Dziękuję, Polska ! — & other things I never expected within a year of being published

Hey all! It’s been a while. A little less than nine months ago Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index (aka my first book) came out in the United States, and I must admit my focus has been away from this blog since — but some excitement is happening abroad, and while I stopped by to share it, I thought I would interrupt my hiatus with a quick list of highlights and things I have learned as a debut author so far, starting with said news:

1. Juniper has been nominated for Book of the Year 2017 (young adult) on Lubimyczytać.pl, the Polish equivalent of Goodreads!

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I was so stunned to see this. Even if I don’t win — even if I come in last place — I might never get over seeing my book alongside John Green’s and Nicola Yoon’s! Have a Lubimyczytać.pl account or know someone who does? You can vote on best young adult book of 2017 here!

2. Readers are the best. This may not come as a surprise to anyone, but readers sure keep surprising *me* with their boundless kindness and honors! The above is an extreme example — it was a big deal even to see Juniper translated into Polish, let alone nominated for anything — but really, everything from a shoutout in a Tweet to a quick message, fan mail, or “bookstagram” photo is spectacularly uplifting, and really strikes the heart every time. I’ve made excellent use of that tears-streaming-down-the-face emoji the last few seasons.

3. I’m really glad I joined Instagram. Confession: I did not own a smart phone until last year. But I made an account a little before I got one at the recommendation of another debut author, who had observed how nice it was to be tagged in posts and see some of the love your book was getting without seeking it out. As someone with epic anxiety around reading reviews, that approach really works for me 🙂

4. Postcards = business cards for your books. Book swag can come in handy in any number of situations, but in my opinion, postcards are the absolute best. I always carry some with me on the go, and if the fact that I write books for a living happens to come up in conversation (as it often does), I have a visual + one-line summary and all the book’s details in one neat place — and whoever I’m talking to can take it home with them!

I especially recommend book postcards if, like me, you either loathe being a salesperson, feel flustered to discuss your book on cue, or both.

5. Yes, Book 2 really does suck…but you’ve got people in your corner. If you’re an author or aspiring novelist, you’ve likely heard about the notorious struggles of writing a second traditionally-published novel. Every situation is different, but I can tell you from where I stand: IT’S ALL TRUE. Mainly it’s just that circumstances have changed and there are any number of unique pressures that weren’t there for your first book — but they add up, and whether it’s coming up with an idea everyone likes, meeting parameters, deadlines, or turning in the ugliest first draft of your life, the stress is alive and well.

BUT: the same people who helped you sell, and possibly publish your first book remain your steady champions. As long and harrowing as your path to Book 2 might be, your people want to see you succeed — and in my experience, are excellent about working with you to make it happen.

6. I have a favorite business expense?? I knew online giveaways (***see below!***) were A Thing, but I never expected I’d be so dang happy making semi-regular runs to the post office! Readers really appreciate the chance to win a copy of your book via social media or Rafflecopter, and every winner I’ve interacted with has been so wonderfully gracious and ebullient, I can’t help but grin too when I get to play Bookmail Fairy.

7. Some things don’t change. A few: imposter syndrome. Bottomless TBRs (I am only just now starting to catch up on all the excellent debuts I purchased last year). The desire to to urge people to leave a review*, but want to be more Person than Salesperson and thus only occasionally vague-Tweet about how much authors love and appreciate reviews 🙂

*Reviews help authors. They are appreciated in any capacity — Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, etc. — but especially on Amazon, where I am told that 50 is the magic number to start enjoying the benefits of their algorithms.

Anything to add? Comment below!

And while you’re here…

***CURRENT GIVEAWAYS***

As of this posting, I am hosting TWO ongoing Juniper giveaways: one on Instagram and one on Twitter. Check them out for details! Winners will be drawn February 21, 2018.

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The Writing Major, Part II: How it DID prepare me for life as an author

Last week I looked back on my university writing major to evaluate the things it didn’t teach me about being an author or trying to write books for a living. This post is the follow-up to highlight the ways my program did prepare me for a career as a novelist.

Author Things my Writing Major Taught Me:

  1. That you need to read seriously if you want to write seriously. Half my writing program was lit classes, and here’s why: If you want to write well, you need to read well. You need to know what great writing looks like and learn from it. And a rounded diet doesn’t hurt, but somewhere in there you should be reading the kinds of things you want to write.
  2. A basic canon of literature and theory including everything from Shakespeare and Aristotle to Emily Dickinson, Raymond Carver, and Jonathan Safran Foer (see: plays, essays, poetry, fiction). I consider this an author thing because exposure to a wide variety of work gives you a broader understanding and palette and can translate to richer, more upmarket fiction (that happy place between literary and genre).
  3. How to critique and be critiqued. Classroom workshops were perfect for learning to give and receive constructive criticism, which is helpful because criticism is vital to revision. My classes helped me see that feedback improved my work, to develop a thicker skin, and also how to filter the useful from the outlier criticisms of a beta-reading team.
  4. That you need outside perspective. Last week, I said my major didn’t teach me to distance myself from my work so I could evaluate it objectively. But it did teach me the importance of getting other people to read it—because while we, the authors, will always be too close to our work and biased to some degree, foreign eyes will not. They will see things we don’t. And a classroom you share with friends (those who are careful of our feelings) as well as strangers (those who will be more direct) is a great place to realize that you don’t just want compliments from readers; you want the kind of comments that will help you make the story better.
  5. To read aloud in order to edit yourself. This was the one trick we learned in my program for gaining some objectivity in our own writing. Not the most practical for long-form (novels), but great for testing passages.
  6. To keep your day job (or at least, not expect to live off your writing anytime soon). Self-explanatory.
  7. The mechanics of good writing. It may have seemed harsh last week to say that my writing major didn’t teach me how to write a compelling story (or anything about writing a book), but that’s because you have to know the materials before you can build the house: the fundamentals. Craft rules like Show, Don’t Tell, pacing, good dialogue, killing the runway, using active voice, sensory detail, nouns and verbs over adjectives, etc. Rules such as these I think make the bulk of education in writing, because they are the elements that can be taught.

In sum, a formal (undergraduate) education in writing is about laying the foundations for becoming a great writer– introducing you to the craft, the tools, how to collaborate/give and receive artistic criticism, the great works that have come before. Where you take those lessons (fiction, journalism, screenwriting, etc.)– and how– is entirely up to you.

What have I missed, fellow writing (or English) majors? Share in the comments below!

The Writing Major, Part I: What it didn’t teach me about being an author

A recent chat with a friend got me thinking: There’s a lot a formal education in writing doesn’t teach you about writing—specifically, about being a novelist. And since the start of many collegiate school years is coming up and aspiring authors will be contemplating majors and minors, I thought it’d be a good time to reflect on my own studies, what they taught me about writing, and what they didn’t.

This will be a two part post, beginning with:

Things my Writing Major Didn’t Teach Me

  1. What makes a compelling story. We always discussed what we read, why it was great literature, terminology. But did I learn what made me care about characters? What made me feel, what pulled me into a narrative, what kept me turning pages? No. These are things I’ve only found through years of personal, recreational reading and writing—things I’m still realizing today. If you’re a writing major aspiring to authordom, I highly recommend a steady diet of personal for-fun reading alongside any scholarly assignments.
  2. High concept. True, high concept (a unique premise that can be pitched in about a line—“boy goes to wizarding school,” “safari-style park of DNA-resurrected dinosaurs,” or “100 delinquents sent to test living conditions on post-apocalyptic earth”) doesn’t apply to every work of fiction. But grasping the term is invaluable in storytelling, as is being able to detail your concept—what your story is about—before you even start writing.
  3. How to write a book. My program offered courses in short stories, plays, poetry, and creative nonfiction—but no “Engw 401: How to Write a Novel.” I actually can’t even remember discussing plot in a story-craft capacity, except once in a Spanish lit class. En Español!
  4. The significance of revision. Oh, we revised—but not nearly enough. The best lessons are the ones I’ve found in my own pursuits since graduating: (1) Final draft = first draft – 10-15% (Stephen King). In other words—CUT A LOT. (2) “Revisions” =/= line edits, stronger wording, moving punctuation around. Revisions mean extreme, sweeping changes to the entire story, with large portions cut and other large portions rewritten. (3) “The first draft of everything is shit,” (Hemingway), but two drafts doesn’t do it, either. Try five or ten or twenty.
  5. That distance (time away) is a necessary part of revision. On a semester schedule, there was naturally not enough time to let our work sit between drafts so we could come back to it with fresh eyes after a month or so. But this is essential to seeing your work, especially novels, objectively: to evaluating what needs to change, and how best to change it.
  6. How to find an agent.
  7. How to write a query letter (to an agent). We did just barely touch on querying literary magazines, but in the book-writing realm that ended up being irrelevant. Why? Because
  8. You do not need publication credits to get an agent. As an aspiring author, I heard time and again that pub credits looked good in your query letter and increased your chances of getting an agent. And there’s probably truth to that. But ultimately, you don’t need credits to land an agent. Your novel is what you’re querying, and your novel is what they’re looking at. So if you want to write books, write books—don’t struggle over short works unnecessarily.
  9. To daydream. To recognize and collect things that interest you, the seeds of ideas; to connect and develop them into larger stories. This is something I’m still figuring out, and while I’m getting better at it, it’s not a skill they can really teach in the classroom.

I imagine this list will grow with time and progress in publishing, but in the interim, what about you? Whether you’ve studied writing formally or not—what lessons have you had to teach or learn for yourself?

Stay tuned for the second half of this post next week: What my writing major DID teach me about being an author!

2014 in Review: Statistics, Fave Books, Lessons Learned

It’s that time of year again! Here’s what my 2014 as a reader/writer looked like:

 

Reading/Writing Stats

# projects worked on: 4

projects abandoned: 1

projects shelved to come back to: 2

projects currently on worktable: 1

 

# books read: 54+

books purchased: 27? (Holy Schmoe.)

given as gifts: 7?

 

# readings attended: 5? (Lauren Oliver, David Sedaris, David Mitchell, BJ Novak, Gretchen Rubin)

 

Favorite Books Read This Year

Accomplishments

  1. I got an agent. — plus all the work that led up to it.
  2. I wrote the entire first draft of a MG project (separate from the YA book I queried and signed with an agent).
  3. I read 54 books, + several beta reads and nonfiction.
  4. I finished the rough draft of an illustrated project – very rough, because writing is my strong suit and art is secondary. I’m not convinced I should count this one because I’ve flagged so much of it for redoing it makes my head spin, and right now that just isn’t a high priority. But I would like to come back to it.

Lessons Learned

  1. It’s okay to abandon/retire a project. It’s important to finish things you start, but it’s also important to recognize when something isn’t working, won’t work, or when you’ve lost enthusiasm and your efforts would be better spent elsewhere.
  2. It’s okay to shelve a project indefinitely. I had a few ideas this year I was super jazzed about, only to start seeing fundamental problems with them in early development (e.g., reminded me too much of another book, or wanted to be a trilogy when what I want to write right now is standalone). So I put those projects, along with all of my notes and planning for them, carefully aside in folders that can be easily filed back to when the time is right.
  3. Beta readers are absolute gold. In theory I knew this already, but in practice I appreciated it even more. Love your readers: They will help you find the weak spots.
  4. Is it good? An obvious question, but when evaluating my own work, I’ve found it to be the ultimate measuring stick. Time may be the best aide for seeing a manuscript objectively, but asking yourself whether passages move/compel you is a close second.
  5. Is it necessary? The other essential question that’s helped me through my many revisions this year. This one is great 1) for reducing your word count and 2) consequently tightening your story, which will result in a swifter, stronger read.

 

How was your 2014 in books? Any pieces I’m missing?

Forum Friday: Are you part of a writing group?

On Tuesday I met with a newly-formed writing group, and it got me thinking: there is a JUNGLE of diversity out there when it comes to writerly union and critique.

So I thought I would ask the online community: Do you participate in a writing group? If so, tell us about it. What is the format like? Do you meet in person? How often? What materials, if any, do you exchange? What is expected of you? What do you like most about it?

As for me, this group I recently met with, unlike any group/class/workshop I had ever participated in before, was all oral. Nobody read anybody’s work beforehand; the writers simply assembled, and everybody who wanted feedback on something was given fifteen minutes to read their work aloud and accept and discuss verbal feedback. That was also different from what I’d experienced before; in class settings we always had a ‘gag rule’ where the author wasn’t allowed to comment on his or her work during critique. With this format we were able to ask questions of the listeners.

I think there are pros and cons to any given format, but what here’s what I like best about this one: anyone can bring something in and test-pilot before an impartial panel!

Where do you find (make) the time to read?

For those of us that write, reading is part of the equation. You have to read to know the art of writing, and the more you read and expose yourself to, the better your own writing becomes.

A teacher of mine once said, when the class was drawing seashells in pen and ink, that we should spend as much time studying a subject as producing it. I think the same holds true for writing (though the balance may not be a strict 50/50).

But life is busy– and writing is a time-consuming effort. Where are we to find (or make) the time to balance our writing with reading? I have my own answers, but I’m curious to hear yours: Where do you find and/or make the time to read?

Triple-berry bonus points for answers in Dr. Seuss/rhyme.

Book Queries: What’s Your Opening Line?

For today’s Forum Friday I want to talk about how we pitch our books, starting with our opening line in the query letter to agents. This past week I have been reading successful query letters, mostly from the Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series, and I have made several observations. I’ll talk about this more in detail in a later post, but the one I want to discuss briefly today– and get your take on– is this:

Of the two tried-and-true approaches to opening a query letter below, which do you prefer?

A) The Hook. Opens the letter with a point of intrigue or a question specific to your story. “When XYZ happens, what’s a Quirky-Details-of Main Character to do? Why, *charming/quirky/action-packed development*, of course!” There are many approaches to the hook, but what I’ve noticed is that it often reads just like a book jacket: it’s intended to pull the reader in and KEEP them reading (i.e., really sell your book).

B) The Facts. Opens with something along the lines of “Please consider representing” or “I am seeking representation for” and includes the title of your book, the genre/target audience of your book, and the novel’s finished word count. This is key information that the agent will be looking for and having it at the start can save the agent valuable time.

Alternatively– if you’ve already written your query letter– would you be so kind as to share the opening line with us? It’s educational for the writing community, and free promotion for you! 🙂

At present, between the hook and the facts approach I favor the facts. Reading through actual queries, those that said “Dear Ms. Agent: When…” struck me as unnatural openings and hard sells. Granted, I understand that the purpose of a query is to get the agent to make a book deal with you. It is, in fairness, a business relationship, and when an agent opens a letter from a prospective client there’s no guesswork as to what that person is seeking.

Still, I can’t help but feel that an agent should be treated as a person first, and not as a potential buyer. That may not the best approach from a marketing standpoint, but I think that’s the main reason I favor the facts over the hook. Opening with “I am seeking representation for” or “I’m writing because” still says (and outright!) that you are looking to do business, but is more personable, and also gives the agent that crucial classification data of genre, audience, and word count.

Let us know your thoughts!