Do You Hear Yourself?

speakerI recently participated in an online writing summit, with the opportunity to hear from multiple authors, agents and media speakers. One of the key pieces was a chance to have a query letter critiqued by an agent. As I’m not seeking an agent, I almost dismissed the opportunity, but decided to pull together a draft for my next book anyway. It was partly a writing exercise for myself and partly a way to gather my pitch and ideas for the book.

In the end, I was pretty happy with the letter. It covered genre, word count, main character, inciting incident, and stakes. It included historical details and a bio to show I’m the right person to write it. After a few tweaks, I sent it off for some feedback.

The live critique session took place while I was traveling, so I couldn’t listen in but, thankfully, it was recorded. When I tuned in yesterday, I was happy to hear that my query letter was the first to be read.

And read. And read.

The further the moderator got into my letter, the more I cringed. It was way too long. How did I not notice this before sending?

So many times I come back to this, a lesson I was taught (but clearly often forget) in my very first poetry class: always read your work out loud. Had I done that, I would have heard all the unnecessary details I could have removed before sending the query.

Am I disappointed to have subjected an agent to my long-winded letter? No. Because it served as a lesson to other participants, a reminder to myself, and it set up the letters that followed mine in the critique session to shine brighter. (Because really, who wants to have their work follow something perfect?)

I’m in the midst of revisions on my first book now, and have pasted a prominent post-it note to myself: Read Your Work Out Loud. It’s by far the easiest way to prevent cringe-worthy work from seeing the light of day.

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A Champion In My Corner

tandemA funny thing happened on my way to publication: writing stopped being a solitary pursuit. Yes, getting the words down on paper every day is still entirely up to me, but I no longer fear I’m the only one who will ever care about them.

I should clarify. My critique partners care, too. Of course they do. They are always thoughtful in their reading and helpful in their edits. Their feedback on my words (which they read over and over again these past few years, by the way) is what helped me finally secure an agent, to reach this next plateau. They. ROCK. But they also have day jobs, families, laundry, plumbers to call, vacations to plan, and their own writing. You see where I’m going with this?

For the first time in my career, my writing is *someone else’s job* as well as mine. I know my agent has a lot of clients, and she works for all of them. That’s what’s so amazing. Even when I’m tending to other things, someone is still trying to get my book published. It’s not all on me anymore. We’re a team. She can focus on one book while I’m writing another. How many days (weeks?) did I spend writing, editing, cataloguing and updating the status of dozens of query letters? Or researching literary agencies? Or reading craft books and articles so I could make my book better and more likely to find a home?

How many times have I wished I could clone myself so that I could spend all that time writing instead?

That’s what I mean. Now I’ve got help. A partner. A champion. Someone who loves my story as much as I do.

No, the publishing industry doesn’t move nearly as fast as the cyclists in this picture. But my agent and I are moving through it together, and that fact alone has renewed my energy. Some days, just knowing she’s there makes a difference. And some days, that difference is everything.

How I Got My Agent

agentFirst off, I should state that this is not a how-to post. As you’ve likely heard in the publishing industry, everyone’s journey is different. Here’s how mine went down.

Four years and eleven months ago, I started a book of historical fiction. I researched it for a year and wrote it for another year and loved it. I began querying in early 2015. At first, I got form rejection letters, so I re-worked my query. Then I began getting requests, and subsequent rejections. I received an R&R (revise and resubmit) from an agent, did the revision, resubmitted and got a rejection. I put the book away for a while and started a new one. But I kept getting pulled back to the first one because I loved the story so much. I overhauled the whole thing on and off during 2016, and began querying again in the beginning of this year. I received many requests for the full manuscript, but still no offers.

A long-time critique partner suggested over the summer that I enter my manuscript in the #PitchWars contest that takes place every August. I had read about the contest last year and didn’t quite understand how it worked, so I didn’t enter. This year, I scanned the website, found a mentoring author who was only looking for historical fiction submissions, and I decided to give it a try. She received over 100 submissions.

She picked mine.

While I screamed and cartwheeled, my mentor read through my manuscript and then sent me a thirty-eight page, single-spaced editorial letter. That floored me for a couple of days. I fully acknowledge that I grumbled and cried over it. But once I let go of my ego and absorbed her input, I put my butt in the chair and, for the next three weeks, did little else but overhaul my manuscript with her notes and guidance. A week after that, when she’d given it a second read, she had more suggestions. I got back to work for another two weeks.

On November 1, the agent showcase opened on the #PitchWars website. When it closed a week later, I had nine requests from agents for the manuscript. NINE! I had asked for an extra week to finish my second round of edits, and worked diligently toward that home stretch.

At 3pm on November 15, I submitted my full manuscript to eight agents, the first 50 pages to the ninth (per request) and a cold query to another agent I’ve admired for years.  She immediately asked for the full, and I sent it. Figuring it would take them all several weeks to get back to me, I exhaled and thought, “thank goodness, I can finally clean my house and catch up on my laundry”.

At 9:30 that night, I got an email from Ann Leslie Tuttle at DG&B. She’d been excited to read since she saw my pitch, told me so when I submitted the materials, and now wrote, “I haven’t finished reading, but I’ve read enough to know I want to have a call with you.”

6.5 hours. That’s got to be some kind of record.

I gave the other agents until after Thanksgiving to read, and in the end, signed with Ann Leslie. Her enthusiasm for my book rivaled my own, her excitement over my other projects was palpable and I felt like I’d found a true partner with whom to embark on this often rocky and challenging journey toward publication. With luck, my book will be out on submission exactly five years after I sat down to start writing it. All told, I had racked up 100 rejections before signing with Ann Leslie.

Do I wish it hadn’t taken so long? Sure. If you’d told me that first day that it would be five years before I’d find an agent, would I have decided against writing it? No, because I believed in the story I had set out to tell. I can also say without reservation that both my story and my writing skills are stronger for having gone through the process they did.

As I said, everyone’s journey is different. The one thing that is true in this business is that it takes perseverance, passion for your story, a willingness to learn and a bit of luck to get an agent. I never stopped believing in my story, and I never gave up on my goal of securing an agent. I’ve learned more about the publishing industry and myself as a writer than I ever knew before, and I was lucky enough to have a critique partner nudge me in a direction she thought would help me succeed.

Don’t give up. Don’t stop writing. And godspeed on your journey.

Charting A Course

chartacourseAll summer long, my sights have been set on August. That was when my firstborn would be heading off to college, so getting him ready (and myself emotionally prepared) for the trip, the move, the change was a large part of my summer. After writing, that is. August arrived.

Week 1: Finished filling out required college forms, shopped like a madwoman for bins, gadgets and other last minute necessities for big bird about to fly the coop. Also entered #PitchWars for the first time with a manuscript I’ve loved since I first conceived of it. Promptly forgot about #PitchWars.

Week 2: Toted big bird to various appointment to get all necessary teeth, eye and medical checkups in before school year began. Also tended to little bird, home with a cold and fever.

Week 3: Hauled big bird and all his stuff to school, got him settled, drove home and promptly caught little bird’s cold and fever. Lost my voice. Also got notified that I was picked by my number one mentor choice in #PitchWars. Was certain it was sickness-fueled delusion.

Here we are in Week 4. I was in fact picked by the wonderful Jenni L. Walsh to be mentored, and I’ve already got some notes from her about my manuscript. Unfortunately, I’ve also got half a brain (thanks, congestion) and no revision plan to speak of. I’m dead on my feet, and when I do have any energy, it vacillates between exhilaration at being picked, and panic at having no idea how to proceed.

I’ve learned that this is where the beauty of the #PitchWars community really shines through. There’s a special Facebook group, supportive Tweets and blog posts to help me and all the other mentees in addition to the help we’re getting from our mentors. 

*exhale*

The panic is starting to ebb.

When I come out of this germ-induced fog, I’m probably going to fully come to grips with the fact that my baby is gone to college. I’ll have a good cry about it and send him a bunch of mushy texts. I’ll take the rest of that journey a day at a time.

Then I’m gonna pour myself some Prosecco, do a little happy dance about Pitch Wars and get down to work. I might not have a plan yet, but in addition to  my mentor, I’ve now got a whole tribe of folks rooting me on and offering assistance. And I know that with their help, I’ve got this.

Back to Basics

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The past few weeks I’ve been struggling with one of my sons to manage his schoolwork. It’s the end of the year, so I get the whole spring fever thing. But he’s taken these classes all year and knows what’s expected of him. Why, then, was I suddenly getting emails from teachers about missing assignments, tests not corrected and signed and returned, slipping grades? In the past, I’ve seen a big leap in maturity growth in my younger son around this time of year. But lately, he seemed to be sticking his head in the sand and avoiding responsibility at all costs. He’s been having trouble getting to sleep at night too, and has been cranky and snippy with me. What the heck was going on?

Admittedly, I’ve been much more hands-off with my high school senior. Helping to plan the college-prep aspects of his life have been the focus of my time with him: looking for a roommate, planning for course selection and orientation, shopping for a computer. He loves his classes this year, is managing the work fine and getting great grades. It’s likely why the stark difference in his brother’s efforts has been so much more frustrating.

Then I realized that maybe all the planning with the Heir is part of the problem I’m having with the Spare. The boys have become very close this year, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s starting to sink in that our little nest will soon have one less bird in it. The idea of such a change must be overwhelming for my younger one.

This week at bedtime, I decided to try an experiment. I pulled out some old children’s stories and asked my youngest if I could read to him. He agreed, and as I started the first Dr. Seuss story, he said, “I feel like I’m six.” I asked if he wanted me to stop and he adamantly said “NO”. We’ve now gone through all of his old favorites, with only a couple left on the shelf, and I’m planning to go to the library this weekend to find a few more. My son’s been falling asleep earlier and staying asleep all night since we started this experiment, and I’m hoping to soon see a change in temperament and efforts elsewhere.

When I started writing my current book, I was determined to find a leaner, more efficient way to write it. My last book took as long to research as it did to write and revise, so I set out to start writing without doing all of the research up front. But the story wasn’t going anywhere. I’d written a few nonlinear scenes, and then got stuck. It turns out I can’t write without researching first. I need to get to know my characters before I can begin to bring them to life on the page. And if they’re not alive on the page, the story doesn’t move. By returning to my original process of researching before drafting, I’ve met with much more progress than I did when trying to get around it.

I spend so much time looking ahead and focusing on helping my kids prepare for the future that sometimes I forget they are just that: kids. Their progress isn’t always linear. I’ve found the same to be true with my writing. Sometimes we need to take a step or two back, return to basics and re-ground ourselves so we can keep moving forward. We can all benefit from occasional reminders of the things that work, those tools we can always rely on.

 

Awaiting Judgment

waiting

Imagine being a first time mother. You’ve been pregnant for months and doing all the right things: sleeping well, eating healthy, exercising, going to regular doctor appointments and watching your baby grow in sonogram pictures. You’ve tried out different names, prepared his room with all he’ll need when he comes home and readied yourself by reading lots of parenting books. By the time that kid is born, you’ve already known him for months, made tremendous efforts to insure his health and well-being and put him first in every way. So when you gaze at him, all pink and pudgy and wrinkled and loud, of course he is perfect.

Now hand him to someone else and ask what they think of him, what’s wrong with him and how he could be made better.

Right now, my book–which I started in 2013, finished in 2015, queried until 2016 and then put away–has been updated, deepened and edited again, and is out to beta readers to see if the changes work. And I’m waiting. But I’m not just waiting for them to give me the thumbs up. I’m waiting for their judgment. They’ll list their criticisms, issues and problems with the book, the book I love and have worked on for years and feel is as good as it’s ever been. Talk about nerve-wracking.

Anyone who’s written a book knows it’s a seemingly endless process. You take an idea, outline it (maybe), and write a draft. Then you go through and edit to make it better; you flesh out your characters, work on dialogue to make them sound like real people, increase the tension in each scene and then give it to some folks to read and critique. You wait for their feedback.

Then you take that feedback and make more changes and do this a few times, back and forth with reading, and changing and waiting. Then, if you’re lucky, you’ll get it to a point where you don’t just love the story, but are really happy with it as a final product. Even more than you were before. That means you’re ready to submit it to agents. So you write to them, and you wait. If you’re really lucky, agents will ask to read the book, so you send it to them. And then you wait.

If you haven’t seen the pattern yet, I’ll spell it out for you: writing a book involves a lot of waiting and a lot of judgment. I was never a patient person, or one who takes criticism well, but writing has cured me of both these ills.

This is why writing isn’t for the faint of heart. All the waiting and judgment and fixes and more waiting and more judgment with no guarantee it will ever go anywhere means you’d better love your stories and characters, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with them. You’re also going to have to make yourself vulnerable, pour your heart into your work and then ask people to tell you what’s wrong with it even though, to you, it’s perfect.

Writing, like parenting, is a labor of love and authors are in it for the long haul. We don’t do it for a quick buck, or the immediate gratification of getting our books into readers’ hands. It’s about doing everything we can to tell our stories in the best possible way. There will always be critics. So you’ll grow a thicker skin and you’ll work harder.

Neither your child nor your book will ever mean as much to anyone as they do to you, but that won’t matter. To you, they will always be evidence of your love, best efforts and unending patience.

How Volunteering Improved My Writing

We are thrilled to welcome today’s guest and current president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Christine Adler. When I first started publishing articles and essays, I …

Source: How Volunteering Improved My Writing

Deep Diving

under-water-1819588_960_720

I love my characters. Like my children, each of them has a little bit of me inside them. Of course, like my children, I hate for anything bad to happen to them. But that, I’ve learned, is a mistake.

On my first few edits, I made bad things happen to them. It made me sad, but it needed to be done so they would grow. On my next edits, I told the reader how it felt for the characters to suffer such indignities and pains. Still, my beta readers weren’t convinced. Not that the bad things had happened, because they had. They weren’t convinced that my characters *experienced* the pain that such catastrophes would–should–produce.

This round of edits is what I’ve named “the deep dive”. Not only am I letting my characters really feel the pain of events, I’m putting on their corsets, stepping into their shoes and experiencing the tragedies along with them. I’m speaking their reactions out loud as I type, hearing it in their voices as they hear it in their own heads. How else can I truly understand and convey what they’re going through?

I’ll be honest: it’s horrible. Emotionally draining. So bad, in fact, that in some instances I have to stop typing because I’m so anxious from an uncomfortable conversation.  Other times, I have to reach for a tissue to dry my tears. The silver lining? Now I know my readers will feel my characters’ pain as acutely as the characters do. Because I did while writing it.

Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” As a poet, Frost would go right for the heart. He knew about tears, and he knew their effect. That’s why we all know his name. Who am I to question such timeless wisdom?

*diving back in*

The Waffle Effect

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I’ve recently watched my eldest son struggle to choose a college major. Perhaps struggle is the wrong word, because it’s more about his divided passions. He thrives on helping others, and one of his jobs is aiding library patrons-mainly senior citizens-with their technology questions. In my mind, he is every patron’s dream grandson: patient, helpful, knowledgeable and patient. Did I mention how patient he is? He recently had business cards printed up so the folks he helps can contact him in the future instead of having to make an appointment at the library. Apparently, his services have generated a waiting list.

So he’ll follow the early career path that his mom and dad both took, that of help desk technician, right? He’s got the computer savvy, the communication skills and the patience (very important).

Except.

When he has free time, which is rare, he will suddenly get a burst of inspiration-either through reading or a visual, such as an art show-and sit down to write. Or draw. The only other time he gets this pumped up is when he’s helping people with their computers.

He is half techno-geek, half artist just like his mom. Left brain and right brain are battling it out for his attention.

It’s not the kind of thing you really outgrow, I’ve learned. My two favorite genres to read and to write are humor and historical fiction. They are separate entities in my mind because, let’s face it, life two hundred years ago was hard. No one ever smiled in photos. Life wasn’t funny; it was about not dying. So I write very different books. But I’ve been told recently that I’ll have to pick one or the other when I head out to look for publication. I’ve gone back and forth between the two, making a decision and then changing my mind, then changing it back. Over and over.

Left brain or right brain? How do you choose?

My high school senior is lucky. There are many new college degree programs these days that combine technology and the arts, so he may not have to choose but only explore to figure out where to hone his efforts.

My journey is a little trickier. I’ll figure it out eventually, but it’s nice to know I have someone in my house, at least for now, who can relate.

Getting to Know You

Eavesdropping

I’m shy. That’s not to say I can’t talk to people, because I can. I used to work in retail, and later the corporate world in customer service. Talking to people was my job. But I don’t get close to people. I talk to them to help them do their work or reach their goal or teach them something they want to know. And then I leave them alone.

The problem is, this attitude doesn’t work with characters. To write a good story, you have to know your characters really well. You don’t just have to talk to them. You have to be nosy.

I’m not a nosy person. I’m very much a you-do-your-thing-and-I’ll-do-mine person. Of course, in terms of customers and clients, that’s great. But when it comes to my characters, this sounds ridiculous. I mean, really. Am I worried about offending them by asking too many personal questions? I’m starting to think that yeah, maybe I am.

But I realize now that I need to know my characters as well as I know my own children. Because if I don’t connect with them, neither will my readers. So I need to learn what makes them cry, laugh, cringe and rage. What keeps them awake at night. Their regrets, dreams, insecurities and deepest secrets. I may need to approach them differently. Rather than ‘interviewing’ them, maybe I need to put them on the therapist’s couch and let them talk. Or eavesdrop on their conversations when they’re at a party. Look in their bedroom windows at night to see what they’re up to. Read their journals.

All I know is, what I’m doing so far isn’t working. I need to get past my personal hang-up and figure out how to become a busybody. So I’m open to new ideas. How do you get to know your characters?