A finished first draft!

I'm super excited to write this out: I finished the first draft of my second novel! And it only took a dismal six years. But, hey, that's not the point of this post. The point is that I finished!

Part of me has a hard time believing this first draft is finished. I blitzed through my first novel, Good on Paper in 11 months (yes, for me this is blitzing; I am crazy-slow). Back in 2010 when I wrote that first book, I had no kids. My free time was truly free, and I spent hours each day immersed in writing. Since starting Bad on Film in 2011, I grew and closed a business, took on a two new jobs, went through a round of IVF, produced a darling set of twins who are now rambunctious toddlers, and moved from our beloved Chicago to completely unknown Texas. So although six years felt like forever, a lot happened on the road to finishing it. I love my characters and their story, so there was never a time when I thought I'd give up. Just the same, knowing the first draft is done is the sweetest relief!

Next up, I'm jumping into the last revisions for Good on Paper. A few plot issues in book one depend on the outcomes in book two; while I knew how it mostly went, some of the elements are tricky and I needed to be sure they aligned. Now I am free to revise those few points, and then let me tell you something:

I am going to blast that manuscript at every relevant agent I can. For so long, I've been afraid to really go there, so I've toyed with sending it out a few times but never pushed it like I should have. Part of me knows this is because of the revisions above, but I could have moved forward with it. After all, I know how the story goes, and I know the characters very well. Finishing the sequel before refining this last draft was a luxury, and a delay I was willing to accept. But a big part of that is because I've been so scared it will fail. You know what? I'm not afraid anymore. I'm excited, energized, and full of back-up plans for making my own way if an agent doesn't come through.

Big talk, I know. But I'm ready to make it reality.

Goals: Focusing on Less to Achieve More

I have this thing about setting goals. I love goals. I love planning, visualizing outcomes, setting up systems to track progress. I love the idea of accomplishment. Completing a work! A job well done!

So I always overestimate how much I can do.

I started outlining a one-year plan for my writing career in early January. I went back to it a week later and noticed that I had myself writing two new books, submitting my finished books to agents, learning all I can about indie publishing just in case, building multiple connections with other writers, joining two new writing groups, learning social media...I was exhausted just reading the list.

Also, have I mentioned that my twins just turned two? Or that I work 20 hours a week for a nonprofit? That overstuffed list guaranteed disappointment.

Fortunately, I found Joanna Penn's guidelines on goal-setting for writers. She offers many practical tips, but my main takeaway was choosing one non-negotiable goal for the year. What is the one thing I must achieve in 2017? For me, that's pursuing the heck out of publishing Good on Paper.

Not getting a book deal. Not landing an agent. But trying like you-know-what* to get that book out there.

So I revised my plan. It's all built around this one goal: giving Good on Paper its best chance to shine. That means blanketing the literary landscape with my query letter. And it may mean learning all I can about independent publishing. You know what? For the first time, I'm fine with either route. I'm a writer, I always have been, and I'm going to do what I do: Write. I'm also going to publish, whether someone else takes the wheel or I drive that rig myself.

When you check out Joanna Penn's post, don't forget to download her infographic on Planning for 2017. It's great stuff that clarified my goals for this year.

(*Re: the substitute swearing, I'm curbing the old sailor-tongue for the toddlers' sake. I'm at an all-or-nothing level of desperation at this point.)

Pressing the reset button...after hitting the snooze.

It's been kind of a week, right? No matter who you voted for, the aftermath of the election was a noisy mess. I'll admit, I let the commotion derail me from the projects I've been working on--namely, the first draft of my newest book. Throughout October, I planned the novel by participating in author Kaye Dacus's FirstDraft60 challenge. But work commitments slowed me down, and then the election stalled me altogether. Almost two weeks into writing, my word count was so small that it was pretty clear I couldn't catch up.

Turns out, I wasn't alone.

Kaye posted on Thursday that she's switching things up to help those of us who have fallen behind. The new target first draft goal date is January 31, 2017! Having 120 days vs. the original 60 to complete the novel is so much more feasible for me. My job is out of control at the moment, and it only gets worse through the holidays. Easing up on my daily word count goal gives me a better chance at finishing my draft. And I really want to finish. I'm getting into this book and enjoying the characters. I know how I think the story will shake out, but I'm excited to find out if I'm right--since we all know characters have a way of making up their own minds.

To keep myself focused and to balance all my responsibilities, I created a weekly goal tracker. It's actually set up like a little kid's reward chart. I respond well to bribes, especially if they're slathered with frosting. Here's a peek at my own chart.


It's still blank since I just made it today, but I hope that it will help keep me on track. And I made a blank version for you! Feel free to download and use it as much as you want.*

I hope you enjoy it. Best of luck with reaching all your own goals!

(*Yeah, all the standard "please don't sell or claim ownership of this" stuff applies. I can't imagine anyone would pay for this thing, but I used to own a design business and the disclaimers are built into my brain now.)

FirstDraft60 - Day 20 (for me)

October has been a month of illness in my household. We have now passed around two separate viruses between the four of us. My toddlers have been fairly healthy until now, so this was our first experience with sick kids. Now we know: it involves lots of sleeplessness!

I won't say my FirstDraft60 plans were entirely derailed, but my story basically dragged along behind me like a wilting balloon during our sick days. November 1 kicks off the 30-day writing component of FirstDraft60, along with NaNoWriMo, which I'm doing concurrently just because I usually do, and with the added assistance of FirstDraft60 there's a better chance that I might finish for a change. But I have 10 days of FirstDraft60 assignments to catch up on.

Day 20 is about outlining the story in as much detail as possible at this stage. I used a combination of bullet points, mind-mapping, and fleshing out details via the seven story beats method. I learned a lot about where my story is going and what characteristics and qualities make up the main characters. I still have a long way to go, but I'm committed to catching up!

Number 10

It's crazy how quickly time passes when you're an adult. I spent what felt like decades as an idealistic teen praying I would meet "the one." And then I spent an actual decade after being a teen wondering if I'd meet anyone even a little bit normal. Along the way, I gave up the idea of there being only one right person for everyone. But I never gave up on finding someone who I could be my whole self with, who accepted me for me. It took awhile, which shouldn't have been a surprise; my life has always been somewhat slow to bloom. I'm grateful I was older when I met Mike, grateful I had years as a single adult to get to know myself and learn how to be present for someone else. It took what seemed like forever for us to meet. Now ten years together have zipped past. They haven't been perfect, but they've been solid. I'm a lucky girl.

Mike's steady, logical personality complements my more emotional, impulsive tendencies. He not only laughs with me, he gets my jokes, and he's great at cracking his own. Most of all, he has lived up to my favorite line in the vows we made: he never fails to support my dreams. When I was miserable in my corporate writing career, he encouraged me to launch my creative business. He did lots of grunt work for that company--entering inventory into the computer, sometimes for hours; lugging boxes and tables to craft and trade shows. He hauled packages onto the red line during his morning commute and shipped them from the Sears Tower post office on his lunch break. When I decided to write, he supported that, too. He read multiple drafts of my first novel for me, even though women's fiction isn't really his thing. He's an anchor that keeps me from blowing off course; he's a compass that helps guide me back.

It bears repeating: I'm a lucky girl. 

Oh, and those kids in the picture? They're lucky as well. They hit the jackpot when they got him for a dad.

FirstDraft60 - Day 3

Thanks to my NaNoWriMo fail in 2013, I'm a little ahead on the Story Bible assignment, as noted in the post from yesterday. This is good, because I'm still a little behind on the FirstDraft60 challenge!

I added in the sections Kaye describes in her post for Day 3. They were really helpful, especially the props/costumes idea (filed under the Plot and Organization tab). That's not something I've done before in such an organized way, but definitely important, even in a contemporary novel.

My plot/costumes and settings pages are completely blank and uninteresting, but here's a quick screenshot of my characters tab, with details of Jalen's page. Full disclosure: Jalen is the only character with anything meaningful in the description as yet.

So far I'm having a lot of fun with this challenge. Jalen's story is growing on me. I can see it taking (a somewhat amorphous) shape and it's pretty exciting. Plus, I got to name a ton of characters tonight--my favorite thing!

FirstDraft60 - Day 2

Day Two's assignment was to set up our revisions notebook, style sheet, and research repository for the novels we'll be working on for the next two months. Kaye suggests many tools for doing this, but I've always used OneNote for this and it works well for me. Turns out Kaye uses it, too. I'm in good company.

When I opened OneNote I found that I'd actually set up a whole project notebook for One Step Forward, Two-Step Back (it's appallingly long, but that's what I'm calling my book for now). To hammer home how much I've been dragging my feet on moving forward with writing, please note the date that this notebook was created: November 2013. That's right, it was my 2013 NaNoWriMo project, which I worked on for six days until an earlier version of Good on Paper was rejected by an agent who was considering the full manuscript. Cue paralysis and the certainty that I was destined to fail. Blech. I should start a whole notebook for tips on thickening my fragile skin!

Anyway, I added Kaye's suggested pages into my existing notebook and restructured it all a bit. Here are my screenshots of my notebook for Two-Step:

The Plot Notes + Brainstorming section is a good example of how I think through a book when I'm getting the initial idea in place. I basically just puke my thoughts onto the page. There are a lot of "what if..." and "maybe she..." phrases. It's a mess. But it works for me.

And here's a section of my notebook that I'll have some fun with:

This Inspiration section will house images for reference, the playlist I write to (really important for this country music-themed book), etc. It also contains what I call a Worry Dump, which is a page I can barf all my insecurities about how bad the first draft is when they're getting in the way of writing. I used one for Bad on Film and it was really helpful. I'd been polishing Good on Paper for a long time, so reverting to the first draft mentality with its sequel was tricky. The Worry Dump helped me get rid of the nervous energy and left me more focused on my real work.

So my Two-Step notebook is off to a good start. I'm looking forward to cramming it full in the next two months!

FirstDraft60 - Day 1

Since I started late, I'm catching up on the first couple of assignments in Kaye Dacus's FirstDraft60 challenge to plan and write a first draft in October and November. I just discovered Kaye's blog and I'm really liking it. She's very honest about where she is in her publishing career, and she shares some very honest stuff about her life as well. The resources she's been posting each day for the FirstDraft60 challenge show how hard she's worked on it. It's so generous of her to share her process with us, and I'm excited to participate. 

Here are my answers to Kaye's Day 1 Questions.

1. Why do you want to write?

I'm a writer, and always have been. Since having my twins, a regular routine has been harder to nail down. I do well for a few weeks, and then my productivity falls off. This is a good way of pushing myself to be consistent, with the added bonus that I'll get a third manuscript for my effort!

2. What will finishing this project in sixty days mean to you? Do you think that completing this challenge will change you? How?

Finishing my first book taught me that I can stick with something to completion. Editing and polishing it taught me that I'm willing to hack my darlings to death if it makes the story stronger. Completing a draft in sixty days? That might make me feel like Wonder Woman. I will feel more capable and more confident that I can make things happen and get things done.

3. If this is your first attempt at completing a manuscript, how do you think finishing it will impact your life? OR, If you’ve completed multiple manuscripts, what will finishing another one mean to you?

The thing I'm most excited about is starting from scratch with new characters, a new setting, and a new set of challenges to work through. My second book is a sequel to the first, so I've only written full-length manuscripts about one set of characters. Starting fresh already feels invigorating.

4. What will happen if the people closest to you don’t understand, support, and encourage you during this challenge?

I'm really lucky that I have so much support from the people around me. The only ones who won't be encouraging are my 19-month-olds. They like having me around, and I may have to disappear sometimes. Normally I work from home as an admissions consultant anyway, so at least they're used to me being busy. My job slows down for these couple of months, so it's the perfect time for me to take on something else. And hopefully the little ones won't feel like much has changed.

5. Imagine how you will feel on November 30 knowing that you’ve completed this challenge. How can you use that to motivate you during the next sixty days?

Recently I was weighing the pros and cons of pursuing a graduate degree in mental health counseling. While I find the field fascinating, it's not my passion. Writing is my passion. I made a deal with myself to try to build a writing career in the four years I have until my kids start school. Completing this challenge will prove that I'm serious and give me more momentum to keep pushing toward that goal.

6. What is the ONE thing you think you’re going to need the most to help you accomplish your goal for this challenge?

Discipline. I have to make myself keep writing when I'd rather do something else and especially when the perfectionist in me knows my first draft is terrible. Sloppy writing can be hard for me to accept, but I have to remember that the sloppier a draft is, the more fun it is to write, because it's pure creating vs editing.

And so I have a complete record, here are my responses to Kaye's Day 0 Questions:

1. What story are you going to work on?
My story--women’s fiction about a social worker who accidentally becomes a country music sensation--has been bumping around in my head for more than a decade. I started it in college as a screenplay, but I’m happiest writing novels. This character has stuck with me for a long time. She’s got gumption, and I’d like to see her story through.

2. Who’s your support team?
My husband and mom are my closest allies. They always root for me, for which I’m so grateful. I also have two writer friends who I’ll ask for a little handholding through the 60 days (is it 58 days now? It took me a while to commit, so I’m a little late to the party…).

3. What do you hope to achieve?
I have a pair of nearly polished novels that I’ve been working on for six years. I think that, because they’re my first books, I’m scared to turn them loose. I adore the characters and I’ve practically bled their story onto the page after all these years. I want to write something totally different to break through my fear of promoting my writing, whether it’s submitting to agents or self-publishing. I’m hoping to have a rough first draft of a story that I’m proud of and yet don’t cling to as tightly, so I can move forward and try to publish something.

4. Do you really have the time to commit to this challenge right now?
I have twin toddlers, so I don’t have time for anything, ha! But I’m making time for this.

5. How will you set realistic goals—and adjust them as time goes on?
I did Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July and managed to stick to my goal until halfway through. One day of not writing led to another, etc. For this challenge, I’m going to write every day, no exceptions, even if I can’t make my 1667 word goal every day. I think for me the key is not to break the chain of productivity.

A new site, a new blog, and a big first challenge!

"I fear failure. I fear my own inability to focus my energies and creativities on goals and complete them successfully. I have so many goals for a creative life, but I let them get pushed down by this dull sense of inferiority and a deadening of inspiration. I want to write and paint and actively create, but when it comes time to put my pen to the paper, I freeze. My originality seems tainted, my inspiration seems trite, and in my head I hear over and over that there is nothing new under the sun. I begin to think 'Why bother?' when the prospect of mediocrity looks me in the eye." - Me, circa 2003, when I was an idealistic young thing in my early (like, very early, you get me?) twenties.

That's an excerpt from a journal that I found last month after a recent move forced me to sort through all my possessions. When I found this entry, my instinct was to laugh. So melodramatic, that kid! But then I stopped feeling so superior to the young me and acknowledged how terrifying that idea of failure had seemed. And I wanted to give that sweet girl a hug, like the wise older sister I always wanted.

Because failure is coming to her, that poor petrified girl.

Here's the thing: I did a lot of the things the young me would respect. I started a creative business. I started three businesses. No, I started the same business three times until I got it (mostly) right. I invested my heart, my brain, my life savings and every subsequent penny I earned for eight years. I put my whole self into making that thing work. But ultimately I let it go. It did okay, but not well enough. After eight years and more reinventions than Madonna, I walked away. It was a huge relief. And it stung so much.

My husband likes to remind me that failure is a strong word, one that I don't need to apply so forcefully. He's amazing like that. And he's right, too. Some business decisions were bad luck, some a bad fit. Some were honest successes. But some things were failures, there's no way around it, and they still sting sometimes.

When I found that journal entry, I realized something. Aside from the youthful idealism, I was sort of back where I started. My failures--real or perceived--have brought me full circle. For the past few years, I've been iced over with fear.

There's another thing I've done that the young me would appreciate: I wrote a book. I wrote a book that I love. Then I wrote its sequel, and I love it even more. I wrote two books. And I've been sitting on them for four years. All because I'm afraid. I don't want to send them out, only to have them fail.

The young, idealistic me would have some things to say about that. Mainly: Come on, Sarah. Get a grip.

Finding that journal was a good kick in the pants from the younger version of myself, who knew more about resilience than I have for a while. She was scared, sure. Who isn't scared when they're just starting out? Who isn't scared sometimes anyway, even when they've been trudging forward for years? I'm not sure fear is something we ever outgrow. But I've made a decision.

Fear doesn't get to win.

I've been planning to challenge myself to pursuing one new thing every month for a year. I think I just found my theme. Every month I'm going all out in pursuit of my goal. By pursuing one significant accomplishment per month that, when added up at the end of the year, will get me closer to the life I ultimately want to lead. Creating work I care about. Living true to myself. Encouraging others to do the same.

And here are Challenges One and Two:

Kaye Dacus's FirstDraft60: 60 Days to a Complete First Draft.

My plan is to plot my third book throughout the month of October, and write a gloriously putrid first draft during November. I've wanted to start a new book soon, and this challenge comes at the right time. By building up a body of work, I'll feel less like my whole future success hinges on those first two books. And maybe I'll loosen my grip on them before too long. It's not that I think they're Pulitzer material, folks. They're just stories and characters that got me through those eight hard years of entrepreneurship where disappointment was abundant. These books were the shimmering hopeful lining of some very dark clouds. I'm grateful to them. But I need to build the courage to let them go.

Hopefully this is a start.



(A test post containing lyrics I like too much to delete)

This is the house that Jack Built, y'all.

Remember this house.

This is the land that he worked by hand. It was the dream of an upright man. Here is a room that was filled with love. It was a love that I was proud of. This is the life and the love that we planned, a love and life we loved, in the house that Jack built.

Remember this house.

There was a fence that held our love. There was a gate that he walked out of. Here is a heart that has turned to stone. This is a house, but it ain't no home. This is the love that I destroyed, or a dream that I thought was love, in the house that Jack built.

Remember this house.

(Neither the blog nor the placeholder post are endorsed by Aretha Franklin or songwriters Bobby Lance and Fran Robins. But they'd rock with us, if they knew.)

Real posts coming soon!