Mother’s Day

My parents are in Memphis for the Blues Music Awards this weekend (seriously, they have a much more active social life than I do), so I won’t be spending Mother’s Day with my mom. I’ll be spending it with my in-laws instead, celebrating my amazing mother-in-law. But in honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to write about the role my mom has played in my writing career, and my life.

My beautiful mom!

My beautiful mom!

For a lot of parents, I may not have been the easiest child to support. I changed my mind about things as often as I changed my hairstyle (which, in my early 20s, was basically every week). I always knew I loved writing, but my attention was forever getting jerked in other directions every time the wind blew. Two days into my first year of university, I decided I’d rather go to school out west. Then I got into modeling and told my parents I’d be jetting off to Tokyo, then Athens, then Paris. When I got back, I impulsively bought a dog without telling anyone first. A couple years later, I thought it would be fun to move away again to study Journalism and live in Toronto.

I may not have been the easiest child to support, but my parents sure made it seem that way. They never once discouraged me or tried to talk me out of doing anything. Wherever I was in the world, I got care packages filled with my favorite cereal I could only get in Canada or my dad’s famous date-filled oatmeal cookies. My mom learned how to use MSN Messenger so that she could talk to me while I was abroad sitting in Internet cafes. When there was an earthquake in Tokyo, my parents called my Japanese cell phone (which was always on the fritz) to make sure I was okay. My parents supported me when I had no money and no clue, and instilled in me what was perhaps the most valuable life lesson: above all else, follow your dreams.

I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am in my writing career without that kind of support. When I was little, my mom tried to send some of my poetry off to a publisher, even though she didn’t know the process, just because she believed in me. When I told my parents I wanted to write a book, their reaction was basically: “that’s what you were meant to do.” Despite all the rejection and uncertainty that comes with the publishing industry, my parents’ words were the loudest of all. Getting to tell them FIRSTS was going to be published was one of the best moments of my life.

My mom has always been more than just a mom to me. She’s also a best friend, a confidante, someone who boosts me up when I’m having a bad day and cheers with me when I get great news. She’s there to listen to my fears and offer words of encouragement. She’s there to babysit my dog when I go out of town. She spent the days before my wedding helping me with last-minute wedding-favor baking, then treated me to a day at the spa. She took me and my sister to Toronto for a girls’ weekend to celebrate my book deal. She’s beautiful and kind and loving and generous and smart. Which also makes her my role model, because I want to be all those things to someone one day too. If I’m lucky, I’ll be just a little bit like her when I have kids of my own.

So in honor of all the awesome moms out there—all the women who do so much for their kids, who put themselves last, who celebrate our dreams and make us feel like our failures aren’t so bad—I raise a glass of champagne to you today.

And to my mom, the whole bottle.

#SixteensBlogAbout: Luck

It’s Saint Patrick’s day today, which means green beer for some people, questionable green fashion choices for others, and for writers, a time to reflect on “the luck of the Irish.” This month, the Sweet Sixteens are blogging about luck, so what better day to write about it than the luckiest day of the year?

Irish

That I am.

Good or bad, luck plays a role in publishing. It’s part of the formula that turns your hand-scribbled notes or the Word document on your computer into something on a shelf in a bookstore, but it’s the one part we can’t control as writers, which makes it so elusive—and so maddening. You can work hard and write a great book, but for your work to find its way to an agent or an editor, a bit of luck has to be on your side too.

I think a lot of luck has to do with timing. If you’re a querying writer, you might have heard this before. An agent might love your work, but feel like it’s not right for her list at this time. Or maybe she has something too similar already. Maybe you wrote a book about a trend that’s getting harder and harder for agents to sell and editors to acquire. Perhaps you get told that your book doesn’t have what it takes to stand out in an already crowded market. (FYI: I heard this more than once before with the first NA book I queried, and those agents were right.)

If you’re getting these kinds of rejections, you might think it’s you. You might doubt yourself as a writer and wonder if you have anything unique to say, or if you should just stop trying altogether. You might be looking for a sign, something to tell you what to do.

Here’s a sign: whatever you do, don’t stop writing.

Because as much as timing sucks sometimes and you might think you have the worst luck in the world, there is something hugely important that you do have control over: whether or not you keep writing. So maybe your first book doesn’t work out, or your second or third. But if you keep writing and have faith in yourself and don’t give up, you will find the right path for your work.

And here’s another thing about luck. It can be in your favor, too. After you fall down and brush yourself off and stand up even taller, you’ll realize that you learned more than you gave yourself credit for. You’ll come to understand that you’re smarter than when you started. Your writing will get better and so will your choices. Maybe you’ll submit to an agent who really gets you, and you’ll count yourself so lucky to have her in your corner. Maybe that awesome agent will sell your book to your dream editor. And you’ll realize that all the supposed “bad luck” you experienced along the way wasn’t bad luck at all, but was actually the best thing that could have happened to you.

Case in point: I remember a time when I was querying the first book I ever wrote. I had been in the query trenches for more than six months and I was discouraged because although I had come pretty close to a “yes” with a few agents, I hadn’t been offered representation. I felt like a failure. But I picked myself up and wrote a second book. Then, I had this crazy idea that I just had to write, and that crazy idea turned into FIRSTS. Looking back, I think luck was on my side the whole time, with each rejection that trickled in. It sure didn’t feel that way when I was in the query trenches, but in hindsight, I can see that all those “no’s” led me to where I am now. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Writers talk a lot about the path to publication. And no matter what stage you’re at—writing, revising, querying, entering a contest—guess what? You’re on it. You’re living your dream. And that, in itself, is an amazing accomplishment. As the Irish blessing goes, “may the wind be always at your back.”

On celebrating small victories

When you’re on the path to publication, the big milestones are easy to distinguish. Finishing a book. Getting an agent. Revising. Selling a book. If you’re a querying writer trying to get traditionally published, these are probably the goals you strive for. If you’re anything like me, you tell yourself to enjoy the writing part, to truly love creating stories, because it’s the only part you have any real control over.

Words to live by.

Words to live by.

And if you’re anything like me, you might sometimes find that advice annoyingly impossible to follow when all you can think about is what you haven’t accomplished yet.

A lot has happened in the past year. I was lucky enough to achieve the goals I had always dreamed of, and I’m still shocked sometimes that it’s all happening. But even though I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at now, I still have days where I forget to live in the moment because I’m too busy thinking ahead. Days where I fail to see my own progress. And that got me thinking about the importance of celebrating small victories.

As writers, we’re naturally our own biggest critics. We get frustrated when things don’t go our way. We get mad at ourselves if the words aren’t flowing as easily one day as they did before, and when we’re uninspired or have a case of writer’s block, we question if we’ve lost the ability to write entirely. (This happens to me more often than I’d like to admit.) And while those big goals are easy to celebrate, the smaller ones deserve some glory too. The ones we work at each day and forget to recognize as achievements at all.

Coming up with a title. Finishing a chapter. Fixing a plot hole. Fleshing out a secondary character. Not just adding words, but taking them away when it benefits the story. Learning a character’s voice. Figuring out a satisfying ending. Finding out how to weave a plot thread throughout your entire story. Conjuring up a perfect first kiss. Describing a delicious meal. Capturing the mood you were striving for. Creating a snappy dialogue exchange. Waking up in the middle of the night to write down a sentence fragment that changes everything.

These are among the milestones that we sometimes fail to acknowledge at all. These are parts of being a writer that we can easily take for granted because there’s something else, something bigger obscuring our vision. A brighter, glittering jewel blocking out the rest of the light. But I’m starting to believe, more and more, that the small victories need more credit. Because those bigger, brighter accomplishments are built on each word we write. They’re built on sentences and characters and dialogue and pure hard work. They’re constructed on those times we sit and stare at a gaping plot hole and spend hours figuring out how to fix it. They’re built on the days we don’t want to write at all, but somehow find the drive we need to put words on paper.

Not all goals are celebrated with champagne and much happy dancing (although those ones are undoubtedly very exciting and fun)! So many go by unnoticed, and this is something I’m trying to remedy this year. I want to recognize and enjoy the small things and see them for what they are: not small at all.

“Can you speak up?” : Or, writing memorable voice

When I was a brand-new writer getting ready to query my first book (a NA contemporary), I unknowingly committed a big writing sin: I didn’t think about my main character’s voice. If you had asked me, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you what voice even meant.

So I was surprised when I started getting feedback about it from agents. Requests saying they liked the voice and wanted to read more. Rejections stating they just didn’t connect with it.

I considered all the thought I had put into the story. The details I had put into the cast of characters. The outline I had made to keep track of scenes and plot points. I had put so much work into those parts of the book, yet the thing that seemed to stand out most to agents was something I hadn’t consciously worked on at all. I didn’t even know how to work on it, or how I made it happen in the first place. So those rejections that cited voice as the main reason for not connecting were especially frustrating.

When I started writing my second book, I did something I should have done a lot sooner.

I started reading widely, both NA and YA. And I realized the books I loved most, the ones that stuck with me long after I turned the last page, as different as they were, had one element that tied them together.

Voice.

I started to learn that there was really no right or wrong way to create voice. Voice comes from your main character, from his or her ways of seeing the world you put them in. Voice can be naive or sarcastic or downright mean. Voice can be lyrical or sparse or colorful or gray. The spectrum for voice is enormous, neverending. But a good voice, a memorable one, is always authentic and consistent. Because your main character is the lens through which your readers see the world you create. Your readers will literally get inside your character’s head.

After I realized this, I was both inspired and intimidated. I started to think about what I could do to pinpoint voice, and how I could use it to drive my book. By this time, I had an idea in my head for a character whose voice I knew would be polarizing and the hook for her story. I was ready to start writing what would become FIRSTS.

I knew that I couldn’t control whether people would like Mercedes, but I came to understand that liking her wasn’t the most important thing. What was more important was the experience I was creating, the character whose head readers would be occupying. Did she feel authentic? Was her voice consistent? Was she interesting enough to spend a whole book with?

Here are some things that I have taken away most from reading widely and writing from different perspectives. When I’m writing from a character’s point of view and start to get stuck, I refer to these points:

1) Your character doesn’t have to be necessarily relatable, or even nice. But she does have to feel real. A too-sweet and passive main character who doesn’t ever make mistakes isn’t any fun to read about. A snarky, jaded main character needs to give us at least something vulnerable to connect with, particularly if he or she is doing bad things. People in real life don’t exist as either strictly good or bad, and nor should your characters.

2) Experiment with your character’s voice. Write a few scenes from her perspective. Get to know her. Think about how she would see the world, how she would react to things. Think about the reasons why. This can be difficult, because it might not be how you see the world or how you would react to things. But unless you’re writing a memoir, your character isn’t you. For instance, a bully with something to hide might threaten someone and feel momentarily powerful. A popular girl might know her jock boyfriend is cheating on her but choose not to confront him. Your job is to make your character convincing enough that your reader wants to know more about why she sees things the way she does.

3) Think about your character’s secrets. His motivation. You don’t have to give this away up front. You can keep this from the reader, but let it color your story and build tension. Sometimes what is unsaid is even more effective than what is said. People’s pasts, the experiences they have gone through, have a huge impact on how they see things. So even if you don’t include all of your character’s backstory in your book, make sure you know it. This will let you know him that much better.

4) Keep your character’s voice consistent. If she’s sarcastic and cynical and whip-smart, don’t dumb her down. If she’s incredibly perceptive, don’t let things pass her by. If she’s an anti-hero, own it. Some of my favorite books have narrators who are anti-heroes, and I have stated on many occasions how much I love characters who aren’t traditionally likeable. Why do I love these characters so much? Not because I want to be best friends with them, but because the authors did a great job of keeping the voice consistent, and the characters felt complex and interesting as a result.

5) Pay close attention to dialogue, because it’s a big part of voice. Readers see and feel things unfold from your character’s perspective, but they also hear it from your character’s mouth. Make sure that when he speaks, it’s in a way that makes sense to the thoughts unfolding in his head. The way he interacts with people, his words and his gestures, are an extension of his thoughts.

6) If you’re writing in dual or multiple points of view, make sure each character’s voice is distinct and unique. If the voices are too similar, no matter how good your story is, it will become less compelling as a result. You want your readers to always know whose head they’re in at all times.

And the main thing I have taken away? Voice is one part of writing that’s subjective, which can be thrilling and frustrating. If all the other elements of a book make it speak, voice is what makes it sing.

I’d love to know… what techniques do you use to create a memorable voice?

On finding a hook

If you have read my blog, you probably already know that I wrote two books before FIRSTS that I ended up shelving. Both were New Adult contemporary. Both meant a lot to me when I wrote them. I learned a lot from each one, about writing and about myself. I fantasized about seeing those books on bookshelves someday. I was sure that they were good enough, that somebody would have to see the potential.

Needless to say, that didn’t exactly happen.

And now I’m so grateful for that.

Of course, at the time, I wasn’t. At the time, I felt defeated. I grappled with the idea of giving up. But when I look at those manuscripts today, I know why they didn’t work. It’s not that the writing was terrible or the plot was stupid or the characters were one-dimensional. It wasn’t that one particular thing was egregiously wrong. It’s just that something was missing. Something huge and vital that I didn’t see at the time.

Those two books had no hook. And because of that, they had no pulse.

When it came down to writing a pitch, I couldn’t. I couldn’t summarize either of them in one or two sentences. I told myself it was because too much was going on, that it was impossible to condense a book wherein so many things happened. If somebody would have asked me what either of those books were about, I would have struggled to explain. I might have said something along the lines of: “It’s about this girl, and she meets these people, and stuff happens.” Which doesn’t really sound like a book somebody desperately needs to pick up.

Now I see why I couldn’t write a decent pitch. It wasn’t because too much was going on. It was because not enough was going on. Sure, things happened to the characters. But there was no major conflict, no tension. No hook.

So when I set out to write FIRSTS, I tried something different. I had the hook in my head before I even wrote a word. I had the central conflict: Girl offers guys the chance to get their awkward first times over with. Problem is, those guys have girlfriends. Problem is, somebody is bound to find out. That was all I started with. I had no outline, no real direction beyond that. Since I’m a pantser, at a few points during the story I wasn’t quite sure what would happen next. But when I felt like I was stuck or veering off course, I referred back to that hook and remembered the bones of the book. Its lifeblood.

Now, I apply this strategy to everything I write. Whenever I start a new project, I make sure I can condense it into a tightly wound pitch. Not only because I can easily explain to other people, but because I remember what it’s about. I remember the crux, the reason why this story needs to be told. And the reason why I need to tell it.

Being able to sum up your story into a pitch is a good skill to learn if you’re a querying writer. A great query is all about conflict and clarity– to make an agent want to keep reading, you need to show the stakes. And if you’re entering contests, you’ll be one step ahead if you have a pitch ready. Twitter contests like Brenda Drake’s #PitMad (which is coming up again on December 4!) are an excellent opportunity to get agent attention, and the fact that you have 140 characters or less to pique interest means you have to choose your words wisely.

If you’re struggling with the pitch, you’re definitely not alone. But finding your hook will make your work so much stronger. If you’re a writer who would like a second set of eyes on your pitch, leave a comment below or message me on Twitter at @laurellizabeth.

I have an agent!

LaurieContract

 

So, the superexciting news I have been dying to share with everybody is that I have signed with the amazing Kathleen Rushall of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency! I’m so thrilled and honored to be represented by Kathleen and I can’t wait to start working with her!

That’s the short version. The long version? I wrote a book. I queried it. I learned from it. Then I wrote a second book, and learned from that one too. Then I wrote a third book, my first attempt at YA contemporary (ironically, titled FIRSTS)  and decided to enter it in a contest called PitchWars, run by the fabulous Brenda Drake. My PitchWars mentors, Lori Goldstein and Evelyn Ehrlich, helped whip my manuscript into the best possible shape. FIRSTS garnered several requests during PitchWars, but after the contest was over, I started sending out queries as well, and this is where Kathleen found me– in the slush pile. Regular, old-fashioned querying DOES work!

When I received an email from Kathleen asking to set up a call for later that day, my stomach started doing flips. Was this the call? I tried not to get my hopes up and did my best to get through the rest of my workday without thinking about it at least once every ten seconds. (It didn’t work.) But when Kathleen called, she made me feel at ease right away. She told me how much she enjoyed FIRSTS and my writing. Then she told me she wanted to offer representation. (At least, this is what I think happened. I was too excited to remember it exactly!)

I sort of lost my ability to string sentences together, but Kathleen was smart and kind and answered all of my questions. She let me know her ideas for FIRSTS, great ideas that all resonated with me. And she was interested in my future writing, too. I had the feeling Kathleen was somebody I could have a great and long-lasting relationship with– somebody who would fully support me throughout my career and advocate for me and my work. She appreciates that I like to push boundaries in my writing and is willing to take risks with me, which I think is so important.

The next couple weeks were pretty hectic. My husband and I moved into a new house and I received three more offers of representation. I feel so honored to have been considered by every agent who offered. They were all so thoughtful and insightful, and made me realize even more just how amazing the writing community really is. I’m grateful for all of the agents who took the time to read FIRSTS and offer feedback and kind congratulations. Really, I just feel so lucky to get to be a part of such a great community.

If you are reading this and in the query trenches right now or feeling down about writing, don’t give up. There were several times with my first book where I wanted to throw in the towel, that I thought life would be easier without the cycle of stress and hope and rejection that came from sending my work into the world. And yeah, it would be easier. But I could never give up, because I had to write. A huge, irreplaceable part of my happiness is tied to it. So I started reading more YA and figuring out why I loved the books I loved, and what made them so memorable. I wrote without self-editing, something I had always struggled with in the past. I spent more and more time logging in word counts every day. I used to struggle to hit the 1K mark, then found myself reaching 5K or more without even realizing it. I was having more fun with writing because it didn’t feel like work. I wasn’t so critical or hard on myself. I let myself write things that definitely sucked and probably didn’t make sense, knowing I could go back and fix them later.

Another piece of advice I have is to enter contests. Inevitably, there will be some you are chosen for and some you’re not. I have had my share of both experiences. But I can honestly say that entering PitchWars was the best decision I made for my writing career. Lori and Evelyn are HUGELY influential to me, and I have learned so much from them. It didn’t stop when the contest ended, either. Lori and Evelyn have been there for me every step of the way. They have answered all of my silly questions and offered so much wisdom and encouragement and support.  So to both of you wonderful ladies– a wholehearted THANK YOU! I only hope I can help somebody out in the future the way you two have done for me. The best thing about contests isn’t the exposure or the requests from agents– it’s the amazing people you meet. Like my lovely CP, Emily Martin, who offered several invaluable insights on FIRSTS. (Thank you, Emily!)

And lastly, here are the stats, for those of you who are interested. I have included the stats for the first book I wrote along with my stats for FIRSTS, just to show how much of a difference reading widely and writing every day makes.

WAITRESS

Queries sent: 57

Full requests: 12

Partial requests: 5

Rejections: 22

CNRs: 18

FIRSTS

Queries sent: 33

Full requests: 16

Partial requests: 1

Rejections: 12

CNRs: 4

And last of all… remember that it only takes one yes, so if being traditionally published is your goal, never stop until you find it!

Happy writing (and querying)!

Throwback Thursday: My Checkerboard

Magazine shoot in Greece.

Magazine shoot in Greece.

I once had a university advisor describe my academic trajectory as a “checkerboard.” All over the place. Interrupted. Hard to follow. The opposite of linear.

This got me thinking about writing, and how all writers have a different path too. Some people get an agent with their first book. Others write several books until one is the perfect fit. Some decide to self-publish. It’s easy to compare ourselves to other writers and wish we had what they had. It’s easy to get disheartened about rejections. But everybody is different. Everybody has their own way, whether it be a straight line or a squiggly line or a checkerboard. And no way is perfect, even though it might look like that from the outside.

I started university a year early, mostly because I couldn’t wait to get out of high school.  I thought I would get an Honors degree, followed by some kind of Masters. Then modeling happened, and I had a decision to make: stay on my academic path or jump way off it.

I jumped. I stopped university two credits shy of a degree for the chance to model in Tokyo. School would always be there, but that opportunity wouldn’t. After Tokyo I didn’t go back to school. I went to Athens, and after Athens, Paris. My friends back home were cramming for exams, going to parties, figuring out what they wanted to do with their lives. I was running around to castings and photo shoots and trying to navigate the Metro lines in Tokyo (update: never did). But when I came home from Paris and decided I missed school and wanted to go back, it was difficult finding traction. I didn’t know what to major in. I questioned the worth of classes previously taken. I was confused. I didn’t know where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do. There were moments I wondered what my life would be like if I hadn’t deviated from my path. Everything would be so much easier linear.

Magazine shoot.

Magazine shoot.

But I’m grateful for my checkerboard, especially now. Modeling has been a huge part of my life and has taught me things I could never learn in a classroom. I learned how to handle rejection and criticism. Models have to have thick skin– you go to so many castings each day, and most of them are for jobs you’re not going to get. You learn how to celebrate the ones you do get and don’t sweat the ones you don’t. You make friends and celebrate their successes, and they celebrate yours. I have done my best to apply this attitude to the business of trying to get published. My road might not look the same as someone else’s, and that’s okay.

Because in the end, I really do believe things work out how they are supposed to. Nobody’s path is completely straight. We all have decisions to make and bumps in the road. We all have deviations and setbacks. The challenge is seeing them for the good, and appreciating the change they evoke within us. The challenge is learning to love our checkerboards for what they are– the roadmaps to our lives.