Motherhood is hard.
People tell you that before you have children. People tell you again and more often when you get pregnant the second time. Then, their voices seem to raise and they seem genuinely confused when they find out you will have two less than fifteen months apart. Didn’t you understand that parenting is HARD?
Two under two became reality for me on April 10. With a babbling, mischievous son who runs and gets into everything he shouldn’t and a newborn daughter who needs me non-stop, I have been in survival mode since my husband returned to work. Not only am I at the beginning of trying to figure out how to mom two kids under the age of two, I am completely isolated out here in Hawaii. Motherhood is isolating, whether or not you live 4,000 miles from family and friends.
The newborn phase is not for the weak. You’re waking at all hours of the night and are completely exhausted. You’re figuring out a new dynamic either for the first time or trying to figure out how the new addition fits in. With a toddler, you are left to rediscover the newborn worries while trying to keep the older one from waking the new baby, getting into a jar of shortening, or breaking the remote or iPhone you keep forgetting he can reach now.
I’m in survival mode every day these days. I’ll be honest when I say it doesn’t feel enjoyable because everything feels like a chore. Everything seems difficult. When I am in survival mode, I am irritated and exhausted on a higher level. I don’t like the mother I am in survival mode. I feel inadequate and inexperienced. Right now, I’m bad at being a mom of two under two. I haven’t even done it a month on my own, but I’m not acing it. Sometimes I feel like I’m barely surviving it.
Today, my 15-month-old son seemed to be trying to make my day difficult (which I know sounds absurd). I know he isn’t purposely trying to anger me or frustrate me. He is simply being a toddler. Between pulling our dog’s tail, trying to understand the difference between petting and hitting his sister, coming close to breaking a few things that I mistakenly left within his reach, I was more than ready for his nap time.
My three week old was sleeping and once my son was down for a nap that meant I could go and have a few moments to myself. And lunch. There was leftover sesame chicken in the fridge, and that was also making me speed things along. I rushed through our two stories and skipped through one verse of our song. But when I went to put him in his crib, something made me sit just a moment longer.
I’m not sure if I thought his blue eyes looked a little sad. Maybe it was the silence in the space babbling usually filled. Whatever it was, I turned him around in the rocking chair and studied him for a few moments while I talked about how the transition to a family of four had been hard. It was hard for him. It was hard for Daddy and me. It was hard for baby sister. It’s hard to be new, too! I said I was sorry for not being as fun, not being as patient, and not being as happy because I was too busy being tired, too busy being worried, and too busy being overwhelmed. He babbled back to me some. I’m not sure how much a 15 month old can understand, but a smile appeared that hadn’t been there earlier.
I leaned in for an Eskimo kiss that earned a hearty giggle from my son. We hadn’t ever done Eskimo kisses, but in that moment, it seemed like a great time to practice. So we sat, face to face in our rocker, Eskimo kissing and giggling for ten minutes past naptime and ten minutes into my quiet time and lunchtime. The sesame chicken and the quiet could wait. I had tapped into a joy that had been muffled for the past few weeks.
Something magical happened for me while I sat there and held my son. The frustration and stress I felt began to melt away. Everything that overwhelmed me seemed a bit trivial. Sure, I was at the beginning of figuring out how to be a mom of two. But to expect perfection of myself was putting unnecessary stress on myself. Yes, parenting is hard. Toddler tantrums are frustrating. Newborn cries are heartbreaking. Sleep deprivation feels downright torturous.
But, it will be okay.
Today, my son taught me that sometimes I just need to count to ten, take a deep breath, and give an extra Eskimo kiss. It’s when I step back and enjoy my children that motherhood ceases to be a chore and survival mode gives way to real joy.
I’m BACK! I have been away for a few weeks because I was busy giving birth to and adjusting to life with a beautiful little girl. We welcomed Scarlett Elizabeth on April 10.
Life has been a bit hectic trying to juggle two little ones under the age of two, but I am happy to say that we are having beautiful moments in between the hiccups that come with figuring this family of four thing out. Big brother Ezra (who is 15 months old) isn’t too sure about Scarlett and has been bitten by the jealousy bug, but we’re working on it.
I returned to writing this week and what felt like a pile of rejections. I wrote an article about my first days as a mom of two under two that got a pass from a venue I was sure would love it. I wrote about a beautiful moment I shared with my toddler son that reminded me how to enjoy motherhood and not view it as a chore, despite being in survival mode these past few weeks. I was excited about it because it was honest and hopeful. However, the blog I submitted it to didn’t feel the same and (truth be told) I was a little crushed! But, I revised and resubmitted elsewhere and I hope they like it.
Not only did my article get a pass, I’ve had several agents pass (or ignore) my query letter and/or sample chapter of my novel. I haven’t queried that many agents and I know this process is all about learning and patience. While I’m great and learning and taking criticism, I’m not so wonderful at being patient. Like with the article, I revised my query letter and resubmitted to a few more agents on my wishlist and I’m hoping to get some kind of response (other than a standard email informing me they have passed or watching the calendar days pass a deadline and a non response indicates they aren’t interested).
While the rejections sting (why wouldn’t they?), I can’t say that I’m all that disheartened on a whole. I believe in my article and I believe in my novel. The hard part is finding the right fit for my work and the right reader who believes in what I’ve written like I do. That’s why we revise and resubmit. We are looking to resonate with someone. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened for me yet, but it will.
Since I finished Poppy Swings, I have been querying my ass off. That’s not to say I’m sending out a ton of query letters all at once, but I have been nitpicking my query letter and my sample chapters. In addition to those two documents, I am also immersed in the novel synopsis.
I don’t know why this request is daunting to me, but it is! The query letter felt easy. It’s an elevator pitch of your book. When people ask me what my book is about, I can tell them. It’s essentially the one concise paragraph in my query letter. But the novel synopsis? It’s like a play by play that should inform the agent of what your manuscript is, but still remain an interesting pitch.
I’m not going to lie to you. My first go around with this was UGLY. With the query letter, I felt confident and I really enjoyed the resources I found online to steer me in the right direction. Not so much this time around. Maybe it’s because this document is just a down and dirty for the agent who wants to get what you’re about in one page instead of suffering through a sample chapter. Maybe it’s because there isn’t really a magic formula to help liven up this document. Whatever it is, the novel synopsis sucks. Sorry.
Before I share what I did in my synopsis, I will share one resource I liked when browsing the internet. I appreciated CJ Redwine’s “How to Write a Synopsis Without Losing Your Mind. Redwine doesn’t offer a formula, but instead offers a break down of what a novel synopsis is and what it is not. So check it out.
For my own synopsis, I used the following five steps:
- Just get it on paper.
Trying to sum up 60,000ish words in one page is intimidating. But once I got out of my own way, I allowed myself the space to write what I thought I needed to write regardless of the space the agent wanted. Get out of your own way and just write what you feel is the important aspects of your novel. You have to do that first and foremost. You will have to go back and trim it down. And trim it down again. Then, trim it down once more until you hit your agent’s requirement (usually one or two pages) and there are no gaps in the progression of your plot’s description. But at first, just write it down.
- Break the synopsis into thirds.
Thirds made sense to me: beginning, middle, and end. Even though my novel covers five seasons, five paragraphs seemed like the worst way to pitch to an agent. I hated five paragraphs in school and in teaching so I didn’t want to do that here. My synopsis is one page with three equal paragraphs. Paragraph one should set up of events and characters while continuing to build upon the hook you’ve established in your query letter. Paragraph two is leads up to the main conflict and climax of the story. This paragraph will probably be your most detailed and leaves little wiggle room, so make sure it’s concise and clear. Paragraph three is heads toward the resolution and details where you wrap up the characters’ place within the story, leaving nothing to surprise the agent. This isn’t a book jacket. They need to know how it ends.
- Edit. Be ruthless.
For me, this meant I had to cut who narrated the event I was describing. Even though multiple narrators is important to my story, I cover that in the query letter. At this stage and for this document, the agent doesn’t need me to outline that for her. I also cut details that seemed important when I was writing the initial draft, but weren’t absolutely pertinent to understanding the story’s progression. If it doesn’t help the agent understand how a character got from Event A to Event B, cut it.
- Vary sentence length,
Use the power of the sentence to your advantage. You can use sentence structure and sentence length to set and break a rhythm for your reader. If I wanted the agent to come to a stop and pay more attention to a specific action within my explanation, I used short sentences because it jolts the reader. If I wanted to focus on details or a progression of events, I used longer sentences. The synopsis can feel make you feel like you’re droning on and on, but varying your sentence length allows you more control over the document and style.
- Proof it. Then proof it again. And once more just to be sure.
Don’t mess up your chance with an agent because you got impatient (or excited) about the submission process. Don’t close the door on yourself with careless mistakes, typos, or a plot hole. The query letter and the novel synopsis may be the only thing an agent sees of yours. If they aren’t impressed by the query and the synopsis, they won’t ask to see the manuscript. Take your time. Leave it. Come back to it. Then do that once more.
I have mentioned before that returning to fiction from my five year stint in graduate school and academic writing has been a bit of a challenge. I flew through Stephen’s King’s On Writing because it was a nice mesh of analysis and narrative while reintroducing me to the world of fiction. The novels I have read in the last year have been more of a struggle as I try to remember exactly how to read fiction rather than academic text. But Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone hooked me in a way that I haven’t been hooked in years. I honestly couldn’t put the book down. And I honestly wasn’t that wild about the story.
While I Was Gone is told in first person by Jo Becker, a middle-aged veterinarian who is married to a pastor with three grown daughters. When an old acquaintance, Eli, returns to her life, her seemingly charming existence begins to fracture (well, Jo begins to let us in on the fractures that exist in her relationships with her husband and her daughters). Miller employs flashback to take us back to the 60s when Jo (who went by Alicia then) and Eli were living together with several other roommates, one of whom was murdered. Through her past memories and Jo’s inability to reconcile those events with her current life, she faces different tensions with Eli and with her husband, Daniel and how she ultimately sees herself.
- Jo Becker – While many reviewers have complained that Jo is self-indulgent and unlikeable, I found her to be a fascinating narrator. She is selfish and careless with the feelings and lives of those around her (particularly her first husband Ted, her current husband Daniel, and her daughters). But it is that selfishness and carelessness that creates the tension for the story, while allowing us as readers to analyze her actions and narration of events. In the reader’s guide at the back of the book, Miller admits she doesn’t even like Jo. But I don’t think that’s always the goal for every author and every story. Jo doesn’t have to be likable. She has to be believable. And she is. What’s fascinating is that Jo never really focuses on her husband or her daughters for long, compared to her old housemates and Eli. When she does focus on her current family or does interact with them, it’s brief and at arm’s length almost, like she’s avoiding the tension that exists in those relationships. That was a deliberate choice by Miller and a good one.
- Way with words – I’m often in awe of how authors use language to tell their story. For me, Miller’s strength lies in her description of the relationships between Jo and the other characters. There were several instances when I was taken aback and I had to mark the pages. For instance, when she describes Jo’s reasons for staying in an unhappy marriage to Ted, Miller writes:
“I was married, and so I couldn’t really go forward with my life as a single person, which I was pretending to be. And I didn’t want to be married. I knew that. But I could’t imagine divorce – the failure of that, the ending of that life. I was raised to keep at it, whatever it was. To work harder if it wasn’t going well,” I smiled. “Doggedness. Doggedness is what I was raised for.”
And then at the beginning of the novel when Jo describes her current life with Daniel:
“I felt suspended, waiting. Between all these worlds and part of none of them. But this isn’t want I really believe; I think the sensation came from somewhere within me. We feel this way sometimes in adolescence, too, surely most of us can call it up. But then there’s the burning impatience for the next thing to take shape, for whatever it is we are about to become and be to announce itself. This was different; there was, I supposed to next thing.”
Even with just those two paragraphs, Miller captures the inner turmoil of Jo and her disenchantment with the life she has (whether it was in the 60s with Ted or her current life with Daniel) and her pursuit of something more that she can never seem to grasp.
- Obvious plot – I won’t give spoilers, but I could see Eli’s role in the story from the beginning – both to Jo’s internal conflict and his position to bring the novel to climax. I didn’t want to be right and I kept hoping Miller would throw a wrench in my prediction, but she didn’t. I don’t like knowing how a book will turn out at the beginning. It feels lackluster at best. This was a huge turn off for me that it almost ruined the rest of Miller’s work. In addition to the big reveal, the wrap up of the story felt hurried. It felt like Miller was even bored with her own plot and just wanted to be done with it, which worked out well for me because I was ready to be done with it too.
One of my fellow bloggers (Authorial Furies) put up some fun writing prompts in honor of spring’s arrival. One really nabbed me so I decided to have some fun with it. There aren’t any rules for writing prompts except that it has to be the first line of writing I produce. I’ve always liked writing prompts because it allows you to exercise your writing muscles in a new way. Sometimes we get so bogged down with our current projects that we forget to
have fun with writing. Who knows? Maybe a prompt will be the inspiration you need when you’re struggling through a block.
I have one piece of advice for prompt writing that I take from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: “You can’t make your mind do anything. Simply step out of the way and record your thoughts as they roll through you.”
My mom always said the robin was the first sign of spring, but I knew better. I didn’t recognize spring by the birds, the blossoms, or the rain that seemed to drizzle on for weeks once it started. No, I knew spring had come when the dampness began to settle in my bones. Winter brought its chills and summer its humidity, but spring brought a dingy overcast with it year after year that only time could push aside. Each time spring returned, my soggy spirit stuck to itself, refusing to budge. Like that uncomfortable feeling of walking in wet shoes and knowing blisters are coming, I knew that spring promised me a reopened wound.
I turned nineteen the spring she ate a gun. That was nearly a decade ago. It was a spring day much like this one where the sky grayed and the wind chilled without change. The light rain misted, hazing over the trees and road. I didn’t mind the rain back then. I liked wearing my olive rain boots and matching coat because I felt like some kind of fashionista, wearing a trench coat and designer boots that I had saved up months to purchase. It was the last day I wore the coat and boots.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon when I went to visit mom. It was our usual Tuesday lunch date. I’d show up with empty Tupperware from the week before she would always refill and hand me a gallon bag of cookies. We’d have a glass of wine. Well, I’d have one glass and she would have the rest of the bottle. For a few hours, I forgot about work and school and she forgot about whatever it was that was eating her and we’d laugh. Mom was always good at laughing. She giggled sweetly or blasted loudly, no in between. Either way, her laughter infected those around her into laughing along with her.
Walking in, I heard classic rock playing like it had every week, the sounds of her youth she had said. The sounds of her youth had bled into the sounds of mine because I didn’t grow up listening to the bands my friends did. I called out and asked about something I can’t recall now, but there was no answer. Stacked on the counter was my Tupperware for the week and a bag of cookies. An empty bottle of wine and an empty glass was on the table. She was slumped over the table, parts of her splattered backward. Everything had been left waiting for me to find.
It rained when the police came. It rained during her funeral. The wind howled the night I got drunk and angry thinking about what she had done and smashed her cookies and set fire to the Tupperware full of meatloaf, potatoes, and green beans. I don’t remember birds chirping that season or flowers blooming or trees budding. I have barely seen them in the seasons since. No, the robin does not signal spring. Memories of her do.
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Since finishing my novel (wait…I need to let those four words sink in a moment), I have begun the query process. I thought about my query letter for awhile and had a draft on my computer for a year because I knew my brain would be fried and overwhelmed at the thought of trying to pitch something I just poured every ounce of myself into. After reading some successful query letters and doing some research online, I settled on the following formula for my ONE PAGE query letter (it shouldn’t be longer than that):
- Killer opening – I love my opening so hopefully it’s not a turn off to agents. I chose to connect the truest thing I know about writing to my story.
- Pitching Poppy Swings – Here is where I included my word count, the novel’s finished status, and a elevator pitch of the plot.
- Setting Poppy Swings apart with a hook – This short paragraph is where I gave one final push on my novel. What makes my novel stand out?
- Bio and qualifications – This paragraphs is brief since this is my first creative endeavor. However, I do note that I have writing publications in both the academic and more casual blogosphere.
My top three resources for query letters are:
- Jane Friedman’s Complete Guide to Query Letters (Seriously, it’s COMPLETE. Jane rocks)
- NY Book Editor’s Advice on How to Write a Darn Good Query Letter (I loved that it had successful query examples from published works)
- The Write Life’s advice on How Many Agents to Query (Proceed with caution and intelligence so you can figure out if you have a weak query, a week synopsis, or weak sample chapters if you find you are facing constant rejection)
Also, I think it’s important to stay organized on WHO you have queried, WHEN you queried them, and HOW LONG you could wait for a reply (if you get a reply at all). I stumbled upon Querytracker and really love it. Not only do they help you organize all of the information to keep you sane during this stressful process, but they also have many agents listed and take the guesswork out of how (or if) they accept queries (snail mail, email, or online form).
Here is a screenshot of what I see when I log in:
I have a few more queries to send out, but then I wait to see if I get some bites. Fingers crossed that an agent gets hooked and sees the beauty and potential in my story!
an idea, a thought, a what if
a vision too grayed by haze to see or know succinctly
destination charted and adventure started
a planted seed
(with an entire unspoken journey in between)
a rhythmic beat
collective sighs of relief
a swelling bubble
thrashing arms and wiggling feet
a countdown to uncertain
unknown day, hour, method, outcome
belly full of dried toast
a pang (call it women’s intuition) to go
hurrying just to wait, take a deep breath, count to ten
a push, a deep breath, a push
against yesterday and toward tomorrow
of a life forever altered by today
of a child, yes, but birth of a mother first
the moment she conceived what could be
and what finally is
I can’t believe that I am writing the end to my novel. Poppy Swings has been a project that I have been working on for a number of years, but just recently dedicated myself to seeing it through to completion. Completion is close and I am so excited for the next phase of this project I can hardly stand it. Query letters, rejections, and suggestions await. But for now, I’m focusing on completion.
As I wrap up Poppy Swings, the pendulum has swung on writing fiercely or staring at my computer screen. I haven’t had trouble envisioning the plot or conclusion, but the path to get there was a bit hazy. Sometimes I got overwhelmed by wrapping up loose ends or wrapping up a character’s part in the story, but luckily I had some resources to remind me to remain faithful to my vision. Google and Pinterest will lead you to a slew of articles on completing a novel. Here are FOUR of my favorites:
- How to end a story: Write satisfying closing chapters (Bridget McNulty)
Bridget McNulty is the person behind the Now Novel website. What I absolutely adored about this piece (horrendous typos excluded) was that she dissects this idea of satisfaction by referencing classic authors like Orwell, Kafka, and Joyce. She even offers up a classic novel that she doesn’t think offers an appropriate ending. She challenges Little Women by offering speculation on why Alcott may have written the ending the way that she did. All in all, McNulty’s advice resides in remaining true to the characters created as the core of reader satisfaction.
- How to Write the Ending of Your Novel (Joanna Penn)
Joanna Penn (as an aspiring author I am completely jealous of her last name, by the way) runs the Creative Penn website. This is a down and dirty quick list of what is expected and what you should avoid. My favorite piece of advice that saved one of my chapters: “Don’t use sappy extraneous contemplation. This is the big problem with the ending of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. The last chapter or two is just watching the sun rise and thinking about the experience. Boring and pointless.” It’s easy to fall into that trap if your novel’s aim is on character development and change. Don’t tell us or have the character tell us how they have changed. Show us in scenes. It was a nice reminder as I wrap up.
- How to End a Novel With a Punch (James V. Smith)
Writer’s Digest is the holy mecca of information for aspiring writers. Smith’s piece offers up lots of questions for authors to ponder. He urges writers to leave their readers satisfied, yes, but more so that they will walk away after putting the book down and recommend it. And how will they do that? By appreciating the ending. Noting is worse than investing time into a book only to feel betrayed at the end. My favorite question from Smith:
“Does the heroic character learn an important lesson? Your hero’s scars cost him something, but he also wears them like badges of learning. A reader who walks away from the novel with a so-what attitude will kill you in the word-of-mouth department.”
- The Dos and Don’ts of Novel Endings (James V. Smith)
Another piece from Writer’s Digest and by James Smith gives you some quick ‘rules’ or wrapping up a novel. While I didn’t find this piece as thought provoking as the previous piece Smith wrote, I did find some affirmation in one of my creative decisions: “Do mirror your final words to events in your opener. When you begin a journey of writing a novel, already having established a destination, it’s much easier to make calculated detours, twists and turns in your storytelling tactics. When you reach the ending, go back to ensure some element in each of your complications will point to it. It’s the tie-back tactic. You don’t have to telegraph the finish. Merely create a feeling that the final words hearken to an earlier moment in the story.”