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.

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!