on writing

Long Day’s Journey

I just saw O’Neill’s autobiographical play, so it’s on my mind. The way a piano can be on a mind. Or an elephant, digging in its toenails. I don’t know if I feel worse for O’Neill or the audience. It was four and a half hours. I walked out with PTSD. To be fair, the cast did a magnificent job portraying those dreadful people. Over and over. I’d be hitting the anti-depressants after a stint like that.

I feel about the play the way I feel about a certain piece of art that used to hang in the local museum. It was basically graph paper, enlarged. I couldn’t understand. I guess I’m not smart enough. Same with Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I don’t get it. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Don’t get me wrong, I think it has value. POW camps could play it on a loop. The CIA could do away with waterboarding. Just strap the terrorists into chairs and hit play. Come back five hours later and threaten to show it again. Have I gone overboard? Well, so did O’Neill. By about two and a half hours.

This brings me to my book journey. August marks one year since I received my first rejection on my first novel. I’ve enjoyed reading the stories of others on the same journey. Most read like O’Neill’s play: pain…pain…pain…and the show is over. No happy ending, and you’re thinking it may have been a waste of time.

Since I began querying, FOUR of my writer-friends wrote and self-published their books (some published two!) and a student of mine self-published her novella. And in a little file sits my dusty book. Enthralling, my husband called it. My friend said I better not die (of a brain tumor) before I could write the sequel. I’ve had agents request it, but zero offers of representation.

Me

I’m almost done writing my second book. I remember when I thought the hard part would be writing books. It’s a Long Day’s Journey Into Might.

As in, you MIGHT publish dat book, girl. You jes might. It’s a long journey.

…or a long day’s journey into MIGHT, as in power and strength.

Let’s go with that.

 

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on writing, Personal Journey

The Road to Traditional Publishing: A Walk, No. A Serpentine Crawl, on the Pan-American Highway

Radio Silence. I’m learning to live there. In January (yes, January) I had several agents request full manuscripts, two of whom were veterans; one was building his list. I heard back from the list-building agent quickly. He didn’t like that a dog died in my story. I’ve since read other agent bios where they specify: no pets dying. Who knew? I still had three manuscripts out (another request in the interim), and I waited. And recovered from brain surgery. And sold our house and was homeless for a few weeks. And got settled in our new home. And puttered around in short stories and flash. And got started on a second book. Today I’m 50K into Bookworm.

In the beginning of a new novel, I’m pulling a wagon with square wheels. It’s not pretty. It hurts. I’m getting nowhere. And who are these characters? Most writers love that part, the show-up-to-the-blank-page part. Not me. I’m all about revising. In order to get anything down, I have to chant, SFD…SFD…SFD… till I get something I can revise.

Last week one of the veteran agents (gently and with many kind words of praise) passed on my manuscript. I actually read the email to my writer’s group. I’m not usually that public, but it arrived in my inbox just as we were starting, and oddly enough, I’d literally JUST been lamenting over not hearing back from him. He apologized for having it so long. He was so gracious, I didn’t even cry. Darn. I would have loved to work with someone that nice.

Two other agents are still considering it, and when I nudged them, they assured me I’m in the queue. I’ve learned agents have intern-readers. So an assistant may be the first to read my full manuscript. If it passes muster, then the agent will take a look. It makes sense, given how many manuscripts pass over their desks. When every query rejection reminds me of the subjectivity of the business (…not a fit for me, but another agent may feel differently…) I dust myself off and look for the next agent who, hopefully, will feel differently.

I’ve become a student of the publishing industry, which has given me a sense of just how long it takes to get something traditionally published, as well as how insanely collaborative it is. Great books are written by great authors, but I believe they were blessed by great editorial agents and finally polished by great editors. Not to mention all the greatness that goes into marketing.

Knowledge isn’t just power; it’s peace of mind. Yesterday while spinning and sweating and gasping on an upright bike, I listened to an agent panel interview. (I hear your applause at my multi-tasking.) In the interview, an agent mentioned passing on a book that went on to become a best-seller. Another agent said his list of clients is rivaled by the list of greats on which he passed. Great books are passed on every day. My book has been passed on many days. Therefore, my book must be great. (I hear your applause at my entirely sensible rhetoric.)

Here are some of the ways I’m bettering myself as a writer. I’m thankful for the people who’ve shared these resources and am glad to pay it forward.

The Manuscript Academy

Writer 2.0 Podcast

Beautiful Writer’s Podcast

Writing and Illustrating blog hosted by Kathy Temean

Overhaul My Novel (Get a beta reader.)

And books that deal with craft:

On Writing by Stephen King

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

Each book imparts something different. King is…well, King. You get a bit of everything and a whole lot of swear words. Anne Lamott tells writers: Everything will be fine, darlin’. The last two are craft-specific but engaging and helpful beyond belief. And nothing helps more than a few friends who come alongside and believe in you, even before the editorial agent, before the editor. I have a group. We call ourselves The Little Red Writing Hoods. We are an eclectic mix of ages and genres. Knowing I have to submit something keeps me motivated. I love groups so much, I agreed to host one. It’s in the fledgling stages, but I am grateful for a right-hand man who is honest and smart and critical.

If you want some motivation, check out The First Line. Submissions are due August 1st. They pay. It’s free to submit. The first lines they provide are wonderful. One year a sixteen-year-old won the competition. How cool is that? I have some students I imagine could pull that off.

Credit: Diego Jimenez

PS – The Pan-American Highway is the world’s longest road, linking almost all the nations in North and South America except for a stretch of 100 km called the Darien Gap, a forest and swampland.

on writing, Personal Journey

Coffee Confession Query Update

I wish the coffee would stay hot, even down to those last few sips. When it’s first brewed I put my face in the mug and pull the aroma into my nose. Those gloriously warm first sips are the best. Then it gets mindless. I’m in the world of my manuscript, slugging down the caffeine for its properties and not for the flavor anymore. By the end and especially if I’ve forgotten the mug for a bit, those cold shots are all willpower. The will to not waste.

If we were having coffee, I’d tell you I’m still waiting to hear from agents who have my full manuscript. Have I ever mentioned what a patient person I am? No? Exactly. The customary wait time before it’s polite to nudge an agent is 90 days. 90! Jesus was in the desert for 40. Meanwhile, I’m all over the place as far as my manuscript goes. I believe in it. I love it. But I also wonder if I’m about to sustain another round of near-knockout punches from which I’ll have to rise. And I will. Rise. I’ve fed myself author stories about overcoming. One writer had over a hundred rejections a year for three years before landing an agent. Same book, mind you. I thought a hundred was high. Here’s where I’m at as of today:

55 queries sent since June, 2018

4 full requests; 1 rejection, 3 still out

43 rejections or no answer (which means the same thing)

8 recently sent and not yet rejected (my goal is to have 7 always in the hopeful queue)

I have to tell you, it felt like more than 43 rejections. At rejection 26 (November 2018) I revamped my query letter with the help of Query Shark, and I received my first requests for fulls. Ah…the validation. But what is validated? My ability to entice an agent. Check. My ability to write fifty good pages. Check. But do I have what it takes to write the full monty? I now believe the ability to finish doesn’t rest on my current level of talent but on my constant level of persistence. Unless a book is in such a shamble that it cannot be fixed (think flattened roadkill), there is hope. I will continue revising. Until I’m agented. Until I’m published.

That is what it means to be a writer. Grit. Rejection. Revising. Some would say that in order to have the audacity to create an entire world with words alone, one must possess a cyclopean ego, its one bulging eye fixed on fandom. And to temper the writer’s god complex is the querying process. Confession: I have never felt my ego was large enough for this industry. If anyone has ideas on how to bulk up the ego at any stage of a manuscript, please share. I do pray though. And I find that if I stop looking at myself (oh poor little me and my homeless manuscript…) I’m happier.

Meanwhile, I use every opportunity to better myself. I listen to podcasts on writing and follow people who are in the querying trenches. This month I applied for a mentor at Author Mentor Match. I should hear any day now. I also entered Trespass in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. It was exciting for me to enter because last year at this time I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to have surgery. I was unable to focus on anything but loving my family and friends. I missed the deadline.

I hunt down beta readers and join writing groups.  All these things I do to keep moving toward my goal, the most important being to put my butt in the chair and work on my 2nd manuscript, 19,233 words in, but who’s counting? Today I managed 588 words. A thousand is a good day, but I am a slow creator and a rabid revisor.

Thanks for sticking with my update! Hope the coffee didn’t get too cold for you. 🙂

Many thanks to Eclectic Ali for getting the coffee brewing and the conversation started. Ali describes her casual posting plan: Weekend Coffee Share is a time for us to take a break out of our lives and enjoy some time catching up with friends (old and new)! Grab a cup of coffee and share with us! What’s been going on in your life? What are your weekend plans? Is there a topic you’ve just been ruminating on that you want to talk about?

on writing, Personal Journey

Weekend Coffee Share: Things to Say Yay! About

If we were having coffee I’d be smiling enormously. Two weeks ago today an agent requested my full manuscript. My reaction: eeeeeeeeck! Then another agent requested my manuscript. And…holy-too-good-to-be-true Batman! A THIRD AGENT REQUESTED MY FULL MANUSCRIPT. For my non-writer friends, this is like winning the lottery three times in a row. I’ve spilled my coffee all over myself with my Italian arm-waving at this point, I’m so dang excited.

I withdrew my query letter from Query Shark, the site that taught me how to craft a query. At first I was hesitant to withdraw it because I so wanted Janet’s perspective, but I know that the query itself is doing its job. At three requests I can’t in fairness ask her to critique it. If you have a completed manuscript and want to make sure agents actually read your first pages, read Janet’s entire site. That’s what I did. She says over and over that the key is reading the entire site, and it’s true. There is no substitute, no short cut or hack. It’s hours and hours and hours of work, I’m not going to lie. But it’s fun too. Janet’s witty as all get out.

Now I’m waiting. The idea that agents are looking at my story…chills, I tell you. So I’m doing the next right thing (besides checking my email a thousand times a day), which is beginning my second novel. It took about a week for me to not dread showing up at the blank screen. Now that the story’s rolling, I’m completely digging it.

Meanwhile, my husband and I have had some lovely walks, some nights by the fire, and lots of time to chat at Gabe’s swim meets. Love watching swim meets, even for six+ hours. When Gabe isn’t competing (99% of the time), I read or prepare for a class I teach. Or throw down a Starbucks and wiggle and squirm on the bleacher seats until the caffeine works its way through my bloodstream.

Today everything was closed because of the big storm. Abbott did not like how the snow ticked his belly when he went out to do his business. He whimpered and ran back to the door. I sternly told him to man up (a very unpopular directive in these Gillette times), but he can’t understand me anyway. He got my tone, got back in the drifts and did what he had to do…

Later, Luke and Anna played with him. He decided he very much likes the deep snow. Just like anything new, he just had to give it a chance. Thanks to Eclectic Ali for the Weekend Coffee Share. 🙂

And here he is, Abbott, my rockstar dog.

 

 

on writing

I Resolve, Therefore I Am

…going to get this life under complete control. That’s what I tell myself between Christmas and January, the only time I ever think about making a standard work list that includes a time slot specifically devoted to chopping vegetables and organizing the fridge.

Here’s how resolution delusion plays out: Starting January 2nd, I’m going to find myself suddenly shirking cake balls and Boursin cheese—and, desperate for snap peas, I’ll handily pluck some out of the sanitized cold box that has a method inside there. All because I resolved. I’ll be popping radishes and snacking on seaweed.

The way things work now is I go to the store after the obligatory quota of there’s-no-food-in-the-house! rants. My sons fry pepperoni, use up all the eggs, and when they’re really desperate they open the freezer and cook something. I know it’s almost time to go shopping when that happens. The actual time is the moment we run out of heavy cream or coffee.

2018. I honestly don’t even know how to frame it. I’ve been a student of calamity (I’ll thank you, March, for my brain tumor) and valedictorian of the Rocky Balboa School of Right Hooks (I’ll thank you for the querying process on my debut novel).

But heck, let’s remember the high points. I just went through my most recent notebook, in which I wrote goals and thoughts. In 2017 I had a story rejected by a local literary journal. That same (revised) story was published in a sci-fi anthology. And the local journal nominated a different piece for Best Small Fictions 2019. Progress! Two years ago a paying lit journal rejected one of my stories, and in 2018 accepted one. My work is presently knocking at the doors of two crazy-selective lit mags. This means I’m more likely to get rejected. Each time I get rejected, I re-examine the piece, edit if necessary (it always is), and send it out again. That’s the Rocky Balboa School of Right Hooks. You keep getting up. Keep submitting.

In November, I wrote a 50 paragraph “short” story for Owl Canyon’s Hackathon. They gave paragraphs 1 and 25 and asked writers to supply the rest (and match the tone of course). I thought it would be a fun, like a puzzle. Walt Whitman didn’t break that much of a sweat penning “Leaves of Grass.” As the hours in-craft stretched into double digits, I consoled myself I could win the prize because no one else was crazy enough to attempt such literary alchemy. Last year they had north of 900 entries—just found that out as I wrote this. Excuse me while I claw out my eyeballs.

Hope’s a funny thing. It’s not rational. But neither is thinking I’m going to get a handle on my veggies in 2019. Still, I’m resolving. You probably are too. Here’s to some of them sticking in 2019 and one piece of advice. Make resolutions you can control. Example: I will get either 100 rejections or an agent in 2019 vs. I will get an agent in 2019. I cannot control whether or not an agent signs me, but I can decide on how many attempts I’ll make. Likewise, I can’t control how organized the fridge is (I have teenage sons, after all), but I can decide to roll up my sleeves every six months or so and get in there and organize. Happy New Year!

 

on writing

Flash Fiction Contest! Blind Judge TBA

Credit: Gustavo Centurion

There’s nothing like a contest to draw out great stories. Blogging friends, here’s the challenge. You have until Friday, October 12th at the stroke of midnight to craft an amazing piece of flash fiction. My middle & high school students are being forced to enter assigned this contest, so consider it the literary version of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader. Don’t be fooled into thinking my peeps are easy prey. Many of them have been with me for years and are quite masterful.

More entrants make for a better contest and will foster an appreciation for flash. So please, give my blind judge an afternoon’s worth of fabulous reading. Join the fun and post an entry in the comment section. The only rules are to keep it under 300 words and keep it clean. I’ll announce the winners on Wednesday, October 17th in a post showcasing the winning entries.

Prompts for the idea-challenged:

  • 1st line: X [insert name] was known for stealing Y [insert thing].
  • Picture (write a flash about these two lovebirds):
Credit: Jean-Philippe Delberghe
  • Character/genre/setting. Pick three and go! Or do these: sailor/memoir/water treatment plant
  • Anything you want

Pssst. Students who follow my blog… You have quite the heads up for our assignment next week. I hope you’ll not tell, but use the extra time to make a flash of epic greatness.

 

on writing, Personal Journey

A Letter to Gigi*

Dear Gigi,

I chose you after giving it about thirty seconds’ thought. You’re right up there with Hitler and Jesus and the young me, which is a rather strange party, I admit. Can you imagine the four of us playing Peanut? I just played that game for the first time, by the way. Never played solitaire before, never played cards really. Apparently I don’t hold them right. Apparently, I’m mentally challenged when it comes to numbers and shapes and slamming cards down in ascending or descending order, black then white, all one suit, not all one suit.

I know, let’s play Scrabble instead. Or how about Chess?

I digress. I picked you, Gigi, because you’re often on my mind when “big” things happen and you’re not here to share them over coffee. I miss you when I see pictures of your sisters with their nieces and children and grand-babies, and I tell myself you’re having coffee with Jesus which is far better. That you’re having coffee on Mount Everest and breathing isn’t a problem and the view is spectacular.

When I thought I might die from a brain tumor I thought of you, having walked that road to its completion. Mine veered back into health, and I find I’m so grateful but also sad when I think of you. I want you to see Bob especially, see the amazing man you helped form. I’d love to tell you how happy he makes me, what a servant’s heart he has, how he learned how to take care of his wife by being sweet to his mom all those years ago. I know, I know…he went through a rough patch. Teenage years. We have some of our own now. My own mom used to say through clenched teeth and with all the vitriol of sulfuric acid, “I hope you get a daughter just like you someday.”

What a fantastic curse.

If you were here, Gigi, I’d ask your advice. I’d tell you how impactful Carol Ann was in shaping our family’s journey toward Jesus, how we love to spend time with Harry and Carol Ann, how we wish we could see John and Kim more often. I’d tell you I did get daughters like me, but better. Sons like Bob, but better as well. Not perfect. We struggle. Those I’d share with you. I’d tell you I have entirely too much stock placed in excellence and not enough in faith, that I handle emergencies with the calm of Florence Nightengale and then for days after am egg-thin and weepy, my own version of PTSD.

I could tell you so many things about our family, but I know you know. Someday I’ll get that cup of coffee with you. All my uptown problems will be over. My mom-worries will be done. My dreams, either accomplished or deserted. When I finally get to see you, I imagine we’ll laugh about the days when you were a young mom trying to figure out a teenage boy, and I was all of eleven, trying to figure out your teenage boy. I no longer zip my jeans with a can opener. I don’t even wear those awful, scratchy things. I’d tell you about yoga pants and long tunics that hide all sorts of imperfections. We’d laugh. I’d hug you.

Harry, Kim, Gigi, John, Bob

*This is the first of the creative writing assignments I’m giving to my 5000 Words Class. I’ve committed to writing and posting each assignment I give them because I’m crazy and/or stupid and I like writing so much, and with all the reading that goes along with teaching, my own writing can fall by the wayside, and in my convalescence from brain surgery I’ve lapsed in the creative field…and gotten wordy and pukey with my ideas. I’m sure it’s hardly noticeable.

The assignment was to write a letter to someone from the past, anyone at all. It just has to be a real person. (That’s where the Hitler reference came from…and a letter I found from Gandhi to him while both were very much alive.) Tell the person 1. why you chose them and 2. what you hope they’ll take to heart.