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Once upon a time I sat down to write a book. I confess that in that particular mindset I wasn’t thinking about intelligent and logical things like publication and where the book would fit into the market. I hadn’t considered comparable titles and marketing strategies. I had an idea. I was excited about it. Images, words, characters were clamoring to get onto the page and that was all that mattered.

Later, during revisions one, two, three and four, (and five? I’ve lost track) the idea of publication was on my mind, but largely as background static, a vaguely defined fear that this book wasn’t going to fit neatly anywhere in the known universe of publishing, that it wasn’t quite fantasy or magical realism or literary fiction. But it was far too late for such thoughts – the story now had a life of its own and would be what it was determined to be.

Which brings me to the present, to the business of querying and agent feedback and a semi-frenzied perusal of existing books that might be considered comparable titles. There are some – nothing perfect, mind, but things that put Swimming North in the ballpark at least.

An agent question – what would a series look like – set me off on another alarming quest, because I never see to the end of a book before I begin it, let alone a series. When I write I start with characters and a problem, and the characters interact with the problem and with each other, and things begin to happen. Random elements creep in and I allow them, because often my subconscious sees what I do not. While all of this is going on, I try to keep an eye on plot and character arcs and pacing and all of the stuff that makes for a compelling plot, but I never quite know where the story is going until I hit the end.

I am experiencing a moment of envy for those who sit down before they begin to write and plot the whole thing out, from beginning to end. But I blink, and the envy passes. The truth is, I enjoy the surprises and the unexpected detours along the way. And it’s not like I set out on a writing voyage without any landmarks at all. I have a general sense of where we are all headed, I’m just not sure of a) how we’re going to get ‘there’, and b) exactly what ‘there’ will look like when we arrive.

At the moment, the best compromise I can make is to sit down and play with ideas. If the story would go on, how would it look? What would happen with the characters? What would be the unfinished story winding through all three that would allow them to stand alone but still bind them together. I think I see. And that’s all I need to get started.

There should be a joke that starts like this: “An introvert went to a writing conference…” Heck, maybe there is. Today, I think I am the joke.  I feel like I need about two weeks cloistered in a silence observing monastery somewhere.

However – although I feel like I’ve been boiled for hours and forced through a colander afterward, the PNWA conference was a lovely experience and I am so glad I went. As I sit down to write this post I hardly know where to begin – there is too much to hope to share all of it with any coherence.

It seemed that all energy was focused on pitching, at least through ’til Sunday night. Writers met – in the hallways, at lunch, waiting in lines for one thing or another – and jockeyed for the opportunity to pitch each other their stories. Agents looked a bit like deer in hunting season, wide eyed and vaguely alarmed, hoping to meet a marvelous author and get an awesome pitch, and at the same time fearful of being trapped in a corner by a rabid writer with a three page written pitch and the burning zeal to deliver every detail of a 300,000 word fiction novel.

As it turned out, agents and editors are very human after all (who knew?) and were, I think, as nervous and overwhelmed by the whole event as the writers. Some of them were chock full of intelligence, grace, and generosity, with just a few who were, well – never mind. I didn’t meet anybody who might have been a tiny bit egocentric. Not at all.

What did I learn? I don’t know yet. There are bits and pieces of wisdom bobbing around in my head, none of it coalesced just yet, but I would guess the most important things are the ones at the top, the ones that have already moved me to action.

From Bob Mayer – Have a Plan. After listening to Bob, the very first night I opened up my calendar and put some dates on it for goals. The manuscript should be done by this date, revised by this date, queried by this date. I want my book to be published within three years. That sort of thing. Of course, by the end of the conference I had completely revised my goals and added a few new ones, but the lesson remains the same.

From Andrea Hurst, agent extraordinaire – The first sentence and the first page of your novel might be all you get to impress an agent. Does it stand out from the crowd? I actually stopped several hours into my drive home yesterday to revise my first sentence, and am still pondering the first page. Also from Andrea – the reminder that your book should be connected to your blog, and your blog should be drawing people to your book. I have some ideas about this that excite me, although there is a fair bit of work attached.

From my writing friends – one agent might be totally blase about your pitch, the next excited. It’s a subjective business. You need to find the right person.

From editor Paul Dimas and agent Rita Rozenkrantz – I may have a non-fiction book in me. I am inspired enough to do some research, to investigate this niche, to see whether the need I think is there truly exists.

Other random things – have fun. Follow your imagination, but pay attention to the market. The world is changing. We need stories, and will continue to need them whether in book or electronic formats. There is money to be made in the non-fiction market.

Well, I have work to do: material to send out to agents; real life tasks put on hold for the last few days while I focused completely on writing. And, I have writing to do. That doesn’t ever stop, no matter what.

“I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing.  They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, “To hell with you.”  Saul Bellow

Ummm… right.  I’d like to believe this, just as I’d like to believe that whatever doesn’t kill me will make me stronger.  I’m afraid it’s more likely that I’ll end up a wilted little blob of humanity with as much backbone and motivation as a jelly fish. 

Remember those toys we had when we were kids – the ones you inflated that stood on a heavy base, and you could punch ’em and knock ’em down as often as you wanted and they’d just bob back up and take another hit?  Since about the beginning of November, I’ve been feeling like one of those.  Never staying down for long, but taking multiple hits from a wide variety of players.

Here’s the brief summary:

My partner, the wonderful man in my life, started having health problems and then got laid off.  My work partner left our agency to go in search of other things, and due to the economy his position was not refilled.  Now there are two of us covering the Crisis Team, instead of three, sort of more of a Crisis Duo, if you will.  One of the kids developed a (completely non life threatening) medical condition which requires monthly trips into the nearest city,  a turn around trip of about 5 hours.  Our house decided to develop some issues which will require repairs.

It’s a stage, I’ve been telling myself.  This will pass, it will get better, you’ve been through tougher times than these.  All very true, and I continue to have many blessings for which to be grateful.  However, it’s been increasingly difficult to find the time and motivation to write. 

Yesterday, I ran into the invisible but impassable wall.  In the last week or so, 9 out of 10 days in a row were spent either at work or on call.  Company.  The trip to Spokane.  And suddenly, I ran up against the emptiness of burnout.  This was, of course, the perfect day to get a rejection letter.  Not just any rejection letter, either, but the one from the agent who had graciously requested a partial.

It was a kind letter.  This agent, Pamela Ahearn of the Ahearn Agency, was prompt and professional.  She’d actually read what I sent her, and took the time to comment on why she’d chosen to pass.  She even said something nice about my writing.

I had a moment where I wanted to scream and cry and throw things, which was actually a positive thing, as the burnt out feeling of the day was complete numbness and apathy.

And then a curious thing happened.  I’d sworn off writing for the day, tired of fighting for time and motivation.  But I suddenly needed to write – to reaffirm the creative fire, to keep the momentum going, to refuse to give up in the face of adversity.  I was sitting here at my laptop, tapping away, when my 13 year old son came in.  He looked at me like he’d caught me sneaking cookies out of the jar, grinned, and said, “I thought you weren’t writing today.”

Well.  I guess it’s a habit I can’t give up, published or unpublished, on the down side of fortune’s wheel or not.  And so I guess Saul Bellow’s words are true for me, after all – in the face of adversity and resistance and rejection I will continue to wave my puny little fists and shout, “to hell with you!”

And just keep on writing.

Monday morning lurks, just on the far side of a few hours of sleep.  Back to work, back to a certain level of uncontrollable chaos, with Christmas somewhere in the middle of it all.  Back to the unpredictability of crisis work, slave to my taskmaster, the phone.

I am living in an adventure.  Honestly, I have no idea what I will be doing tomorrow.  I might spend the say sitting at my desk, catching up on crisis notes, or driving to the far corner of the county through a foot or more of new fallen snow.  I might end up visiting somebody in the jail, or the hospital, or maybe just in my office.  Or maybe I’ll be horribly bored and nothing will happen at all.

At the moment, I’m disinclined to go adventuring – the fire is warm, and the family will all be home tomorrow, and baby it is cold outside.  But at the same time, I’m realizing how much writing material I gather in my work – insights into human nature, plot elements I could never have dreamed up on my own, a constant stirring up of thought processes that might otherwise stagnate and dry up.  So, I am blessed in my work, and in my writing.

Finding time to write this weekend was a challenge, as I expected, but I managed to scrape up enough to get by.  Chapter Two has been rewritten, more or less successfully.  All of the materials for the partial requested by Ms. Agent are polished and printed and safely stowed in an envelope, ready for the post office.  

All is well in writing world, and I’m almost ready for Christmas.  So – here’s to a week of family and celebration, and I’ll see you all for another weekend challenge after Christmas.

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