Get on the Dang Bus

Writing Process

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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

Mental Health, Writing Process

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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.

This is Not a Coincidence

Mental Health, Motivation & Inspiration

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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

Writing Process

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.

Hindsight–The Writer’s Life Raft

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

Some days writing is like trying to sail against the tide and each word is rough and choppy and you don’t even have a chance to come up for air before you’re battered by another wave of self-doubt. It’s exhausting and miserable and sometimes it feels endless. But even if a bad writing day turns into a bad writing week that turns into a bad writing month, nothing lasts forever. Not good days, not bad days. Not success and not even failure. There is an ebb and flow to everything and when you’re staring at that blinking cursor or that blank page and seeing a way out feels totally impossible, maybe it’s time to stop looking ahead and start looking behind.

I’m in the middle of a writing drought and it wasn’t caused by burn-out or even fear. It’s just one of those strange moods where all I want to do is nothing. I used to fight this feeling and I used to hate myself for even having it in the first place because I have deadlines and obligations and dreams and none of those things can happen or be taken care of if all I’m doing day in and day out is sitting and staring at the walls. But that was before I realized it was only temporary. That was before I realized that sometimes taking a break can actually be a good thing.

See I used to have all of the fears about not meeting my word count and writing terrible first drafts and waking up one day having lost all of my talent as a writer. I was constantly afraid of both the things I did and didn’t do but all it really boiled down to was a fear of failure and a fear of the unknown. I was new at this and with only a couple of completed novels under my belt–all of which were written using completely different processes–I still didn’t know what I was really capable of and therefore had no idea whether or not my expectations were realistic or if any of what I was going through and/or struggling with was “normal.” What I’ve come to learn though is that there is no such thing as normal and that as long as I put my heart and soul into it, I’m capable of doing pretty much anything.

But these are truths that take a long time not only to realize but to accept. As artists there is this perpetual tug of war going on inside us between our most confident self and the one that hates every single thing we do and when we don’t have very much experience it’s often the shame and the doubt that tends to win out. Because that’s what we know, and when our triumphs are few and far between, it’s what we expect. But all it takes to change our reality is to change our perception of it. Now when I’m feeling stuck I don’t jump straight into panic mode. I don’t place blame and I don’t punish myself with negative thoughts. Instead, I stop and I think. And not about what still needs to be done but about what already has been.

Writing never gets any easier. When we grow out of certain bad habits it’s only a matter of time before we create new ones and when we conquer one obstacle ten others spontaneously manifest. But what does change, what does make things more manageable is the fact that after a while these setbacks are no longer surprises. It’s the surprise of failure that makes it so devastating but if we can make peace with the fact that it’s inevitable, that some days our writing will be terrible and that others we might not write at all, we can turn ourselves into observers of these “failures” rather than heartbroken participants. A bad writing day is nothing to panic about and neither is a terrible first draft. Sure, that sinking feeling of impending doom still nags at me sometimes when I’m forced to acknowledge something I’m not that proud of, but before it paralyzes me completely all I have to do is think back to all of those other bad days and all of those other terrible manuscripts and then I realize, if I found my way out once before there is absolutely no reason that I can’t do it again.

Patience is key when it comes to writing but so is forgiveness. If we can’t learn to be compassionate and accepting of ourselves then there is no hope for improvement. Because who can grow when they’re constantly afraid of being a disappointment? Who can grow when they’re constantly afraid to fail? I’m not as afraid of failure as I used to be but I know that’s only because I face the reality of it on a daily basis in ways both big and small. Failure is a part of life, an inevitability that can actually turn out to be a huge blessing. Because down in the trenches of failure, that’s where we learn and when we learn we grow and growing is the only way to truly change our vantage point. No one reaches the top of a mountain without stopping to look back at the journey. It would be a waste. Because that hindsight is a gift. It’s a reminder that we once suffered and struggled and doubted…and we lived. We made it out alive and the next time we’re forced to face one of our fears, we won’t bow down and tremble, in fact we won’t be afraid at all. Because there’s no reason to fear something you’ve already conquered and you can’t lose a battle that you’ve already won.