Guest Blog: Jean Lee describes her route to becoming a published author

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When Jean Lee, writer of fiction for young adults agreed to write a guest blog for me, she asked what topic I would like her to cover.  Knowing that her new novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, is due for release later this month, I said:

At what point did you decide, ‘Okay, I’m going to send it out’? Were you nudged by anyone, or was it your decision?  What were the key factors?

Short Answer: I was nudged by my husband. Key factor: panic.

Let’s back up a moment.

See, I didn’t actually set out to publish The Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. We are here because of what you’d call a most happy accident.

I had written the first draft back in 2010 for the National Novel Writing Month. It was the first time I’d written since the dark days of graduate school, and it felt so, so bloody good to be writing a story I genuinely cared about. But I was also a first-time mother, still a part-time teacher, so my time was very rarely my own. Over the years I’d pick at the story’s characters/plot/setting, and in 2015 I tried sending it out to a few agents. No interest.

So I put Stolen away. It was destined to be that “unsellable first novel”: the story that got me back into writing, but also the story that’d never see the light of day.

In the meantime, I started my site Jean Lee’s World and was writing there every week. I’d also taken up a challenge from indie author Michael Dellert to write a YA Fantasy series about shield maidens, so I was brain-deep in that. I’d visit Stolen every now and then, its voice finally coming in from the shadows with bleeding knuckles and a mouth full of sass. But still…surely no one would want to read this.

Enter Wattpad & Aionios Books.

Wattpad’s a free publishing platform for stories, poems, plays, and so on. Since my website had been dedicated to writing about craft and music, it was cool to find a place A Middler's Pridewhere I could specifically share fiction and receive feedback on my YA Fantasy Middler’s Pride. My shield maiden series had gotten some excellent feedback as well as some honest to goodness readers—including the lead editor of Aionios Books, Gerri Santiago.

I still remember getting the Twitter message from Gerri while waiting to pick up my sons from 4K one November day: “Have you signed on with a publisher yet?”

My hands start shaking. Who’d want to publish me? A gazillion other fantasy writers are out there probably doing way better. I’m just…I’m just me.

Another tweet: “I love Meredydd’s tough vulnerability in Middler’s Pride.”

Oh! Well… Huzzah, then!

Now you’re probably wondering A) How long is this nattering going to continue and B) isn’t the novel we’re talking about Fallen Princeborn: Stolen?

  1. A) I’m almost done.
  2. B) Publishing often takes unexpected turns.

Gerri asks me to send her a complete manuscript of Middler’s Pride. “Sure!” I start to type. Freeze. I’d been reworking a few key elements inside the story to better fit a series, and that reworking was nowhere near done.

But I can’t afford to lose this opportunity! If I say it’s not ready, she may say thanks and move on. Then who knows how long it’ll be before I get someone’s attention like this again?

I panic myself into a hyperventilating mess—always a smart state for driving preschoolers home from school—seeing all manners of defeat awaiting this exchange with Gerri. I should tell her to forget she ever saw my work. I should flee Wattpad. The internet. The…well you can’t get much more rural than a Wisconsin farming town, so I suppose this is flight enough.

Bo gets home from work and listens to my breathless, teary telling of the Twitter tale. He gets me some cocoa and sits me down. “Can you send her something else to buy you some time?” he asks.

“No. Well maybe. There’s my Fallen Princeborn story. But that’s not totally revised, either.”

Bo considers this. “True, but it’d probably keep her attention long enough so you can get that Middler thing done, right?”

I nod. Okay, that made sense. Distract with the giant green head projection that is Fallen Princeborn: Stolen while I frantically move Middler’s Pride things around behind the curtain. Gerri will also then see I’ve got more than one voice and style in me, which will hopefully make me sound more marketable. Okay. Okay okay. This all makes sense.

So I write Gerri a really, REALLY long rambling email (yes, even longer than this guest post) about time and the importance of storytelling and hey, would you like to read this while you wait for me to fulfill your request?

“Sure!”

THANK GOD.

I think only two days pass, maybe three. Bo’s doing what he can to get out of work early and handle the kids so I can finish Middler’s Pride sooner.

My phone beeps: an email from Gerri.

Oh no. She must be wondering what’s going on. She wants Middler now or never. Dammit, Jean, get the thing done!

I open the email.

“I just LOVE this story! The characters are so complete, and so compelling! Do you have more Fallen Princeborn? I NEED to know what happens next!”

I beam. These characters I’ve known as long as my daughter—they’re loved by someone else. People I made from my own pain, anger, and yearnings have connected to someone else, and made a home in someone else’s imagination.

Could these characters find homes in other readers’ imaginations, too?

Only one way to find out.

Now here we are. While Gerri liked Middler’s Pride, in the end it wasn’t a fit for Aionios Books—and you know what? That’s okay. Meredydd and the other shield maidens found a home with stories by fellow indie authors on the subscription site Channillo. Gerri sent me a contract for Fallen Princeborn: Stolen in December, and she’s been challenging me to build upon the story’s world ever since. I’ve written a collection of short stories featuring characters of this world, and am planning four more novels to follow Stolen, the next volume to come out next spring.

So, if you’re one of those with the “unsellable first novel” in a file somewhere, pull it out. Chances are enough time’s gone by that you can read it as the audience, not the creator. Sure, the heroine sounds too nice for escaping from a personal hell, or the world’s rules don’t make sense, or the villain doesn’t have enough to do. Know what? Now’s the time to right those narrative wrongs. You know better now. You can hear the voice beneath the noise. You’ve only to dig it out.

My deepest thanks to Cath for inviting me to her to her sanctuary of words and wanders. My novel Fallen Princeborn: Stolen will be available for purchase starting Halloween.

About.

Jean Lee is a Wisconsin born and bred writer excited to share her young adult fiction with those who love to find other worlds hidden in the humdrum of everyday life. Lee’s short story collection Tales of the River Vine is currently available for free download on Amazon, Nook, and other markets. Her serialized fantasy Middler’s Pride is available via the Indie E-magazine Channillo. Lee’s first novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, debuts Halloween 2018 from Aionios Books. She currently lives in the Madison area with her husband and three children.

Links for Stories:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07HHCDJVW/

Nook: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/tales+of+the+river+vine/_/N-8qa?_requestid=2147697

Other outlets: https://www.books2read.com/b/mBPXQR

Channillo: https://channillo.com/series/middler-s-pride/

 Jean Lee’s Contact Info:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012373211758

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jeanleesworld

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Jean-Lee/e/B07DPP2RV6/

Website: https://jeanleesworld.com/

Publisher Site: https://aioniosbooks.com/jean-lee

Instagram: @jeanleesworld

Email: jeanleesworld@gmail.com

 

 

Judging a book by its cover

I’ve just finished Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn.  I thought it would be useful to do some reading round a course that I’m going to be leading in October which will include another Barbara Pym book, Excellent Women.

b. pym novel coverFull marks for style and content to the author, five out of ten to the publisher who thought that the illustration by Pat Fogarty was suitable.  It’s a nice picture, but it inaccurately portrays the content of the novel.  True, it shows four middle-aged characters, and three of them do go into libraries at different points in the story, but never all four together.

Am I wrong to expect the cover to connect precisely with the content?  Obviously it doesn’t carry the same weight as a title created by the author, yet it does infect my reading.  Half-way through the novel I realised I was waiting for that scene.  The further I got into the story the less likely such a gathering place seemed.

It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the picture never does happen, and yet I gave it five out of ten.  That’s a high score for something I’ve just accused of misdirecting me.  Well, retrospectively, I see the value of the Fogarty cover over some of the others.

I’vebarbara pym novel been looking, and found some plain ones, and how about this patterned one?  Tasteful, I grant you, and it doesn’t in anyway impact on my plot expectations.

It reminds me of some wallpaper in my grandmother’s bedroom, and I can imagine picking up this novel to read.  Trust me, it says, to offer something domestic, elegant and tasteful.  Well, that’s true, up to a point.  But I like to be surprised  by a story, and this cover does not suggest the underlying darkness that Pym reveals.

barbara Pym

Then there’s this rather stylish, one.  Houses in the suburbs, and a distant church spire, are certainly part of the setting.  But why so much pink, and the clean straight lines? Perhaps the blank windows suggest that behind the order of the picture there are secrets…

It must be hard to design a cover to suit all readers.  It’s certainly tricky to come up with a perfect title.

And maybe I’m being too particular.  After all, what the Fogarty picture does get right, for me, is tone.  The four characters, formally dressed, carefully posed, set the period.  I like the distances between them, and the detail of their clothes.  They look real, and ordinary, and I want to know what they are talking about: what the painter is trying to tell me.  Add in the colours, especially that shimmering floor, and it does suggest, Quartet in Autumn.

Whatever my personal preferences are, each cover hooked me in a some way, and the diversity of those tones may well have tempted in readers who might never otherwise have picked up a Pym novel.

Imagine a row of us, sitting on the underground, each reading the same words, bound with contrasting covers.  I wonder what we look like?

 

 

What is a writer?

This week, for a change in tone, I’m back to reading Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, his collection of autobiographical essays that I was given at Christmas.  It was published in 1980.

In it, Greene begins by looking back to 1926, when he started to write the first of his novels that would get published.  If you’re wondering about the relevance of such a gap to our digital age, take a look at this extract from the first chapter.

What a long road it has been.  Half a century has passed since I wrote The Man Within, my first novel to find a publisher…Why has the opening line of that story stuck in my head when I have forgotten all the others I have written since?

Perhaps the reason I remember the scene so clearly is that for me it was the last throw of the dice in a game I had practically lost.  Two novels had been refused by every publisher I tried.  If this book failed too I was determined to abandon the stupid ambition of becoming a writer.  I would settle down to the safe and regular life of a sub-editor in Room 2 of The Times…It was a career as settled as the Civil Service…in the end there would be a pension and I would receive a clock with a plaque carrying my name.

Third time lucky then, or was it?  Persistence was required. This speaks of a strong drive to create.

Greene says that the very first novel he wrote, ‘…seemed to me at the time a piece of rich evocative writing…’  the second, I called…rather drably The Episode and that was all it proved to be.

He talks of his influences, of reading the great novelists and of studying the theory.  In Greene’s early years, Percy Lubbock’s 1921 literary criticism, The Craft of Fiction provided him with guidance.  This was the period before literary criticism took much interest in novels, so Lubbock’s investigation into ‘How [novels] are made’ was a key text for understanding writing techniques.

This has chimed with what I’ve been reading in the eighteenth century classic, Tom Jones, where Fielding explores ideas about what a novel is or should be.

I wish…that Homer could have known the rule prescribed by Horace, to introduce supernatural agents as seldom as possible.

This not only tells us about Fielding’s approach to writing, it reminds us that the idea of reflecting on writing goes back to ancient Greece.   Like artists in all of the other media, writers study not only their contemporaries, but also the works and thoughts of those who came before them.

I don’t know of a novel, story, play or poem that has no ancestors.  In my experience, the best reading is a result of the writer’s previous best readings.

There haven’t been many novelists who’ve discussed this so directly with the reader as Fielding does in the course of his fiction.  Generally the approach is similar to Greene’s, a separate collection of thoughts or essays about their writing.  The beauty of that is that it allows me to dip into a few paragraphs of non-fiction at a place of my choosing.  That may be while I’m midway through a chapter of a novel, or at the end of the whole.   You might say, that it allows me to make a buffet metaphor out of them…to fill my plate with a selection of ideas and apply different combinations of approach to my reading and my writing. IMG_0180

Well you have to allow a woman to make a small poetic flourish occasionally, haven’t you?

 

What do you do with your writing?

After all the work you’ve put into creating your poetry or prose, composing, redrafting it into the shape that says exactly what you intended, and then those hours of careful editing that you’ve done, the question of what happens next is tricky.  Lots of us take the traditional gamble of competitions or submissions.

That means joining the other heap of writers hoping to catch the eye of the reading team or judge.  If we’re going to do that properly, we should research for markets to suit our style of writing, which potentially consumes a lot of writing time.

The writing myth is that there’s an easy way round this, that some generous patron will discover us, and we’ll be whisked away on a publishing roller-coaster where we are cushioned from all the detail involved in becoming a ‘known’ writer.  Then our work will not just have a market, it will be commissioned in advance, and our lives will become suddenly organised into sensible, un-challenged writing periods that are generously interspersed with relaxation activities and occasionally involve some promotional work.  Sounds like a Utopia, doesn’t it?

I don’t know about you, but I’m too well read to trust in those.  So what are the other options?

Well, one is to self-publish.  Which is, of course, its own minefield.  Who do you trust? Where do you start? How much should it cost? What can you expect for your money?  The questions are endless, and if you’re interested in that road, you need to do some rigorous research. More time.

katey's poem on you tubeSo I was interested when Katey told me the other day that she’s now posting some of her poetry on You Tube.

That’s something many of us could manage.  Most phones can record sound or video files.  Then all we have to do is upload them to our computers and get creative on aps or programmes, and decide where we want to appear.  Once you ask a search engine about video or visual poems all sorts of advice is revealed.

And if you’re a confident reader, why not give it a try? The web is our oyster, isn’t it?

For many of us, the off-putting part is being filmed.  There are ways around that:

  • Use a static illustration.
  • Have the text of the poem appear as you deliver it.
  • Use a video of an appropriate scene.
  • Sign up for one of the companies that specialise in animating your content.

That last option is what Katey has done for one of her poems, Watching The Kite.  It still costs money, and requires time, but proportionately to the other self-publishing options, it involves less of both.  It also ensures that your finished article has a professional gloss without the need for too much extra sweat and tears from you.

Of course, if you want your work to be ‘shared’, you need to put time into promoting.  But I never promised at the outset that I was going to give you a cost-less option, did I?