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07August

One Writer’s Crazy Ride to Publication

Thanks for all your questions and comments about THIS IS NOT A DRILL, my upcoming YA debut novel (Oct. 25, 2012) from Nancy Paulsen Books of Penguin Group. In an industry that’s slow as continental drift, my path to publication was a zipline ride. I sailed from query to agent to first offer in two days, and thanks to the amazing Jill Corcoran, the powerhouse of energy who is now my agent, I landed with one of the most respected editors in the business within two weeks of submission. Here’s a quick run-down of what happened last summer (starting July 7) :

Thursday: After a year of writing and revising my novel, I held my breath and hit “Send,” submitting to my top 7 agent picks on 7-7 (a winning combination, I hoped.) Jill Corcoran of Herman Agency requested the full manuscript within an HOUR of receiving my query letter and sample pages.

Friday: I woke to a note from Jill (written 1:30 am her time) - she was “absolutely loving” the book and had trouble putting it down to sleep. By noon she emailed me offering representation; she said she knew I had the work still out with several other agents, but she wanted to sign me if I was ready to say yes. I paused my happy dance just long enough to type “yes.” Jill has an English degree from Stanford and an MBA in Finance and Marketing from the University of Chicago. She’s not only worked in advertising, but teaches writing workshops and writes books of her own. I knew she’d understand the bumps in the writing road and could guide me through the marketing maze, too. She sent me a contract, and I emailed the other agents I’d queried that I’d accepted representation so they wouldn’t spend time reading my work.

Saturday: Jill and I talked by email, and I tried not to obsess over my new agent. She friended me on Facebook and I followed her on Twitter, loving all the glowing comments from her clients.

Sunday: Jill emailed me that she felt THIS IS NOT A DRILL was ready to go out without further revisions (amazing!), and she’d be submitting it to editors THE NEXT DAY! I was elated – and terrified.

Monday: Jill sent me a list of the editors she’d subbed to, and I tried not to freak out. I cleaned house all day to keep from going mad and went to bed that night with my head clogged from dust I’d stirred up.

Tuesday: I googled Jill’s clients, googled each editor on the list, googled my name to see what editors would find, and finally got in the car and left the house to stop the googling madness.

Wednesday: Jill called. I loved her sense of humor about her kids and her cat, and her competence and knowledge base were obvious. We chatted and hung up. She called back an hour later. I was surprised. “Did you just hang up on me?” she said. “I hope not, ‘cause I have some of the biggest news of your life.” I explained that my phone didn’t even ring, we’d been having trouble with our cell carrier, and I was so sorry if she - WAIT, did you say you had NEWS? “We have an offer coming in!” she said. I tried to listen from my spot on the ceiling, but thank God I wrote it all down ‘cause I was WAY too excited to really hear what she said.

Within days there were multiple offers and I was in the wildly unanticipated position of choosing the editor I felt was the best fit for my book. When I signed with Nancy Paulsen at Penguin, I felt Velveteen Rabbit “real” as a writer.

Hold on a second! Before any of you throw erasers at the screen, there’s something you should know. All this happened fast, but I am no overnight success – not this girl. My whirlwind week came after five years of writing, one shelved manuscript with about 25 rejection slips tucked inside, another agent who unsuccessfully submitted another book of mine (ON the day that became known as Black Wednesday in the publishing world - could there BE any rottener luck?), lots of broken plates in my backyard (my secret catharsis), six weekend writing conferences from Nashville to LA, and hours, days, weeks, months and years of studying the craft through books, articles, blogs, and websites on writing - not to mention countless novels I picked apart to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

There, feel better? If you’re interested in writing for publication, read books on how to write (like Stephen King’s ON WRITING , Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, and AnnIe Dilard’s THE WRITING LIFE, my faves), study books in your genre, read blogs like Jill’s and Nathan Bransford’s and Kristin Nelson’s to learn about queries and agents and opening pages and point of view, and write every day to improve your style and voice. (How do you learn to play tennis? Play a lot. How do you learn to write? Write - a lot.) The secret is and always has been: butt in chair, fingers on keys.

The good news is persistence pays off. Keep reading, keep honing your craft, keep believing, and if you work hard enough and learn from your mistakes, something good will happen. I can’t wait to hear YOUR story when it does.

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Posted in August, 2012

06August

9 Tips for Writers

9 Tips for Writers

I've been amazed and impressed at the number of people who've contacted me on Facebook or by email to ask for advice. Some are friends of friends, but there are many I've known for years  without knowing they've been writing quietly - like me - waiting for the right time to send off their work. It's so exciting that all that creativity is swirling around us. Keep working, y'all. Those award winners and best sellers started with a computer and a quiet room and a little bit of time - just like you.

Here's the advice I've given those who've written me. If you're not already writing, maybe this will inspire you to start. It's fun . . . and frustrating, rewarding . . . and draining, exciting . . . and terrifying. I hope these tips on how to get started (and keep going in the face of rejection) will help.

1. Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keys. Nothing happens if you don't start. Make a decision NOW to spend at least 3 days a week at the keyboard for 30 minutes for the next 3 weeks at least. If nothing comes to you, just sit there while you train your brain to seek stories. The muse will come eventually. I promise.

2. Don't Get it Right, Just Get It Down. Make your peace with the fact that your first draft will be terrible. Don't worry. Just get the story down; you can make it pretty later. Fear of what Anne Lamott calls "Shitty First Drafts" keeps so many potential writers from ever getting started.

3. Tell someone else's story. It sounds strange but the easiest way for me to start was to write down anecdotes other people had told me and change them up to suit myself. This worked better than writing from my own life because I wasn't so tied to the truth. Personal writing is often hindered by our reluctance to change details we know are accurate.

3. Read books on craft. My favorites are ON WRITING by Stephen King, BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott, and THE WRITING LIFE by Annie Dillard. These are short, easy reads full of great information and inspiration. I probably read 30 books on writing. That thing people say about how you can't learn to write from a book? That's laziness. Do your homework. It helps.

4. Join the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and attend the conference closest to you. Not writing children's books? Doesn't matter. The things you'll learn about writing and revising and submitting to agents are universal. You can pick the sessions that you're most interested in and get advice and critiques of your work from visitng professionals in the industry. You will learn A TON and you'll meet other like-minded souls who will encourage you. (For AL/MS/GA, google SCBWI Southern Breeze; there's a fall conference in B'ham, a spring one in Atlanta, and several local ones during the year. The Nashville conference is under Midsouth SCBWI.) There are tons of regional chapters across the US. And if you can go to the national meetings in NYC or LA, I highly recommend them.

5. Read blogs and online info about writing, getting an agent, and/or self-publishing. Google is your friend. Some good blogs full of tips on every aspect (like writing query letters, ugh) are Nathan Bransford's, Kristin Nelson's Pub Rants, and my agent's, Jill Corcoran's. Agentquery,  AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler, and Verla Kay's Message Boards are good resources, also.

6. Find a writing group or organize one or seek out other writer friends. Having others critique your work can be really eye-opening, and having writer buds keeps you from being lonely in a fairly solitary line of work.

7. Turn off your inner voices. The ones that say you can't do it. In this business, you must believe to achieve. The same drive that pushes you to write will serve you well in training yourself to do it. Don't let self-doubt hold you back. Rejection is a part of the process. That agent isn't saying your work isn't good - just that it's not what he's looking for right now. They typically get 50-100 submission a day and take on 30-50 new clients a year. You can increase your chances in this massive lottery by working hard, but there's a certain amount of luck and timing involved. (And don't believe people who say you have to know someone. My agent plucked THIS IS NOT A DRILL  right out of the slush pile.)

8. Practice, practice, practice. One of the hardest lessons is that you will write hundreds of pages that may never see the light of day. Most writers (moi aussi) have an entire novel in a drawer, one that never got picked up by an agent or editor. You MUST focus on process and not product. You are teaching yourself a skill and time spent writing is never wasted. Just like playing tennis or piano, you hone your skills through lots of practice. The average time to break into traditional publishing is said to be 10 years. It took me 5, but I worked really hard for many long hours. Patience is not just a virtue; in this business, it's a life preserver. You can't rush the kind of work this goal involves. Perseverance is everything!

9. Build an online presence. Having a self-published book (LAST BUS OUT) helped me do that, but you can submit articles to magazines, essays to contests, guest blog entries to bloggers. And you can chat with other writers and readers through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, and other sites. Don't just promote yourself. Let people know who you are and post interesting links to information they might like. And promote others; we're all in this together. 

Good luck, everyone! Hang in there. If you care enough to work and study and believe, it'll happen for you! Can't wait to hear about your book when it does.

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Posted in August, 2012

03February

RIP JDS

Several of you who studied Catcher in the Rye with me wrote me with thoughts about the death of J.D. Salinger at age 91. Much has been said about Salinger and his work over the past week. The New York Times said Catcher's narrator's unique (at the time) voice, "struck a brash new note in American literature." Holden Caulfield's impact on people of all ages was described in a post for Slate by an editorial assistant tasked with answering his mail, which he refused to read.

If you're a scoffer of Salinger devotees, you could be a victim of overexposure; a Washington Post writer points out that making Catcher required reading has taken its toll on him as a cultural hero. ". . . how can you be subversive when your books are assigned by the sort of educational pooh-bahs whom Holden might have spotted as phonies?"

Like him, love him, hate him, loathe him - J.D. Salinger changed the landscape of literature for Young Adults. Never before and seldom since has anyone so authentically captured the cadences, the humor, the angst, and the insecurities of a high school guy. Whether you write him off as a hopeless hypocrite or revere him as a spokesman for isolated youth everywhere, Holden Caulfield broke ground.

If you're looking for a way to honor the passing of J.D. Salinger, consider reading a YA book in honor of the man who helped invent the genre. I have a few suggestions. (Are you surprised?) A few of my favorites for authenticity of voice:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian - Sherman Alexie
King Dork - Frank Portman
Looking for Alaska - John Green
The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman
The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green - Joshua Braff
Days of Little Texas - R. A. Nelson
What I Saw and How I Lied - Judy Blundell
Story of a Girl - Sara Zarr
My Heartbeat - Garret Freymann-Weyr

What are your thoughts about Salinger's work? And which books would you add to this list?

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Posted in February, 2010

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