Category Archives: Deep Thoughts

An Honest Look At My Dream of Being a Novelist

I started writing my first novel about twenty years ago. It took more than half a decade to complete. Back then, I used to spend my lunch break in a tiny bookstore near my job (I worked as an administrative assistant for a busy medical practice). I’d buy the latest issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine the minute it came out. Each issue felt like a secret only I knew about. The magazine was filled with advice from authors I loved, authors who (I was convinced) had the potential to help me fulfill my dream of being a novelist–authors like Stephen King (my then-favorite writer) and Terry Brooks (my second favorite) were featured beside headlines like, “The Ten Rules Successful Writers Always Follow!”

I was about twenty-two at the time and I held on to every single copy for more than a decade. In the mid nineties, I began working as a marketing writer for a web development shop. At first, I mostly answered the phone, but occasionally I got to write actual copy. The job kept shifting until I eventually found myself in the role of Director of Internet Marketing. That was the decade I got married, the decade I learned what stock options and an IRA were, the decade I was invited to participate in meetings instead of plan lunches for them. I felt like a grown up for the first time in my life.

By then, my novel was done. A friend and fellow writer edited it for me. I incorporated her changes and submitted it to one publisher, Tor (with no agent – I’m not sure I even knew what an agent was at the time). I’d chosen Tor because my newest favorite writer, Tad Williams, had just released a book called Otherland which blended fantasy and reality together in a way I’d never seen before. So, I thought an editor at Tor would like my book which was a fantasy about Eros, the Greek God of Love screwing up at work and being forced to live among mortals until he could relearn the meaning of love.

This was written before books like Twilight and The Lightening Thief bent the rules, bringing fantastical and/or mythical characters into the present world alongside ordinary people. Tor Books publishes fantasy. They’d published Otherland. That pretty much encompassed my entire decision-making process when choosing them. I printed out my 500 page book, put it in a cardboard box with an SASE enclosed (remember those?) and hoped for the best.

Three months later I received the manuscript back with a form rejection letter. I put it in a drawer where it remains to this day. I was tired of that novel and tired of working towards my dream of being a novelist, or so I thought. Looking back, I took that rejection as proof that I wasn’t worthy of the likes of Stephen King, Terry Brooks or Tad Williams. I didn’t have a thick skin. I let one rejection beat me. I threw out all my old issues of Writer’s Digest.

I buried the dream beneath many things including a new baby and my surprise career which now involved directing a department of 4 or 5 people and traveling to various companies to pitch new business.

I wore the role of middle manager uncomfortably. I missed my baby while I was at work, plus I’d never wanted to climb any kind of corporate ladder. In fact, I hated corporate life so much that my first book was devoted to making fun of it (I’d imagined Mt. Olympus as a corporation with Zeus as a sociopathic CEO). My daughter was 4 months old on September 11th, 2001 and I watched the buildings come down on a television set in the break room of my office, then I drove home to be with her, crying all the way. I got laid off a year later after the Internet bubble imploded, and I’ve been freelancing ever since (about 14 years).

I never stopped wanting to be a novelist. I was just distracted–by becoming surprisingly successful at a job I never really wanted in the first place, by having children and, again, by finding surprising success at my own home business. I continued to write through the years, but not fiction. I blogged and wrote articles for web sites (either my own or other people’s) about a variety of topics but mostly work and parenting.

I found happiness in self-employment. I told myself writing blog posts and occasional poems was fulfilling enough for me. But, really, it wasn’t.

In 2012, my 11-year-old daughter got cancer. That became my unyielding focus and I wrote about it in a way I’d never written about anything before. Many people read that blog (it’s now offline) and followed her journey. People told me my writing was beautiful. They were riveted to every blog post and with each update, they got to know me better, they got to know my daughter. I asked for help the only way I knew how, by writing about it.

After six harrowing months of treatment and heartache, my daughter had a liver transplant. She was in remission. I saw my life clearly for the first time in years, realized I wasn’t happy with blog posts and occasional poems. I wanted to write novels, but I was afraid. That fear–crystallized by that rejection letter from Tor–that had been there all along. I’d been lying to myself. The cancer was behind us (briefly) and suddenly I realized how much damn time I’d been wasting, afraid to write because I didn’t want to fail at the one thing I’ve always wanted to do. So, I wrote my second book.

Twenty years had passed since the days when I’d eagerly bought each new issue of Writer’s Digest and dreamed of seeing my books in Barnes and Noble. I was 41 and had no connections to the literary or publishing world. All I had was the Internet, like every other aspiring writer.

And things are sure different. Border Books is gone. Tiny bookstores are also mostly gone. Amazon reigns and somehow Barnes and Noble remains. E-book readers–something I used to dream about–are now ubiquitous (I love mine) which theoretically makes reading more accessible, but the sheer volume of books published each year combined with the fact that people read less, poses a huge problem for writers. How can people find us amid the clutter of new books?

Having an agent is now mandatory to get a book in front of a traditional publisher, but the Internet makes it super easy to query agents. Agents are, therefore, inundated with queries (hundreds each week). The glut of new books being published both independently and through “The Big Five” publishers is also an obstacle, as is the disappearance (or absorption) of small publishers. Querying has itself become an art form, one that I’ve had to learn from scratch.

This is the what I came back to after that lone rejection letter drove me away. But, even so, I wrote a book–a middle grade fantasy that was 120,000 words which I soon learned was FAR too long for the age group. I split it into two books and queried, queried, queried about 30 agents. Only half responded, all with rejections (though a few had encouraging things to say about my writing). I started out determined not to let the rejections get me down, but…

It was too much for me. I took to my bed and sobbed. By then, my daughter’s cancer had returned and I wasn’t sure I would ever have the strength to pick myself up and reignite my dream. I couldn’t bear the thought of receiving one more rejection letter. So I ended up self-publishing both books (parts 1 and 2) in 2014. I didn’t sell many books, but I did learn a lot. I learned I gave up too soon. I learned I don’t have a thick skin and probably never will.

I learned that I still love writing–I still have the dream. I learned there’s nothing more important than doing what you love most in the world because time is not limitless. I learned to love my business again, because 1) I’m good at it and 2) it pays for stuff–my house, my food, my car–and because it allows me the time to write.

So where am I now? I’m working on the third revision of my fourth novel (if you include that first book I wrote twenty years ago, which I do). I’m writing it because I love to write, but I’m not going to lie–I want to make a living as a novelist. I’m not sure that’s possible, but there’s no shame in dreaming.

Every day I ask myself, “why do I write?” What is the point? Agents are over worked and cynical. Reading material is easily accessible and often free. Attention spans are shorter (thank you, Internet). My dream of writing novels in a room filled with books–hunched over my computer, my window half-open and overlooking a lake surrounded by willow trees…well, it’s as real as Hogwarts, as the Raggedy Man, as Narnia and Oompa Loompas. That is, it feels like fiction.

Often…it feels hopeless, but it also feels worthwhile. It keeps me connected to a younger version of myself, before heartache bent the shape of my life into something unrecognizable. When I die, I’ll leave a trail of words behind me and I think that means I realized a tiny bit of my dream. In the end, that’s what matters.

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The Underbelly of Querying

For many aspiring novelists, querying agents and sometimes publishers is a requirement. Most big publishers won’t accept manuscripts from unagented writers and even if they do, you’re up against a mountain of slush. It stands to reason that if your work is submitted by an agent that has a standing relationship with your dream publisher, your manuscript will rise to the top of the pile.

I started educating myself about the querying process in 2014, when I’d finished my middle grade fantasy novel, DOORWAYS TO ARKOMO. My education included reading Janet Reid’s blog QueryShark from cover to cover so I could hone my query writing skills. I also combed the archives of Writer’s Digest and basically scoured the internet for any nibble of advice or insight. That’s when I discovered that agents and publishers are extremely active on Twitter.

I started following agents, writers (indie and main stream), editors, publishers, and book cover artists – pretty much anyone I could think of that had a hand in the industry. Even with all this preparation and after months of querying roughly 25 or 30 agents, I got discouraged. Rejection is hard. I wanted people to love my book as much as I did. I wanted to stand out, but it seemed impossible when agents were Tweeting about receiving hundreds of queries each WEEK. At that point I jumped on the indie author bandwagon and set about self-publishing DOORWAYS.

Self-publishing taught me a lot, but the biggest lesson I learned from the experience was that I really, REALLY needed an agent – a navigator to help me get my books out there where they won’t sink beneath the constant influx of new indie titles (in 2014, TechCrunch reported that one new book was published on Amazon each MINUTE).

I wrote a third book – the first in a new fantasy series. By now I’d been writing books pretty much nonstop for three years, learning about the industry and also learning to be a better writer (I hope). When I “finished” my latest novel, SPIRITWOOD, I queried with a lot more confidence and a newfound resolve not to let the rejections get me down. There were a few agents I’d queried with DOORWAYS who liked my writing style and told me to query them with any new books, so I started there. Yadda, yadda, yadda, I got a couple of requests for partials or fulls, but still…no agent. After about 35 rejections, I went back and took a look at my manuscript and revised it (based on very insightful feedback from one of the agents who read the full). Then I queried a few more agents and, by chance, met a writing coach who loved my premise and wanted to see the book. I met her on Twitter, by the way…

She read the book and pointed out some major issues that she felt were fixable and we started working on revising the book back in November. I’m on my third revision and, yes, I’m discouraged that it’s taking this long and more than a bit anxious that I won’t find an agent who loves the story as much as me, but I am LEARNING. I’m learning so much about what it takes to be a successful writer. It’s work. It’s hard. Some days it feels futile, but it’s my dream. I mean, what else is there?

And this is where I want to mention a recent train wreck that started when a young agent Tweeted about a writer she’d rejected, and who had posted a very unkind blog post about her on his web site. I saw her Tweet and I knew…I just KNEW…it was going to go viral in the writing community. Essentially, she’d rejected his book via the normal querying process, but for some reason he still met with her at a writing conference where she expressed zero interest in his book, once again. He likened himself to Hemingway, so I’ll call him Mr. Hemingway going forward…

Mr. Hemingway disparaged the agent’s appearance. An older (white) man, the tone of his entire post was bitter and condescending. Why should HE have to go through HER (such a young thing), to get his brilliant book published? This wasn’t his only post either – there were many, MANY others. Mr. Hemingway was pissed and he wanted to let everyone know it. His many posts include agents names, profile pictures (creepy!), the nature of the rejection and long, soliloquies about how misunderstood he and his brilliance were.

It didn’t take agents to find his post and begin a firestorm of Twitter outrage which included some people taking screenshots of the post and reblogging it (why, people?) and others threatening to blacklist him (I don’t think he needs any help there). And this is where I really felt my breath catch in my throat, because I didn’t realize before this all started how much resentment is bubbling under the surface on both sides of the agent/writer dynamic.

And this is also when I realized that we’re in this together. It’s not writers against agents or agents against writers. We’re all just trying to make a living in the same industry. Duh, right?

As a querying writer, each day can be discouraging. Each rejection can make you question yourself. Form rejections can make you feel pretty worthless – and egos can get ruffled. I GET that, I do, but it’s not okay to be mean to agents – or anyone – because they rejected your work. I’m not saying you have to simper and bow (e.g., THANK YOU SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?), but…man…if I had to sift through 500 emails every week, I’d come up with a form letter too. Also, as much as I’d like to write whatever the hell I want to write, it’s my job to understand the market and try to write something that agents can actually sell. Yes, I may feel my creativity is stifled because I can’t write my retelling of Moby Dick from the whale’s perspective, but ultimate freedom of creativity will have to wait until I’ve established myself, it’s that simple.

When a writer like Mr. Hemingway is bitter, nasty, threatening or demeaning to agents, it makes us all look bad. To the agents out there, I’m sorry that you have to deal with that shit. He doesn’t speak for me though, or the thousands of other amazing writers who dream of getting representation.

From a querying writer’s perspective, agents can seem dismissive and uncaring, particularly when they Tweet under the hashtags #querytip and #tenqueries, complaining about how their name is mispelled or writing a snarky comment about how a book is too long or too short, etc. etc.. Writers have a lot of rules to follow and we do our best, but we’re not perfect. If you’re going to tweet tips, make them helpful, “e.g., 200,000 words is too long for a YA Romance, the industry average is 50 – 70K” or whatever. Better yet, respond to the person who queried you and THEN tweet it – because I guarantee you that 9 times out of 10, your advice will help the aspiring writer.

So, now that the smoke as cleared and we all pretty much agree that Mr. Hemingway is a huge ass and no one wants to be associated with him, let’s all have a group hug and move on. We’ve got work to do.

 

 

 

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Letting Sadness In

sadness

I saw Inside Out with my 11-year-old daughter last week because I love Amy Poehler and I doubly love pixar films. That was my purpose for going, but what I ended up seeing was something entirely unexpected – a nuanced film with an emotionally fragile character that experienced real distress. I wept, and not just because my 14-year-old (who saw the movie with a friend) recently experienced the transition that the main character in the movie, Riley, experienced (only instead of becoming uprooted from her home and friends, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer at age 11).

So, yes, it pushed a lot of buttons for me in that respect, but I also wept because the newest 11-year-old in my life still has LOTS of Goofball Island left inside her head, and I’m really going to miss it when it goes away.

goofballisland

Not that it will ENTIRELY go away, but it won’t ever be the same. She was (of course) extremely embarrassed at my tears, but once I was able to pull myself together, I realized that it was a great opportunity to talk about some of the issues that the movie brought up: the biggest one being that it’s okay to let sad in. In fact, it’s disastrous not to. We’re still getting around to having that conversation…

As far as characters go, Riley was secondary to the movie’s true characters – the emotions in her head. But even so, the movie made me think about the kinds of books I was drawn to as a child (and the kinds of characters I aspire to create in my own books).

Many of the characters that I love in children’s literature are 11 or 12 years old. Charlie Bucket was 12. Harry Potter turns 11 in the first book, right before he’s whisked away to Hogwarts. Meg Murry is 13 at the start of A Wrinkle In Time, but her trauma happened when she was 11 (the disappearance of her father). Meg’s ultimate discovery in the book? Parents can’t fix everything.

The main characters in these books are sad. Their heartache is often extreme (Charlie Bucket is desperately poor). There is a chapter in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory titled, “The Family Begins to Starve.”

charliesmellschocolate

I have an early edition of Charlie and the Chocolate factory, carried with me through the years since I was a child, and one of the defining illustrations is the drawing of a very gaunt Charlie looking absolutely blissful as he smells the scent of chocolate coming from the factory.

This is one of my FAVORITE childhood books of all time, and it’s rife with sadness. It was hugely influential in my decision to create an 11-year-old protagonist. Everything changes when you turn 11. That’s no joke. But my first book also included a different character – a girl who was terribly, painfully lonely (my own experience of being 11.)

Loneliness, isolation, fear, pain — as parents, we try to shield our children from these emotions and experiences. When they are little, it’s somewhat easy to do. But eventually, our kids learn the truth. Sometimes it comes crashing down on them all at once – the tornado that rips their world apart (Dorothy’s age is never specified in The Wizard of Oz, but a reference in one of Baum’s sequels indicates she is about 11). And sometimes it starts as just a glimpse, some sort of deep disappointment, the pain a friend is experiencing, the hurt of a lost pet…and they begin to seek out stories that embrace the very things we’ve been trying to protect them from since BIRTH.

They do this….we do this…through books and movies. The stories of Charlie Bucket, Meg Murry, Harry Potter, Grace Woodward (my character in DOORWAYS TO ARKOMO) and my newest character, Zachary Daryl Lyon not only learn that parents can’t fix everything, they learn that it’s okay to let the sadness in.  They learn that endings aren’t always happy. They learn forgiveness. They learn how to begin the healing process.

These are painful lessons and stories about characters who are in the midst of hardship are comforting. We go through so many of these traumas alone, living them inside our own minds and pretending we’re okay when we’re not. It’s just such an incredible RELIEF to connect with a character who is experiencing real pain. That’s the brilliance of Inside Out – to see for ourselves that hey, it’s not just me.

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