Starting from Scratch–Again

It’s something we all do at the start of a new year, isn’t it?  We start from scratch.  We set new goals, revise plans, and look forward.

I’m doing that in unexpected ways today.

A month ago, I was working with a small local independent publishing service to add a few simple illustrations to my indie chapter book for kids, Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster, to be rereleased on Amazon with plans in the works for the sequel.  Since then, the publisher and the wonderful bookstore that worked so hard to promote local authors was suddenly and quite unexpectedly closed down by the primary owner.

Also about a month ago, I received an email from an editor at a small traditional publisher asking if the picture book manuscript I’d submitted to them almost four years ago was still available and if she could present it to the editorial board.  Having lost my indie publishing partner, I gave her the go-ahead.  I’ve been honest here about my misgivings and doubts about traditional publishing; but my dream of self-publishing my picture books hit a dead-end when the local publishing service, with its illustrators that were within my limited financial range, went under.  I haven’t yet heard back from the traditional publisher, so on the first day of 2019 I’m drifting in limbo.

I don’t like limbo.

The small traditional publisher in question puts out some wonderful picture books.  I’ve heard they’re selective because they only publish a limited number of titles each year, so I feel honored to have one of my manuscripts considered.  Even if they pass, I know I’m onto something.  It’s a boost to my confidence when I so desperately need it.

I still love the independence of self-publishing and how it enables me to maintain control over my work.  Unfortunately, despite my efforts to learn, I still can’t illustrate my own stories.  My computer savvy is virtually nonexistent, and marketing is something I don’t understand.  Amazon inexplicably took down the one review anyone bothered to write; and if I had royalties for every book people claimed they were going to buy, I’d be closer to hiring that illustrator.

The most frustrating thing for me as a writer is that everyone who has read my first book loved it, including my judge at the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards last year.  My writing is solid.  My ability to represent myself and my work is not.

I’ve taken a big bite of the reality sandwich that is self-publishing on Amazon, and it gave me heartburn.

What’s an author to do?

Well, an idea for a new story popped into my head the other day.  All I can say is that it involves socks.  Mind you, it’s just the germ of a story.  I can hear the cadence of the words off in the distance, but not yet the words themselves.  As we settle into winter and back to a regular schedule, I’ll have time to sit and listen as the words get closer.  I don’t mean to sound weird or mystical, but that’s how my stories come to me.  It’s a drumbeat, faint and a little indistinct.  I can draw the sound closer by beginning to put words on paper, and then the drummer fades out as my consciousness takes over.

I guess if writing is a disease, then productivity is the cure.

The Winthrop Risk sequel is almost finished, but I don’t know if I’ll bother self-publishing it on Amazon.  Like the first installment, it will need a few illustrations.  I won’t make the same mistake and release the sequel without them.  I’m sure the lack of chapter head illustrations has dampened sales of the first book, and it was the Writer’s Digest judge’s only criticism.

As far as my picture books go, I guess indie publishing is out of the question for me.  Time to restart the soul-crushing exercise of tossing my stories onto the slush pile and hoping someone notices my work.  I haven’t decided what to do with the Winthrop Risk series.  I’ll leave the first book up there on Amazon for now, sans illustrations until I can work something out.  I’ll finish the sequel and put it aside while I work on the picture book ideas I had to put on hold, and I’ll submit the others to publishers for consideration.

While we lost the local bookstore/publisher last month, one of the former owners is charging ahead with plans for a new service to help indie authors promote their work.  Her love for writing and her passion for supporting local writers are an inspiration to me.  I look forward to working with her again.

As I sit here on January 1, 2019, I find myself facing obstacles old and new in my quest to be published and read.  I know many of you are doing the same.  Chin up, everyone.

We’ve got this.

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Book Signing Event!

The Grey Wolfe Scriptorium in Clawson, Michigan.  Bring the kids!

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Winthrop Risk, Detective

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I’m Not My Mother

I recently celebrated my birthday, which reminded me that I need to send for a copy of my birth certificate. Somewhere among Fort Dix, West Germany, and Michigan it was lost.

My birth certificate is something of a puzzle to me. I have five siblings, all with a first and middle name. My first name is Mary Jane but I have no middle name. My parents told me it was because my first name was a double name and a middle name wasn’t necessary. When you’re different from your siblings, you’re simultaneously proud of the distinction and hurt by it.

I accepted their explanation until I was about 17 and signing up for driver’s training at school. I had to produce my birth certificate and asked my mother to give it to me. I took it out of the envelope and read the details of my arrival, noting that I was born in the morning. But looking at it a second time, I noticed that it listed my first name as Mary and my middle name as Jane. Middle name? I don’t have a middle name. I’m Mary Jane, or “MJ” to family and friends. I’m not Mary. My mother’s name was Mary.

Surely, the folks who printed the birth certificate had misunderstood and listed my name incorrectly. A typo, that’s all. I would have to correct it. We were living in a different state at the time and this was long before the age of the internet, so I had to write a letter explaining my problem and send it via snail mail. A few weeks later, I received the necessary form and filled it out. My mother seemed a bit miffed when I asked her to sign it, though I didn’t understand why and knew better than to ask. I then had to mail it to my father for his signature, as my parents were long since divorced. I have no idea what his reaction might have been.

A few more weeks, and I received a corrected birth certificate. I had them list my first name as “Mary-Jane”, adding the hyphen to prevent confusion in the future. It never occurred to me to give myself a middle name. I was just MJ, as I had always been.

Had my mother not reacted the way she did when I asked her to sign the form to correct my birth certificate, I might have forgotten all about it. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you’ll know my mother and I had a very bad relationship. It didn’t start when I was a teenager. She just didn’t like me, let alone love me, and I knew that from the time I was a very small girl. Why, then, would she give me her name? I have two older sisters, one of whom was her favorite. Why didn’t she name her Mary? I find myself wondering about it. By the time I came along, my parents’ marriage was falling apart; and by falling apart, I mean they were openly hostile to one another. Did she name me Mary just to piss off my father? Did he then insist everyone call me Mary Jane instead of Mary, just to piss off my mother?

I can only speculate about my mother’s hatred for me, since it was always present. Her first child was a boy, followed by my two older sisters. Was she hoping that her next baby would be another boy? Did she think that would make things better with her husband? It was the early sixties after all, so that sort of thinking wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. Her sister had given birth to a boy just a month earlier.

The funny thing is that my father doted on me when I was very small. He said I was a beautiful baby who was born with a head full of dark brown hair. I used to sit in his lap. There’s an old home movie of him feeding me ice cream when I was about two years old. We used to take naps in his rocking chair. I wonder if my mother was angry because he didn’t hate me, because he wasn’t upset that I wasn’t a boy, and yet her marriage was still a disaster.

I’ll never get any answers, as both of my parents are dead now. By the time I was five, our apartment had become an emotional minefield. My parents never spoke and my father began to disconnect himself from his children. At least I know that he loved me for a few years.

To this day, it irks me when someone calls me “Mary” (no offense to all you Marys out there), and I’m lightning-quick to correct them. I’m MJ. I am not Mary. I am not my mother.

The 25th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards

I’m not one for contests; but a year after self-publishing my first book, I thought the publicity from winning a Writer’s Digest contest would help my abysmal sales.  Unfortunately, I didn’t win.  What I didn’t know when I entered was that each entry would receive its own critique from one of the judges.  To be honest, that made me a little nervous.  What if they hated it?

Each book was judged in six categories:

  1. Structure, organization, and pacing.
  2. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
  3. Production quality and cover design.
  4. Plot and story appeal.
  5. Character appeal and development.
  6. Voice and writing style.

In each category, a score of 1 (needs improvement) to 5 (outstanding) was awarded.

I scored “5” in every category.  Blew me away.

The judge’s commentary is below in its entirety.

“Winthrop Risk, Detective, is a lively mystery where Winthrop tries to find a missing hamster!  This book has some great lines in it.  Right from the start I knew I’d like it when I read, “I live in the big city, where dreams are broken…like a piñata at a birthday party.”  And that’s just the first simile.  One after another rolls off the page in perfect 40s noir.  There are no pictures in this book, but the cover fits the story well and grabs your attention right away.  The plot was strong, the red herrings were tricky and explained well, and the overall solution was believable.  All in all, the story was an absolute delight to read.  I only struggled a bit with a 40s noir-style so prevalent in a book for third graders (and younger) as they would likely stumble because of the “alternative language” of yesteryear.  I appreciated the definitions after chapter four, and think this book read from a parent to a child is an easy sale…but as a self-directed story, I think it might do better as an audiobook.  But I’m a bit divided.  This book is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable read.  How can I possibly give it a negative mark in any area?  I think it may just need the right visionary or market to help it find a home.  I also suggest, because of the age group, teaming with an artist for an occasional piece of artwork that supports the story.  That would also add to the book’s length and perceived value.  You’ve definitely got a great book here, and a unique, memorable voice that I couldn’t help but read myself and then share with my entire family.  It made them as happy as a dog sitting under a toddler’s high chair.  We need more Winthrop Risk!”

Before I decided to self-publish (Amazon and Kindle, by the way), I did send the manuscript out to a few places.  Unfortunately, I got no response.  At all.  Not even an email.  I self-published based on my own confidence in my work and would do it again; but the judge’s review of the book, from someone who actually works in publishing, was still a surprise to me.  Clearly, my work has merit.  Why didn’t the houses I submitted the manuscript to think so?

As I’ve long suspected, the acceptance or rejection of a manuscript is a highly subjective decision.  Whatever you’re working on or currently shopping around, don’t be discouraged by those rejections or by the silence of no response at all.  When you’ve done the hard work of revision and polishing and know you’ve put together something wonderful, don’t doubt yourself simply because the person who pulled your manuscript out the slush pile can’t see it.

I wrote a terrific little book.  I hope you’ll check it out.  Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster available on Amazon and Kindle.

Happy New Year!

 

That Ain’t Me

If you asked someone to describe a children’s author, what would they say? I always pictured some nice old lady in a flowered dress with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, sipping tea while sitting in her garden.

Then there’s me.

Old blue jeans. Torn sneakers. Snake cuff bracelet. Guzzling coffee. Smoking the occasional cigar.

Yep.

My husband says I look beautiful in a dress but I seldom wear them. Maybe all those years in a wool Catholic school uniform turned me off dresses for good.

I can do girlie. Sometimes I wear pink. I even have butterfly earrings, but I prefer the daggers with snakes wrapped around them.

Is this the kind of person you want writing for your children? What can a woman who grew up in the city under tough circumstances, a woman with a sometimes unfortunate vocabulary, possibly have to say to a child that would be even remotely acceptable in their vulnerable and  (hopefully) innocent world?

Lots, actually.

As a child, escaping reality is something I tried to do every day. I seldom bothered with stories that took place in the city. I wanted my make believe to take place in settings that were unfamiliar to me, in places that were nothing like home. I particularly hated picture books in which the pictures were drawn so realistically that they might as well have used photographs instead of illustrations. My favorite picture book was (and is) Alexander and the Magic Mouse, written by Martha Sanders and brilliantly illustrated by Philippe Fix. It was published in 1969, so I was 6 years old when I first laid eyes on it. I found a used copy on Amazon a few years ago and count it among my most treasured possessions. The Dr. Seuss books are probably the most inventive, fun, unapologetically outrageous stories ever written. The brazen use of made-up words makes my heart smile. I was able to read and write before I entered kindergarten, and I credit the Dr. Seuss books for that.

That’s what I want to give children. Make believe. Good triumphing over evil. Silly rhymes. A love for words. No dead pets. No dead grandparents. No natural disasters. No sex. They can get that crap on CNN, 24/7, so I think it’s more important than ever before to give kids a place to go that’s green, gentle, funny, sweet, or brave. Scary is OK, as long as it ends safely.

Those publishers who feel the need to cut that childhood innocence short under the guise of helping kids deal with reality are far too full of themselves to be in the business. A frightened child doesn’t need more of what scared her in the first place. I know.