Once More Unto the Breach

Four years ago today I arrived in Springfield, MO – my spirit nearly broken, exhausted, and clinging to a small bit of hope that my life wasn’t irreparable. It wasn’t, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I am not grateful for the leap I took.

Looking back, I have to laugh at my naivety. I had done the math, knew the cost of living in Springfield, knew the profit I made from the sale of my house, and figured I had 3-4 years to get a book published before it all fell apart.

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know that the journey to publication can be a very, very long one. Many authors don’t get published until they’ve written 9-10-20 books. Each of those books might go through 6-16 rewrites. 3-4 years! HA!

Of course there are always the wunderkinds – the ones who get published right out of the gate. There are the self-published who can claim the title of published author, but can’t claim to have many readers or earn a living. But the vast majority of authors who want to publish traditionally, toil away in the trenches for years, learning to write, learning to tell stories, and learning to deal with rejection.

This is what I’ve gathered the path to publication is: write – celebrate – edit and polish – celebrate again, imagining agents thronging to your brilliant book – rejection – rewrite – test the waters – rejection – rewrite – rewrite – rejection – rewrite – rewrite – rewrite – rewrite – agent – rewrite – rewrite – rewrite – publisher – rewrite – rewrite – rewrite. Publication!

I’ve been stuck in the rewrite process, floundering. Not sure what direction to go. Since form letter rejections leave the author blind, and my writer’s group has disbanded for the time being, I needed to get some pertinent critiques from authors who write and read similar books to what I’m writing. I got a couple of critique partners online and we are in the process of reading each other’s manuscripts and giving feedback. I’ve gotten one back already and it has given me so much to think about. Many areas that I had problems with, but my early readers assured me were fine, gave them problems too. I wish I could learn to listen to my own instincts more.

I am heading back into the rewrite breach. What will follow is analyzing the already written story for structure. Breaking each chapter down. Examining plot. And most daunting… possibly rewriting the entire novel from a different POV. Right now each chapter is told from each of the main characters point of view – rotating through to tell the story. I am considering switching to third person omniscient. It seems overwhelming to even attempt it, but I may give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, I still have my original.

So for those who ask where I am with my writing… that is where I am. Once more unto the breach.

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#authorstats

If your’e an aspiring author, search Twitter for #authorstats. This hashtag was started to give us encouragement. They asked published authors to list their stats… how long to get an agent. How long to sell their first book. How many revisions.

This is the first one I saw:

Author after author had a similar story. It took years to get an agent, and it took revision after revision after revision.

The hashtag succeeded. I feel encouraged. I’ve only been trying to get an agent for a little over a year. I haven’t even completed ten revisions. My lack of success at this early stage is entirely normal.

Whew!

My only concern now is managing to pay the bills until I land an agent, sell the book, and earn a little income from my hours and hours and hours of up-to-this-point free labor. Because I now have a firm belief that it is not if I sell, but when.

The latest round of major revisions is complete. My next task is to sit down and read it from cover to cover to make sure the new additions flow. Then it will be off to the editor for another quick go-over, and then it’s back to querying.

I’m excited for the next rejection that might give some feedback and lead me to another revision. Of course I’m even more excited for the possibility that they might request my manuscript. Or beyond that, that they might request their own set of revisions (meaning they’re interested enough to see if you can do the work.)

Of course, in quiet moments I doubt myself. I’m sure I’m a talentless hack who has deluded herself into thinking she has something to say. Criticisms and slights ping pong around my head. However, now there’s one thing I can counter with. I’m not an idiot. And even if the doubters are right, right now – I can learn. I can improve. I can revise. I can do this, just like those other authors did.

What goal are you trying to achieve that seems out of reach? Are you frustrated that others make it look so easy? Does that make you doubt yourself more? Rather than stewing about it, try asking them about their journey. Find out their stats. You may just find your doubts are unfounded, and you’re right on track for success.

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Yippee! Another rejection!

After my recent rewrite, and having found Diana Urban’s blog post about querying, this time around things are going much better. If you are querying, check out the blog post for some great information. I won’t write about all her suggestions, but I’m going to share the two I wasn’t doing that are really making a difference for me.

From day one, the entire querying process has been daunting. You only have a few paragraphs in the query letter to get them to read a sample, which is what will hopefully lead them to ask for the manuscript. I’d done some reading online and gotten some advice from an editor, but each time I sent a letter out, it felt like an experiment. The problem was, if the experiment didn’t work, you couldn’t just try again with the same agent. Most were then off limits unless you did a major rewrite.

To solve this problem, new author Diana Urban urges querying authors to hire a professional, such as an editor or junior agent. From my understanding, junior agents assist agents. One way they assist is by screening queries. If you want your manuscript to make it to an agent, you first have to get past the junior agent. (And if I’m wrong about that, they at least likely know what agents want.) By hiring a Jr. agent to edit your query package, you can be sure it includes all the elements an agent would want to see. Ms. Urban recommended two people, and I chose K. Johnson Editorial. She provided great feedback that allowed me to improve my query letter, synopsis, and submission pages. It seems I’m already seeing results and will hire her again for my other synopses.

The other suggestion that has been so helpful is to use QueryTracker. Part of the pain of my previous querying attempt was the silence, and slow, erratic drip of rejections. Now I can see what other QueryTracker users have submitted to the agents. I can see which of those submissions has been rejected or had a full manuscript request. Because of that, I can see where my query is in the process and the rejections don’t come completely out of the blue. Are there still 10 manuscripts between mine and the ones rejected? I know I have a while to wait. Or, like recently, I could see that manuscripts before mine, and after mine had been rejected, leading me to believe it had made it past the junior agent, and was waiting to be reviewed by the agent. While it was still eventually rejected, that information from QueryTracker gave me so much hope.

And my most recent rejection gave me my best hope yet. Literary agencies receive hundreds of queries each week. We authors are dying to know why we were rejected, but they don’t have time to tell us. It’s frustrating, but totally understandable. This week’s rejection came with really useful feedback. If they didn’t see potential, they wouldn’t have bothered with feedback, and I now know if I can introduce my character in the way they’re looking for, I can sell this book. The story, query, and synopsis are where they should be. The first chapter is not.

I have a long weekend of work ahead of me, but I’m very excited to get to it. I believe the first full manuscript request is just around the corner. That doesn’t mean an agent, but it means another step forward, and right now, that’s all I need.

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Square One

That’s is where I am again. All those rejections? Meaningless.

You see, I have done a major rewrite of the book, and now I get to send out queries to all those agents again.

When the idea for this book first came to me, the protagonist was a girl. As the story developed, it felt more natural to make it a boy, so early on, I switched. I think I had only written the first chapter before I made that change. Looking back, it was my age that made it natural to want a boy in the character because they liked science. My worldview and the time I grew up in, made my instinct incorrect for today’s world.

As I researched agents, I kept finding they wanted girls who fight with swords or girls who like science. I have a girl in the book who plays a major role, and if agents had had the patience to see my story through, would have discovered in many ways, the story was more about her arc. But unfortunately, she did fit the stereotypical girl’s role — a dreamer who didn’t like science.

So finally, after having these thoughts niggle at my brain for quite some time, they burst through while I was in the shower and took solid form. This often happens. Not sure why. But I suddenly knew I needed to reverse my two main characters. That led to an entire weekend of flipping genders, which means flipping pronouns that sneak in there everywhere. There was also the need to evaluate each scene to see if it still rang true. Surprisingly, there was very little that needed rewriting. And actually, it’s an interesting trick to short circuit my age-related biases — write a stronger boy character, then simply turn him into a girl. It will be tricky as I keep writing to keep that same strong, adventurous character consistent. I have no doubt I can do it.

I like how the rewritten story reads. I like some new possibilities for the story. It’s a very good rewrite. I’ve now got a girl who likes science and fights with swords. Plus a good story to tell. I’m feeling more hopeful.

Additionally, some reading has led me to new query letter knowledge. One author suggested hiring a junior agent to write your letter. They often offer this service to supplement their income. Since they are the ones who read query letters and make recommendations to the agents, they know what works and what doesn’t. Once I feel confident that the manuscript is ready, I will hire someone to write my letter and begin the query process again.

So here I am, back at square one with a fresh manuscript and a whole lot of hope. It’s not a terrible place to be.

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Chinese Water Torture

It’s maddening. It truly is. The slow yet constant drip of rejections, coming at an unpredictable rate. I never know when I’m going to open my mailbox to find a letter from an agency I queried. I got one Sunday morning, when I wouldn’t have expected agents were responding to queries. Then I got one last night before bed. Sweet dreams.

Without even opening these emails, I immediately feel defeated somehow knowing it’s a rejection. Lately I try to pause and allow myself the sliver of hope that it might be a request for my manuscript. I remind myself that things can change any second. It only takes one yes. The results haven’t been any better.

Then I read a tweet from an author saying, “My lifelong dream to be a published author is finally coming true.” I clicked on her profile.

She’s 24. Her lifelong dream has maybe been ten years.

As someone who is susceptible to insecurity and a lack of confidence, the battle to keep going is requiring more energy than I expected. I’ve decided I need to do two things. First, I need to look at the first five pages, which is pretty much all they allow you to send them. When I wrote this chapter, it was in chronological order, and my editor snatched it from the middle of the book and made it my prologue. I’ve realized there are things discussed in that chapter that would be familiar to the reader by the time they got to the middle, but would have no meaning whatsoever to someone not yet immersed in this world. I need to look at this chapter with fresh eyes and see what can be improved. The difficulty with that is that my prologue is already at 5 pages, and if I expand on description, I will not be able to send the entire prologue as my sample.

After I’ve improved those first five pages, I need to read the entire manuscript. I’m beginning to doubt my story, my writing, my characters, and pretty much everything else. I know when I’ve read it before, I’ve gotten sucked in and kept turning the pages. I need to remind myself of that. It’s been long enough since I read it that it might even feel a little fresher. I need to regain my confidence that someone will recognize the value in the story I’m telling, and I just need to keep looking for them.

So many agents are looking for books with a quick hook, and I’ve read those books. They’re fun. But a year later, I couldn’t tell you the plot or characters of most of them. I might remember the stunning location where it was set or maybe a scene that was impactful but the rest fades away. They’re fast food fiction. Really enjoyable in the moment, but not really sustaining.

My story doesn’t have such a quick hook. I’d like to think it’s intriguing, but I take my time introducing characters and unwinding the story at a comfortable pace. As the book moves along, and the conflict builds, so does the pace. So is it going to grab you by the throat right away? Probably not. It’s why I’m so frustrated that the entire book is judged by the first few pages. Not only can you not judge a book by it’s cover, you can’t truly judge a book by it’s first few pages.

Now, I get it. Agents are buried under queries and manuscripts. One agency responded in their rejection letter that they get 500 queries a week. One agency – 500 queries in a week. How could anyone possibly keep up with that? There has to be a quick way to weed through and focus on the best choices, so they’ve decided the first five pages and a snappy query letter are the way to do it. I wonder how many quality novels have slipped through the cracks because of it.

There’s nothing to do about it, but keep searching for an agent that will give it a read. I’ve also found two publishers that will accept hardcopy manuscript submissions without an agent, so I intend to print one out and get that in the mail soon. And of course the final option will be to self-publish and let the public decide. The amount of marketing I’ll have to do is daunting, but hopefully I’ll have book two finished by then and in the editing process (if I can afford it) so can focus more on marketing.

Until then I will reread, perhaps rewrite, and try to keep my sanity and hope under the drip, drip, drip of rejections.

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Everything is Possible

It’s been a long while since I posted, mainly because little was happening with the book. It was with the proof reader and all I could do was wait. Sure, there was the next book to begin work on, but it felt as if time stood still while I waited for the first one to be polished.

Finally, it was back in my hands. I spent an entire day going over each change suggested and either accepting or rejecting them. More time consulting with the editor. A few more changes and I fired it back to the editor, waiting for a final chat this weekend before it was given to the literary agency that has some interest.

It’s kind of a surreal moment. I’m like a plucked harp string – thrumming with excitement. Everything is possible… perhaps not probable, but possible. For instance, it is not probable that I will top J.K. Rowling in sales, but it is possible I will publish this book and finally be able to support myself doing what I love. It’s also possible it will be very successful, be turned into a movie, and I’ll get sucked back into the very industry I fled. Or it’s possible it will get published, fail, and I’ll still have to find another way to earn a living. Who knows. It’s pretty much all possible.

I feel change on the horizon, and as I drove to work the other day, I reminded myself to be present because it’s possible my life could be changing. And I have been far more mindful. Two years after I replanted myself in Missouri, it still feels like paradise. I sit at my desk to write this blog and look out across the green field in front of me, binoculars nearby to watch the little red foxes that live in the park and sometimes come out to play… as well as the human wildlife that occasionally jogs by on their way to the greenways trail. I have just come in from sitting on my sun porch, sipping on my first batch of homemade kombucha, and eating a couple of mulberries from my neighbor’s bush that drapes into my yard. We had a delightful thunder storm last night, and today puffy white clouds with dark undersides push their way across the sky, telling me more storms are coming. Tonight I will go to a drumming circle with my friends at the Friday Night ArtWalk.

It all feels perfect. In the past two years there has not been one microsecond of regret for the move.

Perhaps that’s what made it easier for me to absorb the latest bad news, when I found out the book is being put on hold just a bit longer. My editor is unexpectedly unavailable until next week, and once again I’m cooling my jets and putting my dreams on pause. One silver lining, I am pleased with my ability to absorb the disappointment and not get dejected. In LA, the frustrations had piled up to the point where even the slightest disappointment led to a spiral of despair – proving to me once again that I was never destined for a career as a writer – that the universe was conspiring against me. This time I took a deep breath and went on with life. No big deal. So, if that was the test from this hiccup, I think I passed.

I’m grateful to have made some personal progress, if not book progress. I’ll focus on that for now. It’s good to take the time to notice when you handle your struggles a little bit better, and then celebrate it. So what did you handle better today than you did last year? Give yourself some credit for improvement. Celebrate. Look out the window. Listen to the birds. Take it all in, before it changes, because it will. It’s inevitable.

Hopefully the next time I post, it will be with the news that I have an agent, or the news that I am continuing the hunt for one.

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Inching Forward

Writing a novel is definitely a marathon and not a sprint. I knew this before I started. I know it more now. I’m days away from having the final product from the editor. Well, sort of final. I then have to make one more pass to put in a few changes. Clarity on details keep coming.

In some ways, this is the most frightening thing about declaring this novel “done.” There are two more books to write before this story is told, and this world is still revealing itself to me. I know there are more surprises ahead. Which one of them will make me realize that I didn’t set that up in the first novel, and now I either can’t use it, or I use it and hope nobody notices. I almost want to finish all three before trying to publish, but there is simply no way I could afford to do that.

When this one is done, it has to be well enough crafted to be a solid foundation to tell the rest of the story. That’s terrifying. Though, I will probably be done with the second novel before the first would be published, so I suppose maybe there are still opportunities for edits to volume 1.

In adding new chapters at the end, I was pleased to see not only an improvement in my writing, but an improvement in my attitude. When I first got notes and questions from my editor, my inner voice was defensive and resentful. I had worked so hard. How could there be holes? How could there be problems? How on earth was I going to find a way to fix them? It was impossible and I should just give up! I’m a terrible writer and too old to be starting novels. This time, when I got notes and questions, I was excited. I have come to realize whenever I have been pushed, either by a professor, or now an editor, the end product is always vastly better than the original. Those notes and questions mean I’m going to tell a better story. That excites me. While there will always probably be a tinge of panic that I can’t find a solution to the problem, it is quickly smothered with the curiosity of following the problem to its source and its solution, as well as the excitement of a better story. Growth!

By the end of the week I plan to have the manuscript to a proofreader, and after that, it is off to the literary agency that expressed interest in reading it. I really should be working on a query letter for other agencies, because the chances of being taken on by the very first agency are about the same as me winning the lottery tonight. Well, slightly better since I don’t have a lottery ticket. And maybe in this case, just a fraction better than normal because this is a connection from my editor. But still, I shouldn’t start planning my first book tour just yet. Oh goodness, I dread that part of the job (though would be lucky to experience it). Writers are introverts. Crowds, especially crowds of strangers, drain us. Why on earth would you make us do book tours and public appearances? Just let us sit in our offices and dream stories!

The last two years have been beautiful. I will always be grateful for this opportunity. I hope it’s not over. I hope my talent is enough to get me to the other side of the chasm, and I can continue to do what I love to do.

Here we go…

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April Fools & Merry Christmas

For months now I have been telling people my book was done. I believed it was done. After all, I was at 75,000 words and a first time YA novelist in the scifi/fantasy genre typically shouldn’t go above 80,000. So, I found a passable ending and stopped the first book of three. The end.

April fools! No it’s not!

I was never happy with this forced ending. No one who’s read it was happy with it. But what’s a first time author to do? I had no more words.

Except I do!

You see, my editor had cut 15,000 words, and it finally dawned on me that I had more room for a better ending! It will make this book stand alone, which is awesome! It also brings this book closer to my original vision for it.

I am excited to be back to writing, and can’t wait to see the result. It’s always fun to find out what happens next. Despite the fact that I have to sometimes drag myself to my chair as if I’m a kid being told to take a nap, just like that napping kid, once I’m doing it, it’s the best thing ever. Wish I could spend every day this way.

So that’s my April Fools. Now Christmas.

It seemed like it had been years since I had gotten a cold, but this year, they all caught up to me. So far I’ve had two doozies, with this last one being the worst. Perhaps it falls into the flu category, not sure. It hit on Wednesday night and it wasn’t until today, the following Monday, that I feel human again. Because of that, my Christmas was spent alone in front of either a book or the TV. I had said I wanted a quiet Christmas at home this year. Be careful what you wish for.

Despite this sad state of affairs, I actually had a really great Christmas present in the form an of an email from my editor. He told me there is a literary agency lined up to read my book when it’s ready. I was stunned and excited. Of course this doesn’t really mean anything. They might read it and politely tell me to take a flying leap, at which point I can tell them that I already have.

Still, knowing I have a toe wedged in the door, gave me a huge boost on what was at moments feeling like a woe-is-me Christmas morning. It’s no surprise really that I’m feeling better today. This should really push me to finish. The brass ring is in sight. My arm is reaching. I can almost feel the slick metal in my hands… almost…

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Adapting and Evolving

Writing my first book turned out to be easier than I had expected. You so often hear about the agonies of writer’s block, and hours spent staring at the ceiling, looking for inspiration. I did not experience that. Sometimes I didn’t feel inspired to write, but I always had words to put on the page.

That stems from the fact that despite it being my first book, this is not my first time at the rodeo. I’ve been writing for most of my life and learning along the way. One book that made a huge difference was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I never made it through the book, but I made it far enough to benefit. One exercise has you write three pages of stream-of-consciousness every morning. It might be, “There is nothing in my brain. Oh, I need eggs. Shoot, I don’t have time to go to the grocery store. I can wait. Look at that cute guying walking his dog.” It really didn’t matter what you wrote, you were to just write. That exercise teaches you one main thing. Your words aren’t that precious. They flow constantly in a never-ending stream. Just put them on paper, they can always be fixed later.

As a writer, that was eye-opening. I had agonized over words in the past, and often stopped writing because I couldn’t find the right ones. No more! My method became to spit it out the best you can and fix it later.

The other book that helped me was On Writing by Stephen King. With 25 years of writing screenplays, I had become a slave of the outline. When you have to cram an entire story into just two hours, getting all the beats right is not only difficult, but crucial. It’s like doing a Rubik’s cube. But, for me, the outline took all the joy out of writing.

Stephen King taught me to let go of the outline and let the story tell itself. Don’t worry about where it’s going. Don’t worry about structure. Just let the story unwind. Let it sit, then when you come back to read it, you will see obvious themes. Rewrite everything to those themes and voila… you have a really good, well-crafted story. Now working in novels, and not tightly structured screenplays, I can more easily follow his advice.

Cameron and King were the foundation of the easy flow of my first book. It was great, but the editing process showed me the cracks in my foundation.

With book one I did not edit. I didn’t want to slow down the flow. However, when I got to the end of a 75,000 word novel, I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of editing needed. I didn’t know where to start. I was too impatient to get it to an agent and publisher and couldn’t seem to take the time I needed to really evaluate and fix the manuscript… especially since my “just dump it on the page” method left a lot to be fixed. Thankfully I have a miracle worker of an editor who did all my heavy lifting for me this time around.

Last weekend, with the major editing behind me on book one, it felt like it was time to turn my mind to book two. I sat down and started to let the story flow again. Oh, what joy! Much to my surprise, I discovered that once again, my process is adapting and evolving. In the past it was common to write 2000 words a day. This time around, 1000 words seems to be the mark to hit. Now, I actually catch myself writing in the passive voice. I see where a verb could be more active. Or dialog can have more impact. I stop, consider my sentence, and rework it. My editor had warned me about this, but so far I don’t feel like it’s a problem. It slows me down, yes, but it doesn’t stop the flow. In some ways, it makes it far more enjoyable. Like savoring the scene instead of racing to put it down.

And this time I will set aside some time each writing day to go back and edit the previous day’s work. That way when I get to the end, I won’t be quite so overwhelmed. My first draft will be a much more polished, ready-to-publish, work.

Everything in life is a process. Just because you’re good at something today doesn’t mean you can’t be better at it if you adapt and evolve. Even this old dog is learning a few new tricks.

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Social Media Blackout

Currently I am participating in something called the Whole Life Challenge. Every week there are different challenges to participate in that are designed to imscreen-shot-2015-09-28-at-7-05-06-pm-615x450prove your life. One of last week’s challenges was a social media blackout. For an entire week I did not check Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Surprisingly, the hardest was Twitter. I use it as my breaking news feed, and without it, I feel out of the loop. I had to go on Facebook for work, so I got little glimpses of my feed as I signed on, then switched over to the business page. A friend adopted a new kitten. How could i not respond? What else was I missing out on? Whose birthday was I appearing to ignore because I didn’t send them good wishes? I resisted, and for the most part didn’t miss much. Here is probably what I missed – pictures of delicious looking food, political outrage against either candidate/party/party supporters, humble brags, cute pictures/videos of kids, cats, and dogs, recipes that look easy because somebody already prepared all the ingredients into cute little bowls, and memes that have made the rounds several times but are new to the poster and they’re wondering why more people aren’t liking it. Does that about cover it?

So what did I learn? I learned that checking Facebook is more of a habit than an addiction. Whenever there was a lull, I wanted to grab the phone. It wasn’t out of any burning interest to see what was going on, it was boredom. While I do miss being aware of what’s going on in distant friend’s lives, I am fully engaged in the lives of friends nearby, and that is far more important for all of us. I don’t post much on Facebook anymore anyway, and now I’d like to do far less skimming, as well.

Twitter, well… I’m still a news junkie, I don’t think I’m willing to give that up just yet.

On to editing. We’re closing in on the end of the editing process. My editor has done the Herculean task of fixing all my rookie mistakes and bad habits. His eye is so critical he finds fault with Tolkien, (and destroys my illusions in the superior story telling of the Lord of the Fantasies) which means he is pulling my story apart and finding the weak spots. At times that feels frustrating. I’m a little burned out on this portion of the story and just want to move on. And of course I would like to believe I’ve already produced something perfect. On the other hand, I know better and want the story air tight. I want it to be the best it can be, so I ignore my wounded ego, learn from my mistakes, and do the work to make it better. After all, if it is popular, I wouldn’t want someone at Comic Con getting stabbed with a pencil over a plot point argument.

I have a growing confidence that some publisher will want this series. I’m not saying it will be the next big thing, but I think there is an audience for it. I might not have to get a full time job just yet. And really, that’s what I want – the chance to keep writing and to keep this enchanted life going.

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