An exciting year ahead and five lessons from the year past

After a challenging (to say the least) 2015, I’m making changes to my writing life! Between writing and the publishing world, writers face and must learn many things––perseverance, patience, courage, and blind belief that your work doesn’t stink on a fundamental level. I guess you could say I’m taking charge, although that sounds as if I know what I’m doing––ha! I do not. I’m finding a new way forward. In January, I made some very hard decisions. Hard decisions, professionally, that are translating to better conditions, creatively.

Five things I learned over the past year:
1. The people in your life are more important than anything that happens professionally. Or anything else, really. So be nice to them.
2. It’s okay to mope around a while then things don’t go your way, so don’t be an ass to yourself––you’ll just extend the moping.
3. In order to get where you want to be, sometimes you have to take an unexpected path to get there.
4. Risks are unavoidable on any path you take. So get over yourself and take them.
5. Making loads of money writing books doesn’t make you any more or less of a writer than one who makes no money writing books. Writing books makes you a writer.

This year will be full of announcements. Yes, I’m afraid. No, I’m terrified! But if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I’m going to keep moving forward. Thank you to all of you who have cheered me on this past year! I’m grateful to each and every one of you.

Thoughts on resilience

desertgrassI’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately. After this Ask Polly post and an interesting exchange on Twitter between an agent and an aspiring writer. The agent had put up a link to an article of hers about the low odds of signing with an agent (the number of queries vs. spots on the client list) and the writer replied with something about how publishing folk should be doing more nurturing and mentoring of writers so there’s not so much fear in writing. The agent replied simply, saying that anyone who is easily discouraged has no business being a writer, an artist. Basically, if I’m interpreting correctly, the difficulty of publishing thins out the weak.

And I thought about my path, which hasn’t been easy. It’s been much harder than it appeared it would be on the outset. I got an agent fairly easily, but the book-in-my-hand has proven elusive. Four manuscripts. One sale, but the publisher closed. A number of very close calls. A maddening cacophony of crickets from editors. Yet, I’m still writing, still working, still dreaming, and somewhere in there, factors resilience. I’m not sure where the line between resilience and stubborn stupidity lies. I’m not sure there is a line, or if it’s a some mushy gray space that shifts around depending on how insane the writer is.

Sometimes, I think the near misses and fatal errors that have marked my publishing career is the universe trying to tell me to give up. “You’re a talentless hack who will NEVER be published,” whisper the stars. “You’ll never be more than what you are. Your words will never touch anyone.” But then my imagination conjures a scene of me telling the tale of this long, difficult journey I took before being published. Of the many nights I went to bed contemplating my failure. Of the countless times I imagined quitting writing to do something else. Something easier. But no, I kept going, kept writing stories that pushed me, challenged me, made me doubt my ability to execute them properly. I kept going, and I published. I made it to that’s-my-book-on-a-shelf and succeeded at the hardest job I’ve had aside from parenting (which is harder). It’s a great story and one I will never be able to tell if I don’t keep at it. So I guess my resilience comes from a story I yearn to tell. One I cannot tell, until it becomes the truth.

An Island Adventure

For a long time now, I’ve been itching to visit Seguin Island (pronounced Sae-gin), a rocky blip off the coast of Bath, Maine, about 3 miles out to sea. Last week, we finally went. A thirty-minute ferry ride from Fort Baldwin will take you to this tiny island. There’s really nothing to the place. It has a lighthouse on it. It’s a nice lighthouse. We didn’t visit it. We walked the trails, which is a quick thing to do, but when you stand on the southern end of this little island, the only thing you see is the Atlantic and the curve of the Earth. You feel like you’re on the edge of the world.
Seguin1
Seguin hasn’t changed since colonists arrived. And those folks didn’t do much to it for the brief time they were there, so when you walk the rocky shoreline, you walk someplace not messed up by people. An overlooked place. An isolated place. Writing is an isolating endeavor. The longer I live this writers life, the more I seek out the overlooked, lost things in this world. They make me feel things out of the everyday set. They make me just a little bit better at what I do when I sit down to write. I looked at the other people on our tiny ferry and couldn’t help but wonder what brought them there. I know what brought me.
Seguin2

How the deal went down

I said I’d give a more detailed account about how my publishing deal came about. Honestly, I couldn’t do it right away. It was one of the most intense things that’s ever happened to me. It was scary. It was surreal. I had become pretty accustomed to coming thisclose, or not close at all. I understood rejections. I had solid coping mechanisms in place for them. I did not expect “yes” to be as stressful as a really bad “no.” So I needed some time to pass. For a shocking wave of oh-my-god-someone’s-going-to-PAY-me-so-if-my-book-flops-I’ll-be-failing-all-these-publishing-people anxiety to pass. I have since gotten a grip. Sort of. I’m still scared, but hopeful, too. I love my book. I am tickled fuchsia that the team at Egmont USA loves it, too.

Now, every publisher has different procedures. Some move faster. Some move slower. Two writers at the same publisher may have an entirely different experiences.  There’s a lot of factors involved that affects the pace of a publishing deal. This is how it went down for ME.

3/14/14: The Black Bird of the Gallows goes on submission to nine editors. Silence.
5/1/14: Add three more editors to the submission list.
5/15/14: I send a slightly ranting email to my agent, wondering why I haven’t received a rejection yet. I want a rejection, damnit!
5/19/14: Agent replies with soothing, reassuring words. Then mentions that it’s going to an editorial meeting at Egmont. I relax a little, try not to get excited. Editorial meetings are just step one.
5/22/14: Book passes muster at editorial meeting. It will be discussed next at the marketing meeting the following Tuesday. Now, I begin to get hopeful. I also make the error of thinking this “marketing meeting” is the acquisition meeting, so when Tuesday comes and goes, I’m convinced it got shot down. Agent reminds me that this is BEA week and they are likely focussed on that. I suddenly hate BEA. The. Suspense Is. Killing. Me.
Dr. Who stress photo: dr who please tumblr_m4rw5cRY0M1qbl202.gif“>
6/10/14: Message that marketing liked it and it will be presented at the pub (acquisition) meeting the following day, but not to worry, it “will go through swimmingly.” We are told the P&L will be done ASAP. Oh My GOD!!!!! My agent begins to alert the other publishing houses who have it that an offer is coming. I do obsessive and repetitive google searches on what a P&L is  (profit and loss statement––YOU look it up). I start to experience night sweats.
6/16/14: I again harass my agent for news (which she doesn’t have) because I cannot help myself.
6/18/14: Confirmation that an offer is coming. Hopefully by Friday, which is in two days. Plus, there is interest from another editor. Aaaah!
 photo Kermit-dancing.gif

6/20/14: Email from agent that she needs to talk to me but can’t reach me. Yes, technical troubles after I’ve worn my phone like an extra limb for the past month. Finally, THE CALL. The actual call. There is an offer. (Wow, writing this, reliving that moment, is making me tear up.) I actually leaped into my husband’s arms. If it hurt, he didn’t tell me.
6/26/14: Offer accepted, after some negotiating by my intrepid agent.
7/10/14: Deal announced in Publisher’s Weekly. I cry a little, seeing it there. I’ve gazed at countless weekly “Deals” page, longing for the day my announcement would be in there. And now it is. I feel like I could totally do this:
Legolas photo: Legolas LOTR-mumakil-reallyally.gif“>

For the rest of my life, I will remember getting that call. There are only a few times I recall being that happy. That unbelievably over the moon. I’d achieved a milestone I was beginning to think would never happen. BTW, the other editor ultimately stepped aside because my book has paranormal elements and her house is only seeking contemporary. Rereading my stress-fueled emails to my agent just now was painful. Gad, I sounded like a nut. But I learned about myself and will implement the next time I am on submission: I do not want to know what is happening every step of the way. I thought I did, but all that happened is I went bat-shit crazy for about a month. My family didn’t enjoy that. In the future, I will tell my agent to tell me nothing, unless we have an offer. Ignorance is not bliss, but in this case, it is sanity. So there it is. The highlights and the lowlights and everything in between. Live well, write on! And do some of this:
Dr. Who stress photo: Do the Dr. Dance tumblr_likhw0LDZO1qcldz4.gif“>

Sold!

I’m happy to announce that I’ve sold my YA horror, The Black Bird of the Gallows to Egmont USA! I like so much about this publisher––and I know a great deal about them because I am very good at searching for things on the internet. Meg does research 🙂

Anyhow, the book will be out in early 2016––in hardcover, people!!––and I’ll share the stuff that comes between then and now. More later, but here is the link to my official announcement!

 

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:

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.”