Taking Matters Into My Own Hands

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Breaking news! This blog post was recently featured on She Writes. Click here to read the same thing there.

Before I became a writer (or a wife or a mother), I was a ballet dancer. I danced in Europe for most of my career—in Iceland, Italy, Germany, and Austria. For nearly six years I stitched together gigs here and there, which required a mix of talent, timing, and connections. I thought I’d finally cracked the code when I landed three great jobs that would keep me employed for the next year.

But then, all in the same week, the three companies contacted me again. I sat on the couch with a letter from Austria, a fax from Germany, and a telegram in Italian—all informing me of the same news: they were rescinding the job offers. None of the companies was willing to file the paperwork to extend my EU visa. It had nothing to do my dancing.

This is the scene that came to mind this summer when I read email after email from the agents, editors, and publishers I’d come to know in the six years since I started writing the memoir about my identical twins boys who’d been born three and a half months premature.

“The writing is lovely,” they all said in one form or another. “But we don’t know how to market your book” (which, I realized, is code for “we don’t know who will read this.”) The emails wished me luck and sometimes even said that mine was a story that deserved to be told (after, of course, informing me that they would not be the ones helping me tell it.)

I had a choice. I could continue to fish for agents. I could send out a hundred queries to find the one agent willing to go to bat for me and hope that she would have the same persistence looking for editors and publishers.

Or I could take things into my own hands.

I didn’t have to go back to America all those years ago. I could have stayed in Italy and appealed the decisions. But I didn’t want to spend months writing letters in languages I didn’t quite know, filing papers and calling offices when I could just go back home and dance.

That’s how I feel about my memoir. These last six years I’ve learned a lot about writing and the publishing industry. I’ve learned a lot about building a writing community. I even helped found a nonprofit writing group for moms. Three years ago, we self-published an anthology of our essays. When I realized that I knew who to contact to edit my work, who could design the book cover, and who would be my publicist, the decision to publish my book myself was as easy as boarding the next plane for home.

Which brings us back to me crying on the couch with three rejection letters. The week after I flew home from Italy, I was offered a job dancing with a ballet company in San Francisco. Shortly after that, I met my future husband. The friend who introduced us is now godmother to my daughter.

I still wonder what might have happened if I’d tried to keep dancing abroad, just as I might always wonder what would have happened if I kept querying agents. But I also know that leaving when I did helped set the stage (no pun intended) for future accomplishments—a college degree, a family, a new career as a writer.

Sometimes it’s up to you to shape your own destiny. And when you recognize that the time is right, it’s up to you to make it happen.

 

 

The Story Behind Violet and Ruby

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Three weeks ago on a lovely Wednesday afternoon, my daughter Violet_and_Ruby_Cover_for_Kindleand I were sitting in a cafe in our neighborhood, doing what we always do on Wednesday afternoons: sip hot chocolate while we finish the homework that’s due the next day. This Wednesday was different because the cafe was buzzing with a boatload of 10 and 11-year-olds with green books that must have been somehow connected to the green bus parked across the street.

It turned out that the bus was a promotional tour bus for Jeff Kinney’s newest book from the middle-grade series Diary of a Wimpy Kid. According to the buzz in the cafe, Jeff Kinney himself was signing copies at the bookstore next door.

Chiara has never read any of the Wimpy Kid books. As a first-grader, those books are little over her head. But of course it didn’t stop her from wanting one. And because I help organize author events in my daytime life, of course I had to indulge her.

“How come the bookstore doesn’t have books written by kids?” Chiara wanted to know as she emerged from the store with her own signed copy.

In retrospect I could have just told her that only professional writers get to be in bookstores, the same way only professional firefighters get to drive the fire trucks. But instead I gave her a brief history of traditional publishing.

“Well, it’s not so easy to publish a book,” I began. Then I listed all the droves of people involved with publishing a book who aren’t directly involved with the writing of said book.

“Then an agent—that’s a person who helps you get your book printed by the companies who print books—talks to a bunch of people. Some say, ‘No, thank you. We already have books about that.’ But maybe one will say, ‘I love that story!’ That person is an editor. And then maybe they’ll look at the book and say, ‘But we think you need to change that one part at the end.’ And then there’s another person who calls up the bookstores and says, ‘Hey! I’ve got this book that I think is really great! Want to have it in your store?’ It takes a lot of work.”

“But you’re publishing a book,” she said. Which was partly true. I’m editing an anthology of essays from my writing group. We intend to self publish.

“Why can’t little kids self-publish?” Chiara wanted to know. I didn’t have a good answer for that one.

And that’s how we found ourselves at the same cafe two days later. I typed while Chiara dictated one of the stories she tells herself at night when she is trying to go to sleep. From time to time I’d ask a question such as “How can a wheelbarrow fit in a backpack?” and she’d clarify (“It folds up, of course!”) Or I’d say, how old is Violet? How do we know? But for the most part, I just typed what she told me to type. Occasionally she’d ask me to read back to her what she’d written. Sometimes she’d even correct my dictation. (“That’s not a period there. I want it to sound really fast.”)

I kept waiting for her to lose interest. But each day she’d say, “Can we work on my book today?” Sometimes she’d even decide to revise. “I don’t think that chapter title tells you what’s going on anymore. I wrote about something else. Can I change it?”

She drew pictures for each chapter. I scanned them into the computer.

“Can I give a copy to my cousins for Christmas?” she wanted to know.

So I went to the website for Amazon’s Create Space and opened an account. We bought an ISBN number ($10). I found a template cover and uploaded a photo from the Create Space library. We even invented our own imprint (Noelle & Noelle) after our middle names. I clicked through the screens, filling in the blanks. And then, voila! We submitted the book. An actual book. 44 pages. For sale on Amazon and everything.

Doesn’t that sound like a great stocking stuffer? Not convinced? Check it out for yourself.