It began on the veranda of the Gibson Inn in Apalachicola, Florida, the town locals call Apalach, where oysters once reigned and the river whispers of pirate ships disappearing in the streaky dawn.
In the waning heat of a summer afternoon in 2008, I joined my husband on the second floor porch of the hotel whose bar would make Hemingway weep and there, beneath the widow’s walk and cupola, I read aloud.
For two weeks, we lolled in this charming town, rooting out the public library, taking lazy trips to St. George Island. Riding bikes past shop windows where sponges and scuba suits reminded us of an era when diving beneath the waves required great courage.
When the heat built up to boiling, Tom returned to his Adirondack on the veranda with a book. I wrote. And when I’d rolled down for the day, I scooted my own Adirondack close and read what I’d written that day on a new work I called the Mother Mary novel.
That was 2008.
Over the intervening years, we returned to Apalachicola many times, introducing the kids to the Gibson Inn
and the streaky dawn
but the work on the Mother Mary novel transferred to Memphis, where the novel is set. There inside my treehouse home
I wrote through the blizzard of 2010
and the flood of 2011
and, after we took an apartment in New Orleans, the Zombie apocalypse.
I wrote as I welcomed a new dog to the family
and two other new members of the family
and lost my dad
Finally, in the spring of this my seventh year of work, I finished the novel, read it out loud, and sent it to an editor so I could begin querying agents: will you represent me, I asked, and try to sell my book for me? The opening sentence of the query letter acknowledged the oddness of the book: THE BONE TRENCH is a literary fantasy of 103,000 words that uses religion and humor to explore mass incarceration and the private prison industry—I know, religion, humor and prisons; you’re either going to love this or hate it.
Guess what? An agent loved it! He literally said, “I love it,” and offered me representation. William Reeve of the Virginia Kidd Agency. The agency is the grandmother of all Science Fiction/Fantasy agencies and, because Mother Mary and Jesus aren’t real people (not to mention the Demonittes), The Bone Trench is Fantasy. I’m joining a stellar list of “repped by” authors. And—extra good news here—he required no extensive revisions, so maybe all that writing was worthwhile. 🙂
Many of y’all have been with me on this journey. Acting as Beta readers, offering feedback. Kind enough not to ask, whatever happened to that novel you were working on? Others have followed at least snatches of this journey. So I wanted to share my happiness with y’all. (I sound so calm, don’t I? I’m not.)
Just to be clear: I’ll let you know what comes next.
I love this book. It’s about a young woman who goes on a cross-country train trip to clear her dead daddy’s name and winds up repairing her relationship with her mother. It’s funny—really funny—and sad. And, in parts, wise and faintly political—it decries the commercial abuse of chickens. The main character is Southern to her core, but she’s wildly open to new experiences and people and learning. I just adore her. And the ending. The ending is great.
The thing is, I wrote it. I started writing it too many years ago to count, and I put it in the drawer for a while. I picked it back up two years ago and began an extended revision process that included an interested agent and a wonderful editor. When the agent ultimately decided to pass, I put it aside again.
Then I thought to myself, Ellen (I always use my name when I think to myself), you need to take ownership of this novel. You’ve had wonderful advice from the editor and readers and, yes, even the agent. Now. Pick it up. Imagine it has been published. And no one but you is responsible for what is on the page.
When I did that, long-ago comments from readers burbled into my brain. I merged scenes (“the scenes are wonderful, but are they all necessary?”). I killed off characters (bye, bye Biloxi school teacher). I fixed some back-and-forth scenes (why are we leaving the Gminskis, going to dinner and returning?). I also added back in some phrasing I loved, because—remember—I am totally responsible for what is on the page.
Most importantly, as one of the readers had suggested, I moved an interior monologue to the opening paragraph. This paragraph created a lens for me to see the novel through. I spied the true message of the thing. I changed the title to reflect that message: Love Your Heart. I saw, as the agents say, the “bigger story.” The novel changed from a “Southern” novel to a “Universal” novel told in a Southern voice.
I’m serious. All this happened. And I love the novel. I am ready and willing to fight for it. I feel like—and this is really sappy in a meta kind of way—that I went through the process my main character went through, learning what she learned. I learned to take advice, listen to comments, then love my own heart.
I have only one question: how do you feel about exclamation marks in a book title? Is it too cheesy? (Obviously, cheesy is okay, but I don’t want to be too cheesy). Love Your Heart! It’s how Lucinda Mae says it. What do you think?
When I was young, my mother told me I’d gotten a phone call. I was whining about what terrible news it was certain to be, and she said, “How can it be good news if you don’t leave room for it to be good?”
I think of this every time I’m about to open a SASE. You know, the letter that, incredibly, some very high-end literary agents still use—no internet for them. My natural pessimism kicks in until I remember my mom, and I think, Ellen, you need to leave room for it to be good.
Today as I slit open the letter, I took it one step further. I said, whatever is in this envelope is good news. There’s lots of ways to spin this into truth, the primary one being he or she wouldn’t have been the right agent for me anyway. More importantly, it makes me read the letter looking for the good in it, which might otherwise slip by unnoticed.
I’m not going to identify the agent—she probably didn’t expect to be quoted, and I also don’t want anyone to be negative about her. To be clear, she did NOT offer representation. What she offered was hope.
She praised my characters, my writing, my keen observations, and my publishing credentials. I don’t mean to be blasé, but she is not the first agent to do so. What she did that hasn’t been done until this draft of the manuscript was to praise the storyline.
I have worked so hard on the story. I poured my heart into fixing the plot, making it work, pulling it into something desirable in a process that reminds me of my grandmother hand-pulling old-fashioned taffy, the taffy searing to the touch, Mamo working it into ropes before it cooled too much to be formed. To have someone say the narrative promises to be unique and entertaining is balm to my soul.
Susan Cushman, who has an amazing blog at Pen & Palette, hosted a wonderful literary salon at her house on Saturday. Neil White of Triton Press spoke to about thirty-five writers about the hybrid publishing option. I learned many things. I wanted to share a few with you.
* When revising, look for scenes hiding in your sentences.
Neil encouraged us to get our manuscripts in the best possible shape before trying to publish them in any way. As an illustration, he read a sentence followed by the full-blown scene that resulted when the sentence was “revised.” This so dramatically revealed the difference between copy-editing revision and developmental editing, it was startling. Look at sentences in your manuscript. Think about what’s behind them. See if one is standing in for what could be a stunning scene.
* Being accepted by a publisher means the publisher thinks it can sell your book.
This sounds horribly simplistic, but for most of my writing career I’ve viewed getting a novel published as something that would give me the stamp of literary validation. Someone in the business would have determined I’d written something good enough to publish.
That’s not true.
Yes, some books might be bought because they are so well-written the book can’t help but sell (think Life of Pi, which, I need to point out, was rejected repeatedly by agents). But the books aren’t bought because they’re so well-written; they’re bought because the publisher thinks the books will sell. What you get from a publisher is a stamp of salability.
The question is: what are YOU getting out of your three publishing options? Will one make you more money than the other? Is that important to you? Will one get you more readers? Is that important to you? Does one, day-to-day, ask you to do activities you enjoy more than the others do?
Of course, I’m saying you, but I mean me. What basis, other than validation, am I going to use to decide my publishing route?
* To find an agent, go to a writers’ conference and meet one.
If you want to be traditionally published, you need an agent. In discussing how very hard it is to get an agent, Neil recommended we find a writers’ conference (or two) where you are given the opportunity to make a pitch to an agent. If the agent likes your story—and understands why you are the very person to write it—she or he might request a manuscript. I’ve been to a few such conferences, but not since I was trying to sell a novel. It seems like a lot of money to spend just to get a shot at an agent, but, hey, if the conference is in a fun place, you go with fun friends . . .
It’s hard to live in a place where you know you’re failing.
When I first started writing, all my writing teachers gushed over my work. Rare voice, they said. True gift, they opined. Literary journals I admired–like the Chicago Review—sent me notes saying, we’re not taking this piece but we know we’re going to be reading about you in the future. At writing conferences, the other participants sidled up to me and said, “I liked your story the best.” When I got to the submitting stage, the first story I sent into a contest won an Honorable Mention . . . and $500.
I knew I was winning.
Now I know I’m failing.
I can look at what I’m writing and see the problems. I can hear the voices offering advice, yet I can’t fix what needs fixing. I can easily recognize the good writing of others, but I’m unable to get mine in the same shape.
I’m bogged down, and I know it.
Funny thing, my writing is better than it was when I knew I was winning. It’s better even than it was last week—each awful query letter I write is an improvement over the last terrible query letter I wrote.
I believe I have finally hit the proverbial wall. The “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” wall. The “writers who succeed aren’t the best writers; they’re the ones who keep writing” wall. The place where I need to hear and absorb what one of the Door of Hope writers told me: “We’re all famous; they just don’t know it yet.”
Time-out for “woo-woo” truth:
A couple of weeks ago when I lay in bed with my mind rumbling over the Train Trip manuscript, a voice came into my head as loud and clear as a ringing bell: that manuscript’s already sold—move on.
How is it sold? I don’t have an agent. I don’t have any outstanding submissions to a publisher. So tell me—how is it sold?
I don’t know, but I think it’s sold because I WILL wrestle this query letter to the ground. I WILL send out a fab letter that will garner all kinds of requests for fulls. I WILL get an agent who WILL sell the manuscript to a house I love.
Yes, I’m failing at this particular moment, a moment that is going on WAY too long for my taste, but which is only a moment in a long journey. In the long view—one I’ve held since the day I first put my foot onto this circuitous path—I will get there. I will make it. I am improving. I am winning.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know I spent about fourteen months attempting to rewrite my manuscript, Train Trip: Lucinda Mae’s Quest for Love, Honor, and the Chickens, into a novel a particular agent could successfully represent. At the end of this process, the agent declined representation.
This is not her fault.
Every step I made along the way—to submit, to analyze her comments and conclude the manuscript could be transformed as she desired, to try and try again—all of it was the result of decisions I made. I knew what I was doing, and I chose to take this route. I do not blame the agent, who has 100% discretion in the manuscripts she chooses to rep, just as I have 100% discretion in the agent I choose to sign with.
In the end, the truism is true: it’s a matter of fit. What I want from an agent is a good fit. Sometimes it takes a while to discover you’re not as good a fit as you thought you were. That’s disheartening, frustrating, makes-you-wanna-holler upsetting. But I have to trust that, ultimately, agents know what they’re doing. They know what they can and cannot sell in the marketplace. That’s the business they’re in.
I’m in the business of writing.
Hopefully, at some point, I will write something an agent somewhere feels he or she can sell. Who knows, I may have already done this with Train Trip—the agent is out there, waiting to discover my manuscript made amazing by a fourteen month rewrite. If that happens, I’ll be glad. If it doesn’t, well, sooner or later, I’ll decide how to best get my work out there. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I do, which is writing.
For those of you concerned about me after my Great Public Failure (I didn’t get an agent, to put this in perspective), here’s my current game plan:
* send the Train Trip query to the paid-editor for tweaking: STATUS: DONE
* send Model for Detective (When her model partner disappears, a Memphis fashion model uses her “clothes whisperer” skills to investigate the case, only to discover clues to the murder of her long-lost favorite cousin) to the paid-editor for a reader’s review: STATUS: AWAITING PRICE QUOTE
* continue revising In the Name of Mississippi (A young documentarian returns to the South to film a historic civil rights reparations lawsuit, but when the case begins to fall apart, the mixed-race young man questions his own place in the world.) STATUS: IN PROCESS
* use breaks in revising In the Name of Mississippi to send out Train Trip queries in batches of 20: STATUS: JUST AS SOON AS I GET THE QUERY BACK (or sooner if I can’t wait on her)
* send the Train Trip query to my old agent (yes, I once had an agent when this novel was so grossly unfinished as to be embarrassing) to see if he wants to get back on board with a new, polished manuscript STATUS: IN THE MAIL TOMORROW
* decide whether a hybrid publisher (manuscript review/project acceptance/paid publication) might be the answer for me (moves me off square one; gets the work out there; puts me in control of the order of publication, offers me agent introductions if appropriate to the work; offers publication to manuscripts trad pubs would probably never touch, such as The Bone Trench (A controversial private prison project brings Mother Mary and her son Jesus back to modern-day Memphis where Mother Mary is determined—this time—to protect her son from harm.) STATUS: INQUIRY DRAFTED; MULLING SENDING
On my other blog, I posted a mocku-resume (“Holder of the French Legion of Honor”—after all, who can say what actually happens in France?”). One of my created talents was plate spinning. You know, that thing they do in the circus involving a long pole and frantically scurrying women in white bodysuits.
All I can say is, the subconscious is an amazing thing.