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Lessons From Magic Bird Book, Part 4: Trust The People You’ve Chosen To Trust With Your Work

It sounds obvious. It’s not.

For most of us (not all) gone are the days when writing happens in a bubble, a lone person at a typewriter or keyboard or notepad. We have friends near and far, local critique groups and online crit partners who get our chapters in email. Plus agents and editors, some of whom might be our agents and editors, others who hold those jobs but are just friends to us. It’s easier to be connected now, and easy to share.

Obviously, it’s important to choose who you want to share with. Showing a piece of writing to someone can be scary, even if you love it. Sometimes especially if you love it.

With all the other challenges I faced with Magic Bird Book that I’ve already detailed, it was a long time before I felt comfortable showing people any of it. To date, only four people in the world have the full manuscript, a significant drop on the number of people who read CODA for me, chapter by chapter, as it was being written. When Magic Bird Book finally started to click, there was a delicious terror in the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, it was really good. And a not-so-delicious terror that I was totally wrong about that.

The only way to get a sense was–if you’ll forgive me for this–to set the baby bird free. I started to show people chapters. Not many people, and not many chapters. They offered advice and criticism, enthusiasm and support. Enough to help me keep going.

When I finished what was, on the whole, the second draft, it felt book-shaped enough to give my agent and one of my critique partners the full, everything beyond the chapters they’d already seen. I held my breath. Brooks, with my knowledge, shared it with someone else whose opinion I value enormously. I held my breath some more.

I was terrified. Not so much terrified that it was a bad book, but terrified that I was wrong in thinking it was a good one. That I’d well and truly lost perspective on it, lost my eye for my own work. A bad book is fixable or trunkable. Loss of judgment is a much trickier demon to face.

I don’t think I need to elaborate any more on my pride in this book and that was never the point of these posts, so I’ll only say that, thankfully–according to people I trust–I haven’t lost my judgment. It’s not perfect, but that’s okay for now, and more importantly, that’s part of the reason I work with the people I do: because I trust them to tell me that. Relationships with critique partners, agents, editors, and friends who read my manuscripts don’t work if I don’t believe them when they tell me something needs to be fixed. They also don’t work if I don’t believe them when they tell me something is great.

Doubt happens. Fear is, or can be, a fantastic tool if I let it fire me up but not burn me. Confidence and a thick skin are both necessary in this business. But if the people who read my work–by my own choice–tell me there’s a problem and I think they’re idiots, THAT is a problem. If they tell me something’s awesome and I still think they’re idiots, that’s a problem, too. Those relationships can’t work, and if I felt that way, my attitude would probably need a hefty smack with the clue-by-four.

I’m lucky to work with an agent whose vision and opinions I trust implicitly, critique partners with breathtaking talent, an editor (for CODA and CHORUS, at least) who gets me in an amazing way, and friends who aren’t afraid to tell me hard truths about my books. If there’s one thing I’ve never appreciated more than I have while writing Magic Bird Book, it’s the value of those relationships.

At the time this goes live on the blog, National Novel Writing Month will be drawing to a close. I have no idea yet how “well” I did or whether the draft I wind up with resembles the plot sculpture I have in my head at the time of writing this post. I don’t know if I lost the story and found it again, or if Third Book Syndrome is a thing, or if it had totally different needs than CODA and Magic Bird Book. We’ll see. A lot of you will have participated in NaNo, some of you might have the first full draft of a book you’ve ever written. Congratulations, seriously. That’s an awesome thing and you should be really freaking proud. If you read this whole series, I hope even one sentence of it was of some use to you. But if I could wish one thing on everyone who has just finished the first draft of first novel, it’s what I talk about in this post specifically. Don’t settle. Choose to work with people–from friends to agents to critique partners to editors–whose opinions matter to you. There are times for doubt and modesty and confidence and terror, and there are times to throw those things out the window and believe the people to whom you’ve entrusted your work, maybe even your career.

With that, Lessons From Magic Bird Book are over, school is out (for now) for Emma. Back to normal posts about music and cake and whatever I decide to rant about when the mood strikes. Thanks for reading.

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Posted by on November 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Lessons From Magic Bird Book, Part 3: Finding The Story

Disclaimer: I use “you” in this post a lot because it just came out that way. I hope it’s clear that I’m really talking about my own experiences.

This is a more technical post than the others in this series, more about the nuts and bolts of writing itself. (The way I phrased that is funny to me because of what Magic Bird Book is, but more on that another time.)

The Idea, as bestowed by the aforementioned Book Fairies, is something like a block of marble. A big, solid thing, with interesting veins of plot running through it, but it’s unwieldy, heavy, with sharp corners. Somewhere in there is a polished, refined story, and it’s your job to find it.

But the work doesn’t end there. You chip away at the stone, discarding what shouldn’t be there, and eventually you wind up with a shape. This isn’t the book. This is the outline. When you “pants” a book (as I did with CODA), the sculpture is a vague impression, obvious only to you what it’s supposed to be. When you plot one out down to the last detail, (as I eventually had to do with #magicbirdbook) it’s clear and crisp.

Now, you paint a picture of the sculpture, changing the details you didn’t get right. The final work bears a resemblance (probably) to what you chipped from the block of stone, but it’s not a photograph, more of an impressionist rendition. The story is there, more or less as it’s always been, but you took some liberties when inspiration hit and deviated from the original shape.

Sometime during the writing of MBB, a realization struck that there’s more of a connection between all the technical aspects of a novel than I’d ever really noticed before. Look at any writing resource online, and there will be talk about finding the right narrative voice, the right tense, etc. Arguments for and against third or first (and almost always against second), for and against past and present. Which ones you use will depend on a lot of factors: personal style and preference, the genre and target age group, what “feels” right for the book, and probably others.

The “news to me” part came when I thought about how I’d written CODA (first person, present tense) and MBB (third, past) and that the latter was, as I’ve said, more difficult. Not because I find third more difficult–if anything, I’ve written more in third person than I have in first, and in some ways I prefer it. But making that choice changes how you look at the block of marble and whether you chip it into a vague shape or a precise one. Being embedded in a character’s head (first person) allows you to let the story unfold as the character sees it, so it’s okay to dive in with just a rough idea of where you’re going. Really, in CODA, I just followed Anthem around and wrote down what happened. Occasionally I nudged him in the direction I needed him to go, but more than once he insisted on taking turns I objected to but which turned out to be better for the story. I think–and I accept I might be wrong here–it might be easier to pants a novel that way, at least for me. Being more removed from your characters (third person) means you have to make more of the story decisions. I always had to be more aware of what was going on across the room–or across the city–in MBB, even if its main character was oblivious. That gave me more balls to juggle, more decisions to make, less reliance on my characters to make them for me.

Of course, now, I’ll say the same thing other resources say: there are pros and cons to each way of doing it. I’m pretty sure the book I begin in November will be different still, and Lessons from Imp might happen at some point. (Maybe not.) Third person was absolutely the right choice for MBB, but it meant taking a breath and doing something scary–trusting myself as much as I trust my characters to make the right decisions. (For the plot, anyway. For themselves, they make the wrong decisions all the time.) I started out with the block of marble, and chipped it into an approximate shape because that worked before. It didn’t work this time because of the voice I chose, and only started to when I went back and polished the outline-sculpture into something more exact.

So, this lesson was to trust myself as a storyteller to find the story itself. And to follow that Neil Gaiman commandment: Make good art.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Lessons From Magic Bird Book, Part 2: Second Book Syndrome Is A Real Thing

I think we’ve all heard of it, in relation to books and follow-ups to incredible debut albums from promising musicians and movie sequels–that fear that the second just won’t be as good as the first. The magic will be gone, the spark extinguished. Not everyone gets it (I say this because I know people who didn’t) but it does exist. An author friend once told me it nearly destroyed him–but a mutual friend of ours told me his second book (which isn’t out yet) is the best thing he’s ever written.

For a lot of us, writing the second book comes at an interesting time; we have an agent, maybe even a book deal. And for the first time, we’re writing while we know someone is going to see it. Agents, editors, hopefully the public someday. We’ve gotten a glimpse into how the publishing machine works and we watch every word we type drift down the conveyor belt into an intricate system of cogs and wheels and terrifying gadgets covered in pointy things.

CODA was the first book I completed, the first I queried. I got an agent, it got a book deal. I was lucky and I knew it. And then the lump rose in my throat.

What if I couldn’t do it again? Was I that dreaded cliche, the one-trick pony? Would my agent regret signing me? Would I slink away into the darkness with a single book under my belt, not even remembered as that person who couldn’t write a second book, but simply forgotten?

And then I realized the answer would always be a resounding YES if I didn’t try to do it again. Still, those doubts followed me for months. They made my fingers freeze in the middle of words and kept me awake. They made me tear up huge chunks of Magic Bird Book and rewrite them, throwing out tens of thousands of words and starting again even though writing more was mostly the last thing in the world I felt like doing.

Like a a lot of people, it’s easier for me to give advice than to take it. Sometimes, I don’t even know I need that advice until someone else asks me for it. Well into the writing of Magic Bird Book–in fact, as it was nearing completion–I was speaking to an author friend who worried whether it was “wrong” to think that they could do better than their debut, a book which has rightly received a huge amount of praise.

I said it wasn’t obnoxious, it is our job to think that. If we think we’ve already done the best we’re ever going to do, what’s the point in ever writing another word?

And then I looked again at Magic Bird Book, and I started to fight harder than ever for it. I was going to finish this book if it killed me, and I was going to make it great if it killed me twice. Sacrificing for art and all that, you know.

I had an interesting bonus layer to the knowledge that an agent was going to read Magic Bird Book–it wasn’t going to be the agent who signed me for CODA. The pressure I felt to make my new agent feel justified in having taken me on just after CODA sold was intense. This past summer, after I’d showed him several chapters, I saw him in New York and confessed this.

“Hey,” he said, laughing. “You have no idea how much pressure I was under to like it.”

He was right. I didn’t have any idea. Selfishly, I’d never considered that. And strangely, that might be the most helpful thing he’s ever said to me.

Publishing can be a confusing and unpredictable business. As authors, especially new ones, there’s really not a lot we get to control. But we do get to control the writing. For that time–however long it is–that we’re drafting a new book, it’s ours. The fear might be there, and it’s definitely real, but the book belongs only to us. I know now that I have to believe there are an infinite number of rabbits in the proverbial hat, and I had to write a first book if I wanted to write a second, and a second if I wanted to write a third. Defeating Second Book Syndrome can only be done by finishing the story, and it’s like defeating Bowser in Mario. Congratulations, you just leveled up at BOOK.

I also know that fear is my friend. Call it artistic temperament or anything else you want, but most writers (and other artists) are always going to worry they can’t do it again, whatever “it” is. This is a GOOD THING. Knowing you can do better isn’t obnoxious: believing that you’re already perfect IS. I don’t think I want to read books by people who don’t believe they need beta readers and critique partners and editors, that everything they write is already perfection.

The fear that I can’t be great again is the best inspiration I have to try to be great again. It makes me look at every word, every sentence, every character, every conflict, and really think about whether I’ve done the right thing for the book.

Bye, Second Book Syndrome. I won’t miss you, but I’m glad I had you. If I can kick you to the curb, I can do anything.

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Lessons From Magic Bird Book, Part 1: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong

Somewhere, hidden in a tree like Keebler Elves, or in a mountain cave, or second to the right and straight on till morning (that one for you, Heidi), there exist the Book Fairies. In a big, leather-bound tome, they look up what you’ve done before and how you did it, what you think you know about writing books and what you’ve learned so far. They point at these entries. They laugh. And amongst themselves, they whisper, “Sucker. She is never going to know what hit her.”

And then they bestow upon you The Idea.

The Idea for #magicbirdbook (I really need to reveal the title sometime, don’t I?) came to me in March of this year. March was a pretty tumultuous time for me. I’d just switched agents/agencies, was working on my first round of edits after my very first revision letter from an editor ever, and the (then) New Agent, the marvelous Brooks, was definitely expecting me to produce, at some point, a manuscript for him. I thought I knew what it was going to be. I thought it was going to be the project I set aside to work on CODA.

And they say lightning doesn’t strike twice.

It started as a random conversation about an interesting animated short film. It turned into an idea that wouldn’t let me go. Those Book Fairies are persistent, and they pack a mean punch.

I should say, at this point, that I didn’t make it easy on myself. CODA is a sci-fi/cyberpunk novel written in first person, present tense, for teenagers, and set two hundred years in the future. Magic Bird Book, when it spoke to me, was immediately a steampunk fairy tale, written in third person, past tense, for a middle-grade audience, and is set over a hundred years ago.

The voices in my head, as I went back and forth between writing MBB and editing CODA, were very confused. But, okay, I was happy to be writing something different. SO different.

I just didn’t expect it to be so much harder.

I’ll delve into more of the reasons why it was so difficult in future posts in this series, and for this one I’ll stick with this: I got lucky with CODA, in a thousand ways, but most of all in how easy it was to write. I’ve said before that parts of that book seemed to write themselves while I was sleeping, and it’s true. The whole thing flowed out of me and there were very few points at which I felt like I was stuck. Even when I was, a shower (prime thinking spot) or a walk usually fixed me up. I didn’t outline. I didn’t plan. I vaguely knew a couple of key events and I knew the ending. No idea what route I was going to take, but I knew I was going to get there. I was happy to pants my way through 80,000 words of fun.

There are endless resources in the writing community that will tell you to experiment when writing a book you feel isn’t working. Change the tense. Change the voice. Change where you write.

I had to change everything. The only two things CODA and Magic Bird Book have in common are that I wrote them in Scrivener and I wrote them while listening to music–but not the same music. MBB didn’t flow until I sat down and outlined it. I had to do massive amounts of research of kinds I didn’t need to do with CODA. I had to work out every. Single. Detail. (I got some of them wrong, but that’s an issue for Editing Time.) I had to change the kind of notebook I used. I changed my pen.

Eventually, something clicked. I rewrote and it flowed. I put characters in different situations and they worked. Magic Bird Book became book-shaped and not just a collection of random words. It became something I love.

Now, I know for next time (which, as I type up this post first scribbled in a notebook, starts in TWO DAYS) that every book has different needs. You can’t grow a rose and a cactus with the same amounts of light and water and the same kind of soil. Both might be prickly, but the similarities end there. I’ll be less afraid to admit when things aren’t working, and to try everything I can think of to make it work. Because something will bloom, and it will be beautiful.

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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A November Blog Series

Anyone who saw me collapse, breathless, elated, and half-dead into Twitter a few weeks ago–or read Book Math–knows that I finished my second book in October. Affectionally hashtagged as #magicbirdbook, it was slightly more privately known as The Book That Killed Me.

It was VERY difficult to write, and there were a lot of reasons for that, reasons which I’m going to explore in a series of posts throughout November. They’re already scheduled to go up, because I’m spending November participating in NaNoWriMo and probably won’t have a lot of time to sit down and write blog posts.

In hindsight, it’s probably better–when not calling it Magic Bird Book or using the actual title only a handful of people know so far–to call it The Book That Schooled Me. I got owned, hard. The act of writing any book is, I think, a learning experience, and this one taught me some very brutal lessons. Lessons I needed to learn, or re-learn in some cases. Lessons that will (already have?) made me a better author and more prepared for a career as one.

The first Lesson from Magic Bird Book will go up next Thursday, November 8th, then each following Thursday throughout the month. In the meantime, CODA has a cover and you can enter to win an ARC!

~Em

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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How the Olympics slapped me with the wet suck-it-up fish

The Olympics are on! Drama! Big gold medals! Sweaty, muscly men in tight clothes!

Er.

The Olympics are supposed to be inspirational. It’s part of their purpose, along with deciding who the best sportspeople in the world are. Honestly, I feel like if you make it that far, you’re the best anyway, regardless of what a few points or hundredths of a second say, but that’s not my point here. It occurred to me the other day that I personally have never been inspired by the Olympics, but that realization came when, all of a sudden, I was. Or, more accurately, I was slapped in the face with the Soggy Trout of Truth.

I’ve been watching this year with a different kind of interest than I ever have before. I’m the first to admit that I have no concept of what these athletes put themselves through physically, since my life goals require me to sit at a computer for long stretches, but I know what it’s like to want to be great at a specific thing. A thing that requires training and hard work and mental strength, if not any muscles besides the ones that keep me upright and typing. So it’s through that eye that I’ve admired and cheered and drooled over the muscles.

There are only a few sports I’m really interested in. I don’t do any of them because they involve wearing something other than yoga pants, but put them on TV or a live feed online and I’ll sit there, mouth open, breath held, sometimes with my eyes scrunched shut because I just can’t watch. It’s a good look, let me tell you. One of these has long been track cycling, because I’ve always been a speed demon and these people can get up to cheetah speeds in under ten seconds from a standing start. That shizz is EXCITING, yo.

So there I was, glued to the scratch race of the men’s Omnium, which is basically the track cycling version of a heptathlon, except there are six elements. The scratch race is one of the longer ones, which makes it especially fun because it’s sort of impossible to pick the winner. Unlike some of the other races which have only one or two cyclists on the track, everyone and their dog (ok, no dogs) gets in on a scratch race, so you have a bunch of people jockeying for position on a steeply banked, polished wood surface while going at frightening speeds.

 
You might guess where I’m going with this.

 
The Danish guy who went on to win the Omnium crashed, and he was damn lucky not to take at least two other riders out with him. He slid down the bank to the infield, leaving a metric ton of uniform AND HIS SKIN on the track on his way, and by the time he came to a stop at his coach’s feet, he was looking for a spare bike to get back in the race. That is BAD. ASS. Not only did he get back in, he won. As in, beat-everyone-to-the-finish-line-eat-my-dust-suckers WON. Later, he said the crash gave him the adrenaline boost he needed to win the race and the event. I say again, BAD. ASS.

So, yeah. This is basically the point at which Emma starts to wonder why she complains about anything, ever.

Sometime, likely while I’m on a manuscript-completion high, a longer post will come about the process of writing my current book, and how different it’s been to writing CODA, but for now, CODA was kind of the surprise win coming from the back of the pack, and when the race ended I felt like it had been almost frighteningly easy. Huge chunks of that book seemed to write themselves while I slept. Maybe I had a helpful house elf. Maybe I was inspired. Maybe there was just no pressure. Maybe it was easier. Probably it was a combination of all of those except the house elf, which is a shame but that’s a rant for another day.

Not so, with what has come to be known as Magical Bird Book, except by people who know the actual title. “Writing is hard,” I whine when it doesn’t go my way. There are sections of this book I’ve rewritten at least a dozen times since I began it in March. Maybe more. I’ve completely reworked the beginning three times. “It’s not right,” I complain to the friend who, in a move that will one day get her canonized, puts up with me when I get like that. “Help!” I say to the Patient Agent, and lucky for me he does. If CODA was a sprint in an indoor Velodrome, fast, furious, and slick, Magical Bird Book is the Tour de France, harsh and almost unending and open to the elements.

Writing IS hard, sometimes it really doesn’t go right, and sometimes you need your coach to hand you a new bike. But metaphorical bleeding isn’t a reason to bitch, or give up. It’s a reason to keep going, and that reminder came at a great time for me.

So I didn’t – and won’t – stop. Yesterday, I reworked a section that has had me beating my head against the wall for weeks. I love it now. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. I can look at it now and say “you’re good, and I can make something great from you” and so I love it in that way it’s only possible to love imperfect things–for their potential. Today, I’m excited to get back to work, even if I know it still might not all be easy from now on. Half naked and skinless, finish the damn race. And win. Be a badass.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Genius writing advice, or why my friend B is brilliant

Text conversation:

Me: This page is very white and blank. *glares at it*

B: Quick! Type your favorite word on it.

Me: *does*

B: See?  You can’t glare at your favorite word.

 

And she’s right.  And the page isn’t blank anymore.  And I can probably just do a “Find/Delete” on all instances of “defenestration” before I call this manuscript done.

The no-longer-blank page now has 200 words it didn’t have 20 minutes ago.  Only one of them refers to throwing someone out of a window.

 

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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