with its straight-forward, train-wreck focus, where we start steadily down a track and accelerate fast toward a visible and unavoidable disaster. Lennie kills a mouse, then kills a puppy, then crushes a man’s hand, then kills a woman, and each time we try to forgive him and search for someone else to blame because we believe he is an innocent at heart.
I look at this plot, this driving plot that builds on injury and dreams, and the way its simplicity releases all these complex moral problems, and then I look at my own draft. It is nowhere close to where it needs to be. I’m not Steinbeck, but that doesn’t excuse me from trying to learn from him.
So, these days, I’m looking at a 75-page section of my current novel, a piece between two major points of action, and I’m stepping back to ask how the scenes in this section create or don’t create a progression. I’m finding some scenes are only a few pages long. The more satisfying scenes are 8+ pages long but feel like they fly. This reminds me I’m better off stringing together a few significant scenes than many brief ones. I need to mindfully pick the scenes that matter, order them to build, flesh them out, cut the others or fold their dialogue into the preserved scenes, and see what else might still need to be added.
This is my sixth draft. On one hand, I feel like ought to know what I’m doing with my novel by now. My mess seems like evidence that I’m no good at this. On the other hand, I am determined. I will invent the process I need to judge this section and revise it. Then I’ll move on to the next.
Oh, my gosh. Do you remember how much of life used to be devoted to combating silliness? I can still hear the multitude of grownups minding us to sit still, quit that giggling, mind yer manners, or cut that out, and in every case I nearly keeled over from laughing inside. School, church, the dinner table, grocery store aisles, and the back of the car were all prime for silliness and the squelching of it.
Then I had kids of my own, and silliness abounded again. I was not good at stifling it, needless to say. Even now, I just have to look at a kid and I want to start laughing. That’s why I knew I’d never be any good as an elementary school teacher. Whenever I went in as a volunteer parent or substitute aide, I just wanted to laugh with everybody or give them hugs, which was so not allowed for boundary reasons. I was better off teaching in the high school, where I expect I seemed sort of batty and quaint with my little toys all around the upper edges of the room. I loved that I could laugh really hard several times a day.
Now I don’t have any little kids around, except when I visit my long-distance nieces and nephews, who are experts in silliness. This is sort of a problem, but not really, because for some of us, silliness can transcend age. My older kids like to read joke books aloud and play games like foosball, Settlers of Catan, and Rummikub with the family. If we’re feeling like lazy, lie-down bums, we push the coffee table aside and play the games on the floor. Once we start laughing, it’s easy to roll, and then that’s funny, too. Lately, my kids have been randomly echoing a Doppler shift humming noise I happened to make during a game of Solarquest, and each time it cracks us up again.
They say people in offices are more creative when they laugh more. I think laughing helps me write better, too. It loosens up ideas and quirky connections so that my mind feels more playful. Then it works the other way, too, because when my writing’s going well, it brings me joy.
I venture to say that for writers, a mystique persists around publishing, as if all the published writers and people in the business were part of a secret club where they shared special handshakes and insider knowledge. I suspect it has something to do with rejections, and the polite but impersonal way editors and agents say no to projects they must decline. Writers outside the circle might well wonder why they can’t get in when the rules of admittance seem so capricious. To make it worse, there’s a sort of unspoken heartache behind the conferences, forums, and workshops I see offered for unpublished writers. Even the word “aspiring,” so often coupled with “writer,” hints at hope and longing, as if all dreams would be fulfilled by admittance into the club, if only someone would spill the secret password.
For a long time, I’ve felt like there was no real difference in people inside and outside the club. We’re really all just writers, all equally deserving of respect, all doing what we love. But a few things lately have made me wonder if there is a difference after all. It isn’t that crossing a publishing threshold magically changes a writer. It’s more that experiences start adding up, and there’s a different, deeper understanding of how things work. I can look, now, at a friend’s query letter and see pretty quickly the tip-offs of a novice, but beyond that, I see more clearly, at least for myself, the complicated relationship between creativity and business.
A key thing is my relationship with my agent, Kirby Kim at WME. Unpublished writers, wary about what agents even do, ask questions like, Do I need an agent? That question would never occur to me. These days, my agent and I talk about specific book concepts, the merits of building on the base of my Birthmarked novels when I work on next projects, the trade-off of writing in multiple genres vs. writing rarer books where each is an event, the unspoken etiquette around option clauses, the risks and importance of emotional honesty in business dealings, and the value of having people you like to work with. These issues are a reality for me, with subtleties and complexities I wouldn’t perceive on my own. My agent and I are a team, and I depend on his advice and expertise from the perspective of looking back and forward for years.
Another element that matters is my relationship with my fellow writers. I’m part of private, online group of about twenty published writers who check in once a week to see where we all are, and that is a vital source of support for me. By talking about the challenges we’re facing, our victories, families, and other jobs, I see that other writers are finding their own ways through some complicated times. Similarities abound. I don’t know why it makes such a difference to know someone is experiencing the same thing, but it does. I also have a handful of ongoing email correspondences with other full-time writers where we talk about the slowness of receiving contracts and money, how option clauses impact when a next project can be submitted, expectations of our editors and agents, how publishers are fulfilling marketing promises, cover problems, waiting for approvals of novel outlines, travel envy and burn out, tax issues, and deadline extensions. My friendships help me learn what questions to ask, especially when I see how others assert themselves, and they give me a clearer sense of how the system works for more than just me.
I was Skyping with a school book club yesterday, (Hello, Bookaneers!), and one of the readers asked me about what I was writing next. I started explaining this interesting situation about my new projects and my editor’s maternity leave and the publishing timeline that projects out to 2014, and I ended up saying that what I do is keep writing. My job is to keep working, developing projects, completing first drafts, revising, and pushing myself to explore new ideas deeply. That’s what I try to do. Where and if the projects will fall in a publishing schedule is, to a degree, outside my control, but the writing is always mine. The writing is my responsibility. I think that’s something I’ve learned by being in the secret club, but it’s suspiciously like what drove me before I entered it.
In the end, the writing is the writing.
I can spend an hour at night laboring over the composition an email or a blog post only to wake up the next morning and find it’s weirdly uppity or just plain pointless. Because of this, I have a hard and fast rule about never sending any emails that might actually matter at night. What’s strange is that I can’t uncoil myself from the snare of writing the insidious late night drafts, even knowing I’m needlessly embroiled. It’s like I’m processing, letting my illogical, instinctual side out to poke around in soggy places, and doing that is more important than sensibly going to bed.
In a way, this harkens back to the old ex-boyfriend rules of college days, when I unplugged my dead-weight phone and went to eat snacks with the gals down the hall expressly so that I could not call him when my will power and word choice skills were poor. It’s both self-preservation and recognizing the weak, crazy side of me. I liked the keyed-up, impetuous me who was sort of self-destructing even as I was saving myself from my phone. The boy might not appreciate me, but I certainly did.
This split-life connects to shopping, too. Stores used to close so we could not go in and buy shoes at two in the morning, no matter how gorgeous they looked through the window on our way home from the late movie. Now, no one’s stopping us. Now, the online temptations never cease. Back away, computer. I dare not ask how many of us have taken the fatal step of saving our credit card numbers on our computers so they’re convenient whenever we want to buy. Put it in the cyber basket, fine. But never hit BUY after midnight.
I admit this split-life thing connects to temptation and the denial of it, but it’s not just that simple. You can’t just say our defenses are down at night. It’s more like we’re two co-dependent sensible and wild people occupying the same body. In the morning, we’re all bring on the bluebirds and let’s sing with the chubby cartoon mice! Past nightfall, we’re moody, vengeful, ice-cream-downing trolls with hairy legs.
But we’re the same person.
Don’t get me wrong. I like being a full-emotioned girl. It comes in handy for writing fiction. But sometimes? It’s a little exhausting. Sometimes, I should just go to bed.
A. Yes. You should. I know the first draft is awful, and even as you’re writing it, you can see you’ll have to cut most of it, but go forward anyway. Get to the end.
Q. But why, why? It’s so bad! It doesn’t even make sense.
A. That’s just what first drafts are. They’re painful and ugly. They wander down dead ends and come out smelling like old fish.
Q. I thought I liked my main character, but now, she’s just, I don’t know, hopelessly cliché.
A. I know. And her dialogue is unbelievable and stilted, isn’t it?
Q. Yes! Or the characters talk in circles and get nowhere. And then I try to add conflict, and it’s just like guns and knives dropping everywhere. Who cares?
A. Believe me. I know.
Q. And it’s so shallow! This book has no depth whatsoever. It has no point.
A. Have you added magic yet? A flying pony?
Q. Oh, my god. How did you know? It’s terrible. Just terrible!
A. Yeah. That’s your first draft. It’s going to be horrible. The worst thing you’ve ever seen.
Q. Why am I doing this? I could be looking for a real job. I could be folding laundry. Nobody’s ever going to want to read this.
A. That’s not true. Your mother will want to read it.
Q. (Moans, grumbles, shreds hair)
A. Look. Quit complaining. Nobody’s making you write this book.
Q. But I want to!
A. Then just do it. It’s going to be bad. Really, really horribly stinking bad. Nobody fully understands why, but that’s just how first drafts are. You force yourself to get a draft down, whether its 120 or 250 or 450 pages. You get the thing down, and then you go back to the beginning and read it to see what’s there.
Q. 450 pages! You can’t be serious. I have 64!
A. Do you want to be a writer or not?
Q. I do. I guess.
A. Do you?
Q. (snivels) Okay, I do.
A. Then you have to write. You have to finish the first draft. You have to get it down on the page. Nobody can do it for you. You have to do the job.
Q. But what if it’s never good enough? What if I put in all this work and it’s never, ever good enough to get published?
A. Would that break your heart?
Q. I think it would.
A. Then let me tell you a secret. You’re a good writer. You’re a really good writer. There’s something about your characters or your voice or your descriptions or your understanding of humanity that shows up in your work that nobody else can do. You are the only one who can write the way you do. The only one. And you are brilliant.
Q. How do you know?
A. Because I can tell. Because you care this much. You have to have faith in yourself. Plenty of writers who have already published books still have to bushwhack their ways through their first drafts, too. It’s just what it takes.
Q. Do you promise this isn’t just a huge waste of time?
A. Ha! No, I don’t. I don’t promise anything. But I’ll tell you this. You can do it. You can go start the next scene.
Q. Just the next scene?
A. That doesn’t sound so hard, does it? Just go start the next scene and see where it takes you.
Q. I could probably do that.
A. I thought so. Don’t you have fun when you’re actually writing?
Q. Yes. I mean, I used to, until I started worrying.
A. Quit worrying. Let yourself have fun again. You’re just telling a story.
Q. I’m just telling a story. I like that.
A. Yep. That’s all. Just keep writing. You can do it.