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To Be What You Are: Lessons From New York

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This weekend, I was privileged enough (okay, I worked me arse off) to be able to attend the Writer’s Digest Conference East for the second year in a row. Last year was an eye-opening experience, and I wasn’t sure what to expect this time, heading into the conference with my agent at my side.

Most of all, when I left DC Friday morning having had only one measly hour of quasi-sleep after a 5 AM pharmacy run, I was looking forward to being just a writer for a weekend. I know, I know. Not the highest of aspirations. But when you work a day job and manage to write full time around your other full time hours, having only one job for a weekend is like a warm spring breeze ruffling your hair. Especially when that one job is the one you love more than anything.

Now, I’m gonna get a little sentimental here for a second. I’ve been to New York multiple times, easily five or six times by now, and still when I get close to the city something buoys me on the inside. I couldn’t help cranking Spotify over to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys singing Empire State of Mind as we crossed under the East River through the Lincoln Tunnel. New York IS the Empire State Building of publishing. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. And for me, New York is a city built with books.

Last January, I remember stumbling across the Random House building and seeing the careful shelves of books from floor to ceiling. Like a shrine, like a dedication, like a remembrance, like an homage all in one. New York is books to me. And crossing the river into the city, seeing the bustle overtake us — the song sort of became truth for me.

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of

There’s nothing you can’t do.

Now you’re in New York

These streets will make you feel brand new

Big lights will inspire you.

Because as warm and fuzzy and shiny as it might sound, every time I go to New York I feel it. It’s a city born of possibility, of millions of people just trying and trying to get farther, move upward, dream. It’s a city that got hit with heart-rending tragedy and rebuilt. It’s the place where writers, musicians, actors, singers, architects, businesspeople — all these people aching for more — it’s where they go to bring the hope in their minds to life.

It’s not a perfect city. It’s smashed as many dreams as it’s allowed to soar. But it’s the hope and possibility that keeps people coming back, generation after generation.

That’s what I went into the weekend with. Blame my sentimentality on having only an hour of sleep.

One of the first sights that greeted me as I stared out the bus window somewhere around 37th Street was a group of men clearing rubbish from a building. The rubbish they were moving filled gray bags in equal bundles. They tossed those bundles from person to person in perfect, precise rhythm. And they did it with smiles, taking some small amount of joy from their harmonic motions.

Just a small thing, but it’s those small things sometimes that bear witness to something greater. Do what you do. Be what you are.

When I’m at my day job, I do my job well. Everyone has their bad days, and I have mine too. But I try to be what I am in that moment. As soon as I drove into New York, I felt at liberty to be the most authentic me.

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I could write five thousand words about the weekend. About how amazing my agent Jessica Negrón is in person and how fortunate I am to have someone like her as my advocate. She’s a hell of a woman to have in my corner. I could tell you how we talked into the wee hours about the business of publishing and those intricate little details that would probably bore most people to tears. I could also tell you that we followed the recommendation of some Tweeps and waited over an hour to get into Serendipity’s 3 and glut ourselves on carrot cake and their signature frozen hot chocolate.

Or I could just show you...

Or I could just show you…

I could sit here and write about how great it was to get to know my writer friend Kevin Klein (guys, he’s awesome) better and get to be the sounding board for his pitch practice. Tell you about the Bruce Willis look-alike P.I. we met (whose actual name is James Michaels, and he writes supernatural investigator stories) and how I am still secretly hoping he’ll yell “Yipee-ki-yay, mother fuckers!” in my presence someday. James was a high point for our entire little gaggle — his friendly exuberance and kindness were just over the top and awesome. I could go on about the badass H.E. Goodhue, with whom I had an eerie amount of life experiences in common, from teaching students with Emotional Disturbance (though he still fights that good fight, and I don’t) to traveling around Scotland. He also writes zombie stories and is well-versed in martial arts.

I could tell you about how much I loved getting to meet agents who were kind enough to help me through the Query Trenches, like Suzie Townsend, who is just as lovely in person as I thought she’d be. And how I didn’t quite have the courage to snergle Sarah LaPolla like her client Summer Heacock bade me. Heh. I could try to explain how much it meant to me that my agent’s boss, Gina Panettieri, greeted me with a warm hug and showed an overwhelming amount of enthusiasm for me and my book. Or how nice a surprise it was that Chuck Sambuchino remembered and recognized me from last year’s conference or Twitter or where-the-hell-ever. He will probably never forget my eyebrows, now. Or to hear Don Maass say he was excited to hear that his books had helped me get to where I am in my fledgling career — and that he was looking forward to reading it someday (I’ma pretend he meant that entirely in earnest). Or to chat to Chuck Wendig about superheroes and feminism and the awesomeness that is John Scalzi. (And about this picture…)

And there were heaps of lessons to be learned. From Tayari Jones‘ moving keynote “You Already Have Everything You Need” to Don Maass teaching us how great characters are born. There are any number of things swimming around in my head that weren’t there last Thursday.

Mostly, what I came away with was this:

In an age where publishing is a landscape that shifts as quickly as the San Andreas fault and we connect online more than in person, people are what make this business go. Agent Kristin Nelson talked about how agents and authors are partners, and I want to extend that to everyone in this field as well. Writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, readers, agents — all of us form the web that keeps stories flowing into the world.

People are hugely important. This weekend would have been lackluster without them. Marisol, Steven, Brittney, Renee, Erin, Sara, Rachel, Eleni, all the others I met or got to see again — they are what make New York that place where dreams happen. Brittney came all the way from Alaska; Eleni came from Queens. None of us make it alone.

Today I went back to my day job, and I had two tables of regulars (not even in my section!) wave me over and stop me just to ask what’s happening with my book, none of them having a clue that I spent the weekend in New York at a writing conference. And I realized then that even in the part of my life where I wait tables and sling beers and occasionally spill water on people, I’m recognized for being what I am. A writer. “Oh, here she is! I was telling you about her. She’s an author, and she’s just gotten a book published!” I immediately interjected that erm, NO, my book’s not published or even under contract yet, and this woman shook her head violently and said, “Close enough. It will be.”

For a moment I thought that these people just sort of randomly believed in me, but then after writing through this blog post, I came to the conclusion that they just see the authentic me that spills over, that leftover Empire State of Mind that’s always there even when I smell like woodsmoke and beer. It doesn’t really matter if my feet hurt and I’m exhausted and have spilled ketchup down my front when running food. I’ve somehow learned how to be what I am.

So go forth, gentle viewers. Go back to your world of whatever you make it. Be a writer. Be an actor. Be an artist. Be a musician. Believe in yourself. Surround yourself with people who are as committed to their art as you are to yours. Take risks. Be what you are.

To quote Tayari Jones in her closing keynote:

If you commit to your art, doors of opportunity will open for you.

And try to take a smidgen of this with you wherever you go:

One hand in the air for the big city
Street lights, big dreams, all lookin’ pretty
No place in the world that could compare
Put your lighters in the air
Everybody say “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”

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Try Not to Kill a Chicken

Since I’m returning to the Writer’s Digest Conference this week, I spent some time today thinking about my experience last year. It’s been a wonderful year. A wild year. A wish-granting year. Since the last conference in January of 2012, I shelved the manuscript I pitched there, penned an entire new one (or two and change…:) ), dived into the Query Trenches, and wound up with an agent who loved my book as much as I did. 

So this week I’ve been thinking about what launched all that. And as much as I did in the fall of 2011, nothing pushed me further onward than the Writer’s Digest Conference in January of last year. It gave me new perspective on the craft of writing, honed my expectations about my career, and showed me that agents are people — real, live people — instead of just gavel-slammers in the clouds. 😉 

As I embark on an entirely new stage of this journey, I’m heading back to the conference in a different place than I was last year. That said, one of the most important messages that came from last year’s conference still rings true. And as Carolyn Charron (@CarolynCharron) stumbled across the very blog post I’d spent some time milling over this week, written last year after I returned, I thought I would share it with you again. Even if you’re a reader, a carpenter, a singer, a basket-weaver, a businessperson, or anything else that is not writer, I hope you’ll take something away from this today.

 

 

I know a lot of my blog days have themes. Monday Man, Wednesday Woman, Thorsday, Friday Fellows, Saturday Salaciousness, Sunday My Prints Will Come…

Yes, gentle viewers. I do know there are seven days and not six in the average week.

Tuesday is conspicuous in its absence. Or inconspicuous if you happen to hold an anti-Tuesday bias. I had conceived the idea for Terror Tuesday a while back, but it never seemed to fit before today.

Conquer your fear.

The idea for today’s blog politely tapped me on the shoulder on Sunday, during the closing address for the Writer’s Digest Conference.

You might wonder what was so scary about that closing address. Yep. Keep wondering.

First, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s not my story, gentle viewers. It’s the story of someone quite important, though I rather think he doesn’t think of himself that way. Many, many people think he is. You might be one of them. By the end of this story, you most likely will be.

Once upon a time, in a faraway state (this statement is relative), a young man had an idea. It was an ambitious idea, full of zeal and plenty of sparks. He had an idea to write a novel in a month. And he bamboozled 20 other people to do it with him.

Sound crazy? It is. But it’s also a little bit magical.

They got together to write. They dragged their giant laptops around — he said they were the size of washing machines — and they wrote through week one. They wrote through week two. Somewhere in week three, someone found the cord dangling out of those novels and plugged it into a wall.

ZING!

When electricity starts coursing through a work of writing — it’s a feeling like no other.

Suddenly novels were happening. Characters started doing what characters do. They get up and move when you ask them to sit still. They might pick their noses in public. That one just slept with someone who is actually in love with his best friend. That one grouched at everyone for the first half of the book before unexpectedly rescuing a chihuahua puppy before it could be hit by a careening van.

The twenty people of doubtful sanity kept writing. And by the end of the month, they had novels. How did these twenty people do it? How did they manage to scribble or type out 50,000 words in a month? I don’t know how they did it. I wasn’t there. But the next year over 130 people were. And the next year more than that. And on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on…and during that last “and on” there were over 300,000 people who wrote billions upon billions of words. Around the world, on every continent (maybe even Antarctica), novels were born. Some of them may have been nervous little novels at first. Shaky and trembling. Others may have started out with a bang so big that the rest felt like a fizzle. Some might have meandered around like one of Pooh Bear’s Pooh Sticks in a river — and perhaps not come out the other side of the bridge.

Who are these people? Are they the elusive novelists of the world?

Novels are not written by novelists — they’re written by every day people who give themselves permission to write a novel.

Millions of people have been touched by this phenomenon in some way or another. Whether they participated or just watched wide-eyed, full of sympathy or scorn or bewilderment — the fantastic, insane spark of an idea that kindled itself in one guy thirteen years ago has spread, leaving fire in its wake.

This is where the story caught up with my story. Because for most of that, I was oblivious. Then in 2008, I met a woman named Fly in Nashville who spent November glued to her keyboard. She’d show up to Borders with a handful of others, and they would go into a tunnel while I quirked an eyebrow.

In 2011, I decided to give it a go. I joined those 300,000-odd writers and try-ers and want-ers around the world, and I set out to write 50,000 words in a month. I blogged every day. If you’ve been around since then, you’ll know we had a wee challenge here in Emmieland, the NaNoRebel Challenge. We three, we happy three, plodded along and prodded ourselves, and we got our bar to turn purple together. I met with the Corridor Writers and spent many-a-day at Panera with our hourglasses named Sandy and Butch. Together the Corridor Writers passed 1,000,000 words together (and about 10% of that was Mollie…making the rest of us feel like slackers).

Including my blog, I wrote around 80,000 words that month. It began as an exercise in discipline and motivation. To teach myself that I could train to be a better writer, a more consistent writer. To convince myself to reach my arms out and take hold of what mattered to me. The end result was my second finished novel and a third begun with about 30,000 words.

During that month, I learned that the person responsible for this incredible journey, the one who inspired so many of us to just do it — this was his last year running the show.

I also discovered that he would be the closing speaker for the Writer’s Digest Conference. Yeah, that thing I attended over the weekend. That’s the one.

I walked out of my last planned session aiming to get some water and take a break before the closing address. Who happened to be standing right outside the door? The guy who founded NaNoWriMo. Chris Baty.

I walked past him and then turned on my heel and said, “Hey, so I did NaNo for the first time this year, and I won!” We started talking. I was struck immediately by the pure authenticity of this person. He shook my hand warmly. He made eye contact and asked about my book and what I had written — even reacted in a flattering way when I told him I’d done it “Rebel Style” and finished one book and started another. I told him that I thought his leaving NaNoWriMo was bittersweet — that he would surely be missed, but that I was (and am) so excited for him to be moving forward with his dreams.

He grinned and shifted his feet and said it was terrifying but exhilarating. I could relate to that — perhaps more than he knew. I told him that it feels good to be standing at the top of that hill, ready to just…kick the ball and get it rolling. See where it lands. Hope it doesn’t run over any chickens.

Soon all of us filed into the ballroom for Chris’s address. And what an address it was. I want to share it with you, gentle viewers, because I think it applies not only to writers, but to all of us. All of the strange containers of impulses that make up the human race.

Chris told us his story, about how NaNoWriMo began. That’s the story I’ve told you, of course. That’s why it’s not mine — it’s his. And then he said this:

I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I cleaned out my desk, turned in my keys, and I left. Monday — tomorrow — I start my new job: full-time writer.

Take a moment and let that sink in. Imagine for just a second that your dream — whatever that dream happens to be — suddenly must be fulfilled. Imagine cleaning out your desk or turning in your badge or uniform. Imagine walking out the doors of the familiar and safe, with only your dream in front of your face.

When he said those words, I teared up. I longed to do the same. Immediately my brain made a thousand excuses why I couldn’t do it too. But the next thing Chris said made something glaringly clear — it won’t be long before I must do it.  Chris quoted John Shed and said something very, very true.

A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what a ship is built for.

-John A. Shedd

It’s as true for you as it is for me, gentle viewers. Your ship may not be a writing ship. It could be any ship, bound for waters on the opposite side of the world, or an island no one has discovered. Maybe even Atlantis. But you’ll never get there if you don’t leave the harbor.

I’ll close this with one more bit of wisdom from a man who gave thirteen years of his life to a movement that has affected the world.

Get your dream in your mind’s eye. Think of it. Hold it there. The words “book” and “writing” are in this quote, but I’m still looking at you when I type it — all of you. Whoever you are and whatever dream floats in front of your face right now. Are you ready?

Listen up.

Your voice is important, and your stories matter. Someone has waited their entire life to read the book you are writing.

-Chris Baty

Now. Get to the top of your hill. I know it’s terrifying up there. It seems like you could fall and just roll down, possibly encountering some chickens. But there’s a ball that’s growing moss because it should be in motion. Kick the ball. Get it rolling. And try not to kill a chicken.

To Be Whole

We are on to the next round in the EOW Chosen Madness! Yesterday’s advancers are: Matt Sloan and Steven Paul Watson. Congrats, guys!

Today we choose the first of the quarter finalists, so perk up your ears, pull up your waistband, and get ready to vote.

Match Nine

C.F. Waller, “Last Call” versus N.E. White, “God’s Vengeance”

If you missed these entries in round one, catch them HERE.

Match 10

Afsaneh Khetrapal, “Long Overdue” versus Ruth Long, “Original Sin”

If you missed these entries in round one, catch them HERE.

To Be Whole

Yesterday I asked what you needed to accomplish in your life to be fulfilled — what goals drove you to move forward each day. And for advice to those setting out to accomplish these goals.

I’ve thought a lot about what my own answers would be to those questions. Today I embarked on a new career path that I hope will lead to financial independence, freedom from debt, and the ability to live the lifestyle I’ve always dreamed of — where I’ve dreamed of living it.

I can, of course, make no guarantees on what the future will drop in my lap — or what I’ll have to mud wrestle the future for and snatch from its vanquished hands. But today I have some hope.

What must I do to feel fulfilled? What would cause the festering rot of regret to take root in my soul were I to leave it undone? Only one thing, really. And the answer may surprise you.

It’s not to get published or to make my fortune as a bestselling author. Neither of those things would leave me fulfilled. Are they things I deeply desire? Of course. But they’re not the missing piece.

Back in my more religious days, people used to say with tears in their eyes that everyone has a god-shaped hole inside of them. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. But I think we’re all missing some sort of puzzle piece. That is the MUST that drives us through life’s labyrinth.

Mine? It’s a place. One I’m not legally entitled to live. It’s a place I dream of striving toward. Just last night, my subconscious gave me yet another frantic vision of me trying, trying, trying to get there. Through delayed and canceled flights. Through faulty maps. Through my mom getting lost (sorry Mom). I’ve dreamed this dream a thousand times in a hundred different ways. I’ve traveled by yacht, by inner tube, by my own muscles, by plane, by foot, by car. Always to the same place, always with the same goal.

For me it’s Scotland. That is my missing piece. I know where I need to be. I have just been searching for the right transportation, it seems.

I don’t know if I’ve found it, but I have a goal and a deadline.

It might sound silly, but the second my toes touched the tarmac on 17 June, 2004 — I knew. Call it folly or a lack of patriotism (I prefer thinking that I have an abundance of patriotism — I just choose to bestow it elsewhere) — I don’t care. Scotland is home.

That’s me. Most of you aren’t me. And if you are, that’s weird.

Me or not me, you have your own things to do. You have your own MUST that drives you. You know the one. The one that if you left it to moulder for the next few score years and died too soon, you would die with a hole.

Here are two beautiful, powerful women’s words on the subject:

I think for me to feel like my life is fulfilled I MUST accomplish something that makes me really proud…What drives me is that vision of fulfilment, of being able to say to myself and the world “I freaking did it. It was hard work and I didn’t know if I was ever going to make it here, but I did it.” Of proving myself to the naysayers. Of being the best that I can be.

-Lyra Selene

I don’t have much in the currency of sage advice. The best I can offer is this: observe, learn, and above all, listen. You might hear something worth tucking away, you might hear something worth chucking away, and you might hear nothing at all. On certain occasions the silence is where the light blossoms.

Advice? The people who need it most don’t take it, and those who think they need it often already know the answers.

So what makes us go?

I want to finish my novel, and by “finish” I mean get it to a place where I can read it and say okay, that’s the best I can do world, and send it off to readers who will enjoy it, appreciate it, use it as a coaster, whatever. After that the next one will be a breeze, right? The one after that, no problem. So, that’s three novels, and then, check the box on life fulfilled.

Wait, maybe that should be career goal fulfilled, because life is more than that. It should be about strong, healthy relationships and helping people, and even if nobody ever reads the book at least it was written. I also think we should leave the world a better place than we found it. That’s probably more fulfilling than anything.

What drives me is love of the written word. If you don’t love what you do, why do it at all?

– Eleni Sakellis

“If you don’t love what you do, why do it at all?”

Why indeed?

These wise words were exactly what I needed to hear this week. They’re a follow-up to my oddly phrased question of two days ago, “If you could do anything or be anywhere, why don’t you?”

What’s stopping you?

No one. Except you.

Anne Frank once wrote, “Look at how a single candle can both define and defy the darkness.”

Be that candle. Start something beautiful.

 

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