Month: October 2015

Reading, writing and a magic carpet ride

I haven’t always been a voracious reader. I grew into one in second grade when our teacher, Ms. Conlon, pulled out a giant plastic box filled with books and corresponding exercises and invited us to join a reading competition. “You will work at your own pace,” she said. “As soon as you finish one book, you may move on to the next. Finish the entire box and then come and see me for a surprise.”

Having been born into an extraordinarily large family, I knew how to compete. I had learned at an early age to be quick. If I didn’t, my chances of getting seconds or even dessert were questionable.

There was one problem. I struggled to read. But the competition and the promised surprise upped the ante considerably. I wanted to win. I wanted to be the first to earn the prize.

As the competition heated, it didn’t take me long to realize that the boys in my class were hares, and I was the tortoise. They were half way through the box before I even made it through the first couple of books. (I still think they cheated.) At the pace I was going, I would never get to the end of the box of books.

And in fact, I never did.

Hidden jewels
But I did gain a treasure that far surpassed the promised reward. I became a reader. A brand new world filled with covered wagons and cityscapes, ballrooms and caves, opened up before my wondering eyes. I read constantly, in the early morning hours before school started and late at night in front of the fire we kept going in the kitchen for heat in our old house. I carried copies of books into the strawberry patch and would reward myself with a chapter every time I picked a quart of strawberries. I didn’t cry when my older brother knocked my tooth out accidentally in a pretend fight. But I did cry bucketfuls when I reached the end of my favorite series and realized I would never meet the characters again.

In school, I went from third, to second, to first reading group and by seventh grade had advanced into the literature group for kids reading far above their grade level.

I purchased brown paper bags filled with hundreds of books from the annual library sale for a quarter and read each one. There were plenty of books lying around the house, too. On our family bookshelves I discovered The Exorcist and Black Beauty. I read The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey and every Nancy Drew mystery. I read my dad’s old speech books from college. I read A Separate Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Every couple of weeks I walked to the book mobile that rolled through town and checked out the maximum they would allow–fifteen books. The driver got to know my interests and would stock the shelves with plenty to choose from. When I came back each time, I had read all fifteen books and enthusiastically checked out fifteen more. I never missed a book mobile visit.

I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I once hid a book in my desk at my first big job and read it in between taking calls from salesmen. And I also pretended to shelve books in the library stacks, where I worked as a reference page, while I perused nearly every old issue of Life magazine. Working at a library was deadly for a book addict like me.

Oddly enough, I was told by well-meaning adults that my love of reading wasn’t healthy. I read so much, I wasn’t living life, I guess. But for me, reading was life. It was larger than life.

How else could I ever meet the Prince of England or travel into ancient Egypt if not through the pages of a book? How could I experience summer camp (something I never got to do) or hang-gliding (yep, I read a whole book about that), if not through reading?

These days, I spend much more time writing books than reading them. In fact, I might say that writing has “ruined” books for me. Rather than immersing myself in the story, I find myself critiquing the author’s writing style or questioning the believability of the plot. I get frustrated and instead of reading, wind up watching old episodes of Gilmore Girls on Netflix. (Love that show.)

And then by chance, I pick up a well-written book, like my recent find, Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, and I’m hooked. Before I know it, I am hanging on every written word. And when I reach the end, I sigh, because for that space of time, I have forgotten the dirty dishes in the sink, the mountains of laundry to be washed and the bathrooms that need cleaned. I’m just a quick-witted, young lady, dumped by my boyfriend, who overhears him make a bet about her and decides she’ll play along. Magic.

Rejection Is a Bitter Pill. But Here’s Why You Should Swallow It

I stay up late most nights to do my writing. At 1 a.m. the house is quiet, and I can think uninterrupted. But even in the wee hours, I sometimes procrastinate. Like yesterday. On that particular day, YouTube was the distracting culprit.

Enter Taylor Swift
I was looking for a song about moms that I might be able to use as the ringtone for my heroine’s mother. After a quick search, I found myself listening to a tune by Taylor Swift called, “The Best Day.” Take a listen if you haven’t heard this one. It’s sweet with video clips of Taylor’s mother holding her as a child. I watched it twice–it was that entertaining. But just before I clicked out, I happened to notice that the song had received more than one thousand downward thumbs. It was hard for me to imagine that anyone could give this tender song a thumbs down. Really? What’s not to like?

That got me thinking about rejection.
As writers–and really every artist–we must stomach a LOT of rejection. It goes with the territory. It doesn’t matter who you are or how far you’ve come, someone out there won’t like you or appreciate your work. Guaranteed.

Although my manuscript was only completed six months ago, I have had to swallow a large dose of rejection. Where does it come from? Agents who receive my pitches, editors who I meet at conferences, other writers who critique my contest entries, my husband who reads everything I write and gives me honest feedback, and even my children, who want me to skip the romance and finish the young adult novel I started ages ago and never finished.

Rejection stinks
And yet, it is the one aspect of writing that I can count on. I screw up my courage to present my work to the world, only to have my hopes dashed–over and over again. Since I finished my first manuscript in April and began the search for a publisher, ninety-nine percent of the feedback I have received has been rejection. But did you know that even rejection has a learning curve? That’s right. It goes something like this:

Phase 1: The Impersonal Rejection: These are impersonal and mechanical email responses, generally consisting of a standard form message. Here’s a sample (in case you haven’t had the pleasure of getting one):

“Thank you very much for sending your query and for offering me the chance to review your material. I’m sorry to state that I will not be asking to represent your manuscript. It is crucial to find an agent who will represent you to the best of his or her ability, and your project did not seem like a good fit for me.

Please understand that this is a subjective industry, and what does not work for one agent or publisher may in fact work well for another. Although I cannot recommend someone specific, I encourage you to continue seeking out representation elsewhere. Should the occasion arise to submit a new project for consideration, please feel free to contact me again.”

Phase 2: The Personal Rejection: Later, after some revisions, more personal rejections began landing in my inbox:

“Thank you very much for the opportunity to consider the opening chapters of MIND WAVES.

I really wish I had better news for you, but I’m afraid I didn’t connect with the material here, and am going to have to decline to offer representation. While I can certainly see why it did so well in the 2015 Central Ohio Fiction Writers Ignite the Flame Contest and the 2015 Music City Romance Writer’s Pitch contest, MIND WAVES isn’t the best fit for me.

Thank you again for the opportunity to read your work. I wish you the best of success with this and with all your writing, and I would enjoy seeing new queries from you when I’m open again to queries.”

Phase 3: Pointed Rejection: For me, this type of rejection has come from editors or contest judges who read a small portion of the manuscript and have specific negative feedback they want to convey. In some cases, there are suggestions for improvement, but often, they just don’t like it:

The dialogue is a significant weakness. It felt wooden and unnatural.”

There was far too much telling and not enough showing. Much of the narrative is clunky and unnecessary.”

So, how to deal with it?
The trick is to read the comment, question its validity (which takes honesty), and then if it really doesn’t mesh with what you know to be true, toss it off and don’t look back. But if in your heart you know the criticism is valid, then use it to learn. If you follow this mantra, soon you’ll notice changes in the criticism you receive.

At least that’s what happened to me. After spending the first six months incorporating feedback, I reached a point when I noticed the number of rejections dropping. Instead, I began receiving prompt responses–please send the full manuscript. One editor went as far as to ask me to let them know right away if someone else had offered a publishing contract. And check out this recent feedback from a contest judge:

“I definitely want to read this once it’s published. This story is engaging and leaves me wanting more. I’ve made note of the title so I can watch for it. It takes nerves of steel to toss our “babies” out to be judged, and I am honored to have read yours.”

These are positive signs that I am getting closer to a publishing contract and to seeing my book on a bookstore shelf. But if I would have ignored those initial rejections and comments, I would have learned nothing and still be back in rejection central, waiting and wondering.

When the day comes
And when I finally publish the book? Will that be the end of rejection? I suspect not. Just like Taylor Swift, I am sure there will be those who still don’t like the book. I just hope there are thousands more that do!

Letter to my younger self

Hey young lady,

You’d better put down that book and live a little. Just kidding. Really, quit pouting. Why do you take everything so seriously? I was just playing with you. No need to be so self-conscious.

Keep on reading. Don’t stop.
These are some of the slowest moving days of your life, so enjoy them while you have them. It may not seem like it now, but one day soon you’ll be chasing kids and working twelve-hour work days. You’ll have a stack of books by your bedside that you just can’t get to, and there will be precious little time to dream as you are doing right now. So, relax and enjoy it, why don’t ya?

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables? Those girls will show you a good time. In exchange for a walk to the bookmobile, they’ll take you on the most amazing adventures. They’ll share valuable life lessons about being strong and staying positive in the midst of change. As they whisk you away from your quiet, humdrum existence, you’ll also learn where to place that comma and period and how to read and write expressively, skills that will one day land you a great job.

Take your time. Don’t read so fast.
You’ll sob when you reach the end of “These Happy Golden Years,” like you’ve lost your best friend. And that’s okay. In many ways, those books are your good friends. You’ll laugh at the antics of Lizzie Bennet and all her sisters, and your little heart will race when Darcy proposes for the second time and Lizzie accepts. And when you read the book Daddy Longlegs, you will be just as thrilled as the orphan Jerusha Abbott when she discovers the identity of her rich sponsor.

Soon you’ll discover the works of Georgette Heyer on the bookmobile shelf. And while your classmates are attending homecoming and prom, you’ll be waltzing in a ballroom in regency England with the Marquis of Vidal. You’ll race through dozen of her books, and later, when interviewing for a job at the local library, you will be asked what authors you like to read and Heyer will be the only name that comes to mind. This will land you the job, because what young teen could possibly come up with an author like Heyer on a whim? As a result, you’ll spend several glorious years surrounded by your loves in the library stacks.

Now I know you are a sensitive girl.
It doesn’t take much to reduce you to tears or shake your confidence. But try not to worry so much about what others think. Be like Jo March from Little Women, who’s fierce, independent spirit and kind heart shine despite her circumstances. Or like the plain Jane Eyre, who’s childhood pains allow her to look longer and deeper at those around her and find true love despite her situation.

And when it seems like others steal the glory, remember that those heroines you love all experienced heartache before they found their greatest happiness. They refused to compromise their dreams, keeping them alive deep inside like a bank of hot coals, until the moment when experience and opportunity fanned them to life.

So, too, it will be for you.

Stay strong young reader. Your future awaits, and it’s filled with just as much excitement, challenge and romance as the heroines in all your favorite books–maybe even better.

As Anne says, “It’s delightful when your imaginations come true, isn’t it?”

P.S. Also, if you can drum up some extra cash, I have a couple of stock tips you might be interested in…

Sometimes the most perfectly laid plans go awry…and that’s a good thing

“May I sit here?”

The woman across the table nodded at me, flashing a friendly smile. She had a notebook and pen with her and was eating a sandwich. I was attending a writing conference, but I didn’t know anyone, so I was grateful for the place to sit and her warm welcome.

That morning had begun with high hopes. On the drive over, I wondered about all the interesting information I was bound to glean. I’m fairly new to the fiction writing scene, so I expected I would hear from a great many writers who have it all figured out, right? Wrong. After listening to the first couple of workshops, it didn’t take me long to discover that this wasn’t going to be a learning kind of day. I was disappointed, and for a while, seriously thought about leaving early. But I paid for the day, I reminded myself. I want my money’s worth. So I stuck it out.

Change of plans
As I was about to discover, sometimes my purpose for a day is not God’s purpose. Sometimes, the good Lord puts us exactly where he wants us.

“How are you enjoying the conference,” my new friend asked.

“It’s ok,” I said. “How about you?”

“It’s great. Actually, this is the first time I’ve gotten out of the house. I had surgery a couple of months ago.”

She said it so casually, we went on to talk about other things. There was another woman at the table, and she was a kindergarten teacher. We brought her in on the conversation, but strangely, she never mentioned that she had published a children’s book. (We would find that out after lunch.) If she had, the tenor of our conversation might have changed. I might have never learned more about the woman across from me.

“Do you have a writing project in the works,” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I wasn’t well enough for that until now. But writing has always been an interest of mine. I used to journal a lot when I was a child as a way for me to express my feelings…my childhood was not easy.” She added the last as an afterthought.

Illness revealed
I took a closer look at my companion. Her bright smile belied any type of sadness. She had a perfectly oval face and her blond hair fell softly around her head like an angel’s halo. She was about my age, in her late forties or early fifties.

“You look great. What was your illness?”

“I had a kidney transplant. I had been sick for eighteen years, so I was pretty bad. My daughter was my donor.”

“Wow, that’s incredible. You don’t look like you have been ill.”

“Yeah, I know. I have been sick for so long, I don’t remember what it’s like to feel good again. I’m not used to having energy and needing to get out of the house. But I always enjoyed writing, so I thought this conference would be a good way to start a new hobby.”

“That’s amazing that your daughter was your donor.”

“It is,” she acknowledged. “I didn’t ask her to either. She just told me that she was going to be tested and when it turned out we were a perfect match, she said, ‘Mom, I’m going to be your donor.’ I didn’t know what to say. It’s an amazing gift. She’s a wonderful daughter.”

“How is your daughter doing?”

“Oh, she’s back at work already. Her only concern with donating a kidney is that she wanted to have another child. But the doctor reassured her that she could. She has been incredible through the whole thing. When they wheeled us out after surgery, we gave each other a big thumbs up. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”

“Wow. What a fantastic story. You really need to write about this.”

“Yeah, maybe I will,” she said.

Lunch was over but we would find ourselves together in all the remaining workshops. Before the conference ended, we exchanged email and Facebook information, and during a break, she liked my Facebook page.

The message
As I was driving home that afternoon, it struck me that hearing this woman’s story was part of a larger plan. That I needed to hear about her illness as much as she needed to tell me and connect with someone from the outside. Her story was God’s little reminder to me that success can mean different things to different people. For me, it means taking another leap forward on my journey to publication. But for this lovely lady, success is getting out of the house in the morning and enjoying a new hobby.

It was the big man’s loving message to me not to get so caught up in my own goals and ambitions. What a gift I was given when she shared her story. I am so grateful that I was the lucky recipient.

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