I’m Grateful That My Novels Failed

Badzin130x222Welcome writer Nina Badzin, who is grateful for a dream that didn’t work out. She continues my guest writer series. Happy Thanks-giving, all:

In January 2007, when my second child was three months old, I started writing a novel. I imagined hardcovers, book tours, speaking engagements–the aspiring novelist’s dream. (I’m not sure why in my imagination, a writer only wrote novels.)

By the end of that year, I finished a book called The Friends of Ivy Stein. A woman from my Mommy and Me class, who offered to read it, used to work as a foreign rights agent before moving to Minnesota. The book had potential, she said, and she wanted to send it to a former colleague in New York. (We will refer to this colleague as Agent One.)

This was it, I thought. I’m going to be a writer. But in the four months I waited for Agent One to get back to me, I did very little writing other than a few short stories. I checked my email incessantly and obsessed about whether Agent One would ever read my book.

Finally the email I’d been waiting for arrived. “I’d like to set up a phone appointment,” Agent One wrote. Bingo, I thought. If it were bad news, she would have sent me an email stating exactly that. Instead, she wanted to speak on the phone.

The conversation started out positive. She liked my narrative voice and specifically said, “You’re definitely a writer.” But within minutes her tone changed. Ivy had seeds of a good novel, but the characters and the plot were not compelling enough. The reason she’d wanted to talk rather than email was to tell me that one of the story lines and characters drew her in more than any other part of the book. She suggested I keep one character, Jill, expand that story line and get rid of everything else. I quickly came up with a title–The Everyday Guide to a Joyful Life–and Ivy was history.

It felt good to work on a novel again. I was also thrilled that the short stories I had submitted to literary magazines while I was waiting to hear from Agent One were eventually all accepted. One of those stories was the first chapter of this new book, a fact that gave me confidence when I was ready to send out query letters for A Joyful Life.

Instead of trying Agent One again, I became a querying maniac. I researched agents and watched for the red blinking light on my Blackberry as if I had nothing else important happening in my life. (Just remembering that old Blackberry makes this story feel sort of quaint.)

There was a point when eight different agents had answered my query letters with requests for partials or full manuscripts. One of those agents (we will call her Agent Two) spoke to me at length on the phone and asked me to work on a revision with her exclusively. She wasn’t signing me, she said . . . yet.

I had an almost-agent! I worked on the revisions Agent Two had in mind and sent her my new and improved book weeks before my due date with my third baby. I was still in the hospital when I got the news from Agent Two that the revision wasn’t working for her. I had two choices, she said. I could rewrite the book for her one more time, or I could end our exclusive agreement and send this version to other agents.

I took a third option and put the book away. I had lost interest in Jill and her predicaments anyway. If I didn’t care what happened to her anymore, why would a reader care? Then I gave myself a writing maternity leave before starting another novel from scratch.

I wrote the first 25,000 words of about three new novels over the next year and a half. But I kept coming back to the same issue I was having with A Joyful Life. I couldn’t keep my own interest in the characters and ideas.

Enter the blogosphere. Every so often while working on these books, I would turn to writing blogs for advice. I became a regular reader of one in particular, a group blog called Writer Unboxed. When they had a contest in 2010 to fill their newest blogging spot, I decided to go for it. Although I didn’t win, I was a quarter finalist, which meant they would use of my contest submissions as a blog post. I submitted the other essay I’d written for the contest, “Confessions of a Query Letter Addict” to a different writing blog called Write it Sideways. Within a few weeks I had guests posts on two writing blogs I loved, but no blog of my own.

That quickly changed. On November 18th, 2010 I bought the URL with my name and the rest is history. I am so grateful for the writing life and routine that I have now, a reality that probably wouldn’t have existed if I had been able to get that first or even second novel published. I strongly believe that even if those books had made their way into the world, they might have been the last words I ever wrote. Those novels were not meant to be. Those agents weren’t meant to be. That’s not the kind of writing I want to do anymore.

What does the future of my writing career hold? I don’t know, but I’m certainly grateful that the answer is still full of possibilities.

Nina Badzin is a contributing writer for Brain, Child Magazine’s blog and a freelance writer with work in a variety of websites and anthologies, including The Huffington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, and Mamapedia. She blogs at her personal site, www.ninabadzin.com, and lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children.

Meet: My Path Toward Publication

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Seeking out the tried and true is the wrong direction for crazy times.  –Seth Godin

And it’s crazy in publishing these days.

The industry is in the middle of an upheaval and anyone who claims to know exactly how it will end up is lying. But one thing is for sure: writers have more choices than ever. And that’s nothing but good. A lot of worthy books never get read, let alone published. If more of them now have a chance (along with more bad ones, sure) let’s all do a jig.

I think I was lucky I knew nothing about the publishing industry when I finished the first draft of my first novel two years ago. I came at it with green, unbiased eyes. I knew there were things called agents and editors and publishers, but I had no idea how it all worked, so I set out to learn.

This was 2011, just as the industry was really starting to turn on its head. Options were opening up that had never existed. What used to be unheard of or stigmatized was now becoming more common and accepted.

Once I discovered there was more than one path to choose from, I had to figure out what was most important to me. I started reading other writers’ essays about why they chose to go the traditional route (try to get an agent, who then hopefully finds a publisher). I read some version of the following from several writers: “My dream is to see my book on the shelf in a bookstore.” (It was and still is the case, as far as I know, that large chains, like B&N, and most indie bookstores do not carry self-published books.)

Was that my dream, to see my book on the shelf of a bookstore? Sort of. But it didn’t feel quite right. It wasn’t THE dream.

I also read, “I don’t want to/don’t have the time to learn the industry myself [like self-publishers have to], so I’m going traditional.” That didn’t dissuade me, either. I was almost itching to learn and do it all. Plus, I kept reading that much of the marketing falls on the author no matter where she’s published, and that’s a big part of getting your book in front of readers.

So I started reading essays in support of self-publishing, and my heart/gut/intuition/Jedi-master signals went off like crazy. (To read more about why I chose, at the time, to self-publish, click HERE.)

Here’s what I learned after all my research:

I believe the author has the right to complete control over his or her book.

Complete control. That includes the story, the cover design, and when to share the book with the rest of the world.

Used to be, an author couldn’t have complete control and be taken seriously as a writer. Now we can.

This does not mean a writer doesn’t need, and shouldn’t solicit, help. It means the writer calls the shots. The author is the CEO of The Book. Not the publisher or their marketing department—the author.

Last fall, I hired an editor (the former acquisitions editor of a traditional publishing house). It isn’t cheap, and that’s one reason why some people can’t choose to self-publish. I’m lucky that my family could afford it.

I steeped myself in information about cover designers, book bloggers, marketing tips, proofreaders, book formatting, SEO, Amazon categories… I spent every free minute (and some stolen ones) on my computer. And I enjoyed it.

Don't know what this means, but it's how my brain felt. (On a side note, I love the use of "On the other hand," as if we have any idea what's on the first hand.)

Don’t know what this means, but it’s how my brain felt at times. (On a side note, I love the use of “On the other hand,” as if we have any idea what’s on the first hand.)

At some point, I started to get carpal tunnel (I’m sure of it). I realized I hadn’t had a conversation with my husband in something like ten days. We hadn’t watched a movie together at night for weeks. I hadn’t relished in my little children for too long. I dreamed about ISBN numbers. Self-publishing was taking over my life.

One day I had the thought that if my children were just in school already, I’d have more time to learn the industry and prepare to publish. That thought made me realize I had only a year or two left until my children were in school full time.

And that’s when I pulled my head out of my arse and set my priorities straight.

Months earlier, I’d read about a new publishing model in the form of She Writes Press. At the time, my heart was set on purely self-publishing. When I realized I might want to remember my children’s early years, I decided to submit my manuscript to them. A hybrid press, they combines the best, I think, of traditional (vetting of authors and distribution) and self (control, rights, and profit).

They accepted The Rooms Are Filled and I signed the contract last week. SWP can also be thought of as “assisted self-publishing.” I pay for services I would have paid for as a self-publisher, anyway (like proofreading and cover design). But I get help—they’re basically managing my publication but I’m in control. And now my book is open to book bloggers and bookstores who don’t deal with self-published titles.

I want to give my first book the best chance I can without sacrificing my principles, and SWP—the first model of its kind, far as I can tell—is giving me a chance to do that.

Self-publishing is not for the meek (or the bold with young children). Nor is traditional publishing. Hell, neither is writing a book in the first place.

It’s crazy in publishing these days—and exciting. Right now, both traditional and self-publishing are in the game, and some mix of the best of both will survive and form a new industry. How lucky are we writers and readers that we get not only to be in the midst of it, but help create it?

Love Letter to Writers

While earning an MFA in Creative Writing, I remember feeling out of place, thinking, “I love to write, I want to write, but I’m not the writer type.” I didn’t want to sit at coffee houses or attend poetry slams and it seemed to me that’s what most writers did. I didn’t enjoy pontificating about literature. I just liked to write.

Much of my attitude was immaturity—believing that people could be grouped so accordingly. And much was fear—thinking I had to fit inside the box, wondering if I could, instead of creating my own.

So instead of becoming a “writer,” I got a few jobs after grad school that could be perceived as writing jobs. I loved these jobs, and they whetted at least part of my writerly appetite. But I remember someone asking me when was the last time I wrote for myself, and I couldn’t remember. Years. This was atypical, as I’d been consistently writing poems and stories since elementary school.

The urge to write never went away. I just ignored it. It came in waves, a physical feeling akin to any craving. It just won’t quit for some people, and I’m one of those people.

While pregnant with my first child, I decided I would stay home. I really believed, and still do, that this was the right decision for me. But looking back at my trajectory, I can see clearly that I was probably, at least partly, finally giving myself permission to write. The Responsible side of me would be taken care of—what is more important and pressing than raising one’s children? Now, the Creative side of me could pursue its dream of writing a book.

In 2011, I joined SheWrites, an online writing community.  It was my first foray into the online world and I was nervous, had never even participated in a chat room and had no idea what the rules were.

The welcome was immediate. Maybe it’s the comfort of writing in semi-anonymity from our couches that allows us to be authentic and open. (The same comfort that allows some lesser people to rip others to shreds online.) But the same was true for the writers I met in person at the Backspace conference. In the writing friendships I have formed, there’s been no pretense. Writers share information, encouragement, and love, I’ve found, and I’m proud to (finally) call myself one of them.

I talked about all this last weekend with a writer-friend whom until then I knew only online. She was visiting Chicago from Kansas for her daughter’s soccer tournament and we planned to meet for dinner. I joked beforehand to my husband that I was going on a blind date. Only, when I walked into the restaurant and Hallie Sawyer called my name, and we hugged and said hello, there was no blind-date awkwardness. No fumbles, no silences. We picked up right where we left off online, and chatted for two hours before we even ordered. Then we talked for an hour more. We discovered our connection extends to her mother, who grew up with a distant cousin of my father’s in the same small Iowa town where my great-grandfather was born and raised.

It took writers to teach me who writers are. The stereotypes do exist—competitive snobs who seem to find no joy in the writing community. I read about them once in a while, I hear stories about them. I’ve just never met one. Mostly, of course, writers are people of all types from all places, sharing with each other a love to tell stories.

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Who, me?

The writing life just keeps getting better. Every time I start kicking the can of despair down the street while whistling a melancholy tune, something happens that slaps me on the back of the head to stop the melodrama.

Earlier this week, a woman I met at the Backspace conference last May emailed me. She and four other writers have started a, fittingly, great new web site called Great New Books. It’s an online book club of sorts that pairs new books with readers. They were looking for a 6th writer to help run the site and she asked me.

My initial thought was, “I am awesome!” And then I thought, “I read awesomely slow” and “How can I buy enough candy to get my kids to sit quietly in the corner while I add another item to my schedule?”

But I said yes, because this is an exciting venture, they’ve launched a very cool concept, and I just LOVE writers. I now love them more than I love books. All of your encouraging comments last week, by the way, urging me on to synopsis completion were each like a shot of Grey Goose accompanied by a Mumford & Sons song. So thank you.

Maybe it’s because writing is lonely that we all reach out to each other. Or maybe it’s another lesson in that when you put yourself out there, others will do the same.

Either way, I feel like I’m in AA, but for writers. And I am ADDICTED to us.

It goes to show that when you decide to do what you love, life gets better. Now, if I could just find a way to make some money, I can pay for the lollipops sitters that I’ll need.

Please check out Great New Books, join the club, like us on Facebook, and do whatever you do on Twitter.