Another Confession

I have another confession to make.  I buy Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips and eat them like m&ms.  And sometimes, when I find dirty socks (I have two teenage boys) on the coffee table I can’t decide whether to use the dirty socks to dust the coffee table or just ignore both the dirty socks and the dust.

Okay, totally irrelevant, but I got that off my mind.

My book and I are on a break right now.  I finished a first draft and am setting it aside to look at it with fresh, more objective eyes in a few weeks.  In the meantime, I’m thinking about query letters and synopses.  I’ve been reading articles about how to write the query and synopsis, which is actually, I hope, going to be useful when I go back to the manuscript, because in order to write a synopsis or query, you have to think about the entire plot and how it progresses, as well as the character arcs, emotional development, the characters’ goals and the things that get in their way of achieving those goals, and all the other things that go into a complete novel.  If I can articulate those important aspects of my story now, I can recognize where there are holes in my draft—and fix them!

I know what I want this novel to do when it’s finished.  I want it to take the reader’s breath away, make readers FEEL what the main character feels, actually suffer with her and then find that ray of hope in the end that gives her the strength to know she’ll be okay.  I know.  It’s not much, but that’s the kind of book I like to read.

And speaking of that, while I’m on this break, I’ve been rereading YA novels that have a lot of flashbacks to study how the author handles entering and leaving flashbacks, since my story has lots of flashbacks (probably too many).  Most of these books—Between, Before I Fall, The Sky is Everywhere—I’ve read before and am just reading bits of now.  But one that I loved the first time I read it, I completely reread again, and I still love it.  The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith.  It’s been a quiet book, not a lot of buzz and not on the bestseller lists, but I fell hard for it.  I like the characters, liked the writing, maybe because her voice is kind of like the voice I hear in my own head, and I definitely rooted for them to get together in the end.  It’s a very satisfying story, with one of the best almost-kisses I’ve read recently.  Plus, it’s clean and I can recommend it to a grandma for her granddaughter, knowing there’s nothing “bad” in it except maybe a mild swear word (I don’t remember, maybe there isn’t even that.)

Have I mentioned that I own a bookstore?  That’s what I mean when I say I can recommend a book to grandmas. . . .  When they come into the store, looking for a book for their teenage granddaughter, it’s sometimes hard to find one that Grandma won’t be shocked by, if she happens to open it and read the first page.  More on the store some other day.

A Confession

I have a confession to make, and a blog that no one will read seems to be a pretty safe place to make that confession.

Ready? Here it is.

I’m writing a book.

Expecting something more exciting or illicit? Okay, how about this?

I’ve been a closet writer for 20 years. I’ve been secretly writing books for most of my adult life, hiding them in an accordion file in my basement and now in a file on my computer. I write alone. I sometimes hide my writing from my loved ones, maybe even lie a little to cover up my writing behavior. I’ve been known to neglect my family, let the kids watch too much TV or play on the computer longer than their two hour screen time per day, let the dust build up, and even pick up fried chicken at Pac n Save to avoid having to stop writing to fix dinner.

I’ve written five or six books already, none of which has been published or probably ever will be. The first few were picture books, which I sent out to a few publishers when I thought they were finished, only to receive rejection letters and give up on them. That was back before you had to submit to agents because no editors are accepting unsolicited manuscripts, and also before email submissions. I always wondered what the guy at the post office thought when I brought those envelopes in. Now that part would be easy. I own a bookstore. Of course I communicate with publishers.

My latest efforts have been middle grade and YA novels. I had lunch with YA author Sara Zarr a couple of years ago. She told me that she calls her first novel, the one that was never published, her “practice novel.” I’ve thought about that a lot since then. My first few books are my practice books, leading to The One that will be my breakout novel and finally turn me into a published author.

I used to say, “By the time I’m 30 I’ll have a book accepted for publication.” Then it was 35, then 40. Now it’s just “before it’s too late.” That scares me, because you never know when it might be too late, which is why for the past three years, I’ve been frantically writing and desperately trying to complete a book that’s good enough for publication.

The funny thing about that is that I used to think I was a good writer, that I knew what I was doing. After 22 drafts of my first YA novel—and that is not an exaggeration—I reconsidered. I totally changed my strategy and wrote a chapter by chapter synopsis for my next attempt, a middle grade historical novel. I wrote that book, then rewrote the first chapter so many times I finally gave up on the book because I couldn’t decide where I wanted it to go or what it was supposed to be saying. I decided to take a break from it until I didn’t have to force it to go where I wanted it to go. I still think it has potential, but I need to rethink it. A lot.

I actively resisted starting the book I’m working on now, even though scenes and characters started haunting me when I was working on my middle grade book. I didn’t want to ruin another good idea by writing the book before I knew how to write a book. I did allow myself to write down scene ideas as they occurred to me, to jot down notes about the characters as they presented themselves.

Before I started writing the actual book, I decided I needed to focus on writing craft. I read books about writing, did some Iron Writing exercises with my writerly friends, joined SCBWI, and signed up for a series of writers’ retreats. At the first retreat in June, I finally allowed myself to begin actually writing a draft of the book. Yesterday I finished the first draft of that book, which now has a beginning, middle and end. We’ll find out eventually whether I’ve learned enough to write a good book or this is just another practice book. For now, I have to make myself leave it alone for four weeks. Then, I’ll look at it with fresh eyes and see if it maybe has potential.

When I started writing twenty years ago, my goal was a published book. Of course, I’d still like that, but I think that now that’s not THE most important thing. Now, I want to write a book that I can read from beginning to end, sit back, and say, “Damn, that was good, and I wrote it.” I’d like to finish a book, and by that I mean write a book that is complete, that works for me—engages me and leaves me emotionally satisfied–and maybe (hopefully) does the same for others who read it. And, yes, if an editor at Penguin or Little Brown or one of the other big publishers thinks it’s good, I’d be more than happy. If GG and Lu give me some sign of approval, I’ll know I’ve made it.