Thursday, August 30, 2012

Banana Peelin' with Jeannie Mobley

I feel so incredibly fortunate to be a part of this week's author's, book birthday blog tour. (Whew! Say that five times fast! Actually, scratch that. I  just tried and it wasn't too difficult.)  Ya know, my husband is a huge football fan. Me, not so much. Each Fall and Winter I am exposed to the muffled crowd cheers and the spurts of "yeah, baby!" screams, but rarely do I participate.

When I do choose to root and hoot, it is because there is a reason, a purpose. Like if I find out that so-in-so's quarterback was raised on a banana boat and though he had nothing, he helped little old ladies cross the street until he was drafted to the NFL, I'll watch. It interests me. I hope they do well because they have worked hard or they are nice people.  That is how I feel about this week's author. I have not read her book yet, but I will read it as soon as I can get my paws on it AND I will also buy all of her subsequent work because of the story she shares with us today. I am a loyal, rootin', hootin', fan of this week's author, Jeannie Mobely!

 On August 28th, I celebrated the release of my debut novel, KATERINA'S WISH. Like most debut authors, this was hardly the first manuscript I wrote, or even the first one I sent out in the world seeking publication. And like so many who came before me, my road to publication was strewn with banana peels.

The manuscript that was to become KATERINA'S WISH, however, had some fairly unique slip ups of its own, that I don't think are common to most writers. Most authors think of their first books as their beloved children. That is not quite my story.

The idea for KATERINA'S WISH began with a dream, in which a fish granted me a wish. It was a very vivid, realistic dream, and I woke and lay in bed thinking it would make a good novel. But what  really stuck with me about the dream, and what I set out to capture in my novel, was not the characters or setting, which I changed, but rather a feeling. I was intrigued by the idea of writing a book in which a seemingly magical wish is made and ultimately comes true, but maintaining ambiguity about whether the things that happen are the result of the wish and its magic or are because of what the characters do once hey believe magic helping them.

I wrote a reasonable story, but I didn't capture the feeling, and so I was disappointed with it. I thought I might be able to improve it, but my critique group all liked it as it was, so, against my better judgment, I sent it to my agent. She liked it enough to circulate it, but it came back from four or five editors with the same comments--it was underdeveloped, too skeletal, too simplistic in the plot. My agent and I agreed that it should be pulled from circulation and revised to address those concerns before going out again. Actually, it is what she said, and I nodded my head as if agreeing, but inside I was thinking, "See everybody, I told you so. This manuscript is garbage."

Those of you familiar with tropical fruit, will at once spot many little flashes of yellow in the above paragraph. I, of course, didn't see them for several years.

The first was not trusting my own instinct, and being wooed into disregarding my judgment because it was the easiest rout to go. So I KNEW the story wasn't what it should be, or more importantly what it COULD be, and I sent it out anyway. This has probably been my biggest self-sabotaging flaw throughout my writing career. It is my special cocktail: one part impatience, one part ego, one part laziness, and two parts banana peels. Slippery every time!

Thus far, I think my experience isn't that unique, but what happened next is where it gets weird. I tried to read over the manuscript with an eye toward revision--after all the editors had told me what they wanted. It should have been easy, but as I read, I was filled with a strong revulsion to it--embarrassed that I had ever  thrust such a dreary thing onto my agent and other industry professionals. The characters were dull, the setting more dull, the plot the dullest of all.  Horrified that I had showed it to anyone, I buried it deep in the bottom of a drawer and wrote something else. This slip landed me right on my tailbone!

First, I wrote a flippant little tongue-in-cheek fantasy about a girl who dooms the world with her birthday wish. I thought it was hilarious, so much more interesting than that last ugly manuscript I didn't want to think about!

This manuscript was my rebound relationship--something totally different, uncharacteristic for me, out of control and careless. My agent told me she wanted to strangle my  main character, and asked, "What about Magic Carp?" (the original title of Katerina's Wish).

I got it out, read the first paragraph, and wanted to puke. The revulsion was stronger than ever. So I put it away and went back to an old pet project of mine, one of my favorite story ideas that I originally wrote years ago, before I had the writing chops to pull it off. I wrote happily, savoring my favorite characters, my lovely setting, my exciting and twisting plot.

My critique group hated it. I mean, hated it. One said the plot was predictable, another hated the main character, the third said she could only keep reading because she had to, as my critique partner. The forth smiled kindly and didn't offer a scathing criticism, but kept asking, "What about Magic Carp? I really liked Magic Carp."

Uugh. I hit a new low. How could I ever make it at as a writer if I was this blind? The things I loved, others hated. The thing I hated, everyone else loved. What was wrong with me?

By the time I got Magic Carp out again, nearly two years had passed. Two years without a manuscript on submission, because I couldn't come up with anything that I loved and others loved as well.  So, feeling doomed and at the end of my rope, I pulled Magic Crap (as I was affectionately calling it) out again. I read most of the first chapter before dissolving into tears and deleting the entire file from my hard drive. I absolutely couldn't face it.  Couldn't. Face. It.

So, I began the rewrite from scratch, not revising anything old, but starting over completely. I hated the character. I hated the plot. I hated the ugly, boring, awful setting. And mostly, I hated myself for being such a total loser that I couldn't see the difference between good and bad.

Except for that last part--the scarring self-loathing part--my revulsion turned out to be a good thing. Because my failure to identify with the character meant I wasn't sinking into her character as I wrote, so I could focus more on my craft--on the actual words I was putting on the page. And as for hating the ugly, boring, awful setting? Well, that's exactly how the MC feels about her setting, so it wasn't too hard to capture her misery.

Still, I kept sending chapters to my critique group, thinking, "this is the chapter where they will finally agree that this is boring garbage and I can stop writing it."  But my critique partners kept telling me it was great, they loved it, they couldn't wait to see what happened next. And I kept saying, "really? It isn't horribly dull?"

I tried to quit several times, and was nagged into continuing by those critiquers. I flung manuscript pages across the living room in three-year-old tantrum style more than once. I angrily scribbled out passages so hard that the pen went through the paper and scarred the table top.  Yeah. I was totally mature about it all. It was, without a doubt, the most miserable six months of my writing career thus far (and hopefully ever!) But at the end of it, I sent the manuscript to my agent, who said she loved it, and who sent it to an editor, who also loved it, and it sold.

This is not a trajectory to publication that I would wish on anyone, but the lesson I learned, all too late in the process, is to trust the advice of others. I know, this contradicts my earlier statement, to follow my own feelings, but I think I had to learn a balance.

I struggled for months after the sale of the manuscript, because I still didn't like the main character. Trina seemed dull, utterly flat, predictable. And yet, everyone who liked the book talked about how much they liked her. I was at an utter loss as to why, until my agent told me, '"you can't see what's great about her, because she's too close to you. She's just like you, so she seems ordinary and predictable to you, but what makes her a great character is what makes you a great person."

Of course, being wrapped in my own loathing and self-pity, I thought, "oh, great, I'm just as boring as my character." And I spent a long time feeling guilty and hypocritical, because the theme of KATERINA'S WISH is to persevere and make your dream happen, against all odds, and the manuscripts that were my dreams were moldering in a drawer while the one I didn't believe in was getting published.

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, "Doh!" That was my final banana peel. Because I was just like Trina. I had achieved the dream of publication against some pretty large odds--working through and persevering with the manuscript that had promise, even when I couldn't see it. Putting my faith and determination into something, even when it wasn't coming easy to me.  How could I not see that?

 I finally saw it when the book was all formatted and my first pass pages came to me. These are camera ready pages, looking exactly as they will in the final book.  By then, it had someone else's title (my editor came up with it),  the artist's vision on the cover and interior pages, the designer's choice of font, etc.  In other words, I got some separation because it was no longer my manuscript, it had transformed into Simon and Schuster's book. And I read through and discovered, "there's some good stuff in here. So that's what they've all been talking about!"

I feel pretty good about the book now. I can embrace it, and it's characters.. It is my debut novel, the critics have spoken well of it, and it's got one sweet, tough character who people love, and who might even be a bit like me. And as for all those banana peels? I'm using them as compost to fertilize the garden of my muse.


  1. This makes me want to wade through those peelings and just hug Jeannie. I loved this story and the autobiographical discovery in the manuscript. I sure want to read Katrina's Wish now!

  2. Katrina's Wish is definitely on the top of my TBR pile!

  3. What a journey! But worth it in the end, hopefully :) Can't wait to read it!

  4. Thank you, Jeannie for giving us such an honest look at your process. I too have had days where I read through my work and feel that I am a total imposter, and wonder why anyone ever thought that THIS was good writing! So glad for great critique groups and supportive writing comrades...where would we be without them?

    Congratulations on the release of Katerina's Wish and sending my own wishes to you for big sales!

  5. Thanks for sharing with us Jeannie. Believing in ourselves is sometimes hard to do! Glad your persevered.

  6. Thanks for having me today, Elizabeth! And thanks to everyone for their kind comments. It was a hard process, but one that made me a better writer. And as a character in my book says, anything worth having is worth working for. :-)

  7. Thanks for sharing your travels to publication of Katrina's Wish! Critique group nudgings are really hugs of we believe in you, in your story. Look forward to reading Katrina' Wish!

  8. I love this story, and I'm so glad you stuck with it. You are such a gifted story-teller and the world deserves to hear your voice. Congratulations on your success! :)

  9. Lucky you, to have such a supportive critique group. Your trust in each other is commendable; to be able to share negative comments is often worth much more to the recipient, but I'm glad they were also right about what they loved, and could motivate you to push yourself through piles of peels! Great post ladies! I'll be sharing this!

  10. :::applauding::: What a great story about writing the book.

  11. I love this story. SUCH a happy ending. I struggle with knowing whether to trust myself or believe my critique group. I mostly default to trusting my own judgment.

  12. Wow - thanks for sharing this story. It's great to have a critique group that you can rely on to give you good advice.