About a month ago, a couple of days after I signed the contract for my three-book deal with Astraea Press, I wrote a hand-written letter to one of my high school teachers. She’s still at the school, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d be retiring soon, so I considered myself lucky to be able to reach out to her and thank her for the best writing advice I’ve ever received.
But first, a little backstory.
Like a lot of other writers I’ve met, reading and writing came easily to me from an early age. I’ve been reading for longer than I can remember, and I was told I had a way with words when I was very young. I received awards for writing all throughout elementary school, was praised by my 5th grade and 7th grade language arts teachers for my ability to write dialogue, and won the award for Exceptional Performance in Literature in 8th grade.
But writing came easily to me, which meant I could skate by in all my English classes without even needing to try. And because I didn’t bother to try, I wasn’t included in the Honors English classes that some of my friends were in. Basically, if I tried harder, if I applied myself more, I would have been in those classes. (I learned all of this my senior year after talking to my guidance counselor, who was also my English teacher that year.) But whatever.
My junior year, I was allowed to take an Advanced Writing class. This was separate from English; this was strictly creative writing. The teacher was my sister’s former AP English teacher, and I genuinely liked her. She had us do a lot of fun writing and journaling exercises, and I had fun with it. We read and discussed different styles of writing and practiced writing in those styles, and it was probably one of my favorite classes that year.
But, again, I didn’t really try.
At the end of the semester, one of our final projects was a short story that would ultimately be published in the school literary magazine. I wrote something (I couldn’t even tell you what anymore), submitted it, and got like a B-minus on it. She didn’t mark up my pages like she did on some of my classmates’ work, and the only note I remember seeing was three little words on the very last page:
Know your audience.
Well, sixteen-year-old me was incensed. I threw it away. (That’s probably why I don’t remember what I submitted.) I pitched a hissy fit. My masterpiece, the story I had worked on for hours was better than a B-minus. And I knew my audience. She didn’t know what she was talking about.
Fast-forward *cough* years, and in retrospect, that was the best writing advice anyone had ever given me. And really, up to that point in my life, the only writing advice I’d ever received.
You see, the mechanics of writing came easily to me. Grammar, syntax, punctuation, whatever. Dialogue was easy peasy. Plot? Meh, I could have used some extra work to hone it, but I had the basics down. So those markers that teachers check off before you get to move to the next level? I’d mastered them, and I knew it. And no teacher before her gave me anything less than glowing marks on anything I submitted.
But she was the first teacher to treat me like a writer. Her feedback was the equivalent of the common “It’s not for me” rejection so many writers have received from literary agents and editors. No one had ever rejected my work, though, and that’s why sixteen-year-old me was so angry and infuriated. “How dare she tell me to ‘know my audience!’” I thought she didn’t understand me as a writer, my message, my sheer brilliance.
She wasn’t the one who didn’t understand. I was. And if I’d just swallowed my pride and allowed her to teach me, I would have figured that out a lot earlier than I did.
Aside from being hopelessly amateurish, I realize now whatever I wrote wasn’t suitable for the literary magazine. (I ended up submitting some poetry I’d thrown together.) So no, I didn’t know my audience back then the way I thought I did. I wrote for me—which is always the best thing to do—but in those three little words, she let me know that sometimes, we’re actually writing for other people.
Know your audience.
And write for them.
Ugh. I’ve been absolutely terrible at keeping up my blog. To the handful of devoted readers I may have, I apologize. I will do my best to step it up and try to post at least once a week, but, well, let’s face it: every word on my blog is one not in my novel. And these days, just getting any words down in my works in progress has been painful.
There are a few reasons I feel it’s imperative to dust off my blog. One, I’ve been lucky enough to have been hand-picked to participate in a blog tour for an anthology that came out last week. My tour stop is actually this coming Friday. (Gasp!)
Another reason to dust off the blog is that I’ve decided to make 2014 the year I will make things happen. Yes, I finished a novel in 2012. And yes, I signed with an amazing agent, made some invaluable friendships with fellow writers, and signed on as a columnist for a fabulous online magazine in 2013. But I’ve also fought with a story, developed and fought with another one, and felt like my writing mojo has trickled out of me.
So, with any luck, there ought to be some new witticisms popping up from me every month or so. But just remember: I’m a novelist first and a blogger way, way down on the list of job titles I’ve taken on. =)
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve given some thought into how I’d like to form my Author Platform (oh, yes – even before Julia submits my work to the publishing world, I’d like something substantial in place), I realized the obvious: I really need pictures of myself.
I’m a mom. And though my high school drama coach liked to tease me because I could almost instantly find center stage without needing tape markers, I’ve been more inclined to stay behind the lens than in front of it since, oh, maybe sixth grade. The result is that I have thousands of photographs of my darling little boy (and several hundred of random things he has created), but hardly any of myself. Even worse, the few photos I have of myself are usually group photos.
So, no, there aren’t very many pictures of just me.
Julia emailed me several weeks ago asking for a photo and a brief Author Bio for her website. The biographical blurb was pretty easy for me to write. I struggled with it for a few hours, but once I found my beginning, I kind of ran with it. The photograph, on the other hand, was much more difficult to find. I found a picture of me – just me – from several years ago, but I decided then that I really needed to schedule an appointment to have real Author Portraits taken.
I told a handful of people about my plan, and several told me, “I’ve got a really good camera! I’ll take your portraits!” And while I’m sure they do have great cameras (and lenses because, let’s face it, the lens makes the difference), I really wanted to hire a professional photographer. And I wasn’t talking about going to one of those in-store studios at Target or Sears or JC Penney, either. While those are reputable places, I really wanted to go to someone who would work with me.
And so I booked my appointment with Ansa du Toit, a fabulous photographer in the Orlando area.
I know Ansa personally, and I’ve seen her work, so I knew that she would absolutely capture just the right images of me for me. She’s got a mobile studio and is able to set up just about anywhere, but since I booked the appointment the morning of The Boy’s Field Day at school and only had a few hours, I asked if I could meet at her house.
For a few days leading up to my appointment, I agonized over what I wanted to wear and how to fix my hair. And I culled the following photo shoot guidelines based on things I learned in my own photography classes many years ago, conversations with Ansa, and helpful photography websites:
- Bring three or four outfits to be photographed wearing. This may seem like overkill, but what looks good in real life might translate differently in a photograph. I know I have a lot of outfits that I think look cute when I’m wearing them, but as soon as I see myself in a picture wearing it, I wonder what I was thinking. Plus, each outfit you have will give you and the photographer extra options to play with backgrounds and lighting.
- Bolder is better. Colors, that is. Pastels have a tendency to get washed out in the light. Of course, a skilled photographer can make (almost) anything work, but bolder colors tend to show up better. But whatever you wear, just make sure you’re wearing a color that looks flattering on you.
- Beware of all black or all white. Again, a skilled photographer can ensure your photo doesn’t look like you have a disembodied head floating in the center of the picture, but you can hedge your bets and make it easy for everyone involved. Be mindful of the backgrounds you might use and dress accordingly.
- Think “classic”. It’s very rare that a particular style has an ability to transcend time and place. Three-piece suits with solid colored ties are classic outfits. Denim jackets are fairly classic. Solid sweaters are classic. So beware of prints and anything trendy unless you want to redo your photo every year. While your photographer won’t have a problem with that, your bank account might.
- Avoid sleeveless or strapless tops. I got some flak on Twitter for posting, “Unless you’re 16yo or have skinny arms, avoid sleeveless or strapless tops. The camera adds 10 pounds – TO YOUR ARMS!” It’s a terribly harsh statement, but it’s so true! Arms look bigger because of their proximity to the camera. Think about it. If you’re facing the camera with your arms at your sides, everything remains to scale. But as soon as you turn your body, your shoulder and arms are now closer to the camera than your face is. It may only be a few centimeters’ difference, but what a difference it makes! So even if you think you might not turn your body even a fraction of a millimeter, just play it safe and avoid showing off your arms if you can help it.
- Wear a little more makeup than usual. If you’re a man, ask if there will be a makeup artist on site and/or purchase a clear translucent powder. If you’re a woman and wish to do your own makeup, just wear a touch more than you usually do. Why? Well, the flash of a camera has a funny way of washing out features. Even more, it has an evil way of highlighting every shiny spot on your face. Even if you’re only taking photos outside, you’re going to want that powder to help you even out your skin tone. And besides, I’ve yet to meet a photographer who photographs portraits outside but eschews the flash altogether. The flash is there to help even out lighting; the powder evens out your skin. Wins all around.
- Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to play. I didn’t study a lot of authors’ photographs before my photo shoot, but I know I should have. Luckily for me, Ansa is a pro and knows portraiture. I knew I wanted to have some outdoor shots, but she suggested we start with some photos against a white background, and then we switched to a black background before going outside. This was brilliant because I was able to get every kind of photo I could possibly want. Something for a poster advertising a professional seminar? I’ve got that. Book jacket? Got that, too. Julia’s agency website, my Twitter avatar, my Linked In picture, my Google accounts photo – you name it, I’ve got a photo to fit it.
- Listen to your photographer. A good photographer can look through the lens and has the ability to translate that image from 3D to 2D. A great photographer can provide direction to capture the absolute best pictures of you. This is another reason I suggest contracting the services of a professional photographer instead of going to one of the store photo shops. But, of course, that direction only goes so far if you don’t heed it.
- Have fun! Nothing is worse than sitting in a studio (or in a tree) and straining to feign a smile. After two hours of this kind of smiling, you’ll probably be sick of it, and your jaw will hurt. But if you let yourself have fun, it will come across in the photos. And your photographer might catch some of the best shots of you just making goofy faces, cracking up at a joke, or just being your usual, interesting self. Besides, that’s the side of you that you probably want the world to see.
Ansa, the pro that she is, had proofs for me to review just a few days after I met with her. Our shoot was on a Thursday; I had proofs Sunday night, about a hundred in all to sort through and decide which ones I like best. I’m still wading through the list; I’ve narrowed it down to about 50 and want to pare it down to about 15 or so. Once I narrow it further and secure the rights to my photographs, I will, of course, share them. But there are so many great photos that I’ve got my work cut out for me.
But when you’ve got a great photographer (who magically erased about 20 years off my life with just lighting alone!), pick out the right things to wear, and have fun with the process, you’ve increased the odds that you’ll flip through the proof sheets and find the photo that makes you say, “That one! I want to look like that forever!”
And if you really love it and want it replicated with multiple outfits? Well, a great photographer can make that happen, too.
Ansa du Toit owns and operates Picture This by Ansa. She is the consummate professional, and she’s available for event photography as well as portraits. And should you get stuck in a tree that you insisted on climbing so that she could photograph you, she’s also kind enough to not immortalize this embarrassing moment and will help you down. You can check out her gallery at www.PictureThisbyAnsa.com.
My five-year-old surprised me this morning with a book he had written. I knew he had been working on it, and he even let me read the first chapter, but I didn’t get to see the finished product until today.
It’s too good not to share, but in case you’re wondering why I titled this post the way I did, just keep reading through Chapter 3.
(I am transposing the work exactly as it is written, so errors and omissions in spelling, verb tense, and punctuation are intentional. The emoticons are also intentional.)
The mom and the son was in the house
The son played.
the mom used the hose.
the dad died?
he got shot!
at worck 😦
he wint to the hospitl!
The mom and son was at the pet shop!
the son and the mom was looking?
I wat this puppy 🙂 the son saed
they washt tv
I wat to wach tv the son sed
the mom sed no!
no? if you ask me onw more time no more tv for the rest of the week the mom sed.
I didint do that 😦
I’m thinking maybe this could be more of a performance piece. If I can convince him to do a live reading, I’ll record it and put it up on YouTube.
But on a different note, do you think it’s too soon for me to send him to therapy?
The Boy had a bad guitar lesson today.
It wasn’t just bad. It was awful. Crying and screaming were involved. My husband took him to his lesson so that I could stay home and do laundry (ah, the glamorous life of a writer) and do some writing. (I opted to catch up on sleep instead.) While I was folding clothes, I got several text messages from my husband updating me on what was happening during the lesson.
Not good news at all.
We let him skip a lesson last week so that we could go to Sea World for their Just for Kids weekend. We saw the Imagination Movers a few weeks ago, which was a treat for all of us, so we figured we’d see the Kratt Brothers last week.
The problem with letting him taking a break from something like, say, guitar lessons, is that he lost momentum. Even though he practiced every single day, he still needed that accountability in the form of checking in with his teacher.
I’ve discovered I have the same issue when it comes to writing. I began work on my next manuscript on Wednesday. It wasn’t an optimal day to start it, as I haven’t been sleeping well, but when inspiration strikes, you kind of have to just run with it.
Yesterday, I contemplated taking the night off, but I didn’t. I set a daily goal of 1,750 words for myself, but I
failed fell short of that on Thursday, and I knew that taking the day off would have meant I had that I would have much more catch up work to do. I didn’t achieve my goal yesterday, either (I didn’t even crack 1,000 words), but I feel like it will be easier to make up this deficit than if I didn’t work on it at all.
After all, one day off would lead to two, and two would become a week, and the next thing you know, a few months would pass before I looked at this work in progress and said, “What is this, and where was I going with it?”
So, just as The Boy won’t be allowed a break from practice or lessons, I have to hold myself to the same standards and keep up, as well.
I can rest between manuscripts. I can’t afford to lose momentum now.
I tweeted something I thought was rather profound this morning:
My feelings on writing are a lot like my feelings on parenting: rewarding when good, painful when bad, but oh so worth it!
These last few months have been somewhat challenging with The Boy. He’s been pushing boundaries, as children his age are wont to do, and it
can be is taxing. Some days are better than others, but days that don’t include at least one fit or argument are few and far between. He questions just about everything, and he wants things done his way. As a result, there’s a lot of frustration for everyone.
If she was still here, my mother would remind me that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
But when things are great, they’re awesome. This morning, for example, he was practicing guitar and doing a great job of it. His biggest struggle with guitar practice has been counting, and it probably will be for some time. Last week, I made a deal with him that he would play “Jamaica Farewell”, the song he’s working on right now, at least three times a day during practice if I wrote the numbers under each measure.
“Jamaica Farewell” is a tricky song, only in that there are combinations of eighth notes and quarter notes and quarter rests and half notes and ties and flats… It’s not an easy song for a five-year-old who just picked up the guitar about ten months ago. (Okay, it’s not an easy song for a five-year-old. Period.) As such, you have to count. And thank God, he finally got it today.
I’m extremely proud of him, and I’m especially proud that he is persevering. I’ve had to regale him with tales of how he overcame resistance as a younger child and kept trying until he succeeded (the First Steps story is a current favorite) to prove that no one succeeds right out of the gate, and I’ve also had to remind him that I gave him a $300 acoustic guitar for Christmas based on the condition that he agreed to continue playing guitar until he was nine years old. (It was a three-year extension on the initial deal, based on one year for every $100 I spend, which I think is fair. It also gets me out of potentially shelling out $10K for a guitar in the future because he’d have to play guitar for 100 years to pay that off.)
Anyway, that’s a glimpse into part of my parenting life.
My point is that writing isn’t much different for me, only I’m kind of parenting myself. There have been (and will always be) times when I’ve wanted to take everything I’ve written and burn it. (Okay, I’ve actually done that before. But they were journal entries from junior high and high school, and I don’t think those should count.) I’ve gotten really attached to characters but haven’t been able to weave a story about them. I’ve come up with ideas that I haven’t been able to properly flesh out into something coherent. I’ve written pages upon pages upon pages of, well, stuff, only to find that it rambles needlessly and has no real point.
wanted threatened to kick my computer or Townshend* my laptop, and I’ve begged myself to please let me take a day off from writing, promising to work doubly hard the next day (and then holding myself to it). And I behave exactly like my five-year-old (Apple? Tree? Not far!) when I get frustrated with the blinking cursor or the meaningless plotless mess before me.
But then it starts to gel. And that’s when I feel all those same emotions that I felt when I first saw The Boy hold up his head on his own or heard him say his first word or watched him take his first steps or realized he could read: pride, joy, excitement, and (I hate to admit it) relief. There’s always that possibility that maybe, just maybe, your child will fail at something. And there’s always that possibility that maybe what you’ve written isn’t worth reading.
But when it clicks – really clicks – and I hear him playing “Jamaica Farewell” in a way that the tune is actually recognizable or when a friend’s daughter demands the next chapter of my WIP because she needs to know what happens next, all of that pain is totally worth it.
Until you have to go through it all over again.
Definition of TOWNSHEND: to pulverize something by repeatedly crashing it into the ground; most commonly used in reference to a guitar
So, if you read my last entry, you’ve already seen the best seven words I’ve read in a really long time.
I’ve kept mum on some amazing things that transpired over the last week, mainly because I didn’t want to share something that I was still unsure about. But now that this story is complete, I can share it!
It began last Friday during a Twitter event. I wasn’t entirely certain that I (or my manuscript) was ready, but I took a chance and tweeted my pitch. I mean, the worst that could happen was that no one would respond to it, right?
But I got responses – and one of those came from an agent I had been
stalking studying following on Twitter. Her name appeared in one of Chuck Sambuchino’s agent posts, and when I first read about her, I immediately wanted to send her my manuscript and hear her tell me she loved it. But I didn’t. I read more of her interviews (of which there aren’t many) and guest blog posts (again, not many of those), and I followed her on Twitter while I dutifully honed my manuscript. And the more I read about her, the more I really wanted her to love my manuscript and represent me.
No pressure or anything, but I had decided she was my Dream Agent. (Oh, yes – the big D and big A are intentional.)
So Dream Agent was the third person who showed interest in my manuscript. (You’d better believe that I freaked out.) The fourth came from a new agent at a prestigious agency who (from what I could tell from the limited posts on his blog) is passionate about good literature and who I had already decided was my #3 agent choice, so I was super excited about seeing interest from him.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I made sure I sent out all the requested materials right away – and following each agency’s guidelines. I carefully read (and re-read – and sometimes re-read) guidelines before submitting just because I knew I wouldn’t get a second chance to get this right, especially with Dream Agent and #3 agent choice.
And then I waited.
Oh, that full manuscript request that came in Saturday morning? It was from a small romance imprint that reached out to me with an offer to acquire on Monday after the agent who wasn’t at the top of my List of Agents to Query rejected me. And the offer looked good. Really enticing, in fact. But Dream Agent hadn’t gotten back to me, and I hadn’t heard from #3, either, so I sent them both gentle nudges to say, “Hi, I hate to bother you, but I’m going to, anyway because this just happened.”
Dream Agent got back to me almost straightaway with a request for a full. I think I audibly squealed, ran down the hall to tell my coworker, then composed myself, calmly returned to my desk, and submitted my full manuscript. My hand was shaking when I hit send. She replied and promised to get back to me Friday. Meanwhile, #3 was silent, and I needed to acknowledge the publisher’s offer.
I reached out to the publisher and asked if I could call her late in the week. We set up a call for Thursday afternoon, and while I waited for Thursday to come, I kept checking my In Box hoping for a message from either Dream Agent or #3.
So I spoke to the publisher on Thursday. And I really like her. I made a mental list of pros and cons of the offer, and I decided that was my fall-back option, my “safety school,” if you will. I asked my cousin to (re)introduce me to colleagues who were familiar with intellectual property law in the event that I didn’t get accepted by my first choice (Dream Agent) or second choice (#3 – but that’s because I didn’t query the agent who would have been in the #2 slot). I made sure that I had everything properly set up so I would be in the position to accept an offer and sign a contract or agreement fairly quickly.
No matter what, I was poised to win. Either I would sign with an agent who would be my advocate and help me navigate through the crazy world of publishing or I would sign a contract with a small publisher so that I could get some published titles under my belt and use that as something that might later entice an agent to represent me.
Obviously, my preference was to have an agent.
Agent #3 emailed me last night apologizing for not responding sooner and requesting my full manuscript. As I promised the publisher a reply no later than Saturday morning, I sent him my manuscript and let him know my deadline.
Well, it wouldn’t hurt, right?
And then early this morning, I got The Offer from Dream Agent, and I bolted upright and accepted immediately even though she had even written a post saying that’s precisely what not to do. But she was kind and suggested we speak before she has to leave the country for about ten days, and we set up an appointment to speak via Skype.
The call lasted about 80 minutes. She knew my manuscript as well as I did. She loved my characters as much as I did. She suggested tweaks that no one had ever mentioned before. She called out areas that needed tightening and others that needed some expansion. She noticed that most of my extraneous characters’ names began with the letter C. Plus, when we talked about ideas I have for forthcoming manuscripts, she was enthusiastic and so eager to read my work. I felt the need to write the best possible manuscript just so she would (a) enjoy reading it and (b) have fun selling it.
It was incredible. It was exhilarating.
It was complete affirmation that she was DEFINITELY the right agent for me.
And so, it is with great enthusiasm and pride that I am ecstatic to announce that yours truly is now being represented by Julia A. Weber of J. A. Weber Literaturagentur GmbH.
Now, I’m certainly in no position to host big events like other authors have done to help their fellow writers find agents, but I do feel the need to pay it forward. When I think of it, I’ll share it.
In the meantime, I have another story to plot.
Every word on your blog is a word not in your book.
I’ve been a slacker the past couple of nights. Tonight in particular, but that’s because the winner codes for NaNoWriMo were finally released and I bought Scrivener, and I have been so eager to get my hands on it and play with it and see how my novel looks in bulletin-board form.
Last night, I migrated the bulk of posts from an old blog that I had on the now-defunct blogging site called Vox to my Mommy Blog on WordPress. I began with more than 200, and there are now only 17 posts that I need to sort through to make blog-ready, so I think I’ve done a fairly decent job. (And of those remaining 17 posts, most probably won’t make it over to the other site.)
And, of course, as I was migrating my work and even blogging yesterday, I thought of Sherman Alexie’s quote above and cringed. Because, well, he’s absolutely right.
But he also said that I should read a thousand pages for every one that I write, and considering that I finished 193 pages, I owe myself a 200,000-page break. Unless I’m supposed to read and write concurrently, but I’m not sure how I would manage that.
The point is, I know I’ve been a slacker. I know I’ve stalled at the first chapter of my next work, even though I wrote a poem that would be partial song lyrics for the book. But the story has been gestating, I promise! It’s just a matter now of sitting down and actually laying out the plot points to make it work.
I’m not giving up my trust composition book now that I have Scrivener, though. I can’t use Scrivener anywhere but on my laptop, after all, and I tend to have plotting inspiration strike at the oddest moments – like when I’m at a red light and thinking of how my characters’ moms would react to the traffic I encounter each morning.
But once Scrivener is available on my iPad…
I mentioned in a previous post that I use music to get into my characters’ heads. And, as I’m writing/plotting from the perspective of high school students, it behooves me to listen to what (I think) they’re listening to.
After all, when in Rome and all that.
Anyway, I thought it might be fun to list what my Pandora Teeny-Bopper station has been playing for the last hour or so, if for no other reason than to laugh about it in a few years. So here it is, in reverse order (the artist is in parentheses):
- The Anthem (Good Charlotte)
- Kissin U (Miranda Cosgrove)
- Ignorance (Paramore)
- Breathe (Michelle Branch)
- Float On (Modest Mouse)
- Bite My Tongue (Reliant K)
- Stay Awake (All Time Low)
- His Girl Friday (The Academy Is…)
- High School Never Ends (Bowling for Soup)
- Nobody’s Home (Avril Lavigne)
- Human (The Killers)
- Such Great Heights (The Postal Service)
- Kids (MGMT)
It’s an eclectic list. But looking at it, I can kind of understand why I feel a bit schizophrenic when I’m writing/plotting. A playlist like this makes me want to ask myself. “How old are you, again?”
Maybe it’s just keeping me young. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.
I am lying on the couch as I type, the same place I have been since about 9 o’clock this morning. I’ve done a few productive things: I’ve provided breakfast for The Boy (which is to say that I opened his yogurt – but I also moved his granola bars to an accessible shelf!), emptied the dishwasher, cleaned up breakfast dishes (The Boy’s spoon), and made lunch for The Boy and me. (Cute Husband will be returning in a few hours from a convention, so he’s still on his own.)
Ah, but what is on my To Do list today? Laundry (of course), a thorough scrub of the bathtub, and breaking my rough outline into manageable and fun-to-write chapters in preparation for NaNoWriMo. And instead of doing any of that, I’m on the couch, typing with one hand as I “pitch” while The Boy plays baseball on Wii Sports.(The score is tied, by the way. Apparently, I’m not a bad lefty pitcher.)
Ugh. I need to get up and be productive.
But not until after this game of Wii Bowling.