Blog, Writing

Motivational Monday

Because I’m in the middle of a draft, and because I keep teetering between revising the beginning and continuing to write, today’s theme seems to be: keep writing until you reach the end. In that first draft, don’t worry about the audience and don’t be afraid of writing crap, just immerse yourself in the story and “tell the hell out of it” (Chris Crutcher @ SCBWI Miami 2014). You can worry about all else in revision.

First Drafts

Just finish

Quantity leads to quality

Write the good and ugly

Happy writing!


Blog, Writing

The art of working hard

Our culture seems to have an aversion to working hard. Everywhere I turn, there’s a clamor for instant gratification. Forget sweating, forget busting our behinds. We have a dream. We have a vision. This is what we’re MEANT to do. But we don’t want to wait. We don’t want to do the dirty work. We don’t want to put in our time and effort to get there. We want it, and we want it NOW. And we want it easily.

Reminds me of a toddler cranking up towards a massive meltdown.

The thing is, the only way to get to that dream, for it to really mean something, is by working hard. By paying our dues. I was talking with a friend and former colleague, author Christine Kling, many moons ago about writing, and she said something like this: to get close to having something ready to publish, you have a million-word internship. In fact, she wrote this post about The Million Word Rule. And I believe it because, as clichéd as the saying is, it’s true that practice makes perfect (or better yet, practice makes better.)

Sometimes, I’ll hear well-meaning friends say, “Hurry up and write it!” Or family will want me to finish, but don’t understand the time I take away from them. But if I don’t sit on my behind and write, if I don’t spend the time to develop the characters and the world, to run through the steps that it takes to start and finish a draft, and then to revise it (over and over and over again) until it’s ready to send out, it won’t happen. I’ll have a half-finished story, a draft full of possibilities that’ll simply evaporate because I didn’t put in the time and effort. A book’s not going to write itself.

And on the same note, a first draft will NEVER be good enough. It can ALWAYS be better. It’s not called a shit-draft for nothing! I drill this into my students: the importance of writing multiple draft, of reading and re-reading and revising to polish their work. I take this to heart, and it’s what’s allowed me to silence my inner editor temporarily while I get the story down into that first, exploratory draft. But again, this is work. It takes time, dedication, patience, and endurance.

I haven’t reached my dream yet of being published, of sharing my writing with the world. I also don’t have an agent…yet. But I’ve seen how much I’ve grown in the past five years since I started taking writing seriously, as a career. Every class I take, every workshop and conference I attend, every critique I receive and every story I write puts me that much closer to reaching my goals. That’s what I have to do. If I want this with every cell of myself, then there’s no other option but to keep on writing, keep on trying, keep on paying my dues so that eventually, it will happen. And when it does, the prize will feel that much sweeter because I reached it with my own effort.


Sure, there are days where it’s harder than others, days where the inner doubt creeps in and tries to take over. But that negativity is just an excuse. It’s a way of trying to take the easy way out, which I guess we’re programmed to want. So stuff a pillow in doubt’s mouth and keep going–the only way to reach that dream is by persevering! You can do it. And when you think about quitting because it’s just too hard, remember this:

“There’s only one thing that can guarantee our failure, and that’s if we quit.” – Unknown

And these:

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach

“It’s when things get rough and you don’t quit that success comes.” – Unknown Quote

“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game, one foot from a winning touchdown.” – Ross Perot

Keep going, keep writing (or keep doing whatever it is you need to do to succeed)!


Revisions are a beast

Really, they are. But they’re a beast I love.

I’m 3.5 chapters away from finishing the bulk of these revisions for SOUL MOUNTAIN. They started simple enough–changing one of the POVs from 3rd to 1st person. And then my UCLA class happened and I reached a moment in my process where I just didn’t know which way was up. I put it on hold, worked on THROUGH THE WALLED CITY, and just kept brainstorming. Because something wasn’t working. I knew it, I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

After much soul-searching and agonizing and tears (oh yeah, there was some of that), I had a glorious moment of clarity: I needed to rewrite this book. About 70% is new material. Other parts have been shifted. Characters strengthened, redefined. The ending is completely new. Most importantly, I worked on making sure the reader connects with the characters emotionally. I knew I was on the right track, when my instructor’s feedback went something along the lines of, You nailed it! (I imagine Haymitch from The Hunger Games saying it, like “Now that’s what I’m talking about, Sweetheart!) Talk about feeling the breakthrough! With the help of a newly redesigned book map and outline, I was well under way.

But let me tell you. It’s very, very scary, to look at your 65,000-word manuscript and open up a new, blank document, and say, we’re having a do-over. Holy crap it’s scary.

But I did it. I’m less than 4 chapters away from the end. It’s been a fascinating process, slow and steady, full of layers. Every day that I work on it, it goes something like this: read and revise previous chapter, then write new chapter. It’s a write/revise, write/revise pattern. And it works. Sometimes, I go back two chapters or three before I write the new one. But I’m moving forward and I’m excited about the end product.

And each new chapter I take to my critique group, who’ve been fabulous and awesome in their feedback and support.

The true test will be once I submit this revision.

So here’s something else I learned during this part of the process. My layers work (roughly) as such:

  1. Action/dialogue: I start writing a scene as I see and hear it happen. I know what’s going on, who says what, etc.
  2. Add emotional depth: After the first layer, most likely on a different day or after I’ve let some time pass (today it was a few hours), I add what the character is thinking/feeling. How what’s happening and what’s being said affects him/her. What’s at stake.
  3. Pretty up the words: Once I feel better about the action/reaction at play, I look at the language. I revise for my tics (too many coordinating conjunctions, for example). I make sure I’m doing mostly showing. I read aloud for the “flow” and the “rhythm” of the words on the page.

And then I move on to the next scene/chapter. I also update my book map/outline. Where I catch inconsistencies, or if I notice I’ve forgotten a thread, I make a note of it on the outline. Once I reach the new end (with the above layers), I’ll be doing another read-through, slipping in whatever I may have missed.

At this rate, I expect to submit the revised draft by the end of the month. Let the nail-biting begin!


Writing Reflections

Now that I have two projects on the table, one in final stages of an R&R and the other still in the drafting process (20K words in), I keep feeling that sense of wonder at the way the words come together to form these stories. It’s like a drug, an adrenaline high!

But what I find most fascinating lately is that no matter how different the stories and characters and feel of each individual project, I love each one just as much, even if differently. Does that make sense? I wonder if this is how parents with more than one kid feel. I can’t completely wrap my mind around it.

SOUL MOUNTAIN was my first love. I breathed and lived this story, these characters for about two years, from the moment I dreamt it to the moment a former instructor encouraged me to write Jimmy and Emily’s story. I have that email printed and posted where I can see it, for the days when self-doubt rears her ugly head. It took me a little over a year to decide this was something I wanted to do and once I did, I couldn’t stop. SOUL MOUNTAIN tested me. It’s a fantasy, so there’s world-building involved. Quite a bit, actually, and in doing so, I learned so much. But essentially, though there are scenes that take place in the real world, locations with which I’m familiar, a good chunk of it takes place in another level. The process of creating this other world (or rather, this other dimension of our world) was fascinating. It was dreaming put to the max: I am master of this universe and I create the rules. Pretty darn cool! And challenging. But nonetheless amazing. I started Soul Mountain with a feeling, a pair of characters, and a scene. The possibilities grew from there.

For THROUGH THE WALLED CITY, I wanted to turn to something that has always called my attention: magical realism. It was my focus for my MA thesis and I’ve long since admired the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Toni Morrison. So when I set out to brainstorm this story, I started with a setting (I wanted to tell a story in Cartagena, Colombia) and the desire to explore the magic of this city. Then came the main character, Micaela Uribe, who just sassed her way into the story. The rest started coming together as I researched the magnificent, and oftentimes turbulent history of Cartagena. And what a different experience writing it has been! Though there is some magic and I have to work out the myth that is accepted as real, TTWC is rooted in the here and now. And the best part hands down has been getting to write about that which makes me Colombian: the food, the people, the experiences. It’s like tapping into my memories, my experiences growing up while straddling both the Colombian and American realities while molding this story. It’s pretty awesome!

I can’t wait to see how the process evolves into the other stories I tackle. And I hope I never grow tired of it. Ever.

Because it’s pretty freakin’ awesome. 🙂

Blog, Writing

This thing called revision

I know many people hate the dreaded “r” word. Revision. For some, it’s enough to send them into panic mode, complete with shivers, palpitations, and sweaty palms. I think most of my students feel this way about revision, and if I’m honest with myself, I used to dread revisions, too–not to the above extreme, but I didn’t like them. I was impatient. I wanted to be “done” with whatever project I was writing.

If there’s something I’ve learned during the process of writing a book-length manuscript is that there are no shortcuts. And this includes revision. Patience, in the words of the age-old adage, is a virtue. I failed to see that before, rushing through because I wanted to get work out. Not anymore. Whenever I get the itch that I just want to send this out already, I remind myself, it’s not ready yet. Almost, but not quite. I know this. And I want it to be ready when I send it out.

But here’s the thing. I’ve gone from dreading revisions to actually loving them! Sure, I still get impatient, but the wonder at seeing how each revision adds a layer to my story, my characters so that they stop being rough caricatures keeps me grounded. I recently emailed a former instructor about how I felt like a kid discovering Disney during this process, and how I hope it never gets old.

It’s that sense of wonder and discovery that now makes me yell out to whomever will listen, including my students, I LOVE REVISIONS! 🙂


First Draft DONE!

Okay, so this is actually two-days-old-news: Tuesday I put that last period of my first draft. Total word count? 59,600. Twenty-four chapters. That’s after I cut out 3 chapters/8,000 words. A mixture of emotions flooded through me. I was excited at really being done (with the first draft anyway). I was surprised that I ended where I did (in my “outline” I ended somewhere else, but as I wrote this last chapter, it just clicked. THIS is where I had to end.) I was eager to start revising. I felt the immensity of the task of revision, but I’m ready to embrace it. Bring on the layers!

But first I had to grade some papers.

Yesterday I started with the first part of my revision process: reading the whole damn thing from start to finish, looking for things I missed, filling in scenes, changing my “usual suspects” of writing tics, working with word flow and language, adding in character and plot elements that I now know because of the ending, catching things I might have missed before . I’m three chapters in.

I’m not new to revision, but I am new to revising a work of this length. (Does revising my MA thesis count? I realize I have written a book-length manuscript before… but it was academic.) However, thanks to some amazing instructors and workshops (and thanks to some Tweets by authors on this process), I think I’m ready to go.

My game plan:

  1. Read through of entire MS from beginning to end, revising as I go.
  2. When that’s done, print the sucker out, with large margins, and have it spiral bound.
  3. Take out all my notes about revision and strategies and exercises to check the character and plot arcs.
  4. Read the MS again, looking at each chapter individually and as part of the whole, marking up the text.
  5. Incorporate changes into the document.
  6. Send out to beta readers and critique partners.
  7. Wait….and wait.
  8. Review feedback and make necessary changes.
  9. And then one last look from beginning to end. In between I’ll also be reading my chapters aloud at my critique group.

Does that sound like a good plan? I hope so! I’m curious to see how long this takes me. I don’t want to rush, but I’m determined to focus on this and finish before the new semester begins! My son’s in camp until the 10th. Summer classes end on the 5th. Fire is under my behind.

I. Will. Get. This. Done.

Anyone care to share your revision plans?

Blog, Writing

Five things I’ve learned about my writing process

1. I have writing tics. Many of them. But it’s okay to let them go in the first draft. They’ll be slaughtered in the final one (hopefully).

I never thought about them as writing tics, but that’s exactly what they are.

  • Exclamation marks. I love these, apparently, as I tend to over use them. My emails and tweets and, well, most correspondence tend to contain an overabundance of exclamation marks! Thankfully, they haven’t made their way into my MS, but in almost all else, I sound overly chipper!
  • Coordinating conjunctions. You know, FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). For me, though, it’s “and,” “so,” and “but.” And sometimes “yet.” I’m always using them. And I start sentences with them. A lot. These do make their way into my MS and I’ve learned to look for them when revising.
  • Semi-colons. I didn’t realize I had a “thing” for semi-colons until recently, when one of my classmates from the Writing and Selling the YA Novel pointed it out to me. She said it was residual from the academic in me, and it’s probably so. They just don’t belong in dialogue–I have no etched this on my brain so that as I work on my novel, I won’t do this.
  • And fragments (purely for emphasis, of course). I spend most of my days teaching how fragments are a BIG no-no. And they are. Most people who write fragments without knowing it are writing them incorrectly. Snippets of a wannabe sentence that don’t make sense. But there is such a thing as a fragment for emphasis. Usually in creative writing or journalistic writing. Not in academic writing.

I’ve also learned that sometimes, I use “filler” words like “just,” and “well,” and such. I’ve learned not to use them as much, but when I’m writing my first draft, I don’t worry about it (or any of my other tics). It’s my first draft. It’s meant to be crappy.

2. Outlines are my friend, but I’m not married to them.

Seriously. I love my outlines. They help me stay focused and give me a sense of where I’m going. But in fiction, my outlines are rough and they’re guides. I have written and rewritten these outlines as my story progresses because part of the beauty and magic of writing is the discovery that ensues. An outline shouldn’t take that away. It should just help

Perhaps it’s that I came to writing from the academic side. I couldn’t imagine having written my MA thesis without one. I would’ve gone nuts! When I started writing my memoir, I sketched out an outline of what I wanted to cover, seeing connections in that piece. And when I started writing this novel, I didn’t, initially. I went with what I had: a vision and I wrote that scene. And the next. But then I got to a point where I said, what next? How can I see where this is going? In one of Jessica Barksdale Inclan’s classed, she had us do a list of things that we thought had to happen in our story, in the order in which they happened. This was a sketch outline. That list grew and I had a vision of the entire piece. So my outline isn’t the traditional academic outline, but it’s still a sort of blue-print of my novel. And it changes as my story progresses because that’s what it’s supposed to do. If it didn’t change, then I’d be forcing my novel into something it’s not. And I don’t want to do that. I really view my characters and story as organic–a life of their own. I’m just witnessing it and writing it down.

3. Revision is much, much cooler than I previously gave it credit.

I recently tweeted this about revising:

What I love about revision is witnessing how each round molds the story, adding yet another layer that works toward making it whole.

And it’s so true. It’s like a painting. First, the artist sketches an outline in pencil. Then she begins to layer the background paints. Then the foreground. Then the small shadows and details. The end-product is a beautifully rich painting that took layer upon layer of paint and care and dedication. That’s what revision does: it adds layers. The first draft is the innermost layer, the rough sketch of what the work will look like. It’s rough and jagged and messy. Then you revise for plot and character and theme and unity and language. You take it section by section, layer by layer, until it’s whole.

4. I thrive in writing stretches of 4-5 hours.

I know we’re supposed to fit in writing when we can, even if it’s in short increments. Ten minutes here. Half-an-hour there. But see, it takes me a bit to warm up. I mean, it helps when I’m thinking constantly about my characters and where I left off. Of course it does. But even if I’m mentally there, getting the words to come out in a good manner takes me a bit. Then there’s the frustration of being in the middle of something great and having to stop. Once I get going, I get going, and I like being able to use my energy wisely. My best comes out in 4-5 hours, maybe even 2-3 hours. Anything less, and it’s worse than 1st draft crap. And anything more, I get bone-tired weary, my eyes blur, and my joints start screaming, especially my knees and my hands/wrists.

Of course, if I only have a few minutes, or half an hour, or even an hour, I take it and work with it the best way I can. Usually it’s making a rough sketch of a scene or chapter so that when I do get the nice stretch of time, I’ll have a game plan, helping me get into scene and character and story that much easier.

5. I can write anywhere, but my best writing is done either at Starbucks or in my home office. With music.

I’ve learned that I can, in fact, write almost anywhere. I lose myself in the story once I start writing, and the house can burn down and I wouldn’t even know it. I’ve burned many a toast by writing. But even then, I get interrupted and it’s another block to the flow. Like my preferred 4-5 hours, my preferred writing spaces are at Starbucks or in my home office. At Starbucks, I have my coffee (decaf caramel macchiato with extra foam– I have to do decaf for health reasons, though sometimes I cheat and get that extra umph), my laptop, and the baristas who I’ve known forever (or it seems that way since I’m always there!) At home, I have my orange (yes, orange….bright and alive) office, with cork-board tiles and a dry-erase board above my desk. I have my outlines, my character profiles, my notes, and inspirations there. I also have incense, which I use whenever I can.

In both cases, I write with music. Music and writing for me are linked. I have a playlist for this project and whenever I’m ready to write, I turn it on and it’s like I’m instantly in my story. It’s so much a part of this story. I chose songs that have the feel of what I’m trying to convey, so that means the songs in my playlist are there because of melody or lyrics. Or both. Some artists in my playlist are Adele, Gotye, Natalie Duque, Brandon Heath and Toby Mac.