Mary Akers's Blog - Posts Tagged "publishing"

A book, I have come to believe, is rather like a house.

For the past six years I have been building a house of words from the ground up. I hammered every nail, placed every stone (at first I thought to write "brick" but the unique shapes of words, their roundness and roughness and varied colors make "stone" the better metaphor), and made every single design decision. Then I asked the advice of several friends and professionals. Their suggestions encouraged me to tear down and rebuild some stuff, rip out a wall or two, add some unusual landscaping and a distinctive path to the front door. These helped make my house better and stronger, more attractive, navigable, and liveable.

Then I found my wonderful agent, and she helped me see that I needed a fresh coat of paint and new carpets in order to give it that final spruce-up that would help it appeal to a certain kind of buyer. After that, we put this book-house on the market and showed it a few times. The buyers we approached were complimentary and appreciative, but still skittish. So we had a few more people look it over and give us ideas. We carefully picked and chose among those ideas and implemented the ones that seemed best.

But here's the thing: anyone who buys this house I've built is still going to want to paint it and change the carpets, even though we just did that. We did it to make it sell, but they will do it again to make it THEIRS. In all likelihood, I will have more changes to make that will come only after we make a sale. So I've come to realize that I need to save a little bit of passion and energy for that time or I'll never get through this crazy, lengthy process. And I also have to be careful not to tack on too many things that other people think might make it a better house.

Just because one potential buyer loves plants and another makes birdhouses as a hobby and another wants to entertain friends and still another likes lots of natural light doesn't mean that the buyer we find will want the house to come with an attached greenhouse and a bar in the basement and a woodworking studio and a whole bunch of skylights. If I start to add all of the different things to my house that could potentially make it appeal to a certain type of buyer, in the end no one will want it because it will end up like The Burrow, Ron Weasley's family home. (No offense, Ron.)

So, anyway, that's the latest writing analogy I employ to help me sleep at night. I am a hard-working author, committed to making this book work, but at some point I have to step back and say DONE. I have to stop tinkering and wait for the buyer (who--surprise!--loves the house and wants to own it in the worst way) to tell me what finishing touches I need to add to make it a perfect fit.
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Published on February 29, 2012 05:39 • 146 views • Tags: publishing, revision, story, writing
I have a good friend who has recently hit a publishing wall. She's a great writer, with a published book that was nominated for a major award. Her writing inspires me. Now she has a second book out on submission and the process is killing her confidence in the unique way that only the publishing industry can. What she describes feeling is common among writers, even the successful ones. We all simultaneously think we're something really special...and nothing at all. It doesn't make sense, but that seems to be the way of the creative mind.

If you are a writer, here's what I think you need to spend at least a little bit of time thinking about: What does "success" look like to you? I'm talking about in your heart-of-hearts, what does success look like? When you have that warm vision of you as a successful writer, where are you? What are you doing? In my daydream of success, I'm standing at a lectern, reading and answering questions and I have a large audience. So, that's "success" for me, it turns out, and that tells me that I am more interested in reaching people, in having an audience, and connecting with readers. Now for another writer, he might envision success as walking on stage and accepting a big award, or getting an excellent critical review of his work, or making the canon. Another writer might just see success as being able to find the time to write, alone, for long stretches. If you know what success looks like to you subconsciously, you can make changes in your work to push it in that direction.

You have limitations, you say? All writers have limitations, even the great ones. And most creative people are working through the same themes for the bulk of their lives. I just read John Irving's most recent book, and thirty-plus years later he is still rehashing the same themes--absent women, dastardly dogs, death of a child, and oral sex (usually taking place in a car) that goes horribly wrong. Every one of his books seems to have one or more of these issues creep in--but he's JOHN IRVING...and he's a writer with limitations.

When the negative responses start to come in, we can parse them for similarities. Do any of the publisher's responses ring true in terms of specific criticisms? Are there common complaints that can be addressed before the next round of submissions? I'm always amazed by the ways that small adjustments can make a huge difference to readers. (And help the writer to feel proactive instead of reactive.)

Alternatively--and this is a scary question, but bear with me--could it be time for you to give up? Maybe it is time to ask that awful question. Asking is just asking, just admitting to a possibility. Why not give up and see how it feels? No one has to know but you. Just stop caring and tell yourself you are never going to write another fricking word again, ever. Not one. Then see how that feels. Freeing? Good. Go with it. It is guaranteed to take you somewhere. I've given up about five times in my writing career. I do it once every three years or so. I simply swear off the stupid writing. What a relief!! I don't ever have to write again. Thanks be to God. And yet somehow I always come back to it. It's how I process the world, so I can't seem to not write. And when I come back to it after sincerely swearing off the writing, I come back with renewed vigor and fresh eyes because I know I'm doing it by choice. I usually feel less pressure when I come back, because hey, I quit writing, so who cares what my next "thing" looks like?

And my final words of wisdom...chances are good that you are actually closer than you have ever been before. Look behind you at the long road you have already traveled and imagine yourself back there at the start of it all. Wouldn't where you are now look like success to that far away writer? Here is what I told my friend: You have an agent who believes in you. Your work is being sent out and landing on the desks of big NYC editors. It's getting READ!!! CONSIDERED!! It only takes one yes. You've done your part, let the agent do the hard work now. And maybe it's best if you tell her to hold onto the responses for a while. Ask her not to tell you what they are until she has a common complaint that you can address. You don't need to read and obsess over the nuance of every single rejection. Let her do that, let her absorb the blows for a while. She's got more distance. It isn't her baby in the same way it is yours. It sounds like it is self-defeating and counterproductive for you to be kept apprised of the responses as they come in. Plenty of writers tell their agents they don't want to know, they just want to write. You could try that with this next round of subs and see how that works for you.
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Published on March 23, 2012 11:14 • 376 views • Tags: publishing, rejection, revisions, success, writing

My Dear Teen Me letter goes live today at the website devoted to authors writing to their teen selves. Mine turned into a very personal letter, one that scares me to share, but if I've learned anything in my years of writing that probably means that it's good, that I've said something important.

Here's the letter (below) and the link Dear Teen Me Thanks for reading.

Dear Teen Me,

Hello! How are you?

Mary in High School!

Wait, I know how you are. You’re struggling with high school in a small, one-stoplight town. You get told you’re “too good” or “stuck up” when all you are is painfully shy. And it’s that row of teenaged boys in their steel-toed boots, flannel jackets, and John Deere ball caps who get to you most, isn’t it? They line the hall outside the gym, rating the girls who walk past: “too skinny,” “big butt,” “bitch.” It’s probably the right decision to live with “stuck up” rather than reveal the truth. Like dogs, the good-ole-boy gauntlet can smell fear.

Wait. This is a letter. Let me try again: Wish you were here!

Except I don’t. Ronald Reagan is president where you are, long distance phone calls are very expensive, and you think you know everything. No offense, but I don’t want you here. Those 30+ years between us represent a lot of hard-won battles and besides, you’ve only just seen your first Apple computer. You’d be a little behind in my world.

(Sigh.) I’m avoiding the purpose of this letter, aren’t I? I’m supposed to impart some wisdom or perspective to you, but I can’t decide: should the advice apply to the you of 1982? Or to the you that will be me in thirty years? I mean, I could help you avoid some seriously stupid mistakes…but I’ve seen enough Will Smith movies to know it’s not a good idea to mess around with the past. Will Smith? Oh, he’s a rapper, turned TV star, turned movie star, turned…never mind. You’ll like him.

Mary with her Dad.

So, I guess I won’t warn you off any future relationships—they each teach you something and I’d hate for your kids to just—poof—disappear…plus the wrong men ultimately lead you to Mr. Right. So try to be patient.

You know, kiddo, I guess I do have one important thing to say—you don’t need bigger boobs. In a few years you’ll discover the push-up bra and your problem will be solved…as far as the world can tell. Anyway, you’ve got good legs, and those can’t be faked, so stop wasting your time fantasizing about all those magic creams.

Oh, and one more thing—it pains me tell you this, but—you need to come to grips with the fact that your love isn’t magic. It won’t save you and it won’t save anyone else. I know you want it to, desperately, but those three-legged-dog dreams you keep having? Those are only the start of a lifelong struggle to understand that you are not The Fixer. I can tell you this, though, one day you will write a healing sort of book and strangers will contact you to say it eased their suffering or gave them hope, or courage, or peace. That will be enough. It will have to be.

Mary at Locust Grove.

Because you never will reconcile the fact that your father dies alone, living in a halfway house, in a room that is really a closet.

Sorry. I should have broken that to you more gently. Yes, you will lose him two months after the birth of your first child. He will never get to hold her. It will haunt you.

Later, you will worry that you were the classic enabler. Maybe you are. You let your father—okay, our father…my father…Dad—call when he is drunk. You let him ramble for hours and when he calls two nights in a row, you let him say the same things all over again for another hour. You stay silent when he calls you The Fruit of His Loins, even though it creeps you out. You laugh at the jokes you already know by heart. You encourage him when he expounds on his Next Big Thing. You never tell him not to call when he is drunk. You give him hours of your life.

And he doesn’t even remember.

Later, you bring him food because he is skinny in a painful-to-look-at way. You ship him cheese for his birthday and he tells you it’s the first thing he’s had to eat all week. You want to do more but you are in college, barely keeping your own head above water.

Adult Mary!

But here’s the crazy thing, I want you to understand that even though it’s hopeless, even though I’ve told you how it will end, don’t stop trying to reach him. It will be important, when he’s gone, that you tried. That you did everything you could think to do. In fact, try harder, even though you will fail.

Because it will help to have tried.

And even more years from where you are now, when the sister you love like your own breath turns away from you, when she pulls out of life and turns her back on hope, on love, don’t stop trying with her, either. It’s worth the effort. Take it as a sign of hope that when you are given the date that this letter will be published, it will be her birthday. Believe that it means something important in The Great Plan. Send her a link. Tell her that you love her.

And now, you see, the accordion of time has folded, and I am writing not to you, but to the present-day me, working in my lonely writer’s room, bringing to light what I have been avoiding. Call your sister, Mary. Call her again. Reach out your hand, even if she refuses. There is at least love, at least hope, in the reaching.


Older N. Wiser Me

Women Up On Blocks by Mary Akers
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Published on March 28, 2012 06:38 • 336 views • Tags: alcoholism, one-life-to-give, publishing, teen-self, women-up-on-blocks, writing