The Road to Perfection

My successes as a baker have been very hit and miss. I can make one recipe and a month or two later, when I try to make it again, end up with a failure. Same cook, same products, same mixer and house and stove and attention and . . . flop.

I was reminded of this a week ago when I made a family favorite – Blondies. This single pan of cookie joy is my favorite because I don’t have to stand in the kitchen for two hours putting in and pulling out baked goodies. I’ve made it so many times that I don’t have to flip through the book to find it, I just feel for the flour covered pages (I’ve never claimed to be a clean cook either).

When I checked on the cookies in the oven, the looked perfect. Golden goodness, chocolate chip gooey-ness, a little bit of crust on the outside, the smell made everyone ask when they’d be done.

At first, they were okay. Warm sugar usually is. But as they cooled, the top got hard, the inside stayed gooey and they literally fell flat. I let them stick around for about five days – after all, I have teenagers and they like food. But these didn’t even make the teen appetite cut. Finally, yesterday, I threw them all away.

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Coming from a family, particularly on my mom’s side, known for their cooking, there are times when this feels like a massive slap in the face. I can read and follow instructions. I’m using the exact same recipe they are. Theirs turn out amazing, mine turn out amazing to meh. But the real slap in the face (besides killing the whole idea that I’ll be “that mom” who has yummy treats whenever friends come over) is that these mistakes create disappointment AND cost money. I know, it’s not a lot – ingredients that I mostly have and the sacrificial bag of chocolate chips. The sting lingers longer, though, right now as I’m both gearing up for back to school (and my kids have all grown out of their clothes and two need new glasses) AND saving for a trip that I’m very, VERY excited about. Okay, there’s a little bit of disappointment from the kids I have to deal with too.

And still I bake. Or at least try. Because I like the taste of the yummy treats. I like when things turn out well and my efforts are rewarded. I like showing my kids that just because something doesn’t go right the first time, doesn’t mean I get to quit.

Why, then, do so many of us think that our writing is going to turn out well the first time? Why do we think our efforts to create character and setting and story are actually going to turn out the first time? Those of you who read the first part of this cringing because your cookies have always been awesome would probably, very quickly, tell me to try this next time or that, something that comes intuitively to you as a baker. Would you offer the same suggestion to someone (maybe yourself) when you are in the midst of writing a story? Because when you are writing and you make a mistake, you didn’t tease with the essence of goodness. You didn’t have to mourn the chocolate thrown away instead of eaten. And tossing words can be painful, I’m not saying otherwise. But it is absolutely, unequivocally part of the process if the desire you have for your end product is something that you will feel good about and, maybe, will even have the honor of having others feel good about too.

The reason why we utter “Practice Makes Perfect” so many times, in so many situations, isn’t to insist that each practice is going to BE perfect. It is acknowledging the road to perfect is paved with lots and lots and lots of imperfections.

But as far as I can tell, it is the only way to build such a road.

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TashaTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

1,200 Writing Failures; Lightbulb Moments

 

We all know the story of Thomas Edison. He got his “lightbulb” moment after never giving up. Yes, it is true that the lightbulb itself is an amazing creation. But, what really makes him unique, relatable and a hero is not so much the lightbulb but the fact that he never gave up.

(And yes, I like the lightbulb… I’m afraid of the dark.)

But when a journalist asked him how he dealt with 1,200 failures Thomas simply replied, “I did not fail twelve hundred times. I was successful in finding twelve hundred ways the lightbulb didn’t work.” (Leeds, Dorothy. 7 Powers of Questions. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2000.)

I love that response.

I love that response because I have come to nearly twelve hundred ways that writing doesn’t work for me. And that has been the key to my success.

Acknowledge what doesn’t work.

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Looking for the Floodlights

I remember when I first started writing seriously I went to a big wig writing workshop. I was searching for the best way to write and manage my time. I was on a quest to find that pointblank floodlight. Here I was surrounded by people who had it all figured out. I wanted to know where their electricity was stemming from.

Their writing light seemed bright. I wanted to sign up for their electric company.

With my flickering writing flashlight in hand I leaned on their floodlights. So I took vigorous notes on what I should do. I asked questions and searched out a bulk of methods. I came home excited with three new methods to try. But the excitement didn’t last long. Everything I was told wasn’t working for me. Yes, for them it was a success but for me it was bogging down my writing groove.

What?

What I didn’t realize was that I already had some of my writing tips figured out. But, I didn’t know it until I tried following their light. I found that their lights were too yellow or too blue.  By evaluating what didn’t work for me, I actually found what worked. They weren’t failures, just steps to success. I had my own magic electric company I was already paying but I had to stand in someone else’s light to figure that out.

Failures: My Writing Lightbulb Moments

You will find that some of these are your writing gems. That’s great! Keep it up. Do what works for you. But if it’s not working then figure out why and realize your failures are just getting you closer to creating your own writing light. Failures are the best way to success. Yet even in my quest for the light bulb moment I still found a little light that directed my writing. Look here for what didn’t work for me but what I learned in the process:

Don’t Edit While You Write. Wow. This was my biggest struggle. I had writing fallouts when I tried this method. I wrote a book in this method and couldn’t write for an entire year after. (Those were my writing dark ages.) I have always edited when I write. I totally get the point of “just getting your story on paper” mentality but for me it ends up being a big pile of wasted paper. I don’t enjoy the writing process when I just spit. For me first time thoughtful writing works (with a few comb overs to cover unsightly baldness).

Writing Lightbulb Moment: So I did learn something in all of this, though. When I just randomly followed the ramblings in my head I found that a magical 6 rewrites did the trick. So although I don’t love throwing words on paper, when I occasionally flip into this method- 6 rewrites fixes it all.

Keep all versions of your drafts. I found myself bogged down by multiple drafts of the same story. I hated them all so it was only tormenting me to keep them. I found I was saving several versions on the computer and suddenly writing was a bear in the forest ready to eat me. For me, keeping all of my drafts depleted my writing enthusiasm and made me avoid tromping through the writing forest at night. Now I just ditch it and move forward while twirling in green daisy infested sunlight hills. (Enter smiley face.)

Writing Lightbulb Moment: I hate paper piles.

Write in the Morning. I was sure this was the big secret ingredient. Most successful writers claimed this one. I was already in the groove of writing in the midnight hour. But, I am a night owl so maybe that’s the difference. I tried to get up and do my best writing in the morning and I found that my to-do list was clomping me over the head. It was driving me crazy because I couldn’t focus. Suddenly all of my writing inspiration was sprinkled with lame to do items. (Wow. And to think that won’t bore someone in a hurry.) But even now instead of midnight writing, I do midday writing. I guess for me “write earlier” is really the trick.

Writing Lightbulb Moment: I have to get the most pressing things done before I can start writing.

BUILDING EDISON’S LIGHTBULB

I have since found many other methods that writing doesn’t work for me. It’s great. It’s all helping me to be a more focused writer. I’m finding my own groove and occasionally the light bulb blares brightly and I can clearly see what I need to do. But, mostly I am just working in the dark. I’m twisting, tweaking, and rethinking through my writing processes to find the ones that make the difference. I’m muddling through my 1,200 ways that don’t work. And all of the so called writing failures- they aren’t failures they are the very important steps that are going to help you make it as a writer.

How close are you to the 1,200 ways that writing doesn’t work for you? Pinpoint what doesn’t work so you can find what really does work. And as always, keep thinking through your fingers.

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christie-perkinsChristie Perkins is a survivor of boy humor, chemo, and faulty recipes. She loves freelance writing, blogging, and is a nonfiction junkie. Her stage 4 cancer doesn’t knock down her passion for life and writing. Not a chance. A couple of magazines have published her work but her biggest paycheck is her incredible family. Christie hates spiders, the dark, and Shepherd’s Pie. Bleh. Mood boosters: white daisies, playing basketball, and peanut butter M&M’s. You can find out more about her on her blog at howperkyworks.com.

 

(Almost) Everything I Learned About Writing, I Learned from Parenting

Last week, some of the Cedar City members of Thinking Through Our Fingers met at our local library for a writer’s panel discussion (which was wonderful). The first thing our lovely panel moderator asked us was to share our most important piece of writing advice. Mine was along the lines of every project being different and how it therefore becomes necessary to temper our expectations along the way (i.e., just because book three was a relative breeze doesn’t guarantee that book five won’t be a beast with horns). Each work has its own personality, and I began to think about how in some ways, tending to our “book babies” is a lot like parenting. Not a parent? No worries. These analogies apply to other crazily difficult if not impossible tasks as well. Like domesticating wild zebras. Or learning how to sky-dive into volcanoes.

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READING ABOUT IT IS FINE, BUT TO REALLY LEARN HOW TO DO IT, YOU HAVE TO JUST DO IT.doit

  • Prior to becoming a parent, maybe you stocked up on those “What to Expect” or other parenting books (Goodness knows I did). While useful for some technical things (like how to get that dirty diaper off and the clean one on before the baby pees or poops EVERYWHERE), nothing can better make you a better parent except for rolling up your sleeves and actually tackling parenting. Seriously. Despite the best books, you will have those days, weeks, months (or more) where you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, but take comfort in the fact that you are learning more every day (especially from your mistakes), and that you’re doing the best that you can. Because you’re doing it.
  • Similarly, you might have a favorite stack of craft books and podcasts and go-to blogs about writing. You may attend writing conferences and workshops to learn about your craft. Yes. DO THOSE THINGS. But in addition to getting ideas, inspiration, and technical details, nothing will teach you more about writing than rolling up your sleeves, sitting your butt in that chair, and writing. And yes, you will have those days, weeks, months (or more) where you feel doubtful about your writing and maybe even question your entire writing career, but take comfort in the knowledge that by actually writing, you are learning more about writing every single day (especially from your mistakes), and that you’re doing the very best that you can. Because you’re doing it.

MAINTAIN REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.expectations.gif

  • Even before I became a parent, I had plans. I planned to go the route of natural childbirth for my first child. I read up on it, spoke to my physician and other professionals, and attended classes to prepare myself and my husband for what would hopefully be a memorable experience. Well. What wound up happening was a total of 28+ hours of difficult labor, two separate epidurals, and an emergency C-section that saved both my and my son’s life (talk about the opposite of “natural”)! And the important and special bonding process between mother and baby that’s supposed to happen immediately after birth? I didn’t get to even see him until two days after he was born because we were both recovering from those 28+ hours of trauma. That little guy is now almost ten years old, and I’ve learned to chill out (a little) about my expectations. If he remembers to brush his teeth and comes home from school with a smile on his face, then this is a good day! If he also does his homework and helps around the house and doesn’t argue with me and doesn’t torture his younger brother too much and practices piano without me nagging him 194 times, then that’s an amazing day. The point is not to set low expectations, but maybe it would be better to set realistic ones and understand there are lots (and lots) of things in life that out of your control.
  • Oh boy. We expect so much from ourselves as writers, don’t we? We go to conferences, connect with other writers, read about others’ experiences, and educate ourselves as best as we can about what it takes to get published. We hope that people (critique partners, beta readers, agents, editors, and eventually EVERYONE) will read and enjoy and possibly even connect with our stories. Once our book babies are out there in the world, we hope and hope and hope they will do well. I made the emotionally draining mistake with my third published book of having unrealistic expectations. This was the first contemporary story I’d written, it had gotten great pre-release buzz, and so many people worked hard to promote it on release day. Well. This book never did too well, and at first, I let that bring me down. However, I still dearly love that book baby, am currently working on another contemporary story that shall be published later this year, and I’m being careful to not unrealistically inflate my expectations. Since I’ve published my first book, I’ve chilled out (a lot) about expectations. Honestly, as long as I’m still writing, I’m good :). If people read my book and connect with it, that’s amazing. I don’t stress about charts and rankings so much anymore, especially because things like hitting bestseller charts are not in your control and therefore aren’t realistic goals.

SORRY, BUT IT DOESN’T GET ANY EASIER.screams

  • Okay, yes, some parenting things do get easier with experience. With my second child, I figured out how to multitask a bit better (because simultaneously juggling nursing, helping my son with his homework, cooking dinner, and proofreading a manuscript was necessary). However, I had to give up naps because life became much busier, and that was hard. Most importantly, I quickly learned that my kids’ personalities are not the same, and so I’ve had to adjust my parenting style to fit each child — in a way that’s a bit different for each child but hopefully still fair (unless you ask them directly, then nothing in life is fair). But I haven’t even gotten to the teenage years with them yet, so I know it’s going to get harder and harder and that I might not completely survive adolescent boys. Just kidding. We will be great, and when I get more gray hair, it means that I get to color it even more fun colors. But to say parenting becomes magically easier with each kid — just, no.
  • Likewise, every writing project is different, and prior experience will make some things easier, but not all. For instance, I don’t cry (nearly as much) when my editor comments that something major in my story needs to be changed. On the other hand, drafting is still that untamed beast with horns that gores me and leaves me bleeding on the ground. Each book has its own personality and its own challenges, and I find that these challenges continually surprise me. Book two was a challenge because it was the first one I wrote from dual POV (one male and one female). Book three was actually a relatively easier and pleasant one for me to write, but it was different because it was contemporary and not fantasy. Book four was a huge challenge because I had to balance two stories that were 500 years apart, but I felt pretty good throughout the process. And here I am writing book five, and it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever written and I want to pull out my hair because of ALL the things. GAH. What a problem child my fifth book has been. But I don’t hate it, and I just have to keep reminding myself that this story has its own personality and challenges. But to say that writing becomes magically easier with each project — just, no.

IT’S WORTH IT. (ALSO, DON’T BE TOO HARD ON YOURSELF!)worthit

  • At the end of the day, I might be hoarse from yelling and my house might be in danger of being classified a Federal Disaster Area, but being the mom of my two creative, hilarious, energetic, and sweet boys is so worth it. Some days I feel like I still know pretty much nothing about parenting, but I know a lot more than I did before I held my first baby.
  • Similarly, writing may make me frustrated, sleep-deprived, feel like a failure, give me anxiety or at the very least, Imposter Syndrome, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it. I know a lot more about writing than I did when I was slogging through my first manuscript.
  • Writing books and being a parent are two of the most challenging things I’ve ever done (and my former graduate school advisor is still mad at me because I told him that getting my Ph.D paled in comparison in difficulty to either of these things). Whether we choose to become parents and/or writers, zebra domesticators and/or volcano skydivers, these difficult tasks that we take on require us to continually build up our abilities with experience. But as long as we acknowledge and embrace that there’s always more to learn, I think we will all be okay.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST: HOPE

Even though there have been many, many moments in recent days when it has been a struggle, the last lesson I want to share is this: HOPE. Raising my children requires that I maintain hope, for their happiness, for their lives, for their education and future prospects, and for the world that I leave behind for them. My children are my ultimate inspiration to keep fighting for a better future, and I will continue teaching them about important things such as inclusion, diversity, and how we should speak up and act when we see the need for change. Similarly, as writers, we have the power to write meaningful stories that touch lives and provide connections for those who feel lost. We have the power to share stories that reflect inclusion, unity, diversity, and betterment of the human condition. We have the power to tackle tough topics, heal people and their wounds and empower them. We can create better worlds and give people the power to speak up, and we can give them hope.

Because we always need hope in our world. We really do.

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. Mom of two and author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (<– coming as soon as she can tame that wild beast of a book baby). You can find out more about her writing at www.helenboswell.com.

Crush Your New Year’s Writing Goals

Every year, I make a list of New Year’s Goals. Yes, Goals. I don’t call them resolutions, because that just seems too concrete and causes too much pressure, setting me up for failure from the very start. Still, even then, some of my goals pan out . . . aaand some of them don’t. But I’ve started to notice a pattern throughout these successes and failures, and I thought I’d share some tips with you that I will be trying this year in the hopes of producing a higher success rate, especially when it comes to writing goals.

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1) Focus on small habits, not the ultimate result.

I think the biggest favor you can do for yourself is to NOT make your resolution the same as your end-game, like “write a novel,” for instance. A goal like that is too daunting, too big. It’s also too vague. There are so many steps involved in writing a novel, and so many life “things” that can get in the way. Instead, a better goal would be to “write every day.” Don’t set a word count. Don’t say you’re going to write 1000 words every day. That’s also setting yourself up for failure. There will be days where you are definitely NOT going to make your word count goal, and you need to make room for that.

In fact, even better, don’t even set your goal to write every day. Make it something more tangible. Just say you’ll work on your novel every day. That can include anything: research, pre-writing, outlining, revising. . . .  And that’s GOOD, because all of those steps are going to get you closer to achieving that end goal that I told you to ignore: to write a full-blown novel. In order to reach that end goal, you need a game plan, so it’s that game plan you need to focus on the most. If your main goal focuses on the process of achieving that end result, you will be much more likely to reach it.

 

2) Failure isn’t an excuse for giving up

No matter what you do, there are probably going to be days, weeks, even months, where you are unable to work on your goals. Everyone goes through periods when they find it difficult to write. You might call that failure. “My goal was to write every day, but I haven’t written for weeks, therefore I’ve failed, therefore I might as well quit.” No! No no no no no. Don’t quit. Just start a-new. Start where you left off. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up about it. If you quit, then you’ve failed. But if you can accept that you’ve had a set-back and then pick yourself up and get back to work, you’ll know you have what it takes to succeed.

 

3) Flexibility is Key

Remember that a year is a long time. Things change. You change. The goals that you set in January may no longer apply in July. And that’s okay! I like to reassess my goals every few months to see what’s working, what’s not, and to think about what I need to do differently. It’s not failing or giving up if you decide that you need to take a different path. The point of a New Year’s goal is to improve yourself. Or to change yourself. Or to finally get the thing done that you’ve been wanting to get done. And in order to do any of those things without going crazy, you need to embrace flexibility. Go with the flow. If you don’t take a rigid stance, you’ll be more likely to succeed. At least, that’s my experience. Maybe it’s just because I tend to rebel against rules and rigidity. You may be different. But either way, you need to be willing to reassess and change if need be.

 

I hope these tips have helped. I will fully admit that I haven’t had a great track record for meeting the goals I’ve set each year, but a lot of that is because I haven’t followed my own advice. This year, I plan to. And I hope it helps you as well as me. Happy New Year, and good luck!

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

A Writer’s Promise To Myself

“I’ll be better tomorrow. I promise.”

Do you ever catch yourself saying this to yourself? Most often when we promise to be better, it’s because we feel like we let someone down in terms of behavior or other expectations.

Last month, I let myself down by not meeting my writing goals. Oh, I could justify this with excuses. I could pin my decline in productivity on an extra busy work schedule, on my kids’ extra busy after-school schedules, on the fact that hours seem to slip by with all of the other daily obligations that are a necessary part of life. I could blame it on emergencies, illnesses, and other interruptions that filled up what could have been good writing moments. I could blame it on my own choices in taking on new projects. But excuses won’t help me meet my writing goals. Only by owning up to my failure to put words on the page, and only by being willing to change that will I actually get those words onto the page. Excuses are diversions and distractions. I wanted to have a draft out to my CP’s by the end of September, and it didn’t happen.

I’ll be better tomorrow. I promise.

My “tomorrow” arrived in the middle of this month, when I told myself in a very firm voice that I needed to get out of my no-writing funk. NaNoWriMo is rapidly approaching, and I am determined to banish all of the excuses and again get down to business. I was meeting my word count goals before September, and I can get back into it again. It’s what I do. Excuses, begone! I am a writer! Yet when I opened my file each day, I stared at it and felt something heavy hold me back. The automatic connection that I used to have with my characters felt faraway and tenuous. I am a different person than I was six weeks ago and maybe I couldn’t tell their story exactly in the way that I’d originally planned. I was afraid that I could no longer do their story justice. Instead of writing, I focused on doubts and fears. But after taking today and the day before and many days before that to contemplate this, I know what I need to do. I’m committed to finishing this story, and so these are the writer’s promises to myself that will help me stay on track and be better:

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I promise to myself

  1. …that I’m experienced enough to acknowledge that life happens. Yes, life is busy, chaotic, and sometimes pulls me under, but I glean inspiration from my life. Experiencing emotions that range from frustration, stress, and anger to relief, joy, and love are the lessons I use to craft the emotional journey of my characters. Being mindful about my surroundings, textures, colors, and smells as the seasons change are the lessons that I use to build my story’s world. My crazy and beautiful life does not currently afford me the opportunity to write in solitude for hours at a time, but I need to experience all life has to offer in order for me to be a good writer.
  2. …that I’m strong enough to recognize and exert control over the things that are in my power. I do not need to respond to messages or emails right away just because my notifications are on (or better yet, I can turn them off). I do not need to get up and eat just because I happen to be writing at the kitchen table (even if there are lemon Oreos in the cupboard. They are merely delicious distractions). I can set rules in my home about when I require uninterrupted time to write (and I accept that this won’t be for hours and hours at a stretch). I promise to be mindful of the steps that I need for self-care, whether I am in full writing mode or not (and I shall be better about saying “no” if I need to). My top priorities lie with my family, my job, and my friends and support units, but as my writing is also a top priority, I can control certain things to help me get that writing done.
  3. …that I’m dedicated enough to finish this story. Writing is no cakewalk, and the process of drafting is particularly tough for me (but so is everything else about writing and publishing). I cannot fast-draft to save my life (Well, maybe I could if I was placed in an actual do-or-die scenario like in the Saw movies, but let’s not go there). I’m working on my sixth book now, and it feels no easier than when I wrote my first. However, I also know myself a lot better as a writer than when I first started out in this business (and I’m still learning, always learning), and no matter how hard it is to get to “the end,” I believe in myself and my characters enough to get it done. 

Lastly, I promise to myself that I’m realistic enough to know that there is always (99.99% of the time?) another tomorrow. You know, in case today doesn’t completely work out.

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helen

Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com.

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got (…it might not be what you think it is!)


In writing, as in any profession, there’s a lot of advice to take in. “Show, don’t tell.” “Use adverbs sparingly.” “Write what you know.” A writer at any stage can find advice on everything from craft to platform-building to marketing to how to tackle a query letter—and nearly all of that advice is extremely helpful.

But gather close, my fellow writers, because today I’m going to tell you about the hands-down most helpful piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten… and it probably isn’t going to be what you think.
In the summer of 2014, I was getting serious about pursuing publication. I’d been writing off and on my whole life, and had recently completed and polished my third novel. After years of not feeling like I was ready to wade into the daunting world of publishing, I’d decided it was time to go out and chase my dream down. And so I did: I signed up for a writing conference and live-pitched my book to an agent. I queried a handful of other agents and spent my days dreaming about how much they’d surely love my book. And when none of those agents uttered a word that wasn’t “no,” I stumbled across the world of online writing contests and entered Brenda Drake’s fabulous Pitch Wars, hoping that I’d win a coveted mentorship and be able to take my writing to the next level.
In the two weeks that passed between the Pitch Wars entrance period and the decision day, I knew with increasing certainty that I wasn’t going to make it in. None of the mentors I’d submitted to had requested any further materials from me, and none of the hints they were Tweeting about their favorite manuscripts lined up with mine. Sure enough, when the list of mentor picks went up, my name wasn’t on it. In the days that followed, I received kind rejection e-mails from three of the mentors I’d submitted to, all of them confirming the feeling that had been growing in my gut: My precious book, the one that my critique partners had declared “beautiful!” and “Newbery-worthy!”, was probably not going to have a chance of standing out in its highly oversaturated market.
Like any good protagonist, all of this plunged me into a bit of a Dark Night of the Soul. I traded anguished e-mails with my best friend and critique partner, agonizing over the fact that I’d never make it as a “real” writer, that I’d never be able to move beyond writing pretty words (my specialty!) to creating something truly meaningful that people couldn’t put down. I lived in fear that I would never figure out the secrets of a compelling plot—that I’d be consigned to nature-observation blog posts and lyrical but slow historical novels for the rest of forever.
During that time, I wasn’t on Twitter much. Seeing all of my newly-made Twitter friends rejoicing in the start of their Pitch Wars experience was just too hard. But on occasion, I’d get on and read the advice the mentors were tweeting for those of us who didn’t get in. And one tweet—a bit of advice from the lovely writer Bethany Smith and retweeted by a Pitch Wars mentor—particularly made an impression on me. 

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By that time, in the summer of 2014, I was not—and did not consider myself—a beginner writer. I’d been writing with varying levels of seriousness for almost a decade, and I’d been throwing myself into publication-related prep for the past two years. 
But in many ways, I was still a fledgling, just barely beginning to understand how to navigate the world beyond my own Word document. And in even more ways, I had fallen into the trap of imagining myself a “wunderkind”—a pretty natural fallout of having grown up surrounded by praise for my writing from teachers, friends, and critique partners. 
And, hard as it was to swallow, Bethany’s advice was exactly what I most needed. I needed that wake-up call—a reminder that, while I had studied hard and gotten skilled at some aspects of writing (lyrical language chief among them), I still had an enormous amount to learn (plots, for instance!). 
And as the weeks passed after the Pitch Wars mentor picks went up and I wasn’t one of them, I did my best to follow Bethany’s example, and I went to work. I turned to revising another novel, a strange little book that had a lot of my heart and soul in it, and the next year when I began querying that one, I started getting agent requests right off the bat. Ultimately, that novel got me into Pitch Wars the next year, and the things that I learned while revising that book for Pitch Wars were transformative for me. That novel didn’t get me an agent—during Pitch Wars or after it—but it did help me learn skills that I was able to apply in working on my next book, and that book was the one my fabulous agent signed me with.
In the two years that have passed since that watershed moment, a lot has changed. I have an agent now, and, in a funny twist of fate, I myself am a Pitch Wars mentor for 2016. But even now, I think about that tweet. Because while I’ve improved in many ways, I still have a lot of weaknesses, and I no longer consider myself a prodigy. Instead, I try to focus both on how far I’ve come and how far I have yet to go, balancing my acquired strengths with the things I still need to learn. Because, I now realize, every writer, no matter where she is in her writing journey, has something to learn.

 

And that’s advice worth following.

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Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. She writes middle grade and young adult magical realism in addition to the occasional poem or creative non-fiction essay. She is represented by Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown LTD. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Writer’s Doubt



Should I keep writing?

For the past two months, I’ve opened my file 
And scrolled through page after page
But the words I read felt flat and lifeless.
For the past month, the pieces of my story have felt amiss:
Too large, too aimless, too disconnected, too weak,

And the picture I’ve painted looks neither pretty nor meaningful.

For the past two weeks, my characters have been wary

When they meet me for mandatory morning coffee,
As though my insecurities have forever silenced their voice.
For the past week, I’ve been certain that I’ve done this all wrong,
The whisper of writer’s doubt a needling presence in my head,
Comparing myself to others, convinced that I’m a hack.

This morning, I stole away to a quiet place
And opened my file, perhaps for the last time.
My fingers grazed over the keyboard, my mind stalling as before.

My fear bloomed, waving the flags of past failures.
What if this story was a flop (just like that other one)?
Worse, what if I didn’t have it in me to create something new?

And then my eyes stumbled upon a random passage I liked,
As I read, my words opened a door back into my character’s world. 
When I stepped through, I relived his pain in that moment I’d written.

This character argued and growled; this was a person I’d created,
His world a harsh yet wonderful place because of me.
His story only accessible through my sheer will and imagination.

Abandoning fear for just that moment, I began to type…yes, I actually wrote!
Wonder of wonders, I helped my character experience the joy of a first kiss,
And he in turn helped me remember why I write:

Because my characters trust me.
Because their worlds provide me with a sense of home.
Because their stories reflect my deepest passions and my heart.

Because when I write, it is for them but also for me.
So no matter how deep the pit of writer’s doubt I find myself in, 
And especially when I do not live up to those lofty expectations,

The answer will always be yes,
I should keep writing.

H.
_____________________________

Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both YA urban fantasy and NA contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH, and like all writers, she experiences occasional writer’s doubt. You can find out more about Helen at www.helenboswell.com.