Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What's the Best Writerly Advice You'd Give Your Younger Self - S.J. Kincaid

Today is the final post of the series and I saved my favorite for last. I knew my buddy Shelley, who goes by S.J. Kincaid, would have excellent advice to give, but when she sent me her post, it struck me immediately as the perfect post to end the series with. That's because Shelley is the epitome of perseverance and truly a writer to admire. Her debut novel is called INSIGNIA. It's the story of a teenage video gamer who becomes a government weapon in a futuristic world at war comes out in summer of 2012 from Katherine Tegen Books. So please welcome Shelley to the blog!


            Thanks for inviting me to post, Ello! When it comes to the advice I’d give to my younger self,  I think I need to start with the story of The Best Book I’ll Ever Write. The characters and ideas for The Best Book I’ll Ever Write started appearing in my head right after college graduation. I’d think about them at work, I’d think about them on the train, I’d think about them at home, I’d even dream about them.
After devoting two years of thought to The Best Book I’ll Ever Write, I finally ended up writing it, and then I revised, revised.... I knew the characters in and out, I’d devised so many clever twists for this elaborate, four-book plot, and honestly, I’d just put so much of myself into this book even before putting the first words to paper, I couldn’t imagine such an expenditure of mental energy would come to nothing.
            But The Best Book I’ll Ever Write wasn’t the first one I sent out to agents. I wasn’t confident enough yet to pursue it—I wanted to try the agent thing with another story first. A good friend and I wrote another manuscript, and rather shockingly, it ended up represented by the first agent we contacted. Easy come, easy go. That manuscript was shopped, received deafening silence from editors that turned into deafening silence from that agent, so we split. I was okay with it, because I finally felt ready to pursue my own book. It was time to get an agent for The Best Book I’ll Ever Write.
            Searching for an agent for The Best Book I’ll Ever Write was much more difficult. There was no quick offer of representation like there’d been for number one, and there were a lot of rejections. I joined a critique group and refined The Best Book I’ll Ever Write. I also refined my query again and again, adjusting according to agent response. I sent out a lot of queries, and shook off a lot of rejections— and always kept pursuing The Best Book I’ll Ever Write, because I knew in my heart that this was The One. I’d simply invested too much into it to consider the other possibility. In fact, this is when I began considering it The Best Book I’ll Ever Write, as I’ve been referring to it in this write-up. I was sure that I could never write something better than this story.
And then the glorious day came. I woke up to this e-mail from an agent to whom I’d sent the full manuscript the day before: "Ah!  I spent all night reading this and I LOVE it.  I want to represent this book.  Please tell me if you are free tomorrow to discuss and when and with what number I can reach you. It is amazing and so much fun to read!" It was stunning and unexpected, and she was from one of the houses that I hadn’t dreamed of hearing back from. Not only did that agent end up offering, but two other incredible agents offered. It seemed like my journey with this book was finally coming to fruition. I remember walking down a Chicago street, with this utter sense that everything was right with the world and my destiny was falling into place (yes, I know exactly how sentimental and cheesy that sounds....)
            To make a long story short, The Best Book I’ll Ever Write was shopped, and the rejections came in again—only much more promptly this time, given the agency I had. It reached Acquisitions at one house, and was promptly shot down.  We sent another round. Another. Finally, the day was done. I had to face the fact that The Best Book I’ll Ever Write was not going to get picked up by these editors.
            Still, I couldn’t let go of the story. I loved it too much. I devised another plan: to write another manuscript, get that one published—and then try to use my published author-ness to get The Best Book I’ll Ever Write a contract of its own. I banged out two more manuscripts. I didn’t particularly love either of these stories, and as it turns out, neither did my agent. We parted ways.
So I sought new agents, still with that same plan: get a contract or an editor’s interest with another story, and then show them The Best Book I’ll Ever Write. In the meantime, I sent The Best Book I’ll Ever Write to a few small publishing houses open to submissions. I never heard a word. In desperation, I toyed with the thought of putting The Best Book I’ll Ever Write on the internet, but I wasn’t confident I could get anyone to read it. That’s what I wanted—people to simply read it, even if I never got a dime. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have any money to spare at this point, because I can’t imagine how much I might’ve sunk into writer’s conferences etc. in hopes of advancing this story.
             Finally, after writing three manuscripts in a row that I cared nothing about, I admitted it to myself: I wasn’t getting a contract with these books I didn’t love, and The Best Book I’ll Ever Write wasn’t going to get one this way, either. So, new approach: somewhere down the road, I’d come back to The Best Book I’ll Ever Write and figure out how to revise it with a fresh perspective—and maybe then I could send it before a fresh new set of gatekeepers and editors who might not realize it had been shopped before.
            So, in short, I’d put a lot of effort into a story that wasn’t going to get published in the near future. None of this effort was wasted, though— not in the long run. I became a better writer with those three passionless manuscripts, even if they were only intended to bring about the publication of The Best Book I’ll Ever Write. I read YA while I was writing them. I checked out 10-15 books each library visit and tore through them, and I learned the genre in a way I hadn’t known it before. Months, years, and trends all zipped past. There were zombies, werewolves, faeries, fallen angels, mermaids, and the first rumblings of dystopian… All the while, I heard feedback time and again from various agents regarding the weaknesses of my story, the flaws, their thoughts about my pacing, my humor, etc. I still couldn’t bring myself to even look at The Best Book I’ll Ever Write –it seemed better not to think about it – but I could rip apart those other manuscripts with no remorse. I learned how to revise when I needed to, and more importantly, I learned when not to revise when my instincts rebelled against the advice of others—even if they were publishing professionals.
At some point during all this, I became a confident writer. It may sound odd, given that this time period was filled only with rejection, but my writing became stronger, and I knew it. I never struggled with words or wrangled with laying out mental images to paper anymore—they just came to me easily.
Then I started book six. This time, I wrote with no intention of using the book to get The Best Book I’ll Ever Write published. Amazingly, miraculously, I started to love a new story again. It wasn’t anywhere near what I’d felt for The Best Book I’ll Ever Write; there is no recapturing that crushing, obsessive love. Book six, however, was the first manuscript that demanded full use of my imagination again, the first one that recaptured that spark I’d been missing. When it came time to query agents with book six, I wasn’t even thinking back to The Best Book I’ll Ever Write. I just believed in number six.
Book Six wasn’t published. It did serve several important functions, though: I began to love a story again, I connected with my amazing agent, David Dunton, and I made contact with Molly O’Neill of Katherine Tegen Books, who wanted to see the next story I wrote.
Finally, I had the interest of an editor.
And I didn’t even consider sending her The Best Book I’ll Ever Write.
A year later, I’d written number seven— which is a whole tale of its own I won’t get into here. Needless to say, David sent it to Molly, and the result is here:
“S.J. Kincaid's INSIGNIA, in which a teenage video gamer becomes a government weapon in a futuristic world at war, to Molly O'Neill at Katherine Tegen Books, in in pre-empt, in a significant deal, in a three-book deal, by David Dunton at Harvey Klinger (World English).”
The night after I got my book deal, I could not sleep a wink. I opened up Microsoft Word and took a long look at The Best Book I’ll Ever Write. I really gave it a read-through. And you know what? It was fatally flawed. It had been all along. It had some cleverness, some humor, some creative twists—but much of it wasn’t so clever or creative as I’d once thought. One twist was so contrived I was astounded I hadn’t realized it earlier. As for that main character I’d known so well? She really didn’t come across as much of a character on paper. She seemed more like a walking void. I didn’t recognize her as the girl from my head.
I’d become a much better writer than this. The Best Book I’ll Ever Write had never been the best book I’d ever write. Not even close. When I shut down my computer that night, I finally let go of the idea of that book, and even that last idea of revising it somewhere down the road. I didn’t want to see it in print, and I was totally okay with that. It served its purpose.
So, to bring all of this back to the point, “What advice would I give to my younger self?”
And it’s not just because I think speaking to my younger self would cause a temporal paradox that would lead to my younger self not becoming me, and thus not speaking to her younger self…
It’s because my complete obsession with a book that was never going to get published led to me gaining the skills I needed to write a book that someday would get published. If I’d known back then that The Best Book I’ll Ever Write wasn’t so great, if I’d opened my eyes and really seen it for what it was, then all the motivation that caused me to write the subsequent manuscripts would’ve been gone. I had to have that delusion. If I hadn’t believed in something, it would’ve been far too difficult going through the endless rejections manuscript after manuscript, and waiting out those interminable silences after sending in a query, a partial, a full, a revision—and then those even worse waiting periods during submission. It would’ve been too difficult, working to improve as a writer, as a storyteller.
So, in short, I’m glad I was wrong all that time—because it led me to where I am now.
Okay, scratch that. I’d give my younger self one piece of advice: “NEVER buy that Lexmark printer! It will bring you nothing but tragedy and woe!”
There ya go. Thanks again, Ello! ;-)
S.J. Kincaid was born in Alabama, grew up in California, and attended high school in New Hampshire, but it was while living beside a haunted graveyard in Scotland, that she realized that she wanted to be a writer. Her debut, INSIGNIA, comes out in the summer of 2012. You can visit her online at


Erin Bowman said...

I ADORE this post. Lows leads to highs. We fail so that we can succeed. Everything we do we learn from, and no act of writing is ever a waste. Shelley, thank you so much for sharing your story. And Ellen, this was such a great series. Thanks for hosting!

Charles Gramlich said...

That's when you know you've grown. Great story. Definitely one that new writers should pay attention to.

D.E. Malone said...

Wow - so much to learn from this. Thanks for sharing!

S.J.Kincaid said...

Thanks, Erin! It's so true. Having the lows really makes the highs seem that much more satisfying.

I'm glad you found it inspiring Yahong! Thank -you-

Thanks, Charles! Well, a lot of young writers hit it out of the park their first try... I just wasn't one of them. ;-)

Thank you, Dawn!

Anne M Leone said...

What a great post! Really what I needed to hear today. Thank you!

Stina said...

Wow, that was quite the journey. Can wait to read the book, S!

S.J.Kincaid said...

Thanks Anne!

And thanks, Stina! Ah, the Forever Tye-Dyed Blue days...

Jodi Meadows said...

Love this post!!!

Elyssa Papa said...

I loved this post, too.

And I found it somehow fitting for what I'm going through right now. I didn't sell my book...again (fourth book I've written; the second with my former agent).

I've come close but haven't reached that final point yet. But, like you, S.J., I'm taking the critiques I have received in editor rejections and throughout this whole process to make my next book better. And I wouldn't change a thing about my journey (even though it's so not fun NOT selling) because I know deep down that all of this is making me a better writer and giving me some lessons I needed to learn.

On a side note, I'm totally excited for INSIGNIA. I love the premise, and I cannot wait to read it.

Pippa said...

THANK YOU, thank you! We all need to hear about journeys like this. The strength and courage of wonderful writers like you, Shelley, who keep going and growing.

Katie Ashley said...

I really, really love this post! Thanks for sharing and being so honest about your journey!

I look forward to reading Insignia!!!

Unknown said...

Shelley, I'm voting for you for President in 2012. Yep, writing your in on the ballot. You got guts a-plenty.

What a great, great story and congratulations on getting that happy ending you deserve.

linda said...

Oh my goodness, I LOVE this post. Definitely my favorite out of the series, too. Thank you so much for sharing your journey! I admire your perseverance and hard work a lot. :)

Christina Farley said...

Wow. So so facinating and I loved hearing about the journey. I'm so amazed and inspired at your determination

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I love this post so much also! Which is why I saved it for the very last of my series. Thanks to everyone who have been reading the series and thanks to Shelley for her inspiring story!

Kristin said...

Just WOW. Thank you for sharing. I'm so glad you pressed on!

S.J.Kincaid said...

Thanks, Jodi!

Sorry you didn't sell it, Elyssa, but it sounds like you'll have something even better to debut with in the future! I'm so grateful my earlier books weren't published first, and your perseverence is really the most powerful tool you have. Good luck!

Thanks, Pippa! I'm glad it was helpful for you!

Thanks, Krista! YA is such a great community, and I've learned so much from the honesty of other people who have discussed the writing process, so I was glad to pay it forward.

KLM- LOL! I'd make a lousy politician, I suspect, but thanks for the offer to write me in! Thanks for the congrats.

Linda- Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Christina- Thank you!

Kristin- And thank you, too!

Ello- Thanks again for letting me participate! It's been fantastic, and I wanted to tell that story somewhere. Looking forward to The Dragon King chronicles!

Basalt Skies said...

I like listening to different authors experiences, thank you for sharing. A great read.

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