Breaking Up Writer’s Block: Thunder and Brainstorm

Writers are notoriously secretive. We use fake names. We like to play our cards close to the vest. Fellow writers are competitors as much as potential collaborators. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of every writer’s mind, lies the fear of idea theft. The hack peddling a knockoff version of our literary progeny. The common plagiarist. The blabbermouth partner. We protect our developing work with parental ferocity.

Intellectual property fears aren’t the only reason we hesitate to share. You’ll find plenty of advice telling you to keep your story a secret, with good reason. A few years ago, I shared a piece of writing with someone who had minor connections to an industry I was interested in working for. I got ripped apart and then some.

I wasn’t ready for that level of criticism. Nor was that person qualified to give it. That one bad review–more like a personal attack–not only permanently damaged my longtime friendship with that individual but also ended any serious attempts to break into that field. I was done.

Pursuing a writing career requires the ability to develop a cowhide-thick skin. There is a difference, however, between finding oneself on the un-fun end of a tough critique from an industry expert and being subjected to a nasty dress down by someone who has no idea what he or she is talking about.

Much of the advice about keeping stories under wraps is aimed at protecting writers from those unprovoked attacks by typically well-meaning, occasionally jealous, but always ill-informed friends, relatives, and writing-world acquaintances. A budding story, entrusted to the wrong hands, can be shredded to the point of unrecognizability and shoved into a drawer. Although rescuing the world from one more terrible book could be construed as a public service, damage occurs whenever talented would-be creators are injured.

Yet telling writers they must go it alone until the story is a perfectly polished pearl is equally problematic. Nobody successfully walks the path to publication alone. There are teachers, sources, editors, agents, critics, layout experts, graphic designers, photographers, advertisers, illustrators, promoters, and countless others involved in every publishing medium. You won’t build a prominent writing career by yourself. Why would you expect to craft the Great American Novel (or anything else) without help?

Your novel will come to a screeching halt at some point in your writing process. If it doesn’t, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. You will find yourself contending with implausible story arcs, confusing characters, boring filler moments. You will question everything, and the temptation to throw it all into the nearest paper shredder, never to be seen again, will be palpably real. Perfectionists, recognize.

There are two things you could do next. You could follow the technique prescribed by NaNoWriMo coaches: Ignore your inner editor and push ahead. Get the words on the page. All systems go. Forget the mess, you’ll clean it up later.

Or, you could recognize that some problems are simpler to fix before you hit revisions. Keep writing, but make notes of the things you need to fix: this character’s behavior, that subplot, those research holes. And never underestimate the power of a good brainstorm session. You don’t have to share your ratty early drafts or adopt anyone else’s changes, but opening a conversation about a specific issue that is giving you pause can send a fresh jolt through your creative process.

Earlier this week, I went into a brainstorm session feeling that my protagonist and a secondary character didn’t go together. The story was morphing into two different books rather than main plot and subplot, and I needed to take back control. I came out of that conversation–-which naturally covered a ton of ridiculous, insane plot pitches–-with slightly more confidence and a few workable ideas. Also, by addressing the issue at the first opportunity, I didn’t let myself write my way into a corner, and I didn’t put myself in a position where several chapters would have to be heavily redlined or tossed out. Instead, I’m going back in with a game plan.

Have you tried brainstorming your way out of writer’s block?
Kate

*This post originally appeared in September 2016.*

A Query a Day Keeps the Crazy Away

Book draft done? Check.

Bank account empty? Check.

Want a publishing contract? You bet I do. I need the check!

It’s time to start querying agents, which I’ve been doing all week. If you caught Monday’s post, you already know I’m shopping a children’s picture book around. I can’t draw my way out of a Pictionary box, so of course that means anyone who buys this book is also going to have to get an illustrator involved to help move my stick-figure-impaired behind along.

That’s the bad news. This won’t be a fast process, and I’m not going to get paid tomorrow. Or, as it turns out, the next day or the next day or the next day. I’ve heard it could be years before I see any green stuff. Better not rest on my laurels, such as they are. (Such as they are being my daughter’s excited response to the little plot twist at the end, followed by a not-irrelevant inquiry regarding the addition of still more animals to her imaginary future menagerie.)

The worse news, of course, would be if I didn’t manage to sell it at all. Luckily for me, and other sales-averse, people-averse, poverty-averse writers out there, it turns out that we can hire somebody to do that. Cue rainbows, expensive dancing unicorn coffees, and baskets of puppies.

These magical, glorious people are called literary agents, and they live far, far away in towers guarded by dragons and evil queens who don’t want us to hire them. That’s what I’ve gathered, at least, because they don’t seem to be a talkative bunch, and there’s a gazillion other writers out on ye olde world of the webs confirming that jumping on the next hot author commodity (me, duh) and showering her with champagne and gold and glitter is somehow not the only item on their lengthy to-do lists. It might even–gasp–not be the topmost entry. Say it ain’t so.

Literary agents are mystical beings who live far, far away in towers guarded by dragons and evil queens who don’t want us to hire them.

A fair bit of snooping led me to at least one clue to harnessing their magic, however. It’s called a query. Since there are a kajillion posts already out there on writing query letters, and I’m bored just thinking about it, I don’t feel like writing another one right now. Go here and here and here and you’ll get the idea. Just remember query and

agent and magical unicorn salespeople.

I’m keeping the query process manageable by spacing them out. One a day, two max. That leaves me the rest of my day to write, haha, I mean chase toddlers and beg them to eat their cereal instead of chucking bowls at my dog. More to the point, it gives me opportunities to review and revise my query letter several times a week, increasing the likelihood that I’ll remember to actually target the right person and do this cool thing called “following submission guidelines.”

Happy submitting! I’m off to chase more unicorns.

Kate

*This post was originally published in April 2017.*

Why Don’t More Literary Agents Take Multiple Queries?

stacks of paper
With today’s technology enabling faster review and response times, why are so many writers content to be buried under slush mountains?

In my agency hunt yesterday, I came across a set of submission guidelines that asked new writers for two pieces at a time instead of one. Of course, this is children’s literature, not the next blockbuster trilogy, but author wet dreams notwithstanding, an open invitation for multiple work samples is still a rare request. In this maddening technological age, I can send a new story halfway around the world in a matter of minutes, yet writers are still somehow expected to wait as long as six months to be rejected so they can start the whole hellish process all over again with new material. We’re not even supposed to mention all our other works in progress, the literary etiquette gods have decreed, unless one of the gods first smiles upon us and bothers to ask.

Having been a frazzled news editor in a past life, regularly beset by pesky denizens who never read past the jump and could not write their way out of a square room with one door in it, I remain firmly convinced of the value that gatekeeping roles bring to any publication. My sympathies lie with the literary agents and editors who must routinely contend with general douchebaggery and entitlement disguised as “artistic personalities.” Yet for the thousands, if not millions, of writers aiming to publish, and publish professionally, the textbook industry wait times are nothing short of demoralizing. Nobody normal can afford to spend half a year getting ignored or rejected by agencies, more months getting turned down by publishers after an agent has finally come on board, and up to several years in revisions, preproduction, and marketing before something hits the shelves. For all the publishers busily saying they want diverse books and new voices, there seems to me to be a relative lack of acknowledgement that being able to support one’s writing habit while the cogs continue to grind so painstakingly slowly is often a rather privileged position.

Sending out more than one project to the same literary agency at the same time, or at least not having to wait for a response to the last query before sending out a new one, sounds pretty darned good. In theory, it allows for better rounded and more accurate evaluations of new authors’ writing abilities. If they’re going to reject our work anyway, they might as well be thoroughly devastating about it, right?

In practice, though, that would probably make for a gigantic slush pile. How many of us have zombie manuscripts hidden away that we might drag out for just such an opportunity? And how much longer would it then take for one starving agent (let’s call her Greta) to get around to reading our own works of sheer brilliance?

I guess I’ll recommend keeping the communal slush pile at its current size, instead of campaigning for the construction of Word Vomit Mountain.

But Greta, could you get a move on, please? We’re kinda going broke over here.

Thanks!

Kate

*This article was originally published in April 2017.*

Why This Millennial Writer Struggles With Queries

Not for the first time, it’s been dawning on me lately that my millennial writer status may be putting me at something of a competitive disadvantage.

I’m not referring to my relative (though rapidly disappearing thanks to student loans and the looming inevitable death of all we hold dear) youth, or the metric ton’s worth of crappy expectations and stereotypes previous generations have dumped upon mine. I’m simply pointing out that my patience level is, shall we say, not high. In this business, that’s not exactly an asset.

A millennial writer’s true nemesis, you understand, is not crass commercialism or an uneducated public or even a literary archrival. No, it’s that danged refresh button.

“Come on, come on, it’s been like half a day already. Has she seen my e-mail? Surely she’s seen my e-mail. Read the query, read the query, READ THE QUERY, READTHEQUERYREADTHEQUERYREADTHEQUERY!”

It’s just so freaking easy nowadays for millennial writers like me to click back and forth between windows, hitting “refresh” on blog stat trackers and e-mail inboxes every 30 seconds.

“What do you mean there’s only been 10 pageviews so far? That was a brilliant post! How do all those spam marketing sites with people who can’t write in English get so much flipping traffic, anyway?”

We may be getting a tad obsessive. Also, that little nervous habit is cutting way too much into our writing time.

This millennial writer can't stop hitting the refresh button.
This millennial writer can’t stop hitting the refresh button.

There is no way I would have survived trying to make a career of writing back in the good old days when everything always got lost in the mail both ways. If I make a change to the blog settings, my brain does know that it’s unrealistic to expect such minute tweaking to instantly boost my readership. Does that ever stop me from frantically doing CPR compressions on my refresh button? Heck no.

Nor does my complete lack of control over when other humans send e-mails even slightly make a dent in the number of times I’ve checked my messages since lunch (approximately 347, in my not-so-scientific estimation). There’s an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that opines, “The longer you wait for the mail, the less there is in it,” and right now I really feel like reaching through my screen and giving my inbox a good bopping.

Sure, the usual advice given to millennial writers in my situation is to write something else, or query someone else,  or do something else. And I’ll totally do that, right after I refill my coff–REFRESHREFRESHREFRESH! Whoops.

How do you avoid mashing the refresh button?

Kate

*This post was originally published in May 2017.*

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