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One Smart Thing I Did to Sell 45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS): Focus on Craft

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This month we’re talking about what smart things we did to sell our manuscripts. For me, the best thing I ever did for my writing career was to focus on the writing more than the career. I started out going to SCBWI conferences. While there is a wealth of information there, I found myself submitting to editors and agents way before I should have, and that caused a lot of stress. The advice is to send your very best work. I did that! At the time, it was my best work.

However, my best wasn’t good enough.

After I accumulated a pile of rejections, I gave up. Not on writing, though—I couldn’t do that—but on submitting. Instead I focused on becoming a better writer. While there are lots of ways to do that, I started attending Highlights Foundation workshops, about two per year for about four years. They were low-commitment—between two days to a week—and very affordable for the quality. The faculty is accomplished and smart and extremely supportive. The setting is idyllic and inspirational. I learned so much and met lots of wonderful people.

Some of those wonderful people were affiliated with another great place to immerse in craft: Vermont College of Fine Arts, which offers several low-residency master’s programs. This was a much higher commitment, of both time and money, and even though I was in my late thirties, I decided to go for it. I have not regretted it for a minute. For two years, I fully immersed myself in writing, reading, and critically analyzing works for children and teens, and I did it among top industry professionals. I didn’t pay attention to trends or who was accepting queries or who wasn’t. I loved the freedom to let go of the submission stress. As a result, the quality of my work significantly improved, as did my confidence.

I still get rejected sometimes—it’s an unavoidable part of the publishing process—but now if I get stumped and need to regroup, I have a vast toolbox at my disposal. I love knowing that I can always go to a Highlights or a VCFA workshop, or even an SCBWI conference, and brush up on some skills, get some valuable feedback, or simply jumpstart the creative juices. Learning to write isn’t something I did; it’s something I will always do.


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One Smart Thing I Did to Sell NOT A DROP TO DRINK

You’re going to not like me a whole lot after you read this. The answer to one smart thing I did that helped sell my debut novel is that I re-routed my entire life.

I don’t necessarily recommend this approach.

Immediately after college I realized that I was overeducated and unemployable. Well, not quite unemployable. I spent the first two years post-college continuing to work in the job that had eaten my weekends during college… a retail job at Hallmark. Now, retail kind of sucks regardless of where you are, but me selling highly fragile things in a Kindness+10 environment was about to melt my cerebellum.

Let me place you in the timeline – Harry Potter had recently exploded. The Goblet of Fire was hitting shelves- no, wait. It wasn’t hitting the shelves because it was never making it to any. The fourth in the Potter series was going from backroom boxes to customer hands without a rest in between for it’s 3″ thick spine.

The rest of the retail world had figured out pretty quick that this was a goldmine deeper than Gringotts, and everybody wanted to stick their finger it, Hallmark included. We had some pretty fun stuff, Hogwarts mugs, Gryffindor banners and the like – but the coolest thing we had was our own whopping two copies of Goblet of Fire. Now, I hadn’t bought into the magic yet (you can read the story of my resistance here), but I was about to experience something even cooler than a quidditch match at high noon.

My Hallmark was next to a Kroger, and we had people pop in every now and then after grocery shopping just to sniff candles. More often, couples or families split the shopping to get done more quickly so that they could go home and burn the candles there instead. One day a worn out grandma who had finished her grocery shopping didn’t feel she had the energy after unloading them to come into the store and pick out some cards. So she sent her grandson instead.

There has never in the history of Hallmark been a 4th grade boy absolutely thrilled to be in that store at that moment.

The little guy literally grew roots and stood in front of the display for a moment with his mouth hanging open, then turned to the counter. “You… have… the… fourth… book,” he said. And we ignorant store workers just kind of stood there staring back at him to which he tried again, a little louder. “You. Have. The. Fourth. Harry. Potter.”

I affirmed that we did and grabbed it like he was afraid it was going to apparate out of sight, ran up to the counter and jammed it into my hands.

“Please, please, please can you put this under the counter for me until I get back?? I have to run out to the car and ask my Grandma if she’ll buy it for me and I don’t want anyone to get it while I’m out there. Please!”

I looked around the store (absolutely empty, by the way, not a lot of book-grabbers in the neighborhood) and said of course I would, and the little dude sprinted out to Grandma. It was as good thing there were no cars coming because he was so intent on getting there and back again that he didn’t check first. Grandma was happy to buy it for him, and he was so happy to have found it that he totally forgot to buy her sympathy card and had to come back inside five minutes later to do so.

But I don’t think he minded.

After he’d left I turned to the lady I was working with and said,

“If she hadn’t been able to buy that for him, I was going to.”

Co-worker: “Really? That’s like a $25.00 book.”

Me: “I don’t care. I can’t stand to see a kid wanting a book and not able to have one.”

Co-worker: “Hmmm…. have you ever thought about  being a librarian?”

Oddly enough – I hadn’t. But it seemed like a pretty good fit, right? So shortly after that when a position in a 7-12 public school opened up I applied, and got the job. And that pesky little paragraph at the bottom of your query letter where your author bio is supposed to go? Instead of saying, “I work at a Hallmark selling cards and breaking stuff,” it said –

“I’m a YA librarian, which means I spend 40 hours a week with my target audience and am immersed in the market.”

Yeah… which one sounds better to you?

1 Smart Thing I Did to Sell My Manuscript: NO Clones Allowed

An early Goodreads contributor recently quipped “If there were a party of good YA books about serial killers, Project Cain would be the creepy one standing outside the window, wanting to join them.” A good line. But only half right.

I’ve been a high school English teacher for ten years and have worked with literally thousands of teen readers. In that time, I’ve developed specific ideas on the best literary devices, voice and structure to entice, particularly, reluctant boy readers. Devices, voice and structure I simply didn’t see being used in most other current YA novels (as good as many of these books are).

While my upcoming adult book (Cain’s Blood) employs mostly traditional devices, structure, etc. for the adult techno thriller it is, I always wanted something very different for the teen novel Project Cain.

Examples: My students really enjoy the fact-filled Krakauer books we teach (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air.) I’m not a fan, but I also recognize male readers of all ages statistically (and significantly) prefer nonfiction over fiction. So I wrote a straight-forward book which weaves in facts and history throughout. My students gobble up both the free-verse novels of Ellen Hopkins and manga comics. “Quick reads,” they explain. So I wrote a book that reads fast, real fast. Adjectives are for 500 page books I know my own two teenage sons don’t want to read yet. My students, jaded millennials that they are, still respond to and welcome direct/open questions. Our best class conversations often come from a simple query like: Have you ever wanted to kill someone?

This Goodreads member read about 40 pages of Project Cain before giving two thumbs way down, specifically targeting the dry style, “info dumping,” and a couple direct addresses to the reader. Things I put in the book deliberately so Project Cain would not be exactly like all those other YA books — which clearly failed for this reader.

But I also sold this novel on proposal alone, submitting only the first 40 pages as a sample of what I had in mind. The exact same 40 pages so hated by this reader for not being the book she thought it was going to be. The same 40 that got me a major agent, a major publisher and a major deal in less than two months. Because the writing stood out from all the other three thousand books that came in that month. My 40 pages were different.

This isn’t some thumb-to-nose moment. My sale doesn’t discount this reader’s reaction. “Good” or “bad” is always up to each individual, and I’ve collected (and expect to collect) strong votes on both sides with this book.

And so, the smart thing I did to sell my manuscript was stick to my objective: To not just imitate the other good YA books out there. But to write the kind of YA book that I thought my own students and two sons would want to read. Whatever else may come, I’ve done that. Write the book YOU want to. The right publisher and audience WILL find you.

If there were a party of good YA books about serial killers, Project Cain would indeed be the creepy one standing outside the window. But it’s not to join them.

It’s to douse their house in gasoline, and just maybe strike a match…

One Smart Thing I did to Sell My Manuscript: I Wrote for the Market… Sort of

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Should you, or shouldn’t you write for the market? This is one of those perennial questions which writers who long to be published often ask. My answer is simple. You absolutely need to be aware of market trends, but you also have to write the book of your heart.

I’m convinced that The Neptune Project sold because the market for science fiction was heating up at that time. I had been studying teen fiction trends. Vampires had been “hot” for a long time, but I knew I couldn’t possibly write a good vampire book because the basic vampire myth leaves me cold. Zombie stories were popular, too, but the idea of dead people lurching around eating brains doesn’t do much for me either (sorry, zombie fans!)

Then Suzanne Collins and other authors appeared on the scene and wrote some brilliant dystopian novels, which are basically sci/fi with an apocalyptic twist. I had a hunch I could write a good sci/fi story because I loved to read them when I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to write a story about young people fighting to survive in the sea. So, before the market became deluged with dystopian stories, I sent out a proposal for The Neptune Project, received some encouraging comments from agents, and promptly went to work on the novel itself.

It was a labor of love. I’ve always relished survival stories like the classic The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss about a young Swiss family struggling to survive on a deserted island, and Island of the Blue Dolphins about a Native American girl fighting to survive on her own by Scott O’Dell. I got caught up in the idea of a shy girl who is ignored by her classmates and family on land, but beneath the waves she becomes a hero. Genetically altered by her parents to live in the sea, Nere Hanson must learn how to survive in her dangerous new environment with the help of a pod of dolphins her family trained.

I dove in into the story, so to speak, and I loved my plot and my characters so much that the book almost wrote itself. The Neptune Project truly is the book of my heart. But I’m not sure it would have sold five years ago when vampire and zombie stories dominated the teen section of bookstores.

So, to sell your first book, I think you do indeed need to be aware of trends in the children’s fiction market, but you also need to write a book you would have loved to read when you were young.  

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