GREAT IDEAS COME FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
The first novel idea that I seriously followed through with was a YA contemporary. The idea came from my own experiences as a school principal and a football parent. During the time I wrote the book a few years ago, I was immersed in football with my youngest son. I sat every afternoon surrounded by teens, in carpool line, at the football field, at games.
My motive was to put a book into the universe that allowed kids to talk about the hidden epidemic of drug abuse among athletes.
Not a huge amount of adults are aware of it but student athletes in many schools have huge pressures to use “a little something” to help them out. People have heard about the problems at the professional levels of athleticism—Olympics, national leagues—but I wonder where parents think that pressure begins. It begins in high school. The story isn’t didactic, but realistic, and approved by the football players who were on my writing team.
That manuscript’s opening pages recently won first place for awesome openers with RateYourStory, a lovely recognition of my writing. And, the only recognition that manuscript may ever get. Anyway, that let me know that at least the opening was compelling. Beta readers and critique partners had helped shape it up over a period of years. That was an affirmation I needed.
SO, WHY DID I TURN DOWN AN OFFER?
I was excited beyond belief when I got an offer from a publisher last year through an online conference. I assumed it was a legitimate offer since it came through a trusted venue. And, it was legitimate, nothing shady at all. But, it was a brand spanking new publishing company. And when I sent the email to agents who had my manuscript or a newish query, one agent (very kindly) walked me through all of the problems associated with such an offer. She pointed out that New Publishing Company’s web site was less than perfect, their only books had been written by a company owner, etc. Kind agent said I’d be better off self-publishing and keeping ALL of the profits since they could offer so little. Never be first with a new company. I heard that again recently from another agent I respect.
For me, the most important factors were two:
- Could they get the book into schools?
- Were they a PAL publisher with SCBWI?
For that book, at that time, those were important factors to me. Now, my factors might be different. I’m at a different place than I was a year ago. The answers to both questions were negative. So, I reluctantly turned down a publisher who sang great praises for my manuscript. And, doing it by email, to this day, felt cold. I still feel terrible, but also I know I did the right thing—for me.
Another request for a full came through that same conference. Disappointingly, although they loved it, it wasn’t dual perspective, which they wanted. They asked for more work with the same voice and characters, and dual POV.
This time life got in the way. I had started going blind with early, fast-growing cataracts. Two lens placements, and two additional surgeries later, my vision is not great. It will only get worse from here—it’s just a question of how rapidly that will happen. Writing is harder, so more valued!
My first serious consideration of an offer on that YA manuscript taught me a hard lesson. Don’t assume anything about a publisher.
I’m beyond proud to be releasing a picture book series, and a chapter book series with a small publisher. But, I did my homework. And I made the decision that was right for me.
WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?
That manuscript has been SO close, and I may pursue it a bit more—enjoy the roller coaster ride. I may not. I change my mind daily. I started the dual POV with the same characters, and have a good start on it. I’ve queried the manuscript more and had full requests, but nada. I’m not patient with querying, and I haven’t done enough. I get way more discouraged when I hear how saturated the market is than I do by the ups and downs. Or I get sidelined by life—as we all do.
Sherry Howard lives with her children and crazy dogs in Middletown, Kentucky, a stone’s throw from the beautiful horse farms her state is always bragging about. She was an award-winning educator, serving as teacher, consultant, and principal in one of the largest urban-suburban school districts in the US. Sherry loves to read, write, cook, and sit in the sand watching the waves when she can. Her poems and stories have appeared in multiple journals and anthologies. Her picture books and chapter books release with Clear Fork Publishing this year.
By the time I post this, I will have missed a writing deadline. Here’s what I learned.
I am only human. I am full of excuses. Even if there were enough hours in the day, I probably wouldn’t have made it on time.
There is something about a ticking clock that freezes me. I work best under pressure, it’s true, but where do we draw the line? I needed to finish my manuscript by February 28, and I didn’t. I found myself at 55,000 words, cruising along steadily, only to be smashed by a million unwoven plot threads. It was like holding a hundred balloon strings on a windy day.
I faced a choice. I could forge ahead and write another 20,000-30,000 words that would need heavy editing. Or, I could stop, reassess, and make the changes now, forgoing my deadline. As much as I want to be superwoman, I had to take a step back.
Then, knowing what needed to be done and how much rewriting I needed (after the rewriting I was already doing), I found myself stuck again. This time by a different feeling: Guilt.
Why am I not the person who writes 30,000 words in a weekend? Why am I not the person who writes flawlessly the first time? (And honestly, WHO are these people, and what voodoo magic do they possess?) Why do I suck? Why, why, WHY?
As if I don’t have enough things in my life to worry about, I proceeded to beat myself up for not being creative in exactly the right way to instantaneously achieve my dreams. (Who the heck do I think I am, anyway?) Creativity it tough. And fickle. Sometimes I sit, and brilliance comes from my fingers. Other times, I write utter garbage. Problem is, I can’t predict when that will happen. So, I sit, and I hope.
I knew I wouldn’t make my deadline sometime last week. Still, I pushed forward, hoping against hope my garbage would turn to brilliance simply because it was on the page. How wrong I was. I spent the last few days deleting and cutting and pasting, salvaging what can be salvaged, and rewriting the rest. I’m still at 55,000 words, but you know what I no longer feel? Guilty. I feel accomplished.
Somewhere along the way, I made a conscious decision to forgive myself. Not only for missing my deadline, but for being less than perfect. And then I got to work.
I love writing, but sometimes it doesn’t love me back. Sometimes it means late nights and rejection and tears. Sometimes it means hating myself and every word I’ve ever written. Other times, it means losing myself for hours in a manuscript I’ve poured my heart and soul into.
But no part has ever been perfect, including the person sitting at this laptop.
So, this week, as I watch my deadline come and go, I’ll sit myself right back here at my laptop and chip away at my manuscript. Does the failure hurt? Of course it does. But this too shall pass, and failure is just another learning experience.
Be gentle with yourself. Sometimes you need to fail, to fall, but it’s the getting back up that matters.
Kacey Vanderkarr writes about brave teenagers and unfortunate situations. Her short story, “Distraction,” is featured in NYC’s Subway Library and the inaugural issue of Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. By day, Kacey is a sonographer, coffee addict, and proud member of SCBWI and the Flint Area Writers group. @kacimari
No writer I’ve ever met thought that the writing journey would be hard when they first started. Or not hard in the way that we all, eventually, discover it is.
When you first start writing, the idea, the masterpiece that is your world, your characters are all bright and shiny and oh, so exciting! The only thing you think about is how to write faster, write better, write what you see or feel or need to write.
And yes, there are snags (that you knew would come), but they are okay. That’s all part of the writing process, right? But once you get your agent (or book deal, or self-pub your manuscript) it will all go smoothly. It’s like our vision of marriage: there’s a countdown to the wedding but nothing for after. And yet the after is just as important as the before and the big D-Day. If not more so. And the same is true of being a writer.
Pretty quickly we all discover that getting an agent is tough. So we focus on that (because everything will be fine after that, right?). And, eventually, many do get agents. But then you have to get the book deal (why didn’t anyone ever tell us that would be so hard? we have an agent, right? everything should be fine now, right?). But no, getting a book deal is just as hard as getting an agent (and maybe even more frustrating because you already have an agent and no one wants to hear you complain about not getting a book deal when they can’t get an agent, so who can you talk to about it?). So you push your frustration to the side, write a second manuscript that your agent loves and… still can’t sell it. Even though you have a great agent. Even if your book is your heart book and rings true and is even better than the book your agent signed you on for.
Because the truth of the matter is, the market – especially for YA right now – is tough.
Getting an agent is tough.
Getting a book deal is tough.
Getting sales and meeting your sell-through is tough.
Getting a second deal is tough.
Getting – and keeping – an audience is tough.
So what can you do? Switch to MG? or adult? become a painter?
No – not unless it’s already in you! But even if you did, those markets are tough too. There is no ‘easy’ way to success (in this case meaning getting published and selling books regularly) as a writer.
And it’s this part of the journey that is hard. Because it’s out of your control.
If you’ve written a book, you know you are a writer. You can plot and revise and create characters. You can see a huge undertaking all the way through it’s many circuitous and sometimes frustrating routes. You have the internal strength to actually produce a finished manuscript (or two or three or four). And that’s no small achievement because not everyone can.
But no matter what you do, you can’t make an agent sign you, make an editor offer you a contract, or make a reader buy your book. Nope, not going to happen. And with the market as it is, with so many talented writers not getting signed on by agents, or once they are signed on, not getting the book deal, or if they’ve self-pubbed not being able to get readers to buy their books, it becomes insanely frustrating – if you let it.
But you can’t let it get to you or it will pull you down.
What I’ve come to learn is that being a writer isn’t actually about getting an agent or a contract or making sales (even if all those things are great). Being a writer is about writing. About allowing those creative ideas that you have to materialize. To put words down on paper and then to stroke them until they actually tell the story you wanted them to tell.
So what can you do when the business of publishing is tough?
Keep letting your ideas flow.
Keep yourself open to all options.
Find what’s right for you.
And have faith.
If you have a deep rooted desire to write, you need to continue writing.
No one but you can give you legitimacy.
You are a writer because you write.
And that will be true no matter what happens on your journey,
no matter how many of your manuscripts do or don’t get published,
no matter how many agents reject or accept you,
no matter how many people read your books…
It’s just who you are.
So be a writer.
Born in the US, Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic
artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. She
is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her
husband, two children, three horses and a cat. Her debut YA Fantasy,
DRAGON FIRE, was a finalist in ForeWord Reviews’ 2013 Book of the Year
Award, in the 2014 Eric Hoffer Award and in the 2014 Readers’ Favorite
Recently, I participated in a chat on Twitter. This was a good thing for at least two reasons: 1.) there was lots of lively, if compressed, conversation; and 2.) it proves that I’ve mastered hashtags.
But anyway, we were discussing beginnings in YA novels, and inevitably the subject of what NOT to do in the beginning of a novel came up. And equally inevitably, someone dropped the “never start with a character waking up” rule.
The problem with this particular “thou shalt not,” of course, is that lots of successful novels violate it. (Nine Princes in Amber, The Hunger Games, etc.) If it were really an ironclad rule—like, “never squash your head under a pneumatic press”—then we wouldn’t see people ignoring it all the time and living to tell the tale.
But it’s not a rule; it’s a preference, and that’s very much not the same thing.
When I pointed this out, another Tweeter argued that you should only break the “no waking up” rule if you have a very good reason to do so.
I couldn’t agree more. But then, you should never do anything in writing unless you have a very good reason to do so. Thus, once again, we’re not talking about rules versus non-rules; we’re not saying “no waking up” is a rule that can be broken only under the right circumstances while, say, “no character putting his or her head under a pneumatic press” is a non-rule that anyone can ignore with impunity. If you have a character put his or her head under a pneumatic press, you’d better have a good reason for it, just as you’d better have a good reason for inserting a conga line of elephants dressed like Groucho Marx.
Do you see what I’m getting at here?
Writing doesn’t have rules the same way reality does.
It has parameters and possibilities, and anything is possible within the right parameters.
Which brings me to another supposed “rule,” one that came up in the conversation as well: “no first-person narrator describing her or his reflection in a mirror.” There’s what we might call the “soft” version of this rule, which says never do so in the opening chapter, and the “hard” version, which says never do it anywhere, ever, for any reason, under pain of death (or at least, exile from the Eternal Order of Rule-Bound Writers).
But the problem with this “rule,” again, is that it’s violated on a regular basis. For example, I find the following passage in Margaret Stohl’s quite well-written and successful YA book Icons:
I watch my reflection in the window. My brown hair is dark and loose and matted with dirt and bile. My skin is pale and barely covers the handful of small bones that are me.
Nice writing, nice description, nice moment. Nice mirror (or, technically, window, but one that reflects in the manner of a mirror).
Plenty of books, YA or otherwise, allow the first-person narrator to engage in mirror-gazing. It’s a common technique for the very reason that it’s consistent with the reality readers know: one of the few available ways in which we can see ourselves is by looking into some reflective substance, whether that be a mirror, a window, a pool of water, your lover’s eyes, or the blade of a knife. Especially when you take photography out of the equation—which most fantasies do—how else are you supposed to see yourself?
I’m not being disingenuous here. I know that many writers make their first-person narrators look into mirrors because they don’t know what else to make them do, and somehow this convention has slipped into their minds as a good thing to have first-person narrators doing. I’m not saying you couldn’t describe your first-person narrator in some more interesting or original way, a way that’s more in keeping with the actual novel you’re writing. (I tried to do that in my deep-space adventure Freefall, where my narrator reads personal data on the screen of his life pod.) So I’m not defending every instance of first-person-narrator-mirror-gazing that’s ever been written. Some of these instances are no doubt poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly motivated.
But many are not. Many are brilliantly written, cleverly thought out, ingeniously motivated. And thus they’re fine. They’re exactly right. They belong.
In writing, each beginning, each scene, each word needs to find its own rightness, its own reason for existence.
If it can do that, keep it. If it can’t, lose it.
So let’s put an end to punitive novel-gazing. Let’s put an end to the literary correctness police. Let’s put an end to absolute writing rules, when we all know that, like mirrors, they were made to be broken without the slightest bad luck ensuing.
Joshua David Bellin has been writing novels since he was eight years old (though the first few were admittedly very short). He is the author of three YA science fiction novels: Survival Colony 9, Scavenger of Souls, and Freefall. Josh loves to read, watch movies, and spend time in Nature with his kids. Oh, yeah, and he likes monsters. Really scary monsters.
Success. Whenever writers hear this word, we all have a similar vision pop into our heads.
The most popular one is our book printed and bound inside a bright, shiny cover. A close second is signing a publishing contract or getting an agent call. There are others we all conjure, like the first book signing, or typing the elusive “THE END” on the last page of a manuscript.
At the beginning of last year, I considered myself successful.
Well, I was on my way to success. I had two completed manuscripts, one fantastic WIP, and was signed with an agent who loved my book as much as I did. Things looked good.
This year, I have one manuscript I consider “finished”, two WIPs, and I’m agentless.
And guys, I’m happy about it. It may look like I’m further behind in my writing career this year, but only on paper. Hopefully, by sharing my story, other writers can learn how to find the right agent fit.
When my agent first approached me, I was overwhelmed. I had agents requesting full revisions, a few who showed genuine interest, and two small press publishing offers. I didn’t know what to do. When my agent, let’s call him Mike, gave me a call, he didn’t ask for revisions. He said we’d work through things together, and he’d teach me everything he could. That sold me.
We dove into the synopsis and cover letter. He guided me, taught me how to pitch and tighten. We sent off an exclusive submission, and though I was anxious to send book packages to every house that might be a good fit, I felt good about my career’s direction.
2017 was rough. I think every writer has a ‘make or break’ moment that tests how much they really want to be an author, and 2017 was my test. My husband and I both lost parents. We sold our first home and moved into a fixer-upper, and my youngest son was diagnosed with autism. In between all of this, I realized my second novel wasn’t ready to shop, so I had to have a tough conversation with Mike. I didn’t have the time or emotional energy to make the changes I wanted to novel #2. I dove into a new WIP instead, which left me with only one novel to send out to the world.
But there was another reason I wasn’t ready to send Mike my second book baby.
We’d been working together for a while, and he wasn’t submitting as often as other agents in the YA industry. I was holding back because I was beginning to suspect Mike my not be the right agent for my genre. His other clients all wrote adult fiction. I needed someone who specialized in fantasy, with the right connections and past sales in YA.
At the end of 2017, he got a job offer that was going to take up a lot of his time. I was already concerned by the lack of submissions sent out, a total of only three, so as soon as I heard his news I knew it was time to have a conversation. We were both on the same page, parted on great terms, and I still consider him a friend. I know he feels the same. We had a happy ending. I was lucky.
How to write a Synopsis, Query, and Cover Letter
THIS IS EVERYTHING. Mike helped me fix, and boy do I mean fix, my synopsis and pitch. These two must-have documents are a challenge for many writers. I was horrible at both.
How do you boil down a 90,000-word novel into three pages? Ask an agent, they know how.
I’m still no expert, but I’m much better at this skill than I was before Mike and I worked together. Notice I said skill. Synopses and queries are an art. They’re required by almost everyone in the industry. Become a pro at them as soon as you can.
It’s okay to slow down
As soon as new writers finish their first book, they want to start submitting. But there’s a reason most novelists don’t sell their first book, or second, or even third. The average is the fourth.
Don’t be so anxious to send off everything. Experience is a great teacher, and practice perfects craft.
Be sure your first novel is what you want as a debut, authors only get one, and it can define a career. I’m happy I didn’t sell my first novel as it was. I’m happy only three imprints read it. I’ve gone back and revamped it, cut characters, deleted scenes, and it’s so much stronger. I am learning to see my own mistakes, and I give Mike credit in helping me hone that ability.
A good agent may not be the right agent
There are so many warnings to do research on agents. I thought I’d done my due diligence. My agent had worked in publishing for over 30 years. He wasn’t a full time agent, he was an editor first, but he had sold a successful TV show and bestsellers. He loved my work and was passionate about it in a way the other agents who were asking for fulls, phone calls and revisions hadn’t been.
I still consider him a good agent. But he wasn’t right for me.
He’d been successful, but not in my genre. He’d never worked with fantasy or young adult, which is what I write. His contacts weren’t with YA imprints , and though his editing skills were top notch, they didn’t always fit with a YA voice. In his defense, he never hid that shortcoming. He was honest about it but assured me he wanted to give it a try. I don’t regret letting him try, but in the future, I will only sign with an agent who specializes in the same type of novels I produce.
Onward and Upward
This was my agent’s mantra. He taught me to believe in myself. He also taught me to self-edit and cut.
Talent only gets you so far. Everyone needs to work to be better.
If this lesson was all I got from my experience, it still would’ve been worth it.
The final takeaway
My time with an agent taught me so much. Mike made me a better writer and carried me through a rough year. I understand the business so much more than I did.
I’m almost ready to start again. This time, I have a plan. I’m making a list of agents who requested my novel in the past, and focusing on finishing my other two books. After they are complete, I’ll hit the query trenches again, better armed, with three novels ready to go. When I make it, I want to be ready. I’m willing to take my time. Practice is important, it builds experience, which includes failures.
Remember this book?
Stephanie Garber and her debut novel, Caraval, is one of the big success stories of #Pitchwars. Every YA writer wants what she has, but it’s so easy to overlook how she got there. Caraval was her fifth book. She worked hard, she learned, and she finally succeeded.
There are so many others. The Hate You Give wasn’t Angie Thomas‘ first novel. Tahereh Mafi wrote five novels before her big breakout, Shatter Me. FIVE. What if she had stopped at four? Pick an author, and you’ll find rejection at some point in their journey. This industry is hard. There’s no other way to put it. You’ve got be tough, and that’s not going to change. Keep writing through the failures. Embrace them, each one will teach you something. Write until you make it!
Until I make it, you can find me in front of my computer, typing away.
Jessica Grace Kelley is an accountant by day and writer by night. She greatly prefers her night job. She’s an author and poet, and her young adult novels have received over a dozen awards and contest wins, including the Daphne du Maurier, the YA Authors.Me contest, and the Emma Merritt. Jessica holds a BA in Finance and Accounting. When she isn’t buried in books she spends her time writing music and co-teaching a teen writing class. Sometimes she tries to be a painter, but the product of her efforts proves it’s all in her head.
I’ve been around the block a time or twenty. That’s not copping to a specific age, but simply an assertion of life experience beyond the age of my YA readers. Way beyond. Think different galaxies. I am a post-middle aged Caucasian woman with centrist eyes that scan all sides of everything.
In this era of diversity—the dreaded D-Bomb—life is tough for writers like me. It’s considered beyond poor form to write outside one’s ethnic, religious, preferential, societal, or experiential boundaries. So poor, in fact, that agents and editors alike scan my white-bread name and immediately reject anything I find the least bit interesting to explore. Not sour grapes. Reality.
Does this confine my endeavors to subjects that are familiar to me? Should I be writing picture books about chickens with chin hairs? Bunnies with bunions? Cows with crows’ feet? My only real experience with newer trends is my Shih Tzu, Mabel, who is species binary. Once a year, when dog licenses are renewed, she feels like a cat to avoid registering. That’s about as diverse as I am. On paper.
But few write on paper anymore. It’s a virtual world out there. And as society embraces differences, I have an issue with being told one must be of a certain something to write about it. So let’s look at what it means—to me—to embrace diversity in writing.
Because I propose that getting timely messages into the hands of readers is vastly more significant than perseverating on who is writing them.
Writers of diverse backgrounds are producing an excellent body of work that opens the window to worlds with which readers may be unfamiliar. A great writer with experience in any given area trumps all else, and there are many, many amazing people across every imaginable spectrum putting out books. I hope there will be more. No one has the same intimate knowledge as one who has been part of a particular issue or group.
But does that mean that others can’t, under any circumstance, have the sensitivity to write diverse characters and situations?
An author has the responsibility to research whatever subject is being tackled no matter what the basis.
Interests can be diverse, even if one is not a personal representative of said group. Once written, it is incumbent upon the agent/editor to determine if it’s been done with authenticity and accuracy. This should not be based on the writer’s skin color, religion, or sexual preference. It should be based on how true that writer is to the subject, why the writer’s heart is captured by the situation, and what benefit is gained by this particular person telling this particular story.
Sometimes it takes looking beyond the obvious attributes a writer brings to the manuscript to see the finer points of her/his background. Examples abound from my own life:
What qualifies a Christian who didn’t live through World War II to write about the Holocaust? Research, of course. But what about having been married to a Jew who had relatives with numbers burned into their forearms? Or being knocked breathless while wandering through Dachau? Or connecting the dots between the hopeless eyes in photos of concentration camp Jews and victims of the Khmer Rouge while standing in a former Phnom Penh prison?
How can a Caucasian identify with the roots of African slavery? Research, of course. But what about talking around a campfire at night in the Kenyan bush with people who had ancestors who were enslaved? Or hearing a local folktale that is believed to be true? Or connecting the dots between the hopeless eyes in photos of oppressed people of all circumstances?
Why should a healthy, law-abiding woman be able to identify with a psychotic adolescent boy, drug dealers, and prostitutes? Research, of course. But what about working for years at an inpatient psychiatric facility? Or getting so close to people on the street that they greet you by name? Or connecting the dots between the hopeless eyes of the oppressed and of the mentally ill?
As a reader, the last thing I look at is the background of the writer. Instead, it’s the story that does or does not grab me. After the fact, it’s interesting to see the etiology of the work, but if the voice is true, the physical description or anything else about the author is immaterial.
Please, please, please—if you are a writer of a diverse anything, write that book. Be a role model. Bring your experiences to life in the hands of a child.
Please, please, please—if a manuscript crosses your desk by a writer who totally gets the subject because they live it day after day, represent or publish that book. Set high standards. Bring artists who exemplify the real fabric of our world onto the bookshelves of a new generation. This is diversity, no doubt. I celebrate being part of a group that so longs for this to happen.
But please, please, please—do not dictate to anyone what is appropriate material for him or her to write. I don’t care if a transgender person writes about a heterosexual love affair. Eskimos can pen a thriller about Cuban refugees in Miami. A Muslim should be permitted to set a story in a Catholic monastery. Certainly, we need more books about personal experiences. Just allow room for the creativity and drive of one who is willing to tackle a subject for reasons other than what is obvious in their own background.
When every writer in our industry celebrates and promotes the differences in life, true diversity will no longer be the d-bomb. It will be, quite simply, obsolete. All authors will strive for excellence, truth, and authenticity. Isn’t this better than focusing on who is to be included—and who is to be to excluded?
Fan of fun factoids, chocolate milkshakes, and wild adventure, Laurel writes to tell the stories that live in her. Her literal and virtual file cabinets attest to her prolific writings of those things that touch her heart, regardless of public opinion. Which may be why she is pre-published…