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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

November's Monthly Rejection Roundup

Happy December, everyone. Hope y'all had a great Thanksgiving.

YA book is undergoing developmental edits. Should hear back in a couple weeks. Yay!

Agent Two also rejected the MS, citing exactly what I thought was the reason Agent One gave me the R: publisher is small and likely not to budge much on terms. Double Phooey. Had hoped not to have to review and negotitate the contract alone (well, if it comes to that).

No new subs out. Nearly halfway through writing my YA fantasy (no, it's NOT not for NaNoWriMo!).

As always, most of the "rejects" are actually "no responses" on old subs.

Total manuscripts out: 16
Unique PB titles: 11
> New subs this month: 0
Unique MG/YA titles: 1
> New subs this month: 0

Total rejections: 5
Form/No response means "No": 4
Personal: 1
> Positive: 1
> Negative: 0
* meaning anything that directly references my submission by more than title

Total manuscript requests: 0
Partials: 0
Fulls: 0

Offers: 0
PB: 0
Novel: 0

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 3.8

Change from last month: +0.1

Getting excited to hear back from publisher, tempered of course by the constant radio-silence on all my other subs. Looks like January will be another round of subs. So hate to do this after NaNoWriMo and PiBoIdMo Wondering if I should put on the envelope: "This is not a product of NaNoWriMo."

Hoping for an early Christmas.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

October's Monthly Rejection Roundup

November already? Sent requested revisions back to publisher on my YA. Agent One replied with a turn down. :( Possibly because the publisher is small and likely not to budge much negotiating terms. Phooey. Still waiting on the other agent.

One new sub out. Dumped trying to outline my new dystopian (well, my old dystopian than I'm now getting back to) and started outlining a fantasy (not for NaNoWriMo).

Most of the "rejects" are actually "no responses" on old subs. Et... voila:

Total manuscripts out: 21
Unique PB titles: 13
> New subs this month: 1
Unique MG/YA titles: 2
> New subs this month: 0

Total rejections: 13
Form/No response means "No": 11
Personal: 2
> Positive: 2
> Negative: 0
* meaning anything that directly references my submission by more than title

Total manuscript requests: 0
Partials: 0
Fulls: 0

Offers: 0
PB: 0
Novel: 0

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 3.7

Change from last month: +/-0

No change, even though I had to mark off nearly a dozen MS's as rejects due to no response (hate that) and even got a reject on one PB after a couple rounds of revisions; but positive news with publisher interested in my YA, so still in "wait and see" mode. Also, it's Thanksgiving month. Gotta be happy for that.

Will November will be the month?

ETA Dec 1, 2010: how did this not get published? Must have saved as a draft. Oh well. Better late than never.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

September's Monthly Rejection RoundUp

Well, yet another month has passed. Still waiting to hear from two agents. Finished upgrading my MG to YA (publisher requested revisions); just letting it sit for a few days before I go back and polish. Plan to send it to the Publisher by middle of October. Same MS is also being used to teach editing and revision at a major university's lit program this fall! Exciting. More details to follow. Also finished revisions on a second YA and critting my reading partner's MS.

No new subs out as I've been focused on revisions and outlining my new dystopian (well, my old dystopian than I'm now getting back to). Most of the "rejects" are actually "no responses" on old subs. Et... voila:

Total manuscripts out: 34
Unique PB titles: 20
> New subs this month: 3
Unique MG/YA titles: 2
> New subs this month: 0

Total rejections: 20
Form/No response means "No": 16
Personal: 2
> Positive: 2
> Negative: 0
* meaning anything that directly references my submission by more than title

Total manuscript requests: 0
Partials: 0
Fulls: 0

Offers: 0
PB: 0
Novel: 0

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 3.7

Change from last month: +/-0

No change, even though I had to mark off a lot of MS's as rejects due to no response and even got a reject on one PB after a couple rounds of revisions; but positive news with publisher interested in my YA, so feels a lot like "wait and see."

Crossed fingers that October will be the month.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August Rejection Roundup

Wow, is it September already tomorrow? Where did August go?

Actually, August was a pretty good month, all-in-all, even though it's still quiet. I finally got word back on an tween novel from a superstar agent; though she declined, she really liked it and offered some ideas on how to revise it and asked to see other material (which I took advantage of). The very next day, I got an email from a publisher on the same MS saying they were very excited about it and suggested only one very minor revision and would I be interested in revising and resending? You bet I would! Also, sent in two novels to fantastic agent who loved a PB I'd sent.

Not a lot of new subs out (only 3), but the ratio of personal positive rejections to forms is very good (3 personals:4 forms), so I'm pretty happy about that. Here be les numéros:

Total manuscripts out: 54
Unique PB titles: 24
> New subs this month: 3
Unique MG/YA titles: 2
> New subs this month: 0

Total rejections: 7
Form/No response means "No": 4
Personal: 3
> Positive: 3
> Negative: 0
* meaning anything that directly references my submission by more than title

Total manuscript requests: 3
Partials: 0
Fulls: 3

Offers: 0
PB: 0
Novel: 0

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 3.7

Change from last month: +1.2

Even though August was a quiet month (everyone still getting over the summer conference schedule and back-to-school), the positive feedback more than made up for it.

Hope to be back next month with good news.

Monday, August 30, 2010

On Being a Good Storyteller – Luck and Perseverance? Instinct? Gift? Or Skill?

There’s an old saw that posits, “Stick a million monkeys in front of a million typewriters for a million years and they’ll type every book in the Library of Congress.” Every book, huh? Does that include every single revision of every book? Because I’ve written about a million revisions of each of my own stories. Multiply that by the 130 million books already published and you’ve got 10e6 x 130*10e6 or about 130 trillion possible books and their revisions. (Of course, if you disregard all the ones Sarah Palin hasn't banned - they can't be that good if she thinks they're okay - then the number of good books is probably closer to 100 trillion.)

It’s got me thinking about what it takes to be a good storyteller, if maybe it’s just chance and persistence, that if you work long enough at it, a good story will eventually be produced. Because, yeah, sometimes I do feel like little more than a monkey, picking away for hours at my unworthy manuscripts. Obsessing over one particular word or phrase. Correcting misspellings. Inserting commas and colons and removing misappropriated apostrophes. And that’s not even talking about any major structural edits.

Persistence? Okay, I got that. Patience, too.

Luck... well, if it’s like flipping a coin, then there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

Okay, but what if you don’t have a million monkeys and a million typewriters and a million years to write a good book. What then? The answer to that question haunts me.

Many others before me have talked about our natural proclivity to tell stories. It’s part of our social DNA and is woven into our evolutionary fabric as human beings. But does that mean anyone can be a good storyteller? And if so, what’s keeping each one of us from doing so? Societal blinders? Self-censorship? The third grade teacher who told you lacked the skills to write a decent obituary? I don’t feel like an instinctive writer. In fact, if I had to pay for every letter I typed and retyped, I’d be in as much debt as Bill Gates is worth.

Maybe it’s a gift. Maybe you either got it or you don’t got it. Honestly, though? I don’t even want to go there. I don’t like thinking that there’s nothing I can do to control whether I can write a good story. Outside of renting a few million monkeys and typewriters, that is. No, I can accept that for some people, writing comes naturally, but I refuse to believe the rest of us are just flapping our gums in the wind.

So that leaves skill as the last resort of the determined storyteller. Well, I can deal with that. Skill is just something you acquire by dedicating yourself to becoming better at something. I once asked an old buddy of mine who had this amazing ability to run a pool table— that’s how he made his living— what it took to be a good pool player, and he told me, “Skill, simple as that.”

“Yeah, but what exactly is this thing, skill?” I asked.

“Dude, skill is nothing more than luck, perseverance and instinct. Oh, and you have to have been born with it.”

Great. Anyone know where I can rack up a million monkeys?

What do you think? What does it take to be a good storyteller?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Spoiler, Spoiling, Spoiled - On Mockingjay and Why I'm Becoming a Hermit

No, this isn't a post about conjugating the verb "spoil." It's about that tiny minority of people who lack even an ounce of self-control or common decency that they just have to go out in public to discuss Katniss and Peeta and... and...

Aargghhh! I haven't even read the book and already I know what happened!

So, Mockingjay hit the streets two days ago and by early yesterday morning I was getting tweets and reading blogs where people were literally spilling spoilers without so much as a flashing SPOILER ALERT! signal you could see from a mile away. Nothing. Just, "Blah blah blah, Katniss this, blah blah blah, and then that happened." What? Are you serious? Come on people! Get a room.

I have unfriended, unlinked, unconnected, unfollowed and unwhatever about a half dozen people for unwelcome spoilage.

People, people, people... *shakes head* Don't you realize not everyone has the time to read a book within hours of its launch?

In my frustration, I unplugged myself from the etherworld and ventured out of my cave for a visit to the local library. Surely my fellow book lovers would have the common sense to keep their comments to themselves. But no. As soon as I walked in, I overheard the two children's book librarians whispering to each other: "...psst, pssst passt Hunger Games psst pssst psssst..."

I thought maybe a stroll in the park might be in order. Within minutes I encountered a fellow sunshine worshipper. I was a little leary to see that she was reading Collins' book, but she was alone and seemed to be keeping her comments to herself. Suddenly, she yells out, "Noooo! Not that!"

I ran from the park in abject terror with my hands over my ears before I could hear more.

The dog park was even worse. I wanted to yell at them to "Leash it!"

The grocery store produce section turned out to be a total spoiler-zone.

I couldn't even escape hearing bits and pieces in that last great bastion of the unread He-man, Home Depot.

Is there no sanctuary for the poor soul who cannot get to a book in less than a month after its launch? I envy those of you who can find the time to read for six hours straight (spoiled spoiler brats!). I can't even remember the last time I sat down and read a book cover to cover, with the possible exception of picturebooks. And even then I've frequently stopped in the middle of one because life interrupted. And those of you who read from 8PM to 2AM, sorry, but sleep is too precious a commodity. I also value my interactions with my family too much than to sequester myself from them.

Hold on a sec....

Oh, god! No! My son just walked in carrying around my copy of Mockingjay! And it looks like he's on the last few pages!

I wonder if I can I can keep him from talking about it for the next four weeks. Anyone know how long duct tape sticks to skin?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Little Bunny Foo Foo: An Example of Good Intentions, but Poor Editorial Advice

Most of you are familiar with the children's poem, the one where a mischievous rabbit abuses a tribe of supposedly innocent field mice whilst on his way to whatever unknown and undocumented nefarious woodland activities little bunny foo foos engage in:

Little Bunny Foo Foo
Skipping through the forest
Scooping up the field mice
And bopping them on the head

The story starts off well enough. The main character is introduced early and the conflict is clearly established. The tension begins to build when the antagonist intervenes:

Down came the Good Fairy, and she said:
"Little Bunny Foo Foo I don't want to see you
Scooping up the field mice and bopping
them on the head.
I'll give you three more days, and if you don't
behave, I'll turn you into a Goon."

The tension rises to fever pitch as Little Bunny Foo Foo continues his abusive ways for two more days, apparently entirely undeterred by the fairy's threats (though we can only guess at this, as there's no internal dialogue to help us understand our MC better).

But then, having run out of time, what does our deliciously naughty protagonist do? Defies the Fates, of course, leaving that meddlesome G. Fairy with no choice but to turn our poor defenseless friend into a goon (which, by the way, wiktionary defines as "a thug." I mean, isn't that a bit redundant?). Anyway, the point is, that's how the story ends, all just so we can say (go on, I know you wanna do it):

"Hare today, goon tomorrow."

But, really, is there anyone else who thinks this is just gratuitous word-play at the expense of good story development? Don't you feel cheated? Didn't you want LBFF to just bop that obnoxious fairy do-gooder on the head and shut her up once and for all? And maybe those field mice deserved it. Ever think of that? Hey, maybe they liked it! Maybe they asked the darn bunny to bop them. He was set up! And we'll never know if money exchanged hands because, well, the story ended too soon.

My grandfather, rest his soul, thought it wise to provide his own editorial touch when he recounted the tale to me many years ago. A former boxer-turned-Baptist minister, he was, paradoxically, probably one of the gentlest men I ever met (he preferred to let my grandmother carry out the fire and brimstone activities), but despite his good intentions, his version of the story was even worse than the established one.

First, he had the fairy threatening to turn our MC into a broomstick. Er, say what?

Then, LBFF actually becomes reformed just before the witch's - excuse me, the fairy's - spell can take hold. His story ends with the bunny patting the field mice on the head. Blech. How perfectly bland.

I never knew the real ending until I came across an old dusty record of it when I had my own children to tell it to. Imagine how cheated I felt, all because my beloved g-pa thought I wouldn't be able to handle fluffy Foo Foo getting turned into a "thug."

But perhaps my biggest argument against any of the established and nontraditional versions is that they all lack one thing: Sequel Potential.

Really. I mean, think about it. What if LBFF set a trap for G. Fairy? He captures her and makes her do his bidding, magically bopping all the field mice in the entire world, not just the forest, so he can concentrate on further developing his evil plans to take over the world? Hey, who wouldn't like to see their favorite evil politician bopped on the head by a rabid rabbit?

And think of the possibilities! Book Two has LBFF and G. Fairy teaming up against their will as they struggle not to be bopped by mutant field mice in a televised game for the entertainment of the priviledge few. Call it Mockingmice.

And the third book? I don't know. Maybe something with vampires, perhaps.

The point is, whoever came up with "Hare today, goon tomorrow," wasn't looking at the big picture.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

July's Rejection Roundup

Back by popular demand, the Rejection Roundup. I've decided to go once a month as things have been moving ve-e-e-e-ry slowly this summer.

I reported in my last post that I'd turned down an offer to pub one of my PBs. Since then, I've subbed a bunch more (over 30 new subs went out). Here be los nombres:

Total manuscripts out: 54
Unique PBs: 23
> New subs this month: 36
Unique MG/YA: 2
> New subs this month: 0

Total rejections: 15
Form: 12
Personal: 3
> Positive: 3
> Negative: 0
* meaning anything that directly references my submission by more than title

Total manuscript requests: 0
Partials: 0
Fulls: 0

Offers: 0
PB: 0
Novel: 0

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 2.5

Change from last month: +1.7

(Last month was a low point, but I'm convinced I made the right decision. +0.5 for that. Another +2.0 for getting out another 30+ subs. -0.5 for not hearing anything back from anyone. IS EVERYONE AT CONFERENCES? Also, -0.3 for not going to #LA10SCBWI)

Been a busy month with the kids, too, so I'm not feeling I got much writing done. Once the kids go back to school, that'll change.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Weekly Rejection Roundup

Okay, skipped another week, but that's because I have a good excuse. really. I do.

After the excitement of getting my first contract on a PB, the past two weeks have been rather quite the downer. That's because I turned the offer down. I'll explain why tomorrow. Anyway, here're the nombres:

Total manuscripts out: 33
Unique PBs: 17
> New subs this week: 0
Unique MG/YA: 2
> New subs this week: 0

Total rejections: 2
Form: 2
Personal: 0*
> Positive: 0
> Negative: 0
* meaning anything that directly references my submission by more than title

Total manuscript requests: 0
Partials: 0
Fulls: 0

Offers: 0
PB: 0
Novel: 0

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 0.8

Change from last week: -3.5

(-2.0 for what I went through that led to my declining the PB offer; -0.2 for the form rejects; -2.3 for having whooping cough and not getting anything done; -1.0 for not having written a damn thing for the last month)

Barely managing to stay on the plus side of total apathy. If I don't get some positive news or accomplish something positive in the next few days, I'm really not going to be that nice to be around.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Weekly Rejection Roundup

Erm, actually, this would be the Semi-Weekly Roundup. After a week at the Happiest Place on Earth, I returned with a nasty case of whooping cough. Four days straight in bed and saved only by prescription-strength cough medicine. I feel funny....

A rather up and down two weeks. And, no, I'm not just talking about the rides at California Adventure. Here's the tally (pay attention this time, because there's NEWS):

Total manuscripts out: 35
Unique PBs: 18
> New subs this week: 0
Unique MG/YA: 2
> New subs this week: 0

Total rejections: 7
Form: 5
Personal: 2*
> Positive: 2
> Negative: 0
* meaning anything that directly references my submission by more than title

Total manuscript requests: 0
Partials: 0
Fulls: 0

Offers: 1
PB: 1
Novel: 0

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 4.3

Change from last week: +1.1

(-0.5 for the five form rejects; +0.2 for the nice personal rejects; -2.3 for having whooping cough and not getting anything done; +3.7 for getting an offer)


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Weekly Rejection Roundup

Going radio silent until Friday (taking the kids to the Happiest Place on Earth to deal with the Grumpiest Parents on Earth).

Another slow week. Feels like the dark side of the moon. Here's the tally:

Total manuscripts out: 42
Unique PBs: 21
> New subs this week: 0
Unique MG/YA: 2
> New subs this week: 0

Total rejections: 1
Form: 1
Personal: 0*
> Positive: 0
> Negative: 0
* meaning anything that directly references my submission by more than title

Total requests: 0
Partials: 0
Fulls: 0

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 3.2

Change from last week: +/-0.0

Still ruffling feathers; still plugging away.
Keep on RoadTripping!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Paradigm Shifts - Epilogue

I'm always amazed whenever the subject of paradigm shifts comes up, people seem to be in one of three camps: there are those who are aware and open to the idea of the "book" evolving, those who seem, by virtue of their knee-jerk reaction to decry it, and finally those who seem to think this is old news.

Some comments from Absolute Write members my post on the subject:

Quote: Originally Posted by JudScotKev
I think people love to shriek about one medium REPLACING another, but in reality that doesn't often happen. True, TV makes more money than radio, but people are still listening. Even in the iPod age, radios are still included in every new car.

My first graders love a website called that has interactive books. But I've never had a single student complain about "real" books. They LOVE picture books. They LOVE reading. AND they love video games.

My son has an iPod Touch, an Xbox, a PS2, and satellite TV. And he reads every day, over 2 million words this year alone. He will actually turn off the TV to read.

I don't think it's a competition. I think it's a smorgasbord of choices. Some stories and activities work well in one medium; some work better in another.

Personally, I thank my lucky stars I'm alive in an age that gives me Google, iTunes and Harry Potter, all at once.

My response:
I hope my post didn't come across as alarmist. In fact, my intent was not to bemoan the evolutiontoion, but to 1) celebrate the changes we're seeing and 2) to inform and encourage providers of children's content to think beyond the printed word (and, as I've blogged about before in the case of picture books, the illustrated page). I don't think anyone can deny that information content is reaching us in new and varied ways; our children will have access to more knowledge brought to them in more forms than we enjoyed as children. This is a good thing. But as providers of content, we must evolve as well in order to stay relevant.

Anecdotal claims to the contrary aside, these new forms do compete with one another for our attention. To put it in modern terms, it's about bandwith. Believe it or not, our ability to take in information is limited, and when the preferential mechanism for doing so shifts, it does so at the expense of something else. This is not a bad thing, but it is real. And while I do believe (and have consistently stated in the past) that traditional forms of the book will be with us for a long time to come, we cannot simply recite History and claim that these new paradigms won't change anything. That is simply naive.

Quote: Originally Posted by Ineti
I think it's pretty much a given, and business as usual. Books compete against movies, television, video games, and plenty of other forms of entertainment. Electronic readers that can do color and sound and so on are just the latest hotness. Some new technological marvel will come out, and print books will have to continue to compete. Nothing really earth-breaking here.

My response:
It's a disservice to those new to the business, as well as veterans firmly entrenched in traditional written forms, to understate the significance of the phenomenon by implying only earth-shattering events warrant notice. The evolution of literature, and especially children's content, is an on-going process. It's not something that happened at some point in the past and we've moved on from, but rather something that is happening and continues to happen. Children's lit is especially susceptible to flux as its forms are so varied, from picturebooks and videos to GNs to novels; children today are much more keyed into digital (NOT, I firmly believe, at the exclusion of analogue), which means that they are actively seeking content in these forms. It is our responsibility to meet those expectations.

A thorough read of my blog would have shown that it's not a call to arms against change, but a call to embrace changes, to broaden our horizons as content providers and to stretch those boundaries.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Fusion of Image, Audio and Word - Paradigm Shifts and the Future of Children's Lit

I just finished two books that incorporate innovative forms of content beyond the printed word (and no, I'm not talking about digital ink, either). I'll get to those titles in a sec, but first I wanted to take a litle trip down Memory Lane, to the good ole days of 2007 and a little known book called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Of course I'm being facetious. If you're one of about a dozen people who haven't heard or read this book, do it. But the point I want to make about Brian Selznik's "massive," 533-page middle grade novel is this: it won the Caldecott. You might recall that the Caldecott is awarded for illustration of a children's book.

Wait a minute. A novel winning an award for illustration? Well, yeah. And at 25K words, it's an easy guess (if you haven't read or seen the book yet) what fills those 500+ pages.

Selznik's book wasn't the first to mix word and image, but I think with the Caldecott win, it really ushered in the idea that the novel as we know is evolving to become more mixed media. (This ignores, for the moment, that graphic novels, or GNs, have been becoming more and more popular and complex of late. But GNs are separate thing altogether. I'm talking more about how the traditional novel is changing.)

Without a doubt, we are well along in a revolution where the written, printed word is becoming heavily encroached upon by images, video and audio content. And while traditional novels (both paper and ebook) will be around for a long time to come, they will have to compete more and more with stories that incorporate mixed media.

For example, I just finished Malice, Chris Wooding's paranormal 68K-word mixed novel/graphic novel. The interesting thing about this book is that, while the story could easily stand on its own, the graphic novel really adds a new dimension that children today will connect with, especially boys. And if that gets them to read, great. Remember, to publishers more readers means more sales.

The other book is Patrick Carman's Trackers, released last week, about a group of four teen tech geeks. The story follows an interview of the MC as he recounts the events leading to the present (I'm being purposefully coy here to avoid giving anything away). The book could be read from cover to cover without leaving its pages, but the reader is cued to logon to a website, enter codes, view videos and crack codes, thus becoming a participant in the story.

It's an interesting concept and a challenge for the traditional writer to consider. Will it be successful? In my opinion, as long as the reader has to physically leave the comfort of their chair/bed/hammock or whatever, no. But we are fast approaching an age where all these sources of content will soon be available all at once and from a single device. I think stories where the reader (soon to become "audience participant") can seemlessly shift between the active experience of reading and the passive experience of watching/listening, while also enjoying a little bit of both in interactive ways too, will become more popular.

Why is this happening?

I don't think this has anything to do with shorter attention spans or being bombarded with information from a hundred different sources all at once, or sensory overload. I think it's only natural to want to experience things more fully. And if a story can be experienced more fully (which is not to say totally passively, as films do), then it will succeed.

What does this mean to the author of next generation stories?

Well, first and foremost, I don't think it has to mean anything to any one author. As I said before, traditional books will be around for a long, long time. But they will compete with mixed media going forward. I think authors of children's lit content should keep all this in mind. Writers should think about whether and how they should access these new media to assist them in telling their stories, whether through image, video, audio or whatever comes next (olfactory?). Do you see an opportunity to turn your novel into a mixed novel/GN or tie-in the internet for expanded experiences?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Before You Query - Epilogue

Apparently my checklist on querying was a huge internet sensation (I even found a rapper reading it on YouTube, but I seem to have lost the link. Hem).

Anyway, found this post at GotYA (WHAT JANET REID IS REALLY THINKING: TOP FIVE REASONS (THERE ARE MORE) WHY JANET AND HER AGENT-POSSE-FRIENDS TURNED YOU DOWN) and thought it was priceless, a perfect antithesis to my post.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Weekly Rejection Roundup

A so-so week. No snail mail or ejections, but I marked off two subs as soft rejections based on the "No word means no interest" policy of those houses. Won't list all the numbers, as there's been so little change.

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 3.2

Change from last week: -0.1

Took a -0.2 drop due to expiration of two subs, but a +0.1 raise as I figured out what was tying me up with my WIP.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Before You Query - A Checklist

Anyone who’s done a fair amount of submitting is guilty of sending a query out to an agent or editor misaddressed, poorly targeted, lacking one thing or another... whatever. Blame it on cutting-and-pasting. Blame it on being bleary-eyed. Blame it on swine flu. It happens. It sucks. Get over it.

So what are you going to do to make sure you minimize future mistakes?

Okay, first off, I’m not even going to attempt to distinguish what makes a well-written query and what makes a crappily-written one. There are ample examples of both floating around the internet by people better qualified to write and crit them and, besides, a lot really depends on what you’re submitting and to whom. But while writing a good query letter is certainly an art form, it is also a matter of skill and discipline. And that’s where I think I might help. All it takes is a simple, reliable quality control mechanism, and what better than the checklist?

In this sample QL/CL (query and cover letters share some basic “manufacturing” attributes that allow the same QA principles to apply to both), I’ve highlighted the problematic areas (click image for larger version). Use the checklist to ensure your QL/CL doesn’t fall victim to “rookie” and other careless mistakes.

1. Are you using plain white 8.5"x11" paper?

No colored or gilded or handmade paper and envelopes.
If you have pre-printed letterhead, make sure it’s professional. Fancy or gimmicky won’t float you to the top of the slush pile, and it may even get your sub thrown away without consideration. Also, do not include bribes, money, fruit baskets or anything other than your manuscript pages and SASE (if consistent with submission instructions).
And as regards envelopes, the general rule is if you’re sending less than four sheets (including the CL/QL), it’s acceptable to bi-/tri-fold and send in a smaller envelope; if four or more sheets, send unfolded (either in an envelope or box).

2. Did you include your real name, address and date?

No pennames (you may get away with it if you’re already published and established under that identity, but then again, if you are, then this checklist isn’t for you anyway).

3. Are you targeting your submission?

If you’re subbing to agency, you absolutely must target your letter to a specific agent. “Ms. Agent” or “Mr. Agent” won’t cut it. If you’re subbing to a publisher, unless you have prior dealings with a specific individual or public knowledge that said individual is accepting submissions (for example, if published in SCBWI Bulletin or PW, etc.), it probably is better to send to “Editor” or some variation thereof.

4. Did you explain why you’re writing them?

A simple head’s-up saying this is a query, the type of submission and title of your work is critical.

5. Are you addressing appropriately?

As with #3, above, make sure you’re addressing the right person, using the right gender titles. In this day-and-age of cut-and-paste, it’s easy to make a mistake. Use “Dear Mr.” and “Dear Ms.” rather than “Dear Firstname.” And never “Hey X” or some other such silliness. Be respectful. This is a business letter. If you don’t know the specific name at a publisher, just address “Dear Editor.” It’ll get to wherever it’s supposed to go.

6. Have you customized your submission?

You’re sending your work to this particular agency/publisher for a reason, aren’t you? If not, just give yourself a big “R.” So, if you are, tell them why. Maybe it’s the type of clients they take on, or the titles they publish. Whatever the reason, it has to be relevant. You want to connect; you want your work to connect. One without the other won’t cut it.

7. Are you providing the basic information about your submission upfront?

Repeat the title (or a keyword of it, if it’s long), estimate your word-count (just use the word count feature in your word processing program and round to the nearest thousand for longer works), and indicate the genre. Oh, and it damn well better be complete and polished. Anything less and you’re just embarrassing yourself.

8. Have you made your pitch?

Only thing I have to say is, make your summary brief. Your QL/CL should be about a single page. You don’t have to include every detail, just enough to hook your targeted audience. Note: synopses are extended summaries and can extend for several pages, but are often separate from the QL/CL. This is not the place to explain why you wrote the piece or provide an analysis of it.

9. Is your bio relevant?

What makes you qualified to write the work? What previous related experience do you have? Have you published in this or closely related genres? Do not, dear god, say that your kids or neighbors or dog loved your work. You’re just insulting the person you’re addressing your letter.

10. Are you including all the necessary materials?

If they ask for three chapters, send them three chapters. If they ask for ten pages, send ten pages. My only caveat to this is when thirty or more pages are requested. In these cases, I would try to send as close to the requested number of pages while avoiding cutting scenes and chapters off. If your chapter ends on page 32, send the extra few pages. If fifty pages are requested but your chapters end on pages 46 and 57, either send 46 or find an appropriate place to cut in the middle of the next chapter.
As far as SASE’s go, include when requested with the appropriate amount of postage and make sure it’s addressed to you, not the agency/publisher.

11. Close with respect.

I think this explains itself.


Recheck, recheck, recheck. And then, after you've rechecked, recheck again.

Nuff said.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Weekly Rejection Roundup

Happy Mother's Day!

A good week, all in all. Here's the tally:

Total manuscripts out: 47
Unique PBs: 21
> New subs this week: 4
Unique MG/YA: 2
> New subs this week: 1

Total rejections: 2
Form: 2
Personal: 0*
> Positive: 0
> Negative: 0
* meaning anything that directly references my submission by more than title

Total requests: 3
Partials: 2
Fulls: 1 (YA)

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 3.3

Change from last week: +0.1

Feel like I'm gaining momentum.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Everything I Know About Writing, I Learned in Kindergarten

Here's a challenge: write a story in 600 words or less, one that'll make me laugh or cry (or, even better, make me do both in quick succession). One with fully developed characters, a mature plot and a complete story arc. And then make it the kind of story I'll want to read six dozen times in as many nights, laughing or crying each and every time.

That's what makes writing a good children's picture book so challenging.

It's also what has helped me become a better novelist. No writer agonizes over every single word - not just the meaning and appropriateness of the word, but the sound of the word as well - as the writer of the successful picture book. No author is so attuned to the melody of a story, the tightness of the plot, the bare essentials-yet-completeness of the characters.

Now, to be honest, I don't give my novels the same level of scrutiny as I do my picture book manuscripts. It would be impossible to finish anything if I did. But the habits I learned in writing picture books have conditioned me to more readily recognize weaknesses in my longer works, to listen to the sounds of the language, to write tightly.

Writing is, to mangle a phrase, ten percent inspiration and ninety percent constipation. We all know how hard it is to produce good writing. For me, developing the skills and habits to write a good picture book has helped (ahem) loosen the process of writing novels.

And if you don't believe me that shorter is harder, then why is it so damn difficult to synopsize your novel in just a few pithy sentences? Well, PBs are pretty much like that.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Weekly Rejection Roundup

Last day of April. Can't believe it's May already. Yikes!

Not a bad week overall. Here's the tally:

Total manuscripts out: 44
Unique PBs: 22
> New this week: 0
Unique MG/YA: 2
> New this week: 0

Total rejections: 7
Form: 4
Personal: 3*
> Positive: 3
> Negative: 0
* meaning anything that directly references my submission by more than title

Total requests: 1
Partials: 0
Fulls: 1 (YA)

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 3.2

Change from last week: +0.1

Getting more feedback, all positive, and the req for a full is a great boost, but feeling strangely unproductive.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Total Face Transplants and the Art and Artifice of Revising

Last week, Spain announced that it had performed the first total face transplant. Shucks, I've been doing them for years. Whole body transplants even. Everything from minor cosmetic surgery to replacement of all vital organs and systems, right down to the heart and spleen.

Okay, admittedly, my transplants weren't on actual human beings, but it doesn't mean my subjects weren't soulless either. I'm talking about my WIPs.

I've always sort of thought of the revision process as the messy underworld of writing, the thing everyone knows about but doesn't really care to think about how it's done. Sort of like embalming. I mean, as writers, we think of ourselves as artists - or, rather, artistes. A work is produced by sheer creative force, a process as wonderful and painful as giving birth - or, in my case, passing kidney stones. It's a beautiful thing.

The process of revising is not beautiful. It's messy. It's - yes, I'll say it - mechanical. We take a completed work of art, the Draft, and descend upon it with hammer and chisel and we begin to chip away, patch, discard, replace and otherwise disfigure until the next iteration may or may not look anything like the original.

And yet, it's better. And because it's better, we make another go at it. And another. And another. To take the analogy one painful step beyond reason: For me, the writing and revising process is like starting out with the idea of sculpting Napolean on a horse, coming up with SpongeBob SquarePants sitting astride Gary the Snail and then, after revisions, getting George Washington crossing the Potomac. What happened to the original vision?! It's still there. It's the soul of a work.

Not a single one of my writings has escaped this process. True, I have stories that retain the heart or vision of the original idea and so are fully recognizable as the work I set out to create, having perhaps only changed in a few minor ways. But the vast majority of my writing undergoes iteration after iteration of revision where pretty much every word has been changed at least once, every sentence painstakingly agonized over, every paragraph, scene and chapter pulled out and replaced. It doesn't feel like art, it feels like surgery.

But surgery is a skill.

And as with any skill, you can only refine it by doing it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

This Week's Rejection Tally

This week I hit a milestone of sorts in my writing career (today, actually): got my 100th rejection. FS&G gets the prize, a nice juicy raspberry... plus my next sub next week. Otherwise, it was a pretty slow week.

Anyway, here are this week's stats, folks:

Total manuscripts out: 51
Unique PBs: 23
> New this week: 2
Unique MG/YA: 2
> New this week: 0

Total rejections:
Form: 2
Personal: 1*
> Positive: 1
> Negative: 0
For a date: 0
*anything that directly references my submission

Total requests: 1
Partials: 0
Fulls: 0
Phone numbers: 1 (admittedly, from a new colleague, not an agent or editor)

Mood Meter (on a scale of -5 to +5 with -5 being downright rotten and +5 being ecstatic): 3.1
(the 0.1 is because I sent out my first sub on a funny PB MS about...

drum roll

... Snot.

And I'm still giggling.

I think I need to get out more.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

PB Writers and Agent Angst

Sometimes we do things that don't make much business sense. Sometimes business exists despite this. Or, perhaps, it exists in part because there are those who dare to buck what the pros say.

Picture book writers often operate, and even flourish, using practices that seem at odds with the market, such as ignoring trends and working without an agent. Why? Passion is the most obvious reason. But there are other practical reasons for not seeking the services of an agent. First, so few take on new PBs writers. Second, most that do, won't rep the whole body of a PB writer's work, opting to push books that they have a strong connection with themselves. Third, I've heard many writers complain that agents try to drive them into writing only on certain topics. Some PB writers don't operate well under such constraints - or won't.

Those are only a few of the reasons.

To get a sense for the firestorm Caren Johnson Agency's Elana Roth's Thursday post about the relationship between agents and PB writers has caused (which I responded to yesterday here), check out this thread at Verla Kay's Children's Writers and Illustrators Discussion Boards.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Picture Books, PB Writers and the Chicken Little Syndrome

Elana Roth of Caren Johnson Literary wrote yesterday what I felt was a rather reflexive post about the disparity between the attitudes of children's books writers in their career development and the realities of the publishing market for those books. Heartfelt? Absolutely, but it missed the point.

She expressed shock that PB authors, even well-established ones, would eschew representation, but then she went on to provide reasons why it's so hard to gain representation in the first place. Having thus identified the real reason for this (poor financials for publishers, authors and agents all around), Ms. Roth then pondered why so many writers choose to write the dang things, and why we push so hard to get them published.

The easy answer is that we're driven to do it. We derive pleasure from writing those little nuggets. We relish the feeling knowing that our words will engage and entertain and excite readers and listeners. The realities of the market - all doom and gloom - do not and will not ever change that.

Okay, I also accept that pretty much anyone who doesn't write PBs (and even a large number of writers who do) thinks that to write a picture book story is proportionately easier than writing longer works. Yes, those who cling most avidly to that belief provide the bulk of the grist subbed over the transom. I know most of it is garbage. Or otherwise unmarketable. But you know something? This is not a phenomenon unique to the picture book market. It's not likely to change either.

So, Picture Book Writers, the end is not near - or no nearer than it has been in the past, anyway. Sure, if you're one of those who thinks this is easy, pull your head out of the, um, sand. But most importantly, don't give up. Continue to write and revise and submit. Get better at all of these things, and your dream will come true. And if you decide to get an agent and are lucky enough to sign with one, well, kudos to you. But if you don't, just remember this: The sky is not falling.

At least, not today.

If you want to read Elana's post, it's here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gleaning Hope on the Overcrowded Publishing Highway

Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly posted some interesting numbers today about how self-pubbing is overtaking traditionally pubbed books. I was shocked to see that that ratio is nearly 3:1 with a total of over a million titles published last year. Wow.

My first impression that there's a hell of a lot of people out there who want to see their name on a cover. Yes, I have a bias, but it's been my experience, so I think it's safe to say - and I know I'll catch heat for this - but a lot of self-pubbed stuff is total crap. No, I don't deny that traditional houses don't publish crap, too, but when you have agents and editors filtering through it all, it does tend to raise the overall quality. Not sure where the trend to self-pub is going and what it'll mean for the future of publishing as a whole, but one downside of having access to so much is it tends to have a numbing effect on us.

Which makes me wonder: How are people supposed to find the best titles to read? I suppose there are processes in place to help, professional readers whose opinions we learn to churn through the muck, raising the cream to the top (to mix metaphors). But how well will this work when the publishing pond becomes an ocean?

I did find some encouraging news in the numbers. Areas that saw growth in titles sold last year include children's books (up 6%). Presumably, this includes all ages and genres. Well, I think this only substantiates what agents and editors have been telling us for the past 18 months. Let's hope the trend continues.

Also insightful, nonfiction (technical) rose by 11%. I think this is across the spectrum, from children's books to adult, but I'm wagering that if you write children's NF on a technology subject, you'll stand an easier chance of finding a home for it. It doesn't surprise me that tech should fare well, given how rapidly it's evolving. Just make sure the subject you're writing about is as up-to-date and forward looking as possible, or else it'll be out-of-date before it hits shelves.

Now, I think I'll go work on that emerging medicine series for children I've been thinking about...

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The End of Publishing?

The end of publishing? Here's a take on that subject from the UK branch of Dorling Kindersley Books. Here's the YouTube link.

Not sure this is absolutely true, but it's good to know that this is how the publishing industry perceives things.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Listing WIP and Whether to Correct It

No, this is not a post about speech impediments, rather writing impediments. Namely, what happens when your inner and outer muse start to fight.

I'm working on an MG right now that is supposed to be a total comedy/fantasy/unrealistic story about a boy at war with his dad. Really. Like, his father is an evil super villain and it's up to the boy to save the world. Problem is, all these serious feelings and issues and subplots keep intruding, wanting to be part of the story. I thought I could get away with supressing them by adhering to a strict regimen of Comedy Central and a well-developed story outline.

Right. My story keeps veering off to the side, straying off into those murky waters of adolescent angst.

So, last week I decided to let it ride, see where things would take me. Or, at least, that's what I thought I was doing. Actually, I was just humoring my subconscious while still pretending to write the story I set out to write.

Talk about Jeckle and Hyde. The thing reads like Percy Jackson meets Nate the Great. Ugh.

So, what to do? I really like the idea of writing a funny, quirky tale that doesn't try to be serious about anything. But I guess what I need to write is the serious one first. Which bothers me, because I don't like the feeling of having something I need to exorcise. And yet I know it'll be therapeutic. So, that's what I'm going to do. Oh, my MC is still at war with his father, whom he still believes is a secret super villain bent on destroying the world. Sounds silly, right? But, when you think about it, isn't that really the premise of a lot of serious stories?

What do you do when your inner and outer muse start to fight? Which do you go with?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Crossroads: Children's Picture Books in a Digital Age

I downloaded the free Kindle app for PC this morning, mostly to see what free content I could find (yes, I'm cheap). I don't own an ebook reader, nor do I plan to buy one in the near future. I like my analogue versions just fine. It's not that I'm against the technology, it's just that I don't think it's finished maturing just yet. I made a point a while back that with mobile devices incorporating more and more functionality, dedicated devices such as ebook readers will become obsolete. Apple's iPad is a shift in that direction. I like the idea of the iPad, but I'll wait until the competition catches up.

In searching Amazon's classics catalogue for free books, I was disappointed by the lack of children's picture books. There are none (or none that I could find). Understandably so, I guess, since most of the free content is from over eighty years ago, but even the Beatrix Potter stories were all text. But when I checked out some of the pay products - and there are a few dozens of picture books you can buy for the Kindle - I was disappointed, both by the selection as well as the experience.

Which raises a question. Are children's picture books immune to digitization? It got me thinking about why paper picture books work and how it may or may not translate to the screen.

First, let me just say that I think a shift of picture books to the screen is inevitable. Second, neither is it a bad thing. Okay, so maybe the Kindle and other ereaders aren't the right format for such books, but that doesn't mean the technology or the promise of a technology capable of bringing a picture book alive doesn't exist. Heck, if you think about it in broad terms, picture books have been on screen for decades. I mean, aren't Saturday morning cartoons just picture books on TV? Remember "Fractured Fairy Tales" on the Bullwinkle Show? How long did "Reading Rainbow" run?

I know, that's not exactly the same as taking a picture book and digitizing it. Why? Interactivity.

The joy of reading a picture book is in the fusion of image and word, the bond formed between parent and child and between child and book. Can a screen do the same as a printed page? What if that screen is large and in high resolution color? Well, for standard PBs, probably, but certainly not for pop-up and touch-and-feel books. That's why the technology can't stop at a point where the screen acts simply as a proxy for the printed page. Picture books are intended to be interactive, and picture book stories conveyed digitally will never replace the tactile experience, not alone at least. Minimally, picture book digitization will require a device that can allow a child to manipulate the text and image.

I'll make some predictions, and we'll see whether or nor they play out in the coming years.

1. Television will become the first digital device of choice for picture book stories, not ereaders. That's because,

2. Portable devices capable of delivering the quality of experience a paper picture book provides are a long ways off from being affordable.

3. First-to-market technologies that enable a child to navigate the story on-screen with a simple inexpensive hand-held device (controller) will set the standard.

4. Adaptation of, or development of apps for, current gaming systems, such as Wii and PlayStation, for picture books will likely be the first generation products.

5. Illustrators and publishers will need to rethink how they go about designing and publishing picture books to be more amenable to the new formats.

6. This will open up a whole new world of possibilities for how authors conceive and write their stories, not restrict them. Writers receptive to these changes will be more successful.

So, anyone interested in starting a joint venture?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Enough is Enough - Part II: When to give up on your own work

Last week I talked a little bit about how much time I give to a published book and when I finally put it down unfinished. Reading is so subjective that we, as writers, inherently understand that what we write is not going to grab everyone. Okay, fine. But how do you know when what you're writing won't grab anyone? When do you stop working on something, pack it in, call it a day?

I'm wondering this because it's been a frustratingly long week of rejections, most of them impersonal. Based on my own personal mood meter, one encouraging rejection is worth seven form rejections. This week the weight is heavier on the form rejection side.

Now, I know that's just the nature of the business. We write, we revise, we polish, we submit, we wait and hope. But, inevitably, in the time between the submitting and the response, hope gives way to doubt. Doubt grows....

But we are an optimistic bunch, especially the childrens book writers. As a reformed golfer, I can understand this mentality: it's the one sweet shot in an entire round that brings us back to the game. Same goes for writing. A little encouragement goes a long way. Cruel, cruel hope.

But what about that particular work that you spent so much time and effort on, poured heart and soul into, sweated and cried over? What if you just can't seem to get any positive feedback on it? When do you say, "Enough is enough. Time to stop beating this dead horse. Time to put me out of its misery."

Or do you just keep revising and resubmitting, believing that someday, somewhere, someone will see that secret little something in it that you saw in it when you created it? Denial? Optimism? Or just being realistic?

Just wondering.

Anyway, I've got a dead horse to beat some life into.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Committing & When to say, "Enough is enough!"

Got a basketful of books from the library yesterday, all with that blue library tape on the spine that reads "NEW" and the hopeful smell of glue and ink and tape still hovering about the covers. I've already gone through four.

Now, what I mean by that is that I tried to read them... but I just couldn't find myself committing beyond the first few dozen pages.

I choose my books based on several criteria, in loose order by impact:

1. Cover/Title/Author
2. Jacketflap
3. The first 2-3 paragraphs
4. Page 70

Now, I admit that Cover/Title/Author shouldn't be more important than what's inside. But let's be honest, if I find a cover attractive and/or the title sounds interesting, I'm going to pick the book up and look inside. The opposite is true if I'm not pulled in by those things. Face it, would you pick up a book whose title was, A STORY ABOUT SOMETHING or HAPPY? Would you spend time and/or money on a book whose cover was about as exciting as the generic food labels back in the eighties?

All things being equal - meaning, you're looking at a shelfful of books vying for your attention - the one with the catchy title and cover is the one you're going to pick up.

As far as page 70 goes, it's a random metric. Basically, I want to know whether the promise made in the first few paragraphs is being delivered at least through the first several chapters of the book.

Now let's assume a book has made each of these cuts, how much time should I give it at home? Well, that's a tricky question because it relies on so many other variables: Was it recommended by someone whose opinion I respect? Is it an author whose work I admire? Is the writing off but the subject interesting (or vice versa)? Do any of the other books in my pile look more interesting?

Short answer: roughly 2-3 chapters.

I have a fairly low tolerance for writing that doesn't grab me, grab me and shake me and doesn't let me go. It's a high bar to set for a writer, I know, and more than 80% of the books I take home don't end up attaining this mark. But the other truth about being an overly critical reader is this: there are more than enough quality writers out there to satisfy my tastes. Why waste time reading stuff just to slog through it?

So, why am I bringing all this up? Because I try to keep these things in mind when I write. Does my writing grab and shake and not let the reader go from the first page to the last (acknowledging that I have no control over the cover and little input on final title and jacketflap)? And what if it doesn't? It's also helpful to remember my own tastes aren't universal; many of the books I've found to be blase are or end up being quite popular and well regarded.

So, where do you say "Enough is enough?"

Friday, February 26, 2010

WRT: Submissions - Keeping and Staying on Track

Probably one of the most tedious (if not frustrating) aspects of the writing-for-publication process is keeping track of submissions. A necessary evil, it still manages to drive me batty. Every house, editor, and agent wants something different: SASE/no SASE, first 10 pages (no, first 20 or 50), snail versus email versus online form sub, YA but not MG, MG but not mystery... and on and on.

Plus, we're seeing even more uncertainty in the market - who's where when, who's going where, who's no longer open.


So, what's the easiest way to store and maintain all that information in a way that ensures you have the most up-to-date details? Do you use an online website such as QueryTracker? A dedicated software package? An analogue system (hardcopies of letters, file cards, etc)? Regardless of what you use, it's absolutely essential that you keep track of those subs, if even to avoid those embarrassing breaches of etiquette. Mostly, it's just good business practice.

For me, what I've found is a spreadsheet (MS Excel) works best. I like knowing that I have control over the information. And while that means doing the legwork myself, it also means I can customize it however I want.

My spreadsheet looks something like this (click on image to get a Hi Res shot):

I like Excel because you can keep multiple levels of information through hyperlinks, comments, and embedded text. You can freeze panes so that headers are always in view. Colors provide cues as to what's out, what's been rejected, where I want to send, who's closed, etc. I also use shorthand notations and other tricks to minimize text while maximizing information. For example, I use ISO standards for dates (YYMMDD) that allow me to search and sort.

It took me a lot of time to set up, and it's a lot of work to maintain the information. But, like I said, it allows me to control the information. And that's really what's important, isn't it?

I'm curious. How do you keep track of all this information?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

WRT: Putting Horse Before Cart – Why You Should Consider Writing Your Query Letter Before Finishing Your Manuscript

You know, you really should write your query letter summary paragraph before you sit down to write the first words of your next project.

Say what?!

Let me explain what I mean.

Anyone who has ever finished a novel and sat down to query an agent or editor knows what it’s like to freeze in front of the keyboard, unable to summarize key story points and characters in 250 words or less. Why is that? Well, aside from the obvious reason (you know your story so intimately that pinpointing the most critical elements sometimes seems like an exercise in arbitrariness, though it’s really more like not seeing the forest for the trees), I think a lot of the difficulty derives from our writing habits.

Maybe the problem stems from holding onto outdated perceptions of what the story is about. While you might set out to write with certain objectives in mind, you don’t adapt those objectives as the story matures. It’s so easy to forget that those unexpected and compelling twists of plot or character insights that waylaid you along the way have also commandeered your story. It’s no longer what it started out to be. While discovery is so intrinsic to the organic nature of writing and why we derive so much pleasure out of the act of doing it, it makes writing the summary a bit more challenging. Now, you have to go back and reassess with the mindset not of a writer, but of a reader.

One of the biggest reasons I struggle with querying comes from realizing I haven’t spent enough time developing the most commercially relevant aspects, whether it be story arc, conflict, character... whatever. I get to the query and, for the first time, am forced to think about this character’s role, the purpose of that character’s personality strengths or flaws, the reason for structuring the story a certain way, or defining the conflict as I did, from a purely market-driven point of view. I often find then that the most compelling attributes haven’t been well developed or even incorporated.

Arguments aside about whether you should outline or synopsize before writing, you might find it useful to write that brief query letter summary both before and frequently throughout the course of writing your book. This will help you focus on those oh-so-important key elements and make writing the real query afterwards a piece of cake. (For those new to writing queries, a few keystrokes and your basic search engine will reward you with a trove of helpful resources :blogs, boards, articles....)

Oh, and one last thing: those early query letter summary paragraphs? Nobody should ever see them except you.

Happy RoadTripping.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

WRT: The Lonesome Journey – Traveling Alone, with a Loved One, or with Strangers?

I have something to confess: I hate admitting I’m lost. Oh, I don’t mind getting lost (happens a lot), or being lost (it's practically a perpetual state for me), it’s the idea of having others know I’m lost that I hate. And forget about asking for directions. I’d rather slink into the nearest Walmart or Texaco for a map (I know, it’s so-o-o 2005 not to have a GPS):

Cashier: “So, you’re lost?”
Me: “Me? Ha-ha. No, actually I needed something to line the birdcage in my car.”


Gas station attendant: “So, you’re lost?”
Me: “What? Ridiculous! No, I’m just trying to revive the ancient art of map-folding.”

I know, I know: it’s a guy thing.

Except it’s more than that.

See, this is also exactly how I behave when I write. I hate the idea of a work-in-progress that's not absolutely, positively one-hundred percent polished (in which case, it's not a WIP anymore). I hate the idea of a WIP being judged as directionless, when, in fact, that’s how most of them spend the majority of their life, seemingly aimlessly wandering about. That’s usually how I write, with a vague notion of my destination and how the story unfolds. Okay, that's an overstatement, but for me, writing is a constant battle between journeys of discovery (where every possibility is worthy of exploration) and journeys of efficiency (shortest distance, two points, blah, blah, blah). It’s messy, sorta like sausage-making. And who wants to see that?

It’s especially bad for my wife. She has to patiently wait until I’m done with a story and have polished it to a fine sheen before she even gets to peek at it. She’s not a writer, and so I should take her input with that in mind. Right? But I don’t. Her opinion matters to me. Which is why I avoid asking for it until I’m beyond sure it’ll be positive.

Cripes, I have issues.

On the other hand, I ask my kids all the time to sit down and listen to what Daddy’s written. They love it unconditionally. But then again, they love it when I read Politico or Newsweek out loud to them, too (which probably goes a long way to explaining my son’s fascination with a certain politician, who shall remain unnamed [initials S.P., rhymes with parasailin’] and my daughter’s overfamiliarity with the phrase: “Drill, baby, drill!”). My kids love what I write. (And no, I don’t mention any of this in my query letters).

But it’s not just about always getting positive feedback. I don’t mind sharing my work with perfect strangers. Why is that? Sure it hurts when I get less than stellar feedback— even more so, since a lot of it comes from those in the know. So, why don’t I mind exposing myself to other writers, to admitting I’m lost or that my WIP is a mess?

Because I know their WIP journeys are, for the most part, just as messy, just as circuitous, just as seemingly directionless. Among this community of writers, it’s okay to get lost and to be lost. It's a writer thing.

How about you? Do you feel the same way about your writer’s journey? Or do share your journeys more than I do?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

WRT: Revision Roadblocks - Sentimentality is a Dead End

Last month, the cassette player in my truck died. That's right, I wrote cassette player (yes, my truck was built in the last century). For the analogue-challenged MP3 generation, cassettes are those plastic things about the size of an iPod Classic that your parents used to record music on... from their vinyl LPs. (What are LPs? Oh, never mind.) Anyway, the point is, for weeks I mourned the passing of that player. Call me sentimental. I went through the same angst when my 8-track boombox died in high school.

The reason I'm bringing this up is because my reluctance to replace the cassette player with a CD player (or, better yet, a Bluetooth-enabled 4G networked XM-ready satellite radio/MP3 player with Bose electronics), is the same reluctance I struggle with in removing what doesn't work in my WIPs. But there's no denying it: There's no place for private sentimentality in a novel.

For the last week, I've been tweaking Chapter 9 of one of my YA novels. I thought it was because it contained some of the best writing I'd ever done, and while that may be true, it's not the reason I was spending so much time stalled out there. It was because it didn't work. I was engaging myself too much in adoring my lovely words and sentences, that it blinded me to the fact that what I'd written didn't add anything to the story. In fact, it detracted. Once I realized this, you know what I did? I went and ripped out the cassette player from my truck. It felt like I was ripping out my guts. But it made deleting Chapter 9 that much easier.

You've got to do the same with you revisions. Sure, if you're writing for yourself, keep everything. Who cares.But if your aim is to publish your work, you've got to be brutally honest with yourself when revising. Rip out what doesn't work, no matter how much you like it or the way it sounds.

My carpool mates are breathing a sigh of relief. Now, if I can just figure out how to download and make a Lynyrd Skynyrd/Journey/Chicago mix and get it transferred to my iPod, we'll be back in business.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Side Trip - What it feels like to pitch a project

Here's a hilarious take on what it's like to be a writer pitching an idea. Comes from the British comedy That Mitchell and Webb Look. Thanks to Colleen Lindsay at The Swivet for posting this there first.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

WRT: The Importance of First Words - What Does Your Character Crave?

It's a rookie mistake to introduce your main character as a flawless, perfectly content human being. Who cares? Well, you do. You love your protagonist and you don't want anything bad to happen to him. But your reader does. That's what makes your reader come back for more. There are two things you, as a writer, will naturally resist doing to your character.

1. Make them want something.

2. Put obstacles in their way to getting it.

The first is called Craving, and it's what I'm focusing on today. It's what compels your character to act, and what compels your reader to connect. Which is why it's so important to define what your MC wants very, very soon after you introduce them.

In Markus Zusak's Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Cameron Wolfe, Ruben's brother, is the narrator. In the book's opening page, we find them at the track making illegal wagers on the dogs:

A girl walks past.
I think.
"Jesus," Rube says, and that's the difference.

Zusak immediately shows us the kind of person Cameron is. He idolizes and wishes he could be more like his older brother. This is how Zusak sets up the story, which we know almost from the start (if you haven't read the jacket blurb), entails an eventual boxing match between the two Wolfe brothers. Zusak helps us connect with Cameron by showing his weaknesses, because, like the rest of us, we all wish we were better and stronger and smarter than reality reminds us we are. (Although the next First Lines subject is about conflict, it's worthwhile to point out the irony in how Zusak provides it here: in order for Cameron to prove he's more like his brother, he'll have to beat him).

In the English translation of his book, the invisible, Mats Wahl tells us in the very first sentence what minor character (but the story's focus) Hilmer Eriksson wants:

It was on one of the first days of May that Hilmer Eriksson discovered he had become invisible.

It's obvious what Hilmer wants: to be visible. Why? And is he really invisible? And if so, what made him invisible? We shortly discover that Hilmer is missing, later presumed dead. During the investigation, Hilmer "haunts" the novel's main character, Inspector Fors. Which leads to an even greater craving by Hilmer: he wants to know what happened, for his disappearance to have meaning. Who among us hasn't at one time or another feared disappearing without leaving some kind of trace behind, for our lives to have meaning? (In fact, I would have to say that that is one reason so many of us write.) Reminds me of a quote by Jim Morrison (of Doors fame): "The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death." It's what makes the invisible so appealing to read.

So, dear Writer, make sure you know and show what your main (and even secondary)characters want in your story's First Words.

Next time: Conflict.

Happy RoadTripping.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

WRT: The Importance of First Words - Character Clues and Cues

I see a lot of writers write about when and how to introduce characters into a story (not too many too soon, provide unique clues to aid the reader, avoid multiple characters whose first names share the same first letter, etc, etc ...). One thing you don't see a lot of is how do you use character introduction - and I mean in the first paragraphs of your first chapter - to help readers connect with the story and to provide a sense for where the story is going to take them.

Most likely you, as the writer, will want to introduce your main character(s) very, very soon after the reader opens your book to that magical first page and reads, "Chapter One." There are exceptions to this general rule, of course, but unless you're intentionally delaying this critical introduction for a very good reason, then seriously consider adhering to this guideline.

To see how successful authors introduced their characters, let's look at a couple examples, randomly pulled from my bookshelf.

Here's the first paragraph from Kim Edwards' The Memory Keeper's Daughter:

The snow started to fall several hours before her labor began. A few flakes at first, in the dull gray late-afternoon sky, and then wind-driven swirls and eddies around the edges of their wide porch. He stood by her side at the window, watching sharp gusts of snow billow, then swirl and drift to the ground. All around the neighborhood, lights came on, and the naked branches of the trees turned white.

We meet the story's two main characters immediately, husband and wife, not by name (in fact, we never learn their names until Chapter Two), but by a sense of how they see the world. How does Edwards clue us into the wife's character? The imagery she uses is soft, low-contrast, gentle ("snow started to fall" "few flakes" "dull gray" "swirls and eddies"). In contrast, the husband is cold and unfeeling. He watches out the window (why isn't he watching his wife as she labors to have their children?). He comes to us in a sentence where the first adjective is "sharp." Not directly defining him, but those "sharp gusts" tell us how he sees the scene outside that window. Interestingly, Edwards uses the same word twice ("swirl/s"), surprising us with our contrasting response to it (first, as something soft; second, as something cold). In those first four sentences, we have everything we need to know in order to move forward with the story.

The opening line of Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex is:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkable smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Eugenides deftly uses contradiction to tell us about his main character. First, he emphasizes the miracle of a smogless Detroit day to underscore the mistake of Calliope Helen Stephanides' birth. He then tells us that she became Cal in a venue we associate with accidents: the ER. How does this make the reader feel? Sympathetic. Why? The idea of a transgender main character is enough to make most people squeamish (even more a decade ago when this was written). And yet, by giving us some insight into Cal's mind, we can't help but feel sympathetic.

Do your character introductions fall flat? Do they provide a sense of the person you mean them to be without actually describing them in such terms? Do you help your readers connect with your characters by showing their flaws, by giving them something to yearn for, by making them human, no matter how foreign the subject matter might be to the reader?

Speaking of yearning, that's the subject of the next FIRST WORDS discussion: CRAVING.

Friday, January 15, 2010

WRT Returns January 19

After some major repairs to several manuscripts and a blown laptop, Writer's RoadTrip will be returning on January 19, 2010. Looking forward to new adventures.