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This blog post has been a long time coming, not on the small scale, as I’ve only been waiting to post my news for a few weeks. It’s been a long time coming in the sense that I’ve been seriously writing and trying to get published for two decades. In those years, I’ve had a variety of small successes (short story sales and a graduate fiction prize that paid Real Money™!) and medium successes (two novels sold to a small press.) The news contained in this post is success on a higher order.

Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while may remember a novel that went by the working title of Thirteen. I started writing it in the fall of 2009, and a mere five years later, it has sold. I’d put it all down to persistence, but as you’ll see from the story, my doggedness can’t take credit for everything. First the official announcement from Publishers Marketplace:

Bryn Greenwood’s WHAT BELONGS TO YOU, a love story between two unlikely people–a strong-willed girl of ethereal beauty and a tattooed motorcycle riding ex con with a heart of gold–and the hard-won relationship that elevates them above the Midwestern meth lab backdrop of their lives, to Laurie Chittenden at Thomas Dunne Books, at auction, by Jessica Regel at Foundry Literary + Media (NA).

It's not real until it shows up in Publishers Marketplace

It’s not real until it shows up in Publishers Marketplace

So, what happened in those five years between when I started the book and when I finally sold it? A lot-a lot, as we say in my family, the exponential superlative of “a lot.”

When I started writing the book that would become What Belongs to You, I had an agent, and a novel out on sub. (You’ll find teasers for that novel, if you follow the tag Axyl Witt is a bad motherfucker.) Despite my agent’s valiant efforts, however, the book didn’t sell. Not long after that disappointment, my agent called to let me know that he was leaving the business of literary agenting. Just like that, I no longer had an agent.

Although publishing is changing, a writer’s odds for that elusive book sale are still dramatically better with an agent. To get a new agent, I needed a new book to query. I put in heavy hours revising What Belongs to You. At the end of 2011, I started querying. I queried, and I queried, and I queried. Like many writers, I have a series of Excel spreadsheets that document my writing career in the form of rejections. My handy query spreadsheet reveals that between January 2011 and February 2014, I sent 122 agent queries for What Belongs to You.

Now, I wasn’t sitting around doing nothing while my queries zinged around the ether (or languished in agents’ email.) I kept writing. I kept participating in writing communities. Through those communities, I met the publisher of a small press, who asked to see some of my work. I sent him the first novel I ever queried, Last Will. (Spreadsheet says: 8 queries sent, 2 form rejections received, 5 personal rejections of a warm and encouraging nature, 1 non-response. It does not record exactly why I gave up querying that novel after 8 attempts.)

The small press publisher liked my novel and offered to buy it. I accepted. In April 2012, Last Will was published. It did well for a quiet novel from an unknown writer at a small press. I suppose it did well, as in 2013, the publisher offered to publish my next book, Lie Lay Lain. (Spreadsheet says I sent 0 queries, but on the upside, got 0 rejections!) My second novel came out this April, with perhaps even less fanfare than the first.

As for What Belongs to You, I had been querying it all along. I received quite a few requests for the full manuscript. (Spreadsheet says: 14% request rate.) I received 3 requests to revise and resubmit. I undertook two of those requests, but in the end, none of those 122 queries led to representation. Looking at that spreadsheet, at that avalanche of no, I started to consider the possibility that the book I’d been so sure was my “breakout” novel was dead in the water.

I’ve sometimes joked that selling a book to a Big 5 publisher is the equivalent of a white wedding, while small presses were more like Justice of the Peace ceremonies. With two small press books out and no prospective bridegroom, I started to think there wasn’t going to be any wedding for this book, unless I did it myself. I began researching self publishing, the Vegas wedding of publishing–no less true for its informality. I investigated cover artists, editors, distribution.

Then, in May, an agent contacted me. She’d read part of Lie Lay Lain and liked what she saw. Did I have representation? she asked. If not, would I send my current project? Why not? At that point, I had nothing to lose. I sent the manuscript for What Belongs to You and thought nothing more of it. (Spreadsheet reveals that I had queried Jess with one of the projects that came in between Last Will and Ugly & the Beast, but it wasn’t a good fit for her. Based on my rejection numbers, it wasn’t a good fit for anyone.)

A few weeks after that initial email contact, we spoke on the phone and she offered to represent me. She was willing to take a chance on the book that nobody else would touch. Three months after that, What Belongs to You sold at auction to a Big 5 publisher.

What’s the takeaway from all of this? Is it just that my book is like the Lana Turner of novels? Sitting there in a malt shop, minding its own business when it was discovered? You hear these stories, about writers who get an agent or publisher quite by chance, but I don’t know anyone for whom a thing like that happened. Or I didn’t until it happened to me. I am urban legend, come to life!

My conclusion, and you’re welcome to come to your own, is that you never know. This business is random, chaotic, and a little cruel. The only thing you control is how much effort you put into your writing, and how hard you work at connecting with people. The rest of it is a lot like a lottery. Once your book is as good as you can make it, you have to somehow stumble upon the perfect combination of opportunity: right agent, right editor, right moment.

What would have happened if I’d sent more than 8 queries for my first novel? I’ll never know, because I gave up. If you really want this, you can’t give up. You have to whack the publishing piñata until the candy falls out.

 

***

For the very curious among you, my query spreadsheet is like a geological history of the last few years of publishing. It reveals agencies that have opened and closed, and the careers of agents, new and old, including their entrance into the industry as interns, their moves to other agencies, and the death and retirement of other agents. It also shows the steady shift from snail mail queries to email queries, and the increasing prevalence of the non-response response.

The full stats from my spreadsheet:

In 13 years, I’ve queried 7 novels to 216 agents, for a grand total of 453 queries. In response to those queries, I received 61 requests for more material, 5 revise & resubmit requests, 452 rejections, including 197 non-responses.

 

You might think the title of this blog post goes without saying, but considering some of the wacky things happening in the writing community these days, you’d be mistaken. We’ve had an author confess to stalking and harassing someone who gave her novel a poor review, and we’ve had a blogger apologize for years of harassment and threats against writers whose work she didn’t like.

As a passionate reader, I have always maintained a “review” of books I’ve read. In ye olde pre-internet days, I kept a little notebook in which I recorded the books I’d read with a few lines about the book. When Goodreads emerged, I joined and began to track my reading habits there. I viewed it primarily as a tool for me as a reader. Of course, as I connected with people on GR, I also began to see my notes on books as useful to like-minded readers. All the same, in the age of the internet, where data is perpetually retained and easily accessed, I have always tried to be polite when I write reviews of books. I am neither a professional reviewer nor someone who relishes drama. Just as I would hate to read a review of my books that was nasty or personal, I would never want a writer to read one of my reviews and feel that I was being anything but professional, even if I disliked the book.

Despite my policy of being polite, I’ve still received a few nastygrams, typically from people who loved a book I didn’t, and who wished to inform me that I was a stupid poopypants. I don’t think those were the exact words, but something juvenile and unnecessary.

Not a few people have cautioned me of late that as a published writer I ought to be more careful about reviewing and rating books, so as not to attract haters. I’ve considered it, and someday, maybe I’ll need to make a more anonymous Goodreads account, but in the interim, I’ve made a different choice.

I’ve always had a Did Not Finish shelf on my Goodreads account, to identify books that I did not or could not read through to the ending. Rarely do I remark on those books and never do I rate them. This week, however, I added a new shelf: Not Every Book Is for Everybody. Let’s call it NEBIFE. We know in our hearts that this is true, but it seems to get lost within the book community sometimes. A book isn’t bad, just because we didn’t like it, and a reviewer isn’t stupid or evil or many far worse things, just because they didn’t like our favorite book. I come face-to-face with this when I realize that almost 17,000 people on Goodreads have given Nabokov’s Lolita a 1-star rating. 1 star? One? Are you kidding me? I consider Lolita to be one of the greatest English novels of the 20th Century. I love this book.

ONE STAR?!?!?! OMGAAAAAAH!!?!?!?

ONE STAR?!?!?! OMGAAAAAAH!!?!?!?

Yet Goodreads reveals that two people whose opinions I respect have rated Lolita as 1 star. Huh. I guess we’re gonna have to disagree on that one, but I’m not going to send them emails to tell them they’re stupid poopypants. Primarily, because I don’t think they are. Secondarily, because I accept that even a brilliant book will not be the right book for every reader.

I was looking for an apt comparison, and found it quite by accident. I occasionally pull a recipe off allrecipes.com, and it struck me that even when people dislike a recipe and give it a low rating, I have never seen anybody get nasty or personal in a recipe review. I’ve never seen a recipe submitter called a stupid bitch, or a recipe called corrosive garbage, or seen someone wish the original recipe writer be raped to death, all things I’ve seen in book reviews. Similarly, I’ve never seen a recipe submitter get hostile with someone who didn’t like a recipe. Why? Because on some level, as a society, we’ve done well at accepting that not everyone has the same tastes. After all, my mother hates Indian food. Hates it. We’re still on speaking terms, because why wouldn’t we be? I think it’s silly that she dislikes an entire culinary tradition on the basis of one ill-fated buffet visit, but I’m not going to cut her out of my life over it. Similarly, I’m not going to kill a friendship over Lolita. Or even a potential friendship.

In this week, where madness is swirling all around us, I’d like to ask everybody to embrace the concept of NEBIFE. If you get a negative review on a book you wrote, keep in mind that not everybody loves the same books. You can’t expect everybody to love your book. If you read a book you disliked, try framing your review from the perspective that not every book is for everybody, and that this book wasn’t for you.

In America, we tend to celebrate birthdays as a triumph over the sneaky, dark forces of mortality. One more year! I survived another year! As the saying goes, “Getting older is better than the alternative.”

When people die and stop getting older, often we keep celebrating their birthdays. Each year ceases to be a tick mark of longevity and becomes a tally of absence. So many years without a loved one. So many years since a celebrity departed. If you’re famous enough and dead long enough, eventually maybe we’ll turn your birthday into a national holiday. Later we’ll rearrange it to suit our schedule.

As you get older, the collection of ghost birthdays in your life grows larger and larger until you risk bumping into one at every turn. In October, I’ll observe my pop’s birthday for the first time without him, and my grandmother’s birthday after more than a decade without her. In November, my granddad’s birthday, two decades gone now, a thing unfathomable to me when that first ghost birthday came.

Rilya Wilson

The birthday girl

Today, the 29th of September, I observe the ghost birthday of Rilya Wilson. Today is her 18th birthday, the 14th since she went missing. I never met her, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about her, since I first read about her disappearance from a Florida foster home. At the time, I was working at a domestic violence shelter in Tampa, and my day-to-day interactions with victims of abuse gave me little hope that Rilya was alive. I’d seen how a flash of anger could break a child’s arm, or black her eye, or permanently damage his spine. I could imagine the ease with which an adult could purposefully or negligently kill a child. A kick, a punch, a “punishment” that went to far.

In some ways, it is this ghost birthday that clings to me more fiercely than any other. My grandparents are safely buried after long lives. My pop is still a fresh grief, but I keep part of him in a little jar on my kitchen window sill. Rilya is lost, her life cut short, and I want to be sure someone thinks about her on her birthday. Thanks for reading this and helping me do that.

The Skittle of Opportunity

The Skittle of Opportunity

As I came up the stairs to my office yesterday, I saw a red Skittle lying on the second step from the top. Sometimes, one finds a trail of candies on the stairs, Skittles, M&Ms, and on occasion, like a trap laid for an extraterrestrial, Reese’s Pieces. Usually, the majority of these lost candies have been smashed under the feet of hurried passersby. This is a university, after all, and its inhabitants live primarily on junk food, and they’re too busy on their phones to look at their feet.

Yesterday, however, the Skittle I found was alone. It had not yet met its fate against the worn sole of a Chuck Taylor, but at any moment, the last minute rush of students would scramble up the stairs to get to class on time. There was no time to hesitate.

I picked up the Skittle and checked it for signs of injury, but its candy shell was intact. Without bothering to look around for witnesses, I popped it in my mouth and chewed it.

Why?

Red Skittles aren’t even my favorite ones. I prefer the orange ones.

My current eating habits actually militated against consuming a stray candy. I have sworn off all added sugar for the month of September in a bid to kick my staggering sugar habit.

I don’t usually eat stray food. Free-range chicken, yes, but not free-range snack items. Although there was that one time in college, when I was working for the local zoo, and they had 20 lbs of frozen raptor meat that was past its expiration date. Not far past its expiration date, but the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has very strict rules about what food can be served to animals. I’d been instructed to throw it away, rather than feed it to the rehab owls and hawks that I took care of. I was a poor college student, and it was late in the month. I was staring down a week of eating beans and rice.

Reader, I took that 20 lbs of meat home and threw a barbecue for my friends. Or at least, the friends who weren’t afraid to eat slightly expired raptor food. It’s essentially ground beef (or possibly horse or mule) with extra nutrients and finely ground bone meal mixed in. Properly seasoned and formed into quarter-pound patties, it went down pretty well on a hamburger bun.

All of which to say, I have eaten some suspect food items over the years. Now that I’m a professional with a regular paycheck, however, I’m not inclined to scrounge up free food.

This Skittle, though, this one lone red Skittle, it wasn’t about sugar. It wasn’t about free food. It was about being open to possibilities, being receptive to opportunity. After I ate the Skittle, I went into my office and talked to my agent, who is all about opening up opportunities for me. Soon, I’ll have some news on that front.

I keep seeing people posting images in support of net neutrality, but beyond making people more aware that big money interests are trying to create fast and slow lanes on the internet, those images don’t do much to stop it from happening.

What can you, as a lone private citizen, do to protect net neutrality? The answer is surprisingly easy. You can tell the FCC that you want net neutrality. Courtesy of my friend Lucy Pick, here are the simple instructions for doing that.

1. Visit the FCC’s website here: http://fcc.gov/comments

2. Look for Proceeding 14-28

3. Enter your personal information. Yes, you will need to speak up as a citizen, and that means the FCC wants your name and address. Don’t be more scared than you are any other time you divulge this to the federal government.

4. In the comments section write, “I want internet service providers classified as common carriers.”

You can write other things as well, but the most important thing is to indicate that you want internet service providers to be considered common carriers. If that happens, internet service providers, like other companies which transport goods, would be prohibited from discriminating against customers based on what goods they want transported.

That would mean lowly bloggers have the right to expect the same service as big name companies. It’s essentially what we have now, and what we’re in danger of losing. Additionally, it would make it harder for disapproving providers to silence unpopular opinions. We never think about this until our opinion becomes unpopular.

So, if you’ve seen all these posts about net neutrality, but you weren’t sure what to do, now you do. It will take you less time than reading this post did.

 

These days, I spend my lunch hour visiting my elderly aunt in the hospital. I’m always pressed for time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have time to be a good person. That bumper sticker on my car is the truth. I believe in Random Acts of Kindness. At the intersection of Tennessee and 20th, I saw a woman on a bicycle, waiting to cross the street. She looked hot and tired, and there were half a dozen cars behind me, so it would probably be a while before she could cross. I came to a stop and waved her on, even though I knew I was already going to be late getting back to work.

She gave me a blank look and then pointed toward the stop sign at her corner. I couldn’t hear her, but I think she mouthed the words, “I have a stop sign. You don’t.”

Seriously, who does that? Who refuses a polite offer like that? It made me so mad, I pulled up across from her and rolled down my window, even though there were cars behind me, waiting to go through the intersection.

“I was trying to be nice,” I yelled. “You don’t have to be such a bitch about it.”

“How does calling me a bitch count as nice?” she said. So superior. Like she never lost her temper. Then she shook her head and said, “You’re blocking up traffic. Just go.”

I did, because screw her if she couldn’t take a favor. Screw her! It made me so mad, letting her have the last word, so even though I was through the intersection, I slammed on my brakes and yelled, “You fucking bitch! Fuck you, you fucking bitch!”

She threw her hands up in the air and shouted, “What are you doing, you moron?”

I would have said something back, but then the car behind me honked. Jerk was right up on my bumper. Some people.

***

Similar to how I look riding my bike

Similar to how I look riding my bike

That’s all true. It all happened, except in reality, I was the woman on the bicycle. I was the person who declined a favor. Because in my experience, that kind of favor is dangerous. It changes traffic patterns in ways the average motorist doesn’t comprehend. For example, I have to later cross the street that all those cars were backing up to. Also, it’s fairly common for the very people who try to do something nice by stopping traffic and waving me on, to later try to kill me. They get distracted by their cell phone, someone behind them honks, and having already forgotten they waved me on, they surge forward, nearly clipping me as I cross the street. After all, it takes a cyclist a bit longer to get started from a dead stop. After the third time this happened, I stopped accepting these kinds of “favors.”

Of course, immediately after it happened, I was astounded and eager to tell people that I’d been called a fucking bitch for turning down an act of perceived kindness. I wondered what would have happened if the car behind my would-be Good Samaritan had rear-ended her. Later, I did what I always do: I imagined the whole incident from the other person’s point of view. Almost no one sets out to yell obscenities at strangers over a minor incident, and yet she had gone from generosity to vituperative hostility in a second. As much as I didn’t appreciate her attitude, I recognized it may have come from a completely understandable place.

This is how I always approach my writing, and why I so often end up with multiple narrators. It’s not that I want two characters to tell the same story, but that I want them to tell their own story. I’m interested in how the different POVs intersect and diverge.

I date some of it back to my early days of writing. The first creative writing class I took was with Ben Nyberg, and his tried and true method is to force people to tell stories from other points of view. He tricks beginning students a bit, first asking them to write a story in which they are the protagonist. Then, he makes them tell the same story, from the POV of the antagonist. That is the story they are made to edit and polish until the antagonist becomes the protagonist. After all, you may be the hero of your story, but you’re probably the villain of someone else’s story.

PS: Nyberg’s book, One Great Way to Write Short Stories, though out of print, is still a great way to write a short story. Used copies are available in all the usual places.

Back in May, I dropped off the radar everywhere. My new novel Lie Lay Lain had just released, and I was making various plans for what I would do to promote it. I was also considering which project I wanted to work on next: ghost trains that never stop, cougar sex in doomed bed & breakfasts, Romeo & Lolita meet Breaking Bad?

Then my pop* was diagnosed with leukemia. I abandoned every plan and project for the daily drive to the university med center, where I did what one does in such circumstances. I sat in hospital rooms and tried to ask smart questions of the doctors who were pumping my dad full of poison. I cried in bathrooms and cafeterias and elevators and parking garages so that I could put on a brave and hopeful face when I was in my pop’s room.

I don’t imagine I spent even a minute thinking about my writing career in May or June, but apparently someone else was thinking about it. An agent contacted me to ask if I had any new projects I was working on, and would I send her something. I shot off an email with a manuscript attached and put it out of my mind.

The week after I traveled by ambulance to take my pop home from the hospital, I spoke to that agent, who offered to represent me. Four years after I parted ways with my last agent, I had a new agent. Two days later, my pop died. Planning for the funeral and for the rest of my life without him ate up what would otherwise have been cause for celebration.

Now I find myself on the backside of July, about to turn in revisions to my agent. It seems like April was a million years ago, and I don’t even remember what I was supposed to do. Honestly, after four years without an agent, and having sold two books to a small press, I’d given up on traditional publishing.

Most days, I feel like I’m dragging a boat down the beach. In a perfect world, the goal is to put the boat in the water at high tide, but it’s too late for that. I’m putting the boat in at low tide and hoping for the best.

 

*To clarify, and it seems that even in this age of blended families, I must clarify: 
my pop was legally my stepfather, my mother's second husband. He was a command 
sergeant major in the Army, a 3-decade employee of the natural gas industry, 
and the man who managed to raise 5 daughters. 
My biological father is the former drug dealer and all-around scoundrel. 
My pop was my father for 36 years, and as such, has earned the right not to be 
relegated to such halfway titles as "stepfather."
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