Embracing Imperfection

by Robin Constantine

A few months ago I attended a local Paint Nite with my sister. If you’re not familiar with Paint Nite, the skinny is this: A group of people get together at a local restaurant/bar & grill to drink adult beverages and follow along with an instructor to paint a masterpiece of their own. Sounds kind of fun, right? To be honest, my inner teen rebelled at the idea. Organized frivolity? Um, totally cringey. Older, wiser me wanted to simply create without judgment and chill. Something I rarely, if ever, allow myself to do.

On the Paint Nite website, you can type in your zip code and find events near you that feature paintings of varying degrees of difficulty. My sister and I agreed on a picture called “Let Your Light Shine” and paid our entry fee. We arrived about half an hour early, ordered up some sauvignon blanc from the bar and picked out our work space. Two seats, close to the front, so we could have a good view of the painting we were going to recreate.

Voila.

Easy, right?

Once we figured out how to tie our green artist aprons, we were given small palettes with splotches of red, blue, and black. (White and yellow came later.) The instructor turned up the classic rock, picked up her thickest paintbrush and launched right into masterpiece creation 101. Staring at my own blank canvas was daunting. I hesitated before committing to mixing a background color. I’m a perfectionist, so I really wanted to match the color of the original, even though the instructor was all about putting your own stamp on it.

We all know what perfection does to creation, right? In the words of the inimitable Ginger Spice … (via Brainyquote.com):

Yep. Paint Nite was bringing out that creative demon that relishes reminding me my work is, well, imperfect trash. This was supposed to be fun, and there I was fretting over “getting it right.” I took a sip of wine and forged ahead. We only had so much time for each section of the picture before we had to wave our canvases over our head in time with the music to help the paint dry faster. (cue inner teen eye roll) My background wasn’t exact, but it would have to do … then onto the branches.

Again, I fretted about the color, the thickness of the branches, the shape of the leaves. Who did I think was going to see this? It’s not as if I was gunning for The Frick Collection, but to that part of me that has trouble letting go and enjoying the process, it felt like I was. At one point, while the ladies next to me enthusiastically belted out “Living on a Prayer” and painted with a careless fervor I secretly envied, my fist clenched with artistic angst.

Why am I so uptight?

It’s a question I ask myself all the time during first draft. I envy those writers who say first draft is their favorite part of the process. Mine is revision — that’s when I play. For me there’s something very freeing about having words on the page. First drafts make me nervous — a blank canvas. Instead of getting excited about all the possibilities, I focus on the million different ways I could screw it up. Older, wiser, l’artiste moi, KNOWS it’s about the journey. That part of the fun of creation is the discovery. When had I lost that playfulness?

This is what no one tells you.

Under deadline, it’s difficult to be playful and appreciate the journey.

It’s not impossible, of course. I’ve done it — hit that gorgeous time-bending sweet spot when the writing comes effortlessly and you look up and four hours have passed. Some days, though, it feels like a race against the clock to hit a word count. I know that sounds clinical and devoid of joy but sometimes it’s also necessary. While the creative demon of perfectionism can be oppressive at times, it fuels me to produce, makes me strive to work harder, take risks, and meet deadlines. There’s a fine line between being driven by your demons and being defeated by them. I’ve learned to embrace the struggle, but it’s an ongoing process. I didn’t think it would rear its gnarly head at Paint Nite though.

I’ll admit to gritting my teeth as I tried to get the exact curvature of the hanging mason jars. The final touch was the words on the jars and the fireflies surrounding the trees. The instructor encouraged us to use a different phrase or names of family members. I had to take a few deep breaths, allow myself to relax — going off book? Gah!! I liked the simple “Let Your Light Shine,” so I stuck with that. After I was finished, I peeked at the canvas of one of the women who’d been singing and laughing while she painted. It looked nothing like the original picture. The colors were off. The mason jars were ROUND! She’d put her kids initials on each jar! And yet, it was still beautiful and most definitely her own.

Here is my finished product … be nice. 😉

On our way out of the bar, we passed a table of people who were just finishing up their dinner. They were curious about all the laughter they’d heard in the back room and wanted to see what we’d been up to. Some of us passing by held up our canvases. We were greeted with polite smiles and nods. No “Nice” or “Great work.” Just … amused looks. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was that feeling of having created something just for enjoyment, but their lack of a positive response didn’t bother me.

In spite of having to tamp down that perfectionist voice several times during the night, I actually had … dare I say it … fun. I like to create without worrying about its worth, to lose myself in play. I had started with a blank canvas and turned it into something that kind of resembled three mason jars hanging from a tree.

A friend of mine once talked about admiring a certain piece of pottery because she could really see the “hand” of the artist in it. I’d never thought of seeing art that way. It turns what might seem clumsy to the eye into something more profound.

Imperfection lets you see the hand in the handiwork.

Imperfection is what makes creative work unique.

Imperfection is you.

Are you a perfectionist with your creative endeavors? How do you deal with it?

That’s Great Advice!

Welcome to the September edition of Ask the Sweethearts! Before we begin: Congratulations to Katrina, a.k.a. Bookish Kat, winner of our Instagram giveaway of Darcy Wood’s Summer of Supernovas! Many thanks to all who entered and to all who follow us on IG!

Now, for this month’s question: What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Robin Constantine: I love reading craft books and talking to other writers about their process! I’m constantly collecting tips and strategies to improve my writing. It’s hard to pinpoint the best writing advice because I think my needs change with each project. One of my recent favorites comes from Ingrid Sundberg’s vlog — Ingrid’s Notes. Ingrid is the author of the YA novel All We Left Behind, and if you haven’t subscribed to her channel, you should. It’s a virtual treasure trove of writing gems and she is super inspiring! In her vlog post, Creating Your Own Writing Philosophy, she talks about trusting yourself and using what works for YOU, as opposed to thinking there’s only one way to write and if you have problems working that way you’re a failure. I love that! It’s a very freeing way to look at the creative process!

Darcy Woods: I’ve been incredibly fortunate to get great advice from so many generous souls in this industry. “Keep your eyes on your own paper,” has always been a perennial favorite of mine. This simple phrase (that you probably heard on repeat in elementary school) does the job of succinctly reminding writers not to use others’ “success” as a measuring stick for their own. Does it sound easy? Perhaps. But it isn’t. Because it goes against our human nature to compare, which inevitably pulls us down that dark, spiraling suckhole of despair. I think Teddy Roosevelt really nailed it when he said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” So stay joyous! And maybe invest in some horse blinders to wear along the way.

Erin Fletcher: The best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me went something like this: “If you’re bored writing it, the reader will be bored reading it.” That applies so often when I find myself stuck writing a boring scene where I’m just waiting for the next big thing to happen. Chances are good that my readers (if they haven’t abandoned the book yet!) are waiting too, so why not just jump to that next big thing right now? The advice taught me not to waste my time or my readers’ time. It taught me to include what’s truly important in the book and to let the rest go.

Karole Cozzo: I’ve received so many tidbits of advice over the past few years, all of which has shaped my experiences positively, but I tried to pick something that is extremely practical and hopefully useful to aspiring authors out there: When seeking publication, follow the rules. As an unpublished author, I believed it was “okay” that I was querying YA manuscripts that were around 120k in length. I believed that querying a trilogy was a good thing, because I had more “product” to offer a publisher. I kept running into the wall, hoping an exception would be made for me, even though YA novels are most typically much shorter, and very few agents/publishers are eager to take a chance on ONE book from an unknown, let alone three! I finally achieved success (aka published my first novel) when I told myself: “Okay, you’re going to sit down and work within the framework you know exists. You’re going to write a stand alone novel within the typical word range and start there. You may have other aspirations and ideas, but until you start playing by the rules, they’re not going to let you into the game.” I’m glad I finally listened to this advice I’d heard many times instead of thinking I could work around it when I was so green. And I think it’s important for all hopeful authors to keep in mind when submitting.

Stephanie Scott: This is more editing advice: To get a fresh look at my writing, I load the draft into my ereader where I can’t edit. I have to resist the urge to tweak and fine tune while getting an overview of the story. It also helps to change to a different font for reading than I use for writing to get a new feel for the words. I’ve only just started this, but you can have Microsoft Word read text aloud. Hearing your own words back highlights so many inconsistencies.

Linda Budzinski: “You must have tension on every page.” Early on in my writing training, I took a series of workshops with mystery writer Noreen Wald. She was full of fantastic advice, but this is the gem I remember best, perhaps because she would say it every week, and she’d pound the table with the palm of her hand four times as she said it. “You must have tension on every page.” This advice is critical for mysteries, and it’s true for YA romance as well. A page without tension is lifeless. It fails to engage the reader and pull them along. The tension can be external or internal, but it has to be there. On EVERY page.

What about you? What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? Share in the comments! xoxoxo

Roundup: Such a Tease

Everyone hates a tease … unless it’s for a great book! This week we’re sharing teasers from Sweethearts books. Some are already published and others are our current works in progress.

But first, an announcement! Congratulations to Stephanie Scott, whose short story, “Meant to be Broken,” appears in the YA adoption-themed anthology, WELCOME HOME, out next week from Flux Books!

Which leads us to our first teaser….

Stephanie Scott: This is from “Meant To Be Broken,” from  WELCOME HOME:

Five years of nothing, and now this. Five years of no answers and empty Facebook search results, and then my childhood best friend Becca showed up in a box overflowing with unfiled paperwork.

This was crazy. I was staring at a file in an adoption agency. Becca already had a family. What was her name and information doing here?

Her name in bold font, Rebecca Sampson, marched across the top of a form with the Little Hands Adoption Agency logo. My heart stuttered, caught somewhere between exhausting itself and failing entirely. I’d been focused on logging my National Honor Society volunteer hours by sorting through boxes in the agency’s neglected storeroom. Grunt work easy enough to hand off to a student. I’d never expected to, you know, recognize anyone. A photo slipped onto my lap. A twelve-years-old Becca stared back. Stringy brown hair, a smile hinting at mischief, and tanned skin from a summer tearing up the neighborhood on our bikes. My Becca.


Darcy Woods: These are the opening lines from my current work in progress, SMOKE, which is a YA contemporary with a secondary romance plot line.

Sometimes you feel the whisper of a storm before it hits. Smell the tang of ozone as it punctuates the air. Watch the once lifeless hair on your arms rise like the dead. The energy, the charge, it becomes a real and palpable thing.

But other times, like tonight, you sense nothing.

No whisper.

No warning.

And it’s of little consequence to the storm whether or not you’re prepared. Because either way, it’s coming.

Lightening carves jagged marks across the sky. My attic bedroom explodes with brightness. I squeeze my eyes tight, willing the storm to pass. Praying for it to pass. But the foreboding zigzag pattern lingers behind my eyelids, killing those fragile hopes. My pulse gains speed.

One-Mississippi. Two-Mississippi. Three-Mississippi . . .

I get all the way to seven-Mississippi before the deafening crash. Thunder punches like a fist through the atmosphere, pounding against the earth. The powerful echo carries inside my body, reverberating through every limb.

By my count the storm’s a mile away and closing in.


Erin Fletcher: This is an excerpt from ALL LACED UP,  out now from Entangled Crush.

At the very last second, instead of turning one way or the other, she turned her skate blades hard, coming to a stop just before hitting the boards, facing me, eyes closed, bracing for impact. I threw myself into a stop, too, throwing ice shavings everywhere.

Could I have stopped before pinning her to the boards? Yes. Did I? No. I stayed with my skates trapping hers on either side, our bodies touching at knees and hips. Her chest was rising and falling rapidly, breaths warm against my chest, but there was a smile on her face, all traces of worry over her test completely gone. Success.


Linda Budzinski: This is the opening of my work in progress, THE BOYFRIEND WHISPERER 2.0 (a sequel to THE BOYFRIEND WHISPERER, published in November by Swoon Romance).

I sink back into the booth and rub my temples. Not sure whether this headache is from my mango smoothie or the fact that my ex just strolled into the Juice Joint with his arm around Becca Marsh.

My two best friends, Maggs and Brie, give me a look.

“What is this, his third girlfriend since you two broke up?” Brie curls her lip. She’s never been a Ty Walker fan. “That boy has commitment issues.”

Maggs points her straw at me. “His problem is, you’ve ruined him. He can’t find anyone else who measures up to the fabulous Alicea Springer.”

I smile in spite of the pickax piercing my head. “Yeah. I’m sure that’s it.”

Ty is everything I could ever want in a boyfriend. Athletic, super cute, and really, really, really smart. He’s this season’s leading scorer for the Grand View High School soccer team. He’s applied for early action to Harvard, Princeton, and Penn. He’s amazing, and he’s the perfect guy for me. Well, except for the whole dumping-me-a-week-before-junior-prom thing.


Robin Constantine: This is taken from THE SEASON OF YOU & ME, out now from Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins.

BRYAN

Later, when the sun finally set, we gathered out front to watch the fireworks display that my dad and Owen put on every year. It wasn’t as big as the ones near the beach, but they did have enough artillery shells and repeaters to make it impressive. Cass was busy helping Hunter catch fireflies, a huge grin on her face as she closed her palms around one. She opened her hands to let Hunter take a peek.

I knew Cassidy Emmerich was a summer girl. Tori was right – she’d be gone at the end of the tourist season, but as I sat there watching her, I didn’t care. I liked her. I did. There was something about Cass when she didn’t realize anyone was watching her. I saw it when she helped the kids in camp, when she laughed with Jena at the pool in the morning, and now with Hunter. And in that moment, as she held out her hand to let the firefly loose, I realized that I didn’t care whether she was in Crest Haven for four minutes, four hours, four days or four weeks. I wanted to be in Cassidy’s life, to know her, and whatever time we had, it would have to be enough.


Karole Cozzo: My teaser is from THE GAME CAN’T LOVE YOU BACK, scheduled for publication in May 2018 by Swoon Reads.

My hands are at my side, but no matter how hard I clench them… it does nothing. It doesn’t cut off the feelings the way I want it to.

And if I’m being at all honest with myself, nothing I’d tried over the weekend had kept them from tormenting me either . I still ended up… time after time… reliving the conversation on the bus with him, replaying his words. Remembering how… okay, how good he looked all dressed up like that, how he looked even better when he untucked his shirt, and turned his hat around. Like an MLB player getting off the bus from a road trip, which is pretty much the height of hotness.

Replaying that moment in the parking lot, when our hands touched, when he winked at me. Sure, it’s probably a practiced move of his but yet… it didn’t seem like Jamie was putting something on with me.

I stare out the window and swallow hard. I draw my fist up to my mouth and end up biting down on a knuckle, knowing that after today there will be even more moments to replay, more sensations to squelch. After being pressed into that dark corner with him, his body making contact with mine, conjuring thoughts of kissing.

Suddenly, I’m full-on nauseous, because the valve isn’t working, and as much as I want to, I can’t play dumb.

I know what that obnoxious combination of pleasure and heartache is… I know it’s a crush.

My shoulders collapse as I finally acknowledge it, my eyes going skyward toward the clouds that pass in a blur.

Dear Lord, please spare me the indignity of having a crush on Jamie Abrams.

So what do you think? Would you read on? Do you have a teaser you’d like to share? We’d love to read it in the comments! xoxoxo

Contest: Eclipse Version

All this talk of the sun and moon this week has the Sweethearts feeling swoony and starry-eyed, so for our August contest, we are giving away a copy of SUMMER OF SUPERNOVAS, the (two time!) RITA-nominated YA romance by Darcy Woods.

We’re also switching things up a bit and running this giveaway through our Instagram account. So make sure you’re following us on Instagram and head on over to our contest post to read all the rules and enter!

Contest ends August 31 and the winner will be announced September 6. Good luck! xoxoxo

Shani Petroff: Giving the Gift of YA Love

This month’s guest author is Shani Petroff, author of the 2017 YA romance ROMEO & WHAT’S HER NAME and the soon-to-be released Christmas novel, MY NEW CRUSH GAVE TO ME. This fun rom-com is about a girl who thinks she knows who she wants for the holidays … until his annoying but (we’re guessing here) super-cute cousin comes along and RUINS CHRISTMAS! Ahahaha, just kidding, he (guessing again) makes Christmas the hap-happiest season of all!

What gave you the idea to write this novel?
I was talking with my editor and the director of Swoon Reads about doing a holiday book, and memories of doing a Secret Santa popped into my head. I was part of a theater tour, and we were traveling around the country. Like Morgan in the book, I thought doing a Secret Santa would be a lot of fun! The rest of the cast humored me and said okay. We ended up having a great time, and I was a pretty good gift giver, if I do say so myself. 🙂

What’s your writing process? Are you a plotter? Pantser? Plotser (hybrid of both)?
It depends on the project. I do tend to like detailed outlines; however, I didn’t use one for MY NEW CRUSH GAVE TO ME. I plotted it in my head, and then worked with a calendar. The events of the book happen in about a month. There’s a lot of gift giving and events that take place (i.e., Christmas, the Secret Santa exchange, a party), and I wanted to make sure the order and timing was right, so I marked on the calendar when everything happened, and then wrote chronologically.

How do you choose character names?
I think picking names is fun! I get them from everywhere—people I know, Facebook, racking my brain, and even TV. I was watching the reality show Big Brother during the drafting stage of MY NEW CRUSH GAVE TO ME and ROMEO & WHAT’S HER NAME—and names like Cody, Jace, and Zakiyah (all people on the show) made their way into my books.

How many books have you written, and how many have seen the light of day?
I’ve written 11 books (not counting little ones I wrote for fun when I was young). Come May, eight of them will be published. The first book I wrote got positive feedback but never sold. As I was waiting to hear back from my then-agent about what she thought about my next book, I started book number three. Book three sold on proposal, and I put number two on hold. (I’m not sure if I’ll go back to it or not, but you never know!) I do have one other book that I finished (I did it while I was between projects), that I may try to do something with someday, but I have a few other ideas that I’m hoping to try first!

Do you have any tips for beginning writers?
Stick with it! It’s easy to get discouraged, but if you love writing, push through the tough times. We all have those moments, but it’s how you handle it that’s defining. And just think, if you were to write a page a day, you’d have a full book in less than a year.

Fabulous advice! Now on to the speed round!

  • Alpha males vs. sensitive types: A combo!
  • Red roses vs. blue violets: Red roses
  • Sweet vs. savory: Sweet
  • Morning glory vs. night owl: Definitely a night owl
  • Wizards vs. vampires: Wizards

Thanks so much and good luck with your Christmas book! Here’s where readers can find Shani:

Website * Twitter * Instagram

Shani Petroff is a writer living in New York City. She’s the author of the “Bedeviled” series, which includes Daddy’s Little Angel, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Dress, Careful What You Wish For, and Love Struck, and is the co-author of Ash. She also writes for television news programs and several other venues. When she’s not locked in her apartment typing away, she spends a whole lot of time on books, boys, TV, daydreaming, and shopping online.