This is What Retrograde Feels Like

 

My fella: How do you feel?

Me: (in pain, in slug pose, melting into couch) Like a dingbat.

Fella: Why a dingbat?

Me: Because I hurt myself planting a flower.

Fella: Well, when you put it like that…

True story. This is me today. I’ve been feeling totally overwhelmed lately—with work, and family, and life in general. This is one of those periods where it all is just feeling like too much, and I don’t know how to keep my head above water anymore. I feel like I don’t have time to do the things I really love anymore, and that’s not a good feeling. Time feels like it’s racing by, and it’s just passing between one work obligation and the next, leaving no time to relax or do what brings me joy.

This happens. It’s cyclical. But I’d like it to not happen.

So I’ve been trying to find ways to carve out time to write, to make art, to get more exercise, and to breathe. I started doing a little Pilates and yoga, just 20 minutes each day to relax, and give my mind a break, and stretch out these muscles that hurt so bad. (I go to a masseuse who is magical, but she always makes somewhat disappointed sounds when her fingers dig into my shoulders. “Your shoulder blade won’t move,” she said to me a few weeks ago, and I thought seriously about buying one of those little wooden meat tenderizers and asking my fella to try it on the most offending parts.) I had to MAKE myself step away from work for these 20 minutes (when did I become a workaholic??) and it’s already making a big difference. My shoulder blade almost moves again.

This weekend I had the bright idea to do a little gardening. Don’t let me mislead you: I am no gardener. I have no green thumb. I wing it with flowers. I buy what’s pretty and smells nice, and depend greatly on the lovely Kathy at my local greenhouse (who is like my fairy godmother for planting), who gauges the likelihood that what I’ve selected will survive in my shade conditions.

Planting things helps me breathe. It gets me away from my desk, it gets my hands in the dirt, and it makes me happy when things actually grow and thrive. It makes me feel more like a human and less like a part of a machine.

So I collected some flowers from Kathy, planted them yesterday until a thunderstorm rolled in, and finished the last few pots today. And as I planted something that looks vaguely like a dahlia, I turned the wrong way, heard a snap, and was frozen for a second in sharp pain. Did I really just snap my back out of normal by planting a flower? Is some planet in retrograde again?

Nope. This is the universe telling me to slow down. I know it.

For the rest of the day, I tried to relax. I read a little. I edited a manuscript. I thought about ways I can carve out a little more time for myself again. I think our bodies let us know when they need a break—when we’re pushing ourselves too hard and need to take a step back. We really do need balance, and our bodies remind our brains sometimes, when our brains are saying “GO, GO, GO!” at 100 miles an hour.

I got the best advice one day, from my dental hygienist, and it pops into my head at times like this. My dentist had determined I ground my teeth at night, and that I had done severe damage. She said, “Honey, stress will take you right out of this world.” And I know, she’s absolutely right. We have to find balance, and we have to make time for ourselves. We have to make time for the things we love, and the people we love.

I feel like my body had to put me in time-out to remind me of that. But I’m on board again, body. I hear you.

My Patreon Project has Launched!

 

This week I’m excited to start a new project over at Patreon.com.

If you haven’t heard of Patreon, it’s an amazing site that lets you support artists on a subscription basis and get rewards every month. (It’s a little like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but SO much better.) 

I love connecting with people—other artists, fans of my work—you name it. Once upon a time, I went to craft shows like Kentuck and the Chattanooga Zine Fest and had a blast meeting people. I sold some prints, and that was cool, too. I made a little extra cash and it helped me buy nicer woodcut tools, or take a class at Penland. But it takes a lot of time and money to travel and go to shows like that. Sometimes I had to take days off from work, and lose that pay. Sometimes I had to stay in motels, or pay a booth fee, and sometimes I just broke even. Sometimes I didn’t even make the booth fee back. There was no predicting how much work I’d sell, and pricing my work is like my least favorite thing in the world. 

That’s where Patron becomes a lifesaver.

It creates a direct line between me and my fans—and it goes both ways. Fans can contact me anytime (and please do, because I love to hear from you. Want me to draw your brother-in-law as a woodpecker? Email me.) Patreon lets me show you all what I’m working on, share my process, get feedback from fans, and share the finished work. And it gives fans a bigger window into my creative processes. I can share tips about how I carve blocks, or rig up my little tabletop printing press to make my new block print—or I can share tutorials that might help someone else, too. 

And all of that can be happening each day—it’s not just a flurry of activity that happens over a day or two at a big art show. (Sometimes that’s overwhelming, and I forget 80% of what happened, and what I talked about with people.) This way, there’s some constant contact between me and my Patrons, and that means they get to see more from me, and I get more inspiration from them. 

I love this idea. It makes me feel like making is interwoven into my day, and not just something I do in fits and starts to meet a deadline for a show.

(Because that’s sometimes how it feels when the creative part of me is fighting against my day job for my time and energy and attention.) I like this idea of Patrons letting me make more cool stuff more often, so it becomes more of a daily process again for me. 

If you like that idea, too, check out my Patreon page. I’m sharing all kinds of stuff, from digital downloads, to exclusive blog posts, to letterpress prints and books. There’s something for everyone, and subscriptions start at just $1 a month to get some digital wallpapers (like the swallows pictured at the top of this post) and special blog posts. You can cancel anytime, and you can share with your friends. I made this Patreon page because making art brightens my day, and I like sharing things to brighten your day, too. So check it out—I’d love to see you on my team and send you cool stuff, too. 

 

 

Author Interview: Amy Willoughby-Burle and The Lemonade Year

It seems like eons ago that I met Amy Willoughby-Burle, at a little writers’ workshop and retreat nestled in the mountains of North Carolina. That two-week period was an experience that changed the course of my life. There were budding writers like myself and Amy, big-time published authors, and everyone in between. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that over fifteen years have passed since then, but here we are. I still remember reading Amy’s short story then—and thinking it was amazing—and overhearing the workshop leader telling another teacher, “She’s the real deal. She hears the voices.”

Amy writes stories that grab you with ferocity and don’t let go. She’s currently out on a tour for her new novel, The Lemonade Year, but when I tugged on her sleeve and asked her a few questions, she was happy to chat. 

Lauren: What inspired you to write The Lemonade Year?

Amy: Generally everything I write starts with a line of dialogue that I either overhear in real life or hear originally as fiction in my head, or the same way with an image or something that I see as I’m walking or driving. It’s hard to explain really how that “thing” sticks out and then sticks around in my brain. I don’t ever have an idea for a plot—you know like, “I think I’ll write a story about a woman at her wits’ end.” Those lines or images just start wiggling their way around in my head, and I end up writing random lines and scenes until I realize that they go together, and then I start working on figuring out the story and the characters from there.

LF: Who is your favorite character in The Lemonade Year? Who was the hardest character to write?

AB: My favorite character is Oliver. He ended up being quite a surprise to me in the writing stage. I had him pegged all wrong until I really got to know him. I think he provides a certain undercurrent to the story and a new way of thinking that surprises the main character, Nina, as well.

The hardest character for me to write was probably Nina’s mother. She’s not very forthcoming in the novel—at first anyway—and as a character she kept her cards pretty close to her chest. She’s living in a bit of a fantasy world and that caused it to be difficult for me to find the truth of her.

LF: You also write short stories (and they’re wonderful). Do you ever get so attached to characters in your short stories that you write them into novels?

AB: Well thank you, and this is really funny, because yes! Nina, although I might not call her that in the story, appears in my collection, Out Across the Nowhere. She’s in the story “The Conscious Absence of Knowing.” If you read that story and read The Lemonade Year you will see that shared experience. I also have another story in the collection that I turned into a novel as well. it’s not published yet, but hopefully will be one day.

LF: When you get an idea you want to write about how do you decide to shape it into a short story or a novel?

AB: I always say that I have about two lengths of story that I write: they are either about 1000 words or 100,000 words. I just start writing, and when I get to that first milestone I can tell if I’m going to have to keep writing a novel or if the story is told enough as is. Even if I end at the short story length, I never really put those characters away. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them started chatting with me again. It was several years after Nina shared the version of her life in the short story before I actually wrote the novel version. Sometimes the characters are done sharing with me at short story length and sometimes not.

LF: Who are some of your favorite authors? Or favorite books? What do you love about them?

AB: I have loved Ron Rash for the last twenty some years. He’s my literary, “I told you so.” I have been telling people to read him for two decades and now he’s pretty well known. His work is amazing. I love the language of it. I’m a character driven reader and writer for whom the sound of the sentence is just as important as the information it delivers, so I’ve got Ron on a pretty tall pedestal for doing just that. I also really enjoy Joshilyn Jackson. She’s great at writing quirky and endearing characters, and just when you think you’ve got her story figured out she blows it wide open.

LF: As a reader, what makes you fall in love with a book? What makes it memorable or moving?

AB: Characters and their relationships. No matter what the world of the story is or what set of circumstance the characters are in, it’s always the characters themselves and the way they react to each other that grabs me. Maybe this is crazy to say, but I care less about the plot than I do the characters. Their struggle to understand each other, come together on something, get over a heartache, fall in love…that’s what becomes the plot to me. Case in point is the book Warm Bodies. The guy is a zombie and it’s a post-zombie apocalypse, but I’m completely taken with his desire to connect to someone more so than how these people are going to survive the next level of even worse zombies. It’s all about the love story for me—which I think is the real story, of course.

LF: What genre(s) do you read most often? 

AB: I don’t really have a most often genre. I tend to gravitate toward contemporary fiction with a literary bent, but I also love to read a good fantasy, and I will totally get lost in a fun love story. I go highly on recommendation, so if a friend says they loved it, I’ll give it a whirl. If I see a movie that I like, I always try to find the book to get the rest of the story from the original storyteller. I guess I’m a pretty equal opportunity reader.

LF: For you, what’s the most rewarding thing about being a writer? What’s the most challenging part?

AB: The most rewarding thing is to have a reader tell me how much they loved a scene or a certain character or how much they connected to the story. That’s the whole reason I read as well, so when my own work is able to do that for someone else, it’s pretty wonderful. The most challenging thing is to try and get the story right. I worry that I’m leaving something out or not doing a character justice. They usually tell me if I’m headed in the wrong direction. That and the waiting… the waiting really is the hardest part. I’ve got two other books being shopped around right now and I’m just waiting to hear from editors and waiting to see what they think. it’s a lot of waiting. That’s when I usually start writing something new—while I’m waiting.

LF: What are you working on right now? Any hints about your next book?

AB: Right now I’m actually working on a  sequel to The Lemonade Year. Fingers crossed that the editor will want it. I could write these characters forever. Of course, they’re going to have to fight it out with a plenty other characters who are already making their voices heard. I actually have an idea for a hopeful dystopian (I know, right?) series for young adults, which isn’t usually the type of story I write, but these characters are fighting hard to get out. I’ve already got a pile of those random scenes I mentioned written, so I guess we’ll see what happens.

***

You can get a copy of The Lemonade Year wherever books are sold, including on Amazon. And while you’re at it, check out Amy’s short story collection, Out Across the Nowhere. To learn more about Amy Willoughby-Burle, visit her website and see if she’s coming to read at a location near you. 

Amy Willoughby-Burle grew up in the small coastal town of Kure Beach, North Carolina. She studied writing at East Carolina University and is now a writer and teacher living in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband and four children. She writes about the mystery and wonder of everyday life. Her contemporary fiction focuses on the themes of second chances, redemption, and finding the beauty in the world around us. Sara Gruen says of The Lemonade Year, “When life gives you lemons, read this book. It’s a delicious glass of humor, heart, and hope.” Amy is also the author of a collection of short stories entitled Out Across the Nowhere and a contributor to a number of anthologies.

writer’s clinic: 4 mistakes you’re making in your query

 

This week I’m starting a new series called Writer’s Clinic, where I’ll share tips for writing, submissions, query letters, and more. Today I’m kicking off the series by talking a little about queries. 

 

Most of us would rather have cavities filled than write query letters. I don’t like writing them much, either. Now that I’m an editor at an indie publisher, I’m on the other side of this fence. I see dozens of queries come through my inbox that immediately turn me off because of the same mistakes. The good news: they’re easy fixes.  

 

Today, I’m sharing my 4 top peeves and some tips to help you polish your query so you capture an editor’s attention—in a way that doesn’t make steam come out of her ears. After all, you put a lot of time into writing that manuscript—now you need to take the time to write a solid query that does it justice. Here’s my top repeat offenders and how you can avoid falling into these categories:

 

1.The super-casual “Hey, Dude” email that reads like a text message. It’s true. We get these. They have little to no capitalization, fragmented sentences, and no salutation. I’m horrified by these because I used to spend hours poring over examples of queries to get mine just right to send it to a publisher. Queries like this took less time to write than the amount of time it takes to sneeze. I don’t even read the ten pages that are attached to these queries because I figure if you can’t compose an email, you most likely can’t compose a novel. (Note: below is not the worst offender by any means.)

 

Not a “Dear Lauren” or “Dear Editor” in sight. The solution: do your homework. Jane Friedman and Writer’s Digest have some excellent examples of what to do and not do with a query. The basics: be polite, be professional, be succinct (but give us more info than the above example). You might have found us via Twitter, but your query to us is not a tweet. You are sending the equivalent of a cover letter you’d attach to a resume—not a text message. Also, write your query in first person, just like you’d write a real letter.

 

2. The query that guarantees we’ll be hooked, even though you totally ignored our submission guidelines (PLUS didn’t bother to note our names). 

This one is a no-brainer. At BCP we have very simple guidelines, like 80,000 words, please. (We’re flexible, but unless we are BLOWN AWAY by your MS, we’re not going to help you cut 30K words). I know this writer read our guidelines, because he says outright that he’s submitting an MS well over the word limit. However, our current book list does not indicate this “dark alley” that he speaks of. I was also confused by his idea of “feminism” and his genre of “nonfiction novel.” Also: it goes a long way to note the editors’ names when they are emblazoned on the publisher’s website. If nothing else, go with “Dear Editors.” But you need a professional greeting in order to be taken seriously.

 

3. The query that has too many errors. We all make mistakes and have typos here and there. We’re human. But when you’ve drafted your query, take the time to double-check for typos, those embarrassing auto-correct mistakes, and font changes that come from cut-and-paste. This may seem minor, but as an editor, I’ll be editing your manuscript for errors. If your query is chock full of them, I’m not excited about reading your entire MS.

 

4. The query that is waaaaaay too long. We don’t want a detailed plot summary of the entire book, but we WOULD like a 1-page synopsis. A good rule of thumb is to keep your query to 3 paragraphs. In a couple of sentences, tell us about you. In one short paragraph, tell us why we’ll love your book. What’s the theme? The main conflict? Did we ask for something like this on #MSWL? Tell us a couple of books that are similar to yours, but don’t shoot the moon and tell us you’re the next JK Rowling. Tell us about other books you’ve published, awards you’ve won, or other publication credits. We’re getting to know YOU in your letter, too. But the key is to condense things down to a quick snapshot that makes us want to read your sample chapter. Writer’s Digest has a hundred excellent examples, and I have them to thank for teaching me how to write a kick-ass query. 

 

So show us how it’s done, you say. You got it. Here’s a query for a title we accepted for publication later this year. It’s polite, professional, and succinctly captures the heart of the book. The second sentence tells me the genre and lets me know exactly what’s at stake and what the conflict will be. I get a quick summary (very compact with ACTIVE language), plus a few comparisons to other authors to get the marketing side of my brain involved. It’s over our word count, but I’m willing to read on because the synopsis has me intrigued. And it’s evident Robin can paint a picture with words.

 

 

Robin closes by telling me about her publishing credits and her experience in an MFA program. An MFA isn’t necessary, but it’s good to know. And for us, publishing credits aren’t a requirement, either. But again, it’s nice to hear about some expertise that informs her writing. (If you’re a park ranger and you’re writing a book about conservation, that’s expertise, too, and we want to know you have that. It’s helpful to hear how authors are inspired to write what they write—and we like to hear when you’ve done your research.) The kicker here was that Robin’s 10 pages she submitted were dynamite. THAT made us eager to read on, even though it was longer than the books we generally publish. (But I’ll save the first ten pages discussion for next time.)

 

The takeaway here is that your query needs to sing. It needs finesse. You’ve spent countless hours polishing your manuscript, and this email you’re sending has about a sixty seconds to grab an editor’s attention. It needs to prove you have some writerly chops and it needs to present both YOU and your book in the very best light. You can’t be lazy here: you need to make it shine.  

 

Lauren is co-founder and co-editor at Blue Crow Publishing. For submission guidelines and more, visit bluecrowpublishing.com.

Top image courtesy of JESHOOTS via pixabay.com.