Get on the Dang Bus

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I rewrite the first chapter of everything a million times. It is inevitable.

Because it comes first, it is usually garbage. I don’t know the characters well enough yet to know their thoughts and how those thoughts will affect their actions. I usually know what the character wants but I don’t know enough about the obstacles in their way in order to start planting them from the beginning.

At this point I have more questions than answers, which means everything is full of holes. I patch as I go, moving forward and backward, answering questions that lead to answers, which usually lead to more questions.

A few times in the initial drafting process I go back to the beginning and rewrite certain scenes with this knew information. The more things are illuminated, the more I have to go back and weave in those bits of light, which usually illuminates other things I hadn’t realized or thought of and basically the process is never ending.

With my latest WIP, the main character wants to be a musician. More immediately, he wants to audition for a prestigious music school. I have started this scene with him on the bus, anxious as he thinks about what he’s about to do, how he’s about to expose himself, how he might fail. But it didn’t feel urgent enough.

After I got to know him a little better I went back and rewrote the scene so that it starts with him waiting at the bus stop. He’s thinking about the sounds of his neighborhood, how those sounds live inside him. He’s worried what the judges at this fancy music school will think of those sounds. But again, there was no immediacy. The conflict was all in his head. Not out where the reader could see it, taste it, smell it, feel it.

I spent some more time figuring him out. This week I rewrote the first chapter for the third time and I started it in a completely different setting. In the first two versions my main character is just sitting there. I needed him to move. I needed this desire to literally drive him out of his comfort zone. Instead of meeting him in a passive state we find him DJing an eight-year-old’s birthday party, which is running long and possibly keeping him from getting to his audition on time.

We watch him squirm and sweat and try to balance the expectations of his real world with his desire to leave it. To become someone different. To escape his circumstances and change his life. He’s not just thinking about his fears and the possibility of failure. He’s wearing them like a second skin.

It hurts to watch and as he runs six city blocks we ache with hope for him. When he realizes that the bus has left without him, we ache with something else.

This is what matters in a first chapter: How do I make this person’s pain or hope or fear transferrable to the reader? How do I make these feelings leap off the page and hijack the heart of a complete stranger? How do I weave lies so well they are truth? The kind of truth that pricks and stings and reminds us in the best and worst ways that we are alive.

As a writer, that is my job. My only job. Make people feel because when we feel we are aware of our own consciousness, the miracle of our existence. We are reminded that feeling is the point of all of this. That it’s not enough to sit and think and dream and wonder. We have to make moves. We have to wade into the muck for those jewels. We have to put ourselves in situations that make us feel things. Hard things. Hopeful things.

Most importantly, it reminds us that we must be actors in our own lives. We have to stop sitting and waiting for life to arrive. We have to get on the dang bus even if we have to chase it down six city blocks. With every breath and every step, we have to chase this life. Even if we’re wearing our fears like a second skin, the weight slowing us down, we have to chase this life.

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When Art imitates Strife

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75,000 words in and this book is finally taking shape. Themes are beginning to emerge and the characters’ thoughts and actions are creating the conflict instead of me just dropping them into unfortunate circumstances. Things are starting to make sense.

A little too much sense.

See, I thought I was writing a story about two teenagers bonding over their love of Antonia La Singla and Diego Vargas; their dead parents and the ghosts they left behind. But it turns out I’m telling a story about what happens when those ghosts get under our skin, when we hold onto them so tightly that they become a part of us in ways we don’t even realize.

It’s a story about overcoming stage fright but it’s also about all of the other fears that hold us back–the fear of loving and being loved, the fear of letting go, the fear of leaping into the unknown.

This book has been such an agonizing slog through time and space and twisted metaphors because how can I get these characters to the other side of fear if I’m still stuck at the starting line myself? Every word is a step we are both taking towards freedom. Sometimes we get lost, we backtrack, we go in a direction that doesn’t make sense.

But the only way out is through.

I have to fight through the mess to make it something new. I have to dig through the muck of my own mind. I have to pull out the weeds. This book might not be a cure or even a sense of closure. But if I keep tilling the soil and praying for rain it might just be a safe place to plant the seeds.

How it Happens

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If you decided to play along and create your own Escape Plan over the past week you might have found yourself feeling a little silly or maybe even stupid. Admitting to yourself the true depth and breadth of your dreams can be scary. It conjures with it, not only visions of how awesome it would be to have all of these things but also how totally embarrassing it would be if you shot for the moon and ended up with nothing.

Believe it or not but these fears are actually coming from a good place. From the conscious part of you that wants, more than anything, to keep you safe. This ancient, instinctual part of you used to save our ancestors from being eaten by wild animals and eating poisonous plants. But in the modern world, this part of us has a much more difficult time sussing out what’s truly a threat and what isn’t.

This is why, during your brainstorming this week, you may have suddenly felt your heart racing or gotten a queasy feeling in your stomach. That’s because your mind and body were just trying to keep you from making a terribly deadly mistake.

But guess what? Changing careers will not kill you. Taking a financial or spiritual risk will not result in your body becoming worm food. Unless you’re into some really shady stuff, and in that case, you should absolutely tread with caution. But if you’re only interested in making art full time then you have very little, if not nothing, to worry about, despite what your ego is telling you.

With that in mind, not only did I spend some time clarifying my own vision, but I am also prepared to share it from my small corner of the internet in order to demonstrate that there is nothing silly about dreaming or hoping or believing in your own talents enough to risk public humiliation (but not death–never death) by making these things known.

You must make these things known.

You wouldn’t expect the pizza delivery guy to show up at your house simply because you were thinking about ordering a pizza for dinner that night. You have to actually place the order. You have to take some kind of action. You have to say it out loud.

Here’s a preview of the order I’m currently in the process of placing with the Universe:

This year my *dream* agent offers me representation.

We sell Pen & Xander to a diversity-focused imprint of one of the Big 5 Publishers.

Meanwhile, I finish the companion novel. They love it and offer me a multi-book deal. I tell them that I want to co-write some of the other novels in the series with other writers from POC and marginalized communities, which creates opportunities for these emerging voices to find an audience and build a career. In the process, we all become best friends and meet for writing retreats in really awesome locals.

I publish a middle grade novel, the first in a series, under a pen name. (The first draft of which is already complete)

I publish a few children’s picture books (drafts of these are also done), a poetry anthology (currently drafting), a High Fantasy series (currently drafting), and a Dystopian series (currently outlining).

Gina Rodriguez’s production company purchases the rights to my Nacho’s Tacos series of companion novels. Since there aren’t enough POC screenwriters out there, she lets me take a crack at the script. I collaborate with my former cowriters. The pilot kicks ass. Netflix orders three seasons. We bring these own voices Latinx stories to a brand new audience who become more empathetic and compassionate people as a result. Netflix orders three more seasons.

I create a podcast for Creatives who want to make art full time. I publish a self-help book that provides a step-by-step guide on how to start your own creative business and transition to being your own boss. This allows me to combine some of my favorite things–writing, teaching, and talking about finances. I provide coaching services through an online portal, which also provides community members with support, meetups, and a marketplace to sell or swap skills to help each other get to the next level.

I buy a big beautiful home in the mountains of Colorado. I develop a small part of the land and use it to host writing retreats for writers from marginalized communities. As long as you can make the trip, they’re always free.

I create a scholarship program for Latinx students who want to become teachers. I pay their tuition, as well as their living expenses during their first year of teaching. During this first year, recipients live in an awesome house together where they receive mentoring from other teachers and financial coaching in order to help them start building generational wealth for them and their families.

The people I have been able to help in ways big and small begin to pay it forward. The world becomes a better place. I am grateful every day that my life is full of meaning and wonder and passion.

If you’re like me, you might reach the end of this exercise and find that your eyes are filled with tears and that there’s this gorgeous pang of hope and longing between your ribs. Let it simmer. Let it sink so deep into your bones that the things you want belong to you as inexorably as your own DNA.

After all, our dreams have to come from somewhere. I like to believe they exist in us the moment we are made. In fact, I’d like to think that’s the part of us the Universe makes first. The blood and bones and bag of skin are all just ornamental. We are not these things.

We are wishes. Walking, talking repositories of potential. When the Universe dreams, it dreams of us. What we will do and who we will be. And when we achieve those things that have been stamped on our souls, we’re not just realizing our own purpose. We’re connecting the dots, giving meaning to everything and everyone. We’re making the Universe’s dreams come true.

This is Not a Coincidence

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About three weeks ago I began this new spiritual practice of chilling the f**** out. What does that look like? Well, it looks like daydreaming with focus and intention, taking action where I can to turn those dreams into reality, and trusting that the Universe will aid me in this quest.

Staying in that place of total trust is not easy and I am imperfect at it most of the time. But I desperately want to trust and it’s this desperation that forces me to correct myself anytime my thoughts start to drift somewhere dark and full of doubt.

Just a few days after I decided to release all of my fears and worries and start believing in the awesomeness of my own existence, I experienced some small miracles, which I blogged about in this post. You might have read that list and seen nothing more than a string of random coincidences. A few weeks earlier and I would have too. But choosing to see them as coincidences would have meant I was analyzing them through the lens of fear and pessimism.

Let’s face it, people who are afraid, people who are pessimistic are not exactly good at spotting miracles, mostly because they’re never looking for them. But if you are looking for them, you start seeing them everywhere.

Back in October of 2018 I decided to take my novel, Pen & Xander, off of all online retailers so that I could query it and try to find an agent. In that moment I had felt this tremendous urge to make a change, to take a risk. But even though I decided to do the scary thing and leap, nothing about my mindset had actually changed. I was still self-sabotaging by thinking thoughts like: If I query this and get rejected then I’ll finally have permission to distrust and therefore reject the notion of being traditionally published altogether.

That’s right. I wanted permission to stop going after this dream. So even though I was putting myself out there by querying this novel I was still doing it from a place of fear, doubt, and extreme distrust.

Another way I self-sabotaged? I only sent the novel to two agents (there were only three on my master list but one of them was closed to queries). Yeah, those odds weren’t great. But I purposefully set it up that way to increase my chances of failing. I wanted to fail because, not only would it reinforce all of my worst fears, but by manifesting those fears I could finally face them instead of living in the anticipation of them. Which is so much worse. *eye roll*

If this all sounds insane to you, that’s because it is. It is absolutely insane to try to conjure the things you fear but I would argue that most of us are engaging in this very act on a pretty regular basis. I’m just willing to admit it.

The first agent sent me a form rejection about a month after I queried. The second agent didn’t reply at all. On her website she said that if writers didn’t receive a response within six weeks it was an automatic pass. Six weeks came and went and I just assumed that I was being rejected again.

Fast forward another month and there I am, in the midst of a quarter life crisis, reading about the law of attraction and universal intelligence and having all of these epiphanies about my career and life’s purpose. Shortly after, I decide to give this whole trusting the Universe thing a shot. I make an 18-month escape plan, focusing mostly on the milestones I want to reach, the amount of money I want to make, etc., and not so much on the how. Because in the past, the how, is where I always seemed to fall apart. It’s where I crunched the numbers–time + money = never gonna happen–and inevitably discovered that what I wanted to achieve was impossible all on my own.

But I am not all on my own. Or, at least, I don’t have to be.

I’ve been working really hard to operate under this assumption for the past three weeks. I take action where I can and trust when I cannot. I believe with everything in me that as long as I am making progress, I will eventually get to my ideal destination.

Today, almost twelve weeks after I sent my initial query, the second agent I contacted sent me a request to revise and resubmit.

Now I have two choices. I can choose to view this through the lens of fear and doubt and believe that there’s no point in revising this novel, in putting myself through such a grueling process, in trying again. That responding after twelve weeks must mean this agent isn’t really interested, that the manuscript must need too much work, that I will never be able to meet her expectations with a new draft.

Or I can choose to view this through the lens of optimism and believe that trying is all I have to be willing to do in order get the things I want, it’s all I have to do to demonstrate my faith, to prove myself. And that the timing of this agent’s response is actually perfect because now I can approach this rewrite with a positive mindset that has been fortified by all I’ve learned about myself since then.

I choose to believe that this is not a coincidence.

The person I was when I wrote the TGIB series didn’t believe in coincidences, which is why my characters, two star-crossed lovers who meet and fall in love in a dreamscape of their own creation, didn’t believe in them either. It’s also why I was able to sell almost 100,000 copies of those books. Because I believed I’d written something worthy of being read. Because I believed there was no plan B. I was going to be a writer no matter what and those books were going to play a crucial role in getting me there.

I choose to believe that this is a sign that I’m heading in the right direction.

Even if this agent doesn’t offer me representation, this rewrite must be essential. A door I must pass through even though I have no idea where it leads. That’s okay. I don’t have to know where it leads. I just have to trust that if I can be courageous enough to take that step it will all be worth it in the end.

It’s a Book-shaped Thing

I started this manuscript on December 12th, 2017. I have been trying to coax out a story from this mess in my head for over a year. And today, at 7:35 PM I have finally reached 70,000 words. It is finally a book-shaped thing.

Finally.

I wasn’t sure I would ever reach the point when this story started to feel like an actual story instead of a bunch of manic vignettes about two complete strangers who refused to reveal themselves to me no matter how much I bargained or begged. I was so afraid they’d stay strangers forever. That I would never know them and therefore never get to tell their story.

But today, I had a breakthrough. In the same way I’ve been guilty of thinking too small and too narrow and too fearfully about my own life, I was thinking much too small in regards to this story. I thought it was a love story. It’s not just love story. I struggled to see past these characters’ brokenness. There was so much beauty buried underneath.

I’m finally in that creative sweet spot between knowing and surprise and it feels like that place at the mid-point of the fall when the parachute finally opens. It feels like freedom.