Welcome to 
WritingWordByWord

Beth Hautala is author of Waiting For Unicorns, and The Ostrich And Other Lost Things. She lives with her husband and four children in northern Minnesota where she strives to write stories that tie heart and imagination together. 

 

 

Friday
Feb112011

Friday Five

1. Get To Work—Tips & Tricks For Writers. 

Winter Inspired Writing Prompts. I realize winter this year seems like the never-ending-season, and so maybe I should start this off with an apology. Or not. Regardless, I know we have (at least here in northern Minnesota) a couple more months before winter releases its icy grasp, so why not take advantage of the time and let the season inspire you, as it has done for so many other great writers. Robert Frost went for that winter walk and look how great things turned out for his writing career!

2. What To Read—Book Reviews & Recommendations. 

6 Books to Read After Mockingjay. Even if you are not a huge fan of Dystopian Fiction, YA-Fantasy, or other such nonsense (*sic*), I would encourage you to at least pick up Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy and give it a shot. For the writing alone. Or the story line. Or . . . well, just pick it up and read the first three chapters of the first book. Do me that much, alright? You don’t have to like them, but the premise and the writing are unique enough to make it worth your time. While the first book was arguably the best and the other two led toward a rather truncated ending, they are still well-worth the read, in my humble opinion.

 For those of you who’ve read Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay and don’t need to be coerced, like the books or hate them, there is undoubtedly a sense of loss as you try to let go of your attachment to the characters. There was for me. So, here’s a few reading suggestions to help ease you back into life after Mockingjay. And may the games be ever in your favor.

3. Writing For Social Media—Blogging/Tweeting/Status Updates/And What's Worth Saying Online.

Seven Tips For Writing Online. For some people, if a topic interests them, they are fine with immersing themselves in extensive online articles that more or less resemble print content. Most Web site visitors, however, expect something else. Nearly every medium has its own rules; here are seven tips to help you write for an online audience.

4. Media—Fun Publishing/Writing-related Videos and Music

Judging A Book By Its Cover. Ever wonder how a book gets a cover? Well, check out this informative clip from CBS for an industry-perspective on how the whole process works. Enjoy!

5. Be Encouraged—Stories of Writing Success (from those who've been-there-done-that).

 Blood Sweat and Words—How Badly Do You Want this? Been writing for a while with only rejection, after rejection, after rejection to show for it? You’re not alone. Even the best writers start with rejection. It’s how we learn to get better at this crazy, beautiful, heart-wrenching, purpose-filled craft called writing.

 

Any of the above helpful or interesting? Share it! —Online information is only as good as the community that encourages others with what they’ve learned . . . Thanks to those who’ve taken the time to teach me a thing or two!

Sunday
Feb062011

A Good Flaw is Hard to Find

I love reading. Every part of it. The smell of the pages. The look of black words against white paper. The way I am so easily and utterly lost in a well-written story. Reading might very well be my favorite thing. 

Well, that and eating, and my kids and my husband, and coffee, chocolate, and writing of course . . .

Anyway.

I picked up three new books this week. 

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly (Newberry Honor, 2010)

Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vandepool (2011 Newberry)

Five Flavors of Dumb, by Antony John

I only purchased these three books, though I had a PILE of great take-home options after a couple of hours browsing the stacks. And by pile I mean I almost-had-to-dig-my-way-out. But I decided on these three for very specific reasons, though, I didn't know it at the time. Sitting reflectively in front of the fireplace this afternoon has made me aware of them. I'll start at the bottom and work up:

Reason #3: These are timeless stories.

Edna O' Brien said it this way:

"I get very impatient about plays and books with induced political themes. They last at the most five, ten, fifteen years. Emily Dickinson poems are about solitude and the corridors of the mind. They last forever. I don’t know whether I will last or not last. All I know is that I want to write about something that has no fashion and that does not pander to any period or to a journalistic point of view. I want to write about something that would apply to any time because it’s a state of the soul."

Reason #2: The writing is superb. 

It's good. Beautiful. And the story is different from all the others out there because the authors knew how to handle words—all the twists of phrase, the dialogue, the prose. The first two books (The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Moon Over Manifest) are both written for a middle grade audience (7-12 year olds, though the stories are hardly limited to that interest level), while Five Flavors of Dumb is Young Adult. The intended audience, in my opinion, makes the blend of believable story and beautiful writing even more important than in adult fiction. Kids are perceptive. —More perceptive than adults most of the time. They know when their chains are being jerked. They know when a story is trying to "sell" something. They know when they are being "preached" at. No kid will read a book like that, and no adult should either—not in fiction at least. All three of these books will, and have-already, landed on shelves read, re-read, and dog-eared to perfection. Glory be.

Reason #1: The characters are flawed.

I mean that as highest praise. They are real, believable, and intensely human characters. And I love them all dearly.

As a reader, I love being entertained, I even like being educated, but I adore being swept up into the lives of new characters. There is nothing like being bewitched by their courage, charmed by their wit, frustrated by their poor choices, crushed over their losses, and delighted by their discoveries. 

My life is full. And that's not an exaggeration. —Full time Mom. Full time small business-owner. Full time writer. I get up at 5:30am and go to bed by 1am. I don't have time for perfect, flawless, unbelievable characters. My time is too precious to spend it wrapped up in their un-tainted lives. I need depth, and reality, and in small ways and great, flights toward glory. 

Why?

Because I need to believe other people, even fictional ones, live a life that resembles mine—messy, sometimes trite and petty, but always full of possibility. A good author knows, as  Joyce Carol Oates has said, "that writing is full of lives we might have led. A writer imagines what could have happened, not what really happened."  

And this includes all of those beautiful flaws.

 

Tuesday
Jan182011

I HAVE AN AGENT!

I’ve always known that the road to writing a book was a long one. I’d assumed it’d be painful, because, when does striving toward something good and meaningful not require a little blood, sweat, and tears?

I’ve been writing stories, and then essays and articles, and then commercial copy, and then attempting to write books for the eighteen years, consecutively. And, put simply, there is no more beautiful nor heart-wrenching act than that which requires creative outpouring.

I wrote two books—both YA fiction, did the whole editing and revising and querying thing only to meet with rejection time and time again. In retrospect, I am SO THANKFUL those first two stories will never see the light of day. They deserved rejection because they were riddled with problems, like, um, no plot.

That said, in March of 2009, two weeks after my daughter was born, in the crazed delirium of frantic sleeplessness that only a new mom knows, I picked up my pen and began writing Waiting for Unicorns.

In Unicorns, Talia Lea McQuinn, nearly-thirteen, is wrestling with the grief of losing her mom to cancer, while living on the edge of the arctic with her dad, a whale researcher. There are no mythical creatures in this story, only the idea that a Narwhal Whale—a Unicorn Whale—could, just maybe, grant a little girl’s impossible wish.

The idea was born partly as a way to process my own heartache as several of my girlfriends' mothers had been recently diagnosed with cancer. Also, being a new mom to my second child—this time a daughter—made me all the more poignantly aware of the bond that exists between mothers and daughters. Between my own mother and me.

Also, winter in northern Minnesota might as well be winter on the polar ice caps. It wasn’t too hard to make that fictional leap.

Coming in at just over 20,000 words or around 70 pages, I knew that Unicorns was much too short to ever make it on the shelves. It was written as middle grade fiction, which, generally speaking doesn’t run very long. But it was going to have to expand a bit. The story was spare but the concept decent. Plus it had a plot. (Bonus!) And so began the rewriting process.

Over the course of the next several months, between bottle feeding, potty training my son, running an ad agency with my insanely patient and loving husband, and trying to hang onto my sanity, I spent every spare minute working on Waiting For Unicorns. And finally, seventeen months and six drafts later, Unicorns rolled in at closer to 30,000 words (just over 100 pages) and it was the most true but hope-filled story I knew how to write.

I spent the next several months writing my query letter and distributing my book to a trusted but honest group of readers who I knew would give me helpful feedback. Their comments were invaluable, and I did one more rewrite before I felt confident the book was ready for submission.

And then it began.

I sent out a batch of query letters. To twelve agents. All twelve rejected.

I revised my query letter and sent out another batch of twelve. More rejection. But this time I also received nice comments on my writing, requests for pages, and finally, a request for a full, which meant an agent was interested in reading my entire manuscript! I was elated!

I tried not to get too excited.

I failed.

And she rejected it. With scathing comments.

“It’s no more than a glorified outline.” “You should scrap it and start over.”

To say I was crushed, would be a vast understatement.

I questioned everything. The story. My motives. My wasted time and sleepless nights. I'd wanted to write a "true" story—a story that meant something—a story that put the spotlight on hope and grace. But maybe I had failed at that in greater ways than I'd imagined. Maybe I should quit altogether . . .

I took a break from writing, and almost didn’t enter an agent auction I had been planning to enter for several weeks. Authoress’s Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction, which, in 250 words or less, I had the chance to whet the literary appetites of 13 agents and one editor.

I never expected to make the cut.

But I did.

And with only the first 250 words (1 page), Waiting For Unicorns eventually earned six requests for fulls.

I almost died.

I sent out my manuscript. I cried. I prayed. And I waited.

What if these agents felt the same as the first? What if my story sucked? What if my motives were purely selfish? What if I’d wasted all those hours I could have spent with my husband, my two kids, or even just sleeping? And worst of all: What if I didn’t actually know how to write in the first place?

And then five weeks later I received an email from Danielle Chiotti of Upstart Crow Literary. She’d read Waiting For Unicorns and thought it was REALLY WONDERFUL. 

She liked it.

I died again.

“I have the mss out with a reader,” she wrote, “and I'm meeting with her tomorrow to discuss it further. I like what I've read, and am close to making a decision...and will be in touch again very soon.”

I spent the day vacillating among a wide range of emotions. —One moment elated, then next depressed. Was I going to have an agent? Should I give up writing altogether?

Danielle’s answer came later that night in the form of an email.

Subject line: Okay, I have no patience

“So here's the deal,” she wrote. “I'm meeting with my reader tomorrow and I want to get her feedback on your story. But the truth of the matter is, I CANNOT stop thinking about your novel. I think it's brilliantly written and heartbreaking and real and wonderful. The more I think about it and re-read it (and I admit, I've been following my husband around the house all night reading him passages), the more I like it. I'd love to set up a time to speak with you over the phone so we can get to know each other a little better.”

I screamed. Literally. Out loud.

And then I started crying. And shaking.

Then I did a happy dance in my chair.

And then I ran to tell my husband.

And after notifying the other agents who still had my mss, and giving them several days to finish reading and make an offer of representation if they were interested, I ultimately decided to accept Danielle’s offer.

Today, I have an agent.

That last sentence, the one right above this one you’re reading now:

Best. Sentence. Ever.

 

For the record, this writing stuff is hard work. Hardest work I’ve ever done. Harder than labor, and so far, I’ve done that twice. —I’d like to think I have an educated perspective.

There is so much grief and so much joy in this creative process. So much opportunity for heartache and also for victory, and mostly, for evidence of grace. Existence was woven into existence with words, and any I set to paper is, in some small way, only a retelling. And for this, I am grateful for the privilege of picking up a pen at all. Maybe thankful is the best word. It took me eighteen years of trying, failing, and learning, to teach me how to trust. I'm praying for whatever it takes to keep my heart rooted there. Even more failure, if necessary.

I’ll close this out with a few words via Richard Wilbur, as his poem so aptly says what I cannot. His words are what my heart has felt for years, and what I wish, desperately, for anyone who has ever tried to do something beautiful and meaningful with words. Be encouraged my friends. And, as another dear friend and author recently said to me: “You are closer than you think.”

Keep writing.

 

 

THE WRITER

By Richard Wilbur

 

In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.