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.

 

Writing

Bobby the Crayfish

A little background on this story:

A few years ago, Ben’s teacher requested that some of the kids in his class try to catch a crayfish at home and bring it to school. They wanted to feed and observe a few crayfish as a science project for that marking period. Since Ben takes all assignments very seriously, he insisted that his grandfather take him to the creek to find a crayfish.

After a few hours (or minutes that felt like hours) of searching, they located one under a rock. Ben named him Bobby. Two months later, while still in the throes of grief, he wrote and illustrated the story of Bobby’s life.

Below you will find that yet-unpublished story . . . along with my own editorial critiques.

After all, every book needs an editor.

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Be careful when claiming your book is “based on a real story” in an effort to raise the stakes for the reader. Sure, they will be more invested in the book, but if your reader finds out that you lied to them, they’re going to feel cheated and they’ll probably leave you a bad Amazon review. I can verify, however, that BOBBY is a true story. He lived. He existed. And this little crayfish deserves to have his story told. 
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Your protagonist should enter the story early, preferably in the first chapter. Since he is introduced on the first page–and since his name IS the title–we can safely assume that Bobby is the protagonist of this story. He’s the guy we’re supposed to identify with. He’s the hero. The one we’re rooting for. I also love how the book begins with an action sequence that grabs the reader right from the start. Go Bobby!
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I know what you’re thinking: Ben added that massive snake for dramatic effect, right? While it’s true that all good writers add unexpected elements to their stories in order to create more tension, the truth is that there ARE snakes living in that storage room and one almost certainly tried (unsuccessfully) to eat Bobby at some point during the night. Excellent tension-building!
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This scene could use a little more description from Bobby’s point-of-view. We know about the rocks and the cave but what about the other crayfish? Do they welcome Bobby with open chelipeds or is he treated as an outsider? What about the classroom? How many students does Bobby see? What does the room look like? What does it smell like to Bobby? Eh, never mind. It’s an elementary school classroom . . . use your imagination.
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Bobby could use a little more character development. We’re following his story, but why should we care about Bobby? He’s just a crayfish, after all. Tell us more about him. Sure, we know he likes to hide under rocks and eat moss and vegetables, but who is Bobby, really? What are his hopes? His dreams? What motivates him? What scares him? (Aside from those terrifying faces staring down at him).
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Wow! This story takes an unexpected turn for the worse with the sudden loss of our protagonist! In this scene, we also see Ben’s dad emerge as the antagonist. Although it’s not bad as written, I feel like this ending could use a final twist. What if the reader learns that it was actually Ben’s mom who made the fatal mistake of not realizing that Bobby’s container had no air holes and was only intended for transport to-and-from school as opposed to overnight housing? And what if, in a blatant display of cowardice, she allows Ben’s dad to take the blame instead of owning up to her mistake? What if she becomes the real antagonist of this story? 
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The story wraps up with a fitting final scene where Bobby’s body is returned to the precise spot in the creek from whence it came. This scene could’ve been fleshed out a little more. Was a funeral service held for Bobby? (Yes) Were prayers said? (Yes) Were tears shed? (Yes) However, the best part of this scene is the chilling final line: “Ben was sad, but he had to remember, ‘Bobby would have been eaten, if they hadn’t taken him.'” Although it sounds like something a guilt-ridden mother would tell her kid, it really leaves the reader pondering the fleeting nature of life and the certainty of death.
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Overall, not a bad first draft but it could use some work. This blog post is, of course, dedicated to the memory of Bobby the Crayfish. 

 

Uncategorized

An Interview with Ben

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Hi, Ben. Thanks for agreeing to this interview.

Sure. Anything I can do to make you a star.

You’re in 6th grade now. How is Middle School going? 

Well, let’s just say that there’s an awful lot of monkey business and shenanigans. It’s kind of hard to take. Sometimes you just wish that you could lock yourself in your locker to get away for a little bit. Or suffocate. Oh and my friends are always talking about what they watch on YouTube. That’s about it.

Tell me about the cafeteria.

It’s a quaint room where everyone stuffs their faces.

What about your table? What’s that like?

My table is right next to the trash can, but don’t judge me. I sit with a bunch of people who like to tell stories about how their cats poop on their beds.

That happens to more than one of your friends?

Yes.

What’s your earliest childhood memory?

When I was a wee lad in Kindergarten, I found out that my brothers—who would torment me for years to come—were being born.

What irritates you the most?

All three of my little siblings. That includes my two human brothers as well as my canine sister, Lovey. Especially when she steals my gloves when it’s twenty degrees outside.

What makes you the happiest?

When I go to church and everyone asks me questions about the Bible and they’re impressed that I know so much and I finally get the respect that I deserve.

What do you think about sleepovers?

They’re exhausting.

Whose your favorite superhero?

Spiderman.

Why?
Because he can shoot webs from his fingers and crawl into a vortex that turns him black.

Who is your favorite parent?

We don’t play favorites.

Who is your favorite brother?

Is it okay if I say George-slash-Sam? Because they’re basically one egg that split into two. Even though Sam would probably say that George is his favorite brother.

How did you feel when you found out that I set up my own author’s webpage? 

I was horrified. And I felt, at that moment, that I needed my own webpage.

Why do you need a webpage?

Because with all of my drawings and all of the books I’ve written, it doesn’t make sense that my mother should get a webpage before me.

Do you see yourself as more talented than me? Be honest. 

Well, let’s think about this. I don’t ever recall you drawing anything. Or ever making up a cool photo animation on the computer. So it doesn’t make sense that you should be more famous than me.

Don’t worry, I will never be more famous than you, Ben. Is there anything else you want to say to your millions of adoring fans? 

‘Sup, everybody. If you’re asking, I’ve got a Christmas list already written out.