Lessons Learned in 2015

2015, oh what a year you’ve been. Last year was a difficult year for me for many reasons, and so 2015 was necessarily a recovery year. A healing year, a growing year, a year of broadening mind and narrowing focus. It started off with a bang in New York and slowed down for a period as I focused on volunteering and breathing and just generally getting well. So much love to my husband who supported me through this period, physically, emotionally, financially. I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me this year.

The second half of the year was tightly controlled madness as I started a new job, went back to uni and wrote like a mad thing in whatever time was left. It’s breathtaking to think of the girl I was 12 months ago and how far I’ve come since. Of the fortitude I’ve developed, the sense of peace, and yes, the physical strength. 12 months of yoga and a very physical day job and dude. I have all the muscles. It feels so good to know just what my body can do. To feel functional and not merely cerebral. I’ve spent so much of my life living inside my head, it’s refreshing to embrace the physical world in such a way.

Because this year has been so growth-centred, I can sum it up pretty simply with the five biggest lessons I’ve learned this year:

When you spend your whole life looking for signs, you start to forget what you already know. 
I don’t know when I became this person, relying on outside markers to set my path. I’m not  talking about superstition — a black bird flew anti-clockwise on the third Thursday of the month — none of that. I’m talking about validation. An encouraging word on the right day to take me a little further. A good mark on an exam. Answers to prayer just when I need them.
These are all good things, but they all come from outside of me. My friends, my husband, my lecturer, some random stranger on a street can’t decide my path for me. They don’t know what I know. Because let me tell you, the world won’t know what you’re made of until you show it how far you’re willing to go.
And friends, from a more spiritual perspective: When God speaks He expects you to listen. It’s not His job to follow you around, reminding you again and again what you already know. Trust what you know. Trust what God/the universe/that little voice inside has told you. How many times do you have to hear something before you start to believe it’s true?
I lost sight of these things this year. I started to forget what I believe in. In looking for validation from external sources, I began to forget what I already know. I don’t need you to tell me I’m meant to be a writer, a philanthropist, an adventurer, a friend. I already know.
Hope is a choice. Faith is a choice. Joy is a choice. 
I was looking through some notebooks from three years ago the other day. My notebooks are filled with writing notes but also just general notes on life, the universe and everything. I was looking for a specific note but what I found was that the tone of my journals back then were so… filled with hope. I don’t know when I lost that.
Hope, to me, has always seemed like a limited resource, dolled out in unequal measures. Some people have it, some don’t. You can’t make your bowl bigger. You can’t change your capacity for hope.
This is a lie.
That day, the day I found the notebooks, I decided to hope again. I decided to believe in the future I envision. I decided to trust what I already know. And oh, oh, it’s made all the difference.
Try it. You’ll see.
Your body can tell your heart how to feel and your mind how to think. 
In recovering from a truly terrible bout of anxiety, earlier this year I turned to yoga. Exercise has always been calming for me, but I didn’t realise just how powerful it could be. For so long my emotions have controlled my body. For so long I’ve been crippled by stress-induced headaches, insomnia, breathlessness, and other, more serious things. For so long I sought to control my body by controlling my emotions. It never worked.
This year I discovered I could change my emotions by controlling my body. By using my muscles, deepening my breath, stretching long and slow, I can change how I feel. I can find focus again.
Two other things: a fake smile turns real given enough time. And there are some awesome apps out there if you are struggling with anxiety. Pacifica is one I particularly like — the breathing and meditation exercises help me take what I’ve learned in yoga out into the world. It’s with me when I need a reminder to breathe.
Writing the true things sometimes takes longer. Sometimes it takes no time at all. 
Basically, it takes the time it takes. Repeat that after me: It takes the time it takes. Love your process. Embrace it. You’re stuck with it; you might as well 😉
There is a brilliance in first drafts that can’t ever be recaptured. Be careful whose voices you let in when you change it. 

I was looking through some of my old writing the other day, searching for a particular passage. I love this scene. I’ve always looked on it as one of the favourite things I’ve ever written. But it took awhile to find. I’d written somewhere around six drafts of this particular novel and I had to go all the way back to the first one to find the scene I so loved. I’d made so many changes through all those drafts I’d lost what magic inspired me to write it in the first place.

Revision is so, so necessary. Don’t think I’m dumping on the editing process; I’m not. But first drafts are where the magic is, I really believe that. You don’t get that sense of discovery ever again. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know I’m going to keep my eyes open next time I revisit a draft.

I guess my lessons from 2015 can be summed up as this: Choose magic. 

Choose [you are in control] magic [all good and wonderful things].

Chase the good things with everything you have, and when you catch them, hold them as tight as you can.

Choose hope, friends. That’s the best advice I can give you going into 2016.

Love and light to you this Christmas.

Draftcember, by the way, is going FABULOUSLY! This is my reward for reaching 30k: cocktails at our local Cuban restaurant. It was amazing. Onwards! We still have a few days of Draftcember left to go!
Draftcember, by the way, is going FABULOUSLY! This is my reward for reaching 30k: cocktails at our local Cuban restaurant. It was amazing. Onwards! We still have a few days of Draftcember left to go!
Lessons Learned in 2015

Now, Part 2: DRAFTCEMBER is coming!

Draftcember headerI have a whole post planned about busyness, about what it’s been like these past months to balance work and study and writing, but this week was full of Thanksgiving prep and pie-eating and I’ve run out of time. Because something cool is coming and it starts in just a few days.

I’ve loved watching all my friends participate in NaNoWriMo this month, and while strict word count goals have never really been my thing, I’ve been a little sad at having to watch from the sidelines. At least until I finish my degree, November is going to be a month of exams and assignments for me. December, on the other hand, offers a little more time and a lot more Christmas cookies. And so, this year, I’m doing my own month-long writing event. I’m calling it DRAFTCEMBER!

Here’s the deal. I like working with a little less structure than NaNo allows, so I won’t have a word count goal. If I make 20,000 words, GREAT! If I make 50k, AWESOME! But I do need motivation, so I’ve come up with a series of reward platforms.

Draftcember Rewards
(Graphic template found here)

So what counts toward word count? Anything. I think I know which story I’m going to work on, but that could change. I might work on two stories, or three. Blog posts count as well. Anything that is creative and makes me smile.

I love these words by Ray Bradbury, and I think they’re a good representation of the true spirit of Draftcember:

“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun–you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself, You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is–excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms, without such vigors he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health!” — Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing.

Would you like to join me? Please do! Create your own reward list and your own rules. Post about it or don’t. But together let’s make December the most fun and productive month of the year, bursting with zest, gusto and Christmas cookies. Be big! Be bold! And write your heart out, my Draftcember warriors!

Some fuel for the journey, made with love.
Now, Part 2: DRAFTCEMBER is coming!

What I Learned from the Sea Story

For most people, writing is a narrow, rocky path littered with obstacles. Occasionally you’ll pass another writer on your way and you’ll nod to each other before continuing on. Sometimes you’ll find a stream along the side of the path and you’ll fill your water bottle and maybe lay down for awhile. Some people never get up again. And every now and then you’ll pass a marker that tells you exactly h0w far you’ve come — though not how far you have to go.

These markers are important. They’re the little boost we need to get over the next hill. They show we’re still moving forward, even if the landscape never changes. They tell us that we’ve achieved something — and we have! Not everybody gets this far. You could have given up a long time ago. Half your friends are still back there by that stream. We’re going places. We should acknowledge that.

One of the ways I acknowledge my own little markers is by writing a blog post at the end of every book, listing the things I’ve learned from the experience. I actually used to write these posts at the end of every draft — back then it felt like there was so much to learn, so much ground to gain, and I leaped from marker to marker with energy and gusto. Now, the markers are a little further apart. The things I’m learning are amorphous and harder to put into words. But I think it’s important, still, to pause and take a little Instagram snap of where I am and what I’ve learned.

None of these are dos and don’ts. They’re not rules to follow. They’re just things I’ll be aware of next time when making decisions about a character or a story, things that might make my life easier to avoid. Or, if I decide to include them, things to use with care and intention.

What the Sea Story has taught me:

1. The trouble with outsider characters

I’ve always written outsider characters, characters that are either new to their world, or on the outskirts of it. We all understand what that’s like, to feel like we don’t belong, to be the new person, to be alone in the world. It’s relatable. But while writing the sea story I realized for the first time how difficult it can be to construct a story with an outsider main character.

Dialogue is a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It achieves so many things at once: it reveals character, it creates conflict and suspense, it reveals information, and it advances the plot. Outsider characters have less opportunity to interact with other characters in a meaningful way, and you can fall into the trap of having scene after scene of your character just thinking about things. Give your characters friends, siblings, parents, enemies. Dialogue is where conflict happens; it’s the lifeblood of your story.

The other difficult with outsider characters is worldbuilding. If a character knows about her world, she can convey it to the reader, but if she’s new to it, every bit of information must be fed to her (and us) by other characters. If she’s also an outsider in the social sense, this creates additional difficulties.

Outsider characters are important and all these things can be overcome, but next time I will know exactly what I’m getting into before I decide to write this kind of story.

2. The weight of back-story

Imagine your novel in its first chapters is an infant. Still young, not quite able to hold its own head up yet. What you’re hoping as you go along is for that infant to grow, to learn to walk, and to become its own person. Now, imagine your back-story has a physical weight. It’s a metal chain that you loop around your story. In small amounts it can be beautiful — an adornment, a necklace — but too much begins to weigh your story down.

An adult can carry great chains across her back and it might even make her stronger. But even the smallest chain can be too much for an infant. A story will never learn to walk or talk or cover great ground when its first chapters are burdened with back-story.

I knew all this going in to the Sea Story, at least intellectually. But without realizing it, I created a story that was completely reliant on its back-story. The back-story was built into its bones — all forward movement was based upon events from the past. My poor first chapters struggled under the weight of it.

Back-story is not a bad thing in and of itself. But if you’re creating a story that relies upon its back-story, rather than using it as decoration, you will need to be especially creative in your execution. My advice? Make your back-story your front-story. Maggie Stiefvater often begins her story at that one important moment in the past that determines all that is to come. Julie Murphy, Jandy Nelson and Gayle Forman have all used unconventional story structures in order to incorporate events of the past into their manuscripts.

(*If you have any other examples of unconventional story structures in YA, please send them my way!)

Back-story is a hurdle, but when used well it can be beautiful.

3. The trouble with first person narratives

I love first person narration. All three of my novels are first person. But when you’re writing a story with a complex world and events happening in multiple locations, a single, first person narrator has its limitations. Your character either needs to be in the heart of the action at all times or have someone else tell them what’s going on — which can lack the drama of seeing it for themselves.

Another difficulty with first person narration is suspense. Alfred Hitchcock, master of the genre, once gave the illustration of two people sitting at a table while a bomb ticks away underneath. If the viewer is unaware of the bomb (as in a first person narrative), then the eventual explosion is surprising but not suspenseful. If the viewer is aware, if they saw the bomb planted there and they know it will explode at a certain time, they become involved in the narrative and long to warn the characters. This is suspense.

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.” — Hitchcock

It’s all about what kind of story you’re trying to tell. This was the first time I even noticed these limitations, and I made first person work for me regardless, but with my WIP I’m giving third person a try. I have a larger kind of story I want to write and I’m looking forward to exploring it from a wider lens.

4. Love

Sometimes, when writing feels like work, when you’re weary and stressed, it shows in the writing.

Sometimes, when writing is a joy, when you’re writing with the exuberance of pure creation, it shows in the writing.

For me, with this story, it was important to maintain the “mind on fire” spirit of writing. When I didn’t feel that, when an entire draft felt like work, that was a huge clue that something wasn’t right. And readers could tell.

I read this great piece by Hilari Bell the other day about embracing failure, because it means you’ve tried something and learned from the experience. Go read it; it’s a good one.

These are the ways I tried and failed while writing the sea story. These are the lessons I learned.

Next time I will fail better.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett
A new friend for a new story
A new friend for a new story
What I Learned from the Sea Story

So, That Happened

Just over a month ago I signed with an agent. Me. Agent. Sunshine and rainbows, unicorns frolicking, birds and mice doing my laundry. You get the picture.

I’ve spent most of the last month processing everything that’s happened already this year. I knew 24 would be a big year, but this is BIG. I guess you could say I’m still adjusting my personal narrative. Most of you are writers, so you’ll understand that although you keep working and submitting, sometimes it starts to feel like this will never happen for you. And then it does.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ll get published. But people believe in me and my book. They’ve invested time in me. And one has put her commitment to my career on paper and added a pretty signature. It means a lot.

As well as staring off into space with a goofy grin on my face, I’ve jumped into revisions with my agent. (CAN YOU BELIEVE I JUST SAID “MY AGENT”???) This is the cool part. I’ve been given some fantastic notes, I don’t have a deadline, and I have the faith of an agency behind me. I’m digging deep and I’m determined to produce the best bit of writing I’ve ever done. My book is good. It’s going to be great.

Revising for me isn’t butt-in-chair work. It’s thinking work. I spend a great deal of time rearranging the story in my head before I ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). While brainstorming, I’ve found a few resources that have really helped me. Maybe they’ll help you, too.

Chuck Wendig gives a list of 25 things that should be in a first chapter. Beginnings are hard, man.

Carrie Ryan details a plot structure chart given to her by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. I love this one because it breaks the story down into manageable chunks. I’m not a plotter, but I can plot one chunk at a time.

Susan Dennard explains how she revises in a series of 6 lessons. My favourite part is where she advises you write a letter to yourself detailing the perfect book — how you want your book to look at the end of the revising process. If you don’t have a goal, if you can’t picture that book perfectly in your mind, how are you ever going to get there?

So. That’s my March. How has yours been going?

This is what a writer looks like after she mails her contract to her new agent.
This is what a writer looks like after she mails her contract to her new agent.
So, That Happened

Day of Small Beginnings

You’ve all heard the story. Girl meets pen. Girl and pen dream up a fabulous future together, involving bookshelves and coffee. Girl gets rejected, over and over and over. Girl tries to break up with pen but it just won’t stick. Girl realizes she’s in for the long haul.

But the story doesn’t end there.

The pen.
The pen.

I’m about to embark on a whole new adventure, and it’s got me thinking about small beginnings. We all remember the day we began that first novel, sent that first query, received that first request, but what about the smaller beginnings? What about the day we woke up at 5am to write, the day we started over, the day we forged forward even when we wanted to give up?

Every small beginning takes courage, but with each step forward into darkness we take we grow closer.

Photo taken in Yosemite 2011. Design mine.
Photo taken in Yosemite 2011. Design mine.

The Sea Wolves is my third completed novel, and I’ll always remember it as the book I almost didn’t write. After shelving my second novel I came so, so close to giving up. I’d faced periods of discouragement before, but this was different. I knew I couldn’t go on the way I had been and I started looking for a way out.

I thought about switching to adult fiction, I thought about finding a new dream, I thought about writing just for me, but in the end I knew none of those paths would satisfy me. I spent many long hours praying and soul-searching and in the end what got me through was this: only when I’d hit the bottom was I ready to give it all away and trust in a net to catch me.

That was February 2013. In March I started The Sea Wolves. I wrote it in 3 and a half months and it was the most amazing writing experience of my life. I finished in July and I knew, I just knew, this story was different.

In November, after a few months of revising, I finally got up the courage to share the manuscript with my critique partners. With their encouragement, I entered a mentorship contest called Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars involved an insane five weeks of mentoring by the brilliant Stacey Lee, spit-polishing my manuscript until the agent round in January.

On January 22nd, the pitches were posted on Brenda Drake’s blog. I spent two days stress-baking and avoiding all electronic devices. At the end of the contest I had 11 requests from participating agents and a further 3 “ninja” requests from agents not involved in the competition.

A week later I woke to two offers of representation in my inbox. I cried and went out for a quick breakfast with my darling husband before work. Over the next week I would receive four more offers.

On 15th February 2014, I officially accepted representation from Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Signing the contract 22/02/2014
Signing the contract 22/02/2014

If there’s any takeaway, I think it’s this: Don’t be afraid of small beginnings. Don’t be afraid of starting over, again and again and again.

Because once upon a time a girl had a dream. She stumbled a lot, but she just kept on getting back up. She made some good friends and worked hard and didn’t give up, no matter how much she wanted to.

And now that girl has an agent.

A small beginning.
A small beginning.
Day of Small Beginnings

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.
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