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Monthly Archives: January 2016

Encouraging Rejections & A Hungry Ego

Encouraging Rejections & A Hungry Ego

As a writer, you have to learn to live on the crumbs of positive rejections: those letters you get from editors and agents that say, “I found much to admire,” or “you’re a good writer,” and end with, “but I’ve decided to pass,” or “I didn’t connect with the material as much as I had hoped.”

The crumbs don’t make a full meal, but they give you enough sustenance to keep going, keep trying, keep writing.

For years I lived on encouraging rejections, first while submitting short stories to literary magazines and later while querying agents. Simply getting a manuscript request from an agent was like receiving a hearty slice of fortitude, and a rejection letter like the one I received a month ago (see below) could keep my ego boosted for weeks:

Dear Eva,

Thanks so much for sending me [NAME OF NOVEL]. I really loved this concept and think you are a wonderful writer. I’m going to regretfully pass because I ended up wanting more complexity from both the plot and the characters, but I am very glad you sent this to me and am grateful for the chance to have read it.

In 2014, I finally got a big, fat yes. A top-notch agent at a prestigious agency wanted to represent me. I felt like I had taken a huge step forward in my writing career, and for a brief moment, my ego was sated.

But, after more than six months of working with him on readying my novel for submission to New York editors, my agent decided (without giving me advanced warning) to quit his job. This meant I no longer had an agent.

He gave me a list of other agents and told me to query them. “Say you’re coming at my recommendation,” he suggested. (Because nothing works better in this business than name-dropping.)

But, with the exception of one, I never heard back from any of the people on his list. (And that one agent, after requesting my full manuscript in September, has not gotten back to me, and I’ve sent her two follow-up emails and checked my spam folder religiously.)

miranda_july

I try to remember what Miranda July says. photo credit.

It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to feel like I’ve taken a step backwards and now I can’t manage to scramble up to the agented place I was standing not too long ago.  I had an agent who thought my work was ready to be published.  So why am I having such a hard time finding a new agent?

My friend Jeni says querying is for the birds and the best way to get a new agent is to meet one in person. So I’m thinking about going to Grubb Street’s Muse Conference in Boston at the end of April to hob-nob with industry professionals. But until then, I figured, I’d query.

So I researched agents and queried and got a few manuscript requests. The requests didn’t satiate me this time, though. I knew better than to get my hopes up, and sure enough, soon I started receiving rejections, like this one I got just the other day:

Dear Eva

Thank you for your patience while we considered your work.  In the end, while there was much to be admired, we did not fall in love with the overall execution in a way we need to take on a project, especially given this is such a difficult time for fiction.

For what it’s worth to know, we think you have talent, and would consider other works from you in the future. With that said, the problem with this ms was that while not bad, and definitely better than most we see– retellings are VERY difficult to sell unless they are absolutely riveting. This one lacks a certain degree of depth and suspense/tension, even for a MG. It’s a breezy and interesting read, but in the end we don’t think it’s strong enough all things considered, again, since it is a retelling.

I am sorry not to be writing with better news, but this business is so subjective, and another agent might very well feel differently.  You deserve an agent with whom your work really resonates, and I’m just sorry that wasn’t us.  I sincerely wish you luck on this journey and thank you all the same for reaching out.

 

I tried to pick out the positive crumbs from the letter: much to be admired, you have talent, interesting read. But they weren’t satisfying me the way they used to.

So then I considered the reasons it was rejected: lack of depth and suspense, simply not strong enough. I thought back to the other positive rejection letter I’d gotten recently. Lacking complexity, the agent had said.

I don’t think it’s wise to ignore these criticisms. This is a very difficult time to sell books, and chances are, I’m not going to be successful unless my book is something incredible.  Because that’s what these agents seem to be saying to me:  “hey, not bad, but I need it to knock my socks off, and it didn’t.”

Heck, I don’t want to write a book that’s only decent.  I want to write a book that is complex and exciting and so completely riveting that it will totally wow these agents who look at hundreds of queries a day.

cb

George Michael, from Arrested Development, does the Charlie Brown shuffle.

 

On the one hand, it’s depressing. Here I thought I was ready to be published, but maybe I’m not there yet. My ego is starved, and I’ve been doing the Charlie Brown shuffle for the past few days.

On the other hand, this latest rejection is, perhaps, a much-needed wake-up call.  It made me realize that I have to do better. As much as my ego would like to be showered with praise, maybe my books just aren’t good enough yet.  Maybe I need to consider a major revision.  Or write something new that is more complex and suspenseful. I’m a good writer and I’ve got talent – so there’s no reason for me to quit! But there’s also no reason for me to think I can’t do better.

What I’m saying is, encouraging rejections are a good way to boost your ego and give you gumption when that’s what you need, but sometimes you have to consider why your work got rejected, and what you can do to improve.

Hemingway said that he wrote better when his stomach was growling. Maybe it’s time for me to stop filling up on the crumbs of these positive rejections and work for a while with an ego that is humble and hungry.

photo 4 copy

Here I am getting ready to go out into the blizzard on this past Friday.  We got over 2 feet of snow here in Silver Spring, Maryland!

 

Math, Watermelon Martinis, & Lists to Help Your Writing

Math, Watermelon Martinis, & Lists to Help Your Writing

 

One of the several part-time jobs I do to support my writerly lifestyle is creating math curriculum. It’s a pretty sweet sitch. I work from home, get paid well, and am able to do as much or as little as I want each month. It’s one reason why I recommend to all you wannabe creative writers out there: become a math teacher first. (Ha ha. But no, seriously.)

I work for a company that sells Common Core correlated lesson plans and worksheets to middle schools around the country. The main emphasis for us creators is to come up with exciting ways to link math to real life so that the kids will be interested and invested.

For example, I did a lesson where kids watch this Beyonce video and describe her moves in math terms: 90 degree rotation, moving two steps along the x-axis, etc. Then they make up their own dance and plot it on the coordinate plane. Fun, right?

photo

Teacher face!

At first, it was pretty easy for me to think of creative ideas — I used some of the things I’d done (or wanted to do) with my own students back when I was a math teacher. I wrote lessons about crop circles, ant farms, shipwrecks, and hair extensions. I was especially proud of my lesson about a chicken drop.  (If you don’t know what a chicken drop is, see here.)

When those ideas ran dry, I started creating math curriculum about whatever was going on in my life. I wrote lessons about circus school, a cross-country trip, planning a wedding, traveling to Mexico. I even wrote a lesson about Otzi the Iceman after hearing a Radiolab episode about him.

But now I’ve been working for this company for over three years. I’ve started to worry that all my creative ideas have been used up. After all, there are only so many ways you can get kids excited about decimal division… right?

Tongue3

I also did a lesson about tongue twisters.

Thank god I found this: 500+ Things Kids Like. The list was composed by Tara Lazar, a children’s book author: “I hope this list gives a spark to your writing for children,” she says.

I don’t know if this is what she had in mind, but it’s been a treasure trove for my math curriculum! Now, whenever I’m starting on a new project, I scan the list until I see something that might have a math connection… (Just about everything does, you know.)

For example, the other day, I scanned the list and saw “babies” on there as one of the 500+ things kids like. Oh, yeah, I thought, babies get weighed and measured. That’s math. Plus, they grow inside the womb, doubling and tripling in size over time. That’s math. So I created a math lesson called Maternity Ward.

IMG_1850.JPG

Kids love babies!  (This is a creepy surrealist baby I made at the Hirschhorn Museum over the weekend.)

Just the other day I was watching one of the new episodes of Park and Recreation. The character Craig, when feeling stressed, lists great things about being alive, like “watermelon martinis, exposed brick, Keri Russell’s hair.”

That’s when it occurred to me that a) I should make a similar list to look at whenever I’m feeling sad, and b) I should be using lists not only for math curriculum but also for my own writing!

There are all kinds of lists I could make that might be helpful:

  • A list of characters – both real and imagined – who interest me.
  • A list of books I admire.
  • A list of interesting places, or jobs, or objects.
  • A list of random things I like to read and write about.
  • A list of every story premise I’ve ever thought of
  • And so on.

 

And even if the list does nothing for me now, I can always return to it when I’m feeling especially stumped and out of creative juices. Maybe an item on the list will spark an idea and get me writing.

I often fear that I’ve run out of creativity and have no more ideas  left for my fiction writing.  Yet, in the past three years, I have written over 150 math lessons on all sorts of topics. I continue to amaze myself (and my bosses) with my seemingly never-ending fount of creative ideas. If I can do that for math curriculum (which is something I do for money) I can certainly do it for creative writing (which is something I do out of passion). And if I can do it, then you can, too.

Now let’s get listing!

craig

Billy Eichner as Craig in Parks and Recreation.  Photo credit.  

 

Craig’s List of Great Things About Being Alive

  • watermelon martinis
  • exposed brick
  • Keri Russell’s hair
  • Martha Stewart’s apron line
  • my tomato plants
  • sweet potato pie
  • unlikely animal friend pairings
  • Jennifer Love Hewitt
  • Victor Garber
  • James Garner
  • Jennifer Garner

 

Waiting for the [Creative] Bus, or, Getting to the Airport in New Orleans

Waiting for the [Creative] Bus, or, Getting to the Airport in New Orleans

Over the weekend my husband and I went to a wedding in New Orleans. We were happy to go, and we had a great time, but it was rather expensive, and so on Sunday, instead of paying $36 for a cab to the airport, we tried to find a friend to drive us. After a couple of people said they couldn’t, Paul looked up the bus route.

“Let’s just take the bus,” he said. “It doesn’t seem too hard.”

I had never attempted to take the bus to the airport in New Orleans – a city not known for its public transportation – but we’d had good luck taking the bus to and from the French Quarter the day before, and the price was certainly right. Plus, we wouldn’t be inconveniencing anyone, and it would be a fun little adventure.

So, we packed our suitcases and walked up the potholed street towards St. Charles Avenue to catch the streetcar. The temperature had plummeted overnight, and a bone-chilling wind was blowing. We stood on the neutral ground shivering and were happy when a streetcar creaked to a stop in front of us.

We rode through Uptown and Riverbend to the end of the streetcar line. Here, we decided to warm up and relax at a coffee shop before catching the bus that would take us to the border of New Orleans and Jefferson Parrish, where we would then catch a different bus to the airport.

The Saint Charles Streetcar. (photo credit)

The Saint Charles Streetcar. (photo credit)

The cold wind carried the cinnamon scent of King Cake as we pulled our rolling suitcases along the puddled sidewalks. Our first attempt at finding a coffee shop was thwarted – Apple maps had led us astray. We walked another half mile to the Panola Street Café, only to find that it would be closing in three minutes.

I walked inside. “I know you guys are closing, but can I get a hot tea to go?” I asked.

An older man sitting at the bar nursing a mug of coffee  noticed my luggage and asked me where I was going.  He paid for my tea then joined me and Paul outside, where the sun had finally broken through the clouds and the wind was dying down. “How’re ya’ll getting to the airport?” he asked.

“We’re taking the bus,” I said. “We thought it’d be an adventure.”

He lit a cigarette. “Let me offer you another adventure.”

Paul and I laughed. It was pretty clear he was going to offer us a ride to the airport, or maybe suggest we just go back to his place and drink whiskey for a while.

“No, we’re good,” I insisted. “It’s turning out to be a nice day for walking.”

“You taking the Airline bus?” he asked. “How’re you getting there? You can’t walk there.”

“There’s another bus we can take,” Paul said, holding up his smart phone, our route still indicated on the map.

“All right, then.”  The guy wished us luck as we headed down the street, our roller bags bouncing behind us.

Eva with King Cake!

Eva with King Cake!

We were in high spirits. We were walking through a part of East Carrollton I’d never explored before, full of eccentric houses, some already decorated in purple, green and gold for Mardi Gras. The sky was blue, and the day was getting warmer. We reached the stop twenty minutes before the bus was supposed to arrive. Paul consulted his phone. “It’s only a little over two miles to the bus stop that takes us to the airport. You want to just walk it?”

That would save us $2.50 in bus fare, and plus I’d always rather be walking than waiting. And we would be following the bus route, so if we got tired, we could always hop on the bus. We continued up the street.

But little did we know, we were walking towards Hollygrove, a Katrina-blighted neighborhood and not the safest area of town. We crossed Earhart Boulevard and started to see bombed-out houses with fading spray-painted X’s. Half the houses on the street were empty – windows boarded up, roofs caving in, front porches collapsing into the soggy earth.

“This is creepy,” Paul said.

“We’re getting to see a different side of New Orleans.  It’s interesting.” I tried to stay positive as I yanked my suitcase over a pile of broken glass.

My legs were getting tired, and my shoulders were aching from the weight of my backpack. It was starting to seem unlikely that hopping on the bus was an option. We saw no sign of buses, and with the ghost-town feel of the place, it was unclear if any still ran in this neighborhood.

Katrina damage in the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans. photo credit

Abandoned house in the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans. photo credit

Finally, the street we were walking on dead-ended at the railroad tracks. We could see Airline Highway in the distance, across a small canal of dirty water.   That was were we needed to go to catch the airport bus, but it was unclear how to get there. Finally, after several wrong attempts and me nearly tripping over an empty bottle of malt liquor, we discovered a set of stairs that led us over the water and down onto Airline Highway. But where was the bus stop?

“The map says it’s right here,” Paul insisted, but there was no sign of a bus stop anywhere. We trekked along the trash-strewn side of Airline Highway towards a gas station to ask for help.

The man behind the counter took one look at our luggage and bedraggled appearances and said, “airport bus stops in front of the motel down the way. But that bus is crazy.  Who knows when it’ll come…  But it will come.”

Paul and I were pleased. We’d made it to the bus stop, which turned out to be a sign-less pole in front of the seedy looking London Lodge. According to Paul’s smart phone, the bus would arrive in eight minutes, but if we had to wait a little longer, that was okay with us. The sun was shining, and we had a half a sandwich left over from lunch to eat while we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The London Lodge. photo credit

The London Lodge. photo credit

Forty minutes later, the bus had not arrived. I wanted to keep waiting. “We came all this way,” I said. “It would be a shame to have to call a cab.”

But Paul was getting nervous about the time. We had a plane to catch, after all.  So when a taxi pulled up at the gas station, Paul ran towards it and asked how much it would cost to take us to the airport.

Turns out, it would cost $36. The same price as if we had left from our airbnb in the heart of New Orleans.

In the cab, I tried not to feel defeated, but I was. We had tried so hard and come so far (over six miles), but in the end we’d lost the game of bussing it to the airport.

I guess this is what happens in life sometimes. It’s certainly happening right now with my creative endeavors. I feel like I’ve worked so hard and traveled so far, only to have the bus not show up at all.  It’s hard not to feel defeated.

The ironic thing is, when we got to the airport, we found out that our flight had been delayed by two hours. We could have continued waiting at the bus stop.  After all, the guy did say it would show up eventually.

Maybe I haven’t waited long enough for my creative bus to come along.

Maybe it’s really hard to know when you should keep waiting and when you should take a cab.

Maybe the important thing is to focus on the fun you had along the way. The man who bought you tea. The cute houses you saw.   The way your sweet husband offered to carry your bag.

This is the point that I want to get to with my writing.  That it’s not about the outcome.  It’s not even about what route I take.  It’s about enjoying the journey, no matter where I end up.

This is what is considered a bus stop in Jefferson Parrish, LA.

This is what is considered a bus stop in Jefferson Parrish, LA.

By the time we got to our gate to do some more waiting, I was exhausted, windblown, cold, and sunburned… and in need of more tea. I went to the coffee place and asked the girl behind the counter for a small hot tea. I knew I looked tired and sad, my hat slowing slipping off of my head.

But the girl looked me in the eye and said, “can I just say that you are so beautiful, and I like your style.”

“Thank you so much,” I said, utterly surprised and pleased.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to make me smile:  the kindness of a stranger.

“What are you so happy about?” Paul asked as I sat down next to him with my tea.

“I had a good day with you,” I said.

“I had a good day with you, too.”

We made it home just after midnight, and we were so happy to get into bed that we laughed until we cried.

That’s the thing:  if there’s somewhere you want to be, chances are good that you’ll get there… eventually.  And as far as my writing, well, that creative bus is crazy.  Who knows when it’ll come,  but it will come.

Beautiful and stylish? Not so sure about that...

Beautiful and stylish? Not so sure about that…  This is me, sunburned and windblown at the New Orleans airport.

 

Resolutions, Renwick Wonder, & Doing Something with What You’ve Been Given

Resolutions, Renwick Wonder, & Doing Something with What You’ve Been Given

The first New Years Day I ever spent with my husband, back when we had only been dating for a few months, we drank champagne on the National Mall then went to the Hirshhorn art museum.

This year we decided to again do some New Years museum hopping, and in fact, I hope this becomes a tradition now that we’re back in DC, the land of free museums. We met our friend Layla downtown, where a massive line was forming outside the Renwick Gallery for their new exhibit, Wonder. But the fine employees of the Renwick were doing a good job of moving the line along.

“Paul and I have never been the Renwick before,” I told Layla.

“Neither have I,” she said, “and I used to work in that building right across the street.”

That’s when Paul let it drop that he’d never seen the White House before.

“Well I’ve never been inside it,” I said. “Unlike some people I know.” I raised my eyebrows at Layla, who’s been on two – count ‘em two – White House tours.

“No,” Paul said. “I mean, I’ve never even gone to look at it from the outside.”

“What? Yes you have.” Paul spent a million years in grad school at the University of Maryland, a mere metro ride away from downtown DC. Certainly he’d walked past the White House at some point, or maybe seen it while on a middle school field trip. But no, he insisted that he hadn’t.

“Well, it’s right there.” I pointed down the street. We decided that after the Renwick we’d take a stroll to see it.

Shindig by Patrick Dougherty. I would have called this one Bird Nest.

Shindig by Patrick Dougherty. I would have called this one Bird Nest. Photo by Layla Bonnot.

Inside the Renwick Gallery (the first building in the country built specifically as an art museum), nine artists had each been given a room and told to do something creative with it. (The official term for this is “site-specific installations.”) I’m not sure if they picked out of a hat or what, but while one artist got the massive, ballroom-sized salon, another one got the stairwell.

But they all worked wonders with the rooms they were given. We saw a giant rainbow made of embroidery thread, a life-sized tree made of interlocking wooden pieces, and pink-stained walls patterned with giant, shimmering insects.

After exploring the wonders of the Renwick, we stepped outside into a cool but sunny day and walked over to the White House.

I was still trying to understand why Paul had never seen it in real life. “I guess you lived nearby, so you always thought you’d come here eventually but never actually made the effort.”  It was like when I lived in L.A. and never went to see the Hollywood sign.

“Yeah, I guess,” Paul said. He was busy looking for snipers on the roof.

Eva and Paul in front of the White House. (Photo by Layla.)

Eva and Paul in front of the White House. Photo by Layla Bonnot.

After seeing the White House, the National Christmas tree, and the Washington monument, we hit the American History Museum before heading home. “We need to come down here more often,” Paul said, and I agreed. We talked about making one Sunday a month be a museum day. We didn’t say the words “new years resolution,” but it sort of was.

I have a lot of New Years resolutions already.  For example, I intend to wake up earlier and meditate five times a week. (I’m using the website Headspace for meditation, and I’m really enjoying it so far.)  I also have a lot of ideas about how I want to approach my writing career in 2016.   In the past year, I’ve had several disappointments.  This year I want to honor that feeling of disappointment and then working on letting it go as I try to regain my energy, focus, and self-esteem.

I want to find a new writing project to get excited about, but I also want to embrace where I am right now in the process and not be so worried about getting to the final result. Because what is the final result anyway? A published book? Once I reach that, I’ll just have another goal in mind.  So instead of always chasing the next thing and never being satisfied, I want to enjoy where I am right now. I want to appreciate that some days I will go in circles and make seemingly no progress, but that’s okay because it’s all part of the process.

Maybe I need to think of myself as one of the artists from the Renwick exhibit. I don’t get to choose my room – some things are beyond my control — but I can still do something wonderful with what I have been given.

Middle Fork by John Grade. photo by Layla.

Middle Fork by John Grade. Photo by Layla Bonnot.