Monday, January 31, 2011

Finding a literary agent is like buying a house

Dan and I first started looking at a house to buy in 2006 (you know, BEFORE the market crashed and there were a thousand properties for sale and you had to jump on everything, or at least that's what the realtor said because it would be gone tomorrow).

My mom was encouraging us to buy a townhouse because that seemed like a good place for a mid-twenties couple to start.  We looked at a row of light yellow townhouses that sat near the river, the Greenbelt, and the newly opened Bown Crossing with two of our favorite restaurants in Boise.  My step-mom had owned one of these units a few years earlier, and the price the owner of the unit I wanted to buy was asking a bit more than she had sold hers for.  And my step-mom had a hard time getting it appraised for even that.  My dad told me not to buy, but I loved it, and I placed an offer, an offer that was less than the asking price.

And then I waited.

I jumped every time the phone rung.  I checked in with my Realtor every ten minutes.  I envisioned my life in this townhouse and started mentally placing furniture in every room.  I even talked to Dan about how cool the nursery would be (even though we weren't married yet and didn't have kids).

And then our real estate agent called us and said the offer was rejected (not even a counter offer!!).  They had a likely full-price cash offer coming in.  I begged the agent to let us know if the deal fell through.  I had already made plans to live there, and now I was having to start all over.  My dad had warned me not to fall in love with a house too soon and promised me that even if one deal fell through I would find another house to love.

We looked at several more houses, each one complete with an imaginary scenario of my life in that house, my kids in the backyard, the renovations, holidays.  When I walked in the door to the house on Sweetwater Drive, I knew I was home.  I loved it even more than the townhouse I had been so pained to lose.  We placed an offer.  And we waited.  And then waited.  The sellers accepted our offer, threw in some extras.  We held our breath through the inspection.  And finally, finally, the realtor handed us our keys to our new home.

Getting published is a bit like that.

You research agents, trying to find one that looks like a good fit.  QueryTracker is a bit like the literary equivalent of the MLS.  Instead of examining the neighborhood and schools, you are looking at their location, contacts, and book lists.

When you find an agent you love, you send off a query, an offer if you will (though we have to stretch that metaphor a bit).  And you wait, checking email obsessively, heart quickening each time the red light on the Blackberry flashes.  Some queries are immediately rejected (like my lovely townhouse).  Some times an agent comes back and says "I like it, but..." and encourages you to make revisions and resubmit (it's the counter-offer stage).  And if you're really lucky, the agent you love comes back and says, "I'll take it."

I have a proposal out to an agent at the moment, an agent I have known for a whole three days.  I've done my research.  I've envisioned my book in her hands, my future as her client.  She has been amazing about keeping me informed of the process and giving me concrete deadlines when she'll get back to me.  For those who've been waiting for an update, you'll have to wait until Wednesday to hear more.  You can obsess with me.  Ultimately, this process is about finding someone who is the right fit for both of us.  You don't just want to buy any house that's available, right?  You want the one where you feel at home.  I want an agent who love my stuff as much as I do.  And just like buying a house, I'm reminded that even if ultimately this agent rejects me, I will fall in love with another one, will be able to envision my book in their hands, and I will find myself at home there just as I did with my house on Sweetwater Drive.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Getting a book published, memoir edition

Since I'm fully immersed in this whole process, I thought it might be helpful to friends and blog readers to know exactly what it takes to get a book published.  I worked for a short time on the other side of publishing after attending the Denver Publishing Institute after graduating college.  I have to say, knowing the process doesn't make it easier!

Memoir is complicated.  It's technically non-fiction, but it's obviously quite different from a book on how to shell a crab or decorate your house as a neo-con.  Non-fiction is most often sold on proposal with one or two sample chapters.  Fiction is almost always sold after the entire book is written.  No one can agree on what to do with memoir!  It reads like fiction, and the author has to be able to tell a story.  But it's still non-fiction, so some agents and editors want the proposal, not the whole book.  Confused?  I have opted to try the proposal route first. 

I've spent months (and months and months) working on the proposal and sample chapters.  I believe my mom said to me, "When is that first chapter going to be finished?" because I've been working on it for so long.  The challenge for me has been deciding how to structure the book and what the central theme is.  I'm too organized to write without an outline, so until this structure was in place, I kind of felt like I was floundering around.  It's a good thing I'm a writing class addict as this has really helped pull all the pieces in where I think they should be.

Anyhow, I've finished the proposal and I've written my sample chapters.

The next piece to this confusing puzzle is understanding how the publishing business works.  Companies like Random House and Hyperion and Penguin are all publishing houses (usually owned by some European media conglomerate).  You can't just send them your stuff.  Well, you can.  But it's a bad bad bad idea.  In order to get your stuff in front of an editor, you need an agent, and literary agents exist in abundance.  Finding the right agent is important in terms of a working relationship with them as well as getting your book actually sold.

And that's where I am right now.  I have a list of agents.  That list grows every night actually.  I send off a letter that summarizes my book as follows:
His nursery was finished: the star knobs adorned my refurbished childhood dresser, the crib was assembled with the blue and brown Restoration Hardware bumper firmly in place, the books sat quietly in the bookcase beside the rocker, the onesies were washed and hung, ready for my son to come home.  But instead of packing my hospital bag on Labor Day weekend, I stood over the charred remnants of my leveled home, looking for anything recognizable that could help me reclaim my foundation.  Sweetwater Drive: My Road Home tells the story of preparing our house for our son’s arrival and the journey we had to take to find our way home.
And then I wait.  If an agent is interested, they ask to see my proposal and sample chapters.  If not, I get something like this:
Thank you for thinking of me, but this isn't quite right for my list.
[agent's name]
So far today I have received the rejection above and then another sort of rejection where the agent passed on my query to another agent in the office.  She requested my proposal, which I immediately went through to make sure it was as clean as possible.

And now it's the weekend, and all I can do is continue to wait.

If you have more questions, ask.  I'd be happy to answer.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Writing is not for the impatient

I have no patience.  None.

Which is why this week is torture.

I currently have queries (letters of interest for the unindoctrinated) out to a few agents, and I am stalking my email like it was Christmas Eve and I was four and couldn't sleep for fear I'd miss something.  In fact, I didn't sleep all that well this morning because right below that layer of consciousness was this knowing that I had sent these letters out, that someone could be reading them right now and sending me a response.  Of course when I woke up and checked the Blackberry there was nothing but spam.

I also realized that my letter wasn't as good as it could have been, so I re-vamped and sent out to a couple more agents tonight.  Researching agents after Kellen goes to bed has become my routine, actually.  By next week I could have a real problem in terms of the number of queries I have out in cyberspace.  I should be patient and wait for some responses.  Or maybe I should channel my nervous energy into writing Chapter 2, which is currently angering me.

Instead, I'm wandering around my house, anxious for some patience juice while obsessively refreshing my inbox, even at 11 p.m.

Friday, January 21, 2011

It's ok to say "This sucks"

If you follow me on Twitter or are my friend on Facebook... or are my real life friend (does anyone even have those anymore ;-)), you probably know that my brother had an unfortunate accident with an IED yesterday while serving in Afghanistan as a Marine.

When I got the news, I was somewhat upset, both because well, he's my brother and he's hurt and because we have a somewhat strained relationship and I really don't know how to reach out to him to let him know that I am thinking about him.  In the middle of sorting through these complicated feelings, I posted a general note to the world about my displeasure with it.  I mean, I know I'm supposed to be SO GRATEFUL for all these life lessons, but FUCK.  I'm over the lessons.  Hear me world?  And then I got called out for not feeling so blessed that my brother is alive.

Let me stop and say it here.  I am glad my brother is alive.  So very glad.

But blessed?  No.  Blessed would be not getting your fingers blown off by an IED, actually.  I think this whole thing sucks.  His foot is damaged, and he lost at least one of his fingers.  (I have complicated religious feelings, so blessed actually isn't a word I use much.  Let's just replace blessed with "great.")

I started thinking about this whole "great" concept.  Actually, I was on the phone ranting.  And I was thinking about the fire and how there were so many people who didn't understand the grief and looked at me like a twenty-headed monster who couldn't possibly see how wonderful it was to have my house burn down because... we were alive.

Ok.  Seriously people, if there isn't SOME spectrum between dead and "great" then we need to seriously reevaluate our standards.  I can't possibly be the only person who thinks that being "great" (or blessed) is more than just being alive.  I know I've been criticized on this blog even for not being the shiny ray of sunshine that sees all positive.  I guess I just expect more.  I expect that when my house burns down I can cry and say, "Hey, I really wish my house hadn't burned down, and I think it really fucking sucks and I'm not feeling all that blessed actually.  Even if we all survived."  I'm only allowed to be sad or upset if someone dies?  Man, that's harsh.

And my brother?  He's lucky that it wasn't worse, sure.  But I imagine that there will be a time when he misses that little finger and thinks, "Hey, I really wish my hand hadn't gotten blown up.  And man, I kind of actually want that finger back now."  Is he supposed to suppress that feeling and just say he's so very blessed?

If you're the kind of person who is always optimistic and can find the good behind every black cloud, good for you.  Me?  I kind of like to set my expectations a little higher and think that there must be something between dead and great.  Like maybe "This sucks," even just a little.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What is home?

As some of you may know (and are now all about to find out), I finally submitted pieces of my book to an agent.  It was a big step, and I'm still really freaked out about it.  I've gone back and forth about what the underlying story is, and ultimately it's about the idea of home.  What IS home?  What are the things inside that define your home?  How do you define yourself when your home and everything inside is gone?  I'm going to start tackling these questions, and I'd love for you to join in.  Each post will have its own question for you to reflect on, whether you post your own blog about it (and hopefully link back) or whether you leave your thoughts just in the comments.  For those who post on their own blogs, I will certainly link up at the bottom.

To start: What defines a home?

In the two years since the fire, I've learned that our home is much more than the four walls (ok, there are far more than four walls!) and roof that surround us.  For me, it's a feeling, an internal sense of comfort and familiarity.

When I went back to Virginia Beach this summer, stepping off the plane into 105 degree weather with immediate sweat-inducing humidity was familiar.  It smelled of salt-water and sand.  Those things were home in the global sense.  I remember once driving home from college and pulling off the freeway and passing by the "Welcome to Virginia Beach" sign and crying.  I felt warm inside, even though I wasn't really physically warm, and I started to tear up.  Home.

I've had lots of homes since high school.  A college dorm.  A studio apartment in D.C.  Denver.  A two-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  An old apartment complex in the historic district of Boise across from the Co-Op.  And Sweetwater Drive.  Each of those places was home because I made them so.  It wasn't just merely living in them that made them my home, but rather the stuff inside that differentiated my two-bedroom from the one down the hall.  The green painted walls.  The pink bathroom.  The butterfly rug.  The books, signed and not.  My photos.  And the home at Sweetwater Drive felt even more like home, both because we owned it and also because of the work we put into it.  I could tell you a story about building that large deck in the backyard.  Even the sod had a story and made it ours. 

After the fire, even though I had shelter (first in the form of a hotel room and then a rental), I didn't feel home.  Nothing was familiar.  Even the pillows I bought that were identical to the ones I had owned were not mine.  I hadn't mashed them in 400 directions, indented my head every night for two years.  I had a spatula, but it wasn't the same brand, and it didn't feel the same.  When I went to Labor and Delivery to have Kellen, I didn't have any old clothes, any comforting items to remind me of home, remind me of all the things to come.  A spatula or t-shirt or pillow might seem inconsequential.  In fact you might wonder how I can possibly define my homes in terms of that "STUFF."  But that stuff, for me, is what makes this place a home... and not just four walls and a roof.

What defines your home?  Is it the structure?  Is it an item?  Is it the way you feel when you look out the window into your garden?  Or something else entirely?

Critter Chronicles - Lovely response from a military perspective
Am I a Funny Girl? - Family and Laughter
Before the Baby Wakes - Matter Holds Memory

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What I love about my house

I know I've written a lot about the things that make me crazy in this house (the possessed microwave being at the top of the list).  We're quickly approaching the two year mark of living in this house (time is crazy like that).  And there are things that I absolutely love.

I love my staircase.  It took a while to adjust to having stairs since our old house was very much a single story.  When we went to pick out the railing shortly after Kellen was born, we talked about just doing a standard railing, but I'm really glad that I added in the decorative element.  It really is just a small thing, but I think it makes our entry way stand out, and it just is really pretty.  Also, it's right above the piano, and they kind of look a little like treble clefs, right?!

 I love my office, which just happens to look straight at that staircase.  I limited the pink in my house, but I do have a pink office with a pretty corkboard I made all by myself to hang cards and such on.  I love the Pottery Barn desk, even if it's covered in paper most of the time.  I love the closet, which has shelves for my scrapbooking supplies.

My favorite room in the house is the guest bedroom, and sometimes Dan and I fight over who gets to sleep in there because it is probably the calmest room in the house.  I love the colors, the furniture, the peace.  And I love the Vinyl lettering a friend sent me after the fire: Everyday holds the possibility of a Miracle.

I also really love the oversized red chairs that are currently in our living room.  The colors don't match since they were originally intended for our master bedroom, but it doesn't matter.  They are brilliant reading chairs, not to mention great for playing Wii Bowling or a game of Monopoly City (the ottoman is a great stand-in card table).

I've been thinking about the whole idea of home, of feeling at peace within the boundaries of one's life, and for me these things bring me comfort, allow me to accept the fire.  I had no choice in those circumstances, and this isn't the way I would have decided to build my forever home.  But it is what happened.  And I have power in the situation by being able to decide if I will forever resent this place (which wasn't the intent in rebuilding) or if I can find peace in our new life.  Finding things to love, truly love, here has allowed me to finally settle into this as our home. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

National Delurking Day

I'm working on my Decade in Photos post, which will hopefully get posted before the end of this next decade. 

In the meantime, it's National Delurking Day (which extends to tomorrow or next Wednesday or whatever day you finally read this post!).  I know there are a lot of you out there who read my blog.  I'd love for you to say hi (you too, Uncle Jeff).

And if you're feeling up to it:
How did you find this blog?
And what keeps you coming back?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why the Burnout Fund matters

As you might now if you've been reading this blog for a while, the Boise Burnout Fund and the Light My Fire organizations are very dear to me.  It's getting to be that time again for the annual Light My Fire fundraiser, and I thought it would be a great time for me to share why the Burnout Fund matters and why I believe so much in supporting this cause.

Every year there are between 370,000 and 400,000 house fires across the United States.  Depending on your perspective that may seem like a huge number, or a relatively inconsequential number.  Regardless, when you multiply that number over a decade, assuming that most people don't lose their homes more than once in that time span, we're talking about four million people.  I think we can all agree four million people is a lot of people.  Even so, I never thought I'd be one of them.  But I am.

August 25, 2008, changed my life, and even if I can recognize the good that's come from an incredibly horrible situation, that doesn't mean I wouldn't undo it if I could.  I learned that night what it's like to not have anything.  No underwear, no toothbrush, no pillow.  I had the generosity of a friend who provided shelter and interim supplies.  And I had insurance, which would allow me to eventually replace those things. 

Once we moved into the hotel, we didn't have cooking supplies.  No can opener to open food.  No pots and pans to cook.  No food in the refrigerator.  Our insurance policy provided for some meals, but we still had to take care of one or two meals a day, which for over a week consisted of easy to eat or takeout food.

The Burnout Fund is not a replacement for insurance.  It cannot possibly cover all of the expenses after a fire.  But it does cover an important gap between losing your house and the time insurance does finally kick in and you're back up on your feet.  It also helps cover some of the costs of things that just aren't covered by insurance, like the constant eating out, the extra fuel used by driving to and from everywhere.  It allowed us to buy buckets and shovels and masks for those coming to help us sort through the ash.  I bought a pillow so that I could get some sleep given that I was eight months pregnant.

In some ways we were lucky that our fire was so high-profile.  The community outpouring was unbelievable.  But fires happen year-round, and I know that the assistance given to other families is far less than what was shown for us.  It's why I believe so much in giving back to it in every way that I can.

If you live in Boise, I encourage you to help support this cause, hoping that you will never have to be a beneficiary but knowing if you needed it, it would be there.  There are several ways to help:

1) Attend the Light My Fire event.  Details are at Light My Fire.  It's a silent auction complete with a great dessert auction.  Every year they've auctioned off a really cool painted fire hydrant.  Last year they had a puppy.

2) Donate.  If you can't attend the fundraiser, please consider donating to this great organization, whether the Boise Burnout Fund or Light My Fire, which donates to the Burnout Fund and also provides fire prevention education.

3) Provide items for the silent auction.  One of the most important aspects of the fundraiser is the silent auction.  Do you have a talent you could provide?  Does your company have a service it could donate?  Are you a good baker and can donate a dessert for the dessert auction?

If you aren't in Boise but are interested in donating items for the auction, I'd be more than happy to facilitate that.  Also, I encourage you to look into your own local organizations that provide fire assistance.  I'm sure they'd be happy to have your help, whether financial or time.

I can't wait to post pictures from this year's event!

Last year's fundraiser: