Category Archives: Publishers and Editors

Interview with Debut Author Anna Staniszewski

I recently had the pleasure of reading Anna Staniszewski’s debut middle-grade novel, MY VERY UNFAIRY TALE LIFE. What a fun read, filled with adventure, imagination, and a strong female character. All the qualities that I looked for when I was a book-devouring kid. I’m sure readers will enjoy following Jenny’s adventures and misadventures as she breaks up unicorn fights, fights evil magic, and struggles to save the citizens of Speak. Today, I interview author Anna Staniszewski, followed by Wednesday’s interview with Assistant Editor at Sourcebooks, Aubrey Poole, to learn all about this book and its path to publication. But first, here’s the lowdown from the jacket copy:

I’ve spent my life as an official adventurer. I travel across enchanted kingdoms saving magical creatures and fighting horrible beasts that most of you think are only myths and legends. I’ve never had a social life. My friends have all forgotten me. And let’s not even talk about trying to do my homework. So-I’m done!! I’m tired and I want to go back to being a normal girl. But then along comes “Prince Charming” asking for help, and, well, what’s a tired girl like me supposed to do?

Anna Staniszewski stops by Emu's Debuts

LBS: Welcome, Anna! I know that sometimes debut novels take a long time to get in proper shape for publication. When did you start writing MY VERY UNFAIRY TALE LIFE and how long did it take you to find an agent and then a publisher?

AS: I first started working on MY VERY UNFAIRY TALE LIFE in late 2006. I’d been writing a dark, depressing YA project that was really getting me down, and I was in desperate need of a change of pace. I sat down and wrote a scene about a girl named Jenny who comes home from school to find a talking frog sitting on her bed. I wasn’t sure what the girl’s story was, but she was so spunky that I was eager to find out more about her. Over the next several months, whenever I was stuck on the YA project, I would come back to Jenny and continue telling her story. In 2009, about three years after I first started working on the project, I signed with my agent with a different manuscript. When I told her about this manuscript, she liked the idea and helped me whip it into shape. I was ecstatic when it sold to Sourcebooks in the summer of 2010. It’s been a long journey, but definitely a rewarding one!

LBS: What was the revision process like before and after you had an editor?

AS: As I mentioned above, I did quite a bit of revising with my agent. During that process, I cut out two major characters and significantly simplified the plot. Once I started revising with my editor, I focused a lot on fleshing out the story, especially the minor characters. I also wound up rewriting the ending to increase the tension and drama. Something I learned along the way: the longer you work on a funny project, the more the humor wears off on you. I felt like I had to keep “upping the funny” throughout the process just to keep myself laughing, and I think it made the story more entertaining in the end.

LBS: I understand you had a few changes of the guard while at Sourcebooks. How did that work?

AS: The manuscript sold to Rebecca Frazer, though I wound up working with both her and Aubrey Poole throughout the process. Rebecca recently left Sourcebooks to study writing at Oxford (aren’t you jealous?) but luckily that happened after the book was pretty much completed. The Sourcebooks team has been amazingly supportive, so the transition has been very smooth.

LBS: Have you been surprised by any aspect of the publishing process?

AS: I was really surprised by how stressful copyedits were for me. I usually love revisions, big and small, but because I tend to be a perfectionist, copyedits fed into my neurotic tendencies just a little too much. I was very glad to have a deadline; otherwise, I could have continued agonizing over words and commas for years!

LBS: How has life changed since your book debuted this fall?

AS: The biggest change is the fact that my writing is on display more than it ever has been before. I’ve always been a bit shy about sharing my work, only letting my critique partners read it in its early stages. Even my family had hardly read anything I’d written before. Now my story is out there in the world for everyone to read! It’s been a bit of a shift for me, but getting positive responses from readers has made it less scary. I even heard from a girl who hadn’t liked reading before she picked up my book, and now she can’t wait to read more. I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than that!

Wow, what a great fan letter, Anna. That’s the ultimate compliment. I’m sure a lot of writers can relate to this interview, from balancing multiple projects to trying to “feel” the humor in a story that you’ve been looking at for years. Congratulations on your debut novel, and thank you for stopping by to share your story!

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Filed under Book Promotion, Guest Posts, Publishers and Editors

The Worry Monster Sinks its Teeth into the Very Unsuspecting Writer

Right smack in the middle of my debut journey, I began to worry. I can’t even tell you why, but I did. The worry seemed to fold over and over on itself like a thick blanket that got bigger every day. It became heavy to carry. And what were these concerns based on? Beats me. It was like I stood on solid ice but refused to believe it was frozen. Waiting to fall through. I began worrying about things that my head knew were not worrisome, but my heart refused to believe. And it was powerful and seemingly unshakeable.

At the time, I have to tell you, I was really confused by this person that I had become. Because, from the time I was able to walk, I have been a fighter. A scrapper. A disheveled kid who often had snarls the size of golfballs. Either bullied or ignored and, oddly enough, in the lowest reading group in grades one through six. Teachers had no expectations of me. I mean none.

But, like a good book character, I had big dreams. And a fair amount of grit. I was much smarter than my teachers gave me credit for. I was observant, and I was a planner. I wanted more, and I swore I’d find a way to have it someday.

I don’t share this to garner sympathy. Honestly, I don’t. Because, in some very crucial ways, I was a beyond-fortunate child. I share this because it made this “new me” so much more of a puzzle. I was disgusted with myself, as it felt like I had been braver as an eight-year-old. As a soon-to-be-published author, I had become such an insufferable wuss. Worrying about success?! Honestly, I’m surprised that my pre-published writing friends didn’t chip in to have me…you know… disappeared.

Looking back on it, though, I think I understand. At the beginning of my writing journey, I chased publication as if I had nothing to lose; that’s because I didn’t. However, by the time the Worry Monster bared his teeth, I had more to lose than I’d thought possible:

I had a budding career as a children’s author, which would give me the opportunity to get out and talk to kids about writing and how it does get better and about making the choice to build a happy life no matter what hand you’re dealt; this means a great deal to me, as I know what it’s like to feel like the piece of the puzzle that doesn’t quite fit. I also know that the very things that make you feel so different as a kid can become your greatest gifts as an adult.

My editor of ONE FOR THE MURPHYS is far better than any idea of an editor I’d ever dreamed of. I have the fantastic Agent Erin who is helping me build a long-term career. And agent mates and writing colleagues that I cherish. I mean really cherish. Who make that kid in me feel like I am a part of something special. Finally.

Now this…is an awful lot to lose. I mean, I’ve always been a big dreamer, but all of this was more than I ever dared dream for, I think. Could that same eight year old grow up to become an author? I don’t think any of my early teachers would have taken that bet.

This Worry Monster sunk its teeth into me in late March. By August, I was just so weary. This is when I attended the fantastic Blueberry Fields Retreat in Maine where I spoke with Executive Editor, Mary Lee Donovan, from Candlewick. I had gotten to know her well at the SCBWI Whispering Pines Retreat months earlier, so I already knew that I liked and respected her immensely. She complimented me on being, “a confident, successful woman—sure of herself, etc.”

My response came from my own mouth yet was a complete surprise to me. I replied, “But, I’m really not.” Immediately after those words fell from my lips, my scrappy eight-year-old self stomped her foot inside my head and asked me, “What the hell are you doing?”  I felt the shift within me. That’s right, I thought. What the hell am I doing anyway? 


Why did the shift occur then? Mary Lee is a talented, down-to-earth, giant in the industry. I respect and trust her opinion. But she’s not my novel’s editor, so I had no worries of disappointing her. I also learned some things when she discussed an editor’s expectations as part of her presentation. It made me consider what conclusions my own editor could be drawing re: my nervousness—and the messages I could unintentionally be sending her.

Okay. That was it. I came home, having had enough of this “not-improved me” and ready to claim all that I had accomplished. To focus on the things I had–the things I already held in my hands. I would not think about losing them. I refused to worry. I took action.

I’ve come to know that *action* is the Worry Monster’s kryptonite. In fact, anything worth having in life requires action to thrive, doesn’t it? So, decide on your own plan of action(s) to slay your Worry Monster (or any of its nasty cousins). Decide in a focused, stubborn, I-got-this-thing kind of way.

Get worked up. Scramble a little. Send out queries. Get feedback. Take chances. You’ll stand taller and your craft will benefit. There’s a lot of power in knowing that you are actively trying. Besides, the hurdles you are jumping now will make excellent, “How I made it” stories later. 😉 Believe it!

I am at peace these days, but it took me a while to get here. The worry monster makes its occasional appearances but never stays anymore. Never will again. Meanwhile, my scrappy eight-year-old self is never far away, reminding me what I’m capable of.

And I’m happy to have her back.

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Filed under Colleagues, Controversy, Editor, Happiness, Publishers and Editors, rejection and success, Satisfaction, Writing, Writing and Life

Trust, Serendipity, and of course, Editors

Reading Cynthia’s wonderful post on Monday, in which she tells of her three day trip to Birmingham with her editor from Peachtree, I had to think how brave Cynthia was. Being a wee bit introverted, and a wee bit prone to giggling like a big dork in unfamiliar social situations, I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to make such a journey. But Cynthia was. She put her faith and her trust in the process, and set out, and what an amazing experience she had as a result.

And here is the cool thing about writers. They are really trusting people. When you stop and think about it, there’s a whole lot of faith and trust required in this business. You have to:

Trust your pen and your characters to guide you through the story

Trust your voice and your creative vision

Trust your critique partners to be honest in their comments to improve your work

Trust your agent to circulate your manuscript to the right houses

Trust an editor to love your story and improve it

Trust a copyeditor to know more about commas than you do

Trust librarians, teachers, and booksellers to get your book into the right hands

Trust yourself to start the process all over again.

Whew. A lot of that isn’t easy, believe me. Fortunately, however, the universe likes to give us writers little signs when, entirely trusting to the unknowns of the process, we do the right thing. Ask any writer and they can tell you of at least one serendipitous occurrence surrounding their writing.  Like, for example, when I named a character who interviewed a real historical figure named Tom Lee. Later I discovered that the interview of Tom Lee at the Colorado State Historical Society Museum, was conducted by a man of the SAME NAME I gave my character! And it wasn’t a common name, either. Weird? Maybe, but if you write you are used to these little messages from the universe, reinforcing your faith and trust.

For me, I have never met my editor. And unlike Cynthia, I did not have multiple houses simultaneously interested in my novel, so I did not get to choose the editor that would be the best match for me.  I just had to trust that my agent had sent it to her knowing she’d be a good match for me. Blindly, I signed the contract, hoping that she loved my manuscript enough to do right by it.  No sooner than I did, the signs started.

Seriously, how many professional people from New York do you think come here on vacation???

It was late September when the folks at McElddery met and decided to acquire my novel. I was told that an offer would be made, but it would be delayed because my editor was going out of town for several weeks on vacation.  Turns out the vacation brought her to Colorado, where I live. She visited old mining communities and on a whim, the National Mining Hall of Fame in Leadville, Colorado.  My book is about miners in Colorado. Hmmm. Maybe a coincidence? Maybe my book inspired her vacation? I prefer to think of it as serendipity.

In early December, we had a conversation on the phone to discuss a first revision, in which she told me of her visit to the museum, and her concerns that the museum displays were out of date and poorly maintained. As it happens, I am involved with the museum community in my day job, and a few days later a job posting crossed my desk, for someone to renovate and improve the very exhibits we’d been discussing. Another coincidence? Or is it just possible that our conversation gave rise to enough good museum karma to get those exhibits spruced up?  I kind of regret now that we didn’t discuss world peace.

From her editorial comments and questions, I have learned so many interests we have in common, even bits of knowledge I built into my story that are things that impacted her Polish grandparents. Most recently she emailed to tell me the manuscript is headed off to copyedits. In the conversation I learned from her that she finds the rules regarding commas “particularly gruesome.”

Uuughh! Gruesome!

That was the moment I truly fell in love with this woman. I might have even swooned. In fact, we may be the very same person–except she’s got a really cool Eastern European name, and I just write about people with cool Eastern European names.

So I’ve never met my editor, but I trust her completely, and the universe backs me up on this. And I think the whole trust thing goes both ways in this business. So let me just say:

Thank you Erin Murphy for trusting me enough to represent me.

Thank you Karen Wojtyla and McElderry for trusting my book enough to see it to print.

And thank you, universe, for the magical coincidences that assure me my trust is not misplaced.

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Filed under Agents, Editor, Publishers and Editors

My 3-day Blind Date with my Editor

“A writer’s relationship with an editor is a sacred one.”

True words spoken by Kadir Nelson at the Texas Book Festival, 2011

My debut book, WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH, was fortunate enough to attract interest from three publishers. Naively, I assumed I’d choose the highest bidder. Wisely, my agent suggested I talk to the acquiring editor at each house to get a sense of how we’d relate to each other during the revision process. Oh, I suddenly realized, editing JOB won’t be just a mechanical process of deleting commas and making verbs and subjects agree. We’d communicate about the substance of the book, share ideas, maybe disagree, negotiate. Yeah, I’d need to get along with that person.

Ultimately, I chose not only by bid but also by person. The others were very hard to turn down but when Kathy at Peachtree Publishers told me she’d been looking for a writer to tell the story I was proposing, I knew she was as committed to it as I was. But, could we commit to each other? I would learn soon, as Kathy’s bid included a trip to Atlanta, where Peachtree lives, and then a two-day research trip to Birmingham—together.

I was honored by Kathy’s support for the book. But, I also felt like the boy in the Dr. Seuss story who meets up with the green pants in the woods. Was she as scared of meeting me as I was of her?

You don’t have to break the ice with your editor the way we did. But, getting to know each other over a bottle of wine on my son-in-law’s parents’ back porch sure helped. We hugged at the door. We learned that Kathy’s husband collects cartoons. Their five-year-old son adores zombies. This sounds like a real person!

At Peachtree the next day, I met everyone, including the publisher, the receptionist, the artists, the publicists and marketers, the woman who packs the boxes of books shipped from the warehouse, and both cats. And, the doughnuts were yummy. Kathy and I also started on our substantive work.

One of the four people who marched in Birmingham  when he was a teenager now lives in Atlanta. Although I had talked with James by phone many times, we had never met. He agreed to come to Peachtree and to bring artifacts of his involvement in the civil rights movement.

“I love that you still have the flag,” Kathy told James. I looked closer at the framed memorabilia he brought. Yes, there was a small American flag. James explained that he was given that flag at a mass meeting the evening he learned that the courts declared that marchers, who had defied city laws and been jailed and then expelled from school, would be allowed to return to school. What a lovely and important story her comment elicited! (And, you might notice Dr. King in the center of the photograph–with James’s uncle.)

That afternoon, the two of us went to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site for a moving program on the life of the man who inspired and led the events I was writing about. Then, we drove the three hours to Birmingham. Even though I was, again, nervous about how we’d pass the time, talking about Dr. King, other civil rights leaders, the other three marchers, the story we wanted to tell, even recollections of growing up all solidified our relationship.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Today

Washington Booker III by his sign, 2010

Over the next two days, Kathy and I spent A LOT of time together. Dinner at a French bistro I had found on my two previous research trips to Birmingham. Breakfast at the hotel the next morning. A tour of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which was the headquarters of the movement in May of ’63. An extensive walk along the Birmingham Civil Rights Trail, where I found a placard with a quotation from one of the other marchers, with whom we had dinner that night, along with his wife. An interview with another marcher. More interviews the next day, a tour of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and conversations with the archivist.

After assuring each interviewee that her or his story would be respected,Kathy’s comments, questions, and observations were insightful and elicited revealing responses.

  • She asked Arnetta, who is light-skinned if she had ever thought about “passing” as a white. “No,” Arnetta answered. “You are proud of what you are. You are made by God.”

    Arnetta Streeter Gary, 2010

  • “What did you do while you were in jail?” she asked Wash. “We raised hell!” he said.
  • She asked the sister of a deceased marcher about their parents. And we learned that they had realized only recently that their parents had courageously sued the city to be able to use the public parks.

In the end, Kathy pointed out “how exhausting” it must have been for Birmingham to sustain its severe degree of segregation.

At the end of that long day: another three-hour drive back to Atlanta where I expected to thank her effusively and collapse at a friend’s house.

Except, my friends suddenly had to leave town. So, I spent the night in the guest room at Kathy’s house where I got to see her husband’s cartoon collection and their son’s zombie collection.

By that time, either we’d wonder how on earth we’d be able to spend the next 15 months working together or we couldn’t wait. You can figure out which.

Newbery-Prize-winner Rebecca Stead said in her talk at the Texas Book Festival that a relationship with an editor entails “trusting and coping.” Because I knew I could trust Kathy, I was able to cope when she pushed me on several issues, such as the potential demise of Dr. King’s leadership of the civil rights movement. Her questions led me to investigate further, to retrench a bit, and to verify. Because I hope that she learned she could trust me, I also pushed back in at least one instance–the inclusion of Wash’s Sunday school experiences in a chapter on mass meetings. We both trusted; we both coped.

Our field trip to Atlanta and Birmingham and back again was intense, revealing, and reassuring. I had made not only the right decision but also a friend, a colleague, and a mentor.

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Filed under Colleagues, Editing and Revising, Publishers and Editors, Research, Writing and Life

Meet Bob, and his little friend The Market. And try not to flinch.

Welcome to just about the only kid-lit oriented blog on the internet that has not responded to the Wall Street Journal article on dark YA literature. Let me just warn you that immediately following the period at the end of this sentence, that is about to change.

You may be wondering why. After all, the article appeared two weeks ago, and in today’s news market, that’s old history. Even on Facebook the furor has died down. And really, I’m not all that qualified to respond, being A. not quite published, and B. debuting with middle grade novel, MAGIC CARP, which is neither YA nor dark (although as I’ve mentioned previously, there are some chickens that meet an evil fate, so I guess to chickens, it is very dark.) Adequate and eloquent responses have already been written regarding the need for dark themes and topics and refuting many of the article’s points about YA Fiction in general. I cannot add anything more on those fronts.

The whole discussion got me thinking in a different vein, about the Market and the conundrum it presents to the not-quite-published. The market and its trends loom large in the eyes of the average-Jane-trying-to-get-published. At conferences and in books she hears how you have to know your audience and know the market. For every book on the shelf with a title like Write What You Love, or Learn Your Craft, she finds just as many with titles like How To Get Published in the Market. And the trends, whether you agree with them or not, are apparent, especially when scanning the shelves in the big box stores that may not cater to varied tastes.

Bob, spending quality time with his homies.

So here’s Average Jane–the kind of writer whose life is full of ideas and aspirations and rejection letters. Whose hope is bleeding steadily toward desperation, and the only tourniquet in sight seems to be to write toward the market trend–maybe a nice manuscript about a bulimic zombie rapist with a drug problem and serious halitosis (We’ll call  him Bob.) Average Jane feels the temptation to do this because to her there is something far more monstrous and life-threatening than Bob, and it is called “The Market.” Jane’s no fool; she reads the Wall Street Journal and knows Bob is her best shot at staying alive.

Let me just change gears for a moment and tell you about one of my favorite things on the internet. It is a quote from the wise and witty children’s book editor Elizabeth Law on the Shrinking Violets blog, where I would encourage you to read the whole interview. In talking about market savvy writers, Law offers the following:

“Just write your heart out. I promise you that’s what matters. I would much, much rather find a great, unusual, distinctive book by a phobic writer covered in oozing sores who lives in a closet than a decent but not amazingly original book by the world’s best promoter.”

I love that quote, even though I am not covered with oozing sores or living in a closet. Average Jane loves it too, and like many other writers out there, has spent years trying very, very hard to believe it. (Trust me, Average Jane and I are very close.)

But no matter how hard Average Jane tries to believe, she has her doubts. She worries, “Kids today have tons of sparkly fun gadgets around them–why would they read a book about coal miners, set in Nowhere, Colorado in 1901?” But she wants to believe, and she wants to write her heart out, and so she puts her trust in her passion and her pen to the page.

Bob's nasty little buddy, The Market.

Now enter Bob’s nasty little buddy, THE MARKET. Because after she bravely wrote her heart out and sent her manuscripts out on submission, Jane started acquiring rejections that said,  “I loved it, but I’m afraid it’s just too quiet for today’s Market,” or “Funny, but not quite where the boy book Market is heading,” or, “I just can’t see this story making it out of the midlist in today’s Market.” (Which also means it won’t make it into the midlist, because it won’t make it into print.)

All of which causes the aspiring and increasingly desperate Jane to give in to her earlier temptation and embark upon revisions that make those ill-fated chickens return as zombies that do unspeakable things to the Magic Carp, not to mention the coal miner’s daughter, and as she works, she will compose increasingly long, run-on,  crazy-desperate sorts of sentences while gnashing her teeth and muttering, “LOUD? DARK??? I’LL SHOW YOU LOUD AND DARK!!!!”

The Zombie Chicken does unspeakable things to the Magic Carp.

I’m not trying to be bitter here and I hope none of you will take me that way. There is a message of hope that I am getting to, so put down that razor blade and keep reading. I have heard those kinds of rejections, but eventually, I also heard:  “I love it, I want to publish it, we’ll find it’s place in this Market.” And all without zombie chickens. (although there is still time to work in the zombie chickens, should my editor be reading this. Call me.)

I know, mine is only one small success. And even now I sometimes hear about a writer whose debut trilogy of dark novels has been fast-tracked, and optioned, and promoted like crazy, and I find myself wondering if the zombie chickens weren’t the way to go (oops–I mean, Jane wonders. This is about Jane.) But mine is not the only story where heart mattered more than market trends. More than one of us here at EMU’s Debuts can attest to that. So all in all, I am content with my gentle story of human strength and perseverance, and more than content that it found a home. Editors have to think about the market, that’s their job, but they also want original, beautiful, well-crafted manuscripts, and they understand things about the market beyond what the novice writer sees. Trust yourself, and trust them to find a place for you.

And one final thought on the dark YA debate, before I leave it. After reading the many responses on blogs, newsletters, journals, Facebook, and Twitter, I am proud to be part of a community that responded with so much passion. The response is one more proof that whether their writing is dark, light, or chiaroscuro, kid-lit writers are truly writing their hearts out.

The Magic Carp prevails! (Courtesy of Greg Tanaka)

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Filed under Publishers and Editors, Writing, Writing and Life

PLAYING WITH NUMBERS

An article in the paper the other day pointed out that the way numbers are conveyed can influence what they seem to mean. For instance, a doctor might tell a patient that the odds of contracting a life-threatening disease will be halved if the patient takes a particular drug. This sounds pretty exciting. Who wouldn’t sign on?! But, the article went on, if the doctor points out that the chances of getting the disease are only 2% to start out with, and by taking the drug, the patient’s chances drop to 1%, the patient might re-think it (especially if she or he watches the TV ads that list every possible side-effect). The doctor could also say, with equal accuracy, that only one out of 100 patients is likely to benefit from taking the drug. Again, the patient might think, “Forget that!”

In Michelle Ray’s clever and revealing post on May 30, her numbers told a story—one with a much happier ending than medical statistics. There are certainly times when I wish I could play with the numbers. But, it’s hard to figure out how to turn the 18 months that it took to sell my debut middle-grade book into anything other than a long trek. Since it was turned down by about (I’ve lost track) 18 publishers, I could try saying that I got, on average, only one rejection per month. But, at least one publisher rejected it more than once, so that doesn’t work.

Or, since the book is about four kids, I could try saying that I only got 4.5 rejections per person. But, the book is nonfiction; so, these are real people, and I wouldn’t want them to feel bad. They’re heroes; it’s certainly not their fault the book took a year-and-a-half to find a home.

Now that it does have a home (Peachtree Publishers), I realize that the revolving door of submission-rejection/submission-rejection is not just irrelevant: it turns out to have been fortunate. I can’t imagine getting more careful editing or more support for my book than I have from Peachtree. (More on this in a later blog-post.) I hope all of us writers feel that way. It’s not that one house is universally better than another. But, one house can be better than others for particular writers or for a particular book.

Goldilocks had to reject only two chairs, two mattresses, and two bowls of porridge. Maybe she was lucky. But, even though I was the rejectee rather than the rejector and even though I was bounced 3 times as much as the combined chairs, mattresses and porridge bowls, I ended up in the just-right place, too.

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Filed under Publishers and Editors, rejection and success

It’s About Time

With just over 1 month left before Falling for Hamlet hits the shelves, I thought I’d deal with the issue of time. I started writing the book in 2007 and finished my last revisions in 2010. As I close in on the end of this journey, I reflected on the mathematics of the writing.

And so with no further ado (or much ado), here are the numbers:

23 years on Earth before I told anyone I made up stories

1 year after that I started writing down the stories

3 more years before I told friends I wrote

2 more years before I showed people anything I’d written

11 years spent on my first manuscript, which is still not quite right

4 years ago I saw the Hamlet that inspired my story

3 months spent on first draft of Ophelia’s tale

1 ½ years polishing and getting feedback

17 months searching for an agent

3 times (at least) I gave up trying to find an agent

1 definite decision to stop writing

5 minute inspirational conversation with musician-friend who convinced me to try again

2 months after finding agent, manuscript sold (unusual, but true. Yay, Joan)

0 times my agent and I have met in person

1 great conversation with editor (Yay, Alvina) that told me she was the right one for me

3 lunches with fabulous editor and her team in NYC

1 week of stressing before being able to face my first round of post-contact revisions

1 box full of drafts, which led to not printing anymore (go green!)

1,000 hours telling myself I couldn’t do it

1,001 hours of husband saying I could

81 titles thrown around before it became Falling for Hamlet

1 redesign of skirt for cover

96,941 words in final manuscript

21 months between acceptance of manuscript to date of publication

80+ times friends have asked, “Isn’t your book out yet?”

1 month left before publication (YAY!)

1 very excited writer who never thought she’d be an author

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Filed under Agents, Celebrations, cover art, Editing and Revising, Editor, Publishers and Editors, rejection and success, Writing, Writing and Life

Real Life Reevizion (or) The Road to Heaven is Paved with Sharpie Pens

Ah, revision. Why the very thought of it gives me the desire to weave myself a crown of dandelions and dance and twirl under a bright Connecticut sun. No, I’m not happy. I’m just procrastinating.

Revising for myself was easier, but revising for an agent or editor is far more gratifying. A feeling of accomplishment, but also a little twitch-inducing at times. Still, though. I do like it. My editor understands my characters and why I wrote the book in the first place—a huge plus! I have come to view the two of us as a team. (Sometimes I think I must have made a deal with the devil to have signed with both Erin and Nancy; I suppose I’ll find out eventually. Yeesh.)

First thing I do upon receiving a revision note (from my agent or editor), is read over the comments and deletions, looking for things that make me proclaim loudly, “What a fool I’ve been to have missed that before!” (The neighbors can attest to my doing this.) I also scan for words like, “brilliant” or “genius” which do turn up when I write them in myself. I also look for things that are…shall I say…hard pills to swallow. Usually the deletion of something I love. Then I need some time. A little time to let it sink in. Light some candles. Say a prayer. Cry just a wee bit.

Then comes the glory! Sharpie pens (purple or orange on real celebratory days) and small legal pads with which I make totally dorkified lists of issues that must be addressed. Yes, I even make little boxes in the margin so that I can check things off as I do them. (Not funny, that laughing of yours) These lists get organized by character, chapter, plot lines, detail-ribbons to be drawn through the text, etc. I will usually end up with multiple stapled revision packets, including a list of ideas that have spring boarded from the original notes. Yes, it is all. Very. Organized. These lists on my cluttered desk are an oxymoron incarnate. Did I mention the color coding?

All the while, I focus on holding onto the very first nuggets that drove the story to begin with. The voice. The tone. The undercurrents. It’s like focusing the camera without the “auto” feature. Several different settings need to interact with each other perfectly to reveal a crisp picture. Sure, it’s easy to cut words, but does the character stay true to her voice? Is the depth and emotion diluted? Does is sound right?

Lisa says in her fabulous post that real life (RL) interferes with her work. Yes. I, too, have been known to look up at 7:00 PM and find a hungry kid in my doorway, causing me to marvel at why the clock in my office moves at twice the speed of every other clock in the house. Because once I get hooked by the work, I’m hooked for good. I get up only for important things like coffee refills and house fires.

When my kids come home from school, however, I leave my office to get the rundowns of their days. Sitting dormant in front of the computer mid-revision is like a beagle sitting still in front of a steak; there’s only so much one can realistically expect! If I don’t leave the computer, my mind continues to work while I talk, and that’s no way to talk to anyone, I’ve decided.

However, I have to admit that sometimes long hours at the computer fry me. Yesterday, I finally dragged myself out of the office, looking for another living thing. Three hours of ping pong and a trivia game with the kids, and I was refreshed! Better than new. Sometimes, I need real life to creep in. Yet, at the same time, there are times RL interferes with the process—writing in the trenches time. I suppose I’m just hard to please.

One thing, though. Revision follows you. Everywhere. While perusing the pastas in the grocery store, I’ll wonder how Carley may handle a curveball I’m planning for her. While doing dishes, I may try to come up with some wise crack for Toni to make against my beloved Red Sox. I see and smell and hear things that remind me of something in my books all day long. Songs I hear that remind me of “Carley things” (like this song!). An inflection in the voice of one of my kids. The mannerisms of a stranger. An outfit someone’s wearing. It’s both a curse and a blessing. But, it all informs the revision. I carry a notebook in my pocket for such occasions. Always.

So, although real life can be distracting, for me, my real life spurs incubation. While my writing life requires solitude, I do better with real life buzzing around me. In my mind, the hard work of revision and real life are like two hands that hold each other.

Separate yet together. A lot like a writer and her editor.

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Filed under Colleagues, Editing and Revising, Editor, Publishers and Editors, Writing, Writing and Life

Zen and the Art of Manuscript Submission

On Friday, April 1st I came home from work, logged onto Facebook, and was reminded that it was the deadline for two of my fellow EMUs to send their revised manuscripts back to their editors. Those two are Natalie (whose panic surfaced here at EMU’s Debuts last week), and Mike, whose Facebook post for Friday looked like this:

I don’t usually derive joy from the pain of others, but I have to admit Mike’s post delighted me.  Three things seemed worthy of celebration:

1.  Mike is back on Facebook after his revision hiatus (Yay!!)

2.  Mike sent revisions to his editor right on schedule, a Herculean feat that keeps his book on schedule for publication! (Yay!!!!!)

3. Mike is even more uptight and neurotic about sending a manuscript off to his editor than I am (YAY!!!!!!!!!!!)

I know, Number 3 seems a little mean-spirited. No doubt some Mike Jung fans are crying in protest– “You’re the uptight neurotic one, not Mike!”  But consider my Facebook post of January 16, regarding a similar moment in my life:

You see? ! I granted myself a full 24 hours (8 of which I was asleep) before freaking out.

Okay. So what of it, you are asking. Sure, Mike’s a bit twitchy. Name me one writer who isn’t. Is the whole point of this post just to drag his good name through the mud?

Here it is--the manual we all need. I designed the cover, now who do we know who can actually write it for us???

Absolutely not.  I am writing this because these posts reveal a NEED.  We writers need a manual on Zen and the Art of Manuscript Submission.

Zen Buddhism centers on meditation as a means to peace and enlightenment. Meditation strips away the hectic surface of our lives to reveal a calmer, deeper place where the ultimate reality of unity, love, and boundlessness may be experienced. Just the sort of place one needs to seek out after hitting that send button or slipping that dog-eared manuscript in the mail.

The irony is that writing is a very Zen sort of thing, at least for me, but it leads to revision and ultimately to submission, which is SO NOT Zen. To clarify, allow me to employ the Jeannie Mobley Ten Point Scale of Zenosity, wherein 1 is all  hectic surface noise that keeps us from peace and truth, while 10 is Nirvana itself. Henceforth, I shall abbreviate this as the JMTPSOZ, which is admittedly a bad acronym, but a much worse hand in Scrabble.

So let’s evaluate these three parts of the writing process: Writing the First Draft, Revising for the Editor, and Submitting.

Writing the First Draft rates somewhere around 8-9 on the JMTPOSZ.  When I put pen to paper the noise and chaos recede and I sink into a deeper place. Hours pass unrecognized, words flow, threads of the story come together miraculously in ways I do not seek to understand. It is as if I am the instrument for a creative force greater than myself–it is the Zen of Writing. I re-emerge refreshed, deeply satisfied, reveling in my unity with the universe.

If writing is meditation, revision is work.  So the revision process sinks on the JMTPOSZ to a 4 to 5.  Note however, that we haven’t hit rock bottom here.  Revision can be hard, but it’s satisfying too. Not the deep, Zen, spiritual satisfaction, but more of the Protestant Work Ethic sort, wherein  accomplishment just feels GOOD! As long as I am blundering through the religious metaphors willy-nilly, this moment is more like the Conquering of the Wilderness–the Manifest Destiny of the acquired novel:

The Great Editor appeared and spoke thus to The Author, saying, “When thou hast made the changes writ herein, thou shalt find the promised land!”

And lo! The Author took from The Editor the Immense and Glorious REVISION LETTER and went forth, brandishing the Flaming Pen of Truth in one hand, and the Word Processor of Grammatical Accuracy in the other, and the unwashed hordes of characters with unclear motivations cowered before him! And when all was complete, the writer saw it was good, and offered up the glory of the Newly Revised Manuscript to the Great Editor, saying unto him,  “Here is the most dog-eared, incoherent, raggedy-ass revision the world has ever seen!”

That last line kind of killed the whole religious moment I had going there, didn’t it?  And that’s because that line moves us into the third phase.

SUBMISSION.

Submission, whether it is to the agent, to acquiring editors, or to someone who already acquired the manuscript, it gets a negative 3 on the JMTPSOZ (I know, I just yanked you back to Buddhism. Think of this as sort of a fruit salad of religious philosophy.)

Submission is the part of the process that completely and utterly exposes us all to the most brutal noise and clutter in the world– the voices of self doubt and criticism that come shrieking in like Valkyries onto the bloodied battlefield of our creative minds (because what fruit salad is complete without some Old Norse Paganism?)

BUT here is my point, Mike (and anyone else who kept reading in the hope I might eventually have one):

Those Valkyries are illusions–their shrieks only empty noise. The deep, quiet place is still there-and as true as it ever was.

The time has come to rely on the Zen of Manuscript Submission. Please turn to page 3 and follow along.

Close your eyes, Mike. Breathe. Contract away from the noise, the clutter, the false voices that shout “you are a clueless, bumbling, bowl of neurotic Jell-O.”  All writers hear them. They are liars and fools (the voices, not the writers.)

Relax. Breathe.

Draw in a deep breath and say to yourself “Arthur will…”

Now let the breath out and say to yourself  “…love it.”

In breath: “Arthur will…”

Out breath: “…love it.”

“Arthur will…” on the in breath

“…Love it” on the out breath.

That’s it, Mike. Relax into it.

Okay, while Mike is doing that, I suspect the rest of you are thinking, she can’t REALLY know Arthur Levine will love it. Of course, you’re right. This is meditation, for heaven’s sake, it’s not fortune telling–and I don’t even know Mr. Levine.  But here’s what I can say with confidence, and what we all have to say when the submission panic starts to rise.

Our editors are our allies.

They may not love our revisions and may send us back to the drawing board (or writing desk), but if they do, it is because they are attempting to achieve the Zen of Manuscript Submission too.

Our editors acquired our manuscripts because they love the stuff we drew out of the deep places of truth.  In asking for revision they are helping us to peel away the noise and clutter so that the inner beauty can shine forth.

That’s right, Mike. Arthur Levine is your very own personal Zen Master. Fear not his opinion of your revisions, because even if he tells you they are incoherent, it is because he loves it.  Now one more time. Breathe.

Arthur will…

…love it.

And if that doesn’t make you feel better, resort to chocolate.

ADDENDUM

After writing this I logged back onto Facebook, and saw Mike’s post, with this new comment:

Okay, Natalie. Relax. Breathe.

“Emily will…” with the in breath.

“…love it,” with the out breath….

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Filed under Editing and Revising, Publishers and Editors, Writing, Writing and Life

What You See is What You Want to Get

Michelle, I love your cover. It makes all sorts of questions pop into my head: Is the main character a boy or a girl? Is he or she a wild one (the best kind!)? Could this be a Catholic-school-gone-bad scenario? Does the story echo the great Shakespeare play? It may be some or none of those, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? The point is, I want to look inside and see.  

Michelle Ray's In-Progress Cover

Another reason this cover strikes me as smart is because it offsets the title, which, by having the name Hamlet in it, can make the subject seems a little dry to the uninformed (unless you’ve read Hamlet, in which case you know otherwise). But the cover itself is spicy and intriguing, and I especially love that it has a tag line at the top to clarify: First comes love, then comes madness. Also, the splash of red against a black and white background makes the book leap out at me with unbridled PASSION! If I saw this in a book store, I would definitely be intrigued to read further.

It’s funny, but the last few covers I’ve seen have all been amazing. It makes me nervous about my own book. What if I don’t like the cover? I agree covers are critical, as are titles. So far, I’ve only reached the title-angst stage. For the longest time my book, currently titled LEAGUE OF STRAYS was named THE LOSERS CLUB. I loved the original title, but then one day while perusing Amazon, I almost fainted dead away when I saw my title, already out there in the form of a middle-grade book. After people assured me that this title-twin was published awhile ago and for a different age demographic, I felt a little better. Still, something nagged at me. Then I figure it out: THE LOSERS CLUB sounds like a middle grade book. Clubs aren’t a sophisticated enough concept, as it turns out. And they don’t have the sinister ring I was going for. Oh, no, a middle grade title could be the strike of death for a fledgling YA! It’s funny you mentioned THE BABYSITTER’S CLUB in your post because that exact title started haunting me. I didn’t want my book to be lumped together with a popular series designed for much younger readers.

So what did I do? I sent out a zillion and one titles to everyone I knew, forcing them to vote. It was never unanimous, but I finally settled on LEAGUE OF STRAYS. I still can’t get a sense if it works or not, although several people have told me how much they like my title. Still, in insecure moments, I worry that LEAGUE might be too ladies-doing-lunch for YA readers. Like everything else to do with my book, I guess I am just too close to this to judge. Which is why it’s a good thing it’s being left in the hands of my publisher. With fresh eyes, the marketing department can determine what my book needs, cover and/or title,  to attract the right readers.

Your publisher did a good job, Michelle; whatever people think about the short skirt, it’s intriguing, and it dispels any possibility that this is a boring story. You got me hooked without even knowing the plot, which is the ultimate victory of a winning title and cover.

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Filed under cover art, Publishers and Editors