Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I'm having trouble getting my ideas down on the page...

A reader e-mailed me to say:

I love writing, and I have written several beginnings to stories or have them swimming around in my head. I have trouble getting them on paper, or if I do, then actually finishing the story.

I think every writer has struggled with this at some point, especially when they first started writing stories. I know I did, anyway.

For a long time, all I really wrote were beginnings. That's fine. It's still writing, it's still using those creative muscles and learning about what works and what doesn't. So don't feel bad if you go through a phase of doing that for a while. Beginnings are really, really important, so it's a good thing to get down. When you're browsing in a book store, or when a friend hands you a book and says, "Hey, you should check this out," what do you do? If you're me, you look at the cover, skim the back cover copy, and then look over the first page or two. So, yes, it's frustrating to only write beginnings, and yes, it's good to figure out how to move beyond that, but you're also developing a really important skill - figuring out the best way to start a book.

One of the reasons I wrote only beginnings for so long is something you touched on in your question - I had trouble getting the right words on paper. Everything would go fine for the first page or two, or someties even ten, and then ... then I could still see where I wanted the story to go, or what theme I wanted to talk about, but I couldn't figure out how to express myself the way I wanted. Or I'd try, and it would come out all wrong. And then I would deem the story a falure and move on to something else.

What I'd forgotten was IT WON'T BE PERFECT THE FIRST TIME. I expected my stories to sound like real books the first time out of the gate, and that's just not going to happen. Professional writers rework their manuscripts several times. Some three or four, some nine or ten. It just depends. Then they might send their book to writing friends of theirs, which we often call a critique group, or our crit partners, or - if you're really being cute - critters. Then they use their feedback to make the manuscript stronger. Then it goes to their editor. Enter several more rounds of edits. Then it goes to a variety of other people to proofread. What I'm trying to say is professionals work hard to make their words sing, and you'll have to as well.

So if you're having trouble getting your ideas down on the page, remind yourself that it doesn't have to be perfect the first time. Or the second, even. You can keep reworking it.

Next Tuesday, we'll talk in-depth about finishing the story.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

How I went from being a teenage writer to a novelist (Part Two)

If you're reading this thinking, "Hey, where's part one...?" It's right here.

As a reminder, I've just discovered I want to write YA novels. On with the story:

That summer, I wrote a book that I called “Clarity,” about a high school senior who finally discovers the right path for her life. (And believe it or not, it didn’t occur to me until just now why that subject excited me so.) I would say this is my first non-sucky book. It’s not good, but it doesn’t suck.

I finished the book, and then somewhere I read the advice that I should read some books from my own genre. Oh. That had never occurred to me. I went to Barnes and Noble and looked at the “teen” shelves. I didn’t recognize a single name or title. They had the Gossip Girl books, but I’d read one of those and knew that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

I noticed they had a lot of books by some author named Sarah Dessen. I read the back cover copy of a few, and landed on This Lullaby.

Over the next couple days, I devoured the book, and then fell into a deep funk. Sarah’s book was SO GOOD. It was so funny and insightful. My book wasn’t funny OR insightful. In fact, I was suddenly convinced that my book totally stunk. That I needed to try again.

I became a little obsessed with Sarah Dessen. My husband grew very tired of hearing me talk about her. I went to her author website, which I’d never done, even though I’d loved a variety of books in the past. I discovered she had a blog, and began reading regularly. And then I found where she talked about how she developed the ideas for each of her books.

For This Lullaby, she’d had writers block until a friend commented how Sarah always wrote about quieter girls, and that maybe she should have a bolder main character. Sarah said this made her nervous because she had been a quieter girl, and wasn’t sure if she would even know how to write a bold character.

Reading this got me thinking as well. I’d always written about characters who were like me (or some who flat out were me). Even the story I was working on at the moment was pretty much about me, but just as a girl who wanted to write for television instead.

That’s when I unlocked what had been going wrong in my writing. I’D BEEN WRITING ABOUT ME. And it wasn’t supposed to be about me, it was supposed to be about story.

So, yeah, it still took me a whole other manuscript to figure this out.

I finished the book I was working on, called The Escape Route, had a few people read it and give me their thoughts, and then I started mailing out my query letters. This time, while I waited, I started a new book. And I made that main character as opposite of me as I possibly could. The result was Skylar.

As I worked on Skylar’s book, I told my husband, “This is going to be the book that gets me published.” I was right, but it was three years later before that happened.

For those three years, I had the luxury of writing full time. The first year, my husband was finishing up college and was in and out of the apartment all day. The following two years, we’d moved away from home, and he was gone from about 7 to 6 everyday, plus was getting his masters. I had a LOT of time on my hands, and I used it well.

During those years, I worked on both The Escape Route, which still hasn’t seen the light of day, and Skylar’s book. There were a couple of other projects I started, one of which I finished, but The Escape Route and Skylar were the two books I always came back to.

My original attempts at finding a literary agent, where I received invitations to submit from two of the five, appeared to be beginners luck. I queried dozens of agents and got nothing but, “No thanks.” Finally, I decided to try my luck at a writer’s conference.

I had decided The Escape Route totally reeked and stuck it in my “retired” file, so I brought Skylar’s story with me to the conference. I had an appointment with an acquisitions editor for a minor publishing house, who flipped through the manuscript while I (nervously) sat and watched. She read snippets and told me she thought it looked great, then asked what the book was about. When I told her, she asked how old Skylar was. I said, “Eighth grade.” She made a face and said, “Eighth grade? No high school student wants to read about eighth graders. And this book is far too mature for middle school students. Change Skylar’s age, and we’ll be interested.”

Okay, I quickly figured out that meant rewriting the entire book. But I didn’t want to lose my contact, so I pulled out The Escape Route and skimmed it. “You know,” I thought, “this isn’t too bad.” I’d learned all kinds of things at my writer’s conference, and I knew I could brush it up in a matter of weeks. I e-mailed my contact and basically said, “A rewrite will take me a couple months. In the meantime, would you be interested in seeing a different project?” and I gave her a blurb for The Escape Route. In short, she liked it and I sent in the full to be considered for publication.

While I waited, I rewrote Skylar’s story and submitted the first three chapters for a contest.

And then 2007 came, and my dark year started.

First, after seven months of waiting, the publishing house sent me a form letter stating that they weren’t interested in The Escape Route. Seriously. Seven months, and then an envelope arrived one day with a , “Dear author,” letter. Maddening.

Then Skylar, who I thought would at least final, bombed in the contest. One of the judges was smart and helpful. Two of them I doubt had ever read a YA book in their entire lives and had some really dumb stuff to say. (This is something I used to hesitate to share, but now that Skylar’s been published and my editor loved things those two judges hated, I’m not too worried.)

I heard "no" after "no" from agents I queried. One said The Escape Route had a boring plot, another said Skylar was unlikeable. I received harsh and unexpected criticism from a fellow writer.

I would walk into Barnes and Noble and want to burst into tears. (Part of this could be because I was pregnant at the time.) I looked around at all the books and thought, “There are so many books in the world … why should I even bother? What makes me think I have anything interesting to say? What makes me think my words are valuable?” Sometimes I would just curl up on the floor of our apartment and cry. I thought about everyone who’d doubted me and hated that they had been right. I thought about how I’d arrogantly dismissed the idea of college.

But my husband is awesome. He routinely told me how much he believed in me. I remember when we got the form letter from the publishing house, the one we’d been waiting on for seven months, and I just cried and cried. When I was done, Ben forced me to make eye contact with him and said, “I believed in you yesterday before this letter showed up. And I believe in you just as much now.”

That kind of belief is powerful.

I steeled myself and examined the comments I’d received about Skylar. Yes, some were dumb, but a couple rang true. I began brainstorming how I could make her more likeable, relatable.

I got the first three chapters rewritten (this is rewrite number 4 for those keeping track at home) just in time for a big conference in Dallas. I got shut down by a big publishing house as soon as they heard I didn’t have an agent, so I switched my focus purely to agents. I walked away with an invitation from my first choice agent to submit a proposal (first three chapters and a synopsis) for Skylar. A month later, another invitation followed from an agent who’d just had a chance to review my materials.

I sent off proposals, then focused on rewriting the rest of the book as much as I could. I was 8 months pregnant, and we were in the middle of moving from Orlando back to Kansas City.

In December of 2007, I was in the middle of contractions when I received a rejection from my first choice agent. She said my story needed a lot of work still. Fortunately, being in early labor helped distract me from feeling too disappointed.

And then when my daughter was a week old, the second agent sent me an e-mail that basically said, “I like this. I like you, but … your sentence structure is primarily passive. If you can revise and make your sentences active, then I’d like to see the first 100 pages.”

Um, I didn’t even know what that meant. I wrote back and said I was holding a week-old baby, and could I have about 6 weeks to make the changes? (And to figure out what the heck she was talking about!)

Grammar has never been my thing. I reread what my grammar books had to say about active sentence structure about twenty times before I thought I maybe, kinda understood what I was being asked to do.

I made the changes in 4 weeks and sent the e-mail.

While I waited to hear back, I worked on the rest of the book as quickly as I was able. I was making good progress when the agent e-mailed me and said she had a lot on her plate and had changed her mind about allowing me to resubmit.

Dejected, I stared at the computer screen and reread the e-mail a few times. Then I called my husband to tell him the bad news. He was outraged on my behalf, said a lot of, “She doesn’t know what she’s missing out on!” When we got off the phone, I read the e-mail a few more times, and then wondered if my e-mail to her with the 100 pages had gotten lost. I knew it was a long shot, but I e-mailed back and said something about how I understood how valuable her time was, and that I was curious to know if she knew I’d sent the first 100 pages a month before?

About 20 minutes later, she sent an apology e-mail, said she’d never received mine, and asked that I resend. I did. It took about a week for her to finally receive the e-mail, and then the waiting began all over again.

In the coming months, I polished up the rest of Skylar’s book. I finished up with edits on Friday, April 4th.

On Saturday, April 5th, in the middle of the KU/UCLA basketball game, the agent called my house. She said she was just about to finish the first 100 pages and that she needed me to go down to my computer and sent her the rest right away because she HAD to know what happened.

Our families happened to be over watching the game, and my parents ran out and got champagne despite my protests about how it may come to nothing. (And this time I really believed that.)

On Monday, the agent called to say she loved my story, she remembered loving me when she met me at the conference, but that she wasn’t too familiar with the YA market and didn’t know if she could sell me. She wondered if I’d be interested in signing something where we agreed to work together on this project, but that if it didn’t go anywhere, we’d either part ways or try to find a way to make me more “sellable.”

That ended up being unnecessary. A few short months later, Revell Books said they not only wanted my book, they wanted it to be a three-book series called The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt. Book one, Me, Just Different released last July in a whirlwind of fun and craziness. Book two, Out with the In Crowd came out the beginning of this month, and book three, So Over It, will release in July.

I was 25 when Me, Just Different hit shelves, to which almost everyone around me said something along the lines of, “Oh, to be so successful at such a young age!” But it was no fluke. It wasn’t because of abnormal talent or handy connections. It was the three things I mentioned earlier—desire, determination, and confidence. And with those three things, there’s no reason why you can’t become a novelist as well.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How I went from being a teenage writer to a novelist (Part One)

Every author’s story is different, and your path will be totally different than mine. I don't intend for this to be a "how to" manual on getting published, but a source of information that can help you avoid mistakes I made.

Since first grade on, I wanted to be a writer. Sometimes I wanted to be a writer and a doctor, or a writer and a veterinarian, but "writer" was always in the picture. In my elementary school years, there was lots of creative writing time. I wrote all kinds of short stories, many that involved horses. And dynamite, though never in the same story.

This is the first story I ever wrote:

Once upon a time there was a little girl.
Her name was Stephanie.
She had a little dog.
The dog’s name was Toby.
The little dog said, “Arf, arf.”
Stephanie pet her dog.

And that’s the end.

Not exactly brilliant stuff. I guarantee you, my teacher wasn’t waving it in front of the class saying, “Behold! Stephanie Leigh Hines will someday be a novelist!”

What I lacked in raw talent, I made up for in desire, determination, and confidence.

In middle school, we did next to no creative writing. We had journals, but I’ve always found my actual life way too boring to routinely journal about. So I started writing stories on my own. I was always the main character, my friends the costars. There was some real creativity going on in those years. Like the story about the girl who killed others when she got angry just by using her brain waves. Or the story I wrote where I tried to use initials instead of names. (That one is called “The Seven Nothings.” I remember the title had a very deep meaning to me at the time, but for the life of me, I can’t recall what it is now.) Oh, and one where everyone thinks this girl is totally normal, but she actually has some really horrible secret that she’s hiding. And an ex-boyfriend who can read her mind and basically haunts her. I could never think of a big enough secret, though, so that one fizzled out quickly.

I wrote a lot of beginnings, but rarely ever made it to the middle of a story.

In high school, I still wrote, but my classes required more of my attention than I was accustomed to. I didn’t get really serious about my dream until my junior year of high school when I took a creative writing class. We did journaling and poetry (both of which I stink at), playwriting (that was better), and then a children’s book. I couldn’t think of any ideas for a children’s book, but I had an idea for a “teen book.” My teacher said that would be fine, so long as I stayed within 14 pages.

I wrote 14 pages about, basically, a failed relationship of mine.

When the class was over, and I realized there was so much more to the story, I fleshed out the story to be 90 pages, single spaced.

It was my first real attempts at writing a full-length novel, and it was terrible. Some of my friends really liked it, though, and their encouragement lit a fire under me. I got on-line and started researching publishing houses.

I quickly noticed that the big houses had phrases under their submission policies that basically said, “No unsolicited submissions.” After a little more research, I learned that meant they had to request my manuscript. I didn’t really know how to make that happen, so I started looking for houses that allowed unsolicited submissions. I found a handful, none of which I can remember the name of.

I printed off five or so copies of my book. Prepared my “SASE” (self-addressed stamped envelope, which I assumed they would use to tell me what a gem of a writer I was, and how they couldn’t wait to publish my book). Then I mailed off my package and began to wait.

Time went by. Lots of time. A couple of form letters came back, the ones that say something like, “Dear Author, thank you for your interest in our publishing house. Unfortunately, at this time, your project isn’t right for our needs. Best of luck in your writing endeavors.” Several didn’t even bother to respond.

But one apparently read the whole stinking thing. Looking back at this now, I marvel that any of them might have read even a page or two. They wrote back that for my age, the book was very good, but that it lacked a tight, satisfying ending.

I thought this over. That was true, it didn’t have a tight, satisfying ending, but that’s because in real life there hadn’t been much of one. (I can’t keep myself from interjecting that the lesson you should all take from this is to MAKE STUFF UP. I’d somehow lost track of the fact that I wasn’t writing an autobiography, but a NOVEL. Anyway, moving on.)

Instead of sending my book out to more publishers, I decided to write another novel. After several false starts, I finally landed on a book idea I liked. And I had just graduated high school, so I had some more time on my hands.

It took me about six months to write the first draft. And this one was actually real book length. During that time, I discovered there were books I could buy that were full of publisher addresses and requirements. I also noticed they had a big section on “literary agents.” I knew movie stars and athletes had agents, but I didn’t know writers did.

As I researched, I learned that was the way to go since a lot of editors would only work with agented authors. The book said literary agents liked to see “query letters” in which I should describe my book and my credentials. Then they would either ask to see the manuscript or tell me I wasn’t a good fit for their agency. The book suggested picking five agents at a time to mail letters to.

I don’t remember how I picked my five. I think I knew at that time my book was considered “Young adult fiction,” which is what the industry calls books for teens. I probably just picked the first five who wanted YA fiction and were open to new authors. I wrote about a hundred drafts of my query letter, then put it and my SASE in the mail.

More waiting.

This process actually went faster. Within about 6 weeks, I’d heard back from all five. Two sent form rejection letters, one scribbled on my query letter “Not interested,” and mailed it back to me, and two WANTED TO READ MY BOOK.

I was smart enough to realize I should get back to them quickly, but also smart enough to realize my book was still largely in first draft form.

I worked myself hard for a week to get that baby whipped into shape. One of the agents had also requested a “synopsis” (insert me going ????) and a bio that included my credentials. (Er … high school newspaper? “A” in creative writing class?)

Finally I got everything sent off, and then I sat back to wait for a letter that I assumed would say, “How has nobody snatched you up yet? I’m the luckiest agent in the whole world to be signing a writer like you!” I mean, I told my parents and boyfriend, “Anything could happen. They probably won’t like it,” but I knew these were smart, savvy agents who would recognize me for the budding talent I was.

Uh, not exactly. Both said a vague no (“Stephanie, this just isn’t the right project for my agency at this time…”)

This was followed by lots of crying, and lots of my parents and boyfriend (who’s now my husband) saying, “It takes a lot of tries. Just keep sending it out and eventually you’ll find the right agent.”

This is true when you’ve written a good book.

As I reread my manuscript, I thought, “This totally, utterly sucks. I can do better.”

At this point, I’d decided not to go to college. Instead I was living in an apartment by myself and working as a secretary for my dad’s company. It gave me lots of time to write, and that’s what I wanted. I wrote a book basically about how confusing it was to be eighteen years old. How until then, everyone around your age has been doing the same thing as you. My friends and I had all gone different directions, and my life no longer looked like all the others around me.

It was a beast of a book, and the most confusing one I’ve written to date. I insisted on including every facet of my life in there. For the third time in a row, I’d forgotten to MAKE STUFF UP.

For this one, I didn’t even bother looking for agents. I knew, as I started the editing process, that it was too confusing, and too sucky to every get published.

For a few years I floundered. I wanted to write “serious books.” The kind students would read and study in English class. But I couldn’t come up with any ideas that excited me for more than 20 or 30 pages. I had a couple ideas for books about teenagers, but I discarded those almost instantly. I felt it was time for me to grow up and stop writing high school stories.

Then, in the winter of 2004, when I was 20-years-old, inspiration struck in the form of a Delia’s catalog. Little, Brown and Company had taken out an ad for three book series that are now very familiar to me: Gossip Girl, The A-List, and The Clique.

As I stared at the page, it occurred to me that I was 20-years-old, about to get married, and still those books interested me. Not just that, but I felt drawn to them. What did that mean? I sat there and puzzled over the ad for a few minutes, and that’s when it hit me—I’M SUPPOSED TO WRITE YOUNG ADULT NOVELS.

I was stunned by this idea. And thrilled to finally feel some sense of direction in my writing career. I shared my revelation with my parents and fiancĂ©. All three were like, “Well, yeah … you didn’t, like, know this already?”

Read the rest of the story here.