Turning Points: Guest Post by Daisy Whitney (+Giveaway)

This post is part of the Turning Points series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Daisy Whitney reveals how discovering a new genre changed the course of her writing career…

Shortly after I sold my first novel, a friend remarked that my incredibly circuitous path to a sale reminded her of lessons she learned while earning her MBA. In her email to me, she said: “Wow, that’s fascinating that you tried all these different angles on writing and that the YA niche bit first. It goes to show you what you learn in business school, that it’s about talent, but also about tenacity and figuring out niches and strategy.”

The Mockingbirds

Indeed. Because, like many writers, my first novel sold and published—The Mockingbirds—wasn’t the first novel I wrote, nor was it the first novel, or book for that matter, that I tried to sell.

I tried chick lit first. Then I tried nonfiction. Then, and only then, did I try YA. The Mockingbirds is the fourth novel I wrote, and the first three weren’t just pancake novels. My two early chick lits were both agented and both read by editors at major publishing houses. The second novel even made it to acquisition meetings at few publishing houses. But in the end, I received more than 33 rejections combined for those two books from editors.

So I wrote a third chick lit, but before that novel went on submission, I changed course. I whipped out a proposal for a nonfiction book on the business of Internet fame, something I know about from my day job reporting on media, advertising, and Internet trends. That was sent out to 14 editors, made it to editorial boards at a few houses, and generated second and third reads.

But it was rejected as well.

I didn’t stop. Instead, I read one of the first young adult novels I’d read since I was a teenager. It was Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers. And that was my turning point. Because that novel opened my eyes to all that YA could be, and to how much more, and bigger, and deeper YA could be—not for every writer, for this writer, for me. Because when I was writing chick lit, I boxed myself into a cookie-cutter formula. Sure, my thirtysomething protagonists might have had kids, and might have had to deal with exes or messy divorces, but the stories were at their heart pure girl-meets-guy, girl-loses-guy, girl-gets-guy-back stories.

Cracked Up to Be showed me that YA could be so much more for me—it could be twisty and turny. It could be about new beginnings, and endings, and endings intersecting with beginnings, and it didn’t have to be what I felt boxed in to write. I could dig deep, but I didn’t have to dig deep from a thirtysomething’s perspective. I could dig deep from a teen point of view, where everything is new and raw and intense and happening for the first time. I grabbed more teen lit from my local indie—Harmless by Dana Reinhardt and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, and those books blew my mind. They weren’t anything like the chick lit I had read and loved. They introduced new worlds to me—from the depth of stories I could tell, to the ideas and challenges I could tap into, and to the places I could take my characters. They weren’t formulaic, they weren’t romantic comedies. They were gut-checks to the heart. That’s what I wanted to write too—gut-checks to the heart.

The Rivals

I still want to do something with my chick lit novels, and I still might. But the turning point for me came in moving away from a genre that I couldn’t find a way to write originally in. Others can. But as for me, I was stuck in a cookie-cutter rut of standard romance. Now, as a writer of teen lit, I truly feel as if the opportunities are endless because the genre is that way—it bends and moves and opens expansively to new ideas and new ways of seeing. There will probably always be romance in my teen novels because I like writing about love, but YA is a genre that allows me to finally tap into the niche I should be writing in.

Sort of like what my friend learned in business school. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And then try a new genre.

—Daisy Whitney


Daisy Whitney graduated from Brown University and lives in San Francisco, California, with her fabulous husband, fantastic kids, and adorable dog. Daisy believes in shoes, chocolate chip cookies, and karma. She is the author of The Mockingbirds, its sequel The Rivals, and an upcoming standalone When You Were Here, slated to release in Spring 2013.

Visit Daisy at daisywhitney.com.

Follow @daisywhitney on Twitter.


EDITED FEB. 8: WINNERS OF A PAPERBACK EDITION OF THE MOCKINGBIRDS AND AN ARC THE RIVALS ANNOUNCED!

The Mockingbirds

Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to the author for donating the prizes! I’m happy to announce the winners:

Amber Couch won a signed copy of The Mockingbirds. And Emma Yeo won a signed ARC of its sequel The Rivals! Congrats! I’ll email the winners for their mailing addresses. Thank you again to everyone who entered!


Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Between Turning Points

Hi there. I admit I’ve been off-screen, where you can’t see, having a rough week or two. I’m not going to go into it.

My revision is due at the end of next month. Also, next month is my birthday (I am not a fan of my birthday). I may not want to talk to anyone at all for the entirety of February!

But here are some good things:

My revision for 17 & Gone may not be done yet, and I may have an enormous amount of work to do by February 29, but I’m very into the book. Very, very, very into it. So there’s that.

I also found a photograph that goes with the book in my mind—no, authors can’t choose their own covers, but in my imagination this is it. I love this photo so much that I’m arranging to buy a print from the photographer, who happens to live in my hometown of Woodstock, New York, and is a high school friend of my sister’s.

And next month one of my Favorite Books of 2012 comes out… The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour. I’m interviewing the author and I’ll be giving away a copy of her gorgeous, thrilling, sexy new novel. Believe me, you want to read this book.

And I got good news this week, at a moment when I really needed it. And it made me think of how colony news always comes at just the moment I need that one thing to push me forward (like that time I found out about Yaddo after I’d just been moved to a cubicle at work and how that felt like a door had been opened).

Thank you, Millay Colony acceptance, for coming at the moment you did.

(Yes, I think I will be living with other artists and writers in that barn!)

I accepted the residency, and I’ll be there in the fall, even though I have no idea what my future holds for me in terms of upcoming book contracts, or day jobs, or anything really.

And yeah, this is going to be an interesting year. Because I’ll have two four-week-long writing retreats in 2012… I leave for Djerassi in just six weeks:

And while there I might be writing something you don’t know about yet. And I might be finding out that the Turning Point I thought I had a few years ago was only the first one. Because life takes you on many turns, doesn’t it?

Everything these other writers have said has resonated with me in one way or another: Gayle Forman telling me not to be bitter. Sean Ferrell telling me to stop making excuses. Eileen Cook on how you can’t know until you try. Christopher Barzak reminding me how much I used to love writing short stories. Saundra Mitchell telling me it is okay to walk away if I want to walk away. Eric Luper on not writing what I think the industry wants me to write. Gretchen McNeil on how everything happens for a reason. Julia DeVillers on taking the chance to write something uncomfortable because it just might be the right thing. I know these Turning Points guest blogs aren’t written only for my benefit… but some days it sure feels like they are.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Julia DeVillers (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Julia DeVillers tells the amazing story of how a fan letter she wrote an author when she was ten years old ended up changing the course of her writing life years later…

When I was ten, I wrote a fan letter to an author and he wrote me back.

In fifth grade, I read a book by Frank Bonham called The Missing Persons League. It was about a boy searching for his missing mother and sister, set in a pre-apocalyptic world of oxygen deficiency and world food shortage.

It was an unusual choice for me because it was science fiction, and I was in a hardcore Judy Blume/Ellen Conford/V.C. Andrews phase. But something about The Missing Persons League resonated with me. The main character writes a “fan letter” to an author, and I decided I’d write a fan letter to the author, too.

“Dear Mr. Bonham,

I didn’t know I’d want to read science fiction, but I loved your book….”

And he wrote back:

“Dear Julie,

I didn’t know I’d want to write science fiction, either. In fact, I didn’t even know I’d write for young readers at all.”

Frank told how he had been writing adult books for decades (westerns and pulp fiction) before he surprised himself by turning to young adult books. As you can see from this excerpt, he also was wonderfully conversational about my hometown (Albany, NY), a possible sequel, and the dangers of smoking.

I must have asked him to tell me more because in the next letter, Frank told me how he had really challenged himself when he decided to write Durango Street, because it was set in Watts, in a world previously foreign to him, and many people at the time.

“Years ahead of its time, DURANGO STREET by Frank Bonham, like THE OUTSIDERS, shows that gang violence is, sadly, nothing new—and nothing glamorous… A starkly realistic, convincing, well-written teen novel.”—SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL
A photo Julia enclosed in her letter to Frank Bonham

Frank had continued to write more young adult books: contemporary novels about teen suicide, drug abuse, and urban life; dystopia; paranormal—genres that continued to “surprise him.”

Over the next few years, Frank and I wrote back and forth. I told him about middle school, my guinea pigs[1], and how my English teachers were sucking the life out of writing. He told me about his birds, California, and he encouraged me to keep writing.

“Writing can be uncomfortable, just like life,” Frank advised. “When writing feels uncomfortable, think about what that might be telling you.”

Frank passed away in 1988.

* * *

Flash forward to a new century. I had continued writing, and had published two nonfiction books for teens. Nonfiction was a natural fit for me. I received a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio State, where I learned to answer the Ws (whowhatwhenwherewhy) at breakneck speed. I was the go-to research maven in any office. “Ask Julia to find out,” was the refrain before Google stole my glory. Researching, interviewing people, and synthesizing what I’d unearthed. Perfect for nonfiction.

Important aside: I’m not saying nonfiction is easy by any means, lord no, and many nonfiction authors are those I respect most in our field. That’s not my point.

My point is that nonfiction was so obviously my genre, because writing it was, well, comfortable. Sure, people suggested I try fiction[2]. But writing fiction—much less trying to get it published—I realize now, meant I would lose control. Fiction was opinions, not just facts. It meant not just reporting, but interpreting. Not simply sharing others’ words from an interview but actually creating characters, giving voice to my own people who had something to say. My own voice, not others.

That was scary. And uncomfortable. So, no fiction for me, I would reply.

Then, as I was in the middle of writing a nonfiction pitch for my next book, my Turning Point happened. My twin sister had a baby. My intention was to fly out to stay with her and help out with the baby. That would be an all-consuming task, I figured, so I didn’t bring my research books or notes or even my own computer. But my sister had medical complications and with her nurses, husband, and our mom in the house, I was superfluous or in the way. I went over to my mom’s and started going through the boxes stored in her basement. I found my old diaries, photos, and keepsakes.

And the original letter from Frank Bonham[3].

“Writing can be uncomfortable, just like life,” Frank advised. “When writing feels uncomfortable, think about what that might be telling you.”

Yeah, life was uncomfortable. I was worried sick about my sister and her baby[4], I was away from home without my work to distract me. And I’d been going through childhood memories, so my life was flashing before my eyes. My emotions were raw and on the surface as I read the words from teen me from my diaries.

And I sat down at my sister’s computer and started my first novel. It wasn’t comfortable. But I thought about what that might be telling me. I knew the voice of my character, too. It was of the girl whose diaries I’d been reading. Teen me.

And I wrote the first four chapters of what would become my first middle-grade novel: How My Private Personal Journal Became a Bestseller. A book about a teen whose hopes and dreams mirrored what I had written in my own diary (but wouldn’t happen in real life. However, in fiction…).

Dutton published my novel.[5]

Dutton was the original publisher of The Missing Persons League by Frank Bonham.

I’ve been writing fiction ever since.

Dear Julie,

I didn’t know I’d write science fiction, either. In fact, I didn’t even know I’d write for young readers at all….

…Your friend,

Frank Bonham

p.s.

  1. I certainly got more out of these exchanges than he did, but he did say I had a “unique girl voice.” He only had sons, so I hope I was a focus group of one and somehow helped him, too.
  2. Shout-out to my first editor, Roy Carlisle.
  3. The original typed letter is currently in a safe in a storage pod since I’ve been living overseas, but I took this picture before I moved.
  4. My twin, Jennifer Roy, is my co-author on a middle-grade series. Yes, fiction! And her son is doing great.
  5. The book was adapted into a Disney Channel Original Movie called Read It and Weep. Kay Panabaker, the star, looks like a fabulous version of teen me.
  6. Writing this blog entry (nonfiction!), I went into journalist mode and ran across an interview with Frank Bonham that asked about his genre switch:

“While observing the problems [in urban culture], I had been vacillating between writing an adult fact book or a book for young readers. I finally decided that the book should be addressed to youngsters, for older minds too often have already set hard within their forms. Children’s minds, on the contrary, are as sensitive as sea anemones. Drop an idea in them, and they enfold and consume it, or else reject it. But at least they taste it.”

—Julia DeVillers


Julia (on the right) with two fellow Dutton authors: Gayle Forman (left) and ME! (center)

Julia DeVillers writes nonfiction and fiction, including: the TRADING FACES identical twins series with Jennifer Roy, the LIBERTY PORTER, FIRST DAUGHTER series, and LYNNVISIBLE. She currently lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, after her year in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Her website is www.girlwise.com.

Follow @juliadevillers on Twitter.


EDITED FEB. 8: WINNERS OF HOW MY PRIVATE PERSONAL JOURNAL BECAME A BESTSELLER AND DOUBLE FEATURE ANNOUNCED!

Thanks to everyone who entered and to the author for giving away her books. I’m now here to announce the winners of this giveaway!

Lisa Proskin won a signed copy of  How My Private Personal Journal Became a Bestseller by Julia DeVillers… And Lena Marsteller won a signed copy of Double Feature by Julia Devillers and her twin sister, Jennifer Roy! I will email the winners for their addresses. Congrats! —Nova


Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Gretchen McNeil

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Gretchen McNeil shares an incredibly moving, personal story about how she became a writer…

“Everything happens for a reason.”

My mom used that line so many times over the years I’d forgotten what it really means. Miss the bus and late for school? Everything happens for a reason. Soccer injury prevents you from playing ever again? Everything happens for a reason. Boyfriend dumps you the week before prom? Everything happens for a reason.

It’s like an emotional Band-Aid, something to alleviate the sting of a situation. But I’d never really internalized its meaning until just recently.

I’m divorced. There, I said it. I tend to keep details of my personal life off the Interwebz if at all possible, but this momentous event had such an impact on my writing life, it’s virtually impossible to keep it quiet. In fact, if I hadn’t gotten divorced, I wouldn’t be guest blogging for Nova now. It was, truly, my turning point.

He was my college boyfriend, the love of my young life. We’d been together for thirteen years when it all fell apart. I didn’t see it coming and I was crushed. Devastated. The end of the marriage was bad enough, but my entire identity had somehow gotten wrapped up in that relationship. I was a trained opera singer, but I’d stopped singing professionally. I’d lost touch with a lot of old friends during the last years of the marriage, so my support network was rather depleted. Even my career was tied up in him: we ran a business together that occupied the majority of my time, and when he left, the job left too. We had no children. My cat died. I had nothing.

It was odd, really, for someone like me. I’m a glass half full kinda girl, muddling through life with a generally positive, find the silver lining, let’s make the best of it mentality. My friends call it “plucky Irish.” I’m used to barreling through the bad periods of life with full confidence that something good is just around the next bend. But not this time. This time I found myself utterly, unbearably alone.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Then one morning I woke up and said to myself, “I’m going to write a novel.” It sounds so corny when I tell the story, but yes, it really did happen just like that.

“I’m going to write a novel.”

I’d never written before. Not a short story, not a poem, hell, I’d never even kept a journal. But for some reason known only to my psyche, I decided I was going to write a novel.

And I did.

And it sucked.

Harsh, but true. That novel, an adult chick lit romantic comedy, will never see the light of day. It was full of newbie writer mistakes, clichés, overused tropes, and perhaps more Mary Sue than I’d care to admit. Still, it ignited the storyteller in me and suddenly I was hooked. Fiction-writing junky. I read some books about writing—Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, and the best of all Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I took a step back. I looked critically at what I’d written. I internalized feedback from agents who rejected the manuscript. I learned how to write. I learned how I write. And I tried again.

That was three and a half years ago. Now I’m a published author, with books lined up for 2012 and 2013. Talk about a turning point.

Possess

It’s taken some getting used to, this idea of describing myself as a writer. Until just a few months ago, when someone asked the inevitable “What do you do?” question, a stumbling, roundabout answer spilled out of my mouth.

“So, Gretchen, what do you do?”

“Er, well, I’m an opera singer, but now I sing with the circus and oh yeah, I write too.”

“Um, okay.”

It wasn’t that I was ashamed of being a writer, or confused by my own self-labeling. It was more like my brain wasn’t dealing with the transition. Since I was seventeen years old, my only goal was to be a performer. It’s a difficult mentality to change. But as my debut date crept closer and closer, I forced myself to make the mental transition. Now, I say with confidence: “I’m an author.”

I wouldn’t wish a divorce on anyone. It’s a dark, soul-crushing experience, even when it’s the best possible thing for you. Like cleaving off a gangrenous limb—you have to do it in order to survive, but it’s going to hurt like hell. Still, at the distance of four years, the memory of the pain and misery faded, I realize that it was the best possible thing for me. It changed my life for the better.

Heh. Don’t tell her I said this, but Mom was right.

Everything happens for a reason.

—Gretchen McNeil


Gretchen McNeil is an opera singer, writer, and clown. Her YA horror/paranormal Possess debuted with Balzer + Bray for HarperCollins in 2011. Her second novel, Ten—YA horror/suspense about ten teens trapped on a remote island with a serial killer—will be released September 18, 2012. Gretchen is a former coloratura soprano, the voice of Mary on G4’s Code Monkeys, and she currently sings with the LA-based circus troupe Cirque Berzerk. Gretchen is also a founding member of the vlog group YARebels, where she can be seen as “Monday.”

Visit Gretchen at gretchenmcneil.com.

Follow @gretchenmcneil on Twitter.


Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Turning Points: Those Pesky Voices in my Head by Eric Luper (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Eric Luper reveals how he stopped chasing trends and decided to write what he most wanted to write…

When I attended my very first children’s writing conference back in 2001, I heard an editor say something that, in my mind, should have been introduced by the blowing of long trumpets. She said, “We are looking for humorous chapter book mysteries for boys.”

I wanted to jump up and yell, “I can do that!”

Now, I already had a completed contemporary fantasy manuscript in hand and was waiting for someone to recognize it was the perfect successor to Harry Potter, but this was in the era when I would have given my left leg to have a book published (after all, I’d still need my arms to type). So, I did what I thought any aspiring children’s writer should do: I raced home and began writing a humorous chapter book mystery for boys. Actually, I did more than that. I read loads of chapter book mysteries for boys to learn how they were constructed. I spoke to writers of chapter book mysteries for boys. Then, I began writing mine.

Somewhere through the course of writing that book, I read an interview with a different editor at a different house. He said, “We’re looking for quirky picture books and edgy young adult fiction.” I raced home to get started on those. That entailed reading loads of quirky picture books and edgy young adult fiction, speaking to writers of… well, you get the point.

For three or more years, I chased trends. I wrote with the belief that I had the inside track, that I knew something most aspiring writers did not. I wrote expecting that my manuscripts would conveniently fill the void I learned about at one writing conference or another, in one article or another.

And I racked up rejection after rejection.

Scores of them.

One flaw in chasing trends is that you are nipping at the tails of loads of other writers who happen to have gotten the same information as you. By the time I was able to produce something publishable, the industry had moved on to the next thing. And the other major flaw? I was never particularly passionate about my subject matter. For a writer, this amounts to several nails in the proverbial coffin.

That is not to say the gap between 2001 and 2004 was wasted time. I was learning a lot in that period. I was learning my craft, learning about the publishing industry, and making valuable contacts. I was reading tons of books. I was developing my voice and honing my skills. In essence, I was priming the pump.

And early in 2004 it hit me… I was struck with an interesting premise for a book (a teen who plays Texas Hold’em in an illegal poker room in his hometown and loses gobs of money from his family’s small business) and I made the conscious decision to write the book that I would have wanted in my hands when I was a teen. Editors’ wish lists be damned!

Big Slick

In less than four months, out came the first draft of Big Slick.

It seems like a short time for a full-length novel, but a lot was happening. Every time I sat at my laptop, I made that same conscious decision. I ignored all the talk about trends and vowed to write that one book I would have cleaved to as a kid. My hope was that there were other kids out there much like me who would cleave to the same sort of book. Once I freed myself from those editors’ pesky voices, my only trouble was my poor typing skills keeping up with the thoughts racing through my mind.

Big Slick was accepted within the first few submissions and needed very little tweaking from its original version.

Since then, I’ve learned to ignore all the chatter going on around me—I ignore talk about vampires and werewolves and zombies, I ignore talk about dystopian survival stories and talk about giant squids and evil umpires from Venus. Instead, I listen to the voice within me. Nowadays, it’s the only voice I listen to when it comes to my writing.

I’d still give my left leg to have my next novel published (although I’m not sure who would want my left leg or what he or she would do with it) but I’ve learned that writing what speaks to me is far more essential than writing what someone else tells me I should be writing.

—Eric Luper


Eric Luper has been writing for teens since 1999 when he decided to stop fighting the youthful voice that was trying to make its way into his “grown up” books. Since then, he has written a bunch of books for young adults, some of which have actually been published, including Big Slick, Bug Boy, and Seth Baumgartner’s Love Manifesto. Of Eric’s fourth novel (his first for middle-grade readers), Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets, Gordon Gorman says, “Hats (and tams) off to Jeremy Bender for a belly laugh not even the densest cupcakes could hold down!”  He is working on a few new projects but, for now, they are all super-ultra-top secret!

Eric lives in Albany, NY, but spends as many weekends as possible in nearby Lake George doing mountainey and lakey things.

Watch the book trailer for Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets:

Visit Eric at ericluper.com.

Follow @ericluper on Twitter.


EDITED FEB. 2: TWO WINNERS OF A PLAYAWAY PRE-LOADED WITH THE AUDIO EDITION OF SETH BAUMGARTNER’S LOVE MANIFESTO ANNOUNCED!


Love ManifestoCommenters on this post were entered to win an audio edition of Seth Baumgartner’s Love Manifesto… and the two winners are: Lillian and Janice. Congrats! I will email for your mailing addresses shortly. And thank you so much to 
Eric and Playaway, for donating this awesome device and audio edition for the giveaway!


Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Turning Points: You Can Always Walk Away by Saundra Mitchell (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Saundra Mitchell reveals how coming to the painful decision to quit and walk away changed her writing forever…

The important thing for me to realize was that I could quit.

I spent the first decade of my career as a screenwriter writing short films. The entire time, however, I was trying to break into television. I wanted to write episodics—those one-hour dramas you may enjoy in the 9 and 10 o’clock hours. I loved the form, I loved the potential. That’s what I truly wanted to do.

And when I finally got a job on an episodic, I had to turn it down. My life, my family, had grown in the ten years since I’d first dreamed the dream of writing for television. It never occurred to me to reshape it. Dogged pursuit was part of the calling.

So was job insecurity; ragged, uneven hours—the fact that I would have to move to Los Angeles with children… I’d never considered those factors. Until I had to, and I had to walk away. It’s demoralizing to give up on a dream, especially being so close to achieving it.

The truth was, it didn’t fit anymore. It was a twenty-year-old’s dream, and I wasn’t twenty anymore.

I consoled myself with writing a novel, my very first. I wanted to do something that was so far away from screenwriting, I couldn’t even see the Scriptware in the distance. It also gave me something new to pursue. I liked the grim security of writing query letters, researching agents, sending things away.

After all, I’d been querying for a decade. That was part of my day, just like having breakfast, or checking my e-mail. I burned through 80 queries for my first novel (and had written my second in the meantime,) and by 80, the pursuit wasn’t so dogged anymore. I handwaved the list of agents left uncontacted. I ignored my stamps.

Since I had written a new novel, I had to query that before I was allowed to quit. I would give the second novel one query to get an agent, that’s all. After that, I was allowed to be finished and to stop chasing. Not writing—I loved words too much, bending them, playing with them. But the chasing, the career. That would be done. So I sent that last query.

I got an agent.

But I lost that agent.

The Vespertine

I got another agent, and that second book sold in 2007. I had an editor! I was published! It was glorious! And in 2010, I sat at my desk with a third, fourth, and fifth book rejected. My editor had just given me six pages of notes on a 60 page sample that she wasn’t even tentatively offering to buy, and I thought… maybe I’d only had one book in me.

It was reasonable. Possible. I’d seen writing a book through, from beginning to end. I’d written it, queried it, sold it. I’d revised it, copyedited it, and seen it published. Kirkus reviewed it; I’d had a signing. Instead of backing out at the last minute, like I had on Hollywood and episodics, I’d taken the entire trip. Maybe I was just done. Maybe that’s all there was to my journey as a working writer.

This time, I really did quit. No more partials, no more proposals, none. I stopped writing for publication. I gave in to my wildest fantasy, which was writing a Victorian (unmarketable) novel about a vampire (unsellable) serial killer (outdated,) and for the first time in years, I had fun. Every single day, I got up to write a book that made me happy.

The Springsweet

I lost the serial killer and the vampire—and another agent. But the book sold, and since then I’ve had hard days. Ugly days. Completely hideous days that made me want to throw myself off a cliff. I’m still going, though, and I think that’s because I learned—several times, the hard way—that I don’t have to.

Writers have to write. But we don’t have to struggle. We don’t have to do business. We don’t have to research agents, or figure out a marketing plan, or make ourselves smile when someone tells us to our face how bad our book is. The only thing we have to do is interact with our words, and our imaginations, and the people in our heads.

Everything else, we choose to do. And though I had to make the turn several times, my turning point as an author was when I realized that I could walk away. Knowing that, in my bones and my blood, makes every day I choose to keep going that much sweeter.

—Saundra Mitchell


Saundra Mitchell has been a phone psychic, a car salesperson, a denture-deliverer, and a layout waxer. She’s dodged trains, endured basic training, and hitchhiked from Montana to California. She teaches herself languages, raises children, and makes paper for fun. She’s the author of Shadowed Summer, The Vespertine, The Springsweet, and the forthcoming Aetherborne and Mistwalker. She’s also the editor of the forthcoming YA anthology Defy the Dark. She always picks truth; dares are too easy.

Visit Saundra at saundramitchell.com.

Follow @SaundraMitchell on Twitter.


EDITED JAN. 28. IT’S NOW TIME TO ANNOUNCE THE WINNERS OF THE PAPERBACK EDITION OF THE VESPERTINE:

Commenters on this post were entered to win a signed paperback of Saundra Mitchell’s novel The Vespertine. And I’ve just selected the two winners!

Congrats, Deb Cushman and Christina Kit! You each win a signed paperback of The Vespertine. I’ll email you soon for your mailing addresses. And thank you again, Saundra, for donating these books for the giveaway!


Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Christopher Barzak (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Christopher Barzak reveals how he moved from writing short stories to novels, only to discover the form of the short story wasn’t ready to let him go just yet…

Turning points for writers, as I imagine for any kind of artist, can come at any moment, and in any period in a writer’s development. At least that’s how it’s been for me so far in the last twelve years of my life as a writer, and I can’t (maybe don’t want to?) imagine a future in which I don’t continue to stumble upon turning points.

One for SorrowI started my career as a writer of short stories. My first story was published in 1999, in a small but loud little zine called Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (published by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, who later went on to form their own publishing house, Small Beer Press). And from then on, I continued to publish several short stories each year until I began work on my first novel, One for Sorrow, in 2003.

It was difficult learning how to write a continuous narrative that spanned the vast fields of a novel after learning my craft in the enclosed rooms of the short story, where order and subtlety and doing more with less—where being perfect in as few words as possible—is the rule of thumb. The novel asks for something else: for the writer to let go, to release control, to immerse yourself in the waters of another world, separate from this one, even if it’s a reflection of this one, to explore, and then to continue exploring, even after you think you’ve covered every inch of story possible, and then some.

That was probably the first turning point in my life as a writer, moving from being a writer of short stories to a writer of novels, but it’s not the turning point I want to talk about specifically, except in relationship to the turning point I had directly after writing my first novel.

When I finished my first novel, I got an agent with it, but the book didn’t sell right away. Like most novels, it was rejected by a number of publishers before it found the right editor who loved it and wanted to feed it and take care of it and bring it out into the world. But before One for Sorrow found the editor who wanted to do all of that, I needed to move on to my next book.

I was at a loss for a while, though, because I wasn’t sure what to move on to, and I wasn’t sure if I had what it takes to write a novel. I had spent a couple of years with a first-person narrator who sees ghosts, and after spending that much time writing in one perspective only, the idea of doing so again felt a little claustrophobic to me. I missed the way I could write a short story in a matter of days or weeks, and then move on to write another one, and it would be a completely new experience, even if the themes or styles were related to the one before, and in this way, it was a little bit like falling in love and discovering a new person in a whirlwind sort of romance, rather than settling in and getting married, the way it is when you write a novel.

At the time, I was living in Japan, where I taught English to elementary and middle-school students in a rural town called Edosaki. I’m the sort of writer who is often inspired by the places I live, and so, while I deliberated what kind of novel I should write next, I began writing short stories set in the Japan I was getting to know. The first story was about a fifteen-year-old boy whose family moves to Japan for his father’s job, and while there, he meets the spirit of a young woman who committed suicide years prior, and who appears as a red fox, like the Japanese spirit of the kitsune, the fox woman, a trickster type. The second story I wrote was about a group of Japanese men and women in their late 20s and 30s who had arrived at dead ends in their lives, and begin to form a suicide club out of their shared disappointments with the world. As I wrote that story, I realized that one of the characters had already had some experience with suicide in her life, and that she had in fact been the best friend of the fox girl in the story I’d just written, back when they were in high school.

I remember that I hadn’t planned that connection, but it had worked its way into the story regardless, and I was thrilled by the feeling of discovery and mysterious connections, the way I can still be thrilled when I happen to make a friend or acquaintance who it turns out knows someone else in my life, but with a completely different set of associations than the ones I share with them. It was after I stumbled upon that surprising interconnection that I had the idea: why not have my cake and eat it too? Why must a novel be about one character (or a few characters), moving from point A to point B, like a train on a track that takes you inevitably to the destination it promised? Why can’t a novel be more like life, mysterious, shifting, though woven together through the strands of connections we all have to one another, especially the invisible threads of connection we don’t always perceive at first?

That was the crux, the structure, and the theme of the book, I realized. The Love We Share Without Knowing.

I could write short stories and a novel at the same time.

The Love We Share Without KnowingThe rest of the writing process for that book became a matter of allowing myself to immerse in the life of a character with a situation I wanted to explore, while at the same time unfolding the connection they had to the greater story of the book, and I could remain surprised by the connections I made, and move forward with a sense of discovery rather than a sense of planning. For me, writing is an act of unveiling what I can’t see, pulling the drop cloth off the piano, drawing the curtains back to see through the window. Whenever I try to plan, like a builder, I grow bored, and the work inevitably fails because I’ve not given myself the one thing I need in order to write: curiosity. I can’t know everything about what I’m writing, because when I do, it falls dead in my hands immediately. I can construct zombie stories in this way, but they are always lifeless, no matter that they walk and make noises. They are also maybe the inverse of the typical zombie: they are all brains and no heart. They think, but do not feel. And for me, it’s feeling that moves me, no matter how fancy an idea might be.

I can’t say that every reader, or even many readers, feels the same way as I do about a novel written in the warp and weft of interconnected stories as opposed to carefully tracked chapters. I think from what we can tell by what sells well and what doesn’t that the traditional novel form is the one with the bigger audience. But writing The Love We Share Without Knowing in this particularly interstitial manner—somewhere between the form of the novel and the form of short stories—freed me up as a writer in ways that were inexorable and glorious to rediscover the blue skies of storytelling, to fly instead of walking the pedestrian sidewalks day after day.

—Christopher Barzak


Christopher Barzak grew up in rural Ohio, went to university in a decaying post-industrial city in Ohio, and has lived in a Southern California beach town, the capital of Michigan, and in the suburbs of Tokyo, Japan, where he taught English in elementary and middle schools. His stories have appeared in many venues, including Nerve.comThe Year’s Best Fantasy and HorrorAsimov’s, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. His first novel, One for Sorrow, was published by Bantam Books in Fall of 2007, and won the Crawford Award that same year. His second book, The Love We Share Without Knowing, is a novel-in-stories set in a magical realist modern Japan, and was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. He is the co-editor of Interfictions 2, and has done Japanese-English translation on Kant: For Eternal Peace, a peace theory book published in Japan for Japanese teens. Currently he lives in Youngstown, Ohio, where he teaches creative writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University.

Visit Christopher at christopherbarzak.wordpress.com.

Follow @Cbarzak on Twitter.


EDITED JAN. 25: IT’S NOW TIME TO ANNOUNCE THE WINNERS OF ONE FOR SORROW AND THE LOVE WE SHARE WITHOUT KNOWING:

All commenters on this post were entered to win either a signed copy of One for Sorrow or a signed copy of The Love We Share Without KnowingAnd two winners have been randomly chosen…

Congrats, Lenmeo—you won a signed copy of One for Sorrow!

Congrats, JJ—you won a signed copy of The Love We Share Without Knowing!

I will be emailing you both soon for your mailing addresses. And thank you again, Chris, for donating the books for this giveaway!


Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.