Confessions of an Unpublished Author

Whenever you hear an author speak about their first big win, be it a contract, contest, or book launch, she almost always thanks her support group for believing in her and the endless encouragement to “never give up”. (As she should!) But while I agree with the former sentiment, I have a love/hate relationship with the latter.

I relish the perseverance in writing. For a scene, a sentence. The first draft or the dreaded second. Victories I fight for every day at my desk. But have I given up the dream at times?

Hell yes.

For me, being a writer is as much about persistence and drive as raising your middle finger to the dream of being traditionally published. The idea at two a.m. that rushed me to the keyboard? It still doesn’t work a month later. Charming. The sentence I love hearing my character say, but my beta reader stumbles on every time I correct it? Trashed. The contest I felt certain I would final in and I’m not even close. The first page that was music to my muse an agent shreds . . .

Or the best example in my case: the risk I took temporarily publishing two manuscripts on Amazon for a contest (which stipulated I had to pull ISBN’s) only to have it be considered by some years later as self-published. (“If it’s not published, why does Amazon say it’s unavailable?” {Their terms of use policy, that’s why.}) Now a tactic I used to get feedback flaunts my ineptness. As I “tried something new” the rules shifted under me once again.

These are all instances when not only should a writer “give up” but she must to achieve success. Chuck the dream for a week to clean out my house, scrub the shower, or fifty other things I don’t accomplish when writing 40+ hours a week. It’s the only way I can gather my courage for the next WIP. With the level of rejection in publishing, how can I give of myself to my characters (and thus my readers) if I don’t give myself a break and offer an “up yours” to the  publishing world every now and then?

I can only write my butt off (rather than just hope) to be that newly launched author one day. But when I thank the amazing supporters I’ve been blessed with, I hope I’ll also be thankful for the times I gave myself some space. Space to grow and recharge and accept it wasn’t my time yet.

Show the World How You are Wrong

So often in writing circles you hear about “show” versus “tell”. From my experience, the amount of each in a manuscript varies by genre and more importantly a reader’s taste. The same submission to an agent or competition will be praised by one and shredded by the other. A writer who has sweat through the craft enough can correct that balance. An agent shares my vision for a manuscript and wants to represent me? Amen! Tell me what you want for the editors you plan to target. I can adjust the prose. A contest judge who has barely finished her first manuscript and doesn’t write in the same genre I do? I’ll stand by my run-on sentence, thanks. (And yes, grammar Nazis, run-on sentences can illustrate a character’s anxiety or thought process and how sometimes it goes faster than what her brain can whirl. Fragments work too. 😉 )

Let’s go a level deeper.

I mention on my home page that I write “high-impact” fiction. I first heard this term from publishing world guru, Donald Maass. (For details, I encourage you to look him up, read his books, attend a workshop, blog, etc.) One of my big takeaways from his wisdom is this: If you write safe, you can show all you want and still not affect the reader.

Instead, how can you write to impact the reader?

One of Mr. Maass’s techniques never fails to give me a sphincter moment—Identify the topic/emotion you don’t want to write about. That’s right. The one that repels you from your keyboard, makes you feel unsafe, and your first instinct is “Yeah, no. Not going there.”

Well, guess what? You have to. Explore it. Discover why you’re so uncomfortable. Figure out just how inept you are about that subject or emotion. Then give that feeling to your character.

I’ve spent 2018 writing the fourth manuscript in my series. My protagonist is an FBI agent. It’s her job to respond appropriately at all times. Her safety depends on it. Convictions of criminals depend on it. So, what happens when she’s thrown off-balance right after she achieved a lifelong goal? She’s unsteady. She’s not herself. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t fix it. And she must. Now.

Where does that hot mess come from?

Me. Dealing with (what feels like) my way-too-lengthy journey toward traditional publication. That every submission, every contest entry has to be perfect otherwise my goal will never happen. The pressure that no matter how far I trek into the publishing jungle, I will never make it through the “Amazon” alive.

Even as I write this post, frustration crackles in my mind like static. A word, or phrase when the answer almost comes into focus, like a contest win, is my drug. At last—the connection. The big break! But then the signal reverts to static again. The more I strain to listen the louder the noise becomes: My manuscript is going to my beta readers late. Illness. Monumental family events delay submissions: graduations, a relocation for my husband’s career, and a sump pump failure in my basement all within the last three months. Such issues happen to everyone, that’s nothing new. But do your frustrations play like static in your mind? What do they smell or look like? Only you can answer that.

Writing advice is everywhere. I embrace the fact I always have something to learn – it’s a joy of being a writer. But none of these well-meaning people know what can bring to a manuscript. A unique power that writers, published or not, overlook way too often when they don’t allow their characters to reflect themselves.

The only thing I know for certain at this point is how to fail. So I use my face-plant talent to differentiate my writing. My “advice” can only echo that of Mr. Maass. Identify your greatest weakness, work up the guts to give it to your character, then display it to the world. When a writer is willing to announce: “Attention everyone: this is how I suck!” people can’t help but respond.

Especially in these times, with the explosion of social media, or the gazillion online reviews about products and services. People devote countless hours of their time, trying to convince others they are right. That they know best. And while much of what they say might be true, it’s all too often drier than an empty ice cream cone.

Instead, show the world how you’re wrong. Give that failure to the character you love most. Trash their life over it. Then together find the solution.

That’s far more memorable. And human.

Blind Conviction wins at Great Beginnings!

Blind Conviction won the romantic suspense category of the Utah Romance Writers’ Great Beginnings contest! I’m delighted by such an honor.

My sincere appreciation to the chapter and coordinators for the opportunity. Also, to the judges for their time and feedback, in particular, Mr. Lane Heymont of Tobias Literary Agency.

Today is an ice cream day.

The Road too often Traveled

Being a writer takes you down many avenues. Groomed boulevards blooming with excellent ideas, to dark alleys with a nasty antagonist waiting at the end. A winding country road to reflect on before plot twists, or the endless Kansas highway when my characters refuse to talk to me. (Grrr.) Through the journey, if I’m doing my job well, I entertain, thrill, and say something about the human condition. But no matter where I go, my human condition gets written into the manuscript. This is great when I’ve seen something new or been surprised with a happy pit stop. Not so fun when a detour exerts itself on my creativity and won’t end.

A detour like my son’s college application process.

Okay. He did the driving and I navigated during the visits, discussions, and lengthy application legs of the trip. But just when I thought our destination was on the horizon (admission decisions) we’ve encountered one traffic jam after another of waiting. A “rest area” type place where applying “early action” means you only wait longer. The sort of travel plaza where the restaurants are closed, the vending machines are empty, and the picnic area uninviting.

Wait. Excuse me, I’m on my own Sunday drive – book four in my series. Yet no matter diligent work ethic, it struck me this week how much the indecision surrounding my son’s future had played a role in my WIP. Ideas have been kicked around for too long. Decisions I would have made months ago I stare at, bewildered. What’s worse, I caught my fictional peeps doing it too. Enough already!

I’ve learned to take care of myself as an author (i.e. if I’m exhausted, my writing will be too), but this recent venture reminiscent of driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in a thunderstorm (never again!) reminded me that I must also take care of my life. No matter the dreams I have for my son, I have my own. Which require finishing this project and starting the next.

The solution? I stared down the ROAD CLOSED sign. Now each day, I pick one of his top choices and tell myself he’s going there. Decision made, no admissions team required. I bulldoze the distraction and press onward. So I can get back to pulling out my hair over what I forgot to pack.

In the manuscript, that is.

Fuzzy shoes, anyone?

Like me, you may have noticed the fuzzy shoe crazy this past spring/summer. My inner Celia Hephner (protagonist – Inflatable Men) wouldn’t let me resist the fun. My birthday splurge had a pair of hot pink fu-fu happiness arrive at my door. While cushy and fabulous, I thought they looked like slippers. Even as I wiggled my toes in the luxury, another protagonist Claire Garrison (Trapped in Epitome) insisted, “Wear them around the house, not in public.”

Then my left foot introduced me to the concept of plantar fasciitis.

One evening after I walked my huskies for their four-mile jaunt, my husband wanted to stop at Home Depot. I just couldn’t shed the haute couture comfort. “It’s a quick trip, no one will notice,” I told myself. (And Claire.)

The cashier’s expression as we entered the garden center made me feel like I’d hit my head. At that point I had a choice: run for the car, or shop for plants.

I bought six perennials.

The experience reminded me that as a writer I have to push my characters to where they don’t want to go. Sometimes that results in a face-off on the cliffs of Big Sur, but it can also mean a character changing her behavior in a subtle (or fu-fu) way. Both indicate she’s growing as a person. Both are important when you’re writing about fully realized people. Claire would rather die than be caught dead at Home Depot in fuzzy shoes, while Celia would embrace the chance. What about the people in between? They’re all different if I do the work and write them as such. Or what about visualizing one of my antagonists strutting around in pair?

Try as I might though, I couldn’t get my husband to even try them on. 😉

Skunk Spray

My younger husky has had the distinct pleasure of being sprayed by a skunk, not once, but twice this year. In fact, she has gleefully pursued him as part of her “evening patrol”. As I was cleaning her up the second time, it struck me how being sprayed by a skunk has similarities to writing fiction. Thus I offer you the list, instead of the less than savory dialogue going through my head as I doused her with hydrogen peroxide, Dawn, and baking soda.

7 ways writing fiction is like being sprayed by a skunk:

1. You don’t choose it, it chooses you. You may have been wandering around the yard of life looking for something new, or relaxing on a lawn chair, sipping a tasty beverage when wham! you’re hit. Either way you’re marked, and you’ll never forget it.

2. It permeates everything you are. Ears, mouth, eyes, skin. Writing fiction changes the way you view the world, the way you touch it, and vice versa. It’s how you will leave a lasting mark.

3. It can bring out the worst in you. And that’s good. Even the most beloved protagonist isn’t all hearts and flowers. As the author you have to take your characters where they don’t want to go. Face their less than glowing side. Having something evil like skunk spray drifting incessantly through your home courtesy of your furry cherub can evoke some mean emotions. Harness them, and unleash your maniacal self on your fictional peeps. Sorry, friends.

4. You can’t get rid of it. Ever. While your pet (or worse, you) will hopefully never be sprayed again, the memory of your eyes watering from the corrosive nastiness and the metallic taste in your mouth is enough to bring it all back. It’s now a part of you – lessons learned, life experiences – it all matters. You can run, or you can write about it.

5. Sometimes you wish you could undo time. Just go back to right before you were sprayed and walk a different way. Contrary to popular belief, being a writer isn’t easy. Achieving traditional publication ever more challenging. Yet if you’re a real writer, you can’t give up. Fictional peeps won’t let you. They’ll even send the skunk your way if you ignore them. Jerks.

6. People may turn up their noses at you. Usually this is for one of two reasons: 1. They would never waste their time writing something so trivial as fiction. They’re far too important. (Never mind they read it! On vacation, on the subway, in the dentist office . . .) Or 2. They feel they could write a book if they ever tried. Yeah. As a legit writer you don’t have the luxury of such arrogance. You’re too busy wallowing in self-doubt, with nothing but the company of a stack of rejection letters and your smelly self as you finish a rough draft at two a.m. (See, you become nocturnal too.)

7. When you’re around other writers you’re so freakin’ happy to have mutual understanding you don’t notice the smell! Writing fiction brings you into company of some of the neatest, kindest people you’ll ever meet. If you let it. I’d rather be smelly and know them, than not at all.