The Fear

The longer I write, the more I try to make this a legit career, the more I realize one important thing. It never stops being scary.

Writing wasn’t that scary when I was younger. Those short stories and attempts at novels that failed before they ever got off the ground were all warm-ups. They were laps around an empty track. They were throwing a softball and shagging fly balls behind the house with my dad.

The first time I sat down with a book idea and actually began to write it in earnest, that’s when it got real. Committing an idea to the page and investing ninety-something-thousand words in it is a scary thing. At least, it was for me. Letting someone read it made me really nervous. (Later realizing I let them read that many words of crap embarrassed me to no end). Reading it in front of a critique group for the first time petrified me. I was no longer hidden in the back yard, I was on the practice field with the whole team.

Writing the second one wasn’t any easier. The writing improved, but that manuscript came with a new, even scarier step. Sending it to agents. Querying. Oh my gosh, querying. All of a sudden, I went from the practice field to a game. People were watching. What if I messed up? What would happen then?

A fair amount of tears, it turned out. Rejection. To be honest, the first rejections weren’t as scary as the requests for fulls. Knowing an agent had my work was ten times more frightening than the critique group reading it.

Each step in the writing process has come with a new fear. The fear of committing to a new idea then discovering it sucks. The fear of someone else reading my words and thoughts. The fear of rejection. Of judgment. Of revising and doing it wrong and having to do it all over again but still not getting it right. Of letting down my family and friends and agent and myself.

It doesn’t stop. It’s an infinite roller coaster that you never get off.

I just finished my fourth manuscript. I love it. SO. MUCH. This is a big deal. It’s uncharted territory. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like my writing, and there are always passages and phrases that I love in each manuscript. But upon finishing my final read through before I send it off to my agent, it hit me that I’ve completely fallen in love with this book.

Loving a book isn’t that different from romantic love. Before my husband, I had several boyfriends, each of whom I thought I had a deeper connection with than the last. It wasn’t until I found my husband, though, that I realized what true love is. Those feelings for those other boys all paled in comparison. I still like my other stories, and I still harbor a deep affection for my last manuscript. But I didn’t know true book love until this one.

And that scares me more than anything else has so far with my writing.

When I went on sub with the last book, it was pretty nerve-wracking. I made my standard color-coded spreadsheet. I jumped at every new email. I prayed someone would want it. The first rejections came and, even though I’d steeled myself, they stung. I cried. I wallowed for a bit, then I brushed myself off and moved on. I’d already starting writing another one–and I’d already started falling for it–so I had something to keep me preoccupied. Each rejection was a little easier to deal with. When six months went by and the list of editors with my sub dwindled, I was prepared. I knew we weren’t giving up on the book, just putting it aside awhile until the timing was right. It was hard, but I’d seen the writing on the wall. Instead of fretting, I threw myself into finishing the new book, and despite trying to keep it at arm’s length, I fell head over heels for it. So much so, that sending the final draft to my agent was the scariest thing I’d done.

Falling in love with your writing is a dangerous thing, and I really felt that danger for the first time when I submitted the draft. The more you love something you’ve written, the harder it is to tear it apart. “Kill your darlings” isn’t just a cliche. Writers can get so swept up with something small that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve never had a problem cutting into my writing. My agent signed me after a massive revision in which I reworked the entire story. She’s hands-on and editorial, which I love, and I know she knows her stuff. But I didn’t want to see this story carved to pieces. If she’d come back and said it needed major revisions, I would’ve heard her out and given it a shot, because I trust her and I know she sees things from a different vantage point, she sees the whole forest. It would’ve been hard, though.

Fortunately, she loved it too. No major changes, no ripping my baby to shreds. I was thrilled (and shocked, haha). Now it’s time for this one to go on sub. It should be old hat this time around. I’ve been here before. I’ve played a game under the lights in front of a big crowd. This time, though, I’m naked. I’m terrified to sub this. I actually cried when I found out it’s time to send it.

I’m not ready. I’m not ready for this manuscript to get rejected. I love it too much.

When I started writing seriously, I thought I would eventually reach a point where it isn’t scary anymore, where I’d be comfortable. There is no comfort in writing. Each step is just as terrifying, or more so, than the last. If the impossible happens (which I can hardly begin to hope for) and this book doesn’t get rejected, if someone wants it, then I have the fear of it getting ripped apart again. The fear of the whole publishing process. Of readers not buying it, or worse, hating it, or not caring at all. Of never selling another book.

It never stops. Just because you reach that next step in your journey, doesn’t mean it gets easier. Rejection doesn’t hurt less, you just get used to the pain. Fear doesn’t lessen, but you figure out how to cope (at least not until you get into Stephen King/John Grisham/John Green territory. I bet they don’t feel the fear anymore. Although, who knows, maybe they do?). I’m, obviously, still working on that coping bit. Maybe I’ll get the hang of it one day, but until then, I’m going to build my color-coded submission spreadsheet, eat some chocolate, wait to pounce on my phone when I get an email, and write another book to fall in love with.

Because regardless of how scary writing can be, I love it. I can’t imagine not doing it. Fear and all.

(Also, this is the song (Lily Allen “The Fear”) I’ve been humming while writing this post. It will get in your head. You’ve been warned).

What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been- My Agent Journey

As I’m sure you guessed from the title, I’ve got some pretty big news. Okay, that’s putting it mildly. I’m freakin’ ecstatic! I have an agent! After several manuscripts, lots of queries, tons of tears, and a boatload of perseverance. Here’s how it all went down:

Back in May, I had this crazy dream one night. I don’t remember the date, but I remember the day. It was the day my orthopedic surgeon removed Carl (my leg brace) for good and cleared me to drive again. My brother, and chauffeur for the day, went to lunch with me (lunch buffet at Pizza Hut–just in case you were curious), and I told him about my weird dream. Now crazy dreams are nothing new, but this one…it felt special.

Soon as I got free time, I transcribed my dream idea into words. First, a synopsis, then a first chapter. Then the words just kept coming. I kept writing and next thing I knew, I had 30k or so written and started sending it off to my amazing critique partner. I wrote and edited and finally got it done, then edited some more and got it ready to send to betas. They liked it okay but had some concerns. So I edited some more, went through another round of betas, drafted my query, compiled a list of agents to submit to, researched those agents (i.e. stalked), whittled it down, then, finally, I was ready.

Four months after my dream, on October 12, I decided to submit a round of queries, not really expecting anything to happen, but hoping I would at least see the kind of responses I got to my query. I submitted to twelve wonderful agents, any of which I would have felt extremely lucky to have in my corner–although I must say, I did have a couple favorites.

Because I’m my own special sort of weird, and OCD, I put the agents and their submission info in a color coded spreadsheet, alphabetized by name, grouped by submission requirements, then alphabetized within the groups. See? Kind of crazy. Okay, and maybe I was really nervous about submitting and the more I played with the pretty colors, the longer I put off actually hitting “send.” But send I did, finally. Then I did that thing where I tell myself not to get my hopes up, no that blinking light on my phone is not an email from an agent, agents don’t respond that quickly, they’re busy people and–

Holy crap it’s from an agent! Just two hours later, I got a response, from one of my top choice agents. Not just a request for a full, but a literal “YES, PLEASE!” written just like that, in all caps. I couldn’t believe it! I did a happy dance in my chair, completely forgetting my office door and window blinds were open, and that I’m in a high traffic area of the building. When I collected myself, I started to read over my manuscript again, stopped myself, and submitted the full. I marked it down on my spreadsheet, colored the cell green, then I tried to put it out of my head.

I got another couple requests, but none made me quite as excited. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled with each request, but there was something special about that first email, about the level of excitement for my work. My work! Then I got some rejections. My attempts not to think about it failed. I still jumped every time that green light on my phone blinked, even though I kept telling myself it could take months for the agent to respond. Sometimes they have fulls for–

Nope. Four days after I submitted the full, the agent responded. I took a deep breath, opened my spreadsheet, and clicked the email, ready to mark “Rejection 10/16/12” down and color it in red (of course). But it wasn’t a rejection. It wasn’t an acceptance either. The agent said she found a lot to love, but had some concerns. She asked if I would be up for exclusive revisions. Uh…yeah, of course I would! I did another happy dance and tried to call Hubby, but he was in California for work and didn’t have his phone. The most exciting news of my writing career and the one person I wanted to tell was in Cali-freaking-fornia. I had to sit on the news for hours, then practically squealed in the phone when he finally called. It’s like all that excitement just built, and built, like Mentos in Coke, then came spewing out all at once.

The agent and I exchanged a couple emails, then the next night I received her notes. All six pages of them. Six! Yeah, it was a bit overwhelming, and I didn’t know quite what to think. Then I read a blog post she referred me to by Imogen Howson. Her experience was similar to mine: five or six pages of revision notes, and a lot of trepidation. It worked out well for Imogen, so I decided to give it a shot.

The agent wanted the first seventy-five pages revised. Full of excitement and nervous energy, I opened my manuscript, laid my fingers on the keyboard, and sat there. All of a sudden, I was completely petrified. “I can’t do this. How did I ever think I could do this?” I opened a new document, and found the blank page too intimidating. I went back to the original manuscript and tried writing a new first chapter. Then I deleted it and went back to the blank screen. Nothing.

So I closed everything and tried to breathe. The revisions weren’t just big, they were world-altering. Literally. I had to move the story to an entirely new planet. Problem was, I didn’t know the planet yet, and I was still too close to the original story. I needed space, in all sorts of ways. (The great folks at Absolute Write helped me realize this too).

I turned off the computer, and turned on the television. Finally, I had an excuse to make Hubby watch all the nerdy science shows! “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking,” “Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole,” all the space shows I could find! Coincidentally, the Sunday before I received the revision request, Hubby and I had watched “How the Universe Works,” perfect timing, eh?

Instead of going back to the computer, I pulled out my trusty legal pad, and began drawing: a planet, continents, oceans. I named the planet, the continents, and the countries, wrote back stories for how the people found the planet and how they terraformed it. I figured out how far it was from the sun and how many hours there were in a day. I named other planets in the solar system.

Then, I finally turned my computer on again, and started to write. Those first couple chapters were the hardest. I tried jumping ahead in the story, but had to go back to the beginning. When I finally had something (that I thought was crap) I sent it off to my CP. Shockingly, she loved it! She suggested places I could expand the world-building, and I was off again. Writing like crazy.

I wrote and tweaked and edited and fretted for a month. Exactly a month, although I didn’t plan it that way. Then, November 16, when I thought I couldn’t possibly edit any more, I bit the bullet and submitted, jumping every time that stupid phone light flashed. After a couple other emails, twenty minutes later, she responded. She’d read a little and liked it so far and would get back to me when she’d read the rest.

If you follow this blog, you know I’m the self-deprecating sort, so I prepared myself for her to hate the rest. Readied myself for rejection. Two hours later, I was at lunch with Hubby and the green light blinked. I saw it was from the agent and held my breath.

She loved it. She’d read the whole thing and enjoyed it so much she offered rep right then! Yes, I jumped up and down in my seat in the restaurant. Yes, strangers gave me weird looks. No, I didn’t care. Nor did I care when I jumped more in the parking lot. I still can’t believe it. I have an agent. I don’t think those words will ever get old.

We talked on the phone Monday night and although I was nervous and I’m sure I sounded like some kind of country bumpkin (nerves tend to deepen my already thick Southern drawl), I soon felt totally at ease talking to her. She’s everything I wanted in an agent, but didn’t dare to hope for. She gave me the chance to go back to the other agents who had my manuscript and give them a chance to offer. Instead, I withdrew my submission from them. Let’s face it, I knew as soon as I got that first email I would accept if she offered rep. The excitement she showed from the outset, and continues to show, well, it sold me. I have someone as stoked about this story as I am, how could I say no to that?

Who is that someone? Well, I’m thrilled to say I’m now represented by Mandy Hubbard at D4EO Literary Agency!!

So, dear reader, I want to thank you for going on this journey with me so far. I still have a long way to go to my dream of publication, and a lot of revising left. But dreams can come true. Just ask my main character in this story. One night she was a wacky dream, the next, a character coming to life on the page. I can’t wait to finish telling her story, and I can’t wait to see how it weaves in with mine. Thank you, Mandy, for having faith in the story and in me, and thank you readers for being interested in what a quiet girl from Alabama has to say.

Is Your Manuscript Ready? 10 Tips to Help Figure it Out

When is your manuscript ready to query? It’s the question every writer asks at least once. I don’t know about you, but I’m incredibly impatient, so I tend to want to hurry up and start querying. I queried my last manuscript too early. It still needed work, but I thought “hey, I’ve got a good second draft, let’s see what happens.” I got some requests, but no bites, because it wasn’t ready.

So I’m forcing myself to go slow with my current WIP. I’m on my fourth draft and I’m still not sure if it’s ready. The ugly impatient gnome in my head keeps popping to the surface. “Just do it,” he whispers. “It’s fine. It’s good enough. Query already!”

I have to smack him back down like I’m playing Whack-A-Mole at Chuck-E-Cheese. (Side note: I love that game! My college roomie bought a hand held version one night–cause that’s what we needed to spend our money on–and we played it constantly). The gnome has me thinking, though. When will it be ready? How will I know? I mean really, I’m my own toughest critic. I could probably tweak and change and edit forever and never think a manuscript was good enough.

So, how do you know?

I have no idea.

I think it’s a gut thing, but there are a few guidelines I recommend following.

1. Don’t submit a first draft. Please don’t. Not even Stephen King runs with his first draft.

2. Have someone else read it. Not a relative, not a friend, not even anyone you know. If you want to know if your work is actually worth reading, give it to a stranger. There are plenty of forums like Absolute Write and Agent Query Connect to find good beta readers and critique partners. Let someone who doesn’t know you from Adam read it–they’re way more likely to be honest.

3. While you’re at it, grow thick skin. I had a beta recently who was nervous to point out some flaws in my manuscript. I’d told her I have thick skin, but a lot of people say that and don’t mean it. It’s not easy to receive criticism, but that’s the only way you’re going to get better. It’s like pouring alcohol in a wound. It hurts like the dickens, but you’ll be better afterward. In C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” one of the characters, Eustace, turns into  a dragon. The only way to become a boy again is for him to scratch off the scales. It’s a long and painful process, but he does it, and when he comes out, he’s a better person. Now, that scene is a metaphor for a lot of things (namely, Christianity– Paul’s statement that you must die to yourself), but it fits here. In sports, many coaches sum it up as “no pain, no gain.”

4. Write your query and synopsis. It’s not fun. At all. But writing the query can, a lot of times, help you find flaws and plot holes in your story.

5. Edit. A general rule of thumb: if one person gives you a comment, take it with a grain of salt and use you judgment on whether to change something. If multiple people give you the same comment, you should probably change it.

6. This part sucks. Go through another round of betas. I always try to have at least two rounds, and they should be different people each time. Get fresh eyes on your newly edited manuscript to make sure your edits work.

7. Edit again, incorporating any changes from the latest betas. If there are still big issues to fix, you may have to go through a third round. If it’s small things, you can move on to the next step.

8. Nit-pick edits. Read your manuscript aloud. Yes, people will look at you weird if you do it in public, and your dog/cat may be entirely confused if you do it at home, but the best way to catch the cadence of a sentence and find errors is to read it aloud. Your eyes tend to skate over words like “the” “and” and “your/you’re.” You catch these things easier reading aloud, even if you’re just mumbling to yourself like a crazy person at the back table of the coffee shop. Just tell people you’re a writer–we have a history of being a bit nuts.

9. I like to run my manuscript through websites like YA Story Analyzer. This thing is amazing. You plug in your manuscript–it will take up to 60,000 words at a time–and chose what you want it to do: basic summary, sentence summary, repetitive sentences, highlight homonyms, pacing and flow, etc. Then it analyzes your entire text. The basic summary, for instance, finds cliche phrases, tells you the frequency of overused words (like “just” and “really”), gives you the percentage of “be” verbs and redundant phrases (“but yet” “up until”), and ends with your word count and grade level. I love it. It can be time consuming, but I think it’s so worth it.

10. Listen to your gut. If you feel ready, then query. You can’t sit around on a manuscript forever. Make it as good as you possibly can, then send it off into the world and cross your fingers, or pray, or turn in circles shaking your lucky pens over your head, or whatever you do. Then go work on your next manuscript to keep your impatient gnome at bay while you wait for a response.

That’s my process. Everyone is different and everyone will have different advice. I’ve learned so much since I wrote and queried my first manuscript (which definitely wasn’t ready!) and I’m still learning. My current manuscript isn’t quite ready to query, but I’m close. I can feel it. Hopefully soon I’ll be praying and shaking my lucky pens while I wait for a response.

Bullet, Consider Yourself Bitten

I have just entered my first real writing contest, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA).  You have no idea how nerve racking clicking that submit button was!  I spent the last week editing my manuscript one last time, then I spent this past Saturday on final revisions.  I think there will always be things I want to change or add, but I reached the point where I had to stop fiddling with it.  I can make edits up until February 5, or until they receive 5,000 submissions, but I refuse to look at it anymore.  I’ve checked (and re-checked) formatting, making sure my chapter numbers are all in order and all line up and the spacing didn’t get off, until my poor little fingers are worn out from typing.  I’ve read the thing so many times I could almost recite it verbatim.  Now, I can only wait.

The first round cuts will be announced on February 24, my birthday.  Until then, I’m going to put this manuscript out of my head and focus on my next.  Okay, mostly out of my head.  I still have a couple of partials with agents and I’m going through a final round of betas.  If I don’t make it to the next round of the ABNA I’m considering taking this manuscript to the Backspace Conference in New York in May.  I figured one more round of betas reading my revisions wouldn’t hurt.  Yes, I know I just contradicted my prior statement that I’m leaving it alone.  I’m mostly leaving it alone, that counts right?

To be honest, the most difficult part of the submission was the personal information.  I never know what to write in a bio or “personal anecdote”.  On the whole, most writer’s are fairly self-deprecating, so trying to come up with statements to sell myself is especially hard.  At least it’s over!  On to the next story.  Sally forth.  Tally ho!

Just a note: I’m not really expecting to get that far in the contest (see aforementioned self-deprecating comment), I’m just proud I talked myself into submitting my work.  I’ll keep you posted though.  Does anyone else have experience with ABNA?  I’d love to hear if you’ve submitted in the past and how it went, or if you submitted this year (if so, good luck!).

Your Love is Like, a Roller Coaster Baby, Baby, I Wanna Ride

The song “Love Roller Coaster” has been in my head.  The Red Hot Chili Peppers version, not the Ohio Players.  (Yes, I had the “Beavis and Butthead Do America” soundtrack and yes, it was awesome.)  I feel like I’ve been stuck on this ride, but I can’t get off because no matter how many ups and downs there are, I still love it.  Writing is a roller coaster.  Every bit of it.  At least, it is for me. From start to finish I have so many ups and downs I feel like a pogo stick.  From the story idea, to putting it on paper, to changing the idea, to changing the order of chapters, to writer’s block, to character development (you go through a whole separate coaster ride along with your character), to revisions, to querying.  Everything goes up and down, up and down, up and down–highs and lows.

I experienced this roller coaster in one day recently when an agent (a dream agent) rejected my full manuscript because it was too similar to something the agent already had.  Low: rejection.  High: the agent liked my concept.  Low: but the agent didn’t want it.  High: there’s something similar, which means my story is (maybe) marketable.  Low: there’s something similar, which means my story isn’t as fresh as I thought/hoped.  High: I don’t know how similar.  Low: it doesn’t matter, the agent rejected me.

I spent one good day and night wallowing in my rejection, then pulled myself up by my boot-straps and kept plugging on.  I’m going through one more round of revisions before submitting my manuscript to a contest (fingers crossed!).  Three days after I decided on the contest, I experienced another high when another agent (a dream agent) requested my partial.  Then quickly a low when I realized the agent asked for a synopsis too (eek!).  Fortunately, I think I got my synopsis in decent shape (see my post on the horrors of the synopsis here).

Right now I feel like I’m more in the  middle of the roller coaster, or the big incline at the beginning.  I’m slowly click-clacking my way to the top, unsure whether there will be a big drop on the other side, or whether the track will run flat for a while first, or maybe there will even be another hill to climb.  Regardless, I’m in for the whole ride.  That’s the thrill, right?  Not knowing what’s coming next.  It’s a good thing I love roller coasters.  As soon as I get off this one, wherever it may stop, high or low, I’m ready to step on the next and start all over.  Because that’s what I have to do.  It’s what we all have to do if we truly want to be writers.  This business is full of ups and downs (mostly downs), but its the ups, those few glorious moments, that make it worthwhile.

The Waiting

There’s a Tom Petty song called “The Waiting” that has been running through my head for the past few weeks.  The chorus goes “The waiting is the hardest part, every day you see one more card, you take it on faith, you take it to the heart, the waiting is the hardest part.”  Isn’t that the truth?  For me, waiting is sooo hard.  I even have trouble waiting to give people presents. I want to see their reaction, I want them to go ahead and enjoy their gift.  I can never hold out on my husband; it never fails that I buy his Christmas or birthday presents early and get all proud of myself for my foresight, but then they sit in their hiding spot calling to me, begging me to go ahead and give them.

Patience is something I’m constantly working on.  My husband helps me out with this a good deal (i.e. forcing me to be patient when he leaves coffee rings on the white counter or takes off his shoes in the middle of the floor and leaves them there), and I’m getting better, but I have to make an effort.  One area I’m having to exercise some real patience is querying agents.

I am an inquisitive person by nature, I think that’s one reason I’m a good attorney.  I have to know things.  Where, when, what, why, how?  I ask questions and feed on the answers.  In court, that’s how you move forward.  Each question propelled by the answer before it.  What happened? So you ran into another car, how fast were you going?  Okay, at 65 miles per hour, did you try to brake?  You hit your brakes but the roads were wet, did you skid?  I drive my husband crazy sometimes with questions.  I’m not sure why I need to know, I just do.  That’s the way I’ve always been.  It’s why I hate math so much.  Yeah, okay, you multiply these numbers by these, but why

So patience is especially hard when I’m waiting for an answer.  I just sent out a batch of queries and was thrilled that I got a couple of positive responses right off the bat!  But now I’m waiting again.  Waiting to hear from the agents who haven’t responded yet, waiting to hear from the agents who are reading my stuff, just waiting….  I try to forget about it.  Put it into a box and shove it to the back of my mind, but my stupid inquisitive nature pokes its little puppy nose under the lid, anxious to know what’s inside and what’s coming next.

I’m doing better than I used to though.  When I queried my first book I was a wreck.  Constantly checking my email to see if I had a response.  Then re-checking in case someone responded while I was looking away and the screen hadn’t refreshed.  Back in June I submitted a work to a writing contest.  It was difficult to put it out of my mind, but I’ve more or less been able to do just that.  Mostly because I knew it wouldn’t do any good.  The results are being announced this coming weekend.  That means I’m getting nervous again though, soooo ready for this weekend to be over so I can know the results, but mostly so I can get my submission back with the judges’ critiques.  More than anything I want to know what they said about it  and what I need to work on.  For me, it’s better when I have a time frame.  “We’ll post the results in October” or “We’ll get back with you in six weeks”, but by October, or week 6, I start checking and re-checking my email again.

How do you handle the waiting?  Work on something else?  Pretend you aren’t waiting on anything?  Darn some socks?  Or are you a wreck too?