One Writer’s Epiphany

A Writer's EpiphanyAt the beginning of this year, I was writing queries and a synopsis for one of my books.  Of course, I got rejections.  Thinking the problem was in my presentation, I set the queries aside so I could think things through.  Earlier this month, I sent the query package to a friend in marketing for his thoughts.

His response was that I sounded as if I didn’t believe the story was marketable (and the tag line didn’t nail the story).

Huh.

He’s partially right.  This novel is multi-layered, multi-faceted, and though it has a supernatural twist, that is only one element.  How can one tag line do it all?  Do I believe it’s an easy book for an agent or publisher to slot for genre?

Probably not.

So I sat on my porch and thought hard about the book, the characters, the facets, and the ramifications for my MC and the world around her.   I’d like to say the heavens opened up and a chorus sang.  They didn’t.  It was more like lightning. I had an epiphany.

The aspects of this novel that make it a challenge to quantify are the aspects that make it special.  It’s a story worth reading that will appeal to all ages.  It’s about redemption, responsibility, secrets, lineage, mystery, love, social expectations, aspirations, overcoming the opinions of others, friendship, and trust.  It’s about accepting the responsibility and choices we make when we let ourselves care about others.  It’s about embracing the possibility of getting hurt or rejected.  It has a monster. And it is set in 1952.  Without apology.

I called it a literary YA with a supernatural twist.  It is, and so much more.

Do I believe in this story?  Do I believe readers will identify with Lillian and her friends?

A thousand times, yes.

So my marketing friend asked me to draw some parallels to other books in print.  That’s much harder, because it is different from what’s on the market right now.  But I can say that it has the flavor of The Spitfire Grill, The Secret Life of Bees, A Great and Terrible Beauty, and maybe a tiny touch of To Kill a Mockingbird.   Literary, coming of age goodness in a unique package.

Will agents and traditional publishers be interested now that I can approach queries with a different mindset?   I don’t know.  My writers’ group will tell you I have insecurities and lack confidence, but I believe in this story and its potential to touch readers.  I will find a way to get it out into the world.    This story deserves to live, not because I wrote it, but because it wove itself around a truth that resonates within us all:  caring about others leaves us vulnerable, but also gives us the strength to rise to challenges we could only imagine.

Image: Original Photo: Morguefile; Quote: Albee 

Where Am I Going? Part Four: Undoing Past Progress for Future Gain

This is the least comfortable part of the series for me because here, shy or no, I need to confess my past ignorance and mistakes.  I will only post about this here, this one time, and then move forward.

My name is Barbara Keltz.  I am an intensely private person, and yet my initial foray into the world of the internet was under my own name, B J Keltz.   When I renewed my commitment to publishing (about a year after I had to shut down my web site), I made the decision to come back to the internet with two pen names, Hannah Scott and Robyn LaRue.  Let me explain this as quickly as I can.

file4411249348440I write mainstream and literary stuff: coming of age stories, romantic suspense, O. Henry style shorts.  I write dark stuff: a horror novella, a flash fiction piece about a serial killer in the making, dark characters who are not redeemed (and sometimes win).

I write “sweet” stuff for general audiences and I write “adult” stuff with subjects that are not appropriate for younger readers. I wanted to keep these two things separate.  My intentions were good, but the work involved in launching two author careers almost simultaneously is just too much, and they will dilute the effort.

My concern is that I may not have the freedom to write what comes to me.  I don’t like the idea of having to concentrate on one genre to the exclusion of others.  So my mentor and I made a list of current finished projects, WiPs, and projects in pre-write.  Though it is close, adult contemporary in several forms is more prominent, and Recompense, my one solid finished YA, is a crossover.

I don’t want to be pigeon-holed.  Given the time to write, I am capable of producing at least four drafts a year.  If I concentrated, I might polish two manuscripts a year for publication.  Maybe I’ll have to carefully chose the ones I polish and leave the other drafts for a bit, because the reality is this:  concentrating your efforts in one area has a bigger pay off.  Do I like it?  No.  Do I have to work with it?  Of course.

So, going forward, one pen name appears on all my social media: Robyn LaRue.  If I am fortunate enough to be interviewed one day, I’ll make jokes about Light Robyn and Dark Robyn. J  And going forward, I will concentrate adult contemporary and romantic suspense to publishers and the other pieces to independent publishing.  I would be thrilled if my future publisher wanted those pieces as well, but if not, there is a plan for them.

 The Rest of the Series

Part One: Where I Am – Starting at the (almost) beginning.

Part Two:  Pie in the Sky – what do I really hope for by publishing?  What is realistic?

Part Three: Creating a Plan – defining the steps to get from here to there.

Part Five: Gathering Support – putting together a personal support network from family, friends, and mentors.

Final Thoughts

Where Am I Going? Part 2: Pie in the Sky

I write because I have to.  I’ve never been a person who could take it or leave it.  If I’m not working on a writing project, I am filling my 70-page college-rule theme books with rants, prayers, letters, dreams, lists, story ideas, essay outlines and whatever comes to mind, including stream of consciousness thinking.

Do I need to publish?  No.  Do I want to entertain, share some insight and maybe a little wisdom? Yes.  Could I just give it away?  Yes.  Will that help me fulfill my goals and dreams?  Probably not.

For six years, I have thought about what I want to do with what I write and what I hope to accomplish.  During those six years, the publishing and bookselling world continued to slog through the process of reinventing itself (and still is).  The world had changed.

What I’ve discovered is that I’m not immune to the desire for recognition and respect.  I am not averse to money should it come my way.  However, I don’t fall asleep to images or NY Times bestseller fame and huge advances.  Oh, I did in the beginning, sure, but that has faded as other things came into focus.

file0002114186400Here is the short list of why I want to publish:

  • I want to share a bit of myself with the world and leave at least a small legacy.
  • I want to teach (mentor, assist) creative writing classes or workshops on a community level and publishing credit provides “street cred.”
  • I want to coach and encourage writers, not only with their drafts, but especially with their process.
  • I would like to start a small press one day and help bring the projects of others into the world as an author’s partner. I am also interested in partnering with at-risk youth programs.
  • I want to find an outlet for the hours I spent writing that is both respected and understood by my family, who sometimes resent the time I spend with my pen.
  • I would like to supplement my income and perhaps attend a conference or two every year.

Now, the basic truth is that I love to write and stories come to me as naturally as essays that encourage or teach.  It is something of myself than I can offer the world if I choose not to hoard them away.

These are (mostly) realistic goals and dreams.  If fame and fortune were to knock on my door, that would be okay, too. J

So, having formulated a list of my desires and looking at the state of the industry, I came to some conclusions.

  1.  Some form of traditional publishing will help me build a platform for mentoring other writers.  Call it clout, cache, or cred, it still matters.  Would I take a workshop from Amanda Hocking?  Damn straight.  But Ms Hocking is beyond a typical success (and she didn’t get there overnight).
  2. Straight traditional publishing no longer pays for the mid-list down.  When a printing is done and books are remaindered, it is gone.  Advances are smaller and 9-15% of the cover prices less the agent’s commission do not, in most cases, begin to pay for adequate marketing – something publishers used to provide.
  3. Self-publishing still has the stigma of vanity press.  Through my own purchase, I can see why.  Some indie books are just outstanding.  Some of them are so full of spelling and grammar errors and typos that I cannot get into them.  The rest fall in between.
  4. The future lies between traditional and Indie.  Digital imprints and hybrid business models are a good start for someone in my circumstances.
  5. An online presence is a requirement for success, and that presence is multi-faceted.
  6. To be an author is to be a business.  The business of writing is different from the act of creating stories.

So how do my goals and I fit into this?  More importantly, how does my work fit into this?  I write an eclectic mix of genres and crossovers, so I would prefer a plan that allowed me to write what came as opposed to focusing narrowly on one genre.  It’s time to create my plan.

The Rest of the Series:

Part One: Where I Am – Starting at the (almost) beginning.

Part Three: Creating a Plan – defining the steps to get from here to there.

Part Four: Undoing Past Progress for Future Gain – Pen Names, platforms, relationship with social media.

Part Five: Gathering Support – putting together a personal support network from family, friends, and mentors.

Final Thoughts

Where Am I Going? Part One: Starting at (mostly) the beginning

file2551313612713I am a writer by virtue of the fact that I must put words on paper every day for sanity’s sake.  It is how I process my world and learn what I feel and think.  I journal a lot.  I am also a writer of essays, non-fiction, and fiction, and for these, I am not only a writer, I am an aspiring author.

I am an aspiring author in a time of great change in the publishing industry.  Definitions are changing.  The concept of story remains (mostly) the same, but everything surrounding it is in metamorphosis.

I have written for a long time. Decades. Novels, short stories, flash fiction, and essays stack up on my hard drive.  I am not in the same place today that I was in 2007 when life-changing illness set me on the course of re-evaluating my life and ultimately deciding to do something with the piles of bursting notebooks in my bedroom.  Back then, I was blissfully ignorant of just how long it would take to build knowledge, confidence, and polish multiple pieces before I approached publication.

I am no longer ignorant or innocent.  However, I am better prepared and realistic.

This series is a chronicle of taking stock before making the leap toward publication.  Here is what I have accomplished to date:

  • Three novels (others don’t count, they were more than a decade ago)
  • 12 short stories
  • 7 flash fiction pieces
  • Free-lance work on the web
  • Writers Group (joined, led, now in small critique group)
  • Edited for others who sold their projects
  • Alpha and Beta reader for others, a small list of Alpha/Beta readers for my projects
  • Gained industry knowledge
  • Evaluated return on investment for various publication paths
  • Set clear and realistic goals
  • Undoing past errors
  • Educated myself on craft

I will be sharing my (sometimes painful) lessons so you don’t have to repeat my mistakes.  In the coming month, I will confess my sins and share this process of preparing to seek publication, including platform and mental preparation.  Why am I sharing this?  In part, it is to help me become more comfortable with sharing my inner self, and in part because I have found I am uncomfortable with anything less than honest transparency, and that includes pen names.  If it helps or inspires someone else, so much the better, and I hope it does.’

Coming up:

Part Two:  Pie in the Sky – what do I really hope for by publishing?  What is realistic?

Part Three: Creating a Plan – defining the steps to get from here to there.

Part Four: Undoing Past Progress for Future Gain – Pen Names, platforms, relationship with social media

Part Five: Gathering Support – putting together a personal support network from family, friends, and mentors.

Final Thoughts

The Query Process

Let me tell you, querying a novel is more work than writing the darn thing!  I’m only a month in to queries, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Learn the Elements

Learn how to craft a query letter.  Information in books, on line, and through videos are readily available.  Write the best possible query letter you can manage, then have someone look it over for you.  Revise and personalize as needed.  Learn how to write a synopsis.  If you’ve never done one, it can be daunting, but it’s a skill you must master for at least a third of the agents out there.  Learn how to maintain professionalism in the process if you are inexperienced.  Don’t set yourself up for failure by not learning all you can about the process and the industry.  However, don’t spend so much time learning that you don’t get to the querying.

Make your List

It’s not unreasonable to make a list of 50 agents.  I’ve heard experts say to only query ten and if one in ten isn’t interested, your book isn’t marketable, but while I think that might work for non-fiction, fiction’s beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Do Your Research

I hate to think of myself as a cyber-stalker, but it’s realistic to find interviews, Twitter feeds and anything else available on the agents you hope to query.  First, you want to be sure they seem like someone you can work with.  Second, you want to make sure they represent what you are hoping to sell.  Third, you want to give them a reason to want to work with you.  A quote from an article or a blog post or an interview can be a nice personal touch if you aren’t enamored by one of their authors or something they’ve represented and sold recently. Do not ignore the agent’s submission guidelines.

Create a System

File cards, spreadsheet, whatever you like, get that agent information in a secure, accessible place so you can easily note when you sent a query, what you included in your query package, if/when you received a response, and the result.

Create a Plan

I sent my first five queries on the same day.  Afterward, I realized it worked better for my schedule to query two a week.  Once a request for partial comes in, I can slow that down to give the agent time.  It’s drudgery in some ways, so pace yourself if you’re that kind of person or batch them if it works better for you.

Don’t Give Up

Give the process a chance.  Update your system and plan if needed and as you go along.  Refine and revise your query letter every so often if you aren’t getting any bites.

One last note.  The first thirty pages of your novel need to shine.  Make sure you have a good hook in your opening paragraph and the inciting incident within the first thirty pages.  About half of the agents on my list want the first 5, 10 or 30 pages, so be prepared.