The Debut Author Hero’s Journey

originally posted, February 2016.

In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler offers the twelve common stages of plot that comprise the Hero’s Journey. I’m not the first to contend that every person, at every moment, is living his or her own hero’s journey. But, since we here on EMU’s Debuts are all about celebrating the up-and-coming author experience, I decided to experiment with what the debut author’s hero journey might look like.

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The path to publication often feels like this.

Stage One: The Ordinary World (As if there is anything ordinary about being a writer)

If you are at this stage, you are referred to by many names: apprentice, pre-published, up-and-coming, agent-editor-author stalker, dreamer. You’ve written scads of manuscripts and collected drawers of rejections. You are recognizable by the look of longing in your eyes, as you fold the laundry or clean the litter box while simultaneously reading your friend’s book. You often wear fuzzy slippers. All day. Publication begins to feel impossible.

Amount of time in this pre-published stage: Likely years.

Recommended Action: Eat chocolate, commiserate with other writers, scowl when people ask when your book will be in stores. It’s okay. We’ve all been there.

Stage Two: THE  CALL to Adventure:

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Time to erase “impossible” from your vocabulary.

OMG, a publisher wants to acquire your book! They offer you money! Less than you hoped, much less than J.K. Rowling, but they like your work! You yee-haw right in the middle of the produce aisle, then apologize to the apple-stocker for your spontaneous twerking.

Recommended Action: Breathe! And do not quit your day job.

Stage Three: Refusal of THE Call:

Refusal? What, are you nuts? Move along…

IMG_0209 copyStage Four: In comes Da-Mentor. The good kind, without the ratty robes and sucky breath of Hogwarts fame.

Your agent mentor begins contract negotiations. If you’re on your own, you research standard publishing contracts and seek advice from a publishing professional until the contract verbage no longer looks like Greek confetti on the page.

Recommended action: Release the death grip on the telephone. Step away from your email. Go to a movie. Despite your best efforts, telepathy will not influence this process. I know this from experience.

Stage Five: First Threshold. Into the Publishing World

The Contract is signed. The P.M. or P.W. announcement has been made. Cue the hallelujah chorus. OMG, there is a publication date! You wonder how you can possibly wait That long to hold your book baby in your hands. You are officially a debut-author-in-waiting. Happy G-rated dance! Go ahead, tell everyone you know that your book sold! When you get your advance (probably only a portion of it), go out and celebrate.medium-woman-happy-smiling-dancing-and-waving-hands-upwards-66.6-16028 2

Average time between contract and publication: An eternity! Or one to four years.

Recommended action: Work on other manuscripts. Set a goal of selling your second book.

Stage Six: Tests and Testiness

You wait.

You receive your first revision letter from your editor. You love some of her suggestions. You disagree about some suggestions. You feel like an over-protective parent, hesitant to touch your little darling. But, you do. And your revised manuscript sparkles.

You wait.

Your second revision letter arrives. You revise again.

You wait

The third letter arrives. Rinse and repeat. Your words sparkle more and more every time, but you want to see your words as a real book on shelves. Now! People remind you that it takes a village to raise a manuscript into a book. Whatever!

Amount of time at this stage: Varies

Recommended action: Double your chocolate intake. Add a bottle of bubbly. Keep working on those other projects.

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Stage Seven: Allies

You meet other debut-authors-in-waiting. You form supportive friendships, cheering each other on through all the stages. You revel in the fact that, when asked, you can say that your book is due to release in 248 days, 1 hours, 22 minutes, 56 seconds-55 seconds-54 seconds. Not that you’re counting. You will soon be inducted into the exclusive club of published authors. Ahhhhh! You experience the longest pre-Christmas anticipation EVER!

Your hair turns gray.

 Amount of time at this stage:  BFFs forever. Once you’ve scaled the debut journey together, you are permanently linked.

Recommended action: Polish up your website and social media platforms, create a database of contacts, populate your calendar with dates of book festivals, writer’s conferences, etc. Practice patience. Keep working on those other manuscripts.

Stage Eight: The Ordeal. Aka: the Noooooooo! stage

You announce your publication date widely. You pick out swag and reserve a venue for your launch party. Then your book is delayed.

Twice.

You and your editor are both disappointed. You double your chocolate intake.

The countdown starts all over again.

Recommended action: Remember those other projects? Keep working on them. By now, you might have another book sold.

Stage Nine: A Book Cover Emerges from the Inmost Cave

Holy moly, your name is on the cover! You see art for the first time. Your eyes spring a leak.  Just a little.Evanston 334 copy

ARCs or F&G’s arrive. It’s like… a book! A real book!

Copies are sent to reviewers. You tell yourself you don’t care about reviews because you’re proud of your baby.

Amount of time at this stage: ARCs and F&Gs often arrive 3-6 months before the book officially releases.

Recommended action: Stop eating chocolate and get back to the gym, for goodness sakes. There’s a launch to plan for. Send a mailing to people from your contact list, with postcards or business cards that include your book cover. Don’t forget press releases. Order swag for the party and author visits to come. 

IMG_7379Stage Ten: The Book Launch

It’s here, it’s here!  A box of author copies arrives on your doorstep. You cradle your books in your arms while convincing your family that, yes, you really do need photographs of your book in different poses.

Then the countdown ticks to 0. Launch party day. Friends and family gather to welcome your new family member to the world. Eager fans file into a line that reaches out the door and around the corner, all to buy your autographed book. Eureka! The great day of jubilation has arrived.

Cue the Rocky music!

Amount of time planning your book launch: That’s up to you.

Recommended action during launch event: Do not make eye contact with your loved ones, or your mentor. Doing so has been proven to worsen leaky-eye syndrome. Do have someone take photographs of the occasion.

Stage Eleven: Pursued, Just When you Get Comfortable

Just when your membership card is stamped for the published author club, you read reviews of your book. Glittery comments make you swoon. Awards make you melty. Less than glittery reviews make you want to pull the covers over your head.

Recommended action: Stop it! Ask a friend to monitor reviews for you. Stay in the glowy euphoria as long as you can.

Stage Eleven: Third threshold. Transformation

You haunt local book stores and libraries, in hopes of spotting your book in the wild. You strategically pose your book next to titles by your literary heroes. This is a fundamental requirement of all new authors.

Stage Twelve: Return to ordinary world with wisdom.

The big swoosh of signings and celebrations eventually dwindles. You spend days in your fuzzy slippers, doing laundry or cleaning the litter box. But you are changed. Your book baby is now a full-grown hardback, out in the world.  Congratulations, you survived the debut journey. You are now a sage author with experience. Just in time to start the process all over, with your next book babies.

Banishing the guilt

Originally published on EMU’s Debuts(www.emusdebuts.com)

Yes, guilt. Many of us were conditioned for guilt at a very young age, but the grown-up writer version is what concerns me. Maybe it’s because I’m basically a people-pleaser. Perhaps you’re like me or know somebody like me. If anybody has a problem, I want to fix it for them. When a friend, colleague, classmate, needs help, I eagerly volunteer. I sincerely like to be helpful, and I am flattered to be asked. When I must say no, I feel badly about it. The reality is, there are times when momentum relies on tunnel vision. Thankfully, these tunnel vision times come in spurts and there is always light at the end of each tunnel. When I began an MFA program in January 2015, I was forced to be more self-indulgent and selfish about my time. Like all of you, my to-do list is very long. Sometimes, scaling back is an uncomfortable necessity. The fact is, we cannot be all things to all people all the time.

If you’re a writer or artist, I know you understand the tug-of-war of guilt that springs from dedication to the craft. We feel guilty for taking time away from family. We feel guilty that our craft does not generate enough income. We feel guilty that our homes are a mess, the car is overdue for an oil change, we haven’t moved from our workspace in days, and we don’t spend enough time with the family. Then we feel guilty when we desperately crave some downtime away from our creative endeavors because the well runs dry and the pressure feels suffocating. It can feel like we are damned if we do work and damned if we don’t. If we were to stack up all the self-imposed guilt associated with the creative life, we could reach the Moon.

When my stress level reaches a crescendo (often,) and I feel pulled in 12,000 directions, I try to ask myself a series of questions:

Who is most important in my life?

Who/what needs me the most?

Where does each demand fit in my order of priorities?

What feeds my soul?

I am still working on it, but my goal is to prioritize the to-do list and allow that to determine what I can and cannot do. I need to be kinder to myself. I hope you will be kind to yourself, too. In fact, I hereby grant us all permission to say NO when our time and energy reserves are low or when we must enter that tunnel of concentration. Let’s do so in the name of self-care while sending sincere good wishes to the people and events that we regretfully decline. Remember, we need to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first.

Lessons from the Trenches: What I Learned from Reading 90 Submissions

Within a relatively short period of time, I was charged with reading the synopsis and first ten pages of almost 90 adult novel manuscripts. That’s a whole lot of different plots, characters, perspectives, and narrative styles. It was a daunting task, but I emerged with a better understanding of what works, and what doesn’t work in submissions to editors, agents, and writing contests. Before my observations slip into distant memory, I’d like to share some of the problems I identified.

Let’s face it, writing is HARD! Writing a good synopsis is a pain. A headache. A necessity! It might just be the most important part of any submission. After reading almost 90 of these puppies, I have a new appreciation for the importance of clarity in synopses. (Yes, that is the plural of synopsis). Some of what I read was truly stellar, and I’m sure they’ll land with the right editor soon. Unfortunately, in many other cases, I was left scratching my head, wondering “but what is the story?” or “who is the main character?” or “what does that have to do with…?” Unlike the one-line summary, or elevator pitch, or the teasing query to an editor or agent, your synopsis should give a complete, but condensed picture of the entire story. In one or two pages, your synopsis needs to reveal the main character(s) and their motivations and problem, the most important plot points, the climax, the emotional change in the character, and the resolution. This isn’t the place for a tease, or wide-sweeping generalizations.

In no particular order, here are some problems identified in almost 90 synopses:

  1. Using the synopsis to give the history of the setting, or the backstory of the characters, thereby ignoring the character and plot at hand.
  2. Failing to clearly identify the main protagonist(s). The synopsis reader needs to know who the point-of-view character(s) is, so that we know whose story it is.
  3. Not indicating the emotional trajectory of the character through the plot line. Remember, there is an active plot, and an emotional plot.
  4. Including too many secondary characters in the synopsis. They clutter your summary. Stick with only the characters that drive the primary plot.
  5. Presenting a childhood-to-death storyline. *Yes, it has been done in adult literature, but it can easily feel like a biography rather than a novel, if not crafted well. Always consider the narrative arc.
  6. Related to #4: Beware the multi-generational storyline: beginning with one pov character until his/her death, then switching to his/her child’s or grandchild’s pov. I ran across several of these. It is especially challenging when a first person pov character dies.
  7. Related to #5: When planning multiple pov characters, it should be clear in the synopsis. And the intersecting plot points need to be clear, too.
  8. Stating that the character must reach his/her goal, but not stating how. We need those big plot points.
  9. Leaving out the resolution. The agent, editor, or contest judge reading your entry needs to know upfront, how the story ends, and how your character changes. By the resolution, we need to identify the story’s theme(s).
  10. Writing a synopsis that does not match the manuscript pages submitted. If the characters introduced in the synopsis, do not appear in your first chapter, it might indicate that the story isn’t focused enough, or that you begin the story too far from the main character and the inciting incident.
  11. Confusing a synopsis with a query.

In no particular order, here are some problems identified in the first ten pages of almost 90 submissions:

  1. Beginning the story too soon. In other words, too far from the day the main character’s world changes. Your early pages need to hook the reader.
  2. Beginning the story with an info dump, or back story, rather than with character.
  3. Info dumps, in general, because they disrupt the flow of the story. It is better to reveal backstory as the reader needs it.
  4. Beginning with secondary characters. *Especially problematic when these characters aren’t important enough to be introduced in the synopsis.
  5. Relying too much on foreshadowing to create tension. Sometimes, this can indicate too much narrative/psychic distance. Keep your reader in the moment. Build tension organically.
  6. Using passive language, rather than active language. Zero in on to-be verbs, and adverbs.
  7. Using language that is either too flat and dry, or too flowery and overdone.
  8. Not allowing characters to have distinct voices in dialogue and/or internal monologue.
  9. Not developing character. If you can’t begin the story on the day something changes for your pov character, at least develop him/her enough to allow the reader a glimpse into his/her wants, desires, and fears that feed into the emotional journey to come. We should glimpse the theme early on.
  10. Having a narrator that sneaks in with random opinions, or direct address to the character, the reader, or both, unless there is a logical reason for this. Narrators who are characters require some development. Above all, be consistent.
  11. Inconsistent character names. Beware sudden switches to nicknames.
  12. Changing tense, or pov.
  13. Mis-spelled words, grammatical errors, punctuation errors. I never realized how distracting this can be.
  14. First ten pages that don’t reflect what is revealed in the synopsis.
  15. Including a Chekhov’s gun element. Beware focusing on an object/prop without giving relevance to it.
  16. Plopping new characters into a scene, without identifying them beyond name. And, yes, sometimes we need to have stage direction to avoid the “where’d he come from?”
  17. Missing dialogue tags, when multiple characters are speaking.
  18. Too much psychic distance. If the lens is too far away, it’s difficult for the reader to be emotional invested, unless the language is compelling enough.
  19. Having a first person narrator that is not identified, not an active part of the story, and not developed as a character.

Putting together a submission packet is a nerve-racking challenge. It is easy to either overwrite or underwrite. My best advice is to have a trusted writing friend read through your synopsis and manuscript pages to identify any holes in logic, missing information, and extraneous details. And, give yourself time to put the submission in a drawer for a week or two before you go back to it with fresh eyes. Distance yourself enough so that you can read a bit more objectively. Ask yourself if your synopsis summarizes the entire book, and if your first ten pages adequately hook your reader into wanting to read more. Remember, you have one chance to make a positive first impression.

Happy writing!

 

MFA-Bound. Because I am Good at Doing Things Backwards

Hello, dear blog readers. Remember me? Once upon a time, I blogged very regularly. Then I got Very busy with writing projects in 2014. My year wrapped up something like this:

I celebrated the January 2014 sale of En Garde! The Dueling Words of Abraham Lincoln (Peachtree, 2016.);
I wrapped up two Capstone books for their horse series. And they are lovely!
I got a solid start on two books for Capstone’s Native American series;
I fully researched two original projects that are awaiting my full attention;
I wrote two picture book manuscripts that still need some work;
I judged two writing contests-one for young writers and one for adult writers;
I completed a bazillion revisions;
I volunteered at the Austin SCBWI conference;
I volunteered and moderated a panel at a Research workshop;
I volunteered at a Writing Barn workshop about picture book writing (Thank you, Bethany!);
I mapped out my grandiose (and probably unrealistic) ideas for launching my Beautiful Jim Key book this fall, 2015;
Speaking of Beautiful Jim Key, 2014 was the time to celebrate news of the upcoming movie about BJK, starring Morgan Freeman.

I celebrated the good news of a bunch of writer friends;

And…drum roll, please…I was admitted to the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Because, you know, I had all this free time. *cough*

Many people have asked why I made this decision to go back to school, having already broken through the publishing gates. I’m prone to doing things out of order and against the flow. Let’s just say I’m allergic to the road most travelled. This MFA journey is a very personal mission for me. The fact is, I don’t need an MFA to write publishable books, but I look forward to deepening my craft, elevating my analytical skills, opening the door to potential teaching opportunities, and being part of this amazing community. I couldn’t be happier. But, beginning a program like this requires that I switch mental gears on a regular basis. Normally, I am publishing-focused. As a student, I must be learning-focused. For me to be successful, both roles must co-habitate and complement each other.

My unique challenges began the moment I returned home from the ten-day January residency. Awaiting me were edit notes for multiple books, from two editors; an offer of two more books for an educational publisher; the impending arrival of a whole heap of manuscripts to be judged; And a heads-up from an editor about forthcoming edit notes on several more books. What a wonderful “problem” to have. Yet, some time, between now and February 16, I also need to have critical essays and creative work ready for my VCFA advisor. Am I stressing about it? You betcha! When I begin to feel overwhelmed, I remember that this is what I always dreamed of-this life of a working writer. As for school, well, I wanted that, too. My piled-up deadlines are temporary. I’ll get through this with a lot less television, social media, and blogging time. And a lot more time-management.