What a difference a year makes.
At this time a year ago, I was getting ready to head to New York City for one of the largest annual writing conferences in North America. I had a novel in hand and a desire to bring it, and myself for that matter, back into the game that is publishing. I’d attended a smaller conference in Philadelphia earlier in the year and received some good advice and worked on a few things with my book pitch and the book itself. I’d then consulted with a major industry insider who worked with me on the overall scope of the book, my synopsis, and helped me make a few significant structural changes that made the book a lot better.
The weekend of the conference, I took the Acela up from DC on a Friday and arrived in Manhattan with a full head of steam. I was there to learn, network, cheat on my diet, and pitch my book to a roomful of editors and agents in what they call “Pitch Slam.” It’s essentially book-related speed dating.
Overall it was a great conference and I learned a lot and met some very cool people and ate some amazing food. I got to meet and talk with Richard Russo and a number of other writers and agents and editors, many of whom I’ve gotten to know a bit through their social media and web platforms in the months since. It was a valuable experience.
I did well at the Pitch Slam. I had worked on my pitch and felt like I had it down tight. I like to talk, so I had to really work on not rambling and getting off topic because there needed to be time for conversation. You’re given only a couple of minutes so you have to make the most of them. I ended up with requests for partials from five agents and one request for the full manuscript. That was about a 95% success rate for the day so I left the event feeling ecstatic. The cocktail hour later that evening was boisterous and many toasts were raised. It seemed as though almost all of us had met with some level of success. It was a good feeling and it permeated all of the remaining sessions during the conference.
Alas, then it was time to head home to continue our work as writers and prepare our submissions to the agents/editors that were about to make our dreams come true.
I left town on Sunday on the Bolt Bus. It was not as luxurious as the Acela, but it got the job done and I tried not to think of it as a commentary on how the weekend had gone. It had not been an inexpensive venture, which is why I’ve only gone to this conference twice in my life, and saving a little on the back end was really just fine.
After a week or so of fine-tuning my manuscript, I sent out the requested partials and the one full manuscript request. I personalized each letter with details from our conversations in New York, details I’d learned about other books and authors they’d represented or worked with and how I saw x, y, or z as something that indicated that we’d work well together. I did my homework and I respected the process. I believed in myself and I believed in my book, The Last Good Day.
I’m tempted to completely skip over the part where most of the agents didn’t respond, as this is not really about agents or that process. Literary agents work extremely hard and every single one of them I’ve met has been pleasant and professional. The ones who responded to me were kind and generally thoughtful in their replies. A few were clearly cut-and-paste passes, but again, I know many of them get over a 100 blind queries from people like me a day. It must be daunting and don’t envy them their inboxes. I heard from two of them within a month, another after four months and yet another seven months later, long after I’d made some changes I’ll discuss in just a moment. The other two I’ve still not heard from. I sent nearly forty more blind queries between August and December with no appreciable response.
It was getting close to Christmas and as I often do around that time of year, I began to take stock of things in my life. The family and I had some time off planned after the holidays and I brought all of my notes and everything related to both The Last Good Day and a few other projects I’d been playing with on vacation with me.
After our first day of vacation down the shore, everyone else went to sleep, leaving me and the dog awake to tackle the thing in front of us. Maggie, our very sweet yellow lab, promptly fell asleep on my foot. While certainly a supportive gesture, she was of little help.
The first question I asked myself was: “Do I believe in The Last Good Day?” I did, but I didn’t see a way forward with it in that moment, but the characters in that book have never really allowed me to let them go.
The next thing I thought about was “What do I really want out of all of this writing stuff?” Throughout my life, I’ve always written. I remember writing a book about dinosaurs on my Grandmother’s old Smith-Corona typewriter when I was five. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t take it up to the bookstore so everyone could have one. Writing was about the only thing I was good at in school, or at least the only thing I took any real interest in, besides music, and I didn’t get that at school. So, I’ve always been writing-stories, novels, journaling, blogging, and more-I’ve always written stuff and I likely always will. So, if writing was likely to serve as a constant anyway, what is it I really want from it?
I sat with that question a long time over a glass of Jameson’s Caskmates with one giant ice cube that looked a little like the Death Star. The answer I finally came to was, “I want to give my book a chance to find an audience.” I could almost feel the characters inside my head give me a slow and semi-sarcastic ‘golf clap,’ as they are occasionally smartasses, but it was the next moment that I remember more clearly.
Full disclosure: I talk to myself sometimes. Everybody does it but I do it more than most people, probably. I find it to be a healthy way to brainstorm and flesh out ideas and I usually only do it when alone.
Anyway, I leaned back in the really uncomfortable dining room chair, causing the dog to reposition herself onto not just my foot but my entire ankle, and said aloud to myself, “So what exactly are you going to about it?”
I sat with that question a while before my eyes settled on a chair in the living room. It’s one of those older, cushioned rocking chairs that were popular forty years ago. I don’t even know when or where we got it, but rocking chairs in general make me think of my grandmothers. In that moment I remembered my mom’s mom, sitting in that same room, probably in that same chair and for some reason, after midnight, during Christmas break, I had a flash of her reading her favorite children’s book to me as a little kid.
She read it to me so many times. She’d passed away years ago by that point but for some reason, I remember looking at that chair and flashing back to the first time I could remember her reading me The Little Red Hen.
If you’re not familiar with the story, the gist of it is that the Hen grows some wheat and all along the process she asks her friends if they are going to help her with it: planting, sowing, milling, and then baking it into bread. All of her friends say, “Not I!” None of them will help her so she replies to them all in turn, “I will do it myself.” Then, when she’s finished baking the bread, she asks who’s going to help her eat the bread and predictably, everyone is down for that part. But that Little Red Hen, she’s not having any of it since they couldn’t be bothered to help her along the way. As a result, they weren’t going to enjoy the delicious bread she labored on, so she said “I will eat it myself”
“And she did.” That’s actually how the book ends. I know why that story resonated so much for my Grandmother, though that’s not a story for this space. I remember looking at the chair and thinking about her and missing her very much in that moment and remembering how we’d shared that story. That was when I really started thinking about maybe, just maybe it was time to do it myself. Like the Little Red Hen. Like my grandmother.
I won’t go into my entire employment history here as that couldn’t possibly be of interest to anyone, but I’ll say this: that moment was not the first time I thought to myself, ‘If I don’t take charge of this, it’s all going to be a mess so I better make myself in charge of it.’ I was possessed of a “I can fix that” complex in many of the jobs I held in my younger years. I was often wrong but I think I’ll leave it at that.
I’d been wary of Independent/self-publishing for years. I didn’t have any real reason to be, but I found that going it alone in an industry I was still learning wasn’t all that appealing to me until that moment when I felt my grandmother remind me that, “I can do it myself.” It felt ok then. It felt like acknowledging the fact that I’ve always been better when I can be in charge of the things that matter the most to me and that my characters would probably find no fiercer advocate than me, might just matter enough to make a difference.
So, with no formal business training and less sleep, I wrote a business plan in the middle of the night. OK, first I googled, “How to write a business plan.” Then I googled “How to start a business.” Then I emailed my accountant and asked her to explain it all to me. She’s pretty awesome.
But hey--I made a decision that night and it was not, “Hey, lemme publish my book!” The decision I made was, I’m going to start a publishing company. Yes, I’m going to publish my own book but that’s not the long-term goal. I’m not in this to write one book. I’m not in this to just say I did it once and go back to my other jobs. I’m in this now to publish multiple books and eventually help other writers do the same. Once I figure out how to do it effectively.
It’s been a challenge but it’s one that I’ve relished in, to be honest. I’m in my forties and I’m learning new things. I’ve published a book, the first in a series, and it’s done well. But I didn’t do this for one book. I’m here for good. I know it may take a while to become profitable, but I have time.
One year ago, I was looking for someone to VALIDATE me. I was looking for someone to WANT me as a client. By heading to New York, I was attending what one of my peers called, at the time: “Writers Fantasy Camp.” That moniker bothered me a lot at the time.
Today, I run a business. I’ve invested in my writing, my characters and perhaps most importantly, my belief that anything is possible. For now, I am the best shepherd for my sheep, the best “hype man” for my brand. It’s going to take some time and I might fail. I am learning a lot of new things and I’m not good at all of them. But stepping out on faith as an adult who’s already had and left several careers behind is really pretty darned exciting.
I might fail. I could run out of money and then I’d have some decisions to make. I might succeed beyond my wildest dreams and then I’d have some decisions to make. But you know what the fun part is? It’s that I don’t really know what’s going to happen. That’s a pretty fun place to be as an adult. Starting a new thing that’s based on the thing I’ve always done? To me, that sounds like living the dream.
I plan to remain my own best advocate. I plan to continue playing the long game. I plan to continue to learn how to market The Last Good Day effectively. I’m already working on book two in the Avery & Angela series and beyond.
I’m always going to write. My hope is that I’m able to look back on this time in my life and reflect on the beginnings of a sustainable career as a writer as opposed to a glorified fantasy camp. I’m optimistic.
Doing what you love and having it not feel like work: isn’t that the dream?
Well, I’m working on it and it’s never felt closer.