First of all, the winners of the query critique giveaway from the previous post have been contacted. Thank you to all who participated!
And now to continue our chat with Danielle Barthel and Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary & Media. Like the first part, this was recorded and then transcribed by the awesome Danielle, so it’s more relaxed and conversational than a traditional interview. Enjoy! And if you missed part one, you can find it here.
Me: How much input do you give before a client starts a new project?
Danielle: I think that’s mostly…it’s not as much input as it is guidance. A lot of times a client will come with multiple ideas and you’ll sort of steer them in the direction of what you think a) they can write best, and b) what is most sellable in the current market.
Suzie: Yeah, I’ve given a few of my authors some ideas where they’re brainstormed or they’ve been like “I need an idea,” and I’m like “Oh, write something like this.” But it doesn’t always work quite as well that way. I feel like with some authors it’s just better if they come up with something on their own. And I’d say this is another one that kind of depends on the client. I definitely have clients that will be like, “Hey, I wrote this thing, I don’t know if it’s any good, but here it is.” Whereas I have other clients who really want to talk things out beforehand.
Me: What do you prefer in terms of formatting for a full manuscript?
Danielle: Yeah. Not Comic Sans.
Suzie: Double spaced.
Danielle: 12 point font. Page numbers. So if we print it and then drop it we don’t have a manuscript issue.
Suzie: Has that ever happened to you before?
Danielle: Um, yes. I think when I was interning.
Suzie: That would be terrible.
Danielle: I’ve printed out a manuscript before and had to handwrite in page numbers too. So…just put them in.
Me: If you’ve requested material from a writer before, does that make you more or less likely to do so with future projects?
Suzie: It’s not really a factor to me. If I like the manuscript and I like the writing that they’re querying at that time, then I’m interested in seeing it. Sometimes there are a few authors that I’ll invite to submit again, and in those cases I’m usually excited to see whatever they’re writing now. Doesn’t always mean that it’ll end up working, but I’m glad they’re writing something else.
Danielle: It also depends if you like their writing style and just didn’t click with the concept.
Danielle: So you ask them to keep you in mind if they write something in the future.
Me: What do you expect from the authors you work with? What can they expect from you?
Suzie: Honest communication.
Danielle: It all boils down to those two words, doesn’t it? If we’re open with each other the entire time, things are just bound to go more smoothly…If we’re coming to authors with all of the points laid out, and you’re holding something back, we’re not going to be as…
Danielle: Yeah, that’s a good word. And vice versa.
Me: How frequently do you prefer to communicate with your authors?
Danielle: Um, it’s kind of however often they need.
Suzie: Yeah. I mean, I have some authors who are in touch probably like once a week or more. And then I have authors that will really go off and write and do their thing and I won’t hear from them quite as often. And either way is fine, as long as when we need each other, we’re both available, which I’d say I’ve never had any problems with. And I’m happy to do email or phone or even Skype. I tend to Skype with my international authors more than being on the phone because it’s actually easier to get us both in front of a computer.
Me: Some agents have mentioned that it’s crucial to be kind to the assistants and interns at literary agencies. Other than the obvious — that they are fabulous, witty, smart, and fun people in their own right — what should writers know?
Suzie: It’s a lot of work for not very much money.
Danielle: Yeah, and I would say it’s very similar to the agents in that it doesn’t matter how much time you’ve been there, you deserve the same amount of respect no matter what level you’re at. And you should give the same amount of respect no matter what level you’re at.
Suzie: Yeah, Janet Reid always used to say it was so important to be nice to the assistants. Because a lot of times the assistants are in the office really early in the morning and they’re there late at night. Like Danielle going back to the office after this coffee meeting. So it’s a lot of work and they’re the people who are kind of at the forefront of the manuscript, and there’s always that thing where you don’t know who those assistants are going to be in five years. They’re probably going to be really important people.
Me: Some agents request partial manuscripts, while others ask for the full. Why might they may want one or the other?
Suzie: I’m not sure why people might want one or the other. Partials are a little leftover from when people actually mailed in pages. You know, when I first started in the industry, we still did a lot of our queries via mail. And you’d request a partial so that you wouldn’t make the person spend all this money on postage sending you this huge manuscript if you really only were going to read the first 25-50 pages, and then be like “oh, it’s not for me.” When I switched to email, I just switched to requesting fulls because if I like it, I’m gonna want to keep going, because I don’t have very much patience, and if I’m not into it I’m just going to stop, and there’s no real difference for me whether I have the partial or the full.
Danielle: Sometimes it’s harder to have the partial because then you have to stop and ask for more, you don’t just have the full.
Me: What should a writer do if an agent requests a full or partial and never responds?
Suzie: I mean, my thought is check in after like two months and politely follow up.
Danielle: Via email.
Suzie: Yes. And then if they still don’t respond, I’d give it maybe two more months and then check in once more. But then after that, you just kind of have to say, “Oh, well.” They’re not the right person for you.
Danielle: Yeah, it depends on the level of communication you’re hoping for. I’d say starting out with that—
Suzie: Yeah, I think if they don’t respond to you from the very beginning you probably don’t want them as an agent anyway.
Danielle: Probably not.
Me: How substantially does a manuscript need to change before a writer re-queries it? How long is standard to wait before sending it out again?
Suzie: It depends. I think that if you’re requerying someone who read the full manuscript, you really need to dive in and do some significant work. And by that I mean it can’t just be like a few aspects of the plot. There should be some kind of difference on every page. New scenes, better character development, faster pacing. It should reflect either notes you do or a really thorough read-through with a lot of changes.
Danielle: I don’t think there’s a standard wait time before sending it out again, but you don’t want to do like two weeks, because that will feel like you didn’t do any work at all. And you don’t want to wait two years because then the agent won’t remember it.
Suzie: No matter what, you don’t want to wait two years because we’ll get the manuscript and be like, “What is this?” But I’d say you definitely want to wait over a month, maybe six weeks is a good time frame where you could’ve legitimately gone in and done a lot of work and really thought about it and done some revisions but also set the manuscript aside and given it some time to breathe. And yet, as an agent, with a gentle reminder I’m going to remember that I’ve read it.
Me: What are some of your favorite non-client books? What genres do you like to read best?
Suzie: So, Alexandra Bracken’s The Darkest Minds series…
Danielle: Oh, my gosh. We love that so much!
Suzie: I read the first one and I couldn’t stop talking about it, and I was like, Danielle you have to read this.
Danielle: So she gave it to me for my birthday.
Suzie: Yes, and we’ve been like super fangirls ever since.
Danielle: Never looked back.
Suzie: I also really love everything that Melina Marchetta writes. I think she’s such a beautiful writer. I love her contemporary books, but I also love her fantasy series, and I am looking forward to whatever she writes next.
Danielle: I really like Scarlet by AC Gaughen—it’s a retelling of Robin Hood where Will Scarlet is a girl, and it’s just so good. It’s got the most unique voice and I just really loved it. And I really like contemporary right now. Jennifer E. Smith is really good.
Suzie: I don’t know. I really love all YA. In adult books I’ve been reading a lot of adult literary book club fiction lately. Just kind of the palate cleanser. What else have I been reading?
Danielle: I try to think of my bookshelf when I’m thinking of books I like.
Suzie: Okay, there’s this really great duology that’s probably ten years old now, but it’s by Elizabeth Knox. And the first one is called Dream Hunter I think, and I think it’s the Dream Hunter duet, is the series title. But it’s so creative and so different and I just devoured both books a couple years ago.
Danielle: Yeah, I don’t know what else. I like J.K. Rowling. She’s cool.
Me: What encouragement would you give those who would like to become professional writers?
Danielle: Keep trying. Don’t give up.
Suzie: Read A LOT.
Danielle: Do a lot of research before you query. Research how to query.
Suzie: Get critique partners or beta readers who read and write in the genre that you also write in. And listen to people when they give you feedback. Your first reaction might always be to sort of dig your heels in and be like “No, I did my manuscript this way,” but give it some time, really think about it. Usually there’s something that’s causing them to have a reaction. So even if you don’t take a suggestion, you can come away with something else.
Me: What else should everyone know about you two?
Suzie: What’s your favorite color?
Suzie: I don’t think I knew that.
Danielle: Really? You know, I don’t wear as much pink as I used to. It’s not as professional.
Suzie: Do you know my favorite color?
Suzie: What is your favorite Taylor Swift song from the new album?
Danielle: Um…you know, originally it was “Wildest Dreams.”
Suzie: I like that one.
Danielle: But I think it’s a tie between “Wildest Dreams” and “Blank Space”. “Blank Space” is just so good. What is yours?
Suzie: I definitely change my mind a lot on that.
Danielle: What’s yours today?
Suzie: Today…I mean, I think it is my favorite, but “I Know Places” is my favorite.
Danielle: Okay. I feel like I don’t know that one as well. I can hear a few words of it in my head, but I can’t hear it the way I can hear a few others. What’s your favorite dessert? That’s really hard. I have to think about that one. Okay, that’s too hard. What’s your favorite special dessert that you’d ask for but wouldn’t expect a lot, and what’s your favorite snack dessert just to have around?
Suzie: I guess snack dessert—chocolate chip cookies. You can’t go wrong with them. They’re almost always good. Special dessert…that’s really tough. I am a huge fan of the Cheesecake Factory’s Pumpkin cheesecake.
Danielle: I was gonna say cheesecake! My mom makes me cheesecake for my birthday every year, and she loathes it because it takes so much time.
Suzie: It does take a lot of time.
Danielle: But if she didn’t want to make it, she shouldn’t ask… She knows what I’m gonna say! What’s your favorite movie?
Suzie: Oh. I don’t know. That’s tough. Lucky Number Slevin.
Danielle: That’s because you have a dog named Slevin!
Suzie: That’s where he got his name from.
Danielle: I know. I don’t know if I have a favorite movie. I really don’t know. I really like the new Spidermans. Spidermen? Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield together.
Suzie: Yeah. They’re great.
Danielle: Well, we’ve been recording for 27 minutes. Is there anything else you want to say?
Suzie: I’m so excited to be working with you on this!
If you’d like more information on New Leaf or on their agents, check out their newly updated website. Suzie also has a wonderful Q&A feature on the New Leaf Tumblr and a very helpful blog. And be sure to check out both Danielle and Suzie on Twitter.
I have a special treat for you: the first installment of a two-part chat with agent Suzie Townsend and assistant Danielle Barthel (Bar-THELL) of New Leaf Literary & Media. (OR Danielle and Suzie if you want the really fun links. Aren’t these two fantastic???) We cooked up this post shortly after I signed with them, and I’m beyond excited to share it with you now.
You can also see the second part here.
P.S. The giveaway is now closed. Thank you to all who participated!
Me: It’s unusual to have two people representing one writer. How will you will be working together, and how did this came about?
Danielle: So, I am not open to queries.
Suzie: Well, you’re not open to queries yet.
Danielle: I’m not open to queries yet, but the way that it works when you’re working with another agent on a project like this specifically…Suzie thought that I would like it, and so I read it and I did like it, and after we did the revise and resubmit, we both liked it equally and so Suzie agreed to help me, or co-sign it with me so we could work on it together.
Suzie: Right. The idea is kind of that when Joanna [Volpe] and Kathleen [Ortiz] and I all first started, we took on projects but we hadn’t ever done it before. We’d only been assistants, so there were times that things came up that we’d be like “we don’t know what to do.” Thankfully for everyone involved we made it through that time period, but we want our assistants to be able to take on projects of their own soon, and the best way for them to do that was going to be to represent something with one of us. That way it’s almost like the author is getting two agents for the price of one. Two agents are reading your stuff, two people are meeting with editors and pitching it or calling them. So there’s always two people you can go to, two sets of eyes on everything, and we’re helping each other out.
Danielle: And for me it makes it easier to learn. I’m not being thrown into something that I don’t understand yet, so if I have questions, I can ask the person who’s been doing it for a few years.
Suzie: It’s hopefully a low risk, high reward situation.
Danielle: For sure.
Me: How long have you two been working together, and how has your relationship evolved?
Suzie: How long have we been working together?
Danielle: Almost three years.
Suzie: Oh, my God. That’s forever!
Danielle: Yeah, it’ll be three years in January.
Suzie: Well, when you started you were super quiet, and it wasn’t until like—
Danielle: Uh, so were you towards me!
Suzie: No, Danielle, I didn’t know you were funny for at least like a year.
Danielle: Hey, my family still doesn’t think I’m funny so… Anyway, how has our relationship evolved? Well…
Suzie: When you first started, you read for me and I taught you how to do editorial letters.
Danielle: You did! Oh, my gosh. You’ve changed my life.
Suzie: And now you teach the interns.
Danielle: I do! Well, when I started, I wasn’t really working with you at all. I was just kind of there.
Suzie: Well, you were Jo’s assistant.
Danielle: Yeah. And now…
Suzie: I send you things to read a lot.
Danielle: You do. Actually, you can send me something to read now.
Suzie: Okay, I’m going to write that down.
Me: I’ve often seen New Leaf referred to as a “team.” How does this team-like approach work?
Suzie: Well, I mean to start, we’re all really collegial. We read each others’ books and we’re always around to help each other out with anything, and I think a team always has to start there. We also will do second reads for each other or help be a second opinion for clients. Our subrights team, both with foreign/translation rights and film rights, are also really involved in the process from day one. They read the manuscripts before they go on submission, which doesn’t happen everywhere, and sometimes they’ll even offer notes or different things to help make sure there’s wide appeal for the project.
Danielle: I would say that it’s the support of just having other people there, as you mentioned, but also to know that you aren’t going to have to do anything by yourself. If you have questions—I mean as an assistant, it’s really important to me to know that I can go to anyone in the office and talk things out and anybody can come to me in the same way.
Suzie: Yeah, it’s kind of that—you know, we want to be able to represent all of our clients with projects no matter what it is. So if I had a client come to me with a business book, and I don’t really know anything about business books, someone in the office—maybe Mackenzie [Brady]—can read and give a second opinion and can help make sure we’re submitting to the right people and it’s that idea that somebody always knows something so that we can all be as strong as possible.
Me: What’s your method for reading queries and requested submissions? Do you usually have multiple readers for potential clients? What about for current clients?
Danielle: I would say we’d have multiple readers for potential clients if it got to the point that we loved it. Otherwise it’s just one reader.
Suzie: Yeah, I’d say that usually it’s just one person until the point where we’re like, oh, I really like this, and I want a second read on it, or I want to share it with the team, or something like that. For clients, it depends. I’d say that there are definitely times when I read a client’s manuscript and I’m the only one who reads it, and there are times I bring in somebody else, like if I’ve read several versions of it I’ll bring on someone with a fresh set of eyes.
Danielle: Fresh eyes are always good. Even sometimes if an assistant reads something and just needs somebody else to give a second opinion.
[Side note: Suzie reads her queries every Friday. When Danielle reads queries for an agent, she tends to read randomly, though ones that have been in the query inbox longer get read first.]
Me: At what point do you stop reading a submission? What compels you to read on?
Danielle: I don’t think there’s a page number you could ever give, but I will stop reading if I don’t care about the character. Characters are what drive the story no matter what your plot is, in my opinion, and if I’m not invested in what they’re doing, what’s happening to them, what’s going on around them, then I’m not really going to care where their life story is leading them.
Suzie: No, I agree. I would say I’ll follow a really great character anywhere. And when I first started, I always would read like 25-50 pages of anything I requested, thinking like, I’ll just give it a shot. But I would say that I don’t do that quite as much now. It’s more like I start reading, and at the point that my mind is wandering and I’m thinking about other things I have to do, then I’m probably going to stop.
Danielle: That’s a good marker. If you’re not paying attention to what you’re reading, that’s not a good thing.
Me: What inspires you to ask for a revise and resubmit from potential clients as opposed to either offering or declining representation?
Danielle: I think it’s something that sticks with you. For me, if I read a story and I sleep on it for a night and I’m like, it’s not there but I’m not willing to just let it go, I’d do an R&R.
Suzie: Yeah. I think manuscripts can fall into one of like three categories. There’s the one that you read and it’s really great and you can see how all of the pieces fall together. So even if there are a few notes, it’s still really close to being submission ready. It’s something that there’s not that much to fix, and it shouldn’t take the author more than a few weeks to do revisions (maybe). That’s something I would offer on. Whereas a manuscript I’d ask for a revise and resubmit on, it’s something that has all of those elements, or it could have all of those elements—it has the potential—but it still needs some work and there’s that thought of “is the author going to be on the same page, because it might be more work than they’re expecting?” And sometimes if what I’m asking for is a lot, it’s like, can we pull this off? Can we make these changes and make the manuscript into something that we both really love?
Me: Does it affect your decision if you know a potential client was previously represented by another agent?
Suzie: I mean, I guess in a way it can affect the decision. I think that if an author was represented by a good friend of mine, I might wonder what happened. I guess realistically I’m going to wonder what happened anyway, and I’m probably going to ask. And the story of what happened and how they broke up—it’s the same kind of thing in a romantic relationship. You want to know where things went wrong for that person in the past because you don’t want them to go wrong for the both of you. So it’s almost even more important when someone has already had an agent to have that conversation. You know what an agent can offer you…what do you want from them? So you’re both going into it knowing that you’re a good match.
Me: What is your favorite part about working in the industry?
Suzie: My favorite part about working in the industry is just all the books. Anything book-related is awesome. You go meet editors, and sometimes they bring you free books, which is really awesome. Going to BEA and getting free books is really great. Getting the ARCs of things before they’re actually in stores is always fun. And working with an author on their project and then getting to see it as an ARC or as a real book—it’s just so rewarding.
Danielle: And I love the moment that you fall in love with a book for the first time. I like a lot of books, but to make me really love something I think is a really special feeling and it just gets me so excited. It reinvigorates my love of the industry, I think.
I hope you enjoyed part one of the chat with Suzie and Danielle. If you’d like to continue reading, click here for part two.
And now for the giveaway!
Last April I broke up with my agent of nearly three years. It was necessary, and risky, and terrifying. It meant leaving the only person in publishing who’d thus far agreed to champion my work, in order to find someone else who would, you know, champion my work.
Writing that message was hard. It couldn’t be undone, and there was no guarantee I would find another agent. Worst of all, I don’t ever want to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially someone I like, and someone who gave me a chance before anyone else in publishing ever did.
Some things need to be done, however. This was one of them.
Because my newest book was ready to go — or so I thought — I jumped into the agent hunt fairly quickly. I had my query letter. I had two different synopses. I had a query-specific email address with a unique chime that gave me a miniature heart attack every time it announced a new message. I even had an agent spreadsheet so detailed that my writing buddies took every opportunity to tease me about it — and then asked me to share it with them when they, too, were ready to query. (Vindication feels good, by the way. In case you were wondering.)
Just over a month later, I received a response to a full request. It wasn’t an offer, but it wasn’t a rejection. It was a revise & resubmit letter from the amazing Suzie Townsend and her assistant Danielle Barthel of New Leaf Literary & Media. Because my life is beyond glamorous, I was cleaning our bathroom at the time. I may have dropped the Windex when my phone dinged. (It’s things like this that keep us humble. And also remind us that anything can happen at any moment.)
Danielle and Suzie’s suggestions were smart and thorough, and they had clearly given my book a lot of thought. Following their requests would take serious work, but I could see how each revision would make the book better. Naturally, I pounced on the opportunity. (If “pouncing” means waiting almost 24 hours to write back and commit, since I wanted all traces of my knee-jerk freak-out gone by the time I pressed send.)
Querying halted, and revising commenced. For two whole months. Finally, I sent the book off. I heard back from Danielle soon after. Another revise & resubmit. But it began with encouragement and ended with more encouragement, and all the words in-between seemed doable when read one suggestion at a time. I agreed to another round. Then I headed up into the mountains because I had a lot of thinking to do. Not only did I have some plotting issues to work out, but I was also concerned about the possibility of spending another two months writing to someone’s specifications and either receiving more revisions or being turned down altogether.
As I crunched along the hiking trail, with golden aspens glowing around me and snow-dusted peaks above, Danielle emailed to see if I had any questions and if I wanted to talk about revisions. I didn’t even know I could get messages up there. It was a delightful surprise. Throughout the day we had a casual email exchange, punctuated by moments when the mountains blocked my signal (pesky rocks) or when I stopped to take pictures. By the end of the day I had eight hundred photos, a quarter tank of gas, and a call arranged with Danielle for the next week to discuss revisions.
When the day arrived, I had my thoughts in order and was prepared to act less nervous than I felt. And then, exactly ONE minute before Danielle called, I received an email from another agent who had the full. It was a long message, and I didn’t have much time since I (rightly) suspected Danielle would be punctual, so I skipped to the end and caught some formal thanks-but-no-thanks language. That’s when I knew it was a rejection, and with the worst possible timing.
As I was catching my breath, the phone rang. Danielle.
Only later did I bring myself to read the new message more carefully. That’s when I realized it was, in fact, another revise & resubmit, saying many of the same things Danielle and I had talked about in our phone call. I immediately let both agents know, and went to work on revising.
And then, a few days later, I received an email from yet another agent. Like Suzie, she was one of my dream agents. She had read my manuscript over the weekend, and informed me she was “pretty much obsessed with” my book. I may have swooned a little when I read that. (Okay, a lot. Several times. I also giggled.)
Our chat was lovely and lively, and she was oh-my-gosh-so-wonderful. Of course, because I am the master of timing, I had maybe a half hour afterward to email everyone else who had my submission and let them know I’d had an offer of representation. Then my four-year-old daughter and I took off on a fourteen-hour round-trip drive across the desert to visit some friends in the Grand Canyon.
You know what’s really awesome, by the way? Spending four days with almost no cell or internet service when you have one offer of representation, twelve full manuscripts out, and a deadline. No, really. It’s fantastic. Sometimes nothing is more freeing than enjoying the beauty and seclusion of nature with little chance that the phone will ring, and with plenty of space for thinking.
By the end of it all, I had four offers, including one from Suzie and Danielle, who had received a very first-draft version of my barely-started revisions after I escaped to the Grand Canyon Village library to send them off. Despite the roughness, Danielle and Suzie somehow saw the potential in what I had done so far. I was thrilled, to say the least.
Still, the decision was tough. Every agent who offered was superb, and I would have been happy to be with any one of them. They were charming on the phone, and their clients raved about them, and they had insightful things to say about my manuscript. In the end, however, the answer was clear, and I am ecstatic to announce that I am now represented by Suzie Townsend and Danielle Barthel of New Leaf Literary & Media! They are smart and talented and enthusiastic, and I am so lucky to be working with them.
Thank you, ladies, for believing in me enough to go through two rounds of revisions with me, chat on the phone twice, and discuss this book through many, many emails. I am so happy to be working with you both, and I can’t wait to see what happens with this book and with future ones!
NOTE: Stay tuned! In a couple of weeks I’m going to have an agent-related surprise on the blog. Come back and check it out, or subscribe so you don’t miss it! And if you liked the scenery photos, come visit me on Instagram so we can connect!
I’ve recently entered the brainstorming stage of my next book. It’s a fun, crazy time. Sometimes my mood is rainbows. Sometimes it’s angst. Right now my mood wants lists (as it often does), so here you go: a step-by-step guide to plotting a book. All you writers out there, this is for you. You’re welcome.
1. Find the most inconvenient time/place. Showers are good. Cars, too. Lying in bed, comfortable, mostly asleep? Perfect.
2. Think about something else.
3. Bolt of lightning crashes above you, singeing little bits of your hair as it sizzles past. Geez, that was close.
4. You’ve got it! THE idea! (By the way, you’re brilliant. Good job.)
5. Ignore it or write it down? Debate the options. Decide to wait. You are wet/busy steering/warm and comfortable. The idea can hold…Can’t it?
6. Suddenly remember the last time you told yourself that. Disgraced and petulant, that particular World’s Best Idea slunk away, never to return again. The only things you remember about it are that it had something to do with the letter ‘R’ and it felt like perfection on a milkshake. So, yeah, not helpful.
7. Curse your memory. Curse the timing of lightning. Curse the notepad, which always parts ways with the pen you were certain you put it next to. Curse writing. Who invented it, anyway? It’s their fault you’re even in this mess.
8. Find both the pen and the notebook. Finally.
9. The pen even works. It’s a miracle. Celebrate.
10. But not too long, because ideas have an expiration date, and this one’s nearing it.
11. Grab a towel/pull off the road/sit up in the dark.
12. Write. Begin to feel giddy. This is the best idea ever! Ooh! And there’s a nice subplot! And a turning point! The first? Second? Whatever. You’ll figure it out.
13. Maybe later, though, since you ARE naked and freezing and hogging the bathroom/getting honked at/burning under the glare of a grumbly spouse who JUST WANTS YOU TO TURN OUT THE LIGHT ALREADY. These people do not understand the joys of writing, poor things. They deserve your pity.
14. There’s no time for pity. You have an idea to write. Get back to work.
15. When you are satisfied, stash the notebook and pen and resume your mundane, non-writing task, all the while planning time to type in those pages and further flesh out your idea before you a) forget what you meant by “arrow moonbeam swirl” and b) forget how to read your own handwriting.
16. Repeat process until book is outlined. Then repeat throughout the writing phase. And revisions. And after you turn in your revisions. And basically until you start a new book. And maybe even a little after that.
BONUS STEP: Later, when you are visiting an elementary school, describing your writing process, an earnest third grader will ask you where your ideas come from. A few good answers may cross your mind: Wal*Mart, the newspapers, dreams. But ultimately you will find yourself telling the truth: “Bad timing. My best ideas come from the worst timing.”
1) Carefully read instructions on oatmeal packet. This time you will do it right. For once, breakfast won’t end in messy defeat.
2) Stir together milk and oatmeal.
3) Set microwave according to directions. Hide pre-victory grin. Whistle. Exude confidence.
4) Watch oatmeal spin on tray, ready to halt all cooking at first sign of boilage. Squint a little. Hold breath. Fear overflow, despite yourself.
5) Stir and check status. (Answer: Oat flakes drifting in warmish milk soup.)
6) Another minute in microwave.
7) Still floaty dry oats + milk. This could take a while.
8) Set microwave for one more minute. It’s still raw, and barely lukewarm. You’re totally safe.
9) Go set table. Take your time. Swagger a little.
10) Saunter back to microwave, spoon in hand, poised to stir.
11) Open microwave door. Discover that, in your absence, your impending meal became an oatmeal volcano, spouting thick, gloppy, magma-esque mess all over clean microwave tray.
12) Congratulations! Your oatmeal is hot and (mostly) cooked. So is the tray beneath. Blow on breakfast. Wait for it to cool so you can finally eat it.
13) Clean-up time. Soak bowl for sixteen hours. Chisel cemented cereal off bottom of microwave. Try not to swear.
14) Vow to use water instead of milk next time, though tasteless paste isn’t your preferred dining choice.
15) Scribble “Buy bigger bowl” on shopping list. Amend to “Much, much bigger.” Underline. Add exclamation point.
16) Or there’s always toast. Toast is safe. Usually.
Your turn – what’s something you repeatedly attempt, even though you know it will lead to your ultimate doom? Talk an elderly relative through way-too-techy computer issues? Jump into NaNoWriMo with the threat of Thanksgiving (and all those pies you have to bake) hanging over your head? Make coffee in that complicated machine in the break room? Sew pants? Come on! Make me feel better. Spill it. (Yeah. Spill. You and my oatmeal…)
Here’s the thing about first drafts: They are fun, but they are also scary. They are messy and muddled and awkward and hard. They have no guarantee. And they can make perfectionists like me very, very uncomfortable.
But they are worth it for the times when everything works and, anyway, they have to be done in order to get to revisions. Even on the difficult days.
And those days do come.
Unfortunately, there’s no category for Personal Cheering Section in the help-wanted ads, and the cats would rather sleep on the couch than rah-rah-rah me into getting all the new words written. So when I’ve used up my last jar of inspiration, and my motivation has fled, I have to flail those pom-poms myself.
Throughout my recent two-month long frenzy of creative chaos — otherwise known as a first draft — I did just that. To be specific, I built a page of reminders to look at any time my typing lagged. As the manuscript grew, so did my list, because I learn new things every time I write a book or, more likely, I learn the same things over and over, forgetting in between.
Here, prettied up for your sake, and shared in case it provides inspiration (perhaps to those embarking on NaNoWriMo), is my memo to myself:
Tell a good story.
Write now. Revise later.
Have fun. Smile. And then send a knife hurtling toward your protagonist.
Go on. She can take it.
Forget layering in emotion, setting, symbols, and theme for now. This is an empty tortilla, baby. Only one floppy layer to be had. Fill it later.
At some point — usually three days — it will be harder to stop than it is to keep going.
Until then, write it anyway.
You have finished books before. You will do it again.
Probably even this one.
Comparing an untamed first draft to a previous book’s reworked, polished, final form is like comparing a supermodel’s eighth grade school picture with her Vogue spread. Not fair. Everyone looks awkward at the beginning. The pretty comes later.
The book will not be perfect.
The book will not be perfect.
The book will not be perfect.
But it can be fixed. That’s what revisions are for.
Don’t look down.
How do you convince yourself to keep going on difficult writing days?
In retrospect, the fertilizer might not have been a good idea. Over the last few weeks, this summer’s garden plot has become a very scary place. We’ve been overrun by groping vines and in-your-face leaves. Melon sprawl and wall-to-wall carrot carnage. Sweet pea forests. Six-pound marbled orange beefsteaks. Eggplants that grow like Pinocchio’s nose, expanding by the second.
The only thing that’s not getting any bigger is the size of our garden space.
Give me strength. I fear I may not make it out alive the next time I venture in. Yesterday I barely escaped, stumbling onto the safety of the back patio with just a fistful of dirt-clotted weeds and most of my sanity. Today? Who knows. The lettuce is looking feisty, and the cucumbers have come of age. We may have a real fight on our hands.
Still, someone has to prune the pumpkins before the patch infests the neighborhood, so I’m going in. Soon as I re-tie my shoelaces. And adjust my sunglasses. And gas up the chainsaw. And any other delay tactics I can think of while still looking brave and unhesitant. I hear pumpkins can smell fear.
If you don’t see me staggering back out of this jungle by Thursday, Husqvarna in one hand, wide-brimmed hat in the other, shut off the sprinklers and send in the rescue crew. They’ll know what to do.
Oh, and if you’d like to help hack away the foliage, I’d be forever grateful. I hear the garden center has a nice pair of pruning shears they may let you use. I’m a good customer; surely they’ll share. Just sign this waiver right here, and we’ll get started.
P.S. Salad, anyone? There’s a feast for at least forty in here somewhere.
I had forgotten how good graham crackers could taste. And Cheerios, and Goldfish, and animal crackers, and every other crunchy, carby kid food.
Until I had a toddler.
It’s not just the flavor, either. It’s the crackly bag, the tantalizing smell, the convenient thereness. Irresistible. And I can’t eat any of it. Not if I want my morning milk, evening chocolate, or, say, lunch.
But it’s hard to turn down tempting treats when you’ve got a two-year-old snack pusher in your household. Sunshine’s not subtle, either. Like my grandmother, her namesake, she’s a high-impact sharer who hates to eat alone. And I’m her preferred dining partner – or at least the most convenient one.
Each time I break out Sunshine’s snacks, she pinches a few in her fidgety fingers and sweetly offers them to me. When I turn her down, she tries again, pushing the crackers against my hands, my mouth. She chants, “Share! Share!” and eats a bite herself, then waves the gnawed-on remains in front of my eyes. After all, if she loves them, then Mommy will, too, right? (Yes. Unfortunately.)
A short quiz, plus a confession: Do you know how hard it is not to share with a two-year-old who wants to snack with you? (Answer: Impossible.) Do you know how hard it is to turn down a Goldfish when its cheddar essence has brushed against your lips and hovered under your nose? (Answer: Even more impossible.) The truth: I want those snacks even more than she wants to feed them to me.
When I am strong, I clench my lips shut, and force myself to smile, and praise Sunshine for being nice. I mentally count my calories, subtracting exercise, adding dinner. How many in a handful of Goldfish? (Answer: 140.) How many in one animal cracker? No, strike that. Three animal crackers? (Because eating just one is the most impossible feat of all. Oh, and by the way? 23.) How many in the Cheerios Sunshine just offered me? (Answer: x times the number of Cheerios, minus y, wherein x is Sunshine’s determination and y is my ability to adhere to my diet.)
When I am weak, which is often, I take the proffered food. Sunshine grins, thrilled with my choice. I chew and mentally praise the goodness of crunchy snacks, trying not to regret them before I’ve even swallowed.
I want Sunshine to share. I want her to be generous and giving. I want her to say, “Yours!” instead of “Mine!” I want her to have a healthy relationship with food, whatever that means.
And, oh, God, I want to eat those Honey Grahams.
I just want not to be a blimp tomorrow.
Life is like this, a constant weighing of good vs. bad, a never-ending list of choices. And, frankly, most are bigger than whether or not to ingest twenty-three calories’ worth of crunchy circus animals. Like which prom dress to wear. Which subject to major in. Which person to marry, which house to buy, which book to write next. When to have children.
So when I do give in to Sunshine’s enthusiastic, pushy-grandma ways, I try to see her goofy smile and not the calories. And I remind myself that, well, at least we’re not choosing colleges. Yet.
In seventh grade, in the back of my parents’ car, on the way home from another disastrous school-wide dance, my friend Rebekah and I lied to each other in the nicest possible way.
“Nerds,” we told ourselves, “Are awesome.”
They were the most misunderstood subgroup in the high school hierarchy. Everyone should want to be one. Those snotty popular girls who had hurled insults down the school hallway toward us that night? They were just jealous. And they were wrong, too, because we were most assuredly not nerds.
Okay, fine, we admitted as the car turned a corner and a street lamp splashed yellow light into the back, highlighting our awkward hair and gawky arms. So what if we
sort of were? It might not be permanent. If we could outgrow training bras, dollhouses with hand-painted shutters, and unrequited crushes, we could outgrow this. Nerdhood? Already speeding into the past, baby.
Only, that was a lie. The biggest of all.
Because now, two decades later, I have realized something. Almost every major decision I have made in my life has depended on my latent nerdhood, from my English major to my novel writing. And every purchase backs it up. The deluxe, shiny black Scrabble board on its spinny little stand. The pressed-wood clipboard and cushy mechanical pencil whose sole job is to support our nightly New York Times crossword habit. The books spilling off the bedroom shelves. This laptop, on which I’ve written novels in my free time instead of shopping at the mall, loitering around the bike racks, slipping frogs into the principal’s pillowcase, or whatever it is the cool kids do at age thirty-five.
I am a nerd, a bookworm. Still. Always. Even when I hide it. I have not outgrown it, and I probably never will. And lately I’ve decided I don’t want to. Because the hobbies that earned me taunts when I was twelve make me happy now. I embrace them.
I will always read novels in public, and scribble in notebooks, and continue to not know the rules of football. I will be introverted and sometimes awkward, and see my tendency to lean against walls at parties as character research. I will be bookish. Someday I will probably wear glasses. I will never be graceful. I will never be cool. But I’ll take joy over those things any day. And that’s one thing that has changed.
Because you know what? We were right, that painful, long-ago evening. Nerddom is awesome. So are confidence and joy and doing what you love. The rest really doesn’t matter.
What about you? Are you anything like you were in high school? Most importantly, what kind of nerd are you?
Considering a career change? Need a job for a character in your next novel? No need to ask an actual person for his or her job description. Just watch movies. According to Hollywood, here’s what a variety of different jobs entail:
Look horrified while pulling ineffectively at the brakes.
Gaze sternly into camera.
Spray spittle and vitriol.
President of the United States:
Fly around in helicopters.
Make grave speeches.
Walk in step with perky young aide.
Research life-or-death stories spouse/editor/creepy anonymous voice on the phone told you not to touch.
Fall in love with source.
Surreptitiously print exposé up-and-coming reporter wrote, printed, handed to you, then asked you not to run. Declare it their best work yet.
Holler “Cut!” and, on occasion, “Action!”
Motel/Convenience Store Clerk:
Shrug in bored fashion when someone shoves a photo under your nose and asks, “Have you seen this person?”
Frown at witnesses.
Shout “Order!” and “Overruled!” at random intervals.
Cruise streets without picking anyone up.
Make witty banter while chasing another car or racing toward the airport.
Glance at passengers in rear-view mirror. Make bug eyes when you see what they’re doing back there.
Casually order multiple murders.
Examine well-buffed fingernails.