When Other People Get Good News

The other day, I rejoiced for several hours at someone else’s good news. It was fantastic and well deserved. A friend who has labored long and hard got his brass ring: a publishing deal. His humor, wit, and intelligence have finally been recognized by gatekeepers who know what can sell. I had some flashbacks to our shared misery over the last five years while we both strived after agents, publishing contracts, and our work to be known. Recently he told me he wasn’t sure he could survive another slew of rejections. Now with an advance in hand and a two-book deal, he can finally say he’s arrived.

As the joy has faded, I’ve felt twinges of wistfulness for the road I hopped off and what it might have offered me if in 2012 I’d said, “I’ll stay the course.” I wonder what it would be like to work with distributors that could get my book easily to brick-and-mortar stores. I’d love to give a publisher’s name to ensure a book signing. I’d love to have a marketing team set up interviews, conferences, and events.

I chose a different route. I decided after 14 months with an agent to blast myself into the self-pub universe. I’ve had nothing but fun and autonomy doing this, with a lot of blessings from good friends, family, and strangers who took the chance to invest in my work. I assemble a support team for all projects and make all the decisions. I’ve got a great website, good reviews, and a monthly newsletter. I have a beautiful book trailer. I’m blessed with the remainder of my “advance”—a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation—that allows me to plan to self-publish my next book.

My sales remain small and occasional because I rarely promote. With a fulltime job and a family, I only have time to write my next book. I have a 10-year plan, one that involves writing several more books, playing with prices to give my readers good deals, and hiringa publicist in order to increase my reach. All in good time, I keep telling myself when vaulting ambition threatens to flagellate me and when others’ good news makes me wonder if I’ve chosen the wrong road.

Over a decade ago, I went to a dear friend’s baby shower that happened the same week as another dear friend’s wedding. In a weak moment, I confessed to one of them, I feel you all have moved on. It felt very childish to admit at the time, but I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes, a lot of change hits all at once, where you think everyone else is grown up while your own future stays blank and unscripted. There are moments where you not only can’t predict the future, you sometimes think there might not be one to get excited about. My friends’ news didn’t leave me wanting something different for them, just for me to join them in the same headlines.

The self-pub lifestyle is a lot like being single: in order to survive it, you gotta build your own tribe. Just as I left these celebrations and got back on and made plans with friends, today I have to hire editors, graphic designers, filmmakers, book formatters, and web designers so I can publish a book. In the same way I couldn’t magically expect a social life to appear, I can’t expect a book to be born on its own. I can’t feel sorry for myself if sales don’t happen; I need to regroup, strategize, and keep working.

I never would have predicted that three years after the wedding and the baby shower, I’d be married at 37 in a boots-and-jeans wedding12wedding with a pig-pickin’ to follow. I couldn’t imagine that my beloved friends would suffer sorrows I’ve never had to bear. During that week of celebration, I could have told you they had a better deal than me, with a case of grass-is-greener kind of sadness. I can tell you now, I was foolish to focus on what I didn’t have and believe others had their happiness set.

My friend’s good news meets me wiser today than I was in 2002, when I believed there was a timing and momentum in life that I must follow or else I was somehow less than. My friend’s great news assures me there is justice and reward for some who keep trying at the traditional route, and that good stuff does indeed make it into print.  My friend’s amazing news gives me hope that legacy publishing might be a route for me to someday try again, that perhaps could get me the agent who is that awesome advocate, brilliant negotiator, and savvy adviser. This event in someone else’s life reminds me to stay my current course with persistence and integrity, check my gut when necessary, and never say never to self-pub or traditional success.

I trust in the rightness of what is right now. The joy I have for my friend mirrors the joy I feel when I open the file to my manuscript in process. Isn’t this fun, my whole body says. For in this moment, I get to write.




Query Me This

“Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It’s the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It’s that important, so don’t mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write.”

— Nicholas Sparks

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 261,363. 466 words gone.

Page Count for the Novel: 928 (I had chapters beginning on separate pages, and I want to see what the true page count is, not including pages with only one line on them.)

When is a writer ready to query? It’s both an intuitive and a logistical decision, a balancing of your mind and heart’s call, that gut feeling, against the reality of those picked-at pages. In what I would call my serious sixth year of writing this novel and in my third draft, I write query letters as a way to focus my goals for my novel. I am not far from sending one off, as I’m on draft #8 of one particular query letter. Researching my potential future agents and editors as been a way to stay motivated and keep myself on track.

On Saturday, October 25, The Raleigh Write 2 Publish Meetup Group held a Q & A session with Charlotte agent Sally Hill McMillan (literary fiction, women’s, inspirational, nonfiction) and editor Chuck Adams of Algonquin (Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants one of his well-known books). Here’s what I learned:

About the business: the publishing industry does not employ a diverse group of people, therefore what gets published is limited by the perspective of those running the business. The profession pays poorly, so the people who are drawn to it tend to be northeastern, white, prep school graduates with families that can afford to work in publishing. A gifted Latino coming out of college with student loans can’t get very far on the salaries paid in publishing.

Algonquin – owned by Workman – is a New York publisher. The Chapel Hill office is a “façade,” he jokes. Algonquin doesn’t take on any book that it doesn’t believe couldn’t sell 50,000 copies. An acquisitions editor has to ask, Does this book have a broad enough readership? Most first novels sell less than 5,000 copies. Why? Publishers don’t have advertising budgets to push these books further.

About an editor’s role: Chuck Adams said he has a knack for trying to keep people calm, which helps in the process of reworking a novel. He says he’s a line editor –dogged, chipping away word by word — but not a conceptual thinker when it comes to solving plot problems and getting past blocks. Some editors are great for that. He joked that some acquisitions editors are not good line editors, but they give good lunch. He approaches everything as a reader. When something in the manuscript makes him stop – a word, an action – he makes a mark. The really good authors listen to what he says but not everything. Half the time he’s right, and half the time he’s wrong. An author needs to speak up when she’s sure that her character wouldn’t take the suggested action or speak a certain way. He says that as an editor you’re there to guide and facilitate, but it’s not your manuscript. Your name doesn’t get put on the book.

Adams noted that today there is too much emphasis on a manuscript coming in perfect. Big houses such as Bantam don’t give a manuscript detailed attention, since houses can’t afford to hire line editors for four months. More and more authors rely on agents or free lance editors for that kind of help. McMillan suggested that if you use an editor before submitting to her, don’t let her know: she wants to see what you can do without an editor. She’s looking toward your future as someone capable of multiple publications, not someone whose work needs serious book-doctoring every time. (I’ve learned firsthand the perils of handing your baby over to an ill-qualified book doctor with little to tell me and much to charge me.)

About the role of an agent: McMillan says that a good agent works like the diplomatic middle child, the moderator between publisher and author. She asks, What can I do to make this relationship smooth? McMillan says she tries to stay in the loop of what’s happening in the book’s production. If her client gets into an adversarial relationship with the publisher, it has an effect on her. So an agent needs to bring the skills of problem solving, intuiting, and question asking to the relationship. Her answer came in response to, “How do you balance the relationship between author and publisher?” – and this might be a good one to ask when interviewing agents.

About your manuscript: Both McMillan and Adams say they take notice if voice and energy are present. For McMillan, it could be a quirkiness, a unique voice still bearing a universality that speaks to her. As she reads, she’s asking, Can I identify with this main character in the first few pages? She said that as a reader she wants to be compelled to read till very end—not just the first 50-60 pages. She wants to think, “I love this character and I want her to work these problems out.”

Adams’s question while reading is, Is this is a big enough story that will make me enjoy myself the whole trip? He says he doesn’t finish the great majority of manuscripts because by page 30 they run out of steam. He’s looking for raw talent and doesn’t mind the kind of errors that are “fixable.” He loves to work with first-time authors. He says he loves his job because it’s like “falling in love” again and again when you discover that great new manuscript.

Both mentioned poor grammar and mechanics (occurring at a rate of increasing frequency nowadays) as big red flags. Such errors usually give away the age of the author, Adams says, but more importantly, speak to the lack of care invested in a manuscript.

About querying: Adams does look at slush e-mail as does McMillan, but don’t expect an answer. He shepherds about five books a year, while Algonquin as a whole juggles about 20. Therefore his usual response must be a “no.” Algonquin is a publisher that still accepts unsolicited manuscripts, and you can expect your manuscript to be read by an intern (the majority are UNC-Chapel Hill students.) Adams does open all the mail he receives and then hands it off to various interns.

About the writer as client: McMillan hopes that all her clients will be good listeners who are coachable and teachable. She says her dream client wants to work with her. For nonfiction especially, the writer who brings a platform (the number of potential readers awaiting the book) is ideal. If you can use a blog or Web site to build a base, that’s an excellent way to build your platform. Endorsements in a query letter might catch her eye, lending your unknown name some credibility.

About self-publishing: It’s something to consider for those who have a niche market, such as nonfiction writers. Adams says he has heard that and iUniverse both do a good job getting your book built. Lulu is currently establishing a headquarters on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. However, self-publishing means you’re on your own, and a publishing house will edit and market better.

I spoke with Adams after the session and asked him about the fact that my book is somewhere between two genres, a hybrid beast. He mentioned a few publishers that might suit and then said that it’s hard when you’re forging a new path – you’re out there on your own trying to communicate where you fit and what you have to offer.

As I’ve polished the most recent query letter, I’ve used a very helpful resource, Noah Lukeman’s How to Write a Great Query Letter. It provides specific guidelines about how to stay concise (a three-sentence plot synopsis), how to focus each paragraph, and how to keep your audience clearly in mind. He also points out several pitfalls you definitely want to avoid. My queries have improved tremendously from consulting this resource.

Today’s Writing Goal:
Work through a block where two plot lines cross and make sure they link up smoothly.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: The Big Questions

We all have questions that no one seems to know the answer to. What questions do you wish someone would answer? What questions are really exciting to you? What questions keep you up at night? What questions would you like to ask but are too afraid to ask?

Think of someone whom you believe knows a lot. Think of a question you would like to ask that person.

Write a list of ten big questions you have. Then write about how you would find the answer to one of them. Who would you need to talk to? Where might you go to find out? What else would you need to do?

Optional: Write a letter to someone who can help you answer this question.

Secondary and Adult: The Big Questions

There are many types of questions that excite us or keep us up at night or haunt us during our days. Factual questions are those ones that will eventually yield a yes/no or data-based answer – and it may be just a matter of time to get there. Analytical and evaluative questions result in more open-ended answers and require more critical thinking.

Analytical and evaluative questions can begin with words such as how, could, what if, and should. Write ten open-ended questions that get you thinking hard.

Select one and answer it. Answer it by listing what you already know, what you want to know, and how you will find the answer.

Optional: Write a query letter to someone who can help you answer this question.