Hangin’ Tough

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks in my writing life. I’ve learned this is completely normal. Sometimes things move like a slow emotional ballad. Other times, they move like the thumpin’ beat of a dance track.

(Note: I’m probably not going to give up on the boy band music analogies any time soon. You’ve been warned.)

Since I last posted, I made it into Round 3 of Query Kombat. I’m thrilled and humbled by this accomplishment. My Round 2 competitor (a book I know will be published and I want to read) ended the contest with a whopping 14 requests from agents—more than any of the others. So, while she didn’t win. She SO won. And I get to carry on in the contest, honing and strengthening my query/first page until the time when I’m out and can start querying. Win/Win.

While things were moving in QK, I also attended the Arkansas SCBWI conference, where I got to meet some amazing professionals and gained a lot of knowledge, plus hang out with my writer friends. No, scratch that, friends who are also writers.

The overwhelming take-home I get from these experiences is this phrase: Everything is subjective.

In QK, there is feedback posted by judges and by other “kombatants.” My round 2 had 18 comments. That’s 18 different opinions. And I mean 18 DIFFERENT opinions. I got comments that read “love the peanut butter line” and those that said, “I’m not getting the peanut butter line.” A lot of comments said my MC is a too cocky, yet I had almost as many that said they loved him and he had a great voice.

I even had one comment that read they suspect Derrick’s narcissism my actually be MY narcissism. I’m still not sure what to do with that one, but it’s certainly something for me to think about. I appreciate the person taking the time to comment on it.  (Would a narcissist say that? I’m not sure. Anyway…)

Then when I went to the conference and pitched my book to one of the editors there, he told me some things I didn’t want to hear. (Along with some other awesome things that were perfectly in-tune with my little writer heart.) At the end of our session, however, he said, “But that’s just MY opinion. Someone else may say something different.”

*Looks at QK entries* “This new query is better.” “I liked your first one a lot more.”

At the conference, the fabulous agent, Molly O’Neill, presented a workshop on dealing with rejection. I ate every word she said up with a spoon. The essence of her presentation was that it takes only one agent to “get it” and every rejection you receive before you find “the one” isn’t something to take as personal. There are dozens of factors that can contribute to a “no thanks” and just as many that can lead to “the call.” Outside of writing a killer book, most of those are out of my control. I hope I’ve done the killer book part. We’ll see, I suppose.

Listening to the professionals at the conference, different variations of the same theme kept coming up in presentations, in pitches, and in casual conversations at dinner.  Basically, if someone doesn’t like your work, it’s their opinion. Take it, consider whether or not there’s merit to it, implement it (or not), then move on.

It’s just one person’s opinion.

That sounds pretty straightforward, but it’s easy to get bogged down when someone gives you a critique that’s harsh or you get yet another rejection from an agent. I’m learning to navigate the waters by trying not to let the things I don’t like get under my skin. Or rather, make my skin tougher so those harsh crits and rejections don’t hurt me as deeply.

It’s not easy, but I’m getting better at it. I think the key is remembering that my worth (as a person and as a writer) isn’t tied directly to my manuscript. A harsh crit or rejection doesn’t make me a bad person or poor writer. A harsh crit or rejection means that one individual did not believe the work was where it needed to be for them. Maybe that means I need to revise or maybe it means I need to find another person. It really doesn’t mean I should give up or that I suck.

Because I won’t. And I don’t.

(Ah, maybe there’s something to that narcissism thing.)

My MS is getting better as my skin is getting tougher. It just might be where it needs to be for that one agent to “get it.” If not, I’ll be here Hangin’ Tough

(What? You KNOW Donnie Wahlberg is your Home Boy.)

 

The Yin and Yang of Conferences and Retreats

This past weekend, I went to my Regional SCBWI retreat. Well, I went to part of it as I am still recovery from the surgery. I’m so blessed to have a husband who was willing to drive me two hours away and stay close in case I needed him. And so thankful to belong to a group of writers who were willing to do whatever they could to make things easier as I strolled around with my walker, Daryl.

Writer retreats and conferences are awesome. And scary. And informational. Potentially hopeful. Potentially devastating.  This retreat was that and a whole lot more.

Most importantly I got to spend time with my writer friends. I have some wonderful friends in my life who love me and support my writing. They listen to my ideas, read my manuscripts, give me feedback. I love them dearly and they are so important to me. But they are not writers.

Sometimes I just need to spend time with other writers—people who think like me, know the publishing business, have felt the same immense joy of creation that I have and the same crushing defeat of rejection that I have.  My tribe, so to speak.

So I got to do that and it was the awesome part. I could tell you some stories, but one day I think our little Regional chapter might publish an anthology of the spooky/creepy things that happen to us on retreat, so I’ll save those for the book.  But what a wonderful boost t was to visit with my writer pals, especially right after having spent SO MANY DAYS lying in the bed. I left there feeling so encouraged because of my friends.

Retreats and conferences go beyond the personal connections, though. There are professional connections as well. We were lucky this year in that we had an agent and an editor as guests at this retreat. They both gave us valuable information in their sessions on world building, character, the publishing industry, etc… I came away with a lot of helpful tips.

(The tip that made me go hmmm:  “Look at the last line of every paragraph. You’ll find that you probably don’t need it. –Bethany Strout, Little Brown Editor.  She was right. I didn’t cut EVERY last line, but I found a few that were pretty much summarizing what had already been said in the paragraph! So simple, but so effective.)

Of course, part of the conference/retreat purpose is getting one-on-one feedback with these professionals. We got that from both professionals, so two for the price of one I suppose. As nerve-frying as writing query letters can be, personal pitches can be just as hair raising. We sent our materials ahead of time so they could read and be prepared with comments, so it wasn’t THAT bad, but still there is this element of fear that comes with meeting with them. Will she like my manuscript? Will she like me? Will she tell me I suck at writing and need to give up now? Will she hate my story because it isn’t contemporary? Will she love it and want to offer me rep today?

(So, that last one rarely happens, but writers would be lying if they tell you at least some kind of similar fantasy hasn’t crossed their minds prior to a professional crit session!)

Our retreat is held in an old Monastery that has partially been turned into a retreat facility. There is beautiful artwork and pictures of Jesus everywhere. Believe me when I tell you, I was talking to him before I went into my crit sessions! Have you heard of Schrodinger’s Cat? You know, where there is a cat locked in a box with a vial of poison. Until you open the box there is no way of knowing if the cat is alive or dead, therefore he is both and he is neither.

Going into a crit session is exactly like that. Hopeful that it will go well, fearful that it won’t. Until it happens both are possible.

My sessions went well and I got some advice from both professionals that I will put into my manuscript, some I won’t. I may not have landed MY AGENT FOREVER AND EVER with this retreat, but the perspective I gained is so valuable and I’m so thankful for a professional evaluation of my work. All feedback is good feedback. Remember that kids.

Early on in my writing career I read something that said most writers have this weird condition—at times suffering from crippling self-doubt that anyone will like their work versus times of extreme confidence in your words and ideas that there is NO WAY that this story will not be published.

I suffer from this condition, whatever its name. And now that I’ve experienced these retreats and conferences, written several different manuscripts, spoken to other professionals, I think I understand that this is a necessary part of writing.

Writers have to doubt sometimes. They have to care enough to want to make their stories the best they can be. Without doubt, there would be no growth. Without growth, there would be no improvement. Every writer, even the biggest and baddest among us, should want to improve with every story, every line and every word.

On the flip side of that, writers must believe enough in their stories to finish them, to have the drive to revise them again and again and again if necessary. And they have to have the bravery and the confidence to write that first query, attend that conference, put that manuscript out in the world and KNOW that someone else will “get it.”

It’s like Yin and Yang—can’t have one without the other. No dark without light. No good without bad. No reward without risk.  Retreats and conferences are like that too. Friends and critiques. Tips and rejections. Hope and disappointment.  Without all of those things, I would not be a better writer today than I was on Friday. And I am. And I am thankful for that.  For the retreat and every experience that came with it. (Even the scary one on the elevator.)

Common Threads

The Arkansas SCBWI retreat has come and gone and I’m left with a bittersweet feeling. I tweeted that it felt like I was leaving summer camp. I was tired, ready to be in my own bed, but filled with fond memories, new friends and things I learned. (Plus I did get some kind of bug bite behind my knee while I was there.)

It was a privilege to meet Alex Arnold, Editorial Assistant at Katherine Tegan Books/HarperCollins. Not only was she totally adorbs, but she shared a wealth of information about the industry, as well as helped us with the craft of writing. It was great to feel like we were getting this information from someone who truly is invested in helping us succeed. This was the first time I have gotten any critique on this WIP and her suggestions for improvement have me excited for the revision process. It was great to know that my instincts are good and that I’m moving in the right direction. I have a new goal to finish revisions and start the submission process by December.

I also got the chance to meet some great new friends and colleagues. I have to admit I was a little nervous about walking into a group of people whom I didn’t know, especially when I realized I was one of only two people there who had never attended the event. My nerves were calmed before the end of dinner. What a wonderfully supportive and helpful community I have found. It means a lot to be included so quickly. I can’t wait to meet with everyone again soon.

We worked on our loglines during our sessions. Loglines are meant to strip your story down to its most basic form and tell the reader (agent, editor, publisher, person in the elevator) what the core of your story is. Imagine the movie voice-over guy saying, “In a world where…” That’s your log line.

If you are a writer who has tried to do this, you know it’s not as easy as it sounds. I was one who thought “I’ve just written 80,000 words, what’s twenty more?” Indeed, those were the hardest to get correct and probably the most important. You never know when your story pitch will turn into an offer from an agent or editor or reach just the right ears to help you along with your career. So, writers have to be ready with their log lines.

There were writers working on a variety of things ranging from picture books to middle grade to YA. They spanned all genres-contemporary, fantasy, humor, sci-fi. As we worked in our sessions, I noticed something-a lot of our common themes were the same. We had a few books dealing with death/suicide. There were some that were about recovering from a loss of some kind. There were some in which the main character was coping with being different in some way. There were works that dealt with growing up. It’s fascinating how different each work can be from another one, yet they seem to have common threads that run between them.

I think that’s pretty cool. One of my favorite quotes is from Edmund Wilson. He says, “No two people read the same book.” I think that’s true and wonderful. And now that I’ve experienced a writing retreat I can say that no two writers write the same book, even if they cover the same subject.

And I think that’s pretty wonderful too.

And now I’m off to eat some Dauntless cake. Happy ALLEGIANT Day!