Saturday, November 10, 2018

Do you have a publishing dream? Here's how mine went... (yes, it has a happy ending)

When I was preparing for the Breaking In Panel at CANSCAIP’s annual Packaging Your Imagination conference, I knew there was no way I’d be able to share my entire how-I-became-a-published-author story. 

Because, you know, it’s a long story.

So, I’m writing this a few days before the conference takes place. Here’s a look at what I hope turns up during the panel discussion but might not: the stuff that I’d really like to share with you writers out there who are trying to get through the door to publication.

I had a dream.

Yes, I was that kid who read voraciously. Yes, I was that kid who wrote all the time. Yes, Language Arts and English teachers loved me. Yes, I studied English Literature at university. Yes, I have a BA and an MA. But the most important thing about my youthful literary education is that my dream was always to be a published author, to see my book on the shelf of a bookstore. I bet this is a dream I share with all of you.

That folder in the front? PYI 1998. Yup. I've been
coming to this conference for 20 years, and this year,
I'm finally a presenter. What a thrill!

First submission

In 1983, I was out of grad school, in my first job, and knew it was time to get serious about completing and querying some of my writing projects (poetry, a contemporary novel, a children’s middle-grade novel).

The kids’ book, about a girl who wanted to play goal for her brother’s hockey team, was complete and, I felt, polished. So I researched publishers accepting manuscripts and sent it off.

A month later I got a reply: “We really like this story and are considering it for publication. We would like to have more readers on our editorial board look at it and we’ll be in touch.”

Wow! I thought. That was easy!

Two-and-a-half years later (after much back-and-forth to see if they were still interested; they were) the story was turned down.

In those two-and-a-half years, a young girl named Justine Blainey took the Toronto Minor Hockey Association to the Ontario Supreme Court to win the legal right for girls to play on boys’ hockey teams. She won. She took her case to the Supreme Court of Canada and won there, too. So now it was the law that girls could play on boys’ hockey teams.

In other words, my story was no longer timely, and it was rejected for publication.

What did I take from this experience?

1. Publishers are slow.

2. Timing is everything. And sometimes it’s out of your control. (Justine Blainey hadn’t hit the news when I wrote and submitted my story).

3. I must be doing something right, because they liked it and considered it for publication. So I should keep doing what I’m doing.

And that’s what I did.

It’s a long journey.

I kept writing my stories and sending them off.

To address the issue of slow publishers, I made sure I had lots of projects on the go, lots of queries out at different publishers, so I wasn’t sitting there waiting for one publisher, one project. I still got lots of rejections, but I felt productive and in charge of the querying process – which was nice, because so much of it is out of your control.

To address that lack of control – and the “timing is everything” issue – I made sure I was aware of publishers’ submission guidelines. I did lots of research, made phone calls and sent letters (yes, some of this was pre-email). I knew who was accepting YA fantasy and who wasn’t; who wanted middle-grade or early chapter books; whose submission period was January to June. And I followed those guidelines to the letter. I perfected my cover letter. I kept a log of my queries and submissions.

A few pages from my submission log. A lot of rejection there. Also a
lot of blank spaces where publishers never got back to me.
It's hard, just saying.

And I got lots of rejections. Lots.

Sometimes I got close: “These first three chapters are interesting and we would like to see the entire manuscript.”

Sometimes I got so close it was crushing: “We feel your manuscript has potential for publication, but I’m sorry, we just accepted another story about a girl and a dog.” Or, “This is a strong novel, but we are moving towards more urban settings in our YA fiction.”

Or my personal favourite: “This novel deserves to be published, just not by us right now.”

I have a folder full of rejections. An email archive, too. It’s pretty sad.

I was sad. Discouraged. But dammit – I had this dream…

Yeah. Okay. Thanks.

Not all bad – building on the successes

There were some successes in among all that rejection.

An educational publisher, Nelson Canada, accepted a couple of my manuscripts and turned them into novels for a school novel study program (CANSCAIP’s Sylvia McNicoll had some novels in this program, too).

I turned to freelancing and had reviews, articles and stories for kids published in magazines and newspapers. I did a lot of corporate writing and built up my editing skills. I became a college teacher and taught writing skills and business communications for 15 years at three difference colleges.

I did some self-publishing – one of the Nelson novels (when it went out of print, because teachers were still asking for it), a sequel, and a sports novel for a niche market.

I thought of myself as a writer – but, there was still this dream. A real book on a shelf in a bookstore…

What’s the point?

But the dream wasn’t coming true. I wrote the stories that just kept welling up out of me. Publishers kept saying “This is good, but…” “We really like this, but…” “This is a well-written novel, but…”

I mean, really, what’s the point any more? And add to that other things like job stresses, raising a family, Life.

I nearly gave up, so many times.

And then…

Fast forward to the spring of 2017. I’m querying a YA novel about a girl, a musical prodigy, named Imogen St. Pierre. It took me three years to write. I don’t have high hopes for it because, well, why would I? Rejections have already started to arrive.

But I love this story, this character. Writing her was the most satisfying, exciting, positive creative writing experience I’ve ever had. So even if Weird Girl (the working title) never sees the light of day, I consider it a win. Possibly the best writing I’ve ever done.

And then one day I get an email from Peter Carver at Red Deer Press: “I will be recommending to my publisher that we include it in our list as soon as possible. Thank you, again, for thinking of Red Deer for this remarkable story.”

Skating Over Thin Ice was published in June 2018.

Do the math. Yup. It took me 35 years – 1983 to 2018 – to “break in” and see my book on a shelf in a bookstore.

So if you learn anything from my story, let it be this:

Rejection is part of the process. Accept, learn from it, and move on.

Publishing is a business, and there’s only so much you can control.

Write the best story, your story, and keep working on your writing.

And most important of all, do not give up. Believe in yourself and your dream, and keep trying.

(I really, really hope it doesn’t take you 35 years, though…)

My rejections. Some of them, anyway...

Because if I had given up, my dream would never have come true: seeing my book on a shelf in a bookstore.

The Bookshelf, Guelph

Resources, suggestions, tips for breaking in:

1. Being a writer is a professional undertaking. So be a professional. Join a professional writing organization (such as CANSCAIP, Canadian Children’s Book Centre, Professional Writers Association of Canada…). Attend professional development sessions and conferences such as Packaging Your Imagination. Libraries and community groups, literary festivals all offer workshops. Be informed.

2. Enter contests. An internet search will bring you tons of suggestions – literary festivals, the CBC Literary Prizes, libraries, organizations. (And here’s a great story from author Lisa Dalrymple about how contests helped her break into publication). 

3. Connect with other writers on social media or in person. There’s probably a critique group on your area – or start one, if that’s your thing (it isn’t mine, but that’s just me). Make writerly friends in person or through social media. Don’t let it be a distraction, but be encouraged by being part of a community of writers. (I don’t know how I would have kept going if not for my writerly friends! You know who you are!)

4. All writing is grist to the mill. Find opportunities to build your writing cred. For example, does your local independent bookstore or library want book reviews for their newsletter or website? Explore freelance opportunities (PWAC is s great place to start for tips). 

4. Write your stories. Not stories to fit some market, or check a box on a publisher’s checklist. Write the stories that are in you. Published or not, you are a writer, and those are the stories that matter.

5. And finally, the most important thing to remember: don’t give up. 

Woozles Books in Halifax, N.S.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book birthday looming: Is it normal to be terrified?

As I write this, my book’s birthday (aka publication date) is less than two months away. On May 15, my YA novel, Skating Over Thin Ice, will make its appearance. It’s my first novel published by a mainstream, trade publisher (Red Deer Press, a kidlit imprint of Fitzhenry & Whiteside).

This book birthday comes after years and years of knocking on the door, being rejected, trying again, more rejection. Hours and days and months and years of work that just couldn’t get that final acceptance. But now educational publishing and self-publishing are behind me. I feel as if I’ve finally been called up to the big leagues.

Yay! I should be filled with excited anticipation, right?

Excited, yes. But it’s excitement tinged with a strong element of (let’s face it) terror.

So, why am I terrified?

 1. I’m terrified my book will fail.

All this work, all the efforts of my wonderful editor, Peter Carver, and the team at Red Deer Press, all this time and effort invested – what if no one buys it, checks it out of the library, reads it? Fail.

2. I’m terrified people will trash it on social media.

Social media is great for spreading the word, building some buzz, sharing the news – but it’s not exactly a curated space. If the buzz is bad and the news is nasty, well, enough said.

3. I’m terrified that people will be mean to my “kid”

Creating a work of fiction is a lot like raising a child. You invest so much time and energy – so much of your own heart – in creating something/someone meaningful and important and whole and beautiful. But once that book, or child, goes out into the world, it has to fend for itself. And if people are mean… not gonna lie: I’ll probably cry.

My book is going to be published, so I have to face it: stuff is going to happen – good and bad.

So this is what I tell myself:

I loved writing this book. I love these characters. I think I have something to say, something to share, with readers, especially Young Adult readers. Other people – people who know the publishing industry and have worked on my book and whom I trust – think it has a place in the world of YA fiction, too. That’s good enough for me.

Bring on the book birthday. I’m ready.


Here's the book's blurb from the Fitzhenry & Whiteside Spring 2018 catalogue:

Skating Over Thin Ice by Jean Mills

Imogen St. Pierre is a musical prodigy, a classical pianist touring Canada and abroad in a trio with her father and grandfather. Though clearly accomplished she is also painfully awkward socially, getting lost in the music even after it’s over. Imogen’s in the final year in a private boarding school where she meets a boy of the same age, Nathan McCormick, who turns out to be the next great hockey player. Nathan however has recently been penalized for a vicious fight in an international tournament. Imogen and Nathan don’t exactly become an item, but there’s an elusive special quality to their connection. Jean Mills has given us a thoughtful, moving, powerful story about what it’s like to be gifted and exceptional – and still young. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

How The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers helped me write my YA novel

So, full disclosure: I do actually know Shelagh Rogers. We were colleagues at CFRC Queen's Radio a(n) (undisclosed) number of years ago. She was the Classical music doyenne, I was the Sports Director. (Yes, it's true. TSN's Chris Cuthbert was one of my crew as we travelled around broadcasting Golden Gaels football and hockey games over the airwaves. I like to say I taught him everything he knows - but that would be a lie. He was a natural).

But I digress...

Shelagh, even then, had a smooth, silky voice, an infectious laugh and, above all, impressive smarts. She was awesome then and she's awesome now.

The Next Chapter, her weekly hour-long all-about-Canadian-books-reading-authors show on CBC Radio is required listening for anyone who (a) loves Canadian books and authors, and (b) wants to hear some of the best interviewing skills in action. She and her guests make me laugh. Cry, too. And I always learn something.

Sunday afternoon, rug hooking
and listening to podcasts of The Next Chapter

Shelagh's questions are probing and honest and intelligent. You can hear her guests thinking, organizing thoughts, delving into their writing hearts and souls to find the answers. It's fascinating.

But the best part about listening to The Next Chapter is that it's given me a tool to help me write.

After all, who else to turn to - in a virtual kind of way - when I'm trying to delve into my own writing heart and soul to figure out just what my character is doing, and why she's doing it, and where I'm going to take her (or, maybe, if I'm lucky, where she's going to take me).

Which is why, during the writing of my most recent (still unpublished) YA novel, Weird Girl, I found myself taking long walks along the country roads around my neighbourhood and imagining myself in conversation with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

It goes something like this:

"Welcome to The Next Chapter, Jean!"

"Thank you for having me!"

"So, Jean, why did you want to write about a teenager who's a musical prodigy?"

And I have to answer. There I am, walking around the neighbourhood talking to myself.

Actually, I'm talking to Shelagh. I'm explaining where Imogen (my protagonist) came from, how much of me is reflected in her.

"And then there's Nathan, the hockey boy," continues Shelagh. "Tell us about him. Good guy? Bad guy?"

What parts of Nathan are important? What is worth telling? What matters? I have to think and formulate an answer and even, maybe, defend my choices sometimes.

And I'm doing this all in my head as I walk along the road.

But it's so valuable, and helpful, too. At one point in the writing of Weird Girl, I was stuck, unable to move towards the conclusion (and I already knew exactly where I wanted to end up) because I didn't know the route to get there...yet.

"What do you think Imogen is most afraid of?" asks Shelagh, which is exactly the question that's been hovering in the back of my writing mind. How did Shelagh know?

Only now I have to lean into the mic and answer the question, "out loud", in response to Shelagh and with an imaginary audience listening. So I do, and as I'm working through my response I realize that I actually do have a response. I have an answer. Once I start talking about it, articulating it, I have direction, a route to follow.

Still walking, still talking. Still hoping no neighbours drive by and see my lips moving...

My dream is to be interviewed by Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter. Will it ever happen? Probably not. My novel is still making the rounds of publishers and the rejections are trickling in. This story may never see its way into print. I'll keep working on it, as I do with all my projects, and I'll continue to have imaginary conversations with Shelagh to help me figure out what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it.

For other writers, it might be an imaginary reader, or maybe it's an as-yet-unknown editor. But for me it's Shelagh Rogers and The Next Chapter who help me write.

Thanks, Shelagh!

Want to know more about The Next Chapter? Check out the show's website, here.

Walking and talking, and thinking, and writing...

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Rejection and looking on the bright side. Also, pie.

See this? It's a rejection:

A rejection, in the writing life, is a thing that happens when you put yourself out there, take a chance, ask for something. Like I did: I asked a number of publishers to recommend my YA fantasy project (which has been in progress for about - gulp! - ten years now) for an Ontario Arts Council Writers' Reserve Grant

As you can see, I didn't get a recommendation from this publisher, so no grant. But...

Writers' Reserve is an excellent granting program, because it's relatively easy to prepare the application, and it's available to writers who might not be widely (or even) published. And, as the amazing Marsha Skrypuch pointed out at an eye-opening workshop during CANSCAIP's Packaging Your Imagination conference years ago, so what about the money? No, Writers' Reserve is all about getting a writing sample from your project seen by the various publishers who take part in the granting process. 

Like the publisher in the photo, above, who didn't recommend me for a grant, but who took the time to add a personal, encouraging note.

Think about it: an encouraging note from a publisher who accepts submissions of YA fantasy.

So instead of beating myself up over yet another rejection, I'm looking forward to connecting with this publisher again in the future - a publisher who took the time to encourage me.

However, rejection is still rejection, so I'm also doing this:

Hot chocolate and lemon pie. Yup. That should do it.

Visit the Ontario Arts Council's site to find out more about the Writers' Reserve granting program, here: Writers' Reserve

Friday, March 10, 2017

Social Media: It's all about telling stories

I recently returned home from a 10-day national sports championship - the 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts, the Canadian women's curling championship, in St. Catharines, Ont. I was on my phone and computer all day and into the night, providing the social media coverage for the event.

And it was awesome.

Gruelling. But also awesome.

As a fiction writer, I had a chance to tell some stories about real people and real events. That's what social media is all about, right? Telling stories? Connecting with people and sharing your stories with them? Getting their stories back in return?

As the fill-in social media coordinator - our regular expert was on assignment elsewhere - there was a bit of a learning curve, but learn I did.

And here's what I learned about telling stories using Twitter, Instagram and Facebook:

1. A photo tells a story. A photo with a well-written comment (it might be only one word) tells a story. People like to hear and be part of stories. So tell them a story. My favourite device is using made-up conversations:

Joanne Courtney (second from right) has just won her first Scotties title. So why wouldn't she be checking with teammate Lisa Weagle - who's winning her third - to make sure it really just happened?

Joanne Courtney to Lisa Weagle

Alberta/Team Canada's Amy Nixon just announced that she had probably played her last game ever at a Scotties. Retirement. A huge surprise. She did this while holding her little girl in her arms (and yes, I asked permission to take a photo of her daughter. Always, always ask when it comes to kids.)

Amy Nixon has just made a surprising announcement...

2. Hashtags are great, because they give followers a way to search news and stories, but they also allow for some creativity (i.e. storytelling) on the part of the poster as well. Or a punchline.

Pranksters. Sisters. That's how Alberta's Heather Nedohin described the relationship between teams at the highest level of competition. And she made us all laugh - which this photo captures.

Pranksters. Sisters. 

Nice photo of Team Saskatchewan. That guy in the back, though...

Team Saskatchewan and - who is that?

Trying to entice fans and followers to come to the lounge and join the fun because that's where the cool kids are. And they were, truly, cool kids!

Team Newfoundland and Labrador

3. How do you decide which platform to use for your story? Facebook should be used carefully, since its algorithm can randomly send your stories to the top (or bottom) or followers' Newsfeeds. Twitter is quick and newsy and easy for followers to engage with. Instagram is for the more "artsy" posts - less news, more "moments".

Instagram: A nice moment, doesn't need much of a response.

Another nice moment, as the Northwest Territories team came off the ice after their last game. They'd survived the pre-qualification process and battled hard, but they were going home, out of the playoffs. Their coach - John Epping, a high-profile curler on the men's circuit - was there to greet skip Kerry Galusha as she came off the ice.

Another special moment happened during an important playoff game. I captured this fan moment organized by the sponsor during the break between ends, and because it was so special - the two teams joined forces to make sure that rock made it to the button - I posted it to all three platforms. It did well. Why? Because it was a lovely story. Take a look, here: Teams become teammates



4. Timing is everything. Veteran Alberta skip Shannon Kleibrink had missed a number of games during the week because of a back injury, but she wanted to give it once last try in the final game of the round robin with her team out of the playoffs. But the pain returned, and she pulled herself after two ends. The moment itself was quick, and loud, as she came off the ice and the crowd cheered for her - an emotional moment, but a newsy moment as well. Everyone was clicking away with cameras and phones.

So I waited until the game resumed, and captured this image of a teary Shannon, on the bench, instead.

It was an emotional moment, all the more poignant for being taken after the noisy, newsy moment
that everyone else captured as she came off the ice. 

5. Yes, there will be trolls who interfere with your storytelling. Especially in sport, there are the fans - the lovers and the haters, the cheerers and the boo-ers. Anticipate and respond, of course, but don't let the trolls keep you from telling your story. And that's all I'm going to say about that, because I refuse to feed the trolls!

6. And finally: yes, it's important to be in the right place at the right time, but it's also about not being afraid to wait for the right moment to tell your story.

Of course, sometimes that means waiting for the national broadcaster to get out of the way so you can have your turn, but hey, that's okay...

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Walking and talking - to the voices in my head

Here comes a confession (although I expect most writers out there will consider it less a confession and more a collegial acknowledgement).

I hear voices in my head. And often, I talk to them.

When I'm a passenger in a car, when I'm puttering in the kitchen, when I'm taking out the garbage, when I'm picking up after my dog in the yard and, especially, when I'm walking. I walk a lot.
Walking in the woods. Yup. Voices!

So while I'm stepping out along the local country roads, or up and down the beach at The Point where we spend our summers, or around the streets of my neighbourhood, the voices of characters who will find their way onto the page of my next story accompany me.

Sometimes I have complete conversations with real people - you know that thing where you revisit something that happened days ago when the words just wouldn't come? And finally you've had time to think and process it all? And now you have the words, ready and effective? Yup. That thing. I do it all the time when I'm walking, long after the opportunity to express myself has come and gone.

It's still satisfying.

But the best voices I hear are the voices of characters who speak up out of....nowhere. Magic? I don't know, but it's part of my creative process and, even more importantly, part of how I deal with the messiness of life. I walk, I talk through whatever is on my mind, and I find new voices - characters who live in the story I'm writing right now or the one that I didn't even know was coming next. Sometimes, if a story is plodding along or hits a fence, the conversations I have on my walk - and that means listening as well as "talking" - help me climb over and keep going, into the next field, down the next road.

When I walk (and talk, and listen), I just feel better.

"To walk alone in London [or anywhere] is the greatest rest," said Virginia Woolf.

I agree. And so do the voices in my head.

My favourite walk: up and down the shore at The Point,
listening to the voices of the Northumberland Strait

Monday, November 21, 2016

Trends in YA Fiction: Changes afoot...?

"What's trending?" someone asked a panel of publishers, agents and editors at the Packaging Your Imagination (PYI) conference this past weekend in Toronto. Sitting at the front of the room were Red Deer publisher and editor, Peter Carver (moderating), editor Christine Harken of Clockwise Press, agent Barbara Berson of Helen Heller Agency, editor Suzanne Sutherland of Harper Collins, and Art Director Michael Solomon of Groundwood Books.

It was my last session of the day - and the fifth, including the morning keynote - in the same room. Lunch was a distant memory, and the drive home down the dark, rainy 401 was looming (after the upcoming final keynote, of course - yes, in the same room).

I admit it: I was fading.

We'd already heard about promoting your published book and how helpful agents can be when negotiating terms for your published book. Which is all great if you have a published book.

(I don't. Well, actually I do. Two of them. But it was so long ago, so I'm classified as "starting out" again. Agents, book promotion? I wish!)

But the question about trends made me sit up, and here's why:

Trends interest me. As a writer, I've done my research, checked out the lists of award-winning YA books and their publishers. I know what teens are reading and buying and taking out from the library and maybe even studying in school. Books like Eleanor and Park, or The Hunger Games, or We Are All Made of Molecules, or anything by John Green.

But, but... that's just not the kind of story I write. I'm constantly asking myself: Should I write for the market, or should I write for myself? My stories are different from those best-sellers. Less edgy and angsty, more - gentle.

So, back to the conference and the panel at the front of the (now very familiar) room:

"What's trending?"

The short answer was "Diversity". Not just cultural, ethnic diversity among authors and the stories they tell, but gender diversity as well. This comes as no surprise, of course, if we're in touch with the world around us. Kids reading about diversity is a good thing, even if the current YA lens is pretty darn dark...

But what did make me sit up even straighter was the comment by editor Suzanne Sutherland of Harper Collins - which drew nods from the others - that (I'm paraphrasing) given the length of time it takes to acquire, produce and release a book into the market, today's trend may not be around in a couple of years. Dinosaurs were mentioned at this point. Also wizards. And, of course, vampires.

The panel's observation gives me hope. Why? Because maybe change is in the air...

Maybe that manuscript I'm sending out to publishers RIGHT NOW is on the crest of a new wave. - a wave of gentler, subtler stories for thoughtful teens. Stories the reader has to work for, but is just as deeply engaging as the dark, edgy books showing up on many of the lists today.

Come on - there have to be readers out there who would prefer a string quartet to a heavy metal rock band. (Yes, my novel is about a musician. And a hockey player.) (Ok, a violent hockey player...)

That's the thing about trends. They do change. And they change because this is what readers want to read. In publisher-speak: this is what sells.

If the recent U.S. election showed us anything (oh, well, it showed us way too much, actually, but that's another story), it confirmed that young people are smart, aware and educating themselves about the world around them. (This wonderful piece by The Globe's Mark Kingwell, a philosophy professor, expresses how wrong it is to underestimate millennials, who were, of course, teenagers just a few years ago.)

As a writer, I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that we are about to see the next trend in YA fiction creeping its way through the current manuscript submission process and making its presence known to all those acquisitions editors out there: gentler, well-written stories for engaged and thoughtful teens.

And not a dysfunctional family - or vampire - in sight.