Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thoughts On Writing Niche Projects & Perseverance: Q & A with Author Marcy Blesy

I am so happy to introduce you to Marcy Blesy (@MarcyBlesy), author of the children's picture book "Am I Like My Daddy?" the middle-grade "Confessions of a Corn Kid," and the YA series "The Lexie and Rhett Chronicles." Marcy blogs regularly about children's books, often reviewing and championing middle grade titles. Marcy has embraced both traditional and indie publishing. Her tenacity and subsequent success inspire me. When she graciously agreed to an interview, I knew she'd inspire you, too...

Q: What was your inspiration for the story "Am I Like My Daddy?"

A: AILMD is a picture book in the children's grief genre. Many books in this genre deal with the immediate time after the death of a loved one. In this book, however, Grace is seven. Her dad died when she was five, and she has limited memories. The book is an evolution of her discoveries about her dad as well as herself, how she is unique, and how she is different. The book is hopeful and positive with suggestions for kids going through the death of a parent and how to get the answers they seek.

My dad died when I was 13. I have very few memories. My mom died when I was 24. Very soon after she died I sat down at the computer and wrote all the random things I knew about her because I was so fearful I would forget again. People think that if the kids aren't talking (about the death) then they must be fine (don't upset the apple cart), but in reality, they may not be fine or may have questions they are afraid to ask for fear of upsetting the adults in the family. And, as has been my experience, new questions arise with maturity.

Q: "Am I Like My Daddy?" went through several major revisions. Tell me a little bit about your road to publication.

A: I wrote AILMD four years before publication. Originally the entire story was written in rhyming verse.

I received standard rejections as well as more personal rejections. I received enough encouragement from professionals that I knew I had a unique idea, though. Many of them suggested I rewrite the poem in story form. I also worked at one point with a well-published children's author who suggested I write the story in journal form.

AILMD evolved from poem to third person to journal form to first person to a final version combining first person, journaling, and a small bit of the original poem. I guess you could say I took suggestions and made the story work with what ultimately felt right to me.

Q: How did you find your publisher for such a niche project?

A: I am a volunteer at Lory's Place, a grief education center in St. Joseph, Michigan. The director, Lisa Bartoscek, wrote an endorsement letter for the manuscript that I included in my submission packets.

I submitted 99 times to agents and publishers. Some publishers, including Bronze Man Books, who published AILMD, turned down earlier versions of the manuscript over the years. I was stubborn and persistent.

When I submitted the (almost) final version to BMB, a small press university publisher at my alma mater Millikin University in Decatur, IL, they contacted me and asked to meet. Our meeting lead to two more rounds of revisions before they offered me a contract in October, 2011. The book was published in December, 2012

99 "No's" 
1  "Yes"

It only takes one!

Q: What was the process from idea to publication? What do you wish you knew then (when you started) that you know now?

A: I had only written a few picture book manuscripts when I first wrote AILMD, so I didn't really know what I was doing. I had always had that dream of being an author, but I was in my late 30s at the time and had to learn the business as well as hone my writing skills along the way.

Oh my gosh, you need thick skin and patience, neither of which I have!  But, and I have read this in many interviews with well-published authors:  Persistence can trump talent. If you are willing to put in the work and keep learning and improving, eventually there will be a payoff.

Q:  Any advice for a first-time writer working with an illustrator? What are some of the most important things in the writer / illustrator collaboration?

A: As is common with a traditional press (even a small one like Bronze Man Books), I did not get to choose my illustrator. You can imagine since this book is in the grief genre that I was nervous an illustrator would be chosen that only saw the theme of the book as sad and missed the bigger picture.

I commend the publisher for choosing such a talented and gifted artist, Amy Kuhl Cox, but I also believe there was some divine work at play, too.  :-)  Amy brought the book to another level with her beautiful stained glass look pictures. She also focused on the relationship between Grace and her mom who helped answer many of Grace's questions about her dad.

I did learn that the illustrations and the writing are two separate talents, though, and that the finished product cannot exist without each part. I tried to let Amy work her magic separate of my opinions, though I was dying to see everything she did because I was so excited. (This is where my impatience problem gets in the way again.)

The process was very collaborative between the publisher, Amy, and I. We used dropbox to submit the manuscript changes, early illustrations, etc. so we could all respond. I had asked Amy if I could send her a picture of my dad who died when I was young. I didn't know if she already had an idea for a dad or not, but "just in case." She agreed. When I opened an early file version of the pictures you could imagine my surprise when I saw a drawing that was later inserted into a picture frame in the background that featured a drawing the family picture of my dad, mom, and I that I had earlier given her. What a nice gift she gave me.

Q: A specialty publication has a specialty audience. How do you go about finding ways to connect your target readers with your book?

A: Local events don't work well (except for my personal book launch) because people don't go to book fairs to buy a book in the grief genre.  However, online marketing works.  The publisher and I targeted grief organizations, counselors, etc. is a leading grief resource website. They are very selective in the materials they sell on their site, so I was thrilled that AILMD was selected as one of only 12 books in the "loss of a parent" category.  Amazon has continually sold out and reordered copies of the book.

The publisher generously offers the book for sale at wholesale price to organizations that purchase ten or more copies. They can then sell the copies, if they choose, at full price ($12) and use the money for fundraising purposes.  For example, I run an elementary library. We knew a lot of students would buy the book simply because of the Mrs. Blesy connection.  From the 60 books that were sold there, $360 went to Lory's Place. This is an offering the publisher makes available to anyone.

I also blog occasionally about children's grief.  AILMD has its own facebook page, and I use twitter to connect with other grief organizations.

Q:  In addition to traditional publishing, you have also had some success in self-publishing your YA stories. Tell me a little about the Lexie and Rhett Chronicles. What factors made you decide to self-publish?

A: And yet again, that impatience creeps in!  The traditional publication route takes a long time with no guarantees (at least for me). As an experiment of sorts I decided to dip my toe into the e-publishing world using Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.

I have written a middle grade and young adult novel, so I wrote a YA short story called "Prom for One," about a disasterous prom night that has a sweet twist for its main character. The story is 10,000 words.

I priced it low because of its word length and  hired a photographer friend to take a picture of another friend's prom dress for the cover. Formatting was a nightmare that I have now mastered, though. I had a couple of beta readers offer their opinions, too. Then I clicked "Save and Publish."  Fast and inexpensive!

I hit social media hard with marketing. I have sold 375 "Prom for One" copies since March and published the second and third short stories in The Lexie and Rhett Chronicles ("Graduation for Two," "Test for Three").  In addition to the individual sale of the three stories on Amazon at .99 apiece, I also sell the virtual "box set" of the trilogy for $2.99. The second and third stories are selling themselves as I have the links at the end of each story to the next one in the series. I also buy premade covers now from a great website.

I have been very pleased with the responses I have been receiving and the immediacy of it all. Although, let's be honest, at .99 a story I am not making big money here.

However, I love the creative outlet and continue to write. You never know.  In addition, I continue to query agents and traditional publishers with two more picture book manuscripts.

Q:  In your experience, what are both pros and cons of Traditional vs. Self-Publishing?

A:  Traditional:  Pros's:
*  That sense of accomplishment in that others in the field justify that what you are doing is good enough to invest money in to publish.
*  Professionals who take care of  the business details of publishing.
*  Payment can be nice.

Self-Publishing:  Pro's:
*  Control belongs to the author (which can be seen as a pro or con!).
*  Speed of publication.
*  Ability to get feedback from readers more quickly.

There is still a bit of a stigma with self-publishing, but I really think e-publishing has shaken things up in a good way. I love it, but I would love to be published by a big NYC publisher, too!

Q:  I love the story about what you learned from a "bad" review and the valuable lesson you learned from it. Would you share?

A: Most of the feedback for "Prom for One" and "Graduation for Two" has been positive. I did have a funny, though not-so-funny at the time, experience with my latest and final story in the trilogy, "Test for Three." A reviewer left a horrible, one star review, not for plot, characters, grammar, etc. (any of the things warranting a one star), but because I didn't have a "happily ever after" ending. The first two stories definitely do.

Apparently, since I have been marketing the series as a romance because it is a great love story, diehard romance fans expect a particular prescription to their books. I now don't use the word romance since the third story doesn't end with the characters walking into the sunset (insert sarcasm).

Truthfully, it was a painful lesson, but with self-publishing there is a lot to the business of publishing you have to learn on your own. I am still quite proud of the ending and would never change it to meet the "romance" requirement. When I read that others have cried or that the story stays with them, that makes me feel good. Those are the responses I wanted when I wrote it.

Q:  What advice would you give to someone considering self-publishing short stories?

A: If you don't want to invest in the time for a full length novel or you are just really good at writing short stories, I say go for it! The feedback is helpful and fun. Just be clear in your title that the story is a short story (list word count in the description) or reviewers expecting a full length novel may feel cheated and review you in such a way.

Q:  In your experience, what aspect of publishing surprised you the most? What did you learn from the experience?

A: Things change! In the last five years, most publishers no longer want paper submissions. Queries happen over email.

You can put so much work in the submission process or after publication marketing process that you forget to actually write! I know I have been guilty of this. Don't stop writing.

Everything I write gets better and stronger. I don't make the same mistakes as I did in earlier manuscripts. I know that later manuscripts won't have the same mistakes that current ones might have. If writing is your passion, then follow it. You won't have regrets.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Discovering the Depths of Subtext

Lately I've been thinking a lot about subtext and one's ability to communicate with one's target audience.

Subtext -- conveying meaning and understanding without clearly stating the information -- is one of the publishing industry's favorite bits of jargon. Good writers excel in using subtext to engage the reader. When applied correctly, subtext adds depth, layers, and texture.

Many how-to articles try to tell writers how to incorporate subtext in their work. But thanks to a recent Twitter exchange, I've come to the conclusion that most of them miss what should be an obvious starting point. You see: in order to master subtext, the writer must first make sure that the stuff on the surface is interesting and engaging in its own right.

Why? Because the deeper stuff will be lost on some readers.  

Not all readers are created equal. Not every person who reads a work will possess the necessary tools to enable him or her to appreciate the extra nuances subtext provides. If a reader must understand the subtext in order to appreciate the content, the writer has done little more than craft a Members Only piece. Though it may stop shy of navel gazing, it is the literary equivalent of delivering a heartfelt sermon only to choir members.

The Twitter exchange / subtext kickoff I mentioned began with this picture, posted with the caption "Gabbing gals":
Photo by @subjectplusverb. Used by permission.
The ensuing exchange illustrated how one's understanding of the various layers of subtext affected one's understanding of the photo.

Layer I: The Surface

Some people looking at this picture bring with them a limited understanding of horses and training. Those not "in the know" don't see anything except the obvious. But that doesn't mean they can't find things to appreciate.

The endearingly citified Yi Shun Lai (@gooddirt) confessed: "All I see is the literal ponytail."

And this is fine.

The picture contains an element -- a pony tail in a ponytail -- that is both interesting and unexpected enough to engage even someone who is not a horseperson. Likewise, some people will never delve deeper in the written word. It is the wise writer who deliberately crafts scenes to maintain surface tension.

Layer II: The Composition

Even non-horse people can dive a bit deeper when looking at the photo in question. Some might find their eye following the sight line of the legs' shadows. Though both horse and human are so well aligned that their shadows merge seamlessly, the shadow originates with the girl.

Now, it is entirely possible that this element of composition, the merging shadows that enable the viewer to think in terms of metaphor, was a happy accident; a coincidental construct. Nevertheless, the mere act of taking the picture involved forethought and intent.

So, though some might read more into a text than the writer consciously intended, never underestimate the power of the subconscious muse, sprinkling poetic subtext like fairy dust to brighten the astute reader's day.

Layer III: The Intended Audience

I would wager that most "horse people," upon seeing the original photo, zero in on the horse / human connection. For those who speak horse, this is a lovely representation of communication, contentment, trust, and companionship.

The horse is dry, not sweaty. She hasn't been run into submission. Her ears are relaxed; she is at peace, yet she is willingly placing herself in close proximity to the handler.

No pressure on the halter or on the lead rope forces the horse to stay in place. She is where she is out of choice, not coercion.

The trainer's body language is one of calm, reserved acceptance. She, too, is relaxed. Her shoulders, arms and hands are quiet and contained. She is not forcing her presence on the horse or imposing her will on the mare.

The mare is not your typical riding horse. She's a heavy breed, probably weighing close to a ton. She's also clean, well-fed, well-groomed, and healthy. She's symmetrical and sound, which means that she enjoys excellent care, in addition to enjoying her handler's attention.

All of the above information is immediately available at a glance to people familiar with horses. It doesn't matter if they ride English or Western. It doesn't matter what language they speak, what breed they prefer, what country they live in, or how accomplished a rider or trainer they are. Such information contained in this single photo is the equivalent of genre-specific subtext -- readily grasped by fans, but lost, perhaps, on those unfamiliar with a particular literary category.

Layer IV: Privileged Information

Then there is the information that unpacks the photo still more, if one knows where to look for it.

For instance, only those familiar with the Natural Horsemanship training philosophy will recognize the equipment and be able to identify the handler's training influences.

The black rope halter could come from several sources: Clinton Anderson, Double Dan, Josh or John Lyons, Buck Brannaman, to name only a few. But the Dans, Lyons, and Brannaman don't generally use hardware on their leadropes, so that narrows things down...

It's the stick that speaks volumes. Lots of trainers use sticks: Clinton, Steve and Wendy Smith, Pat Parelli, and more. But the color is a giveaway. The "carrot stick" is orange: practically shouting "Parelli!"

Which means there's a good chance that the trainer is a PNH fan. If so, she probably knows the Seven Games, understands her mare's "Horsenality," and is working on improving her grasp of the Four Savvys.

Which also means that though there is more to unpack in the photo for those who are Natural Horsemanship aficionados, some of the subtext therein is lost -- even on horse people. It is possible for subtext to apply only to the Chosen Ones. Those not in the know find it as difficult to decipher as the preceding paragraph.

In writing, it's common to salt in such privileged information for hardcore fans. That kind of subtext is the equivalent of gaming Easter eggs -- of interest and of use only to a select few. 

Layer V & Beyond: The Murky Depths

And then there's the Super Deep Seafloor Subtext. This stuff may resonate only with one or two people on the planet. In fact, it may hold meaning only to the writer.

For instance, I don't know enough about the mare and the trainer in the picture to know their history.

But what if the mare was a rescue? Or if she had a serious attitude problem that had perplexed other trainers? What if she had colicked recently or had recovered from a serious leg injury? That knowledge would make the picture one of supreme achievement: overcoming the odds to reclaim what others considered lost.

Or... Imagine if financial or medical concerns beyond the girl's control had necessitated selling the mare to a new home. This photo could be documenting the last time they ever worked together: a penultimate goodbye, adding tragic undertones to the image.

Or... What if a lifelong fear of horses had plagued the girl? That tidbit of information could tint the picture with several shades of empowerment and optimism.

If such backstory is available only to a few souls, then the subtext associated with it is lost to the larger audience. However, that doesn't negate its influence on those privy to the information.

The wonderful thing about subtext is that it provides a well of meaning for the words we write. If done correctly, it offers something for everyone. It entertains those content to just scratch the surface, yet rewards those willing to dive deeper.

Super special thanks to @SubjectPlusVerb and @ReadSchmead for the use of their picture for this post! -- A.H.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Publishing's Perplexing Pickle Problem

Tom Vanderbilt, in the June issue of Smithsonian magazine, opens his article on the science of taste with a fascinating tale of Howard Moskowitz, a psychophysicist whom Vlassic once tapped to solve the mystery of the Perfect Pickle. The ensuing taste test yielded surprisingly tongue-twisting results:

People primarily picked pickles that packed a more powerful punch than predicted.

Now THAT's a spicy pickle!
When Vlassic applied its research and rolled out a "zesty" pickle, their sales skyrocketed.

"That people in the pickle business should not know what pickle consumers prefer is a reminder of just how difficult it is to tease out the vagaries of why we like what we like," Vanderbilt writes -- a statement as applicable to publishing as it is to pickles.

A friend once worked as a sub-agent for a respected boutique literary agency. She has a good eye for what makes a great story (I'm not just saying that because she loves my stuff), and can critique a blue streak. Her job as sub-agent was to mine the slush pile, searching for the gold nuggets in a cesspool of dross.

While at the agency, she discovered three manuscripts with writing she loved. Two of them told stories she loved as well. The story of the third was darker and at odds with her personal beliefs, though there was no denying the author's skill.

She took her three recommendations to the agency owner, who rejected the two favorites for all the reasons the newbie sub-agent was crazy for them. The third, however, the agency owner adored. Everything in the story that my friend disliked, the agency owner raved about. The difference of opinion was so great that when the agency made an offer of representation, my friend left because she couldn't in good conscience build a career promoting that book.

The coda to the story? The manuscript in question went on to be a huge hit. But the two writers whose work resonated with the then-sub-agent remain unpublished. My friend follows their social media personas, hoping they stick things out till they have publishing success.

This seems like a good place to wait for the bus.
Does the agent know her stuff? Obviously. But who's to say that the differently spiced manuscripts wouldn't also have found a readership?

Not long ago, a writer friend shared with me a rejection she received from a publisher of genre fiction. Though full of raves about her voice, her story, and her style, it's devastating because it's still a "NO." It's such a close no that it's the publishing equivalent of being left at the altar.

The rejection (which was very kind, as far as soul-crushing "no's" go) detailed a list of "shoulds" for any book the publisher acquired.
  • The protagonist should have this experience by page 10...
  • By page 25, this plot point should occur...
  • The protagonist and antagonist should explore their different philosophies in this manner...
And so on.

Now, don't get me wrong: the publisher knows its audience. And the publisher will only stay in business as long as it provides what the audience wants.

I wonder, however, how many "taste tests" are conducted to ascertain that what publishers think should happen must happen in order for a book to be palatable to the public.  

Perhaps -- just perhaps -- people would be willing to try something different, but are served a steady diet of same old, same old.

See, I've read the draft of the rejected manuscript and while not a fan of this particular genre of fiction, I've read enough of it to be familiar with the "rules." The manuscript in question bends the rules a bit, but doesn't mangle them beyond recognition. I found it refreshing, enjoying it far more than the fare that adheres slavishly to What Should Be. Is it not possible that such books might attract a whole new legion of fans to the genre? But since printing *any* book by a new author is risky business, few publishers have the luxury of adding to their risk by taking extra chances. Far safer to eschew Zesty for Tried and True.

A dark flip side also colors the prickly pickle of publishing. It is this: writers fortunate enough to have their books attract a dedicated readership are sometimes held hostage by their own success. Fans tend to clamor for "more of the same" with such ferocity that many writers have traded quality for quantity. It's the industry's version of tenure.

A writer's first book has to be *AWESOME* in order to just get some poor schlub to pluck it from the pile o' slush. The sixth book, however, rarely measures up to the first book's kneecaps, let alone raising the bar to a new level.

I recently read Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club, a warm and charming ode to great family relationships as well as to great books. At one point, Schwalbe, a long-time editor for major publishing houses, and his mother discuss what titles to jointly read next:
"Did you know this author has a new book? What do you think?" Mom might ask.
"I didn't love his last four or five," I might answer.
"Well then, why did you keep reading him?"
"I edited them."
You see the briny problem?

In order to break in to the well-barricaded world of traditional publishing, one must write something so wonderful that someone forgets to say "no" to it.

But then there comes a time when all the zesty bits that first sold people on one's writing have had the flavor wrung from them. Words that once cracked and popped, igniting the reader's literary palate, now swim limp and vinegary on the page. If a writer is not encouraged to take chances, to branch out, to bend rules, or to try tasty new combinations, soon the creative stream is dammed to clear the way for cash flow.

The pickle people were once surprised to discover their customers were not only willing to try something new, but were also eager to make it a bestseller. Imagine how similar daring could re-zestify the books we read!