Adventures of a New Writer

13. Finding My First Editor

So I finished my first draft and then let it breathe for a couple months. Stepping away was a good opportunity so I could look at it with a fresh pair of eyes again. I also discovered The Novel Factory could export my manuscript into a digital format that I could read on my Kindle, so when I was ready, I spent an afternoon figuring out how to get it loaded onto my device so I could read it more organically, instead of on the computer (I read all my books digitally now).

It was such an incredible experience sitting with my Kindle in my hands reading a story that I wrote! Curling up in a chair or in bed allowed me to get closer to it than I would have been able to if I was always stopping to correct something while I was at the computer. And I quickly found ways to highlight glaring errors or important notes without dramatically interrupting my reading.

I felt like the opening scene needed work and I wanted a second opinion. My husband sat watching TV in the next room and I wondered. I met my husband when were both working in the film industry and even though neither of us are in it anymore, he still has friends that give him their scripts to read and he always gives them notes. I wondered a little more. He was also an English Lit major, so he’d already and experience reading novels and giving his thoughts on them. However, my story was NOT his genre. But maybe he would at least take a look at the beginning and let me know what he thought.

So I walked out of my room and told him I felt like the opening was a little off and could he take a look at the first 20 pages for me. He looked at me a little skeptically. We both knew I wrote a romcom which was not his cup of tea. But since it was just the first 20 pages, he agreed.

When it came time to give me feedback, he was energized and excited, with lots of encouragement and helpful notes. Turns out, he may not know where the tools are, but he can edit a manuscript. Sensing his enthusiasm, I asked if he would be willing to keep reading and giving me notes and he agreed! So I printed out the whole manuscript for him and every day when he came home from work he would read through chunks of it and drop the next section of notes on my desk. It was so special to me that the first person to not only read my novel, but give me thoughtful and detailed feedback was my husband.

That English Lit degree finally came in handy!

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12. Finishing the First Draft

When I got back from New Orleans, I got back to work on my first draft, trying to fit in time whenever I could. Because of how detailed my outline was, I always chose to work through finishing scenes vs word count goals. Finishing a scene was always a natural stopping place for me. It’s always so hard starting with the very first scene, but watching the progress go by and getting to the half way point, knowing I wasn’t in the early scenes anymore, really helped to keep me motivated.

With slow and steady progress, six months later, I finished my first draft. My eyes were watering as I wrote the words “the end.” I couldn’t believe I did it. After slow and steady progress over two years, I finished my first draft! I took a picture, shed a tear and ran out of my office to give my husband a high five and a hug.

If nothing else happened, I knew I finished a complete (110K word) manuscript. I was so proud of myself. I didn’t give up, I kept pursuing and finding the time, even when things didn’t always go to plan and I got it done. Phew! I had discovered in my writing research, that the first draft is really only the beginning…so let the adventure continue!

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9. Finding the Time

It’s been interesting trying to find a rhythm of incorporating writing into my life. With a full time job, a husband and an active social life, I found it could, at times, be challenging to set aside the time to write. I also knew I didn’t want to pressure myself, as this was supposed to be fun and make me happy. And I didn’t want to feel guilty about not doing something because I felt I should have been writing instead.

The thing I love the most about The Novel Factory is their Roadmap. It’s a very detailed step by step guide that takes you from a sentence describing your story to a full blown novel. By following all the steps/exercises in the roadmap, I always knew my next step. So even when I had to take breaks from writing, I always knew where to pick it up again. And when I say that I was setting aside time to write, my “writing” time was doing all these assignments in the roadmap. By fitting time here and there I was making progress, but I spent over a year just working my way through all the steps without actually starting my first draft. I realized this all could have moved along much faster, but sometimes there would be weeks where I didn’t write at all. I trusted in the process though, because by continuing to build on my work, the basic outline I first started with was turning into very detailed scenes.

And as I started watching tangible progress unfold, I was finding more and more motivation and need to keep going. When I saw long weekends coming up, I would beg my very social husband to leave them open so I could have uninterrupted days to really get in the zone and hit the next milestone of being ready to officially start my first draft. I even took vacation days to bump up against long weekends, to give myself extra time. And it was in those set aside times that plans sometimes changed…friends were in town or had events coming up that we couldn’t miss, and I had to find that balance of feeling this desperation of wanting to do something completely for me and also wanting to be a part of these special life moments.

I think writing will always be a balancing act. I’ll always be trying to steal those extra hours for writing while still making sure I’m present in life. After a year and a half of working through the roadmap, I was so proud that I actually followed all the steps and reached the milestone of officially starting my first draft.

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8. Picking a Pen Name

I knew from the start that I was going to write under a pen name. I decided this for two reasons. I felt that if I was going to create a whole brand, I wanted it to be separate from my professional career. I’ve spent many years putting together a resume and I didn’t want internet searches to confuse two very different worlds. I also liked the idea of learning how to build a brand  and starting it from ground zero was going to be a great learning experience.

I was also concerned that my job may not love this creative endeavor, especially as it was connected to rom com and romance books which can be a little edgier in subject matter. So all around, I felt it was a better idea to use a pen name.

But how does one choose a pen name? Mine came  to me pretty quickly. I ended up going with the end of my first name, “Elle” and choosing my great-grandmother’s maiden name “Houston.” I really liked that I could use a family name, it makes the pen name more special to me and I think Elle Houston has a nice ring to it. I can see it on the cover of a novel.

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When I first downloaded The Novel Factory (TNF), I was using an old computer that I had bought on sale at Best Buy for $300 as part of a bundle. It was so slow, it took forever to power up and open any application. I used to have to sit patiently waiting for The Novel Factory to open and then for updates to save. We had a bedroom in our house that we nicknamed the “catchall” room because anything we didn’t know what to do with, we stashed in this room. You could barely move in it because there were piles everywhere (but it made the rest of the house look nice!). When I realized I wanted to start writing more and that I needed a place where I could shut the door (instead of the dining room table), I moved a few piles around in the catchall room and brought in a folding table from outside and a chair from the kitchen. I created my own little space.

When I found myself starting to consistently write in the evenings and on weekends, I decided it was time to upgrade my computer to something that ran a little faster. I also wanted to have two monitors so I could have notes open in one program while I also had TNF open. With the help of a friend, I purchased a new computer and two monitors and suddenly it felt so much easier! I felt like I had “space” with more monitor real estate, and all the programs running so much faster felt like a luxury. I kept on writing.

After about a year of writing like this, I thought, this room isn’t used for much, I wonder if I cleaned it up and started saving, if I could make this an inspirational space that encouraged creativity. I asked my husband if he would mind if I took over the catchall room, and he said if I could find an area for a wine fridge in my new office, then I could have the room. A wine fridge didn’t seem like such a big deal, as I was picturing one of the smaller mini fridges that could be concealed in some cabinetry. I decided to order the wine fridge he wanted first, so we could make sure we physically had it when we were ready to start building out the space. I didn’t want any wrong measurements.

Well, when the fridge was finally delivered, it came up to my chest! It was huge! I couldn’t believe what it looked like in person! Clearly, I did not pay close enough attention to the measurements. In my defense, I saw the tall fridges online and understood we were ordering a shorter one, but I didn’t realize the short was still tall! Ugh. I should add that the way the bedroom was laid out, there was only one usable wall because the others had a door, a sliding glass door and a closet. Adding my husband’s wine fridge looked like it would take up a third of the usable space! Also, it occurred to me we would need to actually design around the fridge because it was so large. Sigh.

Well, I had to keep saving anyway, so in the meantime, the fridge went in the guest bedroom where we had the space for it and at least I had a better computer and a room to write that was officially mine. This helped keep my motivation up.

My writing desk

My writing desk

My new computer on my folding table.

The small usable space by the closet

The small usable space by the closet

I did not have much room to expand out.

The back wall

The back wall

This was the only uninterrupted wall and it's really high.

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3. Now, How do I start?

I am someone who really likes organization. I feel at ease knowing there is a plan. When I had taken my screen writing courses in college, they provided me with great structure. My classes had been broken out into two: the outline and writing the script. It was there that I really learned the value of an outline. I found it’s the best way to figure out the structure of the story, while still being able to  easily make structure changes.

Realizing I’d had success with completing a screenplay using the outline method, I wondered if I could find something similar for writing a novel. One night, when my husband was out with some friends, I decided to watch ME BEFORE YOU. I think it was around 11pm when the movie finished, probably 11:30pm by the time I had finishing sobbing and my breathing had returned to normal. I found myself inspired by the slow development of the relationship between the two main characters. Suddenly I had this strong urge to start writing. Like, I needed to start writing in that moment.

I went over to my computer which was set up on a folding table in a spare space we called the “catch all” room, because it held piles of things we didn’t know what to do with. I started to google novel writing software and something called The Novel Factory came up. My eyes started to get misty again; it was EXACTLY what I needed: a step by step guide that started with a one sentence description and built from there. I purchased and immediately downloaded it, and that night I officially started to write.

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2. Inspiration

After deciding that I wanted to try writing as a creative outlet, my next step was figuring out what kind of writing. Did I want to try a screenplay? I had written a script in college as part of a screen writing class; it had been really intimidating. Could I really write a movie? But through the guidance of the class, I did manage to write a complete script.

After deciding that I wanted to try writing as a creative outlet, my next step was figuring out what kind of writing. Did I want to try a screenplay? I had written a script in college as part of a screen writing class; it had been really intimidating. Could I really write a movie? But through the guidance of the class, I did manage to write a complete script.

I didn’t want to get bogged down with all the formatting I’d need to do for the script. It had been so long, I would need to figure it all out again and I just wanted to write. Could I write a book? Through the years, I had picked up books and wondered how an author had been able to come up with so many words that they could form a whole novel. Back in college I had thought trying to write a screenplay was out of the question, so a book seemed truly impossible.

However, in my new, happier state of mind, I found myself dropping historical novels and biographies in favor of chic lit novels. I love a good romantic comedy and chic lit is often a rom com (as “the industry” would call it) in book form. I had been getting so much pleasure out of reading them, I began to wonder if I could write one myself.

So, I knew I wanted to write and quite possibly, I wanted to write a chic lit novel, but what did I want it to be about? I still needed an idea.

One night, my husband and I started watching MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and I was introduced to Henry Cavill. After we finished the movie, I looked him up in photos and interviews. Not only is he a beautiful human being, but he comes with an English accent. What more could a girl want? I started to wonder in what world a normal person could ever hope to meet and possibly date Henry Cavill. Suddenly I realized I had an idea for my book!

How would a normal person get to meet and hang out with someone like Henry? I worked as an assistant at a movie studio. We interacted with talent on our movies. They always say go with what you know, and I knew about this. I could write about this.

I was inspired! This was my story! I started having ideas, but needed some help forming them. My amazing husband started to go on long walks with me after work, to help talk out thoughts and story lines with me. He responded to my questions around love triangles and dating entanglements with thoughtful opinions.  I was so grateful that he was applying his English major and years reviewing scripts to my own story. There was absolutely no judgement in a genre that I knew held no previous interest to him.

Along those long walks, I also decided I wanted to set parts of the book in New Orleans. It was a place I had always wanted to go and I hoped if I was really going to try and write this, it would finally push me to travel there and check it out.

This inkling of an idea was starting to come together…

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1. What Makes You Happy?

It’s a lot of pressure coming up with something good for my very first blog post. Especially when this is supposed to be the all encompassing introduction to me.

Ok, here I go…

I live in Los Angeles, CA. I moved here after I graduated college in 2002. I was originally a Film Major, but I left the film industry after a few years and my career progressed to media and technology. I met my husband while we were both working in “the industry,” as people call it here. If you include dating and marriage, we’ve been together for 15 years.

I also suffer from anxiety and this is where the story really starts for me.  About 4 years ago after a health scare, a major housing issue, and a stolen identity within the span of a year, I never reset back to my version of “normal.” I was in a constant state of stress. When I was done worrying about one thing my brain looked for the next thing to stress about. It was exhausting and I rationally understood that I was worrying too much, but I didn’t know how to stop it.

In order to try and help myself, I started seeing a therapist. Early on, she asked me what should have been an easy question, “What makes you happy?” and I didn’t have an answer. I had been so consumed with establishing a career, that an ever increasing level of anxiety forced me into survival mode. I was always worrying about something. The idea that I couldn’t answer the question, “What makes you happy?” made me sad.

I tried to think about when I had last been happy. I was happy when I was in high school and college, where I did so many activities. I was lost in a world of creativity. I took ballet, participated in theater, and when I got to college, I was involved in endless student films. It was such a wonderful environment to dream something up and then go do it.

But then I graduated from college and real life started. Suddenly, I was in a career that wasn’t creative; while I worked with creative people, I was on the administrative side of things. Time had slipped by and I was so far away from making my own projects that it felt like there was no going back. If I really thought about it, my career wasn’t feeding my soul, but I had no idea what would fill that emptiness for me.

As I struggled with anxiety, I went to a new doctor for another health issue, which had become yet another anxiety trigger for me. After a complete panic attack in her office (which included tears), my new doctor said, “I’d like to talk about your anxiety.” Long story short, she ran tests and found I was lacking in vitamins that were contributing to my anxiety and she recommended a cocktail of supplements. 

It took a few months for everything to start to take effect, and when it did, clouds I hadn’t realized were there, started to part. I began to feel calmer. For the first time I could sit alone with myself and not worry. It was a new me. I didn’t know I could feel this good. Even now, writing this, I am starting to tear up. I am so grateful to my doctor and my therapist for changing my life and showing me what it meant to feel happy again.

As I begun to settle in this new version of me, past loves started to come back to mind. I really missed theater, so my husband and I started going to shows. It was a good start, but I missed being creative. I thought about what was available to me at this point in my life. Trying to get back into film projects seemed too complicated, especially because I have a full time job. I needed something that didn’t involve a lot of equipment. Then the idea of writing started to trickle into my head. I had enjoyed it in school, and all I would need was my brain and a computer.

I was going to figure out how to write something…

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