My New Mexico Writing Retreat in (a Few) Pictures

From late Wednesday night to late Sunday morning, I had the very good fortune to be at the first (hopefully annual) Women’s Fiction Writers Association Retreat, held at Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town in New Mexico. I wrote the first five chapters of a new novel, took notes for a short story that was inspired by a very kind and attentive member of the hotel staff, and prepared my workshop for the Breathe Writers Conference coming up in October. I met dozens of lovely, talented, and dedicated women (and one charming man) who write women’s fiction, some of whom I have been online friends with for a couple years. I felt the spell of the Southwest come over me like invigorating sunshine. And on this cloudy, rainy Monday morning back in Lansing, I’m fondly remembering a truly marvelous weekend. I didn’t bring my good camera, so these are just from my phone. Next time, I’ll know to bring the camera. :)

Getting Ready to Write

I wrote on this patio from this corner every day.

Friday night's BBQ dinner was set up here.

This is where I ate most of my meals.

The hotel itself was the only obstruction to the pure blue sky, but a lovely obstruction it was.


Happily heading home to my boys, but vowing to return as soon as possible to Albuquerque.


My Big News This Week (aka, How I Got My Literary Agent)

If you follow my author page on Facebook, you already know…

I signed with a literary agent last week: Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. What does this mean? It means that I now have an official partner to push me toward excellence, bounce ideas off of, and, most importantly, to get my novels in front of the right editors at the right publishing houses. She’ll negotiate contracts, guide me as I develop marketing strategies, and step in to advocate for me when problems arise.

If you’re not a writer, this may be of only passing interest to you. Great! Now the books she talks about writing on this blog will eventually wind up on the shelves. But if you’re a writer, I know that the story of how someone gets an agent is always of interest. So here’s mine.

In 2002, I started working at a publishing house, first in the editorial and subsidiary rights  area, then in marketing. I read a lot of books that were not for English majors–commercial fiction, genre fiction, and plenty of nonfiction. Reading these reminded me that I had always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to write.

In late 2005 I moved from West Michigan to Lansing, where I didn’t know anyone except the man who moved with me. Hence, ample free time. I started thinking again about writing as something I should actually do rather than just talk about. Then in 2006 I started as a docent at the zoo (super fun, made some friends, developed my speaking chops, handled awesome animals, took up lots of my time) and as a graduate student at Michigan State University (super fun, made some friends, further developed my academic writing chops, theorized about interesting stuff, took up lots of my time). Then in 2008 I had a baby (super fun/hard, made a new tiny friend, developed my “being patient” chops — these will be important later — took up almost all of my time).

In 2007, I dropped out of graduate school. The program was great, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to focus on. In 2012, I quit being a docent at the zoo. The time commitment was big, I had a young child, and I really felt like if I was going to ever get serious about writing, I had to make the time to do it.

Leading up to 2012, I was working on a manuscript. I also started this blog, which is actually my second or third blog. (Some of you have been with me from the very beginning in 2008.) I had called that MS A Beautiful Fiction and I decided to give that name to the blog. That old manuscript will never see the light of day, but it was important to me because it was the first one I actually finished and the first one I ever queried and sent to literary agents to read. I was initially disappointed that no one seemed to think it was publishable, but the process of querying it helped me see some of its flaws and some of my own flaws as a writer. So I scrapped it and thought about what to do next.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that in 2013 I gave myself the challenge to write one short story every month and publish each for Kindle. I had a lot of ideas but I wasn’t ready to tackle a novel again right away. So that’s what I did. I also submitted a number of stories to contests and magazines. One, “This Elegant Ruin,” finaled in the 2014 Great American Fiction Contest from the Saturday Evening Post. That couldn’t have come at a better time for me creatively. Maybe my writing was worth publishing after all.

During 2013 I was also reading voraciously, researching for a book I wanted to write that would tie together events in three different centuries that were heartbreakingly similar. That research became the foundation for The Bone Garden, which I drafted in two months in early 2014. I started querying that book after doing a couple revisions, back in April 2014. In hindsight, that was a bit too early, but some of the early feedback I got from agents rejecting it was really helpful in revising. I continued to work on it and occasionally sent out another batch of queries.

In August 2014, there was some interest in it from two agents, both of whom suggested revisions. I kept working on it, sure that once these revisions were done I should be golden — at least one of these agents would want it. However, with one of these agents we discovered that she had two other manuscripts she was shopping for clients that contained some similar themes and there was a conflict of interest. With the other, it just wasn’t there yet and she passed. Boo. Cue depression.

But no! There was no time for moping, because by then I already had another idea for a new manuscript. I wasn’t just going to sit there. I was going to take more of the lessons I’d learned and channel them into this new project. I was sure this third manuscript, I Hold the Wind, would be “the one.” So I wrote. I wrote during National Novel Writing month (and made it to 50,000 words in that one month to be a NaNoWriMo winner) and continued into the winter and even into the spring. That first draft took six months.

[Let’s pause here for a querying interlude…Even as I was writing I Hold the Wind I continued to work on and query The Bone Garden. On a particular day in February 2015, I got on Twitter and watched the #MSWL hashtag. For those of you who’ve never heard of that, it stands for Manuscript Wishlist. I found a few more agents who were looking for women’s fiction with particular parameters and sent off a few queries. This will be important later…]

In June 2015, sent the MS of I Hold the Wind out to a few beta readers for feedback. In that same month, the shooting at the Charleston church occurred. And I was swept back into The Bone Garden. If you need a little background as to why, you can read this blog post I wrote while I was researching for the book in 2013 and this one I wrote soon after the killings in Charleston. I realized that part of my story — the present-day storyline — needed a rewrite. I worked hard on it for a short time and then decided to re-approach one of the agents who had really loved the story but thought it still wasn’t there yet. Was it there now? That agent was happy I contacted her because she and a colleague at her agency had both individually been thinking about that manuscript they had rejected months before. Yes, they would read it.

Back to I Hold the Wind. I did revisions in August, worked on my pitch in September, and was ready to start the querying process all over again on September 9th, when the Women’s Fiction Writers Association was holding an online pitch event with five agents. Around that time I got an email from Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. She wanted to set up a phone call to chat about The Bone Garden, which I had originally queried back in February as part of Twitter’s #MSWL day. I’d sent her fifty pages back in April and the full MS during the summer. I also, out of the blue on the same day, got an email from the other agent who was rereading the manuscript after I approached her with the revision. She was ready to talk about it too. I scheduled some phone calls and did the pitch on the new manuscript.

During our phone call, Nephele offered representation. After talking with the other agent, who also wanted the weekend to read the new manuscript I had for I Hold the Wind, there was talk of more revision needed and no clear offer of representation. I slept on it, and in the morning I had clarity. I wanted to go with someone who was ready to commit to me and my work, who would walk alongside me, who was enthusiastic, who was easy to talk to. Nephele was all of those things. We scheduled another phone call and talked about possible revisions to The Bone Garden before sending it out on submission. That second phone call assured me we were on the same page and had the same goals. I accepted the offer, got the contracts later that day over email, signed them, and sent them out for countersigning at the offices of The Knight Agency.

Yesterday, the signed contract appeared in my mailbox. So it is official. I now have a literary agent and I’m eagerly awaiting her detailed notes on The Bone Garden so that we can move this story along down the road toward publication. Thanks for coming with me on the journey. I’ll be sure to share milestones with you along the way. If you want to be sure not to miss any publishing news, follow this blog (there’s a button on the sidebar) and follow my author page on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter @ErinLBartels or on Pinterest.


All My Bags Are Packed, I’m Ready to Go

There’s been a lot more packing around this house than is part of our normal routine. Last week we packed my husband’s bags for ACFW in Dallas, TX. This week I pack my bags for WFWA’s first writing retreat in Albuquerque, NM. And I have begun to pack up stuff that needs to be corralled before we show our house (whenever we list it). Then there’s the small matter of getting those items into the attic…*sigh*…I am not really looking forward to that particular task.

But I don’t have to think about that right now, because I leave on Wednesday for four days/nights in New Mexico with sixty other writers. We’re going to eat incredible food, discuss many aspects of the writing life and the craft of writing, and enjoy the company of like-minded people from all over the country. Some of us have been interacting online for a couple years, and now we finally have the chance to meet face to face.

I’m looking forward to clearing some mental space while I’m out in the land of deserts and immense blue skies. There’s a lot going on in my life right now and a break might be just what I need. I’m hoping to come back refreshed and invigorated for everything to come as summer turns to fall and possibilities turn into reality.

I Am Building a World for You

For the past several years in my creative writing life, I have been developing a parallel world. It is not a huge departure from reality. It’s not fantasy or sci-fi. It’s not a world that you would not recognize. In fact, you may find yourself very much at home there. It’s a mere side step, the sort of shift you make to get out of someone’s way when they are moving faster than you’d like to move. It’s stepping off the sidewalk and onto the grass where it’s more interesting anyway.

This world is located in my very own state. Its cities and lakes and rivers and other features are all born from reality before they go through a subtle metamorphosis in my mind. And when they come out of my fingers, they are new. Because the writer of fiction does not merely record. He interprets. What to our eye may be a leaf of a certain shade of green becomes something more in fiction. Raindrops become tears, shafts of light become memories, birds become souls, forests become prisons, parties become battles, and folds of blankets become entire histories laid out in cotton.

It’s useless to attempt to keep the writer’s mind centered on what is. It is so much more satisfying to build what isn’t…yet. I’m readying a new manuscript for submission to agents that I can envision as the first in a series of three. I’m already developing the stories for the second and third. And yesterday, while I was driving my son to karate, the germ of a new story wormed its way into my mind. A different setting, but the same world, and connections to a character or two in this possible series of three. An expansion of the world I have been building in my mind and on paper. Nods to earlier work are winks to the loyal reader, an inside joke just for her.

I’m drawn to literary worlds like this. Wendell Berry’s Port William, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Careers made largely by developing a parallel world and staying in it for decades, learning all of its secrets. Even the series we read as children carry shades of this — Madeline L’Engle’s stories of the Murry and O’Keefe families, L. M. Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island, even the world of The Baby-Sitters Club. Places and characters we didn’t want to leave.

I’d like my own fiction to be like that — stories you want to stay inside.

So I am building a world, street by street, field by field, house by house, character by character, secret by secret. And I’m more hopeful than ever that I’ll be able to share it with you someday.

How Far We Haven’t Come

Remember how I was so pleased in my last post to be able to work on something new? Well my brain swiftly switched gears back to something old. Something incomplete. Something festering.

Back on December 10, 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled Adventures in Shameful American History that discussed a number of cultural and historical realities I was struggling with as I completed research for a novel I was writing called The Bone Garden. It was before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, before the unrest in Ferguson and the riots in Baltimore, before the massacre in Charleston.

In January and February of 2014, I wrote the first draft of a novel that turned out to be frighteningly timely. It traces the race relations within several generations of one white family, from auspicious beginnings as participants in the Underground Railroad, to a mixed bag of love and hate during the Civil Rights era, to a new reconciliation in the modern time. For the next year, I worked hard on that novel, revising it multiple times, editing it to a high gloss. But there was always a problem with the modern-day timeline. I fixed some of it, but it still never felt quite right to me. It wasn’t as good as it could be. Compared to the other two timelines, it seemed…too easy.

The day after the shooting in Charleston, I attended a prayer vigil at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan. The crowd was relatively small in number but great in spirit. There were mostly African American worshipers, but a fair number of white worshipers as well. The Spirit was moving and pain was released and anger was expressed and sorrow was felt. It was deeply emotional and raw.

Growing up in a white small town in the Lutheran church, I had never been part of a service quite like that before. I’m a Baptist since I married a Baptist pastor, but it’s not a “shoutin’ church,” if you know what I mean. It’s not a charismatic congregation. It’s pretty tame. But I have been privileged to join together with other churches in the city every year, usually during Holy Week, to worship together. Stiff white Methodists and shouting black Baptists and proper Presbyterians and calm Congregationalists, all worshiping together. These have been some of my most memorable times in the house of God.

Even so, this prayer vigil was qualitatively different. It was a lament.

I drove away from that service with a heart that was still heavy. Yes, I believed God would give comfort to the bereaved. But it still happened. There was still a terrible racist person who murdered nine people, including some in their seventies and eighties, for no reason other than his idiotic, misguided, backward, reprehensible beliefs. Beliefs that were taught. And are taught. All over the place. Still.

And I realized what bothered me about the modern-day storyline of The Bone Garden. It wasn’t true. Fiction — good fiction — tells the truth. And I wasn’t doing that. I wanted my modern day white characters to be better than their fictional predecessors. But they aren’t. Yes, some are more understanding and more accepting and more loving. But others are not. They cannot be. Because Dylann Roof exists. Thousands of Dylann Roofs exist, and more of them are being trained up every day. And I do a disservice to the truth to ignore that when writing this story.

So I’m back at it, working hard to make things real. No matter how difficult it is for us to stomach. We look back at our parents’ generation and think that we are better than them. We would never support segregation or turn the other way when peaceful marchers were set upon by dogs and attacked with fire hoses. We would never have let 100 years pass between the Emancipation Proclamation and Selma.

But is that the truth? Obviously not. That Confederate flag flying high in South Carolina? It’s not down yet.