Riding the Revision Rollercoaster

Dec 05, 2014 Main blog 17 comments

Oh, revisions: the only way a book can get better. Always satisfying at the end, but often maddening throughout. I’ve talked about my drafting process before, which is my absolute favorite part of writing. But I haven’t talked in depth about how I revise. Since I just wrapped up six grueling months of reworking ELEGY – the latest draft of which is now with betas! – I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at all of the twists and turns and ups and downs that led me to the book I have now.

Revision Rollercoaster Step 1: Prep. Empty stomach optional.

I prepped by gathering every single piece of constructive feedback I’d ever received for ELEGY. I collected tidbits from every email and every Word document with comments or tracked changes. I never waste a critique from anyone. What I do with the suggestions later is at my own discretion, but I consider absolutely everything. I don’t want to start revising without a complete picture of what every single person whose eyes have crossed this manuscript is thinking.

In a clean Word doc, I organized the feedback by type, like characterization, plot/pacing, and world-building, and also divided them into CP notes and agent notes. Then, with a big yellow highlighter, I marked up anything that appeared more than once. Those were the major things to address. For ELEGY specifically, the biggest items were Stella’s likability factor (being a prickly diva in the early drafts) and the ending of the book. The whole process helped me get a clear idea of what I would have to work on in the coming months.

Revision Rollercoaster Step 2: Pick a spot to sit and plant yourself down (firmly).

I think with revisions, where you start depends on whether you’re a plotter or a pantser. I’m a plotter, so it felt natural for me to start with a story outline. I never draft without an outline in hand, but for revisions I made a completely new one. I took a week off to refresh my brain before rereading the manuscript from top to bottom and scribbling down each chapter’s major events.

So after I did that, I now had two vital tools:

  1. A list of suggestions to address, with highlighted ones sticking out as most important.
  2. The skeleton of my entire story, so I could visualize – sometimes to the exact scene – where the changes needed to happen.

Revision Rollercoaster Step 3: Buckle your seat belt and hold on tight!

I took out my trusty neon Post-It notes and pasted them everywhere on the new outline. Here are some of the things I wrote on them:

Other Post-Its were so long, they looked like mini-novels! Those were the new chapters I wanted to write in, with everything I had to accomplish in that space. I think about 65% of the book I have now is made up of brand new scenes and chapters I wrote in to accommodate the changing plot and character motivations.

Revision Rollercoaster Step 4: Enjoy the downhills…while they last.

I began applying the changes, and some of the new words flowed like buttah! It was exhilarating, hands-in-the-air, screaming-with-fear-and-joy awesome.

There were scenes I could visualize so easily in my head, most notably the one in that first bullet point. I didn’t know Stella would be the one to discover Brunner sneaking around in the bell tower. I didn’t know how or when it would happen. For all of my planning and plotting, this book always has surprises in store for me, and that scene just spilled out and accomplished everything I wanted it to.

Revision Rollercoaster Step 5: Know that every uphill will eventually lead to a downhill. Key word: eventually.

There were so many long, torturous uphill stretches. I climbed and climbed and climbed, and sometimes lost sight of what the heck I was trying to do in the first place. (See this blog post.) I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my poor CPs and writer friends who had to endure my long-winded, freaked-out emails and texts. I am pretty sure I exhausted Google Image’s supply of angsty/sobbing/heavily-drinking GIFs during this timeframe.

But I knew that eventually, there would be a downhill again. And there was!

Revision Rollercoaster Step 6: Repeat steps 4 and 5 copious times. Abandon empty stomach metaphor and eat ALL THE THINGS.

It doesn’t even matter if this rollercoaster might make ALL THE THINGS come right back up. Get some caffeine (or in my case, chocolate and carbs, since I don’t drink coffee/tea/soda).

Revision Rollercoaster Step 7: The home stretch.

There is a scene in LITTLE WOMEN where Jo finishes writing the book of her heart, the one Professor Bhaer inspired in her. She ties it up with a ribbon and then she just sits there silently for a moment, looking at it. I think there’s a line that says something like: “That quiet moment showed how earnestly she had worked on her little book.”

That’s what I did. I sat there dumbly, staring at my manuscript. I had done it. I had done it under a rigorous deadline (well, rigorous for me) and a LOT of stress and pressure, with a ticking clock in my ear. But I had done it. I survived the biggest, most intense revisions I’ve ever had to do.

I can’t fully convey to you in words how gratifying it is to see that beta feedback pouring in. I can’t express how happy and whole I feel when someone who saw the earliest drafts now tells me: “This is the one. This is your book, as it was meant to be.”

I can’t tell you what it means when someone offers to blurb my book when it becomes a book, not if…when someone says that they were late to work because they just had to finish reading…when someone tells me they planned to save the book for Thanksgiving break, and ended up devouring the whole thing the same day I sent it.

Guys, this is the whole reason I write.

Honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen when I start resubmitting. But what I do know is I’ve done everything I can to make this the best book I could possibly write. It’s been one crazy ride, and I know there are many more rollercoasters ahead – for ELEGY or for other books – but whatever happens, I’m ready. Throw it at me!

Giving Thanks!

Nov 20, 2014 Main blog 24 comments

So, the other day, I realized that this is going to be my blog’s sixth Thanksgiving! Crazy how the time flies!

Every year so far, I’ve written a post about the things for which I’m thankful. Now that I’m feeling back to my old self after that slump, I want to temper some of the negativity with a list of (maybe surprising) things that make me grateful. I’m one of those people who fixates on how far I have left to go, instead of appreciating how far I’ve already come. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, but it’s good to reflect! So, without further ado:

Thankful Thing #1: I am thankful for rejections.

I have never had great self-esteem. But writing has always been my thing. Unfortunately, I was spoiled in school, where teachers petted me and I coasted through my lit/writing classes without breaking a sweat. This, combined with the reception I got when I posted an early novel online in 2008, led me to be over-confident. It didn’t help when I wrote another novel, blissfully submitted the rough draft (!!!) to a major contest, and saw it go through to the quarterfinals.

But my big head got a big reality check when I started querying. I was greener than green, and it showed. 2008 me was shocked and discouraged by the early rejections; 2014 me is thinking, I was nuts to expect anything else. I had a lot to learn, and I learned it (and am still learning). I got knocked down again and again, but I’ve gotten back up every time so far.

Without those rejections, I would be a weaker writer with a weaker book. I wasn’t ready then, and each “no, thank you” was a sign telling me so. There have been so many other signs since then, particularly this year. Good ones, exciting ones, and even I can see how much my work has grown and matured. I am older, I am humbler, and I am more ready with every book I write.

The only tricky part will be remembering that the next time I take a detour into the doldrums…

Thankful Thing #2: I am thankful that I have limited time to write.

I work full-time and I have a long commute. This means being away from the house at least 12 hours every single day. I always used to envy writer friends who didn’t have to work. They were so lucky to have all that time and that luxury, I thought. But the grass is always greener, and I’m learning that having the time to write doesn’t necessarily equate to using the time to write.

Having to work means that the few precious hours I steal on the weekends are even more valuable to me. I have no choice but to make the time, so the time means more. And I am so grateful to have a job at all, not to mention one that I like and that helps me live comfortably.

Thankful Thing #3: I am thankful that I found a family who will support my writing.

And that is you guys! My real-life friends who know that I write, my blog friends, my CPs, my mentors, my wonderful funny Tweeps, and all of you who come to read and comment.

I won’t linger long on this, since this post is meant to be positive, but many of you know my family has never been supportive when it comes to writing. I think many of us have been or are in that boat, though, which is why we’ve found this amazing community where we get the push we need that we might not be able to find elsewhere.

You are all a huge, huge part of why I keep going. Your believing in me makes me try harder to believe in myself, and I probably wouldn’t still be here blogging if it weren’t for you guys.

I hope you all have a wonderful, happy holiday (if you’re in the U.S., that is!), and that you have much to be thankful for this year.

♥ ♥ ♥

A Solitary Business

Nov 11, 2014 Main blog 25 comments

A week and a half ago, I hit one of the biggest writing slumps I’d had yet to experience.

Have you ever read THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster? In it, the main character finds a mysterious tollbooth leading to The Lands Beyond. When he drives his toy car through, he ends up getting lost in the Doldrums, a gray, colorless place where laughing and thinking have been outlawed. The inhabitants tell him he can do: “Anything as long as it’s nothing, and everything as long as it isn’t anything.”

I spent an entire week there. I moped and yawned and slouched. I cried tears of stress and frustration. I nearly bought real estate in the Doldrums – that’s how bad it was.

Every time I turned on the laptop and tried to revise, my brain shut down. I did all of those cute little tricks to get you writing again (“Just write one sentence!” or “Work on a different scene!” or “Do a character sketch!”), but none of them worked. I fell into despair, as melodramatic as that sounds. I told myself I was wasting time, and I had messed up everything, and readers were waiting for this draft – geez! why couldn’t I write faster?! – and other useful, encouraging things like that.

Well, I’m happy to report that I made it out eventually, and revised four chapters and wrote seven thousand new words this weekend!

So what helped me?

1) Writing about writing. The old-fashioned way: by hand, with a pen, in a leather journal.

For twenty years, every time I’ve felt upset or needed to think through something, I have written in a diary. I still believe that the physical act of putting pen to paper is the best therapy in the world. It’s slower than typing, but that’s why it helps: you have to think things through even more thoroughly while your hand is catching up.

I let loose for a few pages, and it felt like I was bleeding out anxiety and irritation instead of ink. I highly, highly recommend journaling if you ever hit a writing slump or hurdle or pothole of ANY kind. I wish I had done this sooner, but I would love to start a journal to go with every manuscript that I write. It would be fun to have a volume where I document each book’s process and record my thoughts as I write and later revise. I guess I kind of do that with my blog, but it would be nice to have a personal space for all of those thoughts and worries, too.

2) Recognizing that writing is a solitary business, just like everyone says.

We are writers, but we are people first. And people tend to need other people. So I turned to my friends and CPs, hoping they would make everything go away, hoping they would fill in the seismic cracks that had begun to form in my confidence. But here’s a dirty little secret about writing: as supportive as the community is, as wonderful as your buddies are, the only person who can get you out of the Doldrums is YOU.

There are places you go as a writer where no one can follow you, not even your closest friends. Everyone is at a different stage in the process. Everyone has their own situation to focus on. It’s hard to realize you’re all alone on the landing and your buddies are on other steps of the same staircase: some are very far behind you and stressing about just sending their work out; some are moving on to new books and putting together another agent list; and others are worrying about their editor’s suggestions or why their agent hasn’t gotten back to them yet.

It’s easy, when you seek reassurance, to feel unfulfilled because no one really understands what you’re going through right now. Don’t get me wrong: the sweet emails, supportive texts, and virtual pats on the back are wonderful and inspiring and can often give us the push we need. But at the end of the day, you have to climb out of the slump yourself. No one can do it for you.

That’s what I’m learning. And if you’re a glass-half-full person like me, it won’t be so much “I’m alone” as “I can depend on myself and I can do this!”

How have you escaped the Doldrums? Any tricks or tips to share when you’re in a slump?

The One Lovely Blog Award

Oct 28, 2014 Main blog 28 comments

My sweet friend June, who blogs over at Miss Bluestocking, gave me the One Lovely Blog Award last week! Personally, I think her blog is the lovely one! If you’re into lyrical writing, Austen, and period dramas in general, be sure to follow her. Here are the rules for accepting this award:

  1. Share 7 Lovely Facts about myself
  2. Link to 15 blogs (or as many as possible) that I enjoy reading
  3. Nominate the authors of those 15 blogs to participate and do the same, linking back to the original Lovely blog. (That would be this page.)

Here are some random facts that my revision-fried brain came up with:

1) I was a Girl Scout for two years. Not sure why this came to mind first, but maybe I have cookies on the brain after eating so healthy lately! My parents made me join because my fourth-grade teacher was concerned about my lack of social life and strong preference for reading over playing with the other kids. I remember it was really boring, because all we did was get together to sing and make crafts, but my best friend Talia (who some of you may remember from this adventure) made it a bit more bearable. I did like the play we put on for our parents, which was based on the story of Kirsten, the American Girl who traveled over from Sweden (I played the thrilling role of Mama). And, of course, I liked the cookies, especially the Thin Mints and those sandwich-looking ones with the strawberry filling. Mmm! Selling them was always a breeze, too; I just handed my parents the flier to pass around to their engineer friends at work. Boom.

2) I have only ever owned silver cars. Not because I only want silver ones, but that’s just the way it’s always worked out! Maybe I’ll branch out in a few years and buy a red one next.

3) My favorite food of all time is soup. It is my ultimate comfort food. I could eat soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I make a different one every week, and the crockpot is always in commission during the fall and winter. This month, it’s been corn and potato chowder, beef barley, and this Vietnamese chicken rice soup that I love. I’m hoping to get my mom to teach me how to make pho sometime. The way she does it is pretty involved, with soup bones and anise stars and seasonings cooking on and off over the span of two days, but it’s sooo worth it. And the house always smells amazing!

4) Here’s a Halloween-y one: in college, I spent one spooky night in a haunted dorm. There’s an enormous, gray stone dormitory on our campus that looks like a castle, and legend has it that it’s haunted by a stressed-out med student who hung himself in the attic years and years ago. One of my friends lived in this building and I stayed with her one night after a late class, not wanting to walk all the way back to my dorm. We sat up studying for our organic chem midterm the next day, and a lot of weird things happened that my friend said were pretty routine: the door slammed shut by itself even though all the windows were closed, the lights flickered several times even though it was a nice night, there were footsteps repeatedly coming down the stairwell but no one ever appeared, etc. The phone rang, but no one was on the other end (which also happened when we were watching “The Ring” with her floormates another night!). Maybe there was a ghost, trying to convince us not to be pre-med. Well done, sir.

5) I was born on one of the hottest days on record in New York. It was 95 degrees in September! You’d think that would mean I love heat and summer weather, but I hate it. I’m much more of a chilly weather person and I think anything above 80 is unbearable. It’s so much nicer to bundle up in layers and scarves and blankets.

6) I own more books than I own anything else. There’s a gorgeous built-in bookshelf that takes up one wall of my apartment, with scalloped woodwork and plenty of shelf space. I use it to store all of my favorite books and series, including all 56 original yellow hardcover Nancy Drews, a collector’s boxed set of Harry Potter paperbacks, and three different editions of The Lord of the Rings. There’s a special space for ARCs, which a publishing friend kindly supplies, and a space for books written by people I know. I’m also a knickknack hoarder, so you’ll find paperweights, old music boxes, glittery feathered masks I bought in New Orleans, a framed picture or two, and the two Chinese jade elephant figurines I’ve had since I was a kid.

7) I dream extremely vivid, detailed dreams. I used to write them all down in a journal, but even without recording them, I can often remember minute details and tell you about them the next day. Common themes are: elevators, shopping malls, running away from someone or something, and being late. I also often dream about acquiring something – whether it’s finding a lost object or buying new clothes – and wake up thinking that I’m still holding whatever it is. Maybe this is why I love THE DREAM THIEVES by Maggie Stiefvater so much! #greywaren

Now to pass this award on to others. I’m going to give it to seven of my oldest and dearest blog buddies:

Hope you’re all having a good week so far! I should be blogging more frequently when revisions are over, as I need to take a writing break before jumping into the next book. I still haven’t decided what to draft next, but I’m leaning toward FOTL. Hopefully I’ll have a new excerpt or two to share with you before the end of the year, since I know you’re all sick of hearing about ELEGY! ♥

Meet My Character: The Writerly Meme Blog Tour!

Oct 17, 2014 Main blog 14 comments

I’ve been tagged for the Writerly Meme Blog Tour by the fabulous Emily Kate Muyskens, who blogs at Literary Emily Kate. She’s an incredibly talented writer/singer/model/all-around creative person and it was such a pleasure to meet her in person at the SCBWI conference back in May!

Today, I’m sharing a bit more about Stella, the main character of my YA paranormal suspense novel, ELEGY. She’s been one of my favorite protagonists to write, and even when this latest round of revisions is done, I’ll still be thinking about her and her story. To see how I envision Stella, check out my Pinterest board for ELEGY here.

Original artwork of Stella by my fabulous CP, Marisa Hopkins!

What is the name of your character? Is he/she a fictional person or a historic person?

Her full name is Stella Kim, she is seventeen years old, and she is a completely made-up character.

When and where is the story set?

ELEGY is a ghost story told in intertwining narrative, with journal entries and letters throughout. Stella’s story takes place in the present, at a Loire River Valley chateau that has been converted into a performing arts school.

The other story takes place in the late 1890s and has many settings, ranging from the Loire Valley and Paris to the Italian countryside.

What should we know about him/her?

Stella was raised in New York City by her mother, Deborah, who is a famous Korean violinist. She has been groomed for the stage since birth and dreams of performing in the world’s greatest concert halls.

She seems confident, but she suffers from an intense fear of failure. There’s a lot of pressure from her mom and fierce competition from the other students. She was a big fish in a small pond, and now she’s fighting for the spotlight with people who are all used to being the best.

What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

One of Stella’s biggest challenges arises when an old violin ends up in the hands of her best friend, Aria Stewart. It slowly turns Aria from a shrinking violet with debilitating stage fright to a musician who quickly out-performs everyone at school. Stella struggles with jealousy, shame, and the suspicion that the violin may be doing more harm than good.

What is the personal goal of the main character?

Stella’s goal changes over the course of the book, and to say how might spoil the plot! So I’ll stick to a safe answer: she wants to be a star and to finally earn her mom’s respect.

Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

ELEGY is the title I’ve had since I started writing it. It’s named after the piece that inspired it, which you can listen to here: Elegie, by Jules Massenet.

I won’t be posting any excerpts at this time, but if you look around on my blog and on others, you can find the query and various pages from the contests I entered this year.

When we can expect the book to be published?

Here’s something I’ve learned in my six years of pursuing traditional publication: always hope, never expect.

So… I hope it will be published one day!

Thanks so much for tagging me, Emily! I would like to pass this on to my CPs, Tiana Smith and Margo Berendsen, who are writing lovely, marvelous books. But please feel free to participate if you like, and let me know when you’ve done so. I’d love to learn more about your characters!

Still On the Revision Boat…

Oct 08, 2014 Main blog 23 comments

…but the shoreline is in view!

I have been revising ELEGY since late June, and I can finally see the home stretch.

“Revising” is such a nice, mild word, isn’t it? It brings to mind a neat red pen, an eraser, and a mug of chamomile tea, when in actuality (in my case, at least), it’s been tears and tearing hair and texts of despair to my CPs.

I am literally rewriting half the book, to inject more tension into the present day storyline and tie the two plots more closely together. I am making my main character kinder and more sympathetic. And I am changing the entire ending, in which one person who died will live and one person who lived will die. (And one person who was already dead will stay dead.)

This is the hardest book I have ever written. I’m inclined to think that’s a good thing, because one of my big goals for this year was to step out of my comfort zone. I am always slightly uncomfortable when writing ELEGY. It has its own agenda. It takes unexpected twists and turns to mock me and my detailed plans. Where my other books have been docile, clear-cut, this one is a chameleon, changing hues, moody, unpredictable.

I’ve worked on it for so long, and I’m so close to it now, that I can’t tell whether I’m revising the life right out of it, scrubbing out that magic quality that turned heads in the first place. But I’m cautiously optimistic, and I’ll leave it up to my beta readers to decide when I send them the completed draft.

It’s more and more clear to me, every day of this crazy journey, that writing takes work. HARD work. I never imagined it would be this hard. The self-assured me who aced literature classes without batting an eye, the me who won school contests and awards with rough drafts, would be horrified to learn how incredibly difficult book-writing is. It’s not for the weak or the faint of heart. It’s not enough to just be a good writer; you have to want this more than anything.

I can see that some of the friends and family who know what I’m attempting think I’m insane.

Recently, one of them said to me, with obvious pity in her eyes: “I see you struggling and I think to myself, I would have quit a long time ago if I were you.”

But that’s the difference between non-writers and writers: they don’t want this as badly as we do. They see a long, tough road ahead, full of people saying “no” and rejection emails clogging the inbox, and think hey, wouldn’t it be easier to just stop trying?

Quitting, man. It saves so much time.

But I’m not a quitter. I’ve proven it to myself over and over again, and my reward is the doors that are beginning to open. I am so close and I can’t – won’t – give up now.

Another thing that’s driving me to finish: NaNoWriMo, which starts in three weeks! I am itching to draft something new after all of this rewriting. I still can’t decide whether I’m going with the new MG action/adventure story or with my epic fantasy, at long last, but I have some time to figure it out!

How are you doing? If you’re revising, is your book fighting you as much as mine is fighting me?

Middle Grade Switcheroo

Sep 10, 2014 Main blog 15 comments

I’ve been missing PPP a lot lately. I miss my characters: my spunky Noelle, my motherly Maud, my sarcastic animal sidekicks Muffet and Alfonso. I miss that world of kingdoms inside caves and glittering castle balls and mines full of diamond glass and baby dragons. Most of all, I miss the fun, and the adventure, and exploring what it means to live your own life, by your own choices.

Every so often, the dark themes of ELEGY – as much as I completely adore this story – get me wanting to go back to my light-hearted middle grade. I was proud of how well it did when I sent it out for critique and started querying (though not widely), but it ended up on the shelf because 1) it needed revisions I wasn’t ready to do at the time, and 2) ELEGY was demanding that I write it immediately. (Such a pushy book!)

PPP still has my heart, though, and I fully believe in it and hope that it will get published one day, even if it’s not my debut. There’s so much of me in it, you see. I started writing it when I was still figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. And I figured it out right alongside Noelle. She helped me, and the book helped me, and they made me laugh at a time when I didn’t laugh often. I’m thinking of one scene where she rides into a village in a pumpkin carriage of her own terrible design (after the real carriage breaks down roadside – hey, you gotta start somewhere, right?) and she’s covered in pulp and seeds, yet manages to smile and wave at the hysterically laughing townspeople.

The manuscript is printed out and sitting in a binder in a corner of the computer room, and I keep wanting to reread it. Maybe I’ll finally get a chance next month!

I’m conflicted, though, because I’m also dying to write my YA epic fantasy.

And then there’s another story, a brand-new story, that’s been vying for my attention if I wanted to go the MG route next. It’s part mystery, part action/adventure, and centers on a tight-knit group of twelve-year-olds.

I think this must mean ELEGY revisions are going well if I’m looking forward to finishing them, and already thinking about what to write next!!

What about you? Do you alternate books with different moods? If you write a dark book, do you long to write a light, funny one next, and vice versa?

Ten Things I’ve Learned About Blogging

Aug 28, 2014 Main blog 18 comments

Blogging is one of my favorite things about the writing community. If this were a neighborhood, our blogs would be our houses – a place to be comfortable, be ourselves, and welcome friends over. But when I first started back in 2008, it seemed so incredibly scary and daunting. The idea of 1) putting myself out there and 2) putting my writing out there, something that I rarely tell people about, was terrifying. So what convinced me to do it?

Well, back then, I didn’t know anything about building a platform. I just wanted to make friends… to connect to people who were as serious about getting published as I was and to feel less alone on this crazy pipe dream of mine. And I wanted to find out if my writing was up to par. I told myself that if it didn’t work out, I could just delete everything and pretend I had never blogged at all.

Fast forward six whole years, and here I still am. I’ve made dear friends, I’ve found critique partners, and I’ve gotten so many of my questions about the industry answered. All through blogging. The very first agent I ever queried was someone who found me through my blog, and liked what she saw, and asked to see my work.

So blogs are incredibly powerful tools when you’re starting out as a writer… as long as you’re willing to take the time to nurture it, and to keep it up, and to use it properly.

Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  1. Don’t use comment verification. That is, if you care about comments – and you should care, because you want people to interact with you and respond to what you write! Back in the day, I had this option turned on because there was a phase where I kept getting spam comments about male enhancement products. Lovely! Well, comment verification stopped those comments… and a lot of other comments, too, ones I actually wanted to read. Turns out it’s kind of annoying when you have to type “RX1241PO” five times (because that’s what that stupid blurry picture says! It totally does!) and it still tells you it’s wrong, and accuses you of being a robot. And Blogger has a spam filter now, so that helps screen stuff out.
  2. Don’t auto-play music. (So guilty of this!!) You don’t want to turn people away before they even have a chance to read, because they hate Usher/Johnny Cash/Mozart/whatever is blasting through the speakers whenever they click on your page.
  3. Inject some “you” into your blog. Make your blog a unique place. Make the stories and information something that people can’t just find somewhere else. When I’m reading blogs, I connect best with the ones that are personalized. It’s so much more fun and engaging to read about someone’s day than a cut-and-dry how-to post on synopses or something.
  4. Make the posts easy to read. My preference is dark, big font on a light background. I can’t stay on blogs/websites that have the reverse for longer than a minute or two, because I start going cross-eyed.
  5. Be real, but be positive. I’m preaching to the choir when I say that trying to get published can be a rocky road. Everyone has ups and downs. But no one wants to read a blog where the writer just moans and complains all the time.
  6. Don’t promote other authors too much. Guest posts and interviews are fine once in a while, but this is YOUR blog and people come to read about YOU.
  7. If you’re published, don’t promote yourself too much. By the way, I’m so glad Twitter finally came up with this “Mute” business. If someone is too tweet-happy about their new book (only $2.99 on Amazon! Buy now! Hurry!), now you can just “Mute” them instead of unfollowing, which I used to do.
  8. Use good grammar and spelling. You’re a writer. Prove it.
  9. Use paragraph breaks. Pretty please! Huge columns of text are not fun to read.
  10. Just be a nice person. Make time to respond to comments, and to return comments. It’s just common courtesy. People are taking time to read our blogs and respond, so it’s the least we can do!

Blogging buddies, what other things have you learned in your experience? And, just for fun, how long have you had your blog?

Back Onstage

Aug 16, 2014 Main blog 20 comments

OH HAI, BLOG. I’m back!

I took a two-month break to focus on writing, and although I couldn’t stay completely off Twitter (*blush*), I managed to get a LOT done. It wasn’t, however, exactly what I had in mind when I took the summer off. See, I never actually participated in Camp NaNoWriMo, like I said I would. And I never got more than a few thousand words of FOTL written.

Because I couldn’t get ELEGY out of my head. In June, after a manic contest season – in which the query letter and the manuscript did me so very, very proud – I thought I had burned out on this story. I had decided to bide my time, wait for responses, and work on a different project… but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I dreamed about old bell towers and empty stages for a week straight. I went to see Phantom of the Opera onstage again, the show that inspired everything. I went home and looked at my own violin, and my own sheet music, and scenes from my school days that had inspired scenes in the book flashed through my mind.

That was when I knew I couldn’t let go… not just yet. I took advice from Mandy Hubbard’s workshop at NESCBWI and sat down and compiled every piece of feedback I had received for ELEGY. I organized them into CP/beta feedback and agent feedback. I made a bulleted list. And I began to notice something odd… people were saying the same thing over and over in each piece of feedback. There was a recurring theme. My own story was actively haunting me, and here was the reason why: it was not over yet. I had typed “The End,” but it wasn’t, really.

Here is the thing about revisions: they are where the REAL story comes out. The early drafts are essentially making a list of things you want to include in your book. The way a character’s eyes flash when he smiles. The twist in Chapter Eight that brings the subplot to the forefront. The rise-and-fall of the action, and how to carry the reader through it. Draft after draft after draft, when it comes time to make the true revisions, you already know the bones of the story so intimately that its flesh begins falling right into place.

I’m not saying it is easy. It’s still the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I have ripped this story apart literally, by splitting its historical storyline set in 1899 Paris and its modern storyline set in the Loire Valley into two different Word documents. And then, in a completely new Word document, I have begun again, stitching the pieces I laid out into a quilt that I have laughed, and cried, and hoped, and despaired, and dreamt over. Over and over and over. I’ve been up and down this emotional rollercoaster so many times, it’s a wonder I can keep my food down.

Some days, the draft is tame and the words pour out like the sweetest summer lemonade, and some days, it fights me. Every. Step. Of the way.

But what I know is I am compelled to finish this story, because I believe that deeply in it. With all of the similar criticism that echoed in those pieces of valuable CP notes and long, thoughtful, personalized feedback from agents, there was also another recurring message: My story, at its heart, has the potential to be a good one. Everything is ALL there – the characters, the writing, the voice. I just have to find a better way to piece it all together. It is all there.

That’s what keeps me going. Even if nothing comes of this, I have to know that I wrote the best draft I possibly could. That ELEGY, one of the books of my heart, is as full of my time and dedication and hard work as it could ever be.

So that’s where I’m at today. Tired, grateful, and – as always – hopeful. I’m getting somewhere, and that’s the tiny glint of gold I hold onto.

I hope you’ve all been well!

Summertime Unplug

Jun 16, 2014 Main blog 14 comments

Summer is almost officially upon us, and today I celebrated by writing outside! I found a shady picnic table in a quiet corner of the park, where I spread out with my notes, iPod, and plenty of snacks. Writing under a tree is so appropriate when it’s a book centered around a forest, don’t you think?

I made a few bird buddies who wandered along the table and gazed at my binder with beady eyes. I think they were skeptical about my world-building (although it’s possible that my Fritos attracted them too). I’ve been hard at work sketching out the universe of FOTL, figuring out its history, what kingdom goes where, and who was descended from whom. Sometimes it’s tempting to skip that because most of it won’t be in the book anyway, but I think knowing all of the details will make my world richer.

It’s going to be another dual narrative, I think. I’m nervous… I like telling both sides of a story, but I always seem to struggle when it comes to keeping both of them compelling. I don’t know why one always ends up being more interesting than the other, but I hope to flesh out both characters enough that their stories will complement one another, rather than fight for the reader’s attention. It’s a tricky balance and I need practice!

Today I also managed to get this done:

Someone at NESCBWI mentioned that they liked to keep all of their manuscripts in binders. I thought that was a great idea, seeing as how mine end up as heaps of paper piled in the corner. That’s RICE FLOWER MEMOIRS (179 pages) that you see in the yellow binder, and PUMPKIN PATCH PRINCESS (231 pages) in the pink binder. It’s hard to believe that I wrote RFM six years ago, but when I glanced through the pages – adverbs, and backstory, and dialogue tags galore – it’s incredible to see how far I have come as a writer, and how much better my work is now.

I’m getting closer and closer with every book. I may not have written THE book yet, but I will.

And that brings me to my announcement: I’m going to be taking the summer off from social media to work on FOTL. I’ve signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo next month with a hefty word goal, so it’s time to unplug from the blog, and Twitter, and Facebook, and turn this book into something I can be proud of.

I will still pop in occasionally, and of course check my email obsessively (goes without saying, as I’m still hunkering down in the post-contest/query trenches), so you know how to reach me if you need to!

I hope to return in late August with plenty of writing updates and a sample of FOTL to share with you! And I hope that you all have a happy, productive summer and write lots of words and read lots of books.

See you on the other side!

A Little Write Music #31: The Silk Road Ensemble

Jun 01, 2014 Main blog 17 comments

Writing contest season is officially over for ELEGY, which did me so very proud. *hugs manuscript* Now it’s time to enter the roughest waters of the Query Trenches: waiting. Waiting, waiting, and more waiting.

What better way to spend it than writing another project? And what better way to write said project than with music?

This month, I am trying out V.E. Schwab’s calendar trick for writing. I’ve seen many Twitter friends doing it, so I decided to give it a shot as soon as June 1 rolled around. Good thing I was a sticker hoarder as a kid, and good thing I still have ALL of my stickers!

As you can see, I have a 15K word goal for June. I’ve been having a lot of trouble choosing a starting point for FOTL, and not only that, I couldn’t figure out whose POV I wanted to write from. Now that I’ve decided, I figured that a set goal and a sticker calendar will help me stay accountable and just keep writing. Because that’s how books get written, right?!

FOTL has an official soundtrack: the Silk Road Ensemble, a group led by Yo-Yo Ma that comprises musicians from all over the world. There are tambourines, lutes, flutes, cellos, violins, bagpipes… every instrument you can think of, and their collaborations are phenomenal and so inspiring. It’s the perfect music for this book.

Here’s another gorgeous piece that I love. For some reason, I think of my main character and the beginning of her quest:

And this is a fun introductory piece if you want more information about the ensemble. The music, “Briel,” begins at the 1:00 mark if you want to skip ahead.

Hope you’re all doing well and keeping busy with your writing/querying, too!

A New Look! And Other Ramblings

May 24, 2014 Main blog 20 comments

So, something exciting happened to my blog this month… it got a visit from my very own Blog Fairy, the lovely and talented Tiana Smith! Look how beautiful she made my little corner of the web! And don’t you love that framed raincloud that she added in as a tribute to Silver Lining, my old blog title?

When we first started talking about a custom design, I told her I wanted something clean and simple, professional yet homey. I wanted a blog that made you feel like you were stopping by my desk or my bookshelf, and I would offer you a cup of tea and ask you to stay a while and chat about everything bookish. I think that is EXACTLY what I got. So… won’t you sit a while and have a cup of tea?

Thank you so much for your wonderful work, Tiana! ♥ Guys, stop by the Blog Decorator if ever you need a site makeover. You won’t regret it!

This week has been a pretty great week. I entered ELEGY into the Writer’s Voice, the final contest I’ll enter for this book, and it was both an honor and a humbling experience to be chosen among such phenomenal writers. I am thankful every day that I happened upon this writing community, because every contest, every Twitter conversation, every virtual hug and kind message about my blog and my stories is more fuel in the tank. You guys keep me going quite literally.

Last weekend, I attended my baby brother’s college graduation, and it made me think about how different my current viewpoint is from the one I had on my own graduation day. With all of the speeches about following your passion, and making your place in the world, and finding the thing that makes you more you than anything else, I thought of how much I’ve grown from that girl who walked across the stage as the chair of the biology department butchered her name in 2007. (I even told him, “Dao rhymes with cow!” How can you mess up?)

I think of that fork in the road, and what might have happened if I’d stubbornly pushed on in the wrong direction. I work in a field now where I see my own “what-might-have-been” all the time, and it’s daily reinforcement that jumping the track was 100% the right thing to do. (As if getting to know all of you and share my beloved books wasn’t validation enough!)

I guess what I’m trying to say, in a very convoluted fashion, is that one day I hope to be the kind of mentor to other writers that my agented/published friends are to me. I’m lucky enough to know people who have gone through the query trenches, snagged agents, and signed book deals, and even luckier that some of them have kindly taken me under their wing. All I have to do is email, and I know they’ll respond with the soundest advice and the strongest encouragement, and I want to give that back one day. It’s heartbreaking and devastating to be rejected, to be the only one without requests, and to hope and lose hope again and again – all of which I have experienced. I don’t see how anyone can make it in this business without a support network, and I want to be that for others as much as I possibly can.

(And can I just say again how glad I am that I chose a life of Word documents, PJs, and cups of tea over a surgical mask and a dissecting knife? And I believe the nurses who would have had to constantly peel me off the floor of the OR would also be glad, if they knew.)

I hope you all have a wonderful weekend (and if you’re in the U.S., have a wonderful long weekend)!

Julie C. Dao