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Monday, June 29, 2009

If at first you don't succeed...

Even though I had never really considered doing it for a living, I have always loved writing, from that first story I wrote for my mom in third grade (something to do with a bunch of balloons that get released and find homes with different children all over the world), to some truly terrible teen angst poetry, to the short stories I wrote in my college creative writing class back when I thought I could write short stories, to the seriously flawed screenplay I wrote in my late twenties about a fictional love affair between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson (I know, I know, what was I thinking?). Something in my nature has always wanted to put things down on paper—it’s how I learned geometry principles in high school, it’s how I made sense of existential philosophy in college, and it’s how I now explore ideas and human nature in my fiction.

It was about four years ago that I decided I was going to write FOR REAL, as in, seriously try to become a novelist. So I wrote my first novel, Time and Tide, went through the long and potentially soul-crushing process of sending query letters, receiving rejections (lots!), and getting those little nibbles that keep you going for a while, but in the end, fail to materialize into anything substantial. For whatever reason, Time and Tide did not make it to publication.

I don’t have children, but my friends who do, speak of “pregnancy amnesia,” the phenomenon whereby a mother forgets all the pain and anguish that accompanied her pregnancy so she is willing to go through the process again. I would say that the writer’s journey to publication is a bit akin to this, because what writer would willingly put themselves through the torment and pain of rejection if it weren’t for some form of temporary amnesia, and of course, the fervent hope that there might be a bouncing, healthy manuscript at the end of it all?

Hungry to write another novel, I began Free to a Good Home in December of 2007 over the winter holiday. I teach high school English full-time, so my only substantial writing happens during vacations and summer break. By spring break of 2008, I had outlined the basic story and written the first few chapters, then I wrote like crazy over the summer to finish and revise the manuscript. In fall began the cycle of query, waiting, rejection, query, waiting, rejection.

It wasn’t until about December when I began to feel desperate, so I went back through my list of agents and wrote down the ones I hadn’t heard from. Of those, I double-checked their websites to see which agents welcomed a follow-up email versus those for whom no response meant no interest. It’s a testament to the value of persistence and good record keeping that one of these “follow-up” agents ended up becoming my real agent. I am happy to say that the second time around was a charm for me, as Free to a Good Home garnered me an agent in the lovely and ultra professional, April Eberhardt of Reece Halsey North. (www.reecehalseynorth.com)

April replied to tell me my original query and sample had gotten lost in their vetting program, but that her assistant, Maria, had found it since and flagged it as “strong.” You can imagine my excitement, tempered as it was by a substantial dose of reality. I’d had my heart crushed before, and I knew that even if April agreed to represent me, there was no guarantee she’d be able to sell my book.

So April, Maria, and I entered into a stage of extensive revision during which we got the manuscript into its most polished and most marketable form. After about two months, April offered me formal representation. I know every publication story is different and that many writers have gotten published without an agent. But I have no doubt that Free to a Good Home would not have found a publisher if it weren’t for the keen eye and publishing savvy of April, who helped me strengthen both the story and the writing, then went on to sell the manuscript in only four weeks. The good news continued when I found that my editor would be Jackie Cantor, executive editor of Berkley Books. (http://us.penguingroup.com/static/pages/publishers/adult/berkley.html) I have since gotten several emails and one phone call from Jackie, who is warm and supportive and sharp and everything an editor should be. I am so thrilled to be working with her!

In the weeks that followed “the call,” I have been busy setting up my media presence so I can start generating some buzz for the book and gathering a following prior to publication in July 2010. That gives me roughly a year to take care of final revisions, marketing, and of course, to work on my new novel so I can (fingers crossed) go through the whole process again next year. But this time, no amnesia necessary. This is a year I won’t likely forget.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Maggie's Story

Since Free to a Good Home is in large part about finding a place to call home, I thought I’d share the story of bringing Maggie to our home for the first time. When my husband and I were first married and living in southern Maryland on a gravel road with no streetlights and few neighbors, we decided we needed a pet to make us feel a little less isolated.

Our conversation began with a discussion of the merits of rabbits and guinea pigs, then evolved to cats, then culminated with our decision to adopt one of the most affectionate animals on the planet: a dog. A teacher friend of mine ran a small humane shelter out of her home, so Ken and I set out one evening to her house to find ourselves a new companion. We knew we wanted an older dog, one that was housetrained and a little more placid. When we arrived at the house, my friend introduced us to three older dogs, each wonderful in his own way, but out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a puppy sitting in a crate by the foyer stairs.

But we didn’t want a puppy. We were both working, and our rental house was tiny. A puppy would be too much work, too much hassle. But as we played with the other dogs, that puppy in the crate sat up and stared at me with a slightly cocked head, asking nothing of me except perhaps to let her out of the crate. Finally, I relented.

“What about this dog?” I said to my friend.

“Oh, she’s a puppy. You don’t want a puppy.”

But when Ken gave me that look, I knew he felt the same way I did. It turns out we didn’t want any puppy; we wanted that one.

We came to find that the puppy in the crate had been found on the edge of a farmer’s field covered in ticks. She’d been to the vet and had had all her shots, but she’d already been “adopted” three times and had been returned for various reasons. One family said their son was allergic to her. Another didn’t realize how much work a puppy would be. The last owner said that Maggie had hoarded things in her crate: old socks, stuffed animals, empty plastic water bottles. I didn’t see why this was a deal breaker, as I’d probably hoard things too if somebody had once left me for dead on the edge of a farmer’s field.

Most of the dogs in the shelter were kept in a heated garage overnight, but Maggie, being as young as she was, was kept in the house with the cats. When she first came out of her crate, she moved like a cat, slow and dainty, and occasionally licked her paws in a feline way. She was small and tan, with a white belly and white paws like little boots. She also had a white lightning-shaped patch on the back of her neck like Harry Potter. Her eyes looked like they’d been painted with eyeliner, and her face was sweetly expressive. In about five minutes, Ken and I were smitten. We signed the forms, paid the fee, and took her home with us that day.

My friend thought she might have been part Jack Russell, part Boxer, which seemed a very worthy combination. Spunky and scrappy. And that’s exactly what she was. Thinking ourselves very literary at the time, we decided to name her Maggie after Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Later that night, Ken and I sat on the floor playing Yahtzee, while Maggie sniffed everything in the house. She didn’t like the sound of dice being rolled, so she retreated to her crate for a while, coming out to say hello every now and then.

Since that day, Maggie has become an integral part of our lives. She’s experienced all our joys and sorrows right along with us, ready to offer support and love whenever needed. She’s been sick and has had to be rushed to the vet, and she’s comforted us through our own illnesses. Watching a movie just isn’t the same without her sitting between us on the sofa. Sadly, I must confess, she also sleeps with us on the bed. (Victoria Stillwell would be horrified.) I get an inordinate amount of pleasure watching her roll around on the grass in our backyard or trying to catch water coming out of the garden hose. The sight of Maggie eating bubbles is ridiculously funny.

Sure, she is older now and suffers from arthritis, and her eyes are getting slightly cloudy with age, but she still manages to act like a puppy at least once every day. While we still have her with us, I hope to keep learning from her how to live in the moment, play well with others, embrace life fully, and most of all, how to love unconditionally. Maggie knows that lesson well.