Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When Preciousness Gets in Your Way

One of the hardest things an author does is let go of something personal – like a title of a book. For many, many months, I’ve stuck to one working title: God Doesn’t Like Sweet Cornbread (and Other Things She Told Me).

The title comes from my favorite chapter in the book. I became so attached to the title, the words became precious and sacrosanct. I think I became attached to its differentness, its cleverness. God and cornbread? God’s a She?

When I thought of changing the title before, I became defensive and sought out opinions that mirrored mine. This doesn’t have anything to do with God being part of the title (although an earlier fear was that someone would think this was a religious book).

The issue is capturing the public’s attention and reflecting the book as a whole, not just one chapter. I perused the New York Times Bestseller Lists for the past several years. The vast majority of titles are two, three or four words.
The Overton Window
The Help
Low-Country Summer
Naamah’s Curse
Fever Dream
The Mermaid Chair
Vanishing Acts

This isn’t about wanting a bestseller (but what author doesn’t). This is about having a fighting chance to at least pitch the book and Cissy’s story without having an agent shut down because of the title.

What book titles have attracted you in the past? Do you agree about the brevity in today’s titles?

Monday, June 28, 2010

When Roadrunner's Anvil Hit Mandy's Noggin

I hate traveling.
I hate hotel rooms.
I hate conferences.
I hate conference food (i.e., rubber banquet chicken, too much sugar and caffeine).

So, there. You’re prepared for the state of mind I’m in while writing this blog entry.

When traveling, I usually bring a magazine for the flight. Something light since my laptop already weighs a ton. I decided to bring a flat, little book titled The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. The quote on the cover from Esquire: “A vital gem. A kick in the ass.”

I’m still at the 'kick in the ass' part. Wow, holy crap and all that. I read a lot of books about developing your craft as a writer, overcoming self-doubt, following your dreams. This little book trumps them all. It’s an adrenaline shot to your heart and the Roadrunner’s anvil dropped on your noggin.

RESISTANCE will do anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully cajole. By definition, it is self-sabotage.
COMBATTING RESISTANCE (Turning Pro): The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear to do his work. The pro knows that fear can never be overcome.

I am going to buy this book for everyone I know that has erected obstacles to their own success. More than that, I’m going to keep reading this book…over and over and over until I start believing I wrote those words myself.

Now, I need to leave for another rubber chicken banquet. Flight back to Durango tomorrow.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Miscellaneous, Caffeine-Induced Thoughts

No one theme for this morning's blog. Just felt like writing. Imagine that!

Could it be that I eat chocolate-covered espresso beans with my DECAF coffee?

1. FINALLY decided to open a Twitter account to follow agents, publishers and other stakeholders in the publishing industry (in addition to The Onion and People magazine, of course). When agents tweet about reading queries or partial manuscripts (sometimes at coffee shops and sometimes by the pool!), it kind of makes my head hurt wondering when they'll get to mine. Their personal tweets, though, make them seem so much more human (and so much less scary). I still feel like an icky voyeur but I'll get over that soon. ;0

2. With inspiration from Joanie T., my therapist, I've developed a system for surviving agent rejection! On small bits of paper, I've written ways to treat myself. These bits go in a basket and will be drawn randomly as I receive rejections. An espresso, a walk around the block, a Cowtail from Fuzzywigs Candy Factory, a candy apple from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, a phone call to a friend in the middle of a workday. YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Help me come up with other ways to treat myself that won't break the bank! I'm expecting quite a few rejections.

3. Am gearing up for the Taos Summer Writers' Conference in mid July. I'm taking a weeklong advanced fiction workshop led by author Pam Houston. I'm terrified to workshop my writing but I got so much out of last year's Ghost Ranch writers' retreat that I am looking forward to the 'growth' I will experience. If you get a chance, read Houston's "Cowboys Are My Weakness." An amazing collection of short stories. Perfect summer reading. In fact, my second novel is turning out to be a collection of linked short stories. Serendipity!

4. Wow. Caffeine is an amazing thing after you've been off it for a while. Where can I find a marathon to run?? Well, a hike on the Colorado trail will have to do. Oh my Goddess, I love living in Colorado.

Happy weekend to everyone, and don't forget to add to my "Ways to Treat Mandy" basket!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Offering Your Egg to the World

Today, I ran across an interesting blog post from author Mary DeMuth. This paragraph has stayed with me:
It's time we step out of the shadows of fear as writers. It's time we view our art not only as art, but as a risky gift. Something that costs us. Something that worries us at night, makes us tremble in the day. Breaking the mold and innovating involves that kind of sacrifice. The question is, are you willing?

While writing Cissy’s story, not once did I think the story shouldn’t be told. Yet, after finishing it, I wondered if the themes were too ‘hard’ for a mainstream novel. I told myself that’s why I was reticent about sharing the draft of the book. In fact, I was scared out of my mind about offering up a part of myself and risking that it wouldn’t be received well.

A women’s group I belonged to used to refer to this as offering an egg. As we heal and grow stronger, we hold out our hands, gently offering a fragile part of ourselves. We do so tentatively at first, then more boldly. We constantly assess who we trust enough to hold our egg, to treat it with respect and to honor what the egg means to us.

Yes, Mary, I do worry at night and I do tremble in the day. Yet, I’ve never been so sure that the time is right to risk whatever awaits me as I offer up Cissy’s story to the world. So far, the people I’ve trusted to read my draft have given me the greatest gift of all: their certainty that the book will find a home one day.

Have you offered your egg to the world? Was it worth the risk you took?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Humanity Is Not Always Pretty But It Binds Us

I read an interview in the Boston Globe with Michael Zadoorian, author of The Leisure Seeker. He said that 16 agents turned down the book, mainly because it was the story of a couple in their 80s, one dying of cancer and one who has Alzheimer’s. The couple yearns for one last adventure and takes off in their ’78 Leisure Seeker RV along Route 66 to Disneyland against the wishes of their grown children and doctors.

One agent wanted him to make the couple younger. After all, aging and death are not sexy. As a society, we do everything in our power to resist both. Yet, the agents who passed on the book failed to recognize that there can be beauty and tenderness and humanity in these stories that are just as important (more important!) than sparkling vampires and crime-fighting forensic medical examiners.

The good news for Michael is that an agent “got it” and signed him right away. A publisher snapped up the book a week and a half later.

I have to believe there will be an agent that gets Cissy’s story. The one agent who critiqued my first chapter for a webinar loved my writing and the story premise but wondered how much the book would refer to the heinous act (incest) and how much the story would stay in the present.

The book is not about incest and Cissy is not a victim. My hope is that the reader (well, first an agent) will see that she is a thoughtful, quirky, funny and passionate protagonist trying to figure it out just as we all are. Her relationship to her world is a little off center but the lessons she learns are ones we all faced at one time or another.

The good news for me is that Michael’s agent presented at a writers’ retreat I attended last year. I queried her last week and she emailed to request the first 20 pages of my manuscript, which I mailed her today.

Even if nothing comes of this, I feel lucky to have an opportunity to share Cissy’s story beyond a one-page query letter. It only takes one person to get it. It may be sooner or it may be later. But I know someone will.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Being Sufficiently Enthusiastic

I was intrigued by your query but not sufficiently enthusiastic to ask for more.

This is the latest rejection to my book. I’d be more upset except that I love the phrase ‘not sufficiently enthusiastic’ and can add it to my repertoire of comebacks.

Would you like to see a movie?
Mandy: I’m not sufficiently enthusiastic.

In all seriousness, I’ve queried 12 agents and received six rejections. For a while this week, my gmail account (the one set aside only for my writing life) became a sinister boogie man. My heart would race every time I checked the account, fearing another rejection would be lying in wait to shout ‘Boo!’ at me. For five days, the account has been empty, making me think all agents had gone on summer vacation or that my gmail account was broken. (After all, five had responded with form rejections within a day of getting my email query!) This morning’s email has assured me that neither was the case.

I’ve been hopping from blog to blog recently, reading about writers’ adventures and misadventures with agents and publishers. One writer broke it down this way:

  • 158 queries sent out
  • 17 requests for partial manuscripts to review
  • 82 no responses
  • 51 passes
  • 25 requests for the full manuscript

In the end, it took a brief conversation via Twitter for her to attract her agent. Wow. And I’m feeling hurt by six rejections? I’m not really feeling hurt. I’m feeling the enormity of the life I’ve chosen. That life entails querying, sometimes hundreds of times; bravely revising my manuscript; practicing patience; and most importantly, working on the NEXT book.

So, tomorrow, one of my designated writing days, I leave behind Cissy Pickering and her story and start up again with Hannah, an 18-year-old reluctant psychic.

At least this life isn’t boring.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Laughter, Pinot Grigio and a Quick Trip Back to the Happy Place

On Monday (deflated balloon day), I decided to go out to happy hour with friends. It’s amazing what a little sunshine, Pinot Grigio and laughter can do to wash away the mully-gullies.

However, I think it’s going to take a lot more than Pinot Grigio to ride out the querying process. Novelists can say they’re prepared for rejection – and lots of it – but it’s a different story when the form rejections start pouring in.

I guess it doesn’t help that my naturopath and I are trying to regulate my hormones, or that I’ve been listening to every sad song ever written. If I’m going to be blue, then bring it on in a big way. Those vanilla faux Oreos on sale at City Market aren’t helping things either.

What has helped a teensy bit is a blog I found today called Literary Rejections on Display. (The subtitle is Join the Revolution, Join the Pity Party.) Ahhh, I don’t feel so alone anymore. It’s one thing to know others are going through what I’m going through; it’s another thing altogether to read the rejections others are receiving and to laugh alongside them over the misery we’ve brought upon ourselves.

The blog also features those “good news” stories writers always want to hear about. They keep us going more than Pinot and vanilla sandwich cookies.

Nearly 60 agents turned down Kathryn Stockett's debut novel “The Help” before publisher Amy Einhorn picked it up in 2007. The book has sold more than 800,000 copies and is now being made into a major motion picture. Way to go, Kathryn!

Another thing that’s helped as much as Pinot and sugar is reaching out to my sister, Tessa, who’s been my biggest supporter. This from her in an email today:
Now get back to that "HAPPY PLACE" in your head the way it was the week you completed your book!!!!! Don't make me have to come all the way to Durango to kick your ass. :0 ( meant with much love. )

Headed to the Happy Place now, Tessa. Thanks!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Deflated Balloon Seeks Air and Confidence

I’ve been blessed to receive amazing feedback from a handful of people reading the book draft.

My sister, Tessa, wrote: I'm so glad Paul's out fishing and the girls are both still sleeping — because I've been sobbing nonstop. I just finished your book. Words can't quite relay all the emotions it stirred in me. You have such a way of writing that I could visualize the characters faces, mannerisms, and even the tones of their voices (if that's possible).

My brother left me a voicemail to say he stayed up all night to finish it — something he hasn’t done with a book in a very long time. He also said it was “fucking amazing.”

So, I soak in these comments and smile deep down from my soul, and then the nasty little judging voice says, “They’re your family. What do you expect them to say?” I reply, “They’d be honest if the book didn’t work.” And the nasty judge, “No, they wouldn’t.”

And after a few rounds with nasty judging voice, I resemble a balloon after the air has escaped. Limp, lifeless and a thousand miles from the nearest helium tank.

Husband thinks I should just start querying, even before my writer’s group gives me feedback (which is July 28). I vacillate. I’m proud enough of the manuscript to want to start querying literary agents. I’m terrified enough to think I should wait for more feedback.

The worst thing about deflated balloon limbo state is that your confidence goes to sh**.

And, so when I get in these moods — the one I’m in now — I go back and read Tessa’s email to me. Especially the last line which is like life-giving air to this tired old balloon.

I can see the front cover so clearly, Mandy. Be ready — because this could be very BIG!!!!!!!!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Stay the Course -- No Matter How Rough or Easy

I explained to my therapist Joanie a few sessions ago that I was prepared for the arduous journey to publication and the hundreds of rejections just waiting to be sent my way. “I know it will be hard,” I said. She answered, “Why does it have to be hard?”

I’d read so many accounts from writers who described the demoralizing, time-consuming process of querying, waiting for response (rejection), querying some more, and repeating the ritual, sometimes for years. These ‘cheery’ accounts did nothing for my confidence.

But Joanie had a point. She’d relayed the story of how she went back to school to become a therapist and how many people warned her of the difficulty of establishing a practice in a small town. And yet, she’s extremely successful and didn’t encounter any of the roadblocks everyone warned her about.

I’ve been fortunate to receive some early positive feedback from two literary agents who presented webinars for Writer’s Digest. Both offered to critique query letters and/or first chapters of participants. Here’s what one agent wrote about my first chapter of God Doesn’t Like Sweet Cornbread (and Other Things She Told Me):

I started reading and was immediately engaged. Such a strong and compelling voice, and what a story! I wanted to keep hanging out with Cissy. You are clearly a wonderful writer. But at the same time, the subject matter is so horrendous that I’m not sure if I’d keep reading. It would depend on how much you referred to the heinous acts of the father versus staying in the present. In any case, if I were reading this manuscript, I’d sure keep reading for awhile to see where it goes.

I just added a new post-it note to my inspiration board at the office that says, “It doesn’t have to be hard. Believe.”

Sometimes I think we make ourselves sick by anticipating the worst instead of expecting the best. Setting intentions is so important -- they keep us on the right path, regardless how rough or easy the journey. That's what matters.

In my next blog: Writing about horrendous acts and people without turning off your readers.