The magic of words.

We all know by now that I’m on this writing journey with my pre-teen daughter, and I can confirm to you all that it’s been one of the best things I’ve done in my life. My girl turns 13 this year, and we’ve just spent the summer together doing a variety of things (which, I’ll admit, includes a fair amount of time spent re-viewing Gilmore Girls on Netflix), but most importantly, we’ve sat together and finished our first draft of the second book in our American Dream series. It took us a year to get that done (those are the realities of working with a hormonal adolescent who would sometimes rather watch Barbie furniture building how-to videos on YouTube than read through a section of a manuscript again to get it just right), but last night, as we sat in her bed under the Christmas lights that she has draped around her room, we emailed the edited draft out to our beta-readers, and it felt AMAZING to say we’d completed this project.

And by “completed” I mean we’ve written it and taken turns reading the chapters out loud, making our changes and haggling over word choice and description (the final editing will be mine to do once we get feedback). But that’s the magic, really: the words. The ones we wrote together, the ones I listen to her read, and the ones we debate over. They’ve kept us working together, side-by-side, like glue. They’ve kept us from drifting into a land where she holes up alone in her room like a typical teen, keeping her words to herself or only sharing them with friends. Instead, she shares them with me. As we write, we talk about other “stuff”–boys, mean girls, fashion, music. I mean, we talk a lot anyway, but this gives us a safe place to make silly jokes and to apply the situations we write about to real life. This book we’ve just finished gives us the chance to talk about what mean girls are like in middle school in 2016, and lets us ponder what sort of messages we want each book to impart. (For the record, she talked it through as I listened, and we ultimately decided that this book is about believing in yourself and overcoming whatever obstacles or limitations life throws in your path.)

Writing also gave us something to talk about on our road trips this summer. We sat next to pools in Buffalo, Wyoming and talked about our next book: who will our main character be? Where should she be from? (Russia, we’ve decided.) What state will she move to in America? (While driving to an abandoned gold-mining town outside of Bozeman, Montana, we determined that she’d definitely be moving to a horse ranch in the “Treasure State”.) And as we power-walked through a pool in Spokane, Washington like a couple of middle-aged retirees on a water aerobics mission, we even got to daydream about a time when we had enough books published that we could go on an indie bookstore tour, setting up tables and autographing books for our rabid fans. (Hey, a girl can dream, right?)

I know there are a few more weeks of summer and I shouldn’t be mourning its end just yet, but teachers go back to work three weeks from today, so…the end is near. I have some final editing to do on my own book, and I’m hoping to have both of our books out in early September (it always takes longer than you think it will!) The covers are done, the drafts are written and in their final stages, and–as always–I’m eternally grateful for the magic of words.

My Christmas Key soundtrack.

There’s almost nothing I do without music, except maybe sleep. I put Pandora on as soon as I start getting ready for work in the morning, I listen to music as I drive (preferably Sirius XM’s First Wave station), and I play it all day long in my classroom during the school year while my students are working. There’s more music while I work out at the gym in the evenings, and of course I listen to it non-stop as I write. A mellow Pandora station that fits the mood of my story and doesn’t distract usually works well, so for my Christmas Key books, a combination of Tropical Holidays and Caribbean Jazz are pretty much my go-to stations.

For me, music sets the mood and the tone of not just writing, but life. Certain songs can instantly transport you to a time and place (anything that came out in 1997–Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, the New Radicals You Get What You GiveSarah Mclachlan’s Building a Mystery–are like a time machine to the fall of that year, a trip back to me driving around Miami as a 22-year-old newlywed in a beat-up car with no air-conditioning, trying to make it as a model on South Beach). Road trips are intimately tied to the music I listen to as I take in the small towns, the wide vistas, and the mottled skies, and I also find that songs are interwoven with the humans who recommended them to me, as one of my favorite students did this year when he made excellent suggestions for a handful of cool songs I’d never heard before. From this point on, those songs will always be the ones that Grayson gave me.

Music is such a big part of my life that it’s no surprise to me when I go back to revise and edit to find that I’ve name-checked several songs in every book. After finishing There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, I had to go and buy the songs I didn’t already have in my iTunes library, and now I have a handy Christmas Key playlist to listen to whenever I need to get my head back into the game with drafting or revising. So without further ado, here are the songs mentioned in the first two books in the Christmas Key series. (I’m giving away two copies of my soundtrack on CD, so if you live in the U.S., leave a comment on this post and tell me which island on this beautiful planet is your favorite, and why–I’ll choose 2 winners on July 31st!)

  1. Let’s Stay Together–Al Green
  2. God Only Knows–The Beach Boys
  3. Trouble–Coldplay
  4. Hotel California (Live)–Eagles
  5. Brilliant Disguise–Bruce Springsteen
  6. Just Like Heaven–The Cure
  7. Jamming–Bob Marley
  8. Witchcraft–Frank Sinatra
  9. Thriller–Michael Jackson
  10. Somebody Else–The 1975
  11. Jingle Bell Rock–Bobby Helms
  12. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!–Ella Fitzgerald
  13. Santa Baby–Eartha Kitt

 

Finding your niche.

To write to market, or to write for pleasure? It’s the question that all indies have to ask themselves at some point–particularly if full-time authorship is a goal. I’ve toyed with writing to market, and to be perfectly honest, I just can’t. I hate sci-fi and fantasy, and anything with werewolves, vampires, or the undead just puts me off completely. Zero interest. So genre-wise, I’m in the position of writing what I know I’d like to read myself. People have widely varying opinions on this subject, but I think what you write rings more true if you enjoy the process and if you’d read the product yourself, so I’m not even considering dipping my toes into a genre that bores me.

I’ve had one story in particular that I’ve written and re-written a number of times since I started it back in 2009, and its current incarnation barely resembles the original draft, save for the location and genre. The characters’ names have changed, the idea of it being a single title romance has faded–I’ve even gone back-and-forth with present or past tense (and settled on present tense, which feels more immediate to me.)

What I have now is the first book in what I hope will be a long series, as I get lost in the place and the people every time I open my laptop and start to write. It’s set on a fictional island off the coast of Florida (a holiday-themed island called Christmas Key) and is populated with eccentric retirees, a young, handsome cop named Jake, and Holly Baxter, the island’s thirty-year-old mayor. Holly’s late grandparents bought the island when it was nothing but an untamed jungle floating in the middle of the sea, and over the years it’s developed into a rustic community with plans for expansion and tourism. The only real fly in the ointment is Holly’s mother, Coco, who handed her baby over to her own parents to raise when she was a teenager so that she could sow her wild oats. Coco doesn’t have the emotional ties to the island that Holly does, and now she’s got plans of her own to sell the island and turn it into a massive commercial resort–something that the full-time islanders are completely opposed to.

With my final edit still to do and another week or so in the hands of my formatter, I’m trying to be realistic and imagine publishing by April 15th. But in the meantime, I started drafting Book 2 the other day where Book 1 left off, and I’ve never been more happy to be writing the kind of contemporary women’s fiction that I personally enjoy reading. I’d love to hear from other writers–do you ever step outside your own reading area to write what you know will sell, or do you strictly write for the pleasure of turning out work that could stand up next to your favorite authors in your favorite genres?

The hero’s journey.

We’ve started a movie unit in my English classes that’s based on the idea that the hero’s journey is at the heart of every good story. We’ve got the 7 steps of the journey committed to memory, we’ve watched Big Hero 6 and talked about its important messages, and we’ll soon be watching some of the greatest movies of the 80s (Breakfast Club; Ferris Bueller’s Day off; Stand By Me; Goonies) so that I can feel like I actually brought something of substance to these young people’s lives when they leave my class in June.

But now that we’ve turned the theory of the hero’s journey inside out, I’m left wondering how I’ve been missing something so big for so long: my current WIP needs a stronger, more defined hero’s journey. I mean, I like it, it’s okay, I love the setting, the characters are nice enough, but…duh. I’m on the fourth draft, and I just hit the spot where I realized that this is my main character’s “call to adventure,” and it’s not very much of a call at all. She sort of stumbles through this story without ever completing a discernible hero’s journey, and that has to happen. Whether we know it consciously or not, we don’t invest in a story where no one grows and changes. We aren’t interested in a main character who (however flawed) isn’t even the hero of her own life story. So even though I have the cover done and had hoped to publish this one by February 1st (which clearly did not happen), there’s still more work to do. Before I can call it a wrap, my main character needs to slay a dragon or two and return home with an elixir. Her romantic interests and the other people in her life need to clearly be allies or enemies, and there need to be more tests and obstacles.

It’s kind of frustrating when you realize how much more there is to do, but it’s also a relief to discover what’s missing. Bring on the 5th draft!

 

 

New Year’s writing resolution: tie up all loose ends.

  1. A 75,000 word (currently) 3rd draft of the story I’ve been working on about a fictional island in the Florida Keys. The cover has been commissioned, my first draft readers (thank you, Jaime and Lyndsey!) have given me solid feedback, and my goal is to have it re-read, edited, and self-published by January 31st. (*Note to self: in the future, decide whether past or present tense is more desirable during the first draft. Combing through the third draft and changing everything to present tense is painstaking and horrible.)
  2. Draft one of the “American Dream” book Holly and I have been working on since summer. We’re halfway done. We can do this. The cover is made, we know what’s supposed to happen, but our engines stall when she decides that she REALLY needs to play Barbies today instead of writing with Mom–just this ONE. TIME. (The mom in me says, “Let her enjoy the Barbie-playing; it won’t last much longer…”)
  3. 30,000 words of a romance novel that I started in 2009 about a television producer who works on a reality dating show called Trial by Fire. Every time I re-read it, I pick it back up and peck away a little bit more. I really like it, but for some reason it hasn’t written its own ending yet. Huh. Go figure.
  4. Arguably the manuscript I’ve done the most research for, a 40,000 word work-in-progress called Year of the Rabbit. Set in early 80s Miami Beach, a pregnant teenager moves in with her uncle and his boyfriend, who is a drug dealer. I love this one…it WILL be completed!
  5. Book 2 in my Florida Key series. Book 3 in the series Holly and I write together. Intense self-marketing and promotion. Complete understanding of self-publishing. Eventual world domination. Naturally.

I love the start of a new year: it’s filled with days, and weeks, and months–so many blank, unwritten days on the calendar! I just talked to my students today about the difference between goals and resolutions, so I do understand that most of the above actually fall under the category of “goals” (given how much life gets in the way as the year evaporates before my eyes), but I want so badly to make 2016 a year that I look back on as a turning-point with my writing.

Last year I spent a lot of time reading and figuring out the nuts and bolts of self-publishing, and I also put a lot of energy into networking and finding people to do the things I couldn’t do, so this year I feel like my energy needs to go into the actual writing and promoting. So do I get up at 5am to write before work, or do I teach my kid to make dinner and drive herself to swim practice at night so I can spend my evenings writing? Decisions, decisions…Happy New Year, everyone!

The beauty of multi-tasking.

Well, our goal of having a full draft of book 2 done by July 17th kind of got blown out of the water. We’ve worked on the draft a number of times, and even took it with us on our road trip last week to Eastern Washington and Idaho. While the man in our lives spent his days in a conference in Spokane, we swam in the hotel pool, wandered around town taking pictures, and sat on the balcony at our hotel (the magic balcony that was somehow always in shade, no matter the hour) and worked on our book.

I was curious to see how chipping away at multiple writing projects at the same time would affect my overall productivity, and I can’t say for sure that it’s been better or worse, but I have had fun jumping between three different things this summer. In addition to the second book in our “American Dream” series, I’ve been re-working something that I wrote years ago because I loved the setting and the characters so much. I have it laid out as a series, and I find that I’m either totally immersed in it (and listening to my tropical stations on Pandora for inspiration, given that the setting is a fictional Florida Key), or I’m overwhelmed at the prospect of completely re-writing it, and I’m scratching my head over just what the genre actually is. Romance? Not totally. Adventure? Maybe. A mash-up of “The Golden Girls” and contemporary chick-lit? That’s a possibility. Just to mix things up, I even pulled my absolute, very favorite manuscript out and am finally (hopefully) working on the final edit for that. So a day this summer where I don’t write or edit something is certainly not because I’m lacking projects to work on!

This last piece I’m editing is something that I hold near and dear to my heart, and I’m excited to be back in it again. I wrote it in 2009, and the protagonist is a 15-year old boy. At the time, I was trying to figure out the appeal of Twitter, so I got on there and searched for a few things that were of interest to me. My very first search was for #thecure, and out of the results, I picked someone’s tweet that said, “Hahaha, I love The Cure.” I responded, he responded, and we had a humorous exchange. In one of those “small world” moments, we discovered that we’d both lived in the same town in Florida, and that we were now both living on the west coast. Had our families both stayed in Florida, chances are pretty good that he might have ended up in my husband’s biology class at some point. Needless to say, I followed this funny kid on Twitter, and have never been disappointed by his cynical and entertaining outlook on life, nor by his wicked-eclectic taste in music.

In fact, I was so amused by him that I took some of his Tweets totally out of context and built a story around them. I made a main character, gave him a life, a love interest, and what I hoped was a voice that someone else would love as much as I did, and I wrote a whole manuscript. When I was done, I emailed him and told him what I’d done (worried that he’d be like, “Okay….creepy old lady…stalking my Tweets much?”) but he was both flattered and intrigued, and even read my early draft and offered feedback. He’s maintained all these years–as I’ve threatened to finally be ready to do something with the manuscript–that he’s fine with my using his words, and even keeping his Twitter name as my main character’s didn’t bother him. So I’m doing it. This summer the “kid” who inspired my work turns 21, and I’m getting this thing edited for the last time, changing the things that need to be updated, and self-publishing it under a pen name. But why a pen name when it’s my favorite protagonist and a work that I love? Because it’s something totally separate from what Holly and I have been working on together, and it’s also really different than the Florida Key story. I want it to stand alone, and so it will. I’ve got my book cover, lined up the formatter, and am wrapping it up this month, so there it is–in writing: new goal for the summer is to get this book done and out there, and then to re-focus on book 2 so that Holly and I have a nearly complete draft before school starts!

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there.” –Lewis Carroll

For as enthusiastic as I was a few weeks ago about the book Take off Your Pants, I am equally invigorated right now by Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing. And yet…I sort of feel like I’m chasing my own tail. While Pants got me to outline and think ahead before writing in a way I’d never done before, King basically throws an arm around my shoulders and tells me, “You’ve been doing it right all along–keep going.” Which I love, of course, but it just reinforces for me what a solitary, unique pursuit writing is. What works for me may not work for you–and vice versa–but according to King, that’s just fine and dandy. In the same way that the universe drops the right people, jobs, and situations into your life just when you need them (I’m still waiting for the universe to drop the right lottery numbers into my lap–that definitely needs to happen), I think it also slides the perfect book under your nose at a time when you’re searching for exactly what lies between the covers of said book. Take off Your Pants was timely and helpful as I floundered with my own process and wondered what was missing, and On Writing fits the bill as I move forward and think about the parts of writing that bring me the most joy.

And I find that joy in the creative place where time evaporates. That place where I start writing and working and the next time I look at a clock, three hours have gone missing. During these spells, the characters take on a life of their own and move the narrative forward in a way that makes me feel like my hands are just holding the planchette on a Ouija board while some unseen spirit does the work. King agrees with me here–the magic is in the way that you pull a story from the ether (his analogy is of unearthing a fossil carefully, of trying to keep it intact as you extract) and in the way that you get to essentially be the first reader as well as the creator–the story is as much of a wonder to you during the first draft as it is to your readers. Beyond that, his suggestions for tighter writing and editing are beautiful. If nothing else, I’ll walk away with the metaphorical toolbox that he helps his reader build, as well as with the knowledge that you have to slay the evil adverb. In our final edit, Holly and I are going through our manuscript right now and stabbing every adverb we can find, tossing molotov cocktails into our sentences wherever we see modifiers like “angrily”, “sadly”, and “pitifully”. We’re on a mission to get our narrative tightened up so that it corners like it’s on rails, hums like a tuning fork, and moves the reader along at breakneck speed like the Shinkansen bullet train racing through Japan. It’s been an exciting journey so far, and we’re speeding towards our first stop (book one’s publication!) on this adventure. All aboard!