About Michelle DeRusha

Author. Picture-taker. Nature-swooner. Living out everyday faith on the Great Plains.

The Slow Loris Road to Publishing

I’m what you might call the slow loris of book publishing.

 Are you familiar with the slow loris? I know it sounds like a Dr. Seuss character, but the slow loris is actually a real animal – a tiny primate with big, puppy-dog brown eyes and a round head (so far, nothing in common with me, in case you’re wondering). The slow loris is also described as a slow and deliberate climber.

Yup, that’s me: the slow, deliberate climber.

It took me two and a half years to write my first (and at this point, only) book. In my defense, I also had a toddler and a newborn at the time, as well as a part-time job, so I wrote only in the very early mornings and in the evenings, after the kids were tucked into bed. I wrote every day, slowly and deliberately ticking off chapters one by one until I had a completed manuscript. I marvel at writers who crank out two or three books in a single year. I know people that do this, and they are very good, fast writers. I am not. I am methodical, and my editing is nothing short of painfully laborious.

After I finished writing and editing my book, it took me another two years to land an agent. Again, I was slow and deliberate in the querying process. I purchased The Guide to Literary Agents and The Christian Writers’ Market Guide, and scoured the exhaustive lists of agents, categorizing each with the letters A, B or C. “A” designated a top-choice agent; “B” were the agents I considered good, but second-tier; and “C” was reserved for those I might query in desperation. I researched the agents online and then crafted a personal query letter for each. I queried most of my “A” list and some on the “B” list before Rachelle Gardner (top of the “A” list, by the way) offered me a contract (truth be told, I queried her twice).

 “Whew!” I thought, after I’d finished cartwheeling across the living room the day Rachelle offered me representation. “Now the process will finally start moving along! Let’s roll, baby!”

I assumed once the manuscript was out of my slow loris hands (claws?) that the pace would accelerate.

That was last February.

My memoir has not yet sold to a publisher. I’m not saying it won’t sell eventually. I am simply stating that in the nearly 365 days since I accepted representation from Rachelle, it hasn’t sold. As it turns out, Rachelle chooses the slow loris approach, too, if the market demands it. Sometimes, as she noted in a recent post, publishers aren’t in the market for a particular genre (in this case, memoir), so she puts the manuscript aside and patiently waits for a better opportunity.

I admit, being the slow loris is frustrating at times. I see some of my favorite authors publish one book, and then a second, and I wonder, “What about me? What about my book? Why doesn’t my book sell?” Doubt creeps in. And insecurity. I begin to question my ability as a writer, my story, even my choice to pursue this publishing dream.  I contemplate ditching writing all together and taking up needlepoint.

In the end, though, I continue to stick with it. After all, slow lorises, in addition to their slow, deliberate climbing skills, are also known for their ability to cling to a tree in one spot for an exceptionally long period of time, patiently waiting for the perfect meal to wander into proximity.

“Everything in its own time,” Rachelle reminds me.

I’m patient. I can wait.  I am a slow loris.

{For the record, the slow loris is also the only mammal with a toxic bite. Just saying.}

What animal would you choose as a metaphor for your journey to publishing or your writing style {please don’t say cheetah or I may die a little inside}?

Dear Jon: A Story of How NOT to Build a Platform

I’d been blogging for just over a month when one morning in the shower I was struck with a fantastic idea: I would email Jon Acuff to ask if he would guest post on my blog.

Brilliant! Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner?

I couldn’t dry off fast enough. I threw on my sweats and zipped downstairs to my computer, where I composed the request in a flurry and hit send. I even suggested to Jon that I would guest post at his place, if he would prefer that (I’m accommodating that way, you know).

If you don’t know Jon Acuff, he’s the author of the books Stuff Christians Like and Quitter. When I emailed him he hadn’t yet published his highly successful Stuff Christians Like, but his blog by the same name was wildly popular. At the time he had thousands of followers and received more than 100 comments on each post.

I, on the other hand, had exactly two followers (one — my husband — if you don’t count me).

I did know one thing for sure, though, and that was the fact that I needed to build a platform if I had any hope of landing an agent and publishing my book. After all, that was why I launched the blog in the first place, and I was determined to make this platform-building thing happen. The book was written; I assumed I had the hard part done.

Jon Acuff had a mega-platform. I had none. So the perfect solution, I figured, was to lure some of his readers over to my place, where they would be wooed by my stunning prose and become fans of my writing forever.

Voila! Instant platform, right?

You can probably guess what happened.

For starters, Jon Acuff politely declined my tantalizing offer. The fact that he responded to my email at all speaks volumes about his character. He kindly mentioned that he didn’t typically write guests posts or feature guest posts on his blog (something I would have known, had I been reading his blog for more than two weeks), and then he said this:

“Just write what you know from the heart, Michelle, and people will read it.”

I wasn’t pleased with his response. In addition to the intense shame I felt for proposing such a ludicrous idea, I was dismayed that there wasn’t a quick fix, a magic bullet, to platform-building.

“Write what I know?” I thought. “Write from the heart? What the heck is he talking about? There’s got to be a better way.”

As it turns out, Jon was right; there is no magic bullet for platform-building. There is no quick and easy way to build a following overnight, because the fact is, blogging and other social media are not simply about luring readers to our words, they are about building a genuine relationship with those readers.

And that takes time. And it takes genuine writing — writing from the heart, you might say.

I’ve been blogging for just over two years now. I still don’t have a mega-platform, but I do have something I never expected. I have online friends. 

People come to read my posts, yes, but many of these readers are also people with whom I have a genuine relationship.  We visit each other’s blogs and leave encouraging comments. We retweet each other’s posts. We offer support and advice to each other via email. And when I have the rare opportunity to meet some of these people in person, we continue our conversation face-to-face, as if we know each other well.

Because we do.

Despite the fact that I die a little every time I think about my foolish email to Jon Acuff, I don’t regret that I sent it. Jon graciously taught me an important lesson about this business. In the end, it’s not as much about the platform as it is about the people.

So what about you? Do you have any mortifying platform-building stories? And what have you found to be the key to successful platform-building?

The Tough Critique

My best friend of more than 30 years was one of the first people to read a draft of my manuscript. I packaged all 299 pages in an envelope, mailed them 1,500 miles to her home and then chewed my nails ragged while I waited for her response.

I stalled for what I considered the proper amount of time. And then finally I couldn’t bear it any longer. I picked up the phone and dialed her number.

“Soooo…what did you think?” I blurted when she answered. I tried not to sound desperate and sweaty. “Do you like the book? Have you finished it? What do you think so far? Seriously, you can tell me the truth. I mean it!”

I waited.

Silence lay heavy, like a suffocating blanket suddenly strewn over the vast plains between us .

“Well…” She hesitated. A dull ache began to gnaw in the pit of my stomach.

“Well…to be honest, I, um, I put it down, and I’m having trouble picking it back up again,” she offered quietly.

“What? What?! Are you kidding me? You’re having trouble picking it back up again? What does that mean? Are you saying my book is boring or something?! What, like Reader’s Digest boring? Like Henry James boring? Like iphone manual boring?!”

I didn’t actually say those things aloud, of course. My actual response went more like this:

“Okay.”

 Deep, shaky exhale.

“Okay, so tell me more. What exactly is the problem? Can you be more specific? Which part is bogging you down? Does it go awry at any particular point, or is the whole thing giving you trouble?”

During that difficult conversation I learned that Andrea had enjoyed a lot of the manuscript, especially the anecdotes, which comprised the meat of the memoir. But when she got to the sections that delved into Biblical instruction, she lost interest.

I give her credit for her honesty and courage. Although Andrea knew exactly how important this writing endeavor was to me and exactly how insecure and fearful I was, she told the hard truth because she knew in the long run that it was important that I hear it. (Granted, she could have phrased it a bit more delicately. Then again, I did hound her like a salivating Saint Bernard). 

But I admit, it was a hard truth to swallow. And even though we had a fruitful and constructive conversation, and she didn’t deem the whole book an abysmal failure, when I got off the phone that afternoon I felt a weight on my chest like a stack of crumbling bricks. What’s more, I didn’t take her advice – I made none of the changes she suggested.

The funny thing was, in the end, she was right.

A year later, when I paid a professional editor to review my manuscript, guess what he advised? That’s right: he suggested I cut all the instructional sections woven into the book because they “interrupted the flow of the story.” And later, when Rachelle Gardner accepted me as  client, she admitted that the book wouldn’t have appealed to her, had it included all the Biblical analysis and instruction.

Andrea had been spot-on in her observations, and she had been honest, courageous and diplomatic in her critique. The real problem was that I simply hadn’t been ready to listen.

Let’s chat:  How do you decide who critiques early drafts of your writing? Have you ever received a negative critique from a friend? How do you balance a critiquer’s opinion with your own ideas? How do you know when you are ready to have your writing critiqued?