For the Love of Books: How to Give Thanks When You’ve Burned Out

With Thanksgiving only days away, I’ve been thinking about what I’m most thankful for when it comes to my professional life. I have some awesome coworkers, a list of super talented authors, and I get to work on books every day. So in some ways, that list of “thankful” items is a mile long.

But as everyone in the book business knows, ours is an industry of exhilarating highs and devastating lows. It’s an industry of two steps forward and one step back. It’s an industry where every yes seems to come with a no.

The reality is, publishing is not for the faint of heart. The success of any book is based on the ability to merge business with art, consumerism with creativity. It’s a difficult balance to strike. On top of that, rejection follows us at every stage of the publishing process. Authors are rejected by agents. Agents are rejected by editors. Editors are rejected by pub boards. And all of us know the pain of putting an amazing book out into the world—one we all poured our hearts and souls into—and watching that book be rejected by readers.

It can be hard to push past the setbacks and the rejection and the self-doubt. It can be even harder to admit to ourselves that while we may be in our dream industry, we don’t always feel like we’re living the dream.

Look—I love what I do, and I’m so lucky I get to do it. I could happily edit books until the end of the world, but there are some days when this job feels like work…like 60 hours a week, dream about it in your sleep, can’t ever get to the bottom of that to-do list work.

And yet, like almost every other author, agent, and editor I know, I’m likely to put every spare moment of my free time into my job because I am passionate about books. We all work hard, we all burn out, and we all keep going, even when it physically hurts to look at another word.

That’s where I’ve been lately. At the burned out but gotta keep burning ’cause the fire can’t go out stage. But as I sat down to think about what I was thankful for, I realized I’m in this business for three really important reasons.

First, I love books. In one way or another, books have shaped me into the person I am today. I can trace my formative moments to stories or authors who made me dream. I was a reader first and foremost before I ever even thought of being a writer or an editor. That love of the written word can’t die—it can’t go away. It has been part of me since I read that first life-altering book.

Second, I want to share art with the world. So few people get the opportunity to help someone else share their story, and I get the honor of doing just that. I get to help people deliver beauty and humor to readers, to connect with them through shared grief and fledgling hope. I get to work on incredible books with incredible artists and be a part of that journey every day.

And third, I know that stories can change lives, mindsets, and, little by little, the world. We can come away from each book as a different person than we were when we first picked it up. We can learn about the human experience on every single page, and have a chance to grow and learn and improve by interacting with a work of art. How could I ask for more than that?

So even though there are days when I’m tired or frustrated or even a little bit heartbroken, there is so very much to be thankful for in this crazy world of publishing.

Rocking NaNoWriMo: 7 Tips for Reaching 50,000 Words

We’re almost halfway through National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, which encourages writers to participate in a 30-day challenge. The goal? Write 50,000 words in the month of November. Tens of thousands of people have participated since the program’s creation, and many of them have gone on to complete manuscripts, make great writing friends, or eventually sell books. Amazing!

50,000 words in 30 days can sound daunting (especially if you’re planning to spend a whole weekend in a Thanksgiving-dinner-induced food coma). But here are seven ways to make the most out of NaNoWriMo and to help you reach your goal.

1. Create time in your schedule. It can be hard to imagine when you will find the time to write 50,000 words. You know when your best time for writing is—early in the morning, midday, late at night—so find ways to create time for yourself. Stock up on easy-to-make meals for dinner. Save your Netflix binge watching for December. Try to eek out a little bit of time on your lunch hour. Maybe even wake up a tiny bit earlier (gasp!). All those minutes will add up.

2. Make an outline first. Even if you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer, block out the basic vision for your story. The outline doesn’t have to be super detailed or set in stone, but crafting a beginning, middle, and end of your novel will help you fill in the gaps more quickly.

3. Set smaller goals. Unless you don’t work, go to school, have kids, or need to walk the dog, it’s unlikely you’re going to hit 50K overnight. Instead of staring down that huge number, give yourself smaller numbers. Your daily average needs to be about 1,667 words, which means you need to write almost one chapter per day. Now that sounds doable!

4. Have an accountabilibuddy. The entire purpose of NaNoWriMo is to create a community of writers. Take advantage of that! Look for a local group of writers that you can meet with to help cheer you on. If you’re low on free time and can’t make NaNoWriMo meet-ups, sign up for the challenge with a friend. Keep each other posted on your progress, and give each other necessary motivation, such as, “If we make it to 20,000 words, we’ll go get pumpkin spice lattes.”

5. Be social. Yes, social media is the devil that distracts writers from writing. But…it can also help you connect with fellow writers and enjoy the experience together. For great tips and advice, check out the #NaNoCoach or #NaNoWriMo hashtags, and be sure to follow the NaNoWriMo Facebook and Twitter pages. I’d also recommend keeping up with YA author Susan Dennard on Twitter and look into The Mighty Pens, which is helping raise money for the Malala Fund during NaNoWriMo.

6. Edit later. Strange advice coming from an editor, but in the world of NaNoWriMo, editing only slows you down. Think of these 50,000 words as a rough first draft, and allow yourself to make mistakes. The most important thing is getting the words down. (Just remember that come December 1, it is editing time!)

7. Write something you’re passionate about. Any writer will tell you that it’s tough to put words to paper when you’re not in love with a project. It’s even harder to crank out page after page, night after night, when you’re not feeling enthusiastic about your story. So use this month to write something you love, because that’s what NaNoWriMo is all about!

Are you already participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Best of luck! And if you haven’t signed up yet, there’s no time like the present: nanowrimo.org/sign_up

The Right Writer: A Quiz

With the recent press about the forthcoming novel American Heart, I’ve heard a lot of people asking, “Am I the right person to write XYZ type of story?”

First of all—this is not a stupid question! (And because I don’t subscribe to the belief that there are no stupid questions, you know I mean that.) “Am I the right person?” is predominantly asked by writers seeking to create books that feature diverse characters and stories. Hooray! Please do create narratives that are diverse and inclusive, because we can all agree that having more diversity in the book market is a very good thing. An even better thing is when those stories are written by own voices authors who share the experiences or backgrounds of their characters.

Now, few authors create characters exactly like themselves…that’s usually called a memoir. Writing outside our own lives and tapping into the collective human experience is a hallmark of storytelling, and there’s nothing wrong with creating characters who are different from you. In fact, we should always be exploring other points of view—if we didn’t, reading would be really boring! But are you writing a book that would be better (i.e. truer, richer, more compelling) coming from an expert voice? Because there’s a big difference between sharing a story and sharing someone else’s story.

To help you determine where you stand, I’ve created a five-question quiz. For the purpose of this quiz, I am going to use “marginalized group” as a term for a group that finds itself unfairly disempowered or discriminated against due to gender, orientation, ability, ethnicity, or religion. This term also takes into account people who have suffered trauma, abuse, or other significant hardship.

Ready? Here we go.

  1. Is your main character(s) part of a marginalized group?
    • Yes
    • Sort of—I have supporting characters in this group
    • No
  2. Are you part of that same marginalized group?
    • Yes
    • Sort of—I am an ally with close friends and/or family members in this group
    • No
  3. Are you drawing on personal experience when writing this story?
    • Yes
    • Sort of—I am drawing on the experience of a close friend and/or family member with their permission and support
    • No
  4. Does your book focus on personal, social, or political issues related to this marginalized group?
    • Yes
    • Sort of—issues are a factor, but not the focus of the story
    • No
  5. Are you working with a sensitivity reader(s)* to review your story?
    • Yes
    • Sort of—I am not hiring a professional, but am having my story read by people who share the experience or are part of the group I am writing about
    • No

*If you’re not familiar with sensitivity readers, learn more here.

If you answered mostly YES, it sounds like you’re on the right track—keep writing! If you answered mostly SORT OF, keep being thoughtful as you move forward. Be sure to do your research and work with sensitivity readers and friends or family members to make sure you are representing the story appropriately. If you answered mostly NO, you should probably head back to the drawing board. You may not be the right person to write this book.

Some authors may think this is censorship (which, may I say, is a very problematic view), or at least a limitation. But instead of viewing this as a lost opportunity, think of all that we gain by having the right people working on the right stories. We get books like The Hate U Give, Brown Girl Dreaming, You Bring the Distant Near, When Dimple Met Rishi, If I Was Your Girl, American Born Chinese, More Happy Than Not, American Street, and dozens more. Books are made better by having authors who have not just observed but lived their stories. And readers are made better by getting diverse, authentic perspectives of our world.

“Am I the right person?” can be a tough question to ask yourself as a storyteller, but it’s an important question to ask nonetheless. There may be some stories or themes out there that you simply aren’t meant to write, and even the best intentions and scrupulous research won’t change that fact. The good news is, acknowledging what won’t work is an important step in finding what you are meant to write. And trust me, whatever that story is will be made infinitely better by being told through your voice.

“What Kind of Book Should I Write?” An Editor’s Plea to Ignore Trends

When I meet with aspiring authors, I’m often asked, “What kind of book should I write?” Everyone wants to know what the next big trend will be and if they should start writing in that niche. My answer? Ignore trends. Don’t ask someone else what kind of book you should write—write the book that speaks to you. Don’t follow the crowd—stand out from it.

Here’s the thing about publishing: it moves slowly. This may not be news to you if you’re a George R. R. Martin fan (though let’s be real, that one’s all on George), but some folks are surprised when they learn a book can take a year—or two or three—to get published. Factor in the time it takes to write a manuscript and query it, and you can be looking at anywhere from two to five years. Sometimes even more.

I won’t get into the nitty gritty of the publishing process here, though I will note that those years are well spent developing a manuscript, creating a cover, building a marketing strategy, and launching a book into a competitive market. The real point of this post is that writers should ignore trends no mater how enduring those trends seem to be.

What? That sounds crazy! Why wouldn’t you want to write in the current bestselling category? Well, the key word here is current. Although publishing moves slowly, reading fashions move quickly. By the time you’ve written, queried, edited, and published a novel, whatever trend you were chasing is probably long gone. Readers have moved on, and you’re left with a manuscript no agent or publisher will touch for another decade.

If you’re a YA fan, you’ve lived through the Twilight craze (paranormal), the Hunger Games craze (dystopian), the Fault In Our Stars craze (contemporary issue-driven), and the past ten years alone. (Okay, John Green will always be popular, but you see my point.) Dozens of books came out after those blockbuster titles, flooding the marketplace to the point that readers had topic fatigue.

I should also point out that very, very few of those titles got even close to the levels of success that Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, or John Green saw. There’s nothing wrong with trying out new styles or topics in your writing, especially if you’re feeling inspired to shake things up. In fact, I encourage you to challenge yourself and test your writing abilities! But if you set out to duplicate the success of other authors in a specific category, you’re unlikely to find good results.

Most importantly, you’re going to be a million times happier writing a book you’re passionate about instead of writing a book you hope will have a trendy readership. So rather than writing toward in vogue in the hopes of hitting it big, write the book of your heart. The book you need. The book that keeps you up at night.

As Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” You may not be the next trendsetter, but that’s far better than being a trend-follower.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting… an Edit Letter

When a book gets acquired, it goes through several rounds of editing. This process goes beyond proofreading and copyediting—an acquisitions editor will go through the entire manuscript and look at plot, character development, pacing, and all kinds of other big-picture elements. This is called a developmental edit or a macro edit, depending on the publisher. And when the acquisitions editor is done, the author gets an edit(orial) letter.

Edit letters can be scary! Authors get a document telling them all things they need to do make their book better after spending months—maybe even years—writing and editing and polishing a manuscript. Yikes!

Now, I can’t speak to how each individual editor creates their edit letter since everyone edits differently and every book needs a different kind of attention. Some edit letters are three pages long, some are twenty-three. Some letters focus on a particular subject (like voice or plot line), some talk about lots of different issues. But for me, there are five key pieces to this kind of letter:

1. Defining ownership. I think almost all of my edit letters start of end with some version of the phrase “this is your book—not mine.” While I generally consider myself to be an expert editor, I want the author to know that they are also an expert author. When editors make suggestions, those suggestions are intended to improve the book and make it the best possible experience for a reader. But—and this is an important butthis is not my book, and my opinion may not resonate with an author. At the end of the day, I want an author to be proud of, comfortable with, and happy about their work. So if an author feels like a change isn’t true to the story or to a character, I am always willing to have that discussion and see where it leads. Debates do happen, but in the end we can reach a good place that appeases both parties and strengthens the book.

2. What’s working. Strange as it seems, sometimes listing the positive attributes of a novel is more difficult than listing the negative attributes. I mean, I loved the book enough to acquire it, right? Of course I think it’s awesome! But if I don’t tell the author that—with specific examples—they are basically getting a “honey-do” list from me. No one wants that! Plus, by pointing out the good, the author can see what’s working well and can apply that success to scenes or characters that need tweaks.

3. What’s not working. Yes, well, this is the crux of the edit letter, I suppose. My job is literally to bust out the metaphorical red pen and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript. Here’s how I generally structure my letters:

  • Plot: From big to small, I list out the elements of the plot that need development, changes, or to be cut entirely.
  • Characters: Our heroines and heroes and villainesses and villains are just as important as the sequence of events that moves the story along. When it comes to characters, I talk both about individuals and relationships between key people.
  • Voice/Style: Talking about voice and style can be tricky—an editor can’t make an author write in a way that doesn’t feel natural or genuine. But sometimes there are small changes that can make a big difference, like combining choppy sentences to give more variation in structure or removing writing ticks like overusing the word “just” (guilty!) or trimming the number of times two characters stare longingly into each other’s eyes.
  • Random details: Every book has a few inconsistencies that just don’t add up. A character can have blue eyes on one page and hazel eyes on another. Someone goes outside in one scene, but we find out the door was locked in the next, raising major questions like: Can this character walk through walls?! Is this character a ghost?! These little details can get overlooked when you’re writing a 50, 60, 70, 80, 90,000 word manuscript, so that’s what your editor is for!

4. How we’re going to tackle the changes. It would be super unhelpful if I wrote a letter that said, “Your main character is boring. You should make her less boring.” Whenever I request a change, I give an option or two of how to make that change happen. Authors can interpret and adjust those suggestions as they see fit, but I always try to give some direction rather than providing pure criticism. Nobody wants that!

5. A markup. In addition to my edit letter, I send along a marked-up manuscript (the MS Word document with Track Changes). For the most part, this markup includes structural and grammatical changes or highlights passages that are addressed in the edit letter. This helps me work through some of the quick and easy tweaks and gives the author context for upcoming changes.

Like I said, everyone edits differently, so your edit letter may end up looking different from what I’ve just described. If you want to learn more about edit letters (and authors’ experiences with them), check out the links below!

The Infamous Edit Letter

The Editorial Letter

After the Editorial Letter

 

Your Bookish Fall Wardrobe

The leaves are already starting to turn in my neck of the woods, so (after bemoaning the loss of summer) I opted to browse this season’s literary outfits.

Below you’ll find some of the best wardrobe pieces for your inner word nerd, and I’ve put a * next to the companies that are associated with book-related charities or literacy organizations. What better way to shop than that? Continue reading

Platform for Fiction Writers

Ah, the dreaded p-word. “Platform” is an all-encompassing term that can include blogs, websites, social media, speaking events, TV/radio appearances, celebrity fame, and other outlets that help an author connect to readers, writers, and other gatekeepers in the literary industry. Jane Friedman describes it best: “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.”

At one time, nonfiction authors were the ones who had to worry about platform—they had to prove there was an audience who wanted to read about their particular memoir, advice, or topic. But now, most fiction writers are expected to have a platform too. The content of a story always comes first, but many publishers want to see an author’s connections in the early stages of the game. So let’s take a look at frequently asked questions about all things platform for fiction writers. Continue reading

Not Your Average Jane: 7 Ways “Jane the Virgin” Nails Storytelling

*Includes some spoilers*

I spend most of my day evaluating the merits of a story. Are the characters experiencing enough change, does the plot move at the right pace, does the key conflict cause too little tension…that kind of thing. This means that sometimes, when I’m relaxing with a TV show, I find myself looking for those elements running through each episode. And when I found Jane the Virgin, I found the show my storytelling heart had been looking for.

I am late to the Jane the Virgin party, but I have now joined in and cannot rave enough about it. Why, you ask? If the idea of a humorous, poignant, and totally self-aware spin on a telenovela doesn’t appeal to you, well, you should reevaluate your outlook on life. Rarely do I fall in love with a show so quickly or deeply as I have with Jane the Virgin, which has made me laugh and cry and scream…sometimes all in one episode. And, while there are so many things this show does well, I chose the seven things I love best about its storytelling. Because what the writers and cast of Jane the Virgin have done best is tell a remarkable story. Continue reading

Beyond the Manuscript: What ELSE an Editor Looks for in a Submission

Let’s pretend (only for one horrifying second) that the content of your manuscript didn’t matter.

Yes, I know. It’s awful. But bear with me.

Let’s pretend that it didn’t matter how good or bad your actual writing was, and that an editor only focused on the other pieces of your submission—your platform, your hook, etc.

Okay, now you can stop pretending. That was pretty scary, right? Don’t worry—content is always going to be the #1 concern for an editor. However, it isn’t the only concern. So let’s dive into the other elements of a submission an editor considers when thinking about acquiring a book. Continue reading