Writing that thing you HAVE to get published

Throughout undergrad, my professors talked about having a healthy level of arrogance about our writing. It’s right there between being confident and being an asshole.

Mostly I’ve just been trying to reach the confident point—where I can objectively look at something I wrote and say, “Yes, this is a good piece people may read.” Just after that threshold, there’s rumored to be this other mindset that actually helps you get published. They say your attitude changes there. “This piece isn’t just good,” you’ll say. “It’s so good that it has to be read!”

Sure, I’ve had that thought. It was back when I started writing, and no one read a word of it, and I was sure my novel ideas were going to blow so many freaking minds. Then someone did read my first novel, and it did not blow his mind. Really, the whole thing just blew.

I learned to check my ego and to lean a bit more toward being objective with my work. Internally, I’m sure I skewed toward being an asshole toward people who didn’t “get” my short stories. But I still walked into every critique hoping I’d walk out with some ways to improve. That’s the mentality I’ve been stuck in through the last couple years of revising my manuscript.

While I was stuck, I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed at myself for working on nothing else. Even my blog has suffered. I decided to change that, so I opened a new Word doc and started a new blog post. It covered how I’ve grown over the last few months, the turns of my career, and some other hopeful things. It was the blog post I wanted to write for months, but I couldn’t get it right. It was too accusatory, too vindictive, too self-pitying. I hated writing it all those times as much as anyone would have hated reading it, so I never saved the work.

When I tried again last week, it wasn’t nearly the struggle it was before. The story was ready to come out and play. We played on the page, and I found all the magical things it had lacked before: an intention, the proper distance from the experience, and excitement from me, the writer.

But not just excitement. As I looked the piece over and cleaned it up, I realized it was too good for a blog post. Oh, no. This piece needed to go to The Huffington Post. While I’m at it, I might as well shop it around to some other places. This piece isn’t just good, it needs to be read. And it’s just not going to get the audience it deserves here on my blog.

Had I been writing this experience a few months ago, the story probably would end with an explanation of why I chickened out and decided to revise the piece until eventually giving up on it. Today, the piece is under review with The Huffington Post. And it’s about to be under review with some other publications, too.

Honestly, I expected this golden place of confidence/arrogance to feel like an exclusive club I had earned my way into. In reality, it feels more like unloading the dishwasher. This piece is going to these publications because it just belongs there. The plates go in this cupboard because that’s just where they go.

Grad student report: Week 1.5 of 10

Hello, friends. I have officially spent a week and a half as a grad student. Prior to class starting, I was asked by a few people to let them know how it is balancing a full-time job with grad school, plus blogging and working on The Thieves of Traska.

I’m happy to report that Thieves is chugging along (just passed 300 pages and the word count is inching closer to 90,000). I also have an A in my only class, and I’m still able to do all the work things at my usual level of efficiency. There are 8.5 weeks left until the end of my first quarter as a grad student.

Yikes.

Before any exhaustion and midterm madness kick in, I would like to say I’m glad to be in school again. I miss being a student. I miss discussions based in discovery. Homework is actually kind of a soothing evening activity now. Within the next weeks, I’ll likely question my sanity and curse the day I decided to be a grad student.

As the quarter goes on, I hope there are lessons and fun anecdotes I can share. For now, I encourage you to laugh at the huge nerd I am. I am unreasonably excited to discuss résumés in class. Of all the things in a Professional Writing for Business Applications course that could excite me, it’s the résumé.

#writeforum: A good place for writing advice

I tried something new yesterday: I joined the #writeforum discussion on Twitter. I had seen the tag a few times in my feed every once in a while, but never spared it more than a glance. I looked a little longer yesterday and found that not only was the discussion just about to start, but it was going to focus on something I want to understand more:

The writers I met through this discussion (and am now following!) come from different backgrounds and genres, but they all seem to have published at least one novel. Since the conversation started with a focus on promoting published work, I kept quiet and absorbed what they said without contributing. Following a comment about strategies for promoting a series, I couldn’t resist jumping in with my question: What about when you’re looking to promote the first book when launching a series?

There are a number of obstacles I face when it comes to promoting my writing, and I know I am not the only one.

  1. Despite being in the revision process for The Thieves of Traska and drafting The Raiders of Vaskegon, I have no actual book to promote.
  2. My list of published short stories is abysmally short.
  3. The short stories I like to write are a completely different genre from the books I want to write am writing.
  4. I struggle to keep up with the online writing communities I throw myself at.

For those reasons and more, I basically suck at using social media to promote my writing. There isn’t a vetted, published product to promote. I feel silly trying to join the conversation with these people who are at the level I so badly want to reach.

But I do silly things all the time. Yesterday, the risk of showing how embarrassingly green I am to my tiny Twitter following didn’t sound so bad.

And wouldn’t you know it, I showed my greenness and no one cared. #writeforum gave me some valuable information and strategies — most of which will be far more useful when I do have a print product coming out — and broadened my network. Best of all, I have some solid ideas on how to promote The Thieves of Traska when it finally gets to publication.

And who knows? I might just reconsider that whole plan to draft the entire trilogy before I start pitching the first book. And then we’ll see how effective those ideas are.

From writer to writer: Are we crazy?

I had lunch earlier this week with a friend and former coworker. I was supposed to interview her for a story, but we spent the first hour of our conversation catching up on the last year. She had converted to the writing program from fashion and developed a keen interest in a conversational style of reporting. As we talked, she mentioned that one of my old professors talks about me in class from time to time. It’s weird to think about, but I’m an example of someone who went through the program, got a job in the field I studied for and continues to write outside of work.

My friend had many questions for me. How did I handle critiques? Did I ever struggle when critiquing someone’s nonfiction piece? Was I always good at writing? (Ha!) How the heck do I write a short story? When do I have time to work on my own writing? Am I still working on my book? Did I plan the whole thing out before I started writing?

That’s about as planned as I get.

I couldn’t help but filter my answers through the thought, “What do I wish someone had told me when I was in her shoes?” This didn’t change my answers, but it made it clear what she was really asking: “Am I crazy, or am I doing okay?”

That’s exactly what I ask myself all the time. Sometimes it’s right after deciding to spend $30 or more on a new art project (more on that in my next post), when I’m heading to the gym at 6 a.m. or 10 p.m., or when I realize I’m on chapter seven of The Raiders of Vaskegon just a few weeks after starting it. I wonder if I’m crazy when I haven’t worked on Raiders for two days, when I’ve put off doing laundry for another day, and every time I start writing a tweet (and usually backspace it all and go back to browsing Twitter instead of contributing to it).

But it’s gratifying when someone asks for my advice. How crazy can I be if they want to follow in my footsteps/steer clear of my missteps? Probably no more crazy than the person talking to me. We’re all a bunch of crazies, but we’re still doing okay.

Outside opinions: Helpful or haunting?

I’m not about to blow anyone’s minds with this little note, but sometimes the obvious needs stating: getting an outside opinion on your writing could hinder you as easily as it helps you. How many times have you asked someone what they think of your story and their response begins with something like, “If I was writing this story…”

And then they do a run-through of an entirely different story with a vague resemblance to yours. Really unhelpful, right?

Other times, people do contribute useful insight. And sometimes that useful insight can haunt you forever in a kind of this wise person told me this kind of scene made for terrible reading and must never be repeated kind of way. Let’s take a quick trip to the past where a friend gave me a list of things I should not ever write about. Particularly, this item:

“No, playing dress-up and going to ballroom dances does not make for good reading.”

Why on earth would that be on my mind? The Thieves of Traska is still my main project — dress-up and ballroom dances shouldn’t even be a passing thought.

Except there are fancy parties and people in disguise as nobles. So I am actually writing things that I’ve been told to never ever write about. Ever again.

There are plenty of differences between the last time I wrote this sort of thing (the reason I shouldn’t write this sort of thing) and what happens in Thieves, but that statement still hangs over me. And it’s not just what I’ve written; my plans for later events revolve around more fancy parties. I try to remind myself that most of what I wrote in “The Abomination” (the god-awful novel I wrote when I was 12, for those of you just joining me) was indulgent and ghastly — that any and all fancy party scenes I write from now on actually serve a purpose — but I still can’t shake the idea that it’s just not going to be enjoyable, no matter how I handle it.

There’s always a possibility that any of us can successfully write what we’ve been told not to. It’s hard to be sure if we’re looking at a weak spot in our skills as a writer, or just a weak piece of writing. We’ll never know unless we try, right?

Are there any ghosts haunting your writing?

First Day of Class vs. First Day of Work

Hi friends. Today was the first day at my first real, adult, this-is-my-career job — and the whole day was taken up by new hire orientation. As I tried to file the first few hours into my brain, I couldn’t help but compare the first day at work and the first day at school.

Similarities

Paperwork. Remember all those fun handouts with the course syllabus, class goals, professor contact information, etc.? You get way more at work. Tax forms, medical insurance, benefits, “yes I have access to a handbook, but I’m not saying I read it” forms, and many others. It’s some pretty dense reading, but at least you get a few days to sort through it all.

Introducing yourself. Ah, the dreaded 45-second spotlight in which you declare your field of study, hometown, why you are in the class, and something interesting about yourself — or shrug and mumble your way through something like that. Adults do the same sort of thing, but it almost felt like a bit of a competition to me (but I tend to get that vibe from just about everything). Instead of “I’m majoring in sound design because I like to make beats,” you hear things like “Oh, I’ve got a couple degrees in literature, film studies, and communication.”

Everyone else just moved in, too. Before, you’d talk to classmates about which dorm they’re in, or maybe they just got an apartment. In the fall time, most of these people arrived around the same time you did and are also trying to figure out where all their stuff is. In Adult-World, some of your new colleagues (and maybe you) have just relocated for the job. Some just moved in last week while others may have been living in a hotel and just entered their house for the first time that morning. You’ll bond over things you didn’t expect, like not having your furniture.

Differences

You can’t zone out for “the usual stuff.” Even if this isn’t your first job in Adult-World, you need to know about the the policies, the insurance, and the retirement plans available. And if this is your first job in Adult-World, fear not! They actually explain things and you can ask as many questions as you need for clarification. So all the stuff you worried over not understanding because no one taught you? They’ve got you covered.

The gauntlet of guest speakers. Did I mention all the stuff you need to pay attention to? Well, for each one of those things, you’ve got a specialist whose career is to handle those things — and each of them come in to talk to you about all that important stuff. So no struggle to remember the names of everyone in the classroom. Instead, you get a collection of business cards and contact information.

You don’t pick rivals and allies. I know I’m not the only one who has looked around the classroom, eyeing the competition, and figuring out who will help you improve (as you do the same for them), and who you want to crush with the power of your awesomeness. At the new hire orientation, you’ve got a bunch of people working in different departments. There’s going to be some communication between those departments, but ultimately you’ll be separated enough that how you compare doesn’t matter.

Unless you’re like me and you see the M.F.A. everyone else seems to have as a reason to hurry up and get your own.

Tomorrow, I have some more orientation stuff (including getting an employee ID card and parking), a tour, and eventually I actually get to go to work. We’ll find out what sort of desk I have and what weird things might have been left by the previous owner next time!

Amanda_post signature

A letter to my 17 year old self

Hey you. With college graduation just five days away (eek!), I’ve been thinking a lot about you. I think there are some met and missed opportunities we need to talk about.

Ah, the end of high school. Thank goodness you stopped dressing exclusively in Hot Topic.

First off, everyone was right about how you probably won’t talk to your high school friends much once you get to college. You and everyone in that picture have drifted apart. It’s sad, but you kind of expected this to happen when you came home for the holidays with tons of exciting stories and your closest friends were still doing the same thing. Fast forward a couple years and they can’t even get excited for your accomplishments because they’re stuck. At least the bridges are empty and not burned.

You really are a dork. And no, you don’t grow out of it. At least not by 21.

I wish you’d gone out and explored SCAD and Savannah more when you got here. Yeah, it was more city than you’re used to and that was really scary, but you’re really good at stumbling upon fun things like art fairs, car shows, used book stores, and friendly dogs. Also, you might have learned your way around a lot faster if you’d done that. Maybe. You get really good at navigating once you have a car here.

World’s Worst Zombie is on the right. Don’t ever try acting again. Please.

Try to remember that you can’t do everything well. Your graphic design capabilities are not marketable, nor are your skills as an actor. And as much as you like bugging your photographer friends for high quality photos of yourself (vanity’s not cute, and it’s sadly still around in your future), there are better models. There are plenty of other things that you’re really good at — writing, editing, making breakfast — and enough things that you’re at least above average at. Recognize where you’re mediocre and don’t sell those skills as better than they really are.

I really wish you’d participated in Sidewalk Arts more than once. There’s always next year, right?

Enjoy all those “mental health days” you allowed yourself when you were ahead on projects and the weather was beautiful and it wouldn’t be that bad if you missed each class once or twice. Those lovely days off are now strictly reserved for actual sick days (usually due to food poisoning; revel in your inexperience while you can). At some point you suddenly become a workaholic, so enjoy all the free time when it was easier to use it for fun. In the future, you have a never-ending to-do list where five things get added on the moment you finish one thing. Hey, you wanted to be an adult.

You live near a beach now, so it’s about time you learned how to swim in something other than a swimming pool. You’ll be more fun to bring to the beach when you’re not continuously saying that you can’t swim.

Being a responsible adult doesn’t just happen once you get older. It’s a lot of guesswork, a lot of screwing up, and a lot of calling mom to apologize for being such a pain over the years. Some of these lessons you have to learn the hard way — like when you accidentally spent all your graduation money and your scholarship reimbursement and later figured out how to budget yourself. Wrap your brain around the fact that your parents were raising you when they were just a bit older than you are now, and you turned out alright. You will handle your future with logic, determination, and no small amount of sass. Keep it up, kid.

Amanda_post signature