Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tangerine Mimosas

The Christmas Eve candlelit service has turned out to be a moment of reflection and even raw emotion for me—which, if you knew me, is strange on about six levels. There’s usually so much activity leading up to the service that the service itself seems like a quiet pause, a long and slow exhalation before plunging back in again and actually “doing Christmas.”

Last year, it was during this service that I suddenly, forcefully became convinced that the book I had been revising for more than a year was going down to defeat. It was awful.

This year was different …

This past year has brought both good and bad. I was right about that book. It was rejected. Seven or eight months later, another one was rejected after another aggressive rewrite letter. So in all, the books I’ve spent three years working on were both shelved this year. And after several years of working with a very wonderful human being of an agent, I am agentless again.

Yet the year was much less than a total loss. My business rebounded strongly, so while I know many people who are struggling and many others who are worried, we cruised to the end of the year rapidly paying down debt, with money in savings, and we were able to provide a worry-free Christmas. I also started doing TV segments this year, which was a huge challenge for a guy who hates cameras, and I’ve been surprised by how much fun it is. I actually like doing TV, and I find myself looking forward to it. And, of course, my kids are healthy and happy, my marriage is strong, and my family is well.

After the service, after wrapping presents, my wife and I sat up and talked about the year that had just gone past. I realized that my attitude toward writing has changed a lot. This year has taught me that, truly, the journey itself can be rewarding, even in the worst moments. I went into this year putting so much pressure on myself to sell, and there were many nights I couldn’t sleep. When the books didn’t sell, I had to deal with the inevitable ugly questions: Should I quit? Am I just not very good after all? Why had I failed?

But one thing I’ve come to realize is that I didn’t fail. I just got very close to selling two books that ultimately didn’t sell. And I learned, too, that I am a writer through and through, that there’s no way I could stop writing because, well, I just like it an awful lot. So when my next project is done, I’ll query it and just move onto the next project. I’m freer than I was before, and even though I would have preferred to sell the books, I’m back to a place where I am writing simply for the pleasure of it. That’s not a bad thing.

And that brings me to the title of this post: tangerine mimosas. On Christmas morning, we woke up and opened presidents and then had tangerine mimosas. The tangerine juice was fresh-squeezed, naturally, and it was a wonderful way to wind down as we watched the kids enjoy their presents. Then after a bit, I went outside to harvest vegetables for dinner. Our meal this year included tomatoes, broccoli and herbs from our own garden. This trek outside has become familiar. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been making nightly trips to my herb garden to collect fresh thyme, oregano, basil, cilantro, chives, basil, or rosemary.

I find something ridiculously extravagant about throwing handfuls of fresh herbs in all of our meals, about cooking with fresh, organic ingredients I grew myself. So it’s funny. In a year in which I experienced the worst professional rejection I’ve ever experienced, I am ending the year feeling rich (although we’re obviously not) and enriched, fortunate and humbled and privileged beyond all measure.

I don’t know what the next year will bring, but I have my hopes and goals. Books are included in there, but not at the top. This year, I think my greatest hope to is that I remain open to the extravagances of life that can’t be bought, but must be earned.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Here We Are, December 23

I think I should do an end-of-the-year post sometime soon ... And maybe I will. But for today, I feel like the only person in the only world who's working and I have this song on repeat:

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Where the Boys Aren't

My rant for the day ...

You know what exhausts me? Publishing trends and the people who say to ignore them. Because you know who doesn't ignore trends? Agents and acquiring editors.

OK. Let me back up a little bit. I'm working on MG books that are basically aimed at boys. I figured these would be sellable, right? I mean, look at the proven success of series like Lightning Thief, Artemis Fowl, Eragon, Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, and the Inkheart books. There is a market there, and when a series does well, it can break out with HUGE sales.

But it turns out this is a harder market to crack than I figured—and I have a theory why.

First off, the MG/YA publishing industry right now is just completely enamored of first-person teen romances. I get it. Stephanie Meyers sold a lot of books. If you look at the books right now going at auction, they are more often than not first-person teen romances. These books are squarely aimed at girls. They are, in fact, frequently despised by boys.

Second, publishing at this level is run by women. I've been agent and editor shopping now for a few years, and I've had lots of contact with both. In all that time, I've dealt with two or three men total. Everyone else is female. Now please don't misunderstand me: I love females. I married one. My mother is female, as are my sisters and even my dog. I strongly suspect that my childhood pet iguana was female. But I think it's fair to observe that women look for different things in books than men do, and naturally, boys look for different things in books than girls do. I've gotten a lot of feedback from high-up editors and agents, basically saying, "This book needs more emotion, more heart." But see, here's the thing: I know a lot of boys, and I don't know ANY who are clamoring for more "emotion" in their entertainment. Most of them are hoping their parents will relax and allow them to watch movies/play games/buy books in which shit blows up.

But what about all those books I mentioned in the beginning of this post? Didn't they get bought? Didn't the industry recognize this large boyish audience?

Well, no. Of all those series I mentioned, only two were purchased traditionally in the United States (and both were written by authors with previous publication histories). Three were first published overseas and only brought here AFTER they had a track record of success. And one was self-published first.

It's not hard to look at the situation and conclude that MG/YA publishing is delicately, subtly and probably unwittingly tilted against young boy readers. I'm not saying I don't need to continue growing as a writer—I do—and I can't pretend to read the vast feminine hive-mind that currently rules children's publishing, but I think I can fairly be frustrated by it.

Several times now, I've had agents or editors say, "I'm actively looking for boy books! I really want to build my boy list!" But I secretly wonder if they really mean it. I think there's never been a less fashionable time to be a boy than right now. Boys are falling behind in virtually every measure of academia, and schools are even taking away recess and gym—the very things boys need to discharge some of that animal energy. I know the struggle for equal rights is ongoing, and I know there's a lot of progress yet to be made, but I worry that some of this future progress will come at the expense of a whole generation of loud, frequently smelly, sticky-handed and woolly headed little boys.

Being Ready

I should be writing at this very moment—I'm under ten horrid deadlines today—but I just finished one project and I'm moving to another, so I needed a break from writing ... by writing. Go figure.

I want to talk about being ready. I'm not sure I understood what it meant to "be ready" until fairly recently. I'm an impatient guy—I've been known to query novels that aren't even close to finished yet. So in all this hustling and bustling, I never really stopped to ask myself if I was ready to go out into the world, just me and my little books, and go find a publisher. It seemed like a stupid question. Duh. Of course I was ready ...

But being ready as a person—impatient, driven, anxious, hopeful—is a very different thing than being ready as a writer. And I'm afraid somewhere along the way, I confused the two. I was awful close, perhaps, but if I'm being super-honest (which is easier said than done sometimes), I think I started to know about a year ago, maybe two, that I was almost there, but not quite. There were still things needing attention in my books.

This is a hard thing to accept, and I totally respect those writers who say, "I'm working at it, but I'm not ready to send out this book yet." Or, "I'm not going to send out this book at all. It's my practice book."

So I'm working on a book now—and this is a struggle—but every time I start to think about whether or not I can sell this book, I snip that thought like an evil little weed. Every time I start to wonder if it's pitched at the right age group, at the right length, if it's funny enough or deep enough, or whatever, I stop. Those are the thoughts of a writer who is distracted by the market, by the dream, not the thoughts of a writer who is only focused on the book.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Howdy ... and Morning

Monday was the first Monday of the month ... the date I normally post a prompt for the Storytellers. Lately, I'll admit it: life has taken over my blogging. My "free" time is very limited, and every time I open a file to write a blog entry, I think, "I'd rather be working on my book," so I switch over. My plan is to be done with this manuscript by Spring, so I better get moving.

In any event, I've got some pretty funny Christmas pictures for possible prompts (thanks, E. Flanigan). What do you think? Is anyone in this month, or should we reconvene after the holidays?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Query Update ...

I'm querying a novel again, and you know, it's actually kind of fun. Well, except for the rejection part. That's not very fun. But it's not that bad. Here it is, by the numbers, so far:

52 queries sent
14 rejections based on the query alone
8 requests for partials or fulls
4 rejections of partials or fulls

I can only assume that some agents have already rejected the query, but just didn't respond. I hear that's a thing now, so the number of query rejections is most likely higher than that.

What do I make of all this?

First off, my query letter must be pretty good. Eight requests for partials or fulls is pretty good. And these are some very successful and large agencies in my genre. So I have no complaints there.

Second, this is a numbers game. I think it helps to keep that in perspective. There's no sense in getting tied up emotionally (if you can help it). Just send out as many as you can, and try to forget it. The Internet is an amazing resource for finding dozens of agents who represent any kind of book. I used, blasted out my queries in a three-day period, and that was it.

Finally, the rejections of the partials and fulls have been interesting. This book was originally rejected by a major publisher for lack of character development. The agent rejections have ranged from a simple "Thanks for letting me read it, but I'm passing" to more involved letters. I've heard "I just didn't connect with the character;" "The plot line doesn't feel fresh and contemporary;" and "I didn't find the writing very compelling." Ultimately, they all included some line about publishing being a subjective business and they hope I find representation elsewhere. Two have explicitly invited me to send my next project.

Which brings me to my point. I don't really have a feel for whether this book will sell or not. But I'm already deeply involved in the next project, so I'm not as emotionally invested in young Murph and his search for the toy maker. If he goes onto greater things, wonderful. If he doesn't, well, I have high hopes for Flynn ...

So speaking as someone who's deep in the query process, here's my single best of advice: ignore the process as much as possible and start on your next project ... I think the best thing you can do to make querying easier is to try to forget it's even happening.