Tag Archives: on writing

in which THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS is released into the world

Late in the summer of 2013, I had just finished up taking part in a great contest called The Writer’s Voice. I had also just signed with my agent, was ready to dive into submission of the first novel, about to start my MFA, and testing the waters in the YA community, a community in which I felt like everyone knew each other but me.

Alongside me in this contest was another writer called Anna-Marie McLemore. I knew nothing about her, except the first hundred words of her novel and the pitch. Which I think I read a dozen times. “Wow, I wish this was a book I could read right now,” I remember thinking. “Wow, that Anna-Marie McLemore seems so cool and awesome and talented. I’ll be she is the bomb diggity.” I then proceeded to shyly internet stalk her. Like the big creep that I am. 

So imagine my surprise when a few months later, I got a direct message on Twitter from here which read, nearly in its entirety, “Wanna CP/beta?” (for those of you who are not writers, she was asking me if I wanted to be critique partners, meaning people who send their manuscripts to each other and trade feedback).

That’s right–this writer whose work I had had a big old crush on for MONTHS was asking ME if I wanted to be HER critique partner?

I think I fainted.

I wrote her back an email that was crafted with all the attention and care and redrafting of asking someone out on a date. I did my best to make myself appear far more interesting and intelligent than I actually am. This was the equivalent of the taped-glasses math club nerd getting asked to the prom by the dreamy captain of the football team.

I was not going to screw this up. I wanted this girl to like me.

So I sent my new friend a draft of the book that would become This Monstrous Thing. She read it. She had great and helpful things to say about it. Turns out she was also smart, funny, articulate, and kind.

“Damn,” I thought, “This girl is even cooler than initially anticipated.”

We kept reading each other’s writing. We traded more personal emails with that writing. We started talking about things other than books, and we eased slowly into friendship. We went from being CPs to pen pals to proper friends in opposite time zones. Over the past two years I’ve known her, Anna-Marie has been an incredible source of strength and inspiration for me–both as a writer and a human being. And one time she drove me around western Mass and I was pretty sure we were going to die. Also her and her cute husband are the kind of pair that make you believe in true love. That has nothing to do with anything. I just wanted to mention it. 

I remember exactly where I was when I heard This Monstrous Thing sold–it was such a special moment, I’ll never forget it. I also remember exactly where I was when I read that Anna-Marie’s first novel, The Weight of Feathers, had sold to St. Martin’s. It was also a pretty freaking special moment. Probably moreso for her than me. But I pretended I was a part of it. 

Today, that exquisite book by this exquisite human being, is released into the wild.  

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The Weight of Feathers is an astonishing book. Of course I am biased because I know and love the author, but also I am a person with fantastic taste and I would think this book is gold whether or not I knew her. It is magical and evocative and lush and delicious and gorgeous. It is about inherited hatred and impossible love, about performing mermaids and tree climbers, about family and abuse and learning how to love others and yourself. It is about magic and culture and the way our families make us who we are, and how we break free of that and make ourselves. And the prose is so beautiful and sweet it will give you a cavity.    

So here are some recommendations for you:

  1. Get yourself a friend like Anna-Marie McLemore.
  2. Get yourself a copy of The Weight of Feathers.

Here are some helpful links to make it even easier for you to obtain this book:

Indiebound

Amazon

Porter Square Books 

GET YOURSELF THIS BOOK. I promise you will love it. And if you don’t, we can’t be friends anymore. Simple as that.

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in which Mackenzi and Anna-Marie talk about being critique partners

An essential part of the writer life is the critique partner relationship. What is a critique partner, you might ask? It is generally a trusted friend, usually a fellow writer, who you swap projects with, read each other’s work, and give feedback on how to make it even more awesome. 

Recently, my beloved CP Anna-Marie McLemore (whose novel, The Weight of Feathers, is stunning) and I did a joint interview for the Fall Fifteeners on the ins and out of a critique partner or CP relationship (you can read the original interview here!). Except we’re novelists, so we got a little long winded and had to cut a lot of the brilliant things we said. Because everything we say is brilliant.

So here is the deleted scenes from our conversation, some additional thoughts on how to be the best CP possible. Anna-Marie’s answers appear in pink, mine are in green. Sorry our favorite colors clash so badly. 

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On how to find your CPs: 

AM: How I connected with my CPs is a mix of in-person and online. Mackenzi, you’re a great example of meeting a CP online, because I first got acquainted with your work through The Writer’s Voice Contest, and then we started talking over Twitter. I read your entry and immediately thought, “I want to read that!”How did you connect with your CPs, Mackenzi? And do they all read your work at the same time, or do you stagger?

M: I remember being very glad you reached out to me, because I read your entry and had the same ZOMG I WANT THIS reaction to your book, but I was still very new to the writing community and too shy to reach out. Plus you just seemed too cool for me. Which I still sometimes think you are.

AM: I couldn’t possibly be too cool for you! You have a mechanical arm and an endless supply of obscure facts about historical figures! Okay, I’m done interrupting…

M: I am lucky to have done a great MFA program and found some writers through that who I’m now in a writing group with. We meet every two weeks, talk about writing and life, and read and critique each other’s stuff. It’s a much more casual relationship, because we have the MFA background together and have been friends in addition to critique partners. Giving feedback is very different when you’re sitting across a plate of French toast from someone than it is over the internet. I love my writing group in person because they are highly brainstormy, and I love being able to talk out problems with them. They are the people I go to when I get stuck.

On what to look for in a CP: 

AM: Mostly I first connect with CPs because I adore their work. Their stories are brave, unexpected, and intensely memorable. If I admire a writer as much as I do my CPs, I know there’s a good chance they can help me make whatever I’m working on so much better. With you, Mackenzi, I was struck by how efficiently and vividly you depict time and place, and this became the first of many things I’d come to admire in your work.

Connecting with CPs this way also means there’s a good chance I can be helpful to them. When I critique, I start with what I like about a story—what’s strongest, what’s working, at least for me. It’s not because I’m trying to be nice, it’s just how I work. And if what I’m saying resonates with the author, I try to help them figure out what’s getting in the way of the things that are strongest and most engaging.

That’s not to say that you can’t critique a piece you don’t love. Far from it. Even with stories I don’t quite connect with, that’s usually where I start—what’s working. And this is why it’s helpful to have multiple points of view. Maybe the plot thread that stuck out to me as out of place is the thing everyone else goes wild for. Maybe the scene I loved isn’t serving the story as well as it could. Different POVs are invaluable.

On how to be a good CP: 

M: The first thing I’d say on this subject is if you’re entering into a CP relationship, be sure you’re willing to take feedback. We’ve all had that CP or writing group member or MFA student who argues with every piece of feedback they’re given and doesn’t really seem to want anyone to tell them anything except how good their story is. Don’t be this person. But also recognize that not every piece of feedback you’re going to get is going to be right for your story. I’ve also had CPs who took every piece of advice I gave them and applied it and it always made me uncomfortable, because it’s their story. They should be making changes that serve their story. A CP relationship is a mix of being open to hearing what other people have to say about your writing, and going with your gut.

On how to know if a CP relationship isn’t working: 

AM: You may not know exactly what you want to do right away, but CP comments should give you a sense of looking at the story with new eyes. If feedback from any one CP repeatedly makes you feel drained it’s probably destructive, and it’s probably not working. The biggest red flag in a CP relationship is if you don’t feel safe. If you don’t feel safe giving them your work, or if you don’t feel safe being honest about how you’re reading their work, then something’s wrong. Whether you both want to work through it or whether it’s best to part ways of course depends on the situation.

On how to end a CP relationship: 

M: When I was first starting out, writing was such a solitary practice for me. I wrote things, I read things, I revised things. Then as soon as I started showing it to other people and getting feedback, I thought, “WHY HAVEN’T I BEEN DOING THIS FOREVER?!” Other people could help me identify and solve the problems!? SIGN ME UP. Showing other people my writing and having them help me make it better had literally never occurred to me. So I went sort of crazy and was suddenly wanted to show my work to everyone and solicit their help.

Which, as you can imagine,  backfired. I ended up showing my work to a lot of people who just weren’t the right people for me to be showing it to. For a lot of reasons. It wasn’t that I thought my work was perfect and they were giving me feedback and I didn’t like that. It was just that something felt intangibly off to the way they reacted to my manuscript. And it was mutual–I didn’t love their stuff either. Reading it didn’t get me excited. I didn’t want to help them make it better. I just felt meh. And as a result, we weren’t giving each other good feedback. The things I was getting from them didn’t’ feel like it was helping me make my book better, it felt like them trying to rewrite the novel the way they would if it were their novel.

Some of these relationships naturally petered into nothing–we just stopped sending each other stuff. Some of them ended with mutual “I don’t think this is working.” One ended with a writer straight up telling me she thought my stuff was no good.

And so then I went back to not showing anyone my writing ever.

I think it’s important to be honest but kind when a CP relationship isn’t working. I have a friend who I was once CPs with, but turns out in spite of being friends, we’re not good critique partners. We were honest with each other about how it just wasn’t working, returned to friendship with no hard feelings, and still support each other any way we can.

For me, writing and being a critique partner and in a writing group has been a long process of learning who is worth listening to. Which sounds mean and haughty, but hear me out. Some people are going to *get* your writing–they’re going to understand what you’re trying to do and help you do it better. Those are the people you should be listening to and soliciting feedback from and listening to opinions from. Like you said, you want to be taking feedback from people who make you feel excited about the pile of flaming garbage that revision often is.

That was a long story.

On how to deal with professional jealousy: 

AM: In terms of professional jealousy, what I’ve more often felt with CPs was intimidation, a sense of, “they’re so incredible, what right do I have to critique their writing at all?” It’s not quite the same thing, but it can be just as lethal to a CP relationship. Early on, I was so in awe of the writers I was exchanging work with that I held back on suggestions because I felt presumptuous. But it wouldn’t have been presumptuous — suggestions were exactly what they wanted, and what they were asking of me! It took a little while for me to understand that they were just normal people, and that their books did not spring from their brains fully formed and ready for copy-editing. Just like me, they needed other writers to make it happen.

The professional jealousy can be hard but it’s also a natural thing. If you’re crippled by jealousy or can’t be a good CP because of it, that might be a sign the relationship isn’t working out or has other deeper problems. Because if you really care about someone and their work, you’ll be happy for them. You can still be a little jealous. But you’ll be happy. I remember when you signed your book deal, Anna-Marie, it never occurred to me to be jealous. In spite of the fact that I had been on sub for a year and was in the throes of “everyone has a book deal but me” despair. So maybe if you can’t handle good things happening to your CP but not you, maybe you should find a new CP.

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The Road Thus Far: Champagne Problems

I haven’t blogged in a while, and I’m doing it now because a) I am trapped inside by a post apocalyptic snowstorm, and b) I have a novel I should be writing but am stuck on.

So it has now been eight months since I signed my book deal for my debut novel. In that time, I have learned a lot. Mostly that if I can worry about it, I will. I worry about everything associated with publishing, usually irrationally and in maddening excess.

That has been the biggest lesson of debuting so far: You will worry about everything.

You will worry about plot choices you made. You will worry about setting choices you made. You will worry about the words you used in describing these plot and setting choices. You will worry about how you spelled your characters’ names. You will worry that your book isn’t getting enough marketing attention. You’ll worry your book is getting too much. You’ll worry no one will read it. You’ll worry everyone will. Everything that once made sense when it was just you and your manuscript on your own will be thrown into sharp relief and called into question. You will worry this is a fluke and you will never sell another novel. You will worry your book is actually terrible and everyone who has read it and told you they loved it was on drugs. You will worry about the cruel and profanity-laden reviews people will leave for you on Goodreads. You will worry about the equally cruel but less profanity laden reviews you will get in review journals.

You will worry about things you did not know it was possible to worry about. You will worry about everything

And it will probably drive you crazy.

These, my friends, are what I now call champagne problems.

The other week, I was having lunch/writing date with two author friends of mine. We were talking about the sort of things authors talk about when they get together—advances, marketing, covers, editors. Or rather, what happens when your advance is smaller than you expected, when you don’t get the marketing plan you wanted, when your cover isn’t good, when your editor just stops responding.

And then one of them—much smarter than me—said, “Aren’t these lucky problems to have?”

Champagne problems. Luxurious and lucky problems that come with having amazing things happen to you.

But you, as the debut author, will still worry irrationally and constantly about them. And that’s sort of weird gift in a way too, because it means this matters to you. This matters a lot. And it is a champagne problem indeed to have something that matters enough to worry that much1.

  1. Maybe I am writing things blog post to you, the audience, or maybe I am writing a weird letter to self. Who knows?
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in which I do book-related things

First and foremost, THIS MONSTROUS THING is now available for preorder on Amazon and also from the HarperCollins website! What!? My book is a real thing you can exchange money for now and get an actual copy of in nine months! It will be a delightful surprise when it shows up on your doorstep. Or you can do what I would do, which is wait a few months longer, at which point I will be doing a signed preorder campaign through my favorite indie bookstore and then you will get a SIGNED copy AND support your local indies. Win win. Plus I might just draw a dalek in it.

So yay preorder! And yay book!

And now more stuff about the weird books I write!

First of all, let’s establish something: by nature, writing is very solitary.

It is mostly you, the writer, alone in a room with your computer, or your paper and pencil, or you stretched animal skin and fingerpaint1. Sometimes you get to have email conversations about your work with other people, like your editor or your agent. Occasionally these conversations are in-person and extremely uncomfortable for you, the writer, because nothing is more awkward than saying your weird ideas out loud. But mostly it’s quite lonely, and is mostly a relationship between you and a paper/screen/tanned animal skin.

So I was very lucky over the course of the last two weeks to get to expand my sphere of writerness into two different places.

First: I got to do some very fun research2. A few days after Christmas, which I spent with my family in Utah, where I’m from, I got to shoot antique firearms with a friend of my father’s who also happens to be an avid collector of guns, many of which predate this century. He was kind enough to let me run my grubby little hands all over his priceless collection and ask a slew of really stupid questions. And then I got to shoot some of the guns Annie Oakley would have used3 and learn all about how to load, fire, and care for your antique firearm. I also learned that my father’s crack shot gene was not passed on to me, though I did turn heads when I hit a moving clay pigeon on my second shot. I did not try again, for fear that I had just written the book on beginner’s luck.

use me

Second: we made a book trailer4! When I lived in Salt Lake, I did some theater and film, and I am lucky enough to have a friend who is an incredibly talented indie filmmaker who is still based there. And I am luckier that when I said, “Want to make a steampunk Frankenstein book trailer with me?” he said yes5.

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And then I basically called in every favor I had. Can you help me find costumes? Could you hold lights? Could you let us paint gruesome bloody wounds all over your naked body and then lay still on a table for two hours? And amazingly, because they are all crazy, my friends said yes, and last Saturday, we packed up and headed to a freezing, abandoned mill in the foothills of greater Salt Lake and filmed a steampunk Frankenstein book trailer.

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my lovely trio

And, I might add, we had a marvelous time. In spite of the frigid cold.

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the steampunk workshop.

I am very lucky to have friends who, in spite of only seeing them once a year when I come home at Christmas, are willing to give up their time and their beards and the feeling in their toes to help me out. My takeaway from the Christmas holidays has been how many exceptional human beings I have in my life, and how very lucky I am for that.

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The crew, clustered around the dead monster. Who was not yet allowed to move.

  1. I don’t make assumptions or judgements about how other people write.
  2. Which I spent all break steadily and consistently avoiding.
  3. At targets she would not have used, like a Diet Coke can, though I’m now the proud owner of a Diet Coke can full of bullet holes I put there.
  4. A book trailer being a short video pitch of your book which can be used to entice readers into picking it up, if they’re not really into that whole synopsis on the back thing.
  5. Blooming Studios—check them out! These guys are exceptional human beings and extremely talented artists.
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in which i visit an imagined place

My first night in Geneva, I was lying in a stranger’s bedroom, reading Mary Shelley on my phone, and hovering on the edges of a panic attack. Golden light from the streetlamps filtered in through the open window. Somewhere down the road, the tram bell rang.

Maybe I should explain.

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First of all, in spite of how it sounds, I was not having a one-night-stand with a handsome Swiss cheesemaker. I was in a stranger’s bedroom because Marx and I were doing Switzerland cheap, so we were staying with a woman who we found on a couch surfing website. She was an environmentalist, spoke little English, and offered us a variety of extravagant teas1.

I was reading History of a Six Weeks Tour by Mary Shelley on my phone because I have so far only been able to find it online, and this was our first real wifi in a while. The book is a compilation of letters written between Mary Shelley, her husband, and their friends while the pair was living abroad, including in Geneva, which is where she wrote Frankenstein.

Which is why we were in Geneva. Oh yes, the panic. My novel—the one that comes out next year, and is a reimagining of Frankenstein, if you’re new here—is set there.

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So here I was, in a stranger’s bedroom, trying to fall asleep reading, waiting for morning so I could walk through a place that had up until this moment only existed in my head.

Visiting Geneva felt like coming to an imagined place, like Narnia or Gondor, or visiting my own thoughts. Geneva was the first place I had ever written about that I hadn’t visited. Sure, I spent hours on Google maps, read books—of both the historical and the vacation-prep variety—along with every travel blog and photo essay and newspaper article about Geneva I could find.

But I hadn’t been there. And being there is something totally different.

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I’m a very setting-heavy writer. The word that most frequently gets tossed around to describe my writing is atmospheric, and I am one-hundred percent okay with that. I love travel. I love place. I’ve had whole novels spring out of places I’ve visited2. But atmosphere is more than just streets and geography and place names. It’s a feeling, and that’s why I love traveling—to feel a place.

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So what if I got out in Geneva and realized that I got had got that feeling wrong? As soon as I visited, there would be a right and wrong answer to what I had written. Maybe this was a terrible mistake, I thought. I almost woke Marx up right then and asked her if we could maybe just hang out at the airport for the next three days until our flight left. I’m a rational human being.

But I didn’t. The next morning, we woke up and set out to explore Geneva.

Mary Shelley did not like Geneva. When you read her letters, she goes on and on about how much she loves the countryside, and the Alps, and even the wildlife3, but when she writes about Geneva itself, she sounds sort of grumbly and unhappy. She thought the buildings were too high, too ugly. She hated that the guards at the city gates couldn’t be bribed into letting you into the city past ten pm. “There is nothing… in [Geneva],” she writes, “that can repay you for the trouble of walking over its rough stones.”

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On the afternoon of our first day in the city, I left Marx by a fountain on the edge of the old town and went wandering on my own, thinking about what Mary had written, and what I had written, and the things we had both imagined happening on these streets, and mostly how much I liked Geneva. I liked the rough cobblestones and the hills. I liked the silt-colored buildings that made the streets into hallways. I liked the fountains, and the window boxes, and the wind off the lake. I liked the sound of people speaking French. I liked the Alps in the distance, and the foothills, and the vineyards that climbed up them.

Screw you, Mary Shelley. I liked Geneva.

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So I walked the streets of Mary’s book, and my book–the one big thing we shared–and thought about what we didn’t share, and the filters though which we saw this city. There’s the space between us–both the time, and the distance, and places we’d come from. The experiences we’d had. Who we were and where we were and what we were doing there and why. All the things we’d done and the things we hadn’t and all the things that made this city different for the pair of us.

This city existed in both of our heads. It was both of our imagined places4.

 

  1. We declined.
  2. Including large parts of this novel, which came from my Christmas market trip with Magwitch two years ago.
  3. One of my favorite lines from the letters is, Did I tell you there are wolves among these mountains? Someday I plan to analyze the crap out of that line, and make it into some poetic metaphor that hipsters will Photoshop overtop of their filtered Instagram landscapes.
  4. Also we found this steampunk carousel and I loved it and it didn’t fit anywhere in the post, so I’m just going to stick it here instead. DSC_1127
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The Road Thus Far: Being On Submission

Welcome back to the Road Thus Far, an honest chronicle of what happens after you sell your debut novel.

Things in novel land have been going well lately. Some big exciting things are beginning to happen, things beyond just me staring at a computer screen, so this is all starting to feel alarmingly real. At this point, around a year before publication, I am starting to see marketing plans, cover ideas, and jacket copy. I also got my author photo sorted, which is a whole other blog post.

But this week, I am going to back track and talk about what it’s like to be on submission.

If you are not a writer currently chasing publication, you might not know what it means to be  ‘on submission’. Submission is the term for the period of time while your manuscript has been submitted to publishers—either by you or your agent—and is being considered by editors for actual publication. It is essentially the step before the signing of the book contract, and involves a lot of waiting, obsessive email checking, and alternately playing out worst case scenarios and dreamy fantasies about seven figure book deals and bestsellers. And then it usually involves a lot of rejection, and hearing all the reasons your book is not suitable for publication.

In short, submission SUCKS. It sucks. It never gets better, it never gets easier, it just sucks.

I struggle with bad anxiety. My mother likes to remind me that everyone has anxiety, but I’ve also polled enough people in my life to know that my anxiety often goes above most definitions of normal. It can be overwhelming and impossible to deal with. It can also be irrational, merciless, and consuming.

When my novel went on submission in May of this year, I knew exactly what to expect because I’d already done it once before—I’d had another novel on submission for almost a year with dozens of publishers.

And none of them wanted it.

It was crushing. And made it incredibly difficult to access my rational side when my second book went out.

After two weeks of being on submission and being so anxious about it that my anxiety started to manifest in physical symptoms, I decided I needed to do something. A technique that sometimes works for me when I deal with anxiety is writing letters from my rational self to my irrational self. It gives me a chance to unapologetically access the calm pieces of my brain and let it speak to the part of me that is freaking out.

So this is the letter I wrote to myself while I was on submission, with the note “read this if your book doesn’t sell” on it. Obviously my book did sell, but I still read it when I am freaking out sometimes, because there are things in it that apply to absolutely every step I have gone through—from being a first drafting, clueless writer to querying for an agent to submission to now going through the perils that accompany a book coming out. I hope other writers—no matter where you are in the process of writing or publishing—will find something in it. Or at least know you are not alone in your crazy.

Dear Self,

So your manuscript didn’t sell.

Knowing you, you are distraught over this and throwing yourself a big old pity party. Justified. You can be upset for like two minutes. Okay, maybe twenty minutes. But then you have to get up, turn off the sad music, and listen to me, rational Mackenzi, who you are currently incapable of accessing.

Does it suck that your book didn’t sell? Yes.

But here’s what that does not mean:

  1. It does not mean that this is a bad manuscript or that it was a waste of time and emotional energy to write it. Think about what you learned from working on it. SO MUCH. You will never be as bad as you were before you wrote this book. You are getting better with every book you write.
  2. And on the note of getting better, not selling does not mean you are a bad writer.
  3. This does not mean you will never, ever be published.
  4. You are not letting anybody down because this book didn’t sell. Not your agent. Not your professors. Not your critique partners or writing group.
  5. And not yourself either, because you wrote the best book you could write. You pulled no punches and took no prisoners. Not selling does not change this or cancel out the hard work or lessen in any way that this is the best work you can create at this point in your life.
  6. You aren’t accountable to anyone, unless you let this stop you.
  7. Sometimes books sell in two days. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes they never sell. Sometimes great writers have long and winding paths to seeing their words in print. The amount of time you are on submission or the number of manuscripts it takes is not a reflection of the quality of that work or your talent.
  8. Market trends and in-house factors suck, but are also totally valid and out of your control. Sometimes awesome books don’t sell for reasons that have nothing to do with their awesomeness.
  9. YOU DO NOT SUCK! As a writer or a person. It is so easy and comfortable to believe you do. Far easier than having confidence in yourself. Also remember that you have so much time to pursue this dream, or you will die young and this will be published posthumously and you will become a NYT Bestseller and you will be remembered as a tragic, misunderstood young genius. Win-win. This is not the last good idea you will ever have. This is not the only project you will ever care about. This is not the only thing you will ever be proud of creating.

Not selling does not equal failure. Not trying again or letting yourself fall apart over this does.

Chin up, sunshine. It will happen.

Love, Rational Mackenzi

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in which I am anachronistic

As a writer of historical things, anachronisms terrify me.

I think they terrify anyone who creates stories in a historical context, especially since we now live in a time where anyone can google anything and call you on your mistakes really fast.

I recently watched a YouTube video compiling anachronistic phrases in Downton Abbey, and it freaked me out because none of the phrases they were pointing out sounded anachronistic to me. I didn’t realize I’m just saying was a phrase that people haven’t been using for forever. That was not even a phrase that was on my radar1 to be aware of. I wasn’t even aware that was really a phrase—I thought it was just a thing we said and had always said! Isn’t there a story about Paul Revere riding through Boston, crying “The British are coming! The British are coming…I’m just saying.” Or that famous line from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…we’re just saying.” Those are things, right?

This is why anachronisms freak me out: because what if they are in my book and I don’t even realize it?

Correction: I know they are in my book, and I don’t even realize it.

Ah, the ultimate Downton Abbey anachronism, the water bottle mantlepiece ornament.

Ah, the ultimate Downton Abbey anachronism, the water bottle mantlepiece ornament.

My writing is primarily historical fantasy, so that second word gives me a little leeway on the anachronism front. There are things in my book that are completely and unapologetically anachronistic because hello steampunk. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t accidental anachronisms that I missed2. An example: fairly late in the revision process, I realized I made a passing reference to a city by a name that it was not referred to by until the 1900s. My book is set in 1818. So that didn’t work. I chastised myself for such stupidity and immediately corrected it, but honestly, how did I expect myself to know that3? When I was writing about said city, it never occurred to me that it once might have been called something other than what I know it as, so why on earth would I even feel the need to look it up?

So what do you do about these sneaky anachronisms that you don’t know are anachronisms, but some eagle-eyed reader inevitably will notice and point out in their Goodreads review?

And what do you do when something that is historically accurate seems wrong anyways? The phrase affectionately known today as the F bomb has been used in that crude manner since medieval times, but it would be strange and anachronistic to hear a character in the 1500s say “F**k off.” The utterly lovely writer Elizabeth Wein mentioned on her blog that someone got after her for using the phrase Blonde Bombshell in Code Name Verity, which maybe doesn’t seem accurate to WWII, but surprise—it was!

Or what about when being historically accurate compromises your writing? Because sometimes there are terms and phrases that are common to a period that would make no sense to modern readers, but it would be clunky and strange for a character to explain what it means. Imagine someone in the future is writing historical fiction set today says something like, “I pulled my iPhone, a small, square device with a screen used for sending textual communications, out of my pocket.” None of us think that way because we all know what an iPhone is and that would be weird. So do you use the anachronistic phrase for clarity’s sake, or go with a historical but inscrutable one?

And what about characters with modern attitudes? Sometimes it can be really hard to relate to historical characters simply because, as a result of living in a very different world than us, their worldviews just don’t seem to make sense. And what about dated cultural attitudes? Casual racism and homophobia that would have been the norm in a certain period and thus give a more accurate picture of a time period might totally turn a modern reader off from that character. Girls who wanted nothing more than to settle down and get married aren’t super fun to read about, but probably way more historically accurate than those who wanted to set sail with pirates and have adventures4.

So what do you do? Write modern characters in a historical setting, or hard to love ones that are true to their time?

I’m asking all these rhetorical questions because I honestly don’t have answers, by the way. Lest you start thinking I am clever and calm about this whole subject.

Anachronisms are one of the many tough things about writing historical fiction, and often they stress writers out to no end5. I get into fits of intense concern that saying a character’s buttons were brass instead of tin will keep someone from loving my book. But let’s be real—have you ever stopped liking a book you were loving simply because the character had the wrong sort of shoes or uttered an idiom not common until two years after the book is set?

If Downton Abbey is any indicator then the answer is no, because everyone is still watching it. I’m just saying.

  1. Speaking of being on my radar, I was recently going through a first draft of mine set in the Dutch Golden Age and found the phrase “Flying under the radar” somehow snuck in. Because they were doing a lot of flying, and definitely a lot of radar-ing in 1637.
  2. This entire post is a result of me reading a historical fiction book earlier today and in the middle of it, realizing that someone in my manuscript wears a style of hat that went out of fashion years before my book is set. Don’t worry, I’m just panicking.
  3. This sounds like I’m making excuses for myself….but really, how was I supposed to know that?! I slept through my AP European history class! …that is probably not something that is giving me a lot of credibility as a historical fiction writer.
  4. Why yes I have been reading a lot of the extraordinary and occasionally anachronistic Jacky Faber books, why do you ask?
  5. WHY ELSE WOULD I BE WRITING THIS POST OTHER THAN STRESS!?!?!
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The Road Thus Far: Turning in the Book

Hello, I’m back, and trying something new. I’ve been thinking a lot about how when I was a pre-book deal writer, I was always curious about what happens between the ‘being offered the book deal’ and the ‘seeing shiny new hardcover on bookstore shelf’. The whole process seems very secret, but really it’s not! Well some things are, but mostly I think what happens should be talked about rather than shrouded in mystery. So this is a start of a new series I’m calling The Road Thus Far, in which I will chronicle with as much honesty and transparency as I am able the process of getting a debut novel published by a large house. Feel free to ask questions in comments, and I will do my best to answer them!

So, first and foremost in today’s publishing-related news, I turned in my book1!

It has happened! After editing like mad since my book sold in June, the final manuscript is sitting in my editor’s inbox! And while the journey is far from over, the manuscript itself is now basically out of my hands2 and will soon be off to people who will make it more book-shaped and do things with it that I couldn’t do by myself, like inserting commas in the right places and spelling laboratory correctly3.

Don’t worry: I’ve already thought of at least five things I should have done differently. And it’s only been a few hours since I turned it in. 

This was essentially my last chance to change anything with the manuscript. Okay, sure, there will be copy editing changes because I’m a nightmare of a grammarian who did not realize until a few months ago that suit and soot are two different words, and as I’m reading over those, I will probably find some sentence I just can’t stand and beg them to let me rewrite it, but really the big stuff is now solid and fixed. And after tinkering with this book for basically a year and a half, this is terrifying.

Because what if I’m wrong? What if there were better choices for the characters, or more realistic turns for the plot? What if my world-building just makes no sense and I never realized it? What if my writing is interchangeable with that of a third grader? Or what if my writing is actually worse, because most third graders know the difference between soot and suit, don’t they? And I know you have to trust your editor, trust your agent, trust your critique partners who would have told you long ago if these things sucked. But those voices are so quiet compared to the ones in my head that tell me I have done everything wrong and will probably regret letting other people read this weird thing I wrote. It is so hard to trust myself, and almost harder now that I know people are going to be reading it at the end of all this.

Because really, books are never done, are they? We could all keep tinkering with our manuscripts for the rest of our lives4. So is this version I’ve ended up with really the one that I want to put out into the world?

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Some celebratory coloring after I turned in the book.

For a long time, I told myself the lie that as soon as I got a book deal, I would feel like a Real Writer. Maybe even (gasp!) an author. All my anxiety would go away and I would feel confident in my skills and the choices I made for my book. Spoiler alert—that didn’t happen. In fact, sometimes I feel like more of a fraud now because I have tricked everyone into thinking I’m good enough to be published when I’m really not. As a writer, I don’t feel any different than I did the night before I got my book deal, or the week, or even the month. I don’t feel competent or qualified. Writing is still hard, and still makes me anxious, except now I think about other people reading this thing that is hard and anxious for me. And then I want to throw up.

But something sort of remarkable also happened during this process of sweating out my final draft. Somewhere, in the delirious Diet Coke-fueled haze that comes with doing final edits on your debut novel, I started to feel okay about what I’ve written, and started to remember why I’d written it in the first place. I started to love my characters again, and thinking things like, “If people don’t like these choices I made, who cares? I like them!” There were a few places I actually felt good about what I had written. And even one moment when I thought, “Hot damn, some genius wrote this!” Though admittedly, when I thought that, I was reading the Frankenstein quotations that appear in the manuscript rather than something I had actually written. But still.

And then these stupid little things keep happening that send me into fits of delirious joy, things like my editor sending me the flap copy that will go on the inside of the book jacket, and asking me to write my bio, and giving me the name of the person who will be designing my book. These little things that didn’t happen when writing was just me, my computer, and my anxiety. And as frightened as I am to release this monstrous thing I have created into the world, it is infinitely more exciting, and I am trying not to run from it and instead let myself enjoy it.

Have questions about my road to publication thus far, or what happens to a debut novel after it sells? Leave them in the comments! Just please don’t ask a question that requires me to answer with the words suit, soot, or laboratory.

  1. I feel like I need to admit that I am actually writing this days before I turn in said book, though by the time it hits the blog, it will have actually happened. But I do sort of feel like I’m taunting myself by writing those words without actually having accomplished them yet.
  2. Unless something went horribly wrong and my editor hates all the changes I made.
  3. Which, in spite of the fact that I’ve been writing a Frankenstein book for a year and a half, I still can’t do.
  4. And some of us do. I’m looking at you, Tolkien.
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in which your book deal questions are answered

It has now been two weeks since my book sold. One week since I announced it to the wide world. In that week since, I have been reminded that I have both the best people in my life and am part of the best community. So thank you to all you friends and strangers who were excited for me and made my big news impossibly bigger.

In the last week, I’ve discovered that people have a lot of the same questions after you tell them you just sold a book. So I decided to compile my answers all in one convenient place. A book deal FAQ, as it were.

Hopefully all your questions are answered here, and if not, leave them in comments!

 

What’s your book called?

Apparently a lot of people missed this. It’s called THE SHADOW BOYS ARE BREAKING. This title is subject to change, as all titles are, but for now, this is it’s name.

 

Can I buy it now?

I know, I want it right now too! But alas—it doesn’t come out until next fall (as in 2015).

 

Ugh why does it take so long?!

Funnily enough, my book is actually coming out really fast in terms of a typical publishing timeline. Right now at my publishing job, we are working on books that won’t come out until 2017. Publishing takes a long time. Books are made up of a lot of pieces and it takes a lot of time for all those pieces to come together.

 

Speaking of your day job, are you going to quit it?

Aw that’s cute. In spite of Suzanne Collins and JK Rowling setting examples otherwise, not all children’s authors are rolling in the dough. Someday I would love to quit my day job and write full time, but today is not that day, because Boston is expensive and student loans are building at my back and I have to support my Diet Coke habit. So no, I’m not quitting my job, both for monetary reasons and because I really like my job. Jobs. Both of them.

 

What’s the cover going to look like?

I have no idea! Authors really don’t have control over that. But all of Katherine Tegen’s books have such lovely covers, I can’t imagine it will be anything less than extraordinary.

 

Um, why are you not publishing under your real name?

I’ve been a little surprised by how many people have been shocked and affronted over my decision to publish under a different name than the one that appears on my driver’s license. Turns out my last name has a lot of passionate defenders.

So here’s the deal about this—first of all, Mackenzi Lee is my real name. It is just my real name with the last bit hacked off. As previously discussed, my last name is long and intimidating, and after focus grouping it for over twenty years, I’ve discovered that most people’s initial reaction to my last name is panic. And I don’t want people panicking when they see the cover of my book. It is also very important to me as an author to be easy to find, and while many of you might think my last name is lovely and charming, try spelling it out in the nonexistent Goodreads search engine feature after only briefly glancing at it or hearing it said once in passing. I promise you will end up just banging your fist on the keyboard. That’s sometimes what I end up doing. So the dissection of my name is something I have thought long and hard about. It is not a snap decision. It was not decided by my agent or my editor or my publisher. It is not a rejection of my cultural heritage. It is instead a deliberate and well-thought out choice on my part in order to make me more easily accessible to the people who might someday read my book.

 

Wait, what happened to that other book you wrote?

What a good memory you have! So last summer, when I signed with my agent, it was not with this book. Back then, this book was only a few confused chapters saved in my file of ideas that might never get written. So yes, I did write another book before this one. It was about glass making in nineteenth-century Venice, and while I loved it dearly, and my agent loved it dearly, and even some editors loved it, it did not get published, and after sending it out to publishers for quite a while, it became time to, in the words of Elsa, let it go. There are so many factors that go into what books get published—it’s not always just which books are best—and for various reasons, this book did not get picked up. Maybe someday I’ll dig it back out and try again, but for now, it’s being left behind. Am I sad about this? Yeah, I guess, a little, but I also couldn’t have written SHADOW BOYS without writing that other book first.

 

So what’s book two going to be about?

It amuses and amazes me how many people have asked this. I’m too excited about book one (which is already written) to even think about book two (which is not). I don’t know what book two will be about. While I am definitely anxious about writing it, because I am a writer and thus plagued by irrational anxiety that I will never have another good idea again, I was calmed by wise words of encouragement from my agent: writing book two is like that scene in Harry Potter 3, where Harry knows he can conjure the patronus because he’s already done it before. So I am trying to be confident in my ability to conjure another patronus!

 

Is the whole world different now that you have a book deal?

You know, it really isn’t. True, I’ve been doing a lot of out-of-context grinning and some spontaneous dancing over the past two weeks, and probably will keep doing that for the next year and a half, but my life isn’t really that different than it was pre-book deal. It’s funny how things can change and still stay the same.

Have any other book deal questions? Leave them in comments! 

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in which I start the next novel

Kids, this week was a doozy.

Coming back from a vacation is always rough, and I recognize that the first week of a new schedule is always jarring. But this particular first week raised a particular variety of hell that I was not prepared for.

First of all, I started a new job in addition to my current one. Which is awesome, but also far more work far faster than I expected. Then things at the first job were a bit mad. I also started in on the most demanding class of my academic career. I also took on some freelance jobs unexpectedly. Throw on top of that an MFA reading, two theatrical excursions, and an unexpected financial hiccup.

And then, on top of all that, I was supposed to start a novel1.

The project that has been lovingly named my post-modern revisionist steampunk Frankenstein novel is going on the shelf for a while until I’m far enough away from it that I can be objective about it and make it better. The project that has been lovingly named ANXIETY has been sent by my agent to editors around the country. And now I have a looming January 31 deadline for the first submission of my next novel.

I haven’t started.

I did, however, spend last night watching documentaries on tulips. Another hour or so putting books on hold at the library for research. And most of the afternoon making up names of fake Dutch towns. Basically, I was doing absolutely everything to avoid starting this novel.

So tonight I took a critical look at myself. Self, I said. Why are you so dutifully and emphatically avoiding starting this novel?

Starting anything is hard. Stories can exist in this sort of transitory, changeable state in your head, but putting them down on paper feels very finite, even though they’re still changeable. It’s another step towards becoming “real.”

The idea for this project began as a Wikipedia entry. Now, as a story is taking shape in my brain, it’s a story with a lot of tough questions I don’t feel qualified to answer. I love the YA community deeply, but I feel like sometimes they are just waiting to jump on anyone who doesn’t answer big questions in a way they like, and I’m stressed about being wrong. Even if I never publish this novel. Even if no one ever sees it besides me.

But then, as usual, the internet provided me with words of wisdom from Lemony Snicket:

“If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting the rest of our lives.”

So I’m starting my novel. I’m publishing this post, and then I’m starting writing.

Ready. Go.

 

  1. Yeah, supposed to. We’ll get to that.
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