Confessions from a Writer Whose Second Novel is not that Unique

I’ve just spent two days in mourning after reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. The book destroyed me not because it was unputdownable, which is how everyone else seems to describe Taylor Jenkins Reid’s fifth novel, a book which just happens to be having a moment right now thanks to Netflix. I was shattered because my second novel, the one I have just finished writing has such a similar premise that I fear the book summary in my query letter may sound a little too familiar to any literary agent who has read Reid’s 2017 bestseller.

My teenage daughter introduced Evelyn Hugo to me last weekend after reading my query letter. Though she hasn’t read my novel, my daughter said the summary sounded similar to a book that’s been blowing up on social media lately. I did a quick Google search and realized I didn’t want to associate myself with a book that sounded oddly similar to the story I’ve been working on for over five years. But when both Google and Amazon started recommending Evelyn Hugo to me, I took the plunge and added it to my cart.

My dread turned to panic the moment I started reading, yet I powered through the pages feeling every emotion any writer would if it seemed she’d been two-timed by her muse. While the stories themselves are nothing alike (virtually no husbands make an appearance in my novel), the set-up and structure and theme, in other words the parts you squeeze into a query letter, felt a little too close for comfort.

This morning, as I began to come out of my book hangover, I stumbled upon a tweet from the 6th literary agent on my maybe-query list:

“Writers! Puhleeeeze, don’t tell me that your book is unique in all the world. It’s not. The best you can ever do, is to present a fresh take on an old theme. Deal with it.” #literaryagent

Steven Hutson @wordwiselit

This tweet, despite being 6 months old, felt like a little sign from the universe. So this afternoon, feeling a little less destroyed, I dumped Evelyn in a friend’s mailbox (had to get it out of the house, despite devouring it), and began a plan to rework my book summary, focusing on what is fresh and weeding out what might feel a bit too familiar. I’ll keep my current comp (oddly also featuring “Hugo”—Erin Somers’ Stay Up with Hugo Best), but will consider renaming a minor character called Monique, because it feels just a bit too woo-woo that both books would have a character with this kind-of-unique name. I’m thinking maybe I’ll call her Stevie, in honor of the agent who unknowingly helped me recover from this “amusing” experience, though I had to cross him off my maybe-query list since he doesn’t rep upmarket or literary fiction.

Writers! Have you ever felt wrecked by a book because it made you or your idea feel less unique? Do you ever wonder if a muse may have visited you and another creator at the same time?

All Children, Except One, Grow Up

Peter Pan Audiobook

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else. ~ J.M. Barrie

The Story Behind The Story
I discovered the quote above a few days ago, by chance, as I put the finishing touches on my Peter Pan audiobook, a project I’ve been working on for my own pleasure for a number of years.

Before my son learned to read for himself, I thought it would be fun to record a public domain story for him. I wanted him to have something to listen to while I was away on a business trip. As a child, I loved to listen to stories on my plastic record player. The best kind of stories were the ones that had the little bell that jingled to remind daydreamers like me to turn the page.

For my bedtime story project, I chose Peter Pan – a fairytale I had always adored, but had never taken the time to read aloud to my own kids. I recorded the first few chapters and burned them onto a CD, but months went by before I got around to recording any more. When months turned into years, the famous words, all children, except one, grow up, became my reality.

Even though my own kids were no longer interested in fairytales, Peter Pan kept inviting me back to Neverland. Since this project never felt like work, I continued recording all seventeen chapters, even if at times I missed a whole year, just as Peter did with Wendy.

This summer I vowed to complete the editing of this project and get it out into the world. I rerecorded those first few chapters with my newer recording equipment and wrote chapter summaries and worksheets for any teachers or homeschool parents who might find them useful. Finally, as a treat to myself for actually finishing this non-work project, I hired a young artist from Ireland (Inga Hampton) to do the cover art.

Listen Online or Download & Study
If you or your own children enjoy listening to audiobooks (or if you’re learning English and want some listening practice), I hope you’ll check out my Peter Pan audiobook on SoundCloud (free).

Children’s Hospitals
In 1929, J.M. Barrie handed over all future Peter Pan royalties to London’s Great Ormand Street Hospital for children. The novel, published in 1911, is now in the public domain (the hospital still earns royalties from the play, which was published later). I hope to find a way to get this free audiobook to children’s hospital rooms. If you have any ideas or connections, let me know.

Rip, Shred, Tear

When you write books and you get really close to your characters, you sometimes forget that they aren’t real. This past week, I found myself mourning for Robin Williams from Caroline’s perspective (my MC from The Proper Order of Things). Caroline grew up watching Mork & Mindy with her siblings:

“You can keep your shoes on, kids,” Dad said as we entered our new home where everything was either white or black. We unpinched our noses once we were out of the hallway, and Dad told us to go on in and explore. Desiree followed me from room to room as if she were afraid of getting lost. We bumped into the twins around every corner, and when they stepped out of the shower that was shaped like a telephone booth saying Nanoo Nanoo, I knew exactly what they meant. This place is so weird it doesn’t even have a bathtub.

While watching this clip from Dead Poets Society today, I couldn’t help but think about Caroline. How would she react to this scene if she were watching this movie? With all of that ripping and tearing and shredding, it would undoubtedly give her those nightmares that make her to talk in her sleep.

This clip inspired me to open a .doc version of my novel and do a search for the word “paper”. I found a few scenes that brought me back to that Robin Williams clip.

I waited for the sound of the paper. When it came it wasn’t just a rustling or flipping sound like usual. This time it was a slamming and scraping and tearing as if Mother were wrapping a present she didn’t want to give away.

And later…

“God cares about love, and love isn’t something that belongs on a lousy piece of paper.” She picked up the first piece of paper in reach and began to rip it in pieces. I threw up in my mouth and swallowed as the shreds floated to the floor. The sound of paper always did that to me.

And then…

When I held it up closely, I noticed small trails running up and down the page, and I had to flip the letter over to see the Scotch tape. It had been pieced back together so perfectly I might not have noticed it wasn’t a single sheet if I hadn’t taken it in my hands and smoothed the folds out with my palms. I took the second last letter out of the pile and felt it. All of the letters from the first few years had been operated on. The sound of paper filled the closet as I remembered the tearing. I could hear the ripping and shredding and breathing as if I were still a twelve-year-old hiding underneath the bed. Mother called my name.
“Sweet Caroline?”

And finally, a note from Chester…

I promised your mother I wouldn’t tell you what she told me. She wants to tell you herself when you are old enough. You’re older than me, so I’m going to tell you everything. I’ll write short notes on tissue paper and she’ll think they’re just paper flowers.

I was more than pleased to discover the theme of my novel by doing this simple search using the word “paper”. All of the most important elements of my story and its main characters relate to this simple word. If you’re a fiction writer and you have a work-in-progress, this little Find word exercise might help you too. Which word could you search for to find or rediscover your theme?

70 Years After The Hartford Circus Fire

70 years ago today, many parents took their excited children to the circus in Hartford, Connecticut. A day of family fun turned into a nightmare when a fire broke out under the Big Top. Though thousands of people escaped the smoke and flames, hundreds were injured, and 170 people lost their lives. Many of the victims were women and children.

I first heard about the Hartford Circus Fire over ten years ago while I was exploring random books at a library. I started thinking about what it must have been like to be a child at the circus that day. I wondered how many kids were at the circus celebrating a birthday. I wondered how many became orphans on their birthdays. I wondered, and then I wrote. I wrote and then I wondered. Eventually, I published a novel. And yet, still, I wondered.

Today, when my husband surprised our kids with a trip to a family fun park, I couldn’t stop thinking about the date. I wondered how many fathers surprised their kids with tickets to the circus 70 years ago. I wondered how many returned home alone that day. I wondered and then I wrote. It seems I’ll never get that circus off my mind.

Your Discouraging Words

I’m shy when it comes to my fiction writing life. I don’t go to a lot of events for writers. I’m not in a writer’s group. I study writing every day, but I haven’t taken a creative writing class since high school. Occasionally I go to author readings. I like going to readings because I can sit in the back of a room where nobody will notice if I don’t raise my hand. I won’t get called on to share my opinion.

I like going to readings, but I don’t like when published authors begin by telling an audience of writers how impossible it is to sell books these days. Some even carry official statistics from a guild that they belong to that says how few books were sold last year. This happened at a reading I went to this week at my local library. After a brief hello, the author took out a piece of paper and shared the grim numbers. In case we didn’t get the math, she paraphrased it for us:

You don’t stand a chance at making money from your fiction writing. And sorry, but it’s just going to get worse.

Then she told us to write anyway because writing is the best feeling in the world. I liked and agreed with the second part, but it was too late when she said it. She could have started with the part about the best feeling in the world. She would have hooked me there.

The main purpose of the event was to give a chance for some of the author’s workshop students to get up and read from their works-in-progress. Three writers were chosen. Though not yet published authors, their writing was polished. They read beautifully. In fact, the author seemed stunned by the quality of their writing. She even admitted to feeling a bit nervous about following up with a reading from her own up-and-coming book. But she read and her piece was good and funny as we all expected. After all, she has sold lots of books.

When it was all over one of the audience members took the time to tell the author she had a lovely jacket. Others waited for their turn to offer a compliment. But, it was too late for me. I couldn’t shake off that sour introduction. The note from the guild. The statistics. The warning not to try to write fiction for money, even though she did. That’s the thing I will remember about this author, unfortunately. Those discouraging words.

A New Preface

When I heard the news about Maya Angelou’s passing today, I immediately went searching for proof. How could it be? She seemed to be glowing in this interview with Oprah that I watched the other day. I remember thinking how young and wise she seemed.

I spent part of Mother’s Day reading through Maya Angelou’s new memoir Mom & Me & Mom. I was intrigued by her relationship with her mother, and it reminded me of something. Not my own relationship with my own mother, but someone else’s experience. I couldn’t pinpoint which mother-daughter duo I was thinking of at the time.

In the BBC article that confirmed Maya Angelou’s death for me, I spotted a tribute tweet from JK Rowling. A quote:

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” ~ Maya Angelou

I knew instantly that if I had seen this quote before publishing my novel, I would have used it for a preface. Not only because Maya Angelou’s mother (like Caroline’s) thought she was special, but didn’t know how to show it. But because this truth represents exactly what I was trying to write about in The Proper Order of Things. What is normal anyway?

My novel currently begins with a dedication: “To Mama Bird. You were always there.” Unlike Caroline and Maya’s mother, my own mom was there. I was one of the lucky ones. Tonight I’ll be opening up that old manuscript and adding a preface where I always knew one belonged. I just hadn’t read the right words yet. Thank you, Ms. Angelou.

An Interesting Interview Question

I’m two thirds of the way through Creativity, Inc. by Pixar president Ed Catmull, and I’m already dreading the fact that it will soon be over.

In the early chapters of the book, Catmull shares a lot about his relationship with Steve Jobs. At one point, when he gets up the nerve, Catmull asks Jobs a question that I think all interviewers should use:

“How do things get resolved when people disagree with you?”

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. Not just about my own answer or the answer Steve Jobs gave (my way or the highway), but also about the ingenious way Ed Catmull used Jobs’s answer to analyze his business partner and find ways to break down barriers that were stifling growth at Pixar.

I’ve also been thinking about how I might use this question to help develop future characters in my own stories. And how to help my own kids become better negotiators. And how to help my online English students. This book does that to you.

In the Company of Books

This is how I felt today after spending the day in a Chapters bookstore –my annual Mother’s Day gift to myself:

When I’m in the library surrounded by all those volumes, all the stacks, I feel like I’m in the company of a great many friends. Friends who never leave and friends who are always there when you need them to offer comfort and warmth. I feel anchored there.

Sylvan Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese