On Writing

On Writing: The Idea Cloud

Pick a thread from the Idea Cloud hanging over you. (Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon)

Every once in a while, two movies come out at the same time with same theme. Or multiple books suddenly have “thief” in the title. (There are 161 titles in Goodread’s Best Thief Book category!) Why does this happen? I blame it on the Idea Cloud.

Sometimes, the explanation is simple. Similar films released close together is a phenomenon with it’s own Wikipedia page. But what about novels? Novels are usually unique stories written in isolation. Normally, a story emerges from one brain before it reaches the gristmill of publishing. So why would a writer see her own unique concept crop up in somebody else’s book?

It has to do with how stories arise in the writer’s brain. That’s where the Idea Cloud comes in.

Idea Clouds spreading overhead. (Northwestern Minnesota)

Here’s how it works:

Let’s use the thief example. You’re listening to the news on your way home from work. The newscaster announces that a monkey is missing from the town zoo and evidence suggests someone stole it. Huh, you think. A monkey thief. Not a bad idea for a story. Then you remember the 161 thief books on Goodreads. You’re going to need more than thievery to make a fresh story.

Still driving, you recall a rash of missing dogs reported last year. Missing dogs, missing monkeys. Huh, again. Now the old story has a fresh twist. That’s promising. Your writerly brain turns the two ideas over like a Rubik’s Cube, seeing how the pieces might fit together.

Then you get home. You step out of your car, or off the train, or down from the bus and you listen. Do you hear the firing shot? All the other writers who heard the same news story as you are now sitting down to their laptops. The race is on. Are you going to join them?

This is the moment you begin to tug on the Idea Cloud, that fluffy cumulous-shaped mass of ideas floating over head. You reach up and pull down the missing monkey thread. Now the missing dog thread. The Idea Cloud’s positive charge will speedily lock onto any emotionally-charged memory you have about dogs, monkeys, and missing animals in general. All those memories hidden under the couch cushions of your amygdala will rise up, supercharged, and ZING! Lightning will strike.

Lightning must’ve been in this tropical Idea Cloud hanging over my car. (Boca Raton, Florida)

Suddenly, in rapid succession, you will remember: your favorite dog when you were ten years old; your little brother’s remorse over leaving the garden gate open; the neighborhood search for said dog; and the knock on the door from a motorist with bad news. You will feel the old sorrow of learning that your dog is dead, and wish you’d never listened to the news that day driving home.

But wait! You are now a superhero middle grade writer! You can rewrite history and transform your old sadness. You can finally give your dog the resting place he deserves in your heart. You can write a good story that kids will love.

You begin to ask What If questions. What if the monkey and dogs in your story are in cahoots? What if they have a good reason for disappearing? What if the lead dog has your old dog’s name? What if the dogs steal the monkey from the zoo to help them spring their canine friends from a kill shelter?

Eureka! You’re ready to draft your next middle grade story.

The sun breaks through the Idea Cloud. (Willamette Valley, Oregon)

Then, one of your critique group friends informs you that another middle grade writer just sold that story to HarperCollins in a five figure deal.

Whaaa…? You were just getting started!

But, hold on a sec. It’s not exactly the same. The author pulled the same two threads down from the Idea Cloud, asked the same What If questions and finished her version first but her monkey doesn’t pick locks and there’s no kill shelter. You swallow your pride. You change the location of your story from Cleveland to India, where you lived as a child. Now your story is not the same as hers, and, anyway, there’s room in a bookstore for two books on animals saving a corner of the world.

Has this ever happened to you? What did you do when you found out “your” story was already out there in the world?

If so, you may steal the dog/monkey story. I just made it up. Somebody else might’ve written it first, you never know. Google it and then write like heck to be first to finish it. Set it in India. Or Guam. There aren’t enough children’s books about Guam. Good luck!

P.S. This particular Idea Cloud idea is mine, however. But feel free to share this post with other writers like us.

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?
Oregon

The Work of Writing: BIC, or Getting to Your Desk

My current writing space is the desk I was given as as a child.
My Napa space looked into the branches of a fig tree.

In Napa, we built a 5 x 11 studio for me out of a garden shed attached to the garage. Though tiny, the door closed and the window faced the spreading branches of a fig tree. The leaves unfurled day by day, sometimes outpacing the progress of my own work.

For the last few years, that project was a 90,000-word young adult novel that I was rewriting with a mentor, the wonderful Veronica Rossi. When the process stalled, I questioned myself, literally, like in this journal note:

November 10, 2015

Wow, really hard to focus. Nothing’s in the way except my own lazy a$$ self. 

Me: Hey, lazy a$$ self. What’s the problem?

LAS: Momentum. Dragging our feet.

ME: Why? 

LAS: Afraid of failure. 

Me: Oh. That. 

LAS: Also fear of success. How it changes things. 

Me:  Let’s just be in the process and not think about outcome. The fun is in the process, and the flow. I’m going to do my best, one step at a time. If I get ahead of myself, it’s stultifying. Just get BIC.

LAS [melting like Wicked Witch in Wizard of Oz]: AAAaaaaaa….

If you’re a writer, you know that “BIC” – getting “butt-in-chair” – is one of the hardest parts of the process. If you approach it in fear, like my imagined self above, you may wake up out of a fog and finding yourself doing dishes instead. Or picking the brown leaves off the strawberry plants. In winter. Several months from any actual fruit appearing. Or endlessly scrolling through Instagram. If you’re ambivalent about writing, your mind is going to march you in the opposite direction of your desk.

One thing that helps is following an established routine.

I often start at the same time every day. When I worked fulltime, my alarm clock went off at 5 am. I made tea, ignored my cat and dog’s excitement about getting fed, walked past the dirty dishes, and went straight to the studio. 

After that, I take steps to get inspired. For a couple of years, before I wrote anything, I’d read one page a day from a book that inspired me. One year I read one passage a day from The Bhagavad Gita, in a tiny version with illustrations from ancient paintings. Another year, I pulled a card a day from Affirmators!, wacky affirmation cards that don’t take themselves too seriously. My favorite year, though, I read a page a day from 365 Days of Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Each page’s quotation sparked hope and something to think about. Like this one: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”(Milton Berle). Or this one: “What you do every day matters more than what you do every once in a while.” (Unknown).

Lastly, I open a digital notebook devoted to my work-in-progress. I read where I was yesterday and type in what I intend to accomplish today. When I need to noodle out overarching things – like character motivation or the ten things my YA character likes about so-and-so – then I write it all out. It’s like clearing a cluttered shelf in my head. Then I’m ready to pick up where I left off. My digital journal also contains separate tabs for plot points, character sketches, setting descriptions, drafts for query letters, and pitches. 

The last and most supportive part of my regular practice is writing partners. But these fairy godmothers deserve a post of their own. More on that next week.