Perseverance Is a Tricky Thing

Perseverance is a tricky thing. It means sticking with something you believe in, even if your goal isn’t in sight. It means having faith in what you’re doing and trusting that good will come of your efforts. It’s easy to celebrate in retrospect, but can be tough to stick with in the midst of a challenge.

 

A few years ago, I heard about a magazine called Verily, whose mission aligned with what I was trying to do with my fiction, that is, create content in mainstream media that is backed by solid values without being preachy.

 

I subscribed right away. I was bummed when, three issues in, they had to go to online-only. Still, I signed up for the daily email and read the articles consistently. I looked up the submission guidelines until I had them memorized. Finally I got the courage to submit a piece.

 

Prior to this, I had little experience with magazine publishing. With the guidance of a friend who did, and with confidence that the piece I pitched mattered, I sent in my article. There was a dance party in the kitchen (the best place in the house for such an event) when it was accepted!

 

In the following months, I continued to pitch. Not everything was accepted, but I got a good response from what was.

 

One night, I was talking with my husband, wondering how it was that some of the writers contributed so much more frequently than I was managing. I looked again at the site’s job board, but I’d never seen a posting for a staff writer or anything like that.

 

It was about this time that I committed myself to publishing two pieces per month with Verily. Two weeks later, I got a message from the editor who published my very first piece. She wanted to know if I would be interested in contributing regularly.

 

Would I?!

 

I waited thirty seconds before responding, as not to seem overeager.

 

In the three months since, I have learned so much about pitching, writing, editing, collaborating, and what works online versus in print. I am grateful to have an editor who is interested in helping me grow as a writer.

 

I have tried to make myself read the things I thought I should be reading, the places I thought I should want my work to get published. What they say is true, and the best fit for my work was what I was already reading. It took courage, confidence, and resilience to bounce back when I was rejected, but ultimately, I’ve found a great place to contribute my work and build some great relationships along the way.

 

Is there somewhere you’ve been dreaming of submitting your work? What’s stopping you? What steps could you take today, this week, this month to give it a shot?

 

P.S. Check out my pieces at Verily here.

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What Lisa Ann Sandell Learned While Writing a Novel

Today I’m excited to share an interview with the talented Lisa Ann Sandell, executive editor at Scholastic Press and author of The Weight of the Sky, Song of the Sparrow, A Map of the Known World, and contributor to the collection, 21 Proms. Lisa writes for young readers in both prose and verse, and has generously offered to share her wisdom on writing and publishing.

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Here we go!

You were an editor before you were a published author. How did your day job prepare you for being on the other end of a project for the first time?

I think I was an associate editor, assisting two more senior editors, when my first novel sold to Viking. I was incredibly excited. I wanted to be as professional as possible and wanted to deliver the cleanest manuscript I could. I just wanted to do my best to make the process as smooth as I could. As a writer, I tend to agonize over the most minute details – I can scrutinize a comma for hours. I’m not sure whether that stems from the ingrained habit of poring over details like this in my day job, or whether it’s just my personality!

Now that you have published three novels of your own, what has changed about the way you work as an editor?

As an editor I always try to be highly sensitive to the authors’ feelings and needs, and above all to their sense of a book’s integrity. A book is an author’s baby, and I make sure to keep that at the fore of all my work. I love editing; I love working with authors – it is always an adventure, always an amazing and rewarding collaboration. Working with an author on a book I love and that resonates with me and speaks to me and moves me is just the most wonderful gift.

What are the challenges of performing both roles simultaneously? What are the benefits? 

The primary challenge of doing both jobs at once is finding enough time in the day to do everything I want to do. So much of my editing work gets done at night and on weekends. When I was working on my own novels, that time was split between my editing and reading responsibilities and carving out some pockets of time to focus on my own writing. It’s a juggling act. But now that I’m a mom, I have to say, it all seems so easy in retrospect – ha! The greatest benefit of working as both an editor and a writer is that I just feel more mindful overall – of text, of story, of what it means to deliver a book into the world.

Your sculpture played a large role in A Map of the Known World. How does engaging in other creative activities influence your writing?

I think creativity begets creativity. Letting my imagination and my mind and my hands play in one medium simply allows for everything to feel more free and opened-up when I turn to the next medium.

Your work is largely influenced by personal experiences—living in Jerusalem, the artistic legacy your grandparents left you, etc.—and yet the stories are not autobiographical. Do you find yourself more compelled by the idea of “writing what you know” or of discovering something new?

I very much wrote of what I knew in my first book, The Weight of the Sky, and once I was done with that story, I went on to write something that I knew about only academically. Song of the Sparrow was probably the most enjoyable writing project I’ve ever embarked upon. I loved diving into the research, and I loved writing about a world that I mostly got to imagine from scratch. But I do love research, digging through old texts, looking up random facts, like what sorts of vegetation would have grown in the time and place where the story is set. I think, for me, the most ideal sort of story to tell is one that contains some measure of context by which I can connect to the world I have to build, but that also has a very wide field in which I can play and learn.

You write beautifully in both free verse and prose. What advice would you give to an author interested in playing with structure and form?

Thank you so much – that is very kind of you! I think the best advice I can give is to just read as widely and deeply as possible. Reading the works of one’s predecessors and understanding the craft will give younger writers the tools to explore and experiment and invent on their own. Then, go play!

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thank you so much for this fabulous opportunity!

Where can readers find you online (Website, twitter, goodreads, facebook, tumblr, etc.)?

I am on twitter (@lisaannsandell), goodreads, and facebook, but here’s my embarrassing confession: With two little toddlers at home and a lot of books to edit, I’m not online nearly enough. Readers can also visit my website: www.lisaannsandell.com

Thank you, Lisa, for your time and thoughtfulness. Now, back to writing . . . or whatever creative venture is speaking to you today!

Why Comp Titles Are Important

I love books. I love food. I love books about food—reading them, writing them, and, it turns out, writing about them.

One of the fun things about striving for publication is researching and reading comparable titles for an understanding of the marketplace. In my case, that means “foodie fiction,” books in which the characters or plot are heavily influenced by cooking, baking, or the restaurant industry. These are books I would read just because I enjoy them, but because I’m working towards publishing my novel, I get to call them “work.”

After my latest read, I thought I might give a submission to my favorite online magazine, Verily, a go. I’ve been dreaming of writing for Verily for a long time now, but hadn’t come up with quite the right piece. The submissions page for their culture section said they were open to round-ups of books, movies, or other media, which was just what I had in mind. This article was one I’d already happily done the research for, and writing it was just plain fun.

I’m thrilled to share the link to my first published piece outside of a blog: http://www.verilymag.com/grammys-2015-kanye-west-fifty-shades-of-grey-jon-stewart-kingsman/. Check out Verily’s weekly post, “While You Were Out,” posted this past Friday, February 13, and scroll down for “Foodie Fiction for Your February” by yours truly.

Every little bit is one step closer!

Now back to the rewrite . . .

What Lauren Oliver Learned While Writing a Novel

I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview New York Times-bestselling author Lauren Oliver on her experiences as an editor, a writer, and the founder of literary incubator Paper Lantern Lit.

 

In October of last year, I heard Ms. Oliver speak on a panel at the Boston Book Festival. She discussed her writing honestly and humbly, and I left inspired, encouraged, and wanting to know more. I’m excited to share our conversation here, as the newest installment of this publishing-professional-turned-novelist interview series. Grab a pen, because you’re going to want to take notes.

New Author Photo

 

Before you were a published author, you were an editorial assistant at a YA imprint. What did you learn there that fueled or challenged your own path to publication?

Before I worked as an editor, I was writing long and structure-less books tedious in their description and characterizations. Working for a commercial YA imprint actually taught me about story for the first time—about the need for tension and resolution, about the way that the components of narrative work.

 

You still work with authors as one of the founders of Paper Lantern Lit, a literary incubator. How does working with other writers’ work encourage your own writing? 

I just like being immersed in the field. I have a great macro sense of the industry because working at PLL requires it, which helps, I think, to keep my antennae up. And working with creative people inspires creativity. As humans, we’re emulators and sponges: we absorb the attitudes of the people around us.

 

PLL develops ideas and then pairs them with talented writers to craft manuscripts. How does this method relate to the way you write? Do you always have an outline first?

I don’t. I very rarely begin with an outline, although I always do develop some kind of outline to work from or within ultimately. Otherwise I end up reverting to kind of meandering ruminations about the nature of people. Nobody wants to read that.

 

I was fortunate to hear you speak on a panel titled “Fiction with a Twist” at the Boston Book Festival in October 2014. There, you remarked that you’ve gotten tangled up in reactions and sales of your books, and you intend to spend time becoming a better writer. Part of that will entail becoming a student again, enrolling in graduate classes. What in particular are you looking to retrain in yourself, and how?

I just want to get better. I want to get better, and I want to be able to separate what I’m doing from my expectations of its commercial success in order to take more risks and push my boundaries.

 

You said at the festival that you read very broadly. Are there certain genres or titles you intend to study as part of the “retraining” process?

No, although there are books I’ve been meaning to read or re-read—Chris Adrian’s short stories, for example; Love In the Time of Cholera; Wolf Hall—so I’ll tackle those. But I’m always reading so widely and with such voraciousness, it’s not so much a question of my reading habits as it is my writing habits.

 

Do you have a single writing process or a different procedure for each of your audiences (middle-grade, young adult, and adult)? What did you try to figure out what works for you? Are you satisfied with your process, or do you intend to change things as you “retrain” yourself?

My writing process is the same, roughly, in that I always write my way in to the world and the characters before thinking overall about structure. I am trying to get even more granular on a sentence level, to read everything out loud in revisions, to be merciless about what I cut. And I’m trying to get smarter about research and the way I use it.

 

At the festival, you said you always feel you are attempting to do something you’re not quite qualified to do. Do expect that to change? What aspect of writing will always be a challenge, and what do you think you are capable of mastering, or at least improving upon?

I hope it doesn’t change, honestly. I hope I’m always stretching myself and trying to be ambitious when it comes to my work. If you’re not attempting to grow, what’s the point, really? I think that progress probably looks like punctuated equilibrium—I might “master” an element of storytelling for a period of years only to have a completely and revolutionary new feeling or response or reaction subsequently that leads me to become a neophyte again.

 

It was encouraging to hear you say that writing is a calling—you simply have to do it—and that you are looking to restore the joy for yourself in that. In which part of the journey of writing a novel do you find the greatest joy? 

I mean, there is a joy embedded in the daily practice itself. There is joy in getting a sentence right, in getting a character right, in nailing down a detail. The joy and the difficulty are intertwined, I think.

 

I can’t wait to read your next novel, Vanishing Girls, due out March 10, 2015. It will be your tenth full-length book published. What did the experience of writing and publishing the other nine contribute to making this one what it is?

I think it’s obvious from the evolution of my books that over the course of my career I’ve become increasingly interested in things I tended to dismiss at the start, like detailed world-building and the way structure informs story and vice versa. I’ve tried to refine and distinguish the characters’ voices in Vanishing Girls, and that preoccupation is even more evident in my next book.

 

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thanks for having me!

 

Where can readers find you online? (Website, twitter, goodreads, facebook, tumblr, etc.)

All of the above! All of my info is on www.laurenoliverbooks.com, including information that directs you to my social media.

 

Thank you, Lauren!

Induction into Club Rejection

A few weeks ago, I got my very first rejection from a publisher.

And I was thrilled.

I’m finally in the club! Every legitimate writer has been rejected—and now, so have I!

The rejection was initially complimentary, and noted a couple of things I had been trying to do with the manuscript were working. What I took from this was that I am capable of writing well enough to be published; this just wasn’t the right story for this editor’s list. I have written this type of response from the other side of the desk, and I respect it. Sometimes there is something intriguing, but it’s just not enough to go all the way.

The reason to pass was not a surprise, and I was grateful that it was a critique I could see and understand. As much as I wanted to send out something absolutely perfect, my agent and I had agreed that the manuscript does have a shot, and I’d gotten it as far as I was going to get it at this stage, for a variety of reasons. It was time to see whether anyone was going to fall in love with it.

Thus far, two editors have not, and I am surprisingly okay with it. It’s easy to say whatever will happen will happen, but it’s a lot harder to legitimately feel that way when things don’t turn out as you’d hoped.

I attribute this to a couple of things:

  1. A novena to St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers, which helped me gain mature perspective on my life as a writer. The prayer is not explicitly focused on writing, which made it difficult for me to say at first. Over time, I’ve found that because it reaches more broadly, I can better see how writing fits in to the whole of my life.
  2. My agent knowing not only when the manuscript was ready, but also when I was truly ready to let this one go.
  3. Encouragement from family and friends who remind me that writing a novel and getting an agent are pretty big deals in themselves (it’s tougher to remember this once you’re on to the next thing).
  4. Being super excited and slightly intimidated by my next project.

Now, I hope, it’s not too far fetched that sooner or later I’ll make my way into another, more coveted club. There’s a whole lot of hard work between here and there, but it’s work I’m more excited than ever to do.

Get Thee to a Reading

Part of what I love about writing is how isolated it can be. I am, in a lot of ways, an introvert and a homebody. I like being in my own place, both mentally and physically. But that isn’t the whole story.

 

Without the balance of the community aspect of writing—whether it’s reading someone else’s work, having someone read my work, discussing published books with friends, working through critiques with my writing group—the endeavor isn’t meaningful; it doesn’t have purpose, to me.

 

Living in or near a major city—New York, in my case—means there are almost constant opportunities to get out and engage in the writing community at large. This weekend, I attended a launch party for Amanda Maciel’s debut novel, Tease, which has been mentioned on this blog before.

 

It was great to see in person the members of my writing group I’ve only seen virtually since my family’s out-of-state move last year. I also had the opportunity to meet another writer—a freelancer who works from home and writes in the time she can manage, just like I do. Though I know Amanda personally, it was wonderful to hear her answer questions on how she came to write this book, her process, and reactions the book has received thus far.

 

Attending a signing means supporting the author, the bookstore, and the writing community in general. Showing up means showing that books have a place of value in the world. (Buying the book is important, too!) It means encouraging each other and finding inspiration when I’m stuck.

 

Public readings are an easy form of what I like to think of as writerly cross-training. What better way to celebrate books? To celebrate our fellow authors?

I’m Baaaack!

For weeks I’ve been mentally drafting this post, putting it on to-do lists . . . and not following through. But today, all that changes!

 

My manuscript is revised, done, finished, ready to go out and see the world. The night I finished, as I formatted my synopsis to send to my agent, my husband, John, asked how it felt. I told him it felt weird and anticlimactic. Then I pressed send, and the reality of almost three years of work set in. I giggled. We high-fived. We ate ice cream and cookies.

 

That was almost a month ago. In the meantime, I’ve been freelancing, meeting with my writers’ group, reading, and training for my first half marathon.

 

Wait, what? Until last year, I hated running. I’ve always found it just a teensy bit ironic that my husband proposed while he was running the Boston Marathon.

 

But time will change things, and apparently I now believe that trying to accomplish two nearly impossible goals (being traditionally published and committing to twelve weeks of training in order to run 13.1 miles straight) is better than one.

 

The race is in a month, and I wonder if I signed up as a kind of consolation for my ego. Even if I get rejections before the race, at least I can run a considerable distance. Or, even if I can’t run in my goal time, my novel might still get published. To tweak another cliché, I guess I’m putting my eggs in two baskets, with some kind of confidence that at least one will hold.

 

The odd thing is that I signed up for the race knowing that I could run it, what with the adrenaline the day will bring (we’ll be in Nashville with a different country band at every mile), but worrying about the training. Could I keep up with the schedule? Could I work the miles into our schedule? How much would I have to walk on the longer runs?

 

What I’m learning about the training is that most of the battle is maintaining consistency. It’s only on the “long run” days that I really have to push myself, and there are only seven of those days in twelve whole weeks.

 

I’m doing my best to resist running/writing comparisons, so I’ll leave it at that.

 

In other writing news, I have new confidence as a growing writer. I know I have a lot to learn and my writing has room to improve. But I also know I can produce something worth reading, and that every word read and written makes me stronger.

 

I’m working on my new novel—and perhaps a related short story—as well as a YA novel and a picture book. The adrenaline from running and the fact that exercise makes me sleep better are contributing to a burst in creativity.

 

As my writing life grows and changes, so may the shape of this blog. I’m very happy to be back here, and will strive for regular posts, but I make no guarantees. Thanks for coming back to visit again. More soon!