writing tips

How my writing process completely changed, a new piece for Distraction 99

awesome GIF, frustrated GIF, best GIFs, writing GIFs Yesterday, I did a post on Nova Ren Suma's blog, Distraction 99. Nova is an inspiring YA author who I met several years ago in New York, and I was excited to have a chance to guest post for her. As part of her regular series, she asked me to talk about my "turning point" as a writer. It's a tall order, because as a writer, we have so many "turning points". The day your 3rd grade teacher tells you your a great writer, the day you finish you first "book" (mine was in elementary school and about an enchanted rose garden, illustrated by yours truly), the day you get your first rejection letter, the day you get an agent, the day you get a book deal, the day you realize that getting a book deal is nothing like you thought it would be.

But a lot of that is business, not the important stuff. And I chose to write about process. I've touched on it here, but let me just say, at least for me, it never gets easier. While I cranked out my first complete manuscript with an outline in only four months (revisions were necessary, of course), I didn't have a similar experience at all for The After Girls. And that was not exactly easy (see the GIF above). But it was worth it.

Here's a little bit from my piece for Distraction 99:

My turning point didn’t come in my first foray into novel writing. It came when I began The After Girls. The idea for the book came first as a title and a question: What would take a group of friends from before to after instantly? The concept came quick enough as I filled in the gaps—two high school friends shaken by their best friend’s suicide right after graduation, set against the eerie backdrop of a rural Appalachian mountain town—but the details were another thing. I was writing from the point of view of two girls instead of one. I added characters and removed them. I was walking a fine line between magical realism and contemporary. And I had no outline.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. I wrote outline after outline, hoping to find one that would work like the first one, with no success. I wrote 50 pages, rewrote those pages, and didn’t look at the manuscript for weeks or even a month at a time. I felt like a failure. I was the girl who could crank out a novel in mere months. Now I’d been months and months at a single idea and had very little to show for it. I wasn’t writing on a schedule. I wasn’t even writing regularly, for that matter, but I was writing—a page here and a chapter there.

At a certain point, The After Girls began to write itself. It was like that great E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Page by page, I made the trip. The characters took over—they surprised me. The plot took twists—the ending changed multiple times. I even added a character in a few hours before I sent a final version to my agent, one that came to me in the shower when I thought I was almost done. At page 50, 100, 150, 200 … I still wasn’t sure of what would happen beyond the next ten pages. But in the end, the flexibility was what I needed to uncover the mystery of why a beautiful, smart young girl with great friends and a whole future ahead of her would take her own life.

See the full piece here.

And one last thing, thank you everyone for your support on my "book birthday" yesterday. It was a great one, and I can't thank you all enough!

Why writing is a lot more fun than people make it sound (especially young adult)

I'm currently working on something new and prepping for the release of The After Girls, and I'm having to get back into the flow of writing new material (not revising or editing or proofing) regularly. That means I need to be positive enough to make myself pull out the computer after work or get up early enough to pull it out before.

I need to remind myself why I love writing.

Everyone likes to talk about tortured artists, writing frustration, writer's block, etc. I don't really believe in writer's block, but I'll tackle that in another post. People like to say all artists are alcoholics and really miserable, and yes, some of the geniuses probably were/are. But at the end of the day, no one is forcing anyone to write. They do it because they want to. So allow me to be a bit of a cheerleader for writing, since the whole process gets a lot of flak ... here are my top 5 reasons.

1. You get to make up whatever you want.  Seriously. Unlike non-fic authors and journalists and even college students, you don't have to compile pages of research for every sentence. You get to make everything up. Yes, you will need to have some basic facts straight, depending on timeframe, location, etc., but you're still sitting there making characters do whatever you want whenever you want.

2. You get to go back to INSERT ERA HERE and do it however you want. One reason writing young adult is so fun is because you can constantly redo all your awkward teen/high school years but make them however you want. If you want to be the popular girl, you can do it. If you want to fall in love at 15, you can. If you want to apply the music taste you acquired from years of going to hipstery shows in Brooklyn to a kick-ass fiddle-playing 17-year-old (that would be Sydney in The After Girls), you can. If you want to break the rules, cheat on your test, scream at your best friend, do a million things you shouldn't or wouldn't have done, you can.

3. Your characters will eventually start to make their own decisions.  I remember when I was working on my first longer project, and the main character was at a family gathering and just up and decided to join in a poker game with her uncle. I know it doesn't sound all that life-altering, but I had the scene all planned out and outlined, and I was going in a different direction, and then this character wanted to play poker, and all of the sudden, everyone in the scene was doing it. Cool feeling.

4. You can go anywhere. You can travel. You can live in a ridiculous mansion. You can explore a creepy house in the woods without actually getting freaked out. You can go to your hometown or the most exclusive restaurant in New York City.  You can make a new world. You can control dreams. You can build the most beautiful house and burn it down. You can live in a permanent summer (all my stories seem to take place then).

5.  You learn a lot about yourself. Writing about what's hurt you isn't just part of the writing process, it is the writing process. Whether it's friendships or family or relationships or self-esteem, I, at least, find that I tackle some of my biggest struggles through my writing. It's tough, but it's also cathartic, which is awesome, but the coolest part is that it can give you a new, more understanding, perspective on the past, as well as the people in your life. It's basically free therapy.

Bike Riding, Coming Up With Ideas, and Writing to the Trends

The photo above is me, about halfway into a bike ride through San Francisco. My new location is great--it's just a few minutes via bike to the beach and close enough to ride onto Golden Gate as well, through the Presidio (which feels like a Hitchcock movie), and through the amazing Golden Gate Park. I've been on a few bike rides with my boyfriend since we moved here. It's a great way to explore the area, but more than that, it's this escape from all the stressors of life (the to-do list, emails, job-hunting, holding back the anger that even reading a story about Black Friday inspires). It's much like running--you are so focused on what you're doing that there's no time to think of anything else. But unlike running, there are moments of relaxation. There's coasting down a hill, letting your legs rest. You can breathe and you can look around. And there's a lot to look at in San Francisco.

Even more importantly, your mind is free to wander. Truly wander, the kind of wandering I'd imagine you'd get from meditation, though I've never really tried meditating. Not wandering through anxiety and stress, but wandering through your imagination, your memories. You can think about being a kid, meet a new character.

For the last six months, I've been too busy with everything (preparing The After Girls for publication, moving across the country) to really focus on what comes next, writing-wise. And when I have, it's been frustrating. Ideas come, but in a matter of days or weeks, I go from loving them to hating them. I can get pretty far into a concept but then find that I have no earthly idea what the character wants. I find myself thinking in Publisher's Lunch blurbs  or elevator pitches (it's like The Hunger Games meets Pride and Prejudice meets Eternal Sunshine). I think about what will sell and what will get a book deal, a big one. I know it's not the way to think, but I can't help it. If I'm going to commit another 2-3 years of my life to a story then it better be worth it, right?

Wrong, of course. I know that writing to the trends is not just bad for art, it can be bad for business. As many copies as gained success, I'm sure that there are a ton of dystopian and vampire YA manuscripts that won't ever make it out of the slush pile. Readers, editors, everyone want something new. And even if you do make it through and snag those six-figures, do you really want to be known as the writer whose name no one can quite remember who wrote that series that was a lot like Twilight? I definitely don't.

Coming full-circle here, I actually got one of my more promising ideas while bike riding around SF. My mind was free to explore, and I saw the houses that reminded me of Hitchcock, and I just started thinking about what kind of girl would live there, and it's nothing, really, it's just an image--not a fully-formed plot or a pitch or even something worth sharing with my agent at this stage--but it's something that left me wanting to explore.

Can TV Watching Be Good for Your Writing?

Writing Inspiration: Breaking Bad

It's Saturday morning (pushing afternoon), and I'm sitting on the couch with coffee watching AMC's Breaking Bad. I have three writing projects I should be currently working on--reworking an article for a news site, completing an edit test for a potential gig in SF, and finishing revisions on my novel--and I am sitting here watching TV (well, technically, I'm taking a break even from that to blog).

In my defense, I did work on writing all day yesterday and a good bit this morning, but I'm telling myself that my TV indulgences (at least this one) are kind of like research. It seems to be common agreement that watching too much TV is lazy, non-productive, etc., whereas, reading is not. I definitely recognize that your mind is doing a lot more work when you're reading than it is when you're watching TV--plenty of studies have come out saying that TV numbs and even shuts off your brain--but my question is, if you're watching something with great writing, is it possible that you could get something out of it (besides just an escape from your to-do list)?

Given that I tend to write contemporary YA fiction, I'm mainly talking about realistic dramas. Some of the ones I've found most inspiring for their writing include Breaking Bad (shown above), Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and Friday Night Lights (a clear winner). It's not even about the story or exact dialogue--with plots centering around meth dealing, advertising, and 1920s England, apart from FNL, what these characters are worried about has little to do with what any of my characters would be thinking about. That said, in all these shows, the writing feels very natural and real--it's not what they're saying so much as how they're saying it--the cadence, the choice to confront someone or not, the right silences, the difficulty they find in expressing themselves, the nuance when they say one thing and clearly mean another.

A great moment in this episode (Breaking Bad Season 4, Episode 3) comes when Jesse asks his older partner, Walt, "You want to do something?" after they've just finished a day of highly illegal drug-making. Walt asks him what he means, and he responds by describing a Go Kart place down the road. In the show, Jesse is dealing with guilt and depression after a lot of really heavy stuff, and the fact that he asks his partner to go Go Kart-ing is, to me, far more powerful than any breakdown, argument, or explanation of his unhappiness would be. It's just good writing.

What do you guys think--can I really be learning from TV, or am I just procrastinating?

Top Ten Revising Tips from a Writer Who's Always Revising

Revising is hard. I've always been a big reviser. Though I wish I could crank out near-perfect prose in a first or second draft, that's just not me. I tend to follow Anne Lamott's "shitty first drafts" model, which leaves me in the revision phase A LOT. I'm currently finishing up the last (and hopefully light) revision on my most recent project, and so I've pulled together some tips for tackling this necessary evil. Without further ado ...

1. Always begin with a complete draft. This may seem obvious, but so many people delay finishing projects by obsessively tweaking the first half of their novel before they've written a climax or conclusion (which may change that first half, leading to even more revisions). While it's tempting to make something perfect before moving ahead, I think it's best to get the whole thing out first. That said, Revising shouldn't be confused with Starting Over--if you've got less than 100 pages, starting anew may be necessary before you go further.

2. Wait. Then wait some more. Finishing a novel is such an accomplishment and such a high, and you may want to jump right into revisions as soon as possible. Don't. A couple of weeks to a couple of months spent relaxing, drinking champagne, and indulging in bad TV will give you some much-needed perspective before you go back to it. This is also a great time to get a friend, fellow writer, agent, or anyone you trust to give your manu a read before you tear it apart.

3. Read your novel! Again with the patience. You shouldn't start changing your novel before you've READ THE WHOLE THING. Seriously. My favorite method is to load it onto my Kindle--reading it in the same way that I read other books creates a much-needed separation between me and my work and makes me look at it like a reader, not a writer (if you don't have an e-reader, a good old-fashioned printer will work just as well). Resist the urge to take notes as you read--if anything is really glaring, you'll remember it later, and without a pen in hand you'll stay focused on the bigger picture.

4. Fix the structural stuff first. You wouldn't paint a house before all the walls are up. In the same vein, don't get bogged down by language until your book's in good order. I like to create a new document with the reworked original text--moving chapters around, adding notes where I need new scenes, etc.--only once I have that in place will I move onto the nitty gritty.

5. Kill your darlings. Faulkner's advice is particularly true in the revision stage. While I typically think of it in relation to dialogue or turns of phrase (but it sounds so fancy, do I really have to cut it?), this notion is equally helpful with bigger things like minor characters or motifs. Just because you've written a funny younger brother doesn't mean he deserves a place in your novel (all his wisecracking might actually be distracting), or just because you want to make your main character's favorite book Pride and Prejudice (who doesn't love Mr. Darcy?) doesn't mean you should. Unless these minor elements are crucial to your story, they need to go--plus, you can always work them into another novel down the road.

6. Tell, don't show. I know, I know, every English teacher from 8th grade on has been saying just the opposite. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I'm working off the assumption that if you've finished a novel, you know you can't get by writing sentences like "Suzy was sad." That said, it's important to make sure your readers are well-informed in every scene and that you don't withhold crucial information from your readers to build drama. The readers shouldn't be left confused, nor should the drama come from figuring out basic facts. I think a great example of this method used effectively is in the first line of The Secret History by Donna Tartt: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” You know the basics, but you've got just enough questions to keep you turning the page.

7. Make sure every character wants something in every scene. This is a big one for me, because I tend to go for a slow burn, descriptive kind of writing, and I'm often guilty of sacrificing plot in the name of character development. My agent actually sent me a rant by the executive producer of The Unit to the show's staff of  TV writers to help with this issue. I can't put it better than he does--every character should want something in every scene. If they don't, rewrite it so they do--or else it's got to go.

8. Make your transitions awesome. The physicality of scenes often stumps me--I hate writing about people arriving in restaurants or getting into cars--so a lot of the time I just skip over these points and start right in the middle. While this is not an entirely bad technique, it's important to make sure there are a few key establishing details in every scene (I've personally been guilty of writing 3 to 4 pages before the reader even knows where they are). You can also use this time to make sure your chapter beginnings and endings are poignant, punchy, and keep readers turning the page.

9. Read your writing aloud. It feels awkward at first, but I think it's the hands-down best way to navigate trickier scenes and dialogue. If something is off, it's going to be very obvious when spoken. You can even imagine you're at a book signing or event--if anything you're saying makes you want to cringe, it definitely needs to be tweaked.

10. Trust your gut--not your timeline. Writing a novel is a LONG process, one that has always taken me about five times as long as I anticipated. When you're nearing the end of the revision, trust your instincts to decide whether you're really done or need to go back for another sweep. Similarly, don't ignore a stroke of genius just because it comes at the last minute and will require more work. Some of my biggest breakthroughs have come during the last leg of a revision. It's no fun to have to go back, and it may end up delaying a self-imposed deadline, but who ever said the writing process was easy?