The Cost of Mining Memories

Mental Health, Writing Process

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Sometimes, zooming in on those experiences that make you unique; that give you something to draw from, that give you something to say, can be painful. Especially when you begin mining through memories you wish you could forget.

When it comes to writing novels, I am never short of ideas. I have entire Google docs full of them. But for some reason, it hasn’t been as easy trying to come up with an idea for another picture book. It feels like there’s this physical barrier between me and the past and the more I examined it, the clearer it became that there was a barrier and that I’d put it there.

Some people have extremely vivid memories from childhood. For me, most of the things that happened before I was around eight or nine years old have been wiped clean. As if my brain has been compartmentalizing my experiences since I was born.

This memory is soft and squishy, let’s make it easily accessible. This memory is scary and confusing, let’s bury it so deep no one will ever find it. This memory is too soft and squishy and causes discomfort, let’s hide this one too. This memory is absolutely terrifying, let’s blow it up nice and big so it will be extra noticeable.

And so on and so forth.

What this means is that my head is full of fragments. If I stare through the kaleidoscope long enough, sometimes an image starts to come through–a color, a time of day, a certain smell, the sound of someone’s voice. But that takes effort. Honestly, it takes courage. Because I don’t always know what I’m going to find. It could be something joyful, something that makes me feel safe and loved. Or it could be something cold. Something that makes me ache.

But it is only in the remembering that I can find what I’m looking for. Even if I don’t know what that is yet. This story that is still unwritten, it’s waiting for me to look through that kaleidoscope. To find it buried. To drudge it up from the dust and doubt that clings to time. Past me is waiting for current me to bust the door down and save the day. To take the mess and muck of the past and paint it into something beautiful. Something that matters.

Writing has always been a source of healing for me. But I think there’s something about writing these stories for that version of myself I can barely remember, that’s going to mend me in a completely new way. And sometimes mending hurts. Sometimes healing comes with a cost. But if we aren’t willing to pay it, what happens to those wounds? To those hurts no one else can see?

They may go into hiding again.

They may seem like they’ve disappeared.

But nothing heals in the dark.

So, eventually, all these things must come to light. And we can either turn away in fear, letting things fester. Or we can face it, fashioning the hurt into something new.

Zoom In

Writing Process

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When one of your dreams comes true, your ability to dream expands. Like a barren field suddenly drenched in rain. Things begin to sprout.

I never thought I would write a picture book. I always wanted to but it’s actually the form I find most intimidating. Because nothing is inconsequential. Every word matters. Every word must sing. And it must sing in a voice that children know. Children, who see truth more starkly than we do.

But then I got my book deal and the floodgates opened. I wanted to stretch myself as a writer. I wanted to wade into deeper waters. I wanted to try something new.

Emphasis on the word try.

My first attempt was…not good. Then I had another idea that just didn’t pan out.

But in these planning stages of a new project, I’m no longer alone. And it was the advice of my agent that finally brought me to the perfect concept. And her advice, essentially, was to zoom in. To latch onto a specific moment in time and ground the story in the specific details that make it so memorable.

When you’re writing a book for teens or tweens, you’re thinking of an age category; identifying your readers at the macro level. When you’re writing a picture book, you need to start much smaller. You’re not writing for a particular age group. You’re writing for a particular child.

Maybe that child is you. Maybe that child is your child or someone else’s. Either way, the things that child needs, the things that child deserves should be at the forefront of your mind.

When I started thinking of that audience of one, it led me straight to a memory I had forgotten even belonged to me. It was about living in a multi-family home surrounded by my mother, my grandparents, my aunt, and my cousins. All seven of us sharing a three-bedroom house. I wrote about playing in my grandfather’s workshop and family dinners and listening to my mom and my aunt gossiping on the couch.

Memories I hadn’t visited in such a long time. Memories I never would have thought could serve as inspiration for a children’s story. But here’s what I know now: My memories don’t have to be magical. They don’t have to be grand. What makes them meaningful is the fact that they’re mine.

It doesn’t make sense that the more you zoom in; the more specific a story is, the more it resonates. But somehow it’s true. Because it’s the kaleidoscope of details that make up our lives that make them worth living in the first place. Even when there’s heartache, even when the closer you look, the more it stings. These are the things that connect us.

Writing this story down was like unwrapping a gift. One my childhood-self needed. One my childhood-self deserved.

One some other child might actually get to read someday. Because I was brave enough to zoom in. To look at the cracks and tears and ripples, letting time and distance bend them into something beautiful.

Back to Drafting

Writing Process

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To go from a polished manuscript that was good enough to be acquired by an editor to a Draft 0, the plot of which is still mostly hidden behind a dense fog, is incredibly jarring.

My brain has been in revision mode since November. Now all of a sudden I’m supposed to shut off that inner critic so I can play around in the mud of this new story. That’s what a Draft 0 requires—getting dirty. But that’s hard to do when you’ve spent the past few months trying to get another story squeaky clean.

What’s helped me though is drafting a new project in an entirely different form. My WIP is my first novel-in-verse, something I’ve been dying to tackle ever since I read The Poet X a few years ago. I actually teach an entire unit over The Poet X during the fall and with each re-read, I have fallen more and more in love with that style of storytelling.

So I finally decided to give it a shot.

My next book is another YA contemporary romance told in dual POV and it includes all my favorite things—food, music, and family dynamics. But written entirely in verse.

The writing process for this project has been so different from the way I’ve drafted things in the past. Poetry is just more forgiving. There are less rules and so the mistakes are less glaring. Instead of feeling like I’m pulling teeth, finding the words has felt like playing in a giant sandbox. What I uncover is always a surprise and my energy when I sit down to work is much more curious and playful.

On a craft level, every poem has felt like solving a tiny puzzle that is part of this much larger puzzle that I don’t even know the shape of yet. And that’s exciting.

Sometimes, not knowing where a story is headed can feel like such a slog. Because no matter how many words you add to your word count, you’re doing it with the knowledge that most of that first draft is probably going to get cut. You’re going into the work knowing that you are making a blood and sweat sacrifice that may or may not pay off. You love the work or else you wouldn’t come back to it. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Especially when you know the words you’re writing are rotten; that they’re weeds that will need to be pulled sooner or later.

But writing in verse is different.

There’s less pressure and more room to explore. You’re writing moments, not chapters, and so it’s not as devastating to press delete. Because it was only just a thought. A handful of words. Not like a novel where making cuts feels like removing flesh.

When I’m writing poetry, I don’t feel like I’m making a blood sacrifice. I don’t feel like I’m losing something at all.

 

I feel like I’m planting tiny seeds.
Like I’m watching the flowers bloom.
Like I’m facing the sun.

I feel safe.

And I had no idea that I would love it this much.
I had no idea that I needed it this much.

But what a gift to make a mess and call it art.
What a gift to color outside the lines.

I thought there was only danger on the other side.
But there are no monsters. No storm clouds.

Only freedom.

I Did It

Mental Health, Writing Process

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I did it.

I turned in the first round of revisions on my debut novel. Without spiraling. Without losing sleep.

All I’d ever heard about writing under contract was that it was absolute torture, psychological warfare to the tenth degree. Agonizing. Anxiety-inducing. Almost impossible.

So when I finally got my edit letter, I’m not going to lie, I. was. scared.

But I didn’t have the luxury of procrastinating. I didn’t have the time to doubt. I just had to do it.

So I made a plan thanks to some amazing resources shared by Julie C. Dao on the Publishing Crawl website, I read through the manuscript and made my list of changes, then I set goals for my first pass. I took a four-day break before setting goals for my second pass. And then I just chiseled away at it.

Some scenes were really difficult to write and I saved those for days when I was operating at 100%. Some problems lacked clear solutions and I kept looping back to them until something clicked. Some days it was tedious and emotionally taxing. Others, the words poured out. But every time I got stuck and that voice crept in, whispering that I was never going to figure things out, that I was never going to get it right, I swatted it away. I did not allow those doubts to fester. I did not allow myself to give up.

Because I wanted so badly to prove to myself that I could do the work, that I could meet expectations, that I could survive in this industry for the long haul. That’s what these revisions were really about for me. Knowing that this isn’t still some pipe dream. Knowing that I have the discipline and the stamina and the creativity to sustain an entire career.

I needed to know that the pressure wouldn’t destroy me.

And when it didn’t, I learned something even more important about myself. That I was no longer interested in sacrificing my mental health in order to achieve. This process was going to have to work alongside rest and self-care. There would be no all-nighters. No writing while sick. So I paced myself, anticipating days of rest, scheduling grocery deliveries, and planning meals. Doing whatever I needed to in order to take care of myself so that I would actually be well enough to create.

I thought this first experience writing under contract would teach me all of the practical things I needed to know like how to manage my time, how to create a plan for revisions, how to interpret editorial feedback. Instead, it taught me that what I really need to practice is setting boundaries. Because the work will always be difficult. There will always be that sense of urgency to stay up all night. There will always be that self-doubt making me question every word. But those thoughts can come and go. If I let them. If I let them go.

And letting go is not easy. It’s terrifying.

But when I am lighter, when I don’t have my destiny in a death grip, the things I want are more inclined to come. The words show up, the fear fades, and I’m not so afraid of failing.

How I Got My Agent

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

I can’t believe I actually get to write one of these posts. I can’t believe it’s going to pop up in someone’s Google search as they’re looking for guidance/solace/inspiration while on their own querying journey.

I can’t believe how much has changed in the past ten months.

I’m not going to go all the way back to the beginning when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, and writing my first book. If you want to read about my writing journey, my self-publishing career, or any of part of this ten-year process not covered in this post, feel free to peruse this blog, which I’ve been keeping since 2012.

What I will say about self-publishing is that while it was a great choice for my earlier works, especially my paranormal romance series, there was still something about the dream of seeing my books in an actual bookstore that I just couldn’t let go of.

So when I finished the initial version of Pen & Xander and realized that it was by far the best thing I’d ever written, I started to feel this spark, this itch to take a risk. To try something new. When the initial feedback from beta readers was resoundingly positive, I knew for certain I was ready for the next stage of my career and that this was the book that was going to get me there.

I spent a couple of years completely re-writing the story, interrupted constantly by the demands of my new teaching career. By year three of teaching, I finally found my footing, and as a result the time to write. By October 2018 I felt ready to query.

I didn’t do a ton of research. Instead, I focused on agents who were very vocal online about the inequities in publishing and who were also actively working towards addressing these inequities by signing clients from marginalized communities and championing books from diverse voices.

That October I sent out two query letters to two agents of color who I really admired. One sent me a form rejection. The other gave me some incredibly helpful feedback about my opening chapter and also commented on the overall word count being too long for YA. She was right. I knew I needed to cut several thousand words but I was still underestimating the amount of revisions I still needed to do.

Between November and December I re-wrote the opening chapter using the agent’s feedback and slowly began the process of making cuts.

December was a revelatory time for me. I’d been feeling like I was stuck in limbo in terms of my writing career, not sure if I was still on the right track; if I was actually talented enough to keep doing the work. I doubted myself. I doubted my life’s choices. I realized that most of them had been made out of fear. But I didn’t want to keep doing that. All of the sudden I felt this desperation to be brave. To make a declaration to the Universe that I was ready to go full force after this dream.

By January I took another step forward. Another agent who I was interested in querying, but who was closed to submissions at the time, was offering a manuscript critique through The Manuscript Academy.

The price for feedback on the first 100 pages was pretty steep. It felt like this enormous risk. But declarations to the Universe are no good without action behind them. Dreaming requires doing. And I’m so glad I did.

That agent’s feedback and encouragement lit a fire under me and I cut 30,000 words from the manuscript in two months. Then, in March, I stumbled across some information about DVPit, a Twitter pitch contest created by agent Beth Phelan to highlight writers from marginalized communities. My manuscript was ready just in time to participate and the whole thing felt meant to be.

I had one week to come up with my pitches and I used the videos and resources on the DVPit website to help me craft each of them. It was my very first pitch that got the most likes.

I made a list of all of the agents who’d liked my pitch, narrowed it down to agents who I thought would be a good fit, and then waited for the weekend to start querying.

Meanwhile, I was still working on manifesting my dreams. On setting specific goals and giving the Universe a specific timeframe by which to deliver them. For weeks, I kept a sticky note on my computer at work forecasting that I’d have an agent by Thursday. Why did I pick Thursday? I’m not sure, but like I said, it’s important to be specific.

As you can see below, several Thursdays passed before I got my wish. But I got it!

After querying, it didn’t take long before agents began requesting the full MS. Then an agent wanted to schedule a phone call.

That agent was Andrea Morrison at Writers House!

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I want to pause here to say that I really didn’t know much about the differences between specific agencies. I couldn’t name any offhand, which meant I certainly didn’t know who represented which authors.

If you’re interested in doing some of this homework before you start querying (which, you probably should) I would suggest checking out the following resources:

  • Query Tracker: This provides detailed agent info, as well as how long they typically take to respond to queries.
  • Manuscript Wishlist: This profiles agents’ tastes and what they’re looking for.
  • Publishers Marketplace: This shows how many deals an agent has represented, what kind of deals, and sometimes for how much.

What mattered most to me in an agent was working with someone who wanted to champion work from diverse voices and someone who was kind. Other authors may prioritize the business side of things more and that’s totally okay. But I wanted to feel safe in the relationship, safe to be vulnerable with my work, and supported emotionally as much as professionally.

What really helped me make my decision was speaking with Andrea’s current clients, who all adored her, and talked a lot about how kind and patient she is. I had a rough year concerning my mental health and there were times when my symptoms felt really out of control. So kindness, and especially patience, mattered a great deal to me. I’ve been doing better lately but I will deal with mental health issues for the rest of my life and I’ve yet to attempt to manage them under the stress of traditional publishing. For that reason, feeling emotionally supported was at the top of my list.

After signing with Andrea, I celebrated with cake, of course. But it still felt very surreal. I knew my manuscript was polished but I wasn’t expecting to get an agent that quickly after the contest. At first, my anxiety tried to convince me that it was a total fluke. But now I realize that it just meant I was ready. That the Universe had been waiting for me to get out of my own way so it could start to deliver those things I desired. Like a team. Connection. An awesome agent. Oh, and a book deal!

Just four months after #DVPit, I got an agent (a dream come true), and I got a book deal (my biggest dream come true). Was there luck involved? I’m sure. But was the entire thing a fluke? Absolutely not. Because I decided in December of 2018 that this would be my new reality. And from that moment on, I didn’t just wish for it. I ran towards it, arms out wide, scared but still reaching. Until those things I longed for reached back.