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.

Leanna Renee Hieber: Website | Twitter

Strangely Beautiful: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

 

38 comments

  • I remember the Dorchester disaster; my RWA chapter was abuzz about this for months, writer friends were hurt in the rights debacle, people were scared, discouraged, and unsure what to do. I deeply appreciate the gift of your story; that you persevered despite depression and (understandable) fury, as your work was undeservedly hurt, will undoubtedly help the rest of us better understand the industry and our resilience. Good blog. And fabulous cover; I look forward to ordering and reading the adventures of Miss Parker

    • Thank you so much, I really hope that sharing this experience has both sides as you describe as I don’t want to be doom-and-gloom – there’s certainly hope, and regardless, it’s the perseverance that’s key, it’s truly the most important thing. Best of luck and wishes!

  • Wow! Okay, that word doesn’t do your piece justice, but all I can manage at the moment is WOW! I was literally crying tears of happiness for you at the end of the post, and I am putting “Strangely Beautiful” on my must, must, must read list. Thank you, Leanna for sharing your experiences and words. (And that is a simply gorgeous cover!!)

    • Thanks for the Wow, that means so much to me, as does your capacity to commiserate and emotionally connect here – thank you for that honor, and I’m so glad folks love the cover as much as I do! 😀 thank you!

    • Yay for ghosts being your thing! Thanks for your interest and connection to the material, I am very honoured to be able to share Hope and validation amidst the slings and arrows – good luck with all your endeavors!

  • Congratulations, Leanna! I am thrilled for you that STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL is again on bookstore shelves. I have an original edition, which you (wearing glorious Victorian garb) signed in the lobby of the hotel in Orlando at RWA 2010, the week my first novel released. It’s a gorgeous story and has a cherished spot on my keeper shelf. I truly look forward to reading the new editions and the long-awaited finale of the saga.

    This post is lovely, and so full of Big Truths. Thank you for it. But what you neglect to mention is that you have not only been “nice” to others in the industry and “networked.” You have thrown your generous heart into it. As a guest author at Lady Jane’s Salon NYC, as well as an attendee at workshops you’ve given, I’ve not only felt welcomed and educated, but supported and downright buoyed up. You share the intensity of your passion for your art and craft with such liberality of spirit that it never fails to inspire me, help me forget the rough parts of this business, and instead revel more deeply in the joy of it. Thank you from my heart, and may success rain upon you in this next stage of your adventure!

    • Katharine, I’m so grateful for these beautiful and generous words of yours. I am so blessed by you still keeping that first edition, that means SO much to me, and I treasure your first book too, as these were our first babies and so much soul is in them – and now here we are, I’m very very glad to know you and have the chance to hear your delightful work at LJS (come back to us soon!) and every appreciation!

  • I cannot begin to find the words to thank you for sharing your tale with us. My first publisher went boots up in the rhubarb as well, many years ago, and I experienced much of what you’ve described. I thought I was alone in feeling all that darkness and despair. I thought I was weird for hearing my characters as friends in the dark of night. I thought I’d never come back from it. Reading your words describing all that you felt is akin to looking backwards through a mirror. Also reading that your page-bound darlings made a comeback is encouraging. I have been trying to re-start my writing career with short fiction and leaning more and more toward self-publishing. Not because I cannot find a market, but because I remember all too well how much I made off years of work before. All that blood, sweat, tears and lost sleep is worth more than $100 to me.
    So, thank you for sharing your pain, experiences and re-resurgence with us. In your words I find camaraderie and hope.

    • Gosh Carolyn I am so sorry you understand this all too well and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone but I am so glad to share the news with you that you are not and have never been alone in those big hard difficult and unwieldy emotions about work and character, about the bond of fiction, I hope your work will again find ways to blossom again in the world, as there is always an audience ready for the works of our heart, regardless the size of that audience it still lives and will live beyond you and that’s a very brave and important thing.

  • I’m putting Strangely Beautiful on my to-read list. I’m so glad the series made it. I’m glad you made it, too.
    And the cover is beautiful!!
    I wish you the best in your next adventures (they’re coming if they haven’t arrived yet)
    Happy writing(/haunting)!!!!

  • April 26, 2016 at 6:14 PM // Reply

    So glad your story had a happy ending! Can’t wait to read Strangely Beautiful – you had me at ‘Victorian Ghostbusters’. 😉

  • I understand ups and downs. I’ve been down now for a very long time. Finding your up is wonderful. I’ll buy two sets of your book. One for my mother at 80 (so I can get some writing time while she’s in town.) The other for my daughter the anthropologist who is struggling to find an up to distract her. Congratulations.

    • I am sorry for and empathize with those downs and I hope that the long time shortens – the length of time the universe has in mind is so rarely the time frame we hope for or can wrap our heads around, the great thing about writing is that no one ages out of it, it is never too late, and there is always a story that needs telling that only your specific voice can tell, that never has an expiration date. Thank you for your double support – I am so honored.

  • I’m so glad this story had a happy ending; I went through a similar thing on a smaller scale with my urban fantasy trilogy and a small press. In my case I self-published afterwards … but I understand the PTSD a little too. I’d never use a small press again, that’s for sure, even though I’m sure there are good ones out there. Good doesn’t equal durable!

    Anyway, I will be investigating your book when I’m not on my phone, as it sounds fun! Congrats again!

    • Cassandra, I’m so sorry you went through this same pain but I am SO glad to hear you self-published after, as a publisher closing should never ever be the last word on a series meant to be out in the world. Thanks for sharing what you did in a tough circumstance, as we all need to hear stories of perseverance and the options we have as artists. Thank you for your comment and interest!

  • April 27, 2016 at 5:30 AM // Reply

    Leanna – you spoke to my heart today. Thank you so very much. I am thinking of printing out those words and framing them in my office/study/writing sanctuary. And – I’ve one-clicked on Strangely beautiful. As Goth Kitty Lady said above, you had me at Victorian Ghostbusters! And – glad I’m not the only one who visits with her characters – except I’m normally sitting round their kitchen table with them – with my first hero and heroine particularly. I’m still so in love with him!

    • I am so blessed my words resonate and can be useful, that honestly helps all the struggle mean something, truly. Being in love with your characters is one of the most special bonds anyone can have with anything, I’m glad that’s the case with yours! Good luck and thank you for your kind words and interest!

  • This is a compelling publishing horror story as well as a story of redemption. As Rob Lowe put it: “Why do we always expect that the bad things that happen to others wont happen to us and the good things that happen to others will happen without trying much?” I’m gonna share it until its all worn out and filled with holes. Thank you.

  • Everyday it seems there’s a battle inside me to throw in the writing towel. Then I read something like this and I send out just a few more queries, submissions, and write more words. I wrote my first “book” at eight years old. Clearly at the half-century mark, there’s no giving up on it now. Thanks for the virtual cheerleading.

    • If I can help turn that “throwing in towel” tide, and oh how well I understand it, then I’ve really remained on-mission, as I believe in encouraging other writers to never give up as much as anything, I’m really honored to hear that. Indeed, no giving up now, and you’re quite welcome and thank you for your response.

  • Oh, my dear, I knew you were suffering, but that sounds simply awful. I am in such awe of you that you kept putting one foot in front of the other, and even more than that, kept putting your soul into it. That ability to remain vulnerable and open instead of just shutting down in bitterness is truly a mark of a wise soul. I can’t wait till this new edition arrives in my hands.

  • May 3, 2016 at 10:10 AM // Reply

    Thank you for the inspiration! I’ll try to remember it as I navigate my own publishing nightmare this year. As soon as I get off my butt and submit already!

  • *Cheerleads submitting work!* The industry can be terrible but also wonderful, so I’m glad you’re doing the brave thing and trying! Thanks for stopping by and being a part of the discussion!

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