Ready, set…wait

Continuing our theme of “if only I would have known” this month at Mysteristas…

On Tuesday, Kate Lansing talked about how there’s really no rush in publishing, even though we think there is. If we don’t get that book done, we can’t query; and if we don’t query, we won’t get that agent and if we don’t get on it RIGHT NOW all the agents will be gone and we’ll never get published…

<pause for deep breath>

All this put me in mind of my first book (okay, not technically my first book, but the first I felt was good enough to put out there) two years ago. I’d been working on this puppy since 2013. I’d done a critique group. I’d paid to have it professionally edited. This book was ready. I was ready. It was time to query. I was prepped for some rejection; I knew that was part of the game, but I believed in this book and it was time to jump into the pond.

I wrote a query. I sent out about 20 of them. I pitched at a conference. Radio silence. I reworked my query and sent out another 20 or so letters. A few compliments, but mostly “this just isn’t for me” or radio silence.

I admit it. I was devastated.

Devastated enough that I paused writing book 2. Maybe I wasn’t as good as people told me, as I thought. Maybe I should hang it up. But then came along 2016 and The Great Short Story Challenge (or so I have dubbed it) – and I got three acceptances. In a row. In fairly prominent anthologies. Then a fourth rolled in.

Okay, what gives?

By this time, I’d finished book 2 with the help of a new (fabulous) critique group. I was prepared to shop it as book 1 of the series and even sent out one full manuscript. I started book 3 (or book 2, depending on how you look at it), decided I just can’t write and critique at the same time, so pressed pause in the critique process to finish Draft Zero.

But book 1 was still there. I still liked it. I thought it had potential. So I started working on it again with the new critique group. And I learned something very important.

It was not The Best Book It Could Be.

If only I’d known that in 2015. I wouldn’t have pitched. I wouldn’t have burned those 50 agents. I would have taken the time to do the hard work – the work I’m doing now – to make the book better. Because although I went through a period last month where I really hated the thing, two days ago I got an idea that made me fall in love all over again.

There are so many things that make it nearly impossible I would have known that two years ago. I’m a better writer than I was back then. I’ve written more words. I have a solid group at my back, pushing me to do better (even if sometimes I feel like hanging up my keyboard when they don’t quite love my monthly submission as much as I do). It’s possible that I couldn’t have written this book back then.

But I sure wish I’d have know that two years ago.

Fellow Mysteristas – what do you wish you would have known before you took a big plunge?

How hard can it be?

I always knew I’d be an English major. I was, oh, twelve when I decided this. See, I loved reading. And I could tell a good story (well, I thought I could and my best friend agreed). I wasn’t too sure what I’d do with an English degree. I had a vague idea that I’d be a lawyer.

Yeah, that didn’t happen. But I digress.

When I was in eighth grade, my best friend and I teamed up to do a comic. She drew, I wrote. And I started thinking, “Hey, I’ll write a book and become a best-selling author.” So I wrote some really bad fantasy fiction (today they’d call it urban fiction) with a character who was a complete Mary Sue.

Yeah, didn’t become a best-selling author with that one. Again, I digress.

Fast-forward about ten-ish years. I was married and the urban fiction of my youth was a distant memory. And The Hubby, God bless him, asked, “Why don’t you write a mystery? You like to read them.”

And a light bulb went off. And I wrote the start of a cozy. Life happened, I put it in a drawer. Eventually, I lost a job and The Hubby said, “Why don’t you finish that book?”

Well, I was unemployed and really – how hard could it be? I could tell a story, right?

(I will pause while all the writers who follow this blog laugh hysterically.)

Good, you’re back. Nervous, but proud, I took my finished manuscript to this group called Sisters in Crime. And my education in mystery writing started. Things I wish I’d known:

  1. You can’t start a story with chapters and chapters of set up. Well you can, but it’s dead boring.
  2. If you’re going to write a mystery, at some point you have to learn to plot – or apply the principles of plotting to your raw draft.
  3. It’s not just about being able to push a noun against a verb.
  4. There’s a lot to learn when you first start out. And as soon as you think you’ve learned it all – there’s a whole new set of things to learn.
  5. Being an author is only partly about the writing. You have to learn to market yourself and the book. Don’t like it? Don’t expect to sell a lot of books.
  6. As soon as you think you’ve figured out how to market your current book, everything changes and you have to start all over when it comes time to market the next book.
  7. But as hard as this sounds, you don’t have to do it alone. The writing community, and the mystery-writing community in particular, is full of wonderful, generous people who will help you learn how to plot, write a character arc, drop a red herring, market your book, cheer you when you succeed and prop you up when things aren’t going so good.

Come to think of it, had I known all this I’d never have started writing. Well, had I known everything except #7. But if I’d never started, I wouldn’t have gotten to the most important thing I wish I had known:

It is all totally worth it.

Relationships with…inanimate objects?

Okay, bear with me.

I was in a bit of a fuzz this morning. All day I pondered what to blog about, considering the other Mysteristas have had such wonderful things to say on the topic of relationships.

People? Check. Books? Check. Characters? Check. We’d covered it all. Or so I thought.

Two things have been my nemesis today: my day-job computer and my chair. Yes, my chair.

It started early, as soon as I plugged in the day-job laptop. No WiFi? What? (pause to search for switch, maybe it got bumped to the off position). No switch. Why no WiFi? (checks phone – no, that’s connected just fine) I read for the ethernet cable. Kind of defeats the purpose, no? One has a laptop for portability. Hard to be portable when you’re tethered to a cable. The WiFi is working now, but it’s gone on and off all day.

Grr.

Next up: how do I get rid of that horrible tightness in my back? I tried standing. Three days of on an off standing. And while I have a friend who swears by it…nuh-uh. Sure, the standing alleviates the pain in my hips. Torture on my feet. And my knee. And my back, probably because I’m standing in a weird posture in an attempt to take pressure off my knee.

Sitting isn’t helping. One, it makes my hips hurt more (I have what is called cam and pincer impingement in my right hip – go Google it if you’re interested in the gory details, I’ll wait). And my lower back – OMG.

So I started playing with the various knobs and levers on my chair. Futzed with what I think is the lumbar support (I yanked it off accidentally – pretty sure that won’t help). I’ve come to the conclusion that I have the world’s most un-ergonomic chair. How much does a good chair cost? Yikes. Better figure out how to work with what I’ve got.

And at the end of it all, I realized something. We all, especially writers, have funny, intimate relationships with the inanimate objects in our lives and we don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. Think of computers. What writer do you know who writes long-hand or by manual typewriter? Okay, they probably exist, but I don’t know any. Maybe for when they are stuck or for a change of pace, but I don’t know anyone who writes a 90,000-word novel longhand. And besides, even if they do, they just need to type it up for submission to an editor, or an agent, or CreateSpace.

That’s beside all the research. No one can go visit China in the 1800s, or check out the streets of Paris at the drop of a hat – especially if you have a day-job or kids (with all their assorted activities). Internet to the rescue. You know, as long as the WiFi works – unless you’re still working on a desktop (and I know almost as many writers who use one of those as who write that 90,000-word novel longhand).

Then there’s where you write. I’ve heard stories of past writers who sat in the bathtub (talk about hell on the back) or stood. Recliners, sofas, lying on the floor – it had better be comfortable or else writing those 90,000 words is going to feel like walking over hot coals. Or thumbtacks. Or…something.

The point is, our success is kinda-sorta dependent on our physical, inanimate space. Our chairs, our pillows, our shoes, our technology. And we don’t tend to think about it…until the headache, or the back pain set in.

So I will continue to search for the perfect chair and desk position. I’m fond of my recliner at home, but kinda hard to transport that to work.

In the meantime, pass the Advil…and maybe the phone number of a good chiropractor.

Relationships – a meditation

As I rolled this month’s theme around in my head, I found myself growing thoughtful. It’s cold, dreary, and rainy here in the ‘Burgh. As I pondered, these lines from John Donne came to mind:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

(Factoid: Although I learned this as a poem, it is not, in fact, a poem. It is a meditation Donne dedicated to Prince Charles, son of King James I. But I digress.)

The entire text emphasizes how we are all connected. That one is not really separate from the other. That we are defined by our relationships. Very true personally and professionally.

The publishing world is full of relationships. A few:

  • The relationships between fellow writers. These may be friends, they may be critique partners, or blog sisters. They are the people who prop us up when our spirits are flagging; help us tease out the solution to that problematic manuscript; give us wine, chocolate, and a shoulder to cry on when things aren’t going our way; and give us wine, chocolate, and dance a celebratory jig when they do.
  • If we are traditionally published (or pursuing traditional publication), the relationship between writer and agent. The agent is the person who is going to represent the writer to the industry. Who will help her shine up that manuscript before sending it out into the world. Brainstorm new ideas. And, of course, provide wine and chocolate and sympathy/celebration at the appropriate times.
  • Writers and editors. Again, if you are traditionally published, this might be an agent ad your house. If you are indie published, this is the person you work with to give that manuscript a good scrub. Again, they are sounding boards. They provide feedback. They may help brainstorm ideas. Ideally, they work with you to make your book the best it can be. They may or may not provide wine and chocolate, depending on the closeness of the relationship (are you sensing a theme around wine and chocolate?).
  • Between author and cover designer (if you are indie published or you are lucky enough to get input on your covers). This person is going to represent your book in art. That image will be the first a potential reader sees before clicking “buy” or heading to the checkout.
  • Between author and publicist (if you either work with one through your publisher or you hire one). The two of you will spread the word of your masterpiece far and wide.
  • Between author and reader. The mother lode. There are authors I’ve met who I count as dear friends. They graciously share their creations and invite me to lose a few hours inside their worlds. There are other authors I’ve never met – but each time a new book comes out, it’s an open invitation. Come visit – we’re happy to have you.

The trope is of the solitary writer, banging away on the keyboard or scribbling in a notebook, fueled by coffee, wine, chocolate, and dreams. But nothing is further from the truth. Publishing is a world that abounds with relationships and we are all better for it.

Every once in a while, we get together at a conference like Bouchercon or Malice Domestic. The ultimate celebration where old friendships are renewed, new ones are made, and laughter flows like wine and chocolate (there it is AGAIN).

And they say writing is a solitary endeavor. Shows how little they know.

Readers and writers, what’s your favorite relationship in your bookish life?

Relationships old and new

Posting for Becky Clark, who is healing up. Get well soon, Becky!

I recently had a tumor removed from my spinal column. Totally benign, expect total recovery, I was in total denial. Not denial that it was a thing, but the aftermath.
Totes not prepared. But maybe you can’t be.

But in keeping with the theme this month, I have found some new relationships and strengthened some old ones.

First, with my husband. We’ve never really been tested before, but partial paralysis – especially when you’re both a bit delusional and in the dark about it all – well, that’s a test of a relationship. He’s definitely risen to the occasion.

Second, with my neurosurgeon. I heart him.

Third, with all the nurses, hospital staff, and pharmacists who’ve shown up in our orbit. All excellent, as desperate as we are that I can control my pain and relearn how to walk and bathe and poop again.

And fourth, all my friends, most of whom are in my writing community. Every single note or text or comment wishing me good luck, giving me encouragement, making me laugh has made all the difference between wallowing in the dark or remembering the light.

These are the relationships I’m so thankful for right now, as I continue my battle to get stronger.

Oh, and two more … iPhone and Facebook. Where would I be without my relationship with you?? It takes a digital village, right?

Plus, they make it possible for me to show you my stitches! Just say the word ….

In the beginning

Ah, January. Depending on where you are, it might be snowy and clear, it might be rainy and gray, it might be warm and sunny. (It’s rainy and gray in Pittsburgh and I wish it would be snowy and clear – and I can’t believe I’m saying that). In Western culture, it’s the beginning of a new year – with all the resulting angst, promise, excitement, and dread. Aside from September (the start of the school year), there is no other time to rival it for resolutions, goals, and general “need to change and do better” thoughts.

We often talk about “the” beginning. As if there is only one. Except…there’s more than one, right? Think about it. You have:

  • the beginning of a new year
  • the beginning of a new month
  • the beginning of a new week
  • the beginning of a new day
  • the beginning of a new writing project
  • the beginning of a new work session
  • the beginning of a new scene
  • the beginning of a new chapter
  • the beginning of a new reading project (aka, a new book)

That, my friend, is a LOT of beginnings.

All of them have a few things in common.

An ounce of trepidation. Will this book in the series be as good as the last? This one applies to readers and writers. Writers worry that the characters may become stale and boring. Readers wonder if the author can top the last book. (This is especially true if the “last” book received an award nomination or stellar review.) Maybe the magic is gone. Maybe during your last writing session, you killed it on the word count or things were really rocking. Will it happen again? If you had a particularly good/bad day/week/month/year (hello, 2016 for celeb deaths anyone?), will the new one be better or worse — or the same?

A half-pound of anticipation. What’s coming next? What’s around the corner? The story always has the possibility of surprise. That’s what brings the butterflies in your stomach and the tingle in your nerves. Of course, depending on how you feel about surprise, this may increase the amount of trepidation.

A handful of possibility. There’s a meme that has made the rounds of the internet for the last couple of years right around January 1: Today is the first page of a new 365-page book. Make it a good one. But that’s not just true of the first day of the year. That’s true of every day. Every project. Every book. Before you begin, the possibility is shiny and tempting. Because this just might be the best <fill in the blank> ever.

A teaspoon of hope. I really do believe we all WANT better. Better writing, better books, better society, better attitudes – to be better people. And (most of us) start every beginning believing that this time is going to be better – we’ll do better, be better, act better.

With all of that in mind, here’s my wish for the Mysteristas community: That we go forth and enjoy all the beginnings – and make everything we begin the best <fill in the blank> yet.

Kissing 2016 Goodbye

Otherwise known as “just what did I do this year?”

I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’m usually far better organized when it comes to writing goals. A couple years ago, I adopted James Scott Bell’s approach of setting goals for my writing career, redefining how I measured them. For example, setting a “goal” of getting published is maybe not the best because there are so many variables I can’t control with that. But I can control how many queries I send, so the goal might be “send fifty queries in 2016.” Or submit to a certain number of short story outlets.

You get the idea.

Except last January, when it came time for goal setting, I…didin’t. What was the point? I asked. Nobody pays attention but me, I said.

Oh silly, silly me.

Now at the end of 2016, I’m left a little discombobulated, wondering what the heck I did over the last 12 months. So here it is, reverse goal setting.

Submit short stories to the major anthologies

It was Bouchercon Raleigh in 2015 that two of my Sisters in Crime friends noticed that a lot of award nominees came out of these anthologies. So they issued a short-story challenge: to submit to the major anthologies for 2016. I was not sure I would do this. My short story success rate was…spotty. But hey, I’m always up for a challenge. So I submitted – Bouchercon (Blood on the Bayou), the Guppy anthology (Fish Out of Water), and Malice Domestic (Mystery Most Historical). I figured if I got one of the three, I’d be doing good. After all, isn’t that a good average in baseball (.333)?

Color me gobsmacked when I placed stories with not one, not two but all three anthologies. I really do not know what happened – except that I put myself out there. The Hubby treated me to a trip to New Orleans in September for Bouchercon. I’ll get to go to Malice Domestic in April.

I’ve already got a story prepped for Bouchercon 2017.

Then I placed a story with Mysterical-e. A story I thought was long dead. The only rejection I got all year? A local contest for Halloween flash fiction. What’s that saying about a prophet in her own town?

Query, query, query

According to Query Tracker, I’ve sent out about 80 queries this year, most for my first Laurel Highlands Mystey, And Corruption for All. I’ve tallied 80 rejections, too. You know, lest that short story success go to my head.

I’ve got one full manuscript for the second book in the series, Identity Unknown, out with an agent. And based on some feedback I received recently, I have a plan for the series in 2017. No, I can’t tell you the plan. I need to vet it with my critique group. If they say it’s a good plan, it’ll become a goal for 2017.

In some respects, 2016 was a rough year. So many celebrity deaths (Bowie! Rickman! Prince!). Yet it turns out I did okay when I look at my major accomplishments, things I’ve done. They’re kinda big things. I’m rather proud of myself.

But next year? I’m setting some goals, baby.

Readers, what about you? Do you set yearly goals or not?