I was working on another YA fantasy novel, my third. I like it a lot. I like the characters, I like the setting, I like the plot. It’s fun. But I got an itch to try something else, something different, because I was having a tough time actually getting words out.
Then I saw the #1000wordsofsummer hashtag on Twitter and was like, hey, why not? So I have dumped out a thousand terrible words every day this week, bringing my new project to 6000 words so far.
It’s literary fiction. I’m writing in first person present tense. It has A Structure and A Theme. This is so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t see my comfort zone with a telescope. I like to write plot-driven third person past tense teenager books. I have no idea if this one will be better or worse or worth pursuing or what, but it’s neat that it’s going somewhere.
It’s also interesting that when I have a goal that is even a little bit external, I am far, far better at achieving it. 1000 words a day is my usual style, but now that there’s an official challenge, I am pulling a Nike and Just Doing It. Butt in chair, water bottle/teacup full, study music on, words out. I am writing in uncharted waters so I don’t care if it flows, if it’s good, if it’s readable, if it makes sense. I’m just dumping words. My plan is to double my intended word count for the first chapter so that hopefully I can pull out a few paragraphs to actually get this novel underway, that’s how bad I think it is right now. But I’m writing. And that’s the point.
I finally heard back from the queries I sent out for my finished novel, and they’re all form rejections. Every single one thanks me for considering them but my work isn’t a good fit and they wish me luck in finding representation.
My first novel at least got two requests for more pages, but this one seems dead in the water. I really like it, I’m really proud of it, and I think it’s good enough, but apparently the agents I’m querying disagree. It’s really hard to feel like the gulf between me and a book on the shelf is so vast. I understand why agents are the way they are, I really do, but I am really frustrated with the system. It seems broken to me.
It used to be that an author wrote a manuscript and sent it to a publisher. Then the publishers were swamped, so agents popped up. Agents took manuscripts and polished them a little and used snazzy buzzwords to get publishers interested, and publishers liked that, so they stopped taking submissions from authors and agents became the standard. But now it seems like getting an agent requires several manuscripts, going to conferences, having a substantial twitter presence, and I don’t know, a pact with the devil?
I write because I can’t stop. When I don’t write, I feel broken. But there are so, so many people who feel the same way – writing is what they have wanted to do their whole lives, writing is life, and they’re all frantically doing all the things I’m doing and more in order to get noticed and published. I can’t go to cons. I’m not that great at Twitter. I’m trying to get myself noticed through the slush pile and it’s just really depressing.
I don’t know what to do about it. Someone out there must be waiting for a book about a girl who’s really struggling to cope after an accident almost kills her dad and her sister. A book about a girl who really just loves the snow so much that she’s willing to sacrifice everything for it. A book about a girl with a really complicated relationship with her mother. A book about a girl who kissed her best friend but he doesn’t understand her love for either the snow or her family. Someone must want to read about a girl who tries her best but is just so overwhelmed when she has to act like the adult she really isn’t. But I don’t know how to find that person.
I’m going to give my book a little break for now. But I’ll try again. Because I really think this book is good enough.
A thing I’ve known about myself for a long time is that I am a limited resource.
I love to do lists, categorizing things, and thinking about process, so I’ve got a solid working theory on how to do stuff. A lot of people look at my life – real or social media – and are baffled by how much I do. Because it is a lot! I write entire novels and query them. (STILL no responses – am I fucking invisible?) I knit sweaters. I bake sourdough. I go to the gym and run. I sew, draw, garden, and cook. I read over a book a week. Plus I have three kids, a partner, a cat, and a house.
I’m an enneagram devotée: I’m a 7. Sevens are, depending on who you talk to, gourmands, hedonists, thrill-seekers, party animals, or shallow, flighty, pain avoiders. I really hate those descriptors. Sevens do struggle to feel their feelings, not because we’re selfish, but because the well is so deep we’re not sure we can come up. Sevens often have attachment trauma and seek new stimuli in order to survive, because if we tune into the pain we’ll know that we’ve been abandoned and nobody loves us. But if you are a seven’s best friend, you know you’re loved. I like to think of a well-integrated seven as what Madeleine L’Engle called a Namer; someone who brings people out and helps them know who they are.
Being a seven means that I have to do all this stuff. It is not optional for me. If I am not doing a ton of different things, I will drown.
But, as I said at the start, I’m still a limited resource. If I do too many things I collapse. So I have categories, and I make sure I always have something going on in each category to keep busy, but I oscillate between options to keep from burning out. Some things are more all-encompassing than others, like writing a book. If I’m writing, I can’t sew. I don’t keep the house very clean. But now, since I’ve put writing on the back burner for a while, all this space has opened up and I’m reading voraciously. I finished five books in a week. I’m doing a bit of sewing. But I know that even if I want to, I shouldn’t start baking, or take up calligraphy, or work on drawing, unless I want to give up the things that have moved into prominence. It’s a balancing act.
I’ve also noticed that Twitter ruins my creative brain. Just demolishes it. I’ve learned a lot on there, and I’ve curated my feed to be interesting and challenging, but it also means that it’s intense and stressful whenever stuff happens, and stuff is always happening. I want to know what’s going on and what new awful thing is going to kill us, but I am a more grounded person without it. I can’t figure out how to get that information without being derailed by anxiety. For now, I’m taking a breather, and spending some time recuperating through creativity.
Oh, and cleaning up barf, because parenting is a joy at all times. No matter how much I tweak my other columns, the mom category always asserts itself in invigorating ways.
I’m on a cozy mystery kick lately. My top three: Agatha Christie (the master), Miss Fisher, and Flavia de Luce. I like them because I can read them really quickly, and they tick one of my favourite boxes: “wasting” a big chunk of time on a book.
Since I learned to read I have loved to dive into a book like its a swimming pool and stay in it until I’m exhausted and shivering (i.e., the book is finished). I have several memories of doing this.
When I was about 11, I spent an entire rainy afternoon curled up in a wing chair in the living room reading A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet back to back, over and over. I read them each 3 times.
I challenged myself to read Narnia in three days (did it) and Lord of the Rings in the same (it took four, because my mom made me do stuff, ugh).
When the seventh Harry Potter book came out, I stood in line to get it at midnight, then read it until it was finished (at 6am).
I often go on Terry Pratchett benders and reread five or six of them in a row.
I’ve had this practice written off as being “just easy books” and not “real” reading – i.e., non-fiction or intensity books. That’s really annoying to me. I read a lot of meaty stuff, too, but I’m a sensitive flower and I like having a good immersive book available so I can check out sometimes. Lots of people have talked about the value of escapism in books, so I don’t need to cite a bunch of reasons, but I do want to say that that attitude persists and it’s annoying.
I will always love a book that feels like cozy jammies. I also love books that move me, change me, teach me, and shock me; I’ve learned so much from books, and I have a long list of “serious” books that I’ve found invaluable in shaking my privileged, sheltered self. But it’s really hard not to feel like I should read and write something serious, when it’s pretty clear that I gravitate towards the cozy end of the literary spectrum.
Maybe one day I’ll write a serious book. For now, swimming pool/pyjama/cozy stories it is.
I’m on hiatus from novel-writing these days. I’m struggling a lot with the system of publishing; it seems like there are so many people trying to get in that there is no room for people like me with no connections and no previous distinction. I write okay short stories but not award-winning ones, so I can’t really pad my query with accomplishments. And they don’t care that I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil, and that this is really important to me, and that I feel like I have so many stories I want to tell. There are hundreds of people like me. And it’s discouraging.
So rather than follow the standard advice of “keep writing! It takes time!” I have just stopped.
It’s been interesting. I feel at loose ends a lot of the time. I keep having ideas bubble up, and I’m not really doing anything with them. I’m just letting them hang out. Maybe I’ll do something with them at some point.
I feel like I’m missing something. Should I just give up on writing since we’re probably not far from the climate wars ravaging the earth, or some catastrophe wiping out NYC and thus most of the publishing industry? What’s the point of writing fiction for kids if we’re all going to die slowly by our own idiotic desire to avoid carbon taxes and wealth redistribution? Or should I try to self-publish? Or keep banging my head against the locked doors of the publishing industry? I could release my books as audiobooks via podcast, or as a serial on my blog. I could just print a copy of my book to have on my shelf and call it a day.
I keep going back to my favourite mantra, only move into available space. It hasn’t let me down; forcing something will just break it. Physically, emotionally, mentally, life-wise; if there is space for my hard work to make a difference, I should move towards that. And publishing is giving me absolutely no available space. So here I am. And that’s okay.
I drove down Academy in our ready-for-baby four-door beige sedan listening to Peter Gabriel as loud as I could stand it, crying. I thought, this will be the last time I can do this. Ever.
I remember laughing when the tall ristretto hazelnut latte kicked in and we could see it kick in for the baby, too, because I was 24 hours into my “labour” and hooked up to the fetal monitors and the heart rate jumped 10 beats per minute across all the accels and decels.
I remember the tornado of hormones and exhaustion when the baby wouldn’t sleep because she was hungry, so hungry, and tired, and I was hungry and tired and gross and overwhelmed, except I’m retconning that, because what I actually remember is feeling that horrible mix of I will die if this goes on and this is so desperately important to me that I will die if it does not work. It was not me who called my aunt to come help us overnight, because I couldn’t. I was just dying.
All three births were moments of my life that have a pin stuck in them; they have been highlighted in neon and stand out from the mundane. They are the midpoint of the boring awfulness of gestation and the boring desperation of sleep-poop-eat.
I take a moment on my children’s birthdays to remember how I felt, on those highlighted days; the over-the-top drama of the events around the first one, the silent, abject horror that I was not going to survive the second, the grim knowledge that I only had one chance to get through the third.
I used to write a mommy blog. I wrote it for myself, and for my parents, but also because I secretly hoped to become a little bit internet famous. Then I realized that monetizing children is pretty gross and I deleted the whole thing. But I miss writing about parenting, and motherhood, because those things are a part of me. I am a far, far better mother because I read other people’s oversharing about their kids.
I still don’t think it’s okay to exploit my children’s lives for clicks. But I do find it valuable to document my life online, because writing for a public lens (even though no one reads this blog) changes my tone. It’s not the same as my journal, which is mostly yelling and swears. I want to write more about being a mother, so I’m going to.
Writing is how I remember what matters. And being a mother matters to me. My children matter to me. So I write.
I’ve received my first rejection for this novel! My goal is to try and think of it as an important part of the process, rather than a discouraging slap to the face. It’s so difficult, because in order to do any of this – write a novel, revise it, and query it – I have to live with the astronomical hope that someone will read my query and think “that sounds so great! I want more!” and what an audacious, ridiculous thing to think! And yet, here I am. Putting my book baby in the hands of other people to discard at will.
I’m trying to stay distracted by doing too many other things, as usual. My Shitty First Draft of my next novel is crapping along merrily. I just finished performing Verdi’s Requiem in a choir of 150 with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and that was a pretty magnificent experience. I’m going to the gym, baking lots of bread and other carbs to make up for going to the gym, and working, parenting, folding laundry, and snuggling the cat. I’ve slumped a bit in reading since I finished my Lord of the Rings reread, but my son is really into the Moomintroll books, so that is high on the priorities list. I’m knitting a sweater. So you know, just a few things to distract me.
The polar vortex has finally buggered off, and with any luck Winnipeg will thaw out soon. It’ll be a muddy, slushy mess for a while, but soon I can drink tea on the deck and then I’ll be in heaven, even if I do get dozens more rejection letters. Onwards!
I don’t have any query news. Poor Imogen is languishing, waiting to hear back from various people about how she’s “not a great fit” or whatever.
But I do have other news: I’ve started another novel! I’m quite excited about it. The feel for this one is summer, beachy, and gay af. Very different from Imogen’s wintery, snowy, angsty family drama. My main character is named Astrid and she has a pet raven. She still hears from her dead grandmother sometimes, but the news isn’t good. Intrigued? So am I!
Now that I’m starting my third real novel (yikes), I have a bit of a sense of my process. I come up with a character first, and let her percolate. (I can guarantee that my MC is never gonna be a dude. I like girls too much.) Then I develop a feeling – that includes a setting, my character, her close people, and a sense of how I want the book to feel. I like to make a mood board and a playlist for it at this point to help reinforce the feeling. Then a hook will pop into my head – a first line, or whatever challenge will set the tone in the first chapter, and I get that down. Then I let that sit until the conflict of the book makes itself known. After that, I can start writing.
I’ve tried outlining and the snowflake method, but I work a lot better when I work off my feeling and more or less pants it, developing my outline as I go. I take a lot of notes, but in general I can craft a novel that follows the three-act rules without needing the structure worked out ahead of time. My books tell themselves, and a big part of my process is making the space for the story to come forth. If I’m working too hard or stuck, that means I lost the thread and I have to delete.
So here I go again; I’ve got my Scrivener doc formatted properly, I’ve got my playlist, I’ve got my characters. Astrid has a pet raven and a girlfriend and a bitchy sister and a nemesis. Ariana Grande and Roxy’s aesthetic are basically where I’m starting. Stay tuned!
Me, working on my query letter: “Titles Are Stupid,” a 66,000 word novel, is about a girl who loves the winter even though it tries to kill her.— Annemarie Plenert (@amtastical) January 15, 2019
I’m doing it. I’m prepping my finished novel for the querying process.
Querying is exciting and awful; there’s so much waiting, so much rejection, so much hope. People have written so much about how, why, what it feels like, all of that, so I’m just adding to the noise, but I still want to write about what it’s like for me.
I queried my last novel for about six months before the constant rejections overwhelmed me, and my nagging suspicions that despite two years of hard work, it just wasn’t a good enough novel to publish. I stand by that choice. There’s a chance I’ll one day salvage my characters and some of the neat plot pieces, and I do love the sentient house I developed, but that book is over. I got a couple of requests for chapters, and that was enough to encourage me not to give up, so I put all my energy into this book.
This one is much better, but I still worry it isn’t good enough. Writing a novel is a difficult job; I have to keep all the threads in my mind so I can bring them all together, I have to make sure the characters are themselves, I have to make the plot believable but intense enough to keep the reader interested, I want it to be relevant but I worry that I’m writing from a white cis woman’s perspective that doesn’t have the toolbox to write the types of stories I want. It’s a mess of mentally exhausting, emotionally wringing, ego-driven yet self-flagellating work wrapped up into, in my case, a sixty-six thousand word novel about a seventeen-year-old who just really wants to spend her whole life playing in the snow.
Writing the actual query letter is simple, in terms of the instructions: introduce your novel by title, genre, word count, and one line summary. Then expand that summary into a couple of paragraphs that mimic the style of the jacket description, so make it interesting but don’t give it away. The last paragraph is an introduction of you, the author. Easy peasy! Except that in my description I used the exact same words in the exact same sentence structure three times. I can’t figure out how to introduce characters without monstrous sentences containing fifteen commas. I don’t know which plot points are the ones I should use to sell the book and which ones I should keep for the synopsis and actual text, assuming an agent asks me for them.
That is about how it’s going. But in spite of all of it, as I keep saying over and over, I can’t give up. I love my book and I want to see if other people love it, too. So rejection process: here I come!
When I am writing a draft of a novel, I aim to write one thousand words a day. Sometimes it is drudgery and I have to be very firm with myself to keep my eyes on my document and my ass in the chair, and some days the words come flying out of my mind. When I’m in my groove, it takes about an hour. It’s an achievable goal that allows me to get a draft finished in a reasonable time, even if I have bad days or take breaks. Having a goal keeps me focused and predictable and makes for what I consider to be quality writing.
Sometimes I get sidetracked by other people who write for four hours a day, or have daily goals of three thousand words. Why can’t I do that, I wonder? And maybe I’ve already done my writing time and my words are out, but I try to go back to my manuscript. Inevitably, I fail. My goal works for my brain and my life, and comparison, as in the adage, is ruinous.
Goals are kind of A Thing; there are planners and resources and many, many books on setting goals, being more productive, getting more done, optimizing your workflow, stuff like that. It appeals to me a great deal; I am One Of Those Bujo People and I love it so much, and I’m reasonably well versed in Get To Done and LEAN and systems like that. But they’re dangerous, in my opinion, because they, like our public education system, aren’t designed for humanity. They’re designed for factories.
A lot of the components that still exist in school are throwbacks to the child labour regulations of the Industrial Revolution, when children were sent to school instead of factories at age six, but they were still expected to end up working in those factories a few years later. Regimented classes, school bells, and set eating times are all meant to train children to be good workers, not for good education or joy-filled living. And factories are all about productivity and efficiency, or churning out as much product as possible to earn more money for the company while paying as little as possible in hourly wages.
So while I like efficiency and productivity because I have lots of things to get done in a day, and I don’t want to spent a ton of time on the boring tasks that keep me from what I really like to do, I strongly believe that it is a razor-thin line between freeing up my time to do what I enjoy and “optimizing” literally everything in my life.
Example time: Goodreads. I use it to track the books I read, and I set a reading challenge every year. It’s usually 52 books, which is one book per week. That is a reasonable goal that means that I am always in the middle of a book, reading regularly, and keeping track of what I read. I like having a place to list the books I want to read and the ones I have read, where I can leave myself a couple of sentences about how I felt about the book, and where I can see what other people have thought of the books I’m interested in. But the problem is that my TBR list is nearly as long as my already-read list, and it makes me anxious that I’ll never get to them all, and that I have to read in order to get to them, and I need to optimize my reading time. I also have to stay on track with my goal of reading 52 books. I have to keep up, keep going, never stop. This slowly strips the joy of reading away from me. When I have so many books to read, my pile of purchased yet unread books towers beside me and my library holds feel like a work deadline rather than a joyful gift.
The other example is Ravelry. For some harebrained reason I decided I needed to knit a sweater between January 14 and 31, and I could have done it, except that by the time I had the body finished, I hated it. I hated the knitting process because again, one of my favourite pastimes had been reduced to efficiency, and then I didn’t even like the product. And then, to cap off the shit sundae, I twigged my tendinitis in both wrists and now I can’t knit for a while until it subsides. The reason I was knitting so fast was because I wanted to get to the next project. What kind of nonsense is that? I knit for the joy of the process, and it’s perfectly fine to finish two sweaters and a few socks per year. No one is going to give me a raise or a prize or some sort of national recognition for knitting a sweater in two weeks.
Turning my hobbies into productivity mules ruins them. But it’s everywhere. Ravelry has annual goals now, and the Goodreads Choice Awards makes me feel bad for not reading more of the current releases when I have a backlog of older books that are probably much more to my liking.
I like setting goals. I like getting things done and crossing off items from my to-do list. I love reading a lot and I love knitting every day, and having a library in the basement and enough wool sweaters to sustain me through this polar vortex garbage. I don’t like feeling bad because I haven’t read enough or knitted enough or written enough. I don’t like feeling like a failure when there are gaps in my habit tracker. Efficiency and productivity go too far when I can no longer find joy in the things I do for fun.
I’m going to stick with my thousand words a day writing goal. It works for me. But it’s not going to change; I’m not going to optimize it. I’m not going to optimize my knitting and reading. My goal is a joy-filled life, and that means taking the time to find that joy as I live.