Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rachel: a self-employed novelist.

Recently, I answered a call on my cell that came from an 800 number. I only did it because I noticed they'd been calling with some regularity and I wanted to basically tell them they could shove it where the sun don't shine. I thought it was a sales call and was going to tell them to take me off their list. But when I answered the girl on the other end said it was a fund drive from my alma mater. Well, I softened then, because I know the girls who work those drives are girls on scholarship like I was, working extra hours for cash.
The girl said, "We've noticed you've contributed generously over the years."
She must have the wrong Rachel, I thought to myself.
She continued, "and we want to know if you'd be willing to donate at the very generous amount of..." I cringed to hear it,"...25 dollars."
"Oh!" I was surprised. "Oh yeah, I think I can do that!"
Then she went through the whole rigamarole, double checking my phone number and address. Then she said, and this is what really got me, "Are you still self-employed as a novelist?"
I laughed and said, "Yeah, I guess." I tried to think back on what moment of largesse (read: grandiosity) had allowed me to write that down. I've been working so many different jobs over the years, why would that be what I chose to write down? Also, the word employed, while it does imply work, which I am doing, also somewhat implies money, which I don't have yet. Maybe my assumption was that if I wrote that on the alumnae page, some wealthy benefactress in her infinite wisdom would see it and call me up and offer me some money. Yes, I still believe in benefactresses. Or maybe I wrote the profile when I was working in retail and didn't want to put that down on my fancy college's alumnae page.

On the phone, I kept giggling, but the fundraising girl asked, "How's that going for you?" I laughed again. "Er, slowly," I said.
"The reason I ask is, I write, too!" A sinking feeling gripped me. I was going to have to encourage her. "Well," I said, sounding a little like someone's southern Grandpappy, "it's a hard road, but it's worth it!" I should have added by cracky or goldurnit for emphasis, but I didn't think to.

It was one of those moments where I wish I had thought of something better to say, where I wish I had explained why I referred to myself that way, how hard won it has been to call myself anything resembling a writer, and how she too, will probably have to fight every step of the way and keep going no matter what. I wish I had told her not to give up.

Writing is what it is. It is worth itself. And sometimes, it is worth knowing you connected with a reader. (er, even if you're as yet unpublished and that reader is just an acquaintance or a friend of a friend, or a cousin you don't know all that well, or a very encouraging agent :)) But mostly, the worth of writing is the act of writing, the act of living in the imagination.

I wish I had thought about it longer, though, and I wish I had said something like, "If you have a story to tell, then don't stop until you tell it. Just KEEP WRITING." That's the best and most worth it part of being a writer. Oh, right, I meant a "self-employed novelist".

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Michael: "What's your book about?"

What’s your book about? If you’re an author, you probably get asked that question a ton. It helps to have a quick, catchy answer. I know because I didn’t for my first book, Gentlemen. I would either give half-answers that I thought might be enough (“It’s a mystery about a missing boy”) or just a description (“It’s a dark mystery”). Neither answer was quite right, but it’s a tough novel to summarize. What I wanted to say was, “I can tell you in approximately 58,000 words,” which is, not coincidentally, the length of the book.

Also no coincidence: The fact that, after being unable to answer the same simple question over and over again, my second novel has a quick, easy summary. It’s about seven kids trapped in their high school during a weeklong blizzard. In fact, the book can be summarized with just the title and the cover art:

I don’t think that makes it a less complicated or serious novel, but a year and a half after my first novel came out, I think I understand the process a little better. Word of mouth matters, and the book is pitched on every level (between very busy people). Publishers pitch booksellers and librarians who (ideally) pitch readers who (double ideally) pitch friends; authors pitch everyone, and a few lines of text has to get the job done online. In every case, the response to “You should check this out” is liable to be “Really, what’s it about?”

I still think it’s the quality of the book that matters most. If it’s not good, no one’s going to spend much energy recommending it. Once they do, though, good hooks and resonant ideas are a definite advantage. The examples are as endless as the number of children who would dearly love to attend a school for wizards. And while ideas (and execution) like that come along very rarely, here’s some incentive for the rest of us: Also endless? The number of people who will ask you “What’s your book about?”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

YALSA Teen Lit Symposium: Diversity

Last weekend, I headed out to Albuquerque for the YALSA Teen Lit Symposium. It was an amazing event that focused on the literature. If you are a writer looking for an ALA conference to attend, I highly recommend it. It's less about the ins and outs of running a library, and more about the books themselves, which was particularly great for me as an author and a librarian. I participated on two panels, one on LGBTQ lit, and one on Body Positivity and Fat Lit (incidentally, if librarian Angie Manfredi ever asks you to participate in a panel, say yes -- she is insightful, organized, and fun).

Here I am, pretending to sign a book at the Author Happy Hour:(Yes, dorkiness, thy name is Megan. Thanks to Ruta Sepetys for taking the picture.)

Anyway, now to the meat of this post. The theme of the Symposium was Diversity. This led to many great conversations both in formal workshops, and over meals between sessions. The general sentiment I picked up from both authors and librarians is that we are looking for books where whatever makes the person diverse or a minority is not the whole subject of the books. We -- and the teens we work with -- want books in which people from all different backgrounds are struggling with the same things teens are struggling with in other books: friends, romance, parents, zombies.

This theme came up most profoundly during the Saturday morning panel Commercial Success and Diversity: Are Both Possible, or Are They a Contradiction in Terms? Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Neesha Meminger, Cynthea Liu, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, and moderator Malinda Lo talked about the pressures they've faced as authors to make their work more or less "ethnic." It's like as authors we're trying to push past the barriers that are in place, but keep meeting resistance. As one panelist said (and forgive me for not taking better notes), if there isn't already a model for success, they don't know how to sell it, and thus they shy away.

It's a fine line, I think, between moving past the standard boxes that people try to put other people and literature into, and ignoring those boxes. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez said she was taking a cue from television and working in the "stealth Latinos": characters whose ethnicity is pretty much irrelevant. While I understand where she's going with this, something about it didn't quite sit with me. Yes, I want teens in YA literature to have full lives beyond their gender, race, body type, sexuality, or abilities. But I don't think we should erase those things. They shape our characters and make them who they are.

On the other hand, in our panel on the state of LGBTQ literature for teens Malinda Lo spoke about the reactions she got to Ash in which people questioned her choice to create a fantasy world in which homophobia did not exist. She wanted, she said, to write a fairy tale, to allow lesbian readers to experience the simple pleasure of falling in love without the pressures of a heteronormative society weighing it down. This resonated for me: we all deserve fairy tales, don't we?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Alexa Martin: Base Work

So I’ve been thinking about running lately. In part I’ve been thinking about running because when I'm not impersonating a writer I work at a running store called Route 16. It's my day job but it is also one of my passions. I love turning non-runners into runners and it’s something that I’m good at, largely because I know without a shadow of a doubt that if I can run, ANYONE can run. I didn’t start running until I was nineteen years old, and I still remember how elated I was when I ran three miles without stopping to die. Over the years I've trained myself to run longer and longer distances. First a 10K, later a half-marathon, and then a marathon. 

In my early thirties, crippled with IT band syndrome, I nodded earnestly while the doctor told me I should never run for more than an hour. But I didn't exactly listen. Instead, I switched to trail running, partly because the impact is so much less on your body, but mostly because nothing makes me feel so much like a kid as pounding through the woods on muddy trails. Six months after the doctor made his dire pronouncement I ran a trail ultra-marathon... pain and injury free. I believe in the benefits of trail running, and if ever we meet in person I will tell you everything you never thought you wanted to know about trail running. And I will be so enthusiastic about it that you will probably forget to be annoyed with me and want to try it yourself. And you will love it. Truly. I promise (and if you are a female I will very likely convince you to join the Dirty Girls, my all-ladies trail running group). 

Sadly, I haven't gotten to run much this past year, at least not until very recently--which is another one of the reasons running has been on my mind. We want what we can't have, right? While rock-climbing last February, I took a huge fall and landed on my back and neck. I was hurt pretty badly, although I didn't find out how badly until late this summer when I started losing all feeling in my left arm and went five weeks without sleeping because of acute pain. An MRI revealed that I'd completely shattered the disc between C4 and C5 in my neck. My only option was surgery. To reach the C-Spine with minimal damage, surgeons go in through "the anterior" for an artificial disc replacement. Which is a nice way of saying that the good docs slit your throat and get paid a nice sum of money for the pleasure. Thankfully surgery is behind me now (though the bills keep rolling in like a tidal surge). The feeling has returned to my arm. The pain in my neck and shoulder is gone. I sleep most nights. When people ask me about my scar I tell them that I got into a knife fight. They don't press for details because who wants to piss off a girl who lived to tell the tale of a knife fight? 

On a different note (one that's relevant, I promise) I finished a book earlier this year. It's a contemporary YA novel called Girl Wonder. On multiple occasions in my life, well-intentioned people have tried to discourage me from writing--just as the doctor tried to discourage me from running long distances five years ago. I believe that one of my fatal flaws is that I don't always listen. I also believe that our fatal flaws are also often our greatest assets. Anyhow, in my final round of revisions my editor pushed me to go to the deepest, darkest most wounded places of my psyche. Kicking and screaming and crying I did what she asked. And I'm very glad I did, because ultimately I want my book to do some good in this world and help teenagers to heal from their hurts. When it comes to writing, if we want to offer our readers some kind of salvation we have to bare our own pain, right? But I won't lie to you... I injured myself finishing Girl Wonder, as badly as I injured myself when I fell off the rock wall (though it's harder to point out to the doctors the specific source of the pain when it comes to book writing). 

I am slowly healing from my neck surgery, and have recently returned to the trails. But I'm tired of being wounded and don't want to take unnecessary chances anymore, so I have a running coach now. 

"This fall is all about base work for you," he keeps saying. 

 "Tell me again what base work means?" I ask for the umpteenth time. I mean, I know there's got to be a reason why he has me doing hill-repeats, weight-lifting, and eating lots of protein. 

"Base work is about teaching your body how to endure so that down the road you can push it to do more without getting hurt. Base work is about developing good habits." 

Good habits? 

"You have to work the inside before you can work the outside. Base work takes time. You have to have patience."

Time? Patience? 

"You have to develop your tendons and ligaments and muscles and cardiovascular system before you can really push them. You have to hold back a little." 

Hold back? 

Base work. It's a concept that's hard for instant-gratification me to wrap my mind around.

The final push of Girl Wonder is fading to a blurry memory now. I've recently started writing again. It's terrifying being back at square one and feeling like a beginner. It's just me and the blank page and all these half-baked ideas in my head that mostly slip away the second I try to retrieve them. I delete more than I write. I wake up in the middle of the night suddenly realizing that major characters are irrelevant. I so desperately want every word and paragraph to sound like polished manuscript material. As I struggle to write I daydream about running. My very favorite runs are the ones in which the brush is so thick that I can't even see my feet but I'm not stumbling because my instincts take over, and my body listens to its surroundings and understands where to go and what to do without me having to guide it. It's primitive and primordial and the most free feeling in all the world. It's going to take some serious base work to get back to this place. But it will be worth it. This I know. 

Returning my attention to the computer screen, I realize that base work applies to writing as well. And so I try to trust that even if I delete today's work tomorrow that these words I am writing now are not wasted, that even if I never see them again, that even if no one ever reads them they are still leading me and my story to where we need to go. When it comes to writing, discarded words are simply a part of laying down the base work miles. Sitting in front of a blank page--seat work, I believe is the term--even though it's scary and uncomfortable and feels unproductive is simply mental strength training. 

It's going to take some time before my subconscious takes over for my new book. It's going to be a while before the ideas really start to flow. But I know something now that I didn't know before: I can't skip this part of the writing process, crazy-making as it may be. It will be worth it. This I believe. It's what keeps me writing these days. 

As my coach says, this fall is all about base work for me.

Happy writing, my friends. Happy Trails. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Lisa: What's love got to do with it?

I recently read through a thread on a writer's message board started by a woman (I'll call her Jane) who felt really discouraged by a rejection she had received from an agent. This particular rejection used the phrase "not loving it." She said she can usually brush off rejections and move on, but this one for some reason really hit her hard. Her husband told her, "I don't know why she'd have to love it. Isn't it whether she thinks the manuscript can be sold?"

I'm not an agent or an editor, so I'm not going to tackle the topic as if I am. That wouldn't be right. But I want to talk about this a little bit, because it wasn't that long ago that I was receiving those kinds of rejections. Now that I'm in a different place, and have been through submissions with an agent who usually does love my work, I know I wouldn't *want* anything less than love. And since I'm guessing many people who read this blog are on the agent search, I thought it'd make a good discussion.

First of all, an agent has many clients, and often shops multiple projects to multiple editors at the same time. So, imagine an agent who takes on a paranormal romance YA because she thinks she can probably sell it, even though paranormal romances aren't really her thing. She read the book, and she thinks it's an okay read, but she definitely doesn't love it.

Over on the other side of her desk, though, there's this contemporary story that grabbed her from page one and didn't let go until she closed the book. She couldn't wait to tell the author how much she enjoyed the book, and she has sent it to specific editors who she knows love this kind of book. On top of that, she's halfway through reading a dystopian novel that is unlike anything she's ever seen and is trying to read as fast as she can so she can offer representation.

Personally, I don't want to be the lukewarm book in the bunch! Just imagine the conversation:

Agent: "Hi, this is Annabelle with Just-In-It-For-The-Money Literary Agency, and I have this paranormal romance you might be interested in. It has a girl and two hot boys. Well, I don't find zombies particularly hot, but I'm thinking teen girls in this market might. They're ugly and disgusting and they smell bad, but they want this girl, and they will stop at nothing to get her. She's really torn between the two, because one is nice and the other is mean. You know how girls love that bad boy thing, even though I don't think that means a boy who is out to kill you. But what do I know? I think this kind of thing is selling."

Editor: "You're not really convincing me, sorry. You don't happen to have any good contemporary YA, do you? Or an out-of-this-world dystopian?"

Agent: "Oh, do I ever! I just sent a fantastic contemporary out to eight editors, but I'd be happy to send it to you too. And I may have a dystopian to send you too..."

And suddenly, yours is forgotten and instead, the one the agent really loves is going out to one more editor.

Wouldn't you rather be the one the agent LOVES? Of course you would! And what I think Jane has to remember is that when it comes to books, tastes are subjective! Personally, I'd take a rejection that says, "I just didn't love it" over one that says, "The writing is really weak and the characters fall flat" any day of the week! Because to me, the first one says, "this isn't my thing," while the second one says, "you have some work to do!"

Writers, trust me, you want an agent who loves your work. Look at me. I write weird stuff sometimes. I mean, my book           I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME? It's kind of weird. A few agents I queried were completely lost as to what kind of book I'd written. But Sara, who thankfully does not work for the Just-In-It-For-The-Money Literary Agency, loved it. She felt that the verse created an atmosphere I couldn't have created with regular prose. That's what she said in an e-mail to me setting up an appointment to talk. Do you know I didn't even realize at the time that creating that atmosphere is exactly why I write in verse? It is still, to this day, why I choose to write some stories in verse. She got it. I mean, she really got it!

We went on to get something like nine rejections on this story before it sold. Do you want another reason why an agent has to love your work? Well, here it is. Remember, agents get rejected too. They have to be able to pick themselves up and keep on sending that baby out. I'm guessing some days, it's not an easy thing to do.

Fortunately, I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME found an editor who loved it, after many who didn't. By the time it finally sold, I couldn't believe it. I'd heard "No" so many times, it was hard to believe someone actually wanted to publish it.

In January, it will be three years since the book was released. It's still on the shelves, which is no small feat. It's sold well. BUT, does everyone love it? No! Some people hate it - it's just not their thing. We must *always* remember - tastes are subjective! I try not to focus on the people who don't love it, because I don't write for them. I write for all of the other people who DO love it. And yeah, it all started with an agent who loved it.

I say, don't settle for anything less than love. Keep looking. Keep trying. Keep writing!! And when you finally have the perfect match, between an agent and one of your manuscripts, you'll be glad you kept looking until true love found you.

I'm curious, though... do the rejections that speak of not quite loving it bug you more than the other ones? And if so, why do you think that is?