How Pseudo-Marriage Prepped Me for Career Decisions

In my early twenties, I had a pseudo-marriage that started with an official wedding and ended in concrete divorce—all because I wed for the wrong reasons.

“Marry you? Hmm… Will I get cute shoes?”
(Photo by Alice Hu; Dress by Dolly Couture)

Okay, I was never that snobby. That’s my alter-ego Cru-Bella de Pill, a persona I took on for particular photo shoots. But she supports what I’m about to share…

If you caught my last post, you know that I’m facing an important and increasingly common decision in my writing career. Though I haven’t officially decided, I feel confident about where I’m headed, much thanks to Professor Pseudo-Marriage.

(I use the term pseudo out of respect for my current marriage, which holds no comparison. If my marriage were a celebrated film, my first would be the reject auditions from American Idol—largely because of me…)

Reasons I Took the PseudoMarriage Leap:

Boredom, impatience and the bandwagon. At 22, I was pre-“old maid” by the high-fashion world’s standards. After working internationally and enduring serious hardships, I was taking a hiatus in Minnesota when my adventurous spirit returned. I sat twiddling my thumbs in classes I’d lost luster for and therapy I no longer needed. Meanwhile, many of my peers were married. The totally single me decided it was time. The next person I dated, I would marry.

Stubbornness. That decision stuck. My next beau became my fiance in a snap. We discussed marriage within hours of our first kiss. One year from that day, we agreed, we’d wed. And we did. It wouldn’t have mattered if friends, family, the president and Oprah called to dissuade me (well, Oprah may’ve gotten through…). My mind was made up.

Fear and insecurity. Stubbornness can be blinding. It took me over a year to realize that the decisions we’d made to marry, move across the country to a place we’d never been with virtually no money or belongings had little to do with love and adventure, and everything to do with fear and self-doubt. The last time I’d ventured out on my own, I’d ended up sick and terrified. Fearing a recurrence, I didn’t believe I could reach the “something more” I desired on my own. I and pseudo-hubby could do anything together, I presumed, giving us and our union entirely too much credit.

As in relationships, career success often requires willingness to carve our own paths, look past right nowlisten to our instincts, ask difficult questions, maintain individuality and understand ourselves. 

Ten years have passed since my pseudo-marriage. While I’m still adventurous, I haven’t taken blind, un-investigated leaps—in love, life or my career—since. Tough lessons run deep.

So when my agent presented self-publishing as a potentially useful next strategy for me, I began researching like crazy—even though my gut had strong inclinations promptly. I’ve answered the important questions, analyzed the risks versus benefits and gained insight from professionals and loved ones I trust. (Thanks, all who’ve weighed in!) I have plans for my worst-case-scenario, and my best. And unlike the pseudo-married me, I have self confidence and a happy real-marriage and life to show for it.

While it’s seldom simple, we’re all capable of making the best possible decisions for ourselves. There always unknowns and people attempting to steer us in opposing directions, but I believe our instincts know best. Every step in the right direction, feels right—even when resistance rears its head. Once we sort all the variables out and stand firmly in our decisions, a sense of euphoria sets in. And there’s little better dream-pursuing fuel than that.

How do you make major career decisions? What related lessons have you learned the hard way?

Marc Schuster on The Grievers — A Hilarious, Inspiring Must-Read

Sometime during high school, I watched The Dead Poet’s Society on VHS. I remember thinking, “This’ll be good,” before watching it, and “Holy crap, that was awesome!” at the end. Watching the two-ish hour film felt more like living years within the character’s lives. I laughed, cried, wondered and learned along with them. The story made me examine my own life and decisions, and has stuck with me since.

Marc Schuster’s The Grievers reminds me of The Dead Poet’s Society, only slightly because it involves a prep school. The relatively short book felt as rich as a series. I laughed, ached and learned, thanks to the main character, Charley. (Did I mention laughed?) He had me pondering my own life and changed the way I look at the dancing chickens on Hollywood street corners…forever. Though it’s not been long since I read it, I have no doubt I’ll think of The Grievers again in the coming years. In a word, I found it inspiring.

Synopsis:
When Charley Schwartz learns that an old high school pal has killed himself, he agrees to help his alma mater organize a memorial service to honor his fallen comrade. Soon, however, devestation turns to disgust as Charley discovers that his friend’s passing means less to the school than the bottom line. As the memorial service quickly degenerates into a fundraising fiasco, Charley must also deal with a host of other quandaries including a dead-end job as an anthropomorphic dollar sign, his best firned’s imminent move to Maryland, an intervention with a drug-addled megalomaniac, and his own ongoing crusade to enforce the proper use of apostrophes among the proprietors of local dining establishments.

Desperate to set the world right and keep his own life from spiraling out of control, Charley rages through his days and nights, plotting all the while the ultimate eulogy for his deceased friend and a scathing indictment of a world gone wrong. (The Permanent Press, 2012)

The Grievers officially releases today. (CONGRATS, MARC!) I’m so thrilled to bring you insight from the author himself…

 

AM: You’ve called The Grievers “a coming of age story for a generation that’s still struggling to come of age.” What did you mean by that?

MS: There’s such an emphasis upon entertainment in our culture that we’re losing the ability to take things seriously. We’re really into melodrama, into quick laughs, into anything that amuses us. Look at The Daily Show for example. I love watching it, but there’s something mildly disturbing about the fact that I get a lot—if not most—of my news from John Stewart. It’s like I can’t digest serious information without a heaping teaspoon of humor to help me get it down. What does this say about me? About people of my generation? When am I going to start taking things seriously? Questions like these were in the back of my mind as I was writing the novel, and they’re also the kinds of questions that plague its narrator.

AM: Tell us about the main character, Charley Schwartz. How similar is he to you?

MS: It’s probably fair to say that he’s an extremely exaggerated version of myself. What separates us, I hope, is that I think before I speak, whereas Charley is a lot more impulsive. As a result, he puts his foot in his mouth far more frequently than I do. In terms of biography, though, we do have a few things in common. We both went to prep schools in our teenage years, and we are both the products of our respective educations. Perhaps most importantly, Charley and I have extremely patient wives who let us know when we’re making fools of ourselves. The difference, again, is that I usually have the good sense to listen, whereas Charley doesn’t.

 AM: The Grievers presents numerous lessons. Was that intentional?

MS: I don’t think I set out to teach specific lessons as I was writing. Had I done that, I’m pretty sure those lessons would stifle the novel, or it might come across as preachy. Instead, it’s probably a matter of having certain values, beliefs, and assumptions in the back of my mind as I was writing, and they crept into the finished product on an unconscious level.

AM: You came close to self-publishing The Grievers some years back. What prompted you to consider that option and then change your mind? 

MS: I’d written a few novel-length manuscripts by then, but The Grievers was the first one that I thought really had potential for publication. Unfortunately—or so I thought at the time—agents and editors didn’t agree with me. So I imagined self-publishing might be the way to go. At about the same time, I wrote a fan letter to Chuck Palahniuk in which I told him about the book and my plans to publish it on my own. He wrote back saying that he liked the idea for The Grievers, but he urged me not to self-publish. His point was that instead of putting my efforts into publishing the novel, I should start working on a new one and then return to The Grievers with fresh eyes. In the end, I decided to take his advice, and I’m glad I did. Setting the manuscript aside for a couple of years gave me the perspective I needed to do a thorough revision, and having another novel published in the interim taught me a lot about publishing.

AM: You’ve shared some great deleted scenes from The Grievers on your blog. How did you decide what to cut and keep? 

MS: In many cases, the cutting had to do with the pacing of the novel. I might, for example, realize that I’d already established an idea or theme and cut a passage because it was redundant. In other cases, I was striving to make the novel as much a work of fiction as possible. The germ of the story started with my own life and observations, but for the novel to work as a piece of fiction, I felt I really needed to make Charley his own person. So I cut anything that struck me as too autobiographical. The final thing that helped me decide what to cut and what to keep was input from other readers. I’m fortunate to have a lot of avid readers in my life, so I had a lot of very strong, very informed opinions to draw upon. If someone I respected enough to show the manuscript told me that something wasn’t working, we’d talk a bit about why and whether or not it was something that could be fixed or simply didn’t fit. If, in the end, we decided it didn’t fit, I’d cut it.

AM: Any chance we’ll see it on the big screen someday? (Spielberg might read this. You never know…) Who would you cast as Charley?

MS: I could definitely see Jason Schwartzman as Charley. I loved him in Rushmore, and to an extent, I see an affinity betweenThe Grievers and that movie. Charley could conceivably be described as an adult version of Schwartzman’s character, Max Fischer.

AM: You’ve received some awesome praise from reviewers. (Congrats, by the way.) Do you have a favorite? Any nail your book on the head or surprise you?

MS: Thank you! I’ve been so flattered by all of the praise that the book has received. A blogger named FP Dorchak made me smile when he wrote, “To be utterly blunt if not politically correct, this book had me laughing my ass off.” But I’m also glad that reviewers are picking up on the balance between humor and tragedy that I tried to bring to the novel. Robin Black is an author I admire immensely, so her praise also meant a lot to me: “The Grievers is a an extraordinary weave of humor, insight and intelligence. Marc Schuster has written a perfect comic novel, one that never strays far from either poignance or hilarity.” He book If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is one of my favorite short story collections.

*****

For more information, check out Marc Schuster’s blog and follow him on Twitter. To purchase The Grievers, zip over to Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Any thoughts or questions to share with Marc? I’m sure he’d love hearing from you!


Blog Blast: Literary Agents’ Advice for Writers

Happy weekend, all! As a followup to my last post, I’ve gathered recent posts composed by literary agents for writers. I hope you find them as insightful as I did.

Have the BEST book idea? Mike Larsen, of Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents, shares 16 Questions for Test-Marketing Your Book Idea on his award-winning blog. 

Think your book is publish-ready? In her post, I Don’t Believe You, Janet Reid, of Fine Print Literary Management, suggests you think again.

Can publishers predetermine which books will sail to the top of the charts? No, according Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Gain her insight here: A “Sure Thing?” 

Eager to attract an agent? Dawn Dowdle, of Blue Ridge Literary Agency, shares her top pointers here: Agent Advice.

Frustrated by having to write AND build your platform? Read Publishing in a Brave New World: Rachel Gardner, of WordServe Literary Group, on the value of publishers and why authors should stop complaining about platform-building.

Thinking of wallpapering your home with rejection letters? Carly Watters, associate agent at the P.S. Literary Agency, tells us How to Avoid the Rejection Blues.

Thinking of attending a writer’s conference? Learn How to “Pick-Up” a Literary Agent and other conference tips from former literary agent and founder and CEO of Literary Agent Undercover, Mark Malesta.

Pssst! Contrary to popular belief, literary agents are not only humans, but often congenial, helpful and sharp as whips. (Few pout as much as Rosie.) The first agent to read my manuscript sent me such a kind “rejection” letter, I considered adding his family to my holiday gift list. My perhaps worst response came from a woman who said she found my novel “quite disturbing” and that I best convert the whole thing into a family drama. Seeing as I write suspense thrillers, I wasn’t offended. 😉 I did, however, question my agents-to-approach picking skills…

Have an agent-related story to share? Lessons you’ve learned or are grappling with?

How I Met My Agent (And You Could, Too)

If you’re like many writers, the moment you stamped “complete” on your revised and polished manuscript, you dove into agent-seeking mode. By the time I did so, I’d asked numerous authors how they landed their agents. And wouldn’t you know, every darn story was different. Gregg Hurwitz met his through an internship. Chris Rice was born lucky. (And talented.) His mother is the renowned author, Anne Rice. Ernessa T. Carter got hers through a good ‘ol fashioned query letter. And Stacy O’Brien, via the Southern California Writers Conference. 

A multitude of options exist for writers seeking representation. I believe in taking advantage of all of them. So I sent out a slew of e-queries and signed up for several writers conferences. I’m happy to say that my efforts paid off last July at AgentFest–the “pitch session” portion of ThrillerFest–in NYC. The coordinators asked me to share some insight on my experience, which I was *thrilled* and eager to do. 😉 Here’s the story, which appears on their website:

Something Did Happen
By August McLaughlin

“So you’re going to fly across the country to one of the most expensive cities to attend a pricy conference? What if nothing happens?” a friend asked after I registered for AgentFest.

“I’m going. Something already is happening,” I replied, sensing that his skepticism was geared more toward his stay-in-Los Angeles plans than mine to attend.

I’d been to three other conferences since completing my novel, IN HER SHADOW. And although I benefited from every one, I’d met a grand total of twelve agents, several of whom did not represent thrillers. AgentFest provided an opportunity to “speed date” with rooms full of agents in my genre. (Can we say ‘heaven’???) Considering the stockpile of queries agents routinely receive, I figured any chance to stand out, demonstrate my commitment as an author and bypass the risks of accidental email deletions was worthwhile. Plus, what other opportunity do we have for immediate feedback?

It was costly, so I asked myself this: If you end up landing an agent at this conference, would the airfare, hotel and conference fees be worth it? Absolutely.

Lucky for me, that happened.

Before the two-and-a-half-hour pitch session, I stood in a long line of anxious writers, my heart pounding and palms sweating as though it really was an important first date. Thanks to a suggestion from the ThrillerFest website, I had my one-line, “What if . . .” statement prepared and an armful of information sheets with a synopsis of my novel and my name, photo and contact information.

I pitched to twelve agents and two editors. (Thankfully, my knees stopped shaking after my first.) Thirteen requested materials. About a month later, I received two emails requesting phone calls to discuss representation—one from John Rudolph of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. I knew as soon as I read John’s that I wanted to sign with him; he was my top choice of the twelve. We chatted by phone and I signed a contract the following day.

Even if I hadn’t gained representation, I would not have regretted attending. As writers, we often lead solitary lives. There’s little better than submersing ourselves in a community of others who “get” us—share similar passions and relate to the world through words and stories. You also get a gift bag of books and the opportunity to hear fantastic speakers. In this way, AgentFest beats most every conventional date I’ve been on.

I feel extremely blessed, both to have had the opportunity to attend AgentFest and to be working with agent John Rudolph.

As for my skeptical pal, he’s already signed up for next year.

******

ThrillerFest 2012 will take place July 11th – 14th in New York City. To learn more, visit ThrillerFest.com. Sign up now for an early bird discount!

For a database of literary agents and publishers, visit:
Query Tracker (Allows you to track queries sent and responses received–for free!)
Writer’s Market (Allows you to agent-seek and utilize plentiful writing/publishing resources for a modest monthly fee)
Agent Query (Super user-friendly “quick search” options – all free!)

To find writers conferences in your genre or geographical area, visit:
 Writers Conferences & Centers

What about you? Seeking an agent? Planning to pitch at a conference? Have an agent and willing to share your story? I’d love to hear from you!

Interact in Moderation: How Commingling Breeds Success

When I completed my first novel, I called my mother, somewhat farklempt. “Take a nap,” she said. “You just birthed a novel.”

‘Creativity’ has historically been used interchangeably with the term ‘genius,’ a Latin word derived from the Greek ‘ginsethai.’ Translation? “To be born.” In other words, Mom was right on that birthing bit.

And our creative artistry may require as much…um, pleasurable interaction as literal ‘birthing’ does. (No, I’m not referring to THAT type of interaction, although hmm… I do think that helps. Another blog topic entirely…) Back to my point.

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in Nov. 2009, researchers found a significant link between creativity and social interaction among corporate employees. Employees with intermediate social interaction exhibited significantly more creativity than those with weak or strong social ties.

We can take this to mean that A) sitting at home in our writing caves 24/7 can zap our creativity, B) partying every night and much of our days on Twitter, Facebook and other social media what-have-yous can do the same, and C) moderate amounts of social engagement can boost your creative juices. Yeah-oo!

Writers conferences provide an awesome opportunity for concentrated amounts of interaction so that we can spend most of our time in between with our craft.

Last week, I had the joy of spending several days at Bouchercon—an annual convention where readers, creators and devotees of crime fiction unite. As usual, I experienced the slightest bit of guilt before leaving Los Angeles. I should be writing. Is it worth the time “off?” Perhaps I’m spending too much money. Seeing as it wasn’t my first conference, I already knew the answers to my concerns: You’ll probably write there. Your writing will improve as a result. This IS part of your work. DUH, of COURSE it’s worth it. And important. And a blast.

I connected with friends I met last year, made new ones and experienced more than a few epiphanies regarding my writing throughout. In a word, it was inspiring. One highlight involved meeting Pat Frovarp and Gary Shulze—co-owners of the “Once Upon a Crime” bookstore in Minneapolis, near my former stomping ground and where I hope to have my first Midwestern book signing.

And now I’m back in my L.A. “office” (my bull dog-topped sofa), with heightened vigor for my writing routine. And see? I’m still finding time to pop in, post, Tweet, FB, etc.

If you’ve considered attending a writers conference and haven’t yet taken the leap, please do so. I can almost guarantee you’ll thank me. 😉

A few fabulous resources:

Southern California Writers Conference Open to all genres and levels; craft, business, fiction/nonfiction; tight-nit group with lots of support. A great place to start! For a fee, have some of your writing reviewed by an agent, editor or author.

Bouchercon 2012 Plenty of time to prepare/save up, etc. 😉 For readers, writers, agents, publishers, book sellers and editors of crime fiction. Fantastic panels and speakers, fun fun fun!

Dallas Fort Worth Writers Conference Ample access to agents and others pros, terrific speakers, workshops, etc.

Writers Conferences and Centers Search for conferences by keyword.

Comment on your experiences or goals regarding writers conferences or similar interactions (clubs, critique groups, etc). One lucky winner will win a $15 Amazon.com gift card!