I recently sold a story for "real" money for the first time in my life. Yay! I got the email at 11pm and said "Oh, my god" loudly enough and with enough force that my partner ran out of the bathroom to make sure I hadn't stabbed myself. But as soon as the legitimate shock faded I started thinking about a.) what on earth they must have been thinking, and b.) how on earth I would get to the next milestone on the professional writer trail.
This is a weird double consciousness right here: on the one hand you think you cannot possibly be worthy, that whatever you've submitted is honestly not ready and someone clearly had an off day on the editorial side. On the other hand your eyes are so much larger than your stomach and you can't stop thinking about the bigger markets, the anthologies, the book deals. Presumably after that it's the series contract, the foreign rights, Hollywood or The CW.
I don't even want to continue this post because I know how many of these I've read from other authors I love who all say the exact same thing, yet every time I read another one of those it's comforting the same way a hot chocolate when you can't sleep is comforting. You know it won't really help you in the long run, and it's probably all psychosomatic anyway, and yet.
Obviously we all suffer from impostor syndrome now and then, and anyone who doesn't is likely a horrible person not worth your time. I just hope that I'll get better at talking myself out of feeling like I don't belong in the room, on the table, on the page.
I've been working on a new story for a week or two now, or for a few months depending on how you look at it. This is actually the third attempt I've made at corralling these particular ideas bouncing around my head into an actual narrative, and it feels like stonemasonry at this stage: as though I'm chipping away at some massive block of marble with this ill-advised yet inescapable conviction that inside it, somewhere, is my story.
For a while over this past year, as I've gotten more involved with writing workshops and the online author community, I thought maybe I could teach myself to be a plotter. If I only tried enough different ways of mapping out my scenes and arcs, surely one of them would latch onto my brain and rearrange it in some fairly critical ways. Like Yeerks or Cordyceps, only with productivity instead of mind control.
Turns out that did not work, and what I got for my trouble was a completed first draft I'm not super passionate about, and a handful of ~10k word ficlets that withered and died because I kept trying to force them to follow something they didn't want to follow.
So now I'm here again, having shaken up these same ideas and spilled them out onto the page for a third time, only now I'm falling back on the same process I used to write Scrapetown. The good news is, I've nailed down a regular writing practice, which means I know I can reduce my initial drafting time from about six months to more like three.
The bad news is, I also know I'll end up with a glorious and sprawling mess of a novel which will require about another year of revisions as I chip away further at the actual themes and the correct character arcs that will be hiding underneath the moss and debris of my first draft.
But, y'know, life lessons and all. The first step to doing the thing is accepting how you need to do the thing, even if it's not the way someone else does the thing. My process may not be as neat and clean as I wish it were, but at least I'm done hamstringing myself trying to change it.
So, I did it. After five years of noncommittal attempts to a.) decide whether I really wanted to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing (while, of course, constantly telling people that I was considering an MFA) and b.) justify to myself the various costs of a graduate degree in creative writing, I'm finally here. (Temporally speaking. Physically, I start this summer.)
Thing is, it took deciding that an MFA wasn't important to me as a writer to figure out why I still really wanted an MFA. I needed to know that I could (and would) continue writing even as I pursued a demanding day job; that I could publish without that shiny extra degree by my name; that I could seek out the tools to improve my work all by myself without the aid of a classroom or a mentor. I could, and I did, and so can you.
But maybe sometimes there is more, not for everyone but for some, and maybe that's okay. It's okay to want the MFA experience, to yearn for that tight-knit group of peers who are just as dedicated and as passionate as you. It's okay to want to be around other people who've spent years finding their authorial voices and who still understand the value of communal learning. Of course, you can find those people without going back to school, and I'm lucky enough to have done so—but if that's still not enough, well, there you go. Beyond that, it's okay to want the experience (not unique to grad school, but almost certainly easier to find through this path) of working with incredible published authors who are living the life you want to live.
So, yes. It took me a while to apply for my MFA because it took me a while to understand if I truly wanted one and why, and to feel... allowed, I suppose? Allowed to pursue something so obviously, unavoidably creative in its nature that only when I actually start talking to someone can I explain how writing is my way of improving the world?
But today I said yes to Stonecoast for their Popular Fiction program, and while I tried to write a few dumb jokes to close this out, I honestly could not be more excited and that sentiment is bleeding through my attempts like a knife wound of sincerity. All right, team. That's it. That's all I got. I'm stoked!
I think every writer has to make this blog post or be cast into the bleak abyss from whence we came, so here's mine.
Around this time last year, I was fresh out of my very first proper writer's conference (PNWA, an eye-opening experience I highly recommend) and about to enter Pitch Wars on a total whim. I wouldn't start querying my first novel until mid-September, and even then I would make brief forays into the query trenches like a lost mole peeping out of a literal foxhole.
The first few rejections were hard. And yet, for every few form responses to my atrocious first attempt at a query letter, I'd get a nibble for pages—and for every form rejection after that, I'd get a few lines of serious feedback about what my narrative lacked. It took me three months of this before I enlisted a real, live editor and pushed through my second massive rewrite in 6 months. (The first one came after I got a request for more pages from a Pitch Wars mentor and realized exactly how much my manuscript sucked.)
And something about that second rewrite... I still get the crippling doubt and self-loathing about my words, as well as the high days where I read my own writing and think, "Yeah, okay, yeah." But the rejections don't hurt me anymore. (Much. I still use them as an excuse to buy French pastries and/or alcohol.)
I've put so much work into this book that I think I've finally crossed a certain bridge. My book is far from perfect, and I'm ready for the next major revision I inevitably need to do—but when someone doesn't click with the story? I mean... I'm cool with it. That's on them. I finally feel that thing everybody says: Agents want books they genuinely love, and you don't want an agent who doesn't genuinely love your book. So I'm happy to wait.
And that brings us to August 2017. I'm sitting at 20 official rejections and a handful of no-responses, shocked at how small that number looks compared to how much stress and strain this process has put me through.
I think my goal for this time next summer is to break 100.
Not sure how I feel about this header font, but on the other hand, it's already there...
On to NaNo. I've done the November version of this fun, tortuous game five times before. When I was seventeen, I wrote a meandering, confusing book about a girl whose sister attempts suicide, winds up in a coma, and begins to haunt her in an ever-more-foreboding manner. She also develops a crush on her sister's older, also grieving girlfriend, and befriends a genderqueer person with possible ties to the other side.
That honestly sums up how most of my work seems to go. Lost, sad people dealing with strange, upsetting things by a.) investigating against their better judgment and b.) finding connection where it seemed impossible.
This year, for the first time, I'm writing historical fiction! And it's slightly happier than it could be! Very exciting. My WIP is called (for now) The Hollow and the Crag. Set in 1932 West Virginia, it follows Pack Horse Librarian Lissy Sharpe as she winds her way through the Appalachian Mountains to share books, folktales, and suspicions of murder with the backwoods hollers in the hills.
I got off to a rather ambitious start, because this was one of those stories that just immediately clicked. I started writing and I felt it, the hum, the rich energy of words ready to fly forth. All of which to say, here we are on July 21 and I'm sitting at 43,000 words with a goal of 75,000 by the 31st. I've got a beat sheet with broad counts, which is the extent of the plotting I am capable of on a first draft, and I've got chemistry, and I've got some very vivid memories of these mountains. But more importantly, for the first time since Scrapetown I feel the true potential of a story—and thanks to Camp NaNo, I'm rolling with it through the harder bits.
Right up front, everybody's got gifs all up in their grills and I am not doing that, but it's not because I don't love gifs, it's because I can only justify so much procrastination before I get back to work. OKAY! Let's go.
Who are you? What's happening?
Hello! I'm Jaq. I'm 26, born and bred in Barboursville, Virginia, now rocking the marketing life about as far as one can get from my (beloved) hometown without leaving the continental US. I like bourbon, fiction with extremely messy moral dilemmas, growing plants I will never properly harvest, tattoos, cooking, queer cultural discourse, sitting in the sun, sitting in the rain, and horror movies. Also other things but I think that covers the most important stuff.
What is the thing you write?
Generally I write adult fiction, always dark, with a yen for horror and dark fantasy—but always set in a realistic world. I like my streets to feel as real as yours, my characters to be the people you pass on your way to work, only they've got nightmares with very sharp teeth. They're also mostly queer. And probably depressed. I'm interested in how we live with mental illness, how we define our identities against and alongside societal expectations, and how best to kill or become monsters.
How about your MS this year?
Full disclosure: I actually submitted this book last year, too, only it was in a waaaaaaaay worse spot than it is now. It honestly feels like a different book today, after serious edits from esteemed Pitch Wars mentor Hayley Stone and a massive revision thanks to agent feedback.
My Adult Horror novel, Scrapetown, is a ghost story of the American South. Clare Monroe sees the dead in reflective surfaces—and while she thought they were trapped in mirrors, a mutilated body proves her wrong. Stir in bayou witchcraft, bloodbound necromancy, the girl she can't let in, and the boy who won't let her go. (No love triangles, just so we're clear.)
I started Scrapetown with the idea that it would be a series of vignettes set along the Crescent Amtrak route I took from Virginia to Louisiana as a fresh college grad. I knew I wanted to write about the South: its lush scenery, amazing food, haunting folklore—and, of course, its culture of repression and emotional manipulation. I also knew I wanted to write about a girl my age at the time (24), someone newly "adult" but not yet certain of what that ought to mean. Someone beyond the hormonal insanity and crippling self-doubt of adolescence but still plagued by insecurity, depression, anxiety, all these things you hope you'll grow out of... but what happens when you don't?
You develop coping mechanisms, some healthy, some not. You lie to your friends and put up a confident front. You push yourself out of your comfort zone, slowly but surely, and maybe you figure out that you're more in control than you ever supposed. And when you inevitably hurt people along the way, well, you learn to live with that also.
Over the course of 2.5 years, Scrapetown turned from the original concept to what it is today—the book of my heart, as they say. It's about hurting yourself to avoid hurting others, and figuring out how to maybe stop doing that; it's about owning who you are no matter what other people want you to be; it's about choosing the people you fight for (even if that sometimes means fighting yourself). And maybe it's a little bit about Southern cooking, too, because let's be real.
Check out this Pinterest board for a visual introduction!
Why are you cool?
I don't know, but I can make a really excellent cocktail and the best jambalaya in the world. Also I'm extremely open to suggestion, hard-working to the point of sleep deprivation, and am ready to devote whatever energy and pain is necessary in order to make this book a real book that someone else might connect with in the way I've connected with so many. That was a terrible sentence but I'm going to leave it there in the name of sincerity.
Here's the rest of the Blog Hop, also!
An assortment of impressions, anxieties, and positive mantras:
As a LiveJournal veteran, you can bet I'm an expert at longwinded and vaguely personal rambling on the Internet. Now that I'm attempting to be An Author In 2016, I shall use this page to post thoughts I have about various parts of existence.
Sounds easy enough, right?
But for now, I need to make pizza (half pepperoni, half rosemary red pepper) and Earl Grey cupcakes.