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Entries in Life as a writer (88)

Tuesday
Oct262010

The Writing Cycle

Question of the day: How long does it take you to write your first draft? How about the finished product?

I think every writer is going to have a different answer to this question, but I generally write my first draft in about six months. At least that's been the standard for my last two books. My first two books, I wrote more quickly, but now, this is about what my stamina and concentration afford me. I'm the type of writer who loses momentum (and enthusiasm) easily, so I truly have to write every day (barring weekends) when I'm working on a first draft. I often equate writing to going to the gym - it gets easier when you schedule it and make it part of your routine - so again, for me, I sit down and write and build and build until I hit 85k (or so) words. Generally, this means putting about 1k words down a day - sometimes more, rarely less, with some time to go back each 50 or so pages and smooth out some rough spots.

Sometimes, I surprise myself and get there before six months, but even if I do, that leaves me plenty of time to revise a bit before handing it over to my agent and editor. When I do hand it into them, that's what I consider to be the first draft.

From there, I spend about three months revising. The second round of revisions is probably the toughest for me: because I'm a pantser and write without a map, sometimes, certain plot points don't work and certain characters need heavy alterations. This is the draft in which I do that - go back and pull out anything that is really clunky and then figure out how to fix it. From there, I bounce it back to my editor, and we probably go through two or so more rounds of smaller fixes/tweaks/shading.

All in, it's about a 9-10 month process, and then, I give myself some downtime to decompress (and take care of things like copy edits, publicity for other books, etc), which I think is critical. It's usually in this downtime, even though I can't IMAGINE starting something new, that another idea springs up. And after a few months, I'm itching to start all over again, even though I know I'm a glutton for punishment.

So that's my writing cycle. As I said, everyone is different. Franzen takes 10 years between books. Many of my other friends take two or so. I don't know if I'll keep up this pace forever - it is somewhat draining, but I also sincerely feel that itch to start over, so for now, this is what works for me.

What works for you guys? Will you share your own writing cycles?

 

Monday
Oct182010

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

Question of the day: Did you ever not follow a piece of writing advice that you wish you had?

Wow! This feels like a huge question, but I'll try my best to answer! :) In general, I have to say - and I don't mean this in any sort of self-satisfied way - but I'm really pleased with the advice I've gotten, what I've chosen to listen to (and just as importantly, what I've chosen NOT to), and where my career has gone. I don't look back with too many "wish I'd done THAT" moments because, well, as I've articulated on this blog time and again, even my mistakes lead to learning experiences which have then lead to where I am now. (Not to sound too sunshiney about it or anything.)

But that said, if I could go back and tell my younger self something, it would be to be less cocksure of my first manuscript. To keep revising even when I thought it was good enough. As you may have read here in the past, this manuscript got me an agent but ultimately failed to sell because, well, it was atrocious, but I didn't realize it at the time. So it's not that I got advice to keep rewriting, but the truth is, I should have. Actually, that's not true - some of the agents who turned me down did indeed tell me it wasn't good enough, but since I had one agent tell me that it was, I listened to her. (And frankly, I wouldn't have done this any differently because we all know that agents are subjective and you only need one to tell you yes. How could I have known that the others were actually the right ones here?) :)

Anyhoo, the lesson that I learned - via good advice or not - is that even when you think you're done, you very well may not be. I'm learning that lesson even today. I thought The Memory of Us was basically finished. My editor came back to me and said, "Um, no." I wasn't initially thrilled but then I remembered that the goal here is to make the best. book. possible. Full stop. The shortcuts that my younger self would have taken aren't acceptable any more. So I rolled up my sleeves and guess what? I'm revising again. Could the previous draft have been published? I think so. Will the next draft be even better? It damn well better be.

So I don't know - is this advice that I disregarded way back when? Kind of. Either way, it's still a good lesson learned and one that I won't ever forget. 

Tuesday
Oct122010

The Gold Star

Question of the day: I'm a newbie (ish) freelance magazine writer and have received quite a few assignments from national magazines. I love writing them, however, this biz is pretty, well, thankless. I don't want any glittery emails back about how my women's service-y tips were groundbreaking, but my question is: how do you know if you've done a good job? How do you know what the difference is between mediocre and great when, aside from edits, there's not much feedback to go off of? Sometimes my articles go through the editing machine pretty consistent with what I turned in; sometimes they're torn up; others they're reorganized a bit. What do you think makes a successful (and desired) freelancer?

Oh, this is a great question and seems so hard to answer that I definitely wanted to open up the floor to other magazine writers to get their thoughts. I thought I knew that I'd done a good job with a few telltale signs: 1) I instinctively knew that I'd given it 100%, and that showed in both the writing and the research. These days (or maybe it's just that I wrote for the mags for so long that toward the end, I could write the pieces in my sleep), it feels like some pieces are just regurgitations of older pieces, so when I wrote (and now, when I read) an article with genuinely insightful/new research or quotes, I was always pretty proud of myself. And again, the pacing and snappiness of the writing - I think that most writers can tell when there's a good flow to the work.

That said, you're right: editing doesn't have so much to do with whether or not you've done a good job. It may simply be a magazine's protocol to edit the hell out of each and every piece, and there were plenty of times that I had pieces taken apart and put back together and thought, "Well, that must have SUCKED," but the editor just thought it was business as usual and not at all an indication of the quality of the piece. That generally happens at the magazines that edit by committee - ie. multiple editors take a crack at it. 

But what WOULD tell me that I'd done a good job - and this is both obvious and still true - is getting a repeat assignment. Toward the end of my heavy duty magazine work, I earned most of my bread and butter by having built relationships with maybe half a dozen editors who trusted me and who sent work my way time and again. THIS is the real mark of good work. They may not come back to you right away, but if you've blown their socks off, their doors will be left open for more work, even if you have to keep pitching and pitching. Another assignments proves that you couldn't have done too poor a job on the first one. :)

At least that's my take. But I bet there are 100 different answers to this question. So writers, I'd love to hear how YOU know when you've done a good job.

Monday
Sep202010

Scheduling Part 2: Long-Term vs. Short-Term (i.e. What's Getting Me Paid)

Question of the day: I'm interested in how you manage longer term deadlines (novels) vs. short-term deadlines (magazine articles, etc). How do you prioritize what to work on, and do long-term projects ever suffer when the short-term deadlines loom? Or, more specifically, how do you prioritize stuff you're not getting paid to do (ideas for future books, etc) when deadlines loom for things for which you're paid? This is always what traps my time.

Great follow-up to Thursday's post, and thank you for asking because I realized I didn't really address this. I gave a generic look at my day, but obviously, things shift around depending on what I'm working on - that glimpse was sort of an average work-load sort of day, but definitely, setting priorities is a big part of making my schedule work, so here's how I handle that.

For me, most of my fiction deadlines are self-imposed. What I mean by that is that I have a delivery date for my publisher - let's say, September 1st, and I know this delivery date probably six months (if not more) ahead of time. So knowing this, I set deadlines for where I need to be in the book and when. So let's say I got this delivery date on March 1st. I'd want the first 100 pages (or 27k-ish words) cranked out by April 15th. I'd want the next 100 pages by June 1st. And I'd want the last 100 pages by July 15th, which gives me enough of a cushion to step away for a week or so, then go back and do a light revision. That's generally approximately 27k words over six weeks, and six weeks is five working days per week, which means 30 days. Which means if I write 1k words a day, I easily hit my goals. 

BUT, some days, yes, I will have a magazine deadline, so maybe I'll cut myself some slack and write less. And some days, I'll absolutely be flying with inspiration, so I'll keep going. The point is that I aim for averages - if I can hit that 27k/100 page goal over six weeks, I give myself a lot of wiggle room, whether it's spending the afternoon drafting a celeb piece or spending the afternoon working on (non-paying) blog posts or spending the afternoon brainstorming new book ideas (I actually don't do this, as I only focus on one book at a time, but I know that some of you do, so I'm just throwing it in there as an example). :) 

I think the key, for me, is to have a real long-term strategy in place. If I feel like things are constantly cropping up and being thrown in my direction, it makes me too jittery, unable to be pinned down and really focus on what needs to get done. So with this foundation in place - six weeks to hit a target - even when other hurdles arise, I'm okay. I know what the end target is, and I know how to compensate to get there. Yes, I can accept that last-minute celeb piece because I wrote 10k words last week, and now this week, I can slow down and take a breather. Is that making sense? 

So getting back to the original question about priorities, I'd say that by organizing my life with these goal posts, I don't really HAVE to prioritize. I can't neglect the fiction because I'm contracted, but I don't WANT to neglect the other stuff because I enjoy it. But the only way to manage both is to have that foundation pinning me down. I never, ever miss any kind of deadline and with these longer goals in place, the shorter goals are easier to manage as well.

Does that help?

Thursday
Sep162010

Scheduling

Question of the day: I'd love to hear about your daily schedule, a blow-by-blow, as to how you get everything done.

Sure! Though I think I'm a lot less busy than people think. Or maybe I'm just used to working at such a pace that it doesn't seem like a big deal anymore. But here goes. (And I'm giving you the non-work details too, so working moms can see how I squeeze in other things.)

My schedule depends a lot on where I am in the writing process of a book. For the sake of staving off your boredom, I'm going to lay out how I work when I'm really in the thick of a manuscript. Mostly because this is really when the heavy-lifting goes on, and also because I assume you don't need to read my daily schedule of Facebook-Twitter-J.Crew-gossip sites-CNN, repeat, repeat, repeat. So here goes:

7AM: Kill me, but I get up. I am NOT a morning person and it takes the force of God to get me up at this hour, but alas, I crack an eye open in this general time vicinity.

8AM: After making breakfast for my kids, I hustle my eldest out the door. Either I take him or my husband takes him, in which case, I take my daughter to school by 9AM. 

10AM: Regardless of which child I take to school, I run errands on the way home (this is NYC, so I'm walking everywhere, and it's easiest to bang out a few errands first thing), and am through the door by 10, usually earlier. I eat a late breakfast and screw around online for a bit while doing so. For some reason, I have a tough time really digging into my work until I've surfed the sites I want to catch up on. But once I get all that crap out of the way, it's like wiping the slate clean, and I'm good to go.

10:30-11:AM. This is when I really start writing. If I'm having a hard time motivating, I give myself a deadline: like, you HAVE to start writing by 11AM sharp. 

1:00PM: After writing for two hours or so, I find that my eyes and my brain grow a bit fuzzy. I set word counts for myself each day (or when revising, page counts), anywhere from 1k to 2k (or 15-20 pages of revision). Sometimes I reach this goal in these two hours; many times, I don't. But still, I know myself, and know that I need a break, so I push back my chair for a breather.

1-2PM: I usually take an hour to workout and recharge. (Yes, exercising helps me recharge!) I then run out (or stop on the way home from a jog) and pick up lunch/run a few more errands like picking up food for dinner. (The dinner decision can't be made until my husband has eaten lunch because, lord forbid, I repeat something that he's eaten that day. Spouses- I know I'm not alone in these intricate and lengthy discussions.) 

2:30PM: Eat lunch and mindlessly surf the web again. A lot of breaking gossip can happen over the course of my lunch break!!

3PMish: If I haven't reached my word count goal, I dive back in. I'll write anywhere from an hour or two. OR, if I have a celebrity profile to work on, I reserve this time for that. I tend to at least get the fiction out of the way in the morning because that's much harder for me to motivate on. So knowing that I've put in a few good hours, I'm okay focusing on something else for a bit, like those mag articles. Or I may write a chunk of blog posts for the week. Things like that.

5PM: I usually shut down for the day sometime within the next half an hour, then have to head out to walk the dog. 

6PM: Babysitter leaves, so I make dinner for the kids and hang out with them until 7:15 bedtime. Then make dinner for the grown-ups (and by making dinner, I usually mean heating up something that's been semi-premade at the store). If I have lingering threads from the book still in my brain, I may purge them in the manuscript after dinner, but mostly, I'm done for the day.

So that's the general schedule. Obviously, as anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I flip back and forth on the internet, even while writing. Sometimes, my brain needs a 20 second break to sift around and find the right phrasing or whatnot, and often, by tuning out for a few seconds, I find what I need. So I definitely do that too. But for this most part, this is how I get done what I get done. As I said, I don't think it's particularly Herculean. And also obviously, sometimes this shifts. I'm lucky enough that I can pop into my kids' swimming lessons, attend an event at one of their schools, etc. 

Any questions? I'm sure I'm forgetting some stuff...

Monday
Aug022010

Setting Aside A Beloved Manuscript

Question of the day: I have spent five years and three major revisions on my first novel. I belong to two critique groups and I've been querying agents for the last six months and contacted about 30 of them. I've gotten 3 full requests, 3 partial requests, and 1 full request from an editor I met at a Writers Conference in April. The problem I'm facing is that everyone seems to have a different (and contradictory) reason for rejecting the novel. What do you think I should do? Should I continue to query agents or set this novel aside? (I'm already working on my second novel, but I'm having a hard time giving up on the first one.)

I can't tell you what to do in this specific circumstance, but I do think this opens up the much broader question of when is it time to set something aside. In your case, 30 agents isn't that many for a really in-depth agent hunt, and because reading is so subjective, you really are likely to get a wide variety of opinions in your rejections, so ultimately, whether or not you pursue this novel is up to you. Maybe it's your query letter, maybe it's timing, the agents you're contacting, the industry...there are so many different reasons as to why it might not be making its mark.

But yes, sometimes, it is just that the book isn't good enough. Writers, especially first-timers, often have a hard time accepting this, but it's the simple truth: just because a book has been completed, and even when a book has been revised - and revised again - it simply still isn't going to sell. If you've been reading this blog for long enough, you know that I speak from experience, and the reason I call out first-timers is because until you've written something that is a hell of a lot better, you really can't tell when a novel stinks. (Which isn't to say that the reader's manuscript in question stinks, only that it's very, very, very difficult to be objective when you have no basis for comparison.)

So how do you decide if you should set it aside? I think this is a really personal decision, but for me - beyond the fact that I was getting rejections from publishers (hee), I was also getting lukewarm feedback from readers I trusted, readers I was sure would rave about it. When they came back with "eh," I started to wonder if maybe I hadn't created the masterpiece I thought I had. (Yes, opinions are totally just that, but again, these were people whose opinions I valued, so I had to give them some weight.) I think also, sometimes you keep pushing a book because of the sunk costs - namely, how much time and effort you've put into them in the past, NOT because you're really so gung-ho on them for the future. Again, this certainly applied to me. After all of my blood, sweat and tears, I simply couldn't IMAGINE that this book wasn't going to be published. BUT, despite my agony, that didn't mean that it SHOULD be published. There's a big difference, and maybe that's not fair, maybe that's the really crappy part of our industry, but just because you THINK it's worthy doesn't mean that the marketplace will agree. And that's the gamble that you take in writing a manuscript in the first place.

I wish I had more concrete answers for you. I can only say that once you write something new - and better - then you really finally get clarity on why that other book didn't sell. It's nearly impossible to articulate the specifics behind this enlightenment (at least impossible for me to articulate them), but the good news is that you WILL finally get it, even if means that you have to write something else to do so.

Readers - I would LOVE to hear from you: have you ever decided to set a book aside, and if so, how did you reach this conclusion?

Monday
Jul122010

Making the Magazine Leap

Question of the day: How did you make the switch from magazines to books? Was it easier to find an agent via your magazine experience?

I made the switch in the most elemental way possible: I wrote a manuscript and shopped it around to agents while still juggling my freelance work. It really was that simple! I don't think there's a magic formula or anything to making this transition, though certainly, it requires discipline, as you're not getting paid to write your fiction, and without a deadline, it's very easy to let it lapse. Most magazine writers are excellent at meeting mandated deadlines, but when they're self-imposed deadlines - with no guarantee of publication - they're a lot easier to ignore.

Actually, let me rewind - it wasn't simple. That's probably not the right word to use. But in terms of overall formula, that's how it worked. The details though were a little trickier. My first manuscript took me four years to write, thanks partially to what I stated above: deadlines and motivation, but also partially thanks to the fact that I didn't know what I was doing. Once I finally completed the ms, I landed an agent but an agent who didn't end up selling the book. So I wrote another one. Which did sell. Albeit with a new agent after I parted ways with the old one. All the while, I was still freelancing at a very rapid pace to keep the checks coming and to keep my byline out there. I would work on magazine pieces in the morning - they had concrete deadlines after all, and I needed to be sure that I met them - and write fiction in the afternoons. I was crazy busy, too busy probably, but I didn't want to let that deter me: once I'd written fiction, I knew that I had to see it through. So I did. 

Again, both simple and not. I wrote a good query letter (which, yes, referenced my magazine experience) and cast a wide net in a blind agent search. I found one (after the first agent didn't work out) who I knew was right for me, and well, four books later, she still is. That's truly all I did - not much different than anyone else. Now, did my magazine experience help? It probably got my query letter read more frequently and also probably got me more requests for partials. But 100%, it did NOT land me representation. The manuscript has to stand on its own - I don't care if you have ever magazine credit known to man - without a strong manuscript, you're not going to land an agent. So again - and I've stressed this countless times here! - please be triple sure that your manuscript is ready to see the light of day.

So that's how I did it. There really isn't a secret handshake or magic formula. It's mostly about self-discipline and writing a good book. (Really! And that should come as good news to those of you who don't come from the writing world - it really is anyone's ball game.)

 
Tuesday
May252010

And...The Final Countdown is On

Before I get to today's post, I wanted to let you know that I'm also guest blogging over on The Divining Wand today, talking about goals and goal-setting and dreams and how to make them happen. Head on over and check it out.

So...WOW. Just wow. ONE MORE WEEK and The One That I Want will be ushered out into the world. It's crazy, it's surreal, it's daunting. Mostly, it feels akin to being pregnant for eight and a half months, then looking in the mirror and suddenly realizing that there's no turning back: you're having this baby and you're having it soon!

To pull back the curtain and give you a glimpse as to what goes on for an author leading up to publication, I've spent the bulk of the last few weeks doing promotional stuff: answering online q/as, writing guest blogs, finalizing the book club guide...things like that. Little things that end up eating the bulk of my day. (Don't get my wrong, I'm not complaining.) There is a flurry of back-end activity on both my part and the part of my publicity team, a last-minute push to ensure that anyone who might consider reviewing the book is aware of its publication, and then...mostly, there's silence. That's the part that gets a little easier with each book but will never, EVER get truly easy. The bottom line is that but for a few long-lead reviews (the trades like Publishers Weekly and the magazines such as Redbook), you really have no idea how the product that you poured a year of your life into will be received.

Which is something that I don't think I ever really considered when I was an unpublished author: the anxiety - EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE NO CONTROL OVER YOUR REVIEWS and EVEN THOUGH YOU WROTE THE BEST BOOK YOU COULD - over what comes next. You feel a little bit like Sally Field, despite wanting desperately NOT to feel like Sally Field because you like to think that you're impermeable to what people are going to say about you. But I think just about every author out there wants to be well-received, even if he or she claims that reviews don't matter, and so, in this in-between time, it's hard not to fret, not to lose a little sleep.

There is also, this time around, the weight of expectations. Again, nothing I'd ever considered before, and TRUST ME, I am not complaining. I have readers to please, I have a publisher to please, and let's be honest: you guys know me, you know that I set the bar high for myself, so I have myself to please. It's a strange position to be in - publishing the book in and of itself is an accomplishment, but now, there is more riding on it. I suppose this is true of any career: the higher you ascend, the more you have to both risk and gain. But still, expectations keep me up a bit at night too. (Clearly, I'm not sleeping at all!)

Anyway, that's what goes on in the mind of a writer on the cusp of publication. It's a tangled mix of euphoria and nerves - I'm so super-proud of this book, of the effort that it took me, and what that effort represents to me personally, but I can't lie and say that, like every book launch, I'm not nervous. But so it goes. That's life as a writer. I'll embrace it with open arms.

Thursday
May062010

In Defense of the Writer

So I'm very, very curious to hear what others have to say about today's blog post (and dilemma). Please feel free to unleash below. Because I'm truly torn about what I'm about to post.

First, a bit of backstory. Like most writers, I have a google alert set up for my name, not because I'm a total narcissist but because I do think it's important to know what's being said and what buzz is happening out there about you. In fact, some would argue that google alerts aren't narcissistic, rather masochistic, because you never know what's going to come down the pipeline. To that end, plenty of bad reviews and snarky comments come my way about my work. Fine. As I've urged writers in the past, I think it's important to take these things with a grain of salt and package them in a little box and set it aside and move on.

That said.

Yesterday, my google alert went off and brought up a particularly eviscerating review. Again: fine. In nearly every case, I look the other way and simply don't care. Some people will love the book, some people won't: that's life as a writer and you have to accept this if you're putting yourself in the public domain. However, this review said some unfair and inaccurate things about me personally, and the hairs on my neck stood up. All I could think about was that I should be able to defend myself in a rational, calm way. And yet, every other instinct and example - just look at when Alice Hoffman unleashed on Twitter - told me to move on. But I couldn't. I felt almost personally disparaged by the name-calling, and in the end, I wrote a quick, calm, kind note on the blog explaining my stance on what had been said.

But this got me thinking: in the day and age in which anyone can post anything about you or your books, at what point are writers allowed to speak up? In general, the rule has always been - under no circumstance. Keep your mouth shut. You'll end up on Gawker, looking like a fool. But I'm starting to rethink that. Not that the correct tactic is hysterically calling out a New York Times (or whatever media outlet) reporter because he or she didn't like your book, but yes, aren't we entitled to a little bit of defense of ourselves? When something crosses the line? Or is the price we pay for being published authors (and I'm asking this seriously) that we have to sit back and accept whatever comes our way?

I don't know. In many ways, I'm starting to think that bloggers/reviewers/ranters should be responsible for what they post. Sure, they can say whatever they want about something and someone, but at the same time, they need to be okay with anyone - the author included - reading it, and in some cases, being argued back at. Sometimes, I think people forget that if they put something up on the internet, it is OUT THERE, and if it is OUT THERE, then it's fair game for anyone else to chime in on.

Hmmm. It's interesting how much this is bothering me, this concept that there's a wall between writers and readers, and yet it's a one-sided wall at that. Again, it's not the lousy review that I have a problem with, it's public disparagement. At what point is the writer allowed to speak up? Always? Never? Sometimes but with the risk that you'll look petty and/or foolish? Is it really petty to be able to want to defend yourself in the public arena? As I said, I'm starting to think that the answer can be no.

Will you share your thoughts? I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday
Apr212010

Wow

So, I am seriously having a hard time believing this, but I am done the first draft of The Memory of Us. Honestly, I'm a little in shock! Writing this book has felt a little bit different than any of my others. Time Of My Life flew by in a whirlwind of two months. The One That I Want was a lot of hard labor. And this one? Well, this one was kind of when I realized that writing a book is just like any other task: if you build it slowly and methodically, it gets done. Like organizing a closet, cleaning out a pantry. (Now doesn't THAT make this gig sound glamorous!) :)

Now, that isn't to say that the real work doesn't begin now. Actually, no, that's not true. For me, the real work is getting from start to finish, but my work is hardly done. Often times - and I'm pretty sure that you guys will be able to relate - I'll think certain aspects of a book are really AWESOME while writing them, and then I'll go back and reread them, and just be aghast. AGHAST! Not only that I thought they were awesome, but that I wrote them in the first place! And conversely, I'm now spending a lot of time reflecting on the problems that I know are already there. Because there are plenty of problems. I think this is one of the biggest differences between who I am as a writer now, and who I was as a writer when I first started out. Not only my ability to pinpoint problems, but the recognition that a draft is...a draft. Not a finished product, not even close to a finished product. Five years ago, I bet that I'd have given this a quick one-over and thought it was pretty damn good. Now, I am literally keeping myself awake at night trying to figure out not only how to make it better, but how to eliminate every last weakness in the plot, the characters, the writing, the dialogue. And I think this evolution of understanding just how much work it takes in getting a manuscript just right can't be underestimated. Whether you're looking for an agent or already contracted with a publisher, I really, really recommend pouring over your manuscript on time more than you think you need to. It's worth it to be 1000% sure that you've gotten it right.

But anyway, that's for later. For now, I'm taking a day to enjoy it before I pull on the goggles and dive back in.