The Persistent Widow

There’s a parable in the Bible about the persistent widow. She wants justice–it doesn’t ever say what for–but the judge won’t listen to her. Every day she begs him for justice and every day he ignores her. On and on until eventually the judge can’t take it anymore. He gives in and gives the woman justice so she’ll leave him alone. (The parable can be found in Luke 18 if you’re interested). I don’t talk about my faith much on here, partially because I don’t want to be construed as pushing my beliefs on other people, but mostly because I try to keep this blog focused on my writing (although I’ve deviated with a couple personal posts lately). This parable has been bouncing around in my brain, though, not just in the context of my faith, but in the context of writing too.

Everyone knows publishing moves at a glacial pace. You learn that the first time you look at agent response times to queries. I’ve talked about trying to be more patient, but patience isn’t all you need if you want to make it in this business. Persistence is also key.

I’ve been thinking about persistence mostly in the terms of my faith, which is the focus of the parable of the persistent widow. The very first line says Jesus told the parable to show how you should pray without giving up. So every day, multiple times a day actually, I pray an editor buys my manuscript. Maybe that sounds silly to you. Sometimes it feels silly to me, but I still do it. I pray persistently. Like maybe I’ll eventually annoy God like the widow annoyed the judge and He’ll give in. I’ve always been such a Debbie Downer. I’d get a rejection and come home and flop on the bed with a giant sigh and bemoan “it’s never going to happen, I should just give up.” I’d wallow for a day or so, then get back up and started writing again. No matter how badly the rejection hurt, I couldn’t quit. I finally culled that urge to throw a pity party by remembering this parable, and instead of whining that it won’t happen for me, I say a prayer that it will.

Like I said at the start, though, it’s not just about prayer. For me, this parable is a reminder not to give up, period. That holds true no matter what you do or don’t believe. You have to be persistent if you’re going to achieve your goals, whatever they may be. My goal is to be published. To have my books on shelves in stores across the world. For strangers to read my words and invest in my characters. I could’ve given up dozens of times. After my first agent rejections, after my first bad critiques, after my first editor rejections, after a previous manuscript was shelved, after I got frustrated while writing another manuscript. But I didn’t. With each rejection, or bad critique, or writer’s block, I’ve pushed forward. Rejections and negative feedback will always sting, but it would be worse to stop there, for that negative response to be the last input someone has on my writing. So I keep going. I’m persistent. Even when I feel like Sisyphus, struggling to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down and have to start over, which is often.

It would be so easy to quit writing. To say “I tried” and throw in the towel. But if you’re serious about this business, you can’t call mercy. You have to dig deep and keep going. Got a rejection from an agent? Okay, move on and query the next agent. Got some tough critiques on your manuscript? Revise and do another round of betas. Decided a manuscript just isn’t going to work? Trunk it and start another. A plot snag is holding up your story? Brainstorm, talk it over with friends, write an outline. Suck it up.

You’ll never reach your goals if you quit. I never would’ve gotten an agent if I’d stopped after my first rejection. And I’ll never be published if I don’t keep writing new stories and improving my craft. It has taken me a while to get to this point. I’m not exactly an optimist (Hubby says I’m a pessimist, I say I’m a realist). Honestly, my outlook on writing and the publishing industry changed because of this parable, which is why I wanted to share it with you, regardless of your religious leanings or even lack thereof. I have to make an effort remember the persistent widow and keep that lesson in the back of my mind every day. If you’re not religious, so what? That doesn’t negate the point of the story. The point is to keep at it. Whatever it is you’re doing, whatever you’re after, keep at it until you achieve it. Don’t even think about the worst case. Don’t think about failure.

One of my favorite stories of persistence is Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help. Here is a snip from an amazing article on her journey to publication:

In the end, I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? Three weeks later, Susan sold The Help to Amy Einhorn Books.

Five years of writing. Three and a half years of rejection. And she kept going. Her persistence paid off. One day, I want to be able to tell the world my persistence paid off.

I can’t sum this up any better than Kathryn did:

The point is, I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript—or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]—in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere. Or you could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.


You Is Kind, You Is Smart, You Is Important.

Six years ago tomorrow, I got married. For a lot of people, most I dare say, this isn’t that big a deal. But it is for me.

I never wanted to get married. In fact, I said I was never getting married. Protested it. I was independent. Strong. A loner.

Truth is, though, I wasn’t. In reality, I was scared. Afraid of committing my entire life to someone and then being left or betrayed. Afraid of losing my independence, of relying on someone else and being let down. I think deep down, it wasn’t marriage that scared me, it was marrying the wrong person, and I didn’t trust my judgment to find the right person.

With good reason. Before my husband, I was in a terrible relationship. I’ve talked a bit about it before, but I didn’t tell the whole truth. The whole truth is terrifying, but I think I can finally say it. It’s hard to admit this, even now, nine years after I dumped the guy. Especially since I know my family reads my blog and there are things I haven’t told anyone except my husband and my brother. I think it needs to be said, though. There are people who need to hear it. Women, in a particular, who need to stand up for themselves. This isn’t directed at anyone specific, but at anyone who has ever let someone else take part of themselves.

The guy I dated for three years, the majority of my time in college, just about broke me. He was abusive. Mostly emotionally, telling me I was worthless and lucky to have him because no one else would ever want me. He would yell and cuss and threaten to leave. He threw things at me. Beer bottles and silverware. He’d kick his cat. He’d grab me hard enough to leave five oval bruises on each arm and shake me until I thought my head was going to fly off, until I became so dizzy I couldn’t stand.

He was an alcoholic. A couple years later I learned he’d developed a prescription drug addiction and went to rehab. I don’t know if it worked. He tried to kill himself a couple times. He always put it on me. His problems were my fault.

It suffocated me. I spent those years believing him. He ran off all of my friends. My parents thought I was just a bad roommate. I guess they thought I was selfish, that I chased my friends away. I never corrected them. It was better for them to think I was the bad person than to think I had terrible judgment. (Poor logic, I know). Part of me also feared my dad would kill the guy if he ever found out, and I didn’t want to put Daddy in that position.

I found freedom in a couple places. One, my friend Sam. We were in the same major. We started out studying together, then hanging out. I told my boyfriend I was studying, then Sam and I would go hear a band or something. Sam had this neighbor, this annoying, irritating neighbor who developed a crush on me. The guy drove me crazy, but later, I realized he sparked something within me. Confidence. Defiance. I learned my boyfriend was wrong. Other people would want me. Did want me.

I also found freedom in Paris.

My mother teaches high school and every couple years she’d take a group to Europe. For every x number of students who signed up (I don’t remember how many), the group got a free trip. So my senior year of college, a month after I turned 22, I got to go to Europe for free. It was there, in the piazzas in Florence, the train to Monaco, the shops of Nice, that I started to feel unbridled. One morning, winding through the streets of Paris, just outside Notre Dame, I realized I hadn’t bought my boyfriend a souvenir. I’d been in Europe almost ten days and hadn’t thought to get him anything. Hadn’t thought of him much at all, actually. I paid a couple Euro for a pen and ink drawing of the cathedral–one I wish I’d kept to be honest–and then forgot about the guy again. Until the plane ride home. Then the thick blanket came over my head again.

By the time I reunited with my boyfriend, the blanket became a plastic bag, killing me. Over the next month I tried to figure out a way to end it without destroying the guy. Even after all he’d put me through, I still worried about him. Isn’t that ridiculous? This was before his suicide attempts, before the pills and the rehab, but I knew how fragile he was. I still look back on that time and wonder if I should’ve said something to his family. There’s a twinge of guilt when I think I could have warned them. Not stopped it. Nothing could’ve stopped this guy’s path of destruction. But I could’ve warned his parents. His dad–who was a genuinely nice person. Realistically , though, I know it wouldn’t have mattered. They probably wouldn’t believe me. The guy had to hit bottom first, and, unfortunately, he still had a long way to fall.

Without me.

The end came one night when Sam and I were listening to a band downtown. I couldn’t stand it anymore and blurted “I’m single.” I wasn’t. Not yet. But saying it aloud meant I had to do it. Sam’s neighbor had showed up, and soon as he heard I was single, he attached himself to me like a leach. Badgered me into a date. I finally agreed so he’d leave me alone, and because I felt bad saying no. Dude was irritating, but sweet. And the date actually was amazing. Awkward and uncomfortable at times–seeing as how I still had a boyfriend–but amazing.

Something clicked. For the first time in years, a guy was enamored by me. He treated me with respect and deference and made me feel special. It’s like I’d been trying to unlock a door with the wrong key and suddenly all the tumblers fell into place.

I dumped my boyfriend. It took two days. He mostly cried. Squalled like a little girl. He’d been planning to propose after my college graduation ceremony–the next day. While it hurt him terribly, I felt a rush of relief. The bag had been removed from my head and I could breathe fresh air again.

Three years later, the neighbor and I got married. He loves me and respects me and honors me more and more every day. He is the reason I’m a writer. I recently realized, with some measure of shock, that I didn’t write a single word while I dated the other guy. I’d been writing all my life and he killed the words. My husband brought them out of me again. He pushes me to be a better version of myself, but loves me where I am. He patiently discusses plot ideas and character development and sits across from me at coffee shops when I know he’d rather do something else, just so he can spend time with me while I write.

Marriage is nothing like I’d feared. It’s not always easy, but it isn’t the smothering loss of self I thought it would be.

We have this tree in our front yard, a crepe myrtle. It was huge! Way bigger than a crepe myrtle is supposed to be. In the spring, the branches would get so heavy with leaves and flowers they’d almost touch the ground. The leaves were so thick, they formed a canopy across part of the yard, almost completely blocking the sun. Last summer, Hubs and I got tired of it. We attacked the branches, hacking them with saws until only the very top remained. Air can swirl through the yard again. The sun can reach the grass. It had been stifled for years, but now it’s finally growing again.

I’m growing. And I have a wonderful man growing with me.

I’m writing all this now for a couple reasons. The ex popped up on LinkedIn the other day. I saw his profile on my screen and felt…nothing. Not the anger and pain and sadness I’ve felt for years. Not the reminder of the time I wasted on him. Just nothing. I have finally healed. The wounds he caused are still there. That pain and hurt changed me, and I will never regain the innocence and naivety that he stole. But the wounds no longer bleed, they no longer hurt. They’re scars. So small now, they’re barely visible. I still know they’re there, but you have to look closely to see them. Like the tiny white line on my knee where I gouged it on a metal ladder in middle school.

The other reason is because there are others like me. Those who let other people dictate their self-worth, who tell them they’re not good enough, that they aren’t worth love. I’m not better because my husband loves me. I’m better because he helped me learn how to love myself. Self-loathing and depression runs high in writers. I struggle with self-deprecating thoughts every day. It’s easy to let others define your sense of self-worth, especially in this business. But it’s important to distance yourself.

I am not defined by my rejection. I am not defined by my success. Other people’s opinions don’t dictate who I am inside. Even when I get down on myself, I remember, I am worth something. You are worth something. Whether you’re in an abusive situation, or you’re just depressed, or you’re drowning under the weight of rejection or criticism or bad reviews, don’t forget that. And if you’re in a bad situation: get out. Now. Don’t think about it. Free yourself. Find a support system, a kind shoulder, a group, a therapist, a friend, someone and get out. Trust me, it won’t hurt as much as you think it will, and you deserve better.

I leave you with the words of Kathryn Stockett, from the mouth of her character Aibileen Clark in “The Help”: You is kind. You is smart. You is important. 

Don’t forget that.

Confession Time: I Might Be Crazy

A few weeks ago, I wrote about fear. It’s a funny thing, fear. It, and that lovely fight or flight response that comes with it. Personally, I’m a big fan of flight. For example, (I might have mentioned this before) I’m a bit afraid of the dark. Yes, I’m almost 31. Don’t judge. It’s creepy when I’m home alone and the house is all dark and something could be lurking in the other room waiting for me to pop my head out so it can chop it off. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been that person who clicks off the light and leaps into bed. Literally. I scurry across the room as fast as possible.

Lately, I’ve also been afraid of posting this post. I’ve had it written for a while. Just sitting here in my draft box. Judging me every time I click on my blog. I’ve been running from it. But now it’s time to face it. To put this very personal piece of myself out there. By the end of it, you may think I’m crazy. It’s okay. I feel crazy every single day of my life. Crazy and depressed and neurotic and anxious and…obsessed.

Have you ever heard someone say “Oh my gosh, I’m so OCD. I hate it when my *insert item* is messy, or things aren’t organized.”? Or something along those lines? I hear it constantly, and every time I do I want to scream. But I’m too introverted for that. Instead, I quietly yell in my head “You have no idea what you’re talking about!!!” Because that’s not OCD. Not even close.

People throw that term around way too often, but most fail to realize it’s not just a case of being neat freak. It’s a mental disorder. You don’t hear people casually remarking “Oh my gosh I’m such a Lupus freak,” when they don’t have Lupus. (No, that sentence doesn’t really make sense. Cut me some slack, I’m terrified right now. And yes, I might have thought of Mitch Hedberg when I picked a disease to put there). It’s a failure of our society that mental disorders are not put on the same level with physical. Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean a person isn’t suffering. It doesn’t mean they aren’t waging a battle every single day.

Although sometimes, if you look close enough, you can see it. You just have to pay attention.

Attention is one of the things I avoid. I hide in corners and beside walls. I work to blend in, for people to glance over me like I’m a ghost and keep moving. Because I’m afraid of what they’ll see if they look too hard.

My OCD. Real OCD.

Not like the stereotypical OCD they put in pop culture like “Monk” or “As Good As It Gets.” It’s not all hand-washing and flicking light switches, although those are some people’s obsessions. OCD is way more than that. It can be crippling. It can reduce someone into a ball of anxiety and fear and nausea and tears. And everyone isn’t the same. In fact, I finally got the strength to post this thanks to another YA writer who wrote about her struggle, which is different from mine, but yet, kind of the same. (I still can’t believe I’m doing this, and I’ll admit, even now I’m tempted to turn back.)

See, like I mentioned, it’s a lot about anxiety as well as compulsions. A lot of my anxiety stems from social interaction. I’m a natural introvert, but it’s worsened by OCD. I’m always afraid of being a bother, of putting people out. Growing up, I used to write “thanks for putting up with me” on every birthday card to my best friend. For like 14 years. I even said it at my wedding. (She was my maid of honor). I get nervous just being around a lot of people (not so much concerts and festivals, but places like malls. I cannot do Black Friday. The one time I did, I was reduced to tears within minutes. In the parking lot. Of the first store. Yeah.) I also get really nervous around people period (small talk is horrible), because I’m afraid I won’t say the right thing because I never say the right thing and they’ll look at me like I’m crazy, which I am, which means they’ll see me, and they’ll notice my compulsions, and then they’ll know I’m crazy, and they’ll be afraid of me and I’ll turn into that rambling lunatic on the street who doesn’t bathe and thinks the world is ending. These thoughts are irrational, and I know they’re irrational, but it’s what goes through my head pretty much whenever I talk to people. So, yeah. Hello, I’m awkward!

I’ve never been one to care what people think of me. I don’t give in to peer pressure. I’m not “cool” or “fun.” People don’t clamor to sit at my table. In online forums and on Twitter, I’m kind of a thread-killer. That’s okay. I do my own thing. But that’s on my terms. OCD isn’t. OCD is on my brain’s terms. There’s a difference between wearing hoodies and tennis shoes when everyone else is wearing dresses and pointy toed heels, and turning in a circle before I can get in the car. One makes me feel comfortable in my own skin, the other makes me feel crazy. And when I feel crazy, I get anxious. Which is all the time.

Not that you would know it just from meeting me. Or even hanging out with me for a while. That’s what scares me so much about posting this. The only person who really knows the extent of my compulsions is my husband. We’ve been together almost nine years counting dating, and he didn’t even know until a few years ago. That’s how good I am at hiding it. Most of my friends just think I’m “quirky” or “particular.” Some think I’m selfish because I have to have things a certain way, and I talk about myself more than I ask about them (which is really because I have no idea what to say to people, or how to relate to them except through my own experiences. Social anxiety, remember?) Some may even think I’m being difficult when I insist on sitting in a certain spot. They have no idea what’s going on inside my head. They don’t know that if if I don’t sit against the wall in a restaurant, facing the door, that my heart becomes an angry caged gorilla trying to get out of my chest. Or that I almost come out of my skin every time I hear a noise behind me because I’m afraid of being attacked. They don’t know that if I have to sit somewhere beside my spot, that fight or flight response kicks in with a spiteful burst of adrenaline. Those tears aren’t from me being a whiny baby who isn’t getting her way. They’re because my body is literally in a panic that I can’t control.

Yes. It’s silly. It’s irrational. It makes no sense. I know this. I know someone isn’t going to attack me from behind at a restaurant. I know that I’m not going to fall apart if I turn in a complete circle, or if I don’t even the pressure on the other side of my body after I’m touched or poked. I know. But my brain doesn’t. My body doesn’t .I can’t remember I time when I wasn’t this way. It’s gotten worse over time, and much worse after my dad died. Apparently, stress amplifies OCD. At least that’s what the psychiatrist I saw said. I’m not sure how much I believe her, though, to be honest. She tried to medicate me. I forget now what the drug was called–I tried to put it out of my head–because I wanted to kill myself while I was taking it. I mean that quite literally. I smiled and looked happy, but all I could do was lie on the couch and think of ways to end my life in order to stop feeling so miserable. The psychiatrist told me to stick with it a few weeks so it could get in my system. I didn’t think I’d be around a few weeks at the rate I was going. So I quit taking it, and I quit seeing her.

Other friends who suffer from anxiety, friends who are in med school, have told me about different therapies that help OCD, but I’m scared to try them. OCD can be debilitating. I had to leave church one Sunday because my seat was taken, and the only open pew made me feel constricted, like my skin was too tight. I couldn’t sit still, my foot started bouncing, then my knees, then my whole body shook. I thought I was going to throw up on the nice lady’s hair in front of me. Then the tears came. I was close to a full blown panic attack (yeah, if all that wasn’t full blown, imagine what it would be like), when Hubby took my hand and led me outside. As debilitating as it is, though, I don’t know who I am without it.

And that sounds craziest at all. What it boils down to, is I’m terrified of what would happen if I didn’t carry through with my compulsions. I guess therapy would address that, but I’m not there yet. The last lady who tried to “help” is still too fresh. Besides, I’m coming to discover that once people are educated about OCD and my compulsions, it gets a little better. I don’t have to hide. I’ve let little pieces of it out to friends over the last few years and instead of chasing me away with pitchforks and crosses, they actually, kind of, accept me a little more. They’ve tried to understand what I go through, and if I can shed some light on OCD and the problems sufferers can face, then it’s worth opening up about, I suppose. Even though as I type I have this a ball of panic in my stomach and my brain keeps yelling “no, no! shhhhh!”

So, here’s a run down of some of my compulsions:

  • My biggest thing is evenness. Even numbers, even feelings, even everything. The radio/tv, etc volume has to be on an even number. You’ll notice I only tag my blog in even numbers. I eat food in even numbers, for example two M&Ms at a time. If I can’t have two, then I don’t have any. Or, if I have no choice but to eat one of something, then I keep track in my head and I’ll eat one of something else to make it balance. Most people I know who have OCD are pretty good at rationalizations like that. Part of this is that I can’t turn in a complete circle, or my equilibrium is off–which makes slow dancing kind of hard. If someone touches me on one side of my body, or if I bump something with one arm, I have to even the feeling on the other side. Even if I hurt myself. A lot of it has to do with pressure. I don’t have to injure my other side, but I have to create the same amount of pressure. I hate being poked. Because then I have to slyly poke my other arm, etc in the same place, for the same amount of time, with the same amount of pressure. It’s incredibly frustrating, and can be hard to get it right. Often times, I’ll have to go back and forth between sides until I feel even. The hardest part is I have to touch each side the same number, an even number, of times.
  • I hate being touched. A quick way to make me panic and cry? Hug me. Constrict me. Being constricted is the worst. Next to someone touching my ears. I knew I loved my husband when his touches and hugs didn’t bother me. Of course, my OCD wasn’t as bad back when we met. He still can’t touch my ears, though. Not ever. *shudders* *shudders again*
  • I have a thing with counting. This is one I’ve worked to break. Really “not think about” is more accurate. It goes hand in hand with the evenness thing. I used to count words, and kisses, and steps. I knew how many steps it took to get everywhere. I also counted stairs. My grandfather worked in different courthouses doing title research. I’d count stairs while he worked. I knew the number of stairs in every courthouse in Northeast Alabama.
  • Test anxiety. I don’t mean I got nervous before tests. I mean if I didn’t go through my routine before an exam, I’d have a panic attack. The routine started by having to use my lucky pen–a Pilot Dr. Grip that my dad bought me in ninth grade. By law school it had gotten much worse. Law school has one exam for each class. Think about it, each class lasts a semester and you get one grade. That’s enough to give anyone anxiety, but for me it was almost debilitating. Here’s the process: Arrive at the classroom two hours before the exam. Sit in the same seat (four rows up, four seats over). Study until fifteen minutes before the test, not talking to anyone. Go to the break room and get a Reese’s cup and a Diet Dr. Pepper from the vending machines. The exams were all essay, and I typed mine, so there was no writing on them with my lucky pen–yes, the same one from the ninth grade; I kept it for twelve years of schooling. We were, however, given scratch paper, which had to be turned in. At the top of the first page I’d write, with my pen, “Please God let me pass.” Every time. I even did this on the Bar exam. Once the vending machine ran out of Reese’s cups and I freaked out. Cold sweat, tears, shaking. For the Bar, I had to pack my own Reese’s and Diet Dr. Pepper. One for each of four sessions. For three days.

There’s more. So much more. But I can’t type them, because that would be more than four points, and I can’t end on an odd number. Fours are great, because they break down into twos. Six is terrible, because it breaks into threes. Yeah, it can break into twos, but it’s three twos, which doesn’t work.

OCD is exhausting because my mind is constantly going, thinking about everything. The only time I can get a break is when I let my mind wander. I focus on not focusing, which sounds like an oxymoron. When my mind wanders, though, I don’t think about alternating which foot steps over sidewalk cracks and parking lot paint lines. I don’t count the number of times I kiss my husband. I don’t realize he’s been holding my right hand without holding my left.

I think of stories.

And in these stories, my characters are free. They don’t have compulsions. They don’t suffer anxiety. And when they do, I’m in control. For the first time in my life, I’m truly in control.

It’s one reason I love writing so freaking much. Unlike conversations in real life, or even on Twitter, where I have to think of something quick, I have time to mull over what I want to say, how I want to phrase things. I can’t delete my words once I say them aloud, but I can delete them on the page and rewrite it until I’ve said it just right. (Off the cuff I’m not so hot, but believe it or not, I rock speeches! Once I get past the initial nerves that is. I was even on the mock trial team in law school. Because I got to plan what I was going to say ahead of time. Trust me, I was always the most prepared person in the courtroom. I planned every question, and every single possible answer so that I wouldn’t be caught off guard. Yes, it took forever, haha, but no, I didn’t lose).

Writing is my release. My outlet.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m letting all this out now. I guess partially because I’ve heard so many people claim to be OCD lately that I had to speak up, partially because other writers have come forward about their OCD and anxiety issues (there’s even a support Tumblr called Shrinking Violets), and partially so that if I ever meet any of you in real life–if the dream comes true and a book of mine is published and I go to a conference or whatever–you’ll know why I’m standing in the corner, trying to look small, and why I absolutely suck at talking, and maybe you’ll give me, and others like me, a chance.

A big reason I’m writing this, though, is because I’m learning that putting myself out there can only help.

As I’ve mentioned before, I help lead youth at church. At first, I was, as always, terrified of them. New people. Eek! But once they figured me out, learned about my “quirks” and understood that I’m just awkward and OCD, we all clicked together. I even had one of them tell me not too long ago that I’m “fun.” Me. Fun. Ha!

So, hi! I’m Sarah. I have pretty bad OCD. Not as severe as some, worse than others. It’s real. It’s a disorder that I can’t control. But I’m learning to deal with it. After almost 31 years. Maybe you have friends with it. Hiding in the shadows, seeming “difficult” or “selfish.” Maybe you’ll look at them in a new light. Maybe you’ll talk to them about it. If you do, approach with caution, and love, and let them know they’re not alone or crazy.

And if you have OCD? Welcome! Come sit somewhere in my vicinity and chat. Just please, don’t touch. : )

The Fear

The longer I write, the more I try to make this a legit career, the more I realize one important thing. It never stops being scary.

Writing wasn’t that scary when I was younger. Those short stories and attempts at novels that failed before they ever got off the ground were all warm-ups. They were laps around an empty track. They were throwing a softball and shagging fly balls behind the house with my dad.

The first time I sat down with a book idea and actually began to write it in earnest, that’s when it got real. Committing an idea to the page and investing ninety-something-thousand words in it is a scary thing. At least, it was for me. Letting someone read it made me really nervous. (Later realizing I let them read that many words of crap embarrassed me to no end). Reading it in front of a critique group for the first time petrified me. I was no longer hidden in the back yard, I was on the practice field with the whole team.

Writing the second one wasn’t any easier. The writing improved, but that manuscript came with a new, even scarier step. Sending it to agents. Querying. Oh my gosh, querying. All of a sudden, I went from the practice field to a game. People were watching. What if I messed up? What would happen then?

A fair amount of tears, it turned out. Rejection. To be honest, the first rejections weren’t as scary as the requests for fulls. Knowing an agent had my work was ten times more frightening than the critique group reading it.

Each step in the writing process has come with a new fear. The fear of committing to a new idea then discovering it sucks. The fear of someone else reading my words and thoughts. The fear of rejection. Of judgment. Of revising and doing it wrong and having to do it all over again but still not getting it right. Of letting down my family and friends and agent and myself.

It doesn’t stop. It’s an infinite roller coaster that you never get off.

I just finished my fourth manuscript. I love it. SO. MUCH. This is a big deal. It’s uncharted territory. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like my writing, and there are always passages and phrases that I love in each manuscript. But upon finishing my final read through before I send it off to my agent, it hit me that I’ve completely fallen in love with this book.

Loving a book isn’t that different from romantic love. Before my husband, I had several boyfriends, each of whom I thought I had a deeper connection with than the last. It wasn’t until I found my husband, though, that I realized what true love is. Those feelings for those other boys all paled in comparison. I still like my other stories, and I still harbor a deep affection for my last manuscript. But I didn’t know true book love until this one.

And that scares me more than anything else has so far with my writing.

When I went on sub with the last book, it was pretty nerve-wracking. I made my standard color-coded spreadsheet. I jumped at every new email. I prayed someone would want it. The first rejections came and, even though I’d steeled myself, they stung. I cried. I wallowed for a bit, then I brushed myself off and moved on. I’d already starting writing another one–and I’d already started falling for it–so I had something to keep me preoccupied. Each rejection was a little easier to deal with. When six months went by and the list of editors with my sub dwindled, I was prepared. I knew we weren’t giving up on the book, just putting it aside awhile until the timing was right. It was hard, but I’d seen the writing on the wall. Instead of fretting, I threw myself into finishing the new book, and despite trying to keep it at arm’s length, I fell head over heels for it. So much so, that sending the final draft to my agent was the scariest thing I’d done.

Falling in love with your writing is a dangerous thing, and I really felt that danger for the first time when I submitted the draft. The more you love something you’ve written, the harder it is to tear it apart. “Kill your darlings” isn’t just a cliche. Writers can get so swept up with something small that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve never had a problem cutting into my writing. My agent signed me after a massive revision in which I reworked the entire story. She’s hands-on and editorial, which I love, and I know she knows her stuff. But I didn’t want to see this story carved to pieces. If she’d come back and said it needed major revisions, I would’ve heard her out and given it a shot, because I trust her and I know she sees things from a different vantage point, she sees the whole forest. It would’ve been hard, though.

Fortunately, she loved it too. No major changes, no ripping my baby to shreds. I was thrilled (and shocked, haha). Now it’s time for this one to go on sub. It should be old hat this time around. I’ve been here before. I’ve played a game under the lights in front of a big crowd. This time, though, I’m naked. I’m terrified to sub this. I actually cried when I found out it’s time to send it.

I’m not ready. I’m not ready for this manuscript to get rejected. I love it too much.

When I started writing seriously, I thought I would eventually reach a point where it isn’t scary anymore, where I’d be comfortable. There is no comfort in writing. Each step is just as terrifying, or more so, than the last. If the impossible happens (which I can hardly begin to hope for) and this book doesn’t get rejected, if someone wants it, then I have the fear of it getting ripped apart again. The fear of the whole publishing process. Of readers not buying it, or worse, hating it, or not caring at all. Of never selling another book.

It never stops. Just because you reach that next step in your journey, doesn’t mean it gets easier. Rejection doesn’t hurt less, you just get used to the pain. Fear doesn’t lessen, but you figure out how to cope (at least not until you get into Stephen King/John Grisham/John Green territory. I bet they don’t feel the fear anymore. Although, who knows, maybe they do?). I’m, obviously, still working on that coping bit. Maybe I’ll get the hang of it one day, but until then, I’m going to build my color-coded submission spreadsheet, eat some chocolate, wait to pounce on my phone when I get an email, and write another book to fall in love with.

Because regardless of how scary writing can be, I love it. I can’t imagine not doing it. Fear and all.

(Also, this is the song (Lily Allen “The Fear”) I’ve been humming while writing this post. It will get in your head. You’ve been warned).

Just Write It

Yesterday, my amazing CP, Alison, wrote an equally amazing guest post for YAHighway. It got me thinking about my own writing process.

A couple weeks ago, I finally finished the manuscript I’ve been working on since June. Right before Christmas, I posted on Absolute Write looking for a couple beta readers. I told them I’d just finished my first draft and needed fresh eyes before submitting to my agent. I had some great people offer to read, and they all told me the same thing. When they saw the words “first draft,” they got really nervous, until they started reading and realized it read like a later draft.

“Well,” I said, “I guess technically it’s not a first draft when I think about it, but in a way it is.” Which, I realize, makes no sense. Around this time my agent tweeted that she’s convinced everyone’s first drafts are complete crap. Everyone.

This all got me thinking: what is a first draft?

See, I consider my first draft to be the first one I complete. When I type those last few words and lift my fingers from the keyboard, I have finished my first draft. But I don’t think it’s crap, necessarily (depends on the day, haha), because I’ve already worked it to death by the time I finish. Technically, I suppose, it could be thought of as a second draft, or even third–but that feels weird to me, since it’s the first time I’ve finished. See how I talk it in circles? It’s kind of confusing, so let’s back up.

Google “writing advice.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. One of the first links you’ll get is a post called 21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips From Great Authors. I linked it for you in case you didn’t Google it. The very first tip comes from Ernest Hemingway. It says basically the same thing my agent tweeted. If you keep going through the links, though, or talk to the majority of writers, or read writing blogs or websites, you’ll inevitably see these words over and over again: “Don’t self-edit. Just write the first draft, then go back and edit later. Keep that momentum going.” Pretty much everyone hands out this little piece of advice like Halloween candy.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but they’re wrong. Dead wrong. Don’t close the page just yet, hear me out.

Ever read Query Shark? Janet Reid gives excellent advice for writing queries. One thing she constantly harps on is following the rules. No rhetorical questions, no gimmicks, no first person, start with the plot, etc, etc. However, she says once you have a good grasp of the rules, they can be broken. The famous example of this is the wonderful Josin McQuein’s query. It breaks all the rules, but is so darn captivating it doesn’t matter. (The book, by the way, is also excellent. Go pick up a copy. Get Arclight while you’re at it. You’ll thank me for the cover alone. All the pretty!). Man, I’m all about some links today!

Janet’s query advice should extend to all writing. When you’re just starting, yes, follow the rules. If you’re having trouble getting motivated to write, by all means just get words on the page. Get the first draft down, however crappy and messy and convoluted it may be, and fix it later. I started this way. I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

But it didn’t work for me. By the time I finished, I had SO MANY WORDS! Plots that started and dropped off. Threads that twisted into a tangled mass. Characters that weren’t consistent. Revising was such a headache. I would look at the draft and think “I can never do this. It’s too much.” You know what? I was right. I got overwhelmed by the amount of work the first draft would need. It was like finding some pretty necklaces at a yard sale, but they’re all in a box together and the chains are intertwined. You try to tease out the couple you like, but everything is so tightly knotted you just throw the whole mess down and say screw it.

Then I found my CP. We started working together by exchanging a few chapters at a time, initially of a finished draft, and then of a WIP. I’d write a few, then she’d email and ask how the writing was going. So I’d send her the pages, she’d send feedback, and I couldn’t not go through her comments when I got them. (How do you like that little double negative? Here’s another). Then I couldn’t not incorporate changes and fix problems she’d noticed. Next thing I knew, I had a finished first draft that read more like a second. I self-edited. And I didn’t die. (By the way, I totally have this scene from Mean Girls in my head. Except insert “self-edit” for “sex,” and “write terribly” for “pregnant.”) My writing didn’t suffer. In fact, I think it got better.

My most recent WIP went through lots of changes I as wrote. I ended up plotting more than I ever have, even though I didn’t marry my outline or anything.The initial words that went on the page: yeah, they were crap, but I fixed them as I went.  I rewrote the beginning and moved chapters around. It went slower than any other ms I’ve written, which frustrated me. I’ve always thought of myself as a quick writer. When I think about it, though, it really took the same amount of time. Before, I wrote the first draft in three months, and revised for three. This time around it took six to get through the “first draft,” but it wasn’t the sloppy, just-get-words-on-the-page kind of draft I used to turn out. It was polished, edited, neat. Reading back through and revising was a breeze.

So, self-edit, or don’t self-edit. Revise chapter by chapter, or revise all at once. Follow the rules, or break the rules. It doesn’t matter. Just write it. Everyone is different, and everyone works in their own way. There is no one size fits all writing advice. Find what works best for you and do it.

I’ve heard a few writers refer to their first drafts as “draft zero.” Personally, I’m not sure what to call mine. First draft? Second? Fred? Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter (although I’m partial to Fred). As long as the ms you finally query, or submit to your agent, or whatever, is polished, who cares what you call it? Forget rules and advice and labels and everything. Clear your mind of all but the story, and write.

Stuck in Writing Traffic

Why is it that when you’re stuck in traffic, your lane is always the slowest one? The cars beside you start moving, so you squeeze in, then everyone stops and the lane you just left starts moving. It never fails. At least for me. There must be some lucky few who always wind up in the lane that moves. (If you’re reading this, let me know you’re secrets! I promise I won’t tell). I’m not the lucky sort, though. I’m forever trapped in the slow lane.

That’s how I’ve felt with my WIP lately. I have been desperately trying to finish for a while now. It usually takes me three months to get through a draft. This one has taken six. Granted, I’ve had to do a lot of research for it, and that’s not something I’m accustomed to, so it bogged me down, but over the last few weeks it’s seemed that every time I get a chance to write, something stands in my way. I switch lanes, thinking I’ll definitely get going now, and boom! More traffic.

Let me tell you about roadblocks I’ve experienced, just in the past week.

Hubby had to travel for work last week. He left Sunday and was due back Wednesday. While I hate when he travels (I’m a huge scaredy cat. Every noise is an intruder, or rapist, or zombie. I feel like I’m nine again, turning off the bedroom light and leaping into bed so the monsters don’t get me. Yes, that seems old to still believe in mosters, but I’ve always had a very active imagination). This trip, though, equalled three days of uninterrupted writing time. I had a plan, a rough outline of what I needed to write. Two chapters a day would get me across the finish line.

I dropped Hubby off at the airport and spend the remainder of Sunday at Starbucks. I started off well-enough, got on a bit of a roll. As the afternoon wore on, more and more people packed in, loud people, and I don’t work so well when it’s loud. Unfortunately, I don’t work well at home either, between the dog barking for my attention, the cats walking across my laptop or jumping on my shoulders, the dog chasing the cats, FedEx/UPS delivering packages, you get the picture. At least at Starbucks I got caffeine.

I also got one chapter written. One.

Okay, so I was off to a slow start. I thought it was a good chapter, at least. That just meant I had to get three chapters in on one of the other days. No problem. I went to work Monday, full of plans for a quick dinner, then hours of writing at my favorite–and quiet–indie coffee shop.

Guess who got a stomach virus (the puking kind)? Oh yeah. Not a twenty-four hour deal either. That bad boy hung around for a week. All my writing time, literally, went down the toilet. (You’re welcome for the image).

I got better toward the end of the week, but then Hubby was home and we had Christmas shopping to do, and parties to attend, and one thing after another. I told Hubby that no matter what, Sunday was my day. Just me and my manuscript.

I spent the whole afternoon at Starbucks. This time, I got two chapters written, everything clicked all at once. The other chapters I’d planned–not needed. The story came together in a way I hadn’t expected. It was wonderful. I could’ve written for hours, hours!

Except I couldn’t. I had a Christmas party for the youth at church to attend that evening. So I stopped, a mere two short chapters from finishing the draft. “Monday,” I said. “I am finishing this Monday, and no one and nothing will stop me!”

Last night, I sped through dinner, rushed Hubby out the door, and took off for the indie coffee shop I love so much. Guess who forgot her laptop at home? Back to the house, raced in, grabbed my computer, darted back out, finally got to the coffee shop.

Like Starbucks the week before, the place was packed. More people than I’ve ever seen there. No matter, I was on a roll. Just had to send the first few chapters to a beta reader, a few tweaks to the last chapter, then dive into the new one, and holy crap it was 8:00! The coffee shop closes at 9:00 on Mondays.

Go, go, go! Write, write, write!

Almost through the chapter.

Then all those people stood up. They took out books. They started to sing.

Yes. Sing.

Carolers. In my quiet, little coffee shop. Emphasis on little. The place isn’t very big. It’s cozy. At least it was, until the full, professional level choir took up half the space. Then it went from cozy to cramped.

Normally, I love carolers. I love Christmas music. But in a coffee shop? Maybe it’s just me, but most people I see at a coffee shop are there to do something quiet. Read, write, do homework, study, a few low conversations, open mic nights on some nights–but those are usually posted ahead of time so you know what you’re walking into, and there has never been one at my coffee shop. In my experience, most people don’t go to coffee shops to hear caroling. Loud, intrusive caroling.

I felt like the Grinch. All the noise, noise, NOISE!

And then, they’ll do something I hate most of all. Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, will stand close together… with Christmas bells ringing. They’ll stand hand in hand… and those Whos… will start singing!

I couldn’t think. It bounced off the walls and rattled around in my brain, stirring up the words that had been right there all day, waiting to hit the page.

Why?!?! I had one more chapter to finish the ms. ONE MORE. I felt extremely rude as I shoved ear buds in my ears to block the cheerful singing, but I didn’t care. It helped. The words sorted themselves out. Started to flow, started to–

It was 9:00. Closing time. I was literally sentences from finishing. The words were on the tip of my tongue, soooo close to the page.

I threw my stuff in a bag, dragged Hubby out, and raced home again. It would have to be there. Hubby would have to keep the animals contained, regardless of how bad they wanted my attention. I spread out on the kitchen island, and wrote, and finished.

Finally, traffic thinned enough for me to skate through. I might’ve done it by the skin of my teeth, but I made it. I finished. I FINISHED! I reveled for about an hour, until it was time for bed. The draft is now with betas and I am on to the next step, editing.

There may be more roadblocks ahead, but I’m through the worst of it. I’m back on the highway and heading up to cruising speed, and nothing is going to stand in my way of polishing this ms.

What about you? Ever been stuck in writing traffic? How do you deal with it?

Can You Juggle?

My husband is a juggler. Not a professional performer or anything, but whenever he sees three similarly sized objects, they’re bound to end up flying through the air–and eventually rolling across the floor. Many oranges and apples have lost their lives at Hubby’s hands, or lack of hands I should say.

I bought him a juggling kit a couple years ago that came with an instruction manual and balls, pins, and rings. The manual took you through each step, starting with two balls, and graduating up to the more difficult rings.

I’ve tried it a couple times, but I’m terrible. I can get two things going at once, but add in a third and everything crashes to the ground. I quickly gave up, resigned to leave the circus antics to my other half.

But the desire to learn how to juggle apparently never went away. It just morphed into something a little more my speed: writing.

My current WIP has two POVs. This is the first time I’ve written from multiple perspectives and let me tell you, it’s a little scary. When the idea initially formed, it was all from one view. One main character. Then another character spoke up, demanded her story be told too.

I was terrified when I started. I’ve read several books with multiple POVs where the voices were largely indistinguishable. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a few lines into a chapter and having to look back at the heading to see which character is narrating. I knew if I went down this road, I’d have to make the voices distinct.

Everything went fine at first. I clearly visualized both MCs, clearly heard their voices, clearly saw their story arcs. Just like with juggling objects, those first two stayed in the air fine. This isn’t so bad. Went through my head. I’m…kind of good at this. I was telling two almost completely different stories at the same time. Kept the juggling pins going with no problem.

Then they started wobbling. One character’s voice overtook the manuscript. Readers were connecting with her more than the initial main character. My agent even suggested maybe telling the story from one POV. Hers. The initial fear came tumbling back. It wasn’t the FMC’s story, it was the MMC’s! She couldn’t take it over! Could she?

I considered it. I dropped his pin. I worked up an outline and started a few chapters from just her side. Tossing one pin felt weird though. My hands felt empty. So I picked up the other one and tried juggling them independently. I’d tell the first half from the FMC’s view, and the second half from the MMC’s and….

That didn’t work either. If I was going to do this, I had to learn to juggle. See, it’s not just the MMC’s story, and it’s not just the FMC’s story. It’s both of their stories. There are two protagonists, and each carries equal weight. Each has their own goals, their own motivations, their own problems to surmount, independent of the other. Even though those stories parallel each other, and eventually merge into a common goal, they still maintain separate motivations and methods of reaching that goal.

So I started over. In a different place. Both pins simultaneously flew through the air again. The story worked. The chapters flowed. The voices separated like oil and water. Everything was great.

Until I dropped another pin. I’m close to finishing the draft, and I’m afraid the voices are blending. Especially once the two MCs collide. It was easier to keep them separate when the characters themselves were separate, easier to remember they each had a story to tell, but now it’s muddy. Complicated. I’ve added the dreaded third pin to the mix. I have to constantly remind myself that they’re each a protagonist, they each need to carry their own story.

This becomes difficult when I’m trying to make sure they’re both active characters. It would be really easy to drop that third pin, to let one character to take over now and do all the work, let the other take a back seat and coast through the end of the book. It would be easy, but it wouldn’t be a good book, and it wouldn’t be a fulfilling ride for the readers.

Juggling is hard. No one randomly picks up three items and perfectly tosses them around on their first try. It takes dedication and practice and time, and it’s so simple to say you can’t do it and walk way. Many do. I dare say there are more people in this world who can’t juggle than who can. It’s a lot like writing.

I realized I’ve been juggling for a while now. All writers juggle. With every manuscript, regardless of the number of narrators. The more elements you add to your story, plot threads, characters, settings, the more pins, or balls, or apples, you toss into the air. This is my fourth manuscript. With each one, I’ve gotten a little bit better, without really noticing it. Somewhere along the way, I graduated from balls to pins. There’s still a long way to go before I reach the rings, but I can do this.

I developed a plan of attack. Finish the draft. Print it out. Separate each character’s chapters. Read them independently. This way I can make sure the voices are consistent, and that each MC has a clear, individual, active arc.

What about you? How do you juggle your writing?