Sunday, March 5, 2017

What are you willing to give up?


I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately as it pertains to my writing. I sit in a place where I have years invested in a novel, the first of a series and a good draft of the second book. But my agent has had ‘the talk’ with me. The market, as it stands, isn’t ripe for my book or for me, as a debut author. My genre, urban fantasy, is ‘mature’ and, apparently, the big houses aren’t really interested in investing in new talent. They’d rather bet on the sure thing, the established author with eight books out in a series that’s doing well. That’s solid business advice. I’m a business person, and I’d take that bet over a start up any day of the week.

But I’ve invested, too. Invested years in this book. Not just writing and revising, but investing myself in the idea of being a ‘published author by a major house’. Coming from a girl with no contacts and a barely-there manuscript in 2011 to gigantic leaps in the direction of publication. Landed a great agent. Made revision upon revision, some for the agent, some for editors. Had promising emails from editors at the major houses indicating they’re taking the book to their team. Only to be shot down time after time. Except this time, the shot appears to be fatal. It’s done. The only chance is a hail-Mary resurrection when (if?) the market turns more in my favor. That could take years more.

The fatal shot rang out in late January. It echoed through my universe and it burned, stung and nearly bled me dry of words. I didn’t want to write. It was the last thing I wanted to do. And that hurt. Writing is a solace to me. It’s one thing that gives me more joy, causes my soul to stir in ways nearly nothing else does. So not only had I lost the investment of the idea of a traditional publishing career, I’d lost the joy of writing.

Talk about your gut-wrenching one-two punches.

Some time has passed and now I find myself thinking a whole lot about what it really is I want from this writing gig. This foray into traditional publishing peaked open a door, and I saw what lays behind it. Most newly minted writers believe the other side of that door holds rainbows, unicorns and the proverbial keys to kingdom. But read enough stories of traditionally published authors and you will see that is in no way, shape, form, color, context or any other variable even remotely accurate. The truth is, writing is hard. It is always hard. The challenges just flex and contort with each new project. Got a publishing deal? Fantastic! Your sales weren’t great? Oh, well, try and get another contract…ever. Did great on that first novel? Awesome. Now you get to write the dreaded ‘second book’. Gee, hope that one does well, too. Or, well, you’re out on your butt. Your books did pretty ok? Well, time to pitch the next idea. Your editor doesn’t like it. Come up with a different one. Nah, not that one either.

And on. And on.

Don’t get me wrong. I 100% get it. As I said, I’m a business person. I built a pretty successful dog training business from me and a truck to a seven-figure operation. I didn’t do that by making unsound business decisions. So I do. I get it. First and foremost, publishing is a business.

So I’ve been wondering…Is traditional publishing worth the sacrifice? Because, let’s face it, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns on the other side of that door…there is something profound I’m giving up by trying to please the big publishing house gods.

What could I possibly be giving up, by pursuing the dream, you ask?

Well, right now, it feels a lot like I’m giving up my love of writing.

Until the call came in—the one where my book was pronounced dead on the table—I had a pretty good momentum going. I was excited and I was writing, had just finished up my Nano project, completing a draft of the second book, something I’d struggled with for three years (because I was focused on editing, revising, and editing and revising the first book, trying to get it big-house approved.) But after that call, it was amazing how my desire to do something I loved virtually evaporated.

You see, in my mind, writing and publishing became two halves of a whole. The joy of crafting a story became intrinsically linked to specific people telling me that story was a good one. No… a good enough one. Good enough to pass through that very fickle door.

You could argue ‘that’s my problem’, not being able to separate one from the other, writing and publishing, and you’d be right. But in my mind, writing and publishing were two sides of a coin. It had always been my goal to be a traditionally published author. Hadn’t it?

Wait.

Hadn’t it?

The thing is, it wasn’t.

When I was first overcome with the idea and the characters, I wasn’t thinking about publishing deals. When I feverish with plot twists, when I was making myself chuckle at a witty one-liner, or when I typed ‘the end’ and felt overcome with accomplishment, I wasn’t thinking about who was going to make an offer on my book.

And that’s when it hits me: I didn’t write to get published. Not at first. I wrote because I loved it. Felt driven to do it. And somewhere that got perverted into something else.

In fact, in the beginning, I had assumed I would self-publish. I’d read enough to know traditional publishing was a long shot. Tons of talent, few spaces available. But I was encouraged and pushed by a few key individuals who were in the business and thought my stuff was good enough to make it. Encouragement like that is heady stuff. And I thought, you know what? I’m going to try this thing. And then I did. And then I went to conferences, learned more. And then I got an agent. (Hey, you know what? This might actually happen.) Then we edited. (Hey, this book is better with her ideas.) Then we submitted. (Oh my God, editors are liking this! Sending it to the team!)

It seemed like it would happen for a while there. It really did. And somewhere in there I lost my compass, set to true north, the joy of writing a compelling story.

What was goal? It was never money. I mean, read anything out there, and you’ll know a six-figure advance for a debut genre author who isn’t a celebrity is a like a winning lotto ticket. That rare. Hell, the odds may be better for Powerball, I don’t know.

When pursuing traditional publication, the goal for me, and many aspiring authors out there, is validation. It may not be unicorns and rainbows on the other side of that door, but it’s something just as magical. You are good. You really can write. It’s not just your sister and her friends who were riveted by your book. Real people were! People who matter! Editors, agents, book people!

It’s hard to underestimate the power of that validation.

I’d gotten a taste of it several times, probably like tasting heroine, instantly addictive. When my agent loved my book. When three different major house editors loved it. When an intern compared my book to a best-selling favorite author of mine. Ohhh…the smell and texture and taste of that… it’s intoxicating.

Intoxicating, yes. Root word: Toxic.

Like heroine.

I’m not saying traditionally publishing is toxic. I’m saying the pursuit of it, to the exclusion of everything else was. For me.

Here’s the kicker: the high isn’t even real.

Through all of this, here is what I’ve learned: validation from the outside for your work is a lost cause.

Why? Because someone is going to hate your book. And if all that matters is that validation, you’re ultimately screwed.

There’s a reason why they tell published authors not to look at their reviews.

I mean, these are people who made it past the unicorn-gated doorway, their book is OUT IN THE 
WORLD. They have been paid money. And still…some weirdo is going to post a one star review and murder their book baby. Stab it repeatedly, blood and carnage dripping off every page. Probably more than once.

That can’t be healthy.

If you’re focused on the validation of other people, even really highly educated ones, like agents and editors and MFAs, you’re going to crash at some point. It’s just physics. They can’t hold you up if you aren’t willing to lift yourself of your own power.

These are things I’m exploring right now.

Is continuing to pursue traditional publishing worth the risk of losing my love of the craft?

Would I be happy to share my stories only with loved ones and friends?

Would being an indie author, taking on the job of cover art and copy editing, and all that, but deciding what and when I publish be a better option?

What’s more important to me? A publishing career or a hobby that brings me joy?

And hey, along the way things will change. They will ebb and flow. The tide will come in and it will slip away again.

I’ve found my answer.

It took a while to get there. But I found it.

And it didn’t come from outside of me.


Friday, January 22, 2016

Future Graveyard - Flash Fiction Challenge



Prompt complements of Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds blog

Future Graveyard

            After the world ended, demons strutted around like they owned the place. Which, I suppose, was true enough, but it made me madder than when Prof Stein announced he wasn’t grading on a curve.
            I stood at the foot of the brushed bronze building, my oversized sweater jacket pulled tight around me. People bustled every which way, hurrying to work or home or some other pointless social function. It didn’t really matter where they were headed, because if I failed now, humanity was even further screwed. I stared up at the sky, a puffy gray. A year ago, I would’ve used a mild winter day like this to cuddle up and study Psych 101.
            I gained a curious glance or two from the busy trench-coated people, leading lives in unknowing service to the demons. I ignored them; I was busy searching for demons. Easy to spot, too, when eye contact was made. For me, I could see it plain as day, for just a second, their faces slipped like an old TV flipped to a station with horrible reception.
            God had given us struggle, but the demons had given us ease. Insidious and impossible to deny, humans had taken their offering like a starving kitten offered warm milk.
            I rubbed my hands furiously together, trying to work up some warmth and yeah, maybe some courage, and walked through the revolving doors of the World Hunger Alliance.
            The woman seated at the reception desk was a well-coifed, classically pretty brunette. Her inspection of me was almost not at all noticeable, though she had to be wondering what a college-age kid with a messy ponytail was doing with an appointment to see the executive director. She blinked and smiled.
            “You must be Anala Whitcomb?” Her smile stayed in place.
            I nodded.
            “Ms. Larvale will see you shortly. Could I offer you some coffee? Hot chocolate? Water?”
            I was cold and had a personal shortcoming when it came to anything chocolate, but I also had made a promise to never take anything a demon offered. This woman wasn’t a demon, but it was too close by extension for my taste.
            Of course, if all went well today, I was about to break that promise anyway. Not for chocolate, no, I needed information. And I’d take it gladly from any source, even a demon.
            I shook my head and took a seat in the lobby. The tile floor was polished and new. The chairs were comfortable and next to me sat a benign assortment of magazines, including the quarterly publication for the World Hunger Alliance. The cover featured Ms. Larvale, the executive director, hugging a smiling chubby African child in each arm. The title story read ‘The End is in Sight.’
            Har, har. Those demons could really play it tongue in cheek.
            Not quite true, as the end had happened a year or more ago. No human I’d met really knew and the demons certainly weren’t forthcoming with the deets. There were precious few humans who could see the demons, but even they didn’t have any idea. I mean, it wasn’t as if Michael and Lucifer had had a cage match in the streets of New York, good and evil duking it out.
            One day I just started to see them. Talk about freaking the hell out. That was me. I spent time tucked away and on some really nice drugs. But I wasn’t the only one, and we all saw the same things. The weird faces, yes, but other things, too. I’m not crazy, though I did entertain the thought.
            It all changed when I saw one and started to walk the other way. He caught up to me and laid a firm hand on my shoulder and spun me around. “What did you see?”
            Trembling in my boots, I said nothing.
            “Come on, little human, I know you sense me. I’m just curious what you indagatrix actually see.”
            Lips quivering, staring into his wrong face, I mumbled, “Your face…it shifts and moves.”
            He lifted a corner of lip and nodded. “That’s interesting. So… you’ve never seen anything else?”
            With his hand so firm on my shoulder, I was rooted to the ground, unable to run. Power emanated from his touch, and my skin turned hot in an instant. Whimpering, I swallowed and shook my head.
            “Well, if you’re to be afraid, you should have a good reason.”
            Before me, his face slipped entirely, replaced with reptilian skin, leathery, and greasy hairy reaching his waist. But it was his eyes that undid me. The sclera turned red, the pupils turning almond shaped and bright yellow.
            He blinked and was human again, now smiling. “Was it good for you?” He chuckled.
I found my voice then, because I assumed death was to follow shortly. “What are you?”
            His now perfectly normal face smiled. “We are demons, little human, and this is our world now.”
            So that’s how I found out the truth, about the most anti-climatic apocalypse imaginable. We didn’t fight it as a species. Hell, we didn’t even know it happened. Demons took over, gave us humans everything we wanted. An end to starvation. World peace. Poverty a thing of the past. Oprah threw a big party.
            We never talk about what we gave up to get those things. Sometimes I wonder if they even remember.
            I remember. I do.
            I was still staring at the picture of Larvale on the magazine. Blinking, I tossed it aside. Near as I could tell, she was as close to head demon as existed. I’d fought for weeks to get this appointment. In the end, inspiration had struck.
            “Look, I really need to speak with her.”
            The assistant had sniffed over the phone. “I’m sorry, but Ms. Larvale only sees preapproved appointments and you can’t tell me what your affiliation is, or what your business is.”
            With my resolve fraying all around me, I gave up a key piece of information. “Ok, please give her a message for me. And if after that, she doesn’t want to speak, I’ll honor that, I will. Ok? Will you, will you give her a message at least?”
            A deep sigh carried just fine over the fiber optic line. “I will give her a message, young lady. Go ahead with it when you’re ready.”
            I paused, not sure if this was a grave mistake or a necessary evil to get to the evil. “Indagatrix.”
            “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”
            “It’s just one word.”
            “Can you spell it?”
            Gritting my teeth, I did. I only knew how to spell it after some research, after the demon had let the word slip. It was Latin, that much I figured out. What it had to do with me, I had no idea.
            The assistant paused then, and I could read her hesitation over the line.
            “Like I said, give her the message and if she doesn’t want to talk to me, then I’ll honor that.” I had no idea what I’d do next, but it wouldn’t involve a phone call.
            “All right. I’ll see she gets the message.”
            I received a call to set up my appointment within the hour.
            Now here I was, the appointment I’d so desperately wanted, and scared worse than when my big bro Kyle made me watch the Exorcist in third grade.
            A woman pushed through double glass doors, looking like a school marm. Plaid wool skirt, glasses perched on the tip of a long pointy nose. “Anala Whitcomb, I presume?”
            Thank God she was human. Otherwise I might’ve bolted. Seriously, I’m not brave.
            Nodding quickly I stood and wrapped the bulky sweater jacket tighter.
            The woman held the door open for me, gesturing to the elevator. We were both tucked inside when she hit ’60.’ All the way to the top.
            The pressure from the elevator pushed against me but I didn’t want to touch the railing, why exactly, I couldn’t say. The door opened to a well-appointed modern office, all slick lines done in shiny black and gray. Then I saw her.
            She turned to look at me, her face slipping, slipping. It didn’t stop, didn’t slow down.
            Oh shit, oh holy mother, oh shit.
            Her voice called out, pleasant and honey smooth. “Gertie, lead her on in.”
            Was that a hint of amusement?
            I’m not brave, no, but I also have a streak of impetuousness that’s never served me well. Like, say, now.
            “Ms. Larvale, so nice to meet you,” I said, trying hard to mask the stink of fear coating my armpits.
            I walked right in to her office, the demon lady, and took a seat in a big leather chair across from Larvale. Gertie closed the door behind us.
            Her face was still a mess of staticky channel and I couldn’t decide where her eyes should be. “Could you, um, fix your face?”
            A soft chuckle. But she did. Her features snapped into place with lightning speed. “Does this suit you better, Anala?”
            I shivered. Her saying my name felt very much like she was cursing me, but something told me she shouldn’t know her words affected me. Probably she’d use it to screw with my head further.
            Larvale leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers over her lap. “It’s ridiculously rash for you to come here, you know? You have no way of knowing this, but my kind loved to kill you Indagatrix not so long ago. Since we’ve won, we don’t really bother. It’s more fun to watch you go mad.”
            Ok, then. Down to brass tacks.
            “I’m not crazy.”
            Larvale nodded. “Maybe not yet, but when you see the graveyard, stretching out before you, as far as your human eyes can see, then we’ll see.”
            “Graveyard?” I swallowed.
            “Of your kind. There are so many of you now, we will never again go hungry. We will stay, help you breed, help you further indenture yourselves. And you Indagatrix will be the only witnesses.”
            Against the tide of her words, hope swelled inside my chest. This was why I was here, I suddenly understood. This.
            The words came out a whisper, but with a fine edge of steel hardening them anyway. “So it’s not over.”
            Larvale laughed.
            “There’s hope.” I stood and walked out, my spine pulled erect with fierce purpose.
            Larvale’s skittering chuckle followed me out.
            I didn’t care.
            The war wasn’t over. They hadn’t won.
            There was hope.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Ma'am, please step away from the manuscript...



Writers love to write. Shocker, right? 

I’m not talking about how I ‘love’ to get a coffee in the morning, or how I ‘love’ to go out to dinner on occasion. I’m talking about huge amounts of endorphin being released when I’m holed up, left to my own weird creative devices for hours on end. I’m talking about having no sense four hours have passed without once glancing at the clock, feverishly typing and/or staring blankly, and that I should probably stretch my legs for a bit. It’s magical, and—as my husband can happily attest—I’m giddy and in an uber good mood.


But.

There comes a time when the magic is just as imaginary as the world I’ve created and I wonder if I’ll ever get that feeling again. Usually this head-meet-keyboard moment happens in the thick of a tough draft or revision, when my mind is gnawing on a story problem like a wild beast on a bloody carcass. No finesse. Just a gory, ripped apart story that gives no indication it was once a graceful gazelle of words. I’m harried to get to the answer, so I can back to the magic.

That’s one of the moments when I remind myself to step away. Or I don’t remember to remind myself at all, I just do it, because my other options involve destruction of personal property. My own property… don’t worry. Other times, the need to step away is immediately after completion of a revision or draft.

At first, it stepping away feels like cheating the process. It feels like quitting and giving up and rolling over to show my tummy to a predator and other things that are pretty much anathema to me.
The initial tearing away of me from the manuscript has run the gamut of emotion between ‘thank-God-I-can’t-look-at-that-crap-another-second’ to ‘my-poor-baby-she-needs-me-she-needs-me.’ I have had times where I wanted to look at it again, but knew it was like Pandora playing peek-a-boo. Bad, bad idea.

Writers need time away. Plain and simple. The time away could be any number of things. Could be just time away from that book, but starting another. Could be researching agents to query for that book. Could be not looking at a keyboard at all. *shrugs* It’s what you need, in that moment. I’ve done all three of those things, at various points. They are all productive and okay uses of time. Even the doing nothing. I’ll say it again for my inner Type-A…even doing nothing is okay.

This concept of time away has been taught in many seminars and conferences I’ve attended. A question I’ve heard asked, then, the follow up, is, ‘how long away?’ Great question, complicated answer.

It’s fair to say I’ve been writing some version of Pledge of Ashes since I was about thirteen. It’s my first story, in some ways, the one that never left me, the one I feel compelled to tell. My abilities with craft at thirteen (despite doing a paid correspondence course with a Writer’s Digest mentor) were, um, limited.



As I went through my teens, then my twenties, I would return to the book at various times. Pull it out, read it. Laugh. Cry. Then, sometimes, take another stab at it.  Until sometime in 2011 when I read it again and decided…now. I would take this thing seriously and get to it.

I honestly have no idea how many times I’ve stepped away since then. I can’t tell you the real number of days or weeks or months that worked. Only that, yes, sometimes it was days. Sometimes weeks or even months. I have noted, the more skilled I have become with craft, the less time it seems to take to feel ready to take on the project again. Skill, and the depth to which the revision took me. The harder the revision, the longer I needed to recoup.

I’ve come to think of stepping away from our manuscripts as very akin to the sleep cycle. Sometimes we want badly to sleep, but we keep our eyes peeled open, because, for some reason, we really need to stay awake. Sometimes we don’t want to sleep, we’re too jazzed.  Sometimes we feel lazy because we want a nap.

But the best sleep comes when we recognize we need the rest, and then we take it. No guilt, no internal recriminations. We give ourselves permission to lie down, put our head on a pillow, and not think or work or plot. That, too, can be magical.

Sometimes, that’s when we have the best dreams.

So, go ahead, take a step away. Rest. Before you fall over.




Thursday, August 27, 2015

Head Meet Keyboard...Ruminations on Revision



Recently my husband said one of either the funniest or most devastatingly sad things I have ever heard him utter. When he asked, ‘how’s the book going’, I answered, as I have answered for probably the hundredth time, “I’m revising.”

My husband, whom I love dearly, looks genuinely confused and says, “I thought you did that already.”

Ha. Hahah. Hahahahahah—devolving into sobs.

My face must’ve looked incredibly odd, because my emotions immediately went into a brutal tug of war. One side, ready to laugh uproariously, like that was the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, the other side ready to crawl into the life-size hole my dogs have dug to access the underside of our deck, and crawl inside never to be seen again.

Yes, again, I’m revising. Again.

And I am under no illusions whatsoever I am done. My manuscript is just getting ready to be submitted to publishers, I’m still approximately the sun and earth distance away from holding a copy of my book in my own, greedy, keyboard-palsied hands.

I’m half-way okay with that.

Halfway, because, let’s be honest, holding a word mountain of your own creation in paper form is a moment of supreme pride. You’ve created something that has never existed before, used your complex frontal cortex to weave imagery and characters and plot. The act of creation…there’s nothing like it.

But the other half of me knows and accepts I am new to this. If I ever want to present more word mountains to the world and expect the world to ask me for more word mountains, this particular word mountain needs to be totally, and without reserve, kick ass. Which means making it as good as it can get, heeding the advice of the community of people who are trying to help me get there-- my freelance editor, my betas, my CPs, my agent, and hopefully, one day, my editor.

It takes a village to make a mountain.

 Or something.

Anyway. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned about revision is this: it’s not all uphill. Every change you make won’t *necessarily* make it better. Probably worse than any rejection I’ve received is the feeling of putting in tons and tons of work into a revision, reading it, and feeling abject horror at what you’ve done to your baby.

It happens. Been there.

 
There is a gift in all this. Not like a Christmas morning gift, complete with instant gratification. No, it's more like the super special vacation around the world that you will take one day, that you spend years readying yourself for, that you hold gently in your best daydreams. It's a gift like that.

Each revision makes us better. Better, because we did something genuinely awesome, marginally better, or because we learned something to never do again. Either way, revision makes you a better, more polished, more experienced, more efficient writer. Possibly even more than actually writing the word mountain in the first place. After all, not all mountains are the same. There's landfills, and there's the majesty of the Rockies.