Work on my next book is still going strong. This time last year, I was almost finished with the first full draft of Please Give. I’m maybe 2/3 finished with the next book, and hope to have a finished draft by May. I set myself a deadline of May 10, but that may be a deadline that, like Douglas Adams said, I can enjoy the whooshing sound of as it goes by.
I’m in the odd stage where I’m writing and having to contend with my original ideas changing or being dropped altogether. I already changed the title and reconsidered some of the themes. I’m also finding original scenes, moments, and ideas — ones I had before I even started writing, and ones that became my first passages — dangling on the precipice of the manuscript, waiting for the fateful keystroke that will send them to my Lost Passages folder (because I never delete anything, even drafts I hope never see the light of day).
Some of these are scenes I can’t wait to revise. I actually spent the past couple days revising one scene that was awkward when I wrote it and works much better now that I’ve written more of the story. But there are others I’m afraid to go back to and press CTRL-X, because a part of me feels like I’m letting go of a piece, a moment, or an element that I held with love for a long time — perhaps longer than necessary, but they were pieces I liked; and I grew sad when I first realized they no longer fit in the story that grew from them.
So much of writing a novel is learning to let go — and most often, what we’re letting go of are the moments that formed the novel in the first place. These are the darlings that are especially hard to kill. How can I drop pieces that inspired the story?
I can ultimately drop them, though, because the inspiration they created remains, even if the starting point does not. I’ll often go back and look at a finished piece and think, it’s so different from where it was when I first thought of it. And it is. It always is. But in many ways it isn’t. The fundamentals are still there. The idea is still there. It’s just in the form it’s supposed to be in.
It’s a cliche to use the caterpillar-cocoon-butterfly metaphor. I’m almost embarrassed to use it — I’m making myself type this with all my strength. But it’s an apt cliche because it’s true. A story crawls into existence, wraps itself in words, and emerges as something completely different from the caterpillar it started as — but at the end of the journey, it’s still the same bug. The caterpillar didn’t disappear. It just changed. And knowing that makes it a little easier to cut away the cocoon of a first draft that I’ve wrapped the story in to get it going.
I’ll be sure to post another GIF-filled entry once I’m done with the first draft of this book. I’ll do my best to not post a bunch of caterpillars and butterflies.
I’ve been thinking about text messages in stories lately. My next book has texting, though I’m having to remember what it was like to write text messages in 2004. I also laughed really hard at two jokes in Barry, a new show on HBO that’s quickly becoming a new favorite; and both jokes involved texting.
Texting has become its own form of dialogue. I’ve seen it portrayed in various ways — and with various results — on film and in print. I find it fascinating to see how it’s depicted, and am also curious if we’ll ever see an agreed-upon format in the future.
Texts are written, and italics are usually used to denote writing. I do this myself. It’s easier to type and means less fiddling around with fonts (fonts that may not even remain in an ebook if someone changes their Kindle settings). I do this for handwritten notes, emails (especially since I just include the body of an email — I don’t like including email address, sender, subject line, time sent, etc., but that’s for another blog post), and text messages.
However, I found that using italics for text messages isn’t always so simple. Please Give uses text messages second only to spoken dialogue in terms of how the characters communicate. I love writing dialogue, but lines of quotes read very differently when they become lines of italicized text — especially lines of italicized text that need to indicate a back-and-forth without constantly writing, “She texted ____. He texted ____” (I find that tedious, and thankfully, it hasn’t appeared too much in the books I’ve read — not nearly as much as excessive “she said/he said” lately, which is also for another post).
My solution was to try and only do this for three or four lines if I needed to, or to put in the few (or sometimes several) minutes it often takes people to text back and to keep the responses short. One of the questions I had for my beta-readers was if it was clear who was speaking to whom and who was texting to whom. They all said yes, and I hope that other readers agree!
But writing the act of texting is a challenge, and while I’ve seen smooth integration of text messaging in books, I have yet to see a universal format. One book I read put the entire exchange into a centered block denoted by each sender’s initials. It read like a chat screen, and while it made the exchange very clear, it seemed a little odd placed in the middle of regular text in the book. The book I’m reading now denotes text messages in its own line, and in a fixed font that’s smaller, bold, and in a colder font. It’s also very clear, and while momentarily a distraction, it flowed more seamlessly than the block of chat-like text. It flowed like what text messages are: dialogue.
As a reader, what formats have you seen in books for text messages? Are there any you prefer?
As a writer, how do you incorporate text messages into your stories?
Whether a reader, a writer, or both, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
As a P.S., I wanted to talk a bit about texting in TV and in film. That’s something I’ve watched with great interest, from both my communications and film studies perspectives. Texting as dialogue onscreen seems to be evolving, even though there still isn’t an agreed-upon format. Most movies and TV shows seem to have moved away from characters reading text messages out loud, which is a blessing — it had the same lack of naturalness as the one-sided phone conversation where the person onscreen repeats whatever (we presume) the person on the other end said.
A popular form for a while now — and still in use sometimes — was to put the text messages on the screen, sometimes like typed-out subtitles and most often by text windows popping up on the side like Pop-Up Video. I found this awkward and weird, but something that couldn’t really be worked around — much like fixed font text messages in a book.
More shows and movies, though, seem comfortable just showing someone’s screen with the text message on it. This is easier to do with bigger phones and clearer, more colorful screens; and I prefer this method. Text messages aren’t spoken and they also aren’t word bubbles like dialogue in comics. If we can see the phone’s screen, we should. As I mentioned above, I recently saw this used to great effect on Barry, which in addition to just showing the iPhone screen with texts, incorporated some of iPhone’s text message features, like confetti falling over the screen when a celebratory text is sent (and the text message the confetti accompanied was a very dark thing to celebrate). I look forward to seeing how communicating text messaging in stories continues to change over the years — or given technology’s current pace, over the coming months.
This past week, I crossed the 50,000 word mark on my next book. Achievement unlocked — I have a NaNoWriMo!
I call this a NaNoWriMo because the goal of NaNoWriMo — aka National Novel Writing Month — is to write 50,000+ words, or a novel, in 30 days. I always get excited when I reach this point, even though in my experience, it’s one where I can see the finish line as opposed to having crossed it.
Truth be told, my excitement increases when it doesn’t feel like the finish line. I like crossing the 50,000 word mark and knowing I’ve still got more to write. I know I’m going to be doing a lot of trimming, so having too many words is my ideal when a first draft is done.
I have more to write, but at 50,000 words, I am at least halfway done — maybe more. I’m thinking that Without Condition will reach 90,000 or 100,000 words when I finish the draft, and rest somewhere around 80,000 words by the time it’s complete. Of course, I say that now and I’ll end up with 200,000 words by the time I finish the draft.
But for now, I have over 50,000 words in the manuscript; and I’m feeling pretty good. To the next 50,000 — and soon, the next draft!
In all your work that I’ve read so far, your characters do best when they have someone to talk to — you rely on and use dialogue extremely effectively. I find that many first-time authors struggle with dialogue. Do you have any tips for them?
I do have some tips. I cut the question, though, because as I answered it, my answer became quite lengthy and I decided to share it via blog post.
I love writing dialogue. I love it so much that sometimes I have to watch myself if a manuscript starts to look more like a straight-up script. But writing dialogue helps me understand what my characters think, do, and feel more than any narration I write on the first attempt.
I think one reason dialogue is difficult is because the nature of speaking is so different from the nature of writing. You can think about how you speak and how you react to what’s spoken, but that’s all one sided. A conversation is between two, and writing is a solitary craft.
As such, I recommend one tactic that you can do in the privacy of your own home and one I find to be very helpful: talk to yourself and pretend that you’re speaking to someone else. Ask yourself questions and answer them. Do it out loud, even if it’s just muttering to yourself. Do it at home or somewhere alone so you can really let loose.
This is helpful because talking to yourself is what you do when you write dialogue. You’re creating a conversation between two (or more) people whose thoughts, feelings, motivations, and personalities are all in your head. By talking out loud to yourself, you’re practicing this in the more natural form of speaking instead of writing.
This also helps with what I think is the biggest hurdle to writing good dialogue: writing reactions as opposed to explanations. The clunkiest dialogue I’ve read (and written) is dialogue that narrates. I took an electronic media writing class in college, and one of our assignments was to write commercials. One of my professor’s cardinal rules was to never have the characters serve as the spokespeople. They should speak like normal people, and only the spokesperson — ie, the voiceover — should describe and sell the product.
This is applicable to fiction and dialogue. The narrator describes the story, but the characters live it. They live it by speaking within it like everyday people. And to speak like everyday people is to listen and react, not narrate and explain (well, not only explain — more on that later). No one likes talking to someone who only explains and never listens or responds to anyone but themselves. No one wants to read that someone either.
As such, I find that dialogue is always better when the next line is a direct build from the previous one, as opposed to just being the next step in advancing the story. I see lines of dialogue as stairs. Stairs build up, but rest on the edge of the previous one in order to climb. So do good lines of dialogue. This can come in the form of a question or clarifying statement, or some form of “Oh, I know — I do [blank] and this is how I do [blank] uniquely.” Sometimes I see an opportunity for jokes or tangents in response to a line, and add them even if they don’t advance the plot or reveal anything important. Not all dialogue has to. It does, however, need to sound natural (and it helps if it’s funny — even dramas or dark stories need good jokes).
Dialogue is at its least natural when it’s narrating — and this is where my final tip may be a little infuriating, because it will sound like I’m negating that observation. It’s the narrator’s job to explain things like setting, internal thoughts, and background. But sometimes, these things are better left to the characters to share via dialogue.
Now, I don’t think this should happen with prolonged explanations and backstory. It’s very, very easy for a character to start talking about their history and have them sound like a James Bond villain waxing on about their evil plans. If a character is going on and on, maybe consider giving that character their own section narrated from their point of view (whether first or third person). Such monologues can also be broken up by another character reacting — asking questions, saying what they think or what they would do, etc.
But no matter how it’s broken up, if a character’s background is being shared or revealed, it’s best to let them do it themselves. I find this applies whether or not a story is in first or third person. Narration should explain things about the protagonist (or, if switching focus/points of view, the person that is the focus in that section or chapter). But anyone else should speak for themselves.
I witnessed this particularly when writing Please Give. It’s told in first person, from Beth’s point of view. One of my most common revisions was to go back to a scene where Beth explained everything about everyone, and change it so that everyone else spoke for themselves instead. This made Beth seem more realistic, since she was no longer psychic and all-knowing about everyone else; and it also resulted in more realistic dialogue and narration.
This was especially true in Chapter 2, where Beth is at a staff meeting and listens to three nonprofit presidents — Mary Chau, Justin Moore, and Sally Wood — give presentations. In the first draft, Mary and Justin didn’t speak much on paper. Beth narrated their backgrounds and their organization’s backgrounds, leaving very little space for their own words. In turn, Beth’s narration both explained their history and her thoughts on them. This was clunky and didn’t read realistically at all. It read like an article or a blog post summarizing a presentation.
But narration shouldn’t be a summary, and dialogue helps it to not be one. This was the case with Sally, who spoke more even in the first couple drafts. She spoke for herself, and Beth’s narration was mostly in response to what she was saying — a reaction as opposed to an explanation. It flowed much better, and I realized that in order for the chapter as a whole to flow better, I needed to extend the same courtesy to Mary and Justin.
So, I went back and let them say what Beth previously described. They spoke about just enough history to sound like a presentation, as opposed to narration in a book (much like you want your make-up to look like you’re not wearing any, you want your dialogue to read like it wasn’t written). And rather than serve to explain, Beth’s narration broke up these lengthy speeches with her responses and thoughts — which in turn served to clarify and fill in the context for what they had to say. Because she had reactions as opposed to explanations, the scene read more realistically to me — and it did so because these explanations became a form of dialogue between Beth and the people speaking.
Dialogue is an effective tool, and one that many writers seem to fear the most. I think this comes from thinking too hard about what should be said or how what’s said fits into the narration as opposed to the narrative. At the end of the day, dialogue should fit into a conversation, not the narration. So let your characters loose — let them speak, let them react, and let them converse until it’s time for the narration to come back in. You can always go back and whittle the conservation down in a second or third (or eighth) draft.
I’m working on my next novel almost every day. It’s my main focus, as a work-in-progress should be. However, I’m also making sure to keep some time open to read every day. I am typically a voracious reader, but when I was in the thick of writing Please Give, my reading took a notable dip. For instance, I started reading Bruce Springsteen’s memoir last fall, and what would normally take me 2-3 weeks to finish took me almost three months.
Reading, though, is just as important to keeping the writing wheels going as writing every day. It helps me see new ways to phrase things, shows me different ways stories can be told, and makes sure I’m seeing more words than just my own each day. Plus, it’s both fun and relaxing. Writing is fun and relaxing, but it’s also work; and all work requires a break.
Right now, I’m reading Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’m a big fan of his work, and was happy to see he had a collection of short stories available. I’ve read three of the five stories, and all three have shown Ishiguro’s talent for slipping in a line that’s beautifully simple, yet fills you with a slow burn sadness as it settles into your consciousness. Thus far, the story that does this the most is “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
I just finished Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. I wanted to read it before the movie adaptation (titled Love, Simon) was released. Whether I’ll see the movie is TBD, but I adored the book. It follows a closeted high schooler named Simon who finds himself falling for a mystery classmate he knows only as Blue, another student he connects with after seeing his post on the school’s Tumblr (a side note: this is the second YA novel I’ve read where Tumblr played a huge narrative role. Tumblr didn’t exist when I was in high school, but forums were everywhere and I was on quite a few. I can’t imagine wanting to be on a forum connected to my school or even my classmates. But I digress). The book switches between Simon’s narration and the increasingly romantic email correspondence between him and Blue. It was funny, tender, and ripe with a rich cast of characters.
A few books before that, I read a book that’s at the top of my Favorites of 2018 right now: Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee. It tells the story of two sisters, Miranda and Lucia; and how Miranda, Lucia’s husband, Lucia’s boyfriend, and Lucia herself all try to care for her as Lucia’s illness grows worse. It was a wonderful book, with both poetic prose and a great story. I highly recommend it.
Once I finish Nocturnes, I have a couple different books lined up. Over the weekend, I purchased Afterlife with Archie, Vol. 1: Escape from Riverdale. I read the first issue way back when, but I have little time and patience to purchase and read comics one issue at a time. This is why I gravitate towards dailies (like Questionable Content), graphic novels, or collected treasuries/trade paperbacks. So, I was very happy to see this unique Archie series collected in a book; and even happier to see that Volume 2 is set to come out later this month.
(It’s weird writing a headline about myself in the third person, but not as weird as writing “A Q&A with Me”)
Last week, I posted a Q&A with my editor, Evelyn Duffy. In addition to answering my questions, she turned the virtual mic around and asked some questions of me. Read on to learn more about what it was like writing my first book, how I navigate through both the writing and publishing parts of the process, and how comic strips and sitcoms influence my literary work.
Evelyn: What is your writing process? How has it varied or stayed the same from your short stories to your novels?
Sonora: It’s a simple step, and yet some days, it’s the hardest one to take: I make myself write something every day. Even if it’s just a sentence, or a note, or a revision, I need to engage with a piece every day to keep the momentum going. I can’t count the number of times I put off actual writing because I thought I had nothing, and then when I made myself do it, I got something — something that often surprised me. The story needs to get out of my head in order to form fully, and I need to write it to get it out of my head.
I work better with set, numeric goals — a specific end date, a number to reach, etc. When writing a novel, I set a goal of 1000 words a day. When writing a short story, I aim for 500 to 1000 words. I often surpass these goals — at its peak, I was writing closer to 2000-3000 words a day for my novel, Please Give — but there are also plenty of days I fall short. This is okay. What’s more important to me than a word count is engagement with my work.
Evelyn: What is your revision process? Who do you share your work with pre-publication, and how do you decide? Can you tell us how you incorporate an editor, beta readers, friends and family, and/or your cover artist?
Sonora: Whether a novel or a short story, I always wait until I have a draft I’m mostly satisfied with before sharing it with others. I do this because I don’t want to give someone something to read that I still have a lot of issues with. I want to send it to others when I’ve reached the point where I can’t do more without hearing from someone else. I often say to people reading it that what the story needs now is another set of eyes. My stories usually reach this point after three or four passes on my own.
Beta readers usually give me general thoughts and some copy-edits. My editor is very thorough, with longer assessments on what is and isn’t working in the story, and what I need to draw out or revise. I highly recommend that self-published authors get both beta readers and an editor. You need that span of feedback to really make your story pop.
Evelyn: Please Give is your first novel, but not your first book. What are some of the differences you’ve found between writing a novel and a collection of short stories? Are there any that took you by surprise?
Sonora: The biggest difference was what each piece started as when I wrote the first words. Even when the story was vastly different, I knew Please Give would be a novel. However, I didn’t write the short stories in The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales with the intention to publish them together. When I decided to publish them together, I was pleasantly surprised by how closely connected they turned out to be. Funny enough, that theme was connection: each of the protagonists in the four stories has a goal of making a connection with someone else, and each get different results.
Evelyn: I understand your knowledge of the nonprofit world of Washington D.C. influenced Please Give. Can you talk a little about that?
Sonora: I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for almost ten years. I interned for an animal welfare organization while I was in graduate school, and have worked for two foundations and an advocacy organization since entering the workforce full-time.
Some may think that working for a nonprofit means your 9-to-5 is saving puppies, or going to protests, or traveling the globe to help save the world. For some nonprofit workers, that’s the case; but for many of us, it’s going to the office, sitting in meetings, writing drafts, doing busy work, going to more meetings, fielding phone calls, and going to one or two more meetings before you leave for the day. If you think that sounds like any other office, you’re right.
In every nonprofit office I’ve worked in, though, staff have cared deeply about the organization’s mission. There’s also an overall sense of camaraderie — one that isn’t exclusive to nonprofit offices, of course, but one that I think is heightened by the nature of the field. This can be both a good and bad thing. It’s good because you’re part of a team focused on a goal rooted in service, and everyone wants to work together to achieve that. But it can be bad if that common goal is used to try and justify things that wouldn’t be okay in any office, with the excuse that it’s the mission or the greater good that’s more important. This isn’t exclusive to nonprofit offices, but like camaraderie, I think this is heightened in a mission-based office. Why should we complain about things like pressure to work too hard, or frequently missed deadlines, or excessive micromanagement, or lack of promotions or benefits, when The Mission is there and we have so many more important things to think about? But you can care deeply about the greater good and still want better in your office, because it’s still an office and it’s still okay to ask for better in your work environment. I hope that anyone working or thinking of working in the nonprofit sector remembers this.
Evelyn: As I wrote to you when I edited your book, the protagonist of Please Give is refreshing and complex. Beth has a clear, distinct voice. She owns her unique hobbies and interests, and is sexually confident. She has no physical hang-ups and isn’t trying to define herself based on a relationship with a man. At the same time, she’s also one of the most anxious characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. What went into writing her? Is she the same character now, after multiple drafts and revisions, that she was when she started?
Sonora: When I started Please Give, I was thinking less about Beth and more about where she worked. Her observations on her job — ones that were much snarkier in the initial drafts — were more my own than hers. While I never intended Please Give to be a memoir, a story that was inspired by my own experiences was going to start with a blurred line of where my story ceased and Beth’s began. This line became more defined as I gave Beth her own world. As her story opened up to me, she did too; and I was better able to step back and write about her instead of me.
A lot of what you like about her are things I see in women, yet don’t see enough of in fictional women. For instance, 95% of the books I read have women say something about eating too much and getting fat, no matter their size or their self-esteem. I find myself thinking, can’t I just read one frickin’ book where a woman eats a burger and doesn’t say “Oh no, I’m going to get fat”? Same goes for Beth’s sexual confidence. I wasn’t interested in yet another story where a woman is either super awkward or weird about sex (sure it’s real, but it’s not the only reality of sexual women); sleeps around with the hope that maybe this guy will want to commit (because we can’t have a woman who dates to date — she must be looking for a husband or a long-term boyfriend, and the men must always be the ones who are reluctant to commit); or else sleeps around because she has emotional baggage that drives her libido, giving her a reason other than her own gratification. Beth has sex because she enjoys it, and it’s something she both likes and knows she’s good at. I want to read more about women like that.
At the same time, Beth is very anxious. She fears offending others and polarizing them; and also fears that she’s not actually deserving of the things she wants. This is most apparent in her office, but it seeps into how she interacts with her friends and her dates (outside of sex, at least). This combination of anxiety and confidence creates its own special brand of despair. Beth very much wants more, and wants this because she knows what she’s capable of — and yet, she still wonders if she can actually do what she wants to do. This leads to a battle in her head between what she thinks, what she thinks others think, and what she thinks she should think to make everyone happy.
It’s exhausting to go through these motions — and they’re motions I’m very familiar with. Even though Beth is her own character, I wrote her inner workings with a clear understanding of them because I go through similar thinking almost every day. It’s a train of thought that can make you feel very lonely. I tend to internalize these anxieties because I hold to the times I’ve opened up about them and been told to just get over it or that I was being ridiculous. While such anxieties aren’t fixed overnight, it helps when I hear from others that they know how it is, or feel that way too, or at the very least understand. This applies to books as well as people, characters as well as friends. I started writing Beth and her story so I could tell a good story. But I hope that by including something personal to me — something hard to share, but necessary — that I can do my own part to let others who go through this know that they’re not alone.
Evelyn: As the author, what is your favorite thing about Please Give? As a reader, do you think it would be different?
Sonora: One of the reasons I loved writing Please Give was because it made me happy to inhabit its world and spend time with its characters. I found several of the scenes hilarious, and would laugh to myself as I wrote them or said the dialogue out loud to myself. It seems odd to say that, given it’s about a woman anxiously navigating through her own head to get through her day-to-day. But I’ve found that my own rough day-to-day’s, ones that can be very rough when my anxious thoughts are getting the better of me, are improved when I find something funny about them. I can make them better with a joke, or a snarky observation, or talking to an understanding friend and making light of everything we’re going through. So while the book isn’t a laughfest from beginning to end, it’s also not a pit of despair. Many things happen in the world of the book, things that sometimes feel like nothing but downs after the ups; but all can perhaps still feel okay because of a good joke and some good people to share it all with. I felt that way while engaging with the book and its characters, and I hope that readers will feel the same.
Evelyn: “All the Pieces Coming Together” is a sexy, funny, dangerous short story, and one of the most unique I’ve read in 10 years of editing. How long did it take you to write? What gave you the idea? Who do you hope will read it, and what do you hope they’ll take away from it?
Sonora: “All the Pieces Coming Together” was the first short story I wrote when I got back into writing in 2016. I’d nursed the idea for a year or so beforehand, focused mainly on one of the first lines: “It’s the perfect place to hide a body. The trouble is, there isn’t anybody to hide.” I found the idea of a wannabe serial killer finding a hiding spot so perfect that no one was around to kill to be darkly hilarious. I wrote down a few notes, including the line, his course of action, and the first part of the ending. Everything else fell into place as I wrote it. Once I started writing the story, it took me a little over a month to complete. I hope people with morbid senses of humor read it, or perhaps people who don’t think they’re into horror or dark comedy. It delves into themes of control and making things just so, something I think we’ve all gone through in less morbid ways (well, hopefully less morbid ways).
Evelyn: Both Please Give and The Crow’s Gift have gorgeous cover art. What can you tell us about your cover artist?
Sonora: Both of my books’ covers, the cover for “All the Pieces Coming Together,” and the illustrations in The Crow’s Gift were done by the immensely-talented Doug Puller. He is an illustrator and graphic designer, and I highly recommend him. You can see examples of his work on his website.
I am also collaborating with Doug on a graphic novel. It’s called Wretched Heroes, and will be released as a multi-volume series. We expect Volume 1: The Man in Rags to be released later this year. You can learn more about it on Facebook.
Evelyn: You’ve mentioned that you attend meetups and classes in the D.C. area related to writing and publishing. What about them did you find helped you? You’ve also learned a lot in a relatively short period of time about self-publishing and promoting your work online. What are your suggestions for someone who has a book finished and wants to self-publish but isn’t sure how to get started?
Sonora: I’ve been going to Write2Publish classes, which meet once a month at my local library. An assortment of writers attend the classes, and they are led by Robin Sullivan, whose husband, Michael J. Sullivan, is a popular fantasy author. She is his business manager. The classes are focused on the business end of writing — how to market your book, query-sending strategies, tips for which publishing avenue to pursue, and more. The classes have been extremely helpful in guiding my foray into self-publishing, while also giving me a primer of what to expect if I ever decide to pursue traditional publishing.
Much of what I’ve learned about self-publishing has come from a combination of writing blogs and these classes. When Robin shares her tips, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially if you are handling all of your own marketing. While I have an eye for marketing, I am a writer first and foremost; and everyone will tell you that the author’s job is to write. Thus, it sometimes feels like I’m always going to come up short meeting every recommendation people like Robin make to ensure self-publishing success — and subsequently come up short in getting my books into the hands of readers. However, one of the nice things about books is that they don’t get just one chance to be read. Think about your favorite author. You probably didn’t hear about their first book — you probably heard about them after their third or fourth. Books stick around, and can gain traction over time.
I think it’s important to remember, then, that while doing it all is helpful, so is doing some of it. Your self-publishing prospects aren’t D.O.A. if you don’t have a full website, social media presence, Google Analytics report, multiple reviews, and well-placed promotion on blogs and in newspapers all before launch day. Maybe aim for two of those things, and the two that come most naturally to you. I’ve had a Twitter presence for years, and while I still use it to talk about non-writing things like hockey and beer, I also use it to talk about my writing. I also started a writing blog where I talk about my projects as well as general writing thoughts. That blog eventually became my website. I’d like to do more to market my work, and when I have some more pieces to promote, perhaps I will. But for now, I have a website and a social media presence, which is a great first step to getting my work out there.
Evelyn: Generally speaking, you draw a lot from film and pop culture. You also read voraciously. Who or what are your greatest influences?
Sonora: I really enjoy both humorous and dark stories, such as Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs and essays. I read Running with Scissors in high school and loved every word. Burroughs has a knack for drawing you into such darkness and sadness but with a laugh and a wink throughout; and his sense of humor is incredibly biting. My favorite authors (with my favorite book by each in parentheses) include John Irving (A Widow for One Year), Anita Shreve (Fortune’s Rocks), Rainbow Rowell (Landline), Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), and Thomas Hardy (Far From the Madding Crowd). I also read a lot of comic strips growing up, which were very influential on my writing and my humor — in no small part because of the way the dialogue flows. I spent many an afternoon reading Foxtrot and Calvin and Hobbes; and owned many Archie anthologies.
Sitcoms have also had a big influence on my writing. Growing up, my favorite shows were The Golden Girls, The Nanny,That ’70s Show, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m also a big fan of sitcoms without laugh tracks. The speed and naturalness at which the jokes come is just so good in the right hands. They’re an excellent primer on how to write good, convincing, and funny dialogue in stories. Some of my favorites include 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Master of None.
Most of my favorite stories are about generally everyday people going through generally everyday things; or else things out of the ordinary being shared as if they were an everyday occurrence, because to that person, it is their everyday. Even a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it a point to emphasize the averageness of Joel and Mike (and now Jonah) in the face of their circumstances. These stories showed me people I’d know, telling jokes and going through things I could at least see myself going through, even if I didn’t actually go through them. Those are the stories I like writing the most.
I am also a horror fan, in case anyone was wondering how my love of Golden Girls and Archie resulted in a story like “All the Pieces Coming Together” (though Riverdale would lend itself well to that). I’ve been a Tim Burton fan since I was a kid, and of course read Stephen King. I am also a big fan of Neil Gaiman and the way he builds worlds and turns a phrase. He makes the darkest corners of the imagination beautiful, even when they’re deeply unsettling.
Evelyn: What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started writing?
Sonora: I’ve read so many author interviews where they say the final version of their book was almost nothing like it was when they started. I read an interview or two like these as I was just getting started on Please Give, and thought, “Well, my story isn’t changing. It’s going to stay exactly the same, and I’m going to follow everything I outlined or noted exactly.”
What a joke. It changed drastically, and many times. I kept some things intact — Beth’s job, for instance; and Beth as the protagonist, and most of the main characters. But at one point, I had a speaking cast of thirty. I still remember a character about whom Beth said, “I don’t know why she was there. She had no reason to be.” One of those magic moments where your characters talk to you and you should listen. Beth was also running an advice blog in an early draft, which will make you laugh very hard when you learn more about Beth and how she feels about sharing her opinions.
But Please Give changed a lot — it even changed titles — and changed even more when I got it back from being edited. It changed despite my naive, stubborn self thinking my novel would be the first rough draft that stayed the same into final form beyond copy clean-up. It’s that stubbornness that makes me wish I’d known how much a story can change sooner. While I want to go into my stories with some sense of what will happen, I also don’t want to go in so sure of how it will go that I’ll get stuck and write myself into a corner. I came around on what did and didn’t need to change in Please Give, but there were pieces I definitely hung onto longer than necessary so I could follow a notion I had of what the story was before I even wrote it. It’s better to write and see where it goes — and if you see it going somewhere else, follow it. More often than not, you’ll be lead in the right direction.
Evelyn: I know you have several other irons in the fire. Would you like to tell us about some of your upcoming books and short story collections?
Sonora: While Please Give was out for edits, I wrote several short stories. I’m publishing five of them in a new collection, tentatively titled Wither and Other Tales. Many of them are on the darker side, like the stories in The Crow’s Gift. It’s currently being edited and revised, and I plan to release it in September.
I’m also hard at work on my next novel. Right now, it’s called Without Condition. It follows a woman named Cara, who tempers her mounting fears and frustrations in less-than-savory ways; and her mother Delores, who’s proud of the way she handles herself. It explores the idea of unconditional love, but in a dark and twisted way. It also explores how Cara reconciles with who she really is — a piece she hides from everyone but her mother, because her mother loves her no matter what — and how that reconciliation affects Cara when she meets and falls for a man named Jackson. It’s dark, bemused, and tender — my favorite kind of story.
I’ve been working steadily on my next book for the past week. It’s up to over 25,000 words, and the story seems to shape itself more with every day’s work (it also tends to shapeshift, but that’s all part of the process).
Despite this progress, it’s been hard to plow through because I’m reconciling with this being a first draft. Having completed a novel and several short stories, I figured I’d be familiar with the feeling of stumbling around an apartment looking for the light switch that comes with trying to write a first draft. I’ve even written about that feeling before.
Yet each day I open my document, start writing, and wonder why I can’t just magically have a complete story, one with all my questions answered and one without any bracket notes or paragraphs that basically summarize everything as opposed to narrating. It has all the things I see when I revisit my old drafts of Please Give. I know the words will eventually shape into the story I want. But my impatient self wonders, why can’t I have this now? I’ve done this before — I should be able to do this immediately.
But the truth is, I haven’t done this before — not with this story, at least. I think that’s what I forget when I get discouraged at my words feeling clunky or incomplete. It’s brand new to me, and I need to familiarize myself with the apartment and memorize its corners before I can just walk through and flick on the light.
I came across a quote on Twitter that helped put things in perspective for me, and helped me feel a little less discouraged at the state of writing my draft:
This is a perfect summary of the feeling I get when I write a first draft, that I’m tossing things haphazardly into Word and nothing’s making sense. But it will — and one can’t build the castle without piling in the sand first.
I want to close with my own interpretation of that feeling, inspired by one of my favorite TV shows, The Golden Girls:
Went through LRT during this morning’s writing session. I always feel like I’m writing one of Rose Nylund’s longer, more tangent-filled St. Olaf stories when I write a first draft; especially a chapter detailing things in the characters’ pasts. #AmWriting
I am, in general, a positive person. In situations where I don’t know what could happen, I try my best to think that the good outcome will happen. This is especially helpful in writing. Writing is a deeply personal endeavor that many of us want to share and put out in the world. I think that writers have to maintain some positivity to do that, because otherwise, it’s an endeavor that feels less personal and more lonely.
But I also think it can be hard to look at thoughts from other writers and see nothing but blinding positivity. Oh, keep going! It’s all for you! Don’t worry what people think. You do you! It’s all a step forward! Granted, that line of thinking is much more helpful than the other end of the spectrum, the slew of negativity that makes you wonder why anyone writes in the first place. This is one of the reasons I try to stay positive online. I want to add a hopeful voice, to encourage others and myself to keep doing what we love.
But to all things there is balance. I know on the days I’m feeling down — not angry, not petulant, but down and discouraged — that reading nothing but positivity can almost make me feel worse. It makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong, that I must be a failure because I’m not harnessing the power of positive thinking. I forget that feeling blue is not only okay, it’s part of the process — and it’s also part of being human. It’s easy to forget that, though, when I’m trying to cheer myself up; and even harder to remember in the face of relentless positivity — especially from myself.
So, for myself and for anyone reading: despite my general positive feelings towards writing, there are days when it is hard. There are days when I click “Submit” and feel like my work is going into a void where once someone reads it, they’ll reject it. There are days I check in on Submittable and see entries I sent several months ago still listed as “Received,” telling me they didn’t even open it; and I wonder why I even bothered. There are days I write and feel like every word is crap, that the stories only make sense to me and maybe should be kept to myself. There are times I look at the rejections in my binder and think they’ll be all I ever see. There are days that the sadness is so deep that it takes every ounce of energy to open my drafts and type one word, two words, one sentence. Sometimes I don’t write anything at all.
It’s normal to feel this way, and it’s okay. It’s okay to want to cry sometimes, or to sometimes worry that writing is a dream that will only be dreamt. Everyone does this, and as a writer, I appreciate seeing a writer at any stage, aspiring or successful, admit to the days that they feel that sadness, when they feel discouraged and limited. Because we also see that they keep going.
I won’t end this entry with a jolt of positivity, as I think a little melancholy is okay and even necessary. But I will say this: keep going, any way you can. Feeling sad is normal, and when I feel that way and still try to do what I love, it helps me along through the fog.
Over the past month and some change, I’ve been hard at work revising Please Give. I finished my revisions last week, and am almost done with my final reread. It’s really transformed since September 2016, when I wrote the first draft of what would become Chapter 5. I plan to publish the book on Dec. 12, 2017 — so mark your calendars!
While I’m still finishing up the book, the cover is ready; and I’m excited to share it with you below. It once again features amazing artwork from Doug Puller, and I hope you’ll take some time to look at the details he’s included throughout a scene in Beth’s office. Check it out:
I’m still in the depths of revising Please Give. For the past couple weeks, that’s all I’ve worked on. The other projects I’ve begun are all waiting for me — a good thing, because otherwise I won’t finish the current one.
Waiting to work on other things has been an exercise in patience, but the process of revising makes that exercise easier. I’ve enjoyed seeing how the book has changed from when I sent it to my editor to what it looks like now (though I am trying to not read my revisions until I’m done with all of them and can read anew from beginning to end — another exercise in patience). It makes the story feel fresh, new, and most importantly, better.
I hesitate to say it feels complete, because it doesn’t. It doesn’t due to the simple fact that I still have a few chapters left. But more so, it doesn’t feel that way because I don’t know if it will ever feel 100% complete.
Many authors say that a book is done when one accepts that what’s there is enough. I understand that feeling, more so with the book than my short stories. With the short stories, their brevity helped me know when each was done. I have flashes of that with the book. For instance, in the first draft, I intended to write another section after what became the closing line. However, I felt an urge to just stop there once I wrote it. And sure enough, my editor said it was a great closing line.
But there are moments in between the beginning and end where I still wonder if there’s another way to word a scene, or a way to expand a scene further, or even change it a little to set some other pieces in place. Revising the book has been an exercise in knowing when those changes are warranted, and when those changes are just me keeping myself enmeshed in a story I absolutely love writing. It’s crucial to know the difference, because as much fun as it is to write a story, it will feel even better when it’s done.
One of my favorite movies is Wonder Boys. There’s a scene towards the end where Grady’s book-in-progress, a typed 1000+ page tome that he’s spent years working on, goes flying into the wind and the water, lost forever because it was his only copy (a testament to the importance of backing up your files). He’s asked what the story was about, and he says he doesn’t know. He’s asked why he spent so many years writing the story when he didn’t even know the plot. He says, “I couldn’t stop.”
While I have not typed 1000+ pages, nor spent years doing it, nor did so without a plot in mind, I know how that feels — and how that feeling can ultimately be a trap. Don’t let your stories fly into the figurative wind and water under the guise of fine-tuning and making it perfect. Write your story, revise your story, and then complete it — by stopping. There are people out there waiting to read your book who’ll be glad that you did.