Sad Truth: Getting Published is Like Trying to Find a Legal Job

Blah.

I considered making that my entire blog post and then leaving it up to interpretation. I thought maybe it would make my blog more literary cuz it forced you to think, you know?   Dig deep.

Jk.

The truth is, “blah” describes my current feelings toward the finding-an-agent process.

I expected to endure rejection, of course.  If I learned anything from blogging it’s that this industry is tough. Tougher if you’re a woman. Still tougher if you’re a black woman. I was told not to quit until I was rejected by 100 agents. I’ve been rejected, but not by 100- yet. So yeah, I anticipated the ego-bruising part.

What I didn’t expect was for the process to be so much like finding a legal job.

I know. Exactly.

I went to this legal panel a few weeks ago called “Broadening Your Legal Exposure.” It was all about how, in order to make it in this town, you need to join organizations, publish articles, and take on speaking engagements. My reaction was “useful stuff.”

The next day, I, unrelatedly, started browsing through writing blogs about how to get an agent, and gleaned this advice: join organizations, publish articles and take on speaking engagements. And attend writing conferences. My reaction was “are you f-ing kidding me.”

It’s not that I ever expected the process of writing a book to be pure. For better or for worse, I never had the delusion that it was all about the art, creativity, etc.

In fact, if I’m being honest, I was probably counting on that fact to some degree. You know, trying to give myself a leg up by blogging, staying on top of the industry, etc. I tried to turn this law firm background into advantage (beyond the freedom to not write in poverty, I mean). Like, I should know something about business or whatever. I figured that would help.

The problem is that some point along the way, I grew to appreciate the art form more and more and to raise the standards for myself creatively. I put in some serious time, effort and cash to make manuscript the best it could possibly be at this moment. So I’ve done that and now I’m faced with this hustling, networking, get your name out there stuff, and it’s just so annoying.

So annoying.

It’s like Blah.

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Cheryl Strayed Retreat and The Story I Had to Tell

A couple of weeks ago I went on a writer’s retreat taught by Wild author Cheryl Strayed called the “The Story You Have to Tell.”  I would tell you where it was, but I don’t want you to hate me.

Instead, I’ll tell you about Cheryl.  Cheryl Strayed grew up in an abusive household, lost her mother at age 22, spiraled in her grief by having sex with strangers and using heroin and told the world all about it.  She’s written essays and books about the worst moments of her life—not because they happened, she said, but because she’s a writer.  Doing so turned her into an excellent writer, a compassionate human being, and someone whose fans approach her regularly to tell her the worst things that ever happened to them (something I saw happen at least once a day).

I think a lot of people were drawn to the retreat as a healing mechanism for something they were going through; however, I wouldn’t say that it was a depressing experience.  Cheryl taught for 3 hours a day, we worked on writing prompts, shared work with others and ate gluten-free, mostly vegan food together.  The whole thing just felt very honest.  Everyone was really open in their writing and in general.  Although I was motivated to attend because I think her essays The Love of My Life, and Heroin/e are perfect examples of writing, I think this environment of vulnerability and honesty did ultimately teach me something about writing.

First, I internalized the power of vulnerability, especially for novice writers.   When you haven’t had the training, experience, or mastered the technical skills, that’s basically the only real tool you have to create something great.  Second, I think I write a lot from my head, which seemed separate from writing from my heart.  Now I think the best way to go is to write from your heart but with what Cheryl described as a “literary consciousness.”  Basically being conscious of the point of what you’re writing and making it make sense.  I think that’s the money combo.

So in honor of today’s post on openness, I will tell you about the story I had to tell when I was writing “Lessons from Robin.”

It all started three years ago when my ex-boyfriend and I broke up.  Not only was I reeling with emotions, but I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands.  That ish was crazy. I couldn’t believe that it happened and I couldn’t believe how traumatizing the experience was.  Add to that that one of my close friends in D.C. lost a parent a few weeks earlier, the other drifted away for other reasons (that could be its own novel), and everyone else was in another city, I felt like I was going through the whole thing alone.

I had a story in me, but it wasn’t really about love or grief or the dude.  It was about how I was a completely different person when I left that relationship than when I entered it.  That experience changed me, and I didn’t know what to make of that.  So there was a loss of a boyfriend, a friend, and also myself.  I never knew that a relationship could have that kind of effect on someone, so I wrote a story about that.

It’s still not an autobiographical story!  The characters aren’t me or people I know, but the core of it comes from that experience.

Do you have a story you have to tell?

lumeria

The retreat site.

cheryl strayed

Me and Cheryl.  I suppose I’m cheesing a little too hard…

Submission Material Feedback and How I Met This Year’s Newbery Medal Winner

Man oh man, lots has been going on.

Let’s Talk About the Agent Bootcamp

I got comments back on my query letter, synopsis and 9 pages of my manuscript. Much like every other time I’ve invested (money) in my writing, I do not regret it. It was incredibly helpful. In case you missed it, I participated in an Agent One on One Bootcamp to get some of my submission materials reviewed.

First, the agent said she really liked my synopsis and said it was the best she read in the Bootcamp! Woohoo! Of course the point of these programs is constructive criticism, but trust me, I will take any confidence booster I can get. This process is long and subjective and full of unknowns, so I was really happy when she said that. I even wrote a post about how to write a Synopsis for The Write Practice. 🙂

Then, she gave me some tips on my query letter. Generally, she said it was too long and detailed (mind you, the whole thing was four paragraphs), but she liked the bio. In my query, I mentioned that the manuscript is written in a format similar to Terry McMillan’s Disappearing Acts. So she replaced my summary with the blurb from that book and told me to use that as a guide. Doing so showed me that my summary in the query should be more about showing the tension between the characters than explaining exactly what happens. I’ve read a million things about query letters, but something about that comment made me finally get it.

How do I know I got it? Because one agent who I sent only the query (no sample pages or synopsis) asked for my entire manuscript. And this was straight from the slush pile. A couple of agents have read up to 100 pages of my manuscript, but I had met all of them in advance (at a writer’s retreat). I just cold called this lady and she responded based solely on this one letter. (For those of you who don’t know, the process usually consists of a request for a few chapters or the first 50 pages, and then a request for the full thing.) So now I feel pretty confident in my query, thank goodness.

Finally, she gave me some tips on my first pages, which was helpful because no one had read them before. I’ve re-written those things so many times now, I can’t even tell you what draft it is. This time I made sure there was some action. Seems obvious, but it’s much easier said than done—I think I got it though. (Ask me again in a month.)  Anyway, she said my manuscript was too contemporary for her, but recommended that I pitch one of her colleagues and if she passed, to try her again. 😀

About That Newbery Medal Winner…

Yeah, about that.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to this mini writer’s retreat in Bowie, Maryland. Basically it was just a bunch of local writers writing in the basement of Marita Golden—who has published over a dozen books—for 5 hours. It was a great, inspiring setting with about 6 or so writers and at the end we discussed what we were working on. One of the people I met was a guy named Kwame Alexander. He seemed like he knew he what he was doing, but honestly, so did everyone else in that room.

Little did I know that two days later he would win the NEWBERY MEDAL aka the most prestigious award for American literature for children!  I’M SERIOUS. To give you an idea, past winners and honorees include Beverly Clearly, E.B. White (for Charlotte’s Webb), Lois Lowry (The Giver), Fred Gipson (Old Yeller).

I’m so proud of him, and I would be even if I hadn’t met him. It should not be lost on any of the readers of this blog how important it is to have an African American winner of this award (and he’s D.C. based!). Children and adults all over the country (world?) will be reading this book (maybe even assigned it in school), and that’s amazing for readers and writers everywhere. I’m so happy!!

Kwame’s book is called The Crossover. Buy it!!

The Crossover