Saturday, March 26, 2011

On Dreams

On Monday, an essay I wrote about "doing what I love" was featured on a blog, and the response I got from several of my friends and family members was completely unexpected.
I knew Sarah's story was inspirational.  She's worked so hard to succeed in her career, and that hard work has finally paid off in the form of her dream job.  It's been rough on her lately, but if you'd told Sarah four years ago that one day she'd be planning a shoot in Mongolia for a National Geographic wildlife documentary, I think she would have just about died from happiness.  And now, in less than two months, Sarah will be on her way to Mongolia to film wolves and horses and weird cat-things I've never heard of.  Now that's inspiring!
But my story?  Well, mine was more about pursuing a dream and failing (or at least not being there yet).  And still, several people told me they were inspired by my story.  I thought in order to inspire people you had to fulfill your dreams.  I didn't realize that just having a dream could be inspiring too.

It's a funny thing, this idea of a "dream job."  Growing up, we all had one: movie star, professional athlete, circus performer, president...  But then we became adults, and we realized that dreams don't always pay the bills, so we got "real jobs."  And for most people, that dream job got tucked away somewhere in the recesses of our imaginations, only to be taken out and dusted off when someone asks us, "What did you want to be when you grew up?"
But Sarah and I, who are apparently still twelve, never gave up on the idea of the dream job.  I asked my good friend M one time what her dream job was, and her answer was a variation of the field she was currently working in.  No, no, I pushed, your dream job.  Wouldn't you want to be x?  Well, yes, she agreed, that would be the dream job.  She hadn't really considered it an appropriate answer because it wasn't realistic. Well, right, I said.  That's why it's called a dream job.  I asked if she'd really never thought about it, and she said no, she hadn't; apparently not everyone still believes their dream job is attainable.  Which is kind of sad.  But also probably way more realistic.  Especially if your dream job was to be president.

Still, wouldn't the world be a wonderful place if we could all find a way to get paid to do what we love?  At least two people in my life have managed it (Sarah and John - hello, wildlife documentary filmmaker and fighter pilot!).  Maybe one day I'll get there too...

So the week started out great.  Everyone was inspired, no one told me they thought my story was lame, and we were still celebrating John's acceptance into the Foreign Service.
But then, that horrible, soul-crushing, dream-smooshing monster called Doubt started to creep in.  I began to doubt everything, from my talent as a writer to my ability to handle the constant rejection (three this week, including one partial). 
Most of all, I'm starting to doubt if my dream will ever come true.  What if all this hard work doesn't pay off?  What if my manuscripts remain unpublished at the bottom of my desk forever?  What if in thirty years I'm telling Jack the story of how I once tried to be an author, but I failed miserably?   WHAT THEN?!?!?!?

Well, I suppose I'll be able to tell him that I had a dream in the first place.
Which, I'm learning, is far more inspiring than having no dream at all.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Doing What We Love

This weekend was one of celebration here at Chez R.  After one of the longest days of our lives, John called with the awesome news that he passed the Foreign Service Orals on Friday!
It all began at 5 a.m., with John falling down the stairs and waking me up.  I was far too nervous to go back to sleep, so I helped him get ready and watched him head off into the sunrise in a cab at 6 a.m.  When he texted me around 1 p.m. to say that things had gone "good, but not great" I was a little concerned.  When another two hours passed and he still hadn't called, I started to freak out.  Fortunately, John called just a few minutes later to share the good news.  He's not 100 percent satisfied with his score, but considering he was the only person who passed that day (and considering how impressive some of the other applicants were), I think he feels genuinely blessed to have made it through.  When he said to me last night that he can't think of any other career that will be as fulfilling as he anticipates a career in the Foreign Service will be, I knew I'd made the right decision letting him go for it.

Okay, that last part might sound a bit odd, but hear me out.

For the past ten years (the entire time I've been with John) the Marine Corps has pretty much owned us.  We've lived in some truly hellacious places, I've made some serious sacrifices to my career, and we've been through two deployments and one near-death experience.  Of course I realize that many families have had it worse than us, and I am sincerely grateful that John's career has gone as well as it has, but regardless, it hasn't always been easy.  When John and I embarked on this journey, part of the deal was that I'd get to choose where we lived once John got out of the Marines.  And when we first moved to D.C., and John started hinting about taking the Foreign Service exam, my hackles were instantly raised.
We'd just gotten settled into our new place, I was finally living close to Sarah, and I was damn sick of moving.  Wisely, John kept his mouth shut.  For a while.
After a year and a half or so, John mentioned the Foreign Service again, and how it really was his dream career.  By that time, I was just starting to feel the Two Year Itch (that niggling feeling that perhaps it was time to relocate again).  The odds of actually getting into the Foreign Service were teeny tiny, John assured me.  Surely it couldn't hurt to take the test?  Visions of exotic tropical paradises drifted across my brain.  Adventures beyond anything I was likely to encounter in Alexandria, Virginia, started to sound appealing.  And before I knew it, John had passed the exam, then the essay portion, and was on his way to orals.  I looked at a map of possible postings.  Suddenly, things didn't look quite so promising.

The idea that the government will now own us for the next twenty years or so isn't exactly comforting, but I know John, and he won't be happy unless he's following his passion.  And how can I blame him?  He's been nothing but supportive of my far more ludicrous dream of becoming an author.  Fortunately, I can write from anywhere.  And perhaps we won't end up in some tiny village at the end of the world.  And even if we do, I know we'll make the most of it.  We're surprisingly resilient.

Oh, and as for the title of this post, Sarah and I recently contributed to a fabulous blog, Do What You Love, and our stories just went up today.  Check us out!

Friday, March 18, 2011

7 Things I've Learned So Far

This posting is based on the column "7 Things I've Learned So Far," from the Guide to Literary Agents blog by Chuck Sambuchino, which is crammed with all kinds of extremely useful information.  It got me thinking about just how much I've learned since I wrote my first novel seven years ago.  Of course, I still have a whole lot to learn, but I wish I'd known even a couple of these things when I was starting out:

1) Learn absolutely everything you can about publishing before you start querying:
When I wrote my first book, I didn't have the first clue about literary agents or query letters or any of the things you need to know before you can publish a novel.  I thought writing a book would be the hard part; turns out, it was the easy part.  A little research led me to Barnes and Noble and a book about literary agents.  When we left Kingsville for San Diego, I signed up for a writers conference and headed blithely into the lion's den.  I literally sent out one query letter (which I confess was awful) before realizing I needed to learn a few things if I was ever going to become a writer.  So I took an internship at a literary agency.  And I learned a lot.

2)Write what you love, not what you think will sell:
After I moved on from my first novel, I quickly wrote a second novel that I never even sent out to agents.  I still think the book had promise, but it dealt with a topic I was uncomfortable writing about, and until I can get past that, the book will never be what it could be.  At any rate, by the time I started my third book, I thought I knew a thing or two about publishing, and more specifically, about what sells.  I'd only read two or three chick lit novels in my life, but it seemed like a promising genre in terms of marketability.  Which isn't to say I didn't love the idea for my third novel, but I worried too much about making it fit into a certain genre instead of worrying about the story itself.  And guess what?  While I'd been typing away on my laptop, someone somewhere had decided chick lit was officially dead.  When a bestselling author sent my novel to her literary agent in New York, the agent kindly told me that while she thought I was a great writer, I'd never break into the genre as a first-time novelist.  She told me to put the book in a drawer and write something else.  So I did.

3) Edit, edit, and re-edit:
With my first two books, I thought I could just crank them out and be done with them.  I was so sick of looking at them by the time I was finished with them that the idea of editing literally turned my stomach.  So I gave up.  With my third novel, I actually let people read it (including two book clubs - thanks ladies!) despite the fact that I was terrified of their reaction.  The novel went through at least another ten drafts before I sent it out.  In fact, by the time it was finished, it hardly resembled the original novel at all.  And that's a GOOD thing.  I still think it's a good idea to take a break from your novel before you go back and edit it.  Time and distance give you back your perspective, which gets lost when you've spent months immersed in the world of your novel.  The first few times, you'll wonder what the hell you were thinking.  By the end, you'll step back, read your novel one more time and think, "Hey, this is pretty darn good."

4) This is a numbers game:
After the New York agent told me to shelve my third novel, she gave me the names of a few more agents who might be interested in chick lit.  I queried those agents and no one else, for a total of seven queries.  That seemed like a giant, reeking pile of rejection at the time.  Now it seems like nothing!  I wish I hadn't given up so quickly on the last book, but I am hopeful that if this novel ever sells, #3 might get a second chance.  In the meantime, I have learned that it doesn't do any good to send out three queries and then sit around waiting for responses before sending out three more.  Agents take MONTHS to respond to queries sometimes.  I sent out a query last July, got a request for a partial in August, followed by a request for a full in September, only to get a rejection in February.  If I'd waited for a response before sending out more letters, I'd have lost 7 months of querying time.  I've also noticed that in most cases, if an agent is interested in your query, they respond within a week or two.  I have had an agent request materials after two months, but that's been the exception, not the rule.  I try to remind myself that some of the most successful books of the last five years were rejected many times before being picked up (Water for Elephants and The Help being just two of them).  So once your book and query letter are as good as you can make them, query away (and query widely).

5) Rejection does get easier:
Of course when you send out dozens of queries, you're probably going to get dozens of rejections.  At the beginning, I cried after each and every rejection (even on the straight-up query letters).  It still stings to get a rejection, of course, and it really smarts when you get a rejection on requested materials, but every time it gets a little less painful.  I actually got a rejection as I was typing this!  My stomach fell, I let myself mourn for a moment, and then I started writing again.  What else can you do?  Send out two more query letters, that's what!  I did that earlier this week, and lo and behold, within two minutes I had a request for a full.

6) Hold on to the positive and let go of the negative:
A few people (one in particular) have said some really nasty things about my novel.  I'm not talking about constructive criticism - I'm talking just flat out mean.  It's really hard to let go of that, because it's impossible not to take it personally (even after having given birth, I still think of my novel as my baby; it took almost as long to gestate, and they don't hand out epidurals to wannabe novelists).  Fortunately, the vast majority of people have been very kind, even when critiquing my novel or rejecting it outright.  Some of the feedback I've gotten from friends and family has improved my novel significantly, and I am so grateful for all of that help.  I've also gotten some very generous praise from a couple of agents, and that is what I turn to when I'm really down on myself.  Of course I doubt myself (All. The. Time.) but knowing that just one or two people in the industry don't think I'm completely insane for pursuing this dream gives me enough hope to keep on truckin'.

7) Never, never, never give up:
This is something that really doesn't even need to be said, because if writing is what you really love, you couldn't give it up even if you wanted to.  In my most self-pitying of moments (which Sarah and John will tell you are more than a few), I have moaned that I simply cannot go on.  "That's it!" I decry.  "I can't possibly go through one more rejection!  I give up!"  Then a new idea comes along, or I get a request for a partial, and I realize that now that I've opened up the floodgates, I'll never be able to stop writing.  Onward and upward!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Happily Ever After

This week, my mind is on fairy tales.

That might seem a little bit random, but here's how it happened:
There's a new film version of Little Red Riding Hood that came out recently, which I have not seen (we'll call it a renter for now). It certainly LOOKS great from the previews, but the dialogue sounds atrocious.

That's not really the point though.

So watching the previews for Red Riding Hood reminded me of Angela Carter's story, "The Company of Wolves," which you can read here.  It's one of my all-time favorite fairy tales (or version of a fairy tale).  I actually wrote a paper on it in my Fairy Tales and Folklore class at Berkeley (gotta love that anthropology major) and got an A+ on it, thank you very much.
Turns out there was a film version of it in the 1980s that looks awesome in a totally pre-CGI way (and somehow more creepy for it, if you ask me).
And then, completely randomly (or was it? Maybe my friend Kim is actually psychic...), I got a birthday present in the mail: a book I've never heard of consisting of fairy tales from some of my favorite authors, including Neil Gaiman and John Updike.  The book is called My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, and I can't wait to read it! Thank you Kim!!
Did I mention the book is dedicated to Angela Carter? Crazy, huh?

This also gave me some great ideas for the book I'm working on now, so I'm very inspired to write today.  Too bad today is also the day Jack decided to cut his nap short by oh, 90 minutes.  He's currently telling me I need to pay attention to him (in Jackanese - you wouldn't understand) so I'm off.

And remember to keep your fingers and toes crossed for John!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

To Tell or Not to Tell, That Is the Question

Last night, my very well-intentioned friend A introduced me at her party as a "writer," the "creative one in our midst." This has happened before, I am sorry to say; in fact, A has actually gone so far as to introduce me as an author, which is the last thing this unpublished novelist wants to be introduced as. You can imagine the questions that follow:
"Oh, are you published?"
"Have I read anything you've written?"
My answers?
"Not unless you are an avid reader of Leatherneck Magazine."
Actually, what I usually say is some awkward form of, "Not yet, but I'm trying to get a literary agent," which I fear to the average person who knows nothing of publishing sounds humiliatingly pathetic. Doesn't everyone know some schmo who wants to get a book published? It's not like I can say, "I've been rejected by thirty-some agents, but I've gotten some really great rejections!" and expect them to understand that that's actually a GOOD thing.
So, what do you do? As an unpublished author, do you tell random people you meet that you're a writer or not?
It's tough in my case, because while I was at least a journalist, I am currently nothing. Yes, I'm a stay-at-home mom, which every mother in the history of the universe knows is the hardest job in existence, but even to me that doesn't sound very impressive (especially when you're in a room full of people who work at the Pentagon, or for the CIA, or for the freaking FBI, or in the case of one woman I met last night, as a liaison between Afghani civilians and the U.S. military who has recently returned from 2 years in the Middle East. I just can't compete with this stuff!).
On the drive home, I told John about what had happened, and how while I know it's not a good reason to want to be published, how truly wonderful it would feel to say, "Why yes, I AM a published author. You may have seen my bestselling novel on display at the airport Barnes and Noble." Or at the very least to be able to say, "Not yet, but I just landed an agent who is currently shopping my novel to several editors." Right now, I just feel like a big fat failure, and it stinks!
There may be no truer cliche (at least in my experience) than "When it rains it pours." Two weeks ago I felt like something was happening with my novel, but last week was complete and total radio silence. I even sent out a couple more query letters for good measure, and I just keep reminding myself that Sara Gruen had over 120 agent rejections...
Meanwhile, I am slowly plodding along with BDC, although I never seem to get through more than a paragraph or two without having to research something totally random like ragtime jazz or vintage BMWs. This week the focus will be on John. He has his Foreign Service Orals on Friday, and I don't think either one of us will be able to breathe until Saturday. Hopefully the new raccoon cufflinks I got him from catrabbitplush will prove to be his lucky cufflinks.

Here's hoping for great news this week on all fronts! Good luck honey! I know you can do it!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My Kindle and Me

Yes, folks, the rumors are true. I've entered into a relationship with a Kindle.
First, let's get one thing straight: it wasn't my idea to get a Kindle. John bought it for me as a birthday gift, and I was more than a little surprised to find it underneath John's rather impressive wrapping job. After all, we'd discussed the Kindle before. I'd voiced my opinion freely: Sure, if I was a business traveler, a Kindle would make a lot of sense. They're light, portable, and on long trips when one might conceivably read more than one book, a Kindle would certainly be a worthwhile investment. But as someone who does most of her reading at home, why on earth would I possibly choose a cold plastic device over a beloved book?
As a writer and long-time lover of books, I was horrified when e-readers first came onto the market. What unforeseen consequences would e-readers have on the publishing industry, bookstores, and the noble book itself? And as an aspiring author, attempting to enter an already crowded and struggling market, what would this mean for my career? As much as I turned my nose up at the e-reader, it quickly became apparent that it was here to stay. When my friend LNRB showed up at dinner one night with her Nook lovingly tucked into a Lily Pulitzer case, I found myself oddly jealous. Presented thusly, it looked surprisingly endearing. It fit so easily into her purse! And it had a pink case! I must have mentioned it to John at some point, because there it was on my birthday, nestled delicately in its humble brown box alongside a power cord and a very thin pamphlet (a positive sign that even the technologically challenged such as myself might be able to manage the device).
Truth be told, I have yet to read anything on my Kindle. The fact of the matter is I'm cheap, and knowing that a book can be mine at the touch of a button is a little frightening. How easy it would be to spend hundreds of dollars on books in just a few short minutes! I took my first baby step and "purchased" a free copy of Madame Bovary, something I've been meaning to read after starting it in Montana over Christmas (I instantly fell in love with Flaubert's description of Charles Bovary's hat). As soon as I finish the other two books I'm working on, I'll start using my Kindle. I've already vowed to download our next book club selection, Sara Gruen's Ape House.
And earlier today, while I was simultaneously showering and conjuring up dialogue for BDC in my head, I started to think of the amazing possibilities of the e-reader. I could insert hyperlinks into the text so readers could view a photo of a Gypsy Vanner:

I could insert music, like Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros' "Home," the working theme song for my book.
The possibilities are endless! And now that I have the cutest Kindle cover ever, it doesn't look quite so cold and gadgety. I may learn to love my Kindle yet!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

Today is yet another rainy day, a fitting culmination to a week that had its share of downs and very few ups. Aside from the wedding ring saga (which continues today; the Kirby now smells like dead duck since I used it to suck everything out of the sink OTHER than my ring), there has been a tragedy in the family: the groomers cut off Minky's entire mustache, and Sarah is understandably devastated (she has spent years cultivating Minky's facial hair). The crummy weather today meant no zoo once again, and there has been zero movement on the book front all week. John is obsessing over the Foreign Service Orals on the 18th and I'm clearly obsessed with the book, which means we're all a little high strung here. Aside from Jack, who continues on his merry way unhindered by such worries as future employment and the fulfillment of his hopes and dreams. Enjoy it now, chubs! Enjoy it now!
In brighter news, John did really well at the Seneca Creek Trail Race yesterday. He beat his previous 50k PR by 8 minutes and came in second over all. His time was the third fastest in course history. So yay John!
I also finished my Kindle cover, which I'm happy to say came out pretty cute.

This week I really want to focus on the new book. I think it's the only way to get my mind off the other book, and if by some miracle an agent asks what I'm working on now, it would be nice to say I have more than the current 9 pages completed.
Jack is napping and I have book club at 4, and I still have to work out in between. I've been good about my 20 miles a week but I'm looking forward to getting outside a bit for my runs. I am seriously looking forward to April, when the Foreign Service Exams will be finished and the weather will hopefully be more agreeable. Maybe I'll even have news on my book by then...

Friday, March 4, 2011

Encouraging Words

The ever-fabulous Anne Mini was kind enough to respond to a comment I made on her blog yesterday, and I thought I'd re-post her reply here, just in case some hapless wannabe author in my situation should someday stumble upon this page.

My comment:
"Hi Anne. I have a general question that’s unrelated to this post, but I’m happy to move it if there’s somewhere better to ask!
Here’s my problem: I’ve had four fulls out to agents now, and the reaction I’ve gotten from three of the four is that they really like the book and think I’m a great writer, but they just don’t love it enough to represent it. One even used phrases like “I really loved this story” and “there’s so much to love here” but still rejected it, leaving me more confused then ever. (The fourth agent offered very specific feedback and said I was welcome to resubmit, which I did about a month ago. I’m still waiting to hear from her.) I’m guessing that the only thing to really do at this point is just keep querying, since I haven’t gotten any consistent feedback of what needs fixing. Am I on the right track? I’m getting a little discouraged…
Thanks Anne!"

Anne's response:
"The most recent post was a perfect place to post this, Mara. And my first response to your question is to say: YES, you are definitely on the right track. What you are getting is what are known in the biz as rave rejections, and yes, they are discouraging. They are not intended to be so, however.
For the benefit of those who have not received a rave rejection, it’s a regretful no, accompanied by praise that a writer can’t legitimately use to help promote the book. An agent or editor will take the time to say something nice about the manuscript s/he is rejecting, up to and including that under different circumstances (i.e., if the current literary market favored stories like yours), s/he would have loved to pick up your book. Or that it’s a great book that another agent might well be able to sell, but the rejecter just doesn’t have the connections to do so. Or it isn’t really the type of book s/he represents, but s/he loved it anyway.
In short, a rave rejection is intended to encourage the writer — it’s a standard means of saying, “Hang in there, kid — you have talent.”
Which is not, of course, what the writer usually takes from it. To the writer, rejection is rejection, no matter how it is phrased: a rave rejection may feel nice in the moment, but ultimately, it doesn’t get one closer to being represented.
So you are absolutely right, Mara: the key is to keep querying, rather than to assume that there’s something in the manuscript that needs fixing. (Although it’s exceedingly rare that an agent would list a specific manuscript-based reason for rejecting a manuscript unless s/he wanted you to revise and resubmit.) With this kind of response, you probably just have not yet submitted to the right agent.
I empathize with your frustration, though; agented writers receive rave rejections from editors all the time, and it’s not a problem that tends to generate much sympathy from other writers. (“That agent/editor/reviewer said she loved your book, and you’re complaining?”) Last fall, I received a delightful, thoughtfully-worded rejection from someone who said that my manuscript was the best book she had read in a year — and she still was going to pass on it. Every published writer I know has received this kind of response from time to time. In fact, Heidi Durrow and I talked about it in our recent video interview. It’s trying, but focusing on the I love your manuscript part honestly is the best way to handle it.
So hold your head high and keep pushing forward. And when you start to feel blue, remind yourself that only a tiny fraction of a percent of submitters receive rave rejections. In a perverse way, it’s an honor."

I will certainly try to keep this in mind the next time I get a rejection. Thanks Anne!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cupcake Wars

Last night, the lovely KL did something truly fabulous and surprised Sarah and me with our very own cupcake taste-off.

It was honestly a dream come true. K ran all over D.C. and picked up 16 cupcakes from 4 of the top bakeries in the area, including my first and forever love, Baked and Wired.
During the chocolate taste-off, there were mixed reviews, with Hello Cupcake getting top marks from both K and myself (sorry, B&W). To everyone's credit, the cupcakes were a day old, so freshness was somewhat hard to judge.
Alas, our fave vegan bakery, Sticky Fingers, didn't fare as well. I think this probably had to do with the cupcakes being a day old and let's face it, with no butter in there, it's hard to counteract the dryness. I have yet to try all of their cupcakes, however, so I am reserving judgment for the future!
The ever-popular Georgetown Cupcake, which I admit has never been my favorite (their cupcakes are just too dang small), did score well in the looks department. Their chocolate ganache cupcake with a sparkly lavender heart certainly won Sarah over, but in the end I need more frosting. More frosting I tell you!

Overall it was a lovely experience, and it did wonders to lift my mood after a swift rejection on the full requested just last week. I now have one outstanding partial and the resubmission, and I hate to pin my hopes on just two agents, so out went another two query letters yesterday afternoon.
The birthday festivities have finally drawn to a close, but I have to say 31 has been a good one (despite the wedding ring down the drain on Sunday night - it was finally retrieved but I'm not proud of some of the things I did in order to prevent a call to the plumber, which I had to make in the end anyhow; let's just say you don't want to know what's in the bottom of your sink). Looking forward to 32, or 8 for us Leap Day babies! I see another '80s party in our future...