Thursday, December 01, 2011

My 40 Days in the Wilderness

Everyone's heard the 1 Corinthians 13 passage during wedding services, but do you think any couple actually tries to literally follow its advice?

For those of you who forget the passage:

1 Corinthians 13

1 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Following this passage to the letter is what I'm going to try to do for the next 40 days, not just with my husband, but with everyone. I was looking for a "New Testament 10 Commandments", and in my mind, this is as close as you get.

Right now I'm thinking the hardest parts to follow will be always being truthful, trusting, and hopeful. While I'm generally a truthful person, everyone tells white lies now and again, so that one is obviously going to be difficult. I don't consider myself naive, so always being trusting will also be a stretch. (Let's hope no Nigerian scammers get past my spam filter, because I have a feeling that rule would dictate I'd have to send them money. I'll have to give that further thought.) As far as being permanently hopeful, while I think this will be difficult (I am a worrier by nature), it should be nice to have to force myself to think positively. I'm hoping that while this experiment will be difficult, it'll also be uplifting in the end as well.

The reason I'm undertaking this experiment is to get in the head of the protagonist in the next book I'm writing. It's a Young Adult/Middle Grade book (I haven't decided which yet) about a girl that does this very same experiment. I purposefully chose to do this over the holidays because I figured (1) the holidays will add a higher layer of difficulty with traveling and being around family and in-laws, and (2) what better time to try to more closely follow the Bible than during the Christmas season.

I'll keep you updated on my progress. So far this morning all I've done is check my email and write an examiner.com article. It was entitled "The Party of Stupid" so I don't know how "kind" I was. I maintain that I was following the advice to be honest, and that's honestly how I felt. (Seriously, though, I'm exempting my examiner articles because good writing is all about honesty.)

In general, though, it's going to be quite difficult to reconcile being kind with being honest. I think that's going to result in me just keeping my mouth shut most of the time. Especially if Max says something ridiculous or my in-laws attempt to make gravy. ;)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Max's 30th Birthday

This isn't entirely writing related, but I wanted to write a full description of Max's surprise birthday weekend, and a facebook status update just wouldn't cut it.

In advance I told him that he needed to take off a day from work on Friday so we could head out on Thursday night to parts unknown. When he saw that we were flying into Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, he was a bit surprised, to say the least.

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(It might not be famous, but it is beautiful.)

Northwest Arkansas doesn't exactly fit the schema for dream vacation destination, but as our rental car approached Eureka Springs, Max quickly figured out where we were heading. I'd visited Eureka Springs with my best friend Michelle a couple of times because it's not too far from her house in Springfield, Missouri, and I'd told him how much I'd enjoyed it.

Eureka Springs is a town of contrasts. Hippies and Jesus Freaks live happily side-by-side in this small town that looks more Old West than Ozarks.

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(One of the town's two main streets. It's not a huge place.)

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(Park in center of town.)

In one shop you'll find a sign that says "Let your freak flag fly," and right next door you'll find a sign that says "Let your freak flag fly...somewhere else." [That's not a metaphor. We actually saw both of those signs.]

You can see a show with a medium that claims to be able to speak to the spirits, or you can see a passion play performed right next to the largest statue of Jesus in North America.

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(His official name is "Christ of the Ozarks" although some call him "Milk Carton Jesus." I'm not sure which name is more offensive. Also, the grassy hill actually makes him look smaller than he is. In fact, this statue is 7 stories high.)

When we pulled up to our rented tree house, Max was met with balloons, a birthday cake, and champagne. Even though we were in a tree house, we definitely weren't roughing it. It was pimped out with a hot tub, fireplace, and flat screen.


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(It was dark when we got there, so this is a picture from the next day.)

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(The view from our balcony.)

The next day (Friday) we went sightseeing in Eureka Springs and we saw "The Ghosts Have Answers," an illusionist/medium show. It was super fun, if not world class. The performer was so nice that he actually called me twice to ensure that we knew that the location for the performance had been changed. Yes, I said the performer called me...twice.

Saturday was Max's actual birth date. In the morning we got spa treatments (mineral baths, steam tank, clay masks, and massages). Then we went to the Onyx Cave.

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That evening we went to Rogue's Manor for dinner.

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When we got there, who was there, but most of Max's family and Michelle & her family! Max was incredibly surprised. He never guessed that I had been coordinating with his mother & Michelle for months to make this happen.

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(Michelle & her husband Steve.)

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(Michelle & Steve's beautiful children. They were incredibly well behaved. From left, Violet, Rhys, Alisha, and James.)

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(Max's mom & dad.)

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(Max's grandmother and brother.)

On the table were letters sent by various friends and family letting Max know how much they love him. Michelle was kind enough to coordinate all of that.

All-in-all we had an incredible time. Max & I have been lucky enough to have been on a number of incredible vacations in our short marriage, but for me, this one was by far the best one we've been on. If this weekend shows just a sliver of the love that I have for Max, then it was a success.

Thanks for everyone who helped me out with this weekend. I really appreciate it!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Writers Conferences and the In Between

A few weeks ago I went to the James River Writer's Conference in Richmond--my first writers conference.  I have to admit I was slightly terrified.  I wanted to drag my mom along with me, but she was off in Florida.  I was scared everyone there would see me for what I am.  See that I'm not really a writer.  I'm just some girl (lady? woman?) who sits at her cheap Compaq laptop and writes what comes into her head. 

I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but whatever it was, I didn't find it.  Everyone was really welcoming.  The speakers were all incredibly inspiring.  (I currently have a literary crush on Robert Goolrick.  I just finished his memoir The End of the World as We Know It which was incredible).  I realized that half the people there hadn't even finished their novel.  I was one step ahead of them. Sure, some of the people did have agents.  Some of them had published books, but somehow, there, they just seemed a step ahead of me.

The conference was wonderful.  It made me realize I am a real author and feel proud of myself, somehow.  I've written a novel--one and a half, even.  That's something that a lot of people talk about, but few actually accomplish.  I know I have talent (even some of the rejection letters I get tell me so).  I just have to keep at it.  It's a numbers game.  If you don't give up, eventually you get published.  At the conference, I met with an agent and she requested the first thirty pages of my solo project.  I'm pretty sure she did that for everyone, so I'm not holding my breath, but when I got home I queried 10 agents for that project.  One requested the full manuscript that day (but sadly rejected me the next day).  Another one rejected me saying that the project wasn't right for her but at the bottom of the form letter she took precious seconds out of her day to write "Good voice, good comparisons".  I was happier about that than the request for the full.  I pride myself on my comparisons.  Max made me a shirt once that read "Queen of Analogies".  It was nice to hear from a professional that even if I'm not the Queen, I'm at least the Page.

Since then, a new agent has requested a partial of the book that Michelle & I wrote.  Since our revisions I'm feeling pretty good about it, but we'll see how it goes.  That (amazing superstar) agent has it on an exclusive basis, so fingers crossed.  In the end, though, if she wants to represent it, awesome.  If not, we'll soldier on.

This morning I outlined a new book.  It's a book of women's book club fiction (that is, it would appeal to women and it's of the sort that book clubs would select).  My last book was sad so I'm looking forward to writing this new book--everyone gets out alive.  It's got an interesting premise.  It's one of those premises that if I told you, you'd think "I could've come up with that," but I've googled it, and I can't find any book quite like it.  I think it's going to be fun to write.

In parting, I just have to mention how lucky I am to have such a wonderfully supportive husband.  I said to Max last night that while I might be part of the 99% in income, I'm definitely part of the 1% in lives.  I have the best husband, the best mother, the best friends (best friend and otherwise).  Obviously I hope one or more of these books finds an agent/publisher soon, but if they don't, I'll make it through until they do.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

So much news to report, although still no agent

I really need to start blogging more consistently.  In any event, here is a (brief, I hope) run-down of what's going on right now.

First, the Traveler full manuscript is still out with one agent, but with time passing, it's looking quite likely it'll be a pass.  From the feedback we've gotten, we realized that the pace at the beginning needs to be sped up considerably, so we've been working on edits to accomplish just that.  We're almost done with that process, cutting about 10,000 words if that gives you any indication of the depth of our cuts.  Before we start sending it out again, I want to post it on Critique Circle to get feedback from other writers.  If all looks well from the critiques then we'll pick back up on querying.

Speaking of Critique Circle, I've found it to be a great learning tool.  On it, you can spend credits to post your work for critique, and you get those credits by critiquing other people's work.  I haven't yet had my first piece up for review, but I've been spending a lot of time critiquing other people's work.  I've found this to be amazingly enlightening about what works and what doesn't.  Also, I read the critiques by other writers on pieces that I critiqued which shows me even more things that I may not have thought of.  I highly recommend the site (or others like it) for all writers.  It has already greatly enriched my own writing and editing process.

Beyond that, since the last time I posted, I wrote another novel (I wrote the entire thing in 3 weeks--I was inspired, what can I say?).  This one is a Young Adult Contemporary piece that is very important to me because it's loosely based on real events that happened in my own life.  Right now I've put it away for a few weeks so that I can get some distance from it before I begin my edits in earnest, but I've posted the first three chapters on Critique Circle to get feedback.  I'm excited to find out what they have to say (although a bit terrified).  

In non-writing news, I decided not to go back to Temple so that I can focus on my writing (grad school is a 50+ hour per week venture).  I am determined to make my writing a success (which I define as getting published), and there was no way that I could do both.  Plus, as it turned out, I'm just not into research which is what you do in grad school.  The program doesn't pay enough for me to stay in it if I don't love it, so I figured the fair thing to do would be to leave. 

Moreover, I've accepted a Fall Fellowship with the Obama campaign that runs from mid-September to early December.  I'll be organizing volunteers (after I round some up), and I'm looking forward to it, although I'm concerned about my workload.  The hours I'll work for the fellowship are 1-9, so my plan is to use the mornings to work on writing/editing/querying.  That's going to make for a lot of long days, but since I love writing and I love politics, hopefully it won't seem that way.  I'm doing this for two reasons: (1) I love my country and if I can volunteer to help out I want to, and (2) it gives me community organizing experience which is a good Plan B.  (Moreover, while this is not a paid position, these fellowships often lead to paying positions inside the campaign, so I have my fingers crossed about that.)

I'm also planning on getting more involved in local politics (both to buttress my work for the Obama campaign as well as because I enjoy politics).  Next week, for instance, I'm planning on going to the local Cheltenham democratic meeting.  Hopefully that'll be fun.  I'm going to spend the next few months shaking a lot of hands and handing out a lot of cards.

Speaking of cards, I got a bunch of business cards to use at the writer's conference that I'll be attending next month.  I have a pitch session in front of an agent lined up that I'm excited about.  I'm going to pitch my new novel because Michelle & I had already queried this agent re: Traveler.  I'm also going to mingle mingle mingle and hope that I can land my big break.

Another way that I'm increasing my chances of my big break happening is that this coming weekend I'm going to attend a local pitchapalooza.  For that, 20 people out of a crowd of usually hundreds are randomly selected to give their pitch, and the winning participant is set up with an agent.  Just such an event is how Genn Albin (an amazing new author that I am lucky enough to be friends with--well, at least on facebook--she does comment on my posts sometimes ;)) got her big break, so I'm hoping that lightening can strike twice.

I love all of you and I want to say thank you for all of your support.  I know that Michelle's & my break is right around the corner, and you know that when it happens, you'll be the first to hear about it.  (OK, that's a lie.  Michelle will be the first to hear, then Max, then my mom, then anyone within shouting distance, and then you.)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

When no news is definitely not good news

No new news to report in the finding an agent front.  I cannot begin to describe how excruciating this process is.  Michelle & I sent out our first batch of ten query letters on July 2nd and got three requests for the manuscript.  We've heard back from one of those three people, and obviously it was a no, or I would certainly have something to report.  Then two weeks ago we sent out a second batch of ten query letters, but we haven't heard back from any of those agents yet.  July is a busy month, and the agents we just queried have an average response time of 3-4 weeks when they give positive news, so this doesn't mean that we won't be getting any more requests.  Going a few weeks without hearing anything from anyone, though, has been trying, to put it mildly.

Notwithstanding our anxiety about hearing back from agents, we're plowing ahead with the second book of the series.  We already had a good idea what was going to happen in the next book (we have a plan for the entire 4-5 book series, actually), so it hasn't been that difficult.  We're in the home stretch of outlining the book, and I'm really happy with it so far, although it has been slightly harder to outline than the first.  There are continuity issues to contend with as well as decisions about what we want to reveal when.  I think we've struck the right balance between revealing a lot of new and interesting information while still leaving a lot of grist for later books.

It's hard, though, working on book two when we're still in limbo regarding book one.  I still feel good about what we produced.  All of our beta readers loved it, and one of the agents who requested our manuscript said that she "greatly enjoyed [our] beginning" so I hope she feels the same way about the rest of the book when she finally reads it.  (I'm hoping that the fact that we haven't heard from her yet is because she hasn't had time to read the book.  That's not an impossibility because her average response time when she agrees to represent a book is close to a month from submission.)

The other night when Michelle & I were working, I really started to think about about what it would be like if our book didn't get published.  When you spend this much time with your characters you honestly come to love them as if they're real people, and the idea that they would never get put into print can only be described as akin to the idea that your child would never get to be born.  Maybe that's a bit of hyperbole, especially since I don't have any children yet, but I'm sure Michelle would feel the same way and she does have her share of lovable rugrats. 

I've been saying for weeks that I have a feeling that after we finish outlining book 2 we're going to start hearing back from people.  Since we will be finishing that tonight, I guess my premonition is about to be put to the test.  Let's hope that this premonition is as prophetic as when I told my roommate in New Orleans that I just had the strongest feeling that she wasn't going to be in school in the coming semester with absolutely no reason to believe that until a week later when Hurricane Katrina hit.  Maybe I'm good at predicting cataclysmic life changes, and this certainly would be one for us, although hopefully one without such devastating consequences.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Ups and Downs of Getting Feedback

This last week has been chocked fulls of highs and lows both in my professional life and my personal life, but for brevity's sake I'll just stick with the professional.

This past Wednesday we were to receive feedback from our beta readers about the book.  However, we'd already heard back from a number of them personally, and the feedback was almost universally positive, so last Saturday night at 11PM we just couldn't resist, and we began querying agents.  The way that you do this is you send your query letter (which is like a cover letter that describes your book in 2 paragraphs and tells a bit about yourself) and any other materials they request (such as the first few chapters) to the top 10 agents on your list.  Most people never hear back (positively) from any of their top 10 agents, and so then they move down to the next 10 agents, etc. until they find one.  Well, by 5 PM on Sunday, we'd already gotten our first request to see the full manuscript.  We were excited because not only did an agent want to look at our manuscript, but he was a very big name agent and he got back to us in 24 hours during a holiday weekend!  The following Monday we got two more requests for the manuscript, one from an agent who had already read the first chapter which she "greatly enjoyed," so we were feeling pretty good about everything.

On Wednesday we sat down with everyone who had read our book to get feedback.  Now, Michelle & I really did write this book together.  There are many lines that she wrote and many that are mine throughout the entire book, but I wrote the first draft of the prologue (which was meant to be very different in tone than the rest of the book since it's set in the 1800s), and she wrote the first draft of all the other chapters.  This was fair because I did an extensive amount of research on Irish Travelers and other things relevant to the story arc of the series, so we ended up doing essentially the same amount of work (I may have worked a bit more hours, but the work that she had to do was more draining).

Anyhoo, so it was difficult to hear at the book club that people loved the writing of the book overall, but just didn't think the writing quality of the prologue matched the rest of the book.  I think they thought they were helping cushion the blow by repeatedly emphasizing that the writing in the rest of the book was so much better, but little did they know that they were just twisting those screws in further and further.  While no one said anything at the actual book club meeting for fear of contradicting what others said, three people who've read the book have told me privately that they liked the prologue.  I still stand by the fact that it is purposefully written in a different style that may appeal to some people and not others.  I'm interested to see what agents think about it.  I'm certainly willing to re-write it and there are some things about it that I think would be good to change, but I think if you didn't use more formal language, etc. (which were a chunk of the comments) then it would lose the feeling of being in the past.

Regardless of my own ego (which I need to get over, but it's really hard when you want to make writing your career and you have 4 people tell you that your writing is just meh, or at least it was difficult not to take it that way), the vast majority of the feedback about the book was positive.  In particular people really liked the characterization of the male lead, Shay.  They liked the plot and the female lead as well, but the most effusive praise came regarding Shay.

So the next day, I was still feeling pretty down (partially because of the feedback from the book, but partially because of things going on in my and a number of my friends' personal lives), and I wake up to a rejection from the first guy who requested the full manuscript.  He said that there was too much exposition, particularly in the dialogue, and that we also needed to work on characterization, especially with Shay.  Well, after the feedback from the beta readers, we were totally floored.  I went back and re-read the first chapter to see what he was talking about re: exposition, and while of course there is some amount of exposition in any dialogue at the beginning of a book, that was something that I gave great care to when we were planning out the book/editing.  I certainly don't think any of the dialogue sounds forced to cram in backstory. 

So that was depressing.  After reading the letter about 5 times and having Max read it, Michelle & I really think that the person never read past the first chapter.  If there was a lack of characterization for Shay, then there must have been an even greater lack of characterization for Spencer, but she's not mentioned (and since she doesn't come in 'til Chapter 2, that would make sense if the agent didn't get past the first chapter).  This agent generally represents more high fantasy, and so we're just hoping that he was expecting magic to happen on the first page and so when he had a whole chapter about Travelers in a Traveler camp, he was like, "This is all exposition!  Get to the story!"  When in reality our book isn't a fantasy book that happens to have Travelers in it.  It's a book about Travelers that happens to have some supernatural elements.

The only thing that Michelle & I can comfort ourselves with is the fact that another agent has read our first chapter and "greatly enjoyed" it, so perhaps this guy just doesn't see our vision whereas that woman will.  Only time will tell.  Obviously, if we receive the same feedback from others then we'll have to reassess.

It hasn't even been a week since we started querying, and it was a holiday week at that, but this wait is killing me.  I don't know how other people do it who don't even hear back from anyone.  Plus, I know that at least one of the agents who we queried hasn't even read it yet, because she (very thankfully) posts on her blog through which date she's read all queries, and she's only up to June 23rd.  There are also a lot of writers' conferences going on right now so people are busy.

I have high hopes that we'll hear more back this coming week.  I mean, really, it takes 2-3 weeks on average to hear back about a query letter (when the response is positive), and it takes on average 3-4 weeks to hear about the manuscript, so we're already light years ahead.

On Sunday I'm going to Springfield for 3 weeks to be with Michelle.  We just  need to put all of this querying out of our minds (well, as much as possible) and focus on outlining the next book.  That is so much easier said than done.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Waiting Waiting Waiting or Can't We Just Submit This Thing Already?

I just skimmed my last post and boy was I feeling confident that day!  That is definitely not the way that I've been feeling the last two weeks, but a lot of that has to do with criticism that we received from an up & coming Young Adult novelist named Genn Albin (GA).

About two weeks ago I was looking through Publishers Marketplace at book deals that had closed in the previous week.  I saw a post about a first time novelist (GA) who sold the beginning of her Young Adult Science Fiction series after having 7 publishers bidding on it.  Michelle & I were talking about how inspiring it was to see a debut novelist have such a great outcome, and so we decided to look up her blog.  While there, Michelle noticed that GA had offered to critique anyone's Query Letter (QL, which is the letter that you send to potential agents asking for representation) who donated money to Joplin relief.  Knowing that GA's own QL was awesome (we had found that on a different website) and had been clearly successful, we thought any guidance from her could only be a good thing.

I donated money to Joplin, and true to her word, GA agreed to critique our query letter.  I had spent many many long hours on our QL, and I really thought it was pretty good.  Also, when I took a synopsis writing class from a former editor, the editor also said that she thought that my QL was good (although she didn't seem to have as high of a bar for excellence that I do, so I didn't know whether to trust that or not).

Eventually, GA's critique came back, and apparently she didn't think our QL was as good as I did.  She suggested changing just about everything about it, and she really emphasized that it needed to be written in such a way to make the book seem interesting (well, I certainly hadn't written it the first time with the idea of making the book seem dull, so that advice fell a bit flat).

Of course that was a bit of a hit to the ego (huge understatement), but I really didn't want the critique to be about my ego, I wanted it to be of use to us, so I immediately talked over with Michelle how we could re-write the QL to make it better.  GA had suggested (among many other things) that we might remove any reference to Irish Travelers since that seemed to be bogging the QL down.  Well, our book is about an Irish Traveler con artist, so if she thought that the QL could be improved by removing reference to the Travelers, then clearly our QL hadn't made it clear how interesting they are.  Because of that, I reconceptualized how the QL should be formatted.  Everything else that I had read about Query writing talked about how you didn't want a lot of "backstory" in your QL, and I thought that describing the Travelers' lifestyle would be too much backstory, so I had barely described them at all.  Clearly this wasn't working, and we needed to write the QL the way that made the hook of our story stand out.  I realized that our QL needed to focus on all of the things that make Travelers interesting and a great hook.  Michelle & I bounced some ideas off each other & I came up with a few lines about how the Travelers are a group of striking contrasts (or some such), and I asked Michelle to write the newly conceptualized QL (because, let's face it, I was still stinging a bit by the fact that my first effort wasn't up to snuff, so the idea of writing a new letter didn't appeal to me at that moment).

After a few revisions, Michelle & I had our new and improved QL, and because Genn Albin is just that awesome, she offered to give us feedback on our revision, so we sent if off to her.  Within a day she got back to us and called our new QL "AWESOME".  She said she'd get back to us with more specific thoughts about it soon, but we're happy that she thinks the new QL is a big improvement at least.  That also helped me go from a place of self doubt (what if I'm wrong about our book -- what if it really isn't as good as we think it is) to a place of confidence (well, obviously I had a good eye for how our QL needed to be changed, so I probably have a good eye for what works in our novel also).  Even thought Query writing and novel writing are not at all the same thing (with most novelists finding Query letter writing to be more difficult than writing the novel), this experience reminded me that I'm going to have a long road of criticism ahead, so I better get used to it now.

Otherwise, Michelle & I are excited because we printed out copies of our novel for our friends who are acting as first readers, and our friends have already started reading the novel (and three or so have already finished it).  Kristyn called me the other day to tell me that both she and Dustin couldn't put the novel down and they both really liked it.  That was a great boost to my spirits.  I literally felt like I could cry.  I just really want other people to love this novel as much as Michelle & I do.  Since then, the other small amount of feedback that we've received from other readers has also been positive.  This has made me anxious to have the first read book club so that we can get on with submitting to agents already.  I really want to see how this is all going to play out.  Will we get quick requests for the full manuscript?  Will someone want to represent us?  Will we get a publishing deal?  Being a novelist isn't enough.  I won't be happy until I'm a professional novelist.


P.S.  Now that you know that our novel is about Irish Travelers, do you have any insight into why I named this blog Tinkering with Writing?  Hint: Travelers are often referred to by a name other than just Traveler.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Home Stretch (well, of writing at least)

Michelle and I finally have a complete draft!  The book is approximately 80,000 words (the sweet spot for Young Adult), and 26 chapters, plus a prologue.  I'm very happy about this, of course, but I must say that I don't feel near the excitement that (1) I think I should feel, and (2) I thought I would feel.  The feeling is rather anemic, really.  I think part of it is that Michelle isn't here yet (she'll be in Pennsylvania in 5 days), and also partly that having a draft isn't really any sort of end point.  Right now I am editing furiously so that we can have our first full draft "completed" by June 16th.  Obviously that's only two weeks away.  We need to have the draft done by then so that we can distribute it to the members of what we are fashioning our "First Read Book Club".  (Basically people we've asked to read the book to give us feedback.)

That is what I'm really looking forward to.  Printing off entire drafts and mailing them to people will really feel like we've done something.  Right now I just have 27 separate files for the different chapters.  Incorporating them all into one document and printing that out for people to read, now that'll be something.  I feel like I should be anxious about people's reactions once they read it, but right now I'm not terribly nervous.  I expect constructive criticism (in fact, I hope for some), and I don't expect that anyone will hate the book.  It would be nice for at least a few of the readers to really like it (there will be seven people reading the book including my husband, my mother, and my brother), but honestly, even if people only think the book is "cute" I know how I feel about the book, and I don't know how much other people's opinions will change that.  I mean, obviously I need to take criticism and analyze it, and the whole point of having people read it is to see where we can make improvements, but no reaction could convince me that our book isn't great.

It's like this.  While I was at Villanova for the semester in 2005 (due to Katrina), Michelle and I saw an HBO Comedy special with this weird New Zealand duo.  We both thought it was the funniest thing we'd ever seen.  We watched it over and over again.  When I got back to New Orleans, I showed it to Justin, and he also thought it was funny.  He was nice enough to find a recording online, and he made me a DVD of it for me.  For the next few weeks, I told all my friends about how hilarious this comedy duo was and how they just had to see this HBO special.  Finally, one night all of my roommates at the time (including Max) sat down to watch it with me.  I died laughing the entire time, while my roommates looked at me like I was mentally challenged.  No one thought it was funny at all.  It got me thinking that maybe I was a little crazy, although I knew that I still loved them.  Michelle even emailed one of the members of the duo, and he corresponded with her briefly.

Do you know who this comedy duo was?  Flight of the Conchords.  They're super popular now with their own HBO show that is primarily based off of that comedy special.  Max (who didn't think they were funny at all back in 2005) took me to see them for my birthday two years ago, and it amazed me to see the thousand or so people at the sold-out show who all loved them.  It just goes to show that you shouldn't allow your fate to be decided by one hostile focus group.

The thing that I've been so amazed about throughout this whole process is just how confident I am in what we're doing.  I'm never this confident, but I really love our book.  Not like, "I really loved The Help" (which I did, that book is amazing -- in fact, if you haven't read it, stop reading this right now and go out and buy it).  More like "I love my child.  It's a lot of work, and sometimes it pees on me, but I really really love it."  I guess there is a small part of me deep down that is quietly asking, "But what if I'm one of those people who has a monstrously ugly baby, but is convinced their snot monster is the cutest thing in the world?"  I guess that's just a risk I'm willing to take.

Friday, May 06, 2011

We're still in it to win it

It's nearly the end of our semesters (Michelle's last final is on the 13th and mine is this Monday).  Our goal was to have 21 out of the 27 chapters completed by the end of Michelle's semester, so it's still conceivable that we'll make that goal.  We currently have 20 chapters completed. 

I recently compiled the official list of all of the agents that we will query first, and that made this suddenly feel very real.  All of them are top notch agents who have represented best sellers and gotten 6-7 figure deals for first time novelists.  We would be blessed if any one of them decides to take us on.  I can only imagine how nerve wracking it will be to actually send out our query letters to all of these amazing people.

Moreover, since we have the completion of the novel in sight (if all goes as planned, the entire first draft will be completed by May 30th and it will be edited by June 20), I decided to start planning who will attend our "first read book club."  That is, once we have the book "finished," we want some of our friends to give it a once over to look for any plot holes, areas of confusion, any other other obvious problems.  There are a lot of great people that we'd like to read the book, but Michelle & I made the decision to limit the readers to people who would actually be able to attend our meeting where we discuss the book.  This eliminated anyone outside of this area (sorry Carlie & Nik!).  We intend to have our book club on Wednesday, July 6th which is exactly 2 months from now.  After that meeting we can incorporate any final edits that are necessary based on the feedback, and once that's done, we're ready to send off our query letters.

While I have many friends who are very supportive of our endeavor (which I am very thankful for), I still find it amazing how many people look at me like I've just declared that I'm running off with the circus when I tell them that I'm writing a novel.  Max & I have discussed this, and we've come to the conclusion that many people see the idea of trying to be a novelist as equivalent to trying to be an actor -- unlikely to bear any fruit.  While it's true that the vast majority of novelists never become billionaires like J.K. Rowling, it is quite possible to eke out a small living by writing novels, even if they never become best sellers.  I think what people don't realize is that when you sell your novel to a respectable publisher (*fingers crossed*), they give you an advance against sales (anywhere from $8,000-$1,000,000 for a first novel, but realistically in the $10,000-$50,000 range for our genre).  Michelle & I didn't even realize this when we started writing -- we started writing because we were passionate about the story -- but I just want to emphasize that I'm not some sort of kook, hitching my cart to a star.

The weird thing is that I'm usually not an overly confident person.  I've always gotten great grades and great feedback from all the jobs I've had, but I'm always afraid that this next thing I do will be the thing that I'll fail at.  I'm not a nervous wreck or anything, but it's this twinge of worry that never leaves me that propels me forward (and it's why I've always been so successful).

Writing a novel, then, should imbue me with a huge amount of terror because I could spectacularly fail at this.  I've never done any professional creative writing, and it's all speculative until you sell the damn thing.  However, I am amazingly calm about this.  I love our story, and I know that we are putting in the effort (serious blood, sweat and tears) to make this thing a success.  Not only have we spent hundreds of hours on writing/editing the book itself, I've spent at least 80 hours on researching agents, learning about how to write query letters, marketing a novel, and anything else relevant to the publishing world.  Is it really so crazy that after all this effort, Michelle & I could sell our novel?  I don't think so.

It secretly makes me smile inside when people act like we're crazy for doing this because I think to myself how foolish these people are going to feel for doubting us when our novel is finally published.  I imagine the look on that person's face when I tell them that our book will be released on such-and-such a date.  It makes me giddy.  The catch is that for this fantasy to come true, someone has to actually want to publish our novel.  I sure hope that happens because I literally can't imagine a future in which it doesn't.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

I finally feel like a novelist

It's only taken 7 months of work, hundreds of dollars spent on research and other resources, and tens of thousands of words written, but I finally feel like a novelist.

After Michelle & I were a few chapters into writing our book, I bought a number of books on novel writing, novel editing and novel selling.  [*Writing Geeks*  Notice my lack of Oxford comma in this last sentence.  As a former attorney I despise Oxford commas because lawyers never use them, but apparently they're a staple in fiction.  I really need to start using them, but they just piss me off.  If you have no idea what I'm talking about, click here.  What a stupid aside.  Can you tell that I've been anal retentively editing for the past few weeks?  Well, I have.]
 
So, I've read a lot of books on the process of writing & selling a novel.  In all the books they emphasize that you need to start thinking of yourself as a writer.  No matter whether you've sold your first book or not, you are writing, and therefore you're a writer.

Let me take a second to explain how the literary world works.  To sell your novel, it is very important to find an agent.  Nearly all of the major publishing houses will not read submissions from unrepresented writers, and so having an agent is quite literally required to submit to them.  You may be able to submit your manuscript to smaller publishing houses without representation, but then you can kiss any sort of advance goodbye.  We'd like to get paid for our book, so once our novel is written, we will need to find an agent.  The way that one goes about finding an agent is: (1) find agents who represent the sort of books that you have written [sounds easier than it is, I assure you], and (2) send those agents whatever materials they require, 10 agents at a time.  Nearly all agencies want you to send them a query letter.  A query letter contains 2 brief paragraphs about your book that (1) give an idea of the plot and style, and (2) make the agent want to read more.  The query letter also has a paragraph about your previous writing credits and sometimes why you are interested in that agent's representation in particular.  All of this needs to be done in less than 250 words.  Moreover, many agents will ask that you submit a 1-2 page synopsis of the book, as well as the first 5-20 pages.  All agents require that the novel is complete before you query them.  If they like what they see from your initial submissions, they'll ask for the full manuscript.

The publishing industry is difficult to crack.  Out of thousands to tens of thousands of queries that agents get every year, they will take on less than 10 new clients.  You don't have to be a statistical whiz to realize that your odds of finding representation are not great.  (And once you find an agent, they still need to sell your book!)  This means that you need a really tough skin.  You will receive many rejections.  You take anything constructive you can get out of them, and just move on.  Luckily I was unemployed for a year, so I'm used to rejection.

The good news is that most queries that agents receive are terrible.  I have become obsessed with a website called Query Shark.  In that blog, literary agent Janet Reid (the Query Shark) critiques real query letters sent in by aspiring authors.  Her critiques show, essentially, how not to write your query letter.  I have learned an amazing amount from her website.  If you can write a compelling query letter, then you are well on your way to finding representation, and I feel very competent about my ability to do just that.

We are not yet finished with our novel and so we are obviously not in a position to begin querying agents, but I am editing the chapters that Michelle gives me in batches of 10, so I'm on an editing hiatus for the next few weeks.  [I just finished the previous batch.]  I figured I might as well start looking into the publishing process.  Reading Janet Reid's blog inspired me, so I wrote our Query Letter.  (I'm still editing it, of course.  It could always be improved.  At this point, I've probably spent about 10-20 hours on it, though.)  Knowing that I'd also need to write a synopsis, I decided to sign up for an online synopsis writing class conducted by a former editor.  That class began yesterday, and it's what has really made me feel like a real author.  It's made me realize simultaneously how much I've learned over the last 7 months, but also how much I have to learn.  You can always hone your craft.  Perfecting my writing is definitely something that I want to spend a lifetime trying to do.  It's so wonderful after spending so much time working on our novel to actually get some feedback (and the cost of the two week workshop isn't much more than a book on writing, so it's a deal!).

As far as how the novel is progressing, Michelle & I have written exactly half of the chapters and our word count is just over 40,000.  I am editing the chapters as we go, but we'll obviously need to do more edits once the entire book is written.  Once we are done with that, we will ask a few friends to read it, get feedback, and do one final edit before we try to find an agent.  Hopefully the agent-finding process will begin by the end of this summer.  The goal is to have the first draft done by the end of May, so it's not an unreasonable projection.  This is getting really exciting!!!

P.S.  I'm also excited that Michelle & I finally came up with a title for the book (after about 15 iterations of names that neither of us loved), but I didn't ask her if she minded if I told anyone, so I better keep it under wraps.  Part of the reason we don't want to tell anyone the premise just yet is because we want to see what their reaction will be when they actually read the manuscript.  Once we start querying agents, we will be able to tell you all what it's about.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Glorious Progress

I just returned from a relaxing cruise to the Eastern Caribbean with my mother.  We visited St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. Kitts, Antigua, and St. Maarten.  It left out of Baltimore, so we had three days at sea on the way down and three days at sea on the way back.  These at-sea days gave me plenty of time with no interruptions to work on the novel, and I took advantage of that.  Before I get ahead of myself, though, I better start from the beginning -- the only reasonable place to start.

Michelle came to visit us for a week after Christmas.  We had a wonderful time together irrespective of any work that we accomplished.  I love her so much!  Beyond having a great family Christmas dinner (with my half-brother & his mother & my mother aside from Michelle & two of her kids) and playing all of the games I got for Christmas, we really got to work.  We polished up the outline for both the entire series as well as for the first novel.  Moreover, I did a bunch more research and Michelle wrote two more chapters.  For 4 days work, I don't think that's too shabby (especially considering that at the end of Michelle's time here, I got a horrible stomach flu).

After much discussion about what we need to accomplish if we're going to have a hope of having the novel in submittable form by the end of this summer, we decided that we really need to have the first draft completed by the end of May.  That is because once the whole thing is written, we will still have final editing that we'll need to do.  Moreover, we want to ask a group of close friends and family members to read the book and give us feedback for a last round of edits.  Right now we already have a short list in mind of people that we think represent a wide swath of interests who we would like to help us out with this task, but if anyone reading this is interested in reading an early draft of our novel this summer, please let me know.

In order to have the novel completed by the end of May, we computed that we'd need to write one chapter per week between now and then -- an immensely doable task if neither of us were in grad school, but unfortunately both of us are.  Nevertheless, we are both incredibly committed to this project, so this is the goal that we have set for ourselves, and so far we've stuck with it.  Since Michelle left me on January 1, she has written two more chapters.

When we divvied up responsibilities for the first book, we decided that we would decide all plot and story issues together, I would do all of the research and would write the prologue which is distinct (although obviously connected to) the main story, and Michelle would write the body of the book.  At the end of the day it's really going to result in a 50-50 split of effort.  Since I did nearly all of the research, I've come up with more plot ideas than Michelle has (especially for later books), although it really is a joint effort.  Since Michelle has been doing the vast majority of the writing, she's done a lot more of the character development, although, again, there is no piece of this book that we both haven't touched.

I've been trying to sound (and feel) confident about writing the prologue, but once I started seeing copy of Michelle's chapters I must admit that I became a bit intimidated.  There's a reason that I wanted to write a novel with her -- she's a great writer.  At one weak moment I even thought about asking Michelle if she'd write the prologue, with the excuse that it would flow better if all of the novel was written by one person.  Ultimately, I decided that I really needed to suck it up.  See, I've never really written fiction before.  The last time I did any sort of creative writing was in 9th grade when I had to write a poem in my English class that needed to be in iambic pantameter and compare one of my parents to an animal.  It was an oddly specific assignment  -- thanks, Mr. Murphy!  Even that, now that I think of it, wasn't exactly fiction, though.

I decided that while I was on the cruise, I would just have to buckle down and get the prologue written.  I took the cruise with my mother because her health isn't great (she has an autoimmune disease) and I wanted to take her on a cruise while her health could still withstand a vacation.  Her health being what it is, though, she wasn't exactly going to be able to go out to bars with me at night.  Without Max, I didn't want to hit up the bars, so every night after dinner I worked on the book for three or four hours.  I began by doing research on the setting of the chapter, but ultimately got down to writing.  After 6 or 7 days I had the prologue written.  It's 7 single spaced word pages and a little over 5000 words.  I sent it off to Michelle not knowing what her reaction would be.  My opinion of it vacillated between great pride and horror.  Thankfully she really liked it, so maybe I will have a career as a novelist after all.

As it stands, we now have 7 out of 27 outlined chapters written.  That is 25.93% of book.  We have written 19,613 words between the two of us (that's approximately 70 paperback pages).  If our chapters continue to be this length, that would end up being a book of approximately 76,500 words.  I think it'll end up a bit longer, though, because a few of our earlier chapters will most likely be longer than the later chapters (which are the ones that are already written -- we haven't been writing it in order.  So far we've written the prologue and Chapters 11, 12, 20, 21, 22, and 26, fwiw).  I think we should end up with a novel between 80,000-90,000 words.  That's great, because in general, publishers want first novels to be somewhere between 80,000-100,000 words.

Looking ahead, once we have the thing written and edited, we're going to look for an agent.  Moreover, we have a few loose connections with people in publishing (it's a we-know-people-who-know-people sort of thing), and so we're going to work those connections for all they're worth.  In general, if we could get a $10,000-$20,000 advance for a first time novel, we should be very pleased with ourselves.  Very pleased indeed.  I just read an anecdote online, however, (though I can't attest to its veracity) that after Nicholas Sparks wrote The Notebook, he quickly found an agent, and was offered a $1,000,000 advance -- for his *first* novel.  While such happenings are as rare as a spotting of one of the wee folk, it sure is fun to dream.