A Prayer for this Sunday

Yesterday I marched with people whose heads had just been bowed in prayer. Who said Amen to the words of an imam, and a pastor, and a rabbi. We marched peacefully for love and justice.

A marcher at Raleigh’s February 11th Moral March. Photo by Lyn Fairchild Hawks

We own the words freedom, America, and patriot like anyone else. God, too. God is ours.

Many Americans are rising up to take back our faith in all these things in the public sphere. Privately, we have worshipped and sung and believed in all these beautiful words. But for many years, we’ve let those who act out of fear and hate to hijack these words.

No more.

God bless America that rises up to protect the people. God bless America that seeks liberty and justice for all.



Handling the Fear Factor

To self-publish or not to self-publish: that is a question that haunts many nervous authors nowadays who are steeped in queries with no response. While we wonder if agents have read our sincere and severely-crafted missives, we also wonder whether we should persist in writing more of them or hunker down with a plan to go it alone.

Image found here

A funny thing happened on my way to self-publishing: just as I began to refine a serious plan, I get a request for my full manuscript from an agent. I want to get excited, I do, but then the fears come creeping in.

It’s easy to let them rule you. You’ve been around this block. Why try again? Are your instincts worth anything?

Questions about my self-publishing ideas pound me, too: will readers think self-pub is for hacks–and all my friends who’ve been following my journey think I’ve given up? Can I learn to market my wares? When will I find the time? 

But you do try–both the queries and the self-pub plan–because that’s what real writers do; they don’t stop. They also get information. Like Hope Clark’s primer of wisdom about the facts, just the facts, ma’am, on self-publishing versus traditional. The self-pub plan I’m building is full of strategies to tackle the fearful unknown. These strategies are gleaned from a wealth of great information on the Internet. We live in a world-wide library, folks–there ain’t nothing we can’t learn! Check out this helpful list of tips from Meghan Ward, too. I’ll elaborate on this plan in another post.

Expect that as you conduct your research, the fearful questions will pile up, and that’s a natural part of the process of change. Write the questions down, and approach each like a research paper in high school. Make notes. If you go the agent querying route again, as I am, you’ll start thinking:

How many is too many simultaneous queries? How much research should I do on each agent–should I put ten hours into an agent search, write a query, only to never hear? (And not write in the meantime–there’s the rub!) Did the fact I started with a synopsis of the novel instead of “why I want you as an agent” deter the agent reading this–is that why I never heard? Should I have gone into more detail about why I want this agent or does it sound like flattery? Do I sound too formal, stilted, not at all like my novel’s voice–when many model queries out there are playful and “cool”? 

When you’ve written as many queries as I have, these questions have the whiff of the rhetorical, unanswerable. From what I’ve researched, there are different opinions about how many queries to put out simultaneously; some say five to ten, then hunker down and wait. But if only 10% respond to you, why not double or triple that amount?

Research can tell you some things but talking to a person tells you much more; so I choose to limit my research per agent to an hour. I have a personal rubric that vets an agent based on preferred genres, client list, and statements made in interviews. An agent who has a web presence whether interviews or a personal or agency blog is someone I can get to know fairly quickly. The last criterion is that the agent accepts e-queries. It’s also a psychological strategy to limit my research: why get too invested? If the agent meets my criteria, then it’s worth sending out an email. He or she doesn’t have to be my perfect match on paper, whatever that is, and again, I can’t tell that from online research. I will be able to tell from a phone call where I ask good questions (see below).

Then there is the fact that agents who receive 50+ queries a day have an inbox beyond full, and that may be the one good reason no one cares if your synopsis comes first or last in your query; the point is, the agent may just not have time to read yours. And if you’ve done your research well, the agent will tell you exactly how he or she wants the query on the agency page.

In other words, there aren’t great answers; what you have above are “Lyn’s Answers.” There isn’t a sure path or an Obi Wan to mentor us through this. You have to pose the questions–to query or not to query, to self-publish or not to self-publish–to the universe and then let the answers rise as they simmer in your brain. When you know, you know, as a friend used to say.

I know that I would love to hear from a particular agent, but that’s not in my hands. What is in my hands is the best query I can write, the best research I can do in the short time I have, and the best self-pub launch plan I can craft. And this time, I’m really not scared.

If you pay attention to the blogosphere, it appears many other writers are feeling what I’m feeling, and even agents: go forth, bold writer, and try thy way in the wilderness. Agent Jenny Bent has an interesting perspective regarding books that fall between genres (Wendy Redbird Dancing, anyone?). Ones like mine, that are YA + women’s fiction, are often ones publishers don’t understand because they aren’t sure how to market them. So if you are an intrepid soul with energy to get your work out to the masses, have at it: you might find the market is there for you.

I also have a great list of questions should an agent call. Based on my last experience, I will now tackle fears head on by asking the questions below.

When in doubt, and when fears rise like fog around me, I start to write. Write down potential ideas, write down potential plans. I may discard 99% of them or never get the opportunity to make them happen, but at least I’ve talked myself off the ledge.

  • What do you like about my manuscript? What would you change?
  • Does it have potential as a hybrid work–women’s and YA? Is this more women’s fiction or YA?
  • How close is the manuscript to submission? What revisions would you suggest?
  • Do you see film potential?
  • Do you see foreign rights potential?
  • How many publishers would you submit to, and which ones?
  • Will you share the submission list and responses from editors?
  • What YA or women’s fiction have you represented that you are particularly fond of, and what do you think is the secret to their success?
  • Who would the primary contact be–you or your assistant?
  • What is your response time to emails and phone calls?
  • How often would we be in touch?
  • What’s your expectation for a next book?
  • What advice do you typically give authors as they build their careers?

The possibility of talking with a successful agent once again is a nerve-wracking premise. But armed with some questions, I know I’ll be okay.

In the meantime, the self-pub ideas simmer, and I’ll be sharing those soon. Vote at the next post on my brand ideas; I’ll need this whether I self or traditionally publish.

Will you self-publish? Have you already? Or are you waiting to hear from an agent? How do you handle your fears in the process?

The Rules of Survival

Yes, I do have a long-term relationship with fear…when I’m writing, I am not thinking about my readers at all. I am thinking about my characters–projecting myself into them as fully as I can. And I am also thinking about the dark places in myself and in my life.

I use my art–the writing of books that are filled with characters trying to cope with fear, injustice, and sometimes outright human evil–as a way to grapple with those same things that I perceive in the world around me. My writing always knows what is going on in the darkest parts of my soul, long before I do. I trust it to do so. And over time and many books, I’ve realized that this is not the burden I first thought. It is a gift.

When in doubt, Sonny says, “Hide your face.”

Nancy Werlin, author of THE RULES OF SURVIVAL

When in doubt about your future in the publishing industry, thou shalt do one of five things:

  • sleep the day away, in a tight ring, like thy cat;
  • read other YA while resenting other authors for being so accomplished and godlike;
  • eat recklessly while popping Benadryl, Lact-Aid, or Bean-o because your digestive system can’t seem to swallow food or the task of writing; 
  • cry over an episode of “My Fair Wedding with David Tutera”;
  • or stop feeling so damn sorry for yourself over a very First-World problem: having to rewrite your novel.
And as your Better Self takes over, note that the YA book you just read–THE RULES OF SURVIVAL by Nancy Werlin–is an excellent model of a tight, focused, fast-moving plot, dominated by the Big Ideas of fear and self-preservation. You can learn much from Werlin and her 13 year-old character of Matthew who must dodge a sociopathic mother and protect his two younger sisters.
Read it. You won’t put it down. The primal themes; the simple, direct sentences; and the adult tone of a young boy are completely believable. This is a young man who doesn’t have time for flights of fancy and eloquent diction. He needs to make it into the next day, in one piece, with his siblings.
It struck me on page 100 that I hadn’t even asked why we never hear about his friends. It seemed strange, but only for a second–as in, is this an author oversight?--and then I found the justification that a reader who believes in the story often does. I told myself, “People surviving abusive situations often shut down and hide their trauma.” And I didn’t care there weren’t a host of other characters. I didn’t need Matthew’s peers. I just needed him, Callie, and Emmy–the kids; and then the adults: the crazy mom, Nikki; the aunt, Bobbie; and the two men that might or might not help–Murdoch and Ben.
The Rules of Survival for the publishing industry are what you do after you get over yourself and your tender feelings. The Rules of Survival are simply 
  • read a lot of great YA; 
  • seek the feedback of smart readers and fellow writers; 
  • listen to your agent; 
  • and then do what your heart says after you get some distance from all that. 

As I send off a new synopsis to my agent, I will dig deep and take my cues from other authors who keep showing up to the desk. I’m still here, still writing, and this book ain’t dead yet.

Writing Prompts:
  • What incidents get you feeling incredibly sorry for yourself? And then later, do they get you feeling sorry for being so sorry? Write a piece called “Sorry.” 
  • Write a rant and a lament. Then write a Message Back to the Ranter, Courtesy of The Universe (or whatever power/force/spirit you believe in).
  • Nancy Werlin’s novel was inspired by an incident in a convenience store. She wrote a short story that eventually led to this novel. Think of a time when an incident between you and a stranger or an incident you’ve observed between strangers left you cold and marked by fear. Is there a story there?
  • Read Nancy Werlin’s quotation below about how she’s grown in her craft of writing and ask yourself to identify the level of skill you’ve developed in plotting, characterization, or other aspects of craft.
  • The Big Ideas of survival, fear, and aggression are compelling to us as readers; The Hunger Games with its worldwide popularity is yet another confirmation of what the people want. Is there an injustice or darkness you need to talk about but have dodged in your writing? Can you begin a page of the story that needs telling, and let the fear and aggression run amok, as much as they need to there?
I believe that each book teaches you how to write it. Each book requires skills that you did not previously possess. Readers of my first novel (Are You Alone on Purpose (Houghton, 1994; reprint forthcoming from Puffin, 2007)) can tell that I was then a poor plotter, for example. Readers of my second novel (The Killer’s Cousin (Delacorte, 1998)) can see that I did not know how to transition in time; I had to label my chapters with the date. I learned about writing action sequences in my third novel (Locked Inside (Delacorte, 2000)). I learned to work with a large cast of characters in Black Mirror (Dial, 2001). These are only small examples.

Think of a writer as being like a carpenter. The writer’s toolbox should grow over the years; her skills should increase. At first she can only build a rough toolshed; by the end of her career, if all goes well, she can build a castle–or a perfectly balanced Shaker cabinet.”

Nancy Werlin, in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith

Writer’s Survival Guide, Part I: Chant, Copy, and Paste Your Way into Confidence

Image found here

With the New Year barely launched, our heads full of well-intentioned resolutions, the biggest question is, How do we get ‘er started?

I’ve found and named three ways I stay focused. There are many others, because without a bank of strategies I’d never have made it through 20-some drafts of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT in the last two years. I wouldn’t have believed I could do a third revision for my agent in six months, nor would I welcome more comments if she has them this month. I would have been too worried that writer’s block would plague me and prevent any kind of progress.

Here’s an annoying admission: I don’t let writer’s block get me. I despise my writing at times and think it’s going nowhere, but that’s different than actually stopping. Let me delve into why I keep plodding, because I’m not really sure of all the reasons aside from workaholicism, and hey, the teacher in me wants to understand why others do.

These tactics have kept me solid when I feel my edges blur and my will fade.

1. I chant my mantras. In secular speak, we’ll call this an oft-repeated phrase or a motivational pep line. But they’re best described as words to invoke when I feel fear. I wake up to fear at 4:00 AM; I feel fear when I’m considering an overhaul of my manuscript; I feel fear when embarking on a new idea for a book. I felt a ton of fear while querying of the I’m not worthy variety.

My mantras lean more to the Hindu version: a “word formula” with mystical resonance and sacred power, repeated during times of spiritual reflection. Some might view this to be a spell; some, a prayer; others, an incantation; I consider it all these things. While I won’t share mine, I will tell you it has a calming effect on this writer who has wee-hour or late-night freak-outs. The mantras have evolved into pithier phrases since 2009.

Recently at the Kennedy Center Awards, Yo Yo Ma confessed to being afraid much of the time. As the video montage shared his impressive accomplishments, I respected him all the more for sharing this truth about artistic success–that it is a product of moving through fear, self-loathing, and panic, constantly.

2. I copy and paste models of good writing into my manuscript. When I embark on a scene or section that feels out of my league, I grab something that seems far more professional and copy and paste it into the manuscript. For example, the other day I had to add a newspaper article to my novel, and though I’ve written some in my day, it isn’t my first-choice genre nor is it my area of expertise. This particular article had to be a report on a high school play. So I found a review of Shakespeare’s Henry V–done on trapezes, no less–and plunked it right inside my story so it was right in front of my eyes. A review is not a report, but seeing where the writer focused got my engines fired such that I could start typing my own lines. Maybe it’s like good company; you feel like this task is now do-able with this demonstration before you. Do as I do…it’s as if you’re watching a virtual mentor. The model coaches you along.

As an English teacher who’s forever preached academic honesty and campaigned against plagiarism, I must pause here to say, Don’t get tempted to borrow even two words in a row from another writer. Seriously. English teachers such as me still struggle to communicate the dos and don’ts of plagiarism, but this formula would serve us all well: when you have ten words you wish to paraphrase from another author, make sure five are brand new (your own words, synonyms) and every other word is be re-arranged in a new order. I even paraphrased the definition of mantra you see above, though the content comes from the Free Online Dictionary and most people would say, Copy away. I’m nerdy and precise like that. But it pays off when you’re writing. You build writing muscle–I can paraphrase in a heartbeat–because I have a word bank at the ready in my head. I’m constantly seeing new word combinations and syntax isn’t an issue when you’re writing all the time.

3. I act confident when I don’t feel confident. Though I haven’t quite graduated to the word “when” (as in, “When this novel is published”) and stay stuck on the ifs, I talk with authority about writing to my agent, to my writing group, to colleagues at work, and in my blog. I’m not an expert, but I’m a lifelong learner, and I’ve invested a lot of sweat in the manuscript and several others. I know my characters, what they would and would not do, so when we discuss these folks, it’s like gossiping about the neighbors, and I trust in my own knowledge enough to question other’s responses to my characters.

I’d say 90% of the time, I take my writing group’s or agent’s advice, but sometimes others will offer suggestions that just don’t fit. They’re good ideas, but they don’t suit your manuscript. Comments I’ve heard about my WIP include change the title, don’t have Wendy act in the play, don’t have this adult share personal information, don’t have this person die here; make Wendy happier earlier on, and so forth. All of these comments are 100% valid for the readers who were commenting; it’s what they want to see, and I harbor similarly strong opinions about every book I read. I’m not saying I won’t eventually implement some of them. But as long as I am working hard to learn and listen and address the spirit of the feedback (and sometimes that’s the challenge for all of us–giving or getting feedback that expresses the concepts, or spirit, of what changes must be made, rather than picayune fixes here or there), I’m headed the right direction.

When I’m telling a certain reader that I appreciate the feedback but I want to stick to my guns on this particular point, I do not feel I’m doing the right thing, necessarily, but I tell myself to trust in my gut even though I would rather make my reader happy. Good authors want the story to have an impact, so hearing that your audience isn’t quite moved the way you hoped is important feedback and a heckuva thing to disregard. That said, you have to trust that you see the whole landscape and trajectory of action, plus you know your characters’ back story, present story, future story–or you soon will. And you have to live with the changes, not the readers, in a way that is so personal that you must have confidence in yourself when you choose not to change the manuscript.

And from whence comes such confidence? Uh, see Tactic #1. Lather, rinse, repeat!

How’s your New Year kicked off? What tactics have kept you at the page? What’s your Survival Guide consist of?

Writing Prompts

  • Develop a mantra to keep you at the page. Create multiple mantras till you find the one that suits. Will yours be matter-of-fact (listen to your mother) or spiritual? Will it be like a Marine drill sergeant or Yoda? 
  • Which writers do you admire, so much so that you’ve either read one of their works multiple times or actually can recall passages by heart? Find an inspirational passage and keep a hard copy near your work space and also an online copy to move into your manuscript whenever you need it. This can be another kind of mantra.
  • When your writer’s block is so heavy you can barely lift hand to keyboard, surf online till you find a couple examples of great writing in your genre. Try Google Books, online booksellers, and other  sites that give you samples of writing. Start a library of Models to Emulate, at the ready when you return to the page tomorrow.
  • Rewrite a scene from your life–an incident you’ve survived–where you return to act confident when you did not feel like it. What’s your secret now?