Tag Archives: getting published

Faith

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Blank page: could be good, could be very very bad. Coffee could be spiked…it’s all good.

Over an impromptu coffee with one of my writing teachers yesterday, I poured my heart out about The Novel and its 1) lack of direction, 2) lack of completion and my general mental illness regarding same.

My teacher, a wise and beautiful woman, nodded knowingly.

“Yes.  It’s the nature of the beast,” she said (or something to that effect).  “Why do you think so many writers off themselves or drink themselves into oblivion on a regular basis?  Being a writer is lonely, hard, thankless, and only undertaken by those who are mentally ill to start with.” (Or something to that effect).

A dark cloud passed over our cafe magnifying the sense of Gloom.

Instead of walking out of there and popping into the Kilt and Dagger next door (a not-so-charming pub perfect for a disconsolate sort), I walked to my car feeling strangely buoyant.

Yes, it’s true my mental instability knows no bounds but I think what my friend did was renew my faith.

I (finally) understood that having faith doesn’t mean that some days aren’t gonna suck.  Having faith doesn’t mean you don’t feel insecure or lost. Having faith is understanding that there are sucky, bad, bitch-worthy days – sometimes these days stretch into weeks and months.  You carry on because you know somehow that this hard, lonely path is the one you were meant to be on – no matter what.  You have to recognize that insecurities and low points are are normal.  It is ok.  Writers are blessed with permission to be insecure, unstable, self-doubting, and cranky – how awesome is that!

I’m not insane.  I’m a writer.  Well, ok I might be a little bit insane but…whatever.

Do gold miners walk into the hills and see bands of polished, gleaming metal on the surface?  No, they do not.  They have to dig through miles of muck and stone to find the good stuff.  Writers are different – we lay down the miles and miles of muck and then dig back through it looking for a nugget that we may have inadvertently written.  How many times have I sifted through page after page of dreck, thinking that the bottle of scotch in the corner really needs draining when suddenly, there:  a sentence, a turn of phrase, or a passage – a nugget of something golden.

Writing is thankless, hard, decidedly un-rewarding.  It’s lonely.  No one understands why we do what we do when the chances of winning the lottery seem to far outweigh the chances of getting published.  Yes, writers are a strange breed.

We are paragons of faith.

I Submit to You, Again

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All writers have journals that they’d really, really like to be published in.   I have several on my list but one in particular eludes me and has done for years.

Mind you, the first time I submitted anything to anyone was waaaaay back in 2002.  I naively opened up my handy-dandy copy of Writer’s Market 2002, underlining potential homes for my great literary gems.  I still have that dog-eared book, with the words DO NOT THROW OUT written in black Sharpie across the front. As the rejection notices poured in, I grew weary and quickly lost confidence in my dream.

A year or so later, I saw an ad in Writer’s Digest for a literary journal.  I was immediately drawn to the cover; it looked clean, simple, and unpretentious.  I read their submission guidelines – they merely asked for writers to send them their best work.

My best has never – not yet – been good enough.  For some reason I refuse to give up.  I usually submit one story a year to them which is always rejected.

There are those who would advise trying to model my submissions on those already accepted by the editors.  That idea has never rested comfortably in my gut. My stories come from deep in the well; my voice is my voice.  Modeling a piece just to suit doesn’t seem right.

I’m hoping they’ll eventually publish me, if not for talent, then for sheer pluck.  They (like so many other journals) are not a paying market; this is purely a matter of pride.  I want to be able to say that “Such and Such Journal published one of my short stories.”  So there.  Then I’ll blow a raspberry.

I submitted another short story to them today.  We’ll see what happens.  Maybe in this year of progress and publication, the editors will shout, “Eureka! Where has this Banshee been all our lives!” They will not only publish me but dedicate an entire issue to my stupendous, long-overlooked talent!  Ok, I’ve driven off the road into Fantasyland now…

Am I wrong to keep knocking on their door?  I don’t know.  My writing has improved and evolved over the years; make no mistake, I have worked hard to improve.  Perhaps I need to move on.

There are other fine literary journals out there.  Being published equals not only validation but the feeling of being a solid link in the global chain of storytelling.  It’s in my Celtic DNA.  There is simply nothing more satisfying than passing down a story.

A Complicated Confession

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Day 4?  I’m not sure anymore.  After a long apres-lunch walk by the lake, I was anxious to hear the afternoon speakers – David Bezmozgis, Miriam Toews, and a senior editor from Knopf Random House.

Bezmozgis, writer of both short stories and novel, talked about the different processes he uses to write in both worlds.  It was interesting to hear now that he’s written a novel he has a hard time writing short stories. One would think that after running the marathon, a sprint would be a piece of cake.  Not so for him.  I wonder if this is true for others?

Miriam Toews…Funny thing about Ms Toews.  Only yesterday, I spoke rather strongly about her book, A Complicated Kindness to one of my classmates. Not in a particularly good way.

Note: I am a Banshee of very little brain sometimes and in my defense, I have evolved as a reader since I was given that particular book.  Before, I was a reader of habit.  In literary terms, I was stuck in a rut for…hmmm…let’s see…decades.  I read historical fiction, chick lit, the occasional mystery…are you snoring yet?  Yeah, it was bad. I read books that were the literary equivalent of mac and cheese – pure comfort food.

When I began to get serious about writing, I joined a book club. I didn’t like the people in my club or the books they read so that didn’t last. I was there for the wine, the nibblies, and the evening away from my kids.

However, it was there that I was exposed to a little book called Blindness, which ironically, was a real eye-opener for me.  It was horrible, violent, disturbing, and somehow irresistible.  Having gotten through that book, I of course said yes when a young woman in my office recommended A Complicated Kindness.

Maybe it was too soon.  Maybe I hadn’t dug myself far enough out of my literary rut to appreciate the story,its dark humour and its offbeat voice.  As I read it, gritting my teeth, I wondered:  am I just too old to get this story, this protagonist?  I finished it, tossed it on the floor beside my bed, and thought grim, unflattering things about the whole matter.

There are painful issues brought up and confronted in this novel – a mother who disappears, a father who cannot cope and becomes intractably sad, a teenage girl left to basically fend for herself.  My former stuck-in-a-rut self loathed reading about sad things, complicated things (especially if they dealt with children).  It wasn’t the book, it was me.

Today the Writer’s Workshop was lucky enough to have Miriam Toews give a talk on “Mining the Family in Literature.” After listening to her speech, I found the woman I had not recommended the book to and said, “Get thee to a bookstore and buy that book.  Now.”  In the 45 minutes that the author spoke about her background, the importance of an authentic voice, her family, the Mennonite community she was raised in, I got it.  I got the whole book in a flash of delayed insight.  Damn, I’m slow.

Not everyone has the opportunity hear an author talk about their work in person; however, if you do, leap at the chance (don’t leap on authors – they are a skittish species.  Dust will fly and your book will remain unsigned).  Ms. Toews was refreshing (she did a mock interview with herself instead of giving a boring speech), funny, and all-round lovely.  Hearing her speak about her work changed my view of it or, at least made me willing to give it another chance.

The senior editor at Knopf Random House had many insightful things to say, not the least of which was:  great writing breaks rules.  Light bulbs could be heard popping on in brains all around me.

 

The Puppy in the Window – Be Irresistible to Literary Agents

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Day 4, Summer Writer’s Workshop.  My brain is seriously out of shape. I like to think I exercise it every day but clearly, I was wrong.  I make the hour-long commute from Humber College to home in a stupour – not the ideal state for freeway driving, let me just say.

I am going to focus on today’s lessons learned in lieu of today’s anxiety attacks (suffered by moi).  The anxiety attacks are neither educational nor are they particularly entertaining unless you’re watching them unfold firsthand.

The peeps at Humber seem genuinely interested in furthering not just our writing skills but our writing careers.  It’s lovely to drawl, “I’m a writer,” but to actually have people pay real live money for a published book is another matter.

So, having said that, we’ve had two days of sessions with literary agents – those intrepid souls who will likely be the first professionals to review a manuscript.  Your job as a writer is to attract one to your work, like a moth to a flame.

The raison d’etre of an agent is to place finished manuscripts with publishing houses.  These people wear so many hats I’m surprised they don’t have constant headaches.  Maybe they do. They are readers, often they are writers.  They know contracts. They know the marketplace.  They know the editors at publishing houses and what they are buying.  The good ones can be miracle workers.

One agent recited a list of things publishers want (not a complete list by any means):  a distinctive voice, a compelling story (not too long), authenticity but not necessarily originality.  Obviously plagiarism is forbidden but agents want something that will sell in the market.  A book that gathers dust on the shelves doesn’t do anyone any good.

Another agent – a lovely woman who spoke at about 200 mph – said that authors should strive to stand out however they can.  Exceptional writing, an authentic voice, a killer query letter – be the adorable puppy in the window that no one can resist.

Writers who spend ten years on a project, slaving over it until it is just right, do themselves a disservice by sending out half-assed query letters to the wrong agents. Getting the query letter right is almost more important than the manuscript itself, according to a couple of the agents we heard from this week.

Writing is an art but it is also a business.  Be as professional as possible, do good research, and only put your best foot forward – especially if you are using social media.  The literary agents who spoke to us emphasized Twitter as a “must have.”  Other authors, agents, and editors are all on board – at the very least you will see what’s happening in the biz in real-time.

If you have a blog, keep it clean and positive.  If you’ve been rejected 4,787 times, that is not the stat to post. One agent suggested writing book reviews as a way of getting some online credibility if you have no publishing credentials. Agents Google prospective clients. The chances of an agent or publisher taking a chance on a complete unknown these days is slim to none.  Have a presence online to increase your chances.

Make every contact you possibly can – be seen on the literary scene.  Yes, it is hard and uncomfortable but it must be done.  And above all, have faith in yourself and your writing.  Don’t get discouraged as writing with any “success” is a highly subjective enterprise.  It is very nearly capricious.

Practice, practice, practice.  Submit, submit, submit. Hone your craft and remember to breathe.

 

 

The Agony and the Ecstasy

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Day 3, Summer Writers Workshop:  first day of class time with our mentors.  There was a great deal of discussion about conflict, theme, and plot.  I feel increasingly cold and clammy when thinking about my own work and how ineffectual it might be with regard to those essential elements.  Maybe it’s not as bad as I fear, I say, trying to remember to breathe.  Since we’re not allowed to make any changes, there’s nothing for me to do but wait until D-Day (Wednesday).

The latter half of the morning was spent critiquing a classmate’s submission.  The one male in our group, universally considered a slacker who is always late and unprepared, launched into an articulate and well-contemplated speech on everything from theme to historical accuracy.  The rest of us sat somewhat stunned.  I roused myself long enough to think, “This guy is gonna rip my piece to shreds.”

Something that stuck with me from Alistair’s lecture: “Style is the clothing of thought.”  I love that.  Another one (by Ezra Pound):  “Only emotion endures.”

I leave the classroom for the cafeteria only seconds away from a complete panic attack.

Lunch, provided by the school, is a much-needed respite; however, they serve carb-heavy, cream-based meals with a few lettuce leaves thrown in for good measure.  After lunch, we are expected to sit through lectures by other authors on subjects such as “The Author as Teacher,” and “The Author and Agent.”  Valuable subjects, but after eating a plateful of fettucine alfredo I can barely keep my eyes open.

I’d best get to the title of this post:  The Agony in writing is everything from the physical act of writing – an author slices open his or her own guts, putting very personal things onto the page – to shopping same intensely personal work around to agent after agent or publisher after publisher only to be told “No, thanks” repeatedly.  A bit humbling, to say the least.

Worse still, even when told “Yes, please!” years can pass before a book hits the shelves.

Oddly, none of this really discourages me although it does make me wonder how lucid I might be by the time anything is published.  I could be senile and on my second hip replacement by the time I get published!

Then, there are brief moments of Ecstasy:  the phone call from an agent or publisher saying the work is going to be published.  One author said today this moment was his first and only moment of pure joy – that first “yes.”  Why?  Because in the writing world, your first yes might be your last.  Or, there could be a decade in between the yes’s.  It’s a fickle, difficult, and often heartbreaking business.

Luck plays a tremendous role and this same author also said that tenacity is the real key to success.  He sort of mumbled away from the microphone, “Sometimes more than talent.”  Ah-hah.  Yes, I’d heard that before.

So, I must have hope.  I have to hang in there.  Even if my classmates shred my submission, I will find the inner strength to embrace what they have to say and find a way to make the piece better as a result.  No matter what.  I haven’t come all this way, fought so hard, for nothing.

Today, one woman appeared at lunch vibrating with a combination of joy and terror.  One of the editors from the previous day’s session had asked to see her complete manuscript.  Suddenly, she stood apart from the rest of us; we could only watch with unabashed envy as she walked, trembling, into the light.

Self-Protective Homicidal Tendencies

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Day 2, Humber Summer Workshop and two things occurred to me on the long drive home.  First, I may have to accost Alistair MacLeod and this makes me sad because already I like him very much.  Two, this course is so all-encompassing that I barely know how to drive when class is dismissed.  I hardly recognize my family when I walk through the door.

I guess I should explain about why I might have to not only accost Dr. MacLeod but rob him as well – after only just meeting him.

He is a literary icon here in Canada.  Things occur to him that don’t occur in my mere mortal brain.  Important storytelling things.  In the hour that he spoke to us, his students for the week, I realized (in blinding Technicolor) how inadequate my writing is.  I could give you details but they are just too horrible to divulge.

He spoke softly but devastatingly about theme, scene, and characters.  It was then I began to wonder how to get my story away from him.  As the class ended he placed my papers (along with the six others) in his charmingly scuffed book bag.  I fought back a very strong urge to knock the dear old man down, grab his bag and run for the lake. Knocking down a literary icon seemed, for a split second, a rational act for this fifty year old writer, wife, mother of two teens, and normally law-abiding citizen. Ok, except for those speeding tickets in Alberta.

Knocking the old guy down was the best I could come up with – see how unimaginative I am?

The next 3 days might be agony (we’re going alphabetically – I’m somewhere in the middle of the pack). I cannot bear to look at the fifteen pages I submitted for fear of discovering more inadequacies.  Sweet Jesus, give me strength.

The piece I submitted was not one  in which I’d lost any blood, sweat or tears over. Big fat lie.  I wrote it, therefore I am naturally, organically invested in it.  Like, on a cellular level.  I don’t care if any of my classmates eviscerate me; I worry about Alistair.

I worry that he will take me aside – after class, because he is polite – pat my hand in a paternal way, give his head a slight shake and say gently, “Oh…my dear.  What shall we do about…this?”

On a brighter note, the morning lectures were very interesting for me but perhaps excruciating for twenty others.  Two editors from “big houses” went through twenty anonymous submissions at the speed of light (as editors must), passing a yes or no judgment on each.

I learned something about editors today:  the story – the hint, the shadow, the possibility of a good story sometimes can save sloppy writing.  Editors are like very busy cats. Cats cannot ignore their most primal instinct:  curiosity.  The more you intrigue an editor – genuinely, honestly and not with any clichés or tricks – the more pages you might get him/her to turn.  The more pages they turn, the better chance your manuscript will live another minute out of the slush pile.

In ten years, one of the editor has only pulled ONE manuscript from the slush pile.

Editors, I learned, hate clichés.  They also hate adjectives.  They hate stories that start with the weather.  “The  hot sun beat down on the crowd mercilessly.”  They like simple, direct writing that is fresh, that describes something mundane in a new way.  They don’t mind being shocked but you’d better be able to live up to your own hype.

They’re busy people.  Don’t make them work too hard to figure out what the hell you’re talking about.  Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, spoke in the afternoon about how story truth is sometimes more true than real truth.  Story truth is emotional truth.  He made me cry.  He cried.  It was great.  Real truth can be pretty boring; fiction better not be.

More Than Words

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Now that I’ve finished marching round the house singing Rule, Britannia, I’ve resolved to get back to work.  Yesterday (in between salutes to the Queen), I read a post by Kristen Lamb.  In it, she managed to scare the pants off me – which I have to admit, she does quite often.  It’s not her fault.  I’m easily spooked.

Both she and another blogger I follow, C. Hope Clark, maintain that the act of writing, finishing and polishing something is not the end of the game anymore.  Gone are the days when an author sends an envelope of neatly typed pages to agent and editor and they do the hard work.  Authors today are required to do much, much more than write.

Much more.  Let me say it again in case you thought you’d let your eyes scamper over those words- much more.

As if writing good prose isn’t daunting enough, writers now have to acquire boatloads of knowledge about things that they might have no aptitude for.  In fact, some of the things writers should know (if they want to be anything more than hobbyists) were taught in courses they probably actively shunned in university.

I can’t think of a course I didn’t actively shun in university…I really should send them a thank-you for graduating me with a degree.

To make matters worse, we have to learn about things that didn’t even exist when some of us were in university.

For me, social media is the mystery.  Blogging?  I resisted for years – what could I possibly have to say? No doubt some of you are asking yourselves that very question about me…  Facebook (and Mark Zuckerberg) were just twinklings in the ether.  Twitter? Isn’t that a nervous laugh?  These are things we must now not only be aware of, we have to become expert in IF we want anyone other than our mothers to read our work.

Hope Clark has been documenting the birth of her novel, Low Country Bribe and frankly, I get exhausted just reading about it.  She lives in South Carolina but for a few weeks recently I thought she had moved to Pennsylvania.  Or, was it Indiana?  Between book signings, writer conferences, and other publicity events, the woman hasn’t been home much. All the while, she has maintained her presence on the Internet.  Poor thing probably Tweets in her sleep nowadays.

She has posted quite a few photos of herself, seated at cloth draped tables (no doubt she had to provide both table and cloth) with stacks of her novel beside her, smile on her face.  Maybe she enjoys this sort of thing but I don’t know.  After all, she wrote a book entitled The Shy Writer.  If any of us are shy, we need to get over it.  Now.

Hope has long been proselytizing about the need for authors to get out there, be visible, toot their own horn.  However, I think even she must be slightly gobsmacked by the sheer physical effort it takes to publicize and sell a book. (Note:  she is not self-publishing this book either).

What I’ve gathered from both Kristen and Hope is that authors must be prepared to practice in the following areas: public relations, marketing, legal, public speaking, fundraising, medical, spiritual.

Medical?  Yes.  You must be adept at restarting your own heart when the stress gets to be too much.  No agent is gonna do it for you.  Spiritual?  Anything that appeals to you, be it prayer, voodoo, dervish-ing – whatever floats your boat and gets you through the sales pitch you will have to make to innumerable independent booksellers.  It can’t hurt. Legal?  You’d better know your rights at the very least.  A course in basic contract law, perhaps.

I get chest pains just thinking about it.  So, in addition to writing well, would-be authors should also train as if for a marathon or triathlon for stamina and energy are also needed.  A firm tushie will help with those hours you sit on hard metal folding chairs as you sign copies of your book.

But, as with all things literary, there is no guarantee of success.  At least I might end up in killer shape; and, if I do it write (Freudian slip! Meant to say “right”), I will reap more rewards than just a firmer tushie.