The countdown to Pitch Wars (aka #BoostMyBio)

Obviously, if you scroll through my blog posts, you’ll notice I’m intermittent with my blogging, but that doesn’t mean I’m not constantly writing. A recovering Senate staffer, I’m lucky enough to have a great group of clients who help me pay the mortgage keep me busy writing essays, op-eds, reports, and other communications materials, mostly on clean energy and climate change policy.  For my “fun” writing, I try to carve out time most days (usually in the early morning hours) to work on my women’s fiction novel, RUNNING FOR HOME.

The details on RUNNING FOR HOME: This is actually the first novel (of three) I ever wrote. In 2014, after over 100 unsuccessful agent queries, I put this maiden attempt on the shelf—and proceeded to write two more novels. But I couldn’t get RUNNING FOR HOME out of my heart/head. For NaNoWriMo 2017, I dusted it off. And by “dusted it off,” I mean I cut 70,000 (of 97,000) words, made the end the beginning, and rewrote the premise. What was once a love story that ended in the dust and rubble of 9/11 is now the account of an unlikely friendship that emerges after 9/11.

9/11 fiction? Will people want to read that? 9/11 happened. It was super sad and shaped not only our nation, but the generation born after, including my son, born four days after the heroes of United Flight 93 saved our lives by not allowing the 4th plane to crash into the U.S. Capitol. (See why I had to write a 9/11 story?) While the 9/11 scenes occur in the beginning of RUNNING FOR HOME, the primary focus of the novel is on two strong women who bond as they rebuild their lives after the attack.

What else? I’m constantly reading. Recent favorites include The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, Ensemble by Aja Gabel, You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld, and She Regrets Nothing by Andrea Dunlop. I don’t watch a ton of TV but am obsessed with the Bachelor franchise (I have written a novel about that too), UnREAL, The Americans, and Younger. I teach yoga, single parent two teenage boys, and have two cats. Fang (pictured left) likes books. Fluffy likes lap(top)s.

Like many authors, I love coffee (but not after 10am), chocolate, and wine. Especially wine. In fact, inspired on a recent trip to France, my fourth manuscript will revolve around a wine theme. I live on the Maryland side of Washington, DC. (Anyone local want to get together for coffee, chocolate, or wine?) Red Sox fan. Shoe lover. Klutz. What more do you want to know? Ask! I’m an open book.

Why Pitch Wars? On a whim, I submitted to Pitch Wars last year and made a bunch of new friends, as well as scoring an unofficial mentor. I love this community and the circle of support it inspires. Whether or not I get chosen, I know my writing and my life will improve thanks to this experience.

Good luck, team. I can’t wait to see your books come into the world.

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This year in writing

In the spirit of retrospection—and also recognizing that without Facebook to update the friendly masses on my writerly aspirations, contributing to my underused blog is the best way to let the world know what I’m up—I feel the urge to share the latest and greatest adventures in writing.

I started off the year working on a new novel (yes, this marks number three for those keeping score) written mostly during November 2016 NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated). In January, I joined a critique group (recently dubbed La Madeleine Writers in honor of the Bethesda cafe where we convene) which meets monthly, inspires daily. I recruited new beta readers and when those readers funneled back dissatisfaction with the novel’s ending, I edited, wrote and rewrote and found new suckers readers to take on a revised version.

Then I edited and wrote and rewrote some more.

As a self-imposed May 31st deadline to have a query-ready manuscript approached (for those who don’t know, I amicably broke up with my previous agent in 2016) I snuck in writing/editing time when I could, mostly at five o’clock in the morning before sun, kids, and cats rise. I started with a light pitch in June, sending the manuscript to a handful of literary agents.

While those queries did not yield a match, one agent provided feedback. Detailed feedback. And engaged in a back and forth exchange where I could ask questions, which she promptly answered. If you aren’t a writer struggling to forge this impossible seeming professional relationship, you don’t understand how glorious and rare unsolicited feedback is in a world of form letter email rejections. (The process isn’t unlike online dating.) Her suggestions made my manuscript stronger, even if we didn’t find happily ever after.

In August, I submitted my novel for #PitchWars, an online contest pairing aspiring authors (aka mentees) with agented/published authors or others in the industry (aka mentors). Mentors help mentees edit their novel/pitch in preparation for an agent showcase round, where matches are made in heaven. I wasn’t selected as a mentee, but made a writer friend out of my dream mentor. Her advice has helped me improve in immeasurable ways, and she always responds immediately to my “what do you think if I xxx” texts.

In November, I hired Hyphen Craft, an editing service recently established by former literary agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock. She honed my Twitter pitches for #PitMad and reviewed my submission package (i.e. query letter, synopsis and first ten pages) advising on what grabs—and holds—an agent’s attention. In the process of all that fine-tooth comb editing, together we realized my working title didn’t convey the serious aspect of the manuscript. I vowed to spend Christmas batting around ideas when out of the blue, I got an email from her with an inspired (secret, for now) title suggestion. That’s working overtime!

Also over Christmas, I read Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, and while he doesn’t know me—and doubtfully remembers the time I went to a birthday party at his house when I was 12 years old—his words helped propel an aspiring author (and fellow Mainer) forward during a time of despair. So as the new year approaches, I continue to edit, write and rewrite. I have no deadline in mind, but I maintain hope I’ll find my perfect literary match.

Then maybe I’ll try online dating again.

My favorite reads of 2017

I just added to Goodreads the latest (and probably last) read in 2017, marking 110 books read this year, 35 more than the goal I set in January.

I hear you ask: how do you have so much time to read? And to that question I respond, I wish I had more time. To be a good writer, I have to be a voracious reader. Thus the librarian recognizes me, Amazon gift cards put a smile on my face and a stack of untouched books pouts next to my bed, each wanting to be the next up. Also facilitating my reading appetite, I gave up cable TV in 2015 and Facebook in 2016, two conduits of time suckage. I sleep and read better without the digital distractions. Not that I don’t partake in social media (hello, Twitter) or watch TV; Project Runway, Game of Thrones, the Bachelor franchise and Veep vie for my attention. But I like books better. And I love recommending books. Not every story is for everybody, thus I put careful consideration into what books I push on which friends. But hands down, the following were my favorite reads of 2017.

Fiction:

Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge. The last book I read in 2017 is one of my favorites. This gripping account of castaways stranded on a remote island reeled me in and left me sobbing.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The most anticipated book of 2017 did not disappoint as the story effortlessly floated between points of view (so hard for the writer to pull off). I cared about each character and felt their absence once I was done reading.

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. No one conveys disaffected suburbia better than Perrotta and this tale made me laugh out loud. As a Gen-X-er, it was refreshing to read about a woman my age taking on life’s challenges from parenthood to dating.

Touch by Courtney Maum. I cannot stop thinking about this book and how prophetic the notion that someday our digitally obsessed culture may pay for human touch. This work of fiction inspired real life efforts to connect on a deeper level than our handheld devices permit.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The old school Hollywood glamour and grit of this novel kept me turning pages and the love stories gutted me. I read the last 150 pages on an airplane, where my body heaving sobs earned me sympathetic glances and the offer of a package of tissues.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. I felt like I was taking that New Year’s Eve walk with Lillian, who in my perfect book world could meet A Gentleman in Moscow. A lifetime of ups and downs recounted in one night, this story will forever make me look at New Year’s Eve—and a life well lived—differently.

Nonfiction:

Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson. I am not including my dad’s book just because he’s my dad. Hudson Booksellers listed it as a top ten of 2017, as did the Washington Independent Review of Books. This account of a little-known troop of Jewish naturalized American soldiers returning to their homelands to fight Hitler tells a story of redemption, patriotism and bravery.

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose by Joe Biden. I am a sucker for gut-wrenching stories and listening to Biden talk about his son’s illness and death gave me new perspective on the former Vice President, his family’s strength, and what it means to be a public servant. I only rolled my eyes a few times.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. I like nonfiction books that teach me something I don’t already know, and though I live in an urban area not immune to poverty, reading the housing struggles of the Milwaukee families profiled in this work reminded me how even when times are tough, how very lucky I am to have a roof over my head and not have to choose between food or shelter.

What were the books you couldn’t put down? Give me your recommendations. I’m preparing my list for 2018.

Happy reading!

NaNoWriMo: when failure is success

A few years ago, my writer friend, I’ll call her Pav, asked if I was participating in NaNoWriMo. I grew up in the 70s, so I thought she was saying Na-Nu Na-Nu, and if you have to look that up, you’re too young to read my blog.

NaNoWriMo —short for National Novel Writing Month— always falls in November. Because absolutely nothing big happens in November, us creative types have gobs of extra time to commit to the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. (For those who don’t speak word count, that’s about 200 pages of a book.) The “rules”state that a writer starts with a fresh page and a great idea and lets the goal spur along the creative process, with the comfort of knowing lots of other neurotic writers are struggling right along with you.

In late summer, I started work on a new novel. Then my efforts stalled, not for lack of a storyline, but because I wasn’t dedicating time to write. I decided I needed NaNoWriMo to return my focus to the work and develop the habit of scheduling writing time into my day. (Also to fire up my competitive spirit even though I broke the start with a blank page rule.)

I set a daily goal of 1700 words, but in the first week, tried to outdo that pace to account for visitors at Thanksgiving and other distractions. I ended up with two zero-word days (Thursday after the election and Monday before Thanksgiving). I had one 3062-word day, which was exhausting (especially since I also baked two pies the same day). In the end, on my last day, I wrote 3,058 words, ending the challenge 362 words short of the goal.

At first I was disappointed. I failed. (You can imagine the hysterics. “I’m never going to be a published author.”) But I took a step back and viewed my accomplishment from a different angle. I started off NaNoWriMo with a hodgepodge of words and scenes with the ultimate goal of ending the challenge with the first draft of a novel. I achieved that goal. Now I get to cut. And edit. And pare down the times I added a bunch of “that” phrases to boost my word count. Kidding on the last point. Sort of.

Hey, we are motivated by what we are motivated by, and word count goals work for me. The days I found hard to make my 1700, I cut huge passages or left placeholders because the scene hadn’t come to me. I had the ending written when I started this process, but my story went in a different direction. Now I need to fix it.

The challenge over, I feel a little rutterless today, but my novel deserves a night away from me. Goal number one for tomorrow: begin to rewrite the end.

 

whoops, I wrote a second novel

So this funny thing happened as I was pitching my first novel to literary agents… One day over the summer, exhausted yet unfulfilled after sending out a round of queries, all of which take time to research and must be personalized to suit the requirements of the agent being pursued, I thought to myself, “I need to write something more creative than a letter.”

Two days later, the idea for a second novel was born.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, I fired off a quick 25,000 words. But then I stalled. I was away for much of August, and while I wrote a little while I was gone, I was not as prolific as I hoped to be.

In September, I began working with the Virtual Writer Workshop, a small online community of writers who embraced me into their fold. Every two weeks, my group shared up to 7,000 words which the other members of the group critiqued. I don’t know about you, but I find my writing improves when I’m critiquing others. It’s easier to see your own weaknesses through the lens of another writer’s good prose. Under the pressure of deadlines and encouragement from my group members, I wrote above and beyond the workshop goals. Through this process, I figured out how I wanted to end the novel, and then I wrote the heart of the story with that ending in mind.

Two weeks ago, I sent the completed first draft of novel #2 out to a small group of beta readers, kind volunteers who will provide feedback on everything from misplaced commas to structural flaws with the plot. One of those beta readers is a writer I met through the workshop. She got “hooked” (her words) on my story, and I can’t wait to hear what she thinks after reading it beginning to end.

In the meantime, waiting for feedback is hard (I’m impatient) so I’ve taken a break from the story to work on other projects. I plan to pick it back up with fresh eyes and new perspective once the critiques are in. My ultimate goal is to have an agent-ready manuscript by the end of January. Ambitious, but doable.

“Has she given up on novel #1?” I can feeling you asking. Never. But I’ve heard from more than one author that often the first book you write isn’t the first published. In my humble opinion, the super secret plot structure of novel #2 is more unique than the love triangle at the core of novel #1. So I’ll shift my focus to the second book, and if an agent nibbles, guess what? I have a second manuscript (novel #1) waiting in the wings. The second book also lends itself to a sequel. Hey, writing novel #3  may well be to pitching novel #2 what writing novel #2 was to pitching novel #1.

What am I waiting for? Maybe I’ll just start writing now.