Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Letter to a Writing Friend

Last year around this time I’d hit a roadblock on my very long road to publication. I was starting to question my resolve to continue writing, never mind pursuing publication. I’d written nine—NINE—novels (several multiple times) and didn’t have anything to show for it. Except for the nine finished novels, of course. Which at the time, sadly, seemed like nothing to me, because I didn’t have any of them under contract. What I did have was a stack of rejections. No money earned for all of that work. A child about to begin his senior year of high school, and therefore college (and horrifyingly high tuition payments) was looming. My husband gently mentioned that after four years of my writing full-time, I might want to possibly consider maybe looking for a job.

Oh. And my agent abruptly left the business.

It was a dark time in my writer’s journey, to put it mildly. And there I’d always been the gung ho writer who wrote for the sake of writing, the self-disciplined little worker bee, hauling myself out of the house to complete my word count goal every day, absorbing rejections by writing charming thank-you notes to the rejectors and redoubling my efforts by rewriting old novels and/or starting new ones.

There was a moment though, around this time last year, when I didn’t think I could do it anymore. What was the point of writing these books that no one except a few family members and friends were ever going to read? How could I justify the time taken from the pursuit of a real job, the time and energy taken from my kids, my husband, my sad sorry state of a house? How could I continue to have those awkward conversations where I’d meet someone and she’d ask me what I did and I’d say, "I’m a writer," and she’d say, "Oh, where I can I find your books?" And I’d have to say, "Um, nowhere," while adding the word, "yet," and wonder if the woman was then looking at me as a deluded flaky dreamer.

I blogged about this angsty process—a lot—grappling with how to continue working toward something that might (gulp) never happen. But finally, and I’m not sure how it clicked, but somehow, I just let it go. I was going to write because I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. Also, I told my husband I’d get a durn job. Durn it. And then I set a date six months in advance.

Which was when I got my publishing deal.

Yeah. So that was cool.

I’ve been thinking about all of this (and reliving it, remembering that dark time when I almost quit right when I was about to pass over) because a good friend of mine is grappling with some of the same angsty themes in her own writing journey. The last thing she probably wants to hear from me is that she shouldn’t quit, that it’s going to happen to her too, that she’s just got to keep writing, blah blah blah. Because (having been there myself) I know exactly what she is thinking:

"How does she know?" and "What if it doesn’t happen?" and "Why am I doing this?" and "What is the point?" and blah blah blah.

But I am going to tell her anyway.


Dear Writer Friend,

Don’t even think about quitting.

Because what you write is wonderful and smart and funny and full of heart and totally worthy of being published. Okay. So maybe it hasn’t made it into the right hands of the right person at the right moment yet, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t. By sheer force of will and (statistical probability) if you keep sending your work out, one of those pieces will slide across the desk of the person who has been waiting all along for that very story. And, sheesh! It will be about time!

Because you have talent and skill and years of writing experience. I’ve read your stories and novels and I’ve also read tons of published stuff, and your work is just as good, often ridiculously better. I confess that when I open up one of your writing files, something you’ve asked me to look over, I get a little thrill that I am one of the very first readers on the planet to read it, this book that I know will eventually be published. Maybe you will put my name on the acknowledgment page, I daydream egotistically, and then I will be connected (in a small way) to this soon to be classic, beloved story.

Because writing is what you do, and regardless of your publishing status, you are a writer. Yes, I know, this is the hard part to come to terms with. In our society if you don’t earn money doing something, it isn’t taken seriously. Well, I say: PFFFT to that. There are a lot of worthy things that we do in this world that earn us no money at all. I’ll give you one example: being a parent.

Because if you can push aside the annoying, frustrating, not-being-published-yet part and also ignore the self doubts and awkward conversations with well-meaning but clueless people, what you and I get to do every day, is really really cool. I wish I could go back and smack myself for my dark thoughts last year, when I thought that those nine books I created were nothing. Come on! How many people can say they’ve written nine books? Or any books? Or in your case, dear friend, hundreds of stories…

How many people are lucky enough to spend their days creating anything?

Or are lucky enough to do it so well?

Very very few.

Which is why I hope that whenever you have a low moment and the naggy thought about quitting buzzes around in your mind, you will smack it away like the pesky bug that it is.

And keep writing.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

I Attempt to Dip my Toe into the Pool of Self-Promotion

(Full disclosure: I am not in any way an expert on marketing or publicity or social media.)

But I know, as a writer with a novel coming out in little more than a year, that I have got to get up to speed and fast. The book industry is in a state of angsty turmoil over the rise of e-books. Marketing budgets are not what they used to be (if they ever were) and publishing companies are asking authors to do more of their own publicity. Unless you are already a celebrity like Julie Andrews or Snooki, I’m sorry to say that no one is going to send you out on a multi-city book tour.

The trouble is I don’t have a degree in marketing. And I’m hesitant to shell out thousands of dollars to hire a publicist. When I first got my book contract I talked to a good friend about the pros and cons of hiring a publicist. My point was that I was an intelligent enough person—I should be able to navigate the publicity waters myself. "After all," I said, "I don’t hire anyone to clean my house, right? And anyway, the few times I did have a Merry Maid come in, they didn’t even do that great of a job, etc. I can do this. I’ll create my own buzz. I’ll set up my own book tours, yadda yadda ya."

My friend waited until I finished then she said simply: “But DO you clean your house?”

Haha. She is a funny one.

Okay. Maybe she's right, but I am a stubborn (and cheap) do-it-yourselfer.
Unfortunately, I'm also reluctant when it comes to selling myself.
So that’s another hurdle.

Forget the time and money involved in self-promotion. I’m struggling with the idea of self-promotion itself. I’ve heard horror stories of writers slipping manuscripts under bathroom stalls to editors, tweeting spam links to their self-published book series, driving around with boxes of books in their car trunks and hawking them like they’re selling kitchen tools on an infomercial. Uck. I have a hard time even talking about my book. The worse thing for me about querying agents (besides the rejection that usually followed) was the pitch part. I just wanted to send them a letter saying: "Here’s my manuscript. Thank you for reading it."

As soon as I announced my book deal, I've had people asking me what my book is about, and I feel like a deer in the headlights. I know I should have a prepared ten second elevator pitch—a couple of snappy sentences that sum up my novel, but instead I stammer and fall back on my inclination to say: "Um, here it is. Puh-lease read it."

Which is probably not the best way to self-promote. There’s got to be a middle ground. Somewhere between having a filthy house and managing to keep it clutter-free without shelling out the bucks for a housekeeper.

In the spirit of do-it-yourselferism (and probably also as a way to delay actually self-promoting), I have been researching all aspects of book-promotion and gearing up to do whatever I can to help my publishing company Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster market my book. (Plug: It’s a young adult novel called Thin Space) Yeah. I know. I know. Not the best elevator pitch. I’m working on it.

But my head’s dizzy by all of the marketing things I must do. Just to give you an idea what I’m talking about-- debut writers that I’ve been studying

1. Set up and maintain a website
2. Blog
3. Vlog
4. Review and promote each other’s books
5. Tweet
6. Maintain Facebook author and book pages
7. Host contests and giveaways
8. Plan a launch party at a local bookstore
9. Create “swag” –bookmarks and postcards, etc., related to the book
10. Put together a press kit
11. Attend/speak/sign books at writer conferences and conventions and book fairs
12. Give talks and sign books at bookstores
13. Talk and/or teach writing lessons at schools or give Skype visits
14. Write discussion questions for students and/or book clubs
15. Give blog interviews or old-fashioned radio ones

And somehow they do all of this while writing their next books.

Just writing this list now kind of makes me exhausted and overwhelmed. Luckily my book won’t be out until Sept. 2013. And lucky too that so many writers are willing to share their ideas.

My advice: pick their brains at conferences. Follow them on Twitter. Lurk around their websites. Many of them share how they promote their own books—what works and what doesn’t. Start with writers in your genre or who have novels coming out with your publishing company. It also helps to attend workshops and take advantage of a professional organization such as SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).

Hands down the best resource I’ve stumbled upon is Marissa Meyer’s (author of CINDER) NaNoPubMo blog series. For thirty days Marissa shared all of her research—work she was doing to prepare for her own debut book launch last year. If you’re a soon-to-be published author (or plan to be) stop what you’re doing and read every one of Marissa’s posts on the subject.

Go on. Do it. And while you do, I promise I’ll work on that 10-second pitch for my novel.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Wallowing Between Projects Or My (sad) Obsession with a Reality TV Show

Oh. I have sooooooo many things that I could’ve been doing today.

For the record I just finished the second round of a revision on my eventually-to-be published young adult novel Thin Space. This revision, along with the first round of more extensive revisions, took many weeks of work and hard thought and endless hashing it out conversations with my support crew (husband and two teens). Also many days of being parked out in my pajamas, shut up in my office. And therefore many nights of breakfasts for dinner—the old standbys: chocolate chip pancakes, eggs, and/or cereal, which my support crew ate without (much) complaint.

There were a few other events that took place, sandwiched in during these weeks of revision work. Namely, my son’s high school graduation and the hosting of a house full of lovely out-of-town relatives (plus a sweet little dog guest, Mr. Peppers). And our 4th of July celebration, in which my husband and I hosted his father’s yearly family reunion for a week. These were lovely out-of-town guests too. Even during multiple days of 100-degree heat. It should be noted that they remained lovely even on the last day when we all lived through a monster freak storm and lost power. It was a fun final night, sweating it out on the driveway in foldout chairs, watching the neighbors take chainsaws to their fallen trees. (Our trees made it through relatively unscathed, having lost most of their branches in the monster freak storm the week before.) (Side note: what the heck is this with monster storms lately?) (Side note #2: don’t answer that. I’ve read so many post-apocalyptic nightmare novels lately that I really really don’t want to know.)

My point is that today, after all those weeks of finishing my revision(s), and hosting lovely out-of-town people (and Mr. Peppers), I suddenly have a stretch of time on my hands, time that could be filled with any number of important tasks. I made myself a helpful list this morning that included things like: research website designs and read a novel for an upcoming blog interview and resume work on a book I’ve been writing with my critique partner. Nevermind all the household tasks that have fallen by the wayside—laundry and vacuuming and bathroom cleaning, etc.

Instead, I did something wasteful and horrible and pathetic.

I watched four hours back to back of the Bachelorette so I could get caught up for tonight’s episode. I could lie and say it was because I wanted to spend time with my daughter. (Well, this isn’t exactly a lie. I do want to spend time with her, and watching the Bachelorette is our mother/daughter bonding activity this summer. See, daughter was away at camp and I waited for her to return to watch the show and now we have no choice but to catch up for tonight’s episo—

But. The truth is I have gotten sucked into what I know through every fiber of my being is possibly the dumbest show on TV. I wanted to watch those four hours. Helpful list be damned. And here I am a person who’s always prided myself on never watching reality shows. I missed all of the previous Bachelorettes. And Bachelors. I don’t watch the Kardashians. Or the Housewives of Wherever.

Jeez. I don’t even know how I got sucked into the Bachelorette. Daughter had the first episode on and I tuned in and started mocking it and next thing I know the two of us are having a grand old time laughing at the guys as they meet the beautiful (yet vapid) Emily for the first time. Cut to: we’re making a date to watch the damn show every Monday night. My daughter is a busy girl with tons of friends and an enviable social calendar. But she STAYS HOME on Mondays nights to be with me—

Yeah. I know. I am still trying to defend the indefensible. I pretend that I’m studying the show from an anthropological perspective. Besides mocking it, I attempt to analyze it. Isn’t it fascinating that the guys living it up in the cool condo have slowly descended into frat boy behavior? Why does Emily wear a different freaking ballgown on every outing?  What’s with the insipid dialogue? (Every place they travel—from Croatia to England to Romania—is “like, awesome and romantic.”)

A few weeks ago I had a serious discussion about stereotypical sex roles on reality tv shows with the professor sister of my neighbor. This is a woman who watches these show for actual research purposes. We started out talking about how it was unfair that Emily was judged for kissing multiple guys per episode whereas on the Bachelor no one seems to bat an eye when he’s serial-kissing girls. Then we quickly descended into talking about Emily’s teeth. (They are absurdly white and pronounced.) (Also, we didn’t understand why Jef with one f spells his name that way.)

I hate to bring you all down to wallow with me in my sad obsession with Emily’s choices (I am really flummoxed here. Should it be Jef with one f or Arie? Which guy will she pick?) so I will end this post by segueing into a book review.

Total fun, page-turn-ery summer read. It’s the debut novel The Selection by Kiera Cass.

It’s a cross between Cinderella and The Bachelor with a sprinkling of Hunger Games thrown in. The prince, gorgeous yet introverted Maxon, is looking for a wife, so his parents set up a Bachelor-style reality show at the palace for him to choose one. It’s a bleak dystopian world where most people are hungry. Main character America has her name thrown into the pot by her desperate family. And big shocker, she gets chosen as one of the contestants. The trouble is she already has a boyfriend (yes, this is another girl torn between two hot guys plotline). The novel is fluffy and kind of silly, but strangely addictive, with enough twists to keep even the most jaded reader (uh, me) reading into the night.

Well. Must sign off now. It’s Monday night and I have something…um…important…I need to do now…

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fun Pit Stops on the Road to Publication

So, a couple of years ago I started this blog because I felt like I was on the verge of publication and I thought it would be fun to chronicle that moment of crossing over. I had this vision of my ideal reader as my Self of 15 years ago, when I was just starting out and not knowing very much about the business.

"Hey," I thought, "I can be a kind of mentor to that struggling, na├»ve writer. I’ll give her advice. Throw her some helpful stuff I’ve learned along the way about writing and the publishing world and books in general—stuff I learned the hard way—the slow, painstaking way—by going to conferences and talking to other writers and reading books on writing and working on my own writing, day after day after day." At that point I felt like I was an expert. I’d been writing forever and pursuing publication for what seemed like forever too. It seemed to be only a matter of time before I snagged that dream book deal.

Big shocker: this turned out to be a tad overly confident on my part. One thing I have learned is that struggling writers tend to vacillate (sometimes daily; sometimes hourly) between confidence and potentially crippling self-doubt. I think it’s just one of those things that goes with the territory—I don’t care if you’re Joe Schmo or Stephen King. In the end it’s just You and the Blank Computer Screen. You’re alone. You’re sitting in your (smelly) pajamas. You’re living in your head, listening to voices. That’s your freaking job, whether you’re getting paid for it or not. Sometimes you finish a day’s work feeling elated and pumped up by your own brilliance. Other times—most times, honestly—you’re convinced that what you’ve written is the biggest pile of crap anyone in the history of the universe has ever set to type. You question your talent, the point of writing when you have no audience, your place in the universe, the meaning of life, etc. It’s kind of depressing, to put it mildly.

Anyhoo. The dream book deal took longer than I thought it would to come together.

(Brief digression so I can bring you up to date on what the deal is: The novel is called THIN SPACE. It’s a young adult mystery with a supernatural twist. Note to self: MUST work on cool 10-second elevator pitch.) It’s being published by Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster. Look for it in stores in Fall of 2013!!!)

It’s a long long story how this all came together and what my life’s been like since I signed the contract, and probably not interesting to anyone but me, but I thought in the interest of the original intent of this blog (giving a helping hand to a struggling writer/detailing all aspects of the publishing journey—both bad, and GOOD!) that I’d list some of the highlights:

1. Signing the contract itself was a pretty big highlight. My daughter happened to be home sick from school when the paperwork came in the mail and she made me change out of my pajamas so she could take pictures of me actually signing. (She also made me put on a necklace. A necklace!! Haha. I rarely wear jewelry, rarely even wear clothing besides pajamas. But there I was wearing clothing and a necklace and holding my precious contract. My awesome supportive neighbor drove with me to the post office and took more pics. (I had changed into normal clothes by then, because, really, the nice clothes and jewelry were pushing it.)

(Look how cute the postal worker, Dave, is. He had NO idea why the heck my neighbor was taking pictures of me or why I was grinning like a big doofball.)

2. Ah, the day I got the first installment of the advance check. Fun facts: it was the first money I made off my writing in four years! I opened my own bank account! I bought a laptop to replace my unreliable/broken-keyed one! Woo hoo! Money!! But not that much money…not so much money that it would mess up our son’s college financial aid package. So woo hoo!

3. I’ve been working with an editor. And I must say she is wonderful and amazing and the whole editing experience has exceeded all of my expectations. (I went into this process with a dream editor in mind: Ursula Nordstrom blended with Patti Lee Gauch with a sprinkling of Julie Straus Gabel, in case anyone is wondering.) This is my first real experience with an editor and I can’t imagine it could be better. She knows just how to push me without raising any of my hackles. And I know she loves my book (and gets it) almost as much as I do. We had a little wrinkle at first when I didn’t realize she had written me all of these notes in the comment feature of Word, but once I figured that out, I loved that too. It’s like she’s in my head, guiding me and whispering words of encouragement while at the same time getting me to think hard and change stuff. Example of how this process works: she will write something like, "why is this character angry here?" And I will read it and think, "yeah. Why IS he angry?" And of course what she’s really saying is: "it makes no sense that he is angry and you must do something to expand upon that or take it out, you dingbat." But she is much too nice to say it that way. I am now approaching my final week (I think!) of edits, and the book (that I thought I’d finished three years ago) is SO much better because of this lovely, brilliant woman.

4. Beyond Words set up a focus group of teens around the country to read and fill out a response sheet about my book. I got to see a few of their comments and all I can say is I absolutely love these teen readers. So smart and thoughtful and careful with their answers. (It helps that they were complimentary. Haha. )

5. And last but not least: the other day the art director people sent me THE COVER! It is not finalized yet but it is beautiful and perfect and just what I would’ve designed (if I had any artistic/visual sense at all). They had asked me several months ago if I had any thoughts about it (which is very kind. I don’t think writers typically have any input.) And I told them some random blathery ideas, and their design totally exceeded my vision. Oh, it is so cool and clever and just the type of cover that I think would grab potential readers. I promise I will share it as soon as they give me the go ahead so we can all bask in its glory.

Yes. I know I am over-the-top gushing now. Which means it is probably time to stop. (Also, I probably need to change out of my pajamas.) Thank you, dear blog readers for bearing with me through this bloaty brag fest and for putting up with me through all of those other posts of doubt and depression and questioning and gnashing my teeth at the fickly gods of the publishing universe too. Couldn’t have done it without all of your encouragement and support.

And that’s another nice thing for a beginning writer to know. Yes, you are alone in front of your computer screen, but please do everything in your power to reach out to other writers. I promise there really is a wonderful community out there of pajama-wearing, voices-hearing, self-doubting/brilliant writers just like you.