Everything I Needed To Know About Publishing I Learned From Willy Wonka

Well, that title is a bit misleading… I’m new to writing and publishing and don’t know “everything I need to know” by a long stretch.

The inspiration for this blog post came when a quote from Willy Wonka popped into my head and seemed to fit my quest for publication.

“There’s a hundred billion people in this world, and only five of them will find golden tickets [representation as a debut author]. Even if you had a sack full of money, you probably wouldn’t find one. And after this contest [process] is over, you’ll be no different from the billions of others who didn’t find one.”

“But I am different. I want it more than any of them.”

The more I recalled from that film, the more appropriate it seemed. So, here’s what I’ve learned about publishing from Willy Wonka:

  1. You should never, ever doubt what nobody is sure of. If there’s one refrain everyone and their brother is singing, it’s that publishing is subjective. Rejections are expected, even for eventual best-sellers. A particular genre or topic or plot device may be unanimously declared cliché, or overdone, and yet opinions can change in a split-second based on fresh execution. So, all you can hope to do is keep writing what you love, and hoping someone else comes along who loves it as much as you do.
  2. Rude demands and entitlement issues will send you down the garbage chute. There have been a lot of posts about this recently on agent/industry blogs. From moonrat’s unproductive lunch, to odd or hostile letters sent to Jennifer Jackson, Colleen Lindsay, Jonathan Lyons and even intern Jodi Meadows… the one clear fact is that these author reactions did not help them get published. Take home point? Be a good egg.
  3. In here, all of my dreams become realities, and some of my realities become dreams. I am often surprised at how often control becomes a fundamental point of focus. Part of what I enjoy about writing– the reason I find it therapeutic– is that I finally have complete control over something. My characters, their world, and what happens to them depends entirely on what I decide. That is a heady feeling. Interestingly enough, once the writing is finished the next step (if publishing is the goal) means putting yourself in a situation where you have very little control. I think that’s why so many authors get frustrated riding the query-go-round and alternately cling to rules and/or declare them arbitrary and unreasonable.
  4. There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination. Opening yourself to other people is the only way to share something wonderful you’ve created. It also means they might disrespect or destroy it. Be ready to filter your chocolate river.
  5. A little boy’s got to have something in this world to hope for. I struggle with this one a bit personally. I realize rejections are expected. I know thick skin is a publishing industry prerequisite. I know I haven’t queried remotely enough to make any assumptions about my chances to be published, but reading the odds can be pretty discouraging. But stories are meant to be shared, so I’ll keep a healthy dose of optimism on hand.
  6. Don’t let a golden ticket make the chocolate taste terrible. As much as any aspiring author wants to be recognized and published, the publishing process should not be allowed to spoil the experience of writing. It’s easy to get swept into the madness of query letters, synopses, and pitchcraft. And I’ve spent my fair share of time agonizing over query blurb wording (many can testify to that), but it is important, I think, to remember why we started writing in the first place.

Kate on ktliterary posted a while back about Josie Bloss’s plans for a tattoo to celebrate the release of her novel Band Geek Love, and asked what other aspiring authors would do to celebrate publication. I think I might sing “Golden Ticket” at the top of my lungs:

I never thought my life could be

Anything but catastrophe

But suddenly I begin to see

A bit of good luck for me.

Cuz I’ve got a golden ticket

I’ve got a golden twinkle in my eye.

I never had a chance to shine

Never a happy song to sing

But suddenly half the world is mine

what an amazing thing!

Cuz I’ve got a golden ticket

I’ve got a golden chance to make my way

And with a golden ticket

It’s a golden day.

ETA: I’ve added a couple more points to this list. Part II is here.

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What I’ve Learned, Part III

This is tangentially related to Part II.

When in doubt, err on the side of making it easy to contact you.

A few months ago, I attended a lecture on “What to Do After ‘The End'” by author Sean Chercover.

When asked what he would do differently if he was seeking agent representation today, he told us he would never have enclosed the self-addressed stamped envelopes, as they are only used to mail rejections, and he would have preferred no response.

I wavered when I sent out my handful of letters, but in the end, my Catholic school-girl obsequiousness led me to include them.

So today, when I saw my last AWOL SASE sitting in my mailbox, I expected a rejection. (I know I need to send out more letters, but since my resolution to become a query player, I’ve been distracted. My husband and I discovered we’ve been victims of identity theft, and that has taken up all our free time lately. But that’s another story).

I opened it over the trash, in fact. And barely glanced at the first line in time to catch it before it fluttered into a pile of coffee grounds.

Another partial request. In my SASE.

No, seriously.

So, send SASE’s to those who request them (which is virtually everyone who accepts queries by snail mail). And read whatever comes back in those familiar envelopes. Might actually be good news!

What I’ve learned about writing a novel and trying to publish, part two

It’s hard to believe it’s been a month already since What I’ve Learned, Part One.

So, Time for Part Two:

Read the Directions.

I know this seems too obvious to bother pointing out. Specifically, it reminds me of one of the most major verbal ass-kickings I survived as a child.

When I was in fourth grade, our teacher, Miss Spix, announced a surprise test which would be worth half of our grade. The classroom filled with tension as she passed out the thick stapled bundles to each student.

My eyes scanned quickly down the first page… history, science, math… all much more advanced than our coursework. It wasn’t multiple choice, either. With a sigh, I returned to the top of the page to read the directions:

Do not answer any of the questions in this test. Write your full name in the upper righthand corner and the word “Yes”. Circle your name, and then turn the test face down on your desk. You may then read quietly for the remainder of the test period.

So, I did and garnered many dirty glances from my classmates as they wondered why Miss Spix did not reprimand me for reading A Wrinkle in Time (again) while they struggled to solve algebra problems. Which was nothing compared to their response when Miss Spix finally collected all the exams and then announced that I would receive a prize for being the only person to follow the directions. The playground was an ugly and dangerous place at recess that day.

That said, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that writers are literate. So I find the reports I’ve encountered from agents regarding inappropriate query letters simultaneously disturbing and comforting.

Colleen Lindsay on Inappropriate Queries

Jennifer Jackson on Inappropriate Queries

Nathan Bransford on Inappropriate Queries

Many agents have clearly listed their personal preferences and submission guidelines on their agency websites, or on their blogs, or on sites like agentquery.com (or often, all of the above.)

So use the resources available and make a kick-ass, tailor-made query. Apparently this will put you ahead of 30% to 50% of your competition.

Query Thoughts From a Serial Monogamist

I have been a serial monogamist for as long as I can remember. I got engaged to my first boyfriend at 3 years old. Our engagement lasted two years, until we started separate kindergarten classes and decided to part ways.

That’s when I got engaged to the boy I called “Mucho Macho Jason” who looked like a miniature prize fighter and who proposed to me with vows to guarantee my choice of any seat on the school bus and provide “a pile of candy”.

I have never, in my adult life or prior, dated more than one person at a time. I’ve always ended one relationship before moving on to the next. My brain just isn’t wired for dating several people casually until finding the right one to get serious with.

Which brings me to the query process… I’m not wired for proper querying. I’ve read that to effectively query, you should send out five to ten letters a week until you get a request for an exclusive read or an offer of representation. Granted, I’ve only just begun the query process, but already I feel disloyal as I send out 2 or 3 letters and then wait for replies.

I have to learn how to be a query player.

My revised beginning from a few weeks ago is up for review in the public queue on critiquecircle.com this week. Provided the revision is well-received (and early reviews are promising). I am committed to becoming a coquette when it comes to query letters.  No really.  I mean it.

Here’s hoping I uncover my inner Belle of the Ball.

Perfecting a Pitch Blurb

Kristin Nelson rocks. Seriously.

I attended her workshop on Query Pitch Blurbs at the Chicago-North RWA Spring Fling. Using her suggestions, I crafted a query letter and sent out an equery on Monday night.

Tuesday afternoon, I got a request for a partial.

She has been blogging on the same topic. Well worth reading.

You can find most of the information here. Or if you visit her main blog page, the entries from April 21 – 28 address this topic. And there’s more coming. 😉

All Flung Out: Chicago NRWA Spring Fling

Well, I’m back to my regularly scheduled doctorhood today.

I got in late last night and I’m working a 24+ hour shift today. So I didn’t have a chance to finish blogging about the conference.

Wow. What a crazy, wonderful experience that was!

Saturday, I drove in early for more workshops. I had a great session on writing query pitches with Kristin Nelson, which was highly cool. She had us share parts of our pitches and then helped us know what to focus on. Awesome… seriously worth the price of the conference all on its own.

Next was a “Meet the Agents” panel, where we got to ask questions to all the amazing agents that were participating in the conference. It also meant I got a chance to hear from the agent I was scheduled to meet with later, Erin C. Niumata.

At lunch, another agent, Christina Hogrebe, just happened to be sitting at my table. She was very kind and told me not to panic about my meeting that afternoon, which helped. Also highly cool.

Despite her sound advice, I was a basketcase by the time I was supposed to present my pitch. I mean, I swear… I’m a physician. I speak to strangers all day long. Often giving bad news to them. I was on the debate team and speech team in high school. I give presentations constantly. And I have never, ever been so nervous to make a speech before.

I had seven minutes total time (the volunteers were clicking a kitchen timer on as you walked through the door).

After introducing myself and apologizing for my nervousness, I sat down.

Voice-cracking and probably WAY too fast, I delivered my little speech.

“What were you nervous about? That’s a great pitch!”
My face is on fire. “Thank you. I really appreciate that.”
“How long is the manuscript?”
“90,000 words”
“That’s a good length. Is it complete?”
“Yes.”
“Well, I’d like to look at it. I need a synopsis and the first 50 pages. Can you do that?”

You bet I can.

“Thank you. If your book is as good as your pitch, it will be great.”

I shook her hand and nearly walked right into the volunteer who was coming to say we had one minute to wrap it up.

90 minutes later, my hands were still shaking.

The whole conference was just phenomenal. I met so many warm, funny, and fabulous people. I learned many cool things and got great advice. I survived my first pitch meeting. And I went home with a bag full of great books and other cool loot. I’m so thrilled that I decided to go.

To borrow a phrase from my wonderful test reader Kendra, “Two wildly enthusiastic thumbs up!!!”

Now I have to figure out which RWA chapter to join.

Genre-Crossing and The Edge of Memory

I have struggled a bit with developing the pitch for my novel, since it doesn’t fit easily into a single category. I had lunch with an English teacher friend who’s just finished reading and asked her what she thought about genres.

“Well, it’s sort of a romantic, psychological thriller,” she said.

“With paranormal elements.”

She snorted her iced tea. “Yes, but you tread so lightly there I think you can safely avoid mentioning it.”

“I think the best fit category is Upmarket Women’s Fiction.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s gripping.”

So there you have it.

We also discussed the new title, and I explained the reservations I had with the former working title “Still Haunted” which were:

  1. It falsely led people to expect a balls-out ghost story, whereas the ghost elements were subtle and late in the novel
  2. By the end, the protagonist is not really so haunted anymore.

My friend suggested “Still Haunted.  Until Recently.” as an alternate title. 

I prefer “Up to a Short While Ago, Quite, Quite Haunted”

Maybe I should try that title for my next queries.