books, reading, Uncategorized, Writing

God Knocked Me Off My High Horse: My Long (and Rocky) Publishing Journey

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When I finished my first novel in 2012, I sent the manuscript to a professional editor who also coordinated a yearly writer’s conference that I planned on attending. After she completed her initial read-through of the book, she emailed me back and said, “Wow! You’ve kept me up turning pages (well, scrolling through pages on my laptop). Honestly, you are an AMAZING writer. This is going to be a best-seller, and I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that. I think any of the agents coming to the conference would snatch this right up.”

As you can imagine, I spent the next few days walking on air, imagining book tours and evenings spent sipping whiskey with fellow authors, and pondering which actors would star in the movie version of my novel. Sidenote: At the time, I imagined Chris Pine as Nick and Claire Danes as Kate. Now, I see Colin O’Donoghue as Nick (without the Irish accent, of course) and Jennifer Morrison as Kate, but that could have something to do with my obsession with the television show, Once Upon a Time.

Anyway, back to my big break. A star is born . . . and all that.

So, a month after receiving the glowing email from my editor, I attended the above-mentioned writer’s conference. On the first day, I walked onto the building with my nose in the air, feeling very much above the fray. I mean, did these people even realize how lucky they were to have a chance with me? The only question in my mind was which agent would most effectively woo me with promises of large advances, royalties, and movie deals. I literally thought, “Which agent’s life am I about to change?”

Fast-forward to my first pitch appointment. These appointments are when you sit down with an agent or an acquisitions editor for a publishing house and “pitch” your project. It’s your opportunity to sell your manuscript (but mostly yourself) to them. So, I sauntered into the room, pushing past other lesser authors, and took my seat across the table from the first agent I’d ever met, hereafter referred to as The Meanest Agent who Ever Lived.

After introducing myself, I launched into my well-rehearsed pitch, practically giddy with excitement as I wowed her with my description of the next great American novel, Pleasant Mills. 

So, what did The Meanest Agent who Ever Lived think of my pitch?

(Yawning) “So, what’s the deal with the title? Pleasant Mills? It sounds like a happy book about a happy town. I thought you said this was scary. You really need to change the title.”

“Umm . . . (another yawn), so, I’m seeing a lot of passive voice on the first few pages. Like, a ridiculous amount. You really need to fix that.”

(Sliding my manuscript back to me with the tips of her fingers, as if afraid she might catch something from it) “So, do you have any other books? Or are you just another one-hit wonder? You really need to write more books before pitching anything at a conference.”

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Ugh.

Thankfully, these appointments only last fifteen minutes. I took my beating from The Meanest Agent who Ever Lived with my eyes on the clock. As soon as she finished shredding me with her claws, I slid my manuscript back into my bag, tucked my tail firmly between my legs, and ran to the ladies room where I literally sobbed in a bathroom stall until it was time to redo my makeup for my next appointment.

For the record, she was by far the meanest agent I’ve ever pitched to. I’ve pitched to dozens of industry professionals since that day, and none of them acted like her. The rest were all very nice people. Most of them listened politely and made a few suggestions. Then they either explained that the project wasn’t right for them, or they handed me their business card and said they would be interested in taking another look at it after I changed X, Y, and Z.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my very first appointment at my very first writer’s conference went so horribly. I believe God saw me sitting atop my high horse, and He used The Meanest Agent who Ever Lived to knock me back into the mud where I belonged.

And, because of her, I changed the title from Pleasant Mills to Stoker’s Mill, which I think we can all agree is a much creepier title.

I’ve grown personally and spiritually since that day. My writing has evolved. I’ve become a voracious reader (which has made me a much better writer) and I’ve devoted myself to mastering the craft. In an effort to build my online “platform,” I’ve established social media pages and Bookstagram accounts. And, yes, I’ll admit that my intent initially was to gain followers who might eventually purchase my book. But this is another way God has opened my eyes and changed me. These “followers” I’ve worked so hard for aren’t just numbers and potential customers. They are real people–and they have become my friends. God used my own selfishness to introduce me to wonderful community of fellow bookish people who love to read and help authors succeed.  And through these amazing people, I’ve discovered tools that will enable me to better market my book in the future.

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So, where do I go from here? Well, back in January, I sent a fiction proposal for my new manuscript, Subversive, to a wonderful agent who has been so helpful to me over the past six years. He passed on Stoker’s Mill back in 2013 but told me my writing was strong and that I should keep him in mind for future projects. Back in June, he passed on Subversive, explaining that he’s having more success right now in the nonfiction market. He suggested that I run it past one of the other agents in his office, because she focuses more on edgy fiction. However, she passed because it’s a dystopian novel, and she doesn’t represent dystopian fiction. Yet another rejection to add to my ever-growing pile. On the same day I got her rejection, I sent my proposal to a publishing house that focuses on speculative fiction, but I haven’t heard back from them yet.

So, as I await the fate of Subversive, I decided to pull Stoker’s Mill out of my drawer, dust it off, and move forward with self-publishing. Why? Well, initially, it felt like self-publishing was admitting defeat. After all, if I can’t land an agent or a publisher, doesn’t that mean I suck as a writer? Shouldn’t that be a clue that it’s time to throw in the towel? But I don’t have it in me to do anything else. Writing was my first love. Aside from reading, it’s the only thing I’ve done consistently since I was a child. So, I’m going to self-publish but I’m going to do it the right way. I’m hiring a content editor to make sure it’s perfect. I’m sending it out to beta readers prior to publication (ANY VOLUNTEERS?). I’m working with a graphic designer on the cover. It will be another long process but I’m going to make sure the finished product looks professional.

This book will be as successful–or unsuccessful–as God wants it to be. And I’m okay with that. Because this is a journey, and I’m a lot closer to the finish line than I was seven years ago. 

There’s a scene in the movie, Walk the Line, where a then-unknown Johnny Cash and his band are pitching their songs to a record producer. After they finish playing their first (unoriginal) song, the bored-looking producer says the following:

“If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had one time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”

That scene really spoke to me, because that’s exactly what I hope to do.

Write the kind of book that truly saves people.

 

books, reading, Uncategorized, Writing

My 10 Favorite Reads (Fiction)

Yes. It was hard to pick only ten books. How did I choose? Well, I almost never read a book more than once because life is too short. There are so many awesome authors/books out there that it’s silly to waste time reading anything more than once. However, the stories listed below are unique in that the characters didn’t vanish from my mind the moment I put the book down (like so many others do). These characters and their stories stuck with me, their author’s inspire my own writing, and I hope to one day write something that makes people feel the way these books made me feel.

Here are the books I love enough to read again . . and again . . . and again.

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1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: In 2045, the world is a bleak place. Wade Watts, the book’s teenage protagonist, spends the majority of his time in the OASIS, a virtual reality simulation. Wade uses his extensive knowledge of 80’s pop culture to search for an Easter egg hidden somewhere within the OASIS by the game’s designer shortly before his death. The first player to find the egg wins full control of the OASIS. Yon’t have to be a gamer to love this book. Superb writing, a protagonist you can root for, and a unique story that hasn’t been done before. As an added bonus, if you grew up in the 80’s, you’ll love all the pop culture, video game, and movie references!

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2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King: With the possible exception of The Stand, this is King’s best, most ambitious work. It’s certainly his best novel in recent memory. Jake, a high school English teacher in Maine, accesses a portal in the storeroom of a greasy spoon that instantly transports him back to a sunny day in 1958. Once he discovers the portal, he resolves to stop the Kennedy assassination. There’s so much history in this book, and King obviously spent a great deal of time researching Lee Harvey Oswald and making him a central character and the antagonist of the story. Jake’s love for a fellow teacher, Sadie, adds a whole other element to the story. This is a book I reread every few years. If you don’t like King because of his propensity toward horror, give this book a chance. You won’t regret it.

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3. Passage by Connie Willis: Joanna, a psychologist, partners with a neurologist to explain near-death experiences by using a psychoactive drug to replicate them. She goes under herself, and as she explores a little farther each time and sees more, her sense of dread increases. The author grows the tension in slow but effective ways, including beginning each chapter with the haunting final words of people like Joan of Arc and the captain of the Hindenburg.

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4. Summer of Night by Dan Simmons: “Something ancient and evil is stirring within the century-old walls of Old Central School and friends Mike, Dwayne, Dale, Harlen, and Kevin have to stop it before it destroys not only their last summer of childhood…but their lives.” Dan Simmons is an incredible writer. Whenever I read one of his books, I find my own writing improves. Yes, this book is Simmons’ version of Stephen King’s It and I *personally* think it’s a much better book. This book’s sequel, A Winter Haunting, is also amazing.

 

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5. The Martian by Andy Weir: Stranded on Mars, with no way of communicating with his crew or with Earth, Astronaut Mark Watney must figure out how to survive for a year (or more) on the desolate, inhospitable planet. This includes learning how to grow food in Martian soil (potatoes, potatoes, potatoes), make water without blowing himself up, and establish communications with Earth. Watney is a lovable science-nerd hero with a deep hatred for Disco music, which is, of course, the only music available to him on Mars. You feel as if you’re stranded right there with him, trying to figure things out, and holding your breath when something goes wrong. There’s tons of tension and suspense, some parts are laugh out loud funny, and you feel smarter when you’re finished reading it.

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6: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” Featuring one of the most haunting first lines ever written, The Lovely Bones is unlike any other book you’ll ever read. I discovered it for the first time in college, and I remember carrying it with me to class and devoting every spare minute to finishing it. Written from the perspective of a child watching from heaven as her family falls apart and her murderer remains free (and plans to murder again), Susie Salmon’s story manages to be terrible and tragic and beautiful, all at the same time.

 

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7. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.” Such a beautifully-written book. Morgenstern’s gift for poetic description shines through as she paints a vivid picture of the mysterious Le Cirque des Reves, and its assortment of unforgettable characters. And the fierce competition and love story between the two young magicians, Celia and Marco, is oh-so-swoonworthy.

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8. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes: Louisa Clark takes a job working as a helper for Will Trainer, a man left paralyzed from the neck down following an accident. At first, Will is a total jerk to Lou, but she refuses to abandon him to his own self-pity as so many others have, and they soon develop a bond. From her aversion to exercise to her bumblebee tights, Lou is as quirky and loveable a protagonist as they come. And despite his surly demeanor, it’s impossible not to fall in love with Will Traynor. To be fair, while I loved the book, I hated the ending. Absolutely hated it. I almost didn’t include this book in this list–even thought I knew it had earned a spot–solely because of the ending. But this book is proof that you don’t have to love the ending to appreciate a really good love story.

 

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9. The Princess Bride by William Goldman: The movie is a favorite of mine so it’s no surprise that it’s also one of my favorite books. In some ways, the book is even funnier than the movie, thanks mainly to the dozens of author’s notes and asides scattered throughout the chapters. (Ex. “There have only been 11 perfect complexions in all of India since accurate accounting began.”) The characters you love are all there–swashbuckling Westley, revenge-seeking Inigo, gentle giant Fezzik, and the princess bride herself, Buttercup–but these lovable characters are developed in a way a movie could never achieve. My final thoughts on the book? Wuv. True Wuv.

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10. Caraval by Stephanie Garber: “Remember, it’s only a game.” Sisters Scarlett and Tella receive a coveted invitation to participate in Caraval, a once-a-year magical performance put on by a mysterious man named Legend. However, as soon as they arrive at Caraval, Tella is kidnapped and Scarlett discovers that, to win the game, she must find her sister. This book has everything: magic, mystery, and romance. With its vivid descriptions and unforgettable characters, it reminds me a lot of The Night Circus. My favorite part? Scarlett’s magic dress. Because every girl needs a dress that automatically changes colors based on her moods.

 

Uncategorized, Writing

The Personal Side of Writing

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I found an excerpt today from a manuscript I wrote fourteen years ago. It was my first attempt at a novel . . . and I failed miserably. Originally, I had envisioned this book being a Dean Koontz-esque small-town alien invasion story. Not at all cliche, right? Well, not suprisingly, I never finished the book. The story simply fell apart in my mind, as stories sometimes do. The good ones stick; the bad ones collapse under their own weight. Although that’s usually for the best, I will always feel guilty for leaving this book unfinished. Not because I’m compelled to write the story, but because–as strange as it sounds–I feel as if I’ve abandoned my characters in a terrifying world from which they cannot escape. Even now, I imagine them running through the nightmarish town, with the alien-possessed townspeople in eternal pursuit, frantically banging on doors and begging for help that will never come.

Writers are a strange lot, aren’t we?

The excerpt above isn’t exceptional by any means. Among other problems, there’s too much passive voice and it doesn’t flow as well as it could. I’m still learning the craft of writing. When I think I’ve finally mastered it, I go to a writing workshop and discover yet another mistake I’ve been making. Then I revisit my manuscripts and search for that error. It’s a process and it takes time.

But as I sifted through the pages of this manuscript, the page above jumped out at me. Not because it’s particularly well-written but because I wrote it about the death of my grandfather. Even after all these years, the scene inspired an emotional reaction in me. I still remember writing it at my kitchen table in Alabama, and how that night in 1993 came rushing back to me in a flood of emotions and sensations. Foremost among these memories was the way my grandmother’s strength finally failed and she collapsed into the arms of her three sons. As I typed, I could even smell that night: a citrusy, antiseptic odor that I will forever associate with my dying grandfather.

There are differences, of course. Unlike the character in my story, I wasn’t actually there the night my grandfather passed away, but the scene in the book was the last time I ever saw him. And the Stevie Wonder song I quoted actually came on the radio as we drove to his funeral. To this day, that song makes me sad.

I believe this passage is the first time I opened myself up emotionally in an attempt to create real, believable characters who do real, believable things. Authors sometimes get so caught up in their stories that they make their characters do things people don’t do in real life. Some authors can get away with that (ex. Stephen King–he gets away with everything!) but most cannot. Good writing pulls from genuine, honest experiences in an effort to illicit an emotional reaction in the reader. I think the excerpt above is the first time I really tried to write something good.

My characters are all extensions of me–the good and the bad–and we’re forever bonded by our shared experiences. In the end, I suppose that’s the real reason I feel guilty for abandoning my characters in that awful town.

Maybe someday I’ll write them out of there.