Lionfish, a Novel and a Journey

Welcome to the journey of my novel, Lionfish!

With the Pitch, Publish, Promote conference approaching, I see so many writers starting to get nervous about both finishing and pitching their books.

And the truth is: I'm one of you! 

So, to help support your journey, I'm going to let you in to my own. I'm going to share how I got to this point, give you tips for your own process, share my query letter and pitch practice + my (numerous) rejections with you, and let you watch me live pitch a literary agent at this year's conference. 

A little background:

I started writing Lionfish 9 years ago. That's right. 9 years ago. And to be honest, I could probably say that I've been writing it for even longer than that, because everything I've ever written has been, in some way, a piece of this larger story that has been burning inside of me since I was a young child.

At 8 years old, I wrote my first novella, titled Anna's Journal, which chronicled a shy young girl who is kidnapped on her family vacation. The kidnapping, however, wasn't something that happened in reality, rather a figment of her imagination, meant to symbolize how disconnected Anna felt from the people around her.

At 12, my first poem was published in a coffee table collection titled Colors of the Past. My piece was called "If" and it was a meditation on young and innocent love, before I knew anything about relationships or heartache or happiness. It was my way of asking about what might come in the future.

In college, I wrote a TON of things, but my short story, Synergy, was the first to be published in the American Pop Culture Association's literary magazine. Its popularity led me to present at their Creative Non-Fiction panel at their annual conference. Synergy is the first true development of Lionfish. It centers around two young women who each struggle with different hardships. The more prominent protagonist and POV character is a chronic depressive with a pension for hallucinations under stress, and her best friend is a wild yet self-destructive extrovert who comes from a broken and neglectful home. 

I began actively writing Lionfish shortly after this publication, at 23 years old, though everything I'd written up to that point would serve as an amalgamation for the story I'd always been trying to shape. The two characters from Synergy lived on to be developed and become Maris and Mara--the two protagonists of Lionfish. Maris is a long-time depressive whose POV narration is surreal in delivery, mirroring her inability to tether herself to anything or anyone. She is a lot like Anna, wishing for the worst sometimes, only because it might relieve her own frustrations. And Mara is more romantic--her mind meanders like the lines of "If," searching for experiences rather than pragmatism. Her boisterous nature makes her popular, but also keeps her from being able to truly get close to anyone. She is the young woman every man wants to be with and every girl wants to be, yet she is lost, directionless--arguably more so than Maris.

Maris and Mara come from completely different pasts, but they've grown up together in residential treatment facilities--both having been deemed a danger to themselves and/or others from a young age. Lionfish follows their rich upbringings, their triumphs and failures, and all of the caretakers and peers they meet and grow to love (and hate) along the way. But it is when they are released into the real world at 18 without a safety net that they ban together, hoping to make sense out of a society that's never wanted them in it.

This novel is about womanhood, about gender constructs, about what we value in women as a society, about mental illness and the very meaning of the term, about the healthcare industry, about creativity, about boundaries and limits, about sisterhood, about love, and perhaps most importantly, it's about honesty--about telling the truth about our experiences, be it popular or not.

Lionfish's pitching history (+ funny stories & inevitable rejections):

I've pitched this book to several agents already. About 4 years ago, Lindsey and I traveled around the country to several writers conferences for 3 reasons:

  1. To research how other conferences function in preparation to build our own.

  2. To get more connected with the literary community.

  3. To pitch our books.

In Chicago, I pitched Lionfish to only one agent. Though I had the opportunity to pitch to several, I was scared. I was scared to let my book go. I was scared less of failure, but perhaps more of success. I was scared of the process the book would go through and what might happen to it. I was scared of other people reading it and judging it. I was scared of all the things I help other writers feel brave about.

Pitching at writers conferences can be weird, especially at the big ones. Writers are sort of cattle-herded into a generally cramped conference room where agents are seated behind rows of tables on either side of the room. Each has a chair in front of them, still warm from the last pitch they just heard. And looking at that empty chair as you walk towards your pitch can be a really daunting feeling. Plus, once you sit down, you can hear everyone else in the room pitching and talking. For a writer, the most observational type of human, the situation can feel really overwhelming, and it's easy to feel distracted.

I sat down in front a woman who looked a bit worn out from the hundreds of writers who had sit down and pitched her something before me. I was sweating--and luckily wearing black (shocker). My hands were shaking, and when I sat down, she just stared at me, half-smiling, waiting for me to begin talking, which was awkward. I spoke so fast. I forgot mostly everything I'd written in my query and, instead, just rambled from the heart. To be honest, in situations like that, I just black out, so I can't even tell you exactly what I said. But she stopped me after a few minutes and said she'd love to see a copy of the manuscript. She threw a couple more compliments my way, and I handed her a paper copy of my query and a business card (because I didn't know any better then), before thanking her way too many times and then getting up.

The feeling of getting a "yes" was exhilarating. I was flushed with excitement and literally called my husband to tell him. I walked with different poise that day--this dream of mine was coming true.

However, I never sent my manuscript to that agent. And I can tell you now that 4 years later, I've still never sent my manuscript to that agent...

AND I WILL CONTINUE this story (+more pitching history and rejections) NEXT WEEK!

Where I'm starting from TODAY:

The biggest problem with Lionfish is that I've re-written it, like, a billion times. As it stands, I have edited all of my content down to 2 different drafts, which are relatively disconnected from one another at this point. I've changed the POV, some of the bigger plot points, and I've swapped supporting characters in and out. BUT, I am ready to finish the final draft and pitch this book on November 4th!

So, the first step in my journey to pitching is to finish the draft, which I'll be working on this week while I'm on vacation!

Next week, I'll be re-vamping my pitch, and so should you! I'll be sending you my own query letter plus tips for writing yours!