Making the Best of the Author Quest

Being an unpublished writer can feel a lot like you’re on one of those birthday party scavenger hunts. You know, where you would knock on neighbors’ doors and ask them for random items like a q-tip, a banana, a Britney Spears CD, a penny from 1982.

You set out with a list of things you know you need to collect, but you have no idea how many houses you’ll have to visit to gather everything. Maybe you’ll find all the items. Maybe you won’t. What if you don’t? Well, you don’t win the prize.

And while you’ve got a group of friends with you, they’re in the exact same situation as you: hoping you get everything you need, but with no more clues than you. You all hope for the best, suggest to try this house or that one where that lady lives with all that random junk in her window, but really you all are grasping at straws and making your best guesses.

It’s fun, frustrating, and feels like it could go on forever. And sometimes it’s difficult to make sense of the list. Often times, you aren’t meant to.

Writing and revising on your own feels like this. You type words on the page, then find yourself in an endless loop of rewriting, hoping your manuscript is improving but not every knowing for sure. Will it ever end, and end well?

Bouncing your manuscript off your critique partners feels like this. They suggest edits and those suggestions sound awesome and look awesome. But would an agent or an editor agree, you wonder? How will they react when you knock on the door?

Querying definitely feels like this. You email lots of agents, effectively knocking on tons of doors. But it often takes them forever to respond. Some don’t. And if they do answer the door eventually, they may be sorry to say they can’t help you.

It’s the game that never ends.

Except unlike a partygoer on that scavenger hunt, you, writer friend, have way more than that list of must-have items. You’ve got a ton of optional, yet beyond valuable, resources at your fingertips that can help you get to where you need to go. It doesn’t have to feel like an endless quest. (But really, isn’t that what chasing any dream feels like?)

Apply for a mentorship with an author. Network with authors, agents, and editors on social media. Participate in contests. Go to conferences. Get yourself and your work in front of industry professionals and other writers. You never know…someone may take your hand and help you gather more of what you need on your path to publication.

You of course have to put in that solitary work. Writer’s got to write to improve craft. But putting yourself out there and seeking help from others can help you make sense of everything you are told you need to find and do on your path to publication.

That doesn’t mean the quest won’t present itself again. I often hear authors talk about how difficult it is to get that second book deal. After they win the prize, it’s like the hunt starts over again.

I guess what I’m saying is you have many opportunities to make this hunt of yours successful. It’s up to you to seek out those resources and figure out how they can help you make sense of this crazy dream.

Don’t scavenge your way to a book deal; bundle together everything you can think of to cross items off the list and win the prize.


Celebrating My Word Count

It’s too easy to berate yourself for not meeting your goals, especially when you’re drafting a manuscript.

If you’re like me (and I assume this is something many writers do), you set lofty expectations for yourself without considering all the other responsibilities in your life. Like, “I will write 1000 words today and everyday until this draft is finished.” It sounds nice in your head, until you’re faced with doing your day job, cooking meals, taking care of the kid(s), taking care of yourself, maintaining relationships, tending to the dog, cleaning the dust bunnies, reading, etc.

It’s hard enough keeping all the other mandatory plates spinning. And while writing is a necessity, it can be SO HARD to keep to a schedule.

Tonight I wrote a couple hundred words (if that) before my brain said, “Time to turn it off, sister. Relax.” And even though I listened and even though I needed to let it go for the nights, I thought back to last week when I was slashing word counts multiple days in a row. It felt so good. And now, today, I could barely move the story forward.

But you know what? Even if it was by an inch, I did make progress. I did good work. It wasn’t a lot, but it was work nonetheless and I’m that much closer to finishing this first draft of my latest novel.

Writing is hard. Really hard. It’s also gratifying and a necessity for us as creatives, but dang, it’s a struggle sometimes. Don’t make it even more of a struggle by beating yourself up for not writing enough or not writing at all.

Celebrate every word you add to that blank page. Be your biggest cheerleader. You’ll get there eventually.

Rain is Magical

It’s raining. Really raining. Has been all day, and I love it. Typical, right? California girl talking about how much she adores a good downpour.

But something about it is cleansing, freeing, calming. Time slows during thunderstorms. Maybe all the skyward chaos swirling outside my cozy four walls overpowers everything else. Perhaps it’s the sound of water falling on my patio, pinging against metal and terracotta and canvas in soft melodies. Or the cold that chills my toes and sends me searching for my wool socks from Ireland and a warm blanket to snuggle beneath.

But ultimately I think it’s because, despite the science behind precipitation, water falling from the sky is so damn magical and mysterious.

It goes back to being a child and finding delight in things I hadn’t fully learned yet. I saw the same spark in my son this morning. He sat in his car seat, looking up at the sunroof and marveling at the drips dropping on the glass. He pointed and jabbered about them the entire ride home.

Pure wonder. That’s what I saw in his eyes. In his smile. In the way he wouldn’t look at anything else but the gray clouds outside.

I hope he hangs onto that feeling forever. I think we all need some of that long after childhood.

Wonder is good for the soul.

Drafting a New MG Novel

With my contemporary middle grade novel officially off in query land after shaping it for two years, I have turned my attention to my next project: a contemporary MG horror novel. This book has been on my mind for quite some time, and it is refreshing to finally have the head space to write it.

And with the start of a new novel, I am experiencing all those first-draft feels, the good and the unsettling:

  • The excitement of story possibilities
  • And the angst of choosing the best route
  • The rush of figuring out how I get to the planned conclusion
  • As well as the unease of navigating the in between (a.k.a. the mushy middle)
  • The exhilarating freedom to put anything and everything on the page
  • While also resisting the temptation of self-editing along the way

You know what I mean and have probably experienced these emotions, too. It’s so exciting and freeing and overwhelming and terrifying all at once.

First drafts are the most daunting part of writing for me. That’s because of all the unknowns; I want to know everything NOW! But I’m neither a plotter nor a pantser—I know where the story starts and how I want it to end, but that’s about it.

But I’ve done this enough to know that I need to let creativity take the wheel and be open to whatever words come my way. No self-editing allowed. Put everything on the page, then wade through it and shape it later. No holding back. No self-doubt. And absolutely nothing is off limits.


Query Nerves

I’m sitting here, ready to finally send my contemporary MG novel into the crowded inboxes of kidlit agents, and I’m relieved and overwhelmed all at once. Is this similar to how I’ll feel when I eventually send my son to his first day of school? Excited for him to stand on his own among other kids but terrified that he’s not ready to be without me?

It’s time to let go. I know that. I feel it. My novel is practically whispering, “Query me.” But gosh, it’s nerve wracking!

It all goes back to self-doubt and that nagging feeling that no matter how many times I’ve worked over my manuscript, it isn’t ready. I’m beyond proud of the story. My critique group has offered kudos and feedback on multiple versions. As the current draft stands, they can’t poke anymore holes in it. A good sign. A sign to set it free and forget about it for a while.

The writer and editor in me knows that there’s always room for improvement. That no matter how many drafts I write, there’s another direction to take the story. A different way of framing it. An alternative take on a scene, a chapter, a piece of dialogue. The possibilities never end. Iterations are endless. But at a certain point in time, after working on a novel for years, I have to let it try to stand on its legs.

The mama in me wants to coddle it, hold onto it a bit longer. But I know if I’m going to learn anything about what I’ve done, I need to set it free, at least for a little while. See where it goes, if it comes back to me, or if it makes it out there in the wide world.

So here I go.

Conference Magic

A conference hangover is the best kind of hangover. On the heels of SCBWI OC Writers Day, I find myself full of energy. It happens after every conference—I get doused with this magic that makes me want to keep on keeping on with my craft, no matter how exhausted or busy I am.

That magic helped me complete a final read-through of my middle grade novel before I soon send it off to agents. Not only that, I’m ready to start my next novel. You know that middle grade horror story I’ve wanted to write since earlier this year? Just this past week, an idea sparked and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Yep, that productivity is the result of conference fairy dust, people. And every time I leave another SCBWI event, I walk away with that magic sprinkled atop my shoulders.

To maximize my experience, these are the things I do at events. I encourage you to try one or two at the next conference you attend.

  1. Temper your expectations. Walk in expecting to learn, learn, learn. I’m not saying you can’t expect an agent or editor to swoon over your work, but remember that this industry is competitive. The more open you are to other ideas, the more you grow.
  2. Be friendly. Like you, many of the other attendees are breaking from their writer bubbles. It can be difficult to step out of your comfort zone, but making friends can lead to new critique partners, submission opportunities, and more. Plus, kidlit writers are the nicest people on the planet.
  3. Listen for the nuggets. Even if you’ve attended many conferences and have heard the same topics covered again and again, be receptive. The speakers have valuable insight that could propel you forward in some way.
  4. Pay for the extras if you can. Industry-expert feedback on your work is SO valuable. Take advantage of that manuscript critique or pitch session. Who knows, it could be a door to something great if your piece resonates with even one person.

What do you do to capture that conference magic?

Fun with Board Books

Oliver and I spend a lot of time reading board books these days. He brings one to me, turns around to sit on my lap, and waits for me to start. Sometimes we only get through a page or two, maybe half the book, and if I’m lucky, the whole thing. When he’s in a reading mood (which is basically all the time), we’ll devour 8-12 books in one sitting.

I even catch him reading books to himself. With upside-down book in hand, he babbles to himself as he turns the pages. My mama heart melts each time.

Reading and reading often is too important to skip just because baby refuses to focus for the whole book. You probably know that babies should be read to from day one. Reading (and singing) daily in the first year of a child’s life promotes cognitive and language development, and affects their ability to read later. Rhymes, rhythms, and repetition are so, so important. If you haven’t read Mem Fox’s Reading Magic, I highly encourage you to pick it up.

My days and nights are filled with a full-time job, tending to baby, and taking care of myself and my family. Let’s get real: I’ve been reading the same middle grade book for weeks. By the time I finally wind down in bed and crack the book’s spine, I’m out within minutes. All I can read cover-to-cover right now are board books. But I’m learning so much about this cute and important genre.

So here’s the first of many board book reviews. Each review will be short and sweet, which I think fits nicely with this short and sweet genre.

Five Little Ducks, by Raffi, illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey. Published by Knopf for Young Readers (1999)

A mama duck calls her ducklings back from their adventures. One by one, they stop coming home until all the little ducks are gone. But after some time passes, mama duck is finally reunited with her not-so-little ducklings (and their new families).

We read this one A LOT! Like six-times-a-day a lot. Justin and I catch ourselves asking Oliver, “Don’t you want to read a different one? We just read this one.” But it’s one of his favorites. You can tell by the worn corners and spine.

This book is memorable no doubt because of the rhyme and repetition. Even on a first read (and without hearing the song, which I haven’t), you find yourself adding your own sing-songy touch. Spreads are light on text, which keeps baby’s interest between page turns.

The illustrations are bright and beautiful. Some spreads have more detail than others, but the ducklings are always easy to find. Not only does it make it fun for baby to point out the ducks, but easy for mama/dada to count the ducklings with baby.

It’s a sweet, heartfelt read with happy ending. This mama duck approves.

Forever Tired, Forever Happy

Nothing makes a woman tired like motherhood. Motherhood is drinking coffee because you actually need the caffeine to jumpstart the morning (or afternoon). It’s forgetting what you just said to someone five minutes ago. It’s not eating dinner until nine o’clock, after baby is tucked in tight with a belly full of milk and a kiss lingering on his forehead. Motherhood is finally cozying down in your bed, melting into the mattress, just about to close your eyes when baby wakes up hysterical or wet or in need of a cuddle.

All of those things. Every day. Every. Day.

But what’s even more insane is how we mamas make it through every day. Fatigue doesn’t slow us down. We have our littles to thank for that. The morning smiles and babbles. The yummy sounds they make between bites of purée. The joy they find during bath time, splashing around and reaching for toys. How they instantly calm when we hug away their bad dreams in the late hours of the night. When we are their safe.

I may be one wiped out mama zombie who can’t remember the last time I woke up refreshed and filled with energy. But it’s a small sacrifice for the many gifts my son gives me. I’ll take the tired forever. Just keep on sunnying my world, my sweet baby boy.

Writing Middle Grade Horror

As I plug away at the third draft of my middle grade adventure/friendship novel, I find myself daydreaming about my next project. I really want to write a middle grade horror novel. No concrete ideas yet, but I want to write something scary for the 8 to 12-year-old audience.

The problem is I’ve never even dabbled in the horror genre as a writer. Not a-once. And even worse, I’m having a hard time finding resources and analysis that I can really sink my teeth into. The internet is full of articles and thoughts on other MG genres. But horror? Not so much. At least according to my googling.

I’m reading a few MG horror novels now to get perspective. Mentor texts are amazing. But I’d love some direction from MG horror authors. So I turn to all of you.

Have you read articles or books on the genre? Taken classes or attended webinars? Anything you’d like to share? Brilliant mentor texts?

Please and thank you!

Again and Again and Again

At the suggestion of one of my awesome critique partners, I’m listening to the Writing Great Fiction Great Course on Audible. (Side note: Audiobooks are my new jam. It is SO hard to sit down and focus my attention on reading when I’m busy entertaining an 6-month-old. Now I can get some reading done while driving, doing dishes, completing monotonous work. Hallelujah! I feel like I’m plugged back in to the literary world.)

The lecturer said something about revising that made an impression on me:

“When you reach the end of a draft that you’ve composed in a white heat, you can believe that you’re the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Then when you read it over the next morning, you can feel like the worst hack who ever drew breath. It’s enough to make you want to give up and go to law school like your mother wanted you to.”

While the lecturer goes on to suggest great revision methods, I wanted to say “SAME!” as he said this. Writers, have you, like me, felt these feelings on multiple revisions? Maybe not the going to law school part…one, because that sounds awful, and two, because mama knows I’ve always wanted to be a writer…but seriously!

So often that high of finishing a draft is deflated by my loud, obnoxious, know-it-all inner critic. It’s so hard to mute her. She’s almost always there.

But as heavy-sigh inducing she may be, she keeps me coming back to slash, revise, and fine tune. For us writers, isn’t that drive to create something better what keeps us coming back to this maddening game? I’m not sure why else we put ourselves through such rigorous work.

I think we know that we can do better than that draft, just like an athlete knows they can shave seconds off their time, or a saleswoman believes she can make better numbers next year. Despite how we feel about ourselves and our work in that moment, we know we can improve in the future. But this means pushing through feeling like a hack.

Let’s be real. None of us will ever be as great as Shakespeare. But maybe we can be ok. Even good. We won’t know unless we try. Again and again and again.