By Heather Pontius
I recently interviewed Lauren Masterson, author of newly released Love of the Sea, a story that brings the original Little Mermaid fairy tale into the twenty-first century. Lauren started writing when she was 12 years old, beginning a life-long passion for the written word, in so many different genres and formats. She writes novels, poetry, and short stories, she paints, she co-owns a publishing company—Cloud Orchid Publishing, and she participates in her local writing community in Chicago. What doesn’t she do??
The idea for Love of the Sea came to her in a fantasy fiction writing course at Columbia College of Chicago. Her professor, Tina Jens, used an exercise called, “What If, And Then, Oh Shit,” which Lauren says encouraged students to “avoid telling stories that had already been told. [The professor] said pick a story and think of a way to make it vastly different.” Lauren’s interest in the original—not Disney—version of the Little Mermaid dated back to her childhood, but she always felt it was “tragic [and] unfair that [the main character] gives up everything and in the end, [the man she loves] still doesn’t even love her.” So, Lauren re-envisioned a stronger, more headstrong main character that follows her own passions. She didn’t want to merely flip the roles but sought a narrative in which both characters benefit from a more equal relationship.
Even before college, Lauren always wrote ideas and storylines in her notebooks, often getting into trouble in school for not paying attention or rushing through homework assignments to continue writing. Lauren says, “even before I knew how to read or write, I’d actually have my dad sit down and I’d dictate little stories to him and he’d write them down for me.” Her love of stories has been ongoing from the beginning. “I’ve just always been a writer.”
In addition to writing, Lauren seriously pursued modeling, which she started in 2008, after college, touring nationally and freelancing full time for about two years. In 2013, however, she retired from modeling and slowly rediscovered her writing and other creative pursuits. Tina Jens, her professor from college, also lured her into the local Chicago writing community to provide a supportive foundation to reacquaint Lauren with her writing again. She returned to her draft manuscript, Love of the Sea, at that time.
As fate would have it, in 2016, Lauren entered a contest held during one of the writing group’s monthly events, called “So You Want to Be an Author,” where writers applied for the opportunity to interview with publishing industry professionals and agents. After passing through the initial application process, Lauren met with one of the agents, who had an overwhelmingly positive response to Love of the Sea. Lauren says, “She really loved the story. She was really excited about it.” Despite the favorable feedback, however, “it wasn’t a good fit. [The publisher was] looking for stories that were more socially and politically relevant. They wanted to cover more hot-button issues [and stories with] more political overtones.” Lauren continued, “That’s not what I’m about. I like to keep my art and my social, political [opinions] very separate.”
All in all, though, Lauren experienced a positive interaction with the agent, so much so that it motivated her to finish the manuscript and research other agents and publishers that were a better fit. Sure enough, Ink Smith Publishing was very interested. Ink Smith Publishing published Love of the Sea in April 2018, and Lauren is currently working on a submission packet to pitch a new Young Adult fantasy fiction series to continue her professional relationship with Ink Smith because she’s found them to be very positive and supportive throughout the whole editing and publishing process.
So what else is she working on? Lauren is currently finishing editing her next manuscript, titled Geisha Hands, a historical fiction novel set in Japan. Lauren explained her interest in a variety of formats and topic areas: “it keeps me from painting myself into a corner.” But fantasy fiction is definitely at the top of her list, with historical fiction a close second. Due to the different genre, Geisha Hands will be published in 2018 through Lauren’s own publishing firm, Cloud Orchid Publishing, which she co-owns. More on that later. Also coming up soon is the publication of another of Lauren’s projects, a romance novel titled Tearing Down the Wall, later in 2018 or early 2019 with Cloud Orchid.
Lauren, like many writers, feels the need to release her pent-up creativity. She says, “I feel this mania, that when I have a story idea, I need to absolutely write it down and fully realize it…. I always carry around a notebook just in case, and plus I have little bits and snippets in the Notes section on my phone. It’s like a disease.” When asked what motivates or inspires her, “I just have so many different genres that I enjoy writing, and so many widely varying subject matters, it’s like I’ll suddenly get an idea that just pops in my head. But other times, I’ll be prompted.” She also follows several social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram that offer writing prompts and links to contests that she’s submitted to in the past.
What’s her process? Lauren likes to write the entire story first, but not necessarily in order. She will write chucks of narrative down and then go back later to layer in transitions and improve certain sections. “I’ll bounce around a bit,” she says. Following the initial writing process, she moves on to her so-called “big editing process,” where she reads the whole story for any missing plot points or unclear portions. After the big read, she “fine tunes” any grammatical issues or formatting. Then, “the final step is I actually sit and read the whole story out loud slowly because you will really catch a lot of [errors] when you read it out loud.” The grammar, formatting, and final checks are very important, Lauren says, because publishers and agents don’t want to, and won’t, read your manuscript with such innocent and easily rectifiable mistakes.
After Ink Smith Publishing accepted Love of the Sea, Lauren admitted to an ongoing editing process to form her novel into the version it is today. While she was anxious to complete the draft and see the fruits of her labor, she fully understood the need for any revisions, and her interactions with the publishing team have all been positive. She commented also on how “they’ve done such an amazing job of promoting my book thus far.”
Due to Lauren’s eclectic writing pursuits, most of her personal writing, in any form, is sponsored by and archived with Cloud Orchid Publishing, where Lauren is Creative Director, Co-Editor, and Co-Owner, with Bryan Thompson. She’s excited to publish her second novel, Geisha Hands, through Cloud Orchid “because it’s a very complex project. It’s not a typical novel. It’s a 300‑page novel, but it also has a 50-page glossary full of translations and extra information. And I’m also illustrating the book on top of it.” She calls it “self-publishing” due to her own perception that publishing with her own company removes the “non-biased third party,” yet she assures me that her partner, Bryan, would not allow her to publish “garbage.”
Lauren met Brian during her time as a model. He was a photographer. She says, “We just really clicked on an intellectual level.” They would travel together, visit different places, and write magazine editorials together. They soon realized how easy it would be to form their own magazine, and so they did—a fashion magazine. After losing interest in that endeavor, however, Lauren and Brian created their own publishing firm, what is Cloud Orchid Publishing today. “It’s been a journey.” Cloud Orchid Publishing produces art books, as well as other novels, short stories, and multi-media content.
The two art publications published through Cloud Orchid Publishing are unique in their own way. First, Lauren says, “there are the larger project ones, where we want to take an entire image set, whether it’s artwork or photography, and then we set writing to it, so that it’s one cohesive ‘story’ in both images and writing.” They also produce another collection in which a variety of international artists, photographers, poets, and writers submit their work to create a “really awesome visual and written collection of all these different, independent, creative people.” When asked what the future for Cloud Orchid Publishing held, Lauren stated that they were slated to publish ten more books this year and affirmed her enthusiasm to continue supporting the company in the future.
What’s her take on the future of publishing? She says, “I don’t judge what media people want to consume stories in. I feel the most important goal is that people are reading.” As we already know, Lauren doesn’t hold firm to any one genre or even media format. Her passion encompasses all forms and outlets of creativity. She also appreciates Ink Smith Publishing’s commitment to multi-format book releases. “Being able to reach those different audiences I think is so important because we can’t pigeonhole writing anymore. We just can’t. We have to evolve with the market and just ensure people are still reading.”
Lauren was a wealth of advice for future authors. She accredits her success to her college program at Columbia College of Chicago, what she calls “the golden age,” because there, professors not only encouraged students in their writing, but they taught them what to do with it once the manuscript was finished. Lauren learned how to market her book, particular to her genre, how to approach agents and publishers, and what to expect on the other side of a submission response. In addition to her unique curriculum, Lauren touts that her local writing community allows her to stay connected to other writers through events and workshops. The knowledge and the environment, she says, have made a “world of difference” in her career. She laments that other communities and universities don’t educate young writers on the process of becoming published, “At the end of the day, it’s a business. It’s not hard to understand. But if nobody is being taught how it works, how are they supposed to succeed?”
Most importantly, “I feel having a well-thought out story is really the crucial thing. The biggest problem I see is that people will have a good idea and then they half-ass it. That’s a big problem.” The other issue is when writers don’t dedicate the proper attention to preparing their manuscripts before sending them out to multiple publishers and agents at the same time. Lauren bluntly claimed, “I don’t care how good your idea is, if it’s hard to read, nobody is going to read it.”
Completing a well-told, well-edited manuscript is only step one, though. “Research is your friend.” Lauren warned new authors against simply Googling a list of publishers and mailing the entire manuscript to everyone that pops up in the search: “That is the worst plan. Don’t do that.” She encouraged authors to narrow down the search to only those publishers and agents that align with a manuscript’s intended audience, genre, and overall theme. To match that criteria, however, an author must first understand what those are for their own piece of writing. Lauren also urges writers not just to think of publishers in terms of a subject matter matchup but also consider their portfolio, their past business—what other books have they published, and how long ago was their last release?
The most challenging component is getting someone to read your submission. This is why catering your search and submissions to the right group of publishing professionals is critical to increasing the odds of success. Lauren explained, “They’re just looking for a reason to reject you because they have a literal slush pile. They have hundreds of submissions to get through. They don’t have the time to be reading every single little thing, and if they can just check off the list ‘oh, they put it in the wrong font. Rejected. Wrong size. Rejected.’ They just need a reason [to reject your manuscript]. Don’t give them a reason.” Adhering to submission guidelines that dictate font type and size might seem trivial, but if you aren’t willing to follow basic instructions, publishers might assume it’s an indicator of your lack of commitment to all of the work that follows after an acceptance.
The final word of advice is to avoid simultaneous submissions. Again, from her insider knowledge on the publishing industry, both from school and experience, publishers do not like when you submit your manuscript to multiple places because if they want to accept your piece, they worry about others wanting it as well. Lauren says, “you run the risk of nobody [wanting] to publish it.” The publishing industry is smaller than you think; publishers often collaborate and discuss new projects.
Remember that receiving that acceptance letter is only the beginning. Lauren says, “You need to do so much self-promotion. You have to physically get out there and put your book in people’s faces. You can’t just sit back and let the publisher do whatever they do. It’s a double effort.” Without a marketing plan, even a collection of ideas, or the motivation and willingness to invest in your own work’s success demonstrates to publishers that you might not be worth the investment. After all, you are your biggest fan.
Why did Lauren pursue publishers directly, as opposed to contact literary agents? She was more interested in a direct publisher relationship. Due to her educational experience and training, she knew it was much harder to sign with an agent without an existing published portfolio. She indicated that agents are more likely to enter into a professional relationship with you once you have “two or three published books already under your belt.” She admitted that the path to literary success is different for everyone, however, and merely reflected on her own experience.
Lauren fully supports the Junto Magazine mission, in our desire to provide feedback to all writers, whether accepted or not, in an effort to help everyone with their craft. We give writers a place to start when tackling potentially daunting revisions, or we offer insights from an objective reviewer into how to make their piece the best it can be. She finds that feedback valuable and encourages authors not to take it for granted. “There is a big difference between constructive criticism and somebody just being mean. But you have to realize, as hard as it is to hear constructive criticism, that it comes from a good place. Sometimes your story just doesn’t work, or there are big aspects that you need to fix. That’s how you grow as a writer, is accepting that, and just always striving to make your writing better.”
Lauren’s final words were to motivate young writers and creative artists to become involved with their local communities of like-minded people. Such a network will inspire and provide the valuable variety of perspectives to critique your work and make it better. You don’t have to be the best writer to contribute to workshopping others. According to Lauren, “You don’t need to be a gourmet chef to know that the soup sucks.”
Ultimately, “the best thing that people can do is really take advantage of and really build those communities because having that support is monumental, beyond even just editing and workshopping your writing…These past few years of becoming a part of these local writing communities, and the fact that every month that I come back and read my stories, people look forward to it and can’t wait to hear more.” That interaction and community involvement has the potential to benefit aspiring writers tenfold, Lauren says, because all of her eager workshop partners are now buyers of her books.