I Finished!

textgram_1539186978Yesterday, I wrote the best two words in my manuscript. Yes, I finished my rough draft! I’m not elated, like I’ve been with previous completed drafts, but I’m extremely satisfied and dang proud of myself. This is truly a rough draft and I have a lot of work ahead of me. But, y’all, I wrote it in less than 5 months. And actually, when I consider the fact that I didn’t write for 3 weeks while in Charleston, I wrote it in 4 months. FOUR MONTHS. I cut my drafting time by two-thirds! At 77,000 words exactly (uncannily), it is my longest first draft. And I did it writing 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. AND while pregnant! (Since July, at least.) This was a revolutionary draft for me, and I have many thoughts. Let’s dive into them!

Pre-writing saved my bacon. I took about 5 months to complete character questionnaires and create a Save the Cat style outline for my book. This helped in myriad ways. First, I already knew who my characters were. I got to know them better as I wrote, but my understanding of them from the beginning was already deep. Second, I didn’t spend time trying to figure out where to go next. I just looked at my outline and wrote what was next. Now, my beats were all related to the character arc. And some were completely arc points and not plot points, so I had to figure out what the scene looked like plot-wise. But arc is a stronger driving force in books (or should be, in my opinion), so I stayed on target the whole time. Third, knowing where I was going kept me motivated. I discovered plenty as I wrote (I changed one character halfway through, and invented a whole new one at the end), but for the most part, I was always writing toward somewhere known. And that kept me excited. I am not a pantser. Not knowing where the story is headed doesn’t excite me, it bores me. I would look ahead in my outline to find the next scene I was most excited about, and push myself through the scenes that lay between. It was incredibly fun and rewarding.

Momentum is huge. Whenever I made changes, which I did fairly often, I was faced with a choice: go back and edit the affected scenes, or write a few notes in those scenes and keep going. I opted for the second option, and at this point, I’m glad I did. Because I’m finished! And I have very clear, detailed notes to guide me as I revise. Yes, I’d have a cleaner draft if I had gone back and edited, but I wouldn’t be done. And watching my progress kept me motivated. Also, I experienced a lot of self doubt at the end. A LOT. I knew I had to keep going. I knew if I let myself get bogged down by it, it would takes weeks to dig myself out again. So I ignored that voice, and wrote anyway.

Consistency is key. Like I said, I wrote 5 to 6 days a week, usually weekdays but occasionally on Saturday as well if I hadn’t hit my 5,000 words for the week. I write during Nugget’s nap time, from 2 to 5 pm. Turbo is home from school in the afternoons, so that’s his screen time. I trained my mind to think creatively in that window. There were times I wrote in the mornings or evenings, and it was always much harder to get started because my brain isn’t used to thinking that way at those times. Having a dedicated writing time and a goal for each week kept me on track.

So what’s next? Revisions and then off to my critique partners, then more revisions, then beta readers, then more revisions, and so on. Turbo was in the room with me when I finished. He asked if I would stop writing every afternoon. I laughed and told him that when you write a book, you’re not done because then you have to go through it and fix it, and then you got through it and fix it again, and you keep doing that over and over. He seemed horrified at the idea. I’m delighted.

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When You’ve Been Writing for a Decade and Still Aren’t Published

LRM_EXPORT_110400622001664_20180927_172931690.jpegOn September 12, 2008, I moved to Colorado. About a week later, my husband flew to Florida for a business trip, and since I didn’t have a job yet, I decided to visit my sister in Atlanta. While there, I had a dream that was basically Iliad fanfiction. I told my sister about it the next morning, and she said I should write it. So I did, and it was terrible, and I remembered how much I love writing.

See, I started writing in middle school by–I kid you not–free form role-playing on AOL. Yes, I’m that big of a nerd. But I loved it. I loved making characters and diving into their stories (always my favorite part of books, whether reading or writing), and over time I learned to love crafting my prose. My sophomore year of high school I signed up for Creative Writing as an elective. I was far from the most gifted writer in the class, but my teacher, Evelyn Hall, saw something in me. What exactly it was, I’m not sure. Talent? Debatable. Passion? Very possible. That innate weirdness all writers have? Most definitely. She encouraged me to apply for the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities Summer Honors Program (say that three times fast). I made the wait list, and by the summer, I’d been bumped up and was able to attend. It was the best five weeks of my high school years, studying from great South Carolina writers such as Blythe Starkey and George Singleton. I continued writing after–short stories and, yes, role-playing–for my remaining grade school years.

Then I got to college. And stopped writing. Mostly. I wrote a crapton of essays and I even took one semester of Creative Writing. I picked up other weirdo hobbies, like improv comedy and minoring in Italian because I thought it was pretty. (This is a completely legitimate reason to study a foreign language, imo.) I learned to snowboard, and worked as a bookkeeper with my super relevant Linguistics degree, and got married, and never wrote creatively.

So then, almost a year after graduation, I wrote that totally fun and totally garbage Iliad fanfiction … and it felt like a homecoming. Except home was a little bit different, the rooms different sizes and colors than I remembered, the doors in slightly different locations. In high school, I only thought of short stories. I told people I doubted I’d ever write a novel. But suddenly, at 23, I could think of nothing but novel ideas. It was writing all over again, and yet it was still new. I rediscovered my hunger for creating characters and telling their stories. And I wanted to improve. I wanted to be published.

I’m starting to ramble, and I hope you’ll forgive me for waxing nostalgic. I used to dream of writing this anniversary post and saying, “AND I NOW HAVE A BOOK CONTRACT!” Or at least saying, “AND NOW I HAVE AN AGENT!” Neither of these are true. I’m still writing in obscurity. I have fewer blog readers than I used to. Earlier this year, when I thought about this post, the idea that I wouldn’t have grand news to share on my ten year anniversary depressed me. But now I’m here, and I’m okay. Because you know what? It’s been a great decade.

I got my MFA, which was amazing and I wish I could get another one. I’ve written four books and I’m working on my fifth. I finally gathered enough courage to write high fantasy, my original literary love. I shifted from YA to adult. I love writing bloody things. I embraced my inner weirdness far more than I’d previously dared to. I’ve made amazing friends who feel like long-lost family members. I’ve been to writing conferences, and critiqued books, and attended writing retreats. I’ve collected a decade of literary memories that I cherish.

So yes, I’ve been writing for ten years and I’m still not published. But you know what? That’s okay. Because every day, I get a little better at writing. And every day, I fall in love with it a little more. Writing is effing hard, but that’s why I love it so much. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth a decade of work. One day I will hold my published book in my grubby little hands, and all the years of toil will feel like a dream. A dream I am grateful to be living right now.

Writing Update

I had a plan to post a writing update every month. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. They don’t get … umm … laid? Something like that.

Back in May, I shared a little about Thread by Thread, my current WIP. I was almost done outlining and about to embark upon that most daunting of journeys–the first draft. That’s how I feel about it, at least. I much prefer revisions, but I digress.

I did indeed start drafting a week after that post. And it felt so good! For the first 10k! And then I hit a wall. Part of that was visiting Charleston for three weeks, and writing all of seven words. But that is part of the process for me. (Which I’m only now coming to understand.) The first 10k is all fun and games. It’s the beginning! The world is fresh and new! The sun is brighter! Babies are cuter! I braid flowers in my hair and laugh like a little girl.

But then I finish the beginning, all the characters have been introduced, and a cloud covers the sky. I. Hate. Everything. About. My. Book. Actually, this is only slightly accurate. I have never doubted this story. I think it’s the smartest thing I’ve created. It’s definitely the most ambitious project I’ve set before myself. What I did doubt–and still do, on occasion–is my ability to properly write it.

So that’s where I was when I returned home. I felt like the worst writer in the world. Every word had to be dug out of my skin using a spoon. (“Because it’s dull, you twit, it’ll hurt more.”) I sent message upon message to my CPs complaining about all of this. But I persevered. I wrote lots of bad sentences, but I finally reached 16k and suddenly, something clicked. I felt like a half-decent writer again. I thought, Hey I can do this!

And now I’m at 25k, a quarter of the way through my projected 100k draft.

Something unique about this project (compared to my other books): being that it’s epic fantasy, it has four POV characters. Yes, you read that right–FOUR. And I’m going to have a handful of one-offs as well. COF (the book I’m currently querying) has three, but it was much easier jumping between characters. Why? I asked myself. Finally I realized it: I didn’t outline COF, just a few key plot points. So when I drafted it, I inserted the other two POVs whenever I had an idea. So writing those scenes was easy, because I waited for inspiration to strike. And most of the time, I was in the protagonist’s head.

This book is much different. I change POVs just about every chapter. One character only has a few scenes, but the other three are nearly equal. That’s a lot of head-hopping. It took a while to discover their voices, and some days I still can’t find them. But that’s okay. As Terry Pratchett says, the first draft is about telling yourself the story. That’s what I’m doing. Revisions are for nailing voice, and characterization, and theme, and all of the aspects of craft we’re meant to juggle when we write a book. (What a bunch of masochists authors are.)

So, I’m at 25k and I’m feeling pretty good. Tomorrow might be different, but I won’t let that stop me.

On Rejection and Thick Skin

Back in November, after eight years of writing, I finally began querying. Querying is the process by which a budding young writer enters into writer adulthood by hunting the mythical creature known as the literary agent. Here’s how it goes:

Writer: “Dear Agent Person,

I think you’re rad and that you’ll like my book. It’s about Ladyface who wants to open a rescue for socially awkward unicorns. But Poophead Evil Villain has vowed to stop her. If Ladyface fails, she’ll lose her amazing lady face and be forced to wander the earth a faceless non-lady. It will appeal to fans of Other Author who writes books about ladies with faces.

Sincerely,

Writer Person”

Literary Agent: “Hello Writer,

Thanks so much for the opportunity to consider your work! Unfortunately, this project isn’t right for me, but I wish you the best of luck in your writing endeavors and in finding representation!

Best,

Agent Person”

That is a professional and kind form letter. It’s quite lovely. It’s also one I actually received from an agent. This is how that kind and thoughtful rejection letter actually felt:

Writer: “Here, I made this for you. It’s a piece of my heart, and I’ve slaved over it for years. There is so much of me in this. Please love it. Please love my heart and give it a home and–”

Literary Agent: “NO. I HATE YOUR HEART. HEARTS ARE DUMB.”

It doesn’t matter how kind an agent is, rejection letters still hurt like hell. And I don’t blame the agents–they’re doing their job. I like agents, I think they’re great. I don’t unfollow them on Twitter if they reject me, or heap curses on their names, or hope they have ugly pets. But the process to get one is not my favorite.

I received my first rejection letter three days after sending it out. It was not from one of my top agents. I appreciated that and the fact that it came so quickly. But it still hurt. Big time. I was at the gym, so I turned on my pump up music and got super into my elliptical workout. Then, I figured out what I did wrong and improved my query letter.

I felt a lot of better, so I called my CP Christine. She told me she was impressed by my thick skin. I thought long and hard about Christine’s comment.

Here’s the thing: in the writing world, they always say you need to have thick skin to survive.

Here’s the other thing: I don’t have thick skin. I guess it depends how you define it. To me, thick skin is letting negativity and comments roll off your back. You may take note of them, or you may not, but you don’t let them affect you emotionally. You don’t let them hurt you. My husband has thick skin. He is the Unflappable Kurt. He hears criticism, he’ll decide whether he needs to follow it or not, and he’s done. Someone hurts his feelings… actually, no one hurts his feelings.  He has feelings, but the plebes can’t touch them. He’s a rock, I tell you.

I do not have thick skin. I have cried over critiques and criticism. More than once. I get riled when someone is rude to me. I don’t feel all the time, but when I do, I feel deeply. My emotions can be so strong, it scares me sometimes. I emote like I do everything else–one hundred freaking percent.

So, no, I definitely do not have thick skin.

Here’s what I do have: the ability to pick myself up. To learn from my mistakes. To put on my pump up jams, punish my legs on the elliptical, and resolve to keep going. Individually, those rejections don’t hurt, not anymore. Collectively, they’re rocking my world a bit. But I won’t quit.

And, I’m good with this. I don’t want to develop a true thick skin. It took me a long time to learn vulnerability, in life and in my writing. And guess what? My stories improved dramatically when I finally embraced it. I don’t know if I ever could have thick skin and still maintain that vulnerability, that ability to throw my heart on the page then offer it to a stranger in the hope that they’ll find beauty in it.

One day, when I’m a published author, I may change my tune. I may join them in enumerating the benefits of thick skin. And then I’ll look at this post and think how naive I was, all those years ago. But vulnerability is laying your heart out without knowing what will come of it. It’s saying, This is me. I won’t apologize for it. I may not be right, I may be messy, but I’m okay with you seeing that.

I choose vulnerability.

And I won’t ever give up.

New Headshots

It’s the little things in life, right? While in Charleston, we took family pictures. Of the Whole. Fam. Damily. It was a little crazy, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We had the photographer for two hours, and everyone else was pretty much done, so I asked her to snap a few headshots. My hair is drastically different from my old pictures (only 1.5 years old) and I have new glasses, so clearly I needed new ones.

Maybe I didn’t. But I wanted some. And they were were already paid for, and I was there, and looking good, so why not?

I love how they turned out, although I worried I looked too “sweet” in them. I don’t write sweet things. I write kinda weird, kinda dark things. But my CP Christine assured me the pictures aren’t off-brand, and since she has impeccable taste, I trust her.

And this is super out-of-character for me to say this, but my goodness, looking at these makes me love my mermaid hair even more. I didn’t even know that was possible.

 

Now I’ve just gotta get a book with a book jacket for one of these. I’m working on it, I promise.

Home.

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I recently spent three weeks visiting my parents in my hometown of Charleston, SC. The first week I was home, I felt homesick for Denver. Everywhere I went, I faced layers of memories. This is the place of my past, I thought. This was the home of Kristina Cooper, not Kristina Atkins. I’ve grown so much since I last lived there, twelve years ago. I’ve been through so much, faced my demons, gotten to know myself better. I’ve been married, become a mom, earned degrees and written books. I’m not the same person who lived in Charleston.

And yet … it didn’t take long to sink back into the rhythm of the South. To remember how to sit still, embracing the humidity instead of fighting it. To take slow bike rides under Spanish moss. To watch my children enjoying the freedom of the beach. To listen to the cicadas sing and simply be. I can make new memories here, I thought. And I did. I watched my children dig in sand and chase seagulls. They played in pluff mud and caught lizards. I biked with my husband along the Battery, took a turn down Market Street, and bought pralines. I remembered the beauty of slow living.

We’re not moving back. Our lives are here in Denver, and I love it here. But Charleston will always be a part of me. Every place you live leaves an imprint on your soul, but nothing compares to the mark left by your hometown. I’m forever grateful to call Charleston my home.

A Long Overdue Update

Inspired by my friend Christine Tyler, I’ve decided to dust off the old blog. What will I post? Not really sure. How often will I post? Probably twice a month. But I’ve been researching marketing lately and the message is clear across the board–if you’ve got a blog, use it.

So, I’m going to use it.

This is a really good start, I can just tell.*

Rather than giving a long and boring update on my life, this post will center around my WIPs–their status, a general description, and how I feel about them. What writer doesn’t love talking about their stuff? Weird ones, probably.

Constellations of Fate – I dubbed this the Book of Eire when I started it back in 2014. It’s the fourth novel I’ve written and the first I’ve queried. That’s right–I’m down in the query trenches. They are unpleasant. But! It’s exciting to finally be here. Many writers query long before their fourth book, but I’m a perfectionist and wanted to wait until I not only had a book I wanted published, but I felt my writing was ready for publication. Is it actually? Only time will tell. CoF is Celtic mythology-inspired contemporary fantasy. It deals with mental illness, forgiveness, mother issues, and questions of fate. I love it with all my heart. I grew so much as a writer while writing and revising this book and owe so much to it. It will get published, whether now or in ten years, traditionally or indie.

Thread by Thread  I’m crazy excited about this one. Why? Because it’s second-world fantasy aka high fantasy aka epic fantasy (depending on your definition). Epic fantasy was my first love, but I was always too intimidated to write it. “I can’t invent an entire world!” I said to myself and anyone who would listen. And I may be right. But I hope I’m wrong. I’m still intimidated by the task I’ve set before me, but I know when I finish I’ll be so proud of myself. It’s a Trojan War retelling, currently planned to be a series of four books. I’m excited about the ways I’m subverting common themes and characters in the myth, as well as the other stuff I’m throwing in such as postpartum depression, PTSD, class dynamics, and winged horses. Because winged horses make everything better. The outline is almost done, so I hope to start drafting next week. All of my first drafts thus far have taken me one year to write, but I’ve done extensive pre-writing with this book. Also, it’s been four years since my last first draft and I’m a much better writer. So I’m hoping this one goes much quicker.

Constellations of Fate sequel – Originally CoF was going to be a trilogy. Then last fall, in my final revision, I changed the end which clipped the series down to two books. I’ve had the general plot of the sequel floating around in my mind since, but I finally sat down this weekend and beat it out.** And now I’m even more excited about it. But I’m still going to write Thread by Thread first because I’m chomping at the freaking bit to start that one.

So, there you have it–my current brain babies. And now I’ve blogged. Bill Murray’s in my head right now saying, “I’m blogging! I blog! I’m a blogger!” I think Dr. Leo Marvin would be proud.

*Where’s the sarcasm font when you need it?

**I’m an enthusiastic Save the Cat! convert these days.