Breathe…breathe…breathe…

Pardon me while I have my anxiety attack.

I just opened the returned manuscript for Bone Girl from one of my beta readers. I’m overwhelmed with all of the notes he made on it, written in red type, and all in CAPITAL LETTERS. My heart is racing. My fingers are shaking. Holy buckets! I’m totally freaking out.

Here’s what happened: after I finished the first draft of Bone Girl, which by the way, was originally titled Phat Girl, I sent it off to my beta readers. These are friends and acquaintances who critique the first draft of a manuscript and provide feedback, which is used by an author to revise the work.

I had about five beta readers for Bone Girl. Let me tell you about them.

To begin with, there’s Maudeen Wachsmith. Maudeen is a professional editor who worked on Celebration House. She gave birth to the idea that the book should be a trilogy. When Maudeen first approached me with the idea of not one but two sequels, I said “Nooooo.” Then, after applying tincture of time, and hearing from other readers, I realized the answer was, well, maybe. Now, I can’t stop thinking about these next two books, especially Melanie’s.

For those of you who have bought and read Celebration House, well, first, THANK YOU! Secondly, you know who Melanie is and how unlikeable her character is. But, you’ve got to admit, she’s a tough cookie. Man! You should try living with her in your head all the time. I mean, really. C’mon! Stop already.

My second beta reader is Edith Poole. Edith, stand up and wave to the audience. Oh, you are standing. My bad. Edith is my petite mother-in-law and an experienced horsewoman. She’s five feet of red-headed fury. Say that fast three times.

I gave her Bone Girl last summer, and she called me and told me to come to her house. Alone. She wanted to talk to me. Eeek! Boy, that was a long one-mile drive. But I listened, and she was right. The book wasn’t finished. I hope it’s more finished now. I say that because I agree with George Lucas: no creative work is ever finished, just abandoned.

Aarene Storms was my third reader. She’s a published author herself. She wrote Endurance 101: A Gentle Guide to the Sport of Long-distance Riding, which I used when I wrote the manuscript. Aarene pointed out some of my more glaring mistakes, i.e. any horse expected to trot fifty miles would likely be shod. Also, the main character in Bone Girl, an 11-year-old girl named Josey, wouldn’t be wandering alone in an endurance camp. There’s too many mama bears amongst horse people.

Because of Aarene’s comments, I created two new characters: Earl Keck, the farrier, and Opal Meyers, an older woman who watches over Josey on the day of the endurance ride. I grew fond of Opal quickly because I’ve known women like her who have shown me amazing kindness. I only wish Opal would invite me into her 1968 Oasis travel trailer for breakfast.

I also sent the manuscript to Dennis and Sue Summers. I know I’ve blogged this before but it bears repeating. The Summers are the real deal: experienced endurance riders who’ve taken horses to competitions around the world, including the Middle East. Dennis penned a book for advanced endurance riders: 4th Gear – Power Up Your Endurance Horse.

The Summers too agreed Chief should be shod. Alas, they didn’t like one of my plot points: PETA protests the endurance ride Josey’s father competes in. My apologies, Sue and Dennis, but I needed to get a television crew to the ride and that’s how I did it. I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, when Bone Girl is made into a film, I intend to send the producers your way so my mistakes won’t be replicated in the film.

Last night, I received the manuscript back from my final beta reader, Les Dunseith. He was a journalism professor at my alma mater, Truman State University, and, I like to brag, a former editor at The Los Angeles Time. I met Les in 1985 in my first journalism class, and I’ve been annoying him ever since. Les read Celebration House before I finished it, and I asked him to read Bone Girl. If this continues, I’ll probably have to start paying him.

Les gave me my first inkling that maybe I had something special with Carrie, the main character in Celebration House. A few days after he returned the printed manuscript back in the mail, Les emailed me to tell me he was still thinking about Carrie. She lingered with him. She was not easily forgotten.  

Last night, Les returned Bone Girl to me, and he must know me and my neuroses well enough because in his email he wrote, “I think you’ve seen enough of my editing suggestions by now not to be surprised when you open the document and see lots of red type (much of which is positive by the way).”

Yeah, but you didn’t tell me it was going to be in ALL CAPS!

Relax, I tell myself as I scan the first page and see as much red ink on it as my original text. Relax. Deep breath. This is all part of the novelist’s experience. It’s like a practice test. Les has given me the answers before I actually step into the classroom, i.e. publish Bone Girl. I can use his feedback to make the book better. To make you, the reader, my boss, fall in love with Bone Girl the way I did. Okay. Let’s get started.

Hands and arms inside the cart: Next, I’m interviewed by Stephen Colbert. (Please note: this interview takes place in my imagination)  

Time to quit

It was May, 1984. I was 15 years old, sitting in a sophomore history class at Brookfield High School in Brookfield, Missouri. My history teacher read the daily bulletin. First up in the school announcements were the names of my fellow classmates who would be inducted into the National Honor Society. I held my breath, knowing I would hear my name. My teacher finished the list and then went onto other bits of news. I couldn’t believe it. My name was not read.  

After the class ended, I approached him and asked, “Are you sure my name wasn’t on the list?” He assured me it was not. 

I couldn’t believe it. The only thing I believed I was good at – academics – and my teachers told me I wasn’t. Only students nominated by the faculty would be inducted into NHS. I was not one of them. And then it hit me: the understanding that I would never, ever be accepted in this school.

I was the nerdy kid who always did her homework. The note taker. The one who actually thought there was something of merit to be learned in high school. I loved learning. I remember one of my classmates teasing me, “Are you going to be a teacher when you grow up?” It surely was the worst insult for one 15-year-old to fling at another.

I ran home at lunch and cried. I couldn’t believe it. I finally saw the truth: there would be no scholarships for me. No money from the local rotary club for college. My teachers had sent a clear message: you are not among the honored.  

I don’t know what inspired me to do it, but I approached my high school counselor, whose name I cannot remember, and I told him how discouraged I felt. He listened and then reached into his drawer and pulled out a paper application – yes, they were paper in 1984 – to Northeast Missouri State University in Kirkville. Fill this out, he told me. Mail it in. Let’s see what happens. I did.

Take the ACT test. You’ll need that to get in, my counselor told me. I did this. My brother, Paul, and his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Michelle, drove me to Kirksville. I took the four-hour test, feeling like an imposter among the other high school seniors. After the test, Michelle and Paul bought me lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. It was the first time I’d ever eaten Chinese food.

Meanwhile, I waited and applied at a local community college. Their answer: you’re not old enough and you don’t have a high school diploma. No, thanks.

Then it came: the yes. Northeast Missouri State University not only accepted me, they gave me a $500 scholarship. Today, that sounds like nothing. But in 1984, tuition was $20 a credit hour. This paid for my first semester. I started college in August of 1984. I graduated with my bachelors in December, 1987.

The high school attendance staff called my parents a few days after the new school year started. Uh, is Annette coming back to high school? I wasn’t there when my mother answered that phone call, and I never knew exactly what she said, but I hope she shared in my accomplishment.

Now it’s happened again. It’s time to quit.

Last year, I finished writing my middle-grade novel, Bone Girl. I shopped it around at literary agencies and publishers, and all came back with this answer: no. I got a rejection email from an agent with a term I had never heard before. My husband had to google it and tell me what it meant. Last December, I queried a publisher with my contemporary romance, A Year with Geno, and again, rejection.

And then I started reading all of the blog posts and newsletters from authors who have found amazing success as independents. They publish their own books. They pay professional editors to hone their prose. They hire cover artists, and upload their creations to e-book distributors, mainly Smashwords and Amazon’s Kindle. If these authors want a print version, they hire printers like CreateSpace.

These authors are bypassing the gatekeepers – agents and publishers – who tell them “the prose isn’t drawing me in quite strongly enough” or “we don’t feel that your work is right for us at this time” or you make up your own bullshit. The gatekeepers say no. So, the independent authors go around them. They quit traditional publishing. And that’s what I’m going to do.

In early March, I’m publishing Bone Girl. On June 21st, I’m publishing A Year with Geno. I have a new boss. A new sheriff in town, if you will. The only person I want to please is the person who spends $3.99 and buys my book. That’s it. If they love it, I’ve done my job. If they don’t, I’ll keep working to do better. But they are my boss. You are my boss.

P.S. If you’ve read my bio and see where I mention that I dropped out of high school, there’s a reason for this. I want any reader who sees that and didn’t graduate or has someone close to them who didn’t finish high school to know this: You.Are.A.Success.

Hands and arms inside the cart. Next: Listening to my beta readers.

Just finish the book. Again.

For years, this quote hung above my desk:

  • 95% of people talk about writing a book,
  • 30% of people start writing a book,
  • 3% finish it.

It will be one year ago next month that I started this blog. While many things have changed, one thing has not: I struggle with the habit of completion.

My second novel, Bone Girl, will be published in less than two months. It’s with my beta readers now, then it will go to my editor, Maudeen Wachsmith.

A month later, I intend to self-publish my third novel, A Year with Geno. There’s only one small problem with this grand plan: the book isn’t finished.

Here’s why. I’ve come to the parts of the book that aren’t any fun to write. Like a picky eater, I now stare down at my literary plate, and all I see are lima beans, beets and fried liver. Yech…

I drafted a calendar-style spreadsheet with all of the scenes on it. According to the spreadsheet, I have five (I just counted them) scenes left to write. That’s all. Five! Figuring they are each 1,000 words, I only have 5,000 words left to draft and then I can begin revisions. Please note: I started writing this book in 2007. I originally dreamed up the idea for A Year with Geno in 2002.

But in order to finish the book, I have to write these five scenes. And rewrite them. And polish them. I just don’t want to.

I think I know why I’m so reluctant to write these remaining sections. Too much depends on them. I want A Year with Geno to give the readers a taste, a whiff of life in Alaska, and I don’t know that I’ve done that in the preceding 63,000 words. Yep. 63K. This is the longest book I’ve written.

Also, I have so many doubts: is the romance between the two main characters plausible? Did I create enough sexual tension to keep readers turning pages? Did I show how important the main character’s friends are to her? Ugh! So many questions and so few certainties.

Except this one: if I want the life I dream about – writing full-time – I need to finish this book. No excuses. No buts, maybes or should-ofs. Finish the book. It’s just that simple. And that difficult.

Hands and arms inside the cart, please. Next: why I am choosing to self-publish.

Shhh! Can you keep a secret? Yeah. Me neither.

Everyone who knows me knows this about me: I can’t keep a secret to save my life.

On New Year’s Eve, I received an amazing gift, but it came with one caveat: don’t tell anybody. Eeek! I could feel the tug of war begin inside me: how can I not tell everyone?

Here’s what happened. During the last days of December, I was reading a blog post by Hugh Howey. He’s a self-published author whose book, Wool, has broken records. New York Times bestseller. All that jazz. Hugh has done well for himself, and one of the results of his success, is reaching out to help other self-publishing authors. Indie authors, we’re called.

On this blog post, he talked about the sequel to Wool, a book called Sand. He also mentioned how thrilled he was with the cover art. Cover art is an author’s first and sometimes best means to convince readers to buy the book. It’s the way we first grab a reader’s attention.

I looked at the cover art for Sand, and it was perfect. I saw the author’s name, Jason Gurley, and I thought, wow. What I wouldn’t give to have a cover that nice. And I thought, heck, I’m going to write to the guy. Sending an email is free. I’ll ask him what he would charge and if he would work on a book like Bone Girl, which isn’t his usual science-fiction genre.

I did this. I sent an email to this stranger, thinking I would probably not hear back. I’m a new author with only one title, Celebration House, which isn’t really selling. But, the next day, there was a response. He said he wouId consider it. So we corresponded some more, and he agreed to do my cover at a price I could afford. I couldn’t believe this news. But it gets better.

On New Year’s Eve, I filled out the form he requests of all authors, talking about the characters in the book, the setting, what I thought were the most visually important elements. And I thought, maybe I’ll hear back in a month or so. Meanwhile, I got busy and drafted the blurb, the short paragraph on the back of the book readers scan to see if they want to buy it.

Excuse me. Could you hand me a Kleenex? I get teary-eyed when I relate this next part.

I woke on New Year’s Day and at 8:25 a.m., there in my email inbox was the first draft of cover art for Bone Girl. Not just one version, but three I could choose from. Holy. Buckets!

For the first time, it felt like someone besides me and my family believed in Bone Girl. Someone saw my vision and added to it. I felt empowered. I felt like I’d grown wings and could fly. After hearing so many no’s, I heard a loud yes.

And I know the marketing department – if I had one – would say, let’s keep this under wraps for now. Show no one. Tell no one. We’ll plan a cover-release event.

But as I’ve already explained, I can’t keep a secret.

So then, here, dear reader, is my cover art for Bone Girl. All credit to Jason Gurley. Stand back. This. Is. Huge!

Huge!

Image

 

 

The dream

Last night, I dreamt I was at a children’s writers convention. Much to my surprise, I received an honorable mention for something I penned, and I was invited to join a panel of writers at the front of the room.

I took my seat with the others, but when I opened the manila envelope, I saw that the manuscript which was being honored was not mine. When the speaker reached me, after briefly interviewing all of the authors to my right, I stood up and called out the name of the author/illustrator whose work had been mistakenly filed in the folder with my name on it. He jumped up and ran to the table, a bevy of excitement and joyful noise. I sat back down.

I’m amazed at two things: 1) the degree of complexity of my dreams. I remember the vibrant colors and complex storyline of the picture-book manuscript that was misplaced in my folder, and 2) how quickly my mind works to make sense of the events that happen when I’m awake.

You see, yesterday, I received my first royalties statement. No money yet, but I know how much to expect. Dare I share it with you? Probably not. That would be crass. But let me say I was correct when I joked that I could expect “tens of dollars” from my first novel. Here’s another hint: I make in one hour at my current profession the same amount that Celebration House garnered in two months of sales. Succinctly put: writing is a financial waste of time.

My publisher tells me I need to promote, promote, promote! That’s done by sending emails to bloggers and asking them to review my book and/or feature me. I call it blog begging. And I did that. A lot of that back in August. 

My publisher tells me to write a second novel. But I did that. Bone Girl was finished last summer. The problem is, my publisher doesn’t buy children’s fiction. Bone Girl is meant for kids age 8-12.

Yet, here I sit at 6:20 in the morning, writing a blog post. When I’m done with this, I’m going to read over the last scene I was polishing in “A Year with Geno.”

I think, for now, writing must remain a time-consuming hobby. And the idea of writing full-time, supporting my family with my storytelling, well, that’s just a dream.

Hands and arms inside the cart: Next: please meet Elaine Dodge, author of Harcourt’s Mountain.

Hugh Howey! My hero…

Recently, I stumbled onto the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest. A young, good-looking man stared back at me and I saw his name: Hugh Howey. That name was familiar.

I turned to page 34 and read. What I learned may change my life.

In July of 2011, Hugh posted an e-book novella of “Wool” online. In October, he realized the book was selling about 1,000 copies per month. He compiled all five sections of the book, and three months later, he was selling 20,000-30,000 copies of the book. “Wool” went on to become the Kindle Book Review’s 2012 Best Indie Book Award in the Sci-Fi/fantasy category. By the time the book had been out for about a year, Howey was selling 20,000-30,000 copies of “Wool” a month. His monthly salary: $150,000 from e-book sales alone. He quit his day job. The offers of representation poured in, as did the offers from publishers. But Howey did an amazing thing: he only sold the hardback and paperback rights to “Wool.” He kept the e-book rights for himself. This is revolutionary for authors.

I know it’s ridiculous to compare “Bone Girl” to “Wool.” They’re different genres. “Wool” is science fiction, and as near as I can figure, “Bone Girl” is a middle-grade novel.

But one Sunday night a few weeks ago, the financial pressure cooker that is my life darn near exploded. In desperation, I thought, hell, let me see if I can put “Bone Girl” on Kindle. And guess what? I did. I put together some cover art and lo and behold, I downloaded the first three chapters. Why not? That was the same amount of material I sent to all of the agents and publishers who rejected the book. How many rejections exactly? About 22 now.

Howey self-published his books because he was impatient. I am the queen of impatience. My former journalism professor, Les Dunseith, told me I was the most impatient person he had ever known. Flatterer.

But there was more to it than that. Howey wanted someone to read his work rather than let it languish on the hard drive of his computer. Me again. That was the reason I put Bone Girl on the Authonomy website. I never intended to fight my way to the top so an editor at HarperCollins would read it. I wanted anyone to read it, regardless of whether it propelled my writing career.

Here’s the scary thing about Bone Girl: it’s the best book I’ve written. I don’t know if I will ever write another book with such an amazing main character, and I can’t sell the darn thing. My rejection count stands at 22.

Self-publish it? I don’t know. Maybe. I’m sure thinking about it.

Editors: you can’t live without them

Ray Bradbury asks wanna-be writers, “Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven’t friends. Go find some.”

I found one. My editor, Maudeen Wachsmith. Recently, Maudeen offered to read my manuscript for BONE GIRL, which I’ve had no luck selling. Here’s what she had to say:

“I finished reading BONE GIRL just a little while ago. I really enjoyed it. I think there is a market for this book. And like I said earlier I really couldn’t put it down and it kept me interested and engaged the entire time…. Keep writing. You have a gift. Don’t give up or become discouraged.”

P.S. For readers who are curious about my second novel, please visit www.authonomy.com and type Bone Girl in the search field. I’ve posted the first 10 chapters there. Also, my rejection count increased by one this week. The current count is 17: 16 from agents and one from a publisher. I remind myself, it only takes one yes!

Hands and arms inside the cart: Next, the realities of an e-book tour.

Music that moves me

The first step for me when I sit down to write is to click on Pandora and choose which station I’ll listen to as I create. The music I choose varies with which book I’m writing.

For Bone Girl, I prefer bluegrass, from the joyful fiddle playing of Mark O’Connor to the fast pace of the Barn Owl Band. Throw in a dash of Adele and top with the soulful duets of the Judds. All mixed together, these are the themes of my middle-grade novel, Bone Girl. . Here’s a few tunes that fit this novel best:

  •  “Make You Feel My Love” by Adele,
  • “Emily’s Reel” by Mark O’Connor,
  • “Road to Spencer” by The Three Pickers,
  • “Johnson Boys” by The Barn Owl Band,
  • “Love will Build a Bridge” by The Judds,
  • “Home” by Phillip Phillips,
  • “Squirrel Hunter” by The Wilders,

If I’m working on A Year with Geno, a contemporary romance that takes place in Anchorage, I leave my bluegrass stations and head straight to the music of Ella Fitzgerald and crooners like her. Lately, I’ve spent most of my writing time sculpting the rough draft of this novel, so I have quite a few songs bookmarked:

  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday,
  • “All Right Okay You Win” by Joe Williams,
  • “Almost Lover” by A Fine Frenzy,
  • “Smile” by Nat King Cole,
  • “The Very Thought of You” by Harry Connick, Jr.
  • “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” by Arethra Franklin,
  • “Many the Miles” by Sara Bareilles,

For my paranormal romance, Celebration House, it’s pure Norah Jones. I wrote the rough draft of the book when I first fell in love with this blues singer. Even my hunky hero, Maj. Thomas Stewart, remarks on Norah’s voice: “She sings as though she’s courting me.”

Hands and arms inside the cart: Next, I post my book, Bone Girl, on Authonomy. Quick! Go to www.Authonomy.com and read the first few chapters of my book. Tell me what you think.

An open letter to Kathryn Stockett

Dear Ms. Stockett:

I’ve read your book, The Help, several times. I keep it on my bookshelf next to the novels of Ray Bradbury and John Steinbeck.

Only recently did I learn that the novel was rejected by 60 agents. Sixty! That number takes my breath away. I can’t imagine few people who have your persistence.

I’m so glad you did because your book meant a lot to me and to others. I cannot speak to the characters of Minny and Aibileen, except to say that like Minny, I can’t refrain from speaking my mind and I usually pay for it.

For me, it was Miss Skeeter whose story was most inspiring. I liked reading about a young woman who just didn’t quite fit in her small town. Your book offered me a sliver of validation: it’s okay to be smart and want something more.

Now that I’ve jumped, or perhaps tripped, into this writing life and am peddling my own books, I have a question to ask of you: how did you do it? How did you keep sending out your story after so many rejections? Are you this tenacious in all aspects of your life? Holy buckets!

Recently, I finished writing a middle-grade novel for readers ages 9-12. My book, Bone Girl, is the story of a young girl who desperately seeks to rebuild a relationship with her incarcerated mother. Instead, she finds comfort in her father’s horses and learning to play a hand-me-down trombone in the school band. She plays the trombone because her father cannot afford to buy or rent her the instrument she wants, a clarinet. She practices in the barn, surrounded by her father’s horses, so that she doesn’t feel so alone. When her father and the stallion he trains go missing during an equestrian endurance ride in the Ozark Mountains, Josey plays her trombone and calls the horse in, thus saving her father’s life.  

I think this novel is the finest thing I’ve ever written. It’s complete, though I can’t keep myself from polishing it here or there. I’ve queried agents, and usually within a few days, they send me the nicest email, telling me they have no interest in my book. And I think of you: sixty rejections. You must have really believed in your book and its characters.

Well, I’m no Kathryn Stockett, but I believe in this manuscript and the characters that come to life on its pages, especially my main character, Josey Miller. So I pledge that I will not stop sending Bone Girl to agents or publishers until I have sixty rejections. 

Just so you’ll know, Ms. Stockett, I’m a quitter. I quit high school. I quit two marriages. I quit the profession of journalism. I even quit the doctorate of nursing program at Washington State University after spending more than a year getting admitted. Yep. I cut bait and run. So for me, this pledge is a huge commitment. Sixty rejections. Wow. Okay. Let’s do this.

Hands and arms inside the cart. Next: I’m heading to Seattle for the western Washington SCBWI conference. Party pics!