Leanna Renee Hieber: What To Do When The Bottom Drops Out
I have the pleasure to know the spectral presence known as “Leanna Renee Hieber,” who does not write books so much as she breathes them effortlessly into being with sheer pneuma. She’s awesome, and so you will sit very politely and listen to her tale of publishing woe — a tale with a much happier ending, a tale that tells the message of how the best thing you can do as a writer is hang the fuck in there. Because you’re only out when you bow out.
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Peoples of the written word,
I’m very lucky to call Mr. Wendig here a friend, and I’m a huge fan of his talent, sense of humor and genuinely being a good guy. I also appreciate how open and unafraid he is to talk about the most brutal sides of the publishing industry, the equally intense difficulties and joys of being a writer. So with this in mind, I bring you my personal tale in hopes of helping someone else who has hit a wall and needs to commiserate as much as needs a sign of hope, to draw back a curtain on the vagaries of publishing and the difficulties of a writer’s emotional landscape when things go wrong and right.
I’ve maintained a writing habit since I could hold a pen. I don’t remember a time without writing. I went to school for Theatre performance, writing on the side, toured around the country doing Shakespeare, got my Actor’s Equity union card and moved to New York City to decide between a life on stage or in the page. I was at a Broadway callback and all I could think about was the book I’d started 6 years prior when I was an intern at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. Turns out I loved The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker far more than I loved Broadway (and that was A LOT). I thought to myself in that moment: if I do ONE thing before I die I HAVE to publish my wildly Gothic novel about Victorian Ghostbusters! I did that thing they tell you to do: I wrote the book of my heart and my heart was ready.
So I stopped auditioning cold, joined writers’ groups, networked, took classes, revised my book countless times after getting any valuable feedback from the few rejection letters that weren’t form- I was earning a huge stack of rejections after going through THE ENTIRE Writer’s Market and querying anyone and everything that might accept Historical Fantasy with Romantic, Suspense, Mystery and Horror elements. (I’m the epitome of cross-genre.) And then finally, after a revise and resubmit, I landed an agent. Thanks to published writer friends pointing me to a specific editor, after another revise and resubmit, my baby sold to a New York house! The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker came out in the fall of 2009, nine years after I’d begun the draft. It was a good first experience, with a great editor and team, a healthy mass-market print run that soon became 4 print runs and a Barnes & Noble bestseller. The book garnered genre awards, critical acclaim, drew some fire because my heroine is the sweetest, dearest creature in the world and some people just didn’t care for that, but the sequel came the next year, and the prequel the following.
Then the bottom dropped out. The publisher, Dorchester, went bankrupt and closed its Madison Avenue doors. Three books into a bright start, right after winning an award for the third book, I was in free-fall. I held out after the very first signs of trouble in hopes the company could turn it around, while other authors yanked their rights, I stayed on that sinking ship until there were no more lifeboats. Let me be clear that none of this was the fault of my editor or the immediate staff around me. The meltdown came from high-ups I’d never met. Authors are the lowest on the totem-pole and we were all out of luck, out lots of money, out of rights and out of print.
I tied up far more of my self-worth and emotional life into these books of my heart than I’d advise another writer to do, simply for sanity and health. It felt like my children were taken away as wards of the state. And the $20k I had put on credit cards to invest in my career, in ads, travel, conferences, author swag, etc, confident at the time that the books were doing well and I’d get that back in royalties, was $20k I was entirely on the hook for. Yes, my agent helped, but there was only so much anyone could do. There was a fight to get paperwork, a struggle to know what to do when, a mess to untangle and when Amazon bought all of Dorchester’s rights, I was in a fog. I didn’t want to be published by Amazon, that much I knew, and I didn’t want to have to self-publish. I wandered lost in the thick of a brutal depression for a long while. I somehow managed to crank out another book to get my mind off of the pain and in a desperate attempt to still stay relevant in the industry.
But there was dark stuff going on within me. Everything in the industry felt like it was on the rocks. Once rights were wrested away from Amazon’s clutches, I knew that I should do what others were doing and self-publish, but I hadn’t enjoyed what little self-publishing I had done and I didn’t have the finances to do it right in terms of hiring formatters, editors and art staff. I didn’t have energy for the marketing. I was exhausted, having a hard time making a go of it as a New York City artistic freelancer, and I was just really, really damn sad.
I was overwhelmed by massive, complicated feelings of betrayal, of incapacitating rage at being robbed of thousands upon thousands of dollars of lost payments and royalties, of no small amount of unhelpful self-pity. I was in the throes of vocational materialism; I wanted external achievements like someone else might want a Porsche. Feelings of failure were incapacitating. I didn’t know what to do artistically for comfort. I knew I couldn’t let what happened to me kill my ability to write, writing is like breathing, but my muses were in limbo.
The characters in the Strangely Beautiful saga had been my bedtime story to myself for nearly a decade. I’d envision entering the quaint little London pub where my characters all hang out together and we’d sit, chat, drink and tease Alexi, my Gothic hero until I drifted off. These particular characters are my beloved friends, a priceless flock of treasured souls. But after this happened I couldn’t even think of them anymore. They were covered by a death shroud I couldn’t seem to peel off, buried in my own complicated emotional earth. I was numb, disconnected and fragile. While I hated the prospect of self-publishing and all the logistics it entails, I couldn’t let them languish. And even though I started the process, I wanted there to be another way. Miss Percy Parker has a certain magic about her and I prayed that something out there might see her and me through.
Thankfully, enough of my self-preservation auto-pilot was on to know to say yes to opportunities, so when I was asked to attend conventions, I did, again, to stay relevant in the industry, and to be ‘seen’ even if the books I was most known for couldn’t be accessed. A performer by nature, I took to the stage of public appearances in hopes of figuring out what was next. A Paranormal Romance convention in New Orleans is where I met the knight in shining armor who rescued my children. It was a ‘right place at right time’ for me and Melissa Singer at Tor, and thankfully she was already familiar with Strangely Beautiful and wanted to do something about it. Tor had been my dream house, but I hadn’t been able to get past the front door. Now Melissa wanted to work on a new series (THE ETERNA FILES) as well as publish the STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL backlist, including the never before published finale.
Strangely Beautiful being first published when it was, despite all the things that happened to it and to me, still put me on the radar enough for this second chance. Maybe that whole idea of ‘things happen for a reason’, or even that bit about lemons and lemonade is true and wise. I learned (and am still learning) so much from that initial disaster. I’m much more cautious about how I manage investments in my career versus money coming in the door, (ProTip, by all means make time for writing and make certain reasonable investments in your work but don’t go all free-fall without a safety net). I’m aware that I have publishing PTSD so I try not to let paranoia and anger about the industry color my every thought or displace worry onto the next series. I’ve learned to examine my emotional state and artistic process as separate engines to calibrate, and give both breadth and gentleness. I must keep worry/anxiety about the industry far, far away from my writing, like going into a room where the noisy zoo of the industry isn’t allowed in. I am trying to learn that my self-worth is not defined by my books. That’s a hard one, because I feel that I was put on this earth to be a writer. But I’m better emotionally balanced when I can make that distinction. One cannot take the industry personally. You just cannot.
I’ve learned there will always be another chance, opportunity, way forward, but only if you show up. Even during this fog and tribulation, I did manage to write a YA series, the MAGIC MOST FOUL saga. All the while worried and fretting about my original babies, my favorites. I still had to do something. That writing compulsion thing came in handy. Staying busy isn’t a bad idea, treading water is better than drowning.
But my babies are back today. Today is release day for the STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL omnibus. Tor put the first books in the series together into one volume, Melissa helped me re-edit and polish both, with new scenes and content. It’s a dream come true made all the sweeter for the difficulties. Not to mention the most gorgeous cover! When I first saw the cover I wept. I can envision my precious flock again and can visit their pub in my dreams again, their death-shroud lifted like Lazarus.
I’ve shared all of this because I appreciate when other artists talk about their ups and downs, it helps with perspective. If my worst artistic nightmare can happen and those books can resurrect like the mythical Phoenix I use as a character in this series, let it be a sign of hope for all who struggle with the work that they are most passionate about, through thick and thin.
Your desire for your art and talents to go out in the world has to outweigh the fear of what will happen to it out there, because anything could. There is no more safety for your art than for any of us on any given day. Things happen. Keep writing. Keep being ‘present’. Say yes to opportunities even when everything in you wants to curl up and cry. Network, work hard and consistently. Be nice to people in the industry because you never know who might be your knight in shining armor when you most need help. Learn about the craft and yourself in equal measure. Face your fears and do it all again the next day. Because none of this ever stops or gets any easier. If it was easy, no one would write any books, because easy is boring to read.
Now this story of renewal can really grow. It is release day, so your support, purchase and interest in this series is at critical peak, and I appreciate your participation in this second chance. STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL is a Gothic styled Historical Fantasy saga (two books in one edition!) about Victorian ghostbusters saving the world, featuring quirky and lovable characters, Greek Mythology, Jack the Ripper, and love conquering evil and death. PG-13 content, good for a wide range of ages and interests. It will certainly scratch your every Gothic and Victorian itch. (Please help me make some money on these damn ghosts for once…)
Thank you and happy haunting…
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LEANNA RENEE HIEBER’s first novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, won two Prism Awards from RWA’s Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal Chapter: Best Fantasy Romance and Best First Novel and is currently in development as a Broadway musical, with Hieber writing the script. Her YA novel, Darker Still, was a Scholastic Highly Recommended Title, an INDIE NEXT selection, and a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award.