Choices

In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. 

-Eleanor Roosevelt

You write your life story by the choices you make. You never know if they have been a mistake. Those moments of decision are so difficult. 

-Helen Mirren

Dear Writers,

It’s time for me to say goodbye to posting on Through the Tollbooth. I’ve learned so much preparing posts for this amazing blog, but now that I write my own newsletter, it is time to make room on this site for other voices.

Like everybody else, I’m also really busy. I am always trying to create balance in my writing life and my real life! I need to give myself time to play—to experiment and explore writing—to write without expectations so that  later, I can revise with intention. I’ve also been teaching a lot. And this month I’ve been reading submissions for the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship. This has been an extraordinary honor. My first job is the hardest: to choose a writer to work with.

This week, I’ve been thinking almost about nothing else. This month, I read and thought about 36 submissions. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

This process has taught me about reading. Or maybe I should say: reading like an editor. Or maybe: what an editor must do on a regular basis. Or maybe the problem is I am wishy washy!! Every day, when I look at the manuscripts, I think of Laura and I wish I knew her. I feel her enthusiasm and heart every time I sit down to read. I feel the weight of the responsibility.

I did not totally expect this.

I am used to reading manuscripts and stories of writers who I’m already working with. I open the document and I read–the first time like a reader. Then like a writer. That hasn’t changed. After reading all 36 submissions, I see so much potential. So many interesting characters. So many stories I would LOVE to work on.

I thought the perfect story would jump out at me.

The problem is: it has. All 36 times.

So what have I learned? What can I say about this process that might give you some insight as you start to submit?

  1. The first line is so important. I cannot say that enough. The first line tells me so much about the writer and the story. It tells me if the writer is fearless or if she is still dipping her toe. If she knows her character or if she is still unsure. The first line prepares me for the POV. The genre. The tone of the story. Time. Space.

This is true for every chapter’s first line. And every chapter’s last line, too.

Great first and last lines tell me that the writer has thought about pacing. It tells me that the writer knows where her story is going. It makes me want to read the whole thing.

**One of the BEST TIPS I ever received was from writer, Barbara O’Connor. She makes a list of all the first and last lines in her draft. It’s a GREAT way to analyze your pacing and see if you are managing your storytelling in parts that make sense. 

  1. CHARACTER. CHARACTER. CHARACTER.

It is all about the characters!

The stories I can’t forget–that I’m grappling with–have interesting plots. But that’s because they already have distinct characters. Some are funny. Some are miserable. All are interesting. ALL YEARN FOR SOMETHING. There is some action early. Even if it comes too early, it is there.

  1. It’s about me, too. This is the hardest part for me to admit. The story has to appeal to me. The writing has to appeal to me. The writer’s topics must be interesting to me. I’m reading and wondering: who can I help the most? Will this story be fun to read five or six or ten times? (Sometimes a no really means no, not for me, but yes for someone else!)
  1. There can only be one. Oh, man. I hate saying no. I wake up thinking of ways I could say yes to at least six or seven or maybe all 36. I could start a class. Or a new workshop. I think about the story that will ultimately come in second and already, I feel awful!!! And I remember what that feels like–to come in second. And I think: how can I make this writer understand that her story has great, strong, amazing legs? And then I wonder if I’m making the wrong choice. I read the above quotes. Argh! I walk around the room second-guessing myself. I debate calling the organizers and asking if I can take two. Or three. Or four.

I remember when I was a young mother, I would take my kids into NYC for the day and tell them they could “beg” for one thing. (I really couldn’t say no to them either!!!) Most of the time, this worked. They waited until they saw something (a thing or an activity) they really wanted to do, and then the begging and giggling would commence. But a lot of the time, it meant, they never begged for anything. They held it in, waiting for something else to come along. Just in case. It gave me the opportunity to say no without saying no. It also gave me opportunities to surprise them with gifts and treats and celebration.

I also remember needing a “magic hat” to help me choose the advisors I wanted to work with during a semester at VCFA. My friends and I would write down all the names of the teachers we were considering. And then we would pull out names, one at a time. This was a sort of gut check. For me, if I felt great, I added the teacher to my list. It also relieved a lot of stress.

vermeer hat(Nice hat!)

Choices are hard. Making them is also essential–especially in the context of story. 

All our characters face choices. Really, those choices and actions are what keep the plot moving. They make our characters interesting. These moments are “show” moments. They change the vector of the protagonist’s journey. These are the moments that catch readers’ eyes and hook them. These are the moments that make our readers say YES.

Remember: Often, the plot starts turning when our characters do the wrong thing, even if they think it is right at the time.

Today, go to that first big choice in your WIP. Look at what your character does. Ask: could you make more conflict if your character did something else? Not sure? Ask yourself: who is this character? What does he/she want? What has happened in the past to get her/him to this moment? What are her controlling beliefs?

Does that first decision represent who your character is, including her/his flaws? Or are you being easy on your character. Or protecting her/him? OR are you expecting other characters to make the conflict happen? These moments make the difference between good and great stories and characters!

This post is also about the power of working together. About our writing community. About supporting each other. (An easy choice.)

This week, as I thought about how I wanted to say goodbye to The Tollbooth, I remembered a series of posts I did right at the beginning of this blog. They featured interviews with aspiring writers. Back then, we called the prepublished writers.

I have always hated that term.

Why? Because it means that becoming a “real writer” can only happen with a contract. It means our identities are tied to events we cannot control.

So this is what I say:

We are writers if we sit down and put words on paper. We are writers because we are committed to the craft. We should not wait for contracts to validate who we are and what we do and the power of story!

We are writers. Because we write. 

So back to those interviews. One of those writers was Elly Swartz.  She offered this advice:

Generally, my advice is to believe in yourself, stay dedicated to the story, and write, write, write! 

and

Don’t write for the market, write for yourself, the market will come. Eventually.

In the interview, she talked about a new manuscript. She talked about the need to have hope. And determination. She didn’t know when or if she would sell her book, but she believed in her story. When we had that chat, so long ago, we had just met. I hadn’t yet read her story about Molly. But now I have. And so will you. Finding Perfect is coming out October 18, 2016. It is a beautiful book. It is full of heart. It will make you laugh. And cry. It will change how you see kids who face internal obstacles that, at first, we do not see.

So…..now as I finish making my decision for the mentorship, I’m feeling a bit frustrated–I still want to work with them all–but I’m also feeling a bit sappy and grateful. I’m thinking a lot about all the writers I’ve worked with–in critique groups…at VCFA…at the VCFA Writing for Young People Retreat, in my writers.com classes and at Highlights. It’s such great work. Such great people. So many stories waiting to be shared.

The message I’d like to leave you with is this:

Work hard. Be true. Care deeply. Do not give up. Keep writing. Face your fears. Play, play, play, play, play. DO NOT GIVE UP!!! 

All of us have a story. Be a writer. Sit down and write it.

xo sarah

To sign up for Sarah Aronson’s newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website, www.saraharonson.com. Look under tips. It’s there. All the way at the bottom!