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Posts Tagged ‘writers’

I’m just two weeks late in giving a wrap-up of my trip to New York City to be on a panel at Book Expo, but I’m operating under the idea that blog posts are not like organ transplants, and so it’s better late than never.

The panel was about how my publisher used Goodreads to market my book, increase sales, and get it on the New York Times bestseller list, which is definitely something writers fantasize about. (Not all of them, but many.) The write up is here, on Goodreads’ blog. It’s heavy on stats, and shows the long view of my publisher’s plans for my book release.

Because Goodreads was bringing me to NYC anyway, I got to do a kind of victory lap: meeting with my publisher in his corner office of the Flatiron Building, lunch with my editor, my publicist, and the Director of Marketing at St. Martin’s Press, stopping off at various bookstores to sign stock, meeting readers at Book Expo, and generally doing things that are incredibly exhausting to introverts like myself. Hence the caveat about things some writers fantasize about. My writerly fantasies usually focus on selling enough books to quit my day job, although I could definitely get used to having a driver to schlep me around.

While I was in NYC, I also got name-checked by The New Yorker in its snippish coverage of the new Amazon bookstore: Amazon’s Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Are Not Built for People Who Actually Read. (With a headline like that, you can’t kid yourself that they’re impressed, but they did note that I’m one of only six authors in the G’s in Fiction.)

Over all, I had a lovely trip, even if I did come home and need to sleep and be alone for about three days solid.

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prairie shackWhen I was six years old, my mother sold me to a witch who lived in a tiny cottage out on the open prairie. I had to live in a lean-to next to the chicken coop, where I could hear the birds fussing and roosting at night. During the day, I tended her garden and worked over the open fire of her hearth, helping her prepare potions. Many of the spells she made were to help people, but a few were to curse people, like the old wizard who snored away the days in her front room. She kept him sleeping so that she could drain his powers for her own purposes.

I dreamed of running away, and eventually I did, fleeing across wheat fields on a stormy August night with a one-armed man who claimed to be a prince but was really just a common thief. Later, I had to run away from him and his life of crime. For several years, I passed myself off as a maid to a duchess, but I would never get free of the witchcraft I had been taught as a child.

Also, it turns out that what I considered a totally normal childhood activity–fully immersive daydreaming that spanned years and took up hours of each day–isn’t completely normal. According to this article in The Atlantic, it may be maladaptive daydreaming. Its author describes something similar to my life, including the pressing need for alone time, so that I could  live in my alternate reality. Or in my case, alternate realities. For her it caused excessive disruption to her daily life and she sought medication to alleviate it.

My initial solution as a child was to use it to fuel the tedious parts of my life. I did spend a lot of hours in my grandmother’s kitchen, helping her cook and can. My grandfather spent a lot of time sleeping and grouching. Drudgery was more bearable if I was shucking corn to make “potions,” or planning my escape from the witch while I pulled weeds. At school, where I was always the first one done with an assignment, my daydreaming kept me from getting bored, because I had somewhere to go for the half hour it took the other students to finish their work.

As a teenager and then an adult, I incorporated my daydreaming into my daily life by writing. Perhaps if I’d been trying to become a lawyer or a doctor, it would have been unbearable, but because I was content to be a secretary and eager to be a writer, it never struck me as a condition for which I needed treatment.

The article suggests that it’s related to obsessive-compulsive disorder or stereotypic movement disorder, which I can easily believe, and it makes me feel a bit conflicted of the role my obsessive and ongoing daydreaming plays in my life. I was relieved in my teens to shed many of the symptoms of my OCD. I don’t miss washing my hands a hundred times a day or engaging in the sort of repetitive behaviors that used to rule my life. (If I didn’t read the entire cereal box three times before I finished eating my breakfast, the witch would kill someone I loved.)

Now that I’ve found a role for my incessant daydreaming, however, I would not want it to end. It would leave a hole in my life. In my lives. Especially now that I’ve run away from my husband and come back to live in the cottage on the prairie. The witch is long dead, but the wizard is still sleeping in the front room. I keep him drugged so that I can use his power as I plan my revenge against the dance hall girl who cursed me.

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circus elephant parade

An author’s resume!

One of the things that has been standard in publishing for years is the author’s resume. Sure, we call it the author’s biography, but so frequently it turns into a list of every random job the author has ever worked. Safecracker! Chicken sexer! Hypnotist! Roller Skate Dancer! Gondolier! Lion Tamer! The weirder the better seems to be the goal when you’re writing copy for the back flap of your book.

When I first had to write an author bio, on the release of my first novel, Last Will, I was stumped. People offered the usual advice: all those weird jobs I had. Sex educator! Topless waitress (for a night)! Receptionist at a nuclear power plant! Architectural slide archivist! Nobody suggested that I should trumpet to the world my two stints as a custodian. (Once at a church. Once at a daycare.) Nor my time toiling in the salt mines of university adjunct teaching or the clerical fields.

My solution was to just skip over the random jobs portion of my bio and fill up space with such witty gems as “Bryn Greenwood lives in Kansas, which is as flat as you imagine but slightly more charming.” I’m a novelist, okay, not a biographer.

When my second novel, Lie Lay Lain, was published, it suddenly mattered that I had worked as a church secretary for three years. It gave me pew cred, so to speak, to be writing a book about a church secretary. Rarely, though, do I see authors celebrating the completely normal, menial jobs that they did before they became somebody who had a bio on the back of a book. That makes me a little sad, especially after what I witnessed this morning.

As I was arriving on campus for my quotidienne office manager job, I saw a young woman using a weedwhacker to trim around a faculty parking lot. She paused at one point and pulled a piece of paper and a pencil out of her pocket. With the weedwhacker still running, she furtively scribbled on her paper. Every few seconds her head bobbed up and she scanned the horizon to be sure her boss on the grounds crew didn’t catch her. As I passed, the paper and pencil went back into the pocket, and she returned to whacking weeds.

I imagined her as a poet, capturing some passing observation on spring, but she might just as likely have been a prose writer or, like my custodian friend who scribbles on the job, a screenwriter. Either way, it made me sad to think of young writers reading authors’ bios and finding them devoid of those boring, plain old jobs. Writers don’t only spring forth from the lucrative careers of lion taming or burlesque dancing or mortuary aesthetics. They also spring forth from secretarial work, child care, burger flipping, and unemployment.

In other news, my publisher is running a sale. The Kindle editions of both my novels are only 99¢ until May 10th! Click on the pic to go buy.

LIE_sale_graphic

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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

(*Due to the vagaries of publishing, after the sale, my book was retitled All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.)

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 All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, 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, and 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 All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

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 All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, 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 her the manuscript 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 Axyl Witt, 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, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things 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.

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