Friday, June 29, 2012

The Edit Cave

by Mindy McGinnis

I've heard a lot of people talk about the Edit Cave, as if it were some secret hideout that writers can go to with fancy butlers who bring us our soup and neat gadgets to distract us with when we need it.

I wish.

Well, besides the fancy gadgets (can you hear me, Twitter?) I totally want a dark cave I can crawl into, dragging my edit letter and brick of an ms with me. It'd be lit only by my laptop screen, and I'd have lidless eyes and extra appendages when I crawled back out. But I'd have my solitude, I'd hit my deadline, and there would be nothing from reality to slide into my time and demand my attention.

But... just try going to Google Maps and typing in "Edit Cave." It doesn't exist. Unfortunately there isn't anyplace we can go for this magical dark place of alone time where our brains are free to exist only in the worlds we've created. Reality is a bitch, and a really high-maintenance one that demands a lot of face-time.

If I had my way I'd eat MRE's and not bathe while in the metaphorical edit cave, but that's not the case. The real world needs me to be responsible and be a good citizen, go to the pool and the ice cream festival, the student graduations and family birthday parties. Instead of the blank "I left the stove on" stare, I tend to have the "I left that character mid-scene" look. It's pretty hard to spot unless you're another writer.

So what do I do? My edit cave is only open during the hours of 10 PM to However-Long-I-Choose-To-Punish-Myself AM. In a way, it really is a dark fortress of solitude, as you tend to loose daylight during that time. While at first I thought I would hate only allowing myself these stolen hours, I soon figured out it's what works for me, and my brain has adjusted.

Yes, I'm sleep deprived. Yes, I'm not the earliest riser. Yes, I tend to be a bit grumpy anytime before noon on the days following Edit-Cave-Isolation. But the revision is going well - ahead of schedule, in fact - and I'm well on my way to becoming one of those people who thanks their editor for making their story stronger in the acknowledgements.

I still wouldn't mind a butler.

Mindy McGinnis is the author of NOT A DROP TO DRINK, a YA dystopian coming from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins Fall, 2013. You can find her at her blog, Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire, Twitter and Facebook.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Still a writer

Photo credit: Dori Young Photography

As Calling Me Home pushes its way through the birth canal of the publishing process, I'm finding that certain things never change. In fact, I just remembered I referred to this phenomenon in my last post, but I'll go into a little more depth this time. 

Even with the pregnancy test in hand, the plus sign glowing, the book contract that says I have a book, I've noticed that four things in particular are still burrs under my saddlein addition to the compulsion to use really goofy literary devices and mixed metaphors. (In blog posts, I often allow them to stand, just for kicks.)  

1. I'm afraid nobody will like what I wrote.

Just because one editor, or in fact, many more, liked my manuscript—enough to pay actual, spendable money for it!—I still quake at the thought of someone flipping to the first page, reading a few paragraphs, then tossing it away as dreck. Rejection, in fact, still hurts. And there are plenty of opportunities for rejection even after your beloved appears for pre-order on Amazon. The somewhat humiliating quest to convince published authors to read and blurb the book comes to mind. It reminds me to be gentle when I am in that position. Or, not that I'm there yet, but the inevitable bad review looms like a B1-bomber on the horizon, ready to plunge from the sky and obliterate me with one little push of a button. I'm already practicing in my mind, visualizing swatting it away like an annoying little gnat. 

2. Procrastination is the best way to get things done.

I have always worked better under pressure. I assigned myself deadlines before I answered to anyone else on this writing stuff. Then, even with my own deadlines, I waited until the last possible moment, then rushed in and gave it my everything. I'm trying to change my stripes a bit—after all, I'm not the only one I would disappoint now if I missed an important deadline—but I still find this to be true. This week, my first pass pages, sometimes called page proofs, wait in a nice stack on my table for me to begin reading through them, checking for errors I missed or mistakes created inadvertently in the typesetting stage. Okay, that's not completely true. I already began working through them because I have a vacation to attend to in a few weeks and I don't want to be spending the week proofreading while the rest of my family cavorts on the sandy shores of the Outer Banks. Yet, every day, I search for any task I can logically claim as a higher priority before I get started on the day's chapters . 

Why? I'm not sure. Perhaps it could be referenced back to number one. Perhaps I'm terrified I'm the one who won't like it. Perhaps I will be forced to admit I'm not the writer I hoped to be. Perhaps, even, it feels like a real job now, and wasn't I always great at procrastinating, even when I sat in an office and yawned at the orders that emerged from the fax machine like baby rabbits? 

Or perhaps … I work best under pressure. Maybe we're back to that. I am one of the crazy souls who actually enjoys participating in NaNoWriMo and other schemes to get massive portions of the crappy first draft written in a month. The last thirty thousand words of Calling Me Home were the product of one marathon. The first thirty thousand words appeared during another. They may not look exactly the same, but the essence of what I wrote under pressure is most definitely there. And I sold the book.

3. I'm convinced I'll never be able to do it again.

So I've written three full manuscripts, two now under the bed. So I've sold a book. So what? Just like a few years ago, I'm not convinced I'll ever be able to take the plot fragments, the voices of half-formed characters, the setting notes that drift in my mind like memories of things that haven't happened yet, and set them down on paper in a coherent story, with proper conflicts and character arcs, three acts and probably a poem. Those other three manuscripts? They were flukes. I don't have the skills (refer to number one), the discipline (refer to number two), or … maybe even the desire to do it again. 

For now, I'm just trying to go with this, and surprisingly, the process is coming back to me little by little. I have a semi-decent synopsis going, from which I believe I might be able to conjure an outline, from which I might just write another book. I tell myself, Peace, be still. It will happen. Then  I panic.

Image credit: Peter Vidrine's Flickr photostream
4. I'm still trying to be someone else some days.

I read some books and fling them away in disgust because I feel like the author wasted my time—and I'm one of those people who is compelled to finish reading things. 

But more often, I drop my head in shame, comparing myself and my writing to someone else's masterpiece. I think, I should be more gritty, or edgy, or lyrical, or detailed, or succinct, or serious, or funny, or luminous, or blunt, or … whatever I happen to think I'm not that particular day. 

I try to change from an owl to a lark. I try to visualize myself as a booster parent and not a slacker parent. I try to incorporate whole wheat flour and fresh peppers into homemade things instead of buying frozen prepared meals to heat up and serve to my family. Okay, some of these things are good things, and I should strive to do them and will, but some of them … are just not me. (I'll leave you to figure out which ones.) But it boils down to this: The approval of a domestic editor and fourteen foreign editors has still not convinced me that just being ME is enough. One day, it's going to click. But probably not today.

But there's one thing that's still the same. There is one thing that is not a burr under my saddle:

5. I still love this life.

In spite of my fear of rejection, in spite of my procrastinating, night owl, never-good-enough ways, I still love this life. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do or be. I am a writer.

Julie's first novel, Calling Me Home, will be published by St. Martin's Press February 19, 2013, only five days late for Valentine's Day. You may find her on Facebook, Twitter, or her website.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

You’ve sold your novel and don’t have ESP? Ten things you should do ASAP.

On August 10th 2011, at precisely 3:10 pm, I was sitting on the examining table at my doctor’s office, waiting impatiently for him to come in and prescribe antibiotics for my stubborn bout of sinusitis. One minute I thought I was having the worst sinus headache ever, the next I felt like John Travolta in the movie “Phenomenon” where he suddenly develops special powers after seeing a bright light in the sky. In a flash of what felt a lot like ESP, I was given a sign that my novel had sold. 

Crazy, right?

But before you decide that I should have been seeing a psychiatrist instead of a general practitioner, let me explain what happened.

Minutes earlier, after taking my vitals, the nurse had left the examination room door partway open. Out in the hall, someone was holding the latest book by Fern Michaels, a NYT best-selling author with Kensington Publishing Corp. All I could see was a woman’s tan, jewelry-adorned hand, holding the hardcover against her ample chest, right side up and title facing out, the white and pink cover like a neon sign against her navy shirt. The woman talked excitedly for several minutes, her entire body shaking, the novel bouncing up and down as if saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” I told myself I was imagining things. Seeing the newest novel by a best-selling author from one of the two publishing houses who’d requested my novel three weeks earlier did NOT mean my novel had sold and I'd soon see my name on a Kensington cover. It was a coincidence, nothing more. People read books at the doctor's office all the time. Maybe I had a fever. Maybe I needed a nap. By the time I left the doctor’s office, I’d come to my senses and forgotten all about it. 

Then, when I got home, my husband said my agent had called at 3:10, the exact same time Fern Michael’s book had been playing peek-a boo with me through a crack in the examining room door. My agent wanted me to email him as soon as I returned. Shaking, I emailed my agent, took the phone in the den, and waited. Finally, the phone rang. My agent said we had an offer from the editor-in-chief at Kensington for a two-book deal. For the first time in my life, I was speechless. “Yeah?” I managed. “You don’t sound very excited,” my agent said. Finally, I found my voice. “Are you kidding?” I said. “My heart is pounding out of my chest!”

Once I could speak again, my agent and I talked for over a half an hour. My husband and daughter kept opening the door and looking in at me with wide, questioning eyes. I smiled, gave a ‘thumbs up’, and shooed them away. Finally, I hung up and shared the news. I sold my novel! Wiping away tears of joy, I tried to remember everything my agent said. After hugs and congratulations, a rush of adrenaline raged through my body. It was like a hundred Redbulls mixed with shots of espresso coursing through my veins. I was wired, all thoughts of ESP and sinus headaches miraculously disappeared. I remember talking a hundred miles an hour and pacing the driveway in my bare feet, my husband sitting in the open door of the garage, nodding and smiling. This was huge! This was what I’d been working towards for years! This was like winning American Idol! Well, okay. Maybe not. But at that moment, that’s what it felt like (minus the million dollar contract). We decided to drive to my parents’ to tell them in person, (my mother cried) and we called close friends. It was a great day! And call me crazy, but I still wonder if someone or something was trying to give me a sign that day.

Next came the questions. What happens now? What do I do next? What's going to be expected of me? Unfortunately, that day in the doctor’s office I really did have a sinus headache and had NOT developed special powers. Bummer, I know. 

We didn’t have a party, or go out to dinner to celebrate. Looking back, I wish we had. After all, how many times do you sell your first novel?  Yeah. Once. Lesson learned.  

There are a lot of other things I wish I’d known back then. And a whole lot of things I still have to learn. With that being said, here are some insights I've gained since then that may help others who have sold a novel and can't rely on ESP.

Let me start by saying this; if you’ve just sold your first novel, you’re going to be busier than you can imagine. If you have a two-book deal with a deadline, along with a hundred other things you never thought you'd have to do, you’re going to find yourself doing edits, copy edits, and promotion for the first novel, all while outlining and writing the second. That’s why I came up with this list. Some publishers may ask for the things on this list, some may not. Either way, you’ll be glad to have some of this busy work done ahead of time. 

1) Celebrate every step! (Okay, it’s not required, and your publisher isn’t going to care one way or the other, but it’s a good idea) It doesn’t matter if celebrating means going out to dinner, buying yourself something nice, eating bread dumplings and drinking beer with your best buds, or lounging on the couch with your cats. If it’s something that makes you happy and feels like a reward, do it! You’ll be glad you did. (Did I mention you’re going to be busy?)

2) If you have a two-book deal, start writing down your ideas. Now. If you’ve already started another book or have three complete manuscripts stashed under your bed, good for you. But find out how soon your editor is willing to look at your ideas and synopses because the book you want to write, or have already written, might not be what your editor has in mind. If you have to start from scratch, it's best to know ASAP.

3) Write an Author Bio. Have several, in various word counts.

4) Write your dedication and acknowledgements. I know, I know. That’s the easy part and you'll have lots and lots of time! Trust me, it’s not, and you won’t. Look at other acknowledgements to get different ideas. Writing an acknowledgment is harder than you think.You can always add people later, but at least you’ll have a basic draft and you won’t be rushed when your editor suddenly asks for it in two days.

5) You may decide not to blog, but write a few blog posts anyway. I wasn’t going to blog and yet, here I am. The posts will come in handy if your publisher has you doing guest posts closer to publication, or you might decide to do a blog tour to get the word out about your book. You’ll be glad to have some posts ready. (And here I need to take my own advice)

6) Come up with 5-10 questions and answers for an Author Q & A. You know all those nice questionnaires in the back of your favorite books? Chances are, the author wrote it. Do yours now.

7) Write a positioning statement for your book. A positioning statement is like a pitch/byline for a movie. Here’s the positioning statement I wrote for The Plum Tree. It’s a little long, but I figured my publisher could edit it if necessary. They did.  

“Told from one of the best vantage points for witnessing the first cruelties and final ruin of the Third Reich—the German home front—THE PLUM TREE is an epic story of human resilience and enduring hope that follows a young German woman through WWII as she struggles to survive poverty and Allied bombs, finds the courage to outwit SS officers, and tries to save the love of her life, a Jewish man. Think Cold Mountain meets Schindler’s List!”

8) Write a Reader’s Guide. Again, not all Reader’s Guides are the same, but look in other novels for different examples and ideas. My editor asked for 15 questions. I came up with 25. He kept 20.

9) Write an Author’s Note. My Author’s note consisted of the inspiration behind The Plum Tree, paragraphs describing how and why I used certain non-fiction books in my research, another paragraph about novels I’d read and enjoyed that also helped guide me through WWII, plus any historical liberties taken by me to further the plot.

10) Remember to enjoy LIFE. The life of a working author is literally non-stop. Non-stop writing, non-stop editing, non-stop networking, non-stop promotion, non-stop work. If you’re already a little OCD like I am, you have my sympathy. I’m a list person. I like to cross things off my to-do list by the end of the day. Having a never-ending to-do list is tough. You have to know when to take a break. Sometimes, even when you’ve got copy edits due and a hundred emails waiting, you’ve got to step away from the computer. Go for a walk, watch the Housewives of NYC, play with the dog, invite friends over. It will make you feel like a real, live person again. I love to cook, garden, clean, spend time with family and friends, and do yard work. Those things make me feel normal. It’s easy to put in 12-18 hour days doing everything a writer needs to do. If you have a full-time job and a family to raise, things are going to be monumentally harder. And remember, whenever you feel overwhelmed, see number one on this list. Celebrate! You sold a novel!!! And that, my friend, is almost as amazing as having ESP!!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Writing on the Clock

by Anne Clinard Barnhill     

The story of the completion of AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN is one I hope you'll find of interest.  It begins in 2007, when I started writing about my ancestor, Lady Margaret Shelton, for the sheer fun of it.  I'd read the Jean Plaidy books, along with several other Renaissance novels and decided I needed to tell Margaret's story for my own amusement.  I never dreamed the book would sell.
     In June, 2007, we had a family tragedy and I found myself caring for a newborn and a 5-year-old.  There was no time for writing.  Fast-forward to October, 2008, when I was on the faculty of the South Carolina Writers Workshop at Myrtle Beach.  While there, I met an agent, Irene Goodman.  We began chatting and she asked me what I was working on.  I mentioned my historical novel, telling her it was far from finished, etc.  As we talked, I realized she knew a great deal about the period and discovered she loved historical fiction.  By the end of our conversation, she'd given me her card and asked to see what I had written thus far.
     By that time, I had thirteen chapters.  I sent her the first three.  She was very interested and wanted to know when I expected to finish the book.  For some ridiculous reason, I told her I'd have it all completed by the following June.  Mind you, I still had care of the children--if you've ever had a toddler, you know how much time you have for writing---especially if you are the grandmother!  There is a reason young women have the babies!
     In May, she emailed me, asking how the book was progressing.  I sent her the remaining ten chapters from the original thirteen.  She loved it and wanted to know when I could be completely finished.  Of course, I had not written a word since I'd seen her.
     I'll never know why I said August.  But it popped out before I had sense enough to stop it.  She wanted around 400 pages; I had around 125.  I arranged to take three weeks away to complete the manuscript.  My  husband and son would take care of things at home.
     I headed down to my parents' house near Holden Beach, figuring out how many pages I'd have to write each and every day to  make my deadline.  Sixteen.  Sixteen pages a day including weekends.  I was determined to do it.  I knew I wouldn't get another chance.
     I set up my computer and got to work.  I'd write for a while in the mornings, take a nap in the early afternoon, then write until around midnight.  I got my sixteen pages every day for the full three weeks.  It was the most intense experience of my writing life--I both loved and hated it.  I was able to immerse myself fully in the work, coming up for food and air every so often.  I had my reference books scattered on the floor, the table, the bed, even on the bathroom sink.  I thought if I could, somehow, sleep with the texts, the world of Henry VIII might seep into my pores by osmosis.  At times, it was as though I was possessed, talking to myself, pacing the room.  Other moments would be filled with gloom--I could never write this much so quickly and if I did, it would all be trash.  But I kept writing.
     Bottom line--I did it!  After my three weeks were over, I went home and polished what I'd written, had my husband read through and make suggestions, then sent it off to Irene.  She, too, had some suggestions.  By Thanksgiving, she had the final draft and by January, the manuscript was sold.  I'm not sure I could write so intensely again but wow!  what a rush it was!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

So you found an agent? Yay! Welcome to hell.

So, you’ve found an agent! Good job! Stop reading now, and come back when the euphoria passes.
[Author’s note: As with much of what I have to say about publishing, please bear in mind that at this point my sample size = 1. This means that my experience could ultimately resemble yours, but it could also be wildly different. With any luck, you’re the next Stephanie Meyer.]
Hey, welcome back! Okay, now that you’ve come back to earth, you’ve probably figured out that while finding an agent is quite an accomplishment (not to mention a necessary first step), it isn’t the end of the road; in fact, it’s just the start, and the agony of waiting is about to get much, much  worse. Not only are you contemplating the prospect of getting published, you might even be paid for it!
Remember when you said, “I’m not writing for the money.”? Well, now you are, and unless you are made of sterner (or more ascetic) stuff than I, the dollar signs will start dancing before your eyes very soon. (For awesome blog posts about advances, go here and here.)
The process of finding a publisher can move at the speed of light, or at a glacial pace. The catch is that even when things move at the speed of light, they feel glacial. The time between when your agent sends your book to editors and you finally hear from them is going to be one of the longest you’ve ever experienced. You will come to think of hours as days, and days as months. Your average weekend will last an eon.
Once your agent gets your manuscript, she will send it out to editors. There are different schools of thought on how widely to send a manuscript. If an agent is not entirely sure that the book will sell, she might test the waters by sending it to a few publishers to see what they say. The thinking here is that if everyone comes back with a resounding “Not just no, but Hell No!”, you can revise the book and resubmit elsewhere.
The worst fate that can befall your book at this point is for your agent to submit a book that is not yet ready to lots of publishers; if the book doesn’t sell you you’ll have burned a lot of bridges. Be sure to talk with your agent about the number and kind of presses where she will send your work, and ask her to explain why she is using that strategy. In my case, Josh thought my MS was more or less ready to go, and sent it to about a dozen presses in all.
Once your agent sends out the MS, the best thing you can do (other than go for a long trip away from any sort of communication device, to include carrier pigeons) is try to manage your expectations. While amounts a press will offer vary, they tend to be pretty low (or at least lower then you probably want!) for first time authors.
If my experience is typical (again, keep the sample size in mind), your agent will send your MS to editors who like the kind of fiction you write, and as a result you will receive a lot of positive feedback right off the bat. If an editor loves your book, he will “get additional reads” from other editors and then take it to the editorial/acquisitions board. The editors goal is to build a wave of support behind the book even before the board meets. Cue the dancing dollar signs.
Here is where the trouble starts. Publishers are risk-averse these days, and many of these secondary readers will look for reasons not to publish your book. To make matters worse, the process is incredibly subjective, so virtually any reason to reject a book is good enough. Among the reasons I received were:
  • Set too far in the past. Readers want their historical fiction more recent than the 1600s. Yes, tell that to Hilary Mantel.
  • The suits up in marketing couldn’t decide if it was a mystery or women’s fiction.
  • Too much mystery, not enough midwifery.
  • Too much midwifery, not enough mystery.
  • Too commercial.
  • Not commercial enough.

(Yes, for every editor who thought there was too much [fill in the blank] there was another who thought there was too little. That’s the nature of the beast.)

The point is that the initial interest is not necessarily indicative of a forthcoming offer to buy the book.

But once you receive that offer, the fun begins, because – the waiting isn’t over.

Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale coming soon from Minotaur/St.Martin's. You can learn more at his website, like him on Facebook (or in a coffee shop if you run into him there), and follow him on Twitter.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Every Writer Should Consider a John Deere

by Brenda Remmes

Five years ago when I retired my husband gave me a very special present.  We had a screened-in sleeping porch off of our upstairs bedroom. He replaced the screens with ceiling to floor windows, extended the vents for air-conditioning and heat, put in electrical outlets and bought me a wrap-around desk.  “Write,” he said.  “Write to your heart’s content.” 

I did.  I do.  I still want to.

Last month my husband retired.  Lord knows the man deserves to retire.  He’s worked almost every day of his life since his first paper route at age eight. At the same time he’s been an attentive son, a devoted father and a loving husband.  But he’s now about to drive me crazy.

I’m an early morning writer.  I wake up, I’m ready to write and go full steam until around 3 p.m.  If I’m on fire, I’ll go into the night.  If I’m stalled, I put my head back and stare out into the forest through those magnificent windows, mired rewrites rambling through my head.  Someone, somewhere, called that the creative process, so I claim the caption when lost in thought.

Normally, my husband would be up and gone by 7 a.m.  Now he wraps his arm around me and whispers, “Stay with me, just a little longer.”

“I’ve got to write,” I say.

“Don’t get up yet,” he pleads. 

I untangle myself around 7:30 to get to my computer.  He talks to me from the next room.  “What are your plans for the day?  Going into town?  Need anything?  Shall I fix you breakfast?” 

I’m already starting to get agitated.  Once he goes downstairs I’m sure things will be better.  I hear him bang through the pots in the kitchen. Then he turns on NPR.  Since we both have some hearing loss, he turns it up loud enough for me to start to catch tidbits of disturbing media excerpts.  I close all the doors between him and me with unnecessary force. 

If it’s good weather, I’m blessed by the fact that he’ll then go outside and straddle his John Deere tractor for a couple of hours, regardless of whether or not the front forty needs mowing.  All I hear is the rumble of the tractor going back and forth.  I can deal with that.   In reality, John Deeres are every man’s sedative.    When in doubt, in lieu of marriage counseling, get a John Deere.  It’s a better long term investment.

By noon he’s back upstairs.  “Planning to break for lunch?”

“Not yet.”

“Should I fix you something?” 

“Don’t bother.”

“Okay, well, then…”  back downstairs, more banging of pots and pans, NPR back on for unsettling noon news  which requires me to go on-line to find out what the heck is going on in the world now.  Then I go and close the doors he left open on the way down.

Forty-five minutes later he’s back upstairs.  “Whatchadoing?”

“I’m thinking.”

“Can I help with anything?”

“Not yet, maybe later.”

“I’ll  just read some,” he says as he settles into the chair across from my desk.  “I’ll be quiet, I promise.”

I don’t know about you, but having someone seated across from me while I’m “thinking”…even a quiet someone…is somewhat distracting.  But it is a beautiful spot in the house and on hot or cold days when the back porch won’t do, I try to be mindful of his needs, too.

“Listen to this,” he says.  “It’s really good.”

“I’ve already read the book,” I say a bit too spitsy.  “Remember, I recommended it to you.”

“Oh, right,” he concedes, “but I really like this particular part.”

I give in.  “Read it to me.”  He does.  I agree it’s good.

“Thought I’d go into town.  You wanna come?”

“Did you finish the lawn?”

“Will do the rest tomorrow.”

“Need anything?”

“No,” I say, but I’m thinking fast in hopes of coming up with something that requires his departure.

By 4 p.m. the car pulls back in the drive from town and my creative juices have ceased altogether.  My husband unloads the car with pretty much the same groceries he bought the day before and today chicken legs were on sell for .49 a pound.  The fact that we already have about twenty pounds of chicken legs doesn’t deter him.  I try to find a place to cram them into our already stuffed freezer.  I’m feeling pretty guilty by now. Who could ever begrudge such a goodhearted soul and I know that one day in my life I may yearn to hear him whisper, “Stay with me just a little bit longer,” and wish that I had made a different choice.  Time gives life such better perspectives on what’s really important.  I succumb to figuring out what to cook for dinner and being a bit more commutative.  After all, we’ve made it forty years, and this, too, will eventually find some natural flow.  But, it is a new and different challenge in our lives.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

When I Am Forty, I Will Publish a Book

1. I am turning forty today.

2. I am not Herman Melville.

3. I am vulnerable to weather.

These are the three disappointments of the day.

Last year, on my birthday, somebody died. That was a different disappointment.

Last week, I took a canoe trip with my two children on the Allegheny River. One minute we were floating lazily along, and I was taking pictures of different sunbathing rocks that would have looked like the one that my main characters Sunny and Maxon were sitting on when he proposed. The next minute, the air turned chill and I heard thunder. We tried, valiantly, to make it back to the canoe rental place and get safely into their office or our van. However, we ended up blown across to the wrong side of the river. We climbed out of the canoe and pulled it up into the rocks, and spent the next half hour or so clinging to the slippery side of a large boulder, unable to see or speak because of the strength of the thunderstorm that was raining down on our heads. In the river valley, thunder almost deafens you. We were afraid to go into the trees, the canoe was swamped and barely above water, and it was all bad.
My daughter is eight and weighs about 40 pounds. My son and I tried to make a roof over her with our bodies, but she was shaking terribly from the cold and driving rain. I was very positive, very calm and sure for the children, but the thing that was raging in my head, and the thing I was screaming at Dan later on the phone, was that nature was doing a very good job of reminding me that I am very small, and very weak, and that the world does not care if one person drowns in a river on a Saturday, or if one child gets hit by lightning while freezing on a rock. I live my life in a bubble of technology and communication and abstraction. Then I come out of my bubble, feeling as invulnerable as an idea, and put my proud ass in a canoe, and then a thunderstorm comes. I was wearing a *dress*. How stupid and vain.

So, I am vulnerable to weather. And on top of that, I’m not Melville.

I can remember when I was 32. Actually, it was when I was turning 33. Melville wrote Moby-Dick when he was 32, and I had always felt, in some hubris-soaked part of my overachieving little brain, that by the time I was 32, I would have something massive to say to the world, like Melville did. I felt that I would write my “magnum opus.” As I turned 33, I can remember crying to Joshilyn on the phone that I had failed, that I had gotten old, that I had nothing to say.

The year I was 32 was also the year my mother died, the year I was pregnant with my daughter and struggling to parent my son, the year I was trying (again) to write Shine Shine Shine only with three female main characters instead of one, and it wasn’t working. None of it was working -- not being pregnant, not parenting, not having people stay alive, and not writing my novel. So because this ridiculously arbitrary age of 33 came and I had not produced a noble work of timeless majesty, I cried and pissed around and moped. And felt spent. There were lots of times that year I felt like giving up. How stupid again, and how vain.

Today is my birthday. Last year, on my birthday, somebody died.

She was legally my sister, biologically my aunt, functionally my parent. She was not that old: 67.  She died with about a hundred to-do lists scattered around her house. I found them as I was sorting and cleaning. One of her favorite things to do, it seemed, was to buy a new notebook, open it to the first page, and write out an enormous to-do list. The lists I found over those weeks of organizing dated back a long way. They included huge projects like “Empty the Garage” and “Sew Five Outfits” and “Lose 20 Pounds” and “Plant Vegetable Garden.” It was both heartbreaking and horrifying to see how ambitious these lists always were, and to realize that she never crossed anything off. This is not to say that she never did anything. She did plenty. But not these things. She died with all these lists full of lofty, noble, challenging goals, and they were collecting in drifts around her house, and she’s dead now, and they mean nothing.

Her death was unexpected. It’s possible that she felt, like I feel, invulnerable to death and danger, that she felt it couldn’t actually happen to her, she couldn’t actually die, not with all those lists and all the intentions she had. After all, I did survive that thunderstorm and flood. I didn’t drown or get burned up in lightning. It could be I am invulnerable after all. To death, to aging, to weather, to an adjusted timetable for success. I could still live forever, AND be Melville, AND walk through fire.

1. I’m turning 40 today. (If I say it enough times, it will seem real.)

2. I am launching a book this year.

3. I am able to survive a thunderstorm, outside, in a dress.

These are the three celebrations of the day.

All of this has really happened: I aged. I coasted through 33 without a novel. I have loved my family, I have parented my children, I have supported my friends. And here’s the big thing I have to say to you today about something that really happened too. My life to-do list has always had one giant and blazing bullet point: WRITE A NOVEL. That has been done. It came late, and took a long time. I am older than I thought I would be and sadder than I thought I would be, but I am here. I’m proud to show you the book trailer for Shine Shine Shine: not “before I turn 40” or “in my youth” but right now. Happy birthday to me. 

Like the song “Robots”? The music from the trailer is available for free download here: The Virginia Janes. Happy birthday to YOU.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

When Your First Time Is At A Romance Convention

I did my first panel this weekend, at the Lori Foster Reader & Author Get Together. If you've never been to a romance convention, you should go simply to be in a room full of 500 women where the word "penis" is bandied about fairly frequently. It's an open, over-the-top, chatty atmosphere.

I fit in just fine.

Even with such a welcoming group, when it was time for me to stand up and talk about NOT A DROP TO DRINK, I was a little nervous. I'd never pitched to anyone other than my family and students, who are kind of duty-bound to appear interested. Plus, my audience was more the type to read about people eating food off each other than having to hunt it for survival.

Nonetheless, the group of 30 or so that came to hear the YA contingent talk about our genre and individual books were incredibly supportive and enthusiastic. The handful of teens at the event were happy to have "their" authors so available to them, and as I talked about my book I was thrilled to see one lean over and whisper to another, as they scribbled my name and the title down.

Another thing that helped was that I was on a panel with friends. My fellow Lucky13ers Melissa Landers, Liz Coley and Jennifer McGowan were alongside me, as well as local Ohio authors Leeanna Renee Heiber and Carey Corp. Some of them are pros at public speaking, so falling in step was easy and I was grateful for their leadership. Afterwards, while having coffee with my fellw authors, one of the teens approached me to be sure she'd written my name correctly and had the title of my book right.

"I'm just so excited about it!" she said.

Me too, sweetheart. Me too.

Friday, June 1, 2012

When Your Book-Baby Isn’t The New Kid On the Block Anymore

by Sophie Perinot

When you have a brand new baby everyone wants to see it.  Relatives travel  to admire the latest addition to the family.  Neighbors cross the street to peek in your stroller and declare how cute junior is—even if he looks like a little bald, red-faced monkey.  More than this, everyone wants in on the parenting action.  Your sister-in-law has naptime tips.  Strangers at grocery stores ask incredibly personal questions and offer unsolicited advice.

Bleary-eyes, sleep-deprived and feeling far from glamorous, you are not in any sort of shape to enjoy all this attention.  You swear—usually under your breath on the way to your car lugging that ridiculously heavy infant car seat—that you wish everyone would just fade away and stop calling at the precise moment the baby is napping and you are trying to squeeze in a shower.  Yes, you are delighted that everyone admires the baby but ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

It’s pretty much the same thing for a debut author during the immediate post-launch period.  Minus the poopy diapers of course.

Your family and friends call or email in a continuous stream congratulating you and asking “how are sales?”  Book bloggers want guest posts—now, now, now!  You can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing your book on the tables and God that’s a rush.

For the first few weeks you are okay—after all you didn’t need an epidural or stitches to deliver this baby.  But somewhere around the 30th stop on your world-domination blog tour, you begin to run out of steam.  You aren’t sleeping like you used to because, um, you have this other book you are supposed to be writing.  You’ve run out of ideas for guest posts that might go viral.  And, like new parents the world over, no matter how confident you seem you are not entirely sure you are doing this right.  You want things to JUST CALM DOWN ALREADY!

And then they do.  Right around the three month mark.

Your book is no longer “what’s new” or “what’s next.”  It’s just like hundreds of other cute little toddlers out there, standing next to their new baby brother while everyone “ooos” and “ahs” over him.  And far from being happy about this shift in attention, your book is thinking (well, it is inanimate so you are thinking) “what the hell’s so special about him?”  OUCH. I know.  I’ve been there (actually I AM there right now).

This can be a demoralizing time.  You may find yourself unable to focus on your latest manuscript even as deadlines grow closer.  You may find yourself thinking, “Why did I think I wanted to be published?”  I mean all that work—the writing; the looking for an agent; the checking your email every hour while your agent pitched to publishers; the edits, copy edits, page proofs, etc—yet in less than 1/4 of the 12-18 months it took from signing your publishing contract until your launch some stores aren’t even carrying your novel anymore.  Is it any wonder you have an author’s version of post-partum depression?

So what can you do?

First, remember none of this sudden dearth of attention is a reflection on your book-baby.  Your novel is still compelling.  Your cover is still eye-catching.  It’s just not brand new anymore.  Honeymoons end.  You don’t look at your husband of 10 years the same way you did when he was your husband of ten days (and if you do, I’ll have what you’re drinking).  The great cultural eye has shifted on to new targets.  Somebody else’s book baby is the hot young thing.  That doesn’t mean that thousands of people aren’t out there reading your book right now and enjoying the heck out of it.

Second, understand that you are not alone.  It’s easy to feel that way because authors—like others whose jobs include putting on a public face—are conditioned to project an aura of confidence and success.  Next time you see a tweet by a fellow author exclaiming over her wonderful book signing, remember that behind the “rainbows and unicorns” prose there may have been fifty chairs with ten bodies in them.  Most authors don’t become overnight sensations and New York Times best-sellers with their debuts, yet they go on to have productive and fulfilling authorial careers.  You are in the majority here kiddo.  Focus on what brought you into this business in the first place—the writing.  You love that right?  So do it.  Go back to a work day that is more about the next book and less about the one that has already launched.

Third, reach out to other writers for support.  Book parenting is just like regular parenting, when you are most worried and in need of advice you are least likely to ask for it.  Why?  Because asking for advice means admitting you need it—that you have doubts and that maybe, gulp, you or your book aren’t doing as well as you expected to be.  You might be wondering, “what if I admit I am feeling down, or disappointed, or worried and everyone else just looks at me with pity because their lives are perfect?”  Yeah, you may get some of that.  And you will find a certain portion of people—usually those behind you in the launch timeline—who are very willing to believe it’s you.  Time will cure that.  But I can guarantee you will also find veteran writers (or debut writers who are just a little further along the trail than you are) willing to say, “yeah, I’ve been there,” and who are willing to offer you tried and true tips for dealing with “middle child” syndrome and all the attendant insecurities.

Finally, own your feelings and don’t be embarrassed of them.  It’s okay to miss being the center of attention.  It’s okay to find that the reality of parenting (either a baby or a book) doesn’t always meet the glowing hype that precedes it.  Problems not owned don’t get solved.  You’ll be glad you broke the code of silence.  I am.