On Writing

Vision Boards: Envision Your 2020 Goals

Every few years I gather with friends before January 1 to envision the year by creating a “vision board.” The resulting collage can be a surprising picture of the unconscious motives behind our goals.

On New Year’s Eve day, five of us sat around our dining room table with a stack of New York Times newspapers, random magazines, gluesticks, scissors, and blank poster board. The house was quiet, save for a Spotify playlist of café favorites. Just days before, my stepdaughter’s children’s laughter rang through the house. I could still see them sitting at this same table with napkins tucked under their chins.

I flipped through magazines, thinking vaguely about my 2019 goals: the unfinished ones – an interrupted blog and my middle grade characters stuck in Purgatory in Act II – and the finished ones – a novel submission, a new job, deeper friendships, a garden planted, and a daughter launched from college to Africa. My 2020 To Do List included returning to the blog, and getting those characters out of Purgatory and into an agent’s in-box.

As I skimmed newspapers, headlines jumped out at me. SO MUCH IS COMPETING FOR A CHILD’S ATTENTION. No kidding. Clip, clip, clip. Was this about my desire to put books in the hands of children, or the memory of my seven-year-old grandson playing Mario Cart?  

Turning another page, I saw a young woman with arms reaching out as she released a bird in the air. One night that week by a warm fire, my daughter and I had talked about reaching for our goals. How could we support each other’s efforts? The outstretched arms reminded me of our conversation. Clip, clip, clip. Was this a vision of me reaching for my goals? Or supporting my daughter? Did it matter?

If you follow a strict interpretation of vision boards, yeah, it kinda matters. Vision boards became popular through a book and a film called The Secret which espoused the idea that “like attracts like.” According to this Law of Attraction, envisioning what you want can attract your goal to you. A new car, a different house, a slimmer waistline, more money – if you focus on your vision and believe it already exists as a reality somewhere, the real goal will manifest in your life. You send the message to the Universe and the Universe hits reply. Easy peasy

I don’t want to diss the Universe but this lacks a crucial element: action. I’m all for believing in my goals, and Lord knows I need to bring more focused attention to them, but that’s not the same as taking tangible steps. Like what St. Ignatious of Loyola had in mind: Pray as if everything depends on God; work as if everything depends on you. You’ve got to do the actual work. 

In the end, I liked how my board turned out. It had way more to do with conscious or unconscious thoughts of my children or children in general than with my goals. It was like sending my goals to a playground with cousin Imagination in hand. What a wild ride that can be. 

To make your own vision board, you need: poster board or some stiff paper, some newspapers and a magazine or two, scissors, a glue stick, and colored pens. Also, don’t spend an entire day doing this. Save a little time for actually writing.

On Writing

On Writing: Finding the Silver Lining in Querying

It’s tough but not impossible to find a bright spot in the submissions process. (Yosemite National Park, CA)

When I queried literary agents about my manuscript, the results were mixed but rejection came with a silver lining. It led to a choice that, in the end, will make my story stronger.

My young adult (or YA) story had followed a tortuous path: written, workshopped, revised, reimagined and rewritten all over again. Feedback from my critique group, beta readers, and a bestselling mentor strengthened character arcs and plot points. (Mentor: what happens in Act III? Me: She realizes she had it all wrong, and starts over. Mentor: No, I mean, what actually happens-happens?)

When I judged the manuscript to be submission-ready, I wrote a pitch and multiple drafts of a query letter to arrive at a boilerplate that could be personalized for each agent. 

Then came submersion in Agent Land. Goal: to create a curated list of agents seeking YA stories with my story elements. I read a few months of #MSWL on Twitter and online to discover what agents were currently seeking. Then skimmed conference notes for all the agents I’d already met and heard speak so I could mention it if I queried them. In the Bay Area, a group of YA writers get together for breakfast every other month. As we went around the circle, I asked each one about their agents, past and present. Finally, I compiled lists on Agent Query and Query Tracker online.

The list grew to 34 names. (This is shortish. I just read a tweet from an author who was rejected 40 times before signing with an agent.) I picked eight to start, rechecked their status on their agency website, noted submission instructions for each, and read their recent tweets. Then hit Send. 

Whenever I #amsubmitting, I’m jettisoned back to first grade, jostling in line with other squirmy kids, hoping Teacher notices how smart and well-behaved I am, while feeling a little out of my depth with playground etiquette and spending all my time on the swings. I mean, nobody wants a tether ball in the face.

The results of my first round of submissions were mixed: two no-responses, two form rejections, three personal responses. At this point, I had been submitting for months, distracted by life events and travel. Summer turned to fall to winter. We flew to France for the holidays. I submitted another agent from my sister-in-law’s dining room table sprinkled with tiny gold stars.

Then it happened: the agent asked for a full. Clouds parted. She wanted to see the whole manuscript. Gulp.

I uploaded the document. She followed me on Twitter. Christmas came. We drank mulled wine at the Marche de Noel and shopped for boudin blanc.  Another email: she loved the voice, but couldn’t use the story. What else did I have? I had a middle grade story that had been optioned for television but never published. It wasn’t really her genre, but I sent it.

A couple days went by. At this point, we were winding up our trip with visits to cousins.  We ate, drank, walked by the sea, visited a 17thcentury fort. Skies were grey. It rained. We played a hilarious version of French Trivial Pursuit. Became addicted to a card game called Belote. The sun finally came out. Fluffy clouds sailed across the sky. And the agent wrote again.

This time, she explained in a long letter what she liked about my writing, what elements in the story worked for her and what didn’t. She encouraged me to keep going. “You’re so close to your breakout novel!” But no, she wasn’t offering representation at this time.

Editorial letters like this are a generous gesture on the part of a professional. As Mary Kole, of https://kidlit.com, suggests in Manuscript Submission Blueprint, writers should pay attention to advice from professionals. Unless they ask for a revision, you only get one chance to interest them in a project.

Now I had a quandary: I could ignore her advice and keep submitting. Or consider it and revise. Or self-publish. Or drop the project and work on something else. Putting it aside felt like giving up, and, man, those two words are pure motivation for me to charge forward. (More on that another time.) The agent agreed to see it again after I revised. I decided to pay a professional editor to read my manuscript and recommend ways to improve the story. Even at $2.50 a page for 337 pages, the cost was 75-80% of attending a big writing conference and the results would be help me finish this project.

In the end, the process provided me with a few epiphanies, and the knowledge and connections I needed to move forward. It doesn’t take the sting out of rejection, but that’s part of the process. You’ve got to move through it to get what you want. What I want is to tell and sell a really good story.

A couple side notes: 

  • Mary Kole’s online tool Manuscript Submission Blueprintincludes Feedback Aggregator and Checklist for Regrouping worksheets. 
  • Did you know kids naturally gravitate to either swings, slide, monkey bars or sandbox, according to their nature. I picked swings. What’d you pick? Why?