When I learned that my manuscript made a reader I’ve never met or spoken to laugh and cry multiple times — in GIFs

First I was like:

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Then I was like:

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and:

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and:

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and:

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I’d say “My work here is done,” but it isn’t. Cause revisions.

And that whole publication thing.

But still.

–Reposted from my tumblr.

Read what you love.

“It was as if some people believed there was a divide between the books that you were permitted to enjoy and the books that were good for you, and I was expected to choose sides. We were all expected to choose sides. And I didn’t believe it, and I still don’t.

I was, and still am, on the side of books you love.”

—Neil Gaiman, in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech for The Graveyard Book

Good Writing Advice: The 45 Minute Session

Yesterday I tried something different.

I wrote in blocks of 45 minutes at a time.

Let me back up a minute. I’m currently at work on a MG project. Ideas for this book had been steeping for months before I ever put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard); as a MG novel I intended to keep it under 60k; by the time I started writing I had an extensive outline to work from. Given all this and the fact that at peak form I have no problem writing 1,5000-2,000+ words a day, I expected this book to practically fall out of me.

Ha.

I’m not sure what it is, but with this book I seem to be capping at about 1,000 words a day. I’ve been feeling sluggish– like I needed to try something different. So the last week or so I’ve spent more time in a hardcover notebook, typing up what I’ve written at the end of the day. Effective? In some ways, yes.

But I’ll tell you what I like better.

Heather Sellers recently contributed a list to the 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far column in Writer’s Digest. In her seventh point she borrows Billy Joel’s term “in harness” to describe the butt-in-the-chair, door-closed, no distractions discipline with which a writer does her best writing. Take a moment to visualize what “in harness” might mean for you. No internet? No company? Music, TV, cell phone off or left in another room? Blinds down on a beautiful day? Think of it as making a space for you and your manuscript. An intimate, secluded table for two.

Now– how does one realistically commit oneself to such an intense focus without burning out or wrecking one’s eyes? Sellers answers: One writes in manageable sessions. Sessions of 45 minutes, to be exact (with 15 minute breaks in between if they are consecutive).

Of course, that’s what works for her. Others might find 30 minute or 2 hour sessions more productive. I’ve even heard of 25 minute pomodoros doing wonders. The magic here I think is in tricking your brain to believe “Hey, 45 minutes! That isn’t long at all! I can commit to my writing and absolutely nothing else for that long.” In my own experiment yesterday I found it much easier to shut myself in a room and disconnect from everything in 45 minute intervals. How’d it turn out? Well, in only four sessions (3 hours total) I managed over 1,000 words. Not lightning speed by any means, but certainly not shabby for the edits-as-she-goes type. It’s the same result for considerably less time than I feel it has taken me to achieve lately.

Do you write in short sessions? For how long? Let us know below! And I really recommend reading Heather Sellers’ entire writing advice list. They’re all great points that go way beyond the common show, don’t tell. Check ’em out!

26 Things I’ve Learned So Far

I recently turned 26. Goodbye, quarter life crisis! Hello, glorious new year of awkward transitional 20s. (Don’t listen to me. I love my 20s.)

Taken on my bday. I am not 22.

Taken on my bday. I am not 22.

I don’t feel older, but I do feel more adult. There are still many regards in which I do not, but some things (liking chocolate doughnuts with rainbow sprinkles and YA books, for instance) will never change. I look forward to the next year of growth and experiment, and in the meantime present a handdrawn list of 26 things I have learned in recent years (inspired in equal parts by Laekan Zea Kemp’s traditional bday blog post and the 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far column in Writer’s Digest). Typed list follows for ease of reading.

26 things ive learned so far - 2 doc size

26 Things I’ve Learned So Far

1. Beauty, like humor, is subjective.
2. It’s better to buy one thing you need than two you don’t (even if the two things are cheaper).
3. True motivation can only come from within. You have to want something for yourself.
4. Everything you don’t absolutely need in order to exist is a luxury. Notice it. Appreciate it.
5. No two people, living or deceased, experience the world exactly the same way.
6. Life is a series of choices. You will have to make them.
7. No effort is wasted if we learn from it.
8. Love is free. Give it openly and make the world a better place—one smile, one affirmation, one kindness at a time.
9. People are sponges. You are what you eat, read, watch, do, listen to, associate with.
10. Don’t rely on other people to make your life meaningful. Make your own meaning. (But do let others add to it.)
11. Choose commitments with care.
12. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can anybody else?
13. Stress is a sign of growth. It means you are out of your comfort zone.
14. It is better to fail than to not even try.
15. Kindness can move mountains.
16. A person who shames others for loving something is arrogant and narrow-minded.
17. Confidence is everything.
18. Don’t judge a shirt by the way it looks on the hanger.
19. Small luxuries bring great joy.
20. Surround yourself with people you admire.
21. Remove yourself from negative/draining influences.
22. Pursue the things that energize you.
23. Keep electronics higher than liquids.
24. If you want more time, change how you spend it.
25. The longer you look, the more you see.
26. ENK (Everyone Needs Kindness).

From Chaos Comes Order, or: This is How You Write

This is something I have come to realize recently. I mean, really realize:

Writing is messy.

There’s simply no right way to do it. (There are, however, plenty of wrong ones: baking cookies, watching Dexter, and checking your email every seven minutes to see if Mr./Ms. Agent has finished reading your manuscript among them.)

You start with an idea. Probably a half-baked one, if even. We may be talking quarter or eighth or sixteenth-baked here.

The good (or stress-inducing, depending on your perspective) news is that you’ve got another fractionally-baked idea to pair it with. Yay! A salt and pepper set!

And then there are all those other little fragments of something rattling around in your head like broken filaments or a pick stuck inside a guitar. They want to be part of your story, too.

You shake all the pieces out, line them up on the carpet. Really, it’s a bit like emptying one of those $19.99 Everything jars from Goodwill onto the floor and looking at all the Legos and buttons and friendship beads and Canadian money and googly eyes and plastic dinosaurs and popsicle sticks with the jokes on them and stale candy and God knows what and saying, From this I shall build a DeLorean. A sane person would answer: You’re off your rocker and halfway to the moon.

But somehow you string the pieces together. Somehow your choking hazard avalanche of disparate ideas and disorder becomes an outline, then a draft, and then a novel. Give or take 3-300 revisions between.

How do you get from Chaos to finished product? It’s a mystery to me, and frankly some kind of miracle. But there are a few things that do seem to help:

  1. Time. Ideas need to steep. Suggestions need to sit. Parts need to come together. Most of which is outside the actual writing.
  2. Effort. Sometimes the only way to find the path that works is to try all the ones that don’t first. Multiply x 3,756 for all the individual challenges/creative problem-solving issues you might encounter in a single novel.
  3. Determination. Just keep showing up. And showing up. And showing up. You have to work and work some more until it’s done.

Those are the bases. Your ideas are the flavor.

What you make (and how) is up to you.

 

A Good Writing Day (A Second Person Adventure)

It might begin around mid-morning or noon: You notice that you’re still in pajamas, or perhaps that you haven’t any pants on. No matter; you’ve brushed your hair and your teeth and are therefore not a total disgrace. You’ll dress when you finish this passage. Keep writing.

You resolve, as tasks fleetingly cross your mind, that today you will 1) update your blog 2) call the eye doctor/dentist/other professional 3) practice French, play guitar, and exercise 4) sew that button, write that letter, do the laundry, etc.  …When you get to a stopping point.

It occurs to you the mail’s arrived. Meh. It can wait.

The phone rings. You don’t answer it. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message.

Cat claws the door. Okay, must break for cat. You know, being a diva, that she’ll just jump up on the desk and wedge herself between you and the keyboard until you adore her, anyway. Take this opportunity to save and backup MS via Dropbox. She’ll lose interest in T-minus five.

(Five minutes later) Why are clothes so hard to choose? You kick yourself for not being dressed yet, but can’t stay in front of the closet long enough to pick out things that match. Every time you try to think of what you’ll wear with C shirt another sentence comes to you and you have to write it down before it slips away. Ms. Muse so rarely whispers; to ignore her would be like ignoring a hummingbird, or the harvest moon, or a diamond that washed in with the tide.

Your phone blinks with notices: new message, low battery, missed call. You turn it over and return to your dialogue.

At some point you glimpse your pajamas strewn across the bed. You suppose that means you are dressed now.

You don’t eat lunch until 3:00 and don’t eat dinner at all, even though your stomach reminds you every hour on the hour after 8:00 that you’ve forgotten something. You run out of water but can’t tear yourself from the word document to refill your glass. You won’t even leave to go to the bathroom. Who knows when you last went?

The room is suddenly dark. You realize the sun has gone down. That can’t be good for the eyes. You flip on a light and sit back for a little refresher, reach for a drink. You remember your glass is empty. Your bladder, however, takes the occasion to remind you that it is not. Still, you’re on a roll. If only you could finish this paragraph and transition to the next scene…

The chair grows rigid and uncomfortable. You remember reading somewhere that people who sit for more than three hours a day have a shorter life expectancy. You shift and adjust and straighten and slouch and put up your knees and put down your knees and still the cursor and blank space mock you. Blink. Blank. GAH!

You get up. Pace. Glare at the computer and spin away again, hold your face in your hands. Deep breath. You’re going to finish this scene, dammit. You exhale, look hopelessly up at the ceiling, then–

Breakthrough!

Back in the chair. You’re clicking keys like a demon now, unstuck and ravenous. Ooh, this is good. Oh my god, why didn’t you think of this sooner? THIS IS PERFECT! You’re on fire! Clackity clack clack clack…

Finally, with sore wrists and an aching back you crack your neck, sit up straight, and review what you have written. It isn’t perfect, but it isn’t unhandsome, either. You pick up your glass and find it’s still empty. You set it back down and keep writing.

At last you hit save. Dinner (bread and a cookie, or something made in a mug) is eaten; one of ten things you planned to do today plus a shower are achieved.

You collect your pajamas, still strewn on the bed, and slip back into them. You then slip into bed, pull the covers up, and sit. You take a long drink from your refilled glass of water; check your email, or your phone, or the things you didn’t get to in your planner. You’re tired but not sleepy. You might read a while.

…Then again, the shower knocked a few ideas loose. Why not try them while they’re fresh in your head?

You open your MS and write.

Book Review: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand

I tend to choose books from my eclectic reading list on a whim, but lately, in part because I’m preparing to write my youngest protagonist ever and in part because I was inspired by fellow author Aubrey Cann, who is doing the same, I’ve been on something of a Middle Grade kick. It’s been a long time since I’ve read MG and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was the point: to rediscover and explore.

And what an exploration it has been.

Only three books into my MG expedition, I encountered The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand. I LOVE THIS BOOK. Creepy, compelling, and spearheaded by a haughty perfectionist whose greatest weapons are her standards, Cavendish is an unexpected, nightmarish delight that both charms and chills.

Book: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls

Author: Claire Legrand

Julie’s rating: ****

Synopsis

In the cobblestoned town of Belleville, everything is picturesque. Neighborhoods are well-kept, inhabitants are rich and successful, and twelve-year-old Victoria Wright is at the top of her class.

Life would be perfect if her classmates didn’t keep disappearing.

When Victoria’s best and only friend Lawrence Prewitt vanishes, too, it’s up to her to get to the bottom of things. There is something unusual, after all—something eerie, something sinister—about the things that have been happening lately: the missing children who her classmates can’t seem to remember, the too-bright smiles and glassy-eyed looks of parents and teachers when she asks about them, the warning note her own housekeeper silently slips to her at breakfast: “Be careful.” Something in Belleville is wrong. Very wrong.

And that something resides at Nine Silldie Place, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.

Thoughts

I’ve already said I loved the book. Here are a few reasons why:

1. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is all over that Coraline, Tim Burton-y quality of magical darkness. I LOVE IT. There’s even a hint of Matilda to it, though Victoria has no superpowers (excepting her infamous withering look, which tends to help her get her way).

2. The Home. Inside the orphanage is like a living bad dream: the walls whisper and move. Mirrors play tricks. Painted crows with human hands come to life and swoop down at you. Hallways stretch and redecorate, passages and rooms appear and disappear and change. At times the Home seems to speak and breathe and have a heartbeat. And if you hum in its presence…Well, find out at your own risk!

3. Victoria as lead. This twelve-year-old KICKS BUTT. She’s snobbish and proud (her biggest problem before Lawrence goes missing is getting a B and losing her spot at the top of the class) and yet wholly loveable. When she marches into the nightmare she does it with her head held high, willing herself above fear and refusing to be intimidated. Her indignation at everything from an annoying, yapping dog to the shocking horrors of Mrs. Cavendish’s Home is both endearing and sympathy-garnering. I really found myself rooting for her.

mrs cavendishAnd finally, separate from the writing but an amazing experience for me nonetheless: the illustrations. For one thing, it’s been a very long time since I’ve read a chapter book that was illustrated, so nostalgically-speaking that was pleasant and unexpected. For another, Sarah Watts’ works really were quite charming on their own (again: something of that elegant Tim Burton-y beauty and darkness). But what was coolest for me was a new sense of appreciation. As I’ve been experimenting with handdrawn images–> Photoshop in recent months, I found myself noticing things about Watts’ pictures I would not have observed before. The pencil-like quality of some strokes, while others were solid. Places where color was inverted (white on black rather than black on white). The way everything was arranged together, and how many lines were not clean or straight but everything still looked phenomenal.

See: Mrs. Cavendish smiled. “I make a point of knowing all the children in the area. Professional interest, you know.”

On Buying Used Books…With Inscriptions

I love secondhand shops. Bookstores, boutiques, or Goodwill– doesn’t matter. A) I love a good bargain and B) You never know what you’ll find. Every visit is a treasure hunt. That’s half the fun!

Well, last weekend my exploits turned up this journal:

book of kells_0001

Um. GORGEOUS, no?

It’s a Paperblanks hardcover journal. If you’ve ever browsed among the blank leather and hardback volumes at your local bookstore, you know how ridiculously lavish these can be. This one is 128 lined pages, measures 9.1 x 6.6 inches, and weighs about a pound. The uh-MAZ-ing cover– what first caught my eye– is an illustration from the Book of Kells, a manuscript from the Middle Ages whose real and historical counterpart resides at Trinity College, Dublin.

The book was in excellent condition, and all of its pages were blank. Even if half the pages had been scribbled in, for the right price I still probably would have bought it. The illustrations enchanted me from the moment I laid eyes on them and when I read the description on the inner back cover I knew the book in my hands was high quality–probably worth at least $25-$35 new (Fact: It retails on Amazon from anywhere from $65 to $539.80.)

So why the devil was it only $1.99?

I opened the front cover.

book of kells_0002

Oh.

Well, obviously I bought the journal anyway. My thought process went something like this:

  1. Oh.
  2. Well, that could be papered over.
  3. Hang on– inscriptions are cool. I like inscriptions. They add a sort of richness, a historical presence; a story beyond the story. I mean, “wuv” is not the most decorated of all prose, but still. It’s the principal.
  4. Yeah, but what if somebody picked up the journal and read the inscription and was like, “Hey Julie, who’s this Mate (Maté?) person? You don’t know any Mate. What is this? You shrewd bargain-hunting, journal-snatching weirdo, you.”
  5. Psh. That’s not gonna happen.
  6. Probably.
  7. But what if the reason the previous owner never wrote in the journal is something bad? A death, a falling out with this Mate person? Tragedy?
  8. All the more poignant. Such is the human experience. Is that something to be papered over?
  9. They could have just been bad at keeping a journal.
  10. Whatever. $1.99.
  11. Iiiii’m going to blog about this.

So now I have, and I turn the question to you: What are your thoughts on buying used books with inscriptions in them? Does a personalized note with strangers’ names add value to the book for you, or detract from it?

Homemade Calendar

Inspired partly by a friend’s homemade calendar and partly by Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, this year I decided (albeit not until February) to make my own 12 month calendar to set goals and monthly focuses. Goals would be short-term, one-time tasks: write a letter. Read 4 books. Do X errand, memorize Y poem, try Z recipe. Month-long focuses would be either project-related or, drawing from Rubin, something I wanted to devote more time to.

It was these– the extracurricular focuses– that I was really excited about. These were the things that drove me to make this calendar. Mostly, they’re things I’ve been wanting to learn more about or learn to do better forever, and have always told myself I would, but never made the time to. Things that interest me, fascinate me, or would simply be useful to know: how to dream lucidly. Read Latin. Apply better, more professional makeup. Create ciphers. Analyze handwriting. Grow rosemary and saffron. Long have I meant to look up the latest fashion trends, learn all the guitar scales, study body language. Etc. ad infinitum. There is much to be said for letting Interest be your guide, and, in addition to enjoying the activities themselves, I could easily see any of these things finding their way into my fiction.

This is what my first month ended up like:

february 2014_0001

I used soft pastels to mark off the days, coloring each box as I went. This month I may try something else.

The rest of the calendar follows the same general format through December: large chart for days (just right for the stickers I’m imagining for Nanowrimo and other word count jaunts), space on the right for listing goals and focuses, and of course an artistic splash of pictures, relevant or impulsively chosen.

Do you keep monthly goals or focuses? What are you working on this month?

Oh, and one last perk to keeping this style of calendar: Since I knew I wanted to share my completed February (i.e., on my blog), I made sure to complete all the goals I listed first. One of them I’d been putting off, but having that accountability motivated me to wrap it up on the last day of the month!

This Is Madness, or: Julie’s Outline Process of DOOM

I’m currently preparing to write my third novel, and as I go I find myself marveling at the madness of the process.

I don’t know what it looks like when other writers set out to develop a book idea or draft an initial outline, but for me it’s a bit like watching a star form out of Chaos. First two random hunks of rock hurtling through space and time and life collide (Idea!) and then there’s this magnetic pull: slight at first, and then strong, stronger, and finally berserk. The gravity that’s been ignited is the initial idea drawing other pieces, fragments of the story to it. The pieces fly to one another and fuse, arranging and building on themselves with unstoppable electric energy, and the gravity of the gathering mass increases until the particles whooshing toward it fly so fast they could shatter bones. And then, when the parts have gathered and shaped themselves and the dust has settled, there it is: Your Story.

Or rather: Outline #1.

That’s right. Everything I’ve just described– the forming of a microcosm unto itself–

Yep, “Eyjafjallajökull,” about accurately describes it–

is what I see happen whenever I go about planning a book.

To understand me, one has merely to refer to one of the sprawling documents that is my starting outline. I sometimes save these documents as “Book Title – Master doc,” but “master” could not be a balder misnomer. The first outline is sheer madness.

What Julie’s initial outline for a book looks like:

It starts with a single detail or a vague idea. A few main events follow. Perhaps a series of details I think I’ll need to refer back to: the phases and dates of an MC’s rotating art class, the items she has with her when she stumbles into another world. After that a numbered list; a collection of sentences that begin with the word “maybe”; a handful of homeless puzzle pieces.

And then, oh, I don’t know, a 74-itemed working list of all the story’s events in haphazard chronological order? But only if said list is replete with dozens of sub letters, highlighted sentences, half-written passages and dialogues, snippets of text turned blue or pink or green or in brackets. And ah– let’s not forget times and dates, where applicable.

After that disorientation, another two pages of questions, backstory, orphaned details and yet more sentences that begin with “maybe” should follow. Insert bullet list for good measure.

Finally, after a few nonsensical equations (Cat = Lulu) and at least one BIG REVEAL!, a portion of text near the end which is bolded and then promptly forgotten.

Then: When all this is achieved, work should be done exclusively from the document’s middle.

This is an approximation of what past and present starting outlines have looked like for me. Like I said, chaos.

And yet somehow, out of this mindstorm of confusion and debris and disorder within disorder, a story is born. It might take a few drafts– hell, it might take a few outlines– but eventually that initial groundwork translates into a single, coherent, easily-read and satisfying novel.

Your Book.

If that’s not a human miracle, I don’t know what is.