Sunday, May 5, 2013

What I've Learned From Sara Zarr (And A Hot-off-the-press Giveaway!!)

I’m in a bad, bad place right now. A very murky middle. I’m stuck between being recognized as a decent writer by publishing insiders but not quite being able to secure that coveted contract. I was told several months ago by the agent I’m working with that the novel I’ve been writing for close to two years needs to be rewritten…again. She said, “I love the first 80 pages but…too many plot lines…simplify.” I know this is the process. I know revision is the key to making a good manuscript seriously scream with awesomeness. But I thought I was done with this story. I thought I could move on. I thought I was finally at the point where I could fly out of the murky middle and reach the contract-signing finish line. Instead, I got a three-page, single-spaced email with all the corrections the agent wanted. It stung so badly that I cried, then ate loads of chocolate, then shut the novel away in its dark digital folder without any intention of opening it for eons. That’s when I heard Sara Zarr’s voice pop into my head for the first time.

In 2011, I was sitting in the audience of the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City when National Book Award Finalist and seriously cool human Zarr got up to give the keynote speech. She said, "The time between when you are no longer a beginner but you are not yet in the business is the hardest ... and one of the biggest frustrations is no one can tell you how long this phase will last. There’s going to be a lot of waiting and you are going to have to decide what you are going to do while you are waiting.”

O.K. So it wasn’t my time yet. But I needed a break from my current manuscript. Because it made me feel like a failure just looking at it. So I decided, while I was waiting, I’d move on, write daily – some short stories, poems, contest entries. Still, I floated in the awkward, ego-destroying in-between, knowing the ball was in my court to get things done, get something to the agent and get some success. So why was I being so obstinate? Why couldn’t I just get it done?

Finally, this past week, I opened my manuscript up again, reread it. But I couldn’t see it any other way. I loved passages I’d written to the point where I’d read them over and over, unable to envision them altered or, worse yet, deleted for good. How could the agent not love them? The sting of rejection came raging
back, and I was about to send the story back to its digital abyss when Sara returned. An interview of Zarr popped up online. In The Vermont College of Fine Arts journal Hunger Mountain, she talked about her own struggles with rewriting her novel WHAT WE LOST:

The problem was that this opening became cemented in my psyche, a completely immovable part of my conception of the book. And once you become so married to a particular aspect of a work that you’re unable to see other choices, you’re in dangerous territory. Until the final, final draft, when others around you—an editor, a writing group, trusted readers—have affirmed that yes, you are near the end, you should be working with clay, not casting in bronze.

Right. Clay, not bronze. I was looking at my piece as if it were indelible metal. Immovable. Resistant. But really, I was the one being resistant. I needed to trust those around me, the agent who was working hard to help me get to the finish line. Her comments about too many plot lines and how the story was overly complicated was definitely an ego-buster, but looking again at the manuscript, I could see what she meant. Those first 80 pages she enjoyed so much held a rawness, a truth that got lost as things twisted and turned and knotted through the rest of the story. Sara mentioned this too, speaking again in her Hunger Mountain interview, where she talked of letting go of the unnecessary:

Every time I loosened my grip, something fell away that had at one point seemed permanent. There are things I miss, but it’s easier to take those losses when I know that the core of the story I wanted to tell remains and can now shine in unfiltered light. That’s where the “don’t let go” part of the process comes in. Hold on to the heart of what first makes you want to tell a story—that seed of inspiration, that character that haunts you, the moments you long to crystallize and bring to life.

So I’m picked up and running again with my manuscript. I’m not to the finish line yet, but I can see it. Sara said in NYC while delivering her keynote, "It takes a tremendous amount of faith to live a creative life - especially before you are published because there is no tangible evidence of its worth." I’ve learned worth won’t come at all if I don’t continue to go back to my “seeds of inspiration” to focus and create scenes that laugh, cry, scream and shudder with the truth at the heart of the story. I’m learning not to shut down and shove my work away when I get critical yet invaluable feedback from others. I’m learning to have faith in myself as a writer. And I can partly thank Sara Zarr for that.

To read Sara’s full interview on Hunger Mountain, go to

For a summary of Sara’s brilliant keynote speech at the 2011 SCBWI Winter Conference, go to

And in Sara’s honor, I am giving one lucky YA Fusion reader a copy of her upcoming title, THE LUCY VARIATIONS, to be released on May 7. Simply post a comment below about Sara, her books, or how frustrating this biz can be, and you will be entered in a random drawing for this hardcover book. Please include your name and email in the post. The winner will be announced Saturday, May 11. *****PLEASE NOTE: Only residents of the U.S. and Canada are eligible******  Good Luck!!!

Lisa Gail Green is the winner of Sara Zarr's new book, THE LUCY VARIATIONS!! Congratulations, Lisa, and thank you to all who commented for being YA Fusion readers!!


Lisa Tapp said...

Thanks for sharing your struggles and inspiration, Heather. You and Sara are so right - this middle ground shows no evidence of its worth. It's just a matter of faith. Good luck with your process.

Suzi said...

I haven't reached the point where you are, but I have several writer friends who are agented and almost published. We unagented writers sometimes think it's so easy if you just get an agent. But it seems like every step has its issues and problems.

I love Sara Zarr. She rates up at the top of my favorites list. I've only read three, but will get to her others sometime too.

Ann Finkelstein said...

I'm in the murky middle too. Thank you for the inspiration - yours and Sara Zarr's.

Creepy Query Girl said...

I think you'll be surprised how good it feels to cut loose parts that once seemed permanent. It's taken me awhile to get there, too. I just finished a big R&R for an agent who wanted me to make the first book of a trilogy into a complete stand-alone. Still waiting to hear back from her but in the end, following her notes was really liberating.

way up north said...

I seriously love your insight. Thank you for this raw honesty about your journey. I too have struggled with the 'in between stage,' and actually took time off to run a small business to get my head on about what I want out of writing. I spent two years working on a manuscript...meh! But the sparks have been starting to kick up again, and I think I am seeing this writing thing as a lifestyle I just will always have with me, and your insight (you are so talented and diligent!) encourages me to keep on keepin' on. Thank you! Yay for Michigan! I hail from Lake Superior way. Best~

Kristin Lenz said...

Thank you, Heather! I needed Sara Zarr's words right now, too. Hope to see you soon, but just pretend that I'm looking at you and nodding with this shared struggle - and I'll be ready to toast with you down the road!

Vicky Lorencen said...

Now you're scaring me. Have you been unpacking boxes in my brain? I can sincerely relate to those feelings of endless treading--how long can I keep my head above water? And in murky water at that! Thank you for sharing Sara's wisdom while we keep paddling.

Lisa Gail Green said...

I know this feeling well. Believe me! And I'm sure most writers can empathize. Just try not to look at it as a finish line though. Even published authors have to deal with rejection and self-doubt, it's all part of the process. But it's that AHA! moment that makes it not matter as much. :D

Angela Ackerman said...

It is funny...i think so many of us resist, resist, resist when it comes to cutting something we believe to be a important piece of the book. But when we finally do it, the feeling is sort of freeing. It feels good to let go, and usually the MS is better for it.

Heather Smith Meloche said...

Thanks for all your comments! I know I'm not alone in all the feelings I have at this point in my writing career, but it's great to hear again how I'm not the only one!

Verna said...

This is cool!