Monthly Archives: December 2011

Happy New Year!

2011 was an amazing year for me because it was the year I became an AUTHOR. And ending the year on a high note, The Waterloo Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in my old hometown, ran a story about me and my book this week. Read it here.

As January first approaches (tomorrow!!) I begin to think about my New Year’s Resolutions. Oh, I know that’s cliché, but the sense of having a fresh start when the year changes invigorates me. I make a list of goals and resolutions and am filled with optimism that I’ll follow through on them. Of course, by December 31st, there are invariably items on the list not crossed off, but that doesn’t stop me from carrying them over to my new list. And every year, I have a few new additions to my catalogue of how to be a better me.

The usual entries on my list include:
Live healthier.
Exercise more.
Lose weight.
Get organized.
Play more piano.
Finish my craft projects.

Now that I’m an author, my 2012 list has some new additions. Such as:
Write every day!
Finish that second novel!
Blog more!
Use social media!
(Notice they all have exclamation marks? That’s because I need to emphasize to myself to really follow through on them.)

My sister informed me that she is making only one resolution this year. Her goal appeals to me so much that I am adding it to my list. In fact, it’s going to be number 1:

Laugh every day.

I hope you have a productive, successful, and laughter-filled 2012!

Are you setting any goals for 2012?

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Happy Holidays!!

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My Journey as an Author

Yesterday, I was invited to be the speaker for the International Women’s Club of Bermuda‘s December luncheon and general meeting. They had asked me to speak on “My Journey as an Author.” My talk was well received, and afterward many women came up to tell me that my story inspired them to be less hesitant about pursuing their goals. That was a wonderful validation. Below I’ve copied in my talk:

I have met many amazing women in the IWC who have done, and do, amazing things. And they all have stories to tell. So I feel a tad self-conscious standing here in front of you, talking about me, because I’m just an ordinary person who happens to have had the determination to achieve a goal I set for myself.

As you are aware, I recently published my first novel, and many of you have read it. It was suggested that people might be interested in hearing how I became a published author, so I agreed. This presentation will not be about my book, but rather, as the title suggests, about my journey toward becoming an author. And the message that I hope to leave you with is not how to become a published author, but that you can realize your dreams if you are determined and work hard enough to make them happen. That even if you think it’s too late, it is not.

I have always wanted to write and publish a book. When that actually happened this year, I was astonished, because life has presented many detours on my way to that goal and it is only now, at the age of 55, that I’ve achieved it. And because of that, I will spend a little bit of time today on a few of those forks in the road, so that you can have a sense of the whole journey.

In thinking about what I would tell you today, I started to ponder when I became a writer—and I distinguish being a “writer” from being an “author.” In my mind, everyone who writes anything, from journals to letters to emails, is a writer. An author is a writer who has had something they’ve written published.

So I’d have to say that I became a writer when I was a child. My love of writing has its source in my love of reading. And that developed in me at a young age.

When I was four, my mother emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada with me and my five siblings. We moved in with two aunts and an uncle who were unmarried siblings of my mother, and who had moved to Canada ten years previously.
   
This was 1961. In Holland in those days English was not taught in schools, and although my older sisters and brothers could read and write, they could not do so in English. I had barely started school, and could do neither in any language.

Within weeks of our arrival in Canada, my Aunt Helen took us in hand to the library down the street and introduced us to the librarian, Mrs. Mitchell. With her began my love of books.

Mrs. Mitchell took it upon herself to help these six Dutch children learn the English language, and from picture books such as Blueberry Sal, The Purple Crayon, and those by Dr. Seuss, to chapter books by Enid Blighton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, I learned to speak, read and write English all in one fell swoop. And I learned it through the stories and adventures of characters that leaped from the page into my imagination.

Is it any wonder that my love of writing is intertwined with my love of reading?

As a child I wrote poems about my family and about the snow; I wrote stories about cats and filled school workbooks with short novels about orphan pioneer girls. In high school, my writing became more sophisticated, so much so that my grade thirteen English teacher suggested I send a story out for publication.

This brings me to my first pointer in realizing your dream:  

Listen to those who believe in you.

I did not listen to Mrs. Collette, because my 17-year-old self was busy pursuing a different dream: becoming a musician. I had begun piano lessons four years before and discovered I was good at it. I also found that playing the piano fed my soul. So I was determined to strive for a higher musical education in university the following year. However, Sister Johanna, my piano teacher didn’t think I had a chance of getting accepted into a program despite my talent because I had started playing the instrument so late, and she talked me out of even applying.

Pointer number 2 in realizing your dream: 

Don’t let anyone deter you from your aspirations.

I did let Sister Johanna deter me from my dream. So instead of music, I went to university for English and Psychology, hoping to become a schoolteacher, because my disappointment in not pursuing music briefly overshadowed my desire to write.

When I graduated there were few teaching jobs available, and so I moved to the big city of Toronto where I landed a job in an insurance company as a computer programmer. You heard right. The company hired me based on an aptitude test, put me through a thirteen-week training course, and voila, I was a computer programmer.

While on this detour from my goals, I met Richard; we married, and a couple of years later began a family. This new career of motherhood, as many of you know, was all encompassing, but in the middle of diapers and carpools and hockey practices and PTA, I revived my two dreams: one, to pursue a musical education; and two, to write.

At the age of 36, with three children between the ages of 6 and 9, I returned to university full-time to follow advanced studies in music. In addition, I intended to journal my back-to-school experience and eventually turn it into a book.

The advanced music studies were successful. The journaling was not. How could I have expected it be, with three children, a full-time course load, practicing piano, and, by the way, I had also begun teaching piano lessons.

I obtained my Bachelor of Music, and then pursued graduate studies in Music Theory. After six years of schooling I secured a teaching position at one of the local universities, and felt extreme satisfaction in having realized one of my lifelong dreams. I so wanted to visit Sister Johanna and say to her, “See? I knew I could do it!”

Pointer number 3 in realizing your dream: 

Never give up trying.

“But what about the writing?” you ask. Although journaling during my adult school career did not materialize, in the midst of all this LIFE, I did write: long letters to my sister who lived overseas, essays, the occasional short story, and with email becoming a part of our lives, I sent lengthy missives over the internet. Once I had graduated and was working, I took creative writing courses and I read, read, read.

But I wrote for fun, because it fulfilled something within me, and I never expected that I would ever publish a book. My career was music.

Six years ago, my life was uprooted. I had to leave my great gig at the university and I found myself living in the United States with no work permit and nothing to do.

In a magazine for new residents, a listing for the Virginia Writers Club jumped out at me, and I thought, “Could I do this?”

It took me a few days to pluck up the courage to actually phone them, because I didn’t really consider myself a writer since I merely dabbled with words. I essentially had to talk myself into believing that I would fit in with writers who took their craft seriously enough to send their work out. Would they, as a collective, accept me as a member? 


Pointer number 4 in realizing your dream: 
Believe in yourself.

Of course they accepted me—the group is all-inclusive and its membership is comprised not just of published authors, but amateur writers including triflers like I believed I was.

In that club, I bonded with four other writers and we formed a critique group. With them, my journey to authorship finally began.

My critique group helped me to believe that I could write a novel. I was hesitant about even starting one because, not counting my childish workbook novelettes, I had only ever written short stories. The group’s encouragement and constructive criticism spurred me on and made me find the discipline I needed to finish writing my novel.

There was another person in Virginia who guided me on the path to authorship. Jenn Stanley, who lived down the street from us, was a published cozy mystery author. When we met, I was a bit of a groupy because I was in awe of the fact that she had actually published books. We became friends, and when I finished writing my novel, she encouraged me to send it out. But first she gave me advice on how to make it an even better book and offered pointers on writing my query letters.

Pointer number 5 in realizing your dream:
LISTEN to constructive criticism.

And then Richard and I moved away, back to Canada.

But despite the chaos of the move, I hung on to my determination and sent out queries to literary agents. After about a dozen “no thank you’s” I received an email from an agent, Dawn, who was just starting the Blue Ridge Literary Agency. She had read my query and synopsis, and was very interested in reading the manuscript. I sent it to her and within less than a week she offered to represent me. She did qualify her offer, telling me she was new to the business, was just starting to make contacts, and I needed to be aware of her inexperience before signing with her.

My response to her was, “Well I’m new to this too; let us learn together.”

Pointer number 6 in realizing your dreams: 

Take risks.

Something else happened while I was shopping out my novel.

Remember my friend Jenn from Virginia, the cozy mystery author? While I was on a visit to Virginia, for fun we brainstormed an idea for a cozy mystery series. Jenn pitched it to her agent, who loved it and asked us to put together something she could submit to publishers. So with Jenn in Virginia and me in Ontario, we signed an agreement for co-authoring the series, wrote a proposal and the first three chapters, and sent it off.

And then Richard and I moved again, this time to Bermuda. During our first months here, I was slightly distracted from settling in by several phone calls from Jenn and her agent about the cozy mystery series. Berkley Prime Crime (a division of Penguin Books), wanted to contract a three book series with us based on our proposal.

Believe it or not, I hesitated. I had never written a cozy mystery and I would be co-authoring it, not writing it alone, and under a nom de plume. Still, publishers were rejecting my own novel and here was an opportunity to get published! How could I not take it?

After a few weeks of back and forth phone calls, negotiating the terms of the contract and the content of the book, Jenn and I signed, and I became half of Lucy Arlington, writing A Novel Idea Mystery Series.

Exciting, yes? I could now legitimately call myself an author! We began working diligently on the first book.

But the novel of my heart, The Unraveling of Abby Settel, was not getting published. And Sylvia May was not getting published.

The contract I had signed with my agent Dawn for the book was valid for one year. In that year, she sent it out to many publishers, who rejected it. There were many positive and kind rejections—such as, “a beautifully written book but we have no need for it at this time”—but rejections nonetheless.

I was getting discouraged.

As the end of the contract approached, I started to consider the idea of not renewing it and withdrawing the book from the market.

I had given it a good try.
I had written a novel.
Perhaps I should just be satisfied with that, write as half of Lucy Arlington, and go snorkeling.

Literally the day after voicing these thoughts to my husband, my agent Dawn phoned me with an offer from a small publisher in Kentucky, Turquoise Morning Press. They wanted to publish The Unraveling of Abby Settel.

Woo hoo!!

Some negotiations followed, but less than a week after I considered giving up on my dream of getting my novel published, I had signed the contract and Abby was on her way to the bookshelves.

Remember pointer number 3 in realizing your dream? 

Never give up trying.

It has been quite an adventure since then. I’ve had the unique opportunity of working with both a large publisher and a small independent one—choosing covers, dealing with issues over titles, release dates, multiple edits, deadlines.

In my experience, the small independent publisher is much more flexible and personal in the decision-making, involving the author in almost every step of the way. With the big publishing house, at least for the Cozy Mystery genre, the book seems to be simply a commodity and the author is merely the producer of that commodity. Once the publisher has the manuscript, the author almost doesn’t matter.

There are other differences:
The large publishing house contracted for three books on the basis of a proposal and three chapters. My co-author and I received a small advance before we’d even finished writing one book.

The small publishing house offered a contract on a completed manuscript, with no advance, only future royalty payments.

The manuscript for the first book of the mystery series was due to the publisher on February 1st of this year. We submitted it well before the deadline; however, our editor did not contact us about changes until August, seven months later. And the book will be released in February of 2012, almost two years from the signing of the contract. We’ve completed and submitted the second book, have begun writing the third, and the first one is not even out yet.

With The Unraveling of Abby Settel, the release date was negotiated in the contract, and three months before that date, I was contacted by the editor about minor editorial changes. The book was released on the original scheduled date of August 22nd of this year, nine months after the contract was signed.

From Berkley, I received a cover flat when the cover was finalized and three weeks ago I received ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) to be sent out to reviewers so that the book can be reviewed before release, increasing its anticipation.

From Turquoise Morning Press, there was nothing produced in advance. I received copies of the book when it was released.

As a new unknown author, promotion of the book is left solely to me. With today’s social media, the reach is amazing, but I spend at least an hour every day, and often more, on the computer accessing readers on FaceBook, Yahoo groups, blogs, etc.

I’ve paid to print bookmarks, to have the book listed in a library catalogue, and to have it advertised on Goodreads.com.

Will the income generated by the sales of The Unraveling of Abby Settel cover these costs? I hope so but possibly not. Yet exposure is everything, and if my first novel doesn’t make money but gets my name out there so that my second one will have a following, it is worth investing a little bit in promotion.

And I am in the fortunate position of earning some income from the Lucy Arlington contract to help support the costs of promoting the novel that I hope will make Sylvia May known as an author.

Writing The Unraveling of Abby Settel took me about a year. It required discipline to sit at my desk almost every day and work at it. I had to approach it like a job, using critique meetings as deadlines, working at the same time every day, setting daily objectives.

In Virginia and Ontario that was not difficult, because I focused my life there on that project.

Here in Bermuda, however, I find it more of a challenge to be a working author. There are so many distractions—the sun, the water, the beach, golf tournaments, Mah Jong, luncheons, volunteering, snorkeling, scuba diving, badminton, scootering—I could go on and on.

But if I want to stay on this author’s path—and I do—then I know that I must sometimes ignore those distractions and dig deep for that discipline to work hard and stick to task.

Pointer number 7 in realizing your dream: 

Work very hard.

The way I look at it, even though I’ve been a writer for most of my life, my journey as an author has only just begun.

My book has been out for only three and a half months and there’s still a big market to tap. I’m working on my second novel, and have about two-thirds of it completed. Where I will send it once it’s finished I haven’t yet decided. I would like to be more than a one-book author, so I am determined to get that second one published. And since I’ve been told that tenacity is my middle name, I am convinced it will be.

I truly believe that if you have your heart set on accomplishing something, you can. No matter how old you are. No matter where you are in life. You just have to work hard, set your goal, believe in yourself, and never give up.

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