On New Blood, Next Books, & Tending the Well (and Self)

Turning in a book is like graduating, or making a purchase you have saved and scraped for, or (this writer imagines) achieving long-schemed revenge: victory followed by a fog of purposelessness. You go from hell-bent, immersed, and productive to…not in the time it takes to send an email. Then, slowly or with evil speed, the real demon rises:

What now?

The next book is a logical answer. But what if you aren’t one of those writers blessed with constant ideas as you go? What if to start a novel you, like me, need that one enchanting, concrete detail of something that sings to you so deeply you cannot help but write a story around it – and don’t have it yet?

You start looking. Digging. Mining for that glint of a diamond. But if the gems are half-cooked? If all you find is coal? You can carve and hack and try and try and try to cobble pieces together, reverse engineer something, and still come back empty-handed.

What now?

In writing, this is where you’d turn to showers or a walk or some activity, place your thoughts can go to simmer. But calling up the heart of a novel is thornier magic than summoning names or a plot fix, and doesn’t come from nothing. A potion is only as good as its ingredients, and if something’s stale or lacking, all the stirring in the world won’t make it act right. So how do you enrich the pot – or, as I am trying to work on – keep a fresh stock roiling in the background?

You add to it.

You pour new life into the well.

The creative well: that’s what I hear it aptly called. The confluence of our inputs, from the wealth of our own lives and experiences to those we curate: favorite shows and reading and music, what we do, live, consume. Writing this, I wonder if that’s not just the subconscious: that dreambed of parts and possibilities we all carry, ever soaking and swirling.

So why is it so damned hard to harness sometimes?

In my limited, but growing experience, I’ve found ideas need at least two things to manifest:

  1. influences – parts of stories, art, research, experience, pop culture, events, etc. that excite us – and
  2. leisure. The time, and a space where your mind is relaxed and not looking for ideas – but has the luxury to wander, consider and connect. Sometimes right into them.

So if I’m feeling creatively stagnant, I’ve learned, and aerating the cauldron isn’t working (hello fodder folders, short works, journals of meandering freewrites), it’s time to mix things up. That might mean reading more, a new show or music, going out of my way to do or see something that interests me. Like cooking, there are endless ways to make a dish, and sometimes it’s more about intuiting needs than the recipe. What am I missing? What do I crave more of? What would I like to try, or haven’t I tried before?

Recently, I turned in a draft and felt something greater lacking. I was hungry – and not just for a new podcast or genre. Incidentally, I kept seeing people talk about hobbies and the importance of pursuing something regularly, for fun, not related to your vocation. Play. And maybe that’s where the magic happens: when we free ourselves of constraints and expectation and do something just for us. At a minimum, I figured, a new activity would be refreshing – and maybe operating at a different wavelength would rake the well.

So I turned to art, my longest-neglected hobby. And currently I’m beginning something I have dreamed of for several years: making art on a tablet, and taking art-related classes on Skillshare. (See new banner!) Is it turning up new story leads? Not measurably, not yet. But it is:

  1. feeding the well, as I can listen to audiobooks, music, shows, podcasts, etc. while drawing
  2. a thing that occupies me and isn’t writing, which is where I tend to find ideas
  3. soul nourishment
  4. giving back to me. I’m learning something new, plus efforts yield visible fruit at the end of the day. I love that every finished piece is something you get to keep, share, enjoy — perhaps put to purpose (and I have one in mind – keep an eye out in the coming months, or catch glimpses of work over on Instagram & Twitter!)

But can we focus on those last two a minute? Number three in particular?

This post has taken weeks to write, because when I set out to, I think I felt this latent pressure to justify how this new venture I was pouring time and self into was helping my writing. But that’s just it – I think that’s the whole point. People, but perhaps especially creatives, need a non-work hobby that nourishes the soul, period. It shouldn’t have to help writing or whatever your vocation is. In fact, having no bearing on the writing is what makes it self-care, and therefore specifically by virtue of not helping writing IT IS HELPING WRITING, because it helps me function as a human being. It is grounding, meditation, an anchor when I need one. It is wonder and joy.

It is a thing that makes me okay with not yet knowing or throwing myself at my next passion project—

Which is exactly what I think I need to find it.

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Countdown to Debut – plus, 10 more ARCs of Juniper up for grabs!

How did we get here? In less than two months now, Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index hits bookstores!

I hardly know where to begin, but I think I’ll start with some excitement: Goodreads is giving away 10 advance copies of Juniper! If you’re a Goodreads member, you can enter with the click of a button here (where it says “Enter Giveaway”) through April 27!

Goodreads Giveaway in April

Other pre-release goings on at the moment:

  • Audiobook production is starting! The producer with Listening Library recently reached out to me to let me know the voice actress they had in mind for Juniper. I listened to some samples and I absolutely love her and I cannot WAIT to hear her bring Juniper to life!
  • I have a publicist now. Just assigned from my publisher a couple weeks ago. Figuring out this business a little bit by the seat of my pants, but we already have a local radio interview scheduled??
  • I’m trying out video! A rep at Penguin asked if I’d be willing to film a short video about the book for promo purposes. I have written out a script (it’s meant to be under one minute) and I’m getting excited about actually making it!
  • I’m working on promo efforts independently, too. On the advice of former debuts I am being careful not to spread myself too thin, and am instead concentrating on projects that I find enjoyable and not more time/effort/stress than they’re worth. These include, but are not limited to:
  • Creating a Juniper coloring page/colorable postcard (watch this space!), and
  • Planning a public release celebration to take place, most likely, the weekend after Juniper comes out. Key words so far: scavenger hunt. Raffles (open internationally). ICE CREAM.

Book 2 (unrelated to Juniper) currently hovers somewhere in the background, but I anticipate that may also move to a front burner quickly– and likely in the busy rush of release!

For now, it’s one day, one new step at a time.

(More) Big Book News!!!

Hahaha, you thought I was done shouting last week when I shared this?

JLHI PW Children's Bookshelf announcement

Well, check out what appeared in Publishers Marketplace this week:

Juniper in FRENCH!

Can you tell which part I’m most excited about? (Hint: not the sensible thing, which is that there were actually two books to this deal with a Big Five imprint, but that my debut also sold in France and Quebec– and is going to be translated into one of my favorite foreign languages!!)

JUNIPER is slated for release next year, summer 2017. If you’d like to be notified when the book is added to Goodreads, made available to pre-order, or will be celebrated/raffled off in a giveaway, you can let me know here or subscribe to my website RSS feed. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter or tumblr for antics peppered with book news!

For now, thanks for helping me celebrate. Virtual doughnuts on me!

doughnut bar 2

Big Book News!!!

Run up the banners! Write it in the skies! Shout your feelings and favorite Hamilton song from the rooftops!!!

Today I am thrilled to announce the sale of my debut novel to Kathy Dawson of Kathy Dawson Books, an imprint at Penguin Random House!

Here’s the official announcement in Publishers Weekly:

JLHI PW Children's Bookshelf announcement

Watch this space – more details to come!

(Update 7/22/2016: Details ARRIVED!)

Projected Revision Stats

Three weeks ago tonight, I received an edit letter outlining all the major (and minor) changes I needed to be thinking about as I revise my YA novel. But what does a traditional track revision look like in terms of work? Well, I’ll give you a hint: it’s more than moving commas around.

AHEM *fetches reading glasses*

long scroll

Here are my projected stats for this revision:

CUTS: 12 scenes, 3-4 threads, ~4 characters (+1 with almost no page time)

COMPLETELY NEW MATERIAL: 10 scenes, 17 other significant* insertions

MAJOR REWRITES: 15 scenes, plus 12 with substantial adjustments

LINE EDITS: *delirious laughter* 80+ tweaks of substance, X more for fine details, & a large, uncounted number of cuts.

*significant = in terms of creative brain power, not necessarily length

 

There will be other changes that are harder to quantify, too. But the bottom line is: I know my book is going to be much stronger after this.

That makes me a happy writer.

 

3 Lessons I’d Take Back to the Query Game

Currently, I’m in the happy position of being agented, which means I haven’t had to deal with queries for some time. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a few things about the process, and since our March topic over at Kickbutt Kidlit is queries, I’ve been reflecting on those things and what I would do differently if I were to embark on the journey again.

Here is what I came up with.

If I could hop in a Dolorean, I would advise my younger, querying self:

  1. To read the positive in rejections (including between the lines). When we get a rejection, I think it’s almost instinct to skip the pleasantries and land straight on Not Good Enough—especially when we’d gotten our hopes up after a full or partial request. But an agent’s time is valuable; they are not likely to waste any on something they don’t see potential in. That means that if you receive anything beyond a form rejection, even just a line or two, the agent is probably 1) recognizing your skill and/or 2) offering feedback on why they passed—which again, is something they probably wouldn’t bother with unless they saw potential in your submission.
  2. That agents generally do not give detailed feedback in passes (even after requesting). I mention this for two reasons: one, to underscore the positive significance of any feedback an agent does provide in a pass, regardless of how broad or “negative” it might appear. What often looks like “vague reasons I didn’t love your book” is actually “underlying ways I think you can improve this worthy story.” Two, because it is a mistake to expect feedback that will significantly improve your book in the course of querying. You might think that trickling out queries means you’ll get critique you can use to your advantage, but far more likely you will end up waiting 2-3 months for a just few brief sentences (in a pass), if even that. One agent who requested my full MS never even got back to me.
  3. That the best thing you can do for yourself is to write the best book that you possibly can, and query that. Given that you can’t count on constructive criticism after you hit send, the strongest strategy is to query only when you’ve written a book you really love, and then only when you can’t humanly make it better (ideally after multiple readers have read and critiqued it).

Perhaps the most important lesson of all: to NOT be afraid to keep sending, even when you get rejections and passes. If you have written the absolute strongest book that you can and you’re proud of it (see #3), you have nothing to lose by knocking on more doors. Reasons for passing, whether objective or subjective, are always specific to the passing agent. What holds true for one might not hold true for a dozen others, and you’ll never know if you don’t at least try.

Good luck! *blows past/alter self a kiss*

The Last Day of November

I haven’t posted all this month, so I thought it time for a check-in.

Writing-wise, I’m excited to be developing a new Agent-approved book idea! I can’t tell you much about it yet (gag rule), but I can say the concept’s a rich playing field for the surreal within the contemporary. Already having fun with that. *cackles*

On other artistic fronts, after years of lusting for a high quality camera, I’ve finally, finally, FINALLY purchased a Nikon DSLR. I have experience shooting both film and digital, but I never imagined what a task it would be figuring out the controls in the vessel that combines them! I’m finally starting to get the hang of it though, and mapping features has been a good chance for me to review my photography basics.

Now if only the rain would let off so I could take it out to play more!

Reading: a great many great books. TBR and TBRR (re-read) piles constantly on the rise. Will be posting a Top Reads of 2015 selection soon!

Watching: the second season of The 100 and the third of Parks & Rec. How I ever went this long without the comedic gold of Leslie Knope I’ll never know.

Listening to: Um, kind of falling in love with Panic! At the Disco lately. Since I got a set of Skullcandy, I swear I’ve been listening to Death of a Bachelor on repeat. I haven’t been this excited for an album to drop since AM! Also getting into Melanie Martinez, Halsey, and The Zolas, who I already liked, but keep finding more amazing singles from (Maggie Stiefvater introduces me to some of the best tunes).

Learning: assorted French. Said Nikon/photography. How to bottle the stars.

You?

“What is it about?” – a personal milestone

Today I mentioned to my sister I was working on a new book idea. Before she could even ask the time-feared question, “What is it about?”– the thing every author has probably hid beneath a table from at least once in their writing career– I elaborated. And in about two sentences, I delivered Who, What, and Why in a compelling package.

Not only that, but when she wanted to know more, I could expand off the cuff without a single er, um, or ah!

Me: (Reflecting a moment) Well that’s never happened before.

With my first book, ANY TIME someone asked what it was about I would start to explain, realize after a minute that I was rambling, trail off, get awkward, and quickly jump ship with “Pitch needs work” or “It’s still coming together.” Granted, that’s probably because the story was inferior (first novel = learning experience– I know worlds more about storytelling today), but regardless: because of that initial faltering, my body sort of learned to fear the question “What is it about?” early on. I’d clam up whenever asked, and if I could, avoid the topic entirely.

Which is why it was such a marvel to me to realize today that Hey, I just described a book premise with the ease of describing a movie, and not only that, but I lied: Today wasn’t the first time that’s ever happened. I’ve been quick-pitching the book that got me an agent to people who’ve asked about it for ages.

I’m getting better at this.

Active Daydreaming: When do your thoughts fly?

So today I was working out– running and listening to music– with a new book idea in the back of my mind. At some point, I started thinking about that book. I started thinking about the main character and who she was and how she behaves and what’s in her past and these scenes, these tiny glimpses of her life just began to reveal themselves to me. I started seeing relationships between things, characters, picturing events. After a while I looked up and was stunned to see 30 minutes was nearly up. I had totally tuned out my music, though my body was still running in time with it. I had been in THE ZONE.

One of my biggest rules for idea development is to spend time in places you can hear yourself think. This invites the mind to wander, to slip into domino thought streams and envision and invent, but I must admit, getting into active daydream mode (where your ideas freely leap from one to the next for any real stretch of time) is something I find much harder to do on command than not. Near impossible to do before a word processor.

The reason I wanted to share today’s experience (other than sheerly marveling that wow, that actually happens sometimes) is that to ask other writers: Do you notice any pattern about when your mind seems to open up the most (e.g., when you do dishes, exercise, read, etc.)? When parts of the story come at you of their own volition? I once read that Stephen King walks for three hours every day, thinking about his books. Maybe there’s something to it.