Writing

When Life Gets in the Way: Writing through Tough Times

Four months after my debut novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean, was published, my father went missing. It was late December, bitterly cold, and he left without a coat. And his cane. At 95, my dad was extremely frail, and he suffered from dementia. I called 911 in a panic.

Within minutes, NYPD detectives flooded my parents’ Manhattan apartment, asking questions and taking notes. They issued a Silver Alert, and promised to find my dad. “The old guys never get far,” the lead detective assured me. “Don’t worry.”

My mom wasn’t worried because, like my dad, she has dementia and had no idea what was going on. But I was a nervous wreck. New York is a big place, and my dad was probably confused, hungry, and cold. I feared the worst.

Afternoon turned into evening, and then into night. Finally, my father was located at the Empire Hotel, two blocks from Lincoln Center. He had taken a cab, the fare paid in coins from a velvet Alexander McQueen makeup bag. If I found this detail confounding, imagine my surprise when the hotel manager informed me that my dad had checked himself into a room, raided the minibar, and owed $685 plus tax. I would have paid anything, of course. My dad was safe.

But then, four months and three health-care aides later, my dad went missing… again. This time, he was found wandering the streets of SoHo, with a broken finger and lacerations on his face. He was rushed to the hospital, where I met him in the ER. He wasn’t as lucky this time. He developed a severe kidney infection and, after half a year in hospice care, passed away at home. He was 96 years old.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: This story is depressing! You write funny stuff. BE FUNNY!

I wish I could. But at the time, there was no room in my life for humor—or for writing. I tried, but I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to succeed. I was always on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did. Again, and again, and again.

I’m still dealing with my fair share of stress (my mom now has advanced dementia), but I’ve found a way to balance life-related responsibilities with my writing. Here’s how you can, too:

Adjust your expectations. If you’re going through tough times—and, like me, juggling a zillion things at once—there’s no way you can be as productive, or as focused, as you were before. Think about it: Your brain has to work overtime just to keep up! Plus, stress has a sneaky way of sapping your emotional and physical energy. So, if you can, cut yourself some slack. Set realistic, manageable writing goals. If you’re used to writing 2,000 words a day, write a thousand. Or five hundred, or 250. Or whatever number your schedule, and emotional energy, allows. If you don’t hit a specific target, that’s okay too. Just write every day, even if it’s for 15 minutes. You’ll feel good for having done it.

Try journaling. Expressing your thoughts and feelings in written form is an excellent stress-management tool. It’s also been shown to be highly therapeutic. So, if you don’t keep a journal already, now would be a good time to start. You don’t have to write pages and pages; just a few lines a day. Or one line, if that’s all you’ve got in you. Just get your thoughts (and more often, your frustrations) down on paper, and see where it leads. There are many ways to journal, but if you find that journaling is not for you, give yourself permission to stop. You can always try again later. Or don’t. Make (or break) the rules as you see fit. This is something you’re doing for you.

 

Limit social media. It’s tempting to mindlessly scroll through social media—or binge-watch Netflix, or spend hours searching YouTube for cute-kitty videos—when you’re stressed and in need of distraction. (When my dad was sick, I played Wordscapes until my vision was blurry.) But the hours you engage in unproductive phone activities are hours you can’t get back. Plus, screen time wreaks havoc on your concentration. Removing apps from your phone is the obvious solution, but it’s unlikely you will do this (I still have Wordscapes on mine). Instead, think of screen time as a reward for writing time. Five hundred words = fifteen minutes of Wordscapes; one thousand words = an episode of 90 Day Fiancé (or pick your poison). The point is, you’re allowed to zone out when the time is right—but don’t make a habit of it. Your time is too valuable to waste. (For advice on how to walk away from social media completely, check out this post from Salon.)

You do YOU. Writers often compare themselves to others. That’s what we do. But as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He was right. Knowing that your friend’s debut MG novel sold eight billion copies and has been optioned for a movie starring Kylie Jenner (or Kendall Jenner, if you prefer) while yours is languishing in a bargain bin at Costco is a fact of life—but don’t dwell on it. You have enough on your plate to worry about! By all means celebrate your friends’ achievements, but don’t let their success(es) overshadow your own. Sometimes getting out bed in the morning is enough.

Practice self-care. This should be a given, but if you’re busy looking out for others’ needs, you tend to ignore your own—or put them last. This is understandable (I’m guilty of this, too), but try to put yourself first once in a while. Squeeze in a run, or have coffee with a friend. Get a massage, if that’s your thing, or sneak out to a museum or art gallery. Catch up on your sleep; eat Frito’s Corn Chips. Dance. Whatever it takes to bring you to your happy place, do it!

And finally…

Expect setbacks. It’s important to remember that most things in life are out of your control, like when a parent develops dementia–and dies. When a child is sick or disabled and needs constant care. Unemployment; bankruptcy; a house fire; divorce… You can only do so much to keep afloat emotionally. Sometimes, it will feel like an impossible struggle. You’ll miss deadlines. Bills will go unpaid; birthday cards unsent. For every step forward, you can expect two—or fifty—steps back.

Grieving isn’t linear, and I miss my dad every day. Still, he would have wanted me to keep writing, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I hope you will, too.

Taking Stock of Writerly Weaknesses and How to Avoid Overwhelm

One of my graduate students once told me that as she was reading a craft book on writing, she suddenly felt that everything she read about was a technique that she had failed to apply to her work-in-progress.

I laughed with recognition. It’s like a medical student who thinks she has every disease in her textbook.

This can feel a bit dire, even scary, as well as a little overwhelming.

However, just like a solid protagonist, you must comfort your flaws in order to achieve growth.

Today, my musings will be posting on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. And I will sit in synagogue and take stock of my behaviors, actions, and habits. This is a designated period of forgiveness as well as renewal.

As a writer, I try to also take stock of my areas of weaknesses and consider practices I might like to change. It is one of the greatest joys in writing—this idea that we can always grow, always learn.

But how to stop the overwhelm of it all?

Once when I was in graduate school, I visited my professor and I was really upset. She had read my submission, and I felt she had been too easy on me. “But what about setting?” I said. “I’m horrible with exposition. And my characterization and my rhythm and… and… and…”

She told me to take a deep breath and realize that it’s crazy making to try to fix everything all at once. Read a chapter for just one or two issues. For example, you could look at it to see if the dialogue sounds naturalistic and then edit with that in mind. Then you could examine how you’re dealing with tertiary characters, for example.

But after you’ve looked at a few craft areas, she recommended putting the piece down for a bit.

Although I didn’t believe her at the time, I do now.

There is be wisdom in putting your WIP on pause. You might, after a few months, have fresh eyes on your writing project. This does not mean to give up. Sometimes a little vacation can be healthy. You might even keep a notebook and, as you get an idea for revision, write it down, but not actually apply it right away. The WIP can be something you can attack when you feel ready and excited about it.

So, I guess, what I’m saying is take stock of what you want to fix in life, and in writing, but don’t feel like you need to remedy it all at once.

Tomorrow, PG&E will shut off my power for two to five days (I live in a wildfire area of California). It feels appropriate to me, on this day of awe, to take a pause, a break.

Although it seems a bit daunting, I’m actually looking forward to it.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2-18), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

The Business Of Author-Agent Relationship in Writing And Publishing

Today, at Mixed-Up Files, we discuss the business of author-agent relationships.

Behind every successful novel, the author-agent team works together for months and years to turn an idea into a finished product that the editor and the reader will love.

Author Yamile (sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez  and Agent Linda Camacho talk about how their enthusiasm to place a good book in the hands of readers propelled their relationship.

Suma:  Yamile, your novel On These Magic Shores will be published by Lee & Low/Tu Books in 2020. You also won the New Visions Honor Award for this manuscript in 2015. Although, it was one of your earliest novels, it was not the one that first sold. Tell us more about your journey with this novel, how you first got published, and what kept you motivated to keep writing?

Yamile: On These Magic Shores has been growing from the moment Minerva Miranda walked into my mind in 2014 until it turned into my love letter for the child I once was, a child with a lot of responsibilities but who still wanted to do all the things we associate with childhood. When I started writing it, I didn’t envision how deep into this character and her journey to reclaim her childhood I’d go. It’s amazing to see my growth as a writer as I see the growth of this story. Since it took such a long time for this story to finally be accepted for publication, I worked on different things in between revisions. When I won the New Visions Honor I was just starting my MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. While I was in the program I had the opportunity to try my hand at genres or age groups I’d never tried before, like picture books and poetry. In between semesters I wrote a poem for my children, which later I shared at my graduate reading. The public’s reaction was so strong and positive that I submitted my poem to my agent, believing it would be a wonderful picture book but not expecting much to happen from that. To my surprise, the story resonated with my agent and then several editors she shared it with. WHERE ARE YOU FROM? sold at action and it will be published by HarperCollins on June 4, 2019. After this contract, my agent and I have signed many others for middle grade and young adult novels, and I’m also a contributor in several anthologies. My publishing journey hasn’t been a straight line of overnight success, but the result of years of working on my craft, a wonderful team by my side, and a little fairy dust for good luck.

 

Suma: How do you balance your family responsibilities and your writing deadlines?

Yamile: Writing is my full time job, and I have a big family composed of five children, several animals, and a husband with a very demanding job. Like his job, writing is also very demanding, so my husband and I are equal partners in taking care of our family and home, and supporting each other in our professional endeavors. My writing time is sacred, just as time with my children is sacred. But we make it work one day at a time.

 

Suma: What advice would you give to writers facing rejections?

Yamile: My advice is twofold: keep writing and remember the why. My journey until I met my agent was also a long road paved with rejection notes, but in the end, I knew that if I stayed true to my voice, I’d find the right agent. And I did.
The novel my agent signed me with never sold, and I’m grateful that she was interested in my career as a whole and not just a book. My mind is always bubbling with ideas, so by the time the rejections start arriving, I’m already invested in a new story. Because ultimately I didn’t start writing for publication or acclaim. I started writing with a desire to share my vision of the world and to connect with the child living inside me, to hopefully connect with a child reader who could see themselves in the words that come out of my heart. Publishing and writing are such separate elements. Remember why you’re doing this, and pick up your pen, or open the laptop and write.

 

Suma: Linda, what impressed you about Yamile and her work when you took her on as a client? How would you describe your relationship with Yamile from the beginning to where you are now?

Linda: It’s all in the voice, really. Yamile’s writing has a beautiful, distinctive voice that comes from a genuine place, somewhere that’s as authentic as the creator herself is.

In terms of our relationship, while I’ve been in publishing for about fourteen years now, I was new to agenting when Yamile signed with me several years ago. I’m fortunate that she took a chance on me then, and I think it’s pretty special that we’re growing and learning together as the years pass.

 

Suma: What is the best line from a query letter or a manuscript or proposal that you read that made you want to sign the author right away?

Linda: Oh wow, that’s a tough one, since I’m the absolute worst at picking the best anything! This makes me think of Yamile’s picture book Where Are You From, actually. When I signed Yamile, I’d signed her on the basis of a middle grade manuscript. And I knew she was interested in writing young adult as well. Then one day she said she had a picture book manuscript and I was a tiny bit afraid, lol, since I had no idea if it would be any good. Needless to say, it was amazing. I read it, cried a little, then went out with it without editing it at all–It was that terrific. It went to auction and is now coming out from HarperCollins this June. Where Are YourFrom is about a little girl who gets asked where she’s from, so she turns to her grandfather for an answer. This is a line from it: You’re from hurricanes and dark storms, and a tiny singing frog that calls the island people home when the sun goes to sleep. Yamile’s writing is so lyrical and lovely and, above all, memorable.

 

Suma: What advice would you give to agents facing rejections?

Linda: As someone who experience rejections pretty much every day, I know it’s tough, but I would tell them to take heart. We took on a project for a reason and we have to keep the faith that if we keep submitting, the right editor will fall in love with it. And if not, then it’ll happen for the next one. The only way to get there, though, is to keep at it. Just like creatives do.

 

Yamile (sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is a fútbol-obsessed Argentine-American who loves meteor showers, summer, astrology, and pizza. She lives in Utah with her Puerto Rican husband and their five kids, two adorable dogs, and one majestic cat. An inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient, she’s also a graduate of Voices of Our Nations (VONA) and the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Writing for Children’s and Young Adult program. She’s a PB, MG, and YA author. Yamile is also part of Las Musas, the first collective of women and nonbinary Latinx MG and YA authors. She’s represented by Linda Camacho at Gallt & Zacker Literary. You can find her online here and here.

Linda Camacho was always a fan of escaping into a good book, so the fact that she gets to make it her career is still surreal. She graduated from Cornell with a B.S. in Communication and has seen many sides of the industry. She’s held various positions at Penguin Random House, Dorchester, Simon and Schuster, and Writers House literary agency until she ventured into agenting at Prospect. She’s done everything from foreign rights to editorial to marketing to operations, so it was amazing to see how all the departments worked together to bring books to life. Somewhere in between all that (and little sleep), Linda received her MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Now at Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency, Linda continues to work with colleagues and clients who inspire her every day in both the children’s and adult categories. You can find her online here and here.