A Path to Publication, pt 15: An editor is your friend

I try to shake loose my mind, so something fresh can fall out… This process acts like a sifter—sand falls through and bright nuggets come to light.

–Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning

In my last post I wrote about the struggle I was having with a particular essay. Every tweak made it seem even more hopeless—it was still crap. This Facebook post sums up how I was feeling at that time:

If I didn’t know I’d regret it highly, I’d figuratively rip this essay into a million pieces and forget submitting anything, anywhere, ever.

Well, I am happy and extremely relieved to say, after finally letting it sit percolating for almost two weeks, the essay is finished and submitted to the magazine. And I am also beyond happy to say: It was good.

Yes, eventually, it got good. I could claim to be a writer again. Phew.

How did this happen? Well, Anne LaMott was right (of course), you really do need to let it sit. But, as Anne also says, it is essential to write that “shitty first draft” and, believe me, my first (and second and third…) draft was incredibly shitty. (And reeeeaaaally long.)

Why? If I’m a good writer shouldn’t I just know what constitutes should be in a piece and what needs to be left out? How things best flow and what theme should run throughout? No, not at first. That’s what revising and editing are for. First drafts are for just getting it out. Getting out of your head and heart what you need to express. Some of these things may never see light of day beyond your journal or computer screen but out they must come. As Shrek says, “Better out than in…”

Here’s how one of my friend-editors put it:

By writing this piece over and over again, you finally got out of your system how you wanted it to go, and let it tell you why you were writing it and what it was really about.

Which brings me to the subject of editors.

I knew someone a long time ago, an artist who struggled with self-confidence issues. This person was a good artist but, as is the case for anyone practicing a craft (even if it’s practicing the “craft” of living) having a mentor could have been helpful. My friend wanted nothing to do with it, I believe because he felt it implied he wasn’t good enough to do it alone.

There are writers like this, those who think their natural talent is enough. But let me tell you, having a mentor/editor or a group of such, is essential to your growth as a writer.

My main editor-friend is a gift to me. She is honest in her critique but generous in her praise. She willingly plowed through version after version I sent her, gently coaching and coaxing me. With her guidance I dug through the dirt to find the gems.

At times I didn’t take particular suggestions because they didn’t sit right with me intuitively–when I felt it was straying too far from what I knew was my truth. Together with an editor, you get to sift through all the unneeded “stuff.” And ultimately, after letting the essay rest for a while, my full truth flowed far easier and authentically because I’d already played with the muck around the edges and the gems were more obvious.

I also sent my work-in-progress to two other writerly friends to have it seen by other eyes and new perspectives. Their feedback was invaluable too. They too were honest in their comments when something didn’t quite work for them and supportive with their positive feedback. Their joyful (almost proud-motherish) reactions to the final draft was validating and humbling.

Writing this particular essay was difficult. It was a personal narrative about a painful part of my past. Bringing it to fruition was akin to a hard labor and birth. But my main midwife-editor and assistant doula-readers guided me through it, not undermining my ability with their presence and advice, but supporting and fostering it.

Once again, I thank you, Jen, Gabriella, and Jennifer!

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The Path to Publication, part 3: Pitching for a date

As I mentioned in the first installment of this series, the whole pitch-query-agent-proposal-publisher thing has filled me with fear and dread for a long time. It took finally reaching out to some friends and acquaintances in the know and attending a very helpful (and focused) workshop to make it feel almost do-able.

And as promised, I am sharing here some of the advice I received (some of which will conflict). Please note, that this information is a summary and cannot reflect every helpful tidbit. In other words, get thee to a workshop for the most thorough insight on how to start the publication process. (As an aside, one author highly recommended going the self-publication route. At this point, I do not feel this is the right way for me, so I will focus here only on traditional publication.)

On agents and publishers, the first step:

    1. Don’t contact publishers directly.
    2. If you are close to finishing the book, do that.  Then start looking for an agent.
    3. If you want to sell on proposal, put together a brief proposal (think movie trailer) for an agent.
    4. Contacting a few publishers while researching agents is an option.
    5. Possibly request a casual conversation — no query yet since the books aren’t done — with a local publisher for insight on “final” draft.
    6. You do not need to have the book finished to begin the process. But prepare two “perfect” (your strongest) chapters ready to use as sample material.

On Pitches (a summary of information shared by David Corey at the League of Vermont Writers conference, April 26, 2014):

  1. Pitch is like the pick-up line to get you the date (the query letter is the first date)
  2. Pitch is a very short story (100-150 words)
  3. Use 3rd person, present tense
  4. Specific and concrete: talk action and character, not theme or intangibles (i.e. “the meaning of life”)
  5. Use nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs
  6. Use your own voice and make sure it reflects the tone of the book
  7. Paint a picture: show, don’t tell
  8. Make the reader care… in ONE SENTENCE!

On Query Letters (a summary of information shared by Joni Cole at the League of Vermont Writers conference, April 26, 2014):

  1. Use your own voice (don’t be all formal and “professional”)
  2. Make it memorable (“give it a heartbeat.”)
  3. Be specific: give “nugget” of the story without going into plot: a) The “grounding spot”: what started the story, why is there a story? b) What does character want to do? c) What’s in the way?
  4. Include genre and word count
  5. Personalized opening to agent (make you sure this is not a complete “cold call” so you have something to reference to make it personal)
  6. Show you did your homework (know the market: help them sell the book): a) who’s your competition? b) why is your book different? c) what’s your niche market?
  7. Platform: Who are you? a) credentials b) networks and mailing lists c) blogs, followers, etc.
  8. But above all: “YOUR PASSION IS YOUR PLATFORM!”

To read snippets of my memoir, click here. I will be adding more as this journey progresses.