Don’t give up: Lessons for discouraged writers from the Tucson book festival

Progress on my novel has been slow lately. Who am I kidding? Progress on whatever fiction I’m writing is always slow. (Except during NaNoWriMo, when I’ve produced quantities of highly questionable prose at a breakneck pace.) I look around my critique group and my online writers’ groups, and my friends are finishing projects, getting agents interested in their novels, getting short stories published, having their plays produced… I’m thrilled for them but sometimes it makes me wonder if I belong in such exalted company.

And then – I went to the 2017 Tucson Festival of Books and I came away totally invigorated, inspired, and encouraged.

Shannon Messenger: 20 drafts

The author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities middle grade series and the Sky Fall young adult series spoke on 20 Ways Not to Write Your First Book. What writer could resist that session title? They had to turn people away at the door because the room was too full.

The published version of her first Keeper novel is the 20th draft she wrote. Here’s the publisher Simon and Schuster’s website for the series now:

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 8.10.17 AM

She didn’t even finish the first 10 drafts – she got bored, and realized the reader would, too. She finally figured out that working from a too-rigid outline was the problem; she was too quick to talk herself out of writing a scene so she could cut to one that was on the outline. (Her background is in screenwriting.) When she finished draft #11, she started working with a critique partner, who pointed out that her third-person narration needed to include Sophie’s internal monologue. The reader wants to know what she’s thinking and feeling so they can make an emotional connection and care about the character. With draft #13, she felt she was ready to start querying agents.

She landed a contract with her dream agent, who was looking for just this kind of book, but required revisions before she would start shopping the book. Shannon showed us the email – 4 pages, single spaced, 10-point font, including “the writing isn’t as strong in chapters 3-11 as it is in the rest of the book.” Little things like that. Holes in her world building. It took her a couple more drafts to satisfy the agent, and then the novel started going out to publishers.

The first editor who read it loved the book, but nobody else in the publishing house did, and they rejected it, as did 7 other publishers. All of them said the book was unmarketable: her main character was too mature for a middle grade series, but too young for YA, and some things in her book were considered “too JK Rowling”. She rewrote it to address the comments in the rejection letters. Her agent sent her a 13-page email this time: in her revisions, she’d managed to take out everything that made the book good.

She actually drafted her I-give-up email but didn’t send it. Instead, she burrowed back in and revised the novel yet again. This time, it sold, although it took from November to April for the agent to sell it. Draft #19 was to address 4 pages of feedback from the publisher’s editor, and #20 was minor polishing to get it ready for publication.

  • People think you either can write or you can’t – that it’s some magical talent you may or may not be born with. Not true! The torturous process taught her how to write a book. Time and perseverance is the difference between an aspiring writer and a published author.Her subsequent books didn’t take anywhere near 20 drafts to finish, although they did take at least two or three.
  • Do your homework on agents. Shannon worked in the film industry long enough to know that not every agent will be a good fit for you. Her agent was known to be an “editorial agent” who would give a lot of feedback, which was part of the appeal.
  • A good editor helps you write the book you thought you wrote the first time. You have to learn when to dig in your heels and when to make changes. For her, it comes down to “do I like the revised version?”
  • The first draft is dumping the sand in the sandbox, and the revisions are building the castle. 

Shannon Messenger’s 9th book is coming out in November 2017.

Charles Johnson: 6 years

The National Book Award winner for Middle Passage and former director of the creative writing program at the University of Washington – a man with a mindbendingly Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 9.09.49 AMimpressive list of accomplishments and awards (read his bio on Amazon) – spoke on The Art and Craft of Storytelling. Charles Johnson is my new hero, and I’m seriously considering following him around the country in a VW microbus. You can get a flavor of his conversation by listening to him in this recording from the Diane Rehm show.
Middle Passage 
took six years to write. He wrote the first draft in two years, barreling forward based on his outline, but the second idea that he needed to make it really work wasn’t there. The book is about a mutiny on a slave ship, and the second idea was that the crew also mutinied. It just took time to identify the “clean through line” for the book.

More recently, he wrote a novel, Dreamer, about Martin Luther King, starting with the idea that maybe King had a double to stand in for him, and maybe that’s who was assassinated. Before he even started to write, he spent an entire year reading everything he could about King, until he felt he knew him inside out and could write authentically.

Nathan Hill: 10 years

The author of the book I saw front and center in every bookstore I entered last year, The Nix, took 10 years to write it.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 9.35.19 AMHe turned the corner when he quit trying to write for publication and wrote his own truth, what he wanted to read. His book debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The author was on a panel about Satire and Dysfunction. My favorite comment in the session was a quote from Flannery O’Connor, who said that if you survived adolescence you have enough material for a lifetime of novels.

Keep on writing

I guess I was particularly attuned to this message at this year’s festival. In a panel discussion on Setting as Character, Dawn Tripp (author of Georgia) said she’d spent 5 years converting a 122-page poem into a novel that was universally rejected but taught her how to write; and Brunonia Barry (author of The Lace Reader) admitted that it wasn’t only research that made her latest book take 5 years to write.

I came home ready to dive back into the third major rewrite of my mystery novel. How about you? What are your tricks to keep you motivated when it seems like it’s taking forever? Please share them in the comments.

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Happiness

There’s something about being human that makes us less happy than we ought to be. I grew up on A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and knew a lot of the poems by heart when I was little. One little poem has bounced around in my head all these years:

The world is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Research has shown that the benefits of an optimistic outlook include flexible thinking, creativity, longevity, and better health. What better way to solve the problems of the world, then, than to cultivate happiness in ourselves?

According to Dr. Lamees Khorshid, about 40% of our happiness comes from our genetic preset, our predisposition towards being sunny or gloomy. That means over half can be influenced by “happiness habits.”

Happiness and Mindfulness

  • Cultivate positive emotions and work on countering the natural negativity bias (a survival trait when it was important to remember the lion attack). Rewire your brain through practice:
    • Choose to see problems as challenges and opportunities. This will increase your sense of control.
    • Reverse the tendency to blame others when they make mistakes – we tend to blame the environment when we mess up, but think other people cut us off in traffic on purpose. Let it go.
    • Change the channel – choose to forget negative things after they happen.
    • Think happy thoughts.
  • Practice gratitude.
    • Make a list of what you’re grateful for. Keep going past the obvious first few things.
    • Pick one of the people you’re grateful for and write a paragraph about why. Read it to them. It will be good for both of you.
  • Engage in life. Plan your time so you include the things that give you pleasure.
    • Figure out the things that take you to a flow state where you lose track of time, and plan your day to include those things.
    • Identify your time thieves and the things that replenish you. Schedule time for the things that nourish you. Things that give you short-term happiness, like watching tv, can detract from your long-term happiness.
  • Get adequate sleep. Without it, it’s harder to regulate your emotions. You function better and your memory’s better when you have good sleep. A lot of people have trouble sleeping. If you do:
    • Create a sleep climate about an hour before. Dim the lights, do relaxing things. Don’t eat for 2-3 hours before bed, don’t exercise for 4-5 hours before, and avoid stimulants after 2 p.m.
    • Keep a regular schedule, even on weekends.
    • Don’t have a tv, phone, etc. in the bedroom. Keep the lights off.
    • If you’ve been trying to get to sleep (or get back to sleep) for 30 minutes, get up and go do something boring. If you still can’t sleep, do it again. Don’t just lie there and worry about how you ought to be sleeping.
    • Naps reverse your sleep drive. If you have insomnia, skip the naps.
  • Movement and music. If you can only do one thing to improve your mental well-being, make it exercise. A brisk 10-minute walk is better for mild to moderate anxiety and depression than medication. If you have to choose between 30 minutes of sleep and 30 minutes of exercise, you’ll get more benefits from exercise.
    • Don’t schedule exercise for your most tired time of day.
    • Morning workouts give you a stress buffer that lasts through the day, and your schedule’s less likely to be interrupted by things that come up during the day – but if you aren’t a morning person, you won’t stick with it.
    • Make it a routine, not dependent on whether you feel like it. You still get the benefits of doing it even if you don’t want to.
  • Nutrition. A low glycemic diet is best for your mood; it keeps your blood sugar on an even keel. Frequent small meals are better than a couple of large ones. Avoid sugar, which lights up a part of your brain that makes you want more and more – this is even true of sugar you don’t taste that’s been added to non-sweet foods.
  • Manage stress. Identify your stress triggers so you can avoid them or prepare for them. Having a baseline level of energy and physical health (sleep, exercise, nutrition) will help. Use relaxation techniques like deep breathing and rely on your social supports and relationships. If your stress comes from all the unfinished tasks on your to-do list, start with the one thing on the list that will make the greatest difference today.
  • Practice mindfulness. We recycle 95% of the same thoughts every day. Mindfulness keeps us in the here and now. Use meditation, which will improve your ability to process emotions and be less reactive.
    • Non-judging awareness: notice your wandering thought, name it, and then come back to the here and now.
    • Beginner’s mind: don’t expect a life-changing epiphany every time you sit.
  • Take care of relationships. Other people can be a major source of both happiness and stress.
    • The 4 horsemen of broken relationships are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. This applies to friends  and coworkers just as much as it does to couples and families.
    • Check out the Seattle Love Lab for tons of information on this topic.
    • If you have gridlock problems that you can never fix – like your and your uncle’s opposite views on politics – it’s actually healthier not to talk about them.
    • Practice the art of the start: the way you introduce a topic predicts how the discussion will end.
    • Support the other person’s goals, hopes, and dreams. Ask their opinion. Look for moments of connection.
    • Learn the other person’s “love language” – what makes them feel loved. It could be gifts, acts of service (doing things for them), physical touch, words of affirmation, or quality time spent together. This works both ways: you can give the other person what they need, and you can also recognize the ways they’re trying to show you their feelings.
  • Find your purpose. Not having a purpose or mission is as bad for your health as smoking. When you’re doing things that align with your values, you’re happier. Figure out your own top values, and set goals that align with them. Dr. John Izzo studied end-of-life reflections and identified being true to yourself and following your heart and dreams as two important factors in a well-lived life.
  • Simplify. Forgive and let go, don’t make social comparisons, and spend on experiences instead of things.
  • Adopt a growth mindset. I wrote a bit about this a few weeks ago when I talked about Mike Robbins’ class. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
  • Use humor and laughter! Learn to appreciate the ironies in life. Bring funny stuff into your life – photos, videos, comics, comedy shows, that coffee mug showing nervous little dogs preparing for their day by making espresso. Laughter is contagious. It induces a relaxation response and it benefits the immune system.

Read more

In Dr. Lamees Khorshid‘s book, I Want to Be Happy, which provides a 21-day plan for forming happy habits. Her class at my office inspired this post.

In Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s books, like Wherever You Go, There You Are, to learn more about mindfulness and meditation, and to find video guides.

In Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project (and on her website & podcasts).

On Eric Barker’s blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree (he writes about this topic often!):