Making Magic or Selling My Dreams … I’m no Willy Wonka … yet!
OMG! I finished my novel! OMG! I finished my novel! Shit! I finished my novel.
In the summer of 2015, I finished my first novel (which was actually a total re-write of my real first novel, which, if we’ve learned anything from Go Set A Watchman, will never see the light of day!). But it seems that finishing a first novel is really only the start…
When I tell people I have written a book they seem impressed. “Where do you find the time?” they say. “Don’t you have two kids and a job?” they say.
“Yes!” I say. “I have two kids and a job (and a husband with whom I really like to spend time, too!). Thanks for asking!” I found the time because I made the time. My husband even helped me make the time.
On one level, I get it: it’s a thing people say. People find writing a novel to be an extraordinary accomplishment. On another level, I find the comment almost insulting. Writing is a natural thing for me: it’s necessary. Writing is how I process things – things from this morning and things from 30 years ago. When I’m not writing I feel cluttered. I feel weighed down.
Once, in eighth grade homeroom, a friend said to me, “You’re bitchy this morning. You’re not writing anything right now, are you?” She was right. It was true then and it’s true now.
Asking me how I find the time to write is like asking a fish how it finds the time to swim: just because you don’t swim all the time doesn’t mean the fish doesn’t need to. Writing, for me, is the easy part, or at least the fun part. It’s what comes next that may kill me.
What comes next, in my case, is “hell,” otherwise known as “time to query agents.”
Back in high school I was applying for an arts-based scholarship and was asked to choose between acting and writing. A director I had worked closely with told me he thought I was one of the few kids he knew who could actually “make it” as an actor. I have no idea if he said that to everyone, but I was incredibly flattered … and I still chose writing.
Acting was something someone had to give me permission to do. I had to be cast. I had to be chosen. I couldn’t just act alone in my bedroom (because that would be weird!). Writing, on the other hand, I saw as a solitary act. No one had to give me permission to write. I gave myself permission to write.
Obviously, my 17-year-old self wasn’t thinking about what it would take to get published. Which is how I ended up here, 40-years-old, and constantly nauseated.
After I finished my book and had feedback from my writer friends and beta readers, I spent a weekend on-line furiously investigating the query process. I read QueryShark. I read Publisher’s Weekly and Publisher’s Marketplace. I looked through AgentShark. I wanted to throw up.
I am unbelievably lucky to have lots of writer-friends who have been happy to serve as resources for me, but as one might imagine, their advice was not uniform. Figuring out who had the most up-to-date and genre-specific advice was messy. And sometimes what friends were telling me conflicted with what I had learned reading QueryShark, which claims to hold the secret to a singular formula that works, if you can figure it out and execute it properly.
One writer-friend gave me her query spreadsheet. I opened it and looked at it once, several weeks ago. I’ve been too nauseated to open it since. An editor friend, who had been instrumental in my first re-write, let me use her name with a few agents. It was a supremely generous act, but it instilled panic in me. Would I embarrass her? Would I embarrass myself?
Eventually I took a little advice from here and a little from there, took a long, deep, cleansing breath, and started sending out queries. I tried to work out a formula (if not on paper or in Excel, at least in my mind) to figure out where the sweet spot was. What agent would be attracted to my work, green enough to take me on and experienced enough to have the right contacts to get my work published? I couldn’t figure it out – it was like there were one too many axes on my graph.
Also, it felt like querying was easily screwed up. A typo? Delete. The wrong lingo or jargon? Delete. Something in your letter that makes you seem arrogant instead of confident? Delete. And of course, I queried too early, making significant improvements to my letter after I had already sent out a round of emails.
The whole thing made me pukey and confused and sad which is the exact opposite way that writing makes me feel. And I was really not prepared for that. I came face to face with the fact that I really do only have a finite amount of time. What I had previously been able to dedicate to creating I was now forced to use for selling.
Writing feels like eating chocolate or hiking in my favorite spot or both at the same time. And because I wrote a novel that was loosely based on things that had happened to me, it made me feel like a time-traveler who had gone back in time to right wrongs – to say things I wish I had said or to make other people say things I wish they had said. My friends and I joke that it’s fan fiction for my own life, but really writing my novel felt like making magic happen.
Writing queries feels like selling my soul, or worse, my dreams.
Writing feeds me and makes me a happier, healthier, more pleasant person to be around. Querying suffocates, drains, and scares me. At one point I turned to my husband (who had acted extensively in his younger days, just as I had) and said, “You know the vulnerability you feel when you’re on stage for two hours? I feel like that ALL. THE. TIME. now, and even more so when I check my email.”
So that’s where I am, in query limbo. Had my 17-year-old-self known that publishing was really no different than auditioning, would I have chosen acting instead of writing? Would I be an aging ingénue by now? No way to go back in time and figure that one out … unless maybe that’s what novel number two will be about …
Jamie Beth Cohen hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and currently lives on the line between suburban and rural Lancaster County, PA. She is currently trying to find an agent for her debut novel, So Much More Than Everything, in which sixteen-year-old Alice Burton is caught between enjoying her burgeoning sexuality and underestimating its considerable power. She is occasionally on Twitter @Jamie_Beth_S and you can read more about Jamie, and see videos of her recent story slam performances at www.JamieBethCohen.com.