Writing Advice 101

Recently I received an email from a college student and aspiring writer. It’s a humbling experience to have someone reach out under the assumption that I’m going to know what I’m talking about and have the ability to provide accurate advice for where that person is in their writing process. Because it is a process. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few years, it’s that the learning curve for writing extends into perpetuity. That’s simply something that every author has to get comfortable with if he or she intends to keep publishing. 

Therefore, it is with an enormous grain of salt that I publish my response to the aforementioned email. If you are a new writer, someone who is hoping to crack into publishing, this might be perfect for you. If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ll recognize some of the advice, because you’ve heard it and you know it works. Even for the veterans out there, this may serve as a concise but good reminder of what we must do, which first and foremost, is approach every project with a “beginner’s mind” as Goldberg famously said.

If any one piece helps, great, run with it. Possibly some will be more than you need. That’s fine, too. Same for the things you’ve surpassed. Regardless, it all comes back around, so you may want to bookmark 😉 Share widely if it resonates, and happy writing.

Response:
I can give you thousands of suggestions, but some of those depend on where you are in the process and what you need to consider. Right now, I would say that in addition to writing your novel, you should be journaling (it helps to clear your thoughts); you should be reading as many novels that match yours as you can; you should also be watching any TV series or movies that also fall into that genre and analyzing their structure (yes, you have permission to binge watch). All of this will clarify your thoughts about what you want in your novel and what you don’t, as well as help you structure your plot turns and foreshadowing and the climax. Certainly read any book on craft that appeals to you as well. On Writing, Bird by Birdand anything by Donald Maass are worthwhile.
For your novel, the best thing you can do is finish the first draft. Just write it. Do not care if it’s garbage. It will be. All first drafts are terrible, especially mine. There isn’t an author I know whose work is great in first draft form. Once it’s done, walk away from it for a couple of months. Do not look at it. Then, when you’ve kind of forgotten about it, go back and read it like you are a reader, not the author. Mark it up. What works? What doesn’t? Be brutal. Have others read. But ones you trust will provide authentic feedback, and not, “This is the greatest!” Beware of those people. They’re not being honest, they’re being kind. You want the former, not the latter when it comes to your writing.
After that, cut, revise, redo, completely unravel the novel and write a second draft. Repeat the above process for this draft.
Do it again.
Then, and only then, might you want to go anywhere with it. At that point, I could give you many suggestions for that process. However, right now, finish, and then put your writing through the process. It works.
I am currently completely rewriting a 300-page manuscript from scratch. This will be the third draft. It’s better than the other two could have ever dreamed of being. This is the work if you want it. 
Now, that’s a lot to take in, but please don’t hesitate to ask me any follow-up questions or seek clarifications. I wish you the best of luck. Writing is one of the best things in the world for me. Publishing is a business, however. You’ll know where you stand once you’ve gone through all of the above. Have fun!
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Being Thankful for the Truth

It’s been almost three years since I’ve sold a manuscript. Thirty-two months, to be exact. These years have been rough, in various ways, but this isn’t a pity-party post. Rather, it’s about embracing the truth of your situation.

I’m a fighter by nature. I fight over little things and significant things, and I often win. Not because I’m petty, but because the things I fight for matter to me, and at least in my mind, are of importance.

Recently, though, both personally and professionally, I have lost numerous battles and the losses have left me wounded. I have had to take stock of so much of what I believed to be true and come to terms with how wrong I have been.

I know in this world today, with recent hurricanes and raging fires, that my struggle is insignificant. I have family and friends who love me, a roof over my head, and employment. That’s plenty. But I still feel what I feel, and have had to struggle to make heads or tails of my situation.

When it comes to writing, I’m down. I can’t explain why my manuscripts don’t sell, even when they come so close. I have no crystal ball about what the market wants, what readers need. I only know how to tell the stories I tell. They are not pretty. They are not always upbeat. They don’t always provide black and white scenarios in which readers can rally behind. I don’t believe anything in this world ever works that way. There is so much gray. I write about that gray, for good, for bad.

And yet, even though I’m down, I’m not out. I am happy to know the truth, to have been able to reconcile where I stand, to understand the lack of power I have, that the lost fight isn’t always because of my personal failure. I hold no more delusions. To some, that may seem like a loss of hope. That’s not even close to the case. My hope springs eternal, but it is tempered.

At signings, my signature line for Press Play is “Truth, whatever the cost.” I have always believed Greg would like that, and I think only now do I understand why.

So, as we belly up to our Thanksgiving tables, and as so many families do, we offer up what we are thankful for, know that mine is the truth. I’d rather know where I stand in this world, than to believe I am on some other footing. Of course, current truth isn’t always fixed, and this situation is certainly dynamic. But for now, what I have learned from these recent set of circumstances has provided a clarity I have never had before. As the saying goes, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward” (Law).

Well played, life; well played.

Enjoy your holidays, your time with family and friends, and whatever truths you embody, for the moment, or for a lifetime.

NPR Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson

Not only did I have the great pleasure of attending the Inaugural Albany Book Fest this weekend, but I also had the chance to talk about teaching sexual violence with none other than Laurie Halse Anderson-you know the author of Speak. It was an excellent conversation, and one I think could spark great discussion in the classroom for educators who teach the novel or about the topic. Here’s the article I that I wrote if you’re interested in that, and if you have seven minutes to spare, give a listen. It will be time well spent (click the image or link below).

https://www.npr.org/2018/09/30/653160035/teaching-high-school-students-about-sexual-assault-through-literature

Hey, everybody! I know, it’s been a long time since I’ve had anything to say, but life has been super busy, and the summer flew by. However, now that we’re back into the New Year (seriously, isn’t September more like a new year than January?), I have an event coming up.

Not just me, as you’ll see by the lineup. The Inaugural Albany Book Fest kicks off in two weeks. The main event is Saturday, the 29th, from 10am-4pm, and is at UAlbany. All signings, readings, panels, etc. will be held indoors, so don’t fear any bad weather. 

Admission is free and the talent is vast, so come and check it out. The more that attend, the better next year will be. See you on the 28th!

P.S. Yes, I’m working on book news. No, I don’t have any yet. But trust me, I am working on it 🙂

Rockin’ Times at Rochester Teen Book Fest

The hype crew, getting the 2,500 in attendance ready.

Last year I posted about the Rochester Teen Book Fest and my awesome time attending with Albany High’s Book Club. In that post I said that I’d be back, and I meant it, and it happened, but this time with me as  part of the author lineup.

I joined 25 other authors and 5 teen authors for the festival above all other festivals. That’s not hyperbole. To walk into the gymnasium at Nazareth College (bedecked in a cape no less), following a drum line, and take a seat in front of thousands of teens and librarians and teachers was a bit breath-taking. But volume isn’t everything. I’ve attended similarly sized events, and they did not match the intensity and fervor with which the audience reacted to the authors on stage. Some say that reading is dead or dying, but if the pulse at Nazareth is any indication, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Presenting this year, instead of attending, was a blast. However, I would have thoroughly enjoyed listening to any number of the other authors (you checked the link above, right?) My team–I got a team–was on point and took care of everything, including enforcing the teen-first policy that makes Teen Book Fest so special (I’m looking at you Nick).

My man, Nick. A.K.A. “The Enforcer”

I extend a huge thanks to the teens who attended my sessions and let me ramble on about the fears I hold in life and in writing, which are many, and spout off about the various dumb choices I made as a teenager and how they’ve shaped my writing today. Someday I will write a story that includes those goldfish. They deserve a proper sendoff.  And to all who then bought my work, thanks for buying ALL the copies. It happened so fast, I truly don’t understand how. But no complaints, here. I’m just glad my work has found its way into so many new hands.

Hanging with the authors and librarians this year was phenomenal fun. When I get to have dinner with the likes of Brendan Kiely, Bill Konigsberg, John McGoran, Alisa Kwitney, and Taran Matharu, as well as have lunch and great conversation with Gloria Chao, only to then have drinks with Ellen Hopkins and Cyndy Etler, what more could I want? Well, more librarian time. My rowdy table of fantastic librarians, who were ready to party after executing one hell of a day, after one hell of a difficult year, was truly the icing on the cake. To spend time with these individuals, who have volunteered so much time–so much time–to make this incredible, teen-focused event a reality was wonderful to be a part of. Yes, our singing was terrible, and I couldn’t tell a cow from a pig, but the vibe that existed was a carry over from the vibe from the morning. There’s a reason Teen Book Fest is spectacular, and it’s not the authors, it’s the people who work behind the scenes to connect us with the teens. That’s my takeaway from this year, and something I’m proud to have experienced.

Awesome authors

Even more awesome, librarians and organizers that make up the TBF committee.

And so here’s hoping I’ll be invited back next year, so I can jump off more tables, do more cartwheels and hand springs, sign more shirts, tell more stories, and to again ask one question of the teens, who came up to the signing table, full of excitement and exhaustion: “Did you have fun today?”

And to hear the inevitable response, “It was the best!”

Yes, yes it was.

Hudson Book Fest at its Best

The tenth annual Hudson Children’s Book Fest was held this past weekend and it was phenomenal. The turnout was amazing, the energy over all things books was effusive, and I had nonstop traffic at my table.

This was my fourth year attending, and certain regularities have emerged, which I love. I have the best “table neighbor” any author could ask for. Jennifer Donnelly was next to me selling her ever-amazing books, including the perennial favorite A Northern Light, and her just-released, collaborative work, Fatal Throne

My awesome “table neighbor” Jennifer Donnelly. Go buy her work.

The teens in attendance have now read my work and have talked it up to their friends, who come and have serious conversations about which one to start with. Some end up buying all four, and some buy for friends who couldn’t attend, because they want a signed copy. It’s surreal to have conversations with them about my work, about the previous year, about following me on social media, and talking other books (both those for the classroom and for themselves).

I adore the English teachers and librarians, who come out every year scouting for new material, to have conversations about the industry, and to see if I have anything new coming (I do, I swear, I just don’t know when). Their dedication to their students is astounding, and I particularly enjoy the phrase I picked up this year: “They are not reluctant readers; they are dormant readers.” I am happy to have my work bring them out of hibernation.

Just a portion of the crowd at Hudson.

Then one of the best moments of the event happened, and somehow I have no selfies as proof. My first cooperating teacher from when I was student-teaching during graduate school came to my table. I knew exactly who she was, in spite of not having seen her in eighteen years. Talking to her was the best kind of blast from the past, and we have plans in the works for next year. It will be fun to return to Lisha Kill Middle School where it all started. So, thanks again, Laura.

In spite of the regularities, one thing was very different this year–I sold out of copies. I literally had only a handful of Tap Out copies left by 2:00. And that wasn’t due to under-ordering by Spotty Dog. They do a fantastic job of looking at sales from previous years and making the call. The demand was simply high, and I cannot thank all of the teens and parents and teachers enough for spending their money on my work, when the talent and stories available in that gymnasium were off the hook.

So, thank you again, to all the organizers, especially Jen and Lisa, and to all the volunteers–both the teens and adults, and to all the other authors and illustrators in attendance. What an opportunity to be in the mix of children, teens, and adults, all so very engaged with storytelling. It seems like we’re figuring out the next chapter, together.

P.S. If you were at Hudson Book Festival and want more, head to Rochester on 5/19. The annual Teen Book Fest will be a rollicking good time, and yes, I will be in attendance. See you there!

New Year, Same Process

It’s been three years since I’ve sold a manuscript. Not that I haven’t been writing them, trust me. I’ve actually written multiple drafts of three books, none of which have gone anywhere, yet. I am hoping that 2018 ushers in change on this front.

This is a post I haven’t wanted to write, but have known I should write. It’s difficult to admit one’s failures and, at least in my mind, I’ve been failing spectacularly for years. Fortunately, I am intelligent enough to know that I’m still okay, that failures do not equal Failure. But some days are easier than others when it comes to squaring up to this idea.

These three years of toil without tangible results have been interesting. I went from being positive about bouncing back to being incredibly humbled by my inability to do so. And yet, I’ve gone on school visits, have attended conferences and signings, all for my previous work and about the craft of writing. Those have all been bittersweet. Because how can I talk about writing, when I have published, but am not currently being published? It’s not as if I’ve produced some juggernaut best-seller, and can therefore, rest on my laurels and say, “Well, I did that.”

Far from it. I have consistently tried to push myself in terms of content and style. I demand more of my storytelling every time I approach a new draft or a revision. If I’m being honest , I’m working harder than I ever have. This is the way it should be. Craftsman know their craft, and can complete the simple steps, simply, but to achieve great status, they must also produce great pieces. I have the audacity to believe that I can and will produce great pieces. Therefore, the toil continues.

In the back of my mind, I know that this is how it is. I’ve read countless posts from other authors about their failed attempts (I think Sarah Dessen has somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 manuscripts that flopped). But because I have only enough time to write one or two books per year, when I flop, the setback is significant.

I do have hope hope for 2018, though. Last week I turned in a revised draft of my WIP, which I believe has a TON of potential. My agent has already read and loved another manuscript of mine, but that work is taking a backseat to this aforementioned WIP. Additionally, I will now return to a project I started this fall, one that is, hands-down, the most fun I have written. I’m sure it will be a disaster and will need to be revised in a multitude of ways, but that is the process.

For anyone out there reading this with an eye towards how publishing works, this is it. I am much more the norm than the outlier. In fact, I’m pretty damn lucky to be in the position I’m in–to have an agent who is still willing to work with me and nurture my talent, even when I’m stalled out.

It may be entirely cliched, but writing is like life: just because what you did the first time worked, doesn’t mean your second attempt will (or third or fourth or fifth). That’s just something that has to be accepted, and which is why I believe a lot of people get started in writing, but cannot see it through. The demands are extreme and the objectives ever-changing. Like I said, just like life.

I promise to return with updates when I have them. Otherwise, know that Monday through Friday, I’m at this desk from 4 am- 6 am, hoping to turn coffee into readable fiction. As always, thank you for reading my work, and for anticipating whatever’s next.