Pitches & Rejections

I can’t believe it’s been so long since I posted. Spring Break has come and gone and we are almost done with the semester. I need to spend a little bit of time catching you all up.

Since my last post:

I pitched my novel during Carina Press’s Twitter pitch session and a very nice, very cool editor said she wanted to see it. AHHH! It was completely by surprise, as I just happened to go on Twitter after dinner and saw that there was about an hour left of the session. So, thinking WTH, why not? I wrote a quick tweet and took the dogs on a walk. Of course, I obsessively checked the updates while they checked the pee-mail other dogs had left them, and what do you know? An editor wanted to know more. I tried to remember how many words the thing had when I stopped writing and guessed around 90k (actually more like 115k!) And then she said she’d like to see it and would I please send it her way?

WOULD I? WOULD I? Of course I would. After I freaked out a little bit, I realized that although the novel was actually complete, I hadn’t done another revision since my beta readers got back to me. So, since I had 72 hours before it was due on Sunday at midnight, I spent the next 24 of those hours right here, at this computer and in this (quite hard, now that I think about it) chair, with an imaginary razor in hand and a vicious, take-no-prisoners mentality that allowed me to cut nearly 11K words. I also re-wrote a little bit. And then I sent it off, my heart in my mouth, biting back nausea and nerves. I went to bed and lay there, shocked at how hard I’d worked and what I’d actually done for the first time in my life.

Sadly, I just heard back a few days ago that although she liked the characters and the romance and the plot, there were some things she didn’t like and so she was going to pass. My first rejection. My first pitch and my first bite of interest, and now my first rejection.

I always thought I’d take rejection hard. That my poor skin would be flayed off and I’d want to disappear into a dark corner, pulling my shreds of dignity about me (I get a little dramatic sometimes). But this rejection hurt like peeling a Band-Aid off. There was an initial sting of disappointment and hurt, but then it was gone, and I could think clearly again. And I agreed with the editor. There are some very good things about my novel, but the flaw she pointed out should definitely be fixed. And it was couched in such nice things that the criticism was constructive and helpful. In addition, I learned so much about revising and improving my writing that this learning experience was priceless, no matter what happened. And, now I have great ideas for what I want to change in my next draft, as well as reinforcement that I’m not doing a terrible job.

I think it also helped that I had no real expectations of this. Sure, I was excited and pleased and wanted good things to come out of it. But it was all so spontaneous and quick that I hadn’t built up any true hopes or dreams that might come crashing down. It’s not like I’d researched agents and editors for weeks, carefully crafting a cover letter for days (of course, I did carefully craft it, but there was a deadline) and finally decided to try. It all happened in about thirty minutes, and then the manuscript was gone in three days. No time for anything. Besides, what kind of an asshole writer gets their first novel published after their very first pitch? I’m in it for the long haul!

So, what have I learned?

  • It never hurts to try
  • Revision is about re-learning
  • Rejection is about learning, too
  • Spontaneity can be helpful in keeping hopes in check
  • Having a supportive SO is so very lovely and appreciated.

Overlapping Lines

Damnation!

That is a favorite swear word of Regency rakes and frustrated lords across the romance world. And now I’m muttering it myself as I swill my scotch.

Why?

Because while I was listening to another excellent episode of Dear Bitches, Smart Authors podcast Sarah Wendell mentions a Lisa Kleypas novel. I’ve been intending to read Lisa Kleypas for a while, having heard good things about her and knowing she’s grouped with some of my favorite authors. But I haven’t read her yet. This fact will become important in a second.

Sarah was mentioning a sub-genre of the historical romance novel, if you will. American heiresses in need of a title. And a series that Lisa Kleypas has written with an American heiress named Lillian Bowman who finds herself married to Marcus, a peer in England. Maybe now you’ve figured out why I’m muttering “Damnation!” over my scotch?

Because my novel, my first, dear little novel, the one I broke my teeth on, and my head, and my heart over? It features an American heiress named Lillian Blythe in search of an English lord who falls for a man named Morgan. There’s even a love scene in the library in both. And a scene where the heroine is a trifle drunk (although not the same scene).

So what do I do? My ingenious little idea, and even my heroine’s name taken already! Of course, the idea isn’t worth much. I’m sure our stories are still quite different, even though the premise is similar. That’s not the problem. In fact, it might even be a selling point. Loved Lisa Kleypas’ novel about an American heiress and her English lord? Try Evelyn Isaacks!

No, my frustrated moment is that fact that the names are so similar, and even some of the plot. How is that even statistically possible?!

I guess I need another name that is as excellent as Lillian. Damnation!

Beta Readers and Research in First Drafts

Word Count: 505 

Music: Wilco, “Forget the Flowers” from Being There

I’ve gotten feedback from two of my beta readers and mostly they were positive. Hurrah! I cannot adequately express how much of a relief this was. I’d been having momentary bouts of panic a few times a day, questioning whether or not I was being foolish and am secretly a terrible writer. It’s strange. I don’t suffer from that fear while I’m actually writing. No. Then, it’s all “Wow! I am SOO good at this! I’m the best writer ever! Bow before my genius!” But as soon as I let myself become vulnerable by having others read it? I’m a quivering mess.

They’ll learn my secret, that this is just a pile of bones I call a romance novel. They’ll see that I know nothing about love and my own marriage is clearly a fluke, since I know nothing. They’ll see my sex scenes and giggle at the ridiculous notions of sex I have. They will not like the characters at all, and think they are boring. 

That is what I start thinking. But luckily, or just because I have very nice friends, they were mostly positive. Of course, I have things to fix, but overall they weren’t terrible. I can breath again.

And now I’m starting a new draft of a new novel. It’s another historical, only this time I’m jumping back two hundred years from my last one, and shifting the focus to French Canada. I don’t want to say too much, but I will say this: RESEARCH can be your best friend. I had some ideas for the conflict but nothing concrete and after researching a little more I’m starting to feel my way through the mire and actually figure out what these characters are deal thing with. Some people hate research. Some say that research bogs down their story telling. For me, research is what pads out my story, like the padding on a dressmaker’s form. The structure of a romance novel is what holds it up, but the research is what creates the final form. At least, that’s my metaphor for it this week.

I Finished My Draft!!

Yay! Yay! Yay!

Two things are going through my brain right now. First, I am so super excited to have finished the draft and to be able to say that I am done (for now) and let my brain rest for awhile. This draft was hard to finish, and I worked really long on it. I enjoyed it, but it was not easy. I do think that this draft is much better than the first one and am much more excited about it than the first draft, but it wasn’t butterscotch cupcakes and sunshine. Actually, today is, because that’s what I had for breakfast and it’s sunny as I type. I’m about to take the dogs to the dog park (but don’t tell them yet).

The second thing going through my brain is what my beta readers are thinking of it (or whether they are even reading it!) I know there are probably so many problems, and I’m really anxious about what my beta-readers say about it. They have it right now, and I’m pretty terrified. I usually don’t let other people read my work. I’ve been in workshops before, and that can be really stressful and I don’t always like it. There’s something dreadful about taking this thing you’ve spent hours and hours on and letting people at it with red pens of death. So I’ve never really done it and never really minded, but now I am. I want my work to be publishable and that means other people have to read it. Sometimes when it’s not very good.

And especially with this genre I’m even more anxious. I feel like I’m opening myself up to all sorts of snickers from a few of my friends who don’t read this type of fiction and will, next time I see them, think to themselves about all the ways I described “doing it”. I did grow up with a Southern Baptist mother who used to criticize if she saw any skin that could even possibly be considered cleavage. Being so open about sex feels uncomfortable for me.

But, I know that I can fix it, and I can  make it better after I take a break and get feedback. And I know this next comment is weird and doesn’t work for everyone and I don’t want this to be a habitual way of thinking for me, but when I get so caught up with trying to make every little, goddamned thing perfect, and worrying about the universe collapsing if I don’t get it right, and having panic attacks about grammar, or accuracy, or believability, I like to remind myself of all the crap romance novels I’ve read out there. Or all the ones by authors I really like that fell a little flat for me. I don’t want to be a crappy writer, but they’re like talismans, reminders that they do not have to be perfect. And with each novel I’ll get better.

By Heart

Last night, before bed, I read this article on The Atlantic‘s weekly series, “By Heart”. It was their end of year round up of the series which interviews writers and asks them to discuss their craft based on a sentence they love. There were lots of excerpts that were excellent and although I disagreed with some of them I found them all valuable. This thing of writing is so personal and so often romanticized that to see how other people approach it, and what works for them is so damned useful. Rather than think, “oh, Jim Harrison does it this way, so I have to as well,” you can look at another author and go, “yes, that feels right to me.” Not that Jim Harrison’s way is wrong, but it might be wrong for you. I think I responded most to Linn Ullman’s quoted interview (full one here.) She talks about needing a place for her characters to inhabit before she can really understand what they do and what these actions mean for the story and for their characters.

Here is the part that The Atlantic excerpted:

When I begin writing, I need to have a place.  It can be a small: even a single room, though I like to be able to see the layout, the colors, the objects inside. I need to have that stage so that my characters have a place to move around. If I can develop that sense of place—and that other crucial quality, the narrative voice—then I feel sure I will find a story, even if it takes some time.  If I don’t have the place, and I don’t have the voice, I’m writing without a motor. It all becomes just words. But once the voice comes, the “here” comes next, and then the “something happened”—what we call plot—follows from it.

In this way, writing becomes a listening experience—a way of being responsive to what you have written, and letting it guide you. Some writers say “the characters come to me,” or the “characters become alive to me at night.” Bullshit. I don’t believe that my characters are alive. But the process requires a form of artistic listening, of understanding the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. If you are lucky enough to find voice and place, there are real consequences to those choices. Together, they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next—and they help point the way forward. Your role, then, is to not stick to your original idea—it is to be totally faithless to your idea. Instead, be faithful to voice and place as you discover them, and to the consequences of what they entail.

I think I responded so much to this because I agree with what she says about world building, because without place we don’t have context. We don’t have space for our characters to move around in. And we don’t have real consequences for the choices a character might make. I love that she says “they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next– and they help point the way forward.” I completely agree, and I like it as a function of story craft. It is the events and the characters that dictate the story.

If I were to choose my quote it might be the one that is currently emblazoned on my coffee mug. It’s by Walt Whitman and it reads: “The secret of it all is to write… without waiting for a fit time or place.”

Hope and Oatmeal

I was fixing breakfast this morning when I glanced at the clock. It was exactly when I would have been leaving the house last year to get to school 45 minutes away. And now, this year I was standing in my comfy writing clothes mixing up some oatmeal in preparation for a long morning of writing.

My mind drifted to people and things from last year. The feeling of being in my classroom before school started and frantically trying to get last minute things done. The annoyance of meetings that weren’t necessary. The gossip and drama that mapped a little too closely to the stereotypical cliquish drama of a high school movie, except we were the teachers, not the students. The exhaustion I felt at the end of a day no matter how the day went.

And now I get to teach British literature to college students and write. My dreams have almost been realized. I am so grateful for being given the chance to do all of this, and to tackle my dreams that I don’t mind being tired and anxious about money or anything else. I have exactly what I want and need in life, with only a few exceptions. Even though there are things I worry about, I feel hopeful for the first time in a long time.

Art Inspirations

Once upon a time, I was an art student. I took Foundations of Design classes, Art History classes, Art and Psychology classes, Painting I & II, Photography I & II, and Figure Painting (with oils!)  I sat through slide after slide after slide of art from the Venus of Willendorf to Cubism and Futurism. And somehow I didn’t lose my love of art.

I might have changed my major from Art to English, but I saw them as extensions of the same desire– to express myself creatively and be inspired by others.

On Saturday, a good friend of mine went with me to the Blanton Museum in Austin. And I got to indulge in one of my favorite rare activities, staring at art and letting it mesmerize and amaze me.

I like to go slowly through a museum, unhurried by the pace of a tour or another person. I like to read the notes and let the technique and the effect soak into my skin. It leaves me feeling as though I emerged from a hot bath full of color and inspiration.

Saint Cecilia by Simon Vouet

It is an excellent thing, I think, to find inspiration outside of the field in which you are working. Visiting a museum can be an excellent way to get ideas. For instance, the image above is so beautiful, the colors, details and expression so captivating, that it forces you to think of descriptors in a new way.

Also, it makes you see what your characters might have seen if they had been living in a time, or place to see work like this. Lillian, my female lead, is an aspiring artist who is staying at a manor house in England. I now have the inspiration to create a scene where she can admire and study works like this so that the reader can see her desire to paint, and learn about her craft. And I can’t wait to have Morgan, my male lead, get involved in the discussion too.

And based on some other images, I’ve got some hilarious details to add to the characterization of one of my most Austenian humorous side characters. Let’s just say she wants to be painted like Mary Magdalene being carried up to heaven by a throng of putto, but even a throng of strong men might not be able to lift her…

Conflict and Clear Vision

While listening to the ever insightful, funny team of Lani Diane Rich and Alastair Stephens debate back and forth and laugh at each other’s and their own jokes on StoryWonk, I came to a rather jaw dropping realization. Well, jaw dropping for me, I guess. And any other person who has happily finished a draft and thought, “now I just have to fix a few things and polish!” Ha, bloody ha.

It happened while I was listening to their daily podcast (now defunct in favor of a longer form weekly show) entitled Elegant Conflict. And I realized suddenly that my first draft’s conflict was definitely lacking. There were so many sticky, webby parts you might think it was a particularly disorganized spider weaving this story. Not that the conflict didn’t exist, but that it was so internalized and so distant that it didn’t exert much pressure on my characters. And as we know, only pressure and time create diamonds. Ok, and carbon.

So as I was driving along, listening to their discussion on conflict, the other part of my brain was busy untangling knots. I find that driving long distances, much like taking showers or walks with the dogs, is a GREAT place to think about storycraft. There’s something about engaging your more critical, logical and driven part of the brain in some activity that is mindless enough you don’t have to concentrate too hard, but still have to focus on so that the rest of your brain can just play and wander.

And I figured out how to ratchet up the pressure a few notches so that the conflict becomes even more visible and the characters have to actually DEAL with it! In addition to this, it creates lots of nice pockets for character driven plot that otherwise has to be forced into place. Now it falls quite naturally into its slot.

And THAT, my friends, is why we tell new writers to put their work away for a while and come back to it when your brain is refreshed and ready to see the problems more clearly! Now, I just have to REWRITE ALL THE THINGS!!

all the things

image created by the hilarious Allie Brosch at Hyperbole and a Half

Research!

One of the things I love most about historical fiction is the chance to dive into great big piles of articles about a topic and emerge with a little nugget of inspiration. Tonight I was preparing for my British Literature class by doing some research on Sir Thomas More and his literary and religious adversary, William Tyndale.

Here’s the few nuggets I collected that I might just polish into gold as part of my story:

  • Thomas More was engaged in spying on Protestant heretics.
  • He was given a special license to “read and keep certain books of Luther” which were banned at this time, so that he could use him in his response to Luther’s revolutionary ideas about the Church.
  • When King Henry VIII became the “Supreme head on earth of the Church of England” (how is that for a title?) his followers were able to rely on the common people’s ideas of obedience to one’s ruler as a Christian duty to get them to follow Henry’s changes in religion (somewhat). But, when his daughter, Mary, came to the throne and reverted England back to Catholicism this little idea created quite the dilemma! Do you all of a sudden backtrack and encourage the common people to follow a “papal queen” down the road to “certain hell”? (emphasis mine, but they’d probably say it too!)
  • During the years 1534-1547 there was a massive overhaul of the physical expression of the Catholic Church. It started with the Dissolution of Monasteries under King Henry, when he gave away land to the gentry in order to get their support for his new church (and kept a lot of the money found in the monasteries for himself) and it continued under his son, Edward. Stained glass, shrines, statues, crucifixes, and bells were all taken down and destroyed. Clergy were no longer expected to be celibate and the saying of mass for the dead was ended.
  • Many feast days were banished, which unsurprisingly upset the common people, who rather enjoyed the feasting and celebrating that went on in the villages on these days. Mobs also tried to prevent the dissolving of the monasteries, and other changes to their faith.

Why did I find all of these archaic details fascinating? Because they are the basis for storytelling and plot! Just think of the human tragedies that went on under the dissolving of the monasteries and abbeys, and destroying of common objects of faith. Think of the political machinations that occurred as part of Henry’s efforts to gain support, or his daughter’s accession to the throne. Imagine the anxiety of the messenger who had to carry Luther’s books to Sir Thomas More, special license or not! All of this is fodder for the story. All of this carries with it the passions of people who, no matter what we think now, felt deeply about these issues and were willing to die for them. That is what makes telling these stories and helping them come to life so exciting and vital. And a little romance to ease the pain doesn’t hurt.

Making Time for Writing

For many years I said, “I want to be a writer.” Or sometimes it was, “I want to publish a book before I die.” I dreamed of having the time and opportunity to put my ideas on the page, and how wonderful it would be to do what I was meant to be doing. I would have jobs that took me away from home and my computer and think longingly about being cocooned in my room with a cup of tea and my words.

I read about how some writers wrote through the nights after finishing their day jobs. Franz Kafka worked in a post office and then came home to write, while drinking gallons of coffee. His stories of men who dream of becoming cockroaches and wake to find themselves living the nightmare, or men trapped in the maze of bureaucratic justice systems don’t seem so hard to imagine when I think of the lunacy of my own overworked mind on little sleep. I suppose it’s not surprising that he died young and exhausted.

Or other writers who woke at five a.m. to write in the silent predawn hours, no matter how late they had been up. I’d think of them, and then guiltily turn back over to my pillow. I wanted to be a writer, yes, but at the moment sleep seemed much more inviting. Actually, at every moment sleep usually seems more inviting than anything.

When my husband and I moved to Texas from the east coast I asked if I could take a few months off so I could write. We moved in September, not a great time to find a teaching job at a college, and so I thought I’d get a part time job, and write while I waited for the next semester to begin. And I did write, but I also panicked about finding work, and about finishing a master’s degree only to be a freeloading housewife to my poor husband. I baked a lot of desserts and cooked a lot of elaborate meals that fall while watching Mary Tyler Moore handle being Dick Van Dyck’s housewife with such grace.

During the past two school years I was so busy keeping my head above my workload and spending time with my neglected husband (the man went from having a home cooked meal daily to eating by himself most nights) that I didn’t feel too guilty about not squeezing in writing time. I could do it during the summers! After all, what was the point of having a low paying job with summers off, if not to pursue your passions?

And I did write, at least most days. I created a routine for myself that made it a habit rather than a flight of inspiration. But, this fall I didn’t return to the daily grind of the classroom. I began teaching two days a week in the mornings, and spending my afternoons at an art program. Suddenly, I had three mornings a week I could dedicate to writing! It isn’t a lot of time, but it’s a habit and it’s all mine!

But then, money, and all of the tentacles of anxiety that come with money, raised its head. My poor, ancient, paid off Toyota broke down and had to be replaced with a newer model and a monthly loan payment. My husband’s company cut back on hours and I started to worry that my current jobs weren’t going to be enough. I told a preschool I substitute for I could work some more hours a few weeks ago. And there went my three lovely free mornings.

You see, I have a hereditary problem. My mother is a carrier, and she passed it on to me and my sisters. If you ask me something to my face and catch me off guard I CANNOT TELL A LIE. So, if you happen to be the manager of a preschool who needs a substitute and you ask me via text message if I can work I can easily tell you that I am busy. But if you ask me to my face as I’m about to leave for the day then all of a sudden I forget that I promised myself I’d write in the mornings and instead I’m telling you that I would gladly work for you! Whatever you need! I’m flexible! Never mind the fact that I’m giving up my dreams of actually being able to write! I’ll take the measly paycheck instead!

Somehow, the fact that I want to use that time for myself does not seem valuable to myself. It could be going to the gym time, or massage time, or spending it with my husband time, but if it’s “me” time then it is somehow less valuable time. I’ve seen my mother do this for years, and other women I know too. It seems to be a common enough problem among women. They will sacrifice whatever they have to, as long as they don’t say NO and look like a bitch for not being free to do whatever you need.

And I have slowly come to the realization that this is me causing myself to give up on my dreams. This is me looking at my future self and saying, “I wish I had done that” and this is me looking at my younger self and saying “those dreams you thought were so important are meaningless compared to this quotidian chore that I will probably forget I ever did in a few hours”. Emma O’Donoghue said in an interview that she has an amazing capacity for ignoring dirty dishes so that she can get to her writing. Well, I already have an amazing capacity for ignoring them. I might as well use the excuse that I was writing as a way to keep ignoring them.

So, I have at last given myself a good hard shake  and have decided that I cannot continue to sacrifice my passions and my goals, simply because they are MY passions and MY goals. If it is important enough for me to want to quit my full time job and take the pay cut, if it is important enough for me to think about it for all these years, and dream of it, then it is important enough for me to take seriously. And if I don’t take my writing seriously, then how can I expect someone else to? I’m standing up for ME today by saying, “after next week I will not be able to work any more hours. I do not have the time.”

But, I did do it by text. Baby steps, people! Baby steps.