Journey Towards Publication Update

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One day back in October 2014, I sent three queries. The following morning a reply from one of the literary agents awaited me. It read:

“I enjoyed reading these opening chapters a lot. Funny and turning a bully on its head this way is great and refreshing. I’d love to keep reading — can you send me the full MS? I aim to read all full MSs within eight weeks of receiving them, if possible, but please let me know if the status of  ALEX BULLIED changes with another agent such that you should need a more immediate reply. Thanks so much!”

He wanted the full manuscript. The full manuscript! And he’d asked for it the day after I sent the query! This was a new experience for me. I enjoyed the feeling of validation and being wanted all day. I sent the manuscript, called and emailed people and celebrated with Husband.

The wait began. I continued to send out queries, even though I thought getting an agent was a done deal. Twelve queries in all. October and November came and went. The eight weeks passed. I decided after ten weeks to give the agent a little nudge.

He replied to my email with this:

“I haven’t had a chance to look yet, I’m afraid — it’s been a very busy fall, but I am still looking forward to reading. Thanks for your patience, and more soon!”

Still encouraging, could still happen.

Then came this, on February ninth:

“Thank you for the chance to read ALEX BULLIED and for your patience in awaiting my reply. I have had a chance to carefully consider it now, and though I continued to enjoy your writing, I am afraid the plot at times lost my interest — many of the secondary characters felt too flat for me, so even though the writing and voice were strong, I wasn’t as fully immersed in the story as I’d  hoped. I’m sorry to not have better news for you, but this is, of course, such a subjective business, and so hope you’ll continue querying until you find the right agent for ALEX BULLIED. With warm regards, blah blah blah.”

I knew it was a rejection when I saw the email in my box. If it were an acceptance, it would be by phone. Bad news is always in the mail. But, I learned a couple of important things from this letter; I need to take a look at those secondary characters and he thought my writing and voice were strong and I appreciated that slight ego boost.

Since June of 2014 I’ve received about twenty rejections. I have another twenty-two or so queries still out. Of those it’s probably been long enough to assume half of them are a No. So that leaves maybe ten that are still in the maybe zone.

This probably sounds depressing to you and you may be feeling sorry for me. But don’t, this is typical. I know a writer who sent over three hundred queries before giving up and self-publishing. And remember, The Help wasn’t accepted until query number sixty-one.

I recently read a young adult novel called Vivian Apple at the End of the World, by Katie Coyle, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is her debut novel and I loved it. It has a great hook — about a teenage girl after what is assumed to be The Rapture and her quest, not for faith, but the truth. The writing, I thought, was wonderful. I could hardly put it down. I took it to my middle grade/young adult critique group and it’s being passed around and read by each. I wanted them to see what we need to aspire to.

I’ve also just finished a middle grade novel called Okay For Now, by Gary Schmidt that I thought was incredible. The story follows Doug, whose family moves to a new town just before he enters eighth grade. He hates the town, has a dodgy home life and school is not his thing. What does become his thing is the Audubon’s Birds of America book on display at the local library.

He begins to draw the birds in the book and each picture has an emotional impact on him The story is set in 1968 and told by twelve-year-old Doug and his voice is unique and compelling. He leaves information hanging, but as the reader, you don’t care. He dares you to guess what he means. I was willing to not know everything at the moment. It would all be clear soon enough and the pleasure of getting there was worth it. I highly recommend this book to anyone, adults included.

In the book Doug is shown how the birds are drawn by a library employee. He is taught how to take the drawing apart, shown how Audubon created the feeling of wind under a wing or the bird’s distress. After I finished the book and wiped by eyes and blew my nose — it had me almost weeping — I realized I needed to do with my next book what Doug did with those birds. So I have begun to reread it, to analyze how Schimdt created this story, to tear it apart and put it back together. And how I can apply all that to my next book, the one that no agent will be able to reject.

Stay tuned.

 

 

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A Valentine to Writing

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I love you, Writing. You are the outlet for this well of creativity in me. I have friends – cooking, entertaining, sewing, training my dog, to name a few of my posse, but it’s not the same. There’s friendship and then there’s love. And you, Writing, are the love of my life.

I waited so long to find you. I had to try others out – pantomime, acting, puppetry and directing children’s theater. They were easy to break up with and I’ve never missed them.

I should have know, as a child, that you were The One. I used to make up titles and create characters. But I couldn’t string a story together. I wasn’t ready.

So I spent time with those would-be loves and hung out with your cousin, Reading. That was the best thing I could have done. Reading encouraged me in my pursuit of you.

You are not the easiest love, Writing. We often have a love-hate relationship. You make me doubt when that first, incredible hook of a sentence fails to appear. You make me write queries and synopses. You keep me waiting for replies from agents. You force me into critique groups and writing conferences. And after all that, you break my heart over and over with rejections.

I want to be good enough for you, Writing. Don’t give up on me. I promise I will never quit on you. I’m as serious as I can be about you. I’m committed. I want only the best for you. I hope you want the same for me.

Writing, I give you my heart. Try not to stomp it into mush.

I love you.

So Much To Do

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I have heaps piled on my desk: my Alex Bullied edit (finally finished), lists of agents who promise they’re looking for books just like mine, Morning of the Mermaid revisions (thirteen critiqued chapters, waiting for corrections), notes for this blog. There are novels to read, how-to books to study, scraps of paper with notes on them and file folders galore.

I organize and reorganize, use stacking trays or wire baskets or file folder holders. I still have heaps, though. They’re just stacked or upright.

I keep thinking I’ll whittle these heaps down into something manageable, but they keep growing. They become crushing mountains of white. Eventually there will be an avalanche and I will be buried alive. And still unpublished.

Then I stop and think about Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. It’s a must-read writer’s book, but really, everyone should read it. The central lesson concerns Lamott’s brother and his school project about birds of America. He didn’t know where or how to start, it seemed so overwhelming. So his dad told him to take it a bird at a time. And really, is there anything else we can do? Bird by bird.

When I got involved with my son’s school’s PTA, one of the things I took on was to organize the school’s annual Family Fun Day. Talk about overwhelming. I’d never done anything like it before. I had some moments of gut-busting fear. The solution was as simple as breaking it down, bird-by-bird style. Focusing attention on one thing at a time. It’s a philosophy that works for everything.

Then, to really help remind me, there’s my name. I wasn’t born Brix. I never cared for my given name. I was always on the lookout for a new name, something that felt more like me. When I was about twenty-five I had a friend who was something of a guru to me. One day, this being my mid-terrible-twenties, I asked him to fix my life.

He said, “The problem with you is that you want the wall to just be there. You don’t realize you have to build it a brick at a time.” This was years before Bird by Bird, so for me, it’s more brick by brick. My friend dubbed me “Bricks.” I loved it and spelled it with an x and changed it legally. So I am always reminded.

That’s what I’m doing now. Perfecting a book and getting it published is my wall and I’m building it a brick at a time. In that way I can face what seems insurmountable and make it manageable. I can organize my desk and my work. I can stop being so hard on myself. As someone recently reminded me — people with messy desks are creative. From the looks of mine, I must be the Queen of Creativity.

Do you also have a lot going on? Work piling up? How do you stay organized? Do you have a special trick that helps you? I’d love to know.

 

Rejection

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We all have that dream, right? You know, the one where your query gets an immediate response, with a request for the entire manuscript. A week later that Big Agent in NYC wants to represent  you.

Yes, that dream.

That dream actually happened to me, with my first book, Riding On The Wind. I was so green at the time I didn’t realize what a miracle it was to have an agent accept the book on only my third query. Now, this was not a Big NYC Agent. It was smaller, The Bookstop Agency in Orinda, CA. That didn’t matter. The Call came, with the agent on the other end, telling me how her assistant had insisted she read my manuscript and how it “made” her weekend. She was excited about my book, how great was that?

Pretty great. Unfortunately, I learned about rejection after that, when no publisher bought the manuscript. There were a few close calls and some very nice rejection letters, but no sale. Soon after, I attended the Maui Writers Conference and in a workshop, when I asked about sending the book out again, I was told that it was too late. Even if I changed the title, no one would look at it now. It had done the rounds. So I self-published.

I don’t want to self-publish again. I want more readers.

The reality is we’ll all get our share of rejections. Sometimes it seems we may be getting someone else’s share, too. My first experience encouraged the dream. My second and third, not so much. Now I’m on my fourth book, the best so far, I believe. And my first round of rejections have arrived.

I was initially ambitious about querying. I promised myself I would send one a day, at the very least. That was two months ago and I’ve sent four. I’ve been distracted by travel and company and my son and editing another book, and, well, life. It happens.

Now we’re deep into summer and we’ve always heard this is one of the worst times to query, the other being the Winter holidays. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

I’ve received two rejections. Maria Caravainis of the Maria Caravainis Agency had to, unfortunately, report that she did not feel sufficiently enthusiastic about my project to pursue it further. She regretted the impersonal nature of her letter but they just don’t have time to respond personally to all the queries they receive. She did appreciate the opportunily to consider my work and wished me much success and pleasure in my writing.

Then Michael Bourret of the Dystel & Goderich Literary Management thanked me for letting him look at my materials and asked forgiveness for the form letter. However, the volume of submissions, etc. , etc. The project I described does not suit their list at this time. He, too, wished me best of luck in finding an agent.

I really believe Alex Bullied has what it takes — I could be wrong — but I’ve only had these four queries out since I had the book professionally edited.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, received sixty rejections from agents. She kept going back and rewriting. The fortieth told her, “There is no market for this kind of tiring writing.” She kept rewriting. Number sixty-one was the charm.

Agatha Christie spent five years collecting rejections. Two hundred rejections for Louis L’Amour until Bantam took a chance on him. My reading life would have been sorely lacking if Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, had given up after her twenty-five rejections. Twenty-four for Nicolas Sparks’ The Notebook (not my cup of tea, but can’t argue with success). Stephanie Meyers only suffered through fourteen rejections before placing Twilight with an agent.

I wonder if each of these authors, and all the others, too many to mention, went back, as Kathryn Stockett did, and rewrote, making their books better. That is my plan. I will figure ten agents may not be wrong and I’ll take another look at the manuscript then. So I have six more queries to send with two who have not yet responded.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Stay tuned.

Beta Readers

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Eventually we finish an improved, edited version of the first draft of our novels. We’ve run every chapter past our critique groups. We’ve read and applied editing tips. We’ve sweated over and changed our openings a dozen (or more) times. We’ve spell checked, grammar checked and read it over and over until we know it by heart. But is it really done? Now what?

Beta readers, that’s what.

I don’t know why we call them beta readers. Beta is the name of the second letter in the Greek alphabet. It’s the second of a group or series and the second brightest star in the night sky. So beta is second. Wouldn’t it be alpha readers? Alpha, the name of the first letter of the Greek alphabet, the beginning of everything, seems like it would be more apropos. I suppose, though, that we, the writers, could be considered the first readers.

Now we need second readers, but the first to read what we hope is the finished manuscript. Or close to finished. You would think family and friends would be lining up. Not so much. And really, are those the folks we want to read this first finished draft? An instructor in a writing class I took early on told us that when you have a very early draft, it’s good to give it to someone who is not going to be too critical and will probably tell you how wonderful you are. That’s when we want those loved ones to read it. It encourages up to soldier on with the project. eventually, though, we’re going to need people who can give us constructive criticism so that our manuscripts can get better. Mom or Sister may love our words, but they are not agents or publishers.

The beta reader thing is tricky.

The beta read is not an editor. He may find and mark mistakes and this is good but mainly you want your reader to answer questions. Did the beginning grab you? Did it bog down anywhere? Did the characters, the dialogue seem real? Was any of it confusing?

One downside of beta readers is that they can take their own sweet time getting around to reading our manuscripts. This waiting, on our part, can be agonizing. Did our first pages bore? Is the manuscript so bad that they’re afraid to tell us? We swallow our pride and call, only to find out that they haven’t even picked it up yet.

My friend Jack is the perfect beta reader. He sits down immediately and reads through the entire thing. Jack is smart, well read, and a writer himself. This is the reader we want. His critique is valuable. These people are harder to find than you might imagine. But keep looking because getting that informed overview of you story is not just helpful but necessary.

Stephen King says, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” But I wonder if the scariest moment isn’t the one just before you hand over your manuscript to someone to read. And judge.

Critique Groups

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Critique groups are like sardines — you either love them or hate them. Me, I love critique groups. Sardines, not so much. I think the love/hate issue with the former depends on whether you’ve ever been in a good one. I don’t know if there is a good sardine.

I’ve been in a few groups. The best have strong leaders with some knowledge of what constitutes good writing and how to go about improving. I’ve gone — one meeting is all it takes — to classes or groups with egocentric asses or clueless idiots as leaders. This doesn’t work for me. Getting together once or twice a month doesn’t work for me, exchanging pages beforehand doesn’t work for me — feels too much like homework. What I do like are read-and-critique groups that meet once a week, with members I can respect. The writer brings pages, usually not more than eight, and five or six are best. A chapter, basically. She may or may not pass out copies.Then she reads and everyone reads along or listens and gives their knee-jerk critiques.

This is amazingly helpful. Some have mocked the critique group, calling it “writing by committee.” It is not that. Be assured, it is always your story and you can tell it in any way you want. However, if you want your writing to improve, to maybe get to that level of traditional publishing, you may want feedback.

The writers who do not want to be critiqued generally believe they are already way too good to allow people to tell them what doesn’t work. This is a big mistake. It stops the progress of their writing. You have to be open to change. You have to be open to getting your butt kicked. It’s for your own good, believe me. Anyway, if you’re going to be any kind of artist, you’d better develop a thick skin. A critique group is a good place to start doing that.

Another great thing about committing to a weekly critique group is that, at least in ours, everyone is required to WRITE. Members can only go a couple of weeks before they are prodded to bring something: a new chapter, a revised chapter, an old or new short story. Knowing that I will have to read a new chapter every week makes me write a new chapter every week. And I get my first feedback on it immediately. I’ve written three complete novels since joining this group. I’ve seen other members finish novels and memoirs. We help each other with queries and synopses. I’ll be reading this blog entry to them. By the time  you read it, it will have been improved.

Often when  you read articles or blogs by agents and editors, they will tell you that if you’re going to spend any money on your manuscript, use it on a freelance editor. That’s good advice. But a professional editor can be expensive. My critique group serves this purpose nicely. They can weed out the offending grammar and unnecessary adjectives, tell me when my POV or tense changes and notice if the plot is going off the rails. Better still, they know my voice and the way I tell a story.

I still think we should all use an editor, if possible. We want to give that person the best we’ve been able to do with our book, so that hopefully she will not have all that much work to do on it, making it less expensive for us. Having run our manuscript through our critique group helps with that.

If you do get a group together, its a good idea to establish some ground rules. For our group, which we named The North County Writers Bloc, we have guidelines which set up how the meeting will be run. New members are given a copy. None of the rules are carved in stone but it helps to have some order.

You’ll find some critiquers will specialize. In our group we had the man who encouraged starting a chapter with dialogue, someone else who looks to shorten sentences, others specialize in opening up the plot, or finding those pesky passive verbs or pointing out problems with tense or point of view. And often, when others are being critiqued you’ll find you learn something, too.

Here’s what a few members of the North County Writers Bloc had to say about this blog entry:

“Yes, I agree. I’ve completed four novels. For a guy who doesn’t type, that’s pretty good. My stress is my business and it is forgotten when I’m writing. So is this extending my life.”

“I learn from others’ writing styles, vocabularies. It’s great entertainment, having all these stories. Orin ( a recently deceased member, sadly) always changes my beginnings.”

“If I hadn’t found NCWB, I would never have written anything. Let alone anything halfway decent.”

That All Important First Sentence

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I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – San Diego chapter. Award winning author of forty-one (and counting) children’s books, Richard Peck, spoke at a recent meeting. His topic was First Lines and he gave examples of great ones. Would the opening to my Alex Bullied be one of them? I thought not. It’s certainly no Charlotte’s Web, which begins “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

Back to the drawing board. How do I make that first sentence sparkle? Sometimes a writer works and reworks a first sentence. I did that with my first book, Riding On The Wind.When I finally wrote–  “Carrie could barely sit still on the hard wagon seat. Never in her fifteen years had a trip into town taken so long.” I knew I had my opening.

When I first thought of writing Morning of the Mermaid, I was inspired by a line I thought would be the first sentence — “When Calista’s parents died, an hour apart, she thought, now I will experience great grieving and utter desolation.” I thought that had punch. But it just didn’t work and ended up somewhere in the middle of the book.

Anything else in the whole two or three hundred pages can be changed. We all know the quote — credited to everyone from Hemingway to King — “kill your darlings.” We know we cannot become attached to our words. But we fall a little too much in love with our first words. They’re our first-born. The words that make up our first line are the favorites of our darlings. But sometimes, woe is us, they have to go.

Here’s the thing about that first line, that first page. When we write the original, it feels fresh and right and pulls us in to keep writing all of those 200-300 pages. When we have to go back and start the book again, it can feel forced. Not like the first time when we were so inspired. We are all too aware, this second or third go-around, of how important our first lines are.

After listening to Richard Peck speak, I knew I would have to rethink the opening to Alex Bullied. I kept staring at it, hoping, I suppose, that it shone with such brilliance that it jumped off the page, snaring the reader. It didn’t. It began — “Geeks and losers streamed int Gureville Math and Sciences Charter Middle School.” Not exactly Richard Peck-worthy. I continued with — “September sunlight blinked off eyeglasses and mouths full of braces. I’d never seen so many buttoned up, tucked in, wrinkle-free shirts or high-waisted khakis in one place in my life. Where were the jocks? Oh yeah, no sports, unless you count chess or glee club.”

Don’t judge.

My first attempt was even worse. I had the kid imagining himself in an old black and white Twilight Zone. That really didn’t work, for so many reasons. Three pages in and I knew if I didn’t change it, the entire book would fall flat.

I kept thinking how important that first impression is, to the agent’s assistant, the agent, the publisher, the reader. And that’s when I came up with this, the final first sentence and opening to Alex Bullied — “You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” my mom said.

Seems to me that says it all.