Lessons From Rejection

For the umpteenth time, I click my cursor through the terse, to-the-point emailed responses to my latest barrage of agent queries. Thanks, but no thanks; Unfortunately, your work is not a good fit for our agency; and finally, the dreaded: This is in no way meant to reflect on the quality of your writing, keep it up.

“I’m seventy years old; the clock’s ticking,” my internal doomsday prophet intones. How many increments of a typical six-month waiting period do I have left? I don’t even buy green bananas.

Driven by the desire to hit that sweet spot required to find an agent willing to take a chance on my writing, I ask, “What does a good fit look like?”

Apparently, as the old saying goes, it’s different strokes for different folks. One agent’s pot-o-gold is another’s anathema. The bottom line is, how tough would an agent find it to sell my story? The shifts in the industry over the past decade alone have made it harder than ever to sell anything even remotely considered cliché, passé, overdone, or not edgy enough. To quote an agent who spoke at a writer’s convention I attended, “Please, don’t send me another story about vampires or kid wizards.” It’s a market-driven business; fads quickly come and go – emphasis on GO. To be marketable, a novel must not only be well-written, it must sizzle and pop with unique plot, peopled with and acted out by unique characters.

The latest series of rejections catapulting me to action, I spend the day researching books on Amazon, paying careful attention to the back covers and blurbs to get a feel for what’s selling. Then I read my manuscript out loud, in hopes that including the sense of hearing may help me spot gaps in the plot or highlight weak verbs and wonky sentences. Regardless of how many times I’ve edited, I edit again, searching for typos, misspellings, and over-use of be, am, is, are, was, were, been, or has been and have been.

If I’m still happy with my plot and character arcs, I seek and destroy anything written in passive voice – the use of which will doom even a great story.

I then move on to the Query letter. Does it sing? Does the Hook really hook? I re-read Query by C.J. Redwine and invest a day re-working my Query letter. I search the pages of the latest Guide to Literary Agents, highlighting the agencies I’ve not yet queried.

After doing everything I know to do, and as the melody of Cast Your Fate to the Wind – a golden oldie from the seventies – floats across my memory, I send out another barrage of Queries. Then I square my shoulders, open the Outline Template on my desktop, type in a working title, and begin another story.

How Bad Do You Want It?

Today I’m setting up book signings and library book talks, emailing press releases to the local newspaper as well as to the paper in the city of my birth. I’m doing it all. No agent. No nanny. Any marketing of my book is down to me.

Surely the current book publishing business bears little resemblance to what it was even a few decades ago. I mean, did Hemingway have to market his own work? And, no, I’m not comparing my first effort to Hemingway.

But all things change. The world changes. People change. Needs change. And from the arrival of Gutenberg’s amazing contraption, the publishing business has certainly done its share of changing.

Now days, it’s not enough to write a good tale. The author must school himself in the fine art of marketing, and that includes hacking his way through the social media morass, among other venues.

I’m not complaining, you understand. Just commenting.

In fact, my publisher, The Wild Rose Press, Inc., has been terrific to work with. Beginning with their swift and kind response to my query, moving on to giving me an amazing editor, and then putting my book online and making it available in paperback in record time. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have my words in print. Actual print. I didn’t have to learn yet another skill by having to figure out how to publish it as an ebook. No slam against those who do…I’m just not ready to add that tool to my burgeoning tool chest.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about lessons learned through this process. Suffice it to say, the trip’s been enlightening.

I’m Baaaack

Thanks to my amazing daughter-in-law, Erin O’Donnell, my website has been updated. And thanks to her, my mystery novel, AN ARM AND A LEG, may now be purchased on my website (see the book icon at the right of each of my pages).

It’s been an interesting few months – a couple of book signings, lots of hoop-lah from family and friends. Lots of lessons learned. And lots of marketing ideas fomenting.

But now I find myself obsessing about book number two. Questions like: Should I do a sequel? Or should I do a Stephen King and gin up a completely new set of characters? And is it okay to do an Isaac Asimov and work on several novels simultaneously? Because right now I have about three stories floating around in the alphabet soup that makes up my brain.

At this point, all I know is I gotta keep going. No over-thinking allowed. So, in the words I’ve used dozens of times when I wore a Trainer of Trainers hat (a different lifetime ago), I’m going to trust the Process. Can’t wait to see where that takes me and anyone else willing to go with.


Life Lesson No. 14: Never Say Die

I’ve been working on a novel for nearly seven years. The path has been slow-going and fraught with frustration. Trial-and-error learning, especially in the absence of any real feedback, is incredibly time consuming.

Things I didn’t know seven years ago: whether or not I needed an agent, which publishers accept unsolicited submissions, acceptable word count, genre requirements, how to build suspense, importance of conflict, what makes for good dialogue, the uber-importance of the first words of the novel, consistent POV, back story placement, and how to make use of all five senses, to name a few.

The first iteration of my novel weighed-in at 45,000 words. It opened with a description of the weather (a huge no-no), and I hadn’t yet learned that each chapter needed to include conflict and end in suspense. However, excited to have managed to get the story down on paper at all, I sent out a spate of submissions to potential agents. Most didn’t respond; others sent boiler-plate rejection letters.

So I signed up for a creative writing class and bought a couple of how-to’s. Armed with fresh information, I edited. Along the way, potential scenes bubbled up from what Stephen King calls “the boys in the basement,” and my novel grew to 55,000 words. I confidently sent out another salvo of submissions to potential agents. Result? See the preceding paragraph. A slurry formed in the pit of my stomach: rejection mixed with feelings of ineptitude. I questioned whether I actually had what it took to be a published writer.

However, determined not to give up, I bought Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, along with enough books on writing to fill a small bookstore. I read each one, highlighting salient points in pink, yellow, blue, and green. I took another class, then edited some more. I entered a couple of contests and paid extra for critiques; I attended a couple of conferences. I established a daily writing schedule and stuck with it. My novel grew to its current 75,000 words.

Having learned that first-time, unpublished authors have about as much chance of acquiring an agent as they do getting hit by a monkey falling from a spaceship, I plumbed the Predators and Editors website for small publishers (I started at the end of the alphabet, figuring most writers would start with the A’s). Carefully following guidelines found on each publisher’s website, I again began the submission process. This time, I hit pay dirt. After having accumulated enough rejections to paper our guest bathroom, I was offered contracts from three publishers within a space of about four days. Thrilled into near-catatonia, I researched each, and decided on the one that had most authors in their stable as well as most titles in print.

As a poly-published author once said at a conference I attended: I’m not aiming at the Pulitzer Prize. (Huzzah to those who are.) My aim is to pull my Readers out of their reality and into another for a bit. We’ll see how that pans out.









The Truth about Ecstasy

I recently ran across a book in the “Self Help” section at Barnes and Noble that caught my attention. As usual, the cover boasts the benefits the Reader will accrue by purchasing and reading it. Screaming bullet points on the back include the statement that humans have the right to a life filled with ecstasy – that if we live even one day in something other than ecstatic happiness, it’s our own fault. She (the author) is willing to share her secrets as to how to move our life into that continual state of bliss. What an incredible claim, I thought, expecting a Dali Lama- or Mahatma Gandhi-esque offering. So I thumbed through the book.

Lots of instruction to let go of friendships that are less than perfect (including any friends who have been the victim of misfortune – gee, that’s just about everyone I know), a command to meditate at least fifteen minutes per day, and even daily platitudes to commit to memory that can be pulled up at a moment’s notice to convince yourself what you’re experiencing is indeed ecstasy.

My thoughts? It’s a bunch of hooey. Because the truth is life experiences, even the bizarre or horrifying, when repeated over time become the norm. We humans are amazingly adept at adapting. And, of course, the norm grows boring.

I for one don’t want to be under the pressure to perform ecstatically every day. Besides, one of the realities of life is that it often sucks . . . and it’s supposed to. It’s through challenges that we grow our coping muscles and learn wisdom. It’s the yin and yang of life – the light and dark. I cannot imagine anything more irritating than to have someone command me to “be happy, it’s all good” in the face of tragedy or loss.

My life has included a few mountain top highs. I treasure the memories. But one reason I can describe those times as mountain top is because there are also valleys against which to compare them.

Final word? Grow up, Lady Author (who appears in her photo to be about fourteen). And after you’ve gone through the pain life inflicts on every participant, write something worth the paper it’s printed on. Then I’ll take you seriously.

Writer’s Remorse

It’s a cousin to Buyer’s Remorse – the feeling of let-down that follows immediately after a major purchase such as a car or house. The feeling of, like the golden oldie says, is that all there is?

And I’m suffering from it.

After working for six years on my novel – six years during which I thought about it constantly, jotted down snippets of overheard conversations to pepper into the dialogue, basically lived, breathed, and showered with it – the thing is finished. I’ve polished, re-written, edited, and re-edited, and I’ve found a Beta-Reader who was a professional editor in a past life. It’s the best I can do.

So I checked in with an online group of writers I chat with on occasion. I told them of the unexpected feelings of loss that accompanied my novel’s completion. One savvy writer said the feelings are basically empty nest syndrome, and that feels about right. Because it definitely is akin to the feeling of giving birth, raising the child, and then watching her walk away to seek her fortune in the world, knowing she doesn’t need you anymore.

Several of my chat-writers told me to get back on the horse and start another novel. Others said I should take a break and do something totally un-writer-like for several weeks before beginning something new.

I haven’t had the heart to begin a new novel. At least, not until this morning.

Today I awakened to my Protagonist’s voice yammering away about a woman who just moved into the house across the street.

“She’s having trouble sleeping because of weird noises coming from her basement,” says my Protagonist.

“Aha,” I say. “Weird noises from her basement is good. And then what if…”

And we’re off.


To Hang or Not To Hang

At the age of 63 the knowledge that tempus fugit is never far from my mind. And that’s one reason I’ve been considering publishing my novel online as an E-Book.

I’ve learned a lot about the business of writing – mostly via agent blogs and other writers’ publications. And I think my novel is almost to the point of being a good read. At least that’s my hope. I’ve had a couple of disinterested folks critique the first fifty pages, I’ve edited the thing until I can quote whole chapters from memory, I’ve submitted it to a couple of the more prestigious contests, and I get consistently positive feedback. So what’s holding me back? One word – status.

The problem with becoming one of the growing number of self-published is that to the purists it makes her seem unwilling to “pay her dues.” It puts her in the category of the fifth grade bully who insists on cutting in line. And it smacks of a smidgen of arrogance.

So why would I even consider it? Simple – I’d like to have someone besides myself read my stuff before I die of old age.

Okay, okay. I’ll think about it a bit more before I decide. But only a bit.

Watch this space.

Guilt and Fear: The Writer’s Life

Got any phobias? Engage in obsessive compulsive rituals? Still feel guilty over past indiscretions? Excellent. As writers we can tap into those life experiences to build multi-faceted, deeply human characters.

By the time we’ve reached the ripe old age of ten or so, all of us will have developed psychological, mental, spiritual, and even physical battle scars. By the time we’ve lived a couple of decades, we will have learned various coping mechanisms to help us get through our day. And by the time we’re middle-aged, we’re as bent and dented as any used car on a second-rate car lot.

So write about it. Lemons to lemonade.




How Much Time? How Much Money?

Two of my New Year’s resolutions: Do a fearless inventory of how much money and energy writing has cost me over the past year or so, and Decide whether or not to continue.

In looking over my personal library I find about fifty books on writing – all of which I’ve read, highlighted and sticky-noted. Their total cost to me – somewhere in the range of nearly one thousand dollars. Receipts for writers conferences and workshops (including a couple online), come to a little over two thousand dollars. A list of all the writers’ contests I’ve entered indicates a total expenditure of nearly three hundred dollars, and about a hundred dollars for various writer’s magazines and directories. This brings the cost of my writing to a robust thirty-four hundred dollars over the past year and half alone.

And that’s just money. What about time?

I write an average of three hours a day, three days a week, excluding holidays and Sundays. That amounts to over four hundred hours per year in pursuit of my dream of eventually writing something someone somewhere will want to read. That’s over ten forty-hour work weeks. That’s not including time spent reading and researching.

And the credit side of my Writing Ledger? How much have I earned to-date from my writing?

In terms of dollars – Zero, Zip, Nada. In fact, if an expert were to do a cost/benefit analysis, my efforts would not even come up to the bottom “Cease and Desist Immediately” rung of the ladder.

So why would I want to continue writing? That’s a no-brainer (I know the saying is passé, but it’s so appropriate). In my world and at my age joy is not to be taken for granted. Nor is it quantifiable in terms of payola. Writing gives me joy, so I’ll keep on writing.

Two New Year’s resolutions down. Good for me. Now if I could just figure out the easiest way to pump up my biceps…