The Gift of Failure

Something Wonderful This Way Comes

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It's finally July. I've been waiting for what feels like forever for it to be July, just so I can say, "My book comes out next month." It's a small thing, conversationally, but a giant thing in the context of the past couple of years.

It's been a very, very long road to July. I wrote "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail" in January of 2013, sold The Gift of Failure in March, handed in the manuscript on October 31, concussed myself on November 1, took nearly four months off to recover, then revised the book over 2014. The manuscript was accepted in October, I received a box of galleys in the last hours of 2014, and recorded the audiobook in April. 

The last big milestone circled in red on my calendar is the book release on August 11 - or at least it was until today. Thanks to Lisa StoneElisa Camahort Page and She Knows Media, I get to look forward to one more milestone before August 11. 

I am thrilled to announce that The Gift of Failure will be available for sale and signing in an exclusive pre-release event on July 16-18 at BlogHer 2015: Experts Among Us in New York City. 

I owe so much to the women I've met and worked with as a result of BlogHer, and I can't think of a more appropriate place to launch The Gift of Failure.

If you would like to attend BlogHer and have not registered, there are still spots available here. It's going to be so much fun, and the lineup of speakers is fantastic this year: Gwenyth Paltrow, Christy Turlington Burns, and more inspiring, amazing speakers than I can list

In other news, my book tour schedule is still evolving, but what I know about as of today is listed here. I've been knocking down deadlines right and left for articles and interviews that will run around my publication date, and working on a couple of new projects I'm really excited about. 

Last month, I was asked to join the Amazon Studios Thought Leader Board and am consulting on a new series for kids called The Stinky and Dirty Show. It's based on picture books by Jim and Kate McMullan and follows the adventures of Stinky the dump truck and Dirty the digger as they try, and fail, and try again, to solve all sorts of problems through resilience, resourcefulness, and the creative use of trash. I'm thrilled to be a part of a production team that includes Dr. Alice Wilder, children's programming Grande Dame (and mastermind behind Blue's Clues), and Tara Sorensen, Head of Kids Programming at Amazon Studios.

These days, I tend to carry around a couple of scripts and a red pen, and I spend a lot of my time in the hammock or lawn chair reviewing the first season of the show with an eye to the research on resilience and resourcefulness. It's a pretty great way to spend the summer. 

The first episode of The Stinky and Dirty Show is available here if you'd like to watch. Amazon Studios invites anyone to submit scripts or videos, then creates fully produced pilots of selected shows. They then crowd-source those pilots to Amazon customers, who decide via reviews which shows get the green light for full seasons. The Stinky and Dirty Show got a couple of thousand five-star reviews, so we are off to the races, so to speak. I love the show, and hope others will, too. 

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If you are going to be at BlogHer, please come find me, either at my session on July 17th (Next Generation: Breaking Stereotypes and Building Self-Esteem) or at the book sale and signing (time TBA, but a bookseller will have Gift of Failure books available on-site during the entire conference). I will have a gift and a custom bookplate for everyone who purchases a book during BlogHer.

If you can't be at BlogHer to snag a pre-release copy of The Gift of Failure, I'd appreciate it so much if you would pre-order it at any one of the retailers linked here, or at your local independent bookseller. Help yourself to the free excerpt of the book, and if you like it, talk it up! Tell people! As some of you may know, pre-publication sales figures are a big part of what drives marketing, demand, and first printing numbers, so pretty, pretty, please, pre-order your copy today!

Thank you for being a part of this loooong journey, and for supporting me and my writing along the way, 

Jess

Doing the Hokey Pokey


I know I am supposed to be able to tell the difference, but I am not sure if I'm leaning in or leaning out. Leaning out from what, and into what? Leaning into my writing, leaning out of teaching? Leaning into my family, leaning out of the complex details of a home/work compromise? I don't know. I'm simply leaning in and out as I have done over the past fourteen years of my parenting life, as needed, doing the hokey pokey. Right hand in, right hand out. Left foot in, left foot out.

K.J. Dell'Antonia's new feature at Motherlode, "How I Do It" inspired me to really think about precisely how I do it - nay, how my entire family does it - and realistically evaluate my family and professional life as new pressures arrive on the horizon. I happen to have a very supportive husband, but even my supportive husband needs his early morning hours to work out and his evening hours to conduct meetings, so I tend to stick closer to home and deal with many of our kids' appointments. I work within three miles of my house and he works twenty miles away, so we make compromises based on geography and scheduling.

When I sold my book to HarperCollins earlier this year, I sincerely believed I could continue to function as both a teacher and a writer. I am a teacher. Ergo, I teach. I am a writer. Ergo, I write. How hard could it be to put those two lives into delineated boxes? I can teach 50% of the time and write 50% of the time. When I announced this brilliant plan to my employers and my family, I considered myself enlightened and brilliant. Easy, peasy.

But wait. What if my classes are spread all throughout the day, and I can't get away from school? My prep day is Wednesday, and in my experience, students ask me questions all day long, even if my door is closed. I can ask to consolidate my classes in certain hours of the day, but the school schedule is complicated...

Fine. I will leave campus, even for an hour or two, off to my local library. I love my local library. Coffee, fireplace, quiet...

But what about advisory? Even part time teachers have advisors - I already have four of them, three of whom will really need me next year, and I will be expected to take on two or three more.  I meet with them during my free periods, which will fall during my free periods, which are...well, I can figure that scheduling out later.

And what about faculty meetings and meetings for advisory? There goes Wednesday afternoon. Wednesdays are dedicated to two long meetings - talking about our advisees and meeting as a faculty to learn and discuss and debate. But that's only until 3:30 or 4, at which time I can return home and do the dump duty (our dump is only open two days a week) and clean up and make dinner, and once my younger kid is asleep, I can write. Except that my older kid needs me in the evening. That's when he talks to us about what upsets him and thrills him and motivates him. And then I get to sleep around ten.

Wait? Where did my writing time go? And how is my teenager going to get to and from his high school, about fifteen miles away from our house, without the benefit of public transportation? My husband works twelve-hour days, so where will dinner come from and who will make it? Who will deal with the laundry? Dog? Chickens? Rabbits? Gardens? Lunches? Dust bunnies? Toilets? How will it all get done?

I spent an entire week bound up in anxiety attacks at three A.M. and got out of bed for walks around my neighborhood at five A.M., but no matter how many times I re-arranged my priorities and rationalized my personal days, I was flummoxed. 50% + 50% = 100% Except when 50% really = 100% and 50% really =100% and I still have not figured my family and household and orthodontist and sports and transportation into the equation.

Finally, after a week of little sleep and a lot of nausea, I asked my amazing and supportive 21st century husband to weigh in. He'd been reluctant to tell me what to do, believing that I'd find my own balance (does he not KNOW me after twenty years?).

He told me what he'd do in my position, and when he was honest with me, my gut relaxed for the first time in weeks.

I was able to breathe because my gut knew what my brain did not - that I can NOT do everything, no matter how much I want to believe I can.

Two weeks ago, I announced my intention to take two years off from teaching. I cried. And cried. I can not imagine anyone else teaching my students and felt as if I had betrayed their trust. I teach my students for three years in a row, and they count on me to be there for them, to mentor them and prepare them for high school. However, I have only these two years to write and promote a book that I believe in. A book I hope will influence the education and well-being of parents and children around the world. I only get one grab at that brass ring, and I don't intend to squander that opportunity. After I have ushered that book from brain to paper to reader, I will return to the classroom, because I am a teacher, and that's what I do. In the meantime, I am at the top of the substitute teaching list at Crossroads, and I will be guest teaching at a couple of different schools next year.

Parents engage in the hokey pokey dance of parenting and career every day. We lean in when we have to and lean out when circumstances dictate. The leaning out is understood in the press as leaning out from professional life, but some lives are not so easily categorized. I lean in and out simultaneously, and in my leaning out and in, I keep my life in balance. At the moment, my feet are securely planted under this precariously balanced life, and that's the only way I can move forward.

When Opportunity Knocks: Anatomy of a Viral Post, Part III



I know, I know. I promised the next installment of my story “tomorrow,” but as often happens, circumstances intervened.

So…where was I? Ah, yes, after Part I, and Part IILaurie finally agreed to be my agent. Oh, and Laurie read my last post and reminded me that due to a miscommunication, she was under the impression that I had already signed with an agent when I contacted her about the possibility of working with her after “Why Parents Need toLet Their Children Fail” went viral. So there’s another lesson: when approaching an agent – particularly the ethical ones – make sure they know you don’t already have an agent. Oops.

The evening after I signed with Laurie, I sat down with my laptop, a bunch of books about how to write a nonfiction book proposal (that I’d already read about fifty times), all the accumulated scraps of paper around my side of the bed bearing my late-night ideas, and the pages of notes I’d taken during my phone call with Laurie, and began to write the proposal for what would later be called The Gift of Failure. I had a blueprint for a nonfiction proposal from a friend who had successfully landed an agent based on her [compelling and amazing] proposal, so I worked from that example.

Four days later, I’d banged out a first draft of the proposal and sent it off to Laurie. My favorite concerns included a clever title and the overview, but Laurie kindly and oh-so-supportively pointed out that we had bigger fish to fry in the short term. Phooey. I really liked my very clever, yet altogether unclear titles.

Two or three days later, the proposal came back with edits. Lots of them. Lots and lots and lots of them. I am used to markup from editors, and have had the privilege to work with some really amazing, smart, and effective editors like K.J. Dell’Antonia, Robert Pondiscio, and Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, but Laurie was a whole different kind of editor. She was editing for content, of course, but she was also editing for style, and with a much larger vision in mind. She was editing for approaches and angles I had not even considered, and I had to admit that every single one of her suggestions improved my first draft by leaps and bounds. Some sections had so many changes and re-arrangements that Laurie even suggested I hide the tracked changes and read it fresh. That was a good tip.

Passes two and three went pretty quickly, and by the end of that week, we had a final draft and had scheduled a phone call to talk strategy. Laurie retreated to her war room over the weekend to plan which editors would receive our submission, and I waited for the master to reveal her master plan. On Monday, Laurie unveiled her list, and the proposal went out to a list of thirteen or fourteen editors.

Within a day of submission, we knew we were going to have an auction. An auction can happen when more than one editor is interested, and we had at least three or four interested in talking to me and, if all went well, bidding. Laurie had promised daily submission updates at around six every evening, but between the pre-empts (hold on, I will get there) and the large number of editors interested, she was often in contact three or four times a day. By the end of the week, Laurie was able to assess the field, and there were eleven or twelve publishers in the mix, and Laurie had begun the process of setting up phone calls with the editors.

Here’s where I finally came to understand how good Laurie is: she asked for my schedule, and I sent her my very complicated schedule that includes both my daily class schedule my myriad kid-related obligations. Laurie scheduled my calls with the editors between my classes and after school, and a couple of days before I was to speak with the editors, she sent me a dossier for each. She detailed that editor’s recent acquisitions, of course, but for many of the editors, I knew the details of their interests, education, children’s names, their spouses’ occupations, and any other tidbits that I might find helpful to my conversation. I had acquaintances in common with many of the editors, and it was incredibly reassuring to have more than enough information to feel comfortable during the phone call.

Editor phone calls are exhausting. They reminded me a lot of parent-teacher conferences, actually, because I had to be my very best, most impressive, charismatic and personable self for long stretches of time. Each phone call lasted roughly an hour, with about three or four minutes in between to stretch my legs and get a drink of water. Laurie wanted me to email her after each call, but the timing was often so tight thanks to my full-time teaching schedule that I had to dash off a quick one- or two-line email before the phone rang again.

My favorite part of this process was the accumulated list of phone numbers on my phone’s caller ID memory. I often use this feature of my home phone to call my friends and family because I’m frankly too lazy to commit these numbers to memory, and it’s easier to simply scroll through for the number I need. I think my phone holds around 20 numbers, and that’s usually enough to hold the numbers of the people who call me most often. That week, however, all the big names in the publishing industry were in there, punctuated by my parents’ home phone number and my friends’ cell phone numbers. I was a little trippy.

I did thirteen editor phone calls over five days. And here’s the thing – all of these women were amazing. Yes, they were all women, and despite the salesmanship being slung about, I could tell that given different circumstances, I could be friends with each and every one of them. There wasn’t one phone call that worried me. Sure, there were some I loved more than others – one phone call prompted me to email Laurie mid-call and admit to loving her so much I feared I might already be pregnant with her baby – but overall, these were smart and nice women. So good for you, publishing industry. You’ve got some cool women there.

So back to pre-empts. Pre-empts happen when a publisher wants to offer a number big enough that they might just be able to snag the book early and avoid an auction. Kind of like "Buy it Now" on Ebay. From what I have learned, however, auctions are good for authors and agents. If you’ve ever been to an estate auction, you’ve seen it. It gets competitive, and people get invested either due to an emotional attachment or pride, and all of that drives the price up. The first pre-empt came during a conversation with my mother-in-law about what to eat for dinner. Laurie presented it to me, as an agent must, and then EMPHATICALLY and with great forcefulness, encouraged me to turn it down. Which I did, with trembling fingers. The first pre-empt was almost three times what I had ever dared to hope for. Late at night, when my husband and I allowed ourselves to talk about possible advance amounts if I ever sold my book, we never even dared to go near this first pre-empt number. That number was just crazy talk. 

The second pre-empt came during a dinner out, again with my in-laws, who were visiting for a long weekend. I swallowed hard and followed Laurie’s advice, rejecting that offer as well.

More pre-empts came in, some as what Laurie termed “valentines,” or numbers that were perfectly lovely, but meant to show a good faith commitment to the purchase of my book more than anything else. 

Again, yow. What if interest soured? The auction would have no floor bid – or entry level number at which the auction had to begin – so what if the bidders came in super-low and the bidding never went as high as the pre-empt? What did I know? I’ve never been in this position before.

The auction was set for Wednesday, March 27. Initial bids were due in by 11 AM, and we had eleven editors committed to bid. The first bid came in at well below the pre-empt amounts and I was fairly sure I’d been an idiot. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. But Laurie anticipated my freakout. “First bid! (Just a reminder, opening bids are strategic, not necessarily indicative.)” Reassuring, but still…I was at school that day and did my best to stay calm and not freak out on the kids. Not a lot of grading got done that day. I was too afraid to subject my students' work to my fractured concentration and marginal hold on sanity. 

My auction was a round-robin style auction, in which everyone bids, and then the lowest bidder is informed of the highest bid, which they can either top or they can drop out of the auction. Each bid took at least an hour to come in, because Laurie would call the editor, they would say they had to think about it or talk to someone, and then they would call her back. Each interval between bids went on forever, and I put some serious wear and tear on my laptop mouse pad, what with all that refreshing of my email inbox.

I actually had lost track of which publisher was which editor, and what we talked about on the phone, so I had all of those lovely dossiers from Laurie printed out, with my notes scrawled all over them, and I had to keep referring back to them to figure out who was in and who was out. As editors dropped out, I filed the dossiers away. I also cleaned obsessively when I was at home. My house has never been cleaner. I cleaned inside drawers, closets, the rabbit hutch.

At the end of the first day, we were nowhere near done. The auction would go to Thursday, and as Friday was Good Friday, I was concerned that this thing could go in to the following week, and I’d be dead of nervous exhaustion by then. By the time Thursday was almost out, we still had six editors in the mix, so Laurie checked to make sure everyone was going to be available to bid on Friday, and we were good to go for a third day. We started Friday with five bidders, and as Crossroads Academy was not in session that day, I had all the freedom in the world to obsess about the auction and nothing else. I warned Laurie that I was running out of things to clean. I had even cleaned the dog's teeth and ears.

By afternoon on Friday, we were down to three editors, and it all came down to two in the waning moments before the close of day. In the end, the top three or four bidders were all editors I adored, and as I had final say on who I wanted to work with (I could even pick editors who had dropped out days before), I was able to relax a little.

In the end, I went with the editor that felt right for me. The difference between the top bidder and the three or four lower bidders was insignificant enough that I was free to review my notes, talk things out with Laurie, and go with my gut and heart rather than the highest bid.

I chose Gail Winston, of HarperCollins for her expertise, smarts, body of work, and our phone call. She had been at the top of my list from the very beginning, and my phone call with her only reinforced what I’d heard of her from other writers and agents.

So the ride begins. My manuscript delivery date is this fall, with publication slated for fall of 2014. My life has already changed in many ways, and I’m simply excited for the coming adventure. This week will be one of firsts – my first photo shoot, my first editor meeting, my first visit to a publisher, my first time purchasing more than one [discounted] item of clothing at a time (for the aforementioned photo shoot).

And I am grateful. Extremely grateful.