IWSG: On People Knowing My Biggest “Secret”

Jun 03, 2015 Main blog 21 comments

Today, I’m participating in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group blog hop headed by my friend Alex J. Cavanaugh. Members post on the first Wednesday of each month, and it’s a great way to share writing-related thoughts, worries, and insecurities! (Because there are so, SO many.)

This post will be about my biggest “secret”: my writing.

Writing’s been a part of my life since I was eight years old (I’m 29 now). Over the years, I found ways to keep it close: giving away stories as gifts, penning the script for middle school plays, doing contests and poetry jams, and writing for The Hornet’s Buzz, my high school newspaper. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading everything I could get my hands on: Grimm’s fairy tales and Andrew Lang’s fairy books, series like Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley, or The Boxcar Children, and all of the classics, especially Jane Austen.

It wasn’t a secret, exactly, but it was never something I advertised. Outside of close friends, family, and teachers, no one knew about my pipe dream.

Everything changed in 2009. This blog you’re reading right now? That was the year I began updating it regularly. By then, Googling others had become the norm, and as my little corner of the web got more and more reads (210,000 views to date!!!), people I knew IRL started finding me: neighbors, coworkers, old classmates, former teachers. It was cool, but also – if I’m honest – pretty awkward. I never talked about my writing, and suddenly I was being approached with, “So, what are your books about?”

I think that’s when things got real for me. Like, I was writing stuff. And people were reading it. (And giving me their unsolicited, sometimes mean opinions.)

Was this what this whole publishing thing was about?! Was this what I had signed up for?

(Funny side story: I was hanging out at Starbucks over the weekend with my friend, Nancy, who is a royalties specialist and one of my staunchest supporters. We were talking about how intense publishing can be, and I asked, “Why am I doing this again?” Without missing a beat, she said, “Because you have a death wish.”)

I needed time to process the fact that I had readers. Like, real readers who weren’t my mom and who wouldn’t hesitate to be bluntly, unflinchingly honest.

Since then, and especially since getting an agent, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with the idea. I’ve grown used to talking about writing, whether it’s in person with my CP, Melody Marshall, or at writerly events like book signings or the NESCBWI conference. And I even met my agent in person. It can’t get any more real than that!

So, my “secret” is out.

I still feel insecure about so many people in my life knowing it. I feel insecure about them reading my blog and learning more about me than I’ll ever know about them. But I feel pretty great, too. And as I get more used to having readers, I’ll be preparing for that one glorious day when they hold my actual book in their hands!

Will the insecurity end? Nope, and it probably never will. But there’s a chance someone out there will love my words, and that’s what keeps me going.

Do people you know IRL know about your writing? How do you handle that? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!


How Solitaire and Organic Chemistry Inspired FOTL

May 11, 2015 Main blog 25 comments

So… this weekend was groundbreaking. Life-changing. Momentous.

Why, you ask?

Because for the first time in over two years, I closed the purple spiral notebook containing my ELEGY notes and started writing on the first page of a new one. It may not seem big to you, but it is to me! After all of that time revising… do I even remember how to plan anymore? Can I draft a whole new story? That remains to be seen.

But, at last, FOTL is taking center stage and I couldn’t be happier. A fresh universe to explore! New characters to love (and torture)! Uncharted territory waiting to be traveled after taking a backseat for years and years!

I actually came up with the idea when I was about 13. My parents had bought a brand-new desktop computer for the den, which distracted my brothers and allowed me free rein over the old one downstairs. I spent hours typing stories on that thing. But sometimes, I played a game or two, and my favorite was this beautiful version of Solitaire we’d downloaded from somewhere.

The game had a dark, melancholy mood that suited me perfectly. The background was always eerie: a forest under a night sky, an empty castle dungeon, or a hall with a single shadowed throne. The music was classical and lovely, ranging from Beethoven to Debussy. Each gold-lined card featured the most exquisite art: proud, bearded kings and handsome, smirking knights.

But it was the queens who captured my attention. They were gorgeous but grim, young but somehow world-weary. The game was just simple Solitaire, but as I played it, an idea took root in my mind. I turned off the game, opened a new Word document, and titled it DECK OF CARDS. But the most I ever wrote was a story outline and a few chapters. The series seemed too big, too difficult, too unwieldy.

Fast forward seven years, to me as a perpetually tired college sophomore. I hadn’t written a word in years, having dedicated my life to being pre-pre-med and then pre-med. Looking at my first semester schedule was like staring into the fiery abyss of Hell: organic chemistry lecture, organic chemistry lab, physics lecture, physics lab, physics recitation, two biology classes to satisfy my major, and research on the side. All of them at the highest level offered by the university. (Yeah, don’t worry, it’s not just you. I don’t know what I was thinking either.)

Look, I consider myself to be okay in the smarts department. I’m not a computer whiz like my brother who’s heading the IT department at the State House, or a brilliant engineer like my other brother who’s interning at NASA this summer. But I’m not dumb. However, I certainly felt dumb having to study twice as hard just to get the same grades as all my friends.

I sat between the same two people in every single class. One was famous (infamous?) for never studying until the morning of an exam, and the other was… well, quite frankly, high 85% of the time. Yet they aced every single test. I, on the other hand, was lucky to get an 80 (without the curve, because most times one of the two would crush everyone else’s chances by getting a perfect score).

So, one night in my dorm room, while nourishing my withered body with Ramen and instant mac-and-cheese, I slammed my 500-pound textbook shut and said, “Screw this. I’m going to go back to what I’m good at. Something I can do easily.”

For some reason, DECK OF CARDS popped into my head. And that night, instead of studying IUPAC nomenclature and acid-base theory, I opened a Word document and wrote a chapter for the first time in years. It was more like a prologue, detailing what was to come in the pages ahead, but it was some of my best writing to date at that point. I stopped writing again for some time after that, but always kept that prologue on a flash drive and transferred it from laptop to laptop.

Well, that document has survived to tell its tale today. Somehow, it stayed with me all those long years and eventually morphed into the epic fantasy I affectionately call FOTL. Yesterday, I sent it off as a one-page overview for my agent’s approval, and I couldn’t feel more content or complete. The story and I have come full circle, and I’m hoping and praying for the honor of sharing it with you all one day!

What about you? What are some wacky, unexpected things that have inspired your stories?


Fun-in-the-Sun Photo Shoot!

May 07, 2015 Main blog 21 comments

Happy Friday Eve!

I, for one, am looking forward to the weekend so I can catch up on sleep! I’m running on only a few hours at this point, but still feel alert and energized. It must be the glorious weather we’ve been having. The sunshine even makes me feel better about my commute, which has been awful this week for some reason. The other night, it took me almost four hours to get home!

So I’ve been sacrificing sleep to work on my latest round of edits, but it is 1,000% worth it. It’s as satisfying as scratching an itch to go through the manuscript, cull out unnecessary words, and tighten up the writing. (A weird analogy, maybe, but true for me.) One of these days, I’m going to sit down and do a side-by-side comparison of this draft with the rough draft. I’m sure they will seem like two completely different books!

Last Sunday, my friend Jill Cetel offered to do a photo shoot with me in the park and surrounding neighborhood. I’ve been wanting new blog and Twitter photos for a while now, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity! Jill’s amazing behind the camera and has even won contests for her photography, so I was psyched that she wanted to do this for me. Thanks, Jill!

I did my own hair, but thought it might be a good chance to use my free Sephora makeover. The artist, Felix, did a great job! My eyebrows were especially on point (or on fleek, as the kids are saying these days?).

We took about a hundred photos, and I’ve included a few of my favorites below.

All of the credit goes to Jill for how well these turned out, seeing as I’m extremely unphotogenic 99% of the time and a hundred kinds of awkward in front of a lens. But she knew just how to get the best shots!

I’m just so thankful spring is here at last after that abysmal winter. Seeing all of the beautiful flowers come out is giving me new life. I fully intend to enjoy the season as much as I can!

Hope you are all loving the spring weather, too!


Revisions & NYC Trip!

Apr 29, 2015 Main blog 20 comments

I am way behind on answering and returning blog comments, and for that, I apologize! My goal is to catch up on visiting your blogs in the next week or two, so if you’ve left me a comment here, hang tight!

Life has been crazy busy these last few weeks. Luckily, most of my writing buddies are very patient with me when I just can’t get to reading their manuscripts or returning their messages promptly. My falling off the face of the earth from time to time should never be taken personally by anyone. There are always things to take care of outside of the writing/online world, and that’s just the way it goes!

Last week, I finished my first round of (post-agent) revisions and turned them in! Hooray! So now I am waiting and eying the notes for my epic fantasy. I’m not going to start seriously drafting until ELEGY is on submission, because FOTL is just so involved. There is an entire universe that I need to create and I have to immerse myself in it completely. But I’ll use the time to flesh it out and add to my super fun FOTL Pinterest board, which is playing a big part in the planning process!

Every single weekend lately has been jam-packed, and this past one was no different. I got to check off a huge item on my writer bucket list: getting coffee with my agent in NYC!!!

Isn’t she cute?! I had such a blast meeting Tamar and getting to talk to her in person. You can have a perfect working relationship with someone over phone and email, but there’s nothing like chatting face-to-face. The LDLA offices are bright, sunny, and filled with books, and that shade of robin’s egg blue you see in the photo is exactly the same shade as the walls in my room growing up. Destiny!

I got to meet Laura, too, who kindly took the photo of us. Both ladies were so warm and welcoming that I felt right at home. I spent over two hours with Tamar, just talking about everything. I’ve never doubted that my book and I are in the best of hands, but our meeting further confirmed the knowledge. I feel truly lucky and happy, knowing that all of that time and endless work I put in led me here.

The rest of the weekend was devoted to my cousin, who is getting married in September and asked me to be her bridesmaid! She, her sister, our other cousin, and I grew up together in upstate New York. Our moms are sisters, so we’re all like sisters, too. Now we’re spread across the country, so it’ll be fun to celebrate her big day when we’re together again!

I got to see her dress and veil, and try on several dresses of my own. Then we got massages and tried on a zillion expensive perfumes at Bergdorf Goodman, ate gourmet pizza at Eataly (I ♥ Mario Batali), strolled through Central Park in perfect weather, and saw the magnificent revival of The King and I at Lincoln Center.

The whole time, we caught up on life and I explained the publishing process to her and her fiance. They wanted to know exactly what an agent did and what happens after a book sells. It’s hard to remember, after being wrapped up in this writing world for so long, that most of the process is a complete and utter mystery to everyone else. It was fun to help them learn about it.

And that’s one of the best perks of getting an agent: my family and friends taking more of an interest in my writing. They can see now how important it is to me and how serious/real it’s becoming. This is something I can never, ever give up, and they’ve been nothing but loving and supportive since my news. I would always have kept on writing with or without their consent. I don’t need their blessing. But it’s a nice thing to have, you know?

If you have an agent, what has changed for you? And if you don’t yet, what do you think or hope will change?


Two Quick Announcements!

Apr 19, 2015 Main blog 12 comments

I hope you are all doing well!

I am busy wrapping up this latest round of revisions, but I wanted to stop in quickly to make two announcements.

#1: I did an interview with QueryTracker after I signed with my agent, and it just went live on the site yesterday! Please check it out HERE if you’d like! I’m so appreciative of all the hard work that Pat McDonald and the QueryTracker team do in support of aspiring authors. I highly recommend opening at least a free account on the site if you are querying!

Art by S.P. McConnell

#2: I was invited to be a Pitch Wars mentor this year! So surreal and amazing, seeing as I was being mentored myself just a year or two ago by the phenomenal N.K. Traver and Stephanie Garber! Per Brenda’s request, I will be mentoring middle-grade submissions only. So if you write MG and are interested in entering the contest this August, I would love to see your book! I will not be revealing specifics on exactly what I’m looking for just yet, either here or on Twitter, but please keep me in consideration if you’ve got a manuscript in this category. And keep an eye out for my wish list post in a few months! I would love to be your mentor-cheerleader!

Okay, now it’s back to work for me. I have something exciting coming up at the end of this week – something MAJOR on my writer bucket list – so stay tuned!


“What! You Too?” OR: An Ode To Critique Partners

Apr 01, 2015 Main blog 19 comments
Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another:

“What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”
– C.S. Lewis

That quote is the one that pops into my head whenever I think about my critique partners. It describes exactly how I feel!

“Wait, what? You also spend your Friday nights in pajamas in front of a glowing screen, making up imaginary people instead of socializing with real ones? LET ME LOVE YOU.”

“You’ve revised your manuscript seventeen times, and now you’ve decided to shelve it and write and revise another one seventeen times? YOU ARE MY SOULMATE.”

“I’m sorry… you’ve gotten 65 form rejections and instead of giving up like a normal person, you’ve decided to rewrite the entire book from scratch? I got 67 form rejections! LET’S NEVER BE APART.”

Honestly, I don’t know where I would be today without my critique partners. They are my friends, my champions, my cheerleaders, my coaches. They read my manuscripts first before anyone else in the world. They take joy in my successes and buy me strong drinks when I need them. They send novel-length emails and texts in which we discuss anything and everything, and sometimes we just find absurd GIFs and emojis and laugh over them. Because you can’t take your writing journey too seriously, or your brain will explode. There are studies.

On New Year’s Day of this year, I got two form rejections. Yes, you read that right. New Year’s Day. Form rejections. TWO.

January 1, a day of new beginnings and possibilities, and I was referred to as: “Dear Author.”

*tiniest violin in the world plays*

Even such an arguably small thing like that can feel devastating. As writers, we hope for so much and put our hearts on the line. Sometimes, I think that is forgotten, and that’s why form rejections happen like that, or someone tweets about passing on your query because it was so bad (this happened to an acquaintance and she was upset with good reason). So having a solid support network is absolutely essential. Writing is emotionally messy, and you should always have a kind shoulder or two handy.

That being said, a critique partnership is not all flowers, puppies, and rainbows.

It’s a LOT of work.

I got an email recently from a long-time blog reader who liked my relationship with my CPs (they are pretty awesome, aren’t they?!), and asked for advice on finding her own, and any do’s and don’ts. I thought it might be a good idea to blog about the things I shared with her, so here goes!

 
You are a critique PARTNER. Writing is inherently selfish, yes; we all have our own books and journeys to focus on. But you are a partner in a partnership, and that implies reciprocity. Make sure your CP is as willing to listen to you as you are to them. Make sure they take the time to ask how you are doing. Someone who only ever talks about themselves may very well be someone who only cares about themselves, and that is probably not a CP you want to keep with you on your writing journey long-term.

 

Know yourself. Are you the kind of writer who wants gentle feedback or harsh, 100% honest critiques? Do you like surface feedback like line edits, or do you like in-depth opinions on character arcs and world-building? Find a CP who can give you what you need. It really stinks when you take the time to carefully read a manuscript and give thorough feedback, and then the person only give yours a cursory look and edits that are all opinions on word choices (“You should say glanced instead of peeked.”). Think about your strengths and weaknesses, and find someone with complementary strengths and weaknesses. For example, I’m extremely organized and my strengths lie in plot continuity and pacing, but I know I need work on character arcs, world-building, and more concise writing. I have many CPs for whom those are strengths, so they can help me in those areas.

 

Be honest. Sometimes, a partnership doesn’t work out. My first partnership just didn’t turn out to be the right one for me. We weren’t at the same level writing-wise, since they had started out much later, so I found myself having to teach and advise and didn’t get the kind of help I craved for my own work. So I sent them an email and was up front about it, and we are still friendly today (and working with other CPs). This leads me to…

 

Find someone who is near your level of experience. If you are an advanced writer, it might be frustrating to CP with someone who still has trouble with basic spelling and grammar. And if you are a newer writer, having a CP who’s much farther along might feel overwhelming because you’re still learning what the hell a query letter even is. Plus, it’s much more fun to interact with a CP who is going through the same thing you are. My oldest CP, DL Hammons, and I started out together as blogging babies back in 2008, and this year, we landed agents within a week of each other. It’s nice to have someone go through the same stages as you!

 

Be truthful with your critiques, but be kind. Unless your CP specifically requests that you be mean in your critique (hey, it takes all kinds to make a world), be as tactful as you can. I wrote this post wayyy back (five years ago!!!) about my critiquing style, but I think it’s still pretty relevant to how I do it now. Feedback should be honest, but should never be given in a mean, harsh way. Also, give lucid reasoning for why you make certain suggestions, especially if they might result in big changes to the manuscript. I had someone once mock my enthusiasm in my query letters and tell me to cut out my entire prologue because “prologues are bad. Just bad.” Well, I got an agent with that same query letter and prologue intact, so… I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. 

 

Have multiple CPs, if you can. Having different eyes on your writing is always a smart idea, and the different critique styles can satisfy different requirements for you. For example, you might have one very nice CP who’s afraid to tell you what’s not working, but is an awesome cheerleader, so you can balance this with a tougher CP. Or you might have one CP who’s picky about line edits, which is great for more finalized drafts, but you might want to go to the in-depth CP who delves into plot problems for you in the initial exploratory drafts.

 
 

Hope that helps you if you’re looking for your own CP, or working on being a better one! This will be one of the most important relationships of your writing life and you’ll want to have a good one to carry you through.

Does anyone else have any advice on being or finding a CP? Please feel free to share in the comments!


Metamorphosis

Mar 18, 2015 Main blog 23 comments

When I was a little girl, I had my whole life planned out. (Yes, my obsessive need to plan was rampant even then.) This is what my life plan looked like:

As I grew older, and had to start picking out AP classes and prospective colleges, this life plan suddenly became not okay with my father. So he made a new life plan for me:
I followed this plan until I turned 21, woke up one day, and decided that I was sick of living out someone else’s delusions of grandeur. So I made another new plan:
So, I packed my bags and left my sleepy town behind for the city.

I fell in love with the tall, gleaming buildings, the summer afternoons when heat rose in waves from the well-trodden pavement, the crowds rushing about their business to the soundtrack of taxis honking and live music from a park somewhere. I hopped from train to train, ate foods I’d never heard of, saw shows at the opera house, ran on the bike path by the river as rowboats slid by.

Slowly, the city became my home. But its novelty also began to wear off.
I began to feel homesick for rolling green mountains and fresh country air and cows grazing by red barns in the sun. I missed being able to walk outside and politely say “Good morning” without being followed or harassed for money. I longed for peace and quiet and a calm way of life, which I used to think was boring.

Basically, I wanted all the reasons I’d left home in the first place; it just took five years away to realize that.

So what’s my plan now?

Well, I don’t really have one. I’ve learned that making a set, long-term plan is a little pointless. Life is going to take these unexpected twists and turns, so isn’t it better just to roll with it? I mean, I know what I’d like to do in my immediate future. First order of business: move out of the city. Second order of business: focus all of my time and energy into my writing for one whole year, and see what happens.

Bilbo Baggins (or, rather, J.R.R. Tolkien) once said: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step onto the road and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

I love this quote with all of my heart. It’s how I feel about writing the first page of a book. It’s how I feel about living life. You really don’t know where the hell you’re going to end up, and that’s terrifying to someone like me who needs to know, and plan, and be prepared.

I thought by now that I would have a few (well-received, ahem) published books under my belt. I honestly thought I would be married to someone I met a few years ago. I thought he and I would buy a house and be starting our family by now. I thought I would know, at the spry age of almost-30, where in the world my life was going, and be secure, and be certain.

But I’m not, and it’s scary. However, it’s also exciting, because even as things I expected didn’t happen, things I didn’t expect did happen. I’m in a good place right now. I feel happy and optimistic, but in a different way than I thought I’d be. And I think, more and more, that I’m okay with that.

The universe is pushing me in this new direction, and I just have to follow it and see what happens.


Hello Revising, My Old Friend

Feb 20, 2015 Main blog 24 comments

What a week this has been! Thank you all for your warm messages and congratulations! I felt very loved, and the milestone was that much more special because I got to share it with all of you.

It’s been five days since it became official, and I still can’t say or write “my agent” without a stupid grin on my face or feeling like I sound like a pretentious douche.

Half my family and friends think this news means I’m published and are confused as to why they can’t seem to find my book on Amazon. The other half vaguely grasps what occurred, but fail to see why this is an achievement and also want to know how much I am getting paid. (Ha!)

The way I’ve been trying to explain it is: your agent is your guide. She has connections and relationships with publishing houses. She knows which editors might want your book and how to pitch it to them. Basically, she opens doors that an unagented writer would find difficult (or maybe impossible) to open themselves.

Because it helped me to read the blogs of writers who went from unpublished to agented to published, I will try to share with you what details I can as I go along. Obviously, when we go on submissions, I will need to be discreet. But I will try to give an overview of the process as I learn and go through it myself!

On Tuesday, my agent (*stupid grin*) sent me my editorial letter. This letter summarized her ideas on how to improve ELEGY. All of them are obviously brilliant. We had already discussed them on the phone, so they weren’t new to me. A couple of suggestions include inserting a new side plot to make the villain even more of a villain (!) and increasing the ghost’s presence to make the book scarier and more mysterious.

One of the things I love best about Tamar is that she likes ELEGY’s focus on friendship. The relationship between two best friends is my novel’s central driving force – not two lovers. I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback on this, ranging from wanting a kiss to wanting a whole love triangle. But why should every YA have to focus on romance? It’s not every teenager’s #1 priority. I didn’t date at all in my teens because I cared more about school and friends, and Tamar told me her experience was similar. I knew without a doubt that I would choose her when she strongly agreed that it’s okay and important for girls to have goals and dreams other than boys. ELEGY has cute dudes, don’t get me wrong, but my main character’s focus is always, always on her music.

It’s an exciting time for me, and I intend to enjoy it as much as possible, seeing as it took me so long to get here!

I would’ve snorted at this a month ago, but I’m slowly starting to realize that the seven years of toil might have been a blessing in disguise.

I am 29 years old. In the world of publishing, I wouldn’t consider myself to be all that young, since there are girls like half my age landing book deals. I used to envy them and wish I had their talent, but I also strongly believe that things happen – or don’t happen – for a reason. These years I have spent maturing as a writer have also been spent developing relationships with other writers. And who knows where these bridges might lead?

Plus, if we sell my book and it becomes a BOOK, I already have a built-in support system in place. The silver lining of a long road to publication is that you meet a lot of folks along the way and you create a wonderful writing family to celebrate with. (As evidenced by the three glorious days it took to reply to all of your lovely tweets and comments!)

Please remember that, if you are still plodding along. These years aren’t being wasted. If you have a story to tell the world, and you want to do it badly enough, things will come together at some point. If it happened for me, it 100% can happen for you.

Another perk to the seven-year climb? Not being a revision newbie. I’ve been through this enough times that I can revise on command and feel confident doing it. With R+Rs, I was basically flying blind. With an agent, I now have a co-pilot to help me along. So, I’m pumped and ready to dive in and impress my agent (*stupid grin*) with my mad revision skills.

Here’s hoping, anyway!

How are you guys doing? Are any of you revising this weekend, too?


I HAVE AN AGENT!!!!!!!!!!!!

Feb 16, 2015 Main blog 60 comments

Contract

 

This is the post I always hoped I’d get to write one day.

Today, I can finally share with you that I am now represented by the incredible Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency!

Make yourself comfortable, because this is going to be a LONG entry!

 

– The Long Road to An Offer –
 

It has not been an easy journey for me. I came close to giving up many, many times. In fact, last month, I decided to take a break from trying to get published. I quietly told a few people that I wanted a year or two to dust myself off and just write for fun. No sending out queries, looking up agents, or entering contests.

I still had materials out: 10 fulls and a 50-page partial. But I’d had twice that many out at once before, and almost all had come back with the same glaring words: Not for me. I spent six months doing revise-and-resubmits (R+Rs), and one of them – the one I truly thought would offer – ended up asking for another big revision.

So I gave up, thinking that the materials I had out would end in the same place and it was time to move on. That was when everything turned around.

 

The moment you’re about to quit is usually the moment right before the miracle happens.

 

This quote was sent to me by many lovely friends on the toughest days. I thanked them, but I didn’t believe the words until they came true.

Before I launch into my story, I would like to take a moment to say to those of you reading this: If you are thinking about giving up, don’t. I know it’s not what you want to hear right now. I didn’t want to hear it when I was struggling and full of frustration, reading giddy “How I Got My Agent” posts where the writer advised people to not give up. But I mean it. I mean you. Don’t lose hope. Something could be coming around the corner to turn all of that upside down, just as it did for me.

I’ve known all my life that writing is what I want to do, and each time I moved away from it, I came right back. For some reason, I couldn’t let it go. So, in 2008, I started to write more seriously with the goal of publication.

Yes, 2008. SEVEN years ago.

There are so many “How I Got My Agent” posts out there where the writer found representation after months or even weeks, which is awesome and amazing for them. But it doesn’t happen fast for everyone, you know? When I was querying, I wanted SO badly to know that my years of struggle were normal. I watched blog friends snap up agents and book deals and hoped I could do it too someday, even though it seemed to take me much longer.

Well, if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that there is no normal. There is only a combination of crazy hard work, bull-headed persistence, very thick skin, and the right stars aligning at the right time. What takes one person a year to accomplish may take someone else a decade. I won’t tell you not to compare yourself to others because I think it’s hard not to do, as a writer at ANY stage of this business. What I will tell you is not to let it define what you think about yourself and your writing. There’s nothing but heartache in that, as I know well.

 

– ELEGY Timeline: From Rough Draft to Offer, and All the Contests in Between –
 

I can’t recommend writing contests enough. They gave me an invaluable boost of confidence. They gave my name and my writing exposure in the community. They helped me meet some of the most important people in my writing life, people I’d be proud to call my friends forever.

And, of course, they helped my agent find me.

I do think that traditional querying is still the best way to get your book in front of an agent. Contests should be used as more of a fun networking experience, and whatever else comes – like an offer – is the cherry on top.

I say that because I know what it’s like to enter a contest and be the one with the fewest requests on the team. When I did Pitch Wars in 2013, Team Tallahassee killed it: the mentee got like nine requests and the other alternate got five or six. I, on the other hand, got hardly any interest at all. Guess what? A little over a year later, I’ve signed with a top-notch agent for that same wallflower manuscript.

So if you enter a contest and don’t do as well as you’d like, don’t beat yourself up. Enter other ones, and don’t stop querying.

Here’s my timeline for ELEGY, from rough draft to offer:

 

2012

 
Spring/Summer: I came up with the idea for ELEGY. I wanted to write a ghost story with a lush, historic setting, the drama of a competitive music school, and a strong friendship between girls.
 
August: I wrote the first 35,000 words for Camp NaNoWriMo. I knew the story needed quite a bit of work, but I fell in love with it from the start.
 
Fall/Winter: I got an R+R for my MG fantasy, so I put ELEGY aside to work on it. The R+R fell through, and by late December I went back to writing ELEGY.
 
 

2013

 
March: I finished the rough draft and spent the next several months doing multiple rounds of edits with my CPs. By late summer, I had a draft I felt fairly confident about.
 
August: I posted an early query and first page at WriteOnCon. This was when I first knew there was something different about this book. I’d had little interest in my previous ms (an MG fairy tale in a market packed with MG fairy tales), but now I immediately scored two ninja agent requests. Unfortunately, they both ended in rejections, as did a few early queries I sent out.
 
December: This month changed my life. I met two of my closest writing buddies, in addition to two mentors who are still, over a year later, my mentors as well as dear friends. I entered ELEGY into Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars contest, and where almost everyone got chosen by one mentor, I was chosen by two. I started getting emails and tweets congratulating me on my query and pages, which my mentors had shared with their peers. Knowing I had a strong, compelling hook and writing helped boost my confidence.
 
 

2014

 
January: The Pitch Wars agent round came at last, with high hopes and optimism… and I only got ONE last-minute request from my mentor’s agent. It soon turned into a kind, personalized rejection. I was devastated, having expected to do better after that warm reception from the mentors and other writers.
 
February: Disappointed but undaunted, I entered another contest, Cupid’s Literary Connection. This contest featured the query letter (whereas Pitch Wars required a short blurb), and I felt good because I knew I had a very strong query. Once again, where most were picked by one “bouncer” (a published/agented writer who read through the slush), my manuscript was chosen by two. I ended up scoring five requests from major agents.
 
March: Around the time Cupid was wrapping up, I also participated in a Twitter contest called #PitMad. My 140-character pitches snagged me nine requests from editors and agents, one of whom was Tamar, who upgraded my 10 pages to 50 pages to a full manuscript within one month. I also began querying in earnest, focusing selectively on agents with whom I felt my book might connect well. For every 2-3 queries sent, I got at least one full request, which meant my query was doing its job.
 
May: I entered one final contest for ELEGY, called The Writer’s Voice. Again, I had two coaches who wanted this manuscript. I ended up with seven agent requests, the most on my team. Around this time, I attended the NESCBWI conference, where I got a critique from a senior editor at Spencer Hill Press. She also requested the full, but I put it carefully aside as I had done for all editors’ requests. I knew, deep down, that I wanted an agent.
 
June: Rejections began to pour in. Most said the same thing: gorgeous writing, but I can’t connect to Stella (the main character). At the end of the month, two agents called me on the phone addressing this very problem, as well as some other suggestions. I told them I had a lot of materials out, so I couldn’t grant exclusive R+Rs (and didn’t want to, even if I could), but they were fine with it. They had similar ideas that I liked, so I agreed to work on them.
 
July-December: I worked my tail off on the R+Rs, then commissioned a fresh army of beta readers. The ELEGY I ended up with was very strong. I asked the agents with my materials whether they’d like the new draft, and they all said “yes” immediately, Tamar being one of the first. But after I sent it out in December, the painful rejections began to trickle in. On the bright side, they were almost always pages long, full of encouragement and advice. Three agents told me they knew I’d sign with someone soon, while others asked to see other work. Knowing how desperately close I was kept me going, but every day I was losing hope. “Maybe it won’t be this book,” I thought. “Maybe it will be my next one.”
 

 

– Getting the Calls! –
 

All of that brings me to 2015.

January was a crappy month. I got numerous rejections in the first week, many from agents I felt sure would love ELEGY. The R+R I hoped would turn into an offer only became another R+R. AND, to top it all off, I fractured my knee, so I couldn’t even go for a run to vent my feelings! (Long story, but no surgery needed and I’m doing much better now.)

I was tired and unhappy. I told myself the timing was just not right and I needed a break.

And then, on February 3, I returned to my desk at work to find a missed call on my phone. It was a NYC number. Now, I’ve gotten calls from mysterious NYC numbers before, and have hyperventilated only to discover they were from telemarketers. So I thought nothing of this one as I opened my voicemail to listen to what undoubtedly would be another ploy to get me to switch to a different carrier or something.

Well, it turns out that the NYC number belonged to a NYC literary agency. And the person calling from that NYC literary agency was a wonderful agent who had connected to my book.

Her voicemail was short and sweet: “Hi Julie, this is Tamar Rydzinski. I’d love to talk with you about ELEGY. Please call me back.”

I freaked out and texted my CPs, who assured me it would be an offer, though I was convinced it would be another R+R. I set up a time to call Tamar back the next morning, and then I went home and didn’t sleep a wink.

The following day, in a blur of nerves and exhaustion, I shut myself up in an empty office and dialed her number. Right away, she put me at ease. We laughed and joked and it felt more like a conversation, not a Phone Call. She talked about her vision for the book and made excellent suggestions on what she thought could change. It was clear to me that she had given it quite some thought. I scribbled down everything she said, and though I was excited, I had the sinking feeling that yep, this was another R+R.

And then she asked me how I felt about her ideas. When I told her they lined up well with my own, she said the magic words.

“Sooooo… am I taking you on as a client?”

I screamed. (Inside. I didn’t want to scare her!)

I spent the rest of the call asking a zillion questions, which she patiently and intelligently answered. She mentioned possible future homes for ELEGY and I was in heaven. We talked about my other book ideas, especially FOTL, my epic fantasy – a genre in which she obviously has quite some expertise! – and she sounded enthusiastic and happy about all of them.

I asked for a week and a half to think, then emailed everyone with my query and/or materials with the subject line “OFFER OF REPRESENTATION.” It was like waving a magic wand. Queries and partials transformed into fulls, fulls got read immediately, and by Friday, I had fourteen people reading my book and asking me not to make a decision until they got back to me.

On February 9, I received another phone call from a 212 area code: someone from one of the most prestigious agencies in NYC. This agent was both funny and energetic, and she didn’t hesitate to tell me how much she loved ELEGY. She even mentioned specific scenes that she had enjoyed and told me she wanted to run her hands through my heartthrob character’s hair! She offered representation in an email directly after the call, at which I screamed (out loud this time, but it was fine since I wasn’t speaking to a publishing professional right then).

The CP emails I sent all had the same subject line: IS THIS THE REAL LIFE. And everyone gleefully sent back “Yes, yes it is.”

Being in the position of having two offers from outstanding agents was amazing, surreal, and not something all writers get to experience. Seven years of knocking on the door in vain, and suddenly I was over the threshold and people wanted to know me. I was grateful, but at the same time, I had stress oozing from every pore. I slept only a few hours each night, tossing and turning and worrying over my big decision.

Tamar kept in close touch throughout the process. She sent me a sweet email thanking me for our call and telling me she hoped she made it clear how much she loved ELEGY. She was awesome and attentive and thoughtful, and even as I dutifully weighed my options, I kept coming back to her again and again. I contacted two of her clients, who raved about how hardworking she is, how invested she is in their careers, and how she goes above and beyond for them. I asked for a second call, to confirm my gut feeling that she was the one (despite my connection to the other equally lovely agent), and within ten minutes my phone was ringing and we were chatting comfortably. In addition to her passion for her job and her genuine respect for her clients, I knew that I also loved her vision for ELEGY, which in the end better aligned with my own.

To top it all off, I could see so clearly that Tamar believed in me. She didn’t want to just help me with this one story; she wanted to be there for my entire writing career. Plus, she’s a total superstar, an all-around amazing agent who never hesitated to give me a real chance.

My choice, I think, became obvious!

 

– The Numbers –
 

Queries Sent (including contests): 65
 
Full Requests: 28
 
Partial Requests: 9
 
R+Rs: 2
 
Offers: 2
 
Agents Chosen: 1!!!!!

 

What Happens Next? And Some Thank Yous
 

The plan is to get ELEGY into tiptop shape before it’s submitted to editors at publishing houses. The rest is up to the universe! I know that there is much work to be done and many more mountains to climb, and my signing an agency contract is certainly not a guarantee of anything. But I’m thrilled and overjoyed to be on the next stage of my writing journey, with someone who is as lovely, kind, and professional as Tamar supporting me and my book the whole way. My dream is another huge step closer to coming true!

I know this post is already of ridiculously gargantuan proportions, but there are folks in my writing family who I really need to thank for seeing me through to this milestone:

 

DL Hammons: You have been with me from the beginning, for longer than any other CP. It is truly an honor to know such a gentle, humble, and selfless soul, and your unwavering support and encouragement have touched my life more than you know. Thanks also to your beautiful wife Kim, who kindly read an early draft of ELEGY! My love and respect to you both!
 
Marisa Hopkins: Thank you for the emoji-filled texts of love and commiseration (they don’t make enough alcohol-related emojis, that’s for sure!), and for never doubting that this day would come. You are a phenomenal writer and artist, and an even more precious friend. I want to read all of your words and treasure all of your art, because they make the world more beautiful. ♥
 
N.K. Traver and Stephanie Garber: You are my writing/publishing oracles. Yours are the first opinions I seek whenever I need advice, and your wisdom and insight never fail me. Thank you for choosing me for Pitch Wars. You gave me strength and confidence when I needed them most, and I am proud to call you my mentors and friends. I owe you both so much. When we finally meet, drinks are on me!
 
Melody Marshall and Katie Bucklein: I love you two more than I love cake. Your GIFs and texts and smiling faces brighten my life. I will always bless Brenda, Stephanie, the writing gods (The Dogly One?!), and whatever other twist of fate brought the three of us together to be Team PPU. I cannot wait to have your signed books on my shelf one day and remember how it all started. M, you’re next!
 
Nancy Bruckman: I think your pep talk over dinner, that night I teared up over my burger and told you I was thinking of quitting, gave me the good vibes I desperately needed. You’re always ready with a word of encouragement and spot-on publishing advice. Also, you’re my ARC fairy godmother, armed with a new book you think I’d like whenever I see you! You are a treasure, my sweet and generous friend! ♥
 
Dianne Salerni, Erin Fletcher, and Margo Berendsen: You ladies helped shape ELEGY into the manuscript that made this all happen. Your astute advice, respectful criticism, and bountiful praise made me a better writer, too, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I hope you know I am the staunchest supporter of your careers and would aggressively hand-sell your books to frightened teenagers ANY DAY.
 
Thanks also go to: Kristin Rae, for your referral, our Twitter conversations about Thornton vs. Darcy, and your thoughtful advice; Tiana Smith, for always being so supportive and ridiculously talented as evidenced by this gorgeous blog design; Alex J. Cavanaugh, for being the best ninja captain and friend and also the first to comment on 95% of my blog posts with encouraging words; Patrick Long, for your support since we first made PBS buffer together and for all of our lunches on the quad that became writing therapy sessions for me; and last, but most definitely not least, to all of my blog and Twitter friends: you are too numerous to name, and I don’t want to leave anyone out by mistake, but please know that you all mean the world to me and you’ve made this whole journey so incredibly worthwhile.

 

2015 is looking up! ♥


Terrible Titles Bloghop: The ELEGY Edition

Feb 04, 2015 Main blog 16 comments

My very stylish and lovely friend Alice at A Nudge in the Right Direction tagged me for the Terrible Titles Bloghop months ago. Alice, sorry I’m just now getting a chance to participate!

Here are the rules: Writers scroll through their manuscript and stop in random places. Whatever words/phrase the cursor lands on becomes one of eight terrible titles.

So, without further ado, here are some alternate titles for ELEGY that I’ll be sure to consider:

  1. WING OF BEDROOMS
  2. EACH SWEET NOTE
  3. PROUD AND A LITTLE SAD
  4. THE EMPTY DOORWAY
  5. PROTECTING IT, PROTECTING HER
  6. WHAT ABOUT AT NIGHT?
  7. UNTIL THAT MOMENT
  8. A WEAK CHUCKLE

I did not cheat, but now I wish I did because these aren’t as funny as other ones I’ve seen! I feel like EACH SWEET NOTE could be a pretty good title if this were a contemporary. And I’m kind of partial to WING OF BEDROOMS, though I highly doubt the story would be classified as YA… what do you think? 🙂
I’m tagging my fabulous CPs and Pitch Wars 2013 teammates: the uber-talented Melody Marshall and the brilliant Katie Bucklein, who just announced that she signed with an awesome agent today!!! *confetti downpour* You can congratulate her on Twitter here!
Have you done the Terrible Titles challenge? What are some fun ones you’ve come up with or seen?

2015: The Year of Writing FOR FUN

Jan 16, 2015 Main blog 22 comments

Why do I write stories?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself a LOT lately. And here are the answers that always come up:

  1. I write because I love it.
  2. I write because it makes me happy.
  3. I write because I want to make readers happy.
These three things are so simple. So simple. But as simple as they are, it’s just as simple to lose sight of them. 
I guess I’ve just been tired and worn out and a little bit sad lately.
Which is not the way I want to start a bright new year.
Which is not the way I want to feel when I think about writing.
SO! This is to say that I have an exciting announcement – a new venture that I would like to try.
I’ve talked about it before, but for those of you who missed it: I first started writing seriously after posting a novel online. I used one of the many free fiction sites out there and posted chapter by chapter under a penname. No one in the world knew it was me, not friends, not family, and it was the most liberating experience ever. Over time, I amassed a significant readership and won several awards, including best novel of the year on that site, entirely thanks to the kindness and support of strangers. 
I connected with people who knew me only through my words. They left reviews, and I responded, and we opened a dialogue about the story, the characters, the setting. They told me what they liked and what they didn’t like, and I listened and learned and started growing into the writer I am today.
That’s what I want to remember. That’s what I want to go back to: that rush of having people READ MY WORDS, not with the intent to maybe sell or pitch or market. No, they wanted to read my words because they enjoyed them, because they connected with something in the story. They wanted to read my words for fun! One person even confessed that they had printed my novel out and read part of it on the toilet that morning, and I was psyched and pumped and hysterically laughing.
There is so much joy to be had in writing, and I don’t want to forget that. Not this year.
So this is an announcement that I’m going back to my roots. This year, I will be posting a novel on Wattpad for anyone and everyone who wants to read. I talk about writing on this blog constantly, but only a handful of you have ever actually read anything I’ve written. So this will be my exciting new venture, my reminder to myself that I should value writing for fun, for myself, and for connecting with readers above all else.
The novel is going to be a brand-new one. It’s called SEAWALL, it’s a YA historical fantasy, and it’s set on the Irish coast. There will be magic, romance, a battle between good and evil, heartache, lightning-tossed seas, and betrayal (I suddenly feel like the grandpa from The Princess Bride), and I am so excited to share it with you. I’m going to be writing it and posting it chapter by chapter, so the story will unfold for me at the same time that it does for you.
SEAWALL was never something I would contemplate one day putting through the publishing wringer, anyway, so I thought this would be a good way to kill two birds: 1) share my work with readers once again, and 2) explore this with a fun, fresh, no-limits, no-pressure story that I would be writing for pure fun and escapism.
I hope you’ll stick around and let me know your honest thoughts! I’m still in the planning stage, but once I decide to put something up, I’ll let you know here! Oh, and if you are on Wattpad, you can find me HERE.
Hope you’re all having a great start to your new year so far. ♥

Wanderlust

Jan 11, 2015 Main blog 22 comments

I’ve been feeling the travel bug lately, and reading JUST ONE DAY and JUST ONE YEAR by Gayle Forman didn’t help! The first is about a girl breaking out of her shell on a trip overseas, spending one magical day in Paris with a stranger who just might be her soulmate, and the second is about that stranger finding himself as he searches the world for her, from Mexico to Amsterdam to India.

Being a structured, practical person, the idea of getting rid of maps and schedules and packing lists in favor of wandering really appeals to me. But would I ever actually do it? I hope so! There’s something about traveling, about stepping out of my comfort zone, that makes me feel like a different person. Like a brave, adventurous one. Like someone who can take the watch off her wrist and just live in the moment.

One of my new books is a historical fantasy set on the Irish coast, which is why Ireland is so high on my list. I’d love to see those castle ruins and cliffs for myself before I write about them!

When I was in college, my parents took my brothers and me to London and Paris for two weeks. They were gorgeous, wonderful cities, full of new sights and sounds. (All pictures that follow were taken by me.)

We saw the Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace, and even got to go inside on a tour! Walking through those gilded rooms felt like stepping into history. We strolled all around the city, got delightfully lost on the Tube, and rode one of those obnoxious tourist buses past Westminster Abbey.

We went inside the Tower of London and saw jewels and armor. We visited Madame Tussaud’s wax museum and even got to view a collection of Princess Diana’s gowns inside Kensington Palace.

After a week of sightseeing in London, it was off to Paris via the Eurostar train! It was on that train that I had what I thought was the best croissant of my life, and then we actually arrived in the city and I had the real best croissant of my life: chocolate of course, and flaky and perfect. I sat at that outdoor cafe with a cup of coffee, wearing a powder-blue beret that my dad bought me in Galeries Lafayette, and felt so worldly and well-traveled…light-years away from the silly small-town girl that I really was!

Of course, everyone knew we were Americans before any of us even opened our mouths. It could have been the baseball caps my brothers insisted on wearing. Or our stark-white socks and sneakers. Maybe it was the enormous camera dangling from my dad’s neck. Or the beret I was wearing, as I didn’t see a single French girl with one on.

My friend Stephanie, who had studied abroad in France for a time, tipped me off that admission to the Louvre was always free on the first Sunday of the month. (Not sure if that is still true!) I remember we spent no more than three or four hours inside, and that was barely enough to cover one-tenth of that massive place. I could have spent an entire week there and still not have seen everything!

But in the short time we were there, I still got to see amazing works of art with my own eyeballs. The Mona Lisa was tiny and we couldn’t get closer than ten feet to it because of the enormous crowd. This is where having six-foot-tall brothers comes in handy, so they can take a picture for you!

That night, we saw the Eiffel Tower lit up and sparkling against the sky. I saw firsthand why so many romances are set in Paris!

The next day, my mom was feeling a little sick, so our parents stayed at the hotel. My brothers and I were given free rein of the city!

We bought pastries and ice cream, watched people painting AMAZING things on the sidewalk, and signed our names on this huge petition for world peace in the Champ de Mars. Then we returned to the Eiffel Tower and took the elevator as high as it would go. I will remember that view for as long as I live!

The next day, when my mom was feeling a little better, we took a train out of Paris to the Palace of Versailles. The palace inspired the Chateau Champlain in ELEGY! It was a thousand times more beautiful and glorious than I had ever imagined it would be.

I can’t believe people actually used to live inside. We saw tables and chairs that had been used by the royal family, and Marie Antoinette’s sky-blue furnishings and even the door to her private salon. And then there were the incredible gardens:

As thrilling as this trip was, and however lucky I felt to be able to see and walk through such fantastic places, I think my next journey – wherever that may be – will be a lot slower-paced. Less touristy stuff. More hanging out at local spots and taking time to savor the experience, rather than seeing as much of everything as possible.

I’m also much more of a country person…something about rolling hills and vineyards appeals much more to me than the hustle and bustle of the city (ironic, isn’t it, since I now live in a major city!). So I think that my next traveling destination will be somewhere rural and quiet and windswept. Somewhere I can take a tour and have time to wander and stare out to sea for hours, absorbing a whole new story to tell in my own words.

Let’s hope that this year – the year I find a new beginning as a writer, the year I put away old stories and goals and start afresh – will also be the beginning of many travels!

Where in the world would you go tomorrow, if you could?


Julie C. Dao