The Writer’s Apprentice

Kyle is one of my oldest friends. I’ve known him since kindergarten. My earliest memory of Kyle is the day in third grade when he dressed up as George Washington on the last day of school. His earliest memory of me goes all the way back to kindergarten when, during story time as we were all sitting in a circle on the floor, I leaned to the side and nonchalantly vomited, then leaned back and continued listening, as if perhaps no one might notice.

Kyle and I truly became friends in the sixth grade. Like me, he wrote stories, but his stories took the form of little handmade comics. It wasn’t until junior high school that he started writing short stories and not until high school that he tried to get them published.

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All my early impressions of what it was like to be a writer came from Kyle. First was what I learned when Kyle passed his stories around to friends. In second period one friend would say, “I hated the part where the parrot started smoking cigarettes and telling jokes.” Kyle would say, “Got it. Note to self: Remove part with cigarette-smoking parrot.”

Then later at lunch someone else would say, “Great story, Kyle. Loved the part with the parrot telling jokes!” This kind of contradiction would drive Kyle crazy. The lesson: Some people are going to like your stuff and some people aren’t. In the end, you must choose to keep what you think is best.

Watching Kyle send letters to magazine editors who published short fiction was also an education. I learned about the Writers’ Market Guide, what a SASE was, the proper protocol for submitting one’s work. Kyle was the first person I’d heard of making a collage of his rejection letters and pasting it on the wall.

My observations of Kyle’s efforts led me to a singular conclusion: Getting published is hard.

I wonder now how my own journey as a writer would have been different if I didn’t have that early impression. I know writers, more than one, who didn’t seem to know this when they got into writing and who met with almost immediate success.

Wait a minute, I’d think when this happened. Don’t you know how hard it is to get published?

If our beliefs do create our reality, or as Author Magazine’s tag line puts it, if we truly are the author of our own lives, wouldn’t a belief in easy success serve us better?

I’ve had the chance to interview many successful authors for Author Magazine and when I do I invariably try to determine how their mindset helped them manifest their success. Though articulated in different ways, what I’ve discovered is the concept of being in alignment with one’s success.  In other words, if you are visualizing where you want to be but in your mind you’re saying, “I suck. My writing stinks. I’m not good enough.” Or in my case, “This is really, really hard,” then that is more than likely what you are going to manifest.

To create success, the idea goes, all parts of you must be in alignment: heart, head, body, soul. Let go of the beliefs that aren’t serving you.  If thoughts are indeed energy, what thoughts are we putting out into the universe?

Kyle eventually did sell one of his stories.  “Cuji,” which began as a spoof on Stephen King’s Cujo, was a tale about a demonically possessed Mickey Mouse balloon who was adopted by a boy during a family trip it Disneyland. Cuji, the balloon, eliminated the family members one by one in his effort to unite with Satan, who had incarnated into the physical form of a Beagle. Kyle was paid $7.35 for his efforts, though I don’t think he ever cashed the check. The check made a far better wall-hanging than that tapestry of rejections.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________ Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

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Rejecting the Rejection

 

Back in the days when one used to query literary agents by way of the U.S. Postal Service, I used to go to great lengths to ease the blow of rejection letters. In those times, not so long ago, with every query letter you were supposed to include a SASE: Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. This increased the chances of getting a response, usually a softly worded generic letter letting you know that your material was not right for that particular agent at this time.

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Even though those form rejections had clearly been photocopied a thousand times, I never could resist the urge to search for meaning in those blanket-rejection forms, looking for some reason why my writing wasn’t good enough.

In an effort to combat this, I devised something new: a self-addressed stamped post-card with three checkboxes: ___ Send Sample Chapters, ___ Send Full-Manuscript, ___ Not Right for Us at this Time.  This way there would be no agonizing interpretations of meaningless rejection prose. It was all business.

However, after enough of these little cards came back, it didn’t take long for even the sight of one in the mailbox to cause the feeling that a mule had driven its hind legs simultaneously into my gut. Or worse, a sense that I had been lanced through the heart by forge-hot steel.

It took many years to put rejection letters into perspective. A rejection letter is not saying that your writing is not good enough. It is not saying that you are not good enough. It is only saying that this particular agent isn’t the path to your success.  The path is out there, this just isn’t the way.  Keep looking.

There is a narrow little trail wending its way through the trees, waiting for you to discover it. It exists. You just have to to find it.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine‘s Author Blog.

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Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.

 URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com

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Redefining Success

So you’ve been at it a while, haven’t you? This writing thing is something you know you are supposed to do. You feel whole and alive when the words are flowing through you. You’re pursuing your life dream and it just feels right.

Yet success has thus far eluded you.  Oh, there have been triumphs. You’ve finished writing your first novel, maybe, or had an article published online. But you’re not where you want to be. Success, as you define it, has not yet manifested.

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And there’s been heartbreak along the way.  You’ve been rejected by agents and publishers. Someone who you love, admire, and respect has read your stuff and wasn’t impressed. Or worse, maybe they didn’t bother reading it at all.

You continue to write, of course, because you know this is what you are supposed to do.  But it feels like this should be…  easier. You don’t know exactly what the next step is, but you feel like it should have happened by now. You understand that this thing you are doing is supposed to work out, it just hasn’t yet.

Here are a couple of things to consider. First, you get to define success. All you have to do is acknowledge that you are successful right now, at this moment, and you are successful. Make success something in your control: “I am successful if I write a little everyday.” Whatever success is for you, put it within reach and allow yourself to take it.

Stop measuring yourself by the yardstick of others’ biographies. The success stories you hear where writers get their Big Break and become big time authors often don’t mention the years those authors spent right where you are now, practicing the craft and experiencing heartbreak.

Be patient. Allow things to unfold in their own time. Often seasoned authors are grateful they didn’t get published any sooner than they did, because they wouldn’t want their earlier writing on display. Or even worse, some of them were published too earlier and are utterly embarrassed by their initial efforts. You are learning things now and growing in ways that you cannot perceive until you have a little distance on it. There are people you are supposed to meet, circumstances to get involved in, that are on the horizon, they just haven’t happened yet. Trust that they’re coming and throw away your personal timeline.

And finally (this is the big one, trite though it might sound), don’t give up! Because, you’re right. This is what you’re supposed to be doing. This feeds your soul. In the end, that’s the best nourishment you can provide.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine‘s Author Blog.

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Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.

 URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com

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Writing Full Time

Many years ago I found myself without a job. I was in my early twenties, less than two years out of college, and my parents offered to let me move back in while I found a new job and saved a little cash.

I knew restarting my career might prove challenging. The local unemployment rate had reached 7.5% and people just weren’t hiring. When I mentioned my circumstances to a friend, she suggested I look at it as a gift. “Allow yourself a little time to regroup,” she advised. “Enjoy the respite. This might be an opportunity to finish your novel.”

White notebook with a spiral and a pen laying on it.

I had begun writing my metaphysical science fiction novel in my sophomore year of college. Having finished my term paper early that semester, I did something many people come to regret. I opened a fresh word processing document, hit CAPS LOCK, and typed, “CHAPTER 1.” I’ve been writing ever since.

It took me two summers to finish the first draft of that manuscript, but I had been writing just to get the story down on paper with little thought about grammar, spelling, or craft, and since then had been revising. All that time I’d daydreamed about what it would be like to write full time. Now I would get my chance.

It took me a few weeks to pack up my apartment, move everything in storage, and settle into my parents’ spare bedroom. I started writing on a Monday, getting up early and getting ready, exactly as if I was going to work, but instead I sat at my roll-top desk and began to type.

I wrote all day and into the evening and ended with twenty-six pages of decent material. This is amazing, I thought. I’m going to finish this bad boy in a few months!

The next day I repeated the process, but by the afternoon I was getting antsy. I found myself getting up more frequently for stretch breaks. It’s as if the energy I had put into that first twenty-six-page day had deflated me. I finished Day Two at five or six in the evening and had a respectable sixteen pages. Nothing like the performance of Day One, but not bad either.

By Day Three, the frequent stretch breaks began in the morning instead of the afternoon. By lunchtime, I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed a break. Is this what writing full time would be like? Before now, I’d either been in school, had a summer job, or both. My longest continuous writing session before this point had been four, maybe six hours, and it had always been immensely pleasurable. I’d assumed the more time I had to write, the more gratifying it would be.

What I came to learn is that the time traveling to work and school, time spent walking from place to place, and any other miscellaneous downtime had also been writing time, I just didn’t know it. Those sessions in front of the computer had merely been capturing the material when my thoughts were coalescing, when ideas for characters or dialogue or plot points were coming together in my head.

In the end, I found that I could only write eight pages a day. Anything more was unsustainable for more than a few days in a row. Writing twelve pages one day meant I could only manage four or five the next day and maybe even less the day after that.

The lesson I learned was this: It is much more productive to write a little each day, consistently over time, than to write in large chunks. Which, as it turned out, gave me plenty of time left over to find a job.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine‘s Author Blog.

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Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.

 URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com

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Judging a Book by Its Cover

I reached a huge milestone recently when my agent sold my supernatural young adult novel, Aftersight.  It was a moment for high-fives, champagne, and general celebration, but after all that there was work to do.

As the content editing commenced, I began to understand that my story, which previously had only been words on a page, would soon be a book. It would be something tangible, something visual.

wrongful-death-novel-robert-dugoni-book-cover-artI’ll admit it, I was nervous about what the cover art would look like. My publisher graciously allowed me to have input on the cover design, an excellent perk, but it was still difficult to imagine what the process would be like. Contrary to my previous assumptions, the cover artist doesn’t actually read the book, relying instead on plot summaries and character profiles to come up with a visual that will sell the story. Would that be enough for her to conjure a compelling cover design?

There is a fine line between a truly good cover and something cheesy, or perhaps worse, something flat and lifeless. Every book is different. Ideally, you want an image that will appeal to your readers, but that’s pretty vague, isn’t it?

“A good cover tells a story,” New York Times best-selling author Robert Dugoni said at this year’s Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. To illustrate the point, he held up the cover of the paperback version of his novel, Wrongful Death. There an American flag folded into a triangle, as if from a soldier’s funeral, rests on a rough stone background. In the center of the flag is a smoking bullet hole.

What story does that cover tell? It’s probably something about the military, something about death (if the title didn’t already make that obvious). It’s not just a bullet hole, but a smoking bullet hole. There’s action to come, something yet unresolved.

“A good cover asks a question,” literary agent Sally Harding told me. “It’s not about trying to summarize your story or even depicting a key scene.” A good cover is like a door slightly ajar, just enough to give you a glimpse of what lies on the other side, just enough to prompt you to open it and explore the world beyond.

Weeks of content editing and line editing had come and gone. I was reviewing the galley pages when the email arrived with the subject line Cover art for Aftersight.

Here it was. The Moment had finally arrived. I took a deep breath, double-clicked the email, and was rewarded with a cover image that far surpassed even my best expectations. Did it tell a story? Maybe. Did it ask a question? Most definitely.

That was the moment when my novel, which had always been an amorphous blob, an idea, finally became real.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine‘s Author Blog.

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Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.

 URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com

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Making Changes

Whether it is an agent who wants you to make changes to your manuscript before she will represent you, an editor who requires cuts before your book is published, or just one of your beta readers strongly suggesting you tweak a few things in your first chapter, making changes to your writing — most likely changes with which you will not agree — is almost inevitable. Sure, you might decide to self-publish and, as Frank Sinatra did before you, do it your way, but chances are even then you’ll run into someone who recommends making alterations that don’t make sense to you.

524782536_9920554fbb_bIn the beginning, when you’re just starting out, it’s easier. When you get feedback from a trusted friend or respected member of your critique group, you have the luxury of listening to the feedback, intuiting if it makes sense to you, and making changes or not. But when it’s an agent or editor demanding changes, and you need to make them in order to move forward, that can be more difficult.

You might be thinking, Yeah, but if an agent or editor is asking me to do it, I’d do it. I’m not going to let a few changes stand in my way of getting published! I thought so, too. For years I’d heard friends and colleagues whining about making changes to their manuscripts in response to agent and editor feedback and I couldn’t fathom what the big deal was. Not until it happened to me.

It was a few years ago and my young adult novel, Aftersight, had just made the first round through the big New York publishing houses. By then I’d already made a few significant changes to the manuscript that had made me nervous, specifically a chapter rearrangement that I feared would confuse readers. My agent is amazing, so I’d followed her advice, but no luck. Editors weren’t biting.

Then my agent made the request: Most young adult novels were written in first person, but mine was in third person. Would I consider rewriting it in first person?

“Sure,” I said lackadaisically. “Why not give it a shot?” But I spent the next few days in a fetal position underneath my desk. My book had multiple points of view, so I would have to rewrite it in several voices, something akin to The Time Travelers Wife. Even though I’d written it in third person, every chapter had the flavor of the character who was the center of the action. Still, rewriting it in first person would mean a great deal more than substituting “she” with “I” and “they” with “we.” I’d have to cede my voice to my characters’ voices and lose my own natural rhyme and rhythm. I’d essentially be creating an entirely new book.

The heartbreak of making changes prompted by an agent or editor, I realized now, is that by the time you get this far in the process, you are accustomed to your story the way it is. By that point, the way the story is feels like the right way. By that point the writing feels sacred. Everything else seems like misguided advice.

What ultimately made me feel better was watching some of the behind-the-scenes material from one of the Friends DVDs. The commentary is done by the writers and creators of the show. The more you learn about the television writing process, especially when the show is performed in front of an audience, the more you understand that they are constantly editing and revising, creating new stuff that works, canning what doesn’t. The words on the page are something organic, something alive, something that grows and evolves.

In the end I concluded that there was no harm in at least trying to rewrite it. I took it as a personal challenge. What was the worst that could happen? I’d lose some time. If I didn’t like it, I could simply cast the new version aside and call it a failed experiment. Who knows, maybe I’d learn something in the process.

It was the new version, the first-person version, that my agent ended up selling several months later.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine‘s Author Blog.

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Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.

 URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com

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Editor’s Pitch

I file into the ballroom with six other conference attendees for an appointment with an editor from St. Martin’s Press. It’s only my second  Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s summer conference. Over the next two days I have private appointments to pitch my novel to two New York literary agents. I hope this editor’s meeting will be a simple formality, something to build my confidence for my two appointments with the agents.

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I’d attended one of these editor’s meetings last year and this is how it works: You sit around a ballroom table with an editor and five or six of your fellow writers. The editor introduces herself, explains what she’s looking for, and passes out her business card. “Send me your first chapter,” she says, “and mention that we spoke at this conference.” The meetings last a half-hour to give everyone time to pitch their work, but no one actually talks about their manuscripts.

That’s how this year will go too, right?

We settle around the circular table. The editor, Erin Brown (who will later become a columnist for Author Magazine), steeples her hands in front of her. She has long, delicate fingers. A piano player’s fingers. “So, how does this work? I’ve never done this format before.”

Uh oh, I think. She’s not going to make us actually pitch, is she?

Erin spends a good deal of time talking about herself and the kind of projects for which she’s searching. I settle down, waiting for the customary moment when she asks us each to send her a chapter.

“Okay,” she says, “let’s go around the table and hear your pitches.”

Only fifteen minutes remain. There are six attendees sitting at the table with me. I do the math. That doesn’t leave each of us much time. Only one person separates me from Erin, but Erin choses to start from the opposite side of the circle. I’d written and rewritten my pitch for weeks. I have it down to a cool ninety seconds. If everyone keeps theirs to a few minutes, I might still be okay.

The attendees begin. They ramble on and on. Not only are none of them rehearsed, the writers seem to be figuring out what their stories are really about right here at the table. I groan inwardly, calculating and recalculating the remaining time.

“It’s like about this girl who, you know, is like trying to find herself after 9/11.” Erin: Send it! “I was a truck driver for forty-eight years and it’s about all my experiences.” Erin: Send it! “It’s an English translation of my novel that was published in Nicaragua.” Send it!

I relax a little. No matter what they have, she wants it.

Finally, it’s my turn. Three minute are left for me and the woman to my right, so I start. Unlike the others, I sound polished. Mine has a beginning, a middle, and end. I have props. A soundtrack. Toward the end, I light off a few sparklers.

When it’s over, the whole table is staring at me like I’m crazy. Erin’s expression suggests that she’s contemplating calling hotel security. “Well, you know, that’s really not what I’m looking for…”

On the way out the door, the old trucker who prattled on and on about the women he’d seen during his years on the road offers to give me pointers on how to pitch. I emerge from the ballroom destroyed, embarrassed, my confidence in flames.

There, on business of his own, is Bill Kenower, editor of Author Magazine (we’d just started publishing the magazine a few months before). I relate what happened. How can I possibly meet with the agents after that disaster?

His expression is intent and confident. “Cancel all this. Success, it’s coming! Know it. Feel it. This is just a step in the journey. It’s not the journey.”

I go on to meet with both agents. Both want to see my manuscript. I begin to understand the power of perception. Viewpoint is everything when it comes to perceiving a no.

It serves as a beginning.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine‘s Author Blog.

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Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.

 URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com

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