Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Road of Life or The More Things Change

One sunny day in 1985 when I was cycling in the Scottish Highlands, I was faced with a long climb along the side of a glen. The road was probably an old drove route for livestock so it wasn’t terribly steep but my quads didn’t care: all they knew was my relentless nagging to keep pedaling. They retaliated by starting to burn.

I forced them (and my bellowing lungs) to go on, and on, and on because I had looked at the map before I’d begun the ride and I knew what they did not: at the far end of the valley, at the top of the climb, was a place called Rest and Be Thankful.

As there was in every other village in England, Wales and Scotland, there would be a cafĂ© where I would sit with a heavy china cup of strong hot tea the colour of chestnuts and pour in a swirl of cream. I’d split a scone (or two) and spread it with butter and strawberry jam and savour every rich mouthful because I had earned it, riding up that hill.

Meanwhile, I shifted down and ever downward, forcing my pedals around one revolution at a time, looking ahead at the slope that now seemed less like a gentle grade and more like a mountaineering route. But that might have been my quads talking.

I kept that tea and those scones (which had multiplied to three) firmly in mind and finally – finally! – I came to what had to be the last push. Surely there couldn’t be another hill beyond this curve.

And there was not. I had reached the top of the glen. As I sucked in huge gulps of clear air that rushed into my blood like shots of bubbles, I looked down at the silvery thread of a stream in the valley far below. I gazed at a loch at the base of the mountains ahead of me.

All that was missing was the village.

I checked the map. It was still there – and not marked “Rest and Be Thankful: visible every hundred years,” like some Ordnance Survey Brigadoon.

I hauled my bike across the road and leaned it against a bench, and before my quads could drop me onto it, I saw the sign. Rest and Be Thankful.

On the bench.

I have much the same relationship with the publishing world as I did with that road in the Highlands. Constant work, ongoing effort, digging for stamina, searching for the right gear/craft/story that will carry me to my goal: publication (oh, and money).

As part of my journey, last weekend I went to the Emerald City Writers Conference in Seattle and I felt like I’d finally found the granny gear. You know, the one that’s easy, that lets you ride almost comfortably into mysterious mountain ranges or home with a load of groceries.

The agent and editor panel on Friday night gave me a much better idea of the industry professionals than a website can. The workshops were informative – I learned something important in each of the eight I attended – and I usually laughed, as well.

And of course, there’s the all-important camaraderie and support of other writers. As Alyssa Day pointed out in her laugh-out-loud keynote speech (which also brought me to tears three times), the friendship of other writers is so very important.

Just as I craved afternoon tea in Scotland as a reward for my cycling effort, now I want publication as an acknowledgement of my writing effort. However, as authors tell me all the time, getting a book in stores is not the end of the road. It’s just the bench where they get to pause for a minute to enjoy the scenery and catch their breath.

In the same way I had to forego those scones in Scotland and instead appreciate the view and my own strength in getting to it, I might have to do without New York’s stamp of approval and simply enjoy the ride with my colleagues.

I'm glad they're such good company.

Big Damn Sidebar:

Here’s a smattering of what I learned at Emerald City Writers Conference, October 2010:

Ann Charles and Wendy Delaney: writers who are left-brain dominant are more likely to look at the fine detail in our own work and our critique partner’s, while right-brainers are more likely to be able to focus on the big picture of the story.

Robert Dugoni: Write a great opening sentence (that raises a question) for every scene; write a great closing sentence (that raises a question) for every scene too.

Kristina McMorris: Give agents and editors a reason to say Yes: ask if you can query them, tell them about your awards, and even get endorsement blurbs from other (known) writers before you query.

Theresa Meyers: in a query, include the same kind of information and power words that make compelling back-cover copy in order to intrigue an agent or editor even before you’ve got a deal.

Laura Navarre: Dark heroes (men or women) are often strong and compelling, although female dark heroes generally must show a caring, nurturing side in order to appeal to readers.

Deborah Schneider: Don’t just have a booksigning; have an event. It sounds like a party and people will show up.

Amber Scott: Make dialogue show the change in the person, like Jack Nicholson’s “You make me want to be a better man” in As Good as it Gets or Hugh Grant’s “I’m an idiot” in Notting Hill.


  1. Wonderful points to share on the many excellent workshops. Thanks so much for mentioning mine and for giving me a peak at the ones I couldn't make. Hope to see you next year!

  2. I learned so much that it was hard to pick just one point from each workshop!
    Emerald City is definitely on my Places to Go list for next year.

  3. That's a brilliant idea to post one idea from each workshop. I might steal that, if you don't mind.

    Also, I enjoyed the bicycling metaphor and your conclusions. I tend to think the same way.

  4. Thank you, Rachel, for coming to our workshop at such a god-awful hour. I look forward to meeting you next year at ECWC and hope I can attend a few more workshops myself.

    Fun metaphor--and so fitting!

    Take care,
    Ann Charles

  5. Jan, steal away!

    Although I'll warn you, when the workshop is as good as all of the Emerald City presentations were, it's hard to pick just one point from each.

    Ann, I'll see you next year!

  6. Hi Rachel: Great info, and loved how you could relate that biking trip with the quest for publication! Lisa

  7. Thanks for the ECWC snapshot, Rachel. I was so sorry I couldn't attend this year. I love the cycling metaphor - and now you've really made me crave a scone and strawberry jam! (And, oh yeah, another book contract would be awfully good too...)

  8. What an excellent summary, picking a highlight from the workshops you attended.

    I thought the entire event was stellar. I'm still wading through all of the information and tips.

  9. What a very apt metaphor, and what a brave gal you are cycling in the Highlands! I've driven there and it can be scary in a car with all those narrow, windy and hilly roads--I can only imagine what it would be like on a bike! Thanks for sharing all those workshop highlights,too.

  10. I've found that cycling makes for a good visual comparison with writing – the uphill climbs, the bends we can't see around, the unexpected vistas and mechanical mysteries that become so clear when someone else explains them…and of course there's the exhilaration of freewheeling when the last hill is crested and the characters just start talking and all we have to do is write it down!

  11. Great blog, Rachel, and thanks for sharing a few tidbits about the ECWC. I missed going this year, but next year I hope to attend. It's a great conference.

  12. Great stuff. I like the idea of raising a question at the beginning/end of the scene. I mean one the reader will notice, not just my own "what the heck am I trying to say here?"

  13. Hi Rachel

    I love your blog. And your insights almost make me feel as if I were at the ECWC. Hopefully publication will be a little easier than biking, I don't have your stamina for the hills. But I do know a place that serves great scones!


  14. Naomi, I loved that hint from Bob Dugoni's talk, too. It turned on a lightbulb for me.

    Pat, I don't mind walking my bike to the top of a hill if there's a good scone waiting for me – and a book contract makes a very good scone, I think!