Can’t stop thinking about #PitchWars

I haven’t been able to concentrate on much since hitting submit on my PitchWars entry. There’s been work to distract me, and the Olympics have helped a bit. I love getting to watch swimming on TV because I’m a swimmer. Swimming only gets this kind of love and National attention for about a week every four years. This year, it feels like the USA swimmers are getting even more love than usual. It’s fantastic. But it’s still not keeping my mind off PitchWars.

I’ve probably started about 3 books and 2 movies since hitting submit, but I keep stopping halfway through, worried that there is something more I should be doing. But at this point it’s completely out of my hands. I just have to be patient and wait. I also need to trust all the work I put into this novel.

Just for fun, and in the interest of documenting my process, I suppose I could tell you a little about all that work. You see, by day, I’m a program manager, which is just a kinda fancy name for a project manager who manages a lot of projects—usually similar ones that can be grouped together and called a program. In my case, that program is called “Inventory Management” (I know, unless you’re a supply chain geek, that probably sounds incredibly dull, but a girl’s gotta pay the bills…). But, I mention this only to note that project planning is VERY IMPORTANT and it’s something I’m good at. So, when it came time to prep for this year’s PitchWars contest, I put those skills to use.

I also entered this contest last year. And, after the PW mentees were announced, I was disappointed (but not terribly surprised) that I didn’t make the cut. I nursed my wounded ego with my new “Pitch Pals” — an absolutely amazing group of new writing friends I met during the contest that have been (and continue to be) a source of support, inspiration, and excellent critique partner feedback. Then, I started to dream of 2016. At first, I had only a vague goal: Get in to PitchWars 2016 if I didn’t already have an agent by then. (This “already have an agent” thing was a bit of fanciful dreaming on my part because, at the time, I hadn’t even started querying yet. I was such a naive little beginning writer…. Sigh.)

But goals are key. I love goals. They focus me. Goals give me superpowers. Once I have a goal, I know what I need to do and I just start making things happen. After voicing my vague goal, I knew that the first thing I had to do was make it more specific if I wanted to have any chance at succeeding. That’s when I put my project management skills to work.

First, marked the date of this year’s contest on my calendar: August 2016.

Then, I made a list of what needed to be done by then. I knew I would need three things: a finished and polished MS (duh), a query, and a synopsis. (In project manager speak, we call these the “deliverables.”) All these deliverables needed to be written, edited, revised, critiqued, and polished some more before they would be ready to go.

Working backwards from the PW entry window, I knew I wanted to have everything done and ready to go at least a month before the entry date. I planned it this way for two reasons. First, as any experienced project manager will tell you, everything takes longer than you think it will. So, I wanted some “buffer time” in my plan. Second, my goal was to get in, and, if I got in, I didn’t want to be completely sick of my MS before the mentoring period even got started. I wanted that month off (almost two months, really, if you count the mentor selection time) to relax, read other books, stalk twitter, and generally recharge and refill my creative brain so I would be ready to go if I was selected.

So, I set my deadline. I wanted to have everything complete by the end of June 2016. Next, I started estimating what steps I’d need to complete each and about how long each step would take me. Then I made myself a schedule.

I’ll use the MS as an example. I already knew that I wanted to enter with a *new* MS because, in addition to prepping for PitchWars 2016, I wanted to revise my unsuccessful 2015 entry and start querying it. My plan was to write the first draft of my new novel during NaNoWriMo 2015. I know, (from previous experience) that I can write 50k words in a month, but the novel isn’t done at 50k. This meant that I’d need more than November to finish my new novel. I also knew that after a month of averaging 1700 words per day, I’m spent. Between NaNoWriMo, the holidays, travel, and family time, I needed to factor in taking most of December off. Giving myself a lot of buffer, I targeted completion of the first draft by end of January 2016. Then I penciled in time for beta readers and revisions (about two months). I also really wanted to get a professional MS critique. So, I planned to do that in the spring (April). That would leave me two months for final revisions (May and June).

I decided that I would work on the other deliverables during the downtime I had in my MS schedule. As an example, while beta readers and CPs were reading my MS (in February and March), I could work on the query and the synopsis. Then I could get feedback on those and revise while I was waiting for my MS critique.

Of course, nothing ever goes as planned. Many factors had me constantly revising my schedule. But, the biggest disrupter also happened to be an amazing opportunity. I entered my revised 2015 PW novel into P2P16, and I got in! I still find it hard to believe, and I am SO very very grateful for that experience. Participating in P2P16 meant that for several months my entire focus shifted from my shiney new MS back to the MS I’d thought I was ready to query.

Another factor that messed with my schedule in a big way was one of the things I learned during P2P16. I thought I knew what “revision” meant, but during P2P16 I began to realize that I’d previously only scratched the surface. I learned an entirely new level of scrubbing and polishing my entire MS, and especially my query and first chapter.

I also learned that beginnings are not my strong suit. I’m great at plot and world-building. But my beginnings always need a TON of work. I don’t necessarily suffer from the “starting in the wrong place” problem. Instead, I have a tendency to “write my way into” a story. The result is that, left untouched, I have this murky scene in the beginning that may technically be the right place to start, but definitely is not using the right words. It’s unfocused and rambley and suffers from a lot of filtering because I haven’t really got into my characters’ heads yet.

I know this about me now. Unfortunately, I definitely didn’t realize this when I made my original project plan. In my PitchWars 2016 project plan, I totally didn’t leave enough time for polishing my first chapter and query. And, with the time crunch from the P2P revisions, I’d already used up most of my buffer.

I ran into another problem after I sent my precious baby novel off to get professional feedback (miraculously on schedule, in April). I received some extremely insightful and extraordinarily helpful notes (thanks, Naomi!). There were several suggestions I wanted to work on in revisions, but the most important thing was developing my heroine’s character arc. The only problem was, I found myself massively stuck on how to do that. I needed time just to digest the feedback and figure out how to implement it, and I definitely hadn’t worked that into my schedule.

So, what do you do when your plan falls off track? You re-prioritize your deliverables and you look for ways to crunch your schedule. For me, that meant not stressing too much about my query and synopsis in favor of fixing my heroine’s character arc (to the best of my ability) and polishing the crap out of my first chapter.

The bottom line is, I learned a TON over the course of the past year. Even if I don’t make the cut this year, I’m feeling good about my revisions, my writing community, and the skills I’ve gained while working toward this goal.

I love this story. I’ve done everything I can to make it as good as I’m able to at this moment. Now I’m hoping a mentor will take a chance on me and help me take my novel baby to the next level.

But know this: even if I don’t get in, I won’t give up. I’ll take whatever feedback I get and make one more round of revisions. Then I’ll start querying and create my project plan for next year’s PitchWars. And, based on what I learned this year, my next novel project plan is going to include a LOT more time for revisions.

I have 2 more weeks until mentees are announced. Please cross your fingers for me and think good thoughts, etc. And, if you also entered PitchWars, come say hi on Twitter. I love making new writing friends and want to cheer for you.

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Some mid-year reading stats

And, just like that, half of 2015 is over. Time for some mid-year reading stats.

First let’s talk about June…

June reading stats

And, now let’s have a look back at the first six months of 2015 in total…

Total books finished so far this year: 44

For reference, I usually average about 36 books a year. Last year I finished 39 books. This year my goal was “a book a week” or 52 books total. Granted, I’ve included my comics trades in that total. Those are each about 150 pages, so I think they should count. But, even if you take them out of the count, I’ve still finished 35 books so far this year. That’s a lot of reading.

Top Five favorite books for the first half of 2015

  1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (post-apocalyptic)
  2. The Martian by Andy Weir (sci-fi)
  3. Lock In by John Scalzi (sci-fi)
  4. Sword by Amy Bai (fantasy)
  5. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (fantasy)

Update on 2015 reading projects

This year I gave myself two main reading projects. The first was my “diverse reading” project where I planned to read at least one book each month by an author who was not white and/or not American. The second was to read through those books I’d purchased for more than $3.50, but hadn’t read yet — some of which have been sitting there, unread, for several years.

So far I’ve been successful reading a book a month by a diverse author (not American and/or not white), and it hasn’t even been that hard to do. All the books I’ve read so far are books I wanted to read anyway, for one reason or another. I’m pleased that this hasn’t felt like a “chore.” I’m even more pleased at the new worlds I’m being exposed to. I think the biggest impact has been on my empathy, which I thought was already pretty decent, but seems to be getting even more keen as I dive into characters even more unlike myself or any of the people I am surrounded by on a daily basis.

As for my second project, I have made some substantial progress toward un-read books previously purchased for > $3.50…

When I ran my end of year stats for 2014, I came up with 15 books that I’d purchased for more than $3.50 in either 2013 or 2014, but hadn’t read yet. I don’t mind snapping up books on sale and saving them for later, but I don’t like the idea of holding onto books I’ve purchased at (or close to) full price and then not reading them.

So far this year, I’ve read 9 of the 15 books on that list, and I am reading another one from that list right now. I’ll probably be able to squeeze in two more before the end of the year. I’ll take 10 or 12 out of 15 and call that a success.

Of course, since I made that list, I’ve realized that there are at least two additional books that I purchased at full price prior to 2013 and still haven’t read yet. So, starting with 15, removing 10, and adding 2… Here is the remaining TBR:

  1. Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel ($11.82)
  2. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie ($9.99)
  3. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition) by Betty Friedan, Gail Collins, Anna Quindlen ($9.34)
  4. Hild: A Novel by Nicola Griffith ($6.49)
  5. Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel (Wolf Hall Book 2) by Hilary Mantel ($3.99)
  6. Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos by Sarah Lacy ($9.34)
  7. The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2) by Patrick Rothfuss ($14.99)

I’m not sure how many of these I’ll get to before the end of the year. Probably at least Hild, and maybe The Wise Man’s Fear since those are the two I’m most excited about reading. Everything else will probably roll on into next year…

Speaking of next year… I already have an idea for a new reading project for next year. I’m thinking about trying to read any of the current century’s Hugo and/or Nebula award winning novels that I haven’t read yet. There is a lot of overlap between Hugo and Nebula best novel awards, and I’ve read some of these award winners already. But, I’m thinking I’d like to read the rest. So, I’m making a list just in case I decide I want to tackle that as a project next year.

Overall, I’m shocked at how much reading I’ve been doing this year. Even if I slow down my reading pace and only average a book a week for the rest of the year, that’s still another 26 books in 2015! I am going to blow away my normal reading average this year. I’m calling it now: 2015 is the “year of the books” for me.

My 2015 book project

In the past two years there has been a lot of discussion about diversity in publishing. There was the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, there were discussions of harassment at various sci-fi conferences, there was an analysis de-bunking the idea that women dominate the YA best seller list, and there were a multitude of attacks on adults reading “YA fiction” many of which read as attacks on “what girls like” and labeling the lot as not “serious” fiction (counter-point article here).

One conclusion I came to while following these various discussions and dramas play out online was that I’d like to make sure I’m “voting with my feet” or “putting my money where my mouth is,” as the saying goes. For me this means making sure that I’m stretching my comfort zone and reaching for authors that may be outside of the mainstream.

It’s easy to read on-trend, to read only best-selling books, to read books that everyone has heard about. It’s also easy to read primarily for entertainment. But one of the coolest things about books is that they can immerse you in worlds and/or the lives of characters that are unlike anything you would encounter on a daily basis. This is one of the reasons I like to read sci-fi and fantasy novels. Reading about something completely different than your every day experience can help you think differently about how you function in the world. It can make your world bigger.

So, this year, I want to consciously work on making my world bigger by reading outside my “comfort zone” and reading books by diverse authors. I plan to read at least one book by a diverse author (read: non-American and/or non-white) each month. I’ve started to make a list of possible contenders over on Goodreads.

I’m planning to start with the following two books: The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (January) and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (February, with the bonus goal of learning how to spell / say her name…).

Parable of the Sower was originally published in 1993 and is the first book in a two-book series. I mentioned before that I first saw this book on a “best of” list by an author I like. It’s been on my “to-read” list ever since then.

Americanah was released in 2013 and received an overwhelming amount of praise and made just about everyone’s “best of” lists that year. I put off reading it because I feared the book wouldn’t live up to the hype, but I’m ready to dive into this one now.

I’m going to try to do a longer review (either video or blog post) for each book I read for my 2015 reading project. In addition to posting my thoughts about what I’m reading, I want to see if/how reading books by diverse authors changes my way of thinking about the world and influences my writing. My hypothesis is that it will, but I want to test that idea. And, if it does prove to be true, I’m interested in understanding how and why my world-view / writing changed.

If you have suggestions, please post them in the comments, or “recommend” a book to me on Goodreads (that’s a thing you can do, right?).