Habitually Yours

A Justine in her natural writing habitat.

When I was a kid, I had the wonderfully gross habit of chewing things. I was like a little rat. I chewed on pencils and pens until they would splinter. I would chew on bizarre things. I wouldn’t find out until way later that it was actually sensory seeking behavior—the product of a Sensory Processing Disorder I had, and have since inadvertently passed to my son (that’s the only way it even got diagnosed).

It’s a strange thing. I broke that chewing habit somehow long before I ever thought of having Logan, and yet somehow, he picked up the same habit. We’re struggling to break him from it now.

Habits, as it turns out, are strange and unpredictable things. Some are in our blood, our DNA, like my weird chewing habit. Some form accidentally, like the way you go to the store across the street for lunch, once, twice, and before you know it, we’re regulars. Some habits, the best habits, are the ones we form on purpose.

They say it takes twenty-one days for a habit to form. That kind of habit is a different brand. It starts with a commitment. You decide you’re going to create a habit and then you do it. That’s the intention of programs like NaNoWriMo. You write as much as you can for as many days in a row, and eventually you form a habit.

I used to have a fairly consistent writing habit. I wrote once a day, at least something. Lately, I have allowed that to drop. Life has been perpetually getting in the way of things, our editing business is keeping me in editing jobs (no complaints there), and I just haven’t been carving out the time to write.

That is about to change. For months, I’ve been agonizing about how to get myself started again. I have a few projects in mind, but none of them are jumping out more to me than the others. They all have their benefits, but I need to find which one is my next big project.

Last week, I received my second Scribbler box and it had a journal in it. It contained 300 Writing Prompts. It isn’t the first one I’ve had. The last time I used one it helped me get a handle on character. So, I’ve decided to restart my writing habit. As of this month, I will be writing at least a prompt a day. Each will be written in the voice of one of the characters I’ve been playing with. If I like them, I will post them here. If I don’t, it was worth the attempt.

And by the end of March, I hope to have figured out which voice I want to explore the most. Wish me luck, you guys. By April and Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m hoping to be back in the writing habit.

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All You Need Is Love

We’re talking about writing relationships in our latest episode of CraftQuest. This time around Ari and I were joined by fellow CraftQuest editor but hater of all video (and my husband), Ismael Manzano, and the lovely editor person Jeni Chappelle.

Scribbler!

I’ve been itching to try the Scribbler subscription box for writers since it was first released. But alas, there’s the issue of budget that never allowed me to sign up. May I take a moment to say “Yay Christmas Bonuses!” Because I get to share my very first Scribbler box with you!

So I intended to take pictures if each item, and my Logan knew it. Hence, we get pictures like this.

The first thing I spotted when I opened my Scribbler box was a near magnetized dry erase board. I used it immediately to write a love letter.

The author of the month this month was YA fantasy author Evelyn Skye, who had a short story in the Sucker Literary anthology I was promoting around here a few years ago. The book that accompanies this box is Circle of Shadows. It is her third book, an epic fantasy. The book includes a signed bookplate.

Not only is the book included, but there is also a separate pamphlet that offers an inside look at the editing process. She shows us a scene from Circle of Shadows that was cut in edits, and walks us through everything that has changed since, including a whole storyline that was cut.

Evelyn also wrote up a great collection of tips and tricks for writing fantasy—mainly focusing on building magic systems and how it figures into and impacts world building.

This sticker gives me life.

An invitation to an exclusive chat with Kristin Rens, Executive Editor at Balzer + Bray, was also included, but, as is always my luck, it lands on the day and (believe it or not) exact time of a seriously important doctor’s appointment, so I won’t be able to attend. 😦

There was a great little notebook with a sturdy cover, built for the kind of writer that writes on the go. You can work on the writing prompt they sent in that adorable little notebook.

And lastly, this warm scribbler beanie, perfect for the snowy weather I’ve been trudging through–as modeled by Logan.

So, what did I think of my first Scribbler box? I loved it! Just having a bunch of cute things that relate to my life as a writer, while also relating to my life loving YA novels is just perfect. I do wish the writing chat was something I could attend—for instance, not in the middle of a normal workday—but other than that, every single piece included is going to get a lot of use from me.

I can’t afford to do this every month, but I think there are more of these in my future.

To sign up for a Scribbler box, go here!

Resolving to Write

This weekend on CraftQuest’s monthly video, we discussed all the best tools and changes you can make to invest in your writing life in 2019. We call it our writing resolution. You can find our archived livestream below.

I had a lot to say about this topic. I couldn’t seem to shut up. 😉

The Meaning of Success

Recently, I’ve found myself saying things like “when I’m successful,” or “when I get where I need to be,” without thinking about what that actually means to me. The dawn of a new year is always good for making you take a step back from your life and forcing you to question those things that just seem like a given when we don’t evaluate them. One day, I’ll be successful. Except what does that even mean? To be successful? Turning it around in my head led me to understand that there is no real definition.

Success is self-defined. Only we can decide our own version of success and there are often many layers to be found there. So I decided to map out a few versions of what I considered to be my own personal meaning of success.

  1. The Semi-Successful Happy Place–In this version of what I consider to be success, I sell a few books for moderate deals. I continue to work my day job as a legal assistant, but the money from the books sales help me have something extra to spend on fun things to do. My son is happy, my husband is happy. Life is relatively the same, but people enjoy my books and I feel a sense of accomplishment. Logan grows up well and I continue to nurture the wonderful relationships I’ve built. I don’t have everything I want, but that’s okay. More to write about. And life keeps on trucking.
  2. All The Dreams–In this version, I sell a lot of books and I’m a prolific writer. I also get a load of editing business, and between the two incomes, it’s enough for me to leave my day job. I get to work from home with my writing and editing, and it gives me the freedom to be more involved in my son’s school life. I can participate in events at his school and be a more hands-on parent than my current arrangement allows me to be. I still continue to maintain the wonderful relationships I’ve built as well as new professional relationships that feed my soul. I get to travel some more and it feeds my writing material. Life is beautiful, but busy. And the beat goes on.
  3. The Best Case Scenario–Not only do I sell books, but I get super successful. There’s fanfiction about my books and weird merchandise and I’m almost a household name, at least among YA readers. I run a successful editing business because I love to help other writers, and money is no longer even remotely tight. My family lives comfortably, we get to travel, and we buy a house on a lake, with one next door for my best friend to live in. I have enough property for a couple of dogs (can’t do that in my apartment because of my allergies), and everyone I love is well taken care of. I make a good living doing what I absolutely love. Things really couldn’t be better.

I would honestly love every one of these scenarios. Hell, just part of some of these would make me feel successful. It’s not about achieving all of your goals, although that would be wonderful. It’s about hitting a landmark. Feeling like you’ve accomplished something.

Success is different for every person. You define it. As large or as small as you want to go.

So what does success means to you?

Everything I Learned At and Because of the Authorpreneur Workshop

I wasn’t supposed to go to the Red Bank Authorpreneur Workshop put together by Corvisiero Literary Agency at the beginning of October. Things had been absolutely nuts in my life, and I hadn’t been able to recommit myself to my edit of Never Say Never, the book I would pitch there. However, Maria Tureaud and Ari Augustine from Craft Quest were going to be there. I had been working with Maria and Ari on videos for Craft Quest for eight months, and had known Maria even longer than that, having worked on her manuscript for the Inkwell Council. I really wanted to go, if only so I could get to see my friends for a weekend in person, for the first time ever. It didn’t help matters when my co-worker on Inkwell and Craft Quest/my sister-in-law Megan Manzano, who is working as an intern at Corvisiero, decided to come help out with the conference. Now I needed to go. I bought my ticket. I booked my hotel. I re-dedicated myself to my final Never Say Never edit. I wrote my pitch. And I made my way to New Jersey with Megan as my travel partner.

That was why I went. But I left with so much more. Warning, this one is going to get long. Because I’m going to take you along on my weekend and tell you everything I learned about myself and writing on my weekend away.


Friday Night

Here, I paint you the picture of an anxiety-ridden writer. Since I’m not much of a traveler, my friend Denise lent me her rolling suitcase so I could carry all of my stuff, seeing as I have a bad back. I spent the entire night before panicking as I packed. How was I going to get this bag down the stairs? Was I gonna be able to drag this thing all the way through my half hour walk to drop my son off at school? Would I fit on the always over-packed bus I take from there to the subway? How would I get up the train steps with their lack of elevators? How many people at my job would question me about where I was going? Would I make it to Penn Station in a decent amount of time? WHAT EVEN DOES PENN STATION LOOK LIKE? I’d never been there. WERE THERE STAIRS?

In the end, it was really hard to get the bag out of my house, but everything else went super smoothly. And when it didn’t, Megan had already met with me and just started lifting my bag around like it was feather-light…which was only a little bit insulting. Stupid bad back…grumble…

Megan and I in transit. We are classy ladies. 

Maria picked us up at the train station along with editor extraordinaire Jeni Chappelle whom I’d actually met when I was in Pit2Pub 2016. We had only corresponded here and there until we worked together on a video on editing for Craft Quest. By this point, she was a friend and Megan and I were so glad to meet up with her at the train station. Jeni was staying in the same hotel as us, with writer R. Mitto E. who also turned out to be super cool.  

From left to right: Megan, Ari, Maria, Jeni, and Me!

We rode to the hotel, got settled in our rooms and met up with Ari, who was already in the room she would be sharing with Maria. Once we were each more comfortable, we headed down to the lobby to grab a bite to eat and ended up taking over the hotel restaurant for an impromptu pitch drafting session with Ari.

While Megan and I headed back to our hotel room to get a decent night’s sleep, particularly because Megan already knew she’d be running around the conference the following morning, as an intern helping to keep everything running smoothly. I needed it because ever since fibromyalgia made its landing in my life, my brain is shit before noon…and I had all my pitches before noon. While we slept soundly, Maria, Ari, R., and Jeni stayed up late into the night, nailing down Maria and Ari’s pitches.

Maria and Jeni, jamming late into the night.


Saturday Morning

I woke up first, and though a series of mishaps (a broken coffee maker, a loud ironing board, a clumsy woman who tries to iron the iron’s wire into her shirt, then whisper-curses herself out) I managed to wake my roommate up a little earlier than planned. (“I tried to be quiet.” “Like when you were skinning that cat.” “That was the ironing board!” “I know, and you told it to be quiet.”)

Together, we proved that we totally could have been real-life roommates by seamlessly dancing around ourselves to get ready. And I proved what a disaster human I am when I got out of the shower, and my adorably curled hair somehow got straighter–except for the front, which frizzed into madness. I glared at myself in the mirror and did nothing. I’m not good at hair. After squeaking at my reflection for about ten minutes. Megan braided the disaster areas of my hair and managed to make me presentable. We then met up with Ari and Maria and headed over to the workshop.

Thank God for Megan, and thank God for the Dunkin’ Donuts super close to the location of the workshop. Dunkin’ selfie!!!

I didn’t realize how tacky and strange this was until after I suggested it…

The first thing I did upon signing in was register for the synopsis workshop at the last minute. I’ve never been the best at writing a synopsis of my own work. There is something very difficult about reducing your work to its bones and it always reads robotically, which I keep hearing is a mistake. A workshop could really help.

There was continental breakfast waiting when I arrived in the ballroom where the event was being held (sidebar: this hotel is beautiful), but I was too nervous to eat and already hopped up on adrenaline and coffee. So I never got the opportunity to sample the offerings.

Before things even got started, I decided it would be funny to get Ari’s attention by throwing the complimentary mints we received at her. It bounced off the table and landed right in front of Marisa Corvisiero. I smiled my ‘Oops, I’m an idiot’ smile, which is 110% teeth. She teasingly designated me the troublemaker of this get-together. I have no idea what she means. My horns are fully hidden by my halo. 

Anyway, after some brief announcements, Melissa Koberlein approached the stage. Melissa is a professor of communication and publishing, and a YA Science Fiction writer with a biting sense of humor and some damn good advice on public speaking. She gave a lot of great advice in her segment, but the one that really stuck out to me was the idea that you’re nervous talking about your work because you’re passionate about it. You wouldn’t be nervous if you didn’t care. This fact helped me so much when I went into the pitch room. It reminded me that it was okay to be nervous, because it showed my passion for the project.

A very fuzzy picture of Melissa presenting. This is what happens when you zoom in too much. 

Melissa also conducted a great ice-breaking activity in which she had each attendee pick a piece of candy from a bag. When everyone had one, she had the people who had the same type of candy meet up and give each other a quick elevator pitch of their book. Not only did this help me get to know a couple of the other attendees, but it made me speak to people that weren’t Maria and Ari, which was necessary at that point to shove past my social anxiety. I definitely left this segment ready to pitch.

After this, Marisa returned to discuss what comes next once you’ve written the book. She reminded us of something I have to personally echo–the industry is smaller than you think. Throughout the day, when people were mentioned, often they were familiar to all of us, even our fellow writers attending the conference. If you pay attention, it’s a very small world out there.

Marisa’s main point, and what ended up being the springboard to all of the other segments of the day, was that authors in our current climate need to think like Authorpreneurs. Writing is a business, the book is your product, your name is your brand. Your platform is any way in which you reach fans. Treating your book, your career, in this way, dictates how you conduct yourself, and gives you an edge in an extremely competitive market.

Can you get published without treating your book like a product and your name as a brand? Sure. But it will be that much more difficult.

Next up for me were my agent pitches. While I was waiting to go in, I also got the bonus of calming down by chatting with Megan, R., and Melissa, and sometimes Ari and Maria in between pitches. This helped immensely in easing my nerves and got me walking in the room to pitch as myself and not my weirdly stiff representative.

Agent 1 was super easy to talk to, and since we follow each other on Twitter, it was very easy to get comfortable in my first pitch. We chatted about the book for awhile and she laughed along with me as I explained my main character’s hijinx and her natural sassiness. She asked me to send her more. The ten minutes felt so long–not in a bad way, but it just felt like I got the story out and then we had time to chat about Maria’s awesome Irish accent, and a shared affinity to accents in men before time was up. Not only would I love to work with this agent, but she was a lot of fun to talk to, and definitely loosened me up to move through my pitches for the day.

Agent 2 seemed super excited about my work. She said it sounded like her catnip, which revved me up, and it didn’t hurt that we had similar taste in television and books. She seemed excited about one of the more difficult parts of Never Say Never, the topic of infidelity. Dealing with such a negative relationship issue in a romantic comedy can be a tough sell. Agent 2 seemed very interested in the idea that I would mix the lightness of the general story with a heavier topic, without weighing it down too much. I got my second request of the day.

Agent 3 was also interested in my story, but interestingly enough, her point of view on the way I handle the topic of infidelity was the exact opposite of Agent 2. She feared that it was a little too lighthearted for me to tackle the topic of infidelity appropriately. I could absolutely understand her feelings about it. She still made a request, and I told her I hoped I’d managed to write it with sufficient gravity for her tastes. It turned out, I didn’t. As of this week, she sent a rejection, but I absolutely appreciate her taking the chance and reading it, since she was already a bit iffy about the concept.

Most importantly, my interactions with Agent 2 and 3 taught me how subjective this entire process truly is. Agent 2 and Agent 3 had exactly opposite feelings about the very same concept. If that isn’t proof that not every agent is the one for you, I don’t know what is.

When I returned to my seat, the plotting segment was just wrapping up, so I unfortunately didn’t catch much of it.

After that came lunch, where there was an amazing selection of food waiting for us to choose from. After piling our plates high with–at least in my case–an absurd amount of food, I joined some of the more recognizable faces from the morning, and joined in a conversation that touched on topics far and wide. One thing was for sure–even with the strange dips and turns of the conversation–I was amongst my people.

Megan, Maria, Ari, and R. 

Saturday Afternoon

Image courtesy of Corvisiero’s website.

The gong show! A bunch of authors submitted the first page of their manuscripts. Since it was only an hour long, they were definitely not going to be able to get through all of them. The rules of the game were that the first page would be read for a panel of editors and agents. As the page was read, the panel would hit the gong at whatever point they would stop reading. This was a very interesting peek into the minds of editors and agents, and what really catches them during the opening lines. Some of this was majorly subjective. There were notes on not liking particular genres or vibes. However, much of it was also valuable–a confusing line or a more interesting background character can suck the life out of a manuscript quickly.

And I will never get over my pride when Ari’s first page was the only one not to get gonged. It was a very exciting moment.

The synopsis workshop, led by Corvisiero agents Kelly Petersen and Saritza Hernandez, taught me a few very interesting ideas about how to go about attacking one. As with the other informational sessions I’m mainly going to include the things I hadn’t learned in other attempts to learn about the topic. For one, I learned to give the reader a good idea of setting. With my story in particular, I realized I needed to include a bit of the small town vibe of the story.

There was also the idea of adding the tone and voice of your story into your synopsis, something I sadly realized was sorely lacking in my synopsis. I resolved to ask the Craft Quest team for help with this later. One method that was suggested to manage this was to start by taking one or two sentences from each paragraph of your story and putting it into a document. From there, you would pare down until you reach two double-spaced pages.

There was also a comment about being careful about using too many names all at once. This screamed at me. The Order of the Key, the first novel I had attempted to have published, had a ton of characters in it, many revealed early on in the story. I couldn’t remember my synopsis for Order, but I was certain it had name dumped quite a bit early on. Though I have temporarily shelved Order, temporarily is the key word. I have never given up on it. I knew that before I put Order out into the world again, I would have to look for that issue in the synopsis.

Another tip that stuck with me was about Hemingwayapp.com. I had heard about this app before, but I hadn’t realized it assigned a reading level to your story. Kelly and Saritza told us that for YA, your readability level should be around 4th and 5th grade, even though the concepts could be more intense than what would be used for that age group. YA should be easily readable. This app can help show you how to reach that readability level.

The next segment was about demystifying book deals, and started with a reminder that when you sell your book to a publishing company, you aren’t selling the book, you’re selling a license to your book. That’s an important distinction, because the book is still the artist’s creation. There was a great discussion of the different portions of a book contract and what an author and their agent should look out for. For me, personally, who worked for five years as a secretary in entertainment law, many of these terms weren’t new for me, but I still learned a few interesting bits.

I’d worked with various other types of contracts, but not book contracts specifically, and I never realized that authors could sometimes have non-compete clauses in their contracts. A non-compete clause limits how much of the work that is contracted can be excerpted and printed elsewhere, as well as what other works can be contracted by other companies. This can be limited by genre as well as time period with similar or related work and can limit the timing of the release of other books. So, it’s an important clause to pay attention to, especially if you’re pursuing a career in hybrid publishing.

Another factor that’s important to realize is that there is no marketing plan in publishing contracts. Authors and their representatives should always ask the publisher about the marketing plan and whether or not they will assign a publicist. This is increasingly true in the era of social marketing, so it’s a good thing to know when signing with a publisher.

The event wrapped up with a visit from the Blessing Bag Brigade of NJ founder Kevin Garrison. If you’ve never heard of this organization, learn more here. Everyone was encouraged to bring donations to the event, and at Mr. Garrison and Marisa’s lead, we packed our own Blessing Bags to be given to the homeless. It was a fine close to the event to remind us of what we have, and what we should give back.

Everyone who stayed through the end of the mixer!

The afternoon wrapped in a lovely mixer, in which we had time to chat it up with each other and industry professionals who were attending. There was a ton of laughs and silliness, and shared jokes, and by the end of the evening, I found myself as part of a group twitter chat with these amazing, intelligent, and frankly, hilarious folks. Though a confluence of wacky events led to our core four Craft Questers eating dinner back at our hotel, we were soon followed there by Jeni, R., and Ella, for drinks and further silliness.

R., Me, Ari (don’t think I didn’t see those bunny ears, ARIANA!), Ella, Maria, Megan, and Jeni!

We stayed and drank until the hotel bar was overrun by two weddings, and we Craft Questers retreated to Maria and Ari’s room, where we chatted, remained ridiculous, and did the usual slumber party activities.

Face moisturizing masks and drunken antics? Or Halloween preparation? You decide!

At three in the morning, after falling asleep on Maria’s bed, I was shaken awake by Megan, who dragged me off to our room. We ended up in the wrong elevator, and despite being one floor away, ended up in the basement. After that, we finally retired to our room for sleepy times.

Sunday Morning

I woke up at an absurd time in the morning which was bizarre after going to sleep at 3 AM. Megan oddly woke up only shortly after. A quick text to Maria showed that Maria was also awake. So, we gathered in Maria’s room and harassed Ari until she rose from her slumber.

We grabbed some hotel breakfast, which was, indeed, nommy. After breakfast, we headed upstairs to work on my synopsis, because Maria is a literal hero. She helped me to rewrite the whole thing according to what I’d learned the day before at my workshop.

Silly Craft Quest mischief is afoot!

After hanging out in Maria and Ari’s room and having several laughs, it was sadly time to go.

We piled into Maria’s car to drive to Newark. The goodbye was tough. I’d seen and spoken to these ladies online many times in the past, but in that one weekend, we bonded so tightly, that Megan and I truly didn’t want to leave them. A long conversation, starting in that car ride, and continuing on through the train ride home, became the seed of a huge announcement I’ll be making soon.

Megan and I met up with Ismael, my husband, and our son, Logan, and we all got to share the adventure of our weekends apart. Ismael dropped Megan off at home to make up for the sleep she’d missed. By the time I was home and taking a nap, my phone was buzzing with fun texts from the Craft Quest team, the chat we’d established with all the ladies we’d befriended at the conference, and one more group–The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsers, a group of writers and editors comprised of R., Jeni, Maria, Ari, Megan, and me. It’s nice to have a strong circle of writer/editor friends to toss around ideas and thoughts and frustrations with.

It feels like, in one weekend, I crossed over into a new era of my writing career, and I’m very excited. The conference really got me thinking about new directions to take with my work, and the people there helped me find new confidence in my work and myself, and new friends. It was definitely worth the price of admission.

Lots of good news to come, including an interesting announcement from The Inkwell Council. I can’t wait to fill you in.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsers! ❤ #SOTTP

Query Catastrophes

Hey all,

I’ve been sort of absent here on my blog, as I’ve been working on a massive post (possibly several) about my experience at a recent workshop. While I work on putting that all together, check out this amazing video I did with my fellow Craft Questers about Query Dos and Don’ts. Our special guest star was Literary Agent Kelly Petersen!

We had a great time and we think we covered a lot of important things. Check it out below.