Chapter Awesome: IN WHICH JULIE GETS AN AGENT

Guys, it’s happened.

I have dreamt of being an author since grade school. For the last two and a half years I have worked at that dream aggressively, every day writing or reading or researching (or all of the above) in efforts to tell a good story, improve my craft, and start a career.

Today I am thrilled to announce that that dream just became part reality: I signed a contract.

I am now officially an agented author, represented by none other than the incredible Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency!

There is still much to be done before I can hold a printed book in my hands—revisions, submissions to publishers, and, if I’m lucky, even more revisions—but that’s okay. Today I am grateful and happy and proud just to have reached this crest in the journey. It may be a long way to the top of the mountain, but the view from here is pretty sweet.

P1060496-3

 

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).

On Doubt

The subject of doubt seems to be coming up a lot lately in my conversations with fellow writers and artists. I’m not sure why that is, but I know it’s an intrinsic part of the artist’s life and since I’ve experienced it quite recently I thought this would be a good time to reflect on some of the observations I’ve made about it. I’m always curious to hear how other creative types operate, too, so feel free to chime in with your experiences in the comments below!

Now, stop me if I’m being biased, but I think I’m pretty balanced of mind. I do my best to look at my work objectively, I welcome constructive criticism, and I don’t freak out when something doesn’t work– I think about it, and then I fix it. I approach creative challenges eagerly, with the mindset that there is a solution; I just have to work to find it. Meaning, I think I have an overall positive attitude in my work. I address what I can, and mostly that keeps me too busy to experience any more serious, hard-hitting doubts.

But there are times when they find me.

When they get in my head and under my skin and blacken my heart with their hollow, faceless terror.

So far these occasions have been limited. In fact, I count all of two:

1) When I decided to pursue writing and artistic efforts as a career. This, however, was not a short-lived doubt. Even knowing in the back of my mind since the second or third grade that I wanted to be a writer (and/or artist); even having funds from a previous job squirreled away; even realizing that no other work could ever be as satisfying to me as the creative livelihood, I struggled for a very long time to put both feet in the water and really give myself permission to pursue that life wholeheartedly. I’m talking months, maybe even more than a year since the time I began my first real attempt at a novel. I’m sure there were many reasons for that, but perhaps the easiest to point to is the simple fact of being a black sheep among peers. I’m in my twenties: my former classmates are in grad school or landing real jobs, getting married, buying houses, starting families. Me? I’m writing books. I wouldn’t have it any other way now, but it took some serious time, commitment, and effort to get to the stage where I didn’t just realize I had found the thing I loved; I accepted it, and embraced all of the outlier implications that came with it.

2) When I send out queries. Yeah. Notice that this one’s present and not past tense, because (at least, until I have an agent and actually sell something) I have a feeling that queries will be a perennial source of self-doubt. Up until the query stage I have been writing primarily for myself: indulging in artistic fancy, directing my work after my own vision. But once I come to the point where I must show the precious thing I have made to a professional whose opinion is tantamount to validation (or lack thereof), the doubts come thundering down: Is my opening right? Does the rest of the manuscript deliver everything it promised? Am I trying to do too much? Is this part cheesy? Is that part too complicated? Am I doing myself a disservice in submitting the work as it is now, utterly dashing all chances I have of finding representation?

It’s not even rejection I’m afraid of. I don’t take rejection personally and am content to revise/improve, then

Keep Calm and Query On

I think my real fear– the fear that swells up and can swallow me whole at times– is the thought that my book isn’t good enough.

Then I get a full request…

…and the doubts evaporate. Or, at the very least, I know I did something right.

SWEET RELIEF, I CAN BREATHE AGAIN

I think that’s how the majority of the artist’s doubts are: recurring, perhaps, but temporary. There will always be bad days. Days when we question our work or even our life choices. But there’s only one thing for it:

…And pretty soon life is beautiful again. Because you love what you do, and that’s all that really matters.

 

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?

Writing is like cooking: There’s no one way

Almost every time I cook, bake, or prepare something elaborate to eat, I find myself making the same observation: I don’t follow the recipe.

Or rather, I try to follow the recipe, but we don’t have heavy whipping cream in the fridge so I have to substitute half and half, or there isn’t any butter so I have to make do with applesauce, or, as in the case of recent chocolate Kahlua truffles I made for the holidays when I added an extra 66% milk chocolate by accident, I misread something and must adjust everything that follows to compensate. God, it was ridiculous baking macaroni and cheese and quiche in my microwave in Japan–  I had to hunt for infinitesimal bricks of cheese, a meat that resembled bacon and was pig but definitely wasn’t bacon, and then convert units (grams to ounces, Fahrenheit to Celsius, etc.) to boot.

Now, it may seem blindingly obvious to say that there’s no one approach to culinary arts or writing, but I think what I’ve learned in my kitchen experiments has greater implications than that.

Growing up, I suppose I thought of cooking like high school science labs: If you didn’t follow the recipe to the letter, you’d screw it up. Get bad data, the wrong results. An F.

But I have substituted, at times, up to half the ingredients in a recipe. I have guesstimated conversions, made mistakes, adjusted, readjusted. Added garnishes. Subtracted ingredients. And you know what? Some efforts turned out better than others. But the results were always edible, and almost always good.

What I have learned (in cooking, writing, life) is this: Because there are so many variables to play with, so many experiments to make, so many trials that result in similar, but distinctly different results, one can’t– and indeed, shouldn’t– take instructions so seriously. Not that there exists an easy recipe for a novel. But every writer has been given instructions on how to write one, or simply on how to write, at one point or another: the eight point plot arc, the hero’s journey structure, how to write a query letter, “Write what you know,” “Make your characters relatable (likeable, hateable, emotionally-invested, quirky, vulnerable, complex, etc.),” “Avoid tropes,” “Embrace tropes,” etc. ad nauseam.

The tools, tricks, and adages are endless– but like spices impulsively peppered into a soup at taste time, there will always be room for instinctive, inventive play and recipe-bending in writing. So observe the rules– and then follow them, break them, ignore them, tweak them, add them, subtract them, turn them upside down and make them dance.

Ultimately every work you make is your own. So why not treat it that way?

Writing is right for me because…

I’ve never really believed in “callings”: That a person could know beyond a doubt not just what they should do with their life, but what they were meant to do with it. Or that anyone even IS “meant” to do anything. I do, however, believe in passion…and call me crazy, but between the self doubt and manuscript-tearing there are moments when I feel with lightning conviction that I have found the thing that is right for me in writing.

Sometimes it’s as I’m researching (I love learning, and writing books is a great excuse to keep expanding your world); sometimes it’s when I make myself, or others, laugh; sometimes it’s when I realize I have stopped looking at the clock or my word count because I am totally immersed in the work.

Recently it was because I wrote a whole chapter of my WIP in just a few hours and when I stepped back to figure out why, I saw how much fun I was having: the day’s work had involved researching a famous painter, brainstorming literary innuendo and coming up with and auditioning a series of woefully bad pickup lines. I’m talking, like, nose-pinchingly, squirrel-meltingly bad. I plan to scrap all but one of them, and I still haven’t decided which to use, but I sure had a blast coming up with them.

Do what you love, and the work is its own reward.

Well that was unexpected.

Whittling away at my To-Read List, my three most recent reads were this:

  1. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka [depressing]
  2. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green [more depressing]
  3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath [MAIN CHARACTER TRIES TO KILL HERSELF.]

I don’t know if you’re familiar with these books, but if not, let me break it down for you:

The Metamorphosis is about a guy who wakes up one morning as a monster– something like a beetle– and becomes totally useless and repulsive to his family.  They keep him locked out of sight in his room, feed him scraps and crumbs, and when he gets out he tends to upset the guests. (It’s unclear whether Gregor has had a mental lapse or is actually a bug. Some scholars think the story is a metaphor for the life of a writer. HOW ENCOURAGING.)

The Fault in Our Stars is about children (well, okay, mostly snarky teenagers) with cancer.

The Bell Jar is about a woman who loses interest in life and tries to kill herself, only to be sent to shock therapy and later institutionalized. NOT FUN FACT: author Sylvia Plath struggled with depression herself, and ended her life shortly after the book was published.

Now, while The Fault in Our Stars admittedly also made me laugh aloud more than any other book I can remember, isolationism, cancer, and mental illness are all pretty depressing subjects. Stack the three back to back and add several chapters about the violence-ridden dealings of an organized crime family (my latest beta reading which, despite its dark nature, I am very much enjoying) and you’ll get something close to the DOOM CLOUDS OF MISERY AND DEVASTATION brewing over my head.

Anyway, as I was finishing up The Bell Jar, I got an email saying that my latest library reservation was in.

Me: Oh thank god. Finally I can end this sadness.

*Opens email to see what book is in*

Me: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

The Good News: despite the morbid nature of the title and the fact that there is a dismembered arm on the cover, I’m 61 pages in and can safely report that the book is HILARIOUS. Turns out David Wong, the eponymous main character and listed author of John Dies at the End, is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin, the editor in chief of Cracked.com.

THANK JESUS.

Inspiration Boost: an 8 Quote Special

I keep one of those virtual sticky notes in the corner of my desktop, and every so often it just gets so ridiculously long (like, down the street, around the world and to the moon long) that I have to go through and clean it out. One of the bajillion things that I keep in this running document are quotes that inspire, impress, or otherwise resonate with me– and naturally, when something strikes me I like to share it.

So enjoy!

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”  ―Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

“Books are like mirrors: if a fool looks in, you cannot expect a genius to look out.” ―J.K. Rowling

“It takes a bee to get the honey out.” ―Arthur Guiterman

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ―Vivian Greene

“A year from now you will wish you had started today.” ―Karen Lamb

“With self-discipline most anything is possible.” ―Theodore Roosevelt

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.” ―Kurt Vonnegut

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” ―Eleanor Roosevelt

The Most Disgusting Thing I’ve Ever Done

As a writer, I just had to sit down and type this little mishap up. It was too visceral not to record.

So here’s what happened. Last week, I turned on a lamp in the living room. Flash. The filament cracks to a surge of blue and the light bulb promptly dies.

I unplug the lamp and remove the shade. Here’s where it starts to get ugly: in the white bowl of the lamp shell, when I unscrew the bulb, I discover two deceased insects. “Dead bugs,” you might be saying. “Whoop-dee-frickin’ doo. How old are you again, Julie?” And I would then assure you that I dispatch unwanted spider-guests all by myself, thank you very much, and once chased a cockroach the size of my fist with a can of bug spray. But that’s another story.

These insects– one an orangish lady bug, the other a red-backed, fly-resembling insect I have only ever known as “window bugs”– are fried to a crisp. They are yellow-brown, like straw, and textured as wheat square cereal. It doesn’t take a forensic scientist to see what happened: the bugs had clearly zapped themselves, or for whatever reason become unable to climb out of the lamp bowl, and became trapped at the base where the bulb screws in. By appearances, they have been there for some time: cooking, crisping, browning like the skin of marshmallow held to flame every time someone turned on the lamp.

That’s not even the gross part. The gross part is that in order to screw the replacement light bulb in, I have to take the insects out. I could, I suppose, have fastened the new light bulb in over them, but I didn’t relish the idea of the leg-collapsing crunch this maneuver was liable to make, and now that I knew the bugs were there, the idea of leaving their six-legged corpses to fry every time I sat to peruse the paper was not the most agreeable to me. I decide they’re coming out.

Removal, however, is complicated by the fact that the base of the lamp bowl– the pit in which these crispens reside– is narrow. It is smaller in diameter than a quarter, and only as deep as the base of the bulb. I could probably reach in and dig them out with my fingers, but I am not too keen to get Golden Antennae Crunch stuck under a nail. I resolve to use a tool. Preferably something disposable.

I evaluate my options in the kitchen. Plastic forks and spoons: too large. Straws: no grip. Small spatula/other rubber-tipped utensils: too wide and no grip. It occurs to me that a tea spoon– the elongated tool for stirring beverages, not the measuring instrument– would be both narrow enough to fit and provide some kind of scooping leverage in the sink. But that’s no good; I use these spoons all the time for tea, and would be much happier not remembering the serving of Refried Bugs one of them once exhumed from a dusty lamp crevice, even after washing.

I decide on the pickle fork.

Armed with my weapon of choice, I set to work. The fork is minute and fits easily into the trap, but its collection ability leaves something to be desired: I push the skeletal husks around but they, like the evasive last noodles in a bowl of ramen, refuse to be gathered. Finally I manage to scrape the lady bug, then the window bug, out of the bulb pit, all the way up the side of the lamp bowl, and into the trash.

ARE YOU NOT DISGUSTED?

I then lathered the fork with dish soap, washed it, and put it through the dishwasher for good measure. The insect-picking pickle fork is now back in the drawer, chillin’ with the other silvers. But that’s cool, ’cause I’m exactly not over the moon about pickles. I see no need for anybody who might be to hear this story.

HOW ABOUT NOW?

The Things I Never Get To: A List

I love making lists. I love crossing items off them. I love the illusion of productivity in a world where there will never be enough time to read all the books, see all the sights, meet all the people, etc.

This morning, as a sort of obligation-free freewrite and creative warm-up (for which lists outside the planner are most brilliant), I thought I would draft a list of

Things I Always Mean To Do, But Somehow Never (Or Only After Great Delay) Get To And Really Ought To Do, in no particular order

  1. The sewing
  2. Go through closet and donate the things I never wear
  3. Read miscellaneous items (JFK’s “Strategy for Peace” speech, reread The Gettsyburg Address, the faux children’s book Go the F**k to Sleep) that have been on my to-read list forEVer
  4. Learn everything that comes after the introduction of “Stairway to Heaven” on guitar
  5. Practice the solo of “Santeria” until I can do it at something faster than slug-versus-treadmill
  6. Write letters
  7. Submit short stories and poems to magazines
  8. SKYPE PEOPLE
  9. Garden Learn to garden
  10. LEARN THE PAST TENSE IN FRENCH (irregular verbs included)
  11. Find a French pen pal, or at least somebody practicing/wanting to learn so I have a reason to form sentences and look up words
  12. A whole assortment of writing-related and personal goals including, but not limited to, joining a critique group, traveling Europe, overcoming certain fears, and, eh, securing medical insurance before I turn twenty-six.

How about you? What are you always meaning to do, or have meant to do forever, but never get to?