Summer 2014 in Review

“One day at a time, this is enough. Don’t look back and grieve over the past for it is gone. Do not be troubled about the future, for it has yet to come. Live in the present and make it so beautiful that it will be worth remembering.”

–  Unknown

 

It’s that time of year again. Whether you’re in middle school or high school or college, it’s almost time for classes to start. Summer has come to a close.

Every year, the night before I return to school, I write a post summarizing the summer. And since I head back to college tomorrow morning, here we are now.

I had a lot of anticipation riding on this summer, because it’s my first one since college. I had no idea if the friends (and ex-girlfriend) I said goodbye to last year would be exactly the same, or completely new people entirely.

This summer was by far full of some of the best memories I’ve ever made, and some of the worst. It was a constant ride of ups and downs, and in the end, I’m still not sure what to think of it.

Since I’m a college kid, classes ended nice and early, mid-May. I came back from college and felt all the immediate comforts of home: this great town, my high school friends who were dying to catch up with me, and my younger brother (AKA my best friend), who I’d managed to stay best friends with all year, despite us living a hundred miles apart.

The warm welcomes lasted for a few weeks, but by June, it hit me: I needed to do something productive this summer besides work on my book. Especially considering that said book received rejections on all pending full requests shortly after I got home.

Low point.

So, I applied for a job hauling books at the local library. And got called in for an interview. High point.

And didn’t get the job. Low point.

So I helped remodel my family’s house. I hung out with my ex-girlfriend without it being weird. My brother and I went on a trip with our Boy Scout troop to Ocean City. All high points.

July was full of its own highs and lows: I learned I had an inguinal hernia which would require surgery in August. Low point. But hey look, at least I didn’t take that job at the library. High point.

I then went on the best week-long adventure of my life.

Anyone familiar with scouts knows what Sea Base is. It’s a nationally recognized scout summer camp in Florida, and the older scouts in our troop headed there at the end of July for a week of sailing, fishing, staying up super late talking about life, and becoming much closer friends. The last night of the trip, we stayed in a hotel and ordered heaps of pizza and watched Ted on the flat screen.

Highest point.

August, like last summer, proved to be infinitely less fun.

I had my hernia surgery at the start of the month, and I got to spend the next two weeks bedridden watching the entire Harry Potter series, followed by every episode of The Office, in a row. I can’t decide what kind of point that was.

Then, in the final weeks of August, I did wonderfully productive things like re-sending my query letter out to a new round of agents, and packing, and getting myself pumped for the upcoming school year. And I did terribly upsetting things like have a falling-out with my brother, which I’m unsure is going to be resolved.

And now, I’m here. Same place as I was a year ago, the night before I left for college. Boy, it is astounding how life can feel like it moves so fast and so slow at the same time, amirite?

Let’s examine the end of last summer vs. the end of this one.

The blue are excerpts from my end of summer post last year.

Honestly, right now, everything’s happening way too fast for me to take any of it in. And I’m at the point where I can’t even imagine what my life will be like three days from now, let alone a week or a month or a year, like I used to. A year ago, around the time I started this blog, I had a pretty good idea that I’d be going to college right now. And I knew it would be busy. But did I know I would date the girl of my dreams, then have to break up with her? Or make a really awesome new best friend? Or get a full request from a literary agent?

No. I didn’t.

That makes me both excited and nervous for what life will be like one year from now, or even one month from now.

Hey, here we are a year later! I’m sitting at the same desk. Same computer. Sure, it has a new keyboard and monitor, but I’m still blogging, and I still have that same lingering nostalgia that keeps my thoughts going.

I have not had another girlfriend yet.  I got three new full requests from agents.

I want to go to college and have fun, but I don’t want to get sucked into anything and come out a different person. I love who I am, and more importantly, I love who my friends are. And if there’s one thing I’m really scared about, it’s that I’ll come home and find that they’re different.

My friends are the same. They’ve grown up, but they’re the same people. So am I.

I still don’t drink, by the way.

Today with my best friend was the more fun kind of goodbye, running around the neighborhood and of course, talking. It’s funny how in a lot of cases, that’s all you need. And when we said bye, no, it wasn’t emotional or anything like that. Mostly a “see ya,” same as the rest. But the difference with this was how fun it was, not to mention that it was the last of my goodbyes before I go. It was the perfect way to end summer and have a final social event before I go off to college.

This touches on my biggest regret of the summer. Last year, I saved my most important goodbye—my younger brother—for last, and it was the best one. I wanted to do the same thing this year, but we’ve both been super busy lately, and that combined with a lot of pressure on a lot of different fronts led to what I keep calling a “falling out” but what I’d like to think is really just a blip on the radar.

Needless to say, this summer overall was a bit less cut-and-dry then last year. Leaving home can be emotional, but the nice thing is, everyone makes a big DEAL of it, so it feels proper. The summer after college? That’s the awkward phase, the stretch where you’re trying to figure out if you should hang out with your new friends or your old ones and do you still have to do chores and why does it feel like half of your life is somewhere else.

I loved this summer, and I made a lot of great memories. I made a few not-great ones as well, but in the end, everything is what it is. Life goes on. Home is still home. Friends are still friends. Your brother is still your brother. And it all works out in the end, somehow.

I’m sad to say goodbye to summer, but I’m also hopeful for what this coming year will bring. Hey, my old friends and I survived one year apart from each other…we can do it again.

So, I suppose one big thing about me did change from last year: back then, I believed no friendship was permanent, that this all was about letting each other go and moving on. But now I know that true friendships really are permanent, that there are some people in your life who you’ll always love, even though you no longer walk the hallways with them anymore.

Let’s hope this year is the best one yet.

Here’s to permanence.

On Writing: How Are Teen Authors Perceived?

“Some people break all the rules and get published. You could cross a road blind-folded and not get run over. That doesn’t mean that crossing the road blind-folded is a good way to live a long life.”

–  Nicola Morgan

 

This post hits home, because I’m a teen author myself. I have been since I turned thirteen, though I’m not exactly one of those types who scores a major book deal by the time they hit puberty. I fit into the much larger category of teens who write books but haven’t broken into the industry yet. I have, however, gotten four full requests from literary agents, including the woman who represented The Hunger Games…so, hopefully that bumps me slightly towards the “publication” clan.

It seems like teen authors are everywhere these days, doesn’t it? When I started high school, NO ONE knew that I was a writer, not even my close friends and family. Why? Because I felt like zero other teenagers were interested in that sort of thing, and of course when you’re fourteen, the last thing you feel like being is different.

Now? 180 flip. Not only do I enjoy being weird and breaking social norms, but teens who like to write are becoming more and more common. Okay, maybe teens who like to write full length novels are still a bit rare, but even that movement is blossoming thanks to NaNoWriMo (which, incidentally, I’ve never done. Hmm…)

But how are these teen authors perceived by adults?

We teens would love to believe that everyone sees us and immediately starts rooting for us. “Oh, you’re only FIFTEEN and you’re trying to get a book published? Bless your precociousness! May you lead the charge against a society that believes kids can’t change the world.”

Let me be clear, I’m all for the “kids change the world” movement and even hope to be a part of it. But unfortunately, I think most adults take the pessimistic approach: they see a teen writer and think “good hobby, but you’re probably way too young to succeed at something like this.”

Want to hear the best part?

I agree with them.

Hypocrite! you guffaw at your screen. Caleb, you’re saying teens shouldn’t be authors, yet here you are doing the THING.

Not quite. First and foremost, I absolutely do think teens should write. I think all teens should test to see if they like expressing themselves that way, and if they find they do, then write and write and never stop. Whether it’s for yourself or the blog world or whomever, if writing (or ANYTHING!) is your passion, I believe it’s not only healthy, but important, to embrace and pursue it.

No, no, when I say most teenagers probably aren’t a good match for the publishing business, I mean just that: the publishing business. The get-a-literary-agent-and-sell-to-a-publisher business. I don’t think the majority of teens are cut out for it.

Do I still sound bitter? Alright, nitpickers, check this: most PEOPLE aren’t cut out for the publishing business, whether they’re fifteen or ninety-seven or forty-three or twenty-eight. But beyond that, I’ll build my case.

Hey, teenagers. Yes, you people. I want you to picture yourself, who you were, one year ago. And I’m willing to bet that you would literally throw that person down a flight of stairs if you met them today.

There are worlds of psychological findings—not to mention common sense—that show how prone teenagers are to dramatic development as they approach adulthood. What high school senior dresses or acts how they did coming into high school? We grow up, yo.

It's Reality!

But here’s the thing! Let’s say an ambitious teen author slapped together a novel by the age of fifteen and started querying agents. Now, what do you think the twelfth grade version of that author would think of their book, if they glanced over it three years later?

Sounds like a horrifying situation, doesn’t it? It is, my dear readers.

I would know. I lived it.

I tried to be one of those hotshot teen authors. No, correction…I wanted to be the first hotshot teen author. (Yes, teens have gotten books published occasionally, but how many of those books have done that well? And don’t you dare cite Eragon; I’ll fry that fish later.)

I wanted to be the breakout kid, the one who actually becomes a bestselling teen author and actually turns a profit and actually makes it before finishing high school.

Then I grew up and realized that maybe, that was a tad unrealistic.

Is it good to have goals? Of course. Is it good to pursue them? Yes! But the thing is, when I first started trying for publication, I hadn’t grown up yet. I followed all the querying rules and I knew what I was up against, but sadly and quite simply, I just wasn’t good enough yet.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone with a similar dream. Maybe you HAVE grown up by age fifteen and are ready to go! But I’m just saying, I wasn’t, and while I wasn’t necessarily a terrible author, I was no where near ready to be published.

Which of course begs the question I know some people are thinking.

How do you know you’re ready NOW, you nincompoop?

Well, I don’t. Maybe I’ll never be published. But that’s exactly why I have only ever tried for publication through the traditional querying method. No self-publishing, no teen writing contests, nothing. I play the big game, same as every other prospective adult author out there. This novel of mine is going to sink or swim completely on its own, damn it, and it’s very slowly starting to swim amongst interested agents.

That’s why I think I might be ready.

I used to think that when/if I ever became published, it would have something to do with my age. I even hoped it would. Now, I don’t even consider it as a factor. For one thing, I’m now in college, and I legally am an adult, even if I have a little bit of teenage time left. But more importantly, this thing is working, highly respected agents are interested, and it has zero to do with any marketability related to being a teenager who writes books for teenagers. For all they know, I could be some English professor trying their hand at the YA genre.

ntrnt

Would that angle help me, maybe, if I put my age in my query letter? May…be. Would agents—subconsciously or otherwise—read my novel through a skeptical lens, knowing I’m barely out of high school?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure they would.

My point is, I don’t want my age to influence any success I may have (if any) as a writer. I don’t want to be some wunderkind who breaks convention.

I just want to be a plain old, regular, boring, published author.

On Writing: When Have You “Made It”?

“There are two ways to get enough: one is to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.”

–  G.K. Chesterton

 

Success is perhaps the most basic of things that all writers ponder. From the minute you start hammering out that first draft of your novel, you picture sitting at a table in a little bookshop signing copy after copy for eager readers.

Well at least, that’s my fantasy. Those imagined by other people might include being a NYT bestseller, rolling in rich royalties, and having an internet fan base so large that the Twitter servers poop their pants.

The point is, no matter the specifics of your grand visions, one thing is common: every writer wants to “make it” as an author.

But what does this really mean?

To some people, it’s the moment they finally land an agent. Once I started getting full requests from agents, a lot of my friends and family were all, “Maybe you’ll get an agent! Then you’ll have finally made it!”

I disagree. Let’s go on a hypothetical journey and say you get a literary agent. For sure, that’s a rare and noteworthy accomplishment. Pop open the champagne! (Or in my case, sparkling grape juice). But have you made it yet? Is this where you’re ready to call it quits? I’d sure hope not.

Most people, I imagine, wouldn’t settle being happy with having an agent. They would want to try for a publishing deal. And surely, when that happens, then they’ll have made it!

So let’s say that person does get a publishing deal. And it even comes with a nice advance. Well now, you’ve truly made it, yes? You’ve jumped the final hurdle?

Except, out of every ten books published, only one of them turns a profit. So, I would imagine, the next challenge is to be that one that actually succeeds.

But let’s be optimistic! Let’s say you are that ONE, and not only is it successful, it’s wildly successful. People everywhere are reading your book and telling you how good you are. You get a plethora of requests to speak to students or do signings. And you might even have a shot at being on the New York Times bestseller list!

Have you made it yet? Or do you want to get on that list?

Well, of course you do.

And it happens! You get on the NYT bestseller list. You even crush the long-running reigns of the likes of Rick Riordan and John Green. Everyone knows your name. You make enough money to quit your day job. NOW, now you’ve made it, right?

But then there’s talk of movie deals.

You wouldn’t be interested in those, now would you?

I hope I’m not beating a dead horse here. What I’m trying to express in this drawn-out example is the fact that—sorry as I am to say it—there is no definitive point in the world of writing where you can dust your hands off, lean back and say, “I’ve done everything I wanted to.”

Why is this? Well, it’s because when one door opens, you want to move forward and open the next. That’s the natural, human desire for progress. As a first-time writer, your only goal may be to get a literary agent. But if this happens, your aspirations grow.

Many people imagine that once they get published, BAM! They’ve made it. They think their desires won’t expand.

Perhaps all those people are right. I wouldn’t know myself; I’m not a published author. But I have thought about it plenty, and I’ve asked myself that magical question: if I get a call saying my book is going to be published, will I be satisfied with my career as a writer?

Of course I won’t. I’m much too selfish for that. I want to be the best. I want to be remembered. I want to change the world.

Sure, these are good goals, and if I do accomplish them, great. But I need to stay grounded, too. And I need to accept the fact that, much as I’d like to say “I made it,” I probably won’t ever be satisfied with where I am.

I hope no one mistakes this for ungratefulness. Just because I’m unsatisfied with where I am does NOT mean I am unhappy. I accept that even getting to the “agent” stage is difficult, and I’m grateful to have made it that far. I’m thankful for all of the helpful feedback and all the time people have taken to assist me on my journey. But my desire for progress is driven by my desire to show all those people they didn’t waste their time. I want their faith in me to be rewarded.

If I go the rest of my life without making it ANY further in the publishing game, fine. What’s meant to happen will happen, and I don’t need a publishing deal to be happy in life. But that desire for progress will always be there, no matter how far I go.

All that being said, if I ever do get a publishing deal, I’m totally going to say, “hey everyone, look, I made it.”

Why, you ask?

I’m not sure myself. I think it has something to do with the fact that a publishing deal would mean I could hold my writing in my own hands, as a tangible stack of paper with a professional cover. Printed books have something beautiful about them, and perhaps if I ever have my own, then that’ll be enough for me.

Right now, I just hope I get the chance to find out.

What about you? When will you have “made it,” if ever?

On Writing: Is “Natural Talent” All You Need?

“Before you can win, you have to believe you are worthy.”

–  Mike Ditka

 

I’ve blogged about this subject before. In a post from last year, I outlined my thoughts on whether writing is a talent someone is born with, or if it’s a skill everyone has equal chance at mastering. I concluded that it was a little of both, going on to say:

“[Rick Riordan] took ten years to get his story good! J.K. Rowling only took three with hers. Stephen King took less than that. Many would argue those two have more natural writing ABILITY, and I would agree with them. Riordan probably had to spend more time building his talent; had to revise his story dozens of times, and had a tougher time getting published than JKR or King. But he did it, same as them.”

A year later, I still agree with all that. Back when I wrote that post, I was a kid with forty rejections and no progress in the publishing industry. Today, I’m a kid with four full requests from agents, including the woman who represented The Hunger Games. Perhaps in a year, I’ll be further. Who knows? My point is, I’m no Shakespeare or even a Riordan or Rowling, but with a few years of hard work, I’ve made progress. I believe everyone has equal chance of doing the same.

Get to the point, Caleb.

Right. Since we’ve closed out that debate, I want to move on to a related topic: in the industry of publishing, is “natural talent”—if such a thing even exists—all you need to make it?

My answer, in short: no.

Let’s back up. First of all, have you ever been in a position where someone has confused your hard work with natural talent?

It happens all the time to me. People will hear about this progress I’ve made towards publication, and they tell me something like, “Wow, you must be really gifted!” or, “You must be a great writer.”

I certainly don’t mind the compliment, but I’m still trying to figure out if it’s fair to say I’m a talented writer. On one hand, saying that talent is proportional to progress is certainly a reasonable assumption. But on the flipside, I think if someone were to sit in the chair beside me while I take hours to research agents and revise my query letter, then perhaps they would re-think the idea that natural talent is all you need. I don’t think it is.

I’m not trying to sound ungrateful; the support of people around me is what keeps me going, and like I said, maybe they aren’t entirely wrong to believe talent equals progress. But having seen the harsher side of the publishing industry, I can say almost for certain that talent is no guarantee of success.

I’m speaking mostly to my fellow writers here, the ones who have had to craft a query letter and send those proposal emails and cross every finger, toe and other bendable body part for good luck. If an author were suddenly endowed with all the writing talent in the world, do you think they’d make it in this business eventually?

That’s what literary agents like to believe. How many times have we heard agents say, “If your book is good, it will find a home eventually”? More times than I can count. And yet, how many times have we also heard, “Even the greatest writers get rejected”?

I’m no calculus expert, but I think somebody’s lying.

You’re just bitter, you whiny child, you growl. If someone had J.K. Rowling’s talent, they’d make it easily.

At which point I would remind you that Rowling herself was rejected by thirteen publishers, AFTER she got an agent. What’s more, when she wrote a crime novel last year under a pseudonym, barely anyone picked it up until the author’s true identity was revealed.

My long-winded conclusion: talent is NOT everything in this industry. It won’t carry you across the finish line. Harsh to say, but I think talent is more like your entry ticket to the race. You still have a lot of work to do before you win it.

I don’t mean to lecture, because I don’t even know if I’ll make it. I’d like to think I will someday, but I also don’t want people to chock that up to natural talent, because believe me, I’m not bursting with gooey bits of golden blood from the writing gods. I started a crappy writer, worked my way up to not-crappy, and perhaps someday or another I’ll set foot into ‘good writer’ territory.

But no matter what happens to me or anyone else, I think the bottom line is this: talent alone isn’t enough, hard work alone isn’t enough, and luck isn’t enough. It’s a tricky balance between the three, I think; but, it’s important I also say, I believe that with enough willpower, you can increase any of those three in the amounts you need.

So, all that being said, I think there’s only one grand force in the world that, if you have it, can guarantee you’ll make it eventually.

It’s called willpower.

On Publishing: Writing a Query Letter

“Sometimes the fall kills you. But sometimes, when you fall, you fly.” 

–  Neil Gaiman

 

All my unpublished novelists in the house, put your hands up!

I understand that today’s post—much like a lot of my writing posts lately—is for an extraordinarily select audience. Most people, even bloggers, have better things to do than write a novel and actually try to get it published. I personally…well, don’t. Publishing is my main goal at the moment, and I’ve come to realize that for those writing query letters, hearing (reading) about the struggles of the few others in the same boat can be immensely reassuring.

First of all, to get everyone on the same page, what the heck is a query letter, anyway?

Let’s go back to the stats I mentioned in my last post. The average agent gets around thirty proposals every day. If every single one of those was a full or even partial manuscript, they literally wouldn’t have time to read them all and still be able to function. At best, they’d be able to glance over the first page or two, then move on.

Fortunately, somebody came up with the brilliant concept of query letters. Now, instead of agents getting thirty or so novels dropped on their desk or in their email inbox, they receive thirty or so one-page letters (they should be one-page, at least) giving a brief overview of the proposed book, much like the inside flap would if it was published.

And so, that’s the final test for an aspiring novelist. Okay, not the final test, but certainly one of the most daunting. Now that the author has finished their brilliant book, they need to write a brilliant letter talking about it so as to hook every agent who lays their eyes upon it.

Not as easy as it sounds, let me tell you.

 

This is how the professionals do it, right?

This is how the professionals do it, right?

At first, as an optimistic writer who had already had to handle many problems with this project, I did the rational thing: after picking through the Guide to Literary Agents, I turned to Google.

A fine example of a time when Google worked too well. I realized that there are hundreds of thousands of sites (and people running them) giving advice as to how exactly to format a query letter, and what you must do and what you must never do and if this isn’t included you automatically fail and never forget this and aah I need to go take a nap while my brain explodes.

Yes, it’s that painful.

But I managed to make sense of it. I came up with a list of “ironclad rules,” which included the tips I read in GLA as well as the rules that came up frequently in my search, such as how to format the letter. Not to mention, I looked up the submission guidelines of agencies in which I was interested.

So, while you might not much care, I’ll put them up anyway: my personal ironclad rules for writing a strong query, pieced together from other ironclad rules.

  • Address to “Dear Mr./Mrs. Last Name of Agent”…always better to err on the side of formality
  • Personalize the letter, either at the beginning or end. Tell the agent why I’m querying them specifically.
  • Mention that the full manuscript is indeed available, and give word count along with genre
  • Keep under 350 words
  • Make sure contact info is in the letter
  • Avoid redundancy like the kind in the image below

 

You don't say?

You don’t say?

Anticlimactic, I know. Those are all probably things you’ve heard a million times already. But the thing is, there isn’t really one way to write a query letter. Its job is to convey what the book is about, and it’s the author’s job to figure out which way works best. Other than that, it’s really in the writer’s control. The agent wants to see that a potential future client can write well, and there’s no web sites that can give instructions for that. A lot of them try, but in the end, the query comes from the author’s core. The letter-writing process is unique for each novelist.

I’m a senior in high school, and most of my classmates spent New Year’s Eve 2012/2013 at friends’ houses partying. Me? Well, first I watched Iron Man and The Avengers, but that’s not the point. After THAT, I sat watching the Times’ Square celebration with my laptop in front of me, blasting MC Hammer’s “Too Legit to Quit” in my headphones (they played it during the celebration!) all while trying to write the query letter for my manuscript. Well, technically not the entire query letter, but the plot summary portion of it. I worked my way through the stack of young adult novels next to me, reading their inside flaps and hoping for a burst of inspiration.

And it sort of came eventually.

I had the structure of my summary done by the time 2013 hit. The writing was awful, but the structure was there. I went to bed, woke up a few hours later in the morning, then got the other half of my inspiration burst (I guess it was delayed?), and I finished off the summary portion.

That night, January 1st, I emailed it to my ideal readers and watched the season one finale of Criminal Minds, a heck of a way to celebrate the end of winter break. Then one of my IR’s emailed back their official approval while I listened to my favorite song, “The Riddle” by Five for Fighting.

And that’s how I got my query letter written.