Remember those back-to-school essays you were assigned, when you had to drone on about how you spent your summer? If you were like me, there wasn’t much to say—went swimming, fended off boredom (and summer boredom was the best kind), and played outside until well after dark, carrying an old peanut butter jar with you for the purpose of catching fireflies.
You probably didn’t know that those essays were diagnostic in nature—an opportunity for your teacher to assess your writing skills. How much had you progressed from the previous level? What did you still need to learn? Had you been to the library at all? (If you were like me, you had.) And maybe it was also an opportunity for your teacher to get to know a little something about your life, although I suppose by the end all the snippets of sleepaway camp and beachgoing and Disneyworld melded together like marshmallows on a stick.
Last fall, I moved back to Long Island after a near-20-year absence of full-time residence. I had written about driving off the Cross Sound Ferry and entering Orient Point, knowing there wouldn’t be a return trip to New England, or North Carolina, or anywhere else. At least not for the purpose of anything other than a visit or vacation. I hated the seeming melodrama of the statement, but I’d felt as if part of my soul had awakened from dormancy. In short, it was good to be home.
But the universe has a sense of humor. Before the year was up, I fell in love with someone who lives in Montana. And he with me. And he loves living in Montana as much as I love living on Long Island.
When we discussed the idea of my spending the majority of the summer in Billings (although we did a shitload of traveling to Seattle, Portland, Mt. Rushmore, Medora, to name a few places—we covered about eight states in four weeks, all of which I’d never previously visited), my sweetheart dubbed it “test-driving the relationship.” He’d spent a week with me in New York late spring. I’d watched him scout the surroundings—the beaches, parks, Sag Harbor, Northport, the LIE, the LIRR, the bagels, the pizza, the prices, the people—with the whispering questions: Can I see myself living here? Can I see myself loving her, day in and day out? Fortunately, the answer to both was Yes. But I owed him—and myself—the same opportunity to answer those questions regarding him and Montana. And we needed more than a week to be together.
Fortunately, my career as a full-time novelist allows me such flexibility. His, too.
Those who know me know I avoid getting on a plane for any reason not Duran Duran related. I mean, I have to really want it. Twenty-seven days apart from my sweetheart following his New York trip, and I was practically ready to fly the damn plane myself.
I arrived in Billings on June 20th, having shipped two cartons of my belongings earlier in the week, and lugging a suitcase, duffel bag, and laptop shoved in my purse. Haggard, but never so happy to see the person at the foot of the stairs in baggage claim, both of us grinning profusely, him waiting to fold me in his arms. Since the moment we left the airport, I’ve been in a perpetual “tennis neck” position, constantly twisting it left and right, taking in the panorama of scenery in Billings and Bozeman and Missoula. The Rimrocks. Sacrifice Cliff. The Crazy Mountains. Ranches full of grazing cows and sagebrush and rolling hills and badlands as far as the eye can see. A horizon set into the distance. They don’t call Montana “Big Sky Country” for nuthin’.
We took road trips and found we travel well together. Ten hours in a car ended with us laughing in that silly-stupid, overtired way rather than biting each other’s heads off. We held hands for much of the drive. We took selfies. Lots and lots of selfies. And I took snapshots from the passenger seat, looking past the windshield pock-marked with splattered bugs, and failing to capture the depth and wonder outside.
But we also lived together. We set into a routine of waking at seven a.m. (in New York I’m lucky to get out of bed at nine—I suppose the time difference works in my favor here). We made breakfast. We divvied up chores. We worked—he at his writing desk in the corner, me behind him at the table where we eat—each toiling over our respective manuscripts and puttering on Facebook (and yes, even though we’re mere feet from each other, we’ve continued our infamous banters on Facebook). We ran errands and planned meals for the week and I cooked and he did the dishes and occasionally we walked into town for an ice cream cone. We watched movies. We even had a lazy Sunday or two. You know, summer boredom.
I met his friends—lots of them—and by the time we parted company, they were my friends, too. I went to the Billings Library and the Western Heritage Center and ate nutella crepes at McCormick’s and a decadent caramel cinnamon roll at Harper and Madison. I saw places that had made cameos in my sweetheart’s novels—the Babcock Theatre, Albertsons supermarket, Grand Avenue—and learned that a traffic jam consisted of five cars queued up waiting for the train to pass.
And huckleberry! Huckleberry milkshakes, huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry chocolate bars, huckleberry dipping sauce, jam, syrup… I’m a woman obsessed.
I'm still here.
As I reflect on my summer vacation, I am making assessments. Because with each passing day, I am not at some sleepaway camp. Rather, I am connecting to a community. I am test-driving more than a relationship; I am test-driving a life. Can I see myself living here? Can I see myself loving him, day in and day out? It was no longer a matter of “seeing”—I was already doing.
Now, the looming question: Will I stay?
Almost every day of the last four months has contained a conversation about where we will live together. We are diagnostic in our approach: What are our family obligations? What are we willing to give up? What are we clinging to? What can we afford? Who needs us most?
In some instances, the variables balance out. In others, they are significantly skewed in one direction or another. I’d spent many years being single because I was content not to make those compromises that one must make when two lives merge. Today my contentment is in the challenge—making the tough decision(s) with him.
And trust me, it is a challenge. I pang for the things that made the previous nine months on Long Island so intrinsically gratifying: my mother and siblings and nieces and nephews. My grandnephew. Sunken Meadow and Sagg Main beaches. Trader Joe’s in Lake Grove and Innersleeve Records in Amagansett and Main Street in Sag Harbor. The bagels and the pizza and drives across the Island in my Volkswagen Beetle. I haven’t re-established community there yet, however. I haven’t found my people, other than my family. It’s the downside of a career that is solitary and isolating in nature.
Part of me misses home while I am in Montana. If I leave Long Island again, will that part of my soul that awakened go back to sleep? I don’t want it to, and am afraid it will.
And yet, I undoubtedly know that home is where my beau and I are together; he knows it as well. Long Island can’t be home without him, and Billings can’t be home without me. Or perhaps some yet unknown destination will be an awakening for the both of us.
With every incoming academic calendar comes a time for planning and preparation. Because of my academic background, fall was always like a new year, fertile with possibilities. A time to assess what’s been taught and needs to be taught. And I was always eager for the new semester. I was eager to teach and eager to learn. I was eager to make things happen.
Summer is almost over. We will spend much of the fall months in our separate states, save for a few events and splitting the holidays. We are dreading the time apart.
We know a decision awaits. But in the meantime, we make the most of these days. Living together. Working. Traveling. Sharing. Merging.
The view is spectacular; the horizon is distant.
You wordsmith your terms of endearment.
Him: How do you feel about “sweetheart”?
You fight about who gets first dibs on potential novel fodder.
Him: Anything that happens on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays is yours.
You write down your best (spoken) dialogue to save for the aforementioned potential novel fodder.
Him: On any given day, I’m going to strive to be 1.3% funnier than you. Anything higher would endanger your self-image.
You visit your hometown’s public library just to look for each other’s books, and are more excited to spot his than your own.
Joint author appearances = mutual endorsements.
[At our recent talk in Sag Harbor]
Free editing services.
Best. Love letters. Ever.
(Sorry. No samples here. Some things you just gotta keep to yourself.)
You became close because you told each other your stories. And you realize that you want to keep on telling each other those stories. And then tell new ones. Together.
Throughout the years, I have spent Thanksgivings, Easters, and birthdays in other places with other friends and family. But I always came home for Christmas.
The journeys began in 1995, when I left my native Long Island for college (I entered as a non-traditional-aged sophomore—25 years old, to be exact). During those undergraduate years, I packed my car at dawn following my last final exam, piled Christmas music cassettes on the passenger’s seat (I drove a 1989 Chevy Caprice Classic, lovingly and aptly named “Tanker”), and walked through the familiar front door by 12:30 p.m. The sight of the Twin Towers and the skyline from the Throgs Neck Bridge were always something of a comforting presence, like a lighthouse.
In later years, during and after graduate school, when my mother sold our house and moved to the East End, I parked the car on the Cross Sound Ferry—not quite so early this time—and sat outside on the deck for 90 minutes swaddled in layers of thermal and fleece and my old dorm-room comforter. Didn’t matter how cold or rainy it was.
When I moved to North Carolina in 2006, going home proved to be more challenging. One year I flew (and those who know me know I hate to fly). Another year I took a train. Prior to buying my beloved Volkswagen Beetle, I had to rent a car because my 1996 Oldsmobile Ciera couldn’t make it (the Caprice Classic became an organ donor for my mechanic’s muscle car). And I endured the 12+ hours of toll booths and traffic jams and the god-awful Belt Parkway as best as I could, always with the hope that I’d soon be in my mother’s house, which had come to be almost as much of a sanctuary as my childhood house had once been.
The skyline had changed over the years. When the Twin Towers came down, so did that beacon of light beckoning me back to safer shores. I was a grown-up now, with a career and student loans and an ever-increasing fortress of wisdom, the kind that can only be acquired from mistakes and experience and the passage of time. I viewed wisdom like a road map—a way to mark your current location while measuring how far you’ve traveled. “Home” had become something of a generic word, defined by whichever direction I was driving on I-95.
Because of end-of-semester responsibilities—first as a student and later as a professor—I typically departed one or two days prior to Christmas Eve. As a result, my mother waited to put up her tree. Sometimes the tree didn’t go up until the 24th. My twin brother would come over, and the three of us would exhume the dusty, antiquated boxes of ornaments—some of which are older than I am—along with lights, stockings, and the tree itself. My job was to assemble the tree and arrange its artificial branches into something more lifelike. My wombmate was in charge of stringing lights. Mom was in charge of garland and sorted through ornaments, each one with a story to tell. All this set to the yuletide soundtracks of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby and other musical staples. Sometimes we’d reminisce about Christmases from our youth. Other times we’d remain in the present moment, always admiring our decorating talents and making each other laugh. And, of course, Mom would make last-minute ornament relocations.
Because of this ritual, I’d never seen the point of getting a Christmas tree for whatever apartment I was living in at the time. I wasn’t there to enjoy it throughout the holidays, so why bother? And yet, as the years progressed, during the time period between Thanksgiving weekend and going to the East End, I found myself feeling the absence of Christmas cheer and anticipation in my cluttered dwelling of end-of-semester student portfolios and revised novel manuscripts and to-be-read books. And so, one year in North Carolina, I bought a 3-foot, pre-lit tree from Big Lots, unfurled its branches just like I did with Mom’s tree, and decorated it with the ornaments I’d been collecting for almost twenty years that had been packed and pristine. When I finished, I couldn’t help but notice that it looked like a mini version of Mom’s tree.
It did the trick, I suppose. Something to tide me over until I got to Mom’s house. At best, it was cute. At worst, it was trying way too hard.
I took that little tree with me when I relocated from North Carolina back to southeastern Massachusetts two years ago. Yet the lingering melancholy signaled that I wasn't settled.
Thus, this past fall I moved back to Long Island to be a full-time resident again. I had described the final descent from the Cross Sound Ferry as “an awakening of a part of my soul that I never realized had gone to sleep.” And even prior to Thanksgiving, when the shops in Port Jefferson were already playing Christmas music and lining display windows with twinkle lights, I had mentioned to my sister that the early commercialism wasn’t getting to me this year. “Why is that?” I asked. “Maybe because you’re here for good this time,” she replied. She was on to something.
For the first time in almost twenty years, I’m not going home for Christmas; rather, I am home for Christmas.
And so, my twin brother (of course) and I shopped for the best artificial tree we could find (he unsuccessfully persuaded me to buy a real one). No more 3-footers for me; I wanted something “grown up.” By myself (although with several loved ones keeping me company in heart and mind) and to the accompaniment of Nat and Bing and the rest, I decorated the 6 ½ -foot tree with Looney Tunes and Cookie Monster and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Duran Duran ornaments, along with baubles that had adorned my grandmother’s Christmas tree for the last thirty years (she died on December 19 last year). I even did the garland. With each ornament, if not a story, then a marker on the road map of my life. And the hope—dare I say, the promise—that a year from now, there would be a new ornament, with a new story and a new marker. And I wouldn’t be hanging it by myself.
That night, in the dark living room save for the glow of the lights reflecting off the silver, tinsel-like garland, I sat in the present moment. For the first time, the house I’m renting felt like my house. And when my niece brought my 8 ½-month-old grandnephew to see the tree—the first to see it in person (and who better?)—and his eyes widened with the magical wonder we all strive to hold on to well into our mid-forties, the tree became real, and it took root.
Readers, I'm thrilled to feature my good friend Alexis Spencer-Byers: poet, screenwriter, and editor. Her first book, Urban Verses, was a collection of poetry and prose that wonderfully captured the frailty and grace of the human spirit. Her latest collection, Another's Treasure, is more mature, more insightful, and more wondrous.
Alexis Spencer-Byers was raised in San Francisco; completed a degree in English at Amherst College in Massachusetts; engaged in various types of community development work in Jackson, Mississippi; and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she works as a church administrator and freelance copy-editor. While in Jackson, she co-founded Koinonia Coffee House, an inner-city café and community gathering place.
Meet Alexis, everyone!
Q: When did you start writing, and why? What keeps you at it today?
A: I started writing in the fourth grade, when my teacher, Mr. Kritikakos, gave the class a short story assignment. We were supposed to imagine that a famous person came to have lunch with us and write about the experience. I chose the royal family of England as my lunch guests—speculating that since Princess Diana and I shared a last name, we were actually distant cousins. This assignment introduced me to the joy of exploring possibilities beyond what I had experienced in my day-to-day life.
Later, as I continued to write stories, novels (none published and really all quite bad), and eventually poems, I discovered how wonderful writing was, not just as a way to imagine alternate realities, but as a means of making sense of actual realities. This is its main value to me today—it helps me to process the things I experience, observe, fear, wonder about, etc. As I am not at all talented in more visual arenas (drawing, painting, interior design, etc.), it is also my one shot at contributing something of beauty to the small corner of the world which I inhabit.
Q: Tell us a bit more about yourself today. What do you do for a living, what are your hobbies, and when/where do you write?
A: My vocational life is a complete hodge-podge at this point. I work part-time as a church administrator and also freelance as a writer/editor/proofreader. On a volunteer basis, I have begun serving with a few organizations in the Los Angeles area that work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth and young adults. Some of these organizations are specifically writing-focused (Street Poets and InsideOUT Writers), and it’s a real joy to see writing provide a means of creative expression, emotional release, and self validation to young people who may never have thought of their voices and stories as having value.
Does watching baseball count as a hobby? Because that is how most of my discretionary time has been spent the last few years. [Elisa interjects: Congrats to your San Francisco Giants winning the World Series!] I also enjoy various types of puzzles (jigsaw, crossword, etc.).
I mostly write at home (often after jumping quickly out of the shower, because something has suddenly occurred to me as I washed my hair), in the car (I promise I pull over before starting to scribble!), or at Street Poets’ weekly Seeking Peace poetry circles. I confess that I am not disciplined about writing a certain amount at a certain time every day. I mostly allow ideas to show up as they will, although if I notice I’m in a dry spell, I will occasionally sit myself down at a coffee house with a notebook and put myself in a sort of artistic “time out,” from which I am not allowed to emerge until I have written something.
Q: Tell us about Another’s Treasure.
A: The poems in Another’s Treasure were written over the course of nearly 10 years, but I didn’t start thinking about assembling them into a collection until about 3 years ago. I put together a manuscript over the next year or so, and then sought feedback from a few family members and fellow writers. One thought that came back was that the California section did not feel as finished as the Mississippi section did. (At that point, I had been back in California for just a couple of years, after living in Mississippi for almost 15.) So one of the challenges was to do enough California living to have more things to say about it!
The greatest challenge for me, though, is that sending my words into the world leaves me feeling incredibly vulnerable. Sharing any writing is risky, but sharing work that is largely autobiographical and very personal makes me feel like so many parts of myself (including both my writing ability and my life choices) are on display and open to judgment.
Of course, this ties in closely to the most rewarding part: having another person resonate with my experience or ideas. There is nothing quite like hearing someone say, “I’ve felt just like that. Thank you for putting it into words!”
Q: What's the coolest place your poetry has taken you to? It could be a place, or an experience, or even a person/people you've met because of your poetry.
A: This is such a great question! While it’s a bit strange to call juvenile hall “cool,” I think that’s going to have to be my answer. For many years, I had been concerned about violence among young people and the high rates of juvenile incarceration in the U.S., but I hadn’t found a way to involve myself in work to address these issues. Then, shortly after moving to Los Angeles, I made the acquaintance of some folks who served with an organization that ministered to incarcerated youth. They told me that many of the young people they interacted with were interested in poetry (which seemed highly unlikely to me, but who was I to question their testimony?), and they suggested that I come visit one of the detention facilities with them. When I did so, I discovered that they were absolutely correct—for many of these youth, writing is a lifeline that helps them survive their time in detention and allows them to imagine a future different from what they’ve experienced previously. It has been my privilege and joy, over the last couple of years, to assist a few young people in compiling collections of their writing, and to encourage numerous others more generally to continue developing their talents and voices. I’ve also met a number of “alums” of various facilities/programs, and they are both powerful writers and amazing people.
Q: Why do you think poetry survives, in this day and age of TV, video
games, YouTube... ?
A: I think that as human beings, we long to connect and identify with other human beings. As I mentioned before, poetry is often very personal writing—a way of sharing our own experiences, emotions, questions, etc. There’s an intimacy to it that can make both writer and reader feel a little less alone in the world. Obviously, we can get some of this sense of connectedness—along with the entertainment—from video content as well, but maybe this is another pacing thing. We experience video at the speed at which someone else decided we should experience it (unless we take the trouble to slow it down). Poetry—written poetry, anyway—we can take in at our own pace and mull over until it’s had a chance to settle deep within us and work its healing/inspiration/affirmation/challenge/comfort/what-have-you.
So remember that manuscript I submitted to my publisher? Here's what happened to it...
Right off the bat, my acquisitions editor expressed concern that the genre was too Young Adult. I hadn't set out to write a YA novel. Rather, my protagonist just so happened to be a sixteen-year-old girl, one that my readers had already been introduced to. What I had done was write not a sequel but a spinoff of She Has Your Eyes.
After passing on Love, Wylie (yes, I'm finally ready to reveal the title!) to another imprint* who rejected it, my acquisitions editor also decided to pass on it.
Here's where I say, "Thems the business, kid."
And it is. None of the editors who read it had anything to say against the writing or the story. In fact, they liked both very much. However, neither believed the novel was "a good fit" for the imprint.
This frequently happens in publishing. I can't tell you how many agents/editors said the same thing about Faking It when I'd first submitted that manuscript. I finally got to the point where I thought, "Well heck, it fits with me-- I can sell it!" And I did. Doing so led me to my current publisher (with whom it fit very well), and here we are today, over 100,000 sold ebook units later.
I'm not going to lie--this rejection stung like hell. I really, really wanted the support of my publisher for this one. In terms of craft, I believe in the story. Furthermore, I believed, from a business standpoint, that Love, Wylie would capitalize on my previous best-selling books. I still do. I was massively disappointed to get the news, especially after months of waiting.**
But as I recently mentioned to a good friend and fellow author, we didn't get where we are because we settled on one way of doing things.
And in the same way I believed in Faking It's potential over five years ago, I believe in the potential of this novel. And so, once again, like I did with Faking It, Ordinary World, and more recently, Friends of Mine, I'm independently publishing Love, Wylie, solidifying my status as a "hybrid" author.
If all goes well, I'm planning a late winter-early spring release. I'm excited to work with my developmental editor after I relocate to New York in the fall. And I'll be calling on you -- my kickass readers -- to get out the word when the time comes.
So here's to Love Wylie--may she follow in her parent novels' footsteps!
* An imprint, in this case, is a named division of the same company that typically targets a specific genre. For example, I'm published with Amazon Publishing's imprint, Lake Union. They also have imprints Montlake for Romance, 47 North for Science Fiction, Skyscape for YA, and so on.
**Please don't take this as a slight against my publisher. I still have a terrific relationship with the entire team at Lake Union, and am grateful for all they've done for me -- namely, allowing me to be able to do what I love full time. I'm looking forward to working together on future novels.
In honor of National Duran Duran Appreciation Day (August 10, 2014, for those not in the know), I'm giving away a signed copy of Friends of Mine: Thirty Years in the Life of a Duran Duran Fan to five lucky winners chosen at random. Click on the link above to enter! (Drawing closes on August 10, 2014.)
Also, the Kindle edition will be available for $1.00 on August 10th. ONE DAY ONLY!
Tell all your Duran Duranged friends!
Can you believe we're halfway through the summer already? I can't. As quickly as the time has flown by, I'm sure the rest will go with the same speed.
I kicked off my summer with a visit to Long Island. In addition to a fun Friends of Mine reading at Innersleeve Records in Amagansett (and you haven't lived until you've listened to the Rio album on a good sound system!), I spent the week with my brother Mike at his recording studio conducting research for a new novel. I think I've had this one in me for quite some time, and the inspiration finally came. Mike and I have always had a mutual respect for each other's work and creative process, and I've learned an awful lot. He's also been extremely patient with me, especially when I text him stupid questions. My research continues in other ways, including listening to a lot of records. (A writer's life is so hard!)
As excited as I am about this story and these characters, I'm also intimidated as hell by them. I'm always anxious to "get it right" with every book, but I feel like I'm even more desperate to master this one. It's the challenge I've been needing. Already it's kicked my ass in several ways -- for one thing, the first half of the story already needs an overhaul. It's also more technical and detailed, neither of which are my strengths. I completed a much rougher draft at this stage, with a lower word count than usual. On the other hand, I've also completed some other pre-writing activities that I also don't normally do at this stage, including an outline and a character bio. I think it's ready for marinating, although just this morning I rushed out of the shower just to make some additional notes...
As for the NaNoWriMo novel that I submitted to my publisher back in April... well, I'm still waiting to find out whether it's been accepted. This is the business of publishing. Sometimes you wait a while. Thing is, I still don't know the manuscript's fate. I'm hoping for an answer very soon, and I'm hoping it's good news. I've also got two other books in the works, one fiction and one non. I find it very difficult to work on multiple projects at once. So my practice has been to let one rest and pick up another one, send one to beta readers and then go back to the first, or pick up something new, and so on. I've never had this many open projects at once -- then again, this has been an unusual year for me all around in terms of writing practice. Of course I want to get the next thing to you as soon as possible, but I also want to make sure each one is in its best form so your wait will have been worthwhile. None are there yet, but I know they will be.
Some big news to share on the personal front: I'm moving again! After spending two years in a rather ideal location in southeastern Massachusetts, literally around the corner from the water, it's time for me to go back to my native Long Island. I think it's where I'd wanted to be all along, and I'm finally ready to take that leap. Equal parts scary and exciting, as has been the case with every move.
So what does that mean for the rest of the summer? PACKING! But I hope to have some fun along the way, keep in touch with you all, and unleash even more havoc in the fall.
Happy Summer, folks! Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep pickin' up those good vibrations.
At the moment of this writing, I'm holed up a a hotel in Virginia -- I'd like to say it's for authorish reasons-- like, I'm shut away from the world so I can work on my latest masterpiece, or pulling all-night editing session. But I can't.
Truth is, it's raining outside. A lot. I'm en route to North Carolina for back-to-back speaking gigs at Wonderland Book Club and WriteNow! 2014, and the weather is not cooperating. So given that my car isn't a suitable flotation device and I'm a wuss when it comes to thunderstorms, I'm waiting for the wrath-of-whatever-from-high-atop-the-thing to end its rant.
It occurred to me that it's been awhile since I last updated you on the status of my NaNoWriMo novel (and I like that this is simultaneously turning into a bit of an anatomy-of-a-novel series), and now would be a good time.
In short, I spent most of the winter months revising the manuscript. I recruited three beta-readers (all females this time around, although I usually like to get the guy's perspective as well) who gave me excellent feedback. I find it interesting when readers all hone in on the same spot(s) in terms of what needs work, and sometimes it's a scene or chapter that, for me, was working pretty well (until they get me to see it from their point of view). From there I worked even further to iron out the kinks they highlighted, and further strengthened what already worked.
I had set a self-imposed submission deadline of April 1st, but didn't submit the manuscript to the publisher until mid-April. My goal is to get the manuscript as close to publication-ready as possible when I submit, although I knew this manuscript still needed the keen eye of my developmental editor. (That's my way of saying the manuscript still needs a bit of work.) Many of you have probably heard the phase (threat?) "publish or perish" uttered in academic circles -- I believe it exists in the world of commercial fiction too, only I think the pressure is self-inflicted. It's a tough balancing act -- as authors, we don't want to let our readers down, and we don't want them to wait too long between books (or is this just our egos not wanting to be forgotten?); however, we also don't want to rush quality. I'd rather my readers tell me my book was worth the wait than reading it sooner and being disappointed with what clearly reveals a rush job.
So, where does that leave me (and my manuscript)?
I'm waiting to hear from my acquisitions editor, and hopefully it will be good news. Past publishing successes don't automatically guarantee you carte blanche -- a manuscript can still be rejected for any number of reasons. Rather than turn my attention to a new/existing project in the interim, I've decided to take a little time off. Clear my head. Read other people's manuscripts. Catch up on my fellow authors' works as well. Spend time with family. I think it's good for the creative process to take breaks. Sometimes an extended break is the best kind. On the outside, we may seem to be doing nothing. But trust me, something's cooking up there in my head. Even when I don't know it.
As a result, I've not been on Facebook or Twitter much (cue Simple Minds's "Don't You Forget About Me"). I seem to be at my social networking best when I'm procrastinating in my responsibilities. Or maybe time off is time off -- from everything. (Social networking is part of my job, after all.) I won't be gone for long.
Meanwhile, although the view outside my hotel window is gloomy and wet, the view inside my head is bright and dry (see photo below). Not to mention tranquil. And somewhere in that picture, two characters (who probably have no business being together) are walking and talking.
That's a good place to be.
Heather and I met and became friends under unusual circumstances--a Facebook group page! Since then we've shared laughter and tears, a fabulous day in New York City, another fabulous day in Cape Cod, and a devotion to cheesecake. That we live in different countries hasn't marred our friendship one bit.
Heather has also been one of my biggest fans and supporters. She was one of the few who witnessed my whirlwind success as it unfolded, and one of the early Faking It readers when it was still a self-published book. Likewise, I've cheered Heather on and have been delighted to watch her own writing career take off. She's the author of several poetry books, a screenplay, and her debut novel will be released just in time for beach reading.
When Heather asked me to participate in her blog hop, I wanted to support her, but I've done these blog hops several times, answering the same questions. I think my readers are sick of reading those answers, especially the "I'm secretive about my works in progress." I shared this with Heather, and told her that I'd really prefer to feature her instead. As a compromise, she gave me four new questions to reply to after I featured her answers.
And so, without further ado, here's my friend and fellow author, Heather Grace Stewart:
What are you working on?
I am excited to say that I’m currently “in final edits” on my adult fiction/women’s fiction novel, Strangely, Incredibly Good, with my publisher Morning Rain Publishing. Gosh, I love being able to say that! I got the best Christmas gift ever when they sent me a publishing contract for Strangely, Incredibly Good on December 23rd, 2013! I’m also thrilled that we haven’t revised much from my original manuscript. We’re just looking to clean it up and make it shine now. It is due to be launched on June 5, 2014.
When I’m not working on edits for that book, I’m coming up with the plot for my next book. I can’t say much about that. You’ll just have to wait. :D
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I hope that people will say it has more humour than most other women’s fiction novels. I also hope they find it’s more of an escape. It’s about a woman who starts an exercise routine and discovers a genie in her Wii machine! It’s definitely fanciful, but that’s what I set out to do. I wanted it to be based in modern reality, but allow for the characters to escape that reality – and take the reader along with them on that fanciful journey. It’s more adventure packed than some other books that are considered women’s fiction, I think, but then, I didn’t write it specifically for women – I wrote it for myself, and my friends and family, with hopes that many people from diverse backgrounds, men and women, would pick it up and enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Why do you write what you do?
I write to entertain myself, first and foremost. It’s pure entertainment for me. When I’m writing a longer work of fiction like this, I’ve noticed the TV remains off for several weeks at a time, or, only one or two shows pull me in a couple times a week (I do need to watch some times to recharge my batteries after writing all day)!
The topics I choose to write about – in my poetry and in fiction like Strangely, Incredibly Good - are all themes I feel need more discourse in our society. I want to get people thinking and talking about these themes. Sometimes, I just want to poke fun of our society and get us all laughing at ourselves. Other times, I’m more direct, and I’m trying to incite change. This novel was really meant as an escape for the reader, and as a form of entertainment, but there are some themes and sub-themes in there I hope get dissected to pieces in Book Clubs across Canada and beyond. As long as you have some wine in hand and don’t take my book too seriously! The last thing I want is to cause cat fights at Book Clubs!
Side note: My main character’s name is Cat. This could get interesting. We could actually call debates over that character – debates over her actions and what they mean – Cat Fights.
See? I’m having waaaaay too much fun with this book. I may never watch The Bachelor again!
How does your writing process work?
The only hard and fast rule I have is to write something every day. If I’ve got a lot of marketing to do, or maybe I’m prepping a writing workshop like the one I just did at Queen’s University, I still set aside half an hour every day to write creatively. I don’t always like what I wrote, but I save it in a file, and work on it the next day, and the day after that.
When I was working on this novel, I got to my desk every morning at 7:30 a.m. and wrote until noon. That’s a little trick I learned when I read that Hemingway did that. Then he went fishing every day at noon. I choose to have lunch, Tweet, check Facebook, do yoga, take a walk, read, or do laundry! Then I get back to other work tasks.
The first week or so of writing Strangely, Incredibly Good, I just wrote. I didn’t edit at all. I tried to not even edit my sentences as I put them down, let alone re-read what I wrote and edit that paragraph or paragraphs. I just wrote. I had an idea, and I saw the beginning, so I wrote that. And then I kept going.
When I got to about 5,000 words, I took a look at what I had, and started plotting. I had cue cards, and a filing system, and filed items on plot, main characters, sub characters, etc. I plotted out how the story was going to end, but I did so in a vague way. My story wasn’t solidified yet. I still had to write and find out what was going to happen.
So, I got back to writing, and worked at a slow but steady pace. Some days I put down 1,000 words; other days, more like 1500. I never wrote beyond that because I never wanted my writing to sound tired.
Once I was finished my book, I spent weeks going over it and massaging it for language, plot development, and character development. Then I wrote up my query letter and started looking for a publisher. This is the first time I’ve found a publisher for my work this quickly. I sent my letters out in early November, and received this request for publication just before Christmas. It doesn’t usually happen like that, trust me. But it does feel meant to be.
This is one experience where I can say I’ve definitely enjoyed the journey, the writing, as much as the destination of getting published.
And now... my turn! Here are the questions Heather gave me, with my responses:
How has your writing process changed from one book to another?
Now that novel-writing is my sole full-time job, it doesn’t take me as long to finish a book. There’s also more pressure to publish now—I don’t want my readers to wait too long between books. I worry that I rush the process.
That said, my process hasn’t changed too much, although I find myself more willing to work with outlines than I did in the past. However, outlining doesn’t come in until well after the first (or even second) draft(s), and it’s a very basic outline. Sometimes I’ll use it for timeline issues, and other times I’ll use it to map out the story and/or character arcs.
How has your writing career surprised you?
Interesting question! I’m constantly blown away by the success I’ve had. Ask me how it happened and I still couldn’t give you an exact account. I’m also surprised by the various rewards I continue to reap, be it in the form of friendships, new opportunities, independence, or royalties.
What was your greatest challenge in writing She Has Your Eyes?
I was terrified of letting my readers down. They’ve grown to love these characters as much as I do, so I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. There were also some emotional scenes that still make me tear up when I read them.
Why the fascination with Pop Tarts? No seriously, go into great detail about how the love began and why it continues? :)
HA! I remember thinking they were the coolest things when I was a kid. I loved the talking toaster in the commercials. I think my love for them now is probably a way to stay connected to my inner child. Plus, they’re yummy! (Well, most of the flavors are. I’ve tried a few that I could live without.) And it’s fun to say. I’ve tried knock-off brands, and even tried making my own, but none come close to beating the Kellogg’s brand. They’re still the original and the best.
Heather Grace Stewart's first novel comes out this June, but she is best known for her poetry, which includes: “Three Spaces”, “Carry on Dancing”, “Leap”, and “Where the Butterflies Go.” In 2012, she published the screenplay, “The Friends I’ve Never Met”, which has been well received on both Kindle and Kobo. Her two non-fiction books for youth are part of the Warts & All educational series on Canada’s Prime Ministers.
She has written for a wide range of magazines, including Reader’s Digest and Canadian Wildlife magazine. Her column in the Queen’s Alumni Review magazine, Grace’s Grads, was created in September 2005.
Heather’s poems have been published in Canadian literary journals, newspapers, and magazines, Canadian and British school textbooks, audio CDS, online journals, international print anthologies, and in the British small presses. She was awarded Queen’s University’s McIlquham Foundation Prize in English Poetry and the UK journal Various Artists’ “The Poet’s Poet” Award (2008 & 2012).
Heather can be found on Facebook, Twitter , her blog , and her website. Her women's fiction/general fiction novel “Strangely, Incredibly Good” will be released by Morning Rain Publishing on June 5, 2014.
It's been three months since I celebrated my "win" -- 50,000 words of a novel. I promised I wouldn't stop there; I'd take you through the entire process, from draft to publication (if the novel is so fortunate to get that far).
So, what has this work-in-progress been up to all this time? Well, it's been marinating. Sitting in a metaphorical drawer while I dabbled in other things. Writers need distance from their drafts, especially first drafts. They need to return to it with fresh eyes and an objective perspective. What felt like fabulous writing at the time may reveal itself to be a load of suckage. What originally looked like dirt may turn out to be gold.
When it comes to a first draft, my process is typically to pour it all onto the page: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I don't expend too much time stressing over word choices or carefully mapping out scenes. That comes in revision. Keep in mind that this is not the way all writers write, or a rule of any kind. It's simply the way it works for me.
Once the draft is done and it's marinated (and three months is a rather ideal marinating period), my next step is to print out the entire manuscript (this one came out to 196 pages, double-spaced), pull out what was once my grading pen, and read the draft from start to finish, annotating along the way. No page goes unmarked--that's not a rule, just a reality. Most of my notes typically take the form of questions--I'm talking to the text, as well as to myself, from reader to writer. When I like something, I'll make a check mark. Always nice to see those check marks. When I don't like something, I'll try to identify the problem. Wordiness is often the biggest offender, along with too much "telling" and not enough "showing," and repetition of words, phrases, action, etc. The best is when I've made myself laugh, or even cry. I note that as well.
What's cool is when the notes come to me when I'm not reading -- driving in my car, standing in the shower, waiting to fall asleep. I have to find a away to get the note out of my head and on paper, somewhere, so I'll remember it.
First drafts are shitty--no getting around it. Nothing wrong with that. As long as they've got potential. As long as, while I'm reading it, I think, "Yeah, I can work with this."
And I'm happy to say, I did, and I can. I remembered how excited I was about certain parts during the drafting process, how much I liked one character in particular. I was pleased to see he didn't lose any of his appeal. If I don't fall in love with my characters (especially the guys), then I've not done my job. I was in love with this guy the moment he appeared on the page. That didn't change three months later. I was also pleased to see that it was in better shape than I'd initially thought.
I finished reading and annotating the entire manuscript in three days.
The verdict: It needs work (duh). The last twenty pages were in the roughest shape. It's also going to need a new title (which disappoints me, because I initially loved the title I'd come up with. However, I think I can salvage that title for a future project). But I'm excited to begin the revision process, and that's an excellent sign. I'm excited to dig in and play in the sand. For me, that's where the work is, the blood, sweat, and tears of writing. The joy is there too. (And chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.)
I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.