2013 was a bad year for writing.

I was in a slump. A bad one. I was on the wrong side of an emotional roller coaster. To stick with that analogy, I hit a high peak early in the year, then plummeted downwards, went off the rails, and crashed in a ball of flames. It was bad.

It was all because of one manuscript. It was an exceptionally strong first draft, and I had the best of all hopes for it: it was going to be published, it was going to be amazing. All my hopes and dreams for publication rode on this beautiful little pile of words. I loved it! My betas loved it! It was great! But then I edited it, and the editing was hard. And I edited more, and I grew to hate it. And I queried it, and absolutely no one wanted it.

No amount of rationalizing, logic, common sense, and emotional moderation worked. I was so sad I couldn’t write. When I could write, I hated everything I created. I forced myself to write, and it was awful. I had writer’s block, and bad–and it lingered for months.

Here’s how I pulled out.

1. I joined a writing community.

To be more specific, I joined Absolute Write. But any will do, as long as it fills your needs.

I have always been a hermit. I talked shop with my one friend who writes, and I had no interest in a community. I could do my research all by myself, thank you very much!

I was wrong. Absolute Write helped.

Weirdly, what helped the most–at least when I was sad–were the “Outwitting Writer’s Block” and the “Rejection and Dejection” forums, two of the saddest places on AW. This is where people who are struggling post–the ones who are having a hard time writing anything, who are having major crises of confidence, or who did their best and still didn’t reach the goals they were hoping for. They’re not happy places.

But they helped. I was sad, too. And realizing that I wasn’t alone was liberating. I wasn’t just uniquely bad–I was in the same vulnerable place as a legion of other authors. And better yet, many of them had broken through and gotten better, and I could, too.

2. I got a new, impartial beta.

I normally have one beta who reads all my stuff. This normally works fine… except for this novel. He had already read it twice. We had talked it to death. He had nothing more to share.

So I got a new beta, and intentionally got the harshest, most brutally honest one I could find. I was convinced that my novel needed a complete rewrite to be salvageable. So I asked Mr. Brutally Honest Reviewer to do his worst.

The conclusion: It didn’t need a total rewrite. The bones were good. The story flowed well. The first 1/4 of the story needed to be restructured, one character didn’t work, and there were a few key moments that were totally bewildering.

I was thrilled. He was proposing a huge amount of work, but it was specific. I was coming from an emotional place of “I don’t know what’s wrong, so I’m guessing it’s EVERYTHING, and it ALL needs to be tossed.” Meanwhile, his review was a light in the darkness: The story was good. The characters were fine. I didn’t need to change much. The worldbuilding in the first 1/4 of the novel was rough. We could work on that. He had specific ideas.

And suddenly, I had a plan. I had homework. I could do something.

3. I started writing short stories.

By this point, my writer’s block was already beginning to crack. It was early 2014 and I hadn’t written anything significant since, oh… September 2013? I was ready to get back in the saddle. The new beta had given me hope, and I was busily fixing my novel. But I also wanted to write new stuff.

But I wasn’t quite ready to write a new novel. So I finally gave in, got a Duotrope subscription, and started writing short stories.

I started with 3 short stories. I sent them to 3 very different markets, and one of them sold. A couple months later, another story sold AND placed in a short story contest.

This was the first time in my entire life I had ever been published. Sure, they were semi-pro markets. They weren’t the best of the best. But who cares? They were competitive publications, and they paid me. And they meant I had gone from “completely unpublished, anywhere” to “published” barely 3 months after I wrote my first short story.

It was a huge, huge confidence boost. Someone on this earth liked my writing enough to read it.

And that was it. I was free.  My writer’s block was, ultimately, a result of a lack of confidence. It was agonizing to watch a promising manuscript turn into a grueling edit job and a disappointing query. What healed me was perspective–the very real reminder that I was being overly harsh to myself, that my manuscript could be helped, and that my writing had worth.

I know–and I hope everyone who reads this knows–that you can’t use other people to replace the confidence you don’t have in yourself. But when I got into that dark, dark place, locked in my own thoughts and obsessing over my own mistakes, it helped to have someone shine a light on it and say, “See? That’s just you thinking harsh things about yourself. Here’s the truth.” And that’s what I needed to see.

Advertisements

It’s a busy week! So instead of a proper post, here’s a link I found fascinating. This is from agent Sarah LaPolla, and it discusses what to keep in mind (and to not get too hung up on) when writing for the teens of the 21st century. And if that doesn’t make you feel old, the tweet that started it might:

Yep. And here’s the blog post:

Glass Cases: Writing for the 21st Century

First off, WriteOnCon! I didn’t talk about it much ahead of time, but I participated. (And now it’s over, so this won’t be useful to anyone who didn’t already know about it.) WriteOnCon is a once-a-year, online-only “writing convention” for people who write anything in the range of picture books to New Adult. (So while they say “kidlit,” they mean anyone who isn’t writing adult.)

There were Twitter pitches and some Q&As, but the real gem was the forums. You could post your query, your first 250 words, and your first 5 pages. You got feedback. You gave feedback.

And it was fun! The community was helpful and enthusiastic. I got a metric ton of advice on my query. And now, armed with a better query and a boatload of encouragement, I am confident that I’m ready. I’m going to go query some agents.

But you know what? I’m not going to talk about it.

Here is a wonderful post talking about why. Once upon a time, on an earlier project, I kept a running count of how many rejections I got. And I posted about it! And oh my goodness gracious, why did I do that? Can you imagine? What agent would want to look someone up and say, “Hey, look! They’ve queried 20 people! I guess I was choice #21 and everyone else said no!” Yeaaaaah. Uh. That’s terrible.

So, yeah. I am querying. It is happening. Send me your good vibes and best wishes. I’m just not going to talk about it.

I generally blog about writing tips and books I’ve read. This is rough, because I was reading this last week:

Illustration of three children and a shadowy figure in the background.

Hotlinked from the Aoitori Bunko website.

It’s elementary school fiction. In Japanese. For 6th graders. It’s about some elementary kids who start a mystery club and hunt down the legendary thief, Papillon. And it is, obviously, nothing I would really write a book review about. This is just fun, random nonsense I’m reading to keep up my ever-decaying Japanese skills.

I’ve been busy otherwise. Real life got in the way for a long, long time, and now I’m finally putting the last-last edits on my manuscript so I can submit it to agents. I’m hoping to do that in a month or so. More about that later!

In the meantime, have this article from Writer’s Digest about overcoming self-doubt in writing:

Author C.C. Hunter Explains How to Overcome Self-Doubt | WritersDigest.com.

So you’ve written something. You think it’s in a reasonable place, and now you want to find someone to read it. You’re excited and scared–someone is going to read your work! What if they hate it? What if they love it? What do you do?

I get it. It’s uncomfortable. And while I could write a list about what you should do, I’ve encountered so many faux pas lately that I’m writing about what you shouldn’t do instead.

Seriously. Please don’t do these things. They make me want to flip tables. And I shouldn’t be flipping tables when I’m supposed to be reading your work, right?

1. Don’t insult your work. Ever.

Seriously. Never. Never, ever, ever. No, not even then.

It’s very common. Someone asks you to beta their story, waits for you to agree, and vividly explains how they hate it with every fiber of their being. They cannot let you read this thing without you knowing that they know it’s deeply flawed. “It’s really awful. I have no idea how to make it suck less. Thanks so much for offering to read it anyway.” “Thanks for reading! Just FYI, the characterization is just total trash–everyone’s completely two-dimensional right now.”

Don’t. Don’t! I know how tempting this is. I did it for years. But believe me when I say it makes the entire beta experience worse. You are NOT being modest, and you’re NOT being refreshingly honest.

Look, we’ve all heard about giving constructive criticism to other people. If you’re describing your work, that advice goes for you, too. If you want a beta to look at something, you explain–neutrally–what specific issues you want them to look for. Something like “I think the pacing is slow in the middle. Can you help me figure out what to cut?” or “Can you tell me what you think about the characterization development?”

“I am really fed up with this story, I don’t know what to do, it’s terrible and awful and I don’t know how to fix it, HELP ME D:” is a feeling I understand. But you can’t tell your beta that.

If you do, you will change the tone of the review. I can look at specific, neutral issues. But when someone opens with an emotional dump, I start reading between the lines: You told me all that because you’re really uncomfortable sharing your work. You are afraid of this beta. You are so sure I’m going to say something mean that you’re bashing your self esteem before I even read it. And this is a terrible way to start a beta.

And that brings me to recommendation #2.

2. Don’t rely on betas to improve your self esteem.

Do you know what I want to do when I read a story?

  • Identify potential issues.
  • Explain why I think these are issues.
  • Suggest ways to fix them, with the understanding that the author can (if I’ve explained my concerns well enough) take or leave my changes or find other ways to address the core problems.
  • Identify things that work well. Explain why.

It’s like work. I do an analysis, explain my logic, and write down suggestions. I do NOT want to:

  • Worry that my recommendations will be used by the author to attack themselves because “they knew their story was awful” and my review is “proof.”
  • Comfort authors (particularly if they’re strangers) who are so upset about their story that they need to be talked down to a calmer place before they can even accept critique.
  • Live with the burden that my feedback is going to make a perfect stranger continue or abort a project.

Here’s how this connects to suggestion #1: If someone comes to me with constructive concerns, I assume we’ll be doing the stuff in the first list. If someone comes to me and immediately dumps on their story, I worry about the things on the second list.

Is that fair of me? Maybe not. I don’t want to be mean. I never want to be mean. But a beta should be a non-emotional, professional exchange. There shouldn’t be any judgements. I’m just making a list of potential problems and suggestions.

And if you open our discussion by dumping on your work, I immediately know I have to be extra careful not to hurt you. And this means my beta is going to be worse, and I’m going to be worrying more about you than the work.

3. If someone identifies problems with your story, don’t assume that it means you are a bad writer.

Writing is a skill. When you’re just starting out, you will have a lot to learn. And no matter how experienced we are, we always seem to hit ruts where we just keep making the same mistakes. We learn. We grow. And learning isn’t shameful.

If you make mistakes in your stories, it’s not because you’re bad, worthless, awful, or talentless. You’re just learning. We’re all learning. It’s fine.

So if a beta finds a bunch of things wrong, you can’t turn around and say “You’re right. My story wasn’t perfect. That means I will never publish, I will never be an author, my work is all worthless, and now I have to give it up forever.” No! No.

If I find a problem in a novel, I don’t think the author is stupid or worthless. I think the novel could be improved. That’s it. And if you agree with me, I hope that my review will help you analyze what you did so you can write better novels in the future. And sometimes my advice is just weird, overly specific, and not what you had in mind. Don’t feel bad about those. I have a lot to learn about being a good beta, too.

But you can’t get your self-worth tied up in this. A beta isn’t about identifying whether you are a good writer or whether your novel is worthwhile.

So that’s it. Please. Let’s make betas calm and clinical. Let’s treat them like work or workshops or creative writing classes. It’ll make betas better for everyone.

It’s been years since I was a teenager, but I was everything you’d expect from a young, naive writer. I thought I was great at writing, I wanted to major in it, and I was determined to write for a living. I was a novelist. A writer! All I had to do was, you know, finish a novel. But I loved to write, so clearly I was destined for something special.

Ah, youth. Here’s what I wish someone had told me.

1. Finish Everything You Start

Finishing is everything. I now believe that it’s more important than skill. It certainly more important than perfection. Finishing a project is literally the most important skill you can ever learn. It doesn’t matter how well you write if you can’t see a project through to the end.

I spent my teenage years writing the opening chapters of dozens stories. I wrote scenes. I created characters. I created supplementary languages and poems. But I didn’t actually finish a manuscript until I was 21 years old. (Then it took me 3 more years to write one that was the correct length for my genre.) I loved writing, but I had nothing to show for it until my mid-20s. And that’s awful.

Do you want someone else to edit your work? Finish it. Do you want to submit it somewhere? Well, you aren’t going to submit the first 4 chapters. Even if your first novel is trash and you hate it and you know it’s deeply, profoundly flawed, finish it. You can do something with an imperfect manuscript. You can’t do anything meaningful with a fragment of a story.

2. Write For Every Market You Can

I’ve known since I was very young that I wanted to write novel-length fantasy. So that’s what I did. I wrote nothing but fantasy novels, all the time. And since writing novels is hard, that meant I just never published anything.

But oh, short stories are wonderful. It takes me less than a week to write, edit, polish, and submit one, and 2-3 months to get a response. It takes me about a year to write, edit, and re-edit a single novel (and I still haven’t gotten an agent.)

But the moment I started writing short stories, I started getting publishing credits. And you know what? I can put that on an agent query. Now I don’t have to shyly, innocently avoid the fact that I’m unpublished.

So be flexible. Write your novels and finish them in a timely manner. But write short stories, too. And articles. Anything. Write for any legitimate market that will take you. That’s way better than being unpublished and waiting until your novel gets lucky.

3. Write in any Genre You Can

And, finally, don’t limit yourself to what you love. Every genre can teach you something about the art of writing.

My journalism degree taught me loads about being pithy. (You probably can’t tell. But trust me, I was much worse before.) Professional communications taught me how to simply describe complicated topics. All these made me think about my writing, and all of them made me better at it.

So don’t be afraid of non-fiction. Write for everything. Anything. If you like it, do it. If it pays, try it.

I still have a lot to learn, of course. I’ve only sold two short stories. But I finally have a goal, a plan, and a little success to show for it. I wish I had been this organized ten years ago.

I’ve been reviewing works in progress for folks on Absolute Write’s Beta Readers, Mentors, and Writing Buddies board. (Which is an amazing place if you really want to get a story reviewed, by the way. I got 4 offers in under 24 hours for my 70,000 YA fantasy novel.) One of them taught me how to make EPUB files.

And it makes sense. Unless you’re asking for line edits (and none of the people I was reading for were) you don’t have to read an 80,000-word novel on the computer. So it’s apparently very common to convert the file into a quick-and-dirty EPUB file so you can read it on an e-reader.

Making a professional, polished EPUB would take a lot more time and care than what I’m showing here. But if you just need something for a beta partner? Here’s how you’d do it!

Please note that I write everything in Microsoft Word 2010, and that’s what I’m using in this tutorial. (These features exist in every version of Word from 2007 and onwards, however.)

1. Start with a well-formatted Word file.

So, I started with my .DOCX file. “Well-formatted” means:

  • Chapter headers are marked using Word’s “Heading 1” style. (You can customize this style so that it looks how you want it to. The important part is that the headers are flagged as headers.)
  • Each new chapter starts on its own page. It’s easiest to do this with a hard page break (which you can do by hitting Control+Enter).
  • Use 12 pt Times New Roman font. Or Courier, I guess. Courier looks awful.
  • Double-space the document.

2. Save your file as a “Web Page.”

This is under Save as > Save as Type. Select “Web Page” from the drop-down menu. This saves your manuscript as an .HTML file.

3. Open your HTML file in Calibre.

Calibre is a free-to-use program that creates EPUBs. It’s also very easy to use.

Screenshot showing a list of chapters.

Screenshot showing how Calibre has broken my story automatically into chapters.

  1. Go to Add Books. Select your HTML file.
  2. Go to Convert Books. Select “Convert Individually.”
  3. There are a lot of conversion options. You don’t have to change anything. I changed the metadata so that my story’s title and my author information were correct. Then I hit “OK.”
  4. Give it a few seconds to convert.
  5. Right-click your newly created story. Select “Edit Book.”

Now you can change whatever you want. If you marked all your headers correctly in Word, your book should already be organized into chapters, just like the screenshot to the right.

If you want to add a table of contents, you can add it by going to Tools > Table of Contents > Insert inline Table of Contents.

Calibre will add its own generic cover page. You can change that if you want. I don’t have custom art (and I’m not going to make any for beta readers), but I didn’t like the default cover, so I went to the title page slide and deleted the “SVG” tags and everything inside them.

I didn’t do anything special in Calibre. I find it’s much easier to do all the special formatting in Word. You can make changes to your novel in Calibre, but it requires some knowledge of HTML/XHTML.

And that’s it! Now you’ve got one shiny new EPUB, ready for all your non-professional needs.