Breaking it Down: Part 1

August 17, 2008

I’ve had a few people email me post-deal asking about my journey. And I guess I never did a post on this because, well, my BLOG is my journey (although I really should go back through it. Some dark I’m-gonna-quit days back there. So, uh, let’s hold up on perusing the archives). But, really, I can’t get enough of reading about other author’s publishing bumps and hiccups (Schadenfreude much?). If you’re in the same club, be prepared to revel in my idiocy, broken down into a series of longed-winded reflective posts, thus making the retelling of the journey nearly as painfully long as the journey itself.
No, it’s not that bad.
Not really (she says with the beauty of hindsight).
Some authors get a deal sooner, some later. Some fall in, others claw. And that’s all dependent on a bazillion controllable and uncontrollable factors that would take days to even touch. (Not to mention a deal isn’t the end of the journey, just the gateway into a whole new set of worries and joys).
So for the sake of brevity (ha!), this is simply how things went down for me…

The Very Beginning
Picture me, early 2005. I quit teaching to stay home with my then eight-month daughter. As I’ve said before, I’d WANTED to write for many years, but starting it was probably the scariest thing I’d ever done. This may have been rooted in deep causes like fear of failure, but more likely I just hadn’t stumbled on it in my never-ceasing pursuit of a creative hobby (Quilting? Quit after one. Scrapbooking? Well, at least my oldest daughter has her memories preserved). A few more incidents led me to that moment–I made a list of things I wanted to do in my life, and writing a novel was on there about three times. My kid was a champion napper. Oh, and I read about five crappy books in a row and convinced myself I could produce crap as well. Generic reasons, yes. But those were mine.
So I began to write.
I started off with picture books because
1. I liked them
2. They were short
So naturally, I believed…
3. They were easy
I wrote one about my big brother. It was didactic, too personal, self-indulgent and lacked any rhythm. That’s the gentle review. I had some friends read it and when they kindly mentioned some things that confused them, I labeled them all idiots. I taught school for three whole years. I even took (one measly) children’s literature class in college! What did they, or anyone else know? I was a literary queen.
I “researched” publishing houses by finding a website with average publisher response times. One house had a goal to get back to writers in a month or so. Agony to wait that long, but the shortest overall. They were the lucky ones to receive my future award-winner. Forget that my book was nothing like their more lyrical list. Forget that there were a few parts I wasn’t sure about. That’s what editors are for, right? They fix… stuff.
I marked my calender “Day I’ll hear back. Yay!” I didn’t hear anything for a whole week after D-Day and jumped every time the phone rang. I even, get this, PRACTICED MY DEAL OFFER SQUEEL.
My first form rejection letter came in the mail five weeks after I’d submitted my story. I bawled. I’d spent HOURS on that story and what did I have to show for it? Half a sheet of cardstock with a quick “Not for us.” Dang right it wasn’t for them, those morons. This time, I sent out FIVE submissions. Let them fight over me! That would make for some awesome phone drama. More practicing ensued.
The rejections rolled in (one, thankfully, was personal, meaning they’d included my name in the no and said, “this is cute.”). I was faced with a new revelation: Maybe my writing, which was good enough in school, wasn’t good enough for publishing. Maybe I should work on this.
So I wrote more and more lousy picture books and read and read great ones. I subbed and sobbed, subbed and sobbed. I learned that revision was different than spell check, that more fluff and description didn’t necessarily make better writing. Picture books taught me to say as much as I could in as little words as possible. And they also got me to submit.
*Formal Apology to all those slush piles I helped clog up.

The Beg-Middle
That summer, my husband suggested I try novel writing, since that was more my voice anyway. Dude, duh! Picture books were too, you know, short. I had more words in me. More intricate plots. More complicated characters. More… writing… things.
That summer, I began my first novel. I made it for boys because I heard girls would read books with boy protaganists, but boys didn’t go for books with leading ladies. And I wanted everyone to read this literary masterpiece. Seriously, that was my reason. Besides, I was going way out there and writing a book just for teens. See, (idiotic confession number 4593) I honestly did not know there was an entire genre of teen books. I thought it stopped at mid-grade. I did.
So I was talking to my older brother (star of the first picture book and english teacher), explaining my ideas for my still plotless story. He said I should read a few more boy books and I said, “Wait, they’re for teens?”
“It’s called young adult,” he said.
“And teens read them.”
“Uh, yeah. Printz books are all young adult.”
Prince wrote books? No way!
*Note. Printz is a distinguished literary award, similar to the newbery, given to excellent books in young adult literature.
Prince, the artist, is also award-winning. And somewhat distinguished…

Anyway, I read every book my brother suggested and fell in love with an entire genre I didn’t even know existed when I was teen. I “finished” my book about a year after I started writing and began querying literary agents, which means I sent a one page letter detailing my book. I got lots of requests but no takers. This is because I wrote a dang good query, but a not-so-good book. It seemed YA books, like most books, needed characters and plots and conflicts and structure. In short, the pages of random descriptions and scenes wouldn’t cut it.

I worked on the book some more, but finally realized it just had too many things wrong to ever make it right. So it goes. I quit querying that book.
That sounded easy. It really wasn’t. I’d spent many late nights over months and months. I’d sacrificied my leisure time, even my family time, just to come to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to work. I knew it took time to learn the craft and get published, but how could I start all over again on something new? I began to suspect I sucked and should quit altogether and take up knitting. Luckily, I tried knitting and I was even worse at that.

A ray of hope came in the form of an email from Kent Brown. I was granted a full scholarship to attend the Highlight’s Foundation Chautauqua scholarship week-long writer’s mecca.
Someone thought I could write, or at least saw potential. They were even willing invest money in me. They referred to me as a writer. Maybe because I was one.
Chautauqua was one of the best weeks of my life. I was taken seriously. So many things clicked, my thoughts were one solid buzz. It’s OK to have a practice novel. Other (published!) authors did, too. My literary worth wasn’t measured by my publication status. And I was told I had a strong voice. VOICE! A financial investment into my professional future and the Voice label. I had to keep at it.
And so I moved full throttle into my next novel…

Ok, that’s it for this post. The smack middle, middle-end, and End (AKA beginning) to follow soon. If you take nothing away from the above, here’s three summarized points
1. Improvement is possible. Essential.
2. All writers can be naive, conceited, insecure idiots
3. One of the best ways to get good is to realize just how bad your writing is.
Seriously, bad. In fact, I think I’ll go delete some of those early files right now.