Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Met My Agent

I have just returned from a fast and furious trip back to Massachusetts to see my family and meet my agent for the first time. I flew in and out between snowstorms, though I did get to drive in pretty significant snow from Princeton to the Providence airport. Which is actually in Warwick, but I digress! My flight left at 9:30, and at 8:25 I was one mile from the airport and going nowhere in crawling traffic and snow. I made peace with the fact that I could be one mile away and still miss my flight, but I ended up making it after all.

In between two looooonnnng flying days, I had two lovely days with my family. I got to sit with my mother, who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's. She dozes, opens her eyes, smiles and nods, then closes her eyes again. The only word she said in an hour's time was, "beautiful," which she struggled to get out after hearing me say it a few times. But I was glad to just sit and hold her hand. I hope you won't mind if I just go ahead and say right here: Alzheimer's Sucks!

I spent time with my sister and BIL Terry, and my amazing nieces, Olivia and Elizabeth. They are growing up way too fast.

Oh my gosh! It was SOOOOO cold! Like 5 degrees during the day. Yikes.

On Monday I drove 2 hours to meet Kate Epstein, my agent, for breakfast in Dedham, Mass. She is a delight - young, smart smart smart, knowledgable, and funny. We talked about our personal histories, books we loved and didn't love, and next steps with The Christmas Village. We will finish up our editing, which is almost done (I think!) and then she will figure out how to pitch the book and to which publishers.

One strategy is to pitch a handful of publishing houses. Another is to pitch a whole bunch at once. There are pros and cons to each approach. If you pitch just a few, you may get some feedback that you really need to get, and you can use that when you pitch the next round. On the other hand, if you pitch broadly, you can get them all fighting over the book, which of course is what we all hope for. The downside of pitching broadly is if there IS feedback you needed to get, and you didn't get it, and all the publishers pass on the book. After that, it's pretty hard to go back and pitch again. So, I think I favor pitching a few and seeing what the response is first. But we'll see what Kate thinks when the proposal is ready.

One thing she will do is look at other books that are similar to mine in genre or tone. In our case, we will look at books that have a Christmas aspect to them. But although The Christmas Village takes place at Christmas, it isn't ABOUT Christmas really - think It's A Wonderful Life to see what I mean. Still, the Christmas element is very strong, so it's natural to look at other Christmas books for likely publishers.

Anyway, it was a productive trip and I am excited for us to take our next steps along this path. I feel like I am in good hands.

In upcoming blogs, I plan to post about how I found my agent and also why I chose the agent I chose.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

PRO-logue or ANTI-logue

When I finished writing my book, The Christmas Village, it didn't have a prologue. I put together my query and sent that off with the first chapter(or whatever an agent specified) to about 10 agents. Within a day, I had gotten four "no thank you's." I immediately wondered if my query was falling short - I mean, how can we ever capture all the fabulousness of our book in a paragraph or two? And, I wondered if the opening chapter didn't give enough of an indication of all the fabulousness that lay ahead....

Not long after, I flew to Montreal, and on the flight I began reading The Shadow King, a young adult novel. It has a prologue, a scary scene that lets you know that some fun hair-raising stuff lies ahead. I liked this prologue very much and said to myself, "This is exactly what my book needs!" I was very excited! For my next round of queries, I would have this terrific prologue that would grab the agents' interest and give them a preview of excitement to come. So, I took a scary and suspenseful dream scene from chapter nine and moved it to the front of the book, creating, TA DA, a Prologue.

A few weeks later, two agents asked to read the full manuscript of the story. Mind you, these two had gotten the original query - the one WITHOUT the prologue. But now that I was submitting the full manuscript, it had my wonderful prologue in it, and so that's what they got.

Now in the sooner had I created my prologue, than I read an article in Writer's Digest that said that agents and editors hate prologues! I won't go into all the reasons why, but suffice it to say, they apparently do. Then I went to a workshop at which I had signed up for a first chapter review, and the reviewer asked, "Why did you add this prologue? I thought your first chapter was great." Big. Fat. Sigh.

Back to the two agents reading the manuscript. Both eventually offered representation. Yay! I chose my agent, Kate Epstein, with whom I had worked through some revisions that definitely enhanced the book. So far, neither Kate or the other agent had mentioned anything about the prologue being a problem, so I was feeling quite pleased with myself for having added it.

Once we had a contract, Kate began the process of line editing the book. When I got her proposed edits, the first thing she said was, "I think we should get rid of the prologue. Editors really don't like them, and I think it gives the impression that the mood of the book is scarier than it really is."

I scanned through the rest of her comments and got to chapter nine, which is where the dream scene in the prologue had originally been. Here she had written, "Hey, this would be a great place for that dream scene that you have in the prologue!" I burst out laughing.

Now just because your agent suggests a change, that doesn't mean you HAVE to do it. But I had originally created the prologue mainly to grab agents' interest, because the prologue to The Shadow King seemed to work, and because I have always liked prologues - they are like a preview of coming attractions. But I do agree that my prologue implies a mood that is darker than the overall mood of the book. And,I think the first chapter really does stand on its own. AND,I don't want to annoy the nice editor at the publishing house that is going to publish my book (whoever he or she may be). I am saying goodbye to my dear prologue. :-(

So, the moral of the story, Dear Writers, is: When it comes to prologues, Proceed with Caution. I have absolutely no clue whether prologues are a good idea or not. I happen to like them. I think readers like them. I think they work especially well in children's books. But if agents and editors hate them, then we may as well not go out of our way to annoy them.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Late Blooming

I’ve noticed that writers’ magazines invariably have at least one article per issue offering advice to help writers do what they say they want to do: write. Isn’t it funny that we have this strong desire within us, a soul-driven knowledge that writing is what we are meant to do with this life, yet we must be coaxed and cajoled and prodded into doing it?

This phenomenon doesn’t just apply to writers. There are painters who don’t paint, sculptors who don’t sculpt, and musicians who don’t play. Everyone has dreams that speak to them in the quiet times, politely tapping them on the shoulder and saying, “Hello, remember me? I’m still here.” But day after day can go by in which we choose to ignore them, bristling slightly as we reply, “I haven’t forgotten you, but I’m busy with other things right now.”

There are the real logistical obstacles: jobs, families, illness and any number of life’s demands. But we also know there are people who manage to write – despite the job, despite the kids, despite the flu. I mean, didn’t Danielle Steele have something like seven kids while she wrote her first books? And I recently heard of a bedridden woman who can only write while lying on her back, hanging off the edge of her bed. People like that can make you feel really guilty.

Then there are those more subtle psychological issues at play too. All that “fear of failure” and “fear of success” stuff. And the very real fear that when we sit down to write we’ll discover that we actually haven’t got much to say that anyone will really care about. Or the fear that, although we have something extremely useful to say, we will not be able to find the words to say it as eloquently and elegantly on paper as we hear it in our heads. Sigh.

I knew I wanted to be a writer, should be a writer, when I was about eight or nine years old. It wasn’t because I had already shown great talent and promise, it was simply something that I “knew”. I can’t explain why I knew it, I just did. Yet for the longest time, I did very little with that knowledge, mainly because I felt I had nothing valuable to say. I was the victim of a happy childhood – the cruelest blow for an aspiring writer. There were no traumatic events, no major dramas. At least not on a scale that I recognized as story-worthy. So years went by in which I chose to fulfill other dreams – dreams of romance, financial security, lots of nice stuff, and tropical vacations. The Writing Dream sighed, went to the back of the Dream Line, sat down on the couch and waited.

After many years of letting all those other dreams take precedence, I finally let the Writing Dream come to the front of the line. It was more or less a case of “been there, done that,” with everything else. I’d found that, while real and valid and important to me in their own rights, the other dreams were not sustaining or fulfilling in a lasting way. And it was only at this point, having lived much and accomplished much in other aspects of life – success and failure, joy and heartbreak, rejection and acceptance, that I was finally able to start putting things together.

When I was young, I saw my grandmother only as a wicked witch whose emotional eruptions threatened to spoil every family occasion. Now I can see her as a character in her own life story, a story that somehow led her to become the Drama Queen we had known. There’s a story there. I had seen my Aunt Kay, with her gigantic, fleshy face, Bozo-the-Clown red hair and strong Jewish accent, as a kind-hearted embarrassment. Now I see her as a heroine who escaped from Austria during World War II. There’s a story there. I am finally able to see the places I’ve lived in and visited as story settings, to envision the people I’ve known as rich characters, and to understand that there are indeed thousands and thousands of stories in the simple events of everyday life.

There are people who, from a very young age, can see the stories and tell them. I wasn’t one of those people. I was a gatherer. I observed and gathered for many years before I was able to see what I had, before I could put things together and figure out what to do with it all. I like to think of it now as an extremely long gestation period. I’ve stopped berating myself for all the years in which I did things other than write. I just wasn’t ready to bloom yet. And now what I think is this: Everyone is different. Some people bloom early. Some people bloom later. Some lucky people bloom all the way along. It really doesn’t matter when you bloom, it only matters that you do.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

October Garden

I don't write much poetry. Unlike writing essays or stories, where I can fiddle around and poke away at the page until something comes, a poem will rise up suddenly and surge out like a flash flood. I have found that poems most often come to me in times of sadness. I wrote the poem "Poppies," shortly after my dad passed away last year. This poem, "October Garden," was written this past fall, about a year later.

October Garden
by Melissa Ann Goodwin

I have just finished cutting
down the crisp sunflower stalks at
the garden’s edge.
I let them go too long, I know –
dead flowers are bad feng shui
the finches needed more time
to pick the seed pods clean.
They didn’t come today so
I know they are done.

Dad has been gone a year,
this month.
I don’t know where it went –
the year, the time,
his lifetime now
just a blip
on the radar screen of
forever and ever Amen.

I am gathering the hollyhock pods –
papery fairy baskets swimming
with seeds.
I will give some to the neighbors
a few friends
my sister – they will look sweet
growing by her barn.

I wonder what Mom is doing today.
I picture her padding about in
her Rockport shoes and
red Talbots sweater
clutching her purse
tugging at the nurse’s sleeve,
“Have you seen my mother?”

The coneflowers look fried.
I should have cut them back
last week but it was windy
and there wasn’t time.
The sky is October blue
but just now I glimpsed November gray
lurking at the edges.
Any day now I will wake up to find
the last green plants have turned yellow and slick
as though struck by the flu overnight.

My birthday is soon.
Not one of those we call the Big One
but still, one that changes where I fall
in the scheme of things.
My insurance will go up
and I will have to mark a different
age-group box and there will be new rules
about what I am allowed to wear.

I will come out once more before
the snow falls, and cut back the roses
until they are woody stubs and
bury them alive under mounds of dirt.
But now
I will put away my tools
and go inside,
make a nice cup of tea
as my mother used to say –
and write this all down.