Maybe I Am Meant for This Line of Work

My Books!

My Books!

This week I had two wonderful opportunities to talk to kids about my books and being an author. In all my dreams of making it big and whatnot (ha), I have never really thought much about interacting with my audiences. If I ever think about it at all, it’s usually about book signings and how miserable they are if no one shows up to buy the books.

Despite not having a household name or a bestseller under my belt, I was chosen to speak at two schools. One was a preschool, the other a junior high school – quite a difference. It just so happens that I write for both age groups.

Pre-school, I figured, would be easy. I’m most comfortable with this age because 1. they’re a lot smaller than me; 2. they’re still huggable; and 3. I teach that age all the time. I knew pretty much what to expect when walking in. They might be unruly, and I may not be able to understand everything they say, but at the end of the day, they think people who write books are cool. Plus, I did this event with my co-author and friend Karen Saltmarsh, and we ad-libbed a very over-the-top version of the moment we decided to write a book together. Even the adults loved it.

Karen and I wrote a non-fiction book for ages K through 12. It’s not a sit-down-and-read-it-during-circle-time kind of book; it’s all about encouraging the creative writing spark to thrive and spread. And even though I wasn’t sure if the older preschoolers would get it, the four- and five-year-olds we visited wanted to write their own books right then and there. Then I read my book to them, and they were the perfect audience. Even the little three-year-olds listened and interacted with me. I left feeling energized and wondering why I don’t do more of this kind of thing.

OPJH literacy week cardAs for the junior high, it was their literacy week. They had a book fair and everything, and I was the guest author. Kids who were interested in talking to me spent their lunch period in the library, listening to this nothing author talk about books and the writing/publishing process. I’d had it on my calendar for a couple months, and every time I thought about it, I reminded myself that there was no reason to worry yet. Just save that for the night before, and go about life as normal.

Of course, I was still nervous. Not incapacitated or sick to my stomach, but it was the kind of thing I couldn’t dwell on much because then it would make me sick. Despite writing for this age, I don’t spend all that much time with 12- to 14-year-olds. To be honest, when I was that age, I didn’t want to be that age. I interact with them from afar, usually from the pages of adolescent fiction.

I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised when the kids were very receptive to what I had to say. They loved it when I talked to them about how they can publish books on-demand (and without waiting for a major publishing house to discover them). And when we talked about the books (and books-made-movies) that we like to read, I had a wonderful moment of wow-we-actually-get-each-other. They were even polite enough to listen to me read my children’s book, although the reactions (as expected) were much different than what I get from little kids.

There weren’t many silences at all – and when there were, it was because the kids were nervous about talking to me. Afterward, when we had some one-on-one time, several kids hung around long enough that they were late to their next class; we could’ve talked all day. In fact, I wished that they didn’t have to go so soon.

Two completely different groups of kids, two completely different situations, two great experiences. I still don’t know if my books will ever attract the interest of a so-called “real” publisher or any of those lists that seem to matter so much. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t care. But still, what I found was respect and joy – and gratitude for myself that I haven’t given up, that I keep writing when publishing and promotion are so difficult. I’m doing what I love, and it turns out that part of what this introverted author loves is spending time with her audiences.

Check out my children’s book Hero here.

The Year of Writing Dangerously

Novel Motto

From the time I was thirteen, I knew I wanted to be an author, and at that age, it seemed like such a reasonable dream. It’s a hard one to obtain, though. I went to college as an English major, despite people encouraging me to take up journalism or something that might actually be useful. I was going to be an author – why would I need to pursue anything else? You know, anything practical.

Then somewhere around my junior year in college, reality set in. By then, I’d found my university’s writing program and an excellent fiction workshop, run by my friend Ari. I think, if it weren’t for Ari’s workshops, I never would have been able to see the level of improvement that I’ve noticed in my fiction. Yes, I have good proofreading and editing skills – inherited from my proofreader mother – but my fiction was not worth reading until I experienced some first-hand criticism.

One aspect of the workshop was getting a story publication-ready. And Ari made no bones about the difficulties of publishing. It’s a cruel world, where editors who have bad days arbitrarily consign authors to the slush pile, no matter the worth of their stories. That’s why a group of us started our own literary journal, Fiction Fix, which is still going strong today. But as much as my editing credentials with Fiction Fix have done for me, they haven’t done anything for me in the greater world of novel publication.

The real world impeded on my dream to the point that I all but forgot it at times. After having my first child, I not only took a long hiatus from Fiction Fix, but I basically quit caring about writing for a while. Three straight years of rejection from literary agents can do that to you, and falling in love with my newborn son made my career-of-choice pale in comparison.

But the dream did not die, and I returned to my stories, often becoming lost in them for weeks or months before getting burnt out again. And then I decided that I would branch out and just get whatever kind of freelance work I could find. As long as I could have some sort of income from writing, that’s what I always wanted, right? Well, not quite.

I enjoy writing and editing, and I’m good at what I do, but the problem with freelancing is that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the assignments and forget the joy that I initially had when I just wrote stories all the time. And I am spoiled by having a husband whose job allows me the flexibility to write what I want to write. So why haven’t I been doing just that?

When I participated in NaNoWriMo this year, forcing myself to almost write full-time – and on a project with no guaranteed paycheck at the end – I finally fulfilled a little bit of my teenage dream. Never have I spent so much concentrated time writing, and never have I enjoyed it so much. This is what I had in mind (although being paid to do it would certainly be ideal).

I also regained some of that hope of someday writing a novel that people would pay to read. I had a lot of that hope when I was in college, before the harshness of life and the publication world fully set in. But after a while, I started to wonder why I kept trying if no one wanted to give me the time of day. And I was frustrated that I got older and still had nothing to show for all the stories I’d written. But the problem is that if I don’t submit, if I don’t get up every time I’m rejected and try again, no one’s just going to knock on my door and ask if I have a book that I would like to publish.

This is not a New Year’s resolution, first of all because it’s been in the works since November. But more than that, I’m not changing my ways, only to revert back to old habits within a few weeks. Rather, I hope that my rediscovered passion will give me that push to make this year the most productive I’ve ever been, as far as writing fiction is concerned. I’m already looking at contests and searching for new agents. I’m still working on the first draft of the novel I started with NaNoWriMo. And I’m determined not to lose my enthusiasm this time.

One day you’ll see me in print. And maybe – just maybe – it will be sooner rather than later.

What’s the Big Idea?


Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

You’d think after ten years together, you’d know someone really well. And, no, I’m not talking about my husband. I’m talking about a character, and January marked ten years since she showed up out of nowhere, demanding I tell her story.

When eleven-year-old Emma popped into my imagination, it was shortly after I really got into reading young adult lit. I figured it was a sign that that was the writing path for me. Early drafts of her story were promising; readers liked it (and gave me a lot of constructive criticism). I finished writing the novel in nine months. That was a first for me: finishing a novel. I was good at beginnings and endings, but I always had trouble making that connection in the middle. But I finally felt ready to face the big boys; I learned everything I could about queries and began looking for a literary agent.

Then reality set in: no one was interested.

Rejection is discouraging, yes, especially when you know that your story has promise. But the wonderful thing, the part that makes me sure I’m not wasting my time, is that I never wanted to stop writing, even when I learned to expect that every SASE would come back containing a form rejection. I got excited when agents wrote something personal, even if the answer was no.

Each rejection I took as an opportunity to better my story; maybe it simply wasn’t ready yet. I continued revising, or sometimes it just sat and kind of stewed while I worked on other projects (like being a mom). Many authors recommend leaving the book for six weeks or so after revising, then coming back for a fresh look. To date, I’ve gone through ten major revisions (sometimes revisions within revisions) since I finished the first draft. Each time I’ve returned to my story, I’ve seen changes that I needed to make and might not have noticed if I hadn’t taken a break. I rediscovered clever bits of writing that I couldn’t believe I actually created (unless there’s a little word fairy that turns garbage into poetry when I’m not looking). It’s a fantasy novel, so I really delved into the world of the story and made up words in my own fictional language, gave my fictional kingdom its own history, wrote pages of backstory. I changed the title four times, and I think I finally have the one that fits.

With each revision, I felt like I was getting closer to my goal, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally felt satisfied with it. Even though all the components were there, including that tricky middle bit, I think part of my problem when querying was that I wasn’t completely confident. I was almost relieved by the rejections, as much as I wanted someone to love my book, because I didn’t know if I would be happy publishing it as it stood.

Then, last fall a friend clued me into a webinar given by a literary agent, which led to me buying the agent’s book and discovering perhaps the biggest roadblock in the way of me truly knowing my story—and thus being able to tell it. The agent is Mary Kole, her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit (which I recommend to all authors, not just those of “kidlit”). In it, Kole addresses many aspects to which I never gave conscious thought. Perhaps the biggest, aptly named, is the Big Idea of the story. Even if not clearly articulated in a novel, the Big Idea needs to shine through. It’s also something an author should be able to clearly state in a query letter. Well, I can tell you that every query I ever wrote before reading Kole’s advice was all over the map when it came to describing my book. I could not specifically pinpoint what it was about without giving a lengthy explanation of the plot (which is extremely difficult to pull off in a one-page query).

Other authors such as Madeleine L’Engle and Anne Lamott further encouraged me. (Click the links to read about them in previous posts.) I thought about my story, went to sleep and awoke in the middle of the night with Emma on my mind. One thing that always bothered me was that I had no idea what her middle name was. Now, Sarah, you’re probably thinking, how could you not know your own protagonist’s middle name? You made her up, how hard is it? The problem was that when I thought of Emma, a middle name automatically came to mind, but even though it sounded right, it wasn’t hers. The same thing happened with her hair color. My first, hand-written draft made it brown, but Emma’s hair isn’t brown, it’s red. Sometimes, there are things that authors try to force on their characters—attributes or bits of history—that don’t suit, and they have to go.

Then it came to me—the perfect name and with a perfectly logical reason for why Emma’s parents gave it to her. It’s a name that defines her. . . because she hates it. If you told me at the beginning what her middle name was, I would have laughed and said it was stupid. I hadn’t gotten to know my story yet.

And it turns out that Emma’s middle name has a lot to do with the Big Idea, which I only started to figure out a few months ago. With that final bit of requisite knowledge, I not only composed a better query letter, but I finally did so with confidence. For the first time, I have a firm grasp on what I wrote and what I need to do moving forward. Am I happy that it took me ten years to get here? Of course not, and if I’d known it would take so long all those years ago, it probably would have killed my spirit. Nor does it mean that I’m done making changes, finished struggling, or guaranteed a best seller. But I am satisfied and ready to share Emma’s story. And I think she is ready to share her middle name, even though she doesn’t like it.

You “Read It With Interest,” My Foot


Mail (Photo credit: Bogdan Suditu)

There’s no way to stop them from happening. Rejections. I’m talking about in the publishing industry. I have yet to hear about a published author who sent out queries and never received a rejection. The only way to achieve such a feat is to never send a query. Even the most successful authors went through many a rejection before they broke through.

So what’s the big deal? Someone like little ol’ me should expect rejection, right? Yes. And I do. I remember back in the days before e-mail queries were acceptable (and when every agent I queried preferred exclusive submissions), I snail mailed them one at a time, each with my SASE included, and then I waited. Never for acceptance, although I pretended to keep my hopes up. Usually, within a week or two, I would find my self-addressed envelope in the mail, creased from where I’d folded it into thirds. I would carry it inside, almost not wanting to open it. If anyone was around, I would wave it and say, “Here’s another rejection.” I was always right.

The types of rejections varied. Every once in a while, I received my query back with a coveted, hand-scrawled note, giving me some encouragement that at least someone had read it all the way through. Other times, the agency in question couldn’t be bothered to use a whole piece of paper for their form rejection. I do understand that it’s wasteful to use a whole sheet on a message that boils down to, “We’re not interested. Bother someone else, please,” but it just adds an extra little sting.

Worse were the rejections that never came. There are a few agencies that inform authors up front that SASEs are unnecessary. You can assume you’re rejected if you don’t hear anything within a specified period of time. If they want to see more, they’ll either call personally or go to the expense of using their own envelopes and stamps. You can guess the kind of “response” I received from these agencies.

One time, I received a form rejection that made it very clear that no one ever read my query. It so offended me that I got in a huff and wrote the most sarcastic query I could muster in response. The idea was to see if I could make an agent mad enough to respond, even if it was just to say, “How dare you!” Of course, I never sent it. The act of writing it calmed me, and I eventually decided that agent wasn’t worth my time, anyway.

But it made me wonder if querying was a futile effort. Why spend my time polishing a letter that no one was going to so much as glance at before rejecting? I understand that agents are extremely busy. Some even have periods when they do not accept submissions because they have to get other work done (like working with their already-established authors). Is there some kind of magic trick for those of us who don’t have an “in” in the industry?

Nowadays, more agencies are open to simultaneous submissions, and with so many accepting e-mail queries, as well, it keeps the process from stretching out for years. Already this month, I’ve sent ten queries, whereas I don’t think I ever sent ten in a year before, what with doing them all one at a time and then waiting for the mail. Still, it doesn’t make rejection hurt any less.

One day this week, I sent a query just before 5:30 P.M., and a lot of these agencies have an auto-response e-mail that lets you know your submission went through and is waiting in line with all the other millions of submissions. Most agencies have a response time of four to six weeks. I was surprised, however, that the auto-responder said someone would be in touch with me “shortly.” That was different. They seemed to pride themselves on expediency.

Well, “shortly” turned out to be midnight. Or that’s the time listed on the e-mail I received the next morning. And the opening was quite cordial. They thanked me for my query, which they “read with interest.” But they were so sorry that it just wasn’t right for them. Now, who are they trying to fool? This agency isn’t two time zones over, where someone might possibly have read it before the office closed. It’s in my time zone. In my state, actually, which, to be honest, was one of the few things that attracted me to it. So either someone stayed after hours to read submissions and then sent the robo-rejections, or some computer program scanned it for key words, didn’t find what it was looking for, then sent the rejection when it was done. I’m going with the latter option.

There are a lot of things that bother me about this, but the first is that their response flat-out lies. You don’t want to do business with me, so why sugar-coat it? Just say, “You know what, your type of submission isn’t what we want right now. No thanks.” I’ve heard this before and moved on. Don’t tell me you “read it with interest” when the only person in the building was the janitor. And, of course, since this is a form rejection, all authors receive it. We’re all being lied to.

Second, they asked for a writing sample. Why bother? Well, I suppose the software that reads for them could send up a red flag if the writing sample was full of typos, but even if I don’t write the most gripping queries, they’re grammatically correct. (Well, one that I sent out did have a big typo that I didn’t catch until the next day, so when I receive that rejection, I will fully deserve it. But I digress.) I always bemoaned that, when querying by mail, the agents judged me based on a one-page cover letter. I would try to throw in lines from my book, hoping to show my style, but that approach never worked. I recently had the opportunity for an agent to critique an excerpt of my story, and she said the voice and opening were strong. So if they’ll just read the bit of story that I send (and I only send the length they ask for), they’ll have to admit it’s well-written, even if it’s not subject matter that they want to represent.

The vindictive part of me wants to become the next J.K. Rowling, so I can rub it in the rejectors’ faces. But really, I just want someone out there to give my middle grade fantasy novel the time of day. They certainly don’t seem to mind representing some of the absolute garbage that litters the bookshelves. But I refuse to write something sensational, just to sell copies. If no one wants to publish my story, I know a great place that’s friendly to indie authors, and it’s called (I’ve already published my short story “Stranded” there and have another story in the works.) There are many indie authors out there who are doing pretty well, even getting discovered by big agents and publishers. I was encouraged when my cousin sent me Hugh Howey’s publishing story this week. It would be a stretch for the same kind of circumstances to happen for me, but. . . maybe there’s hope for this girl, after all.

A Story of a Scammer

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

photo credit: Wikipedia

It’s like being the unpopular girl for so long that when any old popular guy shows a bit of interest, you immediately latch onto him and proudly proclaim him your boyfriend, ignoring little things such as barely knowing or having anything in common with him.

What’s like that? you ask. Shopping a novel around with literary agents for nearly five years, and when one finally says, Sure we’d like to see it, signing up with her and e-mailing all your writer friends to say, I’m successful! I finally landed an agent! We’re in the money!

That was me in early 2009, when I thought my writing career was made. Easy Street? No. But I thought that at least any future rejections would be filtered through someone who would believe in and stand up for my novel. I completely ignored the fact that having an agent doesn’t equal publishing at all, and even publishing doesn’t equal book sales. I was just thrilled to be done (I thought) with the agent search.

If you take nothing else from this blog, know this: You should always, always, ALWAYS double–no, triple and quadruple check out literary agents before you query, much less sign a contract with one.

That said, I’m sure you can guess what’s coming. I didn’t check.

I thought I’d be able to spot a scam a mile away. I thought that finding the agency’s listing in Writer’s Market was the same thing as a writing industry stamp of approval. I was impressed by a professional-looking website. I was sucked in. And they got 68 of my dollars pretty quickly, too. What’s the first red flag you look for with a scammer? They want your money. You should never pay an agent for any services, until you sell books (unless they say up front they’re going to charge for postage or copies). And I knew this. But I rationalized that it was only a book critique, and I would pay a professional outside the agency more, so $68 really wasn’t all that much, if the critique helped me publish my book.

I did have this little twinge that said it was too easy, or that just because one agent was interested didn’t make her the right agent to represent my novel. But, as I mentioned, I’d searched–and been rejected many a time–for almost five years. I’d put my story through a number of revisions, some of them pretty drastic. Still, the rejections came, and they wore me down after a while.

When I first started querying agents, e-mail queries were a big no-no. Most of the agents I looked into had little more than an address listing on the web. And everything I read cautioned against simultaneous submissions. So I queried one at a time, via snail mail. As I am sure you can imagine, it took forever.

I compiled my list, starting with the agencies that seemed really promising. Some requested authors give them a month, and after that, no response equaled rejection. Others promised to respond but never did, even though I always sent SASEs. So I refined, searching for info online, just to make sure I had the correct address and the right person at a particular agency. I received one hand-written rejection that I remember. I cherished it, feeling like someone had finally read my query instead of throwing it away and stuffing a form rejection in the mail. I remember getting those self-addressed envelopes back, always thinking, Oh here’s that rejection I’ve been waiting for. I guess it doesn’t help to always have that defeatist attitude, but I thought of it more as, If I expect a rejection, I won’t get disappointed. But who am I kidding? I was always disappointed, even if only by the merest amount. And I think a big part of me was disappointed in myself for not being able to write a mind-blowing query that would convince them to beg for more. I wrote some kind of snarky queries, mainly to blow off steam. I didn’t mail those, although I did play around with some, figuring, What the hell? If they’re going to reject me anyway, I might as well have a little fun.

By the time 2009 rolled around, I wasn’t sending out queries nearly as often. I had a one year old who occupied most of my time, and it had been a long time since someone had lit a fire under me. But I still searched the web, looking for potential matches.

One day I found the website of one of the agencies toward the end of my list, one I’d never tried before. And it not only encouraged e-queries, but there was a form right on the website that I could fill out with all of my info. It seemed a little off-putting. Don’t send a nicely formatted letter? Well, okay. I typed away and hit “Submit,” and almost before I could blink, I received the wonderful news (I thought) that their children’s division would love to see my manuscript. It all seemed odd and informal, but then the contract came and all kinds of info that seemed legit, so I just ran with it, leaving my second-guesses in the dust.

First was the $68 critique. The agent explained that I really couldn’t get started without it, unless, of course, a professional had critiqued my book before. (Didn’t a workshop of more than a dozen fellow writers count? Well, no, not if I didn’t pay them for it.) At least the critiquer gave me credit for writing good dialogue, always my strong suit. Titles, however, are not, and that was also pointed out in the critique. So I changed it, no problem. But that wasn’t the only change I needed to make. Of course, I always expected a thorough edit (or two or three) before publishing, but I did not expect the critiquer to come right out and say that I wasn’t competent enough to follow through with necessary changes. I silently fumed and thought, I’m an editor! I know how to properly structure sentences and fix typos! Give me some credit–$%*&#@!!!

But I continued with other parts of the process. I filled out all sorts of marketing forms, keywords and loglines. I agonized over a brief (actually, I’d consider it a G-string) synopsis and a slightly longer one, neither of which I felt did my book justice. I was annoyed by the five or six articles my agent sent that had guidelines for writing said synopses because the guidelines all disagreed with each other. Was using a byline good or not? Should I put the title in italics or all caps? I did the best I could, sent it all to the agent, waited for some good news.

Then came the e-mails about a wonderful opportunity. The agent had a publisher who would sell my book internationally. I wasn’t quite sure why the Chinese market was a better fit than the American one, but why not? Publishing is publishing, right? Well, not if it’s self-publishing, and that’s what this publisher was. Of course they were “interested.” They didn’t have a clue what was in my book, and they didn’t care, as long as I paid them to print it. And I don’t say this to belittle self-publishing. It’s a lot of thankless work that usually goes unpaid. (I know–I’m an indie publisher, myself!) But if someone can tell me why a self-published author needs an agent, please enlighten me. I declined, and that’s when my agent started pressuring me about getting a professional edit. She gave me industry rates and said that she had a list of editors on hand (might as well have said “on staff”) who could help me. Yet again, I declined, started saving my pennies, and looked for editors on my own. At that point, I knew something was up. They wanted more of my money, and I already regretted the critique, which I knew was their ploy to show how desperately I needed their particular writing services.

This didn’t happen quickly, either. There were weeks or sometimes even months between our e-mails. After the agent told me I needed a professional edit, however, she refused to so much as lift a finger. As soon as you get your edit, we can move. . . I still have that list, if you’re interested. And I was torn, of course. I was saving money for website development and also for the second baby my husband and I hoped to have.

I don’t remember why I did it, but one day I Googled my agent, and one of the first searches that popped up had “scam” written in it. I almost didn’t go through with it. Ignorance is bliss, right? But choosing ignorance is really just stupidity. So I did the search, and oh boy did I find a lot of revealing stuff. That’s how I discovered WRITER BEWARE and Preditors & Editors. I found blogs filled with experiences that sounded eerily similar to my own. I felt sick. . . but also vindicated. No, those other writers’ experiences didn’t mean that I was a better writer than my critique let on, but they gave credence to the idea, at least. And I won’t deny that there were a few positive comments sprinkled in with all the negativity. But they were all from people who did self-publish and really just needed someone–like an “agent”–to guide them through the process because they were absolutely green when it came to publishing. Unfortunately for those authors, they don’t have any sales behind their books (and neither does the agent, to this day). After nearly two years of dealing with my agent’s shenanigans, I used the I’m-a-busy-mommy-so-I-don’t-think-I’m-going-to-write-anymore excuse to get out of the contract. I knew that she was just waiting for me to end it; after all, I wasn’t giving her any money, so why should she bother with me?

And you know what? I’m glad, as with many negative experiences in my life, that I went through it all. I don’t think of it as a waste of time, as if I could have found a legitimate agent and been in my third printing by now. Other life and writing experiences have caused my novel to grow in a way that it would not have if I’d given in and self-published, like my agent wanted. (That doesn’t mean self-publishing is off the table for the future, just that the time wasn’t right back then.) Also, I am now armed with a lot more knowledge about what not to do. Like that electronic contract? Completely bogus. Turns out that nothing was binding about our relationship, although I didn’t know it at the time.

The publishing industry has changed, big time, since I first started querying. E-mails are the norm now, although some agencies still use the good ol’ USPS. I reviewed The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent: Everything You Need to Know to become Successfully Published for a small publisher recently, and not only was much of what I already knew confirmed, but the author added that it’s crazy not to submit simultaneously; otherwise it could take years to even send queries to all the agents you like. (Tell me about it.) Also, indie (or self-) publishing has come a long way, especially for ebooks. And I know a great place (–check it out!) where I can epublish for free and who distributes to all the big ebookstores, if I choose to go that route. (As I did for my short story “Stranded”–and other stories to come soon.)

As for my young adult novel, there is an honest-to-goodness agent looking at it right now. I researched her former and current agencies before taking her kidlit webinar, and both agencies passed the test. By the way, it is very common to meet agents through conferences, seminars, webinars, and workshops. I highly recommend it, to broaden your writing knowledge and contacts, if nothing else. Who knows if this agent will show any interest, but she is going to give me a critique, and I’ll go from there. When my book is ready, I will get it into the hands of young readers, one way or another. But the next $68 I spend will fill my children’s Christmas stockings, not some phony agency’s coffers.