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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

RSVP "Regrets Only" and Agents

As the Northeast finally thaws out, the party/picnic/get-together invitations roll in. Between birthdays, graduations, holidays, and just fun by the pool, we embrace the heat and one another. Happy to emerge from hibernation. An ever-growing trend is the "Regrets Only RSVP." Like my friend's recent 40th birthday party. Almost 60 people were invited via a gorgeous invitation containing the "Regrets Only" line. As the party date approached, the hosts grew anxious. One week out, no one had regretfully RSVP'd. In making Costco and Party City runs, food orders, and deciding how big of a cake to buy, the hosts had to assume that all 60 were coming. The day before, a few people called to say they wouldn't make it. Babysitter snags or last minute illness. But the night of the party, even more didn't show up. This is a flaw with the "Regrets Only." Guests can delay or just not even show because of the lack of commitment required. With the traditional RSVP, guests call the host, commit to the date, and can offer words of encouragement or excitement: "Can't wait to get together with everyone." There is a lot less ambiguity.

So goes the query process. When I finished the manuscript for The Beauty of Grace, I poured through my agent's bible, "The 2011 Guide to Literary Agents." I highlighted. I researched. I checked websites to ensure the agents I queried represented my type of novel (women's fiction). I did my homework. Then, I worked on my query letter, which is a one-page introductory letter to an agent that briefly describes the plot of your book, introduces you and your qualifications, and provides contact information. It's the knock on the door.

Before email, authors sent Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes (SASE) along with their query letters. Agents would read your query and if they weren't interested, would print a form rejection and stick it in the envelope. Just like the traditional RSVP, this ensured a response. Most of the time. This type of query also required more effort on the part of the author. Printing the letters individually, buying postage for both the letter and the SASE, and, in the case of some agents, incurring additional postage and copy costs if a sample was required. Commitment. There are a few agents that still use this method, but with the advent of email, many receive queries either exclusively or preferably via email. This is a positive because it allows writers to reach out to more agents. It also gives agents a bigger pool to choose from. And I won't even mention the incredible benefit to the environment!

But with this growing trend, I wish more agents would employ the traditional RSVP method. The "Regrets Only" policy in publishing is actually an "Acceptance Only" policy. Many agencies state on their websites: "If you don't hear from us, assume we've passed." As a writer pursuing a dream, wearing her heart on her proverbial sleeve, and putting her work out there for strangers to judge, this sucks. Recently, an agent simply responded to my email query with a "Not for me." Bless you, bless you, Paul Levine. Just receiving a response allowed me to cross his name off my list of pending responses.
Thank you agents for opening up the door. Thank you for helping the planet by requiring email only queries. But please don't employ a "Regrets Only" policy because it leaves us waiting, holding our breath, by the phone (aka email inbox). A "not for me" takes four seconds. Please.

Did I just shoot myself in the foot with this one?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Law School Professors, Agents, and Friends

At the end of my first semester of law school, we took final exams over the course of a week. How this differed from college and high school was that our law school final exams were our only grade. There were no quizzes or tests before that. Just one big final that lasted hours after four months of cramming information into our brains and then summarizing it in "outlines" that were a hundred pages long. I knew the information. I was going to ace this. I, like many of my Emory cohorts, entered law school with an enormous amount of confidence. We who graduated top of our class in high school and college. We who believed we would excel at whatever we did. We who carried enough hubris to cloud our vision of reality.

Until I got my contracts exam back. Professor Abrams had peppered it with red marks and topped it with a giant "78." A 78? I didn't get 78's. I didn't get "B's." I stormed up the steps to the third floor and right into Professor Abrams office. A short man with a proclivity toward bowties, he had a stare that stopped you cold. When I crossed the threshold of his office and met his gaze, my self-righteous indignation fled through my shoes. Recognizing my deer-in-the-highlights shock, he motioned me in. "Professor Abrams, I reviewed my contracts exam and I'm not sure why I got a 'C.'" He took my Blue Book from me and spent a few minutes going over the plethera of red streaks. Defeated, I asked, "What did I get right?" I'll never forget his response: "The parts that don't have any red on them."

Trying to get the attention of an agent feels frighteningly reminiscent of my afternoon in Professor Abrams office. Most everyone at Emory Law was bright. Some were even freakishly brilliant. We'd all spent most of our academic lives being praised for our efforts. Now, excellence was presumed. We could only improve if our errors, rather than our successes, were the focus. There are thousands of great manuscripts out there waiting to be discovered, and only a handful will make the cut. Hubris, entitlement, and expectation are unaffordable liabilities. No matter how many times I revise The Beauty of Grace, I always see room for improvement. I can't--and don't--expect an agent to sign me. I must simply continue to work at it and shoot for the stars in the hopes that someone will take a chance on me. I love my friends dearly and they've been incredibly supportive. Many have read my manuscript and given me sincere and reassuring words of encouragement. But I need red marks and brutal honesty. If I ever do get an offer of representation or *little prayer* a book contract, I know that will be the beginning, not the end. There are many more red marks in my future and I welcome them.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why do we chase our dreams?

Writing poetry has always been my first love. When I was a little girl, I wrote because I loved the way words could be strung together to create worlds or images. Seemingly unrelated words form a canvas that evokes more imagery and emotion than the most descriptive prose. But back then, I just thought it was pretty. Now, I appreciate its power. Over the four decades of my life, I've often used writing as a catharsis. As my fingers type away, my worries and fears and unresolved pain bleed through my fingertips onto the keyboard and, ultimately, the screen. It allows me to explore the crevases of my experiences and manipulate the endings through fiction, giving me a sense of power and control over some of the most terrible things: my little brother's death, my mother's disease, the loss of my sense of self. Until just a few years ago, I limited myself to short stories and poetry. Pieces I could complete in an hour and shelve. Akin to a good cry.
But eight years ago, my daughter, Abby, was stillborn. The pain of her birth/death paralyzed me. I couldn't speak about it. I couldn't speak about her. I couldn't share the details of our taking her ashes to Pebble Beach and scattering them in the ocean. Each day was a struggle to simply breathe. But I felt an obligation to our family and friends who stood by us. I wanted to tell them of our experience and share it with them. More importantly, I promised Abby that we would never forget her. So I began to write. For two months, I pulled off the scabs and wrote without censor. Honest and raw, I allowed myself to feel for the first time in months. What emerged was a short memoir. Its length reflects the shortness of her life.
I've asked myself one question many times over the past few years as I've written, re-written, edited, shared, added to, and almost scraped The Beauty of Grace. Why not self-publish this one, too? I self-published Abby and my first novel, In Search of Solomon's Wisdom. I wasn't taking a short-cut or naive about the publishing industry. I just wanted them in print so I could share them with my family and friends. In Search of Solomon's Wisdom is fiction, but its main character dies the same way my little brother did. I wrote it to explore my own questions about why he died, and to deal with my anger at him for dying. I self-published both books so I could go on about my life.
Then, The Beauty of Grace bloomed in my mind. With the chaos of raising small children, running a household, and being involved in 8,000 things, Grace took much longer to finish. As it sits at 300 pages in my laptop, it gnaws at me. I could go the same route and self-publish it, but I want this one out there. I want to go into Barnes and Noble and see it sitting on a shelf. So in answering my own question, "why not self-publish this one, too?" a new question has surfaced: "Why does anyone pursue their dreams?" Why write, paint, dance, sing? Why does anyone choose to pour their heart and soul into a pursuit that, to achieve commercial success, requires enormous effort, endless criticism, and almost impossible odds? Is it because we believe that what we have to say is so important? Or entertaining? Or is it because we arrogantly think that our ideas deserve public debate and discussion? The only answer I can fathom is simply because I have to. Writing is a big part of who I am and to achieve commercial success, i.e. traditional publication, would validate my writing. And, therefore, would validate a piece of me.
Are you chasing your dreams? If so, why? If not, why not?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Perspective

My dad came up from Alabama this weekend to participate in a 5K with me that benefits the Association for Frontal Temporal Degeneration. For those of you who don't know, my 63-year-old mom suffers from this disease. Actually, the irony is that she isn't the one suffering. FTD is a degenerative disease that essentially eats the mind. Eleven years ago, when she was only in her early 50's, we realized that she just "wasn't right." My loving, vibrant mother had become depressed and apathetic. Her personality changed. An MRI revealed that both of her frontal lobes were gone. Not diminished. Gone. Over the past decade, her disease has eaten her temporal lobes, as well, and part of her occipital lobes. She is now in a nursing home, completely dependent for care. She rarely opens her eyes and simply sits in a wheelchair all day. She eats if a spoon touches her lips, but that is about the only movement at this point. It crushes my heart to see her this way.

I remember vividly when we started down this road and the many stops between there and now. Today, as we sat listening to two families talk about how they recently put their family members with FTD in a nursing home, a part of me thought, "They're lucky." Of course they aren't. And when we put my own mom in a nursing home because my dad simply couldn't care for her anymore, we didn't feel lucky. But at that time, she recognized us. She said our names. She made eye contact. She smiled. She sometimes even said, "I love you." That is all gone. If you'd asked me then if we were lucky, I would've looked at you as if you were crazy. But right now, what I wouldn't give to have her look me in the eye and say my name.

When writing The Beauty of Grace, I tried to be sensitive in broaching certain topics. When I did this, I blindly assumed that my readers would view the material in much the same way that I do. But in the years since this journey began, I realize that this not only isn't so, it's impossible. Everyone has a story and it frames the way you view the world and the myriad issues we face. Once I realized that each reader would bring a different perspective to Grace, it freed me to simply write rather than aim to please. I have to let readers bring what they bring, knowing it will only enhance their experience and mine.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Platforms...and I ain't talking shoes

The evolution of technology over the last decade has changed every aspect of our lives. I grew up in the 70's and 80's. When Mom wanted us home, she yelled (or hollered--I grew up in Alabama). If we were too far away, we knew it was time when the street lights came on. In high school, we passed notes in class or whispered in the hallways. When "the cute guy" finally called, you stretched the phone cord as far away from the kitchen wall unit as you could to get privacy. I remember shutting myself in the pantry or the laundry room. If you were lucky, you actually had your own phone in your room. Wow.
In college, we relied upon bumping into one another on campus or getting a message through friends. Back then, we read newspaper book reviews or asked for a suggestion from a friend to pick our next great read. Technology has changed this for the good, I believe. I can text my daughter and know where she is in seconds. I can Facebook old friends and see pictures of their children and read updates on their lives en masse. I can snap a picture of my gaped-tooth son right after he's lost his first tooth and text it to his grandparents to share in the milestone. These are all good things.
But the changes go beyond our personal lives. They've permeated our professional lives, too. My son's teacher emails me the assignments he's missed because he was sick. My husband can view invoices online and read forums from other professionals in his field to get the pulse of his industry. His cell phone makes him accessible 24/7. Lawyers e-file documents now instead of racing to the courthouse to file them on time, and doctors read x-rays and test results from the comfort of their homes.
Publishing has not escaped this two-sided coin. The e-book has both revolutionized and terrorized the industry. Rumors swirl of brick and mortar stores becoming obsolete as people carry around their Kindles, Nooks, and iPads. But e-publishing also greatly reduces cost, allowing houses to take chances on books that they simply, and literally, wouldn't put paper behind.
One of the biggest changes, I believe, is the way authors use social networking. One of my favorite authors tweets her book-signing locations or links to reviews of her latest novel. Her webpage sports photographs of her book jackets, which link directly to several on-line bookstores where you can purchase her book with one touch. Authors, agents, editors...most of them tweet, blog, and have websites. It isn't enough anymore to simply be a good writer. You have to know how to sell yourself, and social networking is the medium. I began this blog as an online journal but now realize that it, like my Facebook page and the website that I'm furiously working on, is essential. And not just to sell a book, but to even have an agent consider representing you. You must have a platform. It makes good business sense, of course. But it requires people like me--who just want to write and write and write--to become experts in marketing and branding themselves. Who knew when I typed that first word?