Research That Rocks

What would a mountain lion do with human remains? Is it possible to murder someone with a proton beam? How fast can a knife wound across the chest bleed out? If your phone’s been hacked and someone’s spying on you, how would you know?

unknown-3These are just a few of the miscellaneous topics that writer colleagues and I have been researching. Interesting subject matter, yes, but time-consuming work to sift through the ocean of material out there to find the best answers. Which is why I’m trying to sharpen my search engine skills and get up to speed on things like cold calling experts. If you’ve ever wondered where to find information for your book, check out these tips from authors who’ve mastered the art of research. Effective techniques can boost writer productivity, add to story authenticity, and inspire the kind of arresting details that are, as John Gardner said, “the lifeblood of fiction.”

Research 101: Where does a writer begin?

Most writers begin with online research, because it’s convenient, free, and available 24/7. Sheryl Scarborough, whose YA mystery/thriller series debuts in February with the title, To Catch a Thief, uses the Internet to find “high quality, professional descriptions, images and videos for the settings and situations I’m writing about.” This includes everything from high school forensic classes to information on lifting and comparing fingerprints. The challenge is sorting through the surplus of data, so finding reliable websites is key. Here are five that Sheryl recommends:

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  • YouTube – If you want to learn how to do something, check YouTube. Most people don’t know that it’s actually the second largest online search engine, Google being the first. On YouTube, you can watch babies being born, surgery on almost everything, plumbing, dry wall installation, toy making, lock picking and cow milking. Seriously, there’s almost nothing you can’t find on the site.
  • Google Maps– You can customize a map to a particular area, put pins in multiple locations, compute distances, AND you can look at an actual corner or front of a building on Google Street View.
  • Zillow—This online real estate database is a great tool for writers who want to describe houses and neighborhoods in actual locations.
  • eBay—It’s not just for shopping. If you’re looking for the real McCoy, use it to browse for pictures of things from the past.
  • Central Intelligence Agency— https://www.cia.gov/library/publications. According to Sheryl, it’s a great tool for learning about a foreign country!

 Don’t forget about librarians; they are a tremendous resource.  “If you’ve got a good librarian,” Sheryl says, “you’ve struck GOLD!” 51vfdcq7jml-_sy412_bo1204203200_

It was research librarians who helped Meg Wiviott, author of the picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, and the YA novel, Paper Hearts, with one of her greatest challenges—finding a German map from 1938 that could provide her with the name of a street in Berlin in the vicinity of the Neue Synagogue. This was “not something that could be googled,” Meg explains, “because Berlin was heavily bombed and damaged at the end of [WWII] and modern day streets might not have existed back in [the year the story was set].”

Keith Raffel, best-selling author of five adult thrillers, says he does a lot of his research in libraries. In fact, he’s even traveled across the country to work at specialty libraries.

cover_temple_mount_medcover_fine_dangerous_season_med_02For his fourth book, A Fine and Dangerous Season, Raffel spent time at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where he “used a bunch of memoirs, a book of transcripts from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a book showing what the White House looked like in the Kennedy years.” He also travels to foreign cities to do research first-hand as well.

In addition to working with libraries, Meg contacts universities, museums and historical societies to research her historical fiction. The artifact at the heart of Paper Hearts, for example, is held in permanent collection by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. After traveling to Montreal to see the heart and talk to filmmakers, Meg “read broadly on the Holocaust, the Final Solution, and the Nazi death camps,” before narrowing her focus “to Auschwitz, the work kommandos, the companies who contracted with the Nazis to use prisoners as slave laborers, and survivor stories…” Finally she interviewed the surviving daughter of her novel’s real life main character.

unknown-1 Her only problem was knowing when to stop. “Research,” Meg says, “is an addictive pit I can easily fall into.”

 How can a writer find the sources she needs? Are there interviewing do’s and don’ts?

Most of the books I’ve worked on have required some form of outside research. As a result, I’m always looking for professionals to interview. I’ve talked with surgeons, EMTs, firemen, plumbers, electricians, pharmacists, trainers, venture capitalists, hackers and cyber security sleuths for my writing projects. While there’s no one right way to find an expert, it’s a good idea to cast a wide net, because you never know who’s going to deliver.

Post what you’re looking for on Facebook.  “I needed a very specific genetic marker for To Catch a Killer,” Sheryl explains. “I didn’t even know if [what I wanted] was possible, but if I could find it, it would completely tie my story together. I put up a request on Facebook for a referral to a geneticist and within a short period of time, I heard from a VCFA friend with the name of her friend who was a student studying genetics AND she gave me the perfect [genetic] anomaly. It was amazing.”

Approach people with confidence. After all, you are a professional too. “You can just walk into a police station and ask to talk to someone on staff,” Keith explains. He did this while writing his first book, and immediately they “sent someone out who explained how the department was organized, where they hold prisoners, etc.” When Keith needed help on what a mountain lion would do with human remains, he cold-called “a state expert in Sacramento who, while initially skeptical, was in the end terrifically helpful.” And when he needed help figuring out how to commit murder with a proton beam, he “finagled an introduction to a Stanford physics professor who’d worked at SLAC back in the 60s,” and emailed the professor questions about how that might work.

Fortunately, people tend to get genuinely excited and want to be helpful when you tell them you’re writing a book. You can interview people by email, by phone or in-person—but research your topic beforehand so you’ll sound intelligent and prepared when you talk.

Writer research can require a thick skin and sometimes a sense of humor. I’ll never forget the strange looks an electrician and his crew gave me when I plied them with questions about death by electrocution. Or the day I was online researching hidden cameras, and a chat window popped up with a smarmy salesman who began detailing the different ways I could watch other people in secret. It was creepy, but I stuck with it and got some helpful information. (Of course, you may want to delete the digital cookies that some of these sites leave on your browser. You never know what kinds of ads may start popping up!)

How should a writer thank her sources? Is payment ever required?

Payment is usually not necessary. The best way to thank people is to mention them in the Acknowledgments Page and send them signed copies of your book.  “Of course, when I met people for a meal or drinks, I picked up the check,” Keith adds. “I always followed up with a thank you email or note… asked them how they wanted to be acknowledged… invited them to the publication party and called them out there if they came.”

Realize and accept that most of what you learn will never make it into your story. But in the process, you may discover the subject for your next book!

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Waiting In Between Revisions

I’ve recently finished what I hope is the “final” revision of my WIP and sent it out to a trusted reader. Now I wait…

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Waiting is extremely difficult, but something writers must deal with regularly. We wait between drafts, to give ourselves space from our own words. We wait to hear from our beta readers, who help us to birth our “babies”; and from our agents, whom we trust with our newborn creations. If you noticed a birthing theme it is because I recently spent three weeks helping my daughter and her husband after the birth of their second child.

img_1491Helping to care for this newest member of our family and his 2.5 year old brother was a joy (though and exhausting one). Not only did it feed my soul as a parent, but it also fed my writing soul. The timing of this child’s birth coincided perfectly with my work on my WIP. (Yet another reason I count myself as lucky). I was at that point where I needed to put it down and walk away. Putting a story out of my mind, after it’s been priority #1 for months, is not something that comes easily for me. But this time it was oh, so easy. I forgot all about plot structure, objective correlatives, character growth, and historical accuracy and thought only of changing diapers, playing “choo-choos”, doing laundry and dishes, going to the playground, playing cars and reading books, and doing more laundry.

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In the week that I’ve been home, I re-read my story, tweaked it, and sent my “baby” out to be read. Now I am left with nothing to do. I know some writers move on immediately to their next project. They start researching and plotting and pre-writing. I can’t do that. I can work on smaller projects: picture books that will never see the light of day, or that pb biography of the sculptor whose story really should be told but I can’t quite figure out how to start. But even that sucks too much of my attention and I’ll have a hard time shifting gears to go back to make the revisions in my WIP I know are coming. I have cleaned my desk, though. It might not look like it to some of you, but trust me, THIS is clean.

So instead of moving onto my next project, I’ve returned to my life. It’s been nice to catch up with friends I didn’t see for the three weeks I was away and whom I ignored for the months prior to that when I was writing (thankfully, I have good friends who understand my obsessive work schedule). I’ve also been binge watching “Orange is the New Black” (which I started while rocking an infant while his mother napped). And I’ve been knitting, which I can do while binge watching “Orange is the New Black” so at least I feel as if I’m being semi-productive.

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Waiting is part of the process. And as exasperating as the waiting is, I wouldn’t trade it, or any other irksome part of the process (and there are a lot of them)  for anything.

 

 

 

Measuring Success: Renewed Adolescent Insecurities Brought on by an Impending High School Reunion and a Writing Career

My fortieth high school reunion is looming. I’ve been debating whether or not to go. On the one hand, it’s been forty years (which seems impossible to me) and I am curious. On the other hand, I hated high school. I could not wait to leave. I think the movie PeggySue Got Married is a horror film on par with The Shining. I cannot imagine anything worse than waking up and finding myself back in high school. I cannot blame my classmates for this loathing. I was not bullied, I had friends–good friends. I even had a boyfriend. I was an athlete. I wrote for the literary magazine. I was the school mascot  (but that was because I didn’t make the cheerleading squad and as a senior that was the consolation prize). My sense was that I never felt as if I fit. I was always on the outside, despite my friends and activities, trying to fit in. Trying to measure up. Trying to be better. I can’t firmly put my finger on why I hated high school, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that my father went to his first AA meeting on my seventeenth birthday. (In case you wondered why I write YA.)

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In the forty years since graduation, I have, thankfully, learned not to care if I fit in. Fitting in does not matter. Being myself, doing my best, and appreciating every single day and everyone in my life is what matters.

Over the years, I have lost touch with most of my high school friends, though I am Facebook friends with a few. They are not a real part of my life. I keep in touch, personal, regular touch with two people. Two. That’s fine. I like that.

So as my reunion approaches, I debate why am I even considering going? I see the list of classmates who are attending, and, honestly, I don’t remember who they are. And I am not even interested enough to pull out the yearbook and look them up. Chances are, the majority of my classmates don’t remember me, either. It’s been forty years! If we’d wanted to keep in touch, we would have. So, again, why am I even considering going?

Let’s face it, the purpose of reunions is to show off. Success. Rubbing it in the face of all those former classmates, Hey, look at me! I am successful!

But then I wonder, am I? And then, it’s like I am PeggySue and I am once again in high school, wondering if I’ll fit in.

On a personal level, I have a great life. I’ve had my share of ups and downs, but I have been happily married for nearly thirty four years. Both my husband and I are happy and healthy. I have two post graduate degrees from highly regarded institutions. I have two grown children who have successfully launched and are happy and healthy and are starting families of their own. I do not need affirmation from near strangers to acknowledge these successes.

Then there is my career. And this is where I falter. I’ve had a few careers, from the field of highway safety, to a long-term medical research study, to stay-at-home-mom. Now, writing is my career.

How do I measure success in my writing career? Am I successful because I have two published books? Yes. But no, because I have only two published books. Why don’t I have more? Am I successful because my books have received critical acclaim? Yes. But no, because the second one didn’t get any stars, and it really deserved at least one, from someone.  4stars1

Am I successful because both books have received awards? Yes. But no, because they’re not ALA awards.

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Do you see where I’m going? I am still struggling to measure up, to do better. Will I ever consider myself successful in my writing career? I have to remind myself, daily, that there are no guarantees in life. The one book was the cupcake and the second is icing. A third will put me over the moon. This is a tough career I’ve chosen. It is not for the faint of heart or thin skin. Isn’t it enough that I write? That I make it my job? I do the work. I learn the craft. I study. I read. I write. I am working at something I LOVE not only because I get to do it in my pajamas, but because it feeds my soul.

All of this reminds me of a lecture given by Amanda Jenkins at VCFA in January 2013 entitled “Publication Pressure: The Elephant in Brigadoon.” One of the things Amanda reminds us all to do is keep our eyes on our own paper. It doesn’t matter how many books we have in comparison to our friends. It doesn’t matter that we have fewer stars than someone we know, or that our awards are “lesser” than someone else’s. What matters is that we are writing. WRITING.

I refuse to return to my seventeen year old self. I refuse to believe that I’m not fitting in or am not good enough. I will keep my eyes on my own paper. I will stop belittling the success I have had. I will stop worrying about success all together and focus on writing, writing, writing.

And I think I’ll go to my high school reunion when I know there’ll be a portal, so I can go back and tell my seventeen year old self in that moldering, oversized panther costume, that our life turns out to be pretty friggin’ amazing.

Insecurity v Humility

insecurity |ˌinsəˈkyo͝orədē|
noun (pl. insecurities)
1 uncertainty or anxiety about oneself; lack of confidence: she had a deep sense of insecurity | he’s plagued with insecurities.

humility |(h)yo͞oˈmilədē|
noun
a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.

Most writers joke (is it a joke?) about our insecurities. Our writing sucks, our books suck, our ideas suck, we suck. But would we really spend hours, days, months, years working on a project that truly sucked? In the deep dark corners of night when we’re tossing and turning in bed we might think the project stinks, but in the light of day, right before we push “send” and whoosh the manuscript off to our beta readers, agents, editors, aren’t we darn sure that the project doesn’t really suck, that it’s really pretty awesome?

Two weekends ago I attended the Writing Novels for Young People’s Retreat at VCFA organized by Sarah Aronson and Cindy Faughnan. The theme of insecurity ran through the entire weekend and we propped each other up with Micol Ostow‘s rallying cry, “Whatever…You’re awesome!” It was a wonderful, inspiring, supportive weekend–a group of amazing writers who critiqued each other’s work, probed, asked questions, encouraged, ate a lot of chocolate and drank a lot of wine (and some awesome margaritas). During the Saturday night readings (despite the awesome margaritas, or perhaps because of them) I was struck with a sense of insecurity. Who was I to think my story was as good as all these others?

In the days since the Retreat, I’ve had time reflect on my emotions. And as I prepare to speak before a classroom of middle schoolers at the New Voices School on writing poetry as part of the VCFA young Writers Network, organized by Katie Bayerl and Danielle Pignataro. I am near frozen with thoughts of insecurities: I am a fraud, I am not a poet. I struggle to push those thoughts away. I am not a fraud; I have a published book to prove it! And while claiming to be a “poet” might be a bit of a stretch, my published book is a novel in verse – so at least I can claim that I write poetically.

I’m not willing to say that I am “awesome” with anything less than a sarcastic tone, yet I refuse to believe that I suck. Instead, I am going to believe that I am humble — for aren’t insecurity and humility opposite sides of the same coin?

Life After the MFA: Part I

Today’s post is the first of a two-part series about writing and publishing during and after the MFA program. In this installment, I’m chatting with my VCFA classmates Meg Wiviott and Melanie Crowder about how our time in grad school influenced our later writing. In two weeks, we’ll talk again about the writing life after graduation. –Caroline

What’s your most recent writing project?

MEG: PAPER HEARTS (Simon & Schuster, September 2015) is a historical novel in verse based on a true story of a group of young women who were slave laborers at the munitions factory in Auschwitz. One of them, Fania, was turning twenty, and her friend, Zlatka, decided that birthdays needed to be celebrated, even in Auschwitz.

MELANIE: In a small river village where the water is cursed, one girl’s bravery could mean the difference between life and death. A NEARER MOON (Simon & Schuster,  September 2015) is a middle grade fantasy for ages 8-12.

CAROLINE: My latest book is the final entry in my Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series for middle grade readers. It’s called THE BUCCANEERS’ CODE (HarperCollins, September 2015), and like the rest of the series, it’s full of pirates and magic and bad jokes and descriptions of all the food I wanted to eat while I was writing.

Did you work on this book at all during your time at VCFA, or is this a completely new story?

A Nearer MoonMELANIE: Nope–this one’s brand new!

Something I find myself doing in all my books is infusing my metaphor into my prose style. PARCHED (HMH, 2013) is (obviously) about this dry, barren landscape, so the prose style was sparse to match it. AUDACITY (Philomel, 2015) is an intense story about a passionate young woman living through tumultuous times, so I wrote the story as a verse novel in order to capture that intensity. A NEARER MOON is set in a swamp, and explores the interconnectedness of actions and emotions through time, so I used a lot of repetition in my writing; I picture the repetitive prose style as ripples extending out from a pebble dropped into still water.

Paper HeartsMEG: I first started researching this project while in my third semester at VCFA and working with Shelley Tanaka. I then wrote it during my fourth semester with Rita Williams-Garcia, but it was a completely different animal then. Originally, I wrote it as a middle grade non-fiction picture book. It sold right before graduation. However, for a multitude of reasons that deal fell apart and I shoved it in a drawer for a while. I knew the story had to be for older readers (it takes place in a death camp and there’s a death march in it for goodness sakes) and while it wallowed in the drawer, I decided the story needed to be told in verse. Rita made me read poetry during my last semester, and I did—begrudgingly. I had written angst-ridden poetry as a teenager, but did not write any while in the program. Poetry confuses me.

The Buccaneers' CodeCAROLINE: My book isn’t technically a VCFA project either, but like yours, Meg, it has its roots there. I wrote the first book in my pirate series during my final semester at VCFA, and although I didn’t have any sequels planned at the time, I ended up writing about those same characters for 4 more years. In some ways, I don’t feel as though my writing has changed very much since my time at VCFA, but when I compare my first book to THE BUCCANEERS’ CODE (and especially to the entirely new manuscript I’m working on now), I can see that I’m still learning and developing as a writer. The development is just a little less dramatic than it was during my time in school.

What piece of craft advice from VCFA do you find yourself returning to again and again in your writing?

MEG: The very first lecture at our very first Residency at VCFA was Tim Wynne-Jones’s lecture, “An Address and a Map: Discovering Your Genius Through an Openness to Text” in which he talked about believing in our “own genius”. My learning curve for poetry was steep—one might call it vertical. In order to keep making progress and not see the project as a hot sticky mess, I needed to believe that eventually I would see my “own genius” in my poems.

CAROLINE: I loved that lecture! I think Dorothea Brande also talks about the idea of inner genius in her craft book, BECOMING A WRITER. It’s an idea that’s helped me hundreds of times when I can’t figure out what happens next in a manuscript. When I look back through what I’ve already written, I almost always discover that my inner genius has hidden an answer to my problem earlier in the book.

MELANIE: Less is more! Seriously. It’s my mantra.

CAROLINE: I would like to borrow that mantra. It hasn’t quite stuck for me yet.

Is your writing process as a working writer similar or different from your writing process as a grad student? 

MEG: I think there were more hours in the day when I was in the program. Somehow I’m not as productive as I once was. But I try to keep to the same schedule. I write in the morning. As a student I would be at my desk with my coffee by 7 AM, now it’s more like 8 AM. I write until I realize I’m hungry, which, depending on the day, can be anywhere from 8:30 to 2:30. My student afternoons were spent reading. Now my afternoons are spent running errands, doing laundry, or making dinner. I know that mundane stuff got done while I was in grad school, I just don’t remember doing it.

MELANIE: I miss all the reading too!

The biggest difference for me is that during my MFA, I had all the time in the world for my stories. (That’s not to say that my days were full of leisure–they weren’t! I was insanely busy!) But if a story needed time to simmer, it got it. If it needed several rounds of feedback before it was submission-ready, it got it. Now, if I am going to meet the deadlines set before me, I have to be smarter in both drafting and revision, and do more with less time.

CAROLINE: I agree with both of you. I had a nearly full-time job while I was at VCFA, and I still managed to read and write a huge number of pages every week. How did we get everything done? Now I write full time, and while I feel immensely lucky to do it, I am not much more productive than I was in school. I’ve found that I work more efficiently when I give myself artificial time constraints and deadlines, so now I try to set monthly goals for myself (and often weekly goals, too). Asking other people–like writer friends and VCFA classmates–to hold me accountable for my work has also been immensely helpful.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the art or business of writing since graduation?

MEG: What I’ve learned about the business is that it is CRAZY. There is SO much we didn’t learn about The Business while at VCFA, which was good, I am glad we focused on craft, but exactly how much I didn’t know about publishing and copy edits and first pass pages and contracts and foreign rights and publicity and marketing and how much of all that was going to eat into the time I had reserved for writing came as a real shock to me once I sold my book.

The most important thing I’ve learned about the art, is that I have to keep my butt in the chair to create it. And just because I do that, there are no guarantees that anyone beyond my beta readers and agent is ever going to read what I create.

CAROLINE: I think all of us wonder if our books will be successful, but we often don’t stop to think about what success really means for us. And there are plenty of moments, both before and after publication, when it’s easy to feel like you’re not successful. Maybe no one came to your book signing; maybe you got an awful review; maybe your revisions feel insurmountable or your sales are miniscule. In those kinds of moments, I try to remind myself why I’m writing in the first place–to tell the kinds of stories I loved reading as a kid, and to pass that love of reading on to new kids today. No matter what else happens in the weird and unpredictable publishing world, if my books brighten even one reader’s day, I can feel proud of what I’ve accomplished. Knowing that makes it much easier for me to shove my worries and nerves aside and focus on my writing.

MELANIE: Everything beyond writing and revising your book is out of your control. Everything. How it will be received by critics, gatekeepers and readers. How it will be promoted, designed and marketed. How long it will stay in print. Book sales, foreign sales, audio sales, film sales, etc.

If you want to protect the art, you must, to a certain extent, put the business out of your mind. Write the very best book you can. Do what you can to support it as it makes its way into the world. And then get to work writing the next very best book you can.

 

Meg Wiviott is the author of the YA novel PAPER HEARTS and the picture book BENNO AND THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS. You can learn more about her and her books at megwiviott.com.

Melanie Crowder is the author of the middle grade novels PARCHED and A NEARER MOON and the YA novel AUDACITY. You can learn more about her and her books at melaniecrowder.net.

Caroline Carlson is the author of the VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES trilogy for middle grade readers. You can learn more about her and her books at carolinecarlsonbooks.com.

The Heavy Lifting of Revision

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I don’t like to exercise. I never get an endorphin high. EVER. All I ever get is tired and achy. But it might not be my fault! Scientists have identified a couch potato gene! 

Still, despite being able to blame my parents for my laziness, I know that exercise is important to my health. So I do it. I drag my lazy, endorphin-deprived butt to the gym at least twice a week to work out with a trainer. He pushes me. He increases the weight and makes me do extra reps, when all I want to do is curl up in the fetal position and cry. Then I stagger home, strip off my sweaty clothes, turn on the shower, and allow my tears to mingle with the water that courses over my aching muscles. But, despite all my pissing and moaning, I love the results. My abs are far from rock-hard, but I’ve got muscles.

For the last few months I’ve been struggling with another task I dislike–Revision. I know, I know, most of you are saying, But I love revision. Well, I don’t. I’m waiting for scientists to report some genetic malfunction that will help me explain this away too. It’s not that I dislike all revision. The first revisions after the shitty first draft are exciting. But somehow that doesn’t seem like revision to me, that’s all part of writing the story. It is often when I find a nugget in my writing that makes me believe I’m a genius. The revision I dislike are the ones in-between the full rewrites (where you know that pretty much everything in your story sucks and you chuck the entire thing and start over from scratch) and the ones where you’re tweaking–adding a bit more to this character, pulling a thread all the way through the story, cutting out the number of times you used the word “just” or “like” or how many times your character’s smile looked like the rising sun.

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What I’m struggling with now is an old, old, old story that I pull out of the drawer every year or so, fiddle with and then stick back in the drawer. I love the story. I love the characters. I love their journey. And, I’m told by readers and my agent that it is worth working on, but somehow I’m not getting it right. I’ve been working on this story now for about a year and am about a third of the way through yet another significant revision and I’m not sure I can face it. I’d really rather sit on the couch and read or work on that shiny new idea that is twinkling in the back of my head.

This kind of revision hurts. It makes my muscles and my head ache. I want to curl into a fetal position and cry. So, I have a small team of “trainers” who check in with me–sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, sometimes hourly. They encourage me to write just one more scene, and make me do the heavy lifting of revision. Then I stagger down the hall from my office to my bathroom, strip off my sweaty clothes, turn on the shower, and allow my tears to mingle with the water that courses over my aching muscles. But, despite all my pissing and moaning, I love the results. My story is still far from rock-hard, but it’s got muscles.