A business revived; a passion reignited

Life was crazy when we made the decision to move from a Cincinnati suburb to rural and mountainous North Central Pennsylvania.
It got even crazier after we moved.
The older kids were nine and ten, and starting a new school for the first time.
We did our best to make it extra challenging.
We live in Pennsylvania, but we placed them in a neighboring New York State district. We pulled them away from the Museums Center, The Cincinnati Zoo, Kings Island and Newport on the Levee, relocating them to a place where the nearest mall was fifty miles away.
Then we gave them tiny rooms in a house with bats, a furnace that struggled and no air conditioning.
They needed me.
The twins were less bothered by such aspects of the move.
They loved the house, their rooms and the neighbors.
But they were three and, as adorable as they were, they were trouble.
They darted outside and in different directions whenever they got the chance. They used their fists, teeth and feet to relieve their frustrations with each other. They were impossible to discipline, yanking each other out of time-outs, tipping over high chairs when I tried confining them with the chair’s buckles, and screaming in unison when they didn’t get their way.
They were (and are) loving and good-natured, but they had caught the independence bug and they were on the move.
Constantly.
I’d left all my babysitters behind, so there was no one to take charge of the kids while I slipped away to Panera or Starbucks or a charming cafe to work on the next novel. In reality, there was no place to go anyway, no place with wifi, coffee and a corner table.
Only a deli that closed as night fell.
My husband did his best to help, but he was frequently on the road for work.
Something had to give.
That something was my online retail business, Exclusive Writer Gifts.
Financially, it was a minor blow, not even a scratch, really.
The business didn’t net much, probably because I didn’t advertise much. It was something I started, with my husband’s help and encouragement, out of love and kept fueling out of love. It helped me keep a foot in the grown-up world, and it distracted me from the sometimes-depressing realities of my quest for traditional publication.
Money was not the object (though it was, most definitely, appreciated).
But there was no room in the house anyway for the note cards designed by my sister-in-law and printed by my brother-in-law, or the mugs and pens I had made especially for the business by Cincinnati businesses, or the scale or boxes or biodegradable packing peanuts.
We packed it all away and trucked it to the storage unit and my mother-in-law’s barn, where we kept our overflow.
In time, the older kids adjusted and flourished, declaring they never wanted to go back, except maybe for a visit. They learned to appreciate their surroundings and their small-school atmosphere. They started to feel at ease in my husband’s hometown, where, they learned, they are related to more people than they can count.
Every year, the twins became easier and easier to handle. They started to grasp consequences and they became eager to please, an excellent combination. They also started school, which gave me more time for my writing.
But last year was the big year.
Last year, we realized a dream.
We built what will be our final house, a timber-frame hybrid with air conditioning, a new furnace and no bats. All the kids’ rooms are the same size: big enough. My husband and I each have an office and, we even have room for guests.
We no longer needed a storage unit or space in the barn, so we started moving the boxes we hadn’t opened in nearly five years.
Just before Christmas, my husband lugged a case of coffee mugs inside.
Then he brought the boxes and the note cards and the envelopes.
We dug more until we found the scale and everything else I had packed away, all the remnants of Exclusive Writer Gifts, and that was when it hit me. The craziness had evolved into calm. We had plenty of room in the house.
I could bring the business back to life.
So I did (Well, WE did. I couldn’t have done it without my techie husband who designs websites for fun, keeps inventory on Excel sheets, and creates templates for shipping labels, receipts and all sorts of other things.).
Exclusive Writer Gifts is reborn, and so is my enthusiasm.
My goal is to offer moderately priced gifts for writers that givers can’t get anywhere else, gifts writers can actually use and enjoy. I’ve started with a small inventory, but I plan to add another item or two each year.
I still won’t earn much.
Writers don’t earn much and, often, neither do the people who love them (many of whom happen to be writers themselves).
But that doesn’t worry me.
I have two novels under submission with publishers, another novel under review by my agent and a fourth entered into a contest. This writing and publishing thing is a game of patience, and sometimes we writers need a distraction beyond the next novel.
This, for me, is it.
I’m distracted, I’m excited and I’m having fun.

Traditional publishing and the gift of patience

A wise woman (my agent) once told me to have patience.
Publishing has changed, she said, and what once took four to six weeks can take months.
I admit.
I thought maybe that was a bit of an overstatement.
But here we are nearly seven months into the submissions process with two passes and four editors still undecided. Well, I say undecided. The reality is that as of last month, they still hadn’t read my manuscript. They are busy.
Busy.
Busy.
Busy.
I understand better than ever now the pull toward self-publishing. This age of electronics and technology should have made things easier, and it has in many ways. But it has also added new layers of complications to the publishing process.
Advances in technology have made it easier to bombard editors with manuscripts. In the old days (like less than a decade ago) agents had to be more selective because each manuscript cost money to print and mail. Not so anymore.
Editors and agents are reading manuscripts on their Kindles, their Nooks and their iPads.
They are easy to receive, easy to edit and easy to read.
The savings in paper, printing and shipping costs is undeniable.
For the planet, this is a good thing.
Yeah, for the planet!
But for editors, it means this:
Bigger slush piles.
Heavier workloads.
Higher expectations.
Slower turn-arounds.
And, unfortunately, that’s not so good for me.
I have options, and self-publishing is one them. But there’s a huge trade-off. Self-publishing has no gatekeepers, no one evaluating manuscripts pre-publication, helping readers decide how to spend their time and money. Successful self-publishers must have more than great books. They must also excel in business, especially in the realms of marketing and promotion, and they must be willing to make huge investments of time.
Um, that’s not me.
I don’t want to start at the base of the publishing mountain, pushing through all the other climbers and struggling to the top. I don’t mind a good promotional workout, but I’d like a lift, please. I’d like the lift to the midway point that comes with traditional publishing via the publisher’s credibility with booksellers, readers and reviewers.
I know.
There is a price.
I have to pay with patience.
So here I am, trying to forget the manuscripts that sit in those editors’ in-boxes, focusing instead on the novel I just finished, the one that will most certainly need revisions when beta readers pass it back to me.
Here I am, turning back to my first novel, which I shelved for a while, trying to pick up the pace in the first one hundred and twenty pages.
Here I am, thinking up characters, plots and settings for yet another novel.
Here I am re-thinking.
Maybe patience isn’t a “price,” but rather a gift. Without patience, I’d be out there promoting and marketing self-published novels while juggling my home life of four young kids and a traveling husband. I wouldn’t be writing, at least not as much.
Writing is what I love.
So the patience that is necessary for traditional publishing is allowing me to do what I love.
Hmm.
I guess that’s a pretty good trade-off.
I’ll take it.

How Daniel Abraham made me laugh: A Private Letter from Genre to Literature

Among the most difficult dilemmas I have faced since I began writing fiction is determining a genre for my first (unpublished) novel, Spring Melt.
Is it crime?
Is it historical?
Is it courtroom drama, women’s fiction, commercial, literary or commercial with a literary edge?
I have no clue.
Its complexity complicates the querying process.
Will agents be turned off by my mention of one genre and my dismissal of another?
Will publishers market it to the wrong audiences?
Oh, the stress …
So when I stumbled across this — A Private Letter from Genre to Literature by Daniel Abraham — today, it brought me great comic relief.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Just click on the paragraph below to access the full letter:

I saw you tonight. You were walking with your cabal from the university to the little bar across the street where the professors and graduate students fraternize. You were in the dark, plain clothes that you think of as elegant. I have always thought they made you look pale. I was at the newsstand. I think that you saw me, but pretended not to. I want to say it didn’t sting.

Hunting, hunting, hunting for my ticket to artistic freedom

I was so excited to sit down at my computer when all four kids started school this fall and write.
Just write.
It’s been six months since I’ve had regularly scheduled work hours and I had all kind of visions in my head of fully immersing myself in novel number three, taking running breaks whenever I suffered a bout of writer’s block, and maybe having a clean kitchen now and then.
Almost two weeks into the school year and I have yet to write more than a blog post.
I’ve gone running twice.
Dishes fill the sink.
It’s my own doing.
A few months ago, after the completion of my second novel, I amicably parted ways with my agent.
So now I am on my own again.
With my agent went the luxury of writing without a care.
I once again have to worry about the business of writing.
And I’m not happy about it.
The innocence that inspired me in the agent hunt the first time around is gone.
I no longer get giddy when I find an agent I want to query. I am well aware that the agent is receiving about 50 other queries on that same day and that my query might not get more than a glance, regardless of how hard I try to get that agent’s attention.
I no longer get my hopes up when I get a request for a full manuscript.
It’s affirming, but it’s just another step in the process.
A rejection is still more likely than a contract offer.
I no longer query any old agent with a web page.
I am pickier now, seeking only agents with proven sales records in my genre and carefully researching their reputations as human beings (No refection on my previous agent. He is a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor.). I want this agent to be my last agent.
I don’t ever want to go through this process again.
But I know I have to grin and bear this.
A good agent, in my opinion, is a godsend.
My fingers are itching to write, my mind is racing with plots and characters, but they will have to wait just a little bit longer.
The right agent will set me free.
Free to write.
And that freedom, I know, will be well worth it.

Like your agent

An author-friend signed with a big agency.
His agent sold his novel within two months.
To an indie press.
Now, this particular independent publisher has an excellent reputation. His novel might have ended up there eventually. But he will never know, and his is the story I tell most often when writers ask me for advice in searching for an agent.
From what I understand, this agent submitted the manuscript to several large houses at once. And the author’s novel was rejected by all of them.
His agent immediately argued that the same scenario would play out if they continued to submit to larger imprints. Why waste time? The author had misgivings. But his agent persuaded him that the indie presses were the best option, even though the novel was well-received by the big publishing houses.
It just was not what those particular editors were searching for.
He finally agreed.
Then along came novel number two.
The agent submitted the manuscript to only one publisher: the same independent press that published the first book. The author was thrilled because he has developed a good relationship with the folks at the indie press.
All is well.
But is it?
Was his agent really looking out for his best interests as a career novelist?
Or did he quickly realize that selling this novel would be hard work, and did he “sell him out” for the sake of a quick commission?
My own agent has been submitting my novel for four months. He is moving slowly, submitting only to editors he knows and respects. He has kept me informed, telling who has passed and why; who still has the manuscript; and who he will submit to next.
At the very least, I am confident that wherever my manuscript eventually lands, he will have found the best fit. I know that because I trust my agent and because, well, I like the guy.
That’s important.
You have to like and trust your agent.
So often, writers start the query process with the biggest agencies, believing that bigger is better. But people are people no matter where you go. The big agencies have great agents and lousy agents. The small agencies, or the loners, might take a great personal interest in their clients, or they might take on too much and “sell out” a few for a quick buck.
My point is this:
Lots of books and Web sites explain the mechanics of finding an agent.
But there are two things many will not tell you.
First, educate yourself. Know how the submission process should work and then talk to your potential agent about how he/she does things. If something doesn’t feel right or if she/he is too vague, trust your instincts.
Move on.
Second, sign with someone you like.
Why would you put your career in the hands of someone who rubs you the wrong way?
Your agent is your connection to the publishing world, your representative with the people who might buy your book. Your choice in agent is reflective of you and your work. Your agent doesn’t have to become your best buddy, but don’t selective a representative whose personality hasn’t even impressed you.
Sure there’s more:
Choose an agent who represents your genre, find someone who is well-established the literary world, who has continually represents the same clients (If all the agent’s other clients ditch him/her after the first book and find someone else, that’s not a good sign.)
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
There’s all that.
But there is so much to be said for intuition.
Go with your gut.

Waiting

The Waiting Place …
… for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

–Dr. Seuss: Oh, The Place You’ll Go!-

Including me.
And it’s killing me.
I thought the hardest part of this whole publishing thing would be finding an agent. So when I did, I figured I was relieved of the stress, that my agent would take that load off me and I would be free to pursue everything else.
But it doesn’t work that way.
I was naive.
I had no idea just how hard it is to wait.
Yes, I had to wait when I was sending out query letters to agents, but that was active waiting. I never knew when I checked my email whether I would find a rejection; or a request for a partial or full manuscript; or a request for my nonfiction proposal.
And, if I got a rejection, I didn’t let it get me down.
I just whipped off another query letter and prepared to wait again.
I’ll admit it; it was kind of fun.
It was even kind of exciting.
This is different.
Don’t get me wrong.
I appreciate being in this situation.
And I have a great agent who will do great things.
But, while he is submitting to publishers, I am simply doing everything I possibly can to distract myself. I’m trying not to get my hopes up every time the phones, trying not to check my email every ten minutes, trying not to imagine a whole bunch of editors saying, “Nah.”
I’m really trying.
I’ve written another chapter of my second novel. I’m working on a freelance piece. I’m tearing wallpaper off bathroom walls. I am concentrating on my four children and on making their summer a good one.
But it’s not enough because I still have time to think.
Think.
Think.
Think.
Sigh.

When kids are screaming and an editor calls

A fellow writer fretted loudly on an online forum the other day. She was a nervous wreck.
Her agent had just told her that an editor from a publishing house would be calling her within the next “few days.”
No specific day.
No set time.
Nothing.
She has children.
What should she do, she wondered, if the kids start acting up when the editor calls?
The tone of her post was apologetic, embarrassed, like she felt she should hide the fact of her motherhood from the editor and she didn’t know how. What she wanted, it seemed, was advice on how to pretend she is not something that she most definitely is.
But here’s the reality:
With the exception of John Grishman, Jodi Picoult, the “other” Lori Foster and a handful of other wildly successful authors, most writers either have day jobs or they are home taking care of children, writing on scraps of paper while cooking dinner, helping with homework or hiding in the bathroom.
Editors, if they are experienced and good at what they do, should know that. They should know that if they call unannounced, they are taking their chances. And the author should know that the editor knows he or she is taking a chance.
So why get the jitters?
Now, I have not had the good fortune of chatting with an editor from a publishing house just yet, but I have received important calls while caring for my four children. The older kids can usually be controlled with a stern look, but the twins, like most toddlers. tend to get in certain uncontrollable “moods.”
Sometimes, they want me to hand them the phone so they can say, “‘ello” about 50 times in a row. And they won’t let up. They follow me around, both of them together, tugging on my legs saying, “‘ello? Please?” and then screeching when I try to shoo them away.
Other times, they are in the fighting mood–cranky and tired, and tired of each other.
Still more often, they are in the “I want” mood. In this mood, they want something, I give it to them and then they want something else. It doesn’t end until either they nap, someone takes them outside or Diego comes on the TV.
So I’ve developed my own rules for handling such situations.
I start with a bribe–a movie, a Popsicle, a lollipop–artfully and quietly handed off or popped in the DVD player while still talking, uninterrupted, in an adult manner with the caller.
If that doesn’t work and I get the feeling that things will be okay if I just have a moment to get them under control, I ask the caller whether I can dial back in a few minutes. If he or she can’t agree to that, then why calling in the first place?
What’s two or three more minutes?
We could have killed that with awkward silence at some point in the conversation.
If I know it’s just going to be one of those days, I ask the person on the other end whether I can return the call at a later hour or on a later date, and I make arrangements for someone to help me with the kids.
Then, when I return the call, I hide in the garage or the basement.
I don’t mind chatting with the kids around if the caller doesn’t mind.
But there is one thing I will not do: I will not give into intimidation.
No call is important enough.
I have a passion for writing. I keep a notepad in the kitchen because I can’t help scribbling down my thoughts throughout the day. In fact, I wrote this post between 3 and 6 p.m. on an old steno pad and here I am typing it in at 12:39 a.m.
But my passion for my children is, and always will be, greater.

I have an agent!

My God, it finally happened.
I signed with an agent.
And he’s even a really nice guy.
Roger S. Williams of Publish or Perish Agency is new to the agent world, but he arrives with an impressive resume. He has worked in publishing for 30 years as a book seller and as a sales director at some of the big publishing houses.
He also represents his wife, Gina Cascone, who has sold 30 YA novels as a ghostwriter (more than 2.1 million copies), two memoirs (both published by Simon & Schuster) and more.
Writing must be in his genes. Not only did he marry a writer, but he is surrounded by relatives who are successful authors. They include two sisters, a niece and a brother-in-law, all of whom have published (or have contracts with) with major houses.
Mr. Williams comes from a different direction than most agents. He made his connections with editors by marketing and promoting the books they acquired, a big plus in my book. Lots of agents can sell books, but this guy knows how to market them. He knows, not only what editors want to buy, but what readers want to buy.
He’s also witty and honest.
Can’t beat that.
It’s still a long road.
He still has to persuade a publisher or two that my books are worth a few sheets of paper.
But at least I have a driver now.
I’m no longer sticking out my thumb on the publishing highway, scrutinizing every car that slows down as the driver studies me and we both try to decided whether it’s safe or wise to take a chance on each other.
And if I keep writing corny analogies like that, I’m going to make his job a whole lot harder.

The Great (Writers) Depression

It seems that this recession is quickly giving way to a great depression.
And I’m not sure how to stop it.
Today, a woman posted on a writing forum that she is giving up writing for good. Her husband is unsupportive, her kids are unsupportive, the rest of her family is unsupportive.
She might as well focus on scrubbing floors, she said.
A good friend who has spent the past 20 years working full time as a playwright, posted his laments recently on a social networking site. I was surprised. He always seemed to be doing so well.
But he doesn’t feel that way.
He’s bumming.
I went through my own slump last week. The querying process had me down. Way down, even though I’ve had plenty of requests recently for partials and proposals. It just seemed like I’d been working at this for so long and getting nowhere.
Thankfully, a virtual intervention on a writers forum was successful.
I am much more cheerful now.
I hadn’t noticed this much negativity in the writing world before.
Maybe I’d just never opened my eyes.
Maybe it’s because the adrenaline rush is wearing off, kind of like it did after my first marathon 16 years ago.
I ran that first marathon on a dare.
I couldn’t resist the challenge.
I had run only 25 miles a week prior to the race and my only long run was a 19-miler three weeks before. I was out with an injury for the two weeks before the race, so I didn’t get any running in then either.
Yet I ran it in 3 hours, 58 minutes.
I ran on pure ignorance.
Pure bliss.
Pure stupidity.
I ran the last two miles on legs of lead.
Blood soaked through my sneakers as I crossed the finish line.
I lost nine toenails over the next couple weeks because I’d worn cheap cotton socks and 5K running shoes.
I didn’t care.
Not then.
I was gleeful.
I was ready to run another.
Imagine my surprise when, a week later, I was too sore to run half a mile.
My toes were too sensitive for sneakers.
My knees were a mess.
That adrenaline rush was gone.
But something else happened. As the rush subsided, my eyes opened. I began investigating all the things I did wrong. I started looking for ways to do it right. I read books. I developed a training method. I bought new sneakers and socks with Coolmax.
I ran another marathon.
This time, I finished in 3 hours, 42 minutes.
So maybe this is a good thing, this loss of adrenaline.
Maybe I was so blissful and so ignorant when I began this querying process that I didn’t notice all the writers struggling surrounding me. I didn’t see how hard it could be, how disappointing sometimes. Maybe, I was doing it all wrong.
Maybe it’s better that my eyes are open now because I find myself focusing more, targeting the right agents, working on my platform, freelancing, submitting short stories, starting another novel.
I was doing okay before.
But maybe now I’ll do better.
Maybe that great depression is always there for all of us, always threatening. Maybe that threat is part of what keeps us alive and hopeful and motivated. Because I sure as heck don’t want to fall prey to it.
Nope.
Not going to do that.
I am going to work hard and work smarter.
And someday I might even run one last marathon.

Why self-publishing is not for me

Originally published Nov. 16, 2008

Even before I started querying literary agents, the queries came pouring in from friends and family.
Why go through all that?
Why not self publish?
Well, here is my answer:
I still have faith in the gatekeepers.
Self-publishing has its place.
Some people want full control of their written work. They want to retain all rights; They want to retain all profits. Other folks don’t have the time or the patience for agents. They see the flaws in the system and they are discouraged. And who can blame them? Some agents will toss manuscripts in the garbage for reasons as simple as margins that are too big or too small.Then there are the people who write only for limited and personal audiences. They write for themselves, their families and their friends. Retaining agents make no sense for them. It’s not worth the time or the effort.
But this is my career, or the career I want.
I want to be writing novels and non-fiction books when I am 80 and I want people to be confident when they go to a bookstore and pick up one of my books that it has passed certain tests—the tests of the industry.
The industry is not perfect, but agents and publishers do the best they can in a world in which paper prices are rising and the competition from electronic media is ever-increasing.
I have read some awesome self-published books and I have been saddened by the knowledge that those books will never reach their sales potential. That saddens me, not because the author is missing out of fame or fortune, but because I know so many others would enjoy reading those books as much as I have.
But those books will never get the distribution and exposure of an industry-published book.
I have also read some self-published novels that left me embarrassed for the author and wishing for a refund. Not only were they poorly written and poorly plotted, but they were riddled with errors.
That’s where the gatekeepers come in.
Sure, some lousy books slip through the gate. But 90 percent of the novels and non-fiction books that make it to the presses through non-vanity publishers are pretty darned good.
And yes, I’ve encounter some agents who were egotistical jerks. I even hung up on one. But 90 percent of the agents that I’ve queried or spoken with have given good, solid and well-intended advice along with their rejections. Some have rejected me with form letters, but the letters were constructively written and professional.
So I will plod on.
I will continue taping my favorite rejection letters to the wall above my desk. I will continue honing my novel, my query letter and my non-fiction proposal based on the constructive criticism of those agents who have nothing to gain by spending time addressing me individually, but who do so out of a passion for the industry.
I will continue to have faith in the gatekeepers.