Writing with a Full-Time Job

I am a little bit of a productivity addict. I love to make lengthy checklists–at work and at home. It’s partly practical, to keep myself on task, to sort out some sort of priority system when there’s a mountain of stuff to do and I have no idea where to start, but I also really love to admire all the things crossed out, proof of what I’ve accomplished in my day.

To that end, I used to try to keep records of how many words I wrote a day. But as someone who squeezes in moments of inspiration and butt-in-chair time on the half-hour train commute, the narrow window of time between all the daily adulting requirements and bedtime, and on busy weekends, as someone who just cannot, for the life of her, accomplish 50,000 words no matter how hard she tries in November, it became a pretty depressing record. “Only five hundred words today!” I’d scold myself. “Pathetic. You need to do better! You need to prioritize your writing more if you love it as much as you say you do!”

It was a real bummer, to be honest. I felt so unproductive, so unaccomplished. It started to mess with my enthusiasm to sit down and write at all. I felt like a constant failure. And I started sacrificing other important things–going to the gym, cooking healthy meals, hanging out with friends–so I could stack up bigger and bigger word counts, in the hopes I would finally feel productive enough.

After a year or so of just feeling guilty all the time, I stepped back to reframe how I looked at my writing time. I started the one star = one hour system of record keeping. I finally accepted that I honestly have no control over how many words I eek out in a writing session and I needed to stop beating myself for something I couldn’t control. For my process, the only thing I have control over is how many hours I put my butt in the chair and write.

As a result, instead of constantly being disappointed in my progress, I now get to celebrate all the silver stars that stud my calendar, and be so incredibly proud of myself and my dedication.

It was great, until I started critically reviewing the calendar at the end of each month and seeing long empty stretches in-between writing stars. “What were you doing with your time last Tuesday!?” I’d scold. “How could you have just SKIPPED writing four days in a row the second week of the month?! Lazy. Unacceptable.” (We writers are so kind to ourselves, aren’t we?)

Logically, I knew it was ridiculous. I work a full-time job and adulting, as mentioned earlier, has a lot of requirements! Doctors appointments and grocery shopping. Pets and plants to keep alive and happy. Relationships with friends and family and loved ones that need attention. Sleep!

I stepped back to reframe again. Other little symbols got added in to illustrate how I was spending big chunks of my time. Hearts for a workout. Little arrows to indicate travel out of town. Quotation marks for local hangouts with friends. A little camping tent to illustrate overnight-guests. Little skulls and cross-bones for days I was down and out with a head cold. And those “blank” squares M-F? Not for nothing, but those days I still worked a full day at a job I love.

I had to remind myself of this–and maybe, somewhere out there in the Internet, you do too–but it’s okay that I’m not a full-time writer. I’m allowed to have a day-job career I love and dedicate a lot of my energy to which, some days, doesn’t leave any left for writing.

This is the full-picture of a person who works full time and writes on the side. Someone who finally has balance in her life. And at the end of the month, before I flip to a fresh page, I’m pretty darn proud.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re accomplishing, however many hours you manage to dedicate to your stories, I’m pretty darn proud of you too.

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Drafting: False Starts and Knowing When It’s Working

For me, I know for sure whether a new manuscript is working around the 10,000 word mark. That also means sometimes I have to scrap hopeless false starts around 10,000 too.

I’m rewriting an old story–in fact, the manuscript that got me my agent–for the ~fifth (?) time. Every version before it has essentially been a variant on the wrong direction. Practice runs, if I’m being generous to myself.😂

I started in December with confidence. I had notes and an outline and I made it all the way to 10,000 words by January 2nd before it just tanked. I was sitting under the covers in a soft bed with my laptop nearly in tears because I knew it wasn’t working. 😭

I knew I had to toss all 10,000 words–which is not easy for me because drafting is like pulling teeth, especially in the distance from 4,000 to 10,000 words. That first “hump” is an obstacle that can take me weeks or sometimes even months to hammer out. It’s the pivot point (it’s also the inciting incident) that defines the direction of the rest of the story, so it has to be right!

But I suppose tossing 10,000 is better than tossing an entire draft and starting from scratch. I used to plow through to the bitter end, forcing 60,000-80,000 words even when it didn’t feel right, sure it was just the weird feeling of drafting and not a more serious red flag.

And that’s how I have two first drafts of two different stories on my hard drive that I shelved as soon as I reread them. Because they’re completely wrong, pivot point/incident to end. 🤷🏻‍♀️

It’s funny, because that first hump is only roughly a span of 6,000 words. At any other spot in the manuscript, if I have the writing flow going on, I can easily write 6,000 words over the course of one breezy weekend and a few low-intensity writing sessions.

So, going back to the drawing board in January, I read some craft books (the most helpful being STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cron, seriously, 💯💯 READ THIS if you need plot/structure help!), filled the well by reading an entire stack (and rereading a few favorite) middle grade books in search of inspiration/comps, and made a new outline. Honestly, it took nearly two months to work out an outline that I didn’t hate or tear apart with logic every time I reread it. And then I let it sit for a month to simmer. I reread it a couple weeks ago and…I still didn’t hate it. In fact, I sort of liked it, which seemed promising!

So I’ve started over again. Page one. And it’s been slowly growing, the word count ticking up steadily, but I was still wary. Was this a false positive? Was I going to have to toss this too and restart again?

[pulls out hair]

. . .

. . .

Happy to report that I made it past the 10,000 word mark this weekend and I’m still going! It feels right, past that hump, I know the direction is solid. Sure, it’s still a terrible “zero draft” as I like to call it, that I won’t ever share with another soul, but it’s the bones, the foundation of a only mildly less terrible first draft I can share with CPs someday.

I’m just going to relish this hard-earned moment for a bit, being in the post-10,000-word drafting sweet spot. Not only because it’s the green light to keep drafting using this outline, but because every session added to it feels like the best number! Today, I squeezed in 1,400 words on lunch break at a cute coffee shop in the city and now it’s a whopping 14,000 words! That’s, like, a real on-it’s-way-to-book-shaped size! Five-digit word count numbers feel good. 😎

First Drafts vs. Final Drafts

In the last four years I’ve drafted (and revised and rewritten and revised again…and again) two middle grade manuscripts. I love the revising stage because every decision and change improves the story in some way (thank goodness). Drafting? Less of a delight. The product is such a hot mess and such a far cry from what I’m hoping to achieve that I cringe opening up the document. I spend more time questioning my writing skills (do I have any? Why is each sentence more terrible than the last? Why is this scene boring and undeniably the worst thing I’ve ever written? Even worse than that English paper from 9th grade that I purposely reread just for comparison sake [not procrastination, no of course not]?! Am I getting WORSE at writing? Is that possible? What am I even doing?! 😂) than getting words on the page so the process is slowwwwww and excruciatingly drawn out. Also, my characters are usually completely mute in my head during the first draft, I have absolutely no idea what their voice is like or what they’d even say in a situation, they’re resistant to all of my pleas to just “tell me what you want and why and oh for the love of brownies why won’t you reveal anything about yourself why are you giving me the cold shoulder I don’t understand can’t we just be BFFs–”

(Yes, it’s dramatic. But they’re my real and true feelings. For months!)

While the secret to finally (finally!) getting a full manuscript down on the page was very different for each project (I will never tell those secrets, I promised the troll I traded with for my first and second borne) (jk) (but sort of not), they did both involve months of bribery (of myself: chocolate, wine, caffeine, Netflix, whatever it took), craft books, crying into my coffee with writing friends, and hair pulling.

And they always end with a messy first draft that I sort of side-eye with fear and mild loathing.

But I’m starting to notice a pattern in my first and final drafts. Which I actually find very reassuring as I start thinking ahead to the next story idea and drafting in general. Instead of hating drafting/considering it a failure, maybe I can just appreciate it as a very predictable first step towards a polished manuscript I love.

First draft is ALWAYS:

  1. Bare bone/short word count (like, really short! Think 35-40,000 words). Woe is me, I think. There’s nothing else to say. That’s all she wrote, folks. There’s no hope.
  2. 95% descriptions, 5% dialogue. Argh!
  3. Cluttered with lonely scenes where the main character is totally alone with their thoughts, while participating in completely solitary activities (hence contributing to the 95/5% ratio referenced above). This also often leads to very melodramatic main characters. Stop whining! I want to shout and shake them by the shoulders. I’m so tired of your repetitive complaints and worries!

Then there’s some of this in-between. Rinse and repeat until the book makes sense. Throw in some critique partner reads and opinions.

So much purple! Always so much purple 😭

To my great and utter relief, I’ve now twice been able to replicate that the final draft is ALWAYS:

  1. So much longer! After layering in more and more with each revision, manuscripts start clocking in at the much more standard/acceptable 60-70,000 word range. Can it be true? I sniff the air, refresh the Word word-counter half a dozen times, just to be sure. It lives! It grows!
  2. Sooooo much more dialogue! I don’t know the exact ratio, but a chapter never goes by without someone talking to someone. Hurray! They speak!!
  3. Except for maybe in the dark night of the soul, very little totally solitary scenes. New side characters and relationships have been layered in and the main character now has a PERSONALITY (hallelujah!) so he/she actually has things they want to say and people who want to listen/talk back! Slow down! I want to shout, but don’t, to avoid jinxing it, fingers flying across the keyboard to catch everything they’re yammering so fast and loud in my head before I lose it. As a result, the melodrama dial is turned wayyyyy down and while it takes two to tango, it also takes two to joke! So there are actual jokes and humor in final drafts which make the stories so much more fun to reread! (And reread…and reread again.)

Thank goodness for revisions. Maybe (just maybe) I’m willing to admit my writing has improved since 9th grade. 😂

–Hannah

New Year, Not So New Project

Ah, 2017. For me, it was personally excellent, full of major changes. A new manuscript. A new job. Getting engaged. Buying our first house. A new niece to dote on. This year was exhausting and nerve wracking in so many ways, but with a lot (!) of elbow grease, there were also so many rewarding moments. So much to be thankful for.

Looking forward to next year, I’m hoping I can snuggle down and settle into all these things. Also, now that most of the boxes are unpacked and we’ve set up a life routine of sorts, I’d love to participate more in the local KidLit community. Being a PitchWars mentor this year was definitely a highlight–I loved joining the crowds to cheer on the mentees and helping one awesome writer in particular in a meaningful way–I hope to do it again next year, but also, I’d love to stretch that seasonal PitchWars community feeling into a year-round experience!

On the writing front, after a glorious year romping around with a new cast of characters and a totally new world in the HM manuscript, 2018 is going to involve returning to an old manuscript and revising, yet again.

Writing is rewriting is rewriting is rewriting, a lesson this TPOPF manuscript seems specially designed to torture remind me of year after year. Someday, someday I’ll get this book right! As of this month I’m diving into what probably amounts to the fourth complete rewrite of this novel since 2013, not counting the more half-step revisions in-between that involved rearranging scenes and scrapping and replacing a handful of chapters. (Mere child play compared to a rewrite! ha-haha…)

What does a rewrite entail? Well, for TPOPF, at this point I think I’m keeping a grand total of 500 words—a handful of sentences from one scene—from the last 50,000 word version. [bites nails] Only 500! This is simultaneously terrifying, frustrating, and a relief. (Wouldn’t it be nice to write the story the right way the first time? Do other people do that? Don’t tell me.) On the bright side, instead of feeling like I’m rehashing the same story again (again!) after four years of tapping out those same dance steps, it instead feels like I’m taking these characters I adore and have had so much fun with and sending them on an entirely new and exciting adventure that even I am going to be surprised by. Beyond those 500 words, the only other things remaining are a subset of the cast of characters and their relationships to each other, though their motivations are completely reimagined and every step they take in this new draft will take them down a completely new, never-before tread path.

In 2017, I wrote HM. Then I completely rewrote it, preserving maybe more like 12K from one draft to the next. It wasn’t easy, because each one of those carryover sentences was massaged and tweaked as I changed tenses and also aged the book from YA to MG. But it feels good walking into 2018, knowing I’ve done this sort of work before and I can do it again.

PitchWars: Send Me Your Middle Grade!

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Folks, I am SO EXCITED for PitchWars this year! I am thrilled and honored to have been chosen to serve as a mentor. While it’s my first year officially part of the community, I’ve been totally swept up in the excitement of PitchWars season for years. I’ve cheered friends from the sidelines and was a mentee hopeful myself a few years ago, so I’ve been on your side of the desk! While I didn’t get in, the feedback busy mentors so graciously offered helped get my revisions on track. That manuscript went on to attract the attention of my now agent! Bottom line, this is a community of amazing, supportive, dedicated writers and I’m so happy to have the chance to dive in with a mentee.

Me, you, and your manuscript? We’re going to take over the world and have an absolute blast doing it!

*ahem*

WHAT I’M LIKE IN REAL LIFE

Born and bred in the Philadelphia suburbs, I’ve been living in the Princeton, New Jersey area for the last five years. (FYI, just this weekend, we bought our very first house, an adorable 100+ year old brick home, in a little river-side town in Pennsylvania!!!! It feels so so good to be back on this side of the Delaware, though I’m counting boxes in my sleep at this point.) I double majored in English/Creative Writing and History with a minor in Professional Writing at Bloomsbury University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, I went on to the NYU Summer Publishing Institute and my publishing career has included copy editing for Entangled Publishing, serving as an editor at a small scholarly press, working on eBooks and the interior pages of books as a content manager at HarperCollins for 3+ years, and, as of a few months ago, I’m pleased as punch to now be the Managing Editor at Running Press in Philadelphia!

While my day job is process-based (a nice overview of what a managing editor is, exactly, here) broadly it means I like to dig into the mechanics, get up to my elbows figuring out what makes something tick, and tool around until the best potential version of a thing is revealed. This, methinks, translates well when tackling plot and structure and messy bits.

Also, since Addie is the absolute best and I have a high opinion of her opinion, I’ll just bring this to your attention:

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As for my writing, I have a few published short stories and  memoir pieces out in the world and a pictorial history book, BYBERRY STATE HOSPITAL (Arcadia Publishing, 2013). I signed with my fabulous agent, the one and only Kira Watson at the Emma Sweeney Agency, last summer. We’re on sub with a MG novel and I’m hard at work on revising another one.

In my free time not spent writing, I swim and nap by pools. I listen to First Draft, 88 Cups of Tea, Stuff You Missed in History, and Writing Excuses podcasts. I binge watch (and rewatch) MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES and PARKS AND REC. I like to experiment with new recipes and cocktails. I like dark chocolate, exclusively, and Pinot Noir and rosé, particularly. I spend a great deal of time cuddling my Welsh terrier and attempting to cuddle my little black cat. I have a Stephen and he and I can often be found at flea markets and used bookstores.

WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR

I LOVE MIDDLE GRADE. I love it so much. It is, in my humble opinion, pretty much one of the best forms of storytelling available. A major contributing factor of that is VOICE. Give me your particular, your quirky, your charm.

Yes Please: straight contemporary, contemporary settings with a magical twist (literary or contemporary fantasy), historical or historical fantasy (as a history major my interests were broad–Joan of Arc to the Ottoman Empire to Vaudeville–though I have a particular fondness of the Guilded Age and Progressive Era, but am eager for any obscure sliver of history that is less than well-tred. Surprise me!), mysteries (see MISS FISHER’S obsession above, also, I looooove SHERLOCK), diary format (loooooooooved Dear America series growing up), retellings (the more obscure the better), sister stories, multi-generation casts (grandparents, elderly aunts, be they sweet or crochety, love ’em!), summer settings (I was a lifeguard for years and love being whisked back to that special schools-out season!), diverse stories of all kinds, curses, sci-fi set entirely on Earth (think X-Files, “Darkness Falls” episode)

No Thank You: horror, second-world or high fantasy, sports-centric stories (excepting swimming–I was on the high school team), fairies or angels or vampires (I have tried and tried and tried and just never appreciated them the way other readers do), bullying or mean-girl plot lines, personification (chatting animals have rarely captured my attention, aside a long ago middle-school love of REDWALL), sci-fi featuring aliens or robots or set in outer space

Some of my favorite authors include: Neil Gaiman, Meg Cabot, Cornelia Funke, Eva Ibbotson, Victoria (V.E.) Schwab, Markus Zusack, Maggie Stievalter, Louis Sachar, Ann Rinaldi, Roald Dahl

Great examples of stories that have charmed me in the past:

ONCE WAS A TIME by Lelia Sales

YORK by Laura Ruby

THE DETECTIVE’S ASSISTANT by Kate Hannigan

MY DIARY FROM THE EDGE OF THE WORLD by Jodi Lynn Anderson

FLUNKED by Jen Calonita

DOLDRUMS by Nicholas Gannon

SNICKER OF MAGIC by Natalie Lloyd

DOLL BONES by Holly Black

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

THE YEAR OF SHADOWS by Claire Legrand

HOUR OF THE BEES by Lindsay Eagar

THREE TIMES LUCKY by Shelia Turnage

DEAD END IN NORVELT by Jack Gantos

GHOST KNIGHT by Cornelia Funke

WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN WORKING TOGETHER

I’m looking for a writer who isn’t faint of heart, someone familiar with critical feedback. Someone who’s ready to jump into thoughtful and possibly extensive revisions with energy and enthusiasm. You’re going to need a tank of that (and maybe a tank of your beverage of choice, too) to power through this process. Revision is hard, as you well know, but it’s totally worth it!

Though of course this is YOUR story and you know what’s best and you should only integrate the suggestions that resonate with you, I’m obviously going to pick a story that needs revision of some sort. So don’t expect a one-line revision letter stating that the story is perfect and nothing should change. I give detailed, thorough, big-picture feedback. I poke, poke, poke at plot holes and things that confuse me as a reader. But I also do not hold back when something completely delights me. There will be praise and all feedback will be constructive.

To those of you who have read to the end of this post, squealed with joy at my favorite book list, and are squirming in your chair because you’re so excited that YOUR manuscript might be MY thing–I can’t wait to meet you and your awesome characters! Looking forward to your submission :]

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Revision Retreat

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Cabin #17, I love you


My annual trek up to the Highlights Foundation for a little solitary cabin-in-the-woods time usually falls in April, when the trees are beginning to green and the creek water is warm enough during soggy hikes to dip your toes into. 

This year, due to the driving desire to finally finish this darn revision and dedicate the 24/7 brain space to the story that was really necessary to weave together the elusive closing threads, I came a bit earlier.

There were snow flurries nearly every day and unlike past years, I wasn’t tempted by beautiful weather to leave the cabin and explore beyond walks to the barn for meals and short afternoon walks to stretch and combat mental fatigue. It was lovely to snuggle inside and watch the snow fall through all the giant picture windows.

Some writers listen to soundtracks while drafting and revising but I need complete and total silence in order to focus, so Highlights is a perfect place for me. It’s so quiet at night that–no exaggeration–there were moments where the only sounds were my own heartbeat and the heat kicking on. It’s so different from home. Even though we live in a neighborhood with “whispering” in its cutesy name and I would generally call it a quiet place, we share all four walls and, even if faint, there’s always the muffled sound of televisions and arguments and clarinet lessons and the highway and doors slamming. Then there’s the pets, of course, always circling, begging for attention.

I’m happy to report that the retreat was a sucsess: the revision is (finally) done. It’s an email attachment in other people’s inboxes now and I can take a few weeks off to read and relax and binge watch Netflix and forget about how to solve these characters problems. 

It’s funny the difference a year makes, though. Last year on this retreat, I finished a very rough first draft of this story and sent out query letters in the late night hours. This year, I finished up a major revision, making it officially draft #3, and favorited my delightful agent’s tweets while sipping coffee. I wonder what next year’s retreat will mark.

You HAVE to Read This One!

I’ll tell you a secret… There is not an author in the world who can make a living selling books. Authors make a living by having other people sell their books. So you need to get into a position where you’re good enough, you know your craft well enough, you tell good enough stories with enough interest in them, that people will not only read it and go, “That’s pretty good, I’ll read another one,” but they grab their friend and go, “Holy crap, you’ve got to read this book. It’s amazing.” That’s what’s going to get you a living as a writer. —Brandon Sanderson, Writing Excuses podcast, S11.E11

This holiday season, I got more than a few text and emails from people asking for book recommendations for various loved ones of all age groups and I was more than happy to oblige. I love gushing about books I loved, love the puzzle of pairing someone with a new story well-fitted to their tastes, love giving books as gifts! A few of my favorites this year that I think everyone should consider sitting down and reading:

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THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS by Anna-Marie McLemore

YA. Contemporary Romeo and Juliet, with mermaid-nomad performers vs. tree-hopping acrobats. Dark family secrets and grudges and magical realism and so many pretty pretty sentences. Read this in one sitting–which never happens–and I cried. And cuddled the book. I might actually reread this one–which also never happens.

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OPEN ROAD SUMMER by Emery Lord

YA. Summer. Taylor-Swift-esque music sensation BFF roadtrip. Swoony.

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CONSTABLE & TOOP by Gareth P. Jones

MG. Ghosts. England. Absolutely charming heroes and villains.

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HOUR OF THE BEES by Lindsay Eager

MG. Summer vacation. Stuck on a desert ranch with her family (including a bratty older sister and a grandpa suffering from dementia she just met). Family folklore. Magical realism at it’s absolute finest. Yes, I cried.

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SIX OF CROWS and CROOKED KINGDOM by Leigh Bardugo

YA. Duology. Fantasy. Magic. A dirty slum of a city. A heist. A crew of thieves and witches and soldiers and tight-rope walkers. Absolutely some of the best writing I’ve ever experienced.

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A GATHERING OF SHADOWS by V.E. Schwab

Adult! Book #2 in an amazing fantasy series. Pirates and London pubs and royal Olympic-like games of magical talents.

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A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE by Brittany Cavallaro

YA. (Charlotte) Holmes, meet (Jamie) Watson. In boarding school. In New England. All the spit and fire and sass you love from Sherlock dialogue.