What Is It Like to Try to Get a Novel Published?

writing-923882_1920It’s been a bit quiet here on the blog. I was off finishing a big revision on my middle grade novel (that’s a book with an audience aged 9-12). This is my second novel I’m hustling to get published, but it’s the seventy-fifth I’ve written (just kidding, it’s the ninth, but with all the false novel starts I’ve had over the years, it feels like I can claim a higher count).

I’ve dreamt of being a published author since before kindergarten (At age 5, my biggest ambition was to be the next Ann M. Martin. Or if not that, to run a babysitting club that occasionally solved mysteries involving secret passages. These are still my biggest ambitions). But as I grew up, talking about the author dream was like saying I wanted to move to Hollywood to be an actress—it was met with a lot of warnings that to go down that road would mean rejection and unemployment until I finally, tail between my legs, retreated home to find a “real” job. Instead of interpreting this as, “Okay, I should make sure I have a day job as I pursue my dream,” I took it as, “Everyone will be waiting for you to fail and it will be super embarrassing if you even try. Shut it down.'”

But then, I graduated college into the recession and couldn’t find a “practical” job. I was already living at home unemployed, so hey, the utter failure part had already hit. I wrote my first manuscript with the goal of publication in between sending out job applications, bought a few books with variations of, “How to Publish a Novel,” as titles, and found a treasure trove of “how to’s” and query package critique forums online. I proceeded to learn about the publishing industry in a trial by fire sort of way.

Here are some of the things I learned:

You will be told you must have a “tough skin.”

Practically speaking, you start the publishing fiction process by having a finished manuscript you think is “ready,” meaning it is the very best you can make it and, while you will expect some edits, you could see it being put on a shelf at B&N as is. Then, you create a submission package that includes a query letter, the first few pages, and maybe a 1-2 page synopsis. The query letter is kind of like the back cover of a book: a catchy blurb that’s meant to introduce your story, a little about you and your (perhaps nonexistent) accolades, and the basics about your novel (age group, genre, word count). You research your agents, pick some that you think will love your book, then send off the query package, close your eyes, and hope.

I sent my first query package out to about ten agents. I told myself that after reading so much about how common rejection is in this process, I knew to expect it and would be totally cool about it. After all, I’d read over and over and over again how professional aspiring authors had one quality above all: tough skin.

I did get form rejections in response to some of my query letters and I, in fact, was pretty cool about it. That was easier because one of the agents requested a partial (in this case, the first three chapters). Deep inside, something danced a dance and said, “See? I secretly knew I was amazing at writing and OMG I’m about to get published!!”

We all knew it, Brandi! You are a literary genius. Here’s all that sweet money writers make. What’s a good date for you to meet JK Rowling?

About a month later, that agent sent a rejection letter. She did not want to see more.

I cried. Deep inside, something covered its face and said, “I’m a complete fraud. I secretly knew I was terrible and an amateur and should never have even thought of being published.”

What I learned is that having a tough skin doesn’t mean you don’t feel the blow of rejection. But it does mean you open that rejection letter the next day and read the one vague critique and think about it. And you do the same with the next rejection letter that has a morsel of feedback. And you invite critiques from other writers and readers. And you take those comments and you edit and you keep trying, keep editing, and keep learning. You keep going.

Feedback is a dying tradition.

You’ll see agents and industry experts telling aspiring authors to listen to the feedback they’re hearing in their rejections and use that in their edits. When I queried my first novel in 2008-2009, while many agents could be queried by email rather than snail mail, I was still always at the post office paying a groan-worthy amount of money to send my pages to those who requested partials or fulls. And sometimes, I did send queries out with real stamps from the mailbox.

When I started querying my second novel in 2013, I noticed that most agents had moved to a fully online mode of querying and submitting partials and fulls. At first, I did a happy twirl while the post office wept at the loss of my credit card swipes.

But as rejections came through email instead of by letter, I found they were missing those morsels of feedback that had both confused and guided me through revisions of my first manuscript. Many times, no response came at all. The internet has made it easy for anyone who’s done a NaNoWriMo project to blast it off to agents for free, fast, and in bulk. Agents now have more to read and less time. I also suspect that when an agent received a box with someone’s precious pages inside, they knew that writer had invested money into that attempt to land an agent and possibly felt more obligated to explain why they were saying no. In 2008, while I definitely got form rejection letters in response to queries and sometimes even partials, the writing community was appalled when we heard someone got a form rejection on a full manuscript. This year, I got form rejections on fulls that agents requested in person. Times have a’changed.

So what to do? I am lucky enough to have an amazing beta reader who will squee when I’ve done something well but will also bluntly point out where I’ve written trash. I’ve also done some manuscript swaps, but not going to lie—it’s tough to get knowledgable feedback from the industry these days and you may feel lost about where to go if you’re getting “no”s. You may have to do a lot of searching to find a trusted, knowledgable beta reader.

That cocky feeling when you’re sure your beta’s about to be blown away by your sexy plot twists.


You’ll get a lot of questions about whether you’ll self-publish.

Self-publishing is an awesome tool these days. If you can make it in self-publishing, you get to keep all of your profits, for one. It’s a great forum for those who want more control over their final product or want their book out on their own timeline, those who are very prolific writers (especially in the romance genre), non-fiction writers, and more.

But to make it in self-publishing is a real challenge in terms of getting readers to even find your book and it’s not a great mode of publication for everyone. I write for kids and teens, a demographic not heavily represented among those buying self-published books. For one, kids aren’t usually searching through the self-published section on Amazon with credit cards ready. Kids are often finding their books through school libraries, book fairs, or through seeing what other kids are reading at school. Their parents, who are doing the buying of books, are likely skeptical of letting their kids have the freedom of reading something that hasn’t gone through the filter of a legitimate publishing agency (don’t want something that looks like Magic School Bus to end up being more 50 Shades of Grey). Even teens, whose world is more online and are better able to judge content, just haven’t shown up as a huge consumer of self-published fiction. I have theories as to why this is the case…

(Now is when the original asker will give a disinterested, “Oh,” and start up a conversation with someone else.)

You will be asked many times about the timeline of things and you will not be able to answer.

When do you think you’ll be done with your revisions? Hm…I guess when I figure out how to make my second chapter not be garbage? 3…days? Years?

How long will it take for you to hear back about your queries? Anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 months to never. One of those for sure.

When will you start your next novel? Well, I have written down ideas for like 5 novels, so bam, check that one off the list! Oh, start for real? Well, I’ve outlined half of one and have done some free writing to explore character voice but the only scene I’ve written’s going to have to be scrapped, so…yester-morrow?

Does this count?

It’s not as scary as you think to call yourself a writer.

For the longest time, I refused to share with anyone that I was trying to get published. I was sure if they heard I was getting rejections, they’d take that to mean that a professional had determined I sucked. So when people asked what I did with my days (remember, unemployed and living at home), I’d be weirdly vague, as though I were actually a spy and the CIA had forgotten to give me a cover story. “I do stuff. You know, just keeping busy in general ways that people do. Anyway, tell me about your employment and how to get one of those job things I keep hearing about!”

I am no one. Avert your gaze.

But when I was set up on a blind date, I panicked. Because obviously a very traditional first date question is, “What do you do?” and me saying, “Absolutely nothing,” felt awful because I have one of those ambitious go-getter personalities that felt very self-conscious about my current state of affairs. I wanted to cancel the date because of it. I said to my mom, “What am I going to say? ‘I do nothing?'”

I will never forget my mom very firmly telling me, “You’ll say you’re a writer.”

I actually scoffed. But my mom called me out on it. “You’ll say you’re a writer. Say it.”

The words felt awkward and stupid. “Imwriter,” I mumbled. But my mom insisted I say it like I was proud. So I practiced. And on the date, when the question was asked, I said with fake confidence, “I’m a writer. I write children’s books and I’m trying to get published.”

And my date genuinely said, “Wow, that’s so cool. So…like Twilight or Harry Potter?”

Yes, there are the moments when you awkwardly have to explain that no, you’re not published, you’re trying to get published, and no, one can’t just get published, you have to find an agent willing to represent you and then a publishing house has to want your book, and no, you’re not really looking into self-publishing because, see, the target readership is not economically independent and wait-no-come-back!

But the biggest thing I learned about trying to get published was to be proud of the fact that I’m trying to get published. Because it’s not easy. You get knocked down. But, Chumbawamba style, if you get back up again, they’re never gonna keep you down.

And yeah, it is pretty damn cool.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy: 

Why I Write for Kids and Teens,

 Online Resource Guide for Aspiring Authors

Interview with Sarah Buchanan, Author of “That Book I Wrote about Me”

NaNoWriMo: Your 50,000-Word Writing Challenge

For more about finding inspiration and the grit it takes to create something from it, check out the “Inspiration and Perspiration” category to find interviews with people working hard to share their creative passions with the world. 

Top 5 Audio-Drama Podcast Recommendations

About a year ago, I stumbled on my first audio-drama podcast, a fictional story told over a series of episodes and seasons. I occasionally cringed at some awkward voice-acting, but mostly, I was intrigued by this new experiment in story-telling. Or maybe more a return to a rather old way of storytelling. It was with the first episode of Limetown that I remember thinking, “Wow, this is going to be big!”

Two years later, okay, audio-drama podcasts haven’t exactly exploded in popularity, but some recent podcasts have reignited my certainty that this genre is going places! It’s a medium to watch—you heard it here first! (Though they’ve got to find a better way to market it than, “Television for your ears.” I’m looking at you, Tanis.)

Where to jump in? After stalking the fiction podcasts on iTunes over the past couple years, below are my top 5 recommendations as of July 2017.


HOMECOMING: Gimlet Media

Heidi was a psychologist in an experimental program for re-acclimating veteran soldiers into civilian life. Now, she’s hiding out as a waitress. This psychological thriller weaves together what happened.

One of the biggest flaws of most fiction podcasts is inconsistent acting and dialogue that doesn’t quite land as natural. Homecoming is a signpost that the game is being upped in the audio-drama world with its stellar cast of TV and movie actors. Caroline Keener, Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer, and others deliver amazing performances that take this genre from amateur fun to the next level. Another podcast, Bronzeville, has followed suit, starring Laurence Fishburne, Larenz Tate, and Tika Sumpter and is next on my list to try. With this kind of talent coming into the playing field, I’m wondering if we might see some pay-to-listen podcasts in the future, but for now, we’re getting these excellent performances for free.

Bright Sessions

The Bright Sessions: Lauren Shippen

A series of taped therapy sessions with individuals struggling with supernatural abilities. But what, exactly, is their therapist up to? I’m currently in the middle of Season 1 of The Bright Sessions and am not surprised to find out it’s won multiple podcast awards. The acting is great, the characters are interesting, and I’m intrigued to unfurl the larger plot that’s being hinted at. You may notice there’s no production company. The actress who plays Sam is also the creator, writer, producer, social media maven, and on and on, which is the most enchanting thing I’ve ever heard (can I too make my own podcast story? hmm…).  I admit, this one took me a little while to get into because the first few episodes feel disjointed, jumping between three different patients. But give it a few episodes, an easy feat as they’re each around 15 minutes long, and you’ll start getting pulled in to the different stories and the mystery of whether their therapist is really in this to help patients.

Black Tapes

THE BLACK TAPES: Pacific Northwest Studies and Minnow Beats Whale

What starts as a piece on ghost hunting leads a journalist to the enigmatic founder of an organization dedicated to debunking the paranormal. While he’s exposed most of the cases sent his way as having rational explanations, there are a series of cases he hasn’t (yet?) been able to debunk, nicknamed, “the black tapes.” 

While this podcast has its flaws—inconsistent acting, dialogue that swings between sounding natural and scripted, exciting moments being told after the fact to accommodate the narrative tool of it being a podcast—this one gripped me and pulled me along the story unlike any other. It’s reminiscent of the X-Files and its episodes range from cool and spooky (like Episode 103, “The Unsound,” about a piece of music said to kill a person within one year after listening to it) to ones that gave me the real creeps (like Episode 104, “Turn That Frown Upside Down” about a murder straight out of an urban legend). If you like your podcasts to deliver the chills and thrills and can overlook the slightly amateur quality, I’d highly recommend the Black Tapes.

Rabbits big

Rabbits: Public Radio Alliance

While following the trail of her missing friend, a woman with a troubled past stumbles into a secret, dangerous game. Is it the key to finding her friend, or a path toward a similar fate?

I love the premise of this podcast, with its secret society of players and clues hidden in real life to follow. There are definite flaws in its execution: jumps in logic I didn’t quite buy and a lack of explanation for how the narrator found out about the supposedly highly secret game in the first place. You should also prepare for a Matrix-esque turn I would have been more prepared for if I’d read the podcast’s description rather than jumping in blindly. Despite that, it definitely kept me engaged and had a thought-provoking ending to its Season 1. It’s nice to have a first season wrap up in such a way that the podcast could continue or feel satisfyingly complete.


Limetown: Two Up Productions

Ten years ago, the entire population of a small town in Tennessee disappeared, a case that mystified a nation. Investigative reporter, Lia Haddock, begins to poke around as part of a podcast, only to find the case isn’t cold and she may have gotten into something beyond what she’s capable of handling. 

Limetown has perhaps one of the strongest starts to an audio-drama I’ve ever heard. In the wake of Serial’s flash popularity, Limetown used it as a framework with a fictional story instead of a real-life one. Supposedly, there was supposed to be a Season 2, but the podcast got a book deal and started developing a TV pilot, which has delayed the production. The last episode was released in December 2015, so to say they’ve been distracted from the original form of the story is an understatement. Time will tell if this was a good call, as the podcast has largely fallen off people’s radar and new innovation and talent in the genre may make a return less exciting. That said, it’s absolutely worth a listen and, who knows, you may soon be seeing this “television for your ears” presentation on your actual television.

What do you think? Have you listened to any of the above? Feel I’ve missed a gem? Share in the comments below!

Interview with Sarah Buchanan, Author of “That Book I Wrote about Me”

Sarah's book coverAfter three ex-husbands, two successful novels, and one disastrous book she’d rather forget ever having written, Fiona Fields has hit a wall. Days once filled with critics gushing over her latest masterpiece have given way to endless hours spent lying on her living room floor in Lakeview Valley, the tiny North Carolina mountain town of her youth, and staring at her ceiling.

But after Fiona’s agent calls with an opportunity intended to drag her back into the land of the living, Fiona finds herself inspired by her ex-step-daughter, Karen, and she’s soon off and running with a brand new idea for a book and a brand new lease on life (sort of).

What Fiona doesn’t anticipate is long-buried family secrets revealing themselves and threatening to upend her newfound momentum. As she struggles to make sense of revelations about the life she thought she knew, Fiona will find that the past often shows up in the present in very unexpected ways, and that, try as she might, she’s not exempt from the 215-year-old Lakeview tradition of long-forgotten secrets coming to light in spectacular fashion.

I tracked down author Sarah Buchanan to grill her about her debut novel. Even upon first meeting, talking with Sarah is like talking with an old friend. She can tell a story about someone waving a gun at her small town newspaper office after disagreeing with a high school football article and you’ll be surprised to find yourself laughing along with your gaping. It’s that gift for telling stories of troubles with charming humor that has me most excited about her new book.

Have you always been a writer?

Definitely. The first thing I remember writing was a play when I was in 3rd grade that involved these fish puppets we’d made in art class, which was a smash hit during its limited run of one performance. My first major completed work was a 75-page or so *NSync fan fiction I wrote when I was 15, and which my high school boyfriend, Jason, had bound and printed for me. That thing is still on my bookshelf! I also have a journalism background (magazines, newspapers, online media, etc.) and have been running an oft-neglected food blog for about 5 years, “Sarah Cooks the Books.” Currently, I work as a technical writer, but that’s not even vaguely related to the type of writing I’ve generally done.

This book deals with the revelation of life-changing family secrets. Discovered any scandalous family secrets of your own? 

One of my ancestors was hanged as a witch during the Salem Witch Trials, but that’s about it, and I’m pretty sure that happened because of a land dispute. If there are any deep, dark family secrets, they’ve remained well-hidden to this point.

In what way are you and your main character most similar and in what way are you most different?

We’re both writers from North Carolina who love a good pun and who find our own jokes screamingly funny even if no one else does. Especially when no one else does.

I think the main differences between us lie in terms life experience; not that I have no experiences of my own, but Fiona has racked up a handful of ex-husbands, has seen huge commercial success and the financial gains that go along with it, and has managed to navigate the waters of an especially difficult relationship with her parents, and she’s not that much older than me. As a result, she comes in with a lot of baggage and lot of stuff she maybe hasn’t dealt with in the healthiest ways yet. She’s more than a little self-destructive. My own life has been way more low-key. (I’d also like to state for the record that Fiona’s mother is not based on my own. My mom is great!)

The book is set in a small, North Carolina town. What inspiration did you bring from places you’ve lived to the book? Were there any particular slices of life from your own experiences that you put into the book?Sarah That book

Well, I’m originally from North Carolina, so the book setting was pretty well ingrained in me. The first part of my life was spent in a pretty rural area, and then we moved to a more suburban area, and then I lived in another rural area for a while, so the small town dynamic is something that has always fascinated me and was the biggest inspiration for the book. A lot of people have this idea of what that kind of place is like: everyone knows everyone, everyone is in each other’s business, etc., and they’re exactly right in thinking that, but the real-life towns have way more heart than outsiders might think. I wanted to celebrate that.

Whether things from my own life make it into my books is a question I get asked a lot, actually. It’s hard to write a whole story without inserting some aspect of your experience into it, so I guess there’s definitely stuff that inspired the story, but almost nothing is pulled directly from real life. I will say, though, that there’s one exchange between Fiona and another character that is a word-for-word replica of a conversation I had with my husband once, but I won’t say what it is. Leave a little mystery out there since my family history is so devoid of scandal.

Does the book have a particular theme that inspired you?

When I started writing it, I didn’t really know what it was about. I had the idea of one character and a single circumstance that happened to someone else that I found interesting, but not a whole lot else. It wasn’t until I actually finished it that I realized that the theme of family had come about, and when I realized that, I thought it was pretty cool. The theme of being born into a family but, ultimately, creating your own from people you choose to allow to be around you is something I feel really strongly about in my own life, so it’s not really surprising it showed up in my book.

What advice would you give to a young or new writer?

I have beaten myself up for years because a lot of writers say “Write every day.  If you don’t write every day, you’re never going to be successful, you’re never going to finish anything.”  I wasn’t able to write every day, and I felt like because of that, I was failing.  My first piece of advice would be to not beat yourself up if your project is going slowly.  If one day, you sit down and write 2,000 words, and don’t pick it up again for a month, it’s really okay. Work at your own pace (unless you have a deadline, obviously.  Then maybe kick it up.)

Secondly, I feel that to be a successful writer, you have to also be a voracious consumer of words.  Read constantly, and not just stuff in your particular genre.  Also, watching television shows (scripted, not like the marathons of The Real Housewives that I’m guilty of) is great for learning to craft dialogue, settings, and stuff like that. Oh, and watching people and their interactions with each other can be really inspirational.  Of course, my writing is really dialogue heavy, so listening to people and taking notes of their speaking habits is something I do a lot.

If you had to describe what inspires you in one word, what would it be?


I don’t necessarily mean the romantic, kissy love that so many songs, and books and movies are centered around. I mean loving what you do and wanting your work to be the best it can be; the love of people around you, supporting you while you do what you do; and the love of things that other people find inane, but that are the things that make your own, personal life worth living.

That Book I Wrote About Me will be available June 9, 2017. Pre-order your copy on Amazon.

bio pic sarah.jpgSarah Buchanan grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has worked as a waitress on a dinner train, a radio DJ, a preschool teacher, a journalist, and a technical writer. She now lives in Southern California with her husband and their cats. Her first completed work was a play written when she was 9 that was performed by several classmates and the fish puppets they made in art class.

Sarah’s debut novel, That Book I Wrote About Me, is the first in a series about the fictional small North Carolina town of Lakeview Valley.

Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sarahbuchananwrites.

Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/sarahwroteabook.

Track her progress in her year-long attempt to post one new photo every day on Instagram at www.instagram.com/sarahbuchananwrites.


If you too are a budding novelist, check out Online Resource Guide for Aspiring Authors.

If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy other interviews in the “Inspiration and Perspiration” series such as:

 Turning Interviews into Kids’ Books with Erica Swallow

Travel Photography and Journalism with Megan Snedden

Art Modeling and Creating Art with Krystal Becker

Ever wondered about the challenges and triumphs of releasing a debut novel? Leave comments on the interview or questions for Sarah in the comments below!

Be the Match: My Experience as a Bone Marrow Donor (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of Be the Match: My Experience as a Bone Marrow Donor (Part 1). Click the link to start there! 
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If my bone marrow donation felt like being carried on the shoulders of a Red Cross phlebotomist team, imagine me accidentally kicking one of them in the face and the whole team crashed to the ground in a mess of apple juice boxes and cookie crumbs. That should set the tone nicely for my white blood cell donation.

The bone marrow donation had been done in the SF Bay Area. I was now back at college, so the organization did a big shuffle and scheduled the new procedure to be done in LA, about two hours away from my college.

This time, when I went to the local blood donation center to get some samples drawn, I got yelled at for not drinking enough water beforehand. I cowered. “But the Red Cross phlebotomists gave me juice…”

To extract the cells, I’d have a needle in each arm. My blood would go out one arm, spin through a machine, and come back in my other one. It would take about four hours and I’d get to watch TV the whole time, so it sounded pretty easy peasy. I let my professors know. One even gave me a one-on-one makeup lecture so I didn’t fall behind.

So I could start the procedure at 7am sharp, the organization arranged a hotel room for the night before. I was used to having allergies, so my when my nose was runny earlier in the day, I didn’t think a thing of it. But as I started to drive, I started to feel bad. It wasn’t allergies. I was getting sick. I never got sick!

I frantically called the number they’d given me and explained the situation. The person on the other end asked me a lot of questions about the color of my snot. It was not a good snot color. She said to come down anyway. It was fine. 

Relieved, I checked into my hotel and jumped on the bed a few times. It was the first time I’d stayed in a hotel by myself. After clicking out the lights, I stared at the closet door, realizing someone could have been in there the whole time, hiding and waiting for murder. I lifted my textbook over my head as I ripped open the closet door.

I am now much better at staying at hotel rooms by myself.

I was not an early bird, nor big on breakfast. The procedure was due to end at 11am, which was when I’d normally eat anyway, so I figured I’d wait and celebrate with a nice meal. 

This time, the hospital was a lot less intimidating, knowing I didn’t even have to change out of my clothes for this procedure. I settled onto a bed holding my box of kleenex next to the one other patient in the place. They’d closed the curtains around the lady next to me, announcing she was, “all done!”

“Oh my! That WHOLE thing was in my arm?”

Uh…what now?

My straining to catch a glimpse of said needle was interrupted when a doctor appeared, frowning. His expression was not kidding around. “You told the intake nurse you have a cold?”

“Uh yeah? I called down yesterday. They said it was fine.”

“Who did you talk to?” From the look on the doctor’s face, that person was in huge trouble. This was a serious problem.

ancestry.jpgThey tried to call the recipient’s doctors, but they couldn’t get a hold of them—something about them having closed and time differences (someone had already let it slip to me that the recipient lived in Germany) and having to track people down off-shift. We’d have to wait.

I kept yo-yoing between staring at my stupid kleenex box with horrendous guilt and wanting to pace around in defensive anger. I had called. I hadn’t meant to get sick. Oh god, was my cold really going to kill someone?

A nurse came on shift who didn’t join the huddle of tense whispers. He sat next to me and switched on the TV, making jokes about the available movie options. He confided that he was going to tell everyone I needed his strict supervision so he could ditch his job and watch movies too. My stomach unknotted for the first time in hours and I had never been more grateful for another human being in my life. 

Finally, at around 1:30pm, Frowning Doctor walked up. They’d already “destroyed” the recipient’s immune system, so we had to do this now. Well, that sounded horrifying, so okay, let’s do this thing. Everyone left so a nurse I hadn’t met yet could hook me up.

The nurse held up the needle and I had the same reaction as the lady from earlier: Sweet baby Jesus, are you certain that’s not a joke needle ma’am?

The nurse started having trouble “threading it up” my vein. Frustrated, she wiggled it around, then took her free hand and began hitting the end of it to try to jam it up into my arm.

Another nurse sprinted over, jaw hanging open. “What are you doing????” She pushed the first nurse out of the way. “Are you okay?”

I flapped my free hand. “Yeah, yeah. Only, I should probably tell you that I feel a little weird…”

The nurse took one look at my face and ripped a pin out of the bed. The head of the bed slammed down to be fully horizontal, just as my breathing started to come in fast gasps.

Competent Nurse raced into a storage room, screaming orders. She was soon pressing ice packs on my wrist, neck, and legs. Across the room, some young guy in scrubs was looking through his brown lunch sack when someone viciously ripped it from his hands and dumped out the contents, missing the counter in her urgency. A pudding cup exploded across the floor at the poor guy’s feet and he let out a startled, “Wha?” probably thinking this was a petty hazing ritual.

His lunch bag was shoved over my nose and mouth and a nurse hovered over me, coaching me through slowing down my breathing, though it felt impossible to get control back over my lungs. My nurse buddy would later explain that when you hyperventilate, you breathe out carbon dioxide so fast, it messes up the balance in your body. The paper bag forced me to breathe some of it back in to restore the balance. So yeah, I may have skipped cultural anthropology class that day, but I got a rather hands on biology practicum. Don’t be jealous.

Once the crisis was over and the paper bag was removed, Frowning Doctor loomed at the end of the bed, arms crossed. “When did you last eat?”

In all the stress, I had completely forgotten about my 11am post-procedure breakfast plans.

Frowning Doctor shooed everyone away and took me down to the cafeteria. Miserably, I apologized and blew my nose. Frowning Doctor softened for a minute and bought me some food. “It’s been a long day.”

I am pretty certain we were both thinking this day was turning out a lot like that nurse’s pudding cup.

18 to 44The next set up went without a hitch. The needle in my right arm rested against my vein, which would flutter uncomfortably for the next few hours as though a butterfly had been trapped inside my arm. My nurse buddy spent a lot of the time next to me, trying to cheer me up. I did my best to let myself be cheered up.

We were finally done around 7pm. Be The Match tried to book me another hotel for the night, which I absolutely should have taken, but I insisted on going home. I walked into the parking garage and finally turned my cellphone back on (there had been “no cellphones” notices glaring at me while I’d been inside and I didn’t have a text plan). I had about seven voicemails and a dozen missed calls from my mom. The voicemails got increasingly panicked. After I hadn’t responded to her for eight hours after my procedure was supposed to be done, she’d concluded that I’d been kidnapped by the recipient’s henchmen to be taken back to Germany and harvested for my marrow. 

As I had spent the previous night attacking closet phantoms, this struck me as insane, but strangely logical. 

Several months later, I was walking through campus when my Be The Match representative called me. She said they usually waited longer to talk to a donor about the outcome of a donation, but if I’d like to know, she’d tell me now. I braced myself and said I’d like to know.

My recipient did not survive. The representative explained that she’d been on the registry for a long time waiting for a match and she’d been very sick by the time I’d come along. The recipient and her family had known this would be a long shot, but they’d wanted to feel as though they’d done everything possible. They wanted to try. 

And so, I’m glad I tried with them. People sometimes think that because this story didn’t have a happy ending, I must regret having signed up. I must regret the time and the discomfort and the involvement since it was all for nothing. 

But I don’t think it was for nothing. The reality is, it was a few days from my life spent trying to help someone else. I was back on my feet less than a week after my bone marrow donation surgery, and that’s considered a longer-than-typical recovery time. I had to recover more from my cold than my white blood cell donation. Maybe all I gave was hope, but other people do save lives.

I’d never tell anyone they should register—it’s a highly personal choice. But I hope this story does defeat the idea that it would take a superhero or a saint to donate bone marrow. 

In my case, it only took a clueless girl not wanting to look bad in front of her friends who was given a chance to step up.

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Pink Poo, the lamb (not poodle!) my mom got for me after my bone marrow donation who still rides around with me for luck.

Learn more about bone marrow, PBSC, or cord blood donation and other ways to support the National Marrow Donor Program at BeTheMatch.org. If you’re interested in registering, they’ll mail you a mouth swab kit for free.

If you’ve got questions, I’ll answer them as best I can from my experience. Just leave a comment below or head on over to the Contact page.  

Be the Match: My Experience as a Bone Marrow Donor (Part 1)

campus be the matchWhen I signed up for the bone marrow donation registry in my freshman year of college, I wish I could say I did so with the noble passion to save lives. The truth is, I started following a group of girls from my dorms before I knew where they were going, then felt I couldn’t ditch out without seeming like a jerk. A pamphlet got me nervous about what I was signing up for. Surgery? For a stranger?

As I was getting my blood sample taken (they’ve since upgraded to a simple cheek swab), I quietly expressed doubt to the phlebotomist.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “the chances are so slim of getting called, if you ever do, you’ll be 80 and too old to do it.”

All the way back, we giggled over cartoon drawings of what looked like a doctor drilling through a patient’s butt cheeks. Yeah, thank god I’d never actually have to go through with that. 

Less than three months later, I got an envelope in the mail.

I was a match. I wasn’t 80. 

But that letter represented a real person out there in a terrible situation. What if it had been my mom, or me, or a friend? I know how desperate I’d feel.

The first thing my roommate said when I told her I was doing it was, “You’re getting the butt surgery??”

You know, in case I was feeling too much like a sexy hero.

BTM_MythsFacts_3From there, we did a lot of medical testing to ensure I really was a good match and that I was healthy enough to be a good donor. In preparation for the surgery, I went to a Red Cross blood donation center. Apparently, it’s helpful to have your own blood on hand during a surgery so they can give it back to you to replace any that’s lost. To do this, they take more than in a normal donation, and because I’m rather small, the staff was certain I was going to pass out on them. The only patient in the clinic, the staff pushed apple juice boxes and cookies at me like I was being fattened up for a pie. The blood draw went smoothly and when it was done, they surrounded me with more juice and wouldn’t allow me to even sit up as though they were the loyal servants of a queen, aged 6. (“More juice and cookies, I say! And fetch me a crayon box!”)

I broke the news to them that I really did have to get up because I’d drunk more than my weight in juice and had to go to the bathroom. They offered me a bed pan. I looked to the floor to ceiling windows right next me. A child skipped by, looking in. I declined the offer. My entourage of about five women held my arms during the walk, then stationed themselves in and out of the bathroom, ready to defend my privacy against the zero other people in the clinic (I was not allowed to close the stall door) or to rush in the second I pitched sideways.

At one point, the front door chimed and a man said, “Is this where we give bloo—”

“Sir, we are handling a situation right now!” one staffer half-screamed.

When the man watched me emerge, admittedly wobbly at that point, with the entire staff of the clinic shoving snacks and juice at me, I wonder if he thought I was famous.

Sorry sir, not all of us can be donation celebrities. 

2b-be_the_match-3_ways_to_donate_marrowThe only time I got nervous throughout the entire process was right before going into surgery. To calm myself, I summoned my deepest level of nerd meditation and recalled a fan fiction story I’d once read where Harry Potter had bone marrow surgery and nearly exploded with magic. In my anxious state, it made sense that if a fictional wizard in a fan’s story could do this, surely it was all going to be fine.  

When I came to, my mom, face tense with worry, held up a cute stuffed pink lamb she’d gotten me from the gift store. I could tell this whole thing had been harder on her than me.

An orderly tested my blood. “Ah, it’s a nice, rich red.”

Groggily, I muttered, “At least it’s not green anymore.”

The orderly looked sympathetically at my mom. “She’s still delirious from the anesthesia.”

My mom gave me a knowing look that read, If only we could blame your sense of humor on drugs.

I’ve heard other donors talk about going back to work the next day. I, however, am very sensitive to painkillers and spent the next couple days sleeping and comfortably hallucinating about helicopters. Within a week, though, I moved myself back down to college in a car filled to the brim. Insisting I did not need help with that move may have not been my smartest call, but I did it. A few weeks later, even the bruised feeling in my lower back was gone.

When the lab I worked in found out what I’d done, they put my name up on the white board of the lab for, “saving a life.”

…They then violently erased it when I said I didn’t find Tom Cruise attractive.

“But I saved a life!” I pouted.

“And you have no taste,” said my lab director. It was a unique managerial style.

In actuality, none of us knew if I had saved a life. I’d explained when my name went up that the organization wouldn’t be telling me the outcome for one to two years. But I was so happy I’d done it. My director sent out an email to the lab titled, “Brandi is a H-E-R-O,” and I admit, it made me feel proud.

A few months later, however, the organization got in touch with me. My recipient was not doing well. I was surprised. All the advertising I’d seen was about saving lives and it hadn’t really occurred to me that my donation might not work, even though they’d tried to explain that was a possibility.

Prefacing everything with the acknowledgement that I had already done more than enough, they asked if I’d be willing to give white blood cells. I agreed without hesitation, now feeling less like this was some feat of bravery and more aware that someone out there had heard this same news and had to be scared. I asked them to send me the information right away.

As this is a long story, I’ll break here. Stay tuned for part two…

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While my experience is with bone marrow donation, many people donate through a non-surgical process called Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation. You can learn more about either process and hear other people recount their experiences at www.bethematch.org.

If you have questions about the bone marrow donation process, don’t hesitate to ask! I can only speak from my own experience, but I’m happy to share what I can. I’d also love to hear your stories.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy Apartment Horror Stories, Part One: Santa Barbara and the Microwave and Petty Crime and Disco: An Ode to Mariah.

“Quitting” Ain’t a Dirty Word

Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.By day, I work with college students. Often, those are students who are in academic trouble. And every day, I ask questions like, “Why didn’t you drop the class when you failed the midterm?” or “Why are you so determined to stick to a major that’s making you flunk out of school?” The answer, inevitably, is, “I don’t want to be a quitter.”

I get it. You don’t want to run at the first sign of trouble. That’s not what we’ve been taught to value. We’ve been taught that when you’ve worked hard for something, or hell, even if you’ve started something, the disciplined among us will stick with it ’til the bitter end.

So what happens to those people who are miserable and decide it’s time to throw in the towel? What’s the cost when people realize that despite trying, they’re not succeeding? Through interviewing dozens of people over the past few years about their career paths, I’ve discovered the dark truth about walking away:

Quitters prosper.

It’s true. I’ve found that interviewees who’ve had the experience of quitting something unfulfilling are the happiest I talk to. Having taken that risk to hit the eject button and start fresh along a new path, they feel more in control of their lives rather than feeling stuck along a path they mistakenly wandered down. And moving forward, they tend to be less anxious about the decisions they make because they understand that there is no perfect move, there’s just giving a variety of things a real, all-in try until we find something that clicks. They are kinder to themselves, more forgiving of mistakes, because they know they are never trapped. And these people are still motivated, determined, and hard working. When they find something they love, they dive in.

I once quit a job after two days. I had gone through three months of interviewing. I’d been put through tests, writing samples, and role-playing interviews (my nightmare). This was supposed to be my first real job out of my masters program. I bought my first smartphone for it. I bought a suit jacket.

But in those first two days, I became baffled. They weren’t training me for the position I’d been hired into. They were training me for one much lower. (It was also the weirdest training I’ve ever experienced. At one point, I was asked if they could videotape me. But that’s a story for another day.)

When I confronted the owner about why I sensed I was being demoted before I’d even started, he tried to dodge the question. I pressed and insisted I wasn’t leaving until he gave me a straight answer. Eventually, his temper snapped. “Do you expect me to let you around clients with your pedigree?”

I was stunned. I knew he meant where I’d chosen to go to college (he’d brought it up a suspicious amount of times over the past few days), though I also don’t think I’d impressed him by still having a flip phone when I interviewed (I’d bought my first smart phone for the job. This was 2013. I am not quick on the technology.).

So, I quit. I’d like to say I gave a sassy one-liner and strutted out the door à la Bridget Jones instead of anxiously calling my mom on the way home, then pulling over to send in my resignation via email on my new smart phone.

But I did quit. And every time I think about how I might have been trapped in that awful, degrading place, I’m so, so thankful I walked away. The memory makes me feel empowered and free. I found a new job that was still crappy but allowed me to do the work I’d been hired for. And I worked hard. I’ve always worked hard. Quitting didn’t change that.

We ought to be kinder about quitting. When people in our lives end up in a situation that makes them unhappy, we should think twice before saying, “Don’t quit now! You’ve worked so hard for this!” Sometimes people do need encouragement, but there can be bravery in realizing that just because a lot of time and effort has been sunk into a goal, doesn’t mean more time and more effort should be lost toward something that no longer makes sense.

People should share their quitting stories with people proudly. And I don’t just mean the “And I told my boss to shove it!” stories. I mean the times a major wasn’t working out. The times we gave up on relationships. The times we realized our dreams had shifted and needed to let go of an old idea. It might be the encouragement someone needs to leave a bad situation. Sometimes it takes quitting something that’s wrong to start something that’s right.

If you want to hear people sharing their experiences with walking away from something big, check out my interviews with these inspiring and brave quitters:

Kelsey Gorter: Wine Enologist (Quit biotech and teaching)

Rebecca Gayle: PharmD (Quit her residency)

Nicholas Lee: Bakehouse Owner (Quit his major, quit sales and tech)

Kristen Care: Attorney (Quit her dream major, then quit her first career goal)

What about you? Do you have a time when quitting something made your life that much better?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like, Collecting and Connecting – Two Years of Interviews or Where do ideas come from?

Turning Interviews into Kids’ Books with Erica Swallow

15241180_1144296242344899_7164375719047770981_nThis month in the Inspiration and Perspiration series, I tracked down Erica Swallow, co-creator of a non-fiction picture book stemming from Erica’s real-life interview with kid entrepreneurs. I met Erica at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, where, in our first chat, she asked, “Is there anything I can do to help you with your project?” I was later shocked to find her on a panel discussing social media for writers. I had no idea she was a panelist instead of just an attendee! With a giving, humble spirit like that, I was thrilled to discover she’s also a powerhouse of creativity and innovation.

I talked to Erica about what inspired her project.

Tell us about your current project and how you got the idea for it?

I just finished my first picture book series. It’s called Entrepreneur Kid, and it’s a four-book series about real kids with real businesses, written by myself and illustrated by my good friend, Li Zeng, a very talented graphic designer and design professor I’ve known since moving back to my home state, Arkansas. We’re self-publishing the series on Kickstarter and just launched today. It was been an absolute whirlwind adventure learning how to be a publisher!

The whole premise behind the series is the idea that kids can do anything they set their minds through. The books feature the stories of four kid entrepreneurs from across the U.S., from sock designer Sebastian Martinez (CEO of Are You Kidding?) and barrette inventor Gabby Goodwin (CEO of GaBBY Bows) to lacrosse equipment maker Rachel Zietz (CEO of Gladiator Lacrosse) and electronics reseller and recycler Jason Li (CEO of iReTron). These kids have done amazing things… sold their goods all over the world, figured out manufacturing, partnered with non-profits, and achieved so much while so young.

I’ve been seeing more and more young Gabbyentrepreneurs popping up around the country, and I started researching what kids are achieving today. I couldn’t help but be inspired.

While I’ve been a journalist for a while now, I thought this was the appropriate set of stories to launch my career as a debut children’s author.

The illustrator Li and I have been collaborating on projects since early last year, mostly educational programs focused on inspiring the next generation of thinkers and innovators. She and I got serious about Entrepreneur Kid in September, and we’ve been rolling ever since.

What is it about entrepreneurship that you find inspiring? Is there a connection with your own life to that world?

Yes, 100% – there’s a huge connection. I’m a small business owner, and I’ve worked with countless entrepreneurs throughout my career in journalism and marketing. I started my career as a marketing consultant at The New York Times in 2009, right out of college. That’s where I developed a love for storytelling, as well as a love for entrepreneurship. After all, you can’t lead social media at the world’s paper of record without falling in love with brilliant storytelling.

Part of my job was to collaborate with startups like Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare, and I really loved how they believed in moving fast and breaking things. It was so exhilarating working on campaigns with people like Tristan Walker, this spunky business development all-star who led Foursquare partnerships at the time, while still pursuing his MBA at Stanford. He’s now the founder and CEO of Walker & Company Brands, which makes health and beauty products for people of color. It’s entrepreneurs like Tristan who make me excited to keep growing and learning. I want to work with people like him who are trying to build things that make the world a better place.

That’s what entrepreneurship is to me – it’s making the world a better place, through your creativity and ingenuity.

What’s been the hardest part for you as you’ve developed this series?

15000800_1113898918717965_3619267930297421633_oWriting for kids! It sounds odd, but I’ve been writing for adults for the past… forever!

My bookshelf is now full of picture books, because I had to learn how to structure the story. It wasn’t until this past December, though, that I realized writing picture books isn’t so different from writing a news article. I was at the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Winter Conference, and legendary picture book author Andrea Davis Pinkney – who has a background in journalism as well – said of how she uses her journalism experience in book writing: “Use a compelling lede.”

I was stunned, because for some reason, I had never considered my writing experience of relevance to children’s books. I went back to my manuscripts and did some tweaking. I’m definitely going to think journalistically for my next book, and the lede is going to be out of this world!

What’s been the biggest triumph so far?

Besides finishing the series and launching the Kickstarter, we’ve already received great feedback from the industry. We were a finalist in the Children’s Book category of the San Francisco Writers Conference writing contest, for “Sebastian Creates a Sock Company,” the first book we wrote in the series. Just prior to that, I was honored with a Highlights Foundation James Cross Giblin Scholarship to continue my writing in nonfiction children’s literature.

The kid’s lit community has certainly been welcoming. I don’t think I’ve ever pursued a project that’s been welcomed so overwhelmingly so early on. We’re really grateful for that.

What advice would you give to a budding entrepreneur or writer?

Do your thang. That’s all. Just keep going. 15241429_1145555655552291_2580009388373791058_nWriting is tough. Starting a business is tough. You just have to persist. Get it done. Keep going. End of story.

Tell us about your Kickstarter and where to find it!

Yes, yes, yes. We launched the Kickstarter this morning to fund the first print run of the Entrepreneur Kid book series. You can find the project easily from our website or directly on Kickstarter. You can back the project and choose from one of 11 rewards, which include getting a simple thank you on our website, a single book, the full book series (in print, digital, or both forms), multiple sets of the series, or an author or illustrator visit (U.S. or international). There’s something for everyone. Well, if you like stories about kid entrepreneurs!

We are so grateful for all of the people who helped make the project itself possible. From the entrepreneurs who we featured to our early readers, there have been so many helpful people along the way. Adding to the equation are our backers. Thank you to everyone who supports us over the next 30 days. The project closes on April 27th, at which point, we’ll put our order in for 2,000 books if the campaign is a success. Fingers crossed! 

If you had to describe what inspires you in one word, what would it be?



Erica Swallow is a status quo wrecker, entrepreneur, journalist, and debut children’s book author. Her thoughts have been published in ForbesFortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. A first-generation college student, she was raised in Paragould, Arkansas and believes education is the key to opportunity. Erica holds degrees from New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the founder of Southern Swallow digital strategy consultancy.

Find behind-the-scenes photos and more at www.facebook.com/entrepreneurkid.

Check out and consider supporting this project by clicking here: Entrepreneur Kid Kickstarter.

Want more interviews that pick the brains of creative people? Check out Art Modeling and Creating Art with Krystal Becker or Travel Photography and Journalism with Megan Snedden. And keep an eye out for the next entry in the Inspiration and Perspiration series by following the blog! Just find the “Follow” feature at the top right of the page!

Petty Crime and Disco: An Ode to Mariah

door-knob-1924315_1280.jpgI once had a neighbor named Mariah.

I had just moved, leaving behind a city and my roommates. The first weekend in my apartment, I was missing the constant chatter that meant no TV episode could ever truly be watched, but was excited about this new, mature stage of my life. This was my big step into independence. I would be a real adult now. Nothing could stop me now!

The first time I took out the trash, I locked myself out.

I had been weekend-cleaning like a grown-up. Listening to my time-warp playlist like…a cool person? The high pitched voices of the Jackson Five mocked me from the screened windows too high up to reach as I shook the door with both hands and begged for it to open.

I had no phone, no keys, no wallet. I knew no one in town.

Wincing, I knocked on my neighbor’s door.

The door opened to reveal a girl in her young twenties and an apartment covered in reggae posters.

“The landlord doesn’t give out his number,” she said, following me outside, “and the property manager’s closed on weekends.”

I let out a pitiful groan.

She pointed at my windows. “Oh, we can totally get you inside.”

I was skeptical. “Aren’t the screens screwed in? And it’s too high.”

With a dismissive wave of her hand, she went back into her apartment, presumably for a chair. Instead, she came back out with a driver’s license. She reached above her head and started jimmying the screen. At second glance, I realized the driver’s license was not hers.

She must have seen the look on my face. “Don’t worry,” she said, “my boyfriend showed me how to do this.”

This made me worry for other reasons. 

Mariah paused. “Is that…the BeeGees?”

I went red. “Um…”

“Hell. Yeah. I love the BeeGees.” She danced along to Night Fever as she worked.

The screen popped out. I let out an embarrassingly excited, “Look! Look! You did it!!!”

Without a word, she threaded her fingers together and we shared the look of two former cheerleaders (or…burglars? Mariah, what is your life?), and she heaved me up and through the window. I grunted as I tumbled through and landed in an awkward crash of limbs and furniture.

I limped-ran over to the door and threw it open in triumph. “We did it!” I exclaimed, as though my watching her had been a meaningful part of the effort.

Mariah wiped the dirt off her fake ID and slipped it back into her jean pocket. All in a day’s work, her casual smile seemed to say. She said nothing, just swung her hips to the final notes of the song. I did my own little dance of happiness that was nowhere near as graceful.

Then, she wandered off to lock her boyfriend out of their apartment until he banged on the door, demanding and then begging to be let in. He might have known how to get through windows, but apparently wouldn’t dare climb through Mariah’s windows while she was peeved at him.

That was my only interaction with Mariah before she moved away, but here are some things I know in my heart to be true about her:

1. If I needed to flee town in the midst of a movie-like, every-man-for-himself disaster, Mariah would have a seat in my car. Her skills would be important to the survival squad as we road-tripped through destruction. She’d hot wire cars and siphon gasoline, all while humming disco standards.

2. In a heist, Mariah wouldn’t break a sweat as she lock-picked a safe, even as police sirens drew closer and closer. She would spend the entire time bickering with her boyfriend as he patched together some quick flash-bang explosives. 

3. In a zombie attack, Mariah would inevitably lock her boyfriend out of the compound while zombies advanced. He would yell to be let back in, but she would calmly demand he apologize first. He would scream, “I’m sorry, okay?” This would not be good enough. She’d tell him he didn’t sound like he meant it as the zombies drew near and her boyfriend clawed frantically at the door. She’d finally open the door, letting her boyfriend collapse inside while she smoked a couple reaching zombies without effort. When she locked up after them, over the sound of zombie-hands pawing at the door, she’d put her hands on her hips and say, “I deserve respect around this compound.” And they’d yell at each other all the way to the kitchen.

4. Mariah is the coolest neighbor I will ever have.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy, Apartment Horror Stories, Part One: Santa Barbara and the Microwave and Apartment Horror Stories, Part Two: San Francisco and Raccoon Warfare.

Throwing it to you: Have you ever had an intriguing neighbor? Ever locked yourself out?

Travel Photography and Journalism with Megan Snedden

1.jpgNext in the Inspiration and Perspiration series, I talk with Megan Snedden, travel photographer and journalist for publications like BBC, USA Today, and National Geographic Traveler. Every time I talk to Megan, I leave our conversations inspired to conquer the world. She’s overcome tremendous obstacles to create a career out of what she loves and makes the people around her feel like, with a dash of adventure in their souls and a willingness to take a risk, they just might be able to follow in her dancing footsteps.

What inspires Megan isn’t really a mystery. Who among us isn’t drawn to far off, exotic places? But to turn that inspiration into a career takes some serious work.

I interviewed Megan about her experience.

When you do something creative as a career, there’s often an assumption by outsiders that you’re getting paid for a hobby, and that anyone could jump in if they wanted to. In reality, what kind of work goes into making a career out of travel photography and journalism?

It’s funny to me that people have no idea what’s happening behind the scenes. There is so much hustle going on in order for your career to not only take off initially, but to stay afloat and relevant. In order for stories to get published, I’m always coming up with new ideas and developing pitches. When you’re in this freelance world and you’re pitching editors ideas, not everybody bites at what you think is going to be a great story. It depends a lot on what’s happening at the publication. Magazines release public editorial calendars with what they plan to write about months before an issue comes out, but a lot can change in that time. Even online magazines and publications pursue different verticals (niche content) at different times based on how stories on their website are performing. So you might send them a story about Cuba and they say, “Oh we’re so over Cuba right now, no thank you.”

Also you can’t just approach it like, “Oh I went on this awesome trip, here’s a story!” You have to come up with an angle you might call a, “Why now?” You’re essentially a salesperson when it comes to getting your work published. You develop pitches and contact editors and keep those relationships healthy so that if you’re freelancing for one publication and you switch and start freelancing for another, that you still could go back to the first one. Sometimes you’re funding yourself, other times you’re collaborating with PR people to get a trip to happen, then write stories about their clients in the travel and destination industry. It’s all very fascinating, but there is so much more legwork behind it than, “I went on a vacation and took a few photos and just want to write.”

The other piece of the puzzle isfiji-3 that most people I know in this line of work don’t invest everything into one bucket. We’re working on several different types of creative projects all at one time. It might be advertising, branding, or social media work for other companies that still incorporates writing and photography. It’s not all travel journalism all the time. I mean, it is for some people. I know people who’ve gone the Instagram Influencer, build-your-own-blog route and they have such big audiences of their own that they can do that. But when you’re a writer—the journalist photographer type—you really have to balance a lot of different kinds of creative work.

When your job demands the constant production of ideas, do you ever struggle with feeling inspired?

It’s not so much feeling uninspired because I’m a curious person. It’s more that I can sometimes get overwhelmed because when you’re thinking of the context of the world, there are so many directions you could go. I can very easily end up down a rabbit hole researching one thing before realizing I need to switch gears. So it’s mostly a matter of keeping myself organized. I keep an idea boneyard in Google spreadsheets. I read a lot of news and when I read stories and go, “Oh, it would be interesting to do a spin off of that,” I put it into the spreadsheet. Later, when I’m trying to think of ideas, I can look through and go, “Oh yeah, let’s research that idea and see if I can develop a pitch.” I also keep calendars, timelines, and other spreadsheets that organize what I’m doing. I’m not only pitching ideas and looking for work, I’m also doing the work at the same time so I have to split my day between the two.

What trait do you think makes someone good at what you do?

You really have to be tenacious. 4You get a lot of rejections. Rejections are not necessarily personal. They more or less say something about where the publication is at and what they’re looking for. But when you pour your heart and soul into a pitch and you send it to an editor and they respond with, “No, we’ll pass,” it can be really bone-crushing, especially when you’re at a moment where you’re like, “I haven’t landed any stories in a while and I really need to.” But you do get these incredible wins and all the work ends up paying off. Sometimes you end up in a flow. And you have to be able to meditate through that process and really stick to your guns and keep on keeping on no matter what happens.

You also have to be a bit of a risk-taker. Someone who is willing to go 100% all out on something. That entrepreneurial spirit.

What’s been your most rewarding experience as you’ve pursued this career?

It’s many, many things that keep me going. In terms of travel photography, you have these amazing, soulful moments that you get to share with people all around the world. I went to Uruguay by myself and met this woman who lived there. I just struck up a conversation with her and before I knew it I was shooting portraits of her. I left that day and looked back at the pictures. They were so beautiful. It just felt so good to relate to somebody in that way. If I didn’t do what I’m doing now, maybe I wouldn’t have talked to her and had that interesting connection and learned as much about Uruguay in that hour that I spent with her as I did. There have been other major, “Pinch me. Is this my job?” moments. I went on assignment to Fiji for ten days for the International Business Times and standing in that lush, tropical environment surrounded by people who were so warm and happyFiji 4.jpg and so loving, to be embraced by the locals, I just felt really lucky. It was also fascinating to be in such a small and remote and mysterious part of the world, looking around and going, “Nobody really knows where I am right now. My family and my friends kind of know that I’m traveling but they have no idea what’s happening in my life.” It’s a freeing feeling. 

If you had to describe what inspires you in one word, what would it be?


I know, that’s such a weird thing to say but oh it’s so true! It’s such a strong motivator for me. At the beginning of this whole journey, I had this moment when I was planning my first trip to South America by myself, wanting to get away and having gotten a gig writing about it for a small, local newspaper. I was young, like twenty-two, and I wasn’t necessarily supported by the people in my life about the choices I wanted to make. They were like, “This is so crazy and dangerous!” I was also hung up on things like the fact that I’d just graduated, we were entering an economic recession, and I was feeling the pressure to get a “real” job.

But when I really sat with the idea, I asked myself, “If you were to fast-forward five years and look back on this moment, how would you have wanted to respond and what would you regret the most?” And I really felt in all of my heart that, man, even if it was going to be rough trying to convince other people, I was doing the right thing for me. Sometimes you’re not going to have the support. It sometimes feels crazy and scary and like a huge leap into the unknown, but I would never have it any other way. And had I gone five years later and looked back and not have done that, my life would have taken a totally different trajectory. I always would have regretted that. So I’m always sort of framing my life that way. When I’m in a position of making an important decision, I go, “Okay, well, I know this is insane, but what am I going to regret? Doing it or not doing it?” I think that we all have the capacity inside of ourselves to handle anything that comes our way, so hit the road!

What are you working on now?

I’m really excited because I’m going to be hosting a free webinar on Monday, April 3, 2017 about how to essentially do exactly what I do and get published in mainstream media outlets. I’ve hosted online courses before on the topic, but this is the first time I’ll be offering a free hour and a half training. It’s going to be live and it’s going to be really fun! Learn more here: www.megansnedden.com/mainstream


Megan Snedden is a travel storyteller and photographer whose words and photos have appeared in publications like BBC, USA Today, and National Geographic Traveler. She helps creatives get their work published in mainstream media outlets.

Website: www.MeganSnedden.com

Add beauty and adventure to your Instagram and Twitter feeds by following Megan on social media:


Still intrigued? I interviewed Megan in depth about her journey to her career and the personal obstacles she faced, from frightening health concerns to a family tragedy, that ultimately led her to where she is today. Megan’s Spotlight Interview

You can also check out the first interview in the series with art model and artist, Krystal Becker.

Online Resource Guide for Aspiring Authors

reading-stack-of-booksThis past week I spent four amazing days at the San Francisco Writers Conference. Everywhere, groups tucked into corners between panels to help each other get ready for the great and scary pitch sessions. Someone mentioned feeling intimidated to come to their first conference, ready for battle in the Hunger Games of aspiring authors. Instead, they found themselves wrapped in the comfy arms of the writing community. I’ve been wrapped in those arms for years. It’s nice in the arms!

For me, most of those arms have been virtual ones. And something I noticed at the conference was that many writers weren’t familiar with the online community and sources that make this whole writer-to-author process so much less frightening! Want your query package critiqued? Want to learn which agents will be good fits? Want to learn more about craft? The online writers community has got your back.

Here are some of the most helpful online resources for writers hoping to become authors that I’ve collected during my years of learning about writing and the publishing industry.

Writing Craft:

First up, K.M. Weiland’s “Helping Writers Become Authors.” Hold onto your hats, because there’s both a website AND a podcast! You not only get bite-sized tips on all sorts of topics, but K.M. Weiland’s guides on characters arcs and plot structure are fantastic. They’re a huge help at the editing stage, guiding you to examine key moments and deliver memorable moments to readers.

Like the idea of learning while brushing your teeth in the morning? Another podcast I faithfully subscribe to is the Writing Excuses Podcast, which delivers craft advice from a panel of published writers. Pro tip: their archives offer gold beyond what’s available on iTunes.

Former agent, now freelance editor and consultant, Mary Kole has an incredibly helpful blog, Kidlit.org, that tackles both the industry and editorial advice inspired by her experience working with writers. While the focus is supposedly on children’s and teen lit, I’d say 90% of the content can apply to any novel. Mary Kole walks you through common mistakes writers don’t even know they’re making. She also has a book called, “Writing Irresistible Kidlit,” that has a respected home on my bookshelf.

My revision notecards. Learned this technique in “How to Revise Your Novel.”

Lastly, I can’t talk about craft without mentioning one of the most significant impacts on my writing, Holly Lisle, who offers both articles and courses. Her articles are refreshingly practical. Instead of, “Have high stakes!” Holly breaks down how to actually accomplish those overly-general writing tips. During a revise/resubmit where I was completely overwhelmed, I splurged on her course, “How to Revise Your Novel.” It changed everything about how I approach revision. I jumped right into, “How to Think Sideways” after that. If you’re ever getting frustrated with reading things like, “Give your characters voice,” “Fulfill your promises,” or “Start with a strong premise,” and are screaming, “But how?!” I recommend Holly.  

Query Package:

First mandatory reading assignment: the Query Shark Blog. Aspiring authors send their query letters to The Shark (literary agent, Janet Reid) for public critique. It’s…brutal, Game of Thrones-esque entertainment, with a high dose of snark, but oh so educational. Read from the beginning. Yes, the beginning. And enjoy the chum bucket as you get whipped into querying shape.

At the same time, make your way through Nathan Bransford’s thorough guide to querying. It answers questions about what agents want to see, a mad lib guide to get you started, even strategies for how many to send at a time.

Then, when you’ve a solid grounding in what makes a good query, head on over to the QueryTracker Forums, where you can critique and get critiques for query letters, pitches, first pages, and synopses. While there are other writer communities online that do similar things, after spending time in a few, I’ve found QT to be the most supportive and welcoming of the bunch. It’s also a great place to do arrange page swaps and feel out potential for critique partners in your genre.

Finding the Right Agent

Now it’s time to take the plunge and approach agents. I highly recommend QueryTracker.net. Wait, didn’t we just cover that one? Nope. While they’re run by the same crew, they are separate sites with distinct purposes. QueryTracker.net is an amazing, beautiful, magnificent tool for exploring agents and keeping track of the queries you’re sending out (hence, the site name). You can search for agents by genre, but also see data like how long they take to respond and whether they’re more or less likely to request pages. You can easily see who you queried, whether you’ve sent out pages, and how long you’ve been waiting. If you get to the point where you’re querying in large batches and maybe have partials out, this is a great way to avoid embarrassing confusion.

Agentquery.com is another agent data base. It’s very basic, information only, but has the benefit of collecting information on preferences beyond stated genres. Instead of just, “Mystery” listed as a genre accepted, they’ll post information gleaned from interviews or provided by agents themselves like, “Not interested in mysteries unless it’s chicklit.” This is great in helping you figure out if your project is up an agent’s alley.

My ultimate secret weapon in the agent search is the Literary Rambles Blog, though it’s only geared toward picture book through YA. While not as exhaustive as an agent database, the depth is incredible. The blog hosts pick an agent to feature, then scour the internet for any information, from preferences to reputation. The picture you get of agents here is likely to be more complete than what you’ll find elsewhere, and there’s often a ton of links provided to interviews and sources to explore.

So there we are—the resources that have been warm shelters along this shadowy path toward publication. It’s certainly not the only resources I’ve tried, and I’ve also read tons of books on all of these subjects, so if you have any questions about the process or want peeks into my writing bookshelf, just ask! You can comment below (you don’t need to be a WordPress member to comment!) or shoot me an email at brandilyn_gilbert@yahoo.com.

In the online community, we love to help, and we have cookies.

(Okay, not real cookies, but we love saying we have cookies and offering each other cookies. It’s a thing. Don’t worry, you’ll learn.)


Want more posts about writing? Check out Why I Write for Kids and TeensWhere do ideas come from?, or NaNoWriMo: Your 50,000-Word Writing Challenge.

Tune in Monday, for the next Inspiration and Perspiration interview! I talk to Megan Snedden—photojournalist for BBC, National Geographic, USA Today, and more—about what it takes to turn a creative passion into a career.

Want more stories, writing adventures, and interviews with creative folks? Check the top right of the page, to follow the blog! And post any questions you have below!