A Whirlwind Weekend at WOTRC

Write on the Red Cedar 2016

During the past week of blog silence I have been preparing for, participating in, and recovering from Write on the Red Cedar. It was a great conference, starting Friday afternoon with a four-hour workshop led by Bob Mayer, a quick bite at the State Room bar, and a fun mixer that evening.

Much of my time Saturday was taken up with manuscript reviews. I had read portions of eight manuscripts during the past week and made revision suggestions, then met with each writer at the conference to discuss what I thought was working and what I would work on next to bring it to the next level. Those meetings seemed to go very well, and the hope the writers who took advantage of that conference extra found it worth their while.

I also gave a workshop talk on taking your writing to the next level as part of CCWA’s Finish the Damn Book track. The room was packed and I managed to get through a lot of material in an hour (though that particular talk should really be at least 90 minutes, I think).

At the end of the day I ran an author/agent panel, had an intimate little dinner at the State Room with other presenters and volunteers, and then a swanky VIP party with wine, fancy hors d’oeuvres, and a six-foot wide gas fireplace flickering. And all throughout I ran to and fro chatting with conference goers, ecstatically greeting those I had invited from far-flung Michigan cities that I hadn’t known were really coming until I’d stuffed conference folders Thursday night and saw their names, and trying  to be helpful in general.

All of the talking, shaking hands, rushing around, and very little sleep for two nights in a row meant that by Sunday morning I was definitely coming down with something. Sunday afternoon I napped on and off for a few hours in front of a roaring fire at home, had dinner, watched Downton Abbey, went to sleep promptly at 10:30, and didn’t get up until 9 AM this morning, feeling a bit better, but not 100% just yet.

And so now it’s another week. The last week of January. I have a few little things left to finish up in the renovation of the Heritage Room at church, an article to write for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and some editing to do. Come February 1, though, it should all be finished and that, my friends, will be my New Year’s Day.

When it feels like the end, that’s only the beginning

Counting down the days until Write on the Red Cedar 2016, which starts this Friday in East Lansing. This will be my third year attending (it’s only three years old) and second year presenting. Earlier this month I was on the WOTRC blog answering some questions about success, failure, the books I’ve read the most, and more. Click here to read it.

Beyond WOTRC, I have articles to work on for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association before the month is up, and I’m still finishing up the renovations in our chapel at church. Just have window treatments and a little touch-up painting to go. When I looked ahead to January back at the end of last year and saw the commitments I had already made, I decided that February 1st was going to be my new year, my fresh start. That’s the month I plan to bring back some good habits I’ve had in the past, namely getting up earlier and using the quiet morning time alone to read, write, pray, and journal.

On the bedtime story front, the boy and I are smack dab in the middle of Watership Down and things are looking bleak. Holly’s team has just come back from Efrafa with many injuries but no does, and Hazel’s been shot after the raid at Nuthanger Farm. As I closed the book Saturday night, Calvin’s voice wavered as he wondered what would happen now. “Don’t worry,” I said. “This is just the beginning of the most exciting part of the story.” It’s a cliché that things are always darkest before the dawn, but that is often how the story goes, isn’t it?

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US. Race relations have taken a serious hit in the past five years. Or perhaps the wider culture is just now noticing how bad things still are despite the work of Dr. King and countless other people who devoted their lives to seeking justice and equality in this country. The national mood must seem a lot like it did fifty or sixty years ago. Indeed, things look strikingly similar. Racial unrest, a long military conflict overseas from which we cannot seem to extricate ourselves, prominent political figures calling for the profiling and restriction of those with differing beliefs. I find it difficult to be optimistic.

Yet, what can make us rise to the occasion like opposition?

The rabbits of Watership Down will have to use all of their courage and cunning to save their warren. They cannot give way to fear, or they’re through. There’s only one way forward, and it’s down the most treacherous road. There are no guarantees of success. But to not go down the road at all means certain failure.

Don’t those make the best stories? When there is no choice but to walk through the fire?

There is nothing like a hard winter to make the spring all the more glorious.

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.

group

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.