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On Dreams (Within Dreams)

If I know anything about writing books, it’s this: I know nothing about writing books.

I can do it. It’s something I can do. But each time I get to the end, I don’t know how it happened. It’s like I black out for a couple months, and when I wake up, there’s a story in a Google Doc where no story had been before.

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It’s a pleasant surprise!

But oh, wait, here’s what I should have led with: I finished the first draft of A Dream Within a Dream!

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As a brief refresher, this is the sequel to the book I have coming out THIS MAY (whoa.), All That We See or Seem. It picks up very soon after the action of Book 1, in terms of the book timeline, but in terms of the me timeline, I wrote it a year and a half after I finished writing the first book.

So… that’s a hefty break. I was really worried upon starting it that I would have trouble getting back into the head of my heroine Reeve, especially since in between writing these books, I wrote The Weight of the Fire, which is VERY DIFFERENT from these books, in terms of what head space was required of me to write it. That was more like this kind of head space:

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Reeve is a fiery girl, but she’s not trying to burn the world to the ground. So I was worried.

But then, this past November, I started writing it.

And, whoa, hi Reeve, way to have been lurking in the back of my head this whole time.

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Such a creep.

But really, it came right back to me. Her voice, the way she has of looking at the world. And finding her meant finding everyone else and their voices.

BRIEF TANGENT: By everyone else, I mean EVERYONE ELSE. This book has so many supporting characters, and I love them all, but good lord, Kristina, fewer supporting characters next time, please. The third act of the book involves pretty much all of them, and I actually had to sit down and write where everyone was during each scene, even if they weren’t in that scene, because there are so many of them and I kept losing characters. Literally, losing them.

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Anyway, where was I.

I found Reeve.

And in finding her, I immediately fell back in love with this world and these characters and the story. It was a true pleasure to write this book. I didn’t know if I’d get the chance to, to be honest. I hoped I would. But I wasn’t going to write this one unless the first book got signed. And that is by no means a guarantee in this industry. So that is, by far, one of the best parts of getting my publishing contract for ATWSOS: it meant I got to finish my story.

This is certainly the fastest draft I’ve ever written. As it turns out, working on a deadline is a very motivating thing. Here’s how it shook out in terms of word count by month:

  • November: 12,324 words
  • December: NO WORDS (I was working on the content edit for ATWSOS, and then the holidays took over.)
  • January: 18,886 words
  • February: 42,414 words

Phew, February.

Here’s a handy chart of word count by day. Because while I’m a writer, I’m also an accountant, and I love charts.

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As you can see, I’m not a daily writer. I don’t think I have that in me, working full-time as I do. But I write as often as I can, four to five times a week, and I write about a thousand words an hour, when I’m in the groove.

The productivity of this month is due entirely to my writing partner Jenna. ENTIRELY. I met Jenna at the Madcap Retreat nearly two years ago now, and she has become one of my favorite people in the world.

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She lives across the country from me, so we don’t get to see each other nearly often enough, except technology bridges that gap for us. We’ve been doing weekly Skype chats for the past couple years to keep in touch and talk all things writing, but over these past couple months, with both of us working on deadlines, we decided to step it up a notch.

Cue: co-writing.

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I’ve said before that writing is a very solitary thing, and it is. I am the only one who can write my story. People can help me with plot holes and to bounce around ideas and figure out the word I’m looking for, but they can’t write the book for me. But it’s really, really nice to have someone to write along with. So each Sunday, Jenna and I have been checking our calendars for the week ahead and blocking off evenings and weekends to Skype with one another and write.

Which confuses a lot of people. Yes, sometimes we literally just sit in silence on Skype, the only sound the clicking of our fingers on our keyboards, with a little Skype window in the corner where we can see each other. And other times, we bounce ideas off of each other, or just complain together about HOW HARD WRITING IS, or I turn my computer around and make her watch something cool that just happened on the Olympics.

ANOTHER TANGENT: This book is sponsored by the Olympics. It has been on in the background, muted usually, since it started a couple weeks ago, and it’s been delightful. Something that I can glance up at every now and then, but won’t pull me out of my story. And THE THINGS THOSE ATHLETES CAN DO! I’ll be sitting there complaining that I can’t word an action scene just right, and then a skier does eighteen backflips in a row in the air and lands backward on their feet, and I quickly shut up and write my scene.

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(COME ON.)

(WHAT IS THAT.)

Ok, self, focus.

So, having set times throughout the week to sit down with Jenna and write our stories was HUGE. It took away those times I come home from work with plans to write and then get lazy or distracted and it just doesn’t happen.

Not to mention our weekend sessions. For example, this past Saturday, when I finished the draft, we wrote from 4pm – 11pm my time, with only a few intermittent breaks. Sunday, we wrote from noon til almost 6. They’re beastly sessions, but they’re SO PRODUCTIVE. And it’s so nice to be working alongside someone else.

So, to summarize (whoa this got long), I finished writing a book for the third time in my life, and this feeling is still not yet old. I’m really proud of it. It’s a story of hope and love and loss and sacrifice. It’s the story of a girl who cried a river and drowned the whole world. (I really have to stop saying that.) (If you don’t get the reference, here.) No, it’s just the story of a girl, a girl full to the brim with hopes and dreams, and some of those dreams are within her reach, but some are not, and some of those dreams are nightmares, but some are not.

I have the next week and a half to tidy it up a bit and do some edits before I turn it in, but for now… I’m happy to have given my characters the send-off I wanted for them. And I’m a little bit sad to say goodbye to them.

It’s such a strange thing. You create these characters out of thin air, and then you upheave the lives you’ve created for them, and then, when the story has been told, you leave them. To presumably live out the rest of their lives (those that have a rest of their lives, oops), without me looking over their shoulders and transcribing their conversations and adventures.

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I’m going to miss that crew.

But I can’t wait for everyone else to get to meet them. You will get to know them in just THREE MONTHS, and then, I believe next year, you will get to find out how it all shakes out.

I CANNOT WAIT.

AND ALSO I’M REALLY NERVOUS.

I hope you like them as much as I do.

Maybe not as much. They are, after all, my babies. I will probably always love them most.

But I hope you like them.

“The characters that I create are parts of myself and I send them on little missions to find out what I don’t know yet.”

– Gail Godwin

2017: A Year in Review

What is there to say about 2017…

It made me better.

It yanked my insides out and rearranged them, stretched them, reexamined them, dragged them through the mud for good measure –

And it made me better.

Honestly, I will never look back upon this year fondly. It was difficult in a way I had not encountered before, in a way that I hope not to encounter again.

But in the midst of it all, there were the words.

The words saved me.

This year, I discovered that pain can be pulled from the body and molded into letters and syllables and sentences and in so doing become a more manageable thing. Not every feeling and emotion is articulable, but I tried my best to make them so. I pushed and pulled at words and meanings until I could mold them into what I needed them to be. Until they said what I needed them to say.

Even the things we don’t ever want to experience are a rite of passage. It all serves a purpose. Lately, for me, that purpose has been becoming a better writer. I have a deeper, broader well from which to pull both because I have loved and because I have lost.

The Weight of the Fire was born from the ashes. As I said in my blog post about the process of writing it, it would not be what it is without this year having been what it was. And what it is, is something I am very proud of and excited about.

So, 2017 was the year I wrote my second book.

2017 was also the year I signed my publishing deal for All That We See or Seem and its work-in-progress of a sequel A Dream Within a Dream. I am immensely proud of the former, and so excited for what the latter will become.

I attended a writing seminar hosted by Maggie Stiefvater and Courtney Stevens in San Francisco.

I cultivated a small but encouraging and supportive following on my writing Instagram account.

I had three pieces published on Thought Catalog.

I took steps forward in pursuing my dreams, and I could not be more optimistic about what 2018 will bring. It will be the year that people will be able to buy a book with my name on it, with my words within it. It will be the year I finish writing the sequel to that book and start getting that one ready for publication, as well. It will be the year I revise The Weight of the Fire. And… I’m thinking it will be the year I write another book or two, as well.

Because in the words of the great Neil Gaiman… “Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down.”

This year, writing was my salvation. And so, on to the next word.

On Revisions

The patient is still cut open on the table, so I should not be taking the time to write this, but here I am.

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You guys, revisions. Are a thing. A whole thing. At first I poked and prodded and tiptoed through my manuscript, not wanting to make any big incisions for fear of breaking the whole thing irreparably.

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And then I remembered that nothing is irreparable. I mean, I literally have saved versions of the completed manuscript in multiple places. It’s not like this is a handwritten copy that I am taking scissors to. Microsoft Word even has a handy “undo” button!

I realized all of this, and then I still was too scared to make any real cuts.

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Because this thing? It’s my baby. On the operating table. It’s two years of my life, of my sweat and blood and words, and I have to open it up and rearrange its organs and hope that when I finally close it back up, it will still be alive.

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But it’s open now. I made the cut. It’s sliced and diced and I am literally standing with its innards dripping from my fingers and kidneys and a liver and, most importantly, the heart sitting out on the table beside me. (Okay, not literally. Not at all literally.) I am doing some repair work on these pieces outside of the body, and then I’m hoping when I put them in, the kidneys will… do whatever kidneys do, and the liver will… process alcohol or whatever, and the heart! The heart needs to beat. That is the most important part. This story can live without its kidneys but it can’t live without its heart.

(I am riding this metaphor to the bitter end.)

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My deadline is fast approaching. It’s a busy time of year at my day job, in the world of numbers, so I am splitting my time between the numbers and the words with little time for anything else in between.

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But I have my eye on the prize. And the prize is making this baby of mine the best baby it can be before I send it out into the world. Wait, I need to improve the baby metaphor. Is it growing up over the course of its operation? Is the operation making it mature enough to go out into the world without me? Or am I just sending an infant away?

If I explore this too deeply, this post will never end and I will never get back to work on that heart sitting on my operating table. So… let’s just pretend all of my metaphors came together flawlessly, okay?

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“That’s the magic of revisions – every cut is necessary, and every cut hurts, but something new always grows.”

– Kelly Barnhill

On First Drafts and Timing

“Writing a book is hard. It turns out, writing a second book is twice as hard.” 

– Kami Garcia

I started the Google Document for The Weight of the Fire on September 29, 2016. As a reminder, it’s a novel based upon a short story I wrote in May of that year called Cade and Abram. I will have a better synopsis to give you at some point, but for now, think along the lines of… immortal twin brothers (to Abram, immortality is a curse, to Cade, it’s the BEST THING EVER), a kingdom divided between them, the sisters they are gifted as brides. Umm, what else… bloodshed, stars, guilt, fate, love in all of its forms, etc, etc. Really, stand by, I’ll have a real synopsis some day.

Anyway, I finished the first draft on October 15, 2017.

So, one could fairly conclude that it took me a little over a year to write this book. But, here’s the other fact: I wrote only 12,970 words between September 2016 and June 2017.

YIKES, past self.

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There are a few factors at play in why I was such a slacker.

First was that starting a story is easy. It’s fun! I had this shiny new idea, and I got to dive into it and play with it and everything was sunshine and roses at first.

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But then, as happens, the shine and excitement wore off. My outline went left and I went right. I knew the voice of one of my perspectives like the back of my hand, but the other perspective’s voice eluded me. In other words, it got difficult.

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I eased out of the beginning and into the middle, and MIDDLES ARE THE WORST. They are setting up this elaborate dominoes arrangement and trying to get every piece just right because if you don’t, nothing will fall into place and the ending you’re working toward will not happen. I got very, very in my head about my dominoes.

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Alongside that, I had things going on in my personal life that shifted my priorities in strange ways. I MET A BOY, OKAY? You know how that goes.

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And while I don’t regret giving that area of my life the attention I felt it needed at the time, I do wish I’d been able to balance the two better. I still wrote, because I can never not write, but it was in shorter form (hello, Instagram account), next to no novel progress.

And then, the final factor is… I was querying ATWSOS. I was getting rejection letters. I was wallowing in those rejection letters.

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I would get a full manuscript request, and my hopes would lift, and then months would pass, and I would eventually get a rejection that was always kind and complimentary, but also, nonetheless, A REJECTION. It made it hard to sit down and write.

So, TWOTF paid the price for a long time. A more accurate accounting of how long this book took me to write is that, after those 9 lackluster months wherein I wrote just shy of 13k words, this is how I wrote:

I wrote 9,291 words in June.

I wrote 3,072 words in July.

I wrote 17,725 words in August.

I wrote 10,321 words in September.

And I wrote 29,188 in the first two weeks in October.

It should probably be noted that 17,127 of those October words came in two days, as I finished the draft. My brain was broken by the end of that weekend, completely out of words. I was Kermit, except taking brief intermissions to drink iced tea and walk my dogs. 

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Once I got back into the story after my lengthy hiatus, I fell back in love with it. It isn’t that it got easier. But I found my rhythm again, I realigned myself with my goals, and I wrote.

I tend to think that everything happens for a reason, and I believe that the timing of this book ended up working to my advantage. I am a different person now than I was last year when I started this story. Everything that happened over this past year – the relationship, the rejections, life in general – shifted me. It shifted my writing, and it shifted the story. This story would absolutely not be what it is if I’d written it last year, and I think that this version of it right here is what it is meant to be, what I always wanted it to be but couldn’t have written without the experiences of this past year. (Look, I just came out of a story about fate and the stars, cut me some slack here.)

So anyways, to summarize, to get to the part of this that gets exclamation points, I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT!

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I like to do a paper-copy readthrough to get a feel for what on earth I’ve just created before I start revisions, so I sent it on over to Kinkos, and yesterday, I got to pick it up and hold ALL OF THE WORDS. (It also got to entertain me during a very long freight train stop.)

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My words have weight! They have heft! There are 82k of them full of love and life and yikes, a lot of darkness, but ALSO, hope.

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I will keep you guys posted on how revisions go. I’m hoping that I created the story I set out to write. I can’t wait to find out.

“Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It’s one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period.”

– Nicholas Sparks

In Which I Hand You Baseball Bats

Nobody knew I wrote for years. Literally, years. I was super stealth about it, and somewhere, there is an old Vaio laptop with some terrible attempts at novels saved on it. Nobody but me has ever (or will ever) see those.

Becoming an author was a pipe dream, completely and utterly. Something that didn’t or couldn’t happen to someone like me. It remained that for years, and so, there was no reason to ever show anyone my writing or let them into that side of me. I wrote entirely for myself. To get stories that lived in my head onto paper, to create characters who lived lives I didn’t live and made decisions I’d never make and said things I was never brave enough to say, and to play with words.

I’m trying to remember the first piece of writing I ever showed anyone. I believe I showed a friend snippets of a contemporary novel I was working on, some six or seven years ago now. I pressed ‘send’ on the email containing the file and then did some frantic googling to see if there was any way to pull the file back, to pull my words back, to not risk being quite so vulnerable. But it was fine! She liked it! All was well, for a little while.

Until the next time I showed someone something I’d written. And the time after, and the time after, and… yeah, every single time I have shown anybody anything I’ve written. Every. Single. Time. I am never not terrified. I compare it to handing someone a baseball bat, closing my eyes, and waiting for them to hit me with it. Even the people I trust, the people who I know appreciate my writing and would never insult it.

Because that’s the thing. My plot, my characters, my worldbuilding? Critique away. If it is constructive and presented only with the intent to improve my story, I welcome it. But my writing, my use of words, my sentence structures and my love, my adoration, my obsession with the rule of threes (see what I did there?)… those are me. Those are as me as I get. That is who I am as a writer.

They say you need a thick skin to be in this industry, and I believe it. Because these are not just words on a page to me. These are pieces of my soul YES I KNOW IT’S CORNY but that’s how it feels. When I write, I am showing people a part of me that I do not wear out in the open. I am showing you what lives in my head, in my heart, and I don’t know, my stomach? I’m sorry, I needed a third thing there, damn you rule of threes.

Some of you have stumbled upon my other project, It’s Only Words. It’s an instagram account I keep to play with words more, to process emotions and events in my life/in the lives of those around me, and THE most vulnerable writing you will ever find from me because it is not hidden behind characters or in make-believe worlds. It took me a long time to reach the point of making that account public, a long time for me to connect it to my website, and an even longer time to actually point it out to anybody.

So, here. I am handing you each a baseball bat. And I am asking you not to hit me with it.

www.instagram.com/kristina.mahr

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

– Ernest Hemingway

On My Publishing Journey (So Far!)

You guys… All That We See or Seem is going to be a book. A real book. A book you can order on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or a number of other places, a book you can hold in your hands and flip through and bookmark and read. (Or download onto your Kindle and read the new-fashioned way!) It’s everything I wanted for this book. I adore this story and these characters, and I so badly wanted them to have a life out in the world.

How did I get here? Well. It’s been a journey. Total cliché, I know, but looking back, it really feels as though it has been. My sister had the dream that inspired this book way back in early 2014. I can still remember standing in her kitchen when she told me about it. A dream about a girl who falls in love with a boy she meets in her dreams. Super meta. Some day, once the book is out and you see what direction I took it, I’ll tell you about the many weird directions we originally discussed this story going.

So from there to here… a little over three years. Granted, some of that is slacker time. I would write intermittently and noncommittally, working on it in fits and starts, and it wasn’t until mid-2015 that I fully buckled down and committed to writing this story. I finished my first draft in February 2016, and then I attended the Aspiring Writers Workshop in March 2016 and learned a mind-blowing amount and realized that I could do so much better. So I got home and rewrote the book from scratch in about three months. Obsessively. I don’t know what else I did over those three months. I assume I went to work and ate and slept? But all the while, my head was firmly in my book.

I did a round of revisions, sent it out to my five wonderful beta readers, did another round of revisions based on their feedback, then went back in to trim some 7k words (I call that stage “hell”), and finally had it ready to start querying in September 2016.

The querying process as a whole? 10 months of refreshing my inbox and stressing out. Over the course of those 10 months, I had 15 full requests and 1 partial. I got a lot of positive feedback, but it wasn’t until I spoke with Janeen Ippolito over at Uncommon Universes Press that I felt the enthusiasm of someone truly believing in my book and wanting to make it a reality.

It should also be noted that it was #PitMad over on Twitter that first got the attention of UUP. I can’t recommend Twitter contests like this enough for getting the attention of agents and editors. This was the pitch:

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Based upon them liking that pitch, I sent them a query on June 8, 2017. On June 29, they requested the full manuscript. And on July 5, they told me they would like to move forward with publishing my book.

One of the best parts of all of this: I get to write the sequel! I had heard the (entirely logical) advice not to write the sequel immediately after writing the first book, because if the first book doesn’t sell, why bother with the second one? Which was honestly a little heartbreaking for me, leaving my characters with their unresolved stories and unfinished business. But, it made sense, so I moved on to a different novel which I’ve been working on for the past several months.

But now… Book 2! I could not be more excited to dive back into this story and get reacquainted with Reeve and Bran and Arden. (You’ll meet them soon, promise.) They get to have an end to their story after all, and I am incredibly grateful for it.

So, all good things. One of my biggest life goals is to be a published author, and it’s on its way to coming true. Thank you all for coming along with me on this. Everyone’s enthusiasm and congratulations have meant the world to me.

“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” – Nelson Mandela

It Takes a Village

Actually sitting down and writing a book is a fairly solitary pursuit. It’s me and my laptop, sitting in a room in silence, watching a cursor blink annoyingly back at me. It is a story that lives in my head, and my head alone, waiting for me to find the words – the right words – and get to typing. Nobody can do it for me, and for the most part, I can’t write with distractions. So it’s a solitary pursuit.

In that way only, though. In every other way, it takes a village.

Seriously.

The village starts with my sister. She is the first person I discuss story ideas with, the first person I bounce plot lines off of, the one I turn to when I cannot think of what to name a character. (True story: I am terrible at coming up with names. Once I hear a name, I will know if it fits what I’m looking for, but coming up with them… nope. Awful. My sister, however, loves it and is therefore my go-to name generator.) The day I finished my outline for my New Project, I gave it to her, and only her, to read. We discussed. I got her support and enthusiasm, which fueled my fire for the story.

From there, the circle expands. A few of my closest friends also serve as my earliest readers, and the ones who don’t read for me still listen to me whine about plot holes or writer’s block or the querying process. Their support and feedback has proven absolutely invaluable to me, and without them, I can guarantee that ATWSOS would not be what it is. And as I am immensely proud of that book, it means a lot that they helped make it what it is.

Beyond the friends who have been my friends since before writing was such a huge part of my life, I have the friends I have made because of writing. My writer friends. They are the ones who get it, because they have lived it. Because they are living it alongside me. They know the frustration of searching for the right words, as well as the joy of solving a gaping plot hole. They know how painful each rejection in the querying process is, how much each full manuscript request feels like you’re handing an agent a baseball bat and hoping they won’t beat you with it. The writing community is something I only discovered after I completed the first draft of ATWSOS, but it has changed the game for me. It’s given me a support system I didn’t know existed, and one for which I am so very grateful.

So yes, only I can sit and write my book. Only I can put the ideas floating in my head onto paper. But there’s no way I would be able to do it without the village that surrounds me, buoys me, cheers me on through it all.

“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to makes speeches. Just believing is usually enough.” – Stephen King