How long does it take to get published?

First, my disclaimer: there is no “standard” in how long it takes to get published. Each person’s experience will be different. But one of my most frequently asked questions is, “How long did it take you to get published?” And I totally get it. When I was still querying, I looked for any scrap of information I could find that would give me hope. We’re taught for so long that if you do X and Y, that Z is sure to follow, so it’s hard to throw so much heart and soul into something that isn’t even guaranteed.

So here goes.

1996: In my senior year of high school, I had a book about four brothers who were vampires, and they were living in the suburbs. I had joined a writing group on AOL (this was when the internet was relatively new, and mostly consisted of chat rooms and message boards), and one guy said he really liked my writing. He said his best friend was a literary agent, and would I mind if he shared my work with him.

At the time, I didn’t know what a huge deal this was. Remember, before the internet, agents were not anywhere near as accessible. Of course I said yes, and off my manuscript went. A few weeks later, I was represented by George Scithers of Owlswick Literary Agency.

That book, obviously, never sold. He asked if I had anything new, I said no, because I was off riding horses and working, and we eventually terminated our contract.

2006: In the ten years after high school, I messed around with writing, but never wrote a full length novel. I had lots of stories that I’d started and abandoned, but I never did anything with them. Well, after I got married in 2006, I decided to sit back down and rewrite that book about the four vampire brothers. I went out on the internet and found a great critique partner (hi, Bobbie!), and started trying to find out how to land a literary agent.

I learned that my writing really needed to get up to snuff. My book was 130,000 words long, and full of meandering scenes that I thought were pretty cool, but didn’t really add anything to the plot. I’ve never taken a creative writing class (aside from in high school), and I don’t have a college degree, so there was a lot of “learn as you go” going on. I worked very, very hard to learn my craft well.

2007: By late 2007, I’d sent hundreds of queries on that vampire novel, then titled Wicked Sensibility. I got several full requests, so I knew I was on the right track, but no one bit. I kept revising, and resubmitting, and revising, and sending more queries. Then, finally, an agent took the time to write me a personalized rejection letter. At the time, my first son wasn’t sleeping through the night yet, so when I was up at 2am, I checked my email.

I will never forget this. It said, “Hey, Brigid, there’s no plot here.”

Now, I know that sounds harsh, but it was THE BEST EMAIL EVER. Seriously. Because it went on to talk about the strengths, but told me I needed to focus. I’d been writing and revising the damn vampire brothers for so long, that I realized I could easily get sucked into that trap of working on something for ten years without it going anywhere. So I cut the cord.

I started something new.

2009: By the middle of 2009, A Wicked Little Rhythm was done, a story about the son of Apollo running a music store in downtown Baltimore, who meets a young woman who has some mysteries of her own. I started querying. I got a lot of partial requests. A LOT.

I also got a lot of rejections. A LOT.

On one of the partial requests, I screwed up. She wanted 50 pages hard copy. The previous agent had only wanted 30 pages. Now, I write single spaced, and when I send something out, I double space what I need, and print it.  When sending the partial, I forgot to double space the final 20 pages.

I was horrified, and actually sent her an email to explain that I wasn’t trying to put one over on her. But it must have worked to my benefit, because she was the only agent who requested a full manuscript. She requested a revise and resubmit, and by fall of 2009, she became my agent.

That book did not sell.

I put that sentence off by itself because it’s so common. You think, “Oh, I’ll get an agent and life will be sunshine and unicorns.” NOT SO. The hard work doesn’t stop. Being a writer is not for the faint of heart.

What did I do? I started something new.

2010: By the end of 2010, Storm was done. I hadn’t been able to get those four brothers out of my head, so I tried to think up an entirely new plot for them, and it worked. It went out on submission in November 2010.

2011: By the middle of February, I had a publication deal. (I blogged about going through a book auction before, and you can read about it here.)

2012: Storm debuted on April 24, 2012.

So there you go. If you throw out the high school experience (which is fine), it still took me 6 years and three full length novels before something sold. Even after that, I still have a day job, and while I’m not going to lie, the writing money is letting us do a few things that we couldn’t have done otherwise, it’s not enough to cover the mortgage.

I wouldn’t give up one minute of it, I can promise you that. Every second of hard work and waiting and worrying and stressing and revising and editing and nailbiting was worth it. EVERY SECOND.

Isn’t there a saying about how anything worth having isn’t worth having fast?

(Or is that one of those things we tell ourselves, like rain being lucky on your wedding day? :-P)

What do you think? Is this encouraging? Depressing?

~~~

Writing goals

So for the last year or so, I’ve been “under a deadline.” This is a distinctly different feeling from when I could just write for fun.

Back then, if I wanted to take two weeks off from writing, it wasn’t a big deal. Tired? Skip writing for the night. Husband wants to go see a movie? Skip writing for a night.

Now that there’s a contract with my signature on it, that’s not so much an option.

My deadline for Spirit is going to make me write a book faster than I ever have before. I’m not worried about that — I don’t think I’ll lose any quality, because I have the entire book mostly outlined, and I’ve learned a lot from writing the previous books. I get faster with each one.

But in working the day job (yes, I still have one) and raising the kids (yes, I still have them), I’ve decided I need to make some hard and fast goals about my writing to make sure I meet this deadline.

Some people have daily goals, and that’s too rigid for me. If I miss a day, I’m already behind! I need to be able to work around kids and husband and day job.

So I’ve decided to settle on a goal of 7,000 words per week. That will let me finish a first draft by early summer and give me plenty of time to refresh and revise and send it in to my editor.

Do you guys have writing goals? What are they? How to you hold yourself to them?

Working with an editor

I thought about titling this post, “Check your ego at the door.”

First, some disclosures. I have only ever worked with one agent, Tamar Rydzinski (fabulous editorial advice) and one editor, Alicia Condon (equally fabulous editorial advice), and I get along with both fabulously well.

So, you know when you send stuff out to beta readers, and it comes back with a bunch of comments, and you were totally expecting a landslide of praise, but instead you get a page full of of, “WTF?!?!?!?!”

If it’s a beta reader, you can ignore that commentary. You can do it arrogantly (“OMG. She was just JEALOUS of my writing GENIUS.”) or you can do it quietly (“Thank you so much for your input. I’m going to take some time to digest your comments.”).

If it’s an industry professional, you have to swallow your pride and really look at what they’re saying.

In my day job, my attitude tends to be, “No job too small.” We’re all working for the same team, we all want the same goal.

In writing, it’s the same. When I disagree with an editorial comment, I have to think about what my editor/agent is going for. This can be tough.

This can be really tough. I have the tissues to prove it. (Does anyone remember the post about Storm coming back from my agent fourteen pages shorter?)

But here’s where it’s important to check your ego at the door. It’s easy to get your back up and refuse to make changes. It’s easy to argue that you need that scene and that one and that other one, even though they all basically say the same thing. It’s easy to dig your heels in and be difficult.

But why? Same team, guys. Same team.

Your editor and your agent are trying to help make your book the best it can be. They’re also trying to help you make money. Half business, half art. Don’t get so tangled in the art side that you forget about the business side.

In Spark, one of my editorial comments asked if Gabriel could use a different phrase to avoid offending anyone. I could have refused to change it, saying it was true to the character and I needed those words in there. But really, it was one phrase, and it didn’t really matter.

The best part about being a writer is that there are always more words.

Sometimes you need to ask yourself if you really care about the change someone is asking you to make. Is it going to break your soul to change it? Then explain why.

In Storm, Becca is harassed by her ex-boyfriend. Throughout the first third of the book, I only talk about this in theory — the reader never actually sees it. Along the line, it was recommended that I should cut the actual scene where Drew gives Becca a hard time, but I dug my heels in to keep it — and explained why. It stayed, and it’s in the finished manuscript. There’s another scene at the end between Michael and Becca’s mother (you guys have no idea who these people are, but stay with me), and it was recommended that I cut the scene because it slowed down the pacing. That scene was so, so important to me, but I totally understood where my editor was coming from, so I cut half the scene and ramped up the tension.

Sometimes it’s about meeting each other halfway. It’s about communicating. If you disagree with changes, speak up. Explain yourself — but listen, too. Try to see your work from both sides. You know that saying about how life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it? This is never more true than in an editorial relationship. 

(Oh. And in marriage. Parenting, too. Look, it’s a great quote, okay?)

If you’re working with beta readers now, try to get in the habit of working with the advice you’re getting. It’s easy to fall squarely on either side of the fence: either rejecting every piece of advice because you don’t want to admit you need to change things, or taking every piece of advice until you’re completely overwhelmed and you don’t recognize your manuscript.

I’ve seen people in both camps. It’s never pretty.

Learn to walk that fence board. Learn to communicate and discuss what’s not working. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent something back to a new writer with comments, including the line, “I’m happy to talk this out, if you want.” Almost no one takes me up on that.)

Learn to see where your readers are coming from.

It will pay off later.

You know, after you’ve signed that first book contract.

~~

In other news, keep an eye on that countdown widget, guys. When we hit 60 days, I’m going to release the first chapter of Storm!

~~

You don’t know what you’re talking about. (Or, how to handle criticism.)

I was telling a friend the other day that you have to be a little bit arrogant to make it as a writer. Not a lot arrogant (the world doesn’t need more of those), but at least a little. It’s true: with the amount of rejection writers face, you’ve got to have the cajones to keep putting yourself out there.

Being a writer is not for the faint of heart.

But what if it’s not just rejection? What if it’s criticism?

I’m the first one to admit, I’m a competitive person. When I was in high school, if I wasn’t the first student to finish a test, I’d get upset. I went to an all-girls high school, but if it had been co-ed, I would have been one of those girls crusading to do everything the boys could do. Not because I have any desire to play football (as if), but because I love competition.

So when you’re competitive, you’re doing what you love (writing), and someone says, “Yeah, this part right here, it’s just not working for me,” that hurts.

There are a lot of levels to this.

Trust.
If Tamar (my agent) tells me something’s not working, then I know it’s not working. I trust her implicitly. When I was outlining my sequel, I wanted to have two brothers fall in love with the same girl, thinking it would create conflict between them. She shot that down, and I’m so glad she did, because now the conflict will be more about the brothers growing apart as one finds a relationship, and it doesn’t feel as cheap-and-easy as the first idea did. It’s more subtle, but in the end, I think it’s going to be a lot more powerful.

If my husband tells me something’s not working, I take it with a grain of salt. (Sorry, honey.) Yes, I trust him, and yes, I value his opinion, but he doesn’t read YA, and he doesn’t understand the craft of writing. If he reads a scene and says, “Hon, no guy would ever say that to another dude,” then I know I need to make a change. But if he says, “Why can’t you just add a monster?” (or some completely random guy thing), then I know to smile and nod and keep on writing my way.

If a friend tells me something’s not working, I slow down and think about it. 

Here’s where a lot of people get tripped up, I think. If the person is truly a friend, it’s easy to get offended. You want your friends to love every word you write. It’s very, VERY hard to accept criticism from people you love. By nature, we want to impress our friends and family. We want them to think we’re great writers. It’s a blow to the ego to hear something didn’t work. Do you know how hard it was to tell my family that my first novel didn’t sell, and now we’re on to the next one? You know the looks. The ones that say, “Maybe Brigid isn’t a good writer after all. Aw. What a cute little hobby. She thinks she can write.” Here’s where that little bit of arrogance comes in handy. Those looks are enough to make you curl up and cry.

If a critique partner (or a random beta reader) tells me something’s not working, I have to trust my gut.

I’ve been doing a lot of beta reading lately. I think I’ve looked at 10 manuscripts over the last two weeks. (No, I don’t have much of a social life. Why do you ask?) I throw my advice out there, for what it’s worth, and if the person wants to take it, great. If they don’t, that’s completely fine, too. I’m okay either way.

But when critique partners tell you something isn’t working, you really have to step back and see if there’s some merit. Complete strangers are going to be the most honest. Conversely, when it’s a complete stranger, that’s when the knee-jerk reaction of “This lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about” starts to kick in.

Control the knee-jerk. Control it. Step back and listen. Since this person is a complete stranger, I always have to remind myself that it’s not a personal attack. They don’t know me! Why would they spend hours going through my manuscript just to tell me off? But since it’s writing, it’s personal, and it hurts.

I always read my crits in two pieces if they’re coming from a complete stranger. First, I read through all the comments, let my blood pressure fly off the meter, and then close the file and have a cup of coffee. But then later, I start to think about the comments. Maybe she was right, and the hero was a little too wussy right there. Maybe he had a point, that I needed a little more oomph to that fight scene. Maybe this character is a complete bitch, and I just didn’t see how she was coming across.

Here are my rules for handling criticism:

1) Do the gut check.

This is absolutely the number one rule. If your initial reaction is to reject that idea, but you have a feeling in the back of your head that it’s right, it’s probably right. With the first novel, the one that landed me an agent, people kept telling me that it took too long to get to the action. I needed to condense the first five chapters. I didn’t want to do that — I loved those chapters. But I had a feeling in the back of my head that they were right, that I was going to need to fix them.

When I signed with Tamar? I had to condense them.

This works the other way too. If someone recommends a change that comes out of left field, let it roll off your back. 

2) If it’s a matter of clarity, fix it.

No matter what. If one person trips over your phrasing, someone else will. This is such an easy place to dig in your heels and refuse to fix it. (“What kind of idiot doesn’t know that I’m being funny?”) But it’s also a silly place to dig in your heels. Rephrase. My issues of clarity always get fixed, no matter who’s criticizing.

3) Consider the source.

This is a tough one, and it goes along with the gut check. Like I said above, when my husband reads my stuff, I know where he’s coming from. When a fellow writer reads my stuff, I know where they’re coming from. But you never know if someone is having a bad day, or if they have a bone to pick or a chip on their shoulder. Take criticism with a grain of salt.

4) Say thank you.

If someone gives you their time, appreciate it. Even if they’re an idiot. It’s still their time, not yours. (All my recent beta partners have been awesome. But some people aren’t so lucky, so I had to throw this out there.)

5) Don’t be afraid to discuss!

When I send my critiques out, I always tell people I’m happy to talk out the changes I recommended. I love discussing what’s working (and what’s not) and brainstorming new ideas. It’s rare that people want to discuss anything, which is a shame. I never critique to be cruel or mean, and if an idea isn’t working, I’m happy to learn where the writer is coming from, and maybe brainstorm ideas to make the story stronger. I love writing, and I love the whole process. I’m always happy to throw ideas back and forth. It’s one of my favorite parts of this whole writing gig.

How about you guys? I know there are thousands of writers out there, cringing from criticism. Do you have any tips for how to handle it?

Hey, punches! Let’s roll.

When I was in my early twenties, I met a woman who was pretty much a whack job. We quickly became friends. She was very beautiful, obviously nuts, and ended our friendship when she accused me of wanting to sleep with her husband. Her basis? Someone spotted us cleaning stalls in the barn at the same time.

I’m telling you, nothing brings a man and a woman closer than the smell of manure.

But I digress.

She told me that her first marriage was a disaster. She’d gotten married at seventeen, and the guy basically neglected her, and she was miserable. Suicidal, miserable. She finally went to see a doctor, who suggested she go on Prozac. I vividly remember her telling me that when the doctor said that, she knew she had to get out of her marriage. That if she had to be medicated to stay with a man, something was wrong with her relationship. (Maybe she wasn’t completely nuts after all.)

When she told me this story, she finished it up by saying, “I had to change my life. Because you can’t change others, you can only change yourself.”

It immediately became one of my mantras, and it’s helped me through numerous personal conflicts. It’s so true — if someone is being a jerk, you can’t change that. You can only change how you react to it.

Michael just finished reading a book called QBQ, and he mentioned a passage in which they said, “You create your own stress.” That’s so true. Other people aren’t making us stressed out. It’s our reaction — nothing more. We have the power to release all that stress and anxiety by bringing it back to what we, personally, can focus on.

I don’t mean this post to sound like an ad for a motivational speaker. I have my miserable days just like everyone else. But when things suck, when people are coming at me from all sides, I have to remind myself that there’s only one thing I can change.

Me.