Whaaat?

I got this catalog in the mail a few days ago. I thought I read the title wrong. It seems cruel or a total joke to put, “Gear up for the best school year ever,” on the cover, followed by a reference to lunch bags and backpacks. I mean, kids aren’t even out of school yet. For those of us living in northern states, we just got leaves on the trees. We are NOT thinking about fall. Seriously, people.
catalog

I told my husband, loudly, how stupid it is to pimp back to school stuff in mid June. But I’m a big fat hypocrite. I am. I’m constantly anticipating, projecting possible outcomes. Now, if you are a writer working toward traditional publication (like me), patience is essential. If you don’t have it, you must acquire it somehow––steal some from a zen person, grow it in a jar, whatever––because there is a lot of waiting. Waiting to hear from agents. Waiting to hear from critique partners and beta readers. Waiting to hear from editors, and then, if you are very fortunate, waiting for your finished book to be released.

That said, I possess zero natural patience. I appear to have some (in an effort to be professional and not crazy), but it’s all show. My internal dialogue is that irritating kid in the backseat chanting, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” Nobody wants to hear that. Least of all, me. We’re supposed to enjoy the journey, be in the present. All easy––and excellent––advice to give, but living it is another thing entirely. Mindfulness is an elusive state for many. Elusive, but worth chasing. And I am chasing it. Really. Or I will, right after I order this cute monogrammed lunch bag for my daughter. September is only two months away, after all :)

A Sunny Day

On a Saturday morning, this happened:
SunnyDay
I watched my husband start to order the clothes back on, but then he just closed his mouth with a sigh and a smile. We stood there, watching our two-year-old run with gorgeous, giggling abandon through the grass and smothering pangs of longing to do the same thing––to dip back to the days when streaking across the yard would have earned us amused smiles, rather than a visit from the sheriff and a lecture on common decency. Oh, to be free and unselfconscious and joyous. Eventually, the diaper came off too, to be hung amongst the yellow flowers of the forsythia bush (in photo at left) and my daughter transformed into full-fledged wood nymph, complete with trailing flowers and muddy feet and shrieks of pure joy. It was beautiful to observe and a poignant reminder how magical these early days of warmth are. Plants crack through the soil, the ends of branches swell red with tightly curled leaves. It’s all proof that no matter how formidable winter can be, a new season is right around the corner, ready to fill the days with warmth and wake up all the sleeping things.

LOOK at this cover!

Isn’t it gorgeous? Of course it is. The cover gods were particularly benevolent with this one. I’m totally a little bias because this beauty is the literary fruit of my friend Romily Bernard. Remember Me is the second in a trilogy put out by Harper Teen (9/23/14) and follows the misadventures of computer hacker Wick Tate. Find Me, book 1, was un-put-downable (ooh, spell check hates every bit of that word) and I can personally attest that this sequel is even more engrossing. I was lucky enough to read an early draft, and…wow. If you’re a fan of YA thrillers with tech flavor, Romily is your girl. Plus, she’s super amazing and generous. Just sayin’. Now, go ahead and moon over this sublime cover:

Romily Bernard's  REMEMBER ME, coming 9.23.14

Romily Bernard’s REMEMBER ME, coming 9.23.14

How to be an author.

The infectious Avery Flynn in action.

The infectious Avery Flynn in action.


This weekend I attended my Maine romance writers’ conference at the Senator Inn in Augusta. Honestly, I wasn’t ramped up to go. My book’s on submission, I’m torn between a few writing projects and was in a generally hibernative (Is that a word? Spell check says no.) state. However, I had to go because I was on the committee and possessed all the name tags. I got into the spirit of it, and I have to admit, our retreat rocked. With workshops from the brilliant Judith Arnold, the spontaneous Sandy Blair and the absolutely lovely Avery Flynn, I was ready to crawl out of my den and eat some berries.

I’m going to talk about Avery (pictured in action, above), because as I sat there crunching on peanut M&Ms and trying to hold my bladder I was thinking to myself, “I want to be like her when I’m an author.” Truly. And here’s why:

At the end of the conference, when all the awards and prizes were dispensed and everyone was filtering out, Avery very quietly called over Terri, the truly stellar hotel event coordinator. Avery pulled out a promo postcard, wrote down her email address and handed it to Terri with the words, “Thank you so much. Email me, and I’ll send you a free book.” I doubt anyone witnessed this––it wasn’t meant to be noticed––or Terry’s surprised gasp of gratitude. I doubt many of us noticed Terri at all––attendees aren’t supposed to notice the event coordinator. But Avery did and her gesture amazed me. We’re sort of conditioned to worry about rights and contracts and royalty percentages and selling––God, yes, the selling––that it’s easy to forget about giving.

So that wound up being my big takeaway from the retreat. It’s not just about how you write, it’s how you act as a writer. Especially when you think no one is looking.

Avery's smexy book.

Avery’s smexy book.

Words and Music

Some people can’t write with music on, but I find the right soundtrack can clear my head and put me deep in the scene I’m writing. It strengthens my point of view, blocks extraneous thoughts and minimizes the chance I’m going to get distracted by something dumb. There’s a link, I think, between music and words, and when that right song is playing, my fingers feel obliged to keep up. A valuable tool when writing is especially difficult; when self doubt crowds the mind with rubbish. If you think about it, our brains can only do so many things at once: We can’t write and listen to music, and lecture ourselves on what hack writers we are. For me, the rubbish is jettisoned and it’s just me and the music and my words.

This song is on loop right now, the only thing making Chapter 11 of my current work in progress happen:

Chasing the black moment

This is what happened. My agent sent me the list of editors we’re subbing my book to. My sweaty fingers made smudgy marks on my computer monitor as I read each editor’s name. Over and Over. Amazing names. I’ve seen them in acknowledgment pages and on blogs and on panels. What I would give, to work with any one of them. What I would give to see this burning goal of holding my beautiful book in my hands.

I don’t like to blog about writing, because there are so very many blogs about writing that do it better than I ever could, but I’m stealing a term from commercial fiction for this post: the black moment. It’s when it appears that all is lost. It’s the moment of true despair for the hero or heroine. It also marks the turning of the tide. The change of fortune from bad to good. I’m not implying that my present moment is black. Far from it. In the past year, I’ve been a finalist in several prestigious contests, secured an amazing agent and written a new book that I’m proud of. I’m enjoying this journey. The highs have blown my mind. The lows have taught me that I’m made of sturdier stuff than I thought.

But I am ready for that turn of the tide. The shift that will turn me from aspiring writer to published author. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I hope this is my black moment. I’d be okay with that.

The. Worst. Day. Ever.

Kali, "Wiggity-Wu" and "the girlie face" 9/11/01 ~ 1/5/13

When we went to bed that night, we didn’t know that would be the last night she would sleep at the foot of our bed.

I guess that’s just the thing: we never know. I live the best life I can. I try to be good to the people I love. And even to the people I don’t. But I’m not, always. With this dog, I have no regrets. She lived a good life as a beloved member of our family. She was a very good dog; so easy to love. Her sudden passing is a reminder to me–be gentle, be soft. Slow down. Forgive.

Ah, the lessons we learn from our dogs.
Even after they’ve left us.

 

 

My querying odyssey

When I began seriously pursuing publication, I decided then and there to aim impossibly high (because I’m just masochistic like that). I wanted the same thing that many (but not all!) writers want: a big publisher, an amazing editor, a pretty book.  But in order to get through the door at those big houses that don’t accept unsolicited material, I needed an agent.

Agents are a capricious bunch. They have ever shifting wish lists and impossible-to-pin-down interests. What is an original voice, anyway? And do they really want “fresh and original?” They smile at conferences and send form rejections two weeks later. And then there’s the crush of other writers who are also querying, making the odds of signing one statistically improbable. Don’t research those numbers. You may begin to think you actually could win the Powerball Jackpot.

Despite all that, I was determined to get one. In fact, I didn’t allow myself the option of not getting one. I set my mind and decided that sooner or later, I would have an agent of my very own. If it wasn’t this book, it would be the next (or the next). Whatever. It was inevitable. It was fate.

But, fate needs help. First, I made sure my book was the Absolute. Best. Thing. I’d. Ever. Written. For real. I revised and revised and revised until I knew in my heart I could not make it better. I’m glad I took the time and did that, because those first rejections hit hard, and they hit low. It’s easy for little doubts to spiral into, “oh, why am I even bothering? This book sucks.”

It happens. That’s why “good enough” isn’t at all, good enough.

Next, I put serious time and effort into my query letter. I can’t stress this enough how important this is. It’s not fair that our entire novel is initially judged by a half-page letter, but it just is. I knew that I was increasing my odds of getting a read if I made that half-page shine. I don’t have a formula for writing these things. I still loathe query letters on a deep, fundamental level, but since they are inescapable in publishing, I was determined to write the best one possible. I started by writing one I though was good, and offering it for critique on the forums of querytracker.net and agentconnect.com to get feedback (lesson learned: not all the advice on there is good. Be choosy).

Next came the actual querying part. I also had a fairly complex method for querying so I didn’t query all my favorite agents with a query letter that wasn’t effective. Querytracker.com was invaluable. They have data for everything––query and manuscript response times, what genres an agent requests most frequently, the percentage of fulls/partials an agent requests and links to their websites/blogs. There’s a useful comment section, too, where users post their experiences, often pasting in their rejection letters so you’ll know if you’ve received a form. I set up a free account and began my list. Using the search fields, I added all the agents who repped YA, were looking for clients and were in the U.S. I researched these, checking out their blogs, looking up what books they sold, and chose my favorites. I set them aside. I didn’t want to query all my favorites straight off. What if my untested query was awful? From the whole list, I took note of the ones who replied quickly, the ones who only responded if they were interested and those who requested often. I sent out five at a time, making sure there was at least one quick responder and one frequent requester. I generally included one that I liked, too, and yes, I bombed out on a few top choice agents because they got substandard query letters. The “Rs” came hot and heavy in the beginning, so I knew I needed to tweak my query. I reworked it numerous times, and finally found a version that began getting requests with every round I sent out. That’s when my top-top choices got my query. I ended up with three offers and signed with Sara Crowe of  The Harvey Klinger Agency. Now, on to surviving the submission process!

This is what worked for me in my agent search, but it’s not everyone’s best method. The only part of my process that I think everyone should definitely follow is the part about not accepting defeat. Ever. Remember: (corny phrase alert) rejection doesn’t mean you’re losing the game. It’s proof that you’re playing it.

Here are my final query stats:
Query Statistics
Sent = 54
Requests for material = 12
Rejections = 30
(The remaining were non-responders.)

I offer free pep talks to anyone feeling down and/or considering giving up their or is confused by querytracker.com, so don’t be a stranger!

Five words…

I was a graphic designer for nine years, and while I was decent at it, no one would ever call me brilliant. I wasn’t on the right path and I knew it, but without knowing where to go, I stayed the course. Then, the newspaper industry took a hit and the paper hubby and I worked at offered “voluntary separation packages” as a prequel to layoffs. We took them. We left our jobs and lifelong home in NJ and move to Maine, for more space, less traffic, and maybe because we needed to do something bold for once. We moved into a lovely log home in a hillside development. It was our first spring up here, and we’d walk up the street to the top of the hill in the evenings, to watch the sun set over the mountains, turning the sky gold and setting the lakes on fire.

One particular evening, the couple living at the top of the hill were having a little barbeque. They stopped us as we walked by, offering a beer and a burger and a warm smile. We accepted.

“Where are you from?” The wife, Renee asked me.

“New Jersey,” I replied, and accepted the skeptical look that everyone who is not from NJ, always gives those of us who are.

She took a swig of beer. “You’re home during the day. Whenever I drive by, your car is always in the driveway.” Then, she said the words that changed my life. She leaned in close and lowered her voice to a reverent whisper. “Are you a writer?”

I’ll never forget that moment. My breathing stopped. Time stopped. There was nothing, nothing I wanted more, than to answer her, “yes.”

As much as I hated to do it, I had to say, no, I was an out-of-work graphic designer who took a buyout from a newspaper, and blah, blah. It tasted like vomit, saying those words.

The next week, I started my first book. It was about vampires and it was truly awful.

I joined RWA, got involved in my local chapter and joined a critique group. A few years later, a couple more books, writers’ conferences and online classes, I signed with a literary agent.

Renee will never know the effect of her words. I’ll never tell her that one whispered question she’s long forgotten, showed me who I needed to be. Maybe the universe sends messages that way––through random comments from random people––and it’s up to us to tune in and then do something about it. Five words did it for me. I’m happy to say that now if someone were ever to ask me if I am a writer, I can say, “yes.”

 

My meat computer is a Mac

The Meat ComputerNot too long ago, I wondered if maybe it was time to give this stupid dream of being a writer and go back to a snug, secure cubicle. I understand cubicles, having spent nine years in one. Rejection letters were coming every day, hot and heavy: “While your writing shows promise, your project isn’t a good fit…”, “Thank you for querying me, but your concept just didn’t grab me…”, etc. Rejection hurts. It just does. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t a human being.

It was during this time of self doubt that I ran across this article on the existence of free will. Neuroscientists claim that our brains are essentially “meat computers,” and any decision we make is simply the result of the wiring of our brains. We can’t make choices. We simply execute commands issued by the synapses in our brains. I have to say, the science guys made a compelling argument. Compelling enough to make me really upset.

By this reasoning, every stupid, cowardly and just plain bad decision I’ve ever made was the output of my meat computer. I stayed in that cubicle for nine years, in a state of static self-loathing, until electrical impulses in my brain lit up and said “now, we go.” That’s just depressing. Nine years of knowing I was doing the absolute wrong thing with my life but too afraid to change anything.

I figured, if I gave up and quit writing for publication, my meat computer truly was defective. I’d come so far. I’d written a book I was very proud of, revised it until I couldn’t stand looking at it and really, the rejections weren’t killing me. When it came down to it, I simply wasn’t going to stand for a substandard brain that said it was okay to quit when things got difficult––I’d done this before. It never got me anywhere.

So, I kept going. I recorded my rejections in my querytracker.com account, tweaked my query letter––again––and sent out another five. And one day, when I least expected it, an agent who I thought was miles and miles out of my league, emailed me. She loved my book. She stayed up ALL NIGHT reading it. She couldn’t stop thinking about it and wanted the chance to convince me that she was the best agent for me. Yes, that was in the email. I nearly peed myself.

So maybe there isn’t free will. And maybe there is. it certainly felt like a choice to push on, slog through all the “no’s” to get to the “yes.” Either way, I have new respect for my meat computer. I wouldn’t be here without it.