Wednesday, June 29, 2011

9 WOW Wednesday: Ara Burkland


Today's WOW post is by one of the very first people I ever met at a writer's conference, the incomparable Ara Burklund, whose manuscript blew me away the moment she read it aloud.  You'll be blown away by her story, too. I promise. Read on, and visit her at her blog for more.

Confessions of a Two-Timer

By Ara Burklund

I have to be honest. When Martina first asked me to do a WOW Wednesday post, I hesitated. I mean, I love reading other people's WOW Wednesday tales. I can't get enough of the what-was-your-journey-as-a-writer questions in the ACP author interviews. But me? Sure, I recently hooked up with an agent I'm head over heels for, whose judgment I absolutely trust, and I have a manuscript out on submission, but I don't know if anyone's going to like it. Anything could happen.

Everyone could reject it, or maybe more than one editor will want it, and they'll have a bidding war. Another favorite fantasy is that someone will make my agent a preemptive offer. On the flip side, though, I realize I still might need to dodge a few very likely hurdles: editorial board meeting approval, uncontracted revisions, similar titles already on publishers' lists.

Anyway, all my disclaimers about the status of my now-ten-year-old writing career said, here's my advice to the writing world at large (including myself!): Don't give up!!! That agent I'm madly in love with? She's not my first. Kind of like the high school boyfriend I knew deep in my heart--no matter how much I wanted to deny it at the time--just wasn't right for me (even though he's a great person), my first agent and I amicably parted ways. And yes, breaking up was hard to do. Afterward, it took me awhile to find the right person again.

Not because I was gun-shy, but because I'd become more particular about the type of agent I wanted. Kind of like my friends in their late thirties who were dating, I now had a lot of dealbreakers on my list, and I'd been around the block enough times, compromise was no longer an option. As a result, it took me two years to find the right person. Now that she's in my corner, though, I'm happy I waited.

As far as my lifelong journey as a writer goes, I'm not going to be all trite and tell you how I've been writing flash fiction since I was a toddler, penning novels since the tender age of nine. No. More like I was that girl who wrote angry diatribes in her journal during junior high, then lamented in it over why [insert name of latest hot guy I wanted to nail] didn't like me in high school. Stories--if there were any--were written on whim or assignment, all extremely short. In college, I finally started sketching a few character profiles I hoped would turn into a full-length manuscript. But then I made a horrible mistake: I showed them to someone I loved (still love, believe it or not!), asking for his opinion. His response? He hated them. Said I didn't have any talent as a writer. Said no one would ever want to read anything so depressing. And even though he didn't regularly read fiction, I trusted his opinion. So I stopped writing. For ten years.

At the age of thirty, I had somewhat of a midlife crisis, probably springing from the fact that two friends of mine had published novels. Because somewhere down in a neglected corner of my soul, I knew I wanted to write, but I'd given up prematurely. So I started all over again, this time, writing a full manuscript in six weeks. I finally had the discipline to stick to a project and the self-confidence not to care whether the people close to me thought I was wasting my time. It was my time, after all, and I deserved to spend it doing something I enjoyed. Something that brought me fulfillment. Something that stimulated my brain.

I wish I could say that first manuscript was a big hit. Sure, a few people said they read it in a single night, but that was probably because it was like a freeway full of unending, gruesome, multicar pileups, impossible not to keep staring at. After the rejections starting rolling in on that one (over one hundred of them--I'd learned to be persistent), I finally picked up a few writing books. And promptly found out all the stuff I'd been doing wrong. Oops! So I wrote another manuscript. Structurally more sound, also a one-night read for some of my beta-readers, I immediately queried agents with it. As usual, I got a lot of requests (in hindsight, I realize I wrote a better query letter than a manuscript at the time). Again, though, the rejections started rolling in, one after another. But then I got a two-page, single-spaced rejection from a prominent agent (you'd know her--she's got a few NYT bestselling authors on her list) that I'll always treasure. In it, she told me the truth: the manuscript I'd written was well-crafted, but the way the subject matter was set up (with the main character first a teenager, then in part II an adult) would never fly in the marketplace. She told me I'd essentially plotted two separate manuscripts, praising my teen voice and suggesting I develop that side of the story first. So I did.

Again, I wish I could say I hit it big with those two resulting manuscripts, but I didn't. The teen part of the story did attract some agent attention. In fact, another well-known agent (think of at least two YA authors who are worldwide phenomena and share the same agent), requested an exclusive on that manuscript. First s/he requested a partial, then a full. And then s/he held onto it, exclusively, for almost A YEAR!!! You can imagine my frustration when I *finally* received my rejection, not to the full s/he'd requested, but to the original partial! Talk about disorganized!!! Anyway, lesson learned: big names aren't superhuman. They have their flaws, just like everyone else, so it's better not to put them on such a pedestal.

With manuscript number five, I finally got an offer of representation.

Two offers, actually. Naturally, I didn't choose the agent whose career was about to blow up, with three authors becoming bestsellers within a matter of months. I chose the agent with the more steady track record. Ultimately, when s/he didn't wind up selling my manuscript, I took to mentally beating myself up over not choosing the other agent. But you know what? Years later, I realize something: it wouldn't have worked out with the agent not chosen, either. I wasn't ready as a writer. No matter how much guidance I might have received, I still had way too much to learn about craft. In fact, even now, I've learned that I'll never stop learning from the masters. With this new manuscript out there, I just hope I'm finally ready. No matter what happens, though, one thing I know: I'll keep writing.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Ara. One of the things I love about writing is that there is always more to learn.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Like you, I started writing later in life.

    It's interesting reading about your experiences with agents because you've had quite a few experiences with them. Glad you found an agent you are happy with. Good luck with your book.

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  3. "I wasn't ready as a writer."

    Love this line! I always have a similar thought as I'm typing away on my WIP(s). Sometimes it sucks to remember I'm not agented/published, but I learn so much every day from writing/reading that I'm not overly bummed. Where I'm at now as a writer vs. where I was two years ago when I sent my first ever query out...I shake my head at the old me's impatience :)

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  4. Thank you so much, Ara! Best of luck in your publication journey! :)

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  5. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story! Reading these posts always gets me geared up to write :)

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  6. That was so fun to read! Yep, first manuscripts rarely are winners. The second ones, either. So sad that you gave up for so many years, but it's great that you came back to it! Very inspiring. :)

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  7. Glad to hear you all liked it! I just put up a post on my blog about my agent, in case anyone's interested in reading more about the journey. : )

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  8. I love inspiring stories like these. Thanks Ara for sharing!

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  9. You're welcome! Huge thanks to Martina for asking me to do a post! : )

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