Skates In, Skates Off

Some things have been happening in my little corner of the globe and I’m afraid they might make updating this blog a little harder for the next five weeks or so. Those things have to do with the Sea Story, a little peer pressure from my critique partners, and a competition called Pitch Wars. Basically, I’ve been lucky enough to be chosen as a mentee by the brilliant Stacey Lee and over the next five weeks we’ll be spit-shining my manuscript until it gleams.

(If you want to cheer on my caffeine-and-cookies fueled revision, we’re Team Orca and you can find us on Twitter under the hashtag #TeamOrca. Also on our team are Rebecca Thomas and Shanna Miles. Feel free to cheer them on, too.)

Helper elf #1
Helper Elf #1

Here’s the blurb for my story, so you know what I’m working on:

People are dying on Skana Island, swallowed up by the icy sea. For seventeen-year-old outsider Anna Delmore, this stirs memories of her own father’s drowning death on a research dive only a year ago. The islanders believe hanging whalebone over their doorways and stringing red beads in their hair will save them from death, but Anna doesn’t believe the islander’s stories. No, she believes the threat comes not from orcas or ancient magic but from the islanders themselves, and that their superstition blinds them from the human killer in their midst.

When another girl goes missing after secretly contacting Anna, Anna enlists the help of Jeremy Renwick, the faithful son of the local sheriff, in order to disprove the islander’s beliefs. But the closer she grows to Jeremy the more her conviction wavers. Time is running out and when the islanders mount a hunt to kill the orcas they believe responsible for the deaths, Anna is forced to choose: stop the killer from taking another life, or save the whales her father tried so hard to protect.

THE SEA WOLVES, complete at 80,000 words, is a YA literary thriller based on Pacific Northwest folklore surrounding killer whales.

Helper Elf #2
Helper Elf #2

Another tidbit to keep you going over the holidays: when not eating pie, wrapping presents, or working on the Sea Story, I’ve been planning a new book. I’m so, so excited about it. It’s a psychological thriller about a dying logging town in Oregon, a missing boy and a girl who is afraid to let go. It has about as much magic as The Sea Wolves, which is to say, maybe a lot, maybe none at all.

I’m thinking my genre is actually Contemporary Plus. I always think I’m writing a straight contemporary, but whether I actually am or not is up for debate.

See you on the other side, peeps! Take a slice of pie before you go.

All the pie.
I’ve been living on this stuff lately.
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Skates In, Skates Off

My Year of Writing Fearlessly

Back in June I decided the Sea Story would be my last YA novel, unless something changed. I was tired of hearing I should be an adult writer, and I was starting to forget why I wanted to write about young adults in the first place.

Something did change. See, when I thought the Sea Story would be my last YA novel, I stopped second-guessing myself. I unfollowed every agent on Twitter, stopped reading agent blogs and ignored every market-related article that popped up. I wrote my heart out and 3-and-a-half months later I had a draft. It was the best writing experience of my life.

I’ve written another draft of the Sea Story since then, and now that I’m getting closer to the agent-related steps of the whole process, I’m starting to feel it again, that weariness. I’ve always had trouble balancing the creative and business aspects of this whole writing biz. While I’m querying I start to forget why I love writing in the first place and start deciding I want to give up on my genre, or quit altogether.

And you know, I really don’t want to go back to that place. Things were really dark for me for awhile there. I’ve never been so close to giving up. So, this is what I’m planning to do: I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo, and I’m going to start a new novel. I have no intention of actually “winning” — I’m aiming for maybe 20k, 30 tops. I just need my head to be in a really good, grounded space as I head into critique-land and then revision-land.

Aaaand the new novel will be another YA — a contemporary YA this time. In that post back in June, I couldn’t remember why I ever wanted to write about teenagers. I was so stuck in my own head that I completely lost track of what YA was about. Writing what I thought was my last YA novel helped me to see what it is I so love about the genre.

Here’s why I write young adult fiction: because growing up is the happy ending.

I almost didn’t make it to adulthood. Many of my friends almost never made it to adulthood. Some didn’t make it at all. Being a teenager was hands down the hardest battle I’ve ever faced. That sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s true. Those people who say your high school years are the best of your life are lying. Buffy was right: high school is hell.

I’m so, so glad I grew up, but there is no story in the happy ending. We write to grapple with the things that scare us, that challenge us, the things that make us stronger. And there is nothing harder to me, nothing more challenging and vital, than those liminal years between childhood and adulthood.

My November story is about a lot of things, but at its heart it is my attempt to grapple with the year that almost killed me. Ten years on I think it’s finally time to write about the things that happened when I was 14.

The November story is about how the mistakes you make when you’re young can haunt you for the rest of your life.

About the hope that what comes next might be better, and the fear that it might not.

About being so young, but already feeling so very old.

It’s about being a teenager.

I’ve said a few times that the Sea Story is the most personal thing I’ve ever written, but I’m about to beat that. I’m going deeper. I’m going to write my heart out and I’m going to write a story worthy of my year of writing fearlessly.

P.S. For more on why YA is so vital, check out this post by Courtney Summers on why she writes about teenage girls. Because this is what it’s really like. And this is why we’re all so glad we grew up.

Year 11 formal. Almost there.
Year 11 formal. Almost there.
My Year of Writing Fearlessly

Test Screening

I read an update the other day about a certain in-production movie some of you marshmallows might know about. The update was about test screenings, which is something I didn’t know a whole lot about. While the movie is still unfinished, while the parts are all there but only partially assembled, while the music isn’t set and the screens are all blank, a group of people watch it and rip it to shreds. It reminds me a lot of the critique process for a novel.

View from Mulholland Drive
View from Mulholland Drive

In the update, the director talked about the first test screening he ever attended. He was told at the beginning to ignore all the unfinished bits and focus on the movie itself, but it was a hard thing to do. He ended up being much harsher on the film than he otherwise would have been.

I’m coming up to the end of my solo revisions on the Sea Story. Pretty soon I’ll be passing it off to first readers, and it’s a scary thing. The story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but it’s still unfinished. It’s completely unpolished. The characters are still changing, the scenes are still being rearranged, the themes can be strengthened, and there are a hell of a lot of typos I’ve not yet caught (or even tried to catch — it’s still early days).

I’ve had a lot of different people read my stories, and it never stops being scary, but the right kind of reader can remove a little of the terror. You need to find the kind of reader who can see past the typos. The kind of reader who sees through the unfinished aspects to the potential of what the story could be.

You’ve got to see it like carving a diamond out of a chunk of rock. I’ve done as much as I can on my own, and I know there’s still a whole lot of rock there, but my eyes are tired and I’m ready to sub out for awhile. My readers are there to tell me what my eyes can’t because I’ve been staring at the rock for too long. They won’t do the work for me, but they’ll help guide my strokes.

LA: Diamond in the rough
LA: Diamond in the rough

But the wrong kind of reader? They might just see rock. They might tell me there is no diamond, it’s a lost cause, or worse, to chisel in the wrong place. The wrong kind of reader can kill a book before it’s really started.

It’s a hard thing, because before you find those precious critique partners you have to let a whole lot of different people read your work without knowing if they’re the first kind of reader or the second. The key, I think, is having a really clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve. You have to imagine what the diamond might look like before you really have it in your grasp.

The good news is, I don’t have a team of producers looking over my shoulder telling me which strokes to take and potentially listening to bad advice. It’s just me and my critique partners, and we’re still looking for that diamond, no matter how deep it might be buried.

Still beautiful
Still beautiful

Much love to my wonderful critters.

Test Screening

Already Living The Dream

It’s the end of another hockey season. My team made it to the finals but lost the Grand Final against their main rivals throughout the season, which is exactly what happened last year. But this year felt different to me. Last year, losing that last game was absolutely heart-breaking — I could hardly bear to watch it. This year, I gave a cheerful shrug and patted a few friends on the back, sad to see the season go, but happy to have experienced it.

The difference was a realisation I had sometime in the last year, to do with hockey, but also to do with my writing. The realisation was this: The Goodall Cup is what every hockey player is aiming for, but that’s not why they’re here. That’s not why they give up every weekend for a job they don’t get paid for, that’s not why they leave their families overseas or commute vast distances to attend practice twice a week. They’re not here to lift a trophy, because if they were, eight (seven this year) teams worth of players would leave having wasted a great deal of time.

The reason they give up their winters every year is to play hockey. Every player who shows up, whether they play for the Sydney Ice Dogs or the Canberra Knights, is doing what he loves to do. They’re already living the dream, and they don’t need a pretty trophy to prove that.

I’m a fan and I wanted my team to win, but I don’t show up at the rink each week for that reason alone. I’m there to watch hockey. Win or lose, I’m there to see the game I love.

This time last year, while watching my team come just short of winning the Goodall Cup, I was also submitting a novel to agents. I’d worked on this novel for a year and a half at that stage, and upon receiving a revision request, would work on it for six months more. That novel didn’t end up getting me an agent — I had lots of reasons to hope, but none ended up getting me over the line. And I’ll admit, I was heart-broken. Shattered. Cast adrift.

But this year I’m revising another novel, and things feel different. At some point over the last year I realised the reason I spend hours each week — late nights, mornings, weekends and lunch breaks — writing and working on my craft isn’t to get an agent. It isn’t to publish a book or win some sort of invisible trophy. If it was, I would have given up years ago.

Those things are pretty goals, and I still want to achieve them, but they’re not the reason I do it. I write because I love to write. I’m already living the dream.

The work is its own reward. We only fail when we lose sight of that.

I also write because I love biscotti.
I also write because I love biscotti.

 

Already Living The Dream

Finding Order in Chaos

I talk a lot about process on this blog. I love it. I love reading other writer’s processes and I love writing about my own. But here’s the secret every person who’s written more than one book knows: process — the idea that you can follow the exact same path every time and a book will emerge at the end  — is a fantasy. It’s a helpful fantasy, for the most part. There’s a certain comfort in the idea that I’ve done it before, so I can do it again. But it’s a fantasy, none the less.

This is what it’s like: I once spent a day clearing lantana in a forested area as a community service. Lantana is this thick, thorny, strangling vine that takes over land incredibly quickly and is almost impossible to get rid of:

By Louise Wolff (darina) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
They told us at the beginning of the day that what we were doing was basically pointless. Within a week the lantana would grow back again, no matter how much we pulled out, no matter how much skin was ripped up in the process. We did it anyway, of course. Maybe next week another group would come along, and maybe our progress would help them to fight a little harder, go a little deeper.

This is the writer’s mind: a thick, tangle of lantana. Sometimes, maybe once a year, we blaze a path through the lantana and end up with a book at the end. But the next year, that path will be gone. We can’t walk it again. We can try and find the general location of the path, and maybe the lantana will be a wee bit thinner there, but we still have to start over, and we can never walk the exact same path twice.

Each book requires a different process. You may know whether you are a plotter or a pantser, but each book will require a different level of planning, each plot will have its own snags, each character will push you in a different way. It can drive you crazy. And that’s why we talk about process. If we can map out, even in the most general terms, where the path used to be through the lantana, it’s like finding a little bit of order in all the chaos. It keeps us sane.

Last Friday I tweeted this photo:

Mapping the landmarks
Mapping the landmarks

The red stickers are the scenes I plan to delete and the green stickers are scenes I plan to add. Over the weekend I started reading through my manuscript and placing other stickers: yellow for scenes that only need light edits, orange for scenes that need rewriting. In the middle columns I started adding in my revision notes for each scene.

Adding in street signs and road markers.
Adding in street signs and road markers.

I was full of plans and good intentions. Look at all that yellow! This was going to be the easiest revision ever! And then… I hit a roadblock. Honestly, it was the best kind of roadblock. Like a stream cutting through the lantana, but leading in a slightly different direction, I had an Idea. A really, really good idea. An idea that would mean completely scrapping the middle portion of my novel.

I thought I knew the path forward. I thought I could impose order on the chaos. But my crazy writer brain had other ideas.

So, this weekend I’ll be starting my revision from Chapter 1. I have a vision of where I want to end up, but not a map or compass, not like I’d hoped to have. But I’ve done this enough times that I’m not absolutely terrified by this idea. I’ve beat my way through the lantana enough times that I have faith I’ll find a way through to the other side.

Somehow.

Finding Order in Chaos

Salt in the Blood

My earliest memories are of the pull of the sea. I was born in a sea-side city, but moved inland when I was still a baby. And yet, every family holiday since I was a child involved stealing away from our sun-scorched land-bound town to the sea. When I was old enough, I’d take the 5am train to Newcastle on the weekends just so I could stand on the sand and feel my soul move within me.

In my late teens my family moved to Newcastle, a small coastal city. It was there that I met the boy who would become my husband. He wooed me on hot summer nights on darkened beaches. We watched the lightning crackle over the ocean and talked about our lives, two forks that had finally met, two paths that were slowly merging in a town by the sea.

And now, I get to write about it, those complex emotions that are stirred up by salty air, the ebb and flow of the waves, and the slow movement of creatures in the deep. I get to write about all that, and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

Yesterday, I went to sea with three of my closest friends.

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We saw the creatures of the deep: whales and dolphins, seals and seabirds. We saw storm and sunshine, rainbows and sunsets, still waters and deep-ocean swells.

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I felt my soul move within me.

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Today, I’m starting to plan my revision of the Sea Story. I can’t help but feel it’s the most vital, precious thing I’ve ever written, because it connects so deeply to the things that make me me. It’s about faith and becoming and stories passed down through generations. It’s about looking at the surface of the world and wondering if there’s something more, something deeper. It’s about death and war and choosing the person you’re going to be. It’s about having salt in the blood.

But really, it’s about the sea.

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Salt in the Blood

In Which Beth Gets Crafty

So, I’ve been trying really, really hard to distract myself from the call of the Sea Story, but as you can see, I haven’t been overly successful:

"You can spend your whole life being afraid of the unknown... Or you can find a way to embrace it."
“You can spend your whole life being afraid of the unknown… Or you can find a way to embrace it.”

If it’s not clear from my crappy iPhone photo, that’s layered paper with cutouts — my very first experiment with paper art, or, you know, art in general. Other than a knitting phase in my late teens, I’ve never been a crafty sort of person, but the Sea Story seems to be inspiring it in me.

Other than playing with paper and glue, I’ve spent some time coming up with a fun one sentence pitch:

[The Sea Story] is a moody murder mystery about a teenage girl who has lost her faith and an isolated island community that believes the impossible.

What do you think? It’s hard not to include the whole kit and caboodle — the love story, the murder details, the underlying mythology, but I think short and sweet is best. What I like about this pitch is that it pairs the tone of the novel and the emotional journey of my main character, Anna.

Oh, and I’ve also been indulging in my traditional post-draft pastime of cookie baking!

Mmm... fresh from the oven.
Mmm… fresh from the oven. Fruit in the background to prove I do, in fact, enjoy a balanced diet.

It’s only been a week and a bit since I finished my draft! How am I going to survive another three and a half weeks? Feel sorry for my husband. Or not, because, you know, he gets cookies.

 

In Which Beth Gets Crafty