How it Happens

Life, Writing

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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.

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Indie Life 07-09-14

Indie, Life, Writing

It’s time for another edition of Indie Life, hosted by The Indelibles. You can sign up by clicking the graphic! IndieLife7

It’s my return to Indie Life! While I wish I could say I’ve been slacking on these posts because they no longer apply to me and I’ve just signed a million dollar contract with some fancy New York agent, the truth is being indie is the very reason I’ve hardly had time to keep up with blogging at all. Because being indie means financing all of my own projects and since I’m not selling thousands of copies of my books a day, that means I have to work. A lot. I took on a second job in the Spring, bringing my total hours to just shy of 60. And that brings me to today’s indie gripe–the unpredictability of life.

I know this is a law of the universe that effects all of us but one of the most tedious and important parts of being an independent artist is being organized. There are a lot of spontaneous artists out there who rely on divine inspiration rather than deadlines and who create only when they feel like it, abandoning it as soon as it starts to feel like work. But the success and the fulfillment doesn’t come to those who quit. Those things are reserved for finishers and if you’ve been doing the indie thing for any length of time, you’ve probably got finishing down pat.

See, I have a formula for finishing and it goes a little something like this: writing every day+reading every day=books. Pretty simple, right? When I’m living my life within the parameters of this routine a magical kind of momentum is created and it’s the secret to how I’m planning on finishing four novels this year. FOUR WHOLE BOOKS that will be the hard-earned result of extreme dedication and a devoted work ethic. But despite my diligence and despite my deadlines, there is always the chance that something will go awry and sometimes that something isn’t small. Sometimes that something is big and important and needs your immediate attention. Sometimes you will have to set your art aside and find a second job shelving library books just so you can pay your bills.

It’s a sad truth but a truth nonetheless. Because unfortunately for us indies, there is no amount of want or need or hard work or deservedness that can make pursuing our dreams a totally seamless endeavor. Even when we put the work in every single day, without a huge publisher behind us or a huge readership, there will always be the chance that things will go wrong, or other responsibilities will stand in our way. That’s just a part of being indie. We are in a constant state of choosing, swapping out needs and responsibilities based on what we can physically and mentally accomplish that day. Sometimes after a long day of working our regular 9 to 5 job, we only have enough energy to do laundry and our manuscript gets pushed to the side. On other days we might have to make the hard decision to miss coffee with friends just so we can meet a self-imposed deadline. But regardless of how stringent we are when it comes to doing what we love, let’s be honest, until we’re paying the mortgage with our writing, that time will always be up for debate. Not because we don’t believe it’s important but because we’re only human and there is only so much we can do.

So maybe this week’s indie gripe isn’t really about being indie at all. Maybe it’s really about the modern day juggling act we’re all trying to master, the balance between surviving in this world and thriving in it getting harder and harder to achieve. Today was one of those hard days. But even though I have several looming deadlines and the thought of not making any progress on my WIP today ties me in a knot, I will forgive myself. Because I’m indie. Because I’m human.

23

Life, Writing

Last Saturday was my 23rd birthday. Twenty-three… That’s closer to 25 than 20, which means that I’m almost to the halfway point of my Twenties, which means that I’m almost to that dreaded millennial quarter life crises. And it is real. Trust me, I can already feel it looming, like I’m nothing but a spark traveling down a fuse and the only thing that is going to stop that bomb at the end from detonating is…I don’t know. I know what I want to achieve by the time I’m 25 and I know what I want to have and do and say and create but even if I do accomplish all of those things, will that level of “success” be enough? Will any success I ever have be enough? So then how do I measure the past year of my life? How do I measure the years to come?

Last year my birthday plans got derailed by real life and when it came to celebrating this year I didn’t even attempt something grand. In fact I didn’t even want it. Because I didn’t need it. Last year I felt robbed and angry as if adulthood was some thief in the night who had come and taken all of my joy. This year I actually found satisfaction in all of the sacrifice and responsibility. So even though another year has gone by without bringing an end to my artists’ struggle, so much has changed. Mentally and emotionally I’ve learned to embrace the fear and the sacrifice and the delays and the unpredictability of life. I’ve learned to embrace the challenge that is creating. I’m not perfect. I still get overwhelmed and wish that giving up was an option. But it’s not. Because through all of the growth and all of the changes, it’s my spirit that has changed the most and that has made all the difference.

So now in no particular order, here are all of the insane and intriguing insight from the past 365 days I spent as a twenty-two-year-old from the cheesy to the overly-dramatic to the disappointingly true.

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22

The Indie Experiment-The Dream

Indie, Life, The Indie Experiment, Writing

My Indie Journey From Start to Finish:
The Indie Experiment:The Beginning
The Indie Experiment:The Decision
The Indie Experiment:The Teacher
The Indie Experiment: The Truth

The Indie Experiment: The Dream

It took me four years, a million drafts, two independent study courses, and time in another state to write and finally finish The Things They Didn’t Bury.The idea originated my senior year in high school and I nurtured it and explored it through my entire college experience and after each personal evolution, the story experienced a new evolution as well. I wrote every week and then every day, getting words down in a fury through my father’s illness and then picking them apart after every new creative writing course each semester. In the beginning there was no end goal, not even to finish, but as an end finally started to reveal itself I couldn’t type a word or take a step without doubting it. And this was when I realized that I did have a dream for this story and it was more than just to create or to finish, it was to write something good.

In the beginning this story was not good. It was muddled and shallow and all over the place but something inside me just wouldn’t give up on it. A lot of writers  have abandoned their first book, so many that some people even consider it a right of passage. I used to think that I’d managed to skip that step of my artist initiation but when I look back at the story I ended up with versus the story I started with, I realize that I didn’t skip a thing. The Things They Didn’t Bury is not the same story I began writing my senior year in high school. Everything from the location to the plot changed completely with the exception of just the characters names. By the time I actually finished the novel it had had several other identities, all scrapped, and all for good reason. But the point isn’t how many novels I abandoned in the process, the point is that I kept writing no matter what. When I realized that even after I finished this novel that I wouldn’t be able to stop writing I knew that it was time to come up with a plan.

Sometimes we steal dreams and sometimes we stumble across them but when a desire that big takes hold of you there’s really nothing you can do except follow it. By the time I finished my first novel I’d already declared my major and had already made the decision to pursue writing professionally. What I hadn’t decided on was how. I’d taken journalism courses, news writing courses, short story writing, poetry workshops, fiction and non-fiction writing, writing for feature films, and script writing courses, and while each method and medium spoke to me I couldn’t deny the connection I felt to the challenge of fiction writing. There was something so romantic about it and the process itself allowed for the kind of spiritual exploration I was desperately craving. I knew that I wanted to write novels and after sharing one of the earlier versions of The Things They Didn’t Bury with one of my professors he gave me some advice on querying–something I had no idea I even needed to do.

I put it off, letting the story experience a few more evolutions before I finally started to do some research. I looked into agents, trying to find a good fit, something that proved ridiculously difficult as I’d written my entire novel without a definite genre in mind. In a lot of ways, letting the novel grow as it needed to without trying to fit it into some kind of box left me with something really unique. But on the other hand it made it really difficult to pitch. I went into querying totally blind, seeking out agents who had even a smidgen of interest in multi-cultural fiction that wasn’t easily categorized. I don’t really remember how many emails I originally sent out but I do know how many personal responses I got. Zero. Every response I received was automated and could be summed up in two words: “No thanks.”

I was deflated but not necessarily devastated. The entire process was pretty exhausting but I also considered it more of an experiment rather than a genuine attempt. Part of me had always thought that the story wasn’t ready but that was mostly because I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t grown enough as a writer yet but luckily since I was only nineteen, I still had plenty of time for that. Other writers might have chosen to abandon the story at that point or at least to start something new and try to move on but I just couldn’t see myself letting it go for good. I worked on it sporadically, picking at it mostly, but not ready to do another round of re-writes. In the meantime I shifted my focus to short stories and after randomly deciding to enter a contest hosted by a small press, something pretty crazy happened. I actually won. And so began my first and only experience as an almost “traditionally” published author.

After I won the short story contest and collected my prize money, which wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of one of my textbooks, the acquisitions director asked me if I had any other short stories that I might be willing to let them include in one of their upcoming anthologies. I was totally naive and so over the moon about someone actually thinking that I was good that I sent them over two more stories to include in their collection. After they read the other stories they asked me if there was anything else I was working on and I told them about my novel in progress, the one I was still nursing a sore heart over having been rejected by all of my dream agents. Obviously I was in a somewhat vulnerable place so when they offered me a contract I was elated. Long story short, after taking the contract to my professor for his opinion, I realized that this small press was one step above a vanity press and that they were basically trying to rob me blind.

I decided to stop querying at that point or even entertaining the idea of being published until I was finished with school and had a little bit more experience. But even in the midst of attempting to take a break I still couldn’t move on from the story completely. Not yet. So I decided to give it another go, one more round of extensive re-writes to try to turn the story into what I’d always hoped it would be. After graduation I moved to Florida for about a year and a half and during that first year all I did was work on this story. It was the perfect timing and without things like school or friends or money I could focus completely on my work. I also found my very first critique partners online, whose help was so invaluable, especially since no one had read any incarnation of the story except for my professor. Working with other writers and setting deadlines for myself to query again by the Spring made me feel not just like a writer but like a grown-up. I learned so much about the importance of being self-disciplined and holding myself accountable for making my dreams come true. Because this was my dream. Somehow it had evolved from just being a passion to being a commitment, something I woke up every day with the intention of working towards. I had expectations and I had goals, and not just word counts or meeting deadlines. I wanted to be published. I wanted to write full time. All of these things were what pushed me to not only re-write the story, basically from scratch, for the hundredth time but they also pushed me to query again even after failing the first time.

When I queried the second time I was confident. I knew the story was good and that I’d reached a new level creatively. I knew that it had potential, that I had potential, and I knew that if someone would just give me a chance I could prove to them that I was in this for the long haul and that I was capable of building something even greater than just this novel, but an entire career. Unfortunately no one gave me that opportunity. Again I’d put my heart and soul on the line and again all I’d gotten in return was a bunch of automated messages from agents who didn’t see the same potential in this story that I did. And this time it actually hurt. Not a lot but a little bit. I felt the sting of rejection but even worse than that was coming to terms with the fact that this story I’d spent the past four years of my life working on may never be read.

That was the hardest part of all of it, the fact that this piece of me, this thing that had dragged me out of so much darkness, wasn’t considered worthy enough to be shared with the world. But I knew it was worthy. I knew it was important. I’ve written about some authors referring to special projects as “the book of your heart” or about having to shelve novels that mean more to them than anything they’ve ever written. Some artists might be capable of that, of abandoning things for no other reason than the fact that someone else doesn’t think any money can  be made from it. But I just don’t work that way. I think when something speaks to you or through you in a way that changes your entire life, that thing is no accident. Me writing this novel was no accident and if the experience of writing it was so revelatory, how much greater are the odds that reading it will be just as powerful? So I couldn’t abandon this story. In fact I downright refused. And even though some people might think that I made a mistake by striking out on my own or that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and/or talking about, I have come away from the entire experience having learned a very important lesson about defiance. That sometimes defiance is good. That sometimes it is brave and right and true. Sometimes a little defiance makes all the difference.

The Importance of Daily Declarations

Life, Writing

When it comes to writing, and more importantly finishing, momentum is everything. Like they always say, an object in motion tends to stay in motion while in object at rest tends to stay at rest. It’s pure science, ya’ll. Another universally known scientific fact? Procrastination is a disease. The good news? It’s not incurable.

Without my routine I’m like a buoy in the breeze, my direction and motivation constantly changing according to my emotions, my circumstances, and whatever interesting website I happen to stumble upon on the internet. It’s a dangerous environment and while “freedom” is, in so many people’s minds, synonymous with creativity and inspiration, the truth is the muse must be harnessed like every other beast of burden. The muse should work when we say it’s going to work and not the other way around but the only way to accomplish this is to stop making excuses and start cracking the whip. This means that setting crystal clear and achievable expectations is a must. But not just for each story or each draft but for every minute of every day.

Holidays always have a tendency to derail my focus and sometimes it takes me weeks to find my motivation again. But just because something’s been displaced doesn’t mean it’s been lost. In my opinion, finding your focus is all about the preparation. Every day I sit down at my desk and I know everything I’m going to accomplish that day and in what order. Lists and plans don’t wok for everyone but having a clear direction is crucial. But not only do I know what I’m going to accomplish and when, I also know how long I’m going to spend on each task. In the mornings I give myself an hour and a half to write 1k-2k on my contemporary romance and then after lunch I give myself four hours to write 3k-4k on my YA series. If I don’t reach my goal in time, I leave it be. But what I’ve realized after setting these benchmarks for myself, is that after a while I tend to rise to my own expectations. When I’m out of practice it would take me up to six hours to write three thousand words but after getting used to my routine and my self-imposed obligations, I’m cranking it out in half the time.

But maintaining a routine isn’t just about showing up every day and doing the work, it’s also about finding balance. Some days the internet swallows me like a black hole and when I finally find my way back out, the laundry’s turned sour in the washer and my lunch has calcified. It’s a dangerous place, and as temperamental Creatives who are constantly looking for an excuse not to do the one thing we love most in the world (Can you believe how messed up we are?) it’s imperative that we learn how to navigate every distraction in a healthy way.

When we find ourselves getting easily distracted, or seeking out any excuse to avoid writing, it usually means one thing–that we’re lacking balance. Everyone’s heard the expression “work hard, play hard” but in the context of creative work, these lines can sometimes get blurred. When I’ve hit my writing stride, I can hibernate for days with a story, typing until my fingertips are raw and forgetting to engage in even the most basic necessities such as eating and sleeping. And I think a lot of us find ourselves working in this same pattern of extremes. When the writing really gets going we gorge ourselves on words and the second we hit a roadblock, we starve ourselves to death. But no one can survive like this. It’s not natural and if you keep telling yourself that this is “just the way I am” or this is “just how my muse works” I’ve got news for you. You’re wrong. So wrong.

When it comes to your life and your creativity, you make the rules. And whatever rules you set, the muse will adhere to as long as you’re stringent about the consequences if you falter. So set deadlines. Schedule every hour of every day, and not just your writing time, but also the amount of time you’ll spend reading or watching TV or surfing the internet. For every forty-five minutes I work, I spend fifteen reading weird news stories on the Huffington post–just enough time to give my brain a break, but not enough to break my stride. I know it may sound counter-intuitive but when it comes to creativity rules are crucial and boundaries are everything. So don’t be afraid to set out every day with a plan, to make a schedule, to create boundaries, and to set expectations. Because who knows? After making them a part of your daily declaration and creating a solid plan of attack, you just might actually reach them.