The scrapping of a novel (and its rebirth)

Last you heard from me, I was coming back to work from my maternity leave, and expressing small (okay, medium) amounts of terror at the thought that it was also time to kick my creative life back into gear.

My creative life had been in neutral for pretty much a year. Plus, with another grey Chicago winter upon us, for the good of my soul (and my family’s happiness, so much of which is tied into my own happiness), I need to be working on something. A ridiculous short story? Sure. An unpublishable novel? Sure. A collection of poems about minestrone? Whatever. As long as I’m excited about the project and committed to seeing it through, I’ll do anything.

How about a project about me, Mom?

Uh . . . all I got is this:

You are so roly

your rolls bedazzle me, son

let me squeeze them now.

(No, it doesn’t rhyme, my son)

(It’s called haiku)

Anyway, there’s something about having gumbo bubbling around in your creative cauldron that just makes it harder to be sad/down/depressed/eating chocolates and popcorn because you’re not sure what else to do. Whether or not the gumbo is edible at the end–well, that’s not exactly the point.

The point is the process.

Everyone says so.

I say so.

Anyway! I blogged about choosing among my bajillion ideas and committing to a project, and I’m back to report that I HAVE COMMITTED.

And the project I picked makes a lot of sense. It’s a project I wrote and revised last year. Then it sat on the computer. I thought about querying it, but then I didn’t. I think part of me realized it wasn’t ripe (good job, Jenna’s Subconscious). When I opened up the document recently, I cataloged its problems. Unlikable heroine (again! Ugh). Slow pacing. Too much gratuitous description. Way too many scenes that didn’t further the plot. A cool set-up with a less-than-cool pay-off. Etcetera, etcetera. The thought of fixing it (mangling it and then trying to restitch it all back together) was too much (not to mention I didn’t want to create a Frankennovel), so there was only one solution:

I scrapped the novel, gathered its ashes into a small, sooty pile, and will henceforth try to birth a phoenix kind of a thing.

In other words, same characters, same story, but new writing. New pacing. New scenes, new dialogue, new structure, new new new.

The benefits of this are clear–I know the characters pretty well. After all, I’ve written a novel about them before, albeit a crappy one. I know the story and happen to love it, too. But there’s enough mystery in how I’m going to pull it off in this new and better-paced, page-turning way that I’m feeling that familiar exhilaration/fear.

Last night I was typing away and I felt a wonderful surge in my chest.

“I can do this!” I said.

Five minutes later,

“I don’t think I can pull it off,” I said.

Then I remembered–this is what it’s like to write a book. A wave of confidence followed by a wave of fear. You’re holding puzzle pieces but you don’t see how they’re going to fit together. You’re not even sure, in fact, that all the pieces are from the correct puzzle.

Sometimes the words flow. The scenes make sense. You’re on a roll. And, other times, like the Grinch, you sit there until your puzzler is sore, without typing a word, and you think I’m never getting out of this one. Then, in the middle of a hot shower as you’re singing Rudolph the Reindeer in harmony with an imaginary Fred Astaire, suddenly the solution comes to you and you rush out only mostly rinsed because you’d better write it down before it all evaporates.

The up-and-down of confidence and fear–it’s been so long since I’ve felt it.

And it’s good.

It’s the process.

It’s what I’ve been wanting. Waiting for. Longing for.

Hallelujah! Bring on the challenge.

The logline: why to write one (hint: getting more full requests!)

What the heck is a logline? I asked myself as I reviewed the submission requirements for an agent near the beginning of my querying journey about three years ago. Google informed me that a logline is a one-sentence pitch, or hook. It should clearly state the central conflict in your story. The components of the conflict are three: the protagonist, his/her goal, and the antagonist. You also have to think about conveying the setting, tone (quirky? dark? both?) and uniqueness-factor of your story in only a handful of words.

In other words, when it comes to the loggo-lino, strip it down. We’re talking about doing surgery to identify the spinal cord of your story. Don’t tell the world the full background of your trauma-laden heroine, why she chose to be a vegan chef and why she’s always been interested in graphic design but feels held back and how her dog Spot is truly a comfort on all those lonely nights and how her freckle, if you look close, is actually a miniature tattooed map of the cosmos.

Actually, do tell me about her freckle, and then why it’s a problem. Like this.

When a vegan chef finds that her freckle is a miniature tattooed map of the cosmos . . .

yeah, that has a good ring to it. What next?

. . . predicting the end of the world, she must devise a plan to save the human race–in twenty-four hours.

I will call this novel The Freckle of Lisa.

And it will be a trilogy.

And it will be a bestselling trilogy.

And I will never write it.


The internet told me that, as an aspiring writerly person, I should have a logline ready to fling out in elevators at all the potential agents and editors I was going to meet at all the conferences I was going to attend.





and then I passed out because all that screaming renders one breathless.

Thankfully the field in the submission form was optional. So I left if blank.

It wasn’t until two years later that the logline came back into my life via the back door.

There I was, sitting in front of my computer and contemplating the insane and awesome event that is PitchMadness, followed by #PitMad on Twitter, and I realized that it was time to write a 35-word pitch for the two novels I was querying. And even more challenging: a 40-character pitch for the Twitter event.

I opened up a blank Word doc.

I stared at it for a while.

Clearly, I wanted to cover character, setting and stakes–stabbing (with words) the heart of the conflict–and leave room on Twitter for the genre and event hashtags. Wow, this was going to be hard.

And it was . . . but it also wasn’t.

At the core, it was awesome. Condensing years of work, two novels of over a hundred thousand words each, and plots that I had labored over for so long, into a handful of words–let’s just say the experience was like scrubbing down with a powerful loofah. It hurt a bit, but then you step out of the shower all steamy and pink with your new skin, and you feel great. Refreshed, clean, empowered and beautiful.

So I challenge you, whether or not you’re planning on participating in events like PitchMadness or PitMad, to write 40-word summaries of your projects. I liked what I wrote so much that (with slight changes) I sent out a fresh batch of queries with the zingy plot summary right at the top, and whaddya know, my percentage of full requests ratcheted up significantly.

Turns out that having a logline is productive even if you’re not bold, charming, attending conferences and riding in elevators constantly.

Some helpful posts on the mechanics of writing a dang good one can be found here and here.


Now go forth and write loglines, my gorgeous writing friends! I promise you won’t be sorry.

Commitment problems

I admit it.  I have commitment problems.

When I started writing in 2014, I followed my spark of inspiration, wrote a novel in what felt like a fit of passion, queried, revised, revised again, queried again. Then I got another idea . . . and did it all again. And again. I was committed to each of those three ideas. Passionately committed. You couldn’t have paid me to walk away from them.

Enter November 2016, when I stalled out with a potential fourth novel.

This sudden creative wall coincided with the time I got pregnant with our new addition, Isaac, now suddenly 3 months old (whoa).

(culprit for creativity low pictured below)


(hello cutie)

It’s a verifiable fact–for me–that when pregnant and nursing, I slump creatively. (Yep, this ain’t my first time on the baby-making rodeo circuit)

I truly believe that this is because my creativity is redirected to creating a human, and subsequent to birth, creating nourishment for said human.

It goes something like this:

My brain: “Oooh, let’s write that scene where the heroine decides to kill her brother-in-law.”

My body: “NOOOOPE! Making fingernails today. Sorry. Ten fingernails in production.”

Brain: “Oh, okay. I guess I’ll eat this gigantic pile of French fries instead.”

Body: “Now we’re talking.”

Brain: “Maybe I can write that scene later . . .”

Body: “Hey. Less talking more eating.”

Brain: ”    ”

Body: *munch*

So for the past year, when it comes to writing, I’ve been dithering. Philandering. Writing a chapter of this, a page of that. A poem here, a poem there. A short story that makes no sense. Another one that could be great, except a few pages in I cruelly abandoned it. I’ve probably written the first five pages of about a dozen projects over the past year.

However, now I’m back at work. Maternity leave is over. Life is resuming. Can’t just sit on the couch eating bonbons and crumpets anymore, dangit (because that’s of course what happens during maternity leave).

So. Time to commit.

And, just like the stereotypical bachelor who’s freaking out at the idea of committing to his love interest, I am FREAKING OUT at the idea of committing to one of my many, many, manymanymany ideas. I have to do it. I have to walk down the dang aisle, put the ringonit, and before a host of witnesses I must say: I WILL FINISH THIS PROJECT. Come riches, poverty, sickness health, with or without that zit on my chin that is distracting as all get-out, come sleep or no sleep, in rainsnowsunshine (wait, that’s the mailman), but you get the idea, I WILL FINISH THIS PROJECT.

Now . . . which one?

Don’t believe the dream

“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” sings Cinderella in the Disney movie, “when you’re fast asleep … No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

Okay, I’m not hating on Cinderella here (there’s too much to love about the character of Gus-Gus). Also, the scene where her stepsisters rip her homemade ball gown apart makes me cry to this day.

And yes, I know it’s a fairy tale. But seriously, the lines of that song always gall me.

“Will come true?”


I wish that believing made things come true. But it doesn’t. All it takes is a little dose of life to teach you that. I mean, there are just so many things that are out of our control. Like meeting the right romantic partner at that perfect moment, preferably when you’re a glowing 21-year-old, un-jaded, free of entanglements and–why not–wearing that perfect dress that makes us look just-so (and, ehem, having someone capture the moment on Instagram, why not). Or having a baby when you envisioned–easily and quickly and at that perfect moment in your career. Or getting that ‘dream job’ that satisfies you on the level of life-meaning and also doesn’t stress you out too much.

Yeah, no. Life just doesn’t deliver dreams on a platter like that. It forces us to leave some dreams aside. And this can hurt, if they’ve really grown into our hearts–think un-anesthetized surgery. I’m talking serious pain. Unfulfilled dreams force us to re-imagine our lives. Bend, and then bend again, and hopefully not break in the process. And then, sometimes, break.

“That’s a grim view of the world,” I can hear some of you saying.

But I don’t believe it is. Hear me out here.

I’ve had the chance this year to do some thinking about the phrase ‘hopes and dreams.’ Those two words are so often paired together, almost as if they were synonymous.

Lightbulb moment for me: they are not.

To me, realizing the difference between the two has been an important part of my emotional health. After being in the doldrums in the early months of 2017, one of my realizations (along with the fact that grey skies seriously, truly affect my state of mind and that I needed to order a full-spectrum lamp STAT) has been: I’ve been hoping in the wrong things. Because I’ve conflated hopes and dreams when they should remain friendly but separate.

Misplaced hope veers you off-course. It takes you down a road that doesn’t deliver.

Let’s back up. So … what is hope?

Hope, for me, is the bright light that I’m walking towards. It’s the vision of the thing I want that propels and motivates me to keep walking every day, to keep working, to let disappointments roll over me and then to keep on swimming. Hope is a direction, a goal, that glimmer of a future prize that makes you happy to be alive and satisfied that you’re working towards something worthwhile. Hope is about what you value–that thing about which you can say, “I want to invest my life and energy and time {or large chunks of it} in THIS.”

Hope is stronger when it doesn’t have a timeline.

Hope births resilience.

Hope is your pair of shoes for the long haul.

Hope is stronger when it’s about a personal journey rather than that very specific (and frequently time-bound) goal that requires the elusive “luck” ingredient. In other words, hoping to become a better writer will have more satisfying results than hoping to make it as big as J. K. Rowling.

And dreams–what are they? To me, dreams are shiny fantasies. They can look suspiciously like hope–that pot-of-gold glimmer that makes you get out of bed and run hard after it until you fall into bed exhausted. But unlike the line in Cinderella, “the dreams that you wish will come true,” so frequently our dreams don’t.

Dreams I’ve had that will no longer happen:

-Being a curvaceous bombshell like Marilyn. Sorry, thirty-three-year-old body, it ain’t in the cards.

-Becoming a world-famous actress. Yep, that dream died the day I stepped on stage at twelve years old, completely fumbled my lines and realized that I hated every part of acting and seriously sucked at it.

-Winning the lottery. (Of course, I’d have to actually play to win.)

See how dreams aren’t exactly dependable, solid-ground type things?

Dreams can be fun. I’m not dissing on dreams. And as long as it’s not unhealthy for you on an emotional level, go nuts in your imagination every now and then. Imagine yourself on the red carpet, or eating sushi on a yacht,  or rocking out on stage with guitar skills that rival Jimi Hendrix’s, or whatever.

Have dreams–but know that they can and will die. Not always. But frequently.

Maybe there’s a reason why the word ‘shattered’ often gets paired with ‘dreams.’ Shattered dreams. Only fragile things shatter.

Hope is not so fragile. Or rather, we should aim to strengthen it so that it can’t shatter as easily as a dream.

When it comes to hope, I find that I’ve got to divorce it from my dreams. For my sanity and ability to run the long race, my hope has to stay rooted in reality–in things I can actually accomplish. Things that aren’t stars in the sky, but earth underfoot. When hope gets tangled into dreams, the disappointments, the rejection, the delays–all that stuff–can become damaging and leave you limping along the road like a wounded animal (read: me earlier this year).

Dream big. But be careful where you place your hope. It requires special care and special safeguards, because it’s the thing that keeps you going.

From my perspective as a writer?

My dream: to get a literary agent in the next few months, followed by a traditional publishing deal within the year, followed by many other book deals in years to come, until I’m making enough to support my family by writing.

My hope: to become a better writer. To grow in the craft of storytelling. To get my work out there some day (which, ultimately, I can decide to do via self-publishing). And to make a little money off of my writing (which I can also do, because my sister will totally by a 99 cent Kindle copy of anything I put out there, so there’s a buck in the bank!–thanks, Erica). And I’m not putting a timeline on any of this, because I think timelines can be real hope-killers.

See the difference?

And what about my ultimate hope?

Well, anyone who’s been following me for a while knows about that.

And I encourage everyone to find that solid ground upon which to plant their hope.

Only firmly planted hope can get us through a life that will include delayed, shrunken or just plain shattered dreams. And this isn’t a sad or cynical view of life. It’s hopeful. We were made to last. We were made to weather. We were made to persevere.

Dreams don’t define you; they come and go. But your hope will define you. It has the power to make you road-weary or road-worthy. So invest wisely.

So, friends. Allow me a battle cry:

Find your hope, plant your flag in it, and march on.

Ten things to avoid in a query letter

As someone who has been in the querying trenches for years, I’ve picked up a few things along the way. In my early days of searching for agents, I stalked various websites which helped me figure out how to query. (Which ones, you ask? You can always start with Queryshark and work your way through the brilliant and painful archives. Then you can check out Miss Snark’s First Victim and go from there). Still, my early queries were rife with things that, now, make me shudder.

May I pretty please share them with you? To save you the pain? Because I already went through it and why should you have to as well?

Okay, thanks.

Here are ten things to avoid in your query letter:

1. Talk about themes. Pretty much, don’t. In my early queries I had sentences like, ‘this story examines the importance of blah blah blah in a society that blah blah blah’ or ‘this story is about the strength it takes to be a woman in a man’s world, which I really care about, because blah blah blah.’

Are themes important? Heck yes. Your story should have them. They can really drive your writing and fuel your inspiration, plus they give the book dimensionality and meaning. I love themes. BUT. Your prospective agent does not want to read about them now. Because if the story is crap, no one will ever read long enough to get to the theme. Story is king. Tell the story. Leave the themes for later.

The only occasion I’ve found it appropriate to add a few words about a theme is when I’ve come across an agent’s Manuscript Wish-List (via Twitter, their blog or agency profile) and it resonates with my project. So if I see that Agent Jane Smithy-Smith says, “Looking for feminist stories that speak to our political climate,” I’ll darn well point out that my story is a feminist story that speaks to our political climate.

2. Forget to present the stakes in your story. When you’re pitching the story, the stakes have to be crystal clear. Don’t describe a sequence of events (the plot) without saying what the hero/heroine stands to lose. Is it the trust of all their loved ones? Their life? The hard-earned $5 the neighbor lady gave them? Stakes. It’s all about stakes.

3. Address the wrong agent or send the wrong materials. This may go without saying, but triple-check that the agent’s name is correctly spelled and that the up-front materials they’re asking for are included in the format requested (5 pages, synopsis, 10 pages, nothing but the query, materials pasted or attached). When you’re querying dozens and dozens of agents, copying and pasting bits of old query letters and writing new personalized paragraphs talking about why you think you’d be a good fit for them and vice versa, these things can be easier than you think to overlook.

4. Front-load the query with information about yourself. Your main selling point right now is the story you’ve written, so wham-bam them with that. Open with a one-sentence zinger, give them the title, genre and word-count, then proceed into a few paragraphs that lead the agent into the world of your story (this part should read like a book jacket and leave the agent on a deliciously tantalizing cliffhanger).

5. Talk about how this book is part of a trilogy/series, or try to pitch other works you’ve completed. At least for us unpublished peeps, for now, we are pitching ONE STORY. And that story must stand alone (even if you believe in its series potential, or have already started working on sequels). So you have two other finished novels that are also works of genius, as well as three sequels to the work you’re querying. Let that be a bonus surprise when an agent offers to represent you. Focus on the one story you are selling.

This is a mistake I made early on. I wrote a book but envisioned it as part of a trilogy. I though, ‘trilogies are great. This is a selling point.’ No. It was an anti-selling point. Every single agent was like, ‘It needs to stand alone. If you’re an unpublished author, it is very unlikely you would sell a trilogy up front.’ I had some trouble getting that through my thick skull, so just trust me on this one.

6. Use adjectives to describe your own writing. You are not your own critic–it’s not your job to describe your work as ‘smart, thrilling story about …’ or a ‘beautifully-written poetic elegy to teenage heartbreak.’ And heaven forbid you use the word ‘bestseller’ or say anything about how your work is ‘ripe for a movie deal.’ No, no, no. This will come across as braggadocio. Let the reviewers do this when you’re published and everyone is drooling over you in Goodreads. Instead, find that happy balance between confidence and humility (both in your words and in your spirit–it’s a delightful combination).

7. Describe how much your beta-readers or crit-partners love your work. Or just as bad, how much that one agent loved your work even though she turned it down because it was a little outside her area. No, no, no. Not saying their praise isn’t legitimate, but this will make you seem desperate. Play it cool. Let your work speak for itself.

8. Over-complicate the description of your story. So your story has twists and turns. It has subplots. Many characters. Changes of setting. Maybe even its own language. Maybe dragons are called Kilim and teapots are called Klitkat and are revered by the Tea Ceremony Masters. That’s cool. BUT. You should under no circumstances lay this all out or you will confuse the crap out of the agent reading your query.

The short-and-sweet format of the query letter is awesome because it will force you to really examine the barest of bare bones of each story. Who is the main character, what world are they moving in, what is their goal, who/what is their antagonist, what are the stakes? You don’t need to spell out the detours, emotional ups and downs and twists right now. Keep it simple and make it go ‘wham!’ We’re not sprinkling gossamer streams of drifting fairy dust here. We’re knocking them out with a sucker-punch.

9. Combine a bunch of genres or say that your work defies genre. The truth is, you can write hybrid, genre-defying works. BUT. Even if you’re written a masterful speculative thriller with a hint of magical realism and a fantasy subplot, choose the most prominent genre and label it accordingly in your query. Define your work simply, even if your work is not simple. And by all means, don’t refuse to label it. Just because it’s your baby doesn’t mean it can’t wear a bar code proudly. Research your genre and label your work appropriately and concisely.

10. Describe too much about your personal life. When I started querying, I embarrassingly felt the need to lay out the full story of why I started writing in the first place. That was so not needed at that point. Remember that your query is a professional letter. Yes, toss in a couple personal details. After all, you’re not a cardboard cut-out and you don’t want to sound like one. But don’t go all sharey with agents either. They aren’t your BFF’s–yet. Everything in due time.

Any others that come to mind for you?

And does anyone else get a kick out of writing query letters like I do, or am I just a freak? Don’t get me wrong–it hurts at first. But through sheer stubbornness and determination, you work and work at it, and polish and hone, and read blog posts that make you destroy your query and start again, and whaddya know if you don’t end up with something you kinda like. It’s a good feeling.