Writers, Find Your Superpower

This post originally appeared over at bluecrowpublishing.com, in a slightly different version.

Caution: Excellent publishing advice ahead.

A couple of weekends ago, I was pleased to be a part of the NC Writers’ Network Spring Conference in Greensboro, NC. This annual conference brings together writers, publishers, and bibliophiles from all genres—for just one day. This year, I went with Katie P., the other (usually more energetic) half of Blue Crow Publishing. (For those of you who don’t know, Katie and I formed BCP a few years ago as a small, traditional press.) We always enjoying meeting new people at NCWN events and talking books, and last Saturday we saw old friends and met some fabulous emerging writers that bowled us over with their stories. If you’re a writer, NCWN events are a great place to meet fellow writers, take workshops to hone your craft, and network with folks in the publishing industry. And it’s really one of the most welcoming, friendly groups of people you’ll meet.

One of the highlights of the day for me was taking part as a guest editor in “Slush Pile Live”—it’s like speed dating for manuscript review. In these sessions, writers leave a 1-page submission in a box, and the panel moderator reads each submission (names withheld) to the group. Three guest editors listen as the piece is read and then provide feedback, as if the piece were a query that came across their desks.

As a guest editor, I had an inkling of what to expect (thanks to a recording of a 2016 Slush Pile Live, which then of course induced a moment of panic with the realization that I might end up on YouTube when this was all over), but of course you never know what the submissions will hold. I watched the faces of the authors in the crowd as the first piece was read, and thought, “How can I be of help to these folks? What can I offer about these short, 300-word samples that might help them with their submissions to presses like mine?”

We heard poems, young adult fiction, sci-fi, historical fiction, romance, mystery—some samples were ready to submit for real, and some needed editing. But here’s what I thought as I heard the moderator read, and heard the critique from the panel, and watched those hopeful faces in the crowd:

Every writer has a superpower.

Every writer has that thing she’s really great at. Sometimes it’s dialogue. Sometimes it’s a way of seeing connections between unlikely pairings of objects (like that wonderful haiku that compared a mockingbird’s song to a crazy quilt). Sometimes it’s a way of nailing a character in just a few sharp turns of phrase. Sometimes it’s an image that sticks with you like a dream.

It’s easy to let yourself get jaded as an editor, to get annoyed by typos and adverbs and cliches. But it’s also important to remember that old adage about a diamond in the rough. Sometimes a writer has an amazing story to tell, and instead of being told “thanks, but no thanks,” they need a nudge to help point them in the right direction.

So if you’re struggling with a submission, or an edit, here’s my nudge for you:

Find your superpower. You have one.

Find that thing about your writing style that is attention-grabbing, unique. Ask a friend or writing partner to help you identify this strength—they might see something you don’t (writing can’t be a solo activity, sorry—no writer is an island). Ask your partner to read a page or two, and underline the most powerful sentence (got more than one? Great.).

Now think on that sentence—what makes it so compelling? Keep doing that. Identify the strongest lines that you’ve written, think about what makes them so fabulous, and bring the rest of your writing to that level. Use your insight. Consider that thing you did a tool, and apply that tool to the rest of your writing. Is it a unique description? An awesome metaphor? A detail about a character? If you’re superb at writing sharp dialogue (are you the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey?), then apply that sharpness to the overall narrative voice. Apply it to descriptions of objects, places, other characters. Use that tool to shape the whole story.

Then, trim out all the unnecessary words so that those really amazing ones shine. Consider this your de-cluttering. (You’ve watched Marie Kondo? Cut out all those words that don’t have meaning, all the filler that’s just there taking up space.) Your book needs to be lean and mean.

When you’re ready to submit, make sure that superpower shows up on the first page. Showcase that eye for detail, that witty dialogue, that arresting voice. Show the editor that thing you’re so good at on page one, and keep it steady through your whole MS, like a heartbeat.

And remember: every editor has different tastes, different loves, different turn-offs. Submitting a manuscript really is like speed-dating. Editors are inundated. Their eyes have glazed over from mundane manuscripts. You have 1-2 pages to make a bold impression, to hook that editor and make her want to know more about this story you have to tell. If you don’t fit with one editor (or a dozen, or fifty), keep going. Move on to the next one. Everybody has bad dates. Not every pairing is the right one. But we hit the lottery when we do find the right match—the one that sees our strengths and wants to make them shine.

 

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How to Make Time

These days, I often wish I could make time: as in create hours, manufacture minutes. It seems there are always so many tasks to do, so much work to be done. By the time I get through my daily to-do list (ye gods, when did I get so overwhelmed that I had to get apps that will remind me to do the tasks and tick the boxes?) there’s barely time to relax and shut my brain off before it’s time to get up and do it all over again.

Some days I feel like I’m drowning. Some days I think I’ll never check all the boxes fast enough and won’t be left with the time I want for other things, like painting, and writing, and gardening, and seeing my friends.

So here’s the thing I’m learning: I have to make that time. Sounds easy, right? It’s not. What’s easy is getting lost in the little tasks: make dinner, wash the dishes, do some laundry, vacuum, get gas, answer emails, post some new online content, check book stats, schedule some promotions, read that new submission that came in last week, post a few things to social so readers know I’m still alive and interested in saying hello to them—and so on.

Some days, it’s true—this is a procrastination technique. Some days, if I do all those little tasks, then I “don’t have time” to do the hard thing, which is edit that damn book I have to finish in a month. But some days, I just want an hour to paint some birds, and sometimes that feels like it’s too tall an order.

So I’ve had to re-prioritize some things. I’ve had to carve out bits of time each day (and even—gasp—a chunk of time on the weekend) to do some little things that bring me joy. I started with an hour a day. Some days I read. Some days I paint. Some days I plant some succulents. (I might have developed a bit of a problem there, since I discovered I can order them online, and they come in like, literally a thousand different varieties for about the cost of a latte. The fella, though, assures me this is not a problem. “You can order more until we run out of window sills,” he said. “But really, I think people who take care of live things have more empathy. So I support this hobby.”

He’s a good guy. I’ve placed a jelly bean plant on his window sill.

The point of all this is that just taking an hour a day to do something that doesn’t feel like work, like a task that HAS TO GET DONE, DAMMIT actually helps me recharge. Some days I feel like every waking hour is devoted to someone else, and that gets tiresome. But to have a little time to do something fun or creative, or relaxing—to do something just because it makes me happy for a little while—that helps me maintain some balance. It’s always been hard for me to find balance. I never thought of myself as a workaholic until recently—and I realized that’s not who I want to be. Sure, I have dreams, and goals, and high expectations for myself—but I’m not unique in that regard. Lots of us feel that way. But the trick, I think, is to not get to the point where we lose track of the little tasks that bring us joy and solace—those tasks don’t make it onto the to-do list. They don’t get ticked off every day. But I think maybe they should.

What really set me on this path was when my fella surprised me with a new set of paint brushes last week for my birthday. I was a little bummed at turning 41, thinking, “Where on earth did the last ten years go? What have I done with all of that time?”

The answer was: not quite all the things I wanted.

And then when the fella gave me brushes, I was surprised and delighted. But the best part was the reason he chose them: “I want you to spend more time doing what you love,” he said. And I thought, I want that, too. So I’m carving out a little more time each day to use those brushes, and plant some spring flowers—and even write that book I’ve been putting off. After all, doing what we love helps us cultivate balance and gratitude, and I don’t think we can have too much of that.

So how do you start? I made a list. If you had all the time in the world, what are five things you’d do for yourself—just yourself—we all want to spend time with our friends and most-loved people, but we need to think about ourselves for a minute, okay? Here are mine:

  1. Write novels
  2. Practice painting with new techniques
  3. Carve wood blocks to print
  4. Exercise
  5. Gardening
  6. Read
  7. Do something outside

That’s how I started. Five, plus a couple bonus items. So go ahead, make your list. Once things are written down, it’s easier to make them happen.

The Book that is So Hard to Write

I wonder if all writers have this book in us: the one that burns a hole in our brains, wakes us in the middle of the night with its people, and its scenes, and its heart crushing realness. It’s the one your mind drifts to during the day, and the one that hijacks your dreams. It’s the book that demands to be written, even when you’d rather be writing something else: something funny, something fluffy, something that’s more like fun, like escapism, like the reason you wanted to write to begin with.

This is the book that sneaks into everything, the one that your mind drifts to when it’s tired. This is the book that leaks into your other writings, the one that bleeds onto the page while you’re trying to shove it away and write something easier, something you think other people will like, something in line with your other books that people seem to enjoy.

This is not a fun book. It sinks its teeth into you. It leaves scars. It opens old wounds and laughs while it does so. It feels like fiction, and you call it fiction.

But it isn’t.

Not entirely.

This is the book that insists on being written. You try to tamp it down as you type, because it seems too heavy, too dark. It’s not fun like the others. There’s humor, sure, just like in your real life—but underneath is a current of something darker, something that has become more obvious to you as the years went by and your hair began to gray. You keep trying to steer the story in the direction you want it to go, but this book is stubborn. It’s not interested in what you want.

Soon it seeps into everything. And you have to write it, or else it expands, crowding out all of your other thoughts until your head feels like a pressure cooker, and you have no choice but to write the words it demands, and release the valve, and free up those parts of your brain that you need to do daily tasks, like shop for groceries and balance your checkbook.

This is the book that is so hard to write. It’s the thing that claws at you in the wee hours. The thing you don’t like to talk about unless you’ve had a few glasses of wine. It steals your breath sometimes, and it makes your chest hurt. This is not a pretty book. It might not have a happy ending. (In fact, you’re pretty sure it doesn’t.) It’s not a book they’ll one day make into a rom-com. It’s one that people you know will almost certainly see themselves in, and sometimes those people are close to you, and you wonder if those people will ever read your book, and if they’ll imagine themselves in the pages.

Most of what you write feels like fiction: it’s imagined, it’s constructed. It goes the way you planned. But this book—it feels raw. And though you disguise it with fictional characters and towns, it feels like you are revealing too much: you are telling too much truth. But you have to. This is the book that wants to be written. This is the book that has its claws in you. Often, writing it feels like a slog. The writing of this book does not come easy—not like your other books. You stare at blank pages until your eyes water. You think you are wasting your time. The pieces don’t fall neatly into place. The words are difficult to type. They are jagged, and sharp, and tear at your soft edges. They make you think this is the worst thing you have ever written.

But maybe, it’s the realest thing you’ve ever written.

This is not therapeutic. This book takes drags you into dark corners, and sometimes leaves you there. You don’t feel better after the words are on the page. But you know they have to be written. This is the book that has sunk its teeth into you. But this book has something that maybe your other books don’t have. It has a beating heart, just like the others, but this book has wounds and scars, just like you do. It has ragged edges and sharp corners. It might not end well, but it will end the way it must. It is like an arrow, piercing and true.

When you get to the end, it’s hard to describe. You don’t feel better. You don’t feel broken, but you do feel bruised. You feel like you did the thing that the story wanted you to do. But you feel exhausted, and vulnerable, and raw.

This is the book that is so hard to write.

Things I Learned from My Aunt Et

In December, my great-aunt Et passed away. In memory of her, I’m sharing this post again, which I wrote for her back in 2014, on her 88th birthday. (“Aunt Et”, by the way, sounds mysterious, sometimes French, when you say it aloud. It rolls off the tongue like “Aynette,” my uncle says. It was hard for us kids to say “Aunt Et,” in that proper way, and she hated to be called Esther, her given name, because she said, “It sounds like an old woman.”)

***

I come from one of those large Southern families where titles like “Aunt” and “Grandmother” are often given like a knighthood. I say “given,” but they are earned. Usually through love.

I was a lucky kid. I had a handful of grandmothers. Two were the mothers of my parents, but there were others—the honorary ones that I got as extras–like my great aunt, who has always been Et—a nickname that had stuck with her since she was a girl.

My Aunt Et spoiled me when I was a kid. I often stayed with her after school, and she let me eat cake batter out of a bowl while watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.” I still remember lying on the floor on a braided rug, licking batter off a spoon while watching Bo and Luke Duke go sailing into the air in slow motion in the General Lee. She never told my mother when I misbehaved (which was likely more often than I recall). She let me take bubble baths in her pink bathroom, and play with the special soaps and perfumes she probably got as gifts from friends. She has been a grandmother to me my whole life, sharing in my joys and hardships. I’ve learned a lot from her, but in honor of her 88th birthday today, I’ll list the ones that were most important.

 
1. Wash your hands. You’ll live longer. (And we all know where they’ve been.)

2. Cake tastes better when it’s shared.

3. The same goes for happiness and good news.

4. A girl can have as many grandmothers as she wants.

5. It’s easy to be kind. So why not be?

6. Everybody needs a second home, where they can eat cake batter with a big spoon, watch ridiculous t.v. shows, have tantrums over pimento cheese sandwiches, and not be judged.

7. Call your friends as often as you can. You’ll pick up right where you left off.

8. You can never say “I love you” too often.

9. Sometimes smiling at a stranger leads to a lifelong friendship.

10. Sometimes you have to buy a girl a big goofy stuffed parrot. Because years later, it will remind her that she did something well, and that someone noticed.

11. Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first—and often.

12. If you have a kind spirit, you will never be alone.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Et. I am a kinder person because of you.