In eight months, THE RAVENS will be released to the world. Here’s a peek as to what the book is about:
Seventeen-year-old Charley Foster’s power of empathy is so strong, it’s probably magic. Bullied and labeled a freak, Charley is friendless until she meets fellow empaths Brynn and Joss who, together, create the Ravens, a Circle for girls who feel too much, vowing that this is the year they’ll rise.
It isn’t long before they are given the chance to do just that. When the high school English teacher is rumored to have sexually assaulted a number of girls at school, including Brynn, Joss wants the Ravens to spring into action and expose the truth. The problem? The accused teacher is Charley’s father. When Charley chooses to defend him instead of fight, The Ravens disband, leaving each of the girls alone to battle for justice and in the process, discover the true sources of their magic and power. The Ravens, told through the rotating points-of-view of Charley, Brynn, and Joss, explores outcasts and friendship, assault and survivorship, the power of raised voices, and the capacity of ordinary magic.
When I was in the third grade, we had career day at school. My classmates wore doctors’ coats or firefighter costumes or athletic gear. I wore my regular school uniform because I couldn’t figure out what else to do, and brought in some books, a large pencil, and a pair of glasses. I was going to be a writer. I didn’t know what writers wore. I didn’t know how writers dressed. I knew only that I must become one and that I would figure out the rest as I went along.
I’ve been trying to figure it out ever since.
I promised myself that when my first book was going to be published, I would write about my journey, how I got here, as I had read so many blogs by so many other writers that helped me along the way when I was feeling lost or stuck or wanted to give up.
In 8th grade, I moved on from career day and instead, had to write a career report. Again, I wrote about being a writer. I wrote about how I would use the money from my books to pay for college (which is adorably ignorant on many levels). I scribbled acknowledgment pages in the back of my notebooks. To my eighth-grade teacher, I wrote, who always believed in me.
In high school I wrote for the yearbook and the school newspaper and the literary magazine. I read Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby and Brave New World and I was so awake and so alert and so infatuated that I decided I was going to become an English teacher and write on the side…. because I wanted to share books with the world. This was all I knew. That I wanted others to feel what I felt, know what I knew, when I was reading those books.
I went to college. I indeed became an English teacher. I minored in Creative Writing and took a few acting classes. I fell in love with theater. I almost went to graduate school for theater, but at the last minute, abandoned ship, switched course, went back to my roots, and instead, went to graduate school for writing and received my MFA.
In 2008, I wrote most of an adult novel as my graduate school thesis, and then completed it a few years later, after graduation. That first novel was useless in a sense, in that it would never see the light of day. It was derivative; it was all Michael Cunningham and Virginia Woolf, my icons at the time, their voices stuck in my head, their styles stuck in my fingers. And it was too autobiographical. It was too true to make a good story. But it taught me how to write a book.
In 2012 I put that novel away and wrote a young adult book about a student in Catholic school. In 2015, one year after my daughter was born, I queried many, many agents with that book and received many, many rejections, but ultimately did get an agent with that novel. I remember bursting into my rehearsal for Doubt, telling my cast about my agent, shouting it from the rooftops. I was going to be published now. It was a sure thing. I would have a book deal for Christmas.
That novel didn’t sell. Rejections, rejections, rejections.
In 2016 I finished another novel.
It didn’t sell. Rejections, rejections, rejections.
In 2018 I finished another novel.
It didn’t sell. Rejections, rejections, rejections.
Four novels. Many, many, rejections. This is not an atypical experience by any means, but that didn’t make it sting any less.
In the beginning of 2020, just before the pandemic, my agent left agenting. I was again, just a writer, no representation, no book deal, just me, alone. Again.
I stopped writing. Had a second baby. Stayed inside for a global pandemic. Had no childcare, two children, and a day job. There wasn’t time to write. It wasn’t even an option.
Fall 2021, my children could go back to school and to daycare. I had the freedom to peek out, to start again. I queried more agents. Received more rejections. I queried small presses instead, which are traditional publishing houses that sometimes don’t require an agent to submit to them.
And a small press said yes.
And here I am. 13 years after receiving my MFA, I have a book deal. A note to my third-grade self: Writers? It turns out that they look like me. They dress like me.
And so, if you’re here, reading this, as I was reading other blogs for all of those years, know this: if it’s in you, if you believe you can, then you must persist. Be Sisyphus, pushing that rock up the hill. Never, never, never give up. The only reason I’m here is because there was a small voice inside me that said you can. You will. Listen to that voice.
In THE RAVENS, which will release in September of this year, one of the main characters, seventeen-year-old Charley, says, “This is the year we rise.” I’ll introduce you to the story of THE RAVENS in the coming months, give you a little look at the plot, the three main characters, the cover. But for now, for right now, I’m holding onto Charley’s words, “This is the year we rise.” May it be so for all of us.
It’s this that I remember: There were subway tracks and a woman on the platform who sold spiced mango out of plastic bags. There was a steel drum and rats, chased by headlights. The A train doors, the West Side Story chord as the train pulled out of the station. The stairs, long, the stairs, crowded, umbrellas, black, dark, popping open as we emerged to the early morning streets. Coffee, hot. The trudge through puddles, through slush, the waiting at lights, the dodging of cars, coffee spilling down the sides, the cup then stained with coffee, with lip gloss.
I remember it as if it is distant, a long-ago dream, a someone else, a something else, another time.
Then, I had a baby growing inside of me, tucked away, safe. I was sick with that baby for a long time. Then, there was (still is, of course) a global pandemic. We were home for a long time. The baby arrived. He was blonde, haloed, mine. We were home and home and home and home.
There was no commute, but there was also no writing. There was no theater. There wasn’t time, wasn’t space (physically or mentally). Art wasn’t practical. There wasn’t childcare. There wasn’t school. There wasn’t energy or mood.
But time creeps. And then it rushes. And here we are. Here I am. Revising plays, revising novels, scanning audition notices, scanning plays.
2017 felt like a year of creative shifting for me. A year marked, of course, with feelings of helplessness and darkness, but also with the spark of an idea.
My fellow artists: We are the ones who’ve been invited to see the world deeply and poignantly and it is our job to set it down, to set it all down, so that one person—just one person—might see themselves reflected back and say yes, I am seen. Yes, I am here. Let’s resolve to keep doing this in 2018– to be bearers of light.
With this in mind, I’ve set some writing goals for the new year. Some are psychological, and some are very specific to craft, but all are necessary in order for me to write.
1. When people ask what I do, I will say, unequivocally, I’m a writer.
2. I’ll remember that people’s (industry people, in particular) thoughts or feelings about my work does not equate to my self-worth– And: I’ll be gentle on myself when I forget this from time to time.
3. I’ll finish a first draft of my Work-in-Progress in sixth months. To achieve this, I’ll write 1000 words each time I sit down, and I’ll sit down a minimum of 2x per week, once when my toddler is at daycare, and one weekend day.
4. I will not be devastated when that completed first draft is terrible. I won’t be afraid to start over, because after that first draft, I’ll know what the story is. I’ll recognize that draft’s value, even while discarding most of it.
5. I will not let this fourth book become THE BOOK, the one that carries so much weight that I fall into the trap of not abiding Resolution # 2. I will know that there will be others, because as Resolution #1 states: I’m a writer.
Join me. Grab your brushes, your notebooks, your microphones, your music. Raise your pens. These are our tools. We don’t yet know the breadth of its reach.
I just closed a production of Our Town, in which the Stage Manager asks, “How do such things begin?” of Emily and George’s eventual marriage. This question has been echoing through my mind a lot, lately, as I embark on a new writing project.
It all feels so familiar: the empty pages of the beginning of a novel filling me with a mixture of excitement, and self-doubt, and dread. This stage of the process, has, in the past, taken me years of brainstorming and working through writer’s block, and scribbling in notebooks, and daydreaming on New Jersey Transit.
But now, as I begin my next novel, I realize that I have learned something vitally important:
The only way to write a book is to write a book.
This is both beautifully simple and excruciatingly difficult. But what I’ve learned, is that there is no way to know what the story is, or who these characters are, until I’ve written them. For me, this looks like: Twenty MS-Word documents saved as Untitled1, Untitled2, etc. It is about finding one thing, or two things, that are true. And once I know those true things, another true thing can be born—and therein comes the momentum, and the draft I can eventually save as “Untitled Novel Draft.”
For my third book, now finished, there are ten or so such documents that I was playing around with before I started in earnest. And while they are mostly awful, and vacuous, and will never see the light of day—there are some truths there. Almost every document featured a sister who would play a large role. Every document had my protagonist wearing old boots and my protagonist obsessed with the colors of the sky. Sometimes there was fire, sometimes there was a party, sometimes there was a hospital—but the sister, the boots, the colors- these remained. And eventually, my novel was born, based only on these three truths, and a feeling, deep down in my stomach, that said yes, this is right.
On first drafts, Anne Lamott says, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”
And so, here I am again, feeling around in the dark. Writing truly terrible things, quieting self-doubt, waiting for truth.
It is rare for someone to ask me about my writing.
It is so rare, in fact, that when it happens, I feel suddenly tongue-tied, and speak in sweeping statements that are likely confusing, and lead the other person into thinking that I don’t want to talk about my work.
After a lot of introspection, I think that this happens for two reasons (both having to do with me, not the other person).
1. Very few people know that I have written three books. Why? Because I don’t tell them.
2. When people do know, and do ask, I have a very difficult time explaining the publishing process.
It’s this second point that I want to focus on. I struggle with explaining the publishing industry, not because I’m not knowledgeable, but rather because I worry that A) people don’t care or B) people know all of this already or C) Worst of all: people will think that I’m making it sound harder than it is to get published.
And so, here, today, is the process that takes place after you’ve written, revised, gotten feedback from trusted readers, revised again, and believe you have a “final” version of your manuscript. I’m talking here about traditional publishing, (as opposed to self-publishing) which is analogous to no other industry I know of. Raymond Carver has a famous short story, What We Talk about When We Talk About Love, where four characters, quite in the dark (literally and figuratively) sit around a table and try to define love. Publishing is tangible, of course. It is not the ephemeral notion Carver was writing about, but still, when I try to explain it, my social anxiety goes into high gear. I bumble around, as if needing to feel around a dark room with my palms. No more of that. And so, without further ado, here’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Publishing.
1. The first step is to find a literary agent. This is the step many writers get stuck on, and for good reason. To get an agent, a writer needs to compose a “query letter.” This query contains a pitch of the book, a brief synopsis, and an author bio. This involves a great deal of research, because all literary agents don’t represent all genres. It’s important to point out that a writer does not pay her agent. A legitimate agent only takes a percentage once the book is under contract.
Once you’ve found the agents you want to query, you send the emails—probably only in small batches at a time. (I think I sent out in batches of about six.) Agents receive many queries a month, so the process of hearing back is a very long one. (If interested in the real scope, here are my agent’s query stats for 2016.) If the agent doesn’t think the book is a good fit, you will receive a rejection, sometimes with valuable feedback, often not. (You might receive ten of these. You might receive twenty.) If an agent is interested in your book, she might request either a “partial” (some of your book) or a “full” (the whole book). This can also take months, as the prospective agent has to juggle reading client work (which takes precedence) as well as requested manuscripts. If the agent wants to represent your book, you have hit the jackpot of the writing world. These offers are few and far between and they are coveted like the golden tickets of Wonka’s factory.
2. If you are agented (yay! Congratulations!) it is likely that your book will undergo further revision. If your agent is editorial, (mine is) she will have a much better eye for current market trends and what she can or can’t sell than you do. You will revise again based on your agent’s feedback.
3. Go on Submission – Once you and your agent have agreed that this is the “final” (Is it ever ‘final’ though? Who are we kidding?) piece, you will be on submission. The most important rule of submission is as follows: Writers must not talk about it. My agent compared it to Fight Club. The first rule of submission is not to talk about submission. This is because a writer doesn’t necessarily want an editor to know how long a book has (or hasn’t) been available. Think of it like a house that has been for sale for a long time. A buyer is going to have a of questions about why the house hasn’t sold and become wary of purchasing it. Aside from that mandated silence, being on submission really means that your agent has selected editors at specific publishing houses (Those names you are familiar with: Random House, Harper Collins, etc.- all of which have many smaller imprints) that she believes will be a good fit for your project. Your agent pitches the book to editors at those house—and then—
4. The waiting game – The writer waits. And the writer waits. And the writer waits. An editor can have your manuscript for months before opening the document. Maybe the editor doesn’t feel the project jives with him/her. She will send a rejection (with sometimes very helpful revision ideas) to your agent. Your agent will (kindly, gently) pass this rejection back to you. Sometimes, the editor is excited about the project. If that is the case, the editor will likely get second or third reads from others to see if there is interest among the larger house. From there, your book might go to an Acquisitions Meeting, where it is discussed broadly. It is here, again, that many writers get stuck. So close. The last, final step. But maybe there is something about your book not quite right for the current market. Maybe the book too closely resembles another book the house already possesses. If it’s turned down, the editor will send a rejection letter to your agent, which will again (kindly, gently) be passed on to you. And if the manuscript passes through the acquisitions meeting and there is support for the project—the editor will make an offer, and your book will have a home.
During the long wait, a writer is advised to work on the next project. Make it a project you’re so excited about, that you become invested in it and not so focused on the book that is on submission. In other words: do not, do not, stalk editors on twitter to see if they maybe, perhaps, possibly, tweeted something that might be about your manuscript (don’t ask me how I know). Do not go back to the manuscript and read it over and over, fixing punctuation and wondering, but what if I had just…? Pretend it doesn’t exist. Start fresh. Agonize only in quiet. Despair, Dream, Hope. Again. And Again. And Again.
I had a recent conversation with someone who was shocked to find out that I’m an actor. But you’re so quiet, this person had said. I usually think of performers as being narcissistic and hungry for attention. I bristled at this, of course. I felt immediately defensive, as many of my friends are people I met through theater.
I had a social fantasy about going on a full rant. Of standing up, leaning close, and saying: Actors are some of the most generous, intuitive people I have ever met. Many use the playwright’s words as a way to “tell” their own stories. And this is brave, wise, genuine, necessary…
But of course, being a born introvert, I said nothing of the kind. I likely looked down at my lap, smiled, and said, I’m sure narcissism is true of some actors, but it’s not true of most. If I was feeling particularly rattled, hives spread over my neck, or I started touching my jewelry or hair (my husband, Adam, says that these are my “tells” that my social anxiety has reached 11/10).
I’m a textbook introvert. I keep my distance, (until I trust a person, in which case, I become rabidly protective) prefer small groups to crowds, need time alone, observe before reacting, and take time to process information before making decisions.
Perhaps, to people who are more outgoing, these qualities sound passive, or tiring, or sad. But it’s these very traits: my proneness to quiet, my propensity toward observation—that feed me as an artist. Speaking less gives me the opportunity to see more, (Did you start singing Hamilton lyrics there, as I did? If yes, we are meant to be friends) to watch deeply, and to intuit the feelings of others. It gives me a unique vantage point, of which I’m unflinchingly proud.
It’s true, it’s absolutely true—that I am not shy on stage. I can’t explain this phenomenon, except to say, it’s me, but not me. It’s my fingers moving inside of a mitten. It’s my story, but not my words. And in that way, I’m being heard, being seen, the things I most want in all of the world—but behind a shadow, a veil. When the acting feels right, it is vulnerable–achingly so—but it is the opposite of attention-seeking. The energy is either turned inward—or—toward an immediate, intimate, scene-partner. When a scene feels right to me, I feel still. Centered. Deeply engaged. And so, perhaps, the introverted actor is not a paradox at all.
However, while the arts are often (though clearly not always) well-served by observation, deep-thinking, and empathy, promoting one’s art is another thing entirely. Self-promotion and the business side of the arts requires a kind of risk-taking, a kind of unapologetic ability to “put oneself out there.” The personality that works so well for me as a writer and actor, is the exact reason I struggle with self-promotion. Art, to me, or– more accurately, the creation of art– feels private, deeply personal. The act of selling that art—is not.
Good thing, really good thing, that my wonderful agent works most of the business side (of writing) for me. But still, it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s a kind of attitude a person has to take on—the necessity of saying, I’m here. Look at me. I am the real deal. And that, that? It’s immensely difficult. It’s where my introversion becomes a deficit rather than a tool.
And so, here we are. You’ve stumbled upon this blog, which is the equivalent of me dipping my toe into the water. Of me saying, I’m here. Let me show you. This is me, as introvert, playing the role of extrovert. Thank you for being here, as witness. I’m here. Let me show you.
The most common question I’m asked (and the most common question I ask of writer/parents in return) is: HOW? How is it possible to be a primary caregiver and work in the arts at the same time? What’s your secret? Do you spend approximately eleven million dollars on babysitters? Do you get up and write at 4am? Do you ever sleep at all?
The short answer is: I don’t know, we’re all crazy, so much coffee, so much anxiety, a dash of wine.
The longer answer is, of course, that I can’t speak for all of us out there. And I certainly can’t claim that I’ve entirely figured out this balancing act, but I can let you in on the single most important thing I learned about forging a career in the arts while raising a toddler:
There is no time to wait for inspiration.
This was an entirely new concept to me, one that came about after my daughter’s birth in the winter of 2014. Before she was born, even with a day job, even with acting gigs on the side, I, maybe unknowingly, felt the luxury of time. I reasoned: If I didn’t have time to write now, then I would have time later. And surely, if there wasn’t time later, there would be time someday.
And so, I waited for magic.
Before Kait was born, I could write only in “this” exact chair, in “that” corner of the café, with my coffee twenty degrees to the left. The restaurant’s music couldn’t be too loud, and the customers should speak only in respectful whispers. And if all of that didn’t line up properly, then it was earbuds in– a Cello Concerto station– something I had learned inspired me by walking past a roving string quartet in Penn Station one morning, one fall, one gorgeous day in October.
But do you want to know a secret? Or, maybe more accurately: A glaringly obvious truth? I accomplished very little. I would sit at my lucky table in that café, type a few hundred words, and then slam the laptop shut. You see, I wasn’t inspired. Poor baby, tapping those metaphorical fingers, waiting for her muse. A unicorn, maybe. The sounds of a harp. A breeze, stirring through the trees.
It took me five years to finish that first novel—a novel that I needed to write to learn how to write a novel—crucial to my growth as a writer—but not something I could sell. Five years waiting for unicorns. Listening for harps.
And then, my daughter came along. And I was still working, and still doing those acting gigs—with the addition of a newborn, who, as all newborns do, became an infant, who is now a toddler. Time was no longer on my side. I felt (still sometimes feel) that as her life was opening, as she grew more beautiful and more wide-eyed about the possibilities of the world— my life was closing. Time to write was scarce. If it wasn’t now, it wasn’t going to be later, either. And if it wasn’t later, it was never.
I couldn’t handle never. Not when writing fiction was the only thing I had ever wanted, since I was eight-years-old and my third-grade teacher had said, you can do this. Since my Grandma had said, you’re going to be a writer someday. The other kids wore lab coats or sports jerseys to career day. I brought pens. I brought notebooks. And even then, I knew that these were only props, that writing was something that happened inside, not out.
It couldn’t be never. And so, it had to be now. Right now, today, this moment.
And so, I began to do what real writers do. I wrote.
It didn’t matter if I wasn’t in the mood, it didn’t matter if I didn’t feel inspired, if I had no ideas, if I had a headache. Forget the writing table, forget the café altogether. During my maternity leave, I wrote as quietly as I could at the kitchen table, while my daughter napped in her swing. I wrote for fifteen minutes at a time while she was engaged in her pack and play. I wrote through the music of electronic toys, on weekends, when my husband was home to watch her, during commutes to New York City, my laptop balanced precariously on my bag like I was in a kind of strange circus act.
I finished my second novel in three years, and blessedly, astoundingly, signed with an agent in the fall of 2015. I finished up my agent’s revisions in Mexico, hiding out in the bathroom of our hotel room, because I didn’t want my daughter to see me while she napped.
I finished my third novel a few weeks ago, which I wrote in under a year.
It isn’t easy. I feel like I want to shout that through a bullhorn. It is really, really, damn hard, to be fully committed to a day job, to be a fully committed, involved parent, and to pursue my writing, too. But it’s not a choice. None of these things are choices. They are musts and they are nows, and I won’t let them turn into nevers.
With my loss of time, I became a more efficient writer. I learned to push myself on word counts, and take every single offer of babysitting my mom or mother-in-law offered. I told myself: don’t feel guilty, say yes, you are working, this is your work. Every hour is usable. Every page counts. And that? That work? That’s the magic. That’s October. Those completed pages? The unicorns. The harps.