Category Archives: work & play

Down the Rabbit Hole

Hello, my dear friends. I’ve been absent from the blog for almost a month, and since June, there’s only been the chirping of crickets round these parts. Contrary to rumor, I was not abducted by aliens (always a possibility here in New Mexico), nor did I enter the witness protection program. I have, in fact, spent the last several weeks tumbling down the rabbit hole known as REWRITES and REVISIONS.

Pounding-Keyboard-GIF

As many of you know, I finished the first draft of my novel in March. I’ve written quite a few short stories and one novella length piece, but this is my first full length, bona fide, Holy-Dewey-Decimal-System-Batman novel.

When the first draft was done, I thought I was done. Hah! Oh, Leigh, you foolish girl. After I edited and proofed and polished until I could no longer stand the sight of it, I sent the draft out to my eight wonderful beta readers for feedback. Then I got back to writing and stalking agents on Twitter. Oh yeah, and chewing off my fingernails and wondering what my readers would think of the book. And trying to use Jedi mind tricks to discern their impressions from afar.

Sadly, in the process I learned I have no Jedi powers.

My beta readers were a-MAY-MAY-zing. They came back with many nice things to say, but also with insightful and penetrating feedback. I took it all in like a big, absorbent sponge monster, I made notes, and then, after a week of letting it all marinate in the brain, I set about rewriting and revising the novel.

Tip of the iceberg

Rewriting and revising a novel-length piece of fiction was new to me, and a fascinating process. I soon realized that the first draft was only the tip of the iceberg, and now the real work had begun. I had insights about my story in the weirdest moments, like while watching The Wil Wheaton Project, and most of all while doing housework. And when revelation descended, I would drop everything, rush to the laptop, and write.

My revisions took nearly two months to complete, with breaks interspersed to write new stories and, well, try to have a life. Thanks to my beta readers, I believe I’ve now written a much stronger book, a novel that more fully expresses my vision for this story and these characters. And even in those last sessions reworking scenes, those wily characters continued to surprise me. I’d think I knew what was going to happen, and then they’d carry me off in an entirely different (but totally right) direction.

So now I’m dipping my toe into those shark infested querying waters. I continue to read, reread, and polish the novel. Comma placement, these days, is my latest obsession.

Yep, it’s a glamorous life.

The two lessons I take away from this are 1) listen, listen, and listen some more to beta readers. I may not take all their advice, but I’m open to every bit of it; and 2) my characters know better how the story needs to be told than I do. You might have guessed I’m not that writer who outlines and plots. Sometimes I envy those guys. Me, I just go from the hip. And I’m grateful that the story knew what it was doing, because there were many times I did not.

So, yeah. That’s my last takeaway: trust the story. And now — time for a nap.

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Dispatch from Query Hell

Photo courtesy of Jacopo Werther

Photo courtesy of Jacopo Werther

I completed my first novel early this spring, and now, after many months of preparation, I’m getting ready to query.

“Query?” you ask, intrigued. “What is meant by this thing you call…’query?'”

If you are happily pursuing a sane career that does not involve seeking publication for your novel, this term will likely mean almost nothing to you. For you, “query” simply means what the dictionary says it means: “a question, especially one addressed to an official or organization.”

Seeing the word “query” doesn’t produce in you a host of intense and conflicting emotions: excitement, terror, frustration, confusion, hope and despair.

But for writers chasing the dragon of publication, this heretofore innocent word is enough to send you plunging into the drawer for the corkscrew, gnashing your teeth and rending your garments, cursing yourself and cruel fate for ever setting your foot upon this rocky path. In short, it’s enough to make you C-R-A-Z-Y. And if, like most writers, you started out a little kooky, you’ll just get crazier.

What “query” means to writers, you see, is this deceptively simple concept: a query is a short letter directed at literary agents, condensing the premise of your novel, your main characters, conflict and stakes, into around 250 words. It’s the “hook” that must convince an agent they want to read your novel, and ultimately, if your novel rocks, offer representation.

Everything is riding on your query. No matter how amazing your novel is, how beautiful and evocative the writing, it’s going nowhere if you can’t get an agent to look at it. Any hope you have of seeing your book published traditionally (self-publishing is a whole different world) hangs on writing a successful query.

It sounds easy. But for most of us – including me – it’s more like Advanced Calculus. (And if you know me, and remember my acutely stunted math faculties, you’ll understand this means it’s really, really challenging).

There’s a reason they call it Query Hell.

I have literally written at least 25 drafts of my query letter. As I’ve edited and revised my novel, awaited feedback from beta (test) readers, and researched agents, I have simultaneously been pulling my hair out over the query letter. I mean, seriously, condensing a 300-odd-page novel into a couple of short paragraphs is a mind-bender. And it’s a very different kind of writing vs. writing a novel. It’s more like writing an advertisement; convincing your audience to buy your product with a few deftly chosen, supernaturally compelling words.

Help me, Don Draper. You’re my only hope!

There’s no need for sarcasm, Don.

But there is help out there, and for what it’s worth, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about tackling the dreaded query letter. I am no expert. Like any other writer descending into Query Hell embarking on the query journey, I’m just a fellow traveler, learning as I go. These are the approaches and resources that have helped me immeasurably, and I hope they will benefit you, too. So, with all that in mind, read on for:

LEIGH’S DECIDEDLY UN-EXPERT QUERY ADVICE

1. Step back. Step waaaaaay back. Getting distance from my novel was necessary to even begin to think about the query letter. When I finished the first draft, it was like I’d emerged from a blizzard of words, and I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. I had no idea what I’d done. I looked at what I had written and wondered, “What is this? Does it make sense? Is this even a story? Is this even in English?” My brain was toast.

As with editing, I was much more successful at writing my query letter once I’d stepped back from the book. For me, this meant a minimum of three weeks without peeking at it. My advice is to go and write something new, pore over writing resources on the Internet, take a walk, spend some time with the spouse/friends you neglected while you were writing the novel. Do anything, just stay away from that book.

2. Keep it simple. Einstein offers what is perhaps the best advice ever given on writing query letters: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Oh, ho! I despaired when I first saw this quote. Easy for you to say, Al! At that point, my early query letter draft was a page and a half long. It was more meandering and confusing than the dream I had recently of the Today show’s Savannah Guthrie and her Romany Gypsy mother (???) cooking lobsters for Good Husband and me. Like the dream, my query was kind of weird, sort of interesting, and mostly incomprehensible.

I had to shelve that early version and start over. I asked myself, “What, underneath subplots and a gaggle of characters, is my book really about? What is the heart of the story?” This line of thinking forced me to cut everything else away and ask this:

“Who is the main character, what does s/he want, what is keeping them from getting what they want, and what do they need to do to succeed?”

Sounds easy! Right?! [Cue maniacal huffing and chortling. And gurgling. Yes, gurgling.]

It wasn’t easy…at first. But I kept at it. I kept drafting, thinking, paring, and simplifying. You can always add some spice back in. You’ll need to, in fact, if you want those agenty eyeballs to stay riveted. As I continued to write draft after draft of my query, to cut to the heart of my story, I began to find the core thread. You will, too. And when it feels like an insurmountable struggle, see #1. Step back again. Take a break. Then come back.

3. Learn all you can. There’s a wealth of advice out there in the aether about writing query letters. Take advantage of that, but be careful. Make sure the advice you’re getting is coming from people who know what they’re talking about, with regard to query formatting, content, and other protocols and etiquette. That meant, for me, seeking advice from agents, editors, and writers who have themselves recently won agent representation thanks (in part) to their awesome query. I’ve read a ton of blogs and articles penned by these knowledgable folk.

But be prepared. A lot of expert advice is contradictory, too. It’s all part of the fun.

One blog every hopeful querier should visit is QueryShark. Literary agent Janet Reid (the titular Query Shark) takes time from her busy schedule to critique query letters, point out (bluntly, but not unkindly) what works and what doesn’t, and dispense a whole lot of good advice. Read the archives. You can see query letters go from “mess to success” and apply these lessons to your own query. Studying successful query letters is informative, and seeing what not to do can be as educational as seeing what works. And it’s entertaining, too. The Query Shark is funny as all get out, and when you’re deep in Query Hell, you need all the laughter you can get.

SlushPile Hell is another fun blog, offered anonymously by a self-described “grumpy literary agent and a sea of query fails.” I didn’t learn a lot from this site about querying (except that there are some very strange people out there), but the amusement factor is off the charts — both the excerpts from hilariously terrible real query letters, as well as the agent’s acerbic commentary. Each night before I go to bed, I pray to the old gods and the new that I never, ever see my own query letter on SlushPile Hell. Even though the proprietor of SPH protects the identities of the offending authors, I would still have to change my name and go underground.

4. Get help. No, not psychiatric help, but that might be needed, too, when it’s all said and done. The help I mean is feedback from an actual person(s) on your query letter.

The best, most valuable source of help out there, in my experience, is Query Drill.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could “test” your query on professionals (i.e. the people who decide the fate of queries in real life) and get feedback before you start sending it to agents for real? Wouldn’t you dance a jig of delight and gratitude if this were possible?

Query Drill offers just this opportunity.

Once I felt my query was in somewhat decent shape (after lots of research and countless drafts), I sent it to the good people at Query Drill. These guys are amazing! Query Drill is a free service, a team of volunteers comprised of slushpile veterans (agents, literary agency interns, editors, and the like) who invite you to “practice” querying with them. You send in your query letter (just as if you were querying an agent) and they reply. They tell you what they would do in a real querying situation (reject or request pages) and why. And you can revise and re-query as many times as you want — until you get it right.

Thank you, most generous and patient people at Query Drill. I would love to send you all chocolate and flowers and fluffy puppies.

5. Always remember, it’s a subjective business. No matter how good your query is (or your novel, for that matter), it’s not guaranteed to hook an agent. Agents are people, and they all have unique preferences and tastes. This goes for querying, and beyond that, the rule of subjectivity extends to an agent loving your book enough to offer representation. Market trends, which you cannot and should not try to chase, play a big part, too. Remembering this will (I hope) help me cope with the twists and turns, and emotional highs and lows, that surely lie ahead.

I hope it helps you, too. Query on, my friends, and good luck!

Have you begun the querying process? Or are you an indie author who is bucking the system and self-publishing? What are your experiences? And if you’re not a writer, what do you think of all this mishegas? Do tell!

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Me Got the Funk

George Clinton photo courtesy of Joe Loong

George Clinton photo courtesy of Joe Loong

I wrote recently about a wonderful day off I had, likening my Day of Shirk to Ferris Bueller’s famous hooky-playing antics. I took that day of leisure in the wake of an insanely busy time of writing, a time right after finishing my novel when I felt both mentally and physically spent. I was also coping with some intense things going on in my personal life (which are still happening, but are looking a bit brighter). It was a needed respite, a recharge, a well-earned rest from the breakneck pace and emotional pressures I’d been wrangling with.

I’m reflecting now on a different phenomenon — we’ll call it “Le Funk.” (Frenchifying the funk makes it somehow more romantic.) I slipped into Le Funk a few weeks ago, with regard to working on edits and rewrites for the novel. And I don’t mean Le Funk in a Parliament-Funkadelic kind of way. Heavens to Murgatroyd, I would be delighted if my funk were of that variety. I think it would be motivational in the extreme if George Clinton turned up in my living room, pointed at my neglected manuscript, and commanded me to “Turn this mother OUT!” That might be just the kick in the bass I need.

But alas, my Le Funk is of the garden variety; a listless, jelly-brained lethargy that makes me open my novel and go, “Oh, hell, no!” And when opening my novel, or even contemplating opening my novel, I am overcome by the sudden and immediate urge to take a nap. It’s the strangest thing. The manuscript slides from my lap, my head grows heavy, and I lose consciousness. It’s like an extremely specific (and far less serious) form of narcolepsy.

So what’s going on with me? Can somebody tell me, please? I’m used to the usual foibles and eccentricities of writing life. I’m used to fighting through what feels like the most crushing inertia to get started writing, especially if it’s something new and I’m beginning with The Blank Page. I’m used to forcing myself to write even when I feel I’ve got nothing to say, and am lacking the tools and talent to say it anyway. But this aversion to working on my own story, already in draft form, is something new.

I used to think all the neurosis, procrastination, and self-doubt was my own bag. But I’ve spent enough time now with other writers, listening to them, reading their blogs and their tweets, to know that these qualities, almost without exception, are the hallmarks of our odd little species. I don’t know if people who write start out like this, or if writing creates people addled with mild psychosis, but either way, discovering I’m not alone is a weirdly comforting revelation.

An aside: Is wrestling with procrastination and insecurity all some of the time unique to writers? Or do people pursuing other endeavors experience these challenges? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

So back to Le Funk. I think what’s happened, with regard to editing and reworking my novel, is that I have spent too much bloody time with it in a very compressed period. This is the third round of editing and rewriting, and so the third time I’ve read it through (not to mention the countless read-throughs while I was writing the first draft). Imagine reading a book five or more times over a couple of months, and then factor in your own insecurities because it’s yours, for better or worse. Yup. You’d want to put that book away and read something else, or even pull the drapes and binge on an Arrested Development marathon. (This is a purely hypothetical example, of course. Ahem.)

So here’s what I’ve been doing to combat Le Funk, with varying degrees of success:

1. Yard work. Summer is here, and fresh air, physical exercise, and an immediate and visible sense of accomplishment work wonders for the old jelly brain. Also, once I’m hot and thirsty enough, covered in scratches, and the weed whacker has spat enough rocks into my face, editing my novel is starting to look pretty good.

2. Work on something else. I’ve gotten this good advice from lots of people, including many fellow writers, and it’s oft repeated for a reason: it works. Switching gears in the brain, thinking about a new story, or writing a blog post (!) can help give me a fresh perspective when I return to edit The Beast.

3. Read something else. This is my favorite, because I love to read. It also requires the least amount of exertion on my lazy part. I can switch gears and swim around in a new story, with zero effort, aside from holding the book in my hands and letting my eyeballs and imagination do the walking. Reading can also be inspiring. I’m not talking plagiarizing, but seeing how good authors spin a mesmerizing yarn (and also how bad authors fail to do so) teaches me a thing or two about my own writing.

4. Suck it up. Writing, editing, rewriting, proofreading: all of it is work. Sadly, writing is not about me (played by Jennifer Lawrence) sipping a cup of Earl Grey as I sit at my Underwood typewriter, while the Muse (played by Jon Hamm), guides my fingers across the keys. Writing is thinking and struggling to put into words the ideas in my head. It’s putting out words even when there is nothing in my head, and then reworking them and reworking them until I’ve got something that, well, works. It’s not being able to sleep because I’m agonizing over some plot point, or (more fun) because the ideas are coming on strong. Writing can leave me feeling refreshed, inspired and proud of my accomplishment — when I’m done for the day. But it is always, with fleeting and glorious moments of exception, hard work.

So ultimately, I think I am going to take the Suck It Up approach tonight. Sometimes you just have to do it, whether you like it or not, whether there is an Arrested Development marathon on TV or not, and whether George Clinton or Jon Hamm materializes to help you along, or (most likely) not.

Though before I get started, I think it might be time for some inspirational music to put me in the mood. Hmmm…how about “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off That Sucker)!” Of course! George Clinton is here in spirit, and he’s advising me in no uncertain terms to give up that funk. Now, where’s my red pen…

Do you sometimes feel less than giddy about doing your work, even when it’s something you love? Do you experience your own version of Le Funk? How do you break through and git ‘er done? I’d love to hear your advice!

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Leigh Lauck’s Day Off

FADE IN:

INT. BEDROOM – MORNING

LEIGH 

She coughs piteously, her body limp.

I – I don’t feel so good. I’m all tingly and achey-wachey. 

Hacking anew, she falls helplessly back onto the pillow.

GOOD HUSBAND 

Why don’t you stay home today, honey? 

LEIGH

I’ll be okay. 

Her fevered eyes are pained but stoic.

I have to write a blog post today. I have to do it.

GOOD HUSBAND

No, sweetie. You stay in bed. Just call me if you need anything. I love you.

LEIGH

She stiffens as she draws a shaking palm to her forehead.

It’s nice to know I have such a loving, caring husband. You’re a very special person.

GOOD HUSBAND closes the door. The lock clicks. LEIGH’S eyes slide from the door to CAMERA. Her lips curl in a wicked smile.

LEIGH

He bought it.

Cue 80s montage music.

Photo courtesy of Eugene0126jp, WikiMedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Eugene0126jp, WikiMedia Commons

Okay, so that’s not exactly how it happened. You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m having fantasies of being Ferris Bueller (again). It’s certainly how I felt today. And if you’ve never seen the funny and brilliant John Hughes movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which features a criminally adorable Matthew Broderick, stop reading this blog immediately and get thee to Amazon post haste. No, seriously. I mean it. 

Actually, I have a wonderful husband who doesn’t require me to feign illness. I am lucky that he is so supportive of my writing ambitions, ’cause being married to a writer can be both weird and challenging. I spend a lot of time staring at my laptop or out into space. Or spooking him with non sequiturs, when I decide to randomly share pieces of my constant, internal monologue out loud. 

Good Husband: Standing on chair, leaning precariously into thin air to change lightbulb. 

Me: THE ALIEN VICAR HAS AN EVIL TWIN!

Hijinx ensue ending in minor first aid.

So today has been a day of goofing off, feeling guilty about it, and goofing off some more. I finished my first novel about six weeks ago, which left me feeling like I’d just emerged from the surf after being shipwrecked. It was a frenzied and fevered process that consisted mostly of me living in pajamas in my cave. There is a permanent imprint on the couch from my butt.

I’ve finished the first rewrite and my little bundle of joy (well, bundle of something) is now at Beta Reader Day Care. And there’s plenty to do while I’m waiting for their feedback: dig into my current work in progress, write a synopsis of my novel, and develop my Auffer Plafform (for the uninitiated, that’s “author platform.” I was stuffing a fudge brownie into my maw when my friend and creativity coach, Milli Thornton, proposed the idea. “Auffer Plafform?” was my horrified response, crumbs flying).

Armed with the best intentions, my day instead ended up looking like this:

Wake up.

9:00-11:00. Surf Twitter reading every single article for writers at #amwriting, including articles I’ve read and re-read countless times before. #AmNotWriting #NotEvenClose #NiceTry

11:00-12:15. Stalk agent blogs online and commit to memory their preferences and peeves. Try to intuit their deepest desires and dreams.

12:15-1:00. Nap.

1:00-1:05. Scarf down a turkey sandwich.

1:05-3:30. Stalk more agent blogs. Ask Magic 8 Ball if my query letter is ready. Admonish self for being ridiculous. Ask Magic 8 Ball if I’m being ridiculous.

3:30-5:00. Check email every three minutes. “Like” my friends’ photos of cute pugs in costumes on Facebook. Take “Which Gemstone Are You?” quiz. Speculate on what it means to be a topaz.

5:00-5:15. Make bed. Congratulate self for being a good domestic partner. Know inwardly that I am a lazy sloth.

5:15-6:02. Nap.

And so on…

I don’t have these kinds of days too often. In the last year, I left a job I’d had for a long, long time (too long) that required me to be on-call and productive almost all the time. Now I feel guilty when I’m not “doing.” Whether that “doing” means writing, the laundry, returning phone calls to family, or working on my Auffer Plafform, it amounts to the same thing. I beat myself up for every moment spent not “doing.”

So, I’ve had a revelation about that.

Ferris Bueller skipped school. He took a day off. If he did that every day, he’d be in real trouble. He wouldn’t accomplish the things he needed to realize his dreams. He’d still be in the twelfth grade in 2022 at the awkward age of fifty-something (awkward for a senior in high school, anyway.)

But on his day off he had rich experiences and adventures with his friends. He sang “Danke Schoen” in a parade, foiled a snooty maître d’, and viewed paintings by Seurat and Edvard Munch. It was a moment in time, magical and singular. And it was but one day.

Admittedly, I didn’t zoom around Chicago in a Ferrari making Memories to Last a Lifetime. But my day of slothing about has its own value. Fallow time – playtime – is underrated. It is the yin to productivity’s yang, a necessary balance we often overlook. Giving the conscious mind a rest allows the subconscious to sort through its backlog. When the mud I’ve stirred up from too much busy-ness settles, the view in the pond is a lot clearer.

Some of my best ideas arrive easily after a short period of slothfulness. They may have been standing there all along, waving for my attention, but I would have walked right past them in my rush, annoyed they were blocking the sidewalk. After a day of naps and Twitter, I finally felt ready to write this blog post, my first bloggy contribution to my Auffer Plafform. It may not be the pinnacle of insight, but without my lazy day, I would have ended up writing some terrible, strained article entitled “10 Easy Steps to Plotting Your Novel.” Others do this very well. Not me. You’d never want to see that article from me.

I’ve resolved to seek a balance of work and play in my writing life. Heck, in my life in general. I’ll make lists of things to do (I am a list nerd) and set reasonable deadlines for accomplishing my goals. I’ll be accountable; I want to reach said goals, after all. But I also resolve (and I may need to come back to revisit this post to remind me!) to intersperse my work with rest and play. And remember that rest and play are vital to my creative work, and to my well-being.

In the sage words of Ferris, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

What do you think of the value of down time? Does it feed your creative life? Leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!