Reflection #PitchWars #Revising #AmWriting

dsc_0482

The past few weeks have been an emotional tsunami. I’m American, so … yeah. The election. I’m also the parent of an immigrant, and the parent of another child with Mexican heritage. The conversations in our house have been hard. I’ve had to explain to a twelve year old that yes, a man who brags about sexual assault can be president, but she cannot because of where she was born.  I’ve had to reassure my youngest that no, she can’t be deported because she is American, and if anyone even questioned her right to be here they would find themselves very quickly wishing they hadn’t brought it up.

Before the world imploded, I completed the Pitch Wars contest run by NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR Brenda Drake. (She just made the best seller list, I’m a little excited for her). If you want to skip past my amazing insight into how Pitch Wars and the election are related, you can scroll down to the bold header with my writing lessons from the contest. Of course, that’s like eating dessert without dinner, but who am I to judge?

*peers over glasses and judges you*

Both of these events have led to a lot of personal reflection. Book sales are slumping and stores are closing, because my fellow countrymen only read if it confirms their personal biases. We live in a world of self-created echo chambers, blocking out anything that challenges what we already believe we know.

Because we are already, like, really smart.

I am just as guilty of that as anyone else. My writing mentor, Rebecca, said she loved the voice in my story but the plot seemed to have been written by an ADHD rabbit on a cocaine binge. (Okay, fine, she probably said something nicer, I was nervous so I don’t really remember).

That was the inciting incident that ties this post together. In that moment of soul crushing criticism I had a choice: I could cross my arms and pout–who does this award winning author and plot wizard think she is, saying that my work isn’t perfect? I wrote it, and I’m like, true story, super smart. I have a law degree in my closet, behind the vacuum.

My other option was to take a breath, humble myself, and ask what she thought I could do to make the story better.

That’s where we are as a nation, right now. Our country is not a political football team, with my side winning and your side losing forever, hooray! Abortions for everyone! Or abortions for no one! It’s all about abortions and that’s why we have to disenfranchise people and take over the judiciary and crush you into submission, because whatever side I’m on is the only right side!

Our political process is suppose to be a balance of ideas, a system of compromise, in order to maintain unity, stability, and prosperity. We’ve forgotten about that in our rush to “win”. Y’all, there is only one party in America, and it is money. Don’t believe me? The Bush twins call Bill and Hillary Clinton “Uncle Bill and Aunt Hillary.” Here’s the video.

Congratulations, we’ve all been played.

In that cross-roads moment with Rebecca, I decided to choose humility. I made a decision to ask questions, to listen, and to learn. I compromised on plot points, but never on character. As a result I have a story I am proud of, a brand new writing toolkit, and a friendship with someone I deeply respect.

Doesn’t that sound like a better way to live?

You’ve been very patient, so here are the PITCH WAR WRITING LESSONS (use only as directed; seek your doctor’s advice before starting this and any other writing program; void where prohibited by law):

1. Start by writing your pitch first. I know, it sounds backwards, but trust me. The pitch is the golden snitch. Catch it, and you win the game. You need to know at the very start what your core idea is:

In a world where ____, X must do _____ before _____.

If you can’t do that, then there is a fundamental story flaw you need to fix. It could be setting, character, or stakes. Whatever it is, you’ll see it when you write the pitch. Traci Chee has a fantastic post breaking down the elements of a what makes a great pitch.

2. After you get your pitch working, fill out a beat sheet for your genre. Don’t know your genre? Yeah, go find it. We’ll wait.

Found it? Yay! Now you need a beat sheet. I like the ones from Jami Gold, because I write in Scrivener and she has one designed for that.

Fill out your beat sheet and start your character bios. Adjust both as the plot demands.

3. Draft a synopsis from the beat sheet before you sit down to write a word. This works for revisions, too, but is a lot easier if you start it before you write. I was using beat sheets before Pitch Wars, but not writing out a synopsis. As a result, my work suffered major plot holes that I couldn’t see until I was deeply invested in the work. In the long run it will save you time and a lot of revision.

4. Check the synopsis. Are there any plot holes? Is the action driven by the character motivation you have set? Do your character and emotional arcs line up with the action? Have you hit all the elements of your genre, and in the correct order? Are there any world-building issues you need to address?

5. Read. Read every day. Read current books, classic books, news, journal articles, books inside and outside of your genre. Read everything you can.

6. Challenge yourself to understand other perspectives. Read outside of your comfort zone. Talk to someone who scares you a little. Sit down next to someone of a different race, or religion, or political streak, and listen to them. You will make your writing richer and more complex if you try to understand other perspectives. WRITING COMES FROM EMPATHY, NOT EXPERIENCE.  If you can understand another point of view, even one you despise, then you will create a character (or villain) who your reader will believe is real. Doesn’t that sound lovely?

Above all, keep writing. Keep writing when things feel broken, because cracks are how the light gets in.* Be that light.

 

 

 

* Leonard Cohen or Hemingway? Proof that the internet has a place for everyone, there is actually a website called quote investigator that has tackled this.

 

Following Your Passion #PitchWars #PW16RevClub #AmWriting #AmRevising

My wildflower garden is going to seed, which is my favorite part of the year. It looks weedy and dead, but it’s actually full of life–caterpillars, mantises, and sassy little yellow finches.

Among all the dry and brittle stalks a passionflower popped up:

passionflower

It is late in the year for new blooms, but I smile every time I see it. It reminds me that passion can sometimes find us later in life than we expected.

We have to remain open to the possibility of maybe. Maybe I can. Maybe I will.

Maybe this will be it.

A year ago I stumbled across #PitMad on Twitter, and I fell in love with the concept. Writers pitch their books to agents on a Twitter feed who ask them for submissions. The part of me that longs for efficiency experienced minor heart palpations at the thought. No cold queries! No wasted time!  Brilliant!

I poked around, looking for more information, and discovered that Pit Mad is the little sister to Pitch Wars, an even more amazing concept. Writers submit their queries and the first ten pages of their manuscript to a limited number of mentors, and if they get picked they spend the next two months refining their work to get ready for the agent pitch round.

They had me at “mentor”.

I’ve spent the past year taking webnairs, going to conferences, and focusing on learning how to write a novel.

There was only a 7% chance of getting picked for Pitch Wars.

I got picked.*

Being chosen doesn’t mean my manuscript was the best–it means my mentor thought she could work with me to make my book better. It’s kind of like being picked for The Biggest Loser. You are happy to be chosen, but you know it’s because you have a lot of work to do.

And the work! Oh my. My amazing mentor, Rebecca Petruck, told me her vision for my story, and everything she said made sense. I am excited to do the work to make it better.

But when the mentors said Pitch Wars was work, it was no hyperbole.

tumble

I am re-writing my entire book, from scratch. The past month I have written over 23,000 words. New words. Beautiful words. Words that make me happy.

Except when they don’t. I hit a low this week, paddling in circles at midpoint. I lost the thread, and wailed, and gnashed my teeth for about five days. My mentor was busy. My husband was loving but clueless how to help. My family was, well, we’ll just say less than supportive, since my mother is convinced Pitch Wars is an on-line scam and my dad thinks my sister magically controls the close captioning when it goes off on the TV.

So what do you do when you are writing a whole new story in a single month, and you are floundering?

inigo-montoa
Looking for this gif I stumbled on a writer, Claire Banschbach,  who did a delightful post on writing using gifs from the Princess Bride

I took off two days and read what I had written so far.

It didn’t suck.

head-wiggle
You think a little head jiggle is going to make me happy?

Some days, a little head jiggle is enough. I caught the thread again, realized what my story wants to say, and can now see my way to the end. My palms are shiny with callouses from the constant typing, and I think my blood has turned to coffee.

And I love it.

kiss

*Read my interview here: http://www.brenda-drake.com/2016/09/pitch-wars-interview-jennifer-bryson-mentor-rebecca-petruck/

THEN BUY REBECCA’S BOOK!

#FirstVoices, Laundry, and Squirrels Cheat At Cards

I’ve been playing with a new app, called Prisma:

cards

I’m pretty sure the squirrel is cheating.

Prisma is so fun! You pick an art filter and it turns your picture into an illustration. I *may* be playing with dolls this morning instead of outlining.

But! I am also thinking while I play. Because that is what grown-ups do. We call it “multi-tasking” and it is totes important.*

Things I am thinking about while I avoid laundry:

  1. How much I love Pitch Wars
  2. Diversity in fiction
  3. Cultural appropriation
  4. Did the cat just puke on the bed?
  5. Oh gross, the cat did just puke on the bed

More laundry. Sigh.

While I wash the bedspread and stalk  patiently wait for the Pitch War mentors to announce their mentees, I really am thinking deep thoughts about diversity in fiction. It’s a wibbly-wobbly ball of sticky icky, and I am still struggling with exactly where I stand. Not on the need for diversity, but on the role a middle aged white female writer should have.

Sisters in Crime just released a well-researched report on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the mystery writing community. This quote tears at my heart: “Romance is white people in love; sci-fi is white people in space; mystery is white people solving crime.” 

I don’t believe lack of diversity is (usually) a willful decision on the part of writers. It is an unconscious decision born of privilege–the privilege of not having to think about race.

I’m outlining a new story, one not involving squirrels and talking peanuts, and deciding exactly who the protagonist wants to be. What race is she? Should she be a different race? What if she has a disability? Am I the best person to write that story?

I have a child with a rare genetic condition. Would my experience within the ichthyosis community inform me enough to show a window into my daughter’s world, or would I be taking away the community’s right to tell its own stories?

This is hard, dude.

We’ve been discussing this issue in one of my writer support groups, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to an answer. So many wonderful writers have weighed in with thoughtful, insightful arguments. For an idea of our discussion, read Liselle and Justina Ireland  for opposing thoughts on race, and Kim Cohen’s thoughtful discussion on the issue of  writing from the disability perspective.

Liselle assured me that it was okay to write from a different perspective, because that is what writers do. I love her for that. Others have argued that the diversity problem should be solved by lifting up and supporting marginalized voices, and I absolutely agree. We should, at the very least, make an effort to represent other perspectives accurately.

Or, you know, we can always cop out and write about card playing squirrels…

*The kids may have gone back to school this morning, and I may be a little giddy from getting my writing time back.

#AmWriting

I wrote a novel this week.

a3hwa77qreoo

Well, most of a novel.

When I decided I wanted to write a book, I knew it would require a lot of dedicated work. Understanding the industry. Connecting with other writers. Striving to improve my writing every single day.

That’s a lot to ask of small children, so I decided to write my first b00k for them. My then six-year-old asked for “a story about a squirrel and a peanut who are best friends.” I’ve spent the last year fleshing out the idea, writing, and then scrapping hundreds of hours of work when I realized the story started in the wrong place.

With the #PitchWars deadline looming, my parents took the girls for a visit four hours away. Grabbing my beat sheets, notes, and the mountain of discarded text, I pounded out 25,000 words in three days.

For reals, y’all.

I’ve spent the rest of the week revising, and am about to do a cold read through to the kids.

Will I make it to the August 3rd deadline?  Yup.

Will it be the best story I can give?  Yup.

Will my kids love it?

That’s the only question that matters.

A Squirrel Walks into a Bar…

You know what’s helpful? When you write a long post about several books you’ve read, then fail to save it and forget to check your site for several months. Five months, apparently.

*blush*

A hundred thousand years ago, when Al Gore had just invented the internet and coding in html was THE.HOTT.NEW.THING I had a blog. And it was so fun! I met people all over the world, and had sorta fans, and maybe kinda one stalker, and people sent me free things to review and asked me to let them advertise on my site and write for their magazines — and I shut it down.

I had a four year old and a newborn, and after a friend died from breast cancer I looked up from my sangria and realized I didn’t want my personal life to be “famous”. I didn’t want my children to grow up under a microscope, with people making memes from their baby pictures to torment them with in high school.

We’ve spent the last five years in anonymity, and I am proud of having the strength to walk away for them.

But.

There is this space. This space that I am trying to decide how to fill. I *do* read kids books, constantly, but apparently am not good at remembering to write the &^^*@%$ reviews.  I write stories, lots of them, even if I am not brave enough to submit them yet. And I have two great (no, FANTASTIC) critique groups on Inked Voices.* I’ve just about completed my first novel manuscript and have submitted it for a paid critique by a real live honest to God editor crap crap what have I done?

So I guess I’m saying I’m busy, but happy, and a bit flakey, but that’s O.K. School starts back in a few weeks and I’ll have the time to focus on myself again. The manuscript is about ready for the first round of revisions and book two has started percolating in the back of my brain. I’ve moved past being afraid to tell people what I do — “Um, I clean a lot and do a lot of crafts” is now a more confident “Um, I clean a lot and mumble mumble I write stories”.

I. WRITE. STORIES.

image

And I love it.

 

*Unsolicited recommendation. If you are a writer struggling to find a support/critique group perfect for you, they will hook you up. Pinky swear.

 

Mind the Gap

“I see your last job was in 2011? And before that you stopped work in 2003, is that right?”

No. I never stopped work. I stopped going to work, but never working. I take a breath, preparing to launch my well-rehearsed answer.

I was an attorney, and then there were children, and now I am here…

I look at the gap on my resumé and worry about the questions I know will weigh heavily against me. Why did she leave? What kind of person works that hard for a career and then just leaves it? What’s wrong with her?

Probably a lot of things, but that’s not why I walked away. The first time I held my daughter she was a year old, left in an orphanage at birth on the other side of the world. I kissed her tiny cheek and she started in surprise, and I realized no one had ever kissed her before.  In that moment who I had been ended, and there was no choice between work and her. I would be a mother with the same ferocity I had had as a lawyer — I would heal her, I would heal us both.

I left because I wanted to, because I had the option and I took it. I spent a decade covered in Cheerios and boogers, reading thousands of hours of Sandra Boynton and rocking a colicky baby and a preschooler. I stepped out of one world and into another, and I am vastly better for it.

That gap on my resumé isn’t an empty void, a sign of something wrong — it is a sign I did something exactly right. I gave these two little people so much love and attention that now they don’t need me as much, and there is space for me again. I am filling this new time with words and books, and coffee, and bags of M&M’s. There is some hummus, but really, it’s mostly just M&M’s.

I look down the road to where I want to be and again, there is no choice. This is where I want to be, writing and telling stories. This is my new work. I don’t care if it is paid or not — I write stories and silly poems every day, read and review kidlit, and avoid housework. I am happy.*

*But I’d be even happier if you want to hire me. wink wink