Tuesday, November 10, 2009

You Never Stop Being You

I was chatting with a friend yesterday (her name starts with a K and rhymes with Beersten), and something really interesting came up between the jokes about boys in skinny jeans (Seriously, teen boys, STOPthisyoulooklikeGIRLS!) and book brainstorming (I finally have cute orange VW van guy's name! wee!).

Basically, you never stop being you.

If you haven't noticed, many of my friends have been seeing some serious success as of late. Book deals. Agents. Getting bumped up a year. Blurbs. Visits to New York. It's totally crazy stuff—stuff that many an author dreams about on an hourly basis. I am in awe of it all, that I even have any part in it. I feel lucky and blessed and sometimes even undeserving.

I think writers sometimes imagine that when they get insert-major-accomplishment-here they'll finally stop worrying. Or finally be happy. Or change the way they view their work. Or whatever. As if getting an agent or publisher or hitting the bestseller lists or receiving awards will fix whatever they want fixed.

I know I thought that at one point. My dreams turned into phantoms, bringing me more pain than anything else. Sometimes Wanting can be poison, and it taints every accomplishment because nothing is ever enough. Wanting is not just a writer thing; it's a human thing. Unchecked Wanting can be dangerous because it gives you this illusion that Getting will make things better. And in the mean time, you withhold your own happiness for no good reason.

But here's the thing—my friends' successes have not changed how they act or feel. Getting an agent didn't transform them all into happy, perfect writers. Getting book deals didn't stop them from worrying about the quality of their work. In fact, in some ways there is even more pressure to deliver perfection.

I'm not saying all these accomplishments mean nothing. Please don't think that. And I'm definitely not saying that my friends are unhappy—because they are the funnest, most grateful, happy people I know. They're, like, the Positive Squad, fighting the evils of negativity in a town near you.

I guess I'm just saying they were like that before, too. Of course we've all had our low points and struggles—hard times are unavoidable. But it's all about your attitude. If you aren't happy now, getting an agent or book deal or whatever isn't going to change that in the long run. You'll just Want something else and withhold your happiness until you get that. If you are critical of your work now, having validation won't stop you from picking apart your words. If you hate revision now, working on them with an editor won't make them fun.

Okay, that might sound a little depressing. Oops. Let me spin it the nice way, too. If you love your characters, endless revision with an editor won't change that. If you truly want to be a professional writer, all the hard parts that come with that won't stop you. If you choose to be happy now, you will be happy in the future.

You never stop being you. And if you do want to change, that ultimately comes from inside, not from Getting want you've been Wanting.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Get Thee To A Crit Group

I've been asked several times by my lovely readers how to find a crit group/what makes a good one/do I really need one/etc.—maybe because I have the most awesome crit group in the world. (I really believe that, too.)

So today I present you with:

The Mostly Complete Guide to Crit Groups
If you're a writer seeking publication, you need a crit group. No, really, you do. And not just for the technical support, but the emotional support as well. A good crit group can propel you to the next level in your writing, can motivate you to finish that book, can bring friendships of a lifetime (teehee, sorry, inside joke). Working with my now-close friends has been one of the most rewarding experiences I've had.

I think we all know this, but when I first started my journey I remember how scary it was to try and find people to read my book. Not only are those first crits terrifying, but you initially aren't sure you can trust someone, if you're a good match, if they'll "get you." It's like trying on clothes—sometimes they just don't fit and that's not anyone's fault. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, and you have to find what works for you.

Tips for Finding Crit Partners:
1. Get Around
In this age of social networking, it is so, so easy to find writers on the web! When I first started my blog, I would just stalk blogs, read a post or two, and see if I "clicked" with that person. I followed a lot of agent/industry blogs and tried to participate in the discussions. If I read a comment from someone and liked it, I would check out their blog, too.

I ultimately found Kiersten and Renee this way—through Evil Editor. (See? He ain't so evil after all, but don't tell him that.) Kiersten had posted her query over there and I noticed we both went to the same college (and later realized we went to high school together, too!). Renee found Kiersten the same way, and then we started visiting each other's blogs. After getting to know each other better, we decided to exchange work.

I've also found my other crit partners through blogging. Kasie and Sara found me after a certain contest, and once we got close enough we started exchanging work, too. It's turned out quite well for me, and I feel very luck for that.

Blogs aren't the only place to find writers though. I've heard many people connecting at conferences, at local writer's groups, on writer's forums like Absolute Write. But the key is to get out there, get to know people.

2. BUT. Be Careful
There's always a "but," huh. Not everyone on the internet is, shall we say, sane. Sometimes you don't know that right off the bat. You have to be protective of your work—don't ever send it to someone you've just barely met or whose identity seems sketchy. Trust your gut, take your time to get to know the person, and if possible confirm in some way that they are who they say they are.

You can never be too careful with your work. I've heard a few stories that make my blood curdle. All of them could have been a avoided by being a little more careful about sharing your work. I always get nervous when writers call for betas on their blogs. Not only do you not know who you might get, but you don't even know if they'll be helpful to you. I recommend seeking people out you think would match your style and asking them personally (huh, like looking for an agent).

3. Try Not To Take It Personally
If someone declines to read your work, try not to take it to heart. Most writers are busy people with day jobs or families. They also might have a crit group that keeps them busy, and they can't take on more. I, unfortunately, am in this situation now. I used to have time to read more from my fellow writers, but now I am limited to my own circle. I feel very guilty about not being able to give more of my time, but that's just how it goes.

Also, when you're first trying out crit partners, you have to take into account that they might not be a good fit for you. That's okay. Not everyone will make a helpful partner. Just cross them off the list for the next project. I've had this happen a few times. I am still friends with these writers, but we just realized that we're not a good match for one reason or another.

4. Don't Go Overboard
You don't need a throng of readers, just a few trusted ones who get your work. Really, you don't need 20 beta readers—you don't even need 10. The more you have, the more confusing/overwhelming your crits will be. I have about 5 or 6 total. I now send my MS in rounds of two, so I get three beta rounds out of them and they don't have to waste time rereading.

What to Look For In a Crit Partner:
1. The "Click"
It's so important to find someone who gets your work. Who gets you. It's a hard phenomenon to explain, but you know it when you feel it. I really think crit partners should be friends in some way—not critics. Real friends are honest with you, but not in a way that hurts your feelings. They know how to tell you your butt looks big in those pants without saying you're fat. They have your back.

2. Some Skill
You can have non-writer friends and family read your work, but your crit partners need to be writers. They have to know books, know writing on a technical level. They should at least be around the same skill level as you and be working to gain more skill. Usually I see writers of like skill/journey level gravitating toward each other, which is how it should be, I think. You grow together, experience the same ups and downs together.

3. Genre Similarities
It doesn't hurt to have a few crit partners who write in the same genre as you do. They should know the tools of the genre and be better able to tell you if something works for that type of book. I admit I'd feel a little "fish out of water" if I was critiquing an adult thriller—I just don't know what's expected. I've never actually read one...for reals. But give me a YA MS and I can tell you exactly what will and won't work.

4. Positive Vibes
Crit partners should never leave you feeling AWFUL about your book. They should be able to point out problems in a way that makes you want to fix them. They don't try to make your book into their book. They find good things to say along with the bad things.

Most importantly, they make you think differently about your book. The help you see what you can't and approach problems in ways you'd have never thought without them. They get you thinking. This is what I particularly love about my crit group (and my agent). For the most part, they don't tell me how I should fix things—they tell me what they struggled with and trust that I'll come up with the answers. And because of that trust, I know they respect me and my work. And because of that respect, I don't feel defensive about their crits. And because of all that, I can and want to make my book better.

That is how a crit group should work—through inspiration and encouragement, not criticism and belittlement.

So get thee to a crit group! They rock! It's incredible to watch my little group of writer friends progress. So many of us have agents now or are getting close to that. Some of us even have book deals. It has been so rewarding to experience these milestones with my closest friends and to share my own with them. I don't think the journey would have been as good without them, and I am grateful everyday for their support, intelligence, and humor.

To all my writer friends, not just my crit partners—love you guys!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ready For Publication: How Do You Know?

I'm going to attempt to answer the impossible today. Hey, I like a challenge, what can I say? But I'm probably going to fail in some measure, so I'm counting on you guys to fill in the gaps.

In my post, My Book Is "Good Enough," I talked about some of my regrets over submitting my work too soon and the mentality that led me to do that. I never put in as much work as I knew I should have. This led to some very awesome questions.

Corinne Bowen asked: How and what were you thinking/feeling when you knew you were ready?
This probably sounds lame, but my thought was very simple, "Oh, I'm ready to do this for real." It was actually after a month of not writing. I opened Word again—now having time to distance myself from my work. I read the first page of the book I thought was perfect, and to my horror it really wasn't even close.

I stared at the screen, completely mortified. I'd sent this project to over 70 agents. This was my best book—it was going to be my debut! I had worked the hardest I'd ever worked, and it wasn't enough. I knew in my gut it wasn't enough. I didn't know how to fix it, but I definitely knew that I didn't have the skill yet as much as I might have had talent.

I'd always hoped raw talent might be enough, but in my gut I knew it wouldn't be. After looking at this once-perfect project, I was finally ready to learn. Instead of pursuing publication like that was the most important thing, I decided I needed time to become a better writer. More practice and critique and experience. So I opened a new document and started a new book (Sealed).

And when I finished the book, it was the first time I didn't feel the need to get my book "out there." I knew it needed work. I was okay with that. I wanted to take the time to make it incredible. It was fine if that meant a year or two or three.

It was only after this change in mindset that opportunities opened up for me, ones that would teach me what I so wanted to learn: how to be a better writer.

Some people don't need all that drama to figure this out. I'm sure a lot of you are already there. I've met some writers who are completely honest with themselves—they know they aren't ready and they pace themselves accordingly. They haven't queried a soul, and yet they trust that voice inside that says they still have a lot to learn. Then one day they know, and they go for it.

It seems like a small thing, this whole being open to learning and change, but it's an essential mindset for a future published writer. You have to be okay cutting things, working with others on your story, seriously taking advice from professionals. You gotta quell the inner diva (if you have one). At least that's what made me mentally ready for publication.

Susan Quinn asked: I'm eager for the learning and the edits and the revisions. My problem is I'm not sure I can see the difference between "good enough" and "great". 

I know it when I see it in others, but it's so hard to be objective about your own work (which, of course, is why we have critiquers).

 So, how do you know?

This is where it gets hard, Susan, because it sounds like you've hit that "mental readiness" I just talked about. But being mentally ready doesn't mean you are there yet! I'm not gonna lie, it's frustrating. It IS hard to know where you're at. And as you see serious improvement in yourself, that desire to join the query war grows stronger. You run the risk of jumping the gun yet again.

Seriously, if I wasn't doing revisions with a prospective agent during that "growing period," I am positive I would have jumped the gun yet again. I knew I needed to improve, but I really had no clue just how much.

But there were some things that helped me stay focused:

The Gut Feeling
Be super honest with yourself—you know where you're at as a writer. You don't have to tear yourself up about it either, because like I said yesterday skill has no bearing on talent.

Deep in your gut there's this feeling about your skill level. When you read a spot in your book and feel that glimmer of "I'm a GENIUS," that's a gut feeling. When you read another part and feel that "Wow, this is epically BAD," that's a gut feeling.

It's best if you have distance from your work—gut feeling works better then.

Every time I revised a project, I would feel proud of what I'd done. I was truly happy about the improvements I'd made. But then there was this...feeling.

"It's not done yet."

I didn't know what else I could do, but I could just feel there was something still not completely right. So I was never very surprised when I had to edit more. As frustrating as it was at times, I was okay with it because the book always got better. And the edits always got me excited about the project all over again.

I think many writers are afraid to trust their gut—especially when their gut is saying it needs more work and they don't yet know what that work is. This is when you must go outside yourself.

The Crit Group
No aspiring writer is complete without a crit group. I'll try and do a whole post on finding a good one (since I've had that question asked several times), but today I'll just say FIND ONE. You need writers to read your work. Sure, family and friends are fun too, but they might not have the skill to really help you.

Having your work evaluated sucks, but it's necessary for improvement. We are so close to our books sometimes we don't see what's missing. In our heads the story is complete and perfect, but the execution may not be effective and we don't even know it.

The major thing to remember about crits is that you don't have to take the advice. Crit is to get YOU thinking differently about your work. There have been many times where my crit partners have brought up issues and suggested things I didn't think worked. BUT. It made me realize that there was an issue—and I figured out how I wanted to fix it.

Your crit partners can also give you a good idea about how close you're getting to "finished." I only do a couple betas at a time, so I can gauge how well I've fixed things in further drafts. I'm a firm believer in several beta rounds, not just one.

But ultimately, your crit partners don't really know when you're "ready." If you're hoping they'll tell you, don't. Especially if no one in your crit group is published, how would they really know? It's a little different if you have a few honest, published friends, but it still isn't a guarantee.

This is usually when people start querying, and it might be time, but be honest with yourself and that gut feeling. There are other ways to snag professional/stranger opinion without going on a query spree. It wouldn't hurt to see if you could get some preliminary opinions, just in case you're not quite there yet.

Evil Editor posts first pages and asks people to finish them off. He also offers to heckle your query. It's a good opportunity to see what unbiased strangers think of your work.

Authoress Anonymous holds Secret Agent contests, where a real live agent comments on your first 250 words and says if they're hooked or not. Others offer up their crits as well.

Keep your eyes out for other agents holding contests—there is always so much to learn even if you don't win. There are also conference workshops, I'm told. And there are surely opportunities in your community, perhaps taking a writing class at a community college.

But if you feel it is time to query, take it in chunks. Don't send 20 the first week. Send a smaller number and see what the feedback is. If partials are requested, wait for the feedback on those. If it's not favorable, that might mean you still have issues to resolve. Eventually you will find a place where you are happy with your work, not just satisfied.

For me, the first time that ever happened wasn't that long ago—September 2009. I'd finished yet another revision. When I sat back and shut the laptop, I didn't think "Hmm, there might be something else I missed." That time, deep in my bones, I knew.

It was done.

Of course there are probably typos. Of course there are little things I can tweak. But when I think of that book, the story is exactly how I originally pictured the idea. The words aren't a vague representation of the vision in my head—they say precisely what I want them to, create the picture I was trying to paint all along.

And that's how I know the book is more than good enough. I know it's great, and now I just have to wait for others to see that.