Thursday, February 26, 2015

Guest Author: Joanne Hillhouse: Second Acts

 Joanne C. Hillhouse is the Antiguan and Barbudan author of several books, including, in the past year, Musical Youth, 2nd placed for the inaugural Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean fiction, and the 10th anniversary edition of her second book Dancing Nude in the Moonlight.

Shortly after landing a publishing deal for my first book, The Boy from Willow Bend, I landed a deal for the second, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. My chapter as a published writer had begun.
A few years later, on the heels of a blunt letter from the publisher, both books were technically out of print; remainders sold off, though, thankfully, not pulped thanks to local bookstore Best of Books buying up all the remainders.
Talk about Murphy loving to kick the stool from under a writer just when she’s taking a step up; I was just back from a promotional event, my first in the U.S., was in the midst of discussions with a high profile regional publication re a possible review, was feeling like maybe I was finally getting some traction, when the crash came.
To say that this was one of the darker chapters in my journey as a writer would be an understatement. Years of knocking on that closed door certain that everything I wanted was on the other side of it; finally squeezing through only to discover that nothing really is ever as you dream it; adjusting the dream to the reality; and then that feeling that, that’s it you had your shot, the dream is dead.
The human spirit, of course, doesn't know how to stay down, so I eventually dug myself out of the dark, tried to figure out not only what to do next but what I could have done differently. I kept writing, tried to understand my legal position (re reversion of rights), and researched and reached for opportunities (such as the one that reinvigorated my writing dreams, one that wouldn't have been possible had I not been published by a well-established publisher, so thanks for that). As I worked on and submitted new material, I explored how to reposition both books in the marketplace. Most importantly, I tried to shake off my feelings of failure, tried to stay positive, and tried not to feel the cruel irony of readers telling me, to this day, how much they loved a book that the publisher had lost faith in.
That said, I was able to draw on their affirmations, and this is the power of reader reviews. Sure sometimes you have to endure detailed breakdowns (read: takedowns) of your storytelling deficiencies; but when they love something they also don’t pull any punches. And this book was loved by those who had read it enough to either tell me to my face or post their impressions online, it had even had a drink, Moonlight Samba, created in its honour, giving leverage to my efforts to pitch it as a fan favourite with untapped marketability. Even so, it took some time. And I was on a break from actively figuring out my next move when I picked it up and read it one Sunday afternoon; my first time reading it since the painstaking pre-publication editing process, nearly 10 years earlier. Maybe I needed to be reminded of why I had been drawn to these characters enough to write them in the first place because, after reading it, I fell in love with Dancing again and hit on the idea of pitching a 10th anniversary edition which would be part Dancing and part other writings, new and previously published shorts. I floated this hope to another writer who had been encouraging me to do a short story collection for some time.  She introduced me to one of her publishing contacts (via email) and I made my pitch. That was 2013.
Somewhere on the borderline between 2014 and 2015, the book debuted, quietly, its existence a testimony to the possibility of second acts. And I am again reminded that nothing is ever as you dream it but you keep dreaming anyway. Let the uncertainty, the fact that nothing, including the nature of dream fulfillment, is set in stone, fuel you.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Confessions of a Clueless Author, or how NOT to submit a novel for publication.

It was 1998 and I had completed my first novel--a contemporary romance--the year before. At the time I had never heard of Publishers Marketplace, Writer's Market, or towering "slush piles" of unsolicited manuscripts destined for rejection. I lived on a rock in the Caribbean. I did not know the name of a single person in the publishing industry.

Then serendipity happened: I read a story in a local newspaper about a new Kensington Publishing imprint called Arabesque that was pioneering multicultural romances. The article gave me a precious scrap of information: the name of the Arabesque editor: Monica Harris. I asked a friend to find the Kensington address online as I had no computer and I shot off a three-page query to Ms. Harris via snail mail--yeah, it's what we did in 1998--and I waited.

A few months later I got a response, not from Monica Harris who had moved to another house by then, but from Karen Thomas, her replacement. Ms. Thomas enclosed submission guidelines and asked for the full manuscript of that first novel. There was one little problem: my novel was 10,000 words short of the word count she requested. So what did I do?

Clueless act #1: I brushed that minor word count detail aside, printed the manuscript, and off went the 10,000-word-too-short novel. (Pro tip: DO NOT DO THAT!)

Clueless act #2: Enclosed in the package was a lovely little bio on decorative stock, mentioning my adorable son, the lush valley where I lived, my precious rose bushes, and so on. (Pro tip: DO NOT DO THAT!)

Clueless act #3: What I did not enclose was a synopsis, although the guidelines specifically asked for one. It was too much of a bother and I was in too much of a hurry. (Pro tip: DO NOT DO THAT!)

Did I ever hear from Ms. Thomas again? Well, uh, no. I proceeded to....

Clueless act #4: Instead of sending the manuscript out to other potential markets, I waited...and waited...and waited for a response from Arabesque. I eventually got despondent and put the whole publishing idea on indefinite hold. (Pro tip: DO NOT DO THAT!)

I know--you can't believe anyone could be that deluded. I can hardly believe it myself but I was, and trust me, I wasn't even the most clueless aspiring author out there. In hindsight, putting down the manuscript and backing away was probably the least clueless thing to do then: I was a danger to myself. I spent the next eight years expanding that first manuscript, getting critical feedback from a first reader, editing the novel to a state of squeaky cleanliness, ignoring it for years at a time when life got "interesting", and learning everything I could about the publishing industry. At the end of 2005 I was ready to enter the publishing fray once again, this time as a serious player.

I was lucky. Within months of my decision, frustrated with the glacial pace of snail mail queries, I discovered a site that listed agents who accepted e-queries. I got four requests for full manuscripts immediately and about two months later, I had a literary agent. She sold the book to an editor who said she loved the story and wanted to acquire it for Dorchester Publishing. That editor? Monica Harris, the former Arabesque editor whose name in a newspaper had sent me gung-ho on the road to publication almost a decade before. I'd gone full circle.

~Liane Spicer

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Anecdote from a Writer's Life

I went full time freelance writer and editor on July 29, 2011.

At that time I had what Valerie and I thought was an adequate cushion in the bank, monthly bills were at the lowest they'd been since our first child was born, and I had a couple of writing and editing jobs lined up. Part of this calculation was the fact Valerie earned enough as a safety specialist that our family's survival did not depend on my writing income alone (though our budget required I have an income). I did okay but not great those last five months of 2011. Valerie and I ended the year with the sense that while full time writing was not the fast track to riches, it was doable.

The next year caused us to reassess that conclusion.

Quick lesson in freelancing and publishing to explain why: The presses at big house publishers need lots of lead time, so book packagers – who provide print-ready manuscripts to publishers, thus saving the publisher a lot of time and money – will reserve a slot in the publisher's production queue before the book is written. Occasionally – not as rarely as you might think – a "name" author delivers an unusable or incomplete manuscript and can't (or won't) fix it in time for its scheduled printing. If the book packager is not willing to give that slot up, she will hire a freelancer to rescue the book. The freelancer is paid by the word to complete the manuscript on time in the style of the "name" author; the freelancer receives no royalties, her name does not appear on anything related to the book, and she is contractually forbidden to even drop a hint about her involvement.

In 2012 a desperate book packager trusted the recommendation of a colleague and offered me a high-ticket rescue. I delivered, earning enough to have the back yard fenced in and pay cash for the newest used car I've ever purchased. The packager said she was impressed with my work and would henceforth give me first crack at anything similar that came along. My wife and I agreed going full-time freelance was the best career decision I'd ever made.

Nothing that paid remotely that much has come my way since.

The next year, 2013, was okay. It started out slow, but that was the year I added editing doctoral dissertations and masters theses to my list of services. Over the last five months of 2013 I earned slightly more than I did over the same months in 2011. I figured that indicated the cruising speed for my income stream – anticipating that to be economic baseline for the duration.

2014 was horrible.

I was focused less on income-producing projects in professional markets and more on finishing up my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and writing a young adult novel on spec for a small press, which the small press decided not to pick up. (Still looking for the right small press, so, y'know, call me.) I was also a nice guy and let not one but two struggling candidates (a masters and a doctorate) defer payment. Both of them stiffed me. Net result was I made less in all of 2014 than I did in the last five months of 2011 – and 20% of that came in the form of a single check on December 29.

How did I get by? How did I hold up my end of the family budget?

I became a semi-regular seller at the local flea market, acquired legendary status for my chef-ly skills in braising cheap cuts of meat and creating stews out of found objects, and through study of amateur tutorials on YouTube acquired the skills to repair (sometimes correctly) a lot of things I would have previously taken to the shop, called a repair man to fix, or simply replaced. I signed with a temp agency and earned money with an irregular series of one-off jobs like setting up banquets, preparing paper records for storage, and sorting metal things I've never seen before or since according to size. For a few months I had a part-time job at Target and spent a few nights a week keeping up with guys one-third my age unloading trucks and stocking shelves. All without sacrificing my status and as a full-time freelancer.

Because sometimes, usually more than once in your career, you will find in the story of your life as a writer schools of anecdotes about the things you did to enable yourself to write.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Adventures in Editorial Guidance

So, the name of the game this month is “Author Anecdotes,” eh?

Wow. How much time do you have? I mean, we could be here a while.

For example, there are the odd conversations that take place between author and editor. As often as not, they can end up being e-Mail back-n-forth sessions that start at a reasonable time before continuing into the wee hours of the night, long after sensible people have shuffled off to bed or at least forsaken their computers for reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond or that gazillionth airing of The Shawshank Redemption. Still, I’ve had some of the best conversations with my editor during such late-night sessions; the kind of discussions that allow me to go back to the novel I’m writing fueled by renewed vigor and sense of purpose.

Then, there are the sorts of drive-by chats that leave me scratching my head before I start doing Google searches for things like “How to dissolve a body in an inflatable swimming pool.”

Not really, of course. Everyone knows the best way to go solve such problems is to just call in an air strike.

And then there are the times when you think your editor just has to be screwing with your head.

Case in point: Back in the early 2000s, my editor at Pocket Books proposed a rather ambitious Star Trek mini-series. It was to be a nine-book effort, with four writers each writing two books, and a final book written by yet another author to cap off everything. Late in 2002, I was contacted by my editor, for whom I’d recently written my first Star Trek novel and who also was editing what would become my first original science fiction novel. He wanted us to write two of the books! This was, in retrospect, our call up from the minors as until that point, my writing partner and I had been writing e-Book novellas for Pocket, but we weren’t considered part of the “starting lineup” with respect to the Star Trek author stable. Of course we couldn’t say no!

The hook was set. There was no getting away. That’s when the fun started.

We were brought into the project rather late in its development. The other writers were already plotting their stories and a couple had even started writing. As we were called in to replace another writer who had bowed out, we were already behind the 8-ball so far as devising a story that didn’t trip over the other contributors to the mini-series. Our editor, ever the helpful one, offered this bit of editorial wisdom:

”Yours will be the third and fourth books in the lineup,” he told us. “Now, the first two books take place in space, and the fifth and sixth books take place on a planet, so try not to set your story in either of those two places.”



Yeah. It’s a Star Trek story, so piece of cake, right?

He had to be messing with us; it was the only explanation. In truth, he was messing with us, because he just enjoyed saying things like that in order to provoke a response. However, in his own way, he more or less was telling us what he wanted. Really.

To this day, that’s still the funniest piece of “guidance” an editor’s ever given me.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Be Aware Who's In the Room!

This is my favorite anecdote from my career so far.

There used to be a small writers conference called Bare Bones. The San Diego Sisters in Crime put it on and it was in a church camp in the hills of Julian, CA. The site has since burned down in one of the forest fires.

I was pretty distraught when I walked in to register.My friend J.A. (Judy) Jance was talking to someone and she motioned me over. She wanted to know why I looked so upset.

I told her that a week ago, I'd sent two of the narc detectives I worked with to go check out a chemical drop from a meth lab at one of the Indian rancherios. I was getting phone calls that children were playing in the river where the chemicals were seeping. On the way to the site, another call came from dispatch that a man was chasing his parents around with an ax. My detectives were the closest in the area and they responded. One of the detectives shot and killed the man.

"Today's the day he's coming back to work and I feel I should be there, not here," I explained to Judy. "They said it was a good shoot but what's a good shoot to a young Mormon kid?"

"Honey, sit with us and talk," said her companion.

I really didn't glance at the woman, but I declined. She insisted, patting the seat emphatically. I finally turned to look at her.

"You're Sue Grafton," I exclaimed.

"Yes, I am. Now honey, just sit right down and tell me all about it."

The rest of the conference she kept me close. She wanted to come and visit my narcotics team, but that's not allowed. Not even if you are the #1 female crime writer in the world.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Strategic Planning

So, speaking of author faux pas ... that is what we are really discussing when we are talking about anecdotes, right? Anyway, you may or may not know that most of my books to date have been about a monkey called Chee Chee. In my books, I portrait him as smart, funny, resourceful, intelligent, and magical. I suggest that the reason that he and his brothers raid trees for fruit is that they are hungry and need to eat.

From those readers who don't live around monkeys and so can fall for the rose-coloured lens I create, I get a collective 'Awwww, how sweet'. Unfortunately the books are set in St. Kitts where many residents don't have the luxury of seeing monkeys that way. In their reality, monkeys are willfully annoying pests who use their intelligence to thwart every effort people make to protect the fruit in their gardens.

So the conversation goes:
Me "What a lovely garden!"
Hostess (bitterly): "Thanks. A pity I never get to enjoy the fruit. Those monkeys eat it all and what they cannot eat they pick and throw to the ground."
Me: "Oh dear." (Trying to sink into the ground with the fruit.)
Hostess: "Let's not talk about that. What do you do anyway?"
Me (still frantically searching for a hole): I write books.
Hostess: "How wonderful! What do you write about?"

You can see the problem, right? If I had thought it through, planned strategically instead of letting the characters take control of the story, perhaps Chee Chee would have been a soothsayer cat, or a wiley mouse, or a talking bird. Anything but the mischievous, destructive but oh so lovable (I'm told) monkey.