Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Call It Déjà Tru by Trudi Trueit (February Theme)

In the spirit of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, where irascible TV weather forecaster, Phil Connors, (played to cynical perfection by Bill Murray) must re-live the same day again and again until he gets it right, we, too, here at Smack Dab are sharing our own personal career blunders that we’d love to go back and do over, if only we could.  

Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies, partly because I used to be a TV weather forecaster (I feel like I should be saying this at a support group). As a discipline, meteorology is fascinating, but as a job, TV weather forecasting is, well, rather banal. You stand in the snow in the winter and say, “Boy, is it cold.” You stand in the scorching heat in the summer and say, “Boy, is it hot.” And between the two you go to festivals, parades, zoos, concerts, plays, sporting events, beauty pageants, ho-downs, and anywhere else your desperate producer can think to send you for a live shot, so you can interview the same people year after year after year. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun riding in a Model T or helping the local shelter adopt out animals (we did find a good home for the sweet fella in the above photo). But, if I'm being completely honest, I'd have to say there were more than a few times in my career when I could relate to this scene in the movie   .   .   . 


Fortunately, my attitude was a bit more upbeat than Phil's (or I wouldn't have been on the air too long), but I always knew that weather forecasting wasn't my destiny. It was easy, sure, but it wasn't fulfilling. Writing for children is definitely not easy, but it satisfies me in a way nothing else has, or ever could.

So what would I circle back to do all over again on my writing journey? Here are the biggies:

Mistake: I need an agent, so I should take any agent that wants me
When I finished my first children's novel, I diligently sent out dozens of queries to agents. But I really didn't know much about any of them. My research consisted of flipping through Writer's Market and picking out names at random. Consequently, I latched on to the first agent who responded that she wanted to represent me. Big mistake. She was pleasant, but not motivated. In eighteen months, she sent my work out to two editors. Two. If I would have done my homework, I would have discovered she was a few years away from retirement and pretty much phoning it in. My second agent was abrasive, uncommunicative, and verbally abusive. I accepted it as part of the price I would have to pay for publication. That was an even bigger mistake than the first. Finding an agent is like finding a mate. Would you marry the first person that showed interest in you, just because he/she winked in your direction? No, of course, not. Writer and agent is a literary marriage that is likely to last for many years, so you need to make your choice carefully and wisely. Writers seeking representation often ask me what to look for in an agent. You need an agent you are compatible with. Your agent should be easy to communicate with, respectful, and courteous. Your agent should be accessible. Emails or phone calls should be answered in a timely and courteous manner way. Most important, your agent should be a fan of your work. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect your agent to ask you to revise your story or share his/her critical opinion. After all, your agent will be trying to sell your work and needs it to be the best representation of you it can be. But your agent should not be trying to give you a complete literary make-over to mold you into a copy of another writer. These days, agents have their pick of writers, so it's natural to be enthusiastic when one takes an interest in you. But don’t let your excitement plunge you into a bad relationship. Having an incompatible agent wastes your time, zaps your energy, and ultimately, is worse than having no agent at all. The third time was my charm. After my nightmare experience with agents, I started sending my work directly to editors. When one was ready to offer me a contract, I asked her for recommendations, conducted proper interviews, and made my selection. I realize that not everyone can follow in my footsteps, but you need to know that you have more power than you think. Do not give it away. Do your homework, look for an agent with sensibilities similar to yours, and ask a lot of questions before you sign on the dotted line.

Mistake: Librarians, teachers, and parents must approve of my work
Sure, it’s terrific when librarians, teachers, parents, and, even reviewers, like my work, because they are the ones who will be purchasing it for young people, but what word is missing from that sentence above? How about kids? I spent a lot of my early years writing prose for children to please adults. I got good feedback from editors, but not exuberant support. And no contracts. I didn’t understand what the problem was. My characters were nice, polite, considerate, and always made the right choices. In other words, they were nothing like real kids. It was only when I made the decision to start writing honest, messy, flawed characters did my books come to life, and editors began to take notice. Of course, when you write about a spirited kid who likes to arm fart the national anthem and brews up stinky Sister-Be-Gone spray in his bedroom, you’re going to offend some adults. Sorry about that. But it has to be done. I write for kids. And nobody else.

Mistake: Others know better than I do what I should be writing
I'm a big believer in listening to and incorporating constructive criticism. Being open to advice from agents, editors, and those with more writing experience than you, can help you make great strides as a writer. However, this does not mean you must incorporate every single thing everyone says into your work. If you do, your head will be spinning, because every person who reads your work will have a different opinion about how you should approach it. I used to try to take everyone’s advice, even when I knew in my heart it wouldn’t make the story better. I convinced myself that they were more trustworthy than I. Wrong. Trust your gut. When I was working on the revision for my first fiction novel, JulepO’Toole: Confessions of a Middle Child, I came across a sticky note from my editor, asking me to think about changing a particular paragraph. I didn't want to do it. I felt I was saying exactly what I wanted to say. I spent a few sleepless nights trying to figure out what to do. Should I change it to make her happy? I can’t recall what the change was, but I vividly remember what my editor said when I called her to ask what I should do. She said, “Trudi, this is your book. I’m only here to ask questions that might help make the work better. But you’re the one that gets to decide what the answers are.”

Mistake: I must be a published writer to give back
I always felt I couldn't or shouldn’t share my passion for reading and writing with kids unless I was published. My focus was too narrow. I may not have been able to speak to classes as a published author, but there were so many other ways I could have given back. No matter where you are on your writing journey, you can make a difference in the life of a young person. Become a reading or writing tutor at a nearby elementary or middle school, help organize a writing workshop for children at your public library, raise money for a local writing or arts program, or volunteer with a children’s literacy program in your community (here in Seattle, we have an incredible non-profit literary organization called Page Ahead). When you share your knowledge and excitement for writing with others, I guarantee the joy will come back to you a hundred-fold. You will be inspired. You will be grateful. You will be changed. It’s just like in the movie Groundhog Day. Only when Phil discovers the most important things in life are not what we accomplish for ourselves but what we do for others, can his life, at last, progress.

Above all, don’t let your mistakes drench you in discouragement. Use them to become a better writer and a stronger, more resilient person. It took me seven years of mistakes to get my first publishing contract, but every error taught me valuable lessons about myself, my craft, and the business of publishing. Every mistake has brought me to where I am right now, and for that, I am truly thankful.

                                             * * * * 
Trudi Trueit is the author of more than 80 fiction and nonfiction books for children. Check out the trailer for her newest tween title, Stealing Popular (Aladdin MIX) and visit her website at www.truditrueit.com

6 comments:

  1. LOVE the response from that editor! So cool...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, Holly, having a great editor is worth its weight in gold. I've been truly fortunate to work with some of the best!

      Delete
  2. Trudi, I love the pic of you on the job! :) You make some great points here. That approval-seeking thing can be a really hard one to shake in a business built on approval! I would take it even a step further: write for the kid YOU (and no one else).

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks, Irene! And yes, you are so right. The 'kid' me is the main reason I do what I do, and why I love it so much. I guess somebody never really grew up. But, on the up side, I did get new glasses!

    ReplyDelete
  4. This was a GREAT post, Trudi. Each one of these points is one worth musing about.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, cmills! Glad it was helpful. I could do a five part series on this topic! ;)

      Delete