Get thee a community

Photo taken by Carla Schooler at the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference

I just returned home from the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference, and whew. I am tired. Not only physically tired from days jam-packed with amazing panels and breakout sessions, followed by nights spent laughing with friends until we couldn’t hold our heads up or our eyes open. But also mentally tired from all the wisdom that was shared, and creatively tired from untangling the knots that had been littering my latest WIP.

I could sleep for a solid day, no problem.

But first, if you’re a writer, I’m going to tell you something important. Something that I’ve known for a while, but that attending this conference reinforced in an undeniable way. Are you listening? Good.

Whether you are a NYT Bestselling Author or a dreamer still plugging away at your first novel, community is vitally important. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that should be true — writing is most often a solitary pursuit, after all — but trust me on this. Without community, most of the authors I know would not be authors. Yes, even the naturally talented ones. Yes, even the ridiculously successful ones.

Without community, the voices of doubt can be deafening. Without community, rejection can be crippling. Without community, giving up may seem like not only the easy choice, but the obvious choice. The smart choice.

I’m lucky. I know this. I live in a city that has one of the most vibrant and supportive writing communities in the country. Most of my best friends are writers, and several of them are successfully published and willing to double as mentors.

These are the people who have slogged through all my various manuscripts when they were rougher than sandpaper, and helped me hone and revise them into something worth reading. They’re the ones who helped me craft a query letter and put together a list of agents. They’re the ones who clinked glasses with me when I signed with my agent. They’re the numbers I text when I get good news, and the ones who respond with a flurry of raging emojis when I get a pass.

They’re also the people who cried with me when I got my diagnosis, who have made me dinner and taken my children to gymnastics. We have celebrated birthdays and marriages and holidays together, road tripped together, run races together, and moved more boxes from Old House to New House than I can count. We have had the same conversations so many times we can rant each other’s rants.

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The Nashville writing community, New Years 2014

This is my writing community. This is my family.

Right now, you’re probably doing one of two things. You’re nodding along knowingly, because you have a community, too, and you relate to everything I’ve just said.

Or you’re despairing, because you feel like an island, and have no idea how to change that.

To that I have two things to say. One, you’re not an island. I promise, there are those out there in the same stage you’re in, suffering from the same doubts and insecurities, working toward the same goals. Somewhere out there is a friend you can lean on, confide in, celebrate with. You just haven’t met them yet.

Two, you are capable of finding them. No matter how shy, how insecure, how introverted, how geographically isolated, how young or old, how experienced or raw. You can do this. It will involve stepping outside your comfort zone, doing something that scares you. But you can do this. I believe it with my whole heart.

Maybe you can muster enough strength for a Big Action, by joining an organization or going to a conference or a retreat or book launch and introducing yourself to strangers. I’ve done this, and trust me, I know it is terrifying. I’ve gone to book launches and hovered in the back, pretending to read the spines of the books on the shelves just so I wouldn’t look out of place. I’ve signed up for a retreat where I only knew one person, and felt the urge to run and hide in a corner with my laptop instead of talking to people. The fear can be paralyzing. But if you can push through it — even if it’s just to introduce yourself to one person, the least-scary-looking person at the event — maybe that’s all you need to do. Sometimes one person is all it takes.

And if that person doesn’t end up being Your Kind of People? Try again. And again and again. It’s daunting, but remember, a person is only a stranger once.

Maybe that’s just too much, and no amount of pep talks will make you physically walk into a place where you don’t know anyone. That’s totally fine. Maybe, for you, stepping outside your comfort zone involves becoming active in an online forum like Absolute Write, or following the #amwriting tag on Twitter and engaging in those conversations, or emailing another writer you know vaguely through social media and asking if they’d be interested in exchanging work.

That’s what I did. Three years ago, when I was considering writing a book and didn’t know any other writers, I emailed another blogger I’d interacted with on Twitter and asked if she’d ever considered writing, and if she’d be interested in having a critique partner. I have no idea what possessed me to do this — I am Introverted with a Capital I, and do not voluntarily reach out to strangers — but that tiny step turned out to be life-changing. Today, that blogger is not only still my primary critique partner, but also one of my best friends. Because of that email, I wrote a book, and then another and another. I found my local writing community. I discovered a sense of belonging I’d never felt before.

Photo taken by Carla Schooler

Photo taken by Carla Schooler at the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference

And before you say, well, you’re an anomaly, let me tell you, it happens more often than you think. At the SCBWI conference I attended this weekend, one of our keynotes was given by the writing team of Gail Nall and Jen Malone, who met online when they entered the same writing contest. Now they’ve published multiple books together. Since they live halfway across the country from each other, they’ve only met in person a few times, but that doesn’t make their friendship or their writing camaraderie any less true.

During their keynote, Jen asked all the published writers in the room to stand, then told them to sit if they thought they could’ve gotten to where they are without the support of other writers. Want to take a guess at how many sat down?

No one is surprised when I say zero, right?

At the same conference, a pair of men — obviously good friends — was introduced to me, and then the mutual friend doing the introduction said, “Guess how they met,” in a voice that told me I’d be surprised by the answer.

Yup, you guessed it. Twitter. It was only their first or second time meeting in person. Not that you’d ever know it to see them interact.

I hear stories like this all the time. Even in my own life, I have multiple good friends where our first interaction was online. Forget what Buzzfeed or HuffPo tells you — you can make friends and find community anywhere. It just takes some effort.

Murfreesboro Half Marathon, 2013 Betcha can't tell which two friends I met on Twitter first.

Murfreesboro Half Marathon, 2013
Betcha can’t tell which two friends I met on Twitter first.

Bottom line is, wherever you are in your writing and your friendships, don’t discount the importance of finding other writers to commiserate with, to cheer on, to ask for feedback and wisdom, to celebrate in times of accomplishment and grieve with in times of disappointment (and not just yours — one of my favorite things about having talented writer friends is being able to celebrate their successes, even if I’ve just suffered a failure. It’s a much better mental place to be in when you can always find something to be happy about).

Not every writer I know has a critique group, or lots of local events to attend, or a love of social media. That’s fine. But every writer I know, published or pre-published, without exception, will tell you that they would not be able to keep making books without their writing community, whether it is vast or intimate, local or online, public or private.

Community comes in all shapes and sizes and locations. Yours doesn’t have to look like mine, or anyone else’s. It can be entirely unique to you and Your People. But please, don’t try to do this alone. Don’t let fear or pride make you an island. Find the people that give you the fortitude to keep walking this road. Putting words onto paper may be a solitary activity, but Writing — as a career, as a dream, as a life — is better with a team.

 

What’s Your Writing Process?

I’m not normally one for blog parties, where someone tags you on their blog or in your comments or on social media and commands you to write about a thing you have no real interest in writing about. (Or at least, that sums up most of the ones I’ve been invited to participate in, YMMV.)

But!

The illustrious Kim Green invited me to participate in a discussion on writing processes, which is a subject I find fascinating.

Not my own, obviously. I live with me, and therefore my own process (IF THAT EVEN IS ITS REAL NAME) has lost all glamour and intrigue for me. But I love reading about the processes of other writers, and as you are not me, that makes me other writers to you.

Wow. That sentence was…something. Buckle up, kids, as I am sure you now want to hear about my process so you can imitate it and enjoy coming up with gems like “as you are not me, that makes me other writers to you.” You’re welcome.

Okay, first off, a disclaimer. Talking about “my process” feels a little bit like a sham, as “process” seems to imply

a) planning

b) structure

c) consistency

and mine is not reliable on any of those fronts. It changes from book to book and from day to day, based on what I’m writing and what else is happening in my life and whether I’ve had coffee and what other forms of entertainment I’ve consumed lately.

Chaos, baby. It’s how I roll.

However, maybe some of you are getting discouraged when you read about how other writers schedule their days down to the minute and think, I can never be that organized! Alas and alack! I shall never write a book! 

If that’s you, I’m here to tell you, you can still write a book.

Disclaimer #2: I admire the ever-lovin’ heck out of writers who can stick to a daily schedule. My amazingly talented friend Victoria recently posted her schedule and I’ll be honest, I just stared at it in awe for a while. How does one make the minutes in their day behave like the Von Trapp children, all orderly and in a row, while my minutes insist on romping through the trees wearing nothing but some old drapes?

Oh wait. Those were also the Von Trapp children.

The Von Trapp children are not a metaphor I was planning on using when I started this post, but there you have it. Chaos Theory in action.

The point is, there is no one right way to write a book. Or a blog post, or a news article, or graffiti on a bathroom stall. No writer I know worth his or her salt claims there is. As long as you are getting words on paper, or on your computer screen, or etched onto a stone tablet, or scrawled onto a cocktail napkin, or spray painted on that bathroom stall*, you are moving in the right direction.

*I’m going to get in trouble for this. Don’t graffiti bathroom stalls, people. Unless it is your bathroom stall that you own, or you have received permission from the bathroom stall owners, in which case, have at it.

All roads can lead to books. All processes can be valid. All minutes are ultimately Von Trapp children.

So, with those disclaimers out of the way, let me get into the questions I’m actually supposed to be answering.

What am I working on?

Heh. Um, several things, and they’re all very different from one another. Front and center are my YA superhero thriller, which I’m in the process of revising with my agent, and a YA contemporary retelling of a Shakespeare play, which I am deep into drafting. But in the cracks and spaces between those two projects, I’m also pondering revisions of my YA epic fantasy, and plotting out my YA time travel historical mystery.

As I said. Quite different.

Chaos, baby.

This does play into the process question though, because I have to prioritize these projects somehow. All of my works-in-progress have my agent’s blessing, but that doesn’t mean she’s okay with me pinballing between them like a squirrel on speed. If I tried to do that, I’d never turn anything in, ever. I am not one of those writers who can simultaneously write four books, much as I might want to. About the most I can handle at once is drafting one book and revising another (and even that is tricky, as pulling my brain out of one genre and plopping it into another is easier said than done). So what happens when I get ideas for the books I’m not actively drafting or revising?

Notes!

I use Scrivener, which I love  as much as a human can love a computer program without getting creepy about it. More “breakfast tacos” levels of love, less “Her.” Scrivener lets me jump into that book’s file, jot a few notes, and flit back out of the program without the back-burner book’s pages so much as rustling in my wake. It’s perfect for me, because I don’t have to keep ideas in my head (which is a terrible place to keep them, as I lose things in there all the time), but I don’t have to actively work on developing them either.

And with those other ideas safe in Scrivener and out of my brain, I can better focus on my main projects. For me, it’s really good to have a pipeline, because each stage of writing comes with different kinds and levels of excitement. I love starting a new draft (excitement! possibilities! infatuation!), but finishing can be difficult. So it’s good to be able to fine-tune something that’s nearly finished, or jot ideas on something that’s still brimming with potential, when I need to jump-start my enthusiasm.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is a funny question, mostly because it’s not one I ask myself when I start a project. I write, first and foremost, the kind of stories I’d like to read. For that reason, I think what I write is different from what’s currently on shelves, simply because if it already existed, I’d probably rather read it than write it. No way I’m spending that much effort writing a (probably lesser, because let’s face it, copies are normally not nearly as sharp as the original) version of something that’s already out there.

It’s also hard to give a broad answer to this question because I write in multiple genres, so there’s no one thing that distinguishes my body of work from every other YA genre. However, I will say there are a few themes that keep popping up in all my stories, whether they’re about Reluctant Superheroes or Uppity Teens In Love or Illegal Powers And Dragons or Accidental Time Travel, that make them a bit different from a lot of what’s currently on the YA shelves of your local library.

The main one is probably my heavy emphasis on family. YA has a lot of orphans, only children, detached parents, and estranged parents. This is often by necessity – it can be hard to make a teenager a central player in a story where he or she has to submit to so many varied forms of authority. This doesn’t make those books inherently good or bad – there’s a lot of things that go into the making of a good story aside from whether the main character has family members present. But for me, I haven’t written anything yet that doesn’t have strong familial themes, and while I know to never say never, I’ll be surprised if that changes.

Whether it’s parents or grandparents or brothers or sisters or cousins, I am intrigued by families, how they interact, how they love, how they disappoint, how they surprise. Siblings are fascinating, because they share a lifelong bond, but may not have compatible personalities, and I like playing with that dichotomy. Then there’s the relationships between grandparents and parents and kids, and the ripple effect of one generation influencing the next influencing the next. Having two kids of my own, I spend a lot of time thinking of how most parenting decisions are made with the intent of doing what’s Best For Your Kids, but there’s often no way to know if you made the right call until much later. I like picking up the threads of those good intentions several years later, once everything has unraveled, and figuring out how to reconcile what the characters intended with what’s happened.

My work has a few other quirks that I believe gives it its own unique flavor. But I think I’ll leave it there for now.

Why do I write what I do?

I feel like I pretty much already answered this question. I write stories I want to read. I write characters that interest me. At the end of the day, writing is a long, labor-intensive process where a huge amount of the work has to be completed before there is ever even the possibility of being compensated for it. For me, that means that I really need to love what I’m writing, because if I don’t, that is a whole lot of effort for no guaranteed payoff. It also means that even if these books never sell (even though I sincerely hope they do), I’ll still be glad I wrote them, because I love the stories and I loved the act of writing them.

How does my writing process work?

Oh hey! You were wondering if we’d ever get back here, weren’t you?

Okay, as I stated earlier, “my process” is a tricksy beast. It varies a lot, and is influenced by a myriad of exterior factors. But here are a few things I have learned about this crazy thing called writing, that will always be true no matter what I’m writing and what’s going on in my life.

  • I have to write on a computer. Lots of writers find writing longhand helps them get past their inhibitions because they don’t self-edit as much. This…is not a thing I can do. Everything I do must be typed. Give me a blank piece of paper and a pencil and I will blink at you like you just asked me to casually sketch the Mona Lisa. I type drafts. I type notes. I type synopses. I type outlines. SPEAKING OF WHICH!
  • I suck at outlining. I’ve tried it, and I very much believe there’s something to it (I will stand by Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT being a fabulous method, even if I can’t actually stick to a beat sheet to save my life), but I suck at it. I am very much a pantser, and have been known to plunge into books with absolutely no idea where they are going. Actually, the easiest book I’ve drafted so far had literally no plot whatsoever going in. I had a single sentence as an idea, and crafted the story as it came to me. The hardest book I’ve written was the one with the most intense outline going in. The more restrictions I place on myself in terms of a pre-determined plot, the harder it is for me to let my ideas flow.
    • HUGE DISCLAIMER: This is also why I have to re-write entire books. First drafts are guidelines for me. Once they’re written, only then can I truly see the story I want to tell.  Then I have to plunge back in and scrape away all the gunk clogging up my story, and there is always a lot of gunk.
    • But I’d rather have a lot of gunk than nothing. You can’t edit a blank page.
  •  I draft quickly in general, and fastest when I have absolutely no idea where I’m going. Some people write 500 words a day, but each of those words is carefully crafted and meticulous. I tend to vomit out multi-thousand word chunks, knowing full well that I may go back and delete most of them later once I figure out what I actually want to do. (That said, I firmly believe that no matter what your process, first drafts are meant to be rough, and that there is no bypassing this step.)
  • Chaos, baby.
  • I write best at night. Which is a little inconvenient, since my kids are in school during the day and while I work part-time from home, I typically have huge chunks of time to myself during daylight hours. I so very much want to devote a majority of that time to creating Brilliant!New!Words! But, most of the time, I can’t. Which means nighttime is for words, and daylight is best for:
    • Revision (drafting and creating are very different processes for me, and I can revise even if I’m not feeling particularly creative)
    • General Responsible Adulting, ie: errands, cleaning, taking the dog to the vet, paying bills. Bah.
    • Refilling the creative tank: For me, I get the most inspiration from television. I know this just sounds like I’m making excuses to sit on my couch and binge-watch Netflix (which, valid), but I try to watch with a critical eye. What’s working in these shows? What aspects are pleasing to me, and why did those choices evoke that response? What characters do I like, and why? How do they handle multiple plot arcs, multiple POVs? What is it about the writing that draws me in? What annoys me, and why? How do they balance kicking off a new storyline while resolving an old one to my satisfaction? Obviously, I also have much love for good storytelling in the form of books and movies, but for me, television is my main squeeze.
    • Reading cross-genre. I can’t read in the genre I’m writing, but I like to read books in other genres (for example, while drafting my Superhero Thriller, I read nothing but Contemporaries) and figure out what aspects from those I can work into my own story. This isn’t so much about refilling the creative tank (don’t worry, TV, you’re still the one for me) as it is craft. I like seeing what makes other books tick, and trying to learn something from it. Did a book pull off a killer twist? How? Why was it satisfying? When did they start setting it up? What sorts of clues did they drop? How did they throw me off the scent? I realize these are similar to my TV questions, but because of the medium, I find I am a lot more clinical about my approach to books than my approach to TV. TV is mostly for creative stimulation. Books are for craft. (Again, YMMV – I know tons of writers who are the opposite.)
    • Critiquing. I…have very passionate feelings about critiquing. So much so that I’ll save them for their own separate bullet point.
    • Meeting with other writers, either to write or just to discuss our projects. Sometimes I can’t just fritter away all of my day, because I need to be making forward progress or risk totally throwing off my groove and missing deadlines. I am extremely blessed to have a wonderful writing community here in Nashville, and I have several people I can meet with at Panera or a local coffee shop to share a table while we both pound out the words. A change of scenery is really helpful for getting myself out of a rut (plus Panera’s WiFi suuuuuuucks, which means fewer Twitter distractions), and it also gives writing a sense of accountability. If you’re sitting across from someone, they’re probably going to notice if you never crack open your laptop and just stare into space for three hours. PLUS I cannot overstate how helpful it is to have someone Right There for when I have to look up and ask a Super Important Question like “Okay, if I’m tied up like this and can’t afford to break my wrist, how do I escape?” (Even if your local writing community is nonexistent, I still highly recommend the Change Of Scenery to the Land of Sucky Wifi.)
  • CRITIQUING! Here is that separate bullet point I was talking about. (Honestly, I could do an entire blog post just on critiquing.) I adore critiquing, and it is utterly vital to my process. But here is the thing that a lot of people don’t seem to get about critiquing: it is about giving. I try to make it a point to always be doing more critiques than I’m receiving. Yes, it is important to get my own work critiqued. I have a critique group and critique partners that are worth more than their weight in gold. But to be the best writer I can be, it is essential that I am consistently offering solid critique. Doing a critique gets me in the mindset to be objective about my own work, and forces me to acknowledge the things that aren’t working. It can be tough. I’ve given critiques to friends that resulted in me having to toss a significant portion of my own story. But I have never done a critique where I came away feeling that I had learned nothing.  That said, here are a few things to keep in mind about critique:
    • Offer before asking, and give each critique your best. If you want an honest critique on your own work, put the time and effort into giving a good critique for that writer. I find that if I offer to critique for others and do the best, most thorough job I can, they more often than not will offer to read for me, and no one has to be put in the awkward situation of asking someone who may or may not have that sort of time to give.
    • That said, don’t just chase writers around Twitter asking them if you can read their work. If you don’t have a local writing community, or are not part of an online writing community, I suggest either joining an organization like SCBWI or RWA and connecting with other writers that way, or finding critique partners on a site like Absolute Write or HowAboutWeCP.
    • Be honest without being harsh. Critique is not cheerleading. If all you do is point out the things you love, that writer is never going to get better. But critique is also not just exploding your own subjective opinions all over their manuscript. If you are overly harsh, you risk sending the author into defensive mode, and also poisoning your critique relationship. So if you hate your critique partner’s main character, maybe don’t say “I hate your main character,” but instead say “I found the way your main character stole candy from babies and kicked puppies troubling, and as such had a hard time connecting with her.” You’ll also notice that the second example is constructive (“I can totally cut back on the candy-stealing and puppy-kicking!”) and the first is not (“Well…I’m sorry?”). Always remember that you are trying to help an author make their work better, not penning a book review.
    • Don’t dish out what you can’t take. If your critique partners are telling you something isn’t working, don’t be too proud to examine it and see if there’s a way to make it better. This doesn’t mean you have to take every bit of critique you ever receive (because that would be impossible, as critique partners often disagree), but if there’s a common thread, don’t be afraid to tug on it.
  • Scrivener! Seriously. It is my best friend. I want to braid its hair and bake it cookies.
  • Community! Whether it be my friends I see every week or my friends on Twitter or my friends who live in my phone (ie: much texting without ever really seeing each other in person), my writing community is so, so important to me. Don’t have a community? Go to local book events, attend writing conferences, interact on Twitter, join a forum. There are so many ways to connect with other writers, especially with the Magic of the Internet.
  • Celebration. A wise friend of mine once said that if she had to choose between seeing her name in acknowledgements and seeing her name on spines, she’d choose acknowledgements. I think that’s such a wonderful philosophy to have. Sure, I have my goals and my hopes and my dreams. But my life is full of so much more joy if I can celebrate my friends’ accomplishments with sincerity. Also, publishing is slow, but the time passes a lot quicker when you can be excited for every finished draft, every agent signing, every book contract, every release. (And who doesn’t want an excuse to break out the cake every couple months?)
  • Last but not least, coffee. Oh sweet caffeine, where would I be without you?

Phew. That was long.

How about you, friends? What is your process? What gets the blood pumping and the creative juices flowing? What are your silver bullets, your black arrows, your Elder Wands? Do such things even exist?

And if so, where does one find one? Asking for a friend.

Everything is Cool When You’re Part of a Team

Guys.

Guys.

I’ve got NEWS.

THE BIG KIND.

The kind that requires an excessive number of gifs.

I am over-the-moon excited to announce that I am now represented by the lovely, brilliant, and utterly fabulous…

[drumroll please]

Holly Root of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency!

I’ve been pinching myself all weekend, and I still can’t quite believe it’s true. Holly is far and away my dream agent, and I cannot begin to express how blessed I am to be working with her, or how stupid-giddy-excited I am as we embark on the author-agent journey together.

If you are not entrenched in the publishing world (bless you, and your sanity) and aren’t sure what an agent is, or the role they play in the publication process, or why this is a Big Freaking Deal, check out Part 1 of Susan Dennard’s post on How to Get Traditionally Published. (Then read Parts 2 and 3, because they are Quite Informative and one of the clearest descriptions I’ve read on how this whole crazy looooooong process works.)

If you want to hear the nitty-gritty of how I came to sign with Holly, stay tuned. I predict I shall be long-winded. Both because I am long-winded, and because it was a long, windy road to get here.

This story actually starts a few years ago, back when I first started this blog. One day, through a series of random events, I happened to discover that a girl I went to college with was now a literary agent who represented a lot of YA. This may not seem that big a deal except for one thing: I went to a tiny little private university in Arkansas that no one’s ever heard of. The odds of someone from my school becoming A Somebody in publishing are…well, I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess they’re not very high.

Now, this girl wasn’t someone I was close to in college. I knew her more by reputation (ie: she was Wicked Smart and Good At Many Things), and because she married a guy in my class who sang with me in chorus. I think we might have smiled and nodded and possibly exchanged a couple pleasant “heys” during our years attending the same school. That was it. So I didn’t really think of this information about her being a literary agent as anything more than a bit of interesting trivia.

Then a couple days later, I finished the book I was reading and read the acknowledgements. Whaddya know, Lit Agent Girl From College — whom you’ve probably figured out was Holly — was that author’s agent. That was two interesting coincidences in a row. I looked up some other books I was reading and about to readHolly represented all of them. Holly was, apparently, a brilliant agent who represented exactly what I love to read. Hm.

I decided this anecdote was amusing enough for a first-contact Facebook message, despite our total barely-acquaintances-in-college status (Oh Facebook, you make it so easy to blur the lines of appropriateness). I proceeded to construct the awkwardest “Hey, you probably don’t remember me, but funny story…” message in the history of awkward Facebook messages. Holly responded almost immediately, with an “Of course I remember you! And yay for blogging, let me know if there are any books I can send you” message. Then I was even more awkward by requesting FAR TOO MANY books and saying embarrassing things and why am I bringing this up when I really hope she has forgotten all about it for all eternity? (Also, I have since come to learn that authors initiating contact with agents through FB is a BIG NO-NO. I’m guessing bloggers doing it is even worse. But I won’t ask, because we’re never going to mention that ever again.)

She was lovely and gracious and did not file a restraining order. Obvious proof that she is a Class Act.

A couple months later, I got the idea to write a book. A fantasy.

It was weird. I’d never had a book idea before. But I decided to try, because why not? It could be fun.

I did everything wrong. I didn’t plot at all. I flew by the seat of my pants. I wrote myself into corners. I blathered on forever with ridiculous subplots that could never, ever work. And I wrote a YA book that clocked in with a first draft of 133,000 words, which is far, far too long.

I revised and revised and revised, cutting out huge chunks and bringing it down to a more manageable length. I sent it to beta readers. They thought it was…okay. They had lots of nice things to say, but also lots of questions. Big questions.

I revised again. And again. Tried to answer their questions and fix what was broken. I eventually got it down to a 100K word revised draft that I was happy with.

When I was finishing what I thought was the final revision, I was asked by one of Holly’s clients — the lovely and brilliant Myra McEntire, whom I had met I believe a whopping three times at various book events — if I’d be interested in taking a look at her most recent manuscript and offering feedback. To this day, I still really have no idea why she asked me, since we knew each other only slightly better than Holly and I knew each other in college. (Hey, Myra, why did you ask me? Was it a dare? You can tell me if it was a dare.)

But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth (or, like, something that’s not a terrible cliché. Man, I am so good at this writing thing.) So obviously I said yes. In exchange, Myra promised to read my book, just as soon as she passed her deadline.

As it turned out, Myra read my entire book one Saturday in early February 2013, shortly after turning her book in. Before she finished, she emailed me to say she’d already recommended it to Holly, and that I should plan to start querying on Monday, because it was Ready.

Um. Hello.

I did as I was told. I queried Holly, along with a few others, that Monday. Holly responded later that day requesting the full manuscript and congratulating me on finishing my book. No mention of my crippling awkwardness. Again, Class Act, people. I was ecstatic. I sent my story off and set about biting my nails and refreshing my email and starting a new story.

Then the rejections started rolling in from the other agents I’d queried. One after another after another. Form rejections — not even a hint of personalization.

I doubted. I convinced myself that Holly had only requested because we went to college together and because one of her authors liked me and because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. (Hint: This is not a Real Thing Agents Do. They don’t have time for it.)

I shook it off, reminding myself that Real Authors pile up enough rejections to wallpaper a room! I didn’t have nearly enough yet! So I retooled my query and kept sending it out, one little feeler at a time, as I waited to hear from Holly. I got several requests, but no offers. After Holly had my manuscript for a month, I was utterly positive that she was just trying to come up with the words to let me down easy. My book was stupid. It wasn’t new or interesting. The other requesting agents were bound to be disappointed, and had probably requested by accident, and were probably going to reject me any day in a not-so-nice fashion, because they had no reason to care about hurting my feelings.

Here’s the thing about querying, guys. Or letting anyone see your work. You swear you’re going to be cool, you’re not going to obsess, you’re not going to let it get to you. You read all the stories of people freaking out, and vow, that will not be me. But once in the query trenches, remembering that is hard. Even if you are Facebook friends with your top choice agent and have a referral from one of her clients. Once someone is reading the story you poured your soul into, waiting to hear what they think is painful. And the doubt and fear can be crippling. Even when you know it is you psyching yourself out. You become your own worst enemy. Or at least I did.

Then, five weeks after sending her the manuscript, I got an email. It was from Holly and it was long. I was simultaneously excited and disappointed. Long meant she cared. But long also meant it did not just say, “Can I call?”

Turned out, she liked the fantasy. Very much. But she didn’t think it was quite to a place where she could sell it. She had a lot of suggestions for how to make it better, all of which I absolutely agreed with. They were the kind of suggestions that seemed so obvious in retrospect, like why had I ever considered writing my story any other way? That was the moment I became absolutely certain that she Got Me. She’d seen the story I had wanted to write underneath the story that I’d actually written.

So I contacted the other requesting agents, let them know I was revising and asked if they’d like to see it when I was done. They did. Then I plunged into the revision cave to tackle her notes.

It was a ton of work, but the story came out so much better for it. I sent it to critique partners. They gave me feedback, and I revised to their notes, sending them revised scenes pasted into emails with subjects like, “I AM SO SORRY” and “I AM TRYING A NEW THING, PLEASE TELL ME IF IT SUCKS” and “I’M NOT SO GOOD AT THIS.”

I’m not really sure why any of them are still talking to me.

Finally, after many weeks of intense revision, it was finished. I sent it back to her and the other requesting agents at the beginning of June. A week before she went on maternity leave.

Disclaimer: I totally knew she was going on maternity leave. It was in no way a secret. I actually knew she was going on maternity leave before I queried her the first time. But still, it wasn’t easy to send off my revision knowing she was about to step away for three months and then return to work three months behind. That was a lot of waiting. And I suck at waiting.

The other agents with my full wound up passing, for a variety of reasons. I hadn’t queried many agents, and I could always query wider, but I wanted her. I actually felt relieved by a couple of the other agents’ passes, because I’d come to realize that Holly was my top, and only pick. Her authors love her. She does amazing things for their careers. Her sales record is spectacular. Her list includes many of my favorite books. And I knew, from talking to her authors and keeping up with her on social media, that she would get me. She would be My People.

So I didn’t send any more queries. I waited it out. I got really good at waiting. I got so good, in fact, that I started to dread what would happen when she finally returned to work and I did hear back. I liked limbo. Limbo was comfy. Limbo wasn’t rejection.

But at the same time, I didn’t want to be waiting forever. I did, after all, want to get published someday. So I kept writing a different project that was 180-degrees different from the fantasy — a thriller about a teenage superhero. One of the biggest assets to being unpublished and unagented is freedom. I could write whatever I wanted. Why not something different? So I played with my superhero thriller, which was oodles of fun plus it kept me sane.

One million years Three months later, Holly returned to work from maternity leave. About six weeks after that, in October of 2013, I got an email from her about my fantasy revision.

It was a no.

It was a kind no. An encouraging no. But still a no. “You’re terrific and there is something really special to this story,” she said, but she didn’t think she could sell it. She then said a lot of lovely things about me and my skills as a writer, and closed her email with a heartfelt request to see whatever I did next.

Then I did Another Wrong Thing. Another Thing That Querying Writers Should Not Do.

I responded to her rejection.

(Don’t respond to rejections, people.)

I responded and laid my cards out on the table. I told her she was my first choice, and whatever I wrote next would be written with the goal of nabbing her. (I may not have actually used the word “nab.” At least, I hope I didn’t.) And then I did another thing you shouldn’t do, and pitched my totally-not-even-drafted WIP with a query I wrote on the fly in five minutes, asking not if she wanted to see the manuscript, but if the project itself sounded like something she might like if I could make it good. Because if she didn’t want to read what I was writing, I was actually prepared to start a totally new project that would be more to her taste.

Yes. This is how sure I was.

(Don’t pitch books you haven’t finished writing, people.)

Somehow, yet again, she did not respond to me like I was suffering from The Crazy, but instead emailed right away saying that my new story sounded awesome and that she’d love to read it when it was ready.

CUE FRANTIC DRAFTING.

This is the point where two things happened.

1) I started doing things right.

2) My book broke.

This time, I actually plotted my book. I made beat sheets. (Like, a thousand of them. And followed none of them. But that’s a post for another day.) I had made some excellent friends in my local writing community, and I brainstormed with them and had them read for me and attended a writing conference and writing retreats. I started seriously critiquing for friends and having them seriously critique for me, and I learned how to apply the critiques I was giving others to my own manuscript. I immersed myself in the publishing world. I did my research. I attended as many book events as I possibly could. I was serious, yo.

I also couldn’t finish this book for the life of me. I had to toss it out completely and start over. Several times. And it still wasn’t right. I finished it through gritted teeth, knowing something was wrong, but unsure what it was. I gave it to some trusted beta readers. Their feedback helped me realize I needed to yank out an entire subplot, and after doing that, I discovered a bunch of other stuff that didn’t work and had to be rewritten. When all was said and done, nearly ten months had passed since Holly passed on my fantasy, and I’d thrown out over 150K words. But I finally had a book that I thought might — might — be Good Enough.

Which was…terrifying. The voices in my head never stopped whispering that if I didn’t knock this book out of the park, I’d probably reached the end of my chances with Holly. (I’m not sure why I just decided this, but once the thought was in my head, there was no dislodging it.)

But I sent it to a new wave of readers, and all of them agreed, this book was ready to query.

I carefully crafted my query, this time (thankfully) spending more than five minutes on it. This time, I only planned to send it to one person. Two of my critiquers for this book were Holly clients (Myra again, along with the incomparable MG Buehrlen), and they both sent her heads-up emails telling her they’d read for me and thought this book was The One.

In mid-July of 2014, I pressed send. I included a note in my query that she was getting an exclusive, which is another thing you’re Not Supposed To Do, but I think we’ve established by now that I am terrible at Doing Things Correctly. Then I immediately texted a handful of friends something along the lines of “I JUST HIT SEND WHAT IS THIS MADNESS WHAT IF SHE HATES IT WHAT IF I FAIL.”

Forty-five minutes later, Holly requested the full manuscript. Always a good sign.

MG and Myra freaked out. My critique partners freaked out. My writer friends freaked out.

But then six weeks passed without a peep. I twitter stalked like a champ (can one be a champ at Twitter stalking? should one be a champ at Twitter stalking?), even though Holly basically never tweets about individual submissions, because what if she did for meeeeeeeeee? I texted Myra and MG and asked them to please use their telepathic powers to read her mind and tell me where she was in my book. (Spoiler alert: They don’t have telepathic powers and I was, once again, The Crazy.)

The Crazy came in waves. Some days would be just normal days. Other days I’d wake up at 4 a.m., certain that today’s the day, even though I had no reason to believe that. Sometimes friends would ask me how I was doing, and I’d say fine. Other times, they got ALL CAPS RANTS ABOUT MY OBVIOUS SHORTCOMINGS AS BOTH A WRITER AND A HUMAN.

Querying is so weird, guys. Even (maybe especially?) when you’re only querying one person.

Then, on my birthday, I went to C.J. Redwine‘s launch party for Deliverance. And a few minutes after I got there, guess who sat a few seats down and waved to me?

Oh yeah. Holly, who lives in California, was in Nashville visiting her family. And C.J. is her client. So of course she’d be at her launch. Duh.

I even knew she was going to be in town, because we are Facebook Friends after all, but somehow I had not connected those dots. A+ detective work, Lauren.

After C.J.’s launch (which was lovely, and if you haven’t read her Defiance trilogy yet, you should), several of us, including Holly, stayed and chatted a while about a variety of things. For once, I decided, I was going to do things the right way and not bring up that she still had my manuscript. Because imagine with me, if you will, the Epic Awkwardness of bringing up my book if she was trying to think of a nice way to reject it? Or a not-so-nice way? And then had to do it to my face?

No thank you.

But. BUT. When I was getting to ready to leave, Holly turned to me, fresh off of recommending a book to someone else. “Speaking of fantastic books,” she said, “I just started yours on the plane here and I am LOVING IT.”

And then I fainted while somehow remaining upright and conscious and engaged in conversation. I think she said more nice things about my book. I think it involved scaring other passengers. I don’t know. I was having an out-of-body experience. But I said something coherent-ish (I think?) and then I really did have to go because it was my birthday and I’d been promised cake.

I might have freaked out a little. Or a lot. I don’t know.

AND THEN – two more weeks passed. And I didn’t know what to think. If an agent’s started reading your book and told you they’re loving it, you’re supposed to hear back RIGHT AWAY, right? That’s what the success stories say in all the “How I Got My Agent” posts I’d been reading (you ever notice how most success stories are like, “AND THEN I HEARD BACK THE NEXT DAY,” and even though they say that’s not the norm, it seems like it kind of is? Well I am here to tell you: I did not hear back the next day).

I began to dread her response, the same way I’d dreaded her coming back from maternity leave. If she hadn’t gobbled up my story, that meant it was boring, right? A story you love shouldn’t take two weeks to finish. It sucked. sucked. Any day she was going to email me to tell me that maybe I should consider pottery, or window cleaning, as a better career option. I became convinced that she was merely attempting to craft the gentlest rejection letter she could, and that really not knowing was good, because I didn’t want to read another gentle rejection.

I should mention that all my friends told me I was crazy, and Myra and MG continually stressed how busy Holly was and reminded me that submissions have to come after client work, and did I mention Holly has a lot of clients and some of them are NYT bestselling authors and it’s not like she has a shortage of work? But even though, logically, I knew they were right, there’s a weird dichotomy when you’re waiting for someone to pass judgment on your work. I knew that if it was a no, she’d just tell me no. She wouldn’t sit on it forever. That didn’t make sense.

But what if she did?

Anyway. I actually wound up pushing the waiting to the back of my mind, because I had something else to focus on. The SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference. I love this event, it takes place ten minutes from my house, it’s organized by some of my dearest friends, and it is one of the most edifying parts of my year. This year the conference was September 12-14, and the whole week before was basically one big countdown to the conference. I even stopped worrying about my manuscript. That’s how excited I was.

On Friday afternoon, I checked into the conference hotel with my critique partner, Sarah (who has read everything I’ve ever written, even the super-crappy first drafts that aren’t fit to line a hamster cage, a feat for which she deserves knighthood or possibly even sainthood), and her mother. We dropped our suitcases in our room and prepared to go downstairs and mingle.

Before we left the room, my phone rang. I don’t know anyone in L.A., I thought as I picked up.

“Hi, Lauren, this is Holly Root. Do you have a minute?”

I might have hit Sarah in the back so hard it scared her. And then I realized I couldn’t actually say anything so I mouthed IT’S HOLLY like I was trying to communicate with a lip reader in Djibouti while responding in my calmest tone, “Of course I have a minute.”

“Do you have a minute for me to tell you that I loved your book and think I can sell it?”

I definitely had that minute.

After talking briefly about my superhero book, she said, “So this is the part where I woo you. How should I go about the wooing?”

“It’s going to be really easy,” I said. And it was. We talked about revisions, and once again, I agreed with her on every point. We talked about how she does business. We talked about my other WIPs. We talked about the fact that I unpack in hotels, because I am weird. I’m sure we talked about other things too, but I was on a cloud somewhere and can’t tell you what they were. At the end of the call, she offered to give me a few days to consider, but I told her I didn’t need them. I’d had a lot of days and months to consider. I was good on the considering front. We got off the phone, she sent me the agreement, and bam. Agented.

One of the best parts of this entire year-and-a-half long process was that she called at the exact right time for me to be able to walk downstairs and tell nearly all of my best writing friends the news in person. And let me tell you, my husband was overjoyed, my mother screamed, but no one understands this particular thrill like writer friends. There were many hugs and much screaming that night.

So basically, if you are querying and can get your dream agent to call and offer to represent you ten minutes before you’re about to go spend a weekend with most of your closest friends at a writing conference, DO THAT. It’s pretty great.

My favorite reaction was my friend David, who congratulated me, gave me a hug, then promptly threw his wadded-up napkin in my half-full wine glass.

“WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”

“It’s a momentous occasion! I wanted to do something you’d always remember.”

Oh I’ll remember, all right.

I honestly think my friends were more excited than I was, because while I’d been holding my emotions back from the process (I’d been plenty neurotic, but I’d never allowed myself to be more than cautiously hopeful, because if you don’t hope, you can’t be crushed), they’d always believed in me. This is why it’s so important to have community. Writing can be lonely and full of self-doubt. I cannot stress enough how valuable it’s been to me to be surrounded by people who know the process and the struggles, but never falter in their faith that I can do this. I expect my emotions to crank up to eleven eventually. It’ll sink in soon. But until then, they’ll carry the giddy for me.

Also, I was asked at least a dozen times if I remembered to tell my husband. I told my husband first, people. We are not savages.

Signing the Agency Agreement. Husband is behind camera, being TOTALLY PRESENT AND INFORMED.

The conference was amazing (of course), and while I wasn’t ready to officially “announce” publicly yet (my overloaded brain simply could not handle telling the world my news and doing a writing conference on the same weekend), I had the rather surreal experience of being able to answer “yes” on the few occasions when one of the faculty asked me if I was agented yet.

How weird is that?

So there you have it, folks. The long, meandering tale of how I got my dream agent. If you made it through the whole thing, congrats. May your admirable perseverance serve you well in life.

Thanks for celebrating with me, friends. I’m so beyond thrilled to be an official part of Team Root, and can’t wait to see what adventures the future holds.

Sitting at the Cool Kids Table, and other musings on the writing community

If you follow many authors on Twitter or Facebook, read their blogs, attend their events, or read the Acknowledgements pages in their books, you’ve probably noticed what I have. Authors tend to hang out with other authors. They critique each others’ work. They go on retreats together. They cheerlead and support each other, and attend one another’s events. They have inside jokes and speak in code.

For a while, to me, it seemed a little like an exclusive club. Sure, I met some authors at various events, but without the secret password, I would never be permitted to cross the velvet rope and transition from “fan” into “friend.” I was an aspiring author, but they were authors. I could no sooner propose we meet for coffee than I could call up Jennifer Lawrence and invite her to my birthday party. (Sidebar: Jennifer, if you want to come to my birthday party, you are totally welcome to do that.)

They were the cool kids, and I was the friendless nerdling, longing to cross into their ranks but knowing, not-so-deep in my gut, that I was unworthy.

Then something interesting happened. I started seeing the same authors over and over at different events. Because here’s the thing about writers: they are readers. They love books just as much as you and I do. And that awesome book event I was so excited about? They were just as excited. Maybe even more so, because the featured authors were their friends.

After rubbing elbows with people a few times, eventually you have to stop gushing about only their books. Seriously, no matter how awesome the book is, it can only sustain a conversation for so long. So without quite realizing it, I found myself discussing other topics with these authors I so admired. Our kids, and if all of them are so weird, or just mine. Doctor Who, and whether or not it is permissible to skip the Ninth Doctor (in my opinion, no). Harry Potter, whether Snape redeemed himself by the end, and which death was the worst. The love triangle in The Hunger Games, and whether or not it even exists.

Movies. Pets. Books. Chocolate. The kind of topics you talk about with normal people.

Here is the secret: writers are people. And not in a creepy, Soylent Green sense. They are readers and critics and fans and dreamers and doubters. Just like the rest of us. And as with any group of people, there will be some that are just your people. It won’t be everyone, but trust me. They’re out there.

When I found my people (and for me, it was kind of a magical all-at-once experience, a combination of putting myself out there and Twitter and joining SCBWI and divine providence), it opened up doors in my writing journey I didn’t realize were possible. This new community — that I never learned the secret password to, by the way — has enriched my life and my writing more than I can explain.

The beauty of having writer friends is that we are all creators and thinkers and analyzers. Writers understand the relentless gnaw of a new story idea, the satisfaction of seeing an empty page fill with words, the strange gleeful terror that comes with deleting a huge section of your book because you figured out a better way to do it. Writers understand the voices of doubt in your head that whisper “this sucks and no one will ever want to read it.” They don’t think you’re crazy when you’ve carefully plotted out a story, and then your characters insist on taking it in a totally different direction. They are excellent at hearing a broad synopsis for your broken story, hearing where you’re stuck, and coming up with absolutely brilliant ways to fix your problem. They are adept at talking you off the ledge when the query rejections start rolling in, one after the other, and then again when an agent does want to see your story, but then doesn’t get back to you in less than 24 hours salivating over your manuscript like that-magical-How-I-Got-My-Agent-blogpost-I-read-last-week (there is nothing like a freakishly rapid How I Got My Agent success story to make you come down with a debilitating case of Iprobablysuckandtheyhatemeitis).

So I guess I have a few points here.

1) The writing community can seem daunting to break into. I thought it was utterly intimidating. Until it wasn’t. A big part of that was realizing that other writers are like me. We share passions and interests and fears. The relationships don’t have to be forced. If you are a writer (and if you understood the entire above paragraph about writer brain, you are a writer), it will come naturally. And when it does, it is a beautiful, amazing, soul-enriching thing.

2) Writers are writers are writers. If you’d have told me a year ago that some of my favorite names from the book spines on my shelf would become the top contacts in my phone, I wouldn’t have believed you. But if you live in a city that’s not crawling with published authors, that’s okay too. Some of my best friends in the writing community aren’t published yet. Some aren’t even agented, or don’t have a completed manuscript. And that’s okay. The important thing is we’re all writers, our brains work similarly, and we are there to support each other, no matter how fledgling or established our writing careers

3) Joining a community requires putting yourself out there. And trust me, I know this can be hard. I am shy and introverted and awkward (which are not synonymous, by the way), and at first, going to events where I didn’t know anyone had me sweating like an Eskimo in the Sahara. But something I’ve learned is that the reading and writing community is built on shy, awkward introverts. I’ve found I work best when I interact with people online first (generally via Twitter), then meet them in person. Joining SCBWI and getting involved with my local chapter was also huge for me (RWA is another fabulous organization). But it’s different for everyone. (And if you live in the middle of nowhere with no other writers – BEHOLD the beauty of the Internet! Online friends are just as real as local friends.) The only universal truth here is that you won’t join a community if you never, ever reach out to other humans.

4) Writers make you a better writerI don’t have a single writer friend whose writing has not benefited from friendships with other writers. Books are often group efforts. That’s why acknowledgement pages read the way they do. It’s not a club, and it’s not a Who’s Who. It’s like-minded people collaborating on stories, because that is what they love to do. Personally, one of the biggest things I’m looking forward to if (“when,” my writer friends would correct me, “always when”) my book ever becomes A Real Book is writing my acknowledgements. Not to name drop, but to publicly thank those people who have helped me grow so much from where I used to be, both as a writer and as a person. (Also, the other funny thing about all those Big Names in acknowledgement pages? They weren’t Big Names when they started. They were friends and critique partners all starting out together as newbie writers. Everyone has to start somewhere.)

5) A writing community and a critique group are not necessarily the same thing. I have a lot more writing friends than I do critiquers. Just because you know other writers or are friends with writers does not mean you have to always critique each other’s work. You may have totally differing tastes or writing styles, or you may write for different audiences. Or they may already have their own established critique groups and partners, and no time to work your writing into their schedule. Even if someone isn’t a great match for you as a critiquer, that doesn’t mean they can’t be a great friend and part of your writing support system.

6) You can be a writer even if you haven’t written anything yet. I think some of us unpublished, uncontracted, unagented, unfinished writers can tell ourselves that we are not “real” writers. We can’t attempt to join the club yet, because our credentials aren’t good enough. And that’s simply not true. The more time I spend with writers, the more I believe that being a writer isn’t about how many books you’ve sold or words you’ve written, but about about how you think, who you are, and what you aspire to. If you have stories in your heart and characters in your head and passion in your soul, but only a couple chapters actually written? No problem. You’re still a writer.

Anyway. This has gotten kind of long and rambly. I’ve just been thinking a lot lately about the writing community and how the people I’ve met have, quite literally, changed my life. And I’ve said on more than one occasion that if I had to choose between the people I’ve met and ever seeing my books on shelves, I’d choose the people, hands down. Obviously, I hope to have both, someday. But in the meantime, I will simply enjoy how very blessed I am to have such amazing friends (you know who you are) who get me, understand the weird way my brain works, and encourage me as I plunge ever further down the rabbit hole of storytelling.

(And if you’re not a writer, never fear. I’ve got reviews coming up. Just as soon as I can wrap my brain around the books I’ve read recently. Them’s thinkin’ books.)

Writerly TV: Friday Night Lights

As part of my new goal to talk about writing a bit on this blog, in addition to reading, I’m going to feature some TV shows I think are helpful to writers, and why I believe that is. It’s kind of ironic, since I actually started blogging in the first place so that I would watch less TV (and it worked — I barely watch any now), but I actually think TV has a lot in common with books. No, I’ll never tell my kids it’s okay to substitute television for English homework, but as far as the storytelling goes, both develop characters gradually, both place heavy emphasis on world-building and dialogue, and the best books and television shows pay attention to things like foreshadowing and detail and developing large overarching plot arcs while wrapping up smaller ones. I find that sometimes I learn different lessons about storytelling from a well-crafted TV show than I will from a well-written book, maybe because I process it with a different part of my brain. Television is a more visceral medium, books a more intellectual one, and so they affect me differently. I honestly feel that each helps me better appreciate another.

Also, while I think reading is so, so important to writing, sometimes I get to a point in my own writing where I can’t properly appreciate other people’s writing. Either I read with Revision Brain (“I would have used a different word here. This sentence is awkward.”) so I can’t get absorbed in it, OR I sink into a funk because what I’m reading is just so good that I can’t see any point in continuing in my own writing, because I will never achieve that level of greatness. Neither one of these attitudes are helpful, and sometimes what I need to snap myself out of it is an episode of a well-written television show.

So this feature is where I will highlight the television shows that inspire me as a writer, and why that is. But if you’re not a writer, don’t worry. These are also just plain good TV, and worth a watch.

Disclaimer: This is not my endorsement to substitute large chunks of television for large chunks of reading. Ever. Stimulate your brain. Read a book. But I think television has a lot of validity and merit as long as you engage in it in moderation. Like dark chocolate.

With that intro out of the way, let me get to the show I want to talk about today.

Friday Night Lights is one of those shows I never, ever planned to watch. I’m not big on TV shows about ordinary life. I like there to be magic, or crime, or espionage. And I honestly kind of hate football. After going to every single football game for my high school and college years (and a bit beyond) due to my involvement in marching band, I never developed even the slightest appreciation for the sport. So an hour-long drama about a high school football team was not appealing to me. Also, it’s set in Texas, and I’m kind of allergic to Texas.

But then I kept hearing how amazing this show was, and I had a friend basically tell me that if my next Netflixed show was anything other than FNL, I would be doing myself a disservice. So I decided to watch the pilot, just to test the waters. And I. Was. Hooked.

This show does character development and relationships better than any other show I’ve ever seen. Even characters I spent the pilot not loving, I adored by the time their run on the show ended. The dialogue was authentic and smart, and the plots were quiet but engaging. This show even managed to swap out the majority of the cast over its five-season run (characters would leave for college…and not come back. The way it works when you graduate high school), which normally doesn’t work. Yet it worked. I wound up loving characters that only appeared for one or two seasons, and they all stayed with me after I watched the final episode.

Why do I think this show is a must-watch for writers? Character development and authenticity. I’ve never seen another show handle it better. There isn’t a single character on FNL who doesn’t screw up royally at one point or another (some more than others), but there also isn’t a character who doesn’t also have moments of greatness. And it’s this show, more than any other, that showed me how sometimes quiet moments and subtle character actions can have the greatest impact. Anyone who wants to write believable, empathetic characters would doing themselves a favor by watching this show.

In addition, FNL has the most realistic depiction of a healthy marriage of any show I’ve seen. I wish more YA novels would have parents like the Taylors. They don’t have drama for drama’s sake, they love each other, they argue but then work through it — and they’re completely, utterly compelling. They’re proof that relationships don’t need to be full of angst and drama for me to be invested in them. This ties back to the character development issue, but I feel is worth a shout-out.

If you’ve been on the fence about this show — maybe, like me, you were pretty sure it just wasn’t up your alley — I’d urge you to try it out. It may not be big and flashy, but it’s got heart.

Watch it on Netflix.

(Also, if you’ve watched the show — this trailer for the series is amazing and makes me cry every time. But there ARE spoilers, so I wouldn’t watch it unless you have either watched the whole series, or don’t care about being spoiled.)