I didn't sleep much! I think I averaged 4 hours a night for a few months there. I also had a good amount of writing time, and it actually took more like three months for a first (and very rough) draft--so I'm in awe of NaNoWriMo participants who can actually get it done in a month.
Ultimately, though, I think the quality of time is just as important as the quantity of time you can devote to your writing. There's the writing I do when I'm actually writing, and there's the 'writing' when I'm actually disappearing into wormholes on Wikipedia and calling it research.
Mentally writing is key, too: I think about my characters and my stories when I'm exercising, when I'm grocery shopping, when I'm on my way to work. So, so much of writing happens off the page.
Do you currently have a daily goal for writing?
I don't have a daily goal for word count, mostly because I find it to be so erratic--some days I can write ten thousand words I'm happy with, and other days I can write a sentence, delete it, and repeat for hours on end. And, in the end, whenever I set deadlines for myself, I look back later and wonder why I got so attached to that particular timeline.
In the article you wrote for the NaNo blog you said you sent your first draft to your agent after the month. How did you manage to have an agent already?
I'd signed with Adriann Ranta, of Wolf Literary, for another novel. At the time I signed with her, that novel was complete, and I was just beginning to work on City on a Hill. We connected the old-fashioned way: a query letter in her slush pile.
What do you think made your query stand out in the slush pile?
I was querying a character-driven literary fiction novel, which is tough to write a query for because a plot synopsis is going to feel flat. I went through what felt like endless iterations of the query letter, because I wanted the characters' personalities and a sense of lyrical writing (the book is about a musician) to shine through.
Having interned at a literary agency in another life, I know that a lot of queries coming into the slush pile are automatic rejects--unprofessional, querying for something the agent doesn't represent, etc.--and I think just following guidelines and querying for a book that's been edited and ready to submit puts you several steps ahead of most.
The agency site on their guides for submission states... "To submit a project, please send a query letter along with a 50-page writing sample. " Did you do that?
I did send the 50-page sample with my query--I love when agents ask for sample pages, because writing a query is such a different skill than writing a manuscript, and I'd always rather read a story itself than a description of it!
How long did it take to get that response of we'd like to represent you?
I sent my query and sample to Adriann's slush pile and heard back three weeks later. At the time Adriann requested the rest of the manuscript. I was also beginning to work through some revisions suggestions from another agent, so I sent what I had and, once Adriann had read it, we discussed revisions over the phone.
After that, I spent about two months revising and then sent that one off, and a month later Adriann made a formal offer of representation. From there, I had about a week to make a decision--I had a few other offers, and while I always thought that would be a great position to be in, it was actually kind of agonizing! But I felt extremely confident in Adriann and Wolf Literary, and so I (very excitedly!) accepted Adriann's offer. All told, it was three to four months from query to contract.
The book you wrote for that challenge was City on a Hill. How many re-writes did you do from that original rough draft to its being approved for publication?
I wrote one very, very rough draft, tore it apart completely and built it back up in a way that made it all but unrecognizable to anyone but me, and then did one more (much less intense) revision.
When we write it’s easy to fall in love with our own stories. Then the book is critiqued and edited. How did your ego fare during the editing process?
That's so true: I always fall in love with a story while I'm writing, and then as soon as I've sent it off to someone to read I panic and think how much is wrong with it.
The thing that's been the most useful to me is to remember that a reader can tell you her reactions, and, because no one else is inside the story the way you are, it's your job as the writer to evaluate what that means. If I hear specific advice about how to fix something, I often step back and try to think of it more as the reader telling me there's a hole somewhere, or something isn't holding together, and what does that mean in terms of the whole story, and what are ways I can work with it?
How did you go about finding a publisher? How many sources did you/your agent pitch?
My fantastic agent did all the pitching to publishers, and having been through querying myself, I can only imagine the kind of effort that goes into the process. The book found a home in its first round out on submission, which was thrilling. I've heard it's typical for an agent to pitch to around 8-12 editors per round, and if I remember right our first round fell into that range.
Your novel will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Spring/Summer 2014. Why do you think it was a fit for that publisher?
Funny, I ask myself that same question ALL THE TIME. (It still kind of feels too good to be true.) My agent deserves a ton of credit for knowing it would be a good fit. When I spoke to my editor, one thing she mentioned resonating with her was the universal experience of questioning your parents--what they've taught you, what you always believed about them, where that leaves you.
I wish I'd had a more accurate of idea of the way time works in publishing--I think I could have saved a lot of mental energy that way. To a writer waiting on an email, three days might feel like an eternity, but several weeks might feel really fast to an overbooked editor.
I also had all these arbitrary deadlines for myself along the way (I must have a draft finished within x months, I must have an agent by the time I'm x years old) that really didn't matter at all, and I might have been easier on myself if I'd just accepted that things happen on their own timeline, and in the end that's perfectly fine.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing that you would like to pass along?
I had a fantastic mentor, Nona Caspers, who always advised writers to "lift up what's strong and in motion"––in other words, when writing and revising, to focus on the moments in a story where something was really happening and to continually push themselves deeper into those places. Your stories go a lot further that way; there's only so far you can go when you're just focusing on getting rid of bad parts. A competent manuscript is one thing, but it takes more than just criticism to make it into something that's living and gripping and transcendent.
What other works do you have in the process? Would you like to share the details?
I'm working on another novel, and it's slowly (and I do mean slowly) starting to take shape. I just finished up a section from one of my main character's life in high school, when she began writing to a prisoner in secret, and right now my two main characters are at a Bible College in California in the seventies.
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