Lessons in Humility and Geography

Nice (not really near Paris)I was given an introduction to an agent through a friend of a friend, so I sent out the first three chapters and very quickly got a response asking for the full manuscript. Trying not to get my hopes up too much, I sent it off. Just a few weeks later, I received this response:

Thanks for the sending through the remainder of the ms. – I’ve had to take time to read and also I wanted a colleague to read it as well and I’m afraid I’m going to pass on the novel.   It was my initial reaction about the chemistry between the sleuths that I just didn’t love and this is the type of cozy you have to love the protagonists as well as the mystery in order to make it work.   I wish the Paris theme worked better it was there but not quite giving the right atmosphere in the background of the story. I did like the initial idea of these traveling sleuths but I can’t pinpoint what exactly was missing from it all -maybe a better setup from NY to Paris to establish the characters home life and how it changes once they arrive in Paris (just a thought).   I wish I had liked it more to be honest but I’m going to follow my gut and just respectfully pass on the project.  Again, thanks for your patience and thinking of me and I’m sure someone else will feel differently about Max and Miranda’s adventure.  

I am very grateful for the introduction. I am very grateful that the agent, as well as his colleague, read the whole book. I appreciate and am taking to heart his comments about the chemistry — re-reading the pages to figure out where/how to spark that up.

But . . . there was one comment — two comments, really — that made me laugh. Not a happy laugh, but a rolling-my-eyes laugh:

1.  I wish the Paris theme worked better
2. maybe a better setup from NY to Paris to establish the characters home life and how it changes once they arrive in Paris (just a thought)

Nota bene: The title of the novel is MURDER ON THE CÔTE D’AZUR and it is set in Nice, not Paris. So I guess it’s quite clear that I am not “giving the right atmosphere in the background of the story” and that the Paris theme is not working.



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Getting to “Published”: Query and Response

NYT Book Review BestsellersI reject you, I reject you not . . .

Now that I have a finished manuscript, the next step on the road to publication, the search for an agent, has begun.  This is all new to me, and I thought others might be interested in the process — and perhaps willing to share some of their own stories about the publishing end of the writing business.

In that spirit, here’s a log of how the process is going for this writer.

January, 2012: Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam

I pitched to six agents at the Writer’s Digest Conference Pitch Slam. Five expressed interest in the book.

October 22, 2012: Queries Emailed

Finally finished manuscript.  Sent query letters out to those five agents, with either the first three chapters or the first fifty pages, depending on what they’d requested.

Dec 17, 2012: First Response

Dear Ms. Brown,
Thank you for the opportunity to consider your opening chapters. Regretfully, I wasn’t as pulled in by them as I had hoped, so I don’t feel I’d be the right agent for your book. I wish you every success with this book and all of your endeavors.

All the Christmas Spirit is sucked out of the room.  Rejection #1.

January 9, 2013: Follow-Up Emails

At the beginning of January, I sent out follow-up emails to the agents I hadn’t heard from, and received the following responses:

January 9, 2013 1:13 PM: First evidence of the agency flux I’d read about

Thank you for your email. Please note that xxx xxxx has left xxxxxxx Agency to pursue new opportunities.  If you wish to query another agent, please consult our website at, www dot agency dot com, for contact information.

I immediately researched and queried another agent at this agency. Who promptly rejected me. (I know, not me, the work.  I’m working on making that not feel like the same thing.) See Rejection #2, below.

Two hours later . . .

January 9, 2013 3:31 PM: First encouraging response (i.e. not a rejection)

Hi, Jennifer,
It’s being read right now, thanks for checking in. I should have a report on it in a couple of days.

Breath-holding ensues.  Eight minutes later . . .

January 9, 2013 3:39 PM: Rejection #2

Dear Jennifer,
It’s true, I am one of the agents here at xxxxxxx who love cozies. That said, I just don’t think I am the right partner to take this particular project forward. Based upon your description, I just wasn’t feeling the level of “jazzed up” you’d want in a prospective agent.

Sorry to send a disappointing response. I wish you all the best of good fortune with your launch mystery. You might want to query my colleague xxx xxxx.

Thank you for the opportunity.

I immediately queried the colleague mentioned, who, a few days later, rejected the work. Not me, the work. I believe that, I really do. See Rejection #3, below.

January 11, 2013: First request for full manuscript (from sender of encouraging response)

Dear Ms. Brown:
Thank you very much for the query and sample chapters of Murder on the Cote D’Azur. We were very impressed with the work you sent and would like to see a full manuscript. [The writer went on to point out some strengths and weaknesses in the submitted chapters, which was a level of detail I didn’t expect at this point – it was very encouraging to feel that the chapters had been carefully read and thought about.]  We look forward to reading more of the story.  Have a great day.

Jumping up and down and screaming ensues. Suddenly understand Sally Field’s Oscar moment, then remind myself: “They like the work.  The work.” And that means much more than them ever liking me.

We certainly did have a great day – and a few glasses of champagne!

Two days later, the humbling moments continued:

January 13, 2013: Rejection #3 (a bit easier to take with one “yes” under our belts)

Dear Ms. Brown,
Thank you for allowing me to consider your work.
Regretfully, this particular project is just not right for me.
I wish you all the best in your literary endeavors.

After querying three different agents at this one agency, finding one had moved on, and being rejected by two others, I guess I can say this is not the agency for me.  But at least I was thorough.

I’d like to state my appreciation for the kindly-worded rejections (which they all were).  Even if the phrases are stock euphemisms for “don’t ever send your execrable prose to us again,” it’s still nice to be let down gently.

I would love to hear what other writers out there are doing in pursuit of publishing.  As for me, I’m pulling together a new list of agents to query and trying not to spend any time wondering when – or what – I will hear from the agent who is now reading the full manuscript.  Instead, I’m taking that one request as a vote of confidence, and focusing on sending out more queries.

And I’m working on the separation of self and work in regards to rejection. Maybe not so much with acceptance.

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Tools for Writers: 750 Words

pen and journalAbout a decade ago, I joined up with a group of women formed to collectively work through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (a book I highly recommend).  We didn’t get very far, as the group turned into more of a life-goals support group, which turned out to be exactly what we each needed.

The most enduring thing I came away with from the book was the concept of “morning pages” — three pages, written out by hand, first thing in the morning.  It’s a great practice and I kept it up for awhile.  It helps get “gunk” out of your head, clearing out  some of the petty and self-defeating thoughts and moving you into deeper insights.

Of course, as with other practices, this fell by the wayside somewhat — I do it in fits and starts now, ending up with piles of half-empty notebooks scrawled with my inscrutable, messy left-handed handwriting. I still write in notebooks at time, and try to keep one next to my bed to write down those hard-to-hold-onto dreams.  I know that there is a different mind/output connection when I’m writing by hand.

But, if I’m writing for another reason besides self knowledge — to use those bits of dreams, of stream-of-consciousness in fiction, essays, or memoir — it makes sense to do the morning pages on my computer, where it’s legible, searchable, easy to edit.  And guess what? I’ve found a tool for that.

750 Words is a website created precisely for morning pages.  If you sign up for it, you get an email every day, your Daily Nudge, encouraging you to write those words.  You click through to the site, type away, and, as with NaNoWriMo, you get pats on the back: acknowledgement that you’ve reached 750 words, an X in the box for that day, and lots of metrics — graphs and statistics on how many words, how many days, how much time it took you.

Here’s an example of the stats, from my page (yes, I’m embarrassed):

This month’s stats

  • You have 18 points this month
  • You have written 5087 words this month
  • We are on day 24 of 31 for January
  • 6 daily pages started this month
  • 6 daily pages completed this month
  • You’ve participated in 25% of the days this month
  • You’ve completed 25% of the days this month

All-time stats

  • 286 days since you joined
  • 14 daily pages started
  • 14 daily pages completed
  • You’ve participated in 5% of the days since joining
  • You’ve completed 5% of the days since joining

There are even interesting charts on most-used words and connections to what you’re focusing on, what your mood might be based on the content of your writing, and how that compares to the “world” (of writers on 750 Words, anyway).  The site groups this information under “Entering your subconscious” — and it’s revealing to browse through it and discover that your mindset is Introvert-Positive-Uncertain-Feeling, right in line with the rest of the world.

You can save the writing online, but I also copy it and save it to a journal file on my own computer.

It’s a simple tool, an effective nudge, and I should be responding to that nudge every day.

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Tools for Writers: Write or Die

Write or DieAnother writing tool I use, and which I discovered through NaNoWriMo, is Write or Die. In fact I’m using it to write this post (Remember the old Palmolive ad: You’re soaking in it?).

Write or Die is a program that you can use as a web app or download to your computer (it now has an iPad app as well). When I was trying to meet my daily 1,667 words for NaNo and found that I just wasn’t writing quickly enough — or I had something else to do and needed to really ramp up my output — I’d use this program.

As Dr. Wicked states, “A tangible consequence is more effective than an intangible reward,” and that’s the concept behind this program.  The tagline is also great: “Putting the ‘Prod’ in Productivity.”

Basically, Write or Die gives you a screen for writing, and a number of settings to select. You set your goals: number of words or amount of time or both. You set the “grace period” — the amount of time you can stop writing before “consequences” start to kick in. And you set the severity of the consequences.

You can set gentle pop-up reminders to keep writing. You can have scary music play when you pause for too long. You can have the screen slowly change from white to blood red. And if you set the program to “kamikaze,” and your fingers aren’t clicking on the keys, the program will start to backward delete what you’ve already written. That’s a surefire way to keep those digits moving, even if you’re only typing “the quick red fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

It’s fun, it’s inexpensive ($10), and it’s another tool that helps me get the words out.

I don’t know what Dr. Wicked is doing now, but I think when he came up with this he was working in a coffee shop and trying to write as well. The Doctor and I are definitely simpatico, as these words from his website describe me to a T:

I simply have neither the self-discipline to write consistently on my own nor the capacity for self-deception that would enable me to create artificial deadlines. That is how Write or Die was born.

It’s a fun, simple program and it can make you laugh while also just poking you in the side as you sit there daydreaming and realize your screen has started to turn from white to pink to red. Dammit. I paused to think right there (never a good idea when you’re writing in kamikaze mode), and lost the words “pink to red.” Luckily, I remembered what I was saying.  It can even make you sweat a little, and that burns calories.

NaNoWriMo, Write or Die, and tomorrow, 750 Words.

Keep writing (and live).

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Tools for Writers: NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo widgetI’m good with work deadlines — always have been.  Give me an  executive who needs a twenty-minute presentation for a meeting next week and I can hit the outline, first draft, second draft, and polish dates while making sure the Power Point guru gets what she needs as well.

But giving myself my own deadlines on things I’m writing for possible publication? Those I blow right past, again and again. I could probably spend a lot of time in therapy trying to understand this, but I seek help elsewhere: I’m a sucker for tools, crutches, pokes — anything that will push me to write, keep me in my chair tapping those keys.

I did NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month — in 2009, which was the major kickoff to the manuscript I’m now sending out to agents. That deadline (50,000 words in 30 days) I did take seriously — because it has lots of carrots and sticks: you sign up for the month, upload your words every day, and see exactly how far away you are from hitting 50,000 words, how many words you have to write each day to get there, and how you are doing in relation to other people. There are graphs, widgets, cartoons, pep talks, and live “write-ins” at coffee shops.

For some reason, I took NaNoWriMo very seriously and got results (a certificate. And a big chunk of a novel). If you haven’t tried it, put it on your calendar for this year.

I can’t say that everything I produced that November went into the novel, or even most of it, but it was a heap of words. It showed me how much effort goes into writing, and at the same time helped set my mind free to just write, let it pour out, and worry about editing, sense, and all that other stuff later.

Now what I need is NaNoWriMo every month.

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Talking About Death

Poconos, SeptemberIt’s always there, death, but we don’t often speak about it, and when it shows up close to home — affecting family or friends, making us catch our breath as we read the newspaper or watch the evening news — we often don’t have the words we need, for ourselves, for others.

When my grandmother died, a friend of my mom’s gave her a wonderful book, In Lieu of Flowers: Conversations for the Living, by Nancy Cobb.  Ms. Cobb is an eloquent writer, and her book is wise, funny, insightful, and comforting, full of poems and quotations from many different authors and thinkers, stories from people she’s interviewed, and her own stories, her own careful and deep thinking about death and dying. I feel lucky to have this book in my life.

I’ve found this book so helpful that I now order five or six copies at a time so that I have them on hand.  As either a sign of the age I am, or just the confluence of events in the year that’s passed, I am now preparing the card to go out with my last copy. Life being what it is, and dying twinned with it, I will be ordering more.

A quote from Thomas Moore opens one of her chapters:

I think we would be able to live in this world more peaceably if our spirituality were to come from looking not just into infinity but very closely at the world around us –and appreciating its depth and divinity.

Cobb looks very closely at the world around her, and finds the divinity in it, here and now.

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The Yellow Volkswagen: In Writing, Every Detail Counts

yellow volkswagonI subscribe to The Writer’s Almanac, which means that every day I get a poem and some snippets of information on writers, thinkers, people who have made a difference in the world. I often come away with inspiration and advice, and today I learned something significant from writer Frank Conroy (books by this author):

“The author makes a tacit deal with the reader. You hand them a backpack. You ask them to place certain things in it — to remember, to keep in mind — as they make their way up the hill. If you hand them a yellow Volkswagen and they have to haul this to the top of the mountain — to the end of the story — and they find that this Volkswagen has nothing whatsoever to do with your story, you’re going to have a very irritated reader on your hands.”

This is important to remember for all stories, but probably even more so for mysteries, where the reader is very intent on keeping track of all details in order to figure out who the bad guy is.

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Keep Writing: How to Make Yourself Write

Open book on stack of closed booksIt’s so much easier to talk yourself out of writing than to actually write. Why should anyone listen to me? What am I an expert in? What do I have to say? So much easier to read. Reading is research, but also procrastination. Only actual writing is writing. Only actually writing makes you better at writing. And only writing through the bad spots gets you to the good spots.

I’ve written a book. Co-written. I started it, couldn’t get very far, and my husband came in to do the heavy lifting of the plot (very heavy lifting: it’s a mystery novel). A year later, we have a 119,000 word manuscript and we figured out how to work together. After beating myself up about not being able to outline a plot, I finally realized that my career so far has been based on talking to people, finding out what they wanted to say, and saying that for them — putting it into words that they could read off teleprompters, or that actors could deliver. I was good at that. So my husband, Dave, became my client, telling me: Here is the story. Here is what we need to get across.

It’s the first novel for both of us. So we’re working on honing our different strengths, sending queries out to agents, and working on the next book in what we hope will be a series.

And every day, we’re both looking to overcome doubt.

There are lots of places to look for help. One of my new favorites is Brainpickings. Maria Popova must be a very fast reader — and she has a gift for pulling out quotes and connecting thoughts and books and philosophies. I’m grateful to her for the writing advice she collects, and always come away from her posts with more books I need to read.

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