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Monday, October 19, 2009

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Cracking the Code


I ran into someone I hadn't seen in a while, and they asked what I've been up to.

"I've been writing a book."

"Oh, that must be fun!"

Yes, if by fun you mean being dropped into an iron soul-compactor formed by two walls of pressure, external and internal, bearing down on you for ten months.

"It's...ah...been an interesting process."

At times, it has been...well, fun is a stretch. It's felt really good, at least as often as it's felt really hard. I turned in all but the last few chapters on Thursday, and have a few more weeks to get happy enough with those to turn them loose. Patrick has also been under the gun of several big projects, so it's been pretty crazy around here. The kids go to bed, and the coffee pot goes on. The emotional climate is completely different, but the physical tension is weirdly similar to the way it felt two years ago, when we were about to lose our house. I guess in the body, stress is stress.

We try to stay in gratitude. I walked through his office late one night on my way to refill my coffee, and saw how exasperated he was with the project he was working on. I stopped to rub his shoulders, leaned down and kissed his head.

"Two years ago this October, you were up all night, staring into your computer because you had no work."

"I know, I know."

He managed a smile. He does the same for me, when I've lost perspective.

Sometimes it is granted in other ways. Our last date was a month or so ago (I've completely lost track of time--when did summer turn to autumn?), and we spent part of it wandering around the big chain bookstore, with coffees in hand. He stayed in the graphic novel section the whole time, while I strolled around. A bookstore like that is one of my favorite artist's playdates, but I have to be careful to keep it playful, or it can quickly turn into a busman's holiday. For example, I have to avoid the memoir section right now, which is usually my favorite, because I can't help but do market analysis. I stick to cookbooks and travel guides lately.

I was on my way to the magazine rack when I passed the writer's reference section, and it almost stopped me in my tracks. I had forgotten how much time I used to spend there, trying to crack the code. I spent so many Sunday afternoons by that shelf, thumbing through books telling me how to write, how to pitch, how to get published. I spent far more time circumambulating writing than actually writing. It's tempting to harbor regret for all the lost years, but it just wasn't time yet. No amount of my strategizing and studying was going to hurry up time, either. It happened when it happened, not a moment too late or too soon.

I could almost see myself there, running my fingers along the spines, looking for the way in, like it was a secret door.

I see myself also in the queries I get lately--a couple a week--from people who are looking for the same elusive opening. I feel very inadequately equipped to answer these. "I really don't know much about pitching," I responded recently. "More about dreaming." I'm afraid I disappoint, that they go away thinking I am willfully shutting them out. I very well remember feeling that published writers and the most well-known bloggers had magic wands they could wave over me if they cared to. All I needed was an invitation to the ball. If only they would link to me, or mention me to their agent, or put in a word with the editor. Access was the key, I was sure of it. I'd be so despondent when I'd learn that someone got a book deal only because (I thought) they "knew someone."

Access is key, but it doesn't work the way I thought it did. Publishing isn't the Junior League. It's not as simple as having someone vouch for you, and you're in. People say that publishing isn't a meritocracy, that it's a crapshoot. I think that's only partly true. There are best selling books by people who can barely string a sentence together, and there are talented, dedicated writers who may never make it out of the slushpile. But those are the extremes. In between, I believe most authors work for what they get, and get what they work for: a book. It may not be with their dream publisher. Chances are, it won't make Oprah's bookclub or win the Booker. Fame and fortune is a crapshoot. When you see how much people love to hate Elizabeth Gilbert or Julie Powell, you really have to ask yourself what you're in it for, because the best case scenario is being publicly loathed and snarked at by thousands, and the worst case is being publicly loathed and snarked at by dozens.

But if you know all that, and you still want to get published, it's hardly an esoteric mystery. For what it's worth, here's everything I know:

  • Write. There came a day when I stopped reading about writing, and I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote things that embarrass me now, and things of which I'm still proud. I wrote when it made me feel good and people approved, and I wrote when it made me feel foolish and exposed-- worse, when it made others feel foolish and exposed and I felt like Edward Scissorhands. I wrote when there were no words for what I felt. I wrote when no one but Patrick and my mom was reading, when I was sure it was no good, and no one but Patrick and my mom would ever give a damn. I wrote when I read how impossible the odds were of someone like me ever being noticed, when I heard stories about editorial assistants whose job it was to keep letters from unknowns ever getting past the slushpile, when I was told that blogging was an utter waste of time. I wrote for the same reason Patrick and I stayed together through the darkest time of our marriage. Because there was nowhere else to go.

    There are times writing has made me miserable. But those are nothing compared to the misery I would suffer and inflict if I weren't writing.

  • Risk. We gave up our house. We gave up our savings, benefits and security. We lost sleep, sanity, and serenity. We almost didn't make it. Any rational person would have cried uncle, and gone and gotten a job when things took a nosedive like they did for us in 2007. We could have a predictable payday and two cars in the driveway instead of a budget based on anybody's guess, and a six year old minivan with which we play Korean roulette every mile. I find it best not to pursue that line of thought too far, so I'll move on. But rest assured, you can stamp my dues statement paid.

  • Persevere. Eventually I found agents and bloggers who would answer emails from unconnected nobodies like me. All it did was give me some more personalized rejections. Access turned out not to be the magical, mythical thing I thought it would be. I pitched, charmed, networked and sometimes just hurled myself at the door, but not ONE of those things is what gave me my first break. You know what was? See the top item: I wrote. I got rejected, I cried, I turned to my silly blog that no one read, and I wrote. And one day, opportunity stopped by without me knowing or engineering it, and there was a whole body of work for an editor to find. There was awful drivel, but there was also my best stuff, that people told me I shouldn't just give away.

So, there I was, "discovered," and the seas just parted before me: magazine articles, agent, book deal, code cracked, right?

Not quite. I just get to keep doing it all over at a different level. Write. Risk. Persevere. Repeat. The stakes and expectations get higher with the rewards. I try not to complain (much). If it doesn't ever get any better, if it all falls apart, I've still got Patrick and my mom. I'm good.

In my wildest dreams, I'd be that bestselling author whose influence is so great that I can make agents and editors read things that I think are wonderful and deserving, and have Oprah's number on speed dial. "Here's a blog I think you should read," I'd say to my agent, and a star is born. It would be fun to pretend it worked that way, so that people might try to buy me with candy and flowers, but in reality, my agent doesn't read my blog. She's busy selling books to publishers, which is exactly what you want an agent to be busy doing.

A lot of my regular readers have shared with me their aspirations to be published. I hope this doesn't discourage anyone. I hope you stick with it. I hope you have someone in your life who believes in you, no matter what. And I hope you believe in yourself, when it feels like no one will ever give a damn. If you don't have that foundation, I recommend Jen and Andrea's online class about dreaming big. I haven't taken the class myself, but I've been on the receiving end of Jen's infinite faith in possibility.

I'm very happy to answer any questions or read your insight about writing and publishing in the comments section. I'm not doing a great job with keeping up with email lately, and your query or experience might help someone else.

Posting will be very light for the next few weeks, but I'll be around. Thanks for all the good mojo. xo K.



Blogger Angella said...

Thanks for writing this, Kyran. I finally confessed on my site a few weeks ago that I DO want to write a book.

I have some great people in my corner (I count you, because you are so selfless to post this), a few of whom are my biggest cheerleaders.

I'm looking forward to seeing the rewards of your hard work (the book). Happy for you.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

You bet you can count me. I was looking for an excuse to buy cheer shorts anyway :-)

2:14 PM  
Blogger Schmutzie said...

Thank you so much for writing this. I actually have tears in my eyes, and I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it's your substantiation that dreaming and perseverance really do matter.

2:20 PM  
Blogger ~Savannah B said...

It's like you're my Fairy Blog Person!
That may have been me you saw in the writers' reference section, Bird by Bird in one hand; Writer's Market in the other.
I've been almost writing my book for 2 years now. Three chapters down, the rest of my life to go.

Thank you, Kyran, for exposing the magic publishing wand myth. And thank you for sharing what it does take.

2:51 PM  
Blogger beth♥ said...

Oh... thank you, Kyran. Thank you for your own perseverance. From someone who has never worked up the nerve to pursue publishing, I thank you for being honest and real.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

(am glad that I didn't send you that e-mail pleading *how did you do it?*)

(am grateful that you heard my wishes anyway and wrote this)


3:31 PM  
Blogger Marianne said...

What a wonderful post! I'm right in the midst of my own lovely, lonely, endless 'write, risk, persevere' cycle and as hard as it is some days I can honestly say that I wouldn't be doing anything else for the world. I'm so glad I found you here, thanks to Karen (Momma Zen).

3:36 PM  
Blogger Amy B. said...

Ah, finally, a post of length. I'd been having withdrawals. I know you've been busy *writing* and all, but it's nice to hear your beautiful voice.

When you're on Oprah, can I please bring my big makeup kit and my hot rollers and pretend to be your stylist?

3:44 PM  
Blogger Angella said...

You'd look pretty hot in cheer shorts. Just sayin'...



3:52 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...


I've uttered the words "I'm your biggest fan" more times than I care to count.

Sometimes said as a plea, sometimes whispered as a prayer, sometimes enthusiastically, and to my shame I've even hurled it as an accusation once or twice.

But come what may I'm proud of you.

Your biggest fan.


3:58 PM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

me too!

5:13 PM  
Blogger Neil said...

It's been a great joy to follow your steps to this moment over the last two years!

5:17 PM  
Blogger kazari said...

From someone who's held down the sensible job, who has held it so well it became a really-good-secure-supportive-too-good-to-leave job, it's wonderful to read posts like yours.
They make me whistful. But they let me see another path. And, as I'm about to jump off my career path for at least 6 months, they help me dream.


5:29 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Harper said...

This is a great post...

I'm keeping and printing it for times when writing for myself isn't enough. My mom tells me not give it away on my blog, but there's a power in it for me that I can't explain.

Even if no one reads it except my husband, (also my biggest fan) the very act of putting my words together in the stories I've longed to tell is almost as good as well, you know...all the rest of it.

5:53 PM  
Blogger starrynightimpressions said...

I can't wait to read what you are working on! Your words are beautiful and I want more :)
PS.and your hubbys comment brought me to tears

6:01 PM  
Blogger said...

Thanks for writing this, Kyran. I don't comment very often, but I really appreciate your point of view, and no doubt you will soon be enjoying the fruits of your many labors.

Until then, here's to persistence, and the ability to write your dreams into existence.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Janie B said...

I'm glad you took the time to write this one, Kyran. You've given a lot of us hope. My book is finished; I just can't get anyone to publish it. I've only tried 3 times, but it's so discouraging to put yourself out there and not be given the time of day for your efforts. I need to decide if the heartache is worth it to me or not.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Jen K-C said...

Your words are inspirational. I have much respect for you following your dream.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Thanks, just what I needed to read.

I've been procrastinating for years, occasionally feel inspired then wonder why I'm bothering...

When in doubt just keep writing...

6:42 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

It's truly generous of you to share these thoughts and your process with us. I feel simultaneously encouraged and discouraged after reading this. Your description of searching for the "secret door" is so familiar and painfully true. The truth and the secret, as you said, is simple to write. I'm trying. Thank you so much for this. I'm anxiously awaiting your book.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Jeanette said...

This is a fabulous post and inspires me to write something similar. I'm an artist and your words resonate and the same fears and challenges exist for any creative person.

I hear the same words in people starting out as artists. Many people think it comes easily but it comes with tears and hardship and bloody hard work.

Thanks for reminding me of that and congratulations for sticking with it and not bailing.

11:46 AM  
Blogger jen said...

This post is invaluable, Kyran. Thanks for sharing your experience.

I've recently hit that sweet spot of perseverance AND contentment in regards to my writing future - I know what I want and where I want to go, AND I'm content with where I am at on the way.

A great book I read a couple years ago really helped ground me in the area of my expectations - Writing From the Inside Out, by Dennis Palumbo. Somebody here might find that useful.

In addition to write, risk, and persevere, from my own experience I would add expect surprises.

As I was laying out a plan of attack for getting discovered (submitting articles, stalking, etc), an opportunity came out of left field as a result of my networking - I was asked to write for a new blog called This could really be the break for me that Good Housekeeping was for you.

It's surprising because it's not at all what I would have pursued, but it turns out to be a perfect fit for me on the way to meeting my goals.

Who knew?

Anyhow, you are the third friend I've walked with on the way from struggling writer to published writer (assuming the interwebs makes us friends!). I am teary with pride and excitement on your behalf - it's been fun to watch it all unfold.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Kimberly said...

Sometimes said as a plea, sometimes whispered as a prayer, sometimes enthusiastically, and to my shame I've even hurled it as an accusation once or twice.

But come what may I'm proud of you.

Your husband reads and follows your work, and encourages you so the world can see.

What a beautiful love. :)

2:34 PM  
Blogger Maven said...

I found your blog through Blog Her and related to all of it. Especially the bit about doing market analysis in the memoir section - Ha!!

I don't know you, but look forward to getting to know you via your blogs. What you've written is exactly what I needed to read.

Congratulations on finishing your novel. Very few bloggers are engaging writers and I am always happy when I meet one.

1:34 AM  
Blogger Kim said...

Thanks for this. Very generous. I love how you're willing to share. I'm not sure how many people would be willing to tell others how to "get there."

I've been kicking around the idea of my own book--memoir or novel, still trying to figure that out--for sometime. Finding the time to write is an impediment, but my main concern is writing about family or the small town I grew up in. Would they ever let me come home again??? I'd love to know how you come to terms with that?

8:23 PM  
Blogger Kelly said...

Perfect words, perfect timing. My thing is not words and writing, but cameras and photography. The inspiration works the same, whatever the creative medium. Thanks for sharing.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Planet Mom said...

Wow. Your words are like a salve that promises to heal all my ills. Thank you for expressing everything I needed to hear this day. In light of that, I will write. I will risk. And I will persevere.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Joy! said...

This is a beautiful post! Brings up all kinds of stirring emotions for me. I wrote something similar about contra dance calling in response to someone frustrated at not finding that secret door.

It's the *doing* and the *asking* and the *persevering*, working on getting better without beating yourself up over your flaws. I'm now trying to do the same thing with writing, but for now I'm content to just write without ambitions.

12:10 AM  
Blogger Tammy M Carew said...

I am so grateful to a friend for suggesting i read your blog and e-meet you! i have been buzzing around your blog and your links and comments like a hound dog fixed on a new scent. you are an inspiration! every few days or so i find myself praying for inspiration, from somewhere anywhere, i always seem to need new proof that such passion and purpose exists and that im not a complete tool for yearning for it and feeling it in myself. (i suffer greatly from the plague of self doubt, and the itchy-redness of procrastination!)
thank you for writing. for not stopping (like i do right now!) when things seem pointless. you have really turned my eyes up-side-right again! (for however brief a moment it may be!)

for your words, i am soulfully grateful!

9:34 PM  
Blogger Kay said...

Kyran, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this whole breaking the code thing. For that matter, thanks for putting a name on it. I've been wrestling with it and not really knowing what kind of animal I was wrestling with! But you've nailed it.

I have had limited success with my writing - published in a dozen or so low-circulation periodicals, a chapter in a compilation book, some speaking gigs - but not at all the level I'm aiming for. To carry on your analogy, it seems like I've made it through some initial gate only to encounter a crazy labyrinth I must now find my way through in order to find yet another door with a code I don't even have. It frustrates me and causes me to quit almost daily.

Fortunately I get up and rehire myself daily as well. And yes, I write.

But you're encouragement to write and write and write is what I've needed. To the point, as you say, of embarrassment and disgrace, if need be. And so, like a recovering alcoholic, I can proudly report I've been on the wagon for 3 weeks solid of writing every single day. My blog is certainly still obscure, but I'm putting words on it every day all the same.

I too have made the mistake of thinking it is all about access. In fact, that's what I thought it was all about until I read your blog post tonight. Thanks for clearing that up. I guess I have to stop whining now and just...write.

Truly, thanks.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Jenny said...

As one who has sent a "show me the way" email, and been on the receiving end of a VERY helpful and inspirational response from you, Kyran, I can just say thank you. I owe you an owl.

3:20 AM  

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