Finding My Place

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My career has felt like a long series of searches, and nothing is ever illuminated until I am practically standing right on top of it. Trying to get published, to get an agent, in the beginning, was crushing. I slipped back in my archives to see if I should share a post, found something painful, read a few lines, and closed it. You get the picture.

I remember when I found YA—that was a wonderful moment, and it took a long time to get there. I remember when I found an agent, that dream I’d been longing for and it had come true after dozens and dozens of rejections over the years with previous manuscripts. I remember when I discovered that being published wasn’t all balloons and inflatable palm trees on swimming pools, and I felt crushed by that somehow, but I also felt as if I’d known it was coming all along, because I somehow didn’t fully believe I was allowed to be there at all. I remember when I found a new publisher, a smaller publisher, Algonquin Young Readers, and actively chose to make a leap and not be with the “Big Six.” (Haha—it was six big publishers then… now it’s five.) That was right for me. And now, as I work on my new novel, I realize it’s become a solid home for me, and I want to pinch myself.

Earlier this month, I found a new place.

My first teaching residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts went so very well, even I swear while I was living in that tiny dorm room! There was a point when I called E one night and I was trying to explain how I felt about being there and I said that, before this, whenever I was teaching somewhere or doing an author thing I’d be trying to adapt myself into what I thought people wanted me to be. I’d be faking it till I made it, you know? I’d work to fit myself in and I’d try very hard and often I’d succeed and no one knew how hard it was, but then I’d be exhausted. Flattened. Drained. But there at VCFA, I told E, I felt like I was being myself. I was teaching as I would teach. I was talking as I would talk. I was genuinely interested and inspired and fired-up and excited by everything going on around me—and none of it was forced, none of it was me trying to fit in. I’ve never had a job like that where I felt like I could be entirely myself and that was the right person to be. The community welcomed me in, and it was all of them—the faculty, the staff, the students, all the wonderful and talented and dedicated and engaged students—that helped make it such a perfect fit.

(And yes, I will fully admit the residency was exhausting, but in a different manner… I slept, happily, for a few days after I got home, but my mind was buzzing.)

I’m back in New York now and about to embark on all the work that’s coming to me this semester—I have five students I’ll be advising over the course of the semester, and in February their first packets to me are due. So we’ll see how I feel after I make it through this very, very busy winter and spring. (Speaking of busy: I’m also teaching not one but two Djerassi workshops and going to the AWP conference in the middle of this, so wish me luck.)

But right now? I feel like I’ve found yet another new home.

Between Algonquin and VCFA, between the books I’m writing and the students I get to work with, I’m in a strange, bubbly, inflatable-palm-tree-on-a-pool kind of place.

Does this mean I’m happy?

How wild.

I was much better at blogging (and had more readers!) when I was angsty and unpublished and wanting to drown a box of rejection letters in the sea. But this is where I am right now…

Next up in life: Making a new home with E.

But, hey, I’ll stress about that later.

The Surprises, the Failures, the New Chapters in This Author Life

bluelacesWhen I entered the YA world in 2010, with the impending publication of Imaginary Girls (before that I didn’t feel a welcome part of it because my debut was middle-grade), I looked around at all the authors and thought there was one single kind of career to aspire to, the Best Kind, and of course I should be aspiring to it: The full-time writer who publishes a book a year and reaches out with savvy, fun marketing to her fans (ahem, she has fans) and goes to all the cool conferences and festivals.

This was what I had to try to be, and if I couldn’t, then I would fail at this, just like I’d failed already at trying to publish novels for adults.

I gave it a good go. At one point I was trying to propose a middle-grade trilogy along with a new YA novel, saying I could write both in one year, and then of course both proposals failed before we even showed them to editors because I lost my steam and I began to have this little tickling laugh at myself: You can’t do this. You can’t write this fast. My agent knew it, too, and never pushed me. I was the one pushing myself.

I guess I pushed until I sputtered and fell over.

Time passed. Attempts. Failures. More attempts.

Everything involving The Walls Around Us came to be, and that was good.

And through it all, and in the aftermath of Walls, I’ve been thinking this: But wait. What kind of author do I really want to become?

If I’m going to be honest with myself, what feels right?

It’s funny, but I think at heart you often want to emulate the people who were there to influence you in those eye-opening moments when you first get serious about being a writer. For me, that’s when I was 22. I keep going back to my time in grad school at Columbia University, when I was 22 and starting my MFA in Fiction and writing my short stories. The authors I admired then weren’t publishing a book a year. The authors I admired were so far from commercial, most people outside my circle had never heard of them. The authors I admired—basically, every single one of them—were teaching writing in programs like mine.

So why didn’t I try to teach way back when?

I was too shy. I had no confidence. I was well aware I knew nothing. So instead of trying for any teaching assistantships, I found my way into publishing and chose the most quiet and out-of-the-spotlight position a person could take in book publishing, the copy editor aka production editor. The person no one thinks about until she misses a mistake.

I sat quietly in this job, or another job like it, for about five, six, seven years. Sometimes I walked the hallways of the publishing company I was working at—whichever one—wanting to disappear off the face of the earth with a red pencil stabbed through my neck because no one wanted to publish me. But I needed to live this experience. I needed those years of rejection to make me a better writer, and to want it all the more.

When I found YA and Imaginary Girls got me a good book deal, I waited until the day my advance check was deposited in my bank account, and then I quit my job. I knew I didn’t want to be a production editor anymore, but I would soon find out I wasn’t so good at being a prolific full-time author either.

So what was left?

* * *

It is eighteen years after that fateful August I moved to Morningside Heights to start my MFA, all the light and starry hope in my eyes, and a batch of IKEA furniture on the way to furnish my side of the apartment (I could afford one table and three chairs, one black fabric couch chair, and one bookshelf, all the cheapest models available). Eighteen years later, and I’m about to finish teaching my last week of my YA Novel Writing course at Columbia, the same university where this all began, and went into debt for, and regret sometimes even while knowing those were the happiest years of my life. My Columbia class ends next week, and I absolutely loved teaching it. I’m sad it’s over. I want to do it again.

All along was I supposed to pursue teaching?

Maybe so. Funny not to realize, but now that I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to see how much I do love it—this June I led my third workshop at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program; it was so wonderful, I’m doing it again in March, twice (applications just opened this week). And I have two workshops this fall, coming up at the Highlights Foundation and the Writing Barn (spaces still open in each workshop), and I’m working privately with some writers, and I’m pursuing other things to teach regularly if I can, and I’m doing all of this because I am hoping it will lead me to be like the authors I admired all those years ago, to build the kind of career that feels right after some trial and error at other ways. The goal: Teaching at a college one day, taking the time I need to write my next novel, helping new writers be the best they can be, the way I was helped and have not forgotten.

Working with other writers feels right—it feels good. Not having to be so self-centered and solely focused on my own stuff, my own books, my own marketing chatter, my own author career and where it’s going or where it’s not going… what a fucking relief.

I am frustrated, sure, that it took me this long to realize this kind of career would be a better fit for me—imagine how far along I’d be if I’d known, imagine how much angsting I would have saved myself—and yet, it is what it is.

I think of a writer from one of my workshops who recently sent out queries for her beautiful work and I am hoping she finds an agent who believes in her writing the way I do. I think of all the writers I’ve worked with over these brief few years I’ve been teaching, and the struggles some have had in this industry, and I wish and hope I can be a helpful light when the doors keep closing in their faces, the way hundreds of doors did on mine. I think of the writer whose unpublished novel I was reading last night and how stunned I was by the last page I read, and how I know it needs to be published and I wish I could snap my fingers and make it happen, but I know that’s not possible and maybe the feedback I’ll give her to work to make it the best book it can be will help in another way. I think of the writer just at the beginning of a novel and all the potential and spark I see in there, and how I said, please email me when you’re ready, even if it takes years, I won’t forget you, and if I can do something to help when the time comes, I will. I think of all the writers who work hard through all the madness of writing a novel, even when that novel won’t get published in the end, a fate many novels have, and I want to tell them it’s not wasted work and it doesn’t mean they won’t make it, and to keep trying, keep writing, keep reinventing yourself. I did.

This is the thing: The kind of author we want to be can change, as we grow as writers, as we realize who we are meant to be. It can expand. And maybe it can shock and surprise you.

It does not have to be what everyone else sees as successful.

You do not need to covet a seat at the popular lunch table.

You can carve out a new path for yourself. Start your own table. Pull up a few more chairs. Change the dream.

One day in the far future when I let myself go gray (I started going gray at 20 and I’m still dyeing, thank you very much), I want to know I gave back as much as I put out in the world, in my own small way.

Using Pinterest to Inspire (and Get a Peek at 17 & GONE if You’re Curious!)

You may think I’ve found a new distraction to share with you (distraction no. 100? surely by now we’ve gone long past 100 distractions and are into the thousands). But no! Thanks to Kelly Jensen’s recent post on Stacked on “Books, Reading, and Pinterest,” I decided to give Pinterest a try. She sent me an invite and at first I added some books I like while I was taking a revision break to eat one day, and then I didn’t know what else to do, so I was about to close it and deal with it later after the revision. But then lo! I realized I could use Pinterest for inspirations.

Mainly: to inspire myself to keep my head in the writing.

Soon after, my 17 & Gone inspiration board was born (click the image to go to the board on Pinterest):

As I said there, it’s a collection of images that connect, however subtly, to the novel I’m revising now, 17 & Gone, which is due out from Dutton/Penguin in 2013. I haven’t said too much publicly about what this novel is about, and we haven’t released a summary yet. But if you’re curious? If you liked Imaginary Girls and you want to know what I’m doing next? That inspiration board will give you some hints.

Also on Pinterest, I have an Imaginary Girls board in time for the paperback release (and for a special thing I’m working on that I will tell you about when I can!), an inspiration board for the new novel proposal that’s almost done and it’s a secret except for what you see there, a board of Books That Made Me Who I Am, a board of Awesome Women, on which, of course, I have pinned my amazing mom along with authors and other women I find awe-inspiring, and more.

But for now, I’m opening up my board of 17 & Gone Inspirations and revising away. I’ve found it to be a wonderful trick to keep my head in the world of the novel 24/7, which, knowing what this novel is about, is probably a very creepy experience if you’re living with me right now (sorry, e).

So, yeah. Pinterest? Good for novelists, I say. Any other writers using it to inspire? 

Shredding the Old to Celebrate the New

Last night—while I probably should have been writing—I was home in the too-tiny apartment I share with E and I tripped over a carton of books I’d left on the floor because there was nowhere else to put it. This carton contained my author copies of Imaginary Girls. Another carton had been sitting on the coffee table for two days. I just got the author copies this week, and when they first came I tore open the cartons to look at the contents, but I’d just left the boxes there… out of part laziness maybe, but also denial.

What is it about a person—a certain kind of very cautious and superstitious person—who is afraid to embrace the fact that good things are happening? That they HAVE happened? That this is the moment and soon it will pass and maybe it should be appreciated now, before it’s over?

I post pictures online and it probably sounds like I’m celebrating, but really I’m not. Is it that I’m afraid to? At home, I’m very quiet about these things. When the book deal happened, I didn’t want to go out to dinner to celebrate right away. I’ve decided not to have a launch party. Here are my books and I’m tripping over cartons because I’m too nervous than I can admit to here. It’s very hard to explain this feeling and I wish I could put it to words, but I haven’t found a way to for months.

But last night, seeing the cartons, I decided that I was going to acknowledge the fact that this is happening. The book I worked so hard on—harder than I’ve ever worked on anything in my life—the book I love—my most favorite thing I’ve ever written in my life—the book I’m proud of… it was hiding in those boxes and I was going to let it out.

I decided that I was going to put all the books out on a shelf in the living room where I could see them every single day. I’ve been to other authors’ apartments and houses, and they do that. They display the books they’ve written in prominent places. I looked up and there was a shelf above the couch that would be perfect… except it was stuffed full of old papers and random crap.

I began cleaning off the shelf, putting the books in the bedroom and the electronics boxes on the top shelf, and then I came to the massive mound of manuscript pages that basically took up the whole shelf. These were old drafts of my old novels. Old outlines. Old edited pages. (This was before I began editing on-screen for most drafts.) There was the first, which I think I started writing in 1998, and the second, which had a series of drafts dated around 2005. Both of these novels were literary fiction for adults… never published.

I started shredding. I must have spent an hour shredded and ripping up pages. While doing so, I realized how symbolic it was and I tweeted this:


It wasn’t sad. There was no regret or anger at how things turned out or any bitterness. I’m glad I gave up those novels, really I am. And I was gladder still to shred those old drafts—all that hope stuffed in those pages—to make room for my book.

It was a strange kind of moment where I felt myself back in the past—in 1999, in 2005—having no idea I’d one day be here. It was a quiet celebration, but a celebration nonetheless.

Now when I look at the shelf, here’s what I see:

One Month from BOOK, and One Person Who Believed in Me

Today is May 14, which isn’t a holiday per se, but it does mean we are now one month exactly from the pub date of Imaginary Girls.

In lieu of telling you how anxious and insecure I’ve been the closer we get to the pub date—I’ve deleted a whole post I was writing about this—I want to talk about something positive. It starts out dreary though.

Truth is, Imaginary Girls was my last-ditch novel. I’d written two adult novels before it that I’d let go, painfully, due to varying reasons I’ve revealed on this blog over and over again, but what I’m thinking about is that dire point, after the last this-close rejection that I could handle, where I considered giving up entirely on becoming a published author. I wasn’t going to give up on writing, but I was beginning to think that I’d write only for myself, short stories mostly, maybe never send them out on submission, just continue writing because writing fiction is what I love.

It was around this time, a low point of my writing career, that I started the story, and then the novel, that became Imaginary Girls. The reason I didn’t give up can’t really be pointed to some kind of faith or resilience inside me, I mean that was in there somewhere, but it couldn’t only be that. It can be pointed to one person: E.

I met and fell in love with E when we were both teenagers. He’s seen me through every stage of this writing dream, from the very beginning when I confessed to him I wanted to be a writer under the condemned house on campus where we went to be alone on one of our very first “dates,” those naive years where I spent more time talking about writing than actually writing… and he’s been with me through the harder moments. The ugly moments. The moments I sometimes forget when I’m feeling nervous about what people are saying about my book that’s about to come out—blanking on the fact that there was a time when there was no book coming out and maybe never would be.

Like that one birthday of mine, in my twenties, when that morning I’d received an email from an agent who’d been having me revise a manuscript for years but had decided to turn it—and me—down for good. I stood in the lobby of a Loew’s movie theater, after seeing a film, openly sobbing at how close I’d come and how I thought it was all over. E simply held me and told me it wasn’t over. I cried for a long time, unable to stop even though we were out in public. I wanted to give up after that—I was done; I really felt like the universe was telling me I was done—but he wouldn’t let me. He never let me give up. Not ever.

E always knew this day was coming. He also was very involved in Imaginary Girls, in what the book turned out to be, but to avoid embarrassing E any further, because he is a very private person, I will stop talking now.

So, to celebrate being ONE MONTH away from Imaginary Girls, maybe we’ll go get some Italian tonight. As for you, my kind blog readers who’ve seen me through the years, I think I’ll have one last giveaway on June 14, including signed copies of the hardcover and maybe some other things, too.

In the meantime:

• You can read the first four chapters of Imaginary Girls right now, online, for free. Just click here.

Pre-order links can be found here.

• If you’re in New York this month, come hear me read from Imaginary Girls at the twi-ny party on May 18, or come see me at the NYC Teen Author Carnival on May 23. More info here. More events to come, just waiting for them to be official.

• Check out this Bookanista review of Imaginary GirlsShannon Messenger is giving away an ARC of the book, and you have until May 21 to enter. Go here to enter.

Are you a struggling writer who knows the low point I spoke of? Please don’t ever give up on yourself. I know how close I came, and even if you don’t have an E in your life to pull you back up, I hope you’ll keep on trying.

• And I’ll say one last thing. Are you the partner—the girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, love, other half—of a writer? Please know how significant your belief and support can be. We know we’re difficult creatures. We know how frustrating it must be to live with us, especially when the rejections are piling up and the gloom sets in. But your patience, your positivity, your faith, your willingness to read our pages can change that. It can keep your writer going. It can make all the difference. So many of us wouldn’t have books without you. Thank you.

Before the Novel was THE Novel

Today, there was a click-through to my blog from an old post I wrote here in 2008. That post was about Imaginary Girls (formerly called Mythical Creatures, so in the old post I called the novel “M”), which I had just begun rewriting from scratch. At this point, I had no idea what would come of the book, and I said this:

M … does not have an official schedule. No deadline. No editor waiting to read it. No outline I am forced to write per the contract, no contract at all. I am writing M for myself only, and nothing may come of it after—I have to know that. That’s the reality of writing novels.

If my previous experience writing novels only for myself is any indicator, I could go off on a bender and spent FIVE YEARS writing a novel that’s too bloated and personal to get published. Or I could spend three years writing and rewriting a novel with a ridiculous concept that I will later use as a doorstop.

No. Not this time.

You know, that could have turned out terribly. I could be sitting here now with my heart broken (again). I’m so grateful that novel turned out to be THE novel, that the moment I was in then was THE moment that changed so much of my life.

The doors that had been closed to me were beginning to open. And I had no idea. You never do, do you? That’s why—if you want to be a published author—you can absolutely never stop trying.

Never.

The novel you start (or re-start from scratch!) today could be the novel you publish tomorrow.

The First Yes of 2011

My first yes of 2011 came early this week.

I’d been hoping, quietly hoping, that I’d get a call from a writers colony telling me a space had opened up for me. I was well aware what an impossible feat this would be, but I also knew what a gift it would be for the novel I’m writing now—and just how much I’d get done if a spot came through.

I did get that phone call.

There was a space—but it starts next week! Way sooner than I expected.

But do you know what I did in the face of this surprise offer? I said yes back.

So if you’re wondering why I’m suddenly in a flurry of activity, running out for long underwear and rearranging appointments and plans, it’s because I’m heading to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire (aka Heaven) until next month.

I don’t plan to go dark. I’ll still be checking email and being online, so hopefully you may not even notice I’m gone.

I am sad I’ll miss meeting some writer friends at the New York City SCBWI conference in a couple weeks… I wasn’t planning on going, but I was planning on being around. Now I won’t even be that.

Instead I’ll be off, tucked away in a little writer’s studio somewhere, working hard on my next novel, book #2 on my contract with Dutton. (So, in fact, another yes came this week! Because now I know what my next book will be!) This is the book that I wrote the very first pages of while in residence at Yaddo this past spring. Now I’ll be continuing it at MacDowell. Maybe I’ll finish it on the moon, who knows.

Something amazing also happened this morning, while I was writing this, but I think that deserves a whole new blog post!