Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Update for August

Summer is winding up and I'm trying to catch my breath. My mom's last surgery went well and I spent a couple of weeks with her. When I had down time, I was working hard on Trefury: The Secrets of Callorin.

Writing complex novels with multiple POVs and storylines is no easy task. I find it very rewarding when those lines intersect or connect. It's how I get my kicks I suppose. But it takes time, lots of brain power, lots of do-overs and back tracking in order to write the best possible story and to make sure the right characters are telling it. When I pull out my original draft of this trilogy of books there are very few things that have stayed consistent. Little did I imagine then how this story would evolve and become so engrossing.

I remember when an up-and-coming author of big, epic fantasy put out his first book. His publisher gave him a two year deadline, I believe, to write the next book in the series. The deadline came and went. His growing concourses of fans grew impatient, salivating for the next installment. He'd set the bar pretty high for himself with the first novel. More time passed. Fans grew even more impatient. I remember jumping on a reading forum and coming to his defense, not so much because I was a devoted fan, but because I understood the writing process better than most readers do. When you write a series, each book has to be better and stronger than the last one. And if you're writing things on an epic scale, you can just dash through it and send it off to a publisher. This author clearly needed more time because he was trying to make a stronger second novel.

When you think on other book series, how many of them have eventually grown to be a disappointment because the author didn't take time to exceed the novel(s) before? I think readers are too impatient in this day of instant gratification, and too quick to judge when they get what they demand on their timetable but it doesn't meet their expectations. Writing a novel, especially one with depth - a re-readable novel - can't be done in six to twelve months. Most authors have day jobs and families. We're not robots.

Some people write quickly, some are slow. Some go through many drafts, and others have it nearly perfect on the first try. We're all different. I believe that is something to be celebrated rather than a pivot for contention.

In other news, the paperback version of Trefury: Mendi's Curse is going through the proof stage and I should be able to announce a giveaway or two very soon.

I hope you all had a great summer and that this autumn will be very productive and rewarding for you.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My Biggest Piece of Query Advice

The first query letter I ever sent out was snagged by my target publication and the piece bought shortly thereafter. That still blows my mind today because, at the time, I hadn't done much research on the infamous query letter and its tricks and traps. Now that I have years of research and trial and error behind me, I think I can safely target what I inadvertently did right with that first query and I'd like to pass on that info to you.

The first correct thing I did was target exactly the right publication. I was familiar with what they published, was a subscriber, and I knew my audience. Research is vital. Some agents have a great online presence and get flooded with queries because of that. They are familiar personalities, but personality aside, were they really the right fit for your project? I'm finding that the answer is often, no. I may like the advice or the charisma of one of these agents, but when I dig deeper into my research, I find that they aren't the perfect fit. Why? Sometimes what they say they want to find and what they are actually selling are very different beasts. I'm skeptical of agents who say they want epic fantasy but they haven't sold a single epic fantasy novel. Likewise with agents who generically say they want YA in any genre, but when you look through their client list and recent sales, find they gravitate to contemporary YA and not speculative. Another eye-opener is to notice which publishers the agent is selling to. Are they big publishers, mostly indies, or a mixture? How many times do you see publishers that are in your target bracket?

This type of research narrows down your query list, but it also strengthens your chances of not wasting either your time or that of the agent. After you know who's actually selling and reading your type of novel, then you can check out their online personality.

Okay, so the second big thing I've learned about querying deals with something much more close to home - your story, itself. That first query of mine not only went to the right publication but it showed a unique and different angle to the type of story I was telling. And that's what landed it.

Recently I decided to participate in a query critique contest, as a critiquer, something I'd not done before. What I really loved about the contest was that we had to think like a literary agent and we could only say yes to three queries. It made it more challenging, yet realistic. There were query letters in different genres and at different levels of polish. The ones I said yes to, without any hesitation, were the ones who showed their unique idea/point of view side. It didn't matter if the query letter was 100% perfection. They weren't generic sounding premises and that made me excited. It's the same deal when I go on Goodreads or browse at the library for something new to read. Generic premises make me skim or put down the book. If you show the unique twist, gimmick, voice, or angle to a story, you'll get more reader attention.

Once I had my obvious yes votes, I still wanted to critique the other queries to hopefully help out the writers. The next bracket of letter were the ones who had the right formatting, length, and sometimes even voice, but the premises fell flat or were too vague.

For example:
A girl (insert whatever cute name you like) has just discovered she has (a superpower, magic talisman, or hidden past) and the fate of the world rests in her hands. This has got to be the most common premise in modern literature. Okay, so sometimes the protag is a boy, but the rest of the premise runs the same. If that's all you're presenting in your query letter, you're shooting yourself in the foot because there are thousands (no exaggeration) of other writers using that exact same premise in their stories. And most of these aren't getting published.

Assuming that your actual story isn't just as generic sounding, you need to show that in your query letter. What's your fresh angle on that premise? What makes your version of this storyline unique and different from the thousands of other people. Type and personality of character isn't enough. If you've got an amazing piece of world building behind your story, show it in the query. If your protag is destined to be the savior of that world, please explain why her and not anybody else. Do you take this over-used premise and turn it on its side, or inside-out? Show it in the query letter.

Detail is your friend. And I don't mean by using strings of adjectives or explaining every plot point or nuance of the story. Instead of saying "she has to save the world" say "she must hack into Evil, LLC's computers to plant a virus, preventing them from delivering their new brainwashing toy to millions of children."

Be specific, be bold, be unique when explaining your story. Sometimes that's all you need to really stand out from the pack. Proper formatting and rhythm are important, too, but if you're being generic with your story description, technical brilliance won't make a difference.

Am I a genius at query letters? Ha! No. That first query letter was for a piece of non-fiction. I've toiled, struggled, and revised 'til I bled on fictional queries. A few of you may have seen one of my horrible earlier drafts. But regardless of whether it's fiction or non-fiction, the same two principles apply: know your target and show your story's unique angle. Now, let's all get back to work.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Writing: Getting Back On Your Feet

A writing colleague asked me: "How do you pick yourself back up after a setback? How do you keep on keeping on?"

At first, you don't. You fall, sometimes flat on your face, sometimes you break a figurative bone. The fall can be from a short height or from a seemingly high mountain, depending on what you have at stake. It hurts. Usually our pride smarts the most and longest.

I don't think there is one definite way to get back on your feet. Your character, personality, and circumstances all play big roles in the fight to endure.

For myself, I've been broadsided, sometimes knowing beforehand that I might be (which is akin to watching a tragedy unfold before your eyes while you're helpless to prevent it). After a really big blow to my ego in regards to my writing, I withdrew for a long time. I didn't feel like I had a leg to stand on, and that every word aimed against me and my story had to be true. I had no self-confidence left. Emotions were so bad and so high that it affected me physically. The last thing I wanted to do was continue writing, or even communicate with anyone in the writing community. I felt like a fraud, a leper, that everyone was laughing at me behind my back.

In other words, I had to take time off. Partly because of how self-destructive I was feeling, but mostly because I couldn't see or think clearly about the situation. A few months later I started to see. I wasn't a terrible writer or a hack, but I did have areas I needed to work on and improve. I realized that some people weren't going to like my story no matter how I rewrote it or packaged it, and that's okay. I certainly don't like some things I read. We're subjective creatures.

There came a critical point where I had to ask myself if I wanted to sacrifice the integrity of my story in order to please one or two people, or even a collected body of people who shared the same mindset. Bearing in mind, that yes, I wanted to please an audience, I wanted to sell my story, I wanted to make it as reader friendly as I could and that I could change some aspects to meet those goals. But I had to really think about who my target audience was and what their expectations were. Who was I writing for?

I had a life outside of writing to fall back on. I couldn't just lock up and stay hidden from the world. I have a family and a community of people relying on me. They made it possible for me to get up in the morning each day, to even smile. Focusing on the other parts of what makes me, me rekindled my drive to write.

I think it's easy to lose yourself when you dive fully into the writing community. We're affected by personalities and hit with a constant barrage of opinions. While writers collectively are viewed as great individualists, we really tend to act as sheep like most people do. We want public approval, sometimes so badly we're willing to write what we think the collective wants us to write and how they expect us to write it. We try to fit into some mysterious, mythical mold and grope around in the dark to find the magic elixir or key to unlock the doorway to opportunity. Admit it, we've all taken a turn doing it. Don't belligerently deny it.

My solution to overcoming a writing setback? Get to know yourself again. Get away from the writing community. Read what you really love to read. Fantasize to the length and breadth of your imagination regarding your story because no one is going to be standing at your shoulder judging you. Write with abandon again; turn off the internal editor that was primed and set by your desire to appease and supplicate. What makes you, you? How does that reflect in the way you write and express yourself? Look at your story. Do you love every aspect of it? Does it excite you to read any passage over and over again, or are there places you skim over or get bored with? Fix them.

Is your life well-rounded? If it just revolves around your writing, you won't have anything else to fall back on when the writing life gets tough. Writer friends are great and fine for support, but people who are actually around you are even better. People you can see and touch and laugh with, who will hug you and love you whether or not your story is going to make waves in the literary world. People who know there is more to you than being a writer.

And sometimes, even though we never want to admit it, sometimes our story isn't reader-worthy. It's a story just for ourselves that only we can truly visualize and love. If we're beating our heads relentlessly against a brick wall of rejection from everyone (and I mean everyone), no matter how many times we've revised, maybe it's time to set that story aside. I have a few stories like that. Oh, I never bothered trying to get them published because I already knew they were special only to me. I still pull them out and get a thrill when I read them. Their purpose is realized right there. And that's okay.

So, you look at your other stories and ideas and visualize your target audience. Is it a broad audience or a small one? Set your expectations based on that. If your goal is to break into the publishing side of the writing world, then pick your brightest, best idea and work on it.

Sometimes stepping back from the novel you care so much about can help you see if there are really problems in it or not. Kind of like cleansing your palette between courses during a meal so that the taste of one dish doesn't intermingle with the taste of the next. Maybe you've been locked into one story world for too long and need a vacation. Working on a story that is totally different can be refreshing to your creative side.

Another good way to help bounce back is to write in a journal regularly. There you are free to express your grief, angst, and worries uncensored. Don't do it online. Most people don't care and don't want to hear about your problems. Vent your spleen privately. I've found that journal writing helps me get refocused and lets out all the negative energy so that I can think more clearly and objectively.

Sometimes the problem is we have a very clear goal and know exactly how we want to achieve it. So when we don't reach our desired milestones or can't continue on the road we've picked, we get frustrated and angry. We blame the road, other people, the universe at large. The thing is, who says there is only one road to reach your destination? Who says you have to meet every milestone on a generalized checklist to get there? There are other roads. Getting up from a major setback could be as simple as picking a new route, or even a new destination.

In a nutshell:
1) Be humbled so you can think clearly.
2) Get to know yourself again.
3) Vent in private not in public.
4) Have a well-rounded life so that other aspects can keep you afloat.
5) Take a vacation from the writing community. As long as you need. Don't feel pressured to make appearances or submit your work if you're not ready to.
6) Get realistic about your novel, your target audience, and your goals. Make changes based on your clearer perspective.

Above everything else, remember you are an individual and you are worthwhile. You have talents you're trying to develop and that's wonderful. Having goals and dreams helps make life meaningful, but don't let them crush or blockade you from living. And remember that popularity and acceptance are both fleeting and illusions. You are neither. Don't give up on yourself.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Courage To Be You

What do you think you're doing? You've got to be kidding, right? You—write stories? What makes you think anyone will want to read what you write? You're over your head here. This MS is written all wrong. Someone else already covered this story/angle. You're wasting your time. You should do something else instead...

Do any of these sound familiar? I like to think of them as The Great THEY sayings. THEY like to tear people down. THEY like to make us question every little decision we make. THEY don't want us to be ourselves or succeed. THEY want to control us.

THEY don't exist.

Individuals parrot The Great THEY all the time but there really is no secret institution controlling society. Knowing that makes life a little rosier. Convincing yourself that THEY aren't going to murder you in your bed some night for taking a risk, well, that's another thing.

Putting yourself out there is scary for most people, even if you are only presenting a collection of written words to the public.

Sure there are actual institutions and rules set up to follow. It's not a myth that publishers and agents have guidelines to follow when submitting a manuscript to them. It's not a myth that very few people actually make millions on selling what they write. A savvy writer must navigate through rules and guidelines, and work hard to grow and improve their writing.

In all places where people gather there is a natural tendency to size each other up, judge our strengths and weaknesses, and decisions made regarding other peoples' value to the group as a whole or to other individuals. Sometimes it's easiest to expect the same thing from everyone and sometimes some individuals carry this too far. We hate the rule breakers, those who have leaped to the top of the pile, those who seem to have it all, those who blatantly tell the rest of us to jump off a cliff. We also secretly envy and admire them. We want to be someone who is comfortable in their own skin and who can snap their fingers at the censure and ire of others.

So how does one gain the courage to take those risks?

As a writer, how can you make your story stand out from the rest of the pack? The pack is humongous! There are thousands of other hopefuls out there who also have the same dream. The savvy writer also knows that the dream slots to fill are much fewer.

The first step is arming yourself with knowledge regarding writing craft and the industry of publishing. It's not as straight-forward and simple as it sounds. Many would like to skip this step. "I'm a storyteller. All I need to do is write my story and the rest will fall into place." Um, right.

The second step is not becoming a zealot with what you learn. I can always tell who has just embraced some doctrine of writing craft. These individuals (and I had my little zealous bout too a long time ago) will rigorously step forward online or among other writers to champion the death of all things that run against the rule they've embraced. They're brutal in their critiques. They hammer their pet piece of writing doctrine down the throats of the willing and unwilling alike. You can picture them sweating, beet-red in the face, maybe with their tongues peeking out of the sides of their mouths, and their eyes bloodshot in their never-ending quest to prove the point.

Don't be a zealot.

The third step is to pause. You're still digesting what you've learned and you realize there is more to be learned. Like any learning process, there never is a point of arrival. Learning never ends. Coming to terms with that realization and accepting it gives a writer a necessary dose of humility and gratitude. This step is treated as optional by some. It shouldn't be. Appreciating what has gone on before, what is going on around you now, and speculating on the possibilities of the future will keep a writer from becoming an arrogant jerk.

Step four, reach out to others. Take the time to network and make friends with other writers. Be a giver more often than a taker. And above all else, accept others for who they are. Recognize their individual voices and visions. Don't condemn, don't judge.

Step five, embrace yourself. It's okay. You can like yourself. You can love what you write and you can also hate it. You'll be able to see your weak points and your strong ones. These need to be identified. Come to terms with what is important to you, what you want to say and how you want to say it. Remember that everyone has a voice and a distinct point of view. Remember also, that you will not convert everyone to your way of thinking, and there will be many others who will disagree with you. There is no way to avoid this.

Courage isn't a quality one is given, it must be acquired. Bravo to those who gain the courage to step up, present yourself to the world, and say "This is me." Laurels to those who can continue to stand there while others size you up, ignore you completely, or try to drive you away. If you are humble, accepting of others and yourself, and knowledgeable there is no valid reason for you to run away. At this point THEY are not as all-powerful as you think, the one with the power to make or break you is yourself.

It's not easy standing there but it is important to stay put. Some people are instantly embraced and adored, some are charismatic, others are mysterious, and some will shout and shout so no one can ignore them. Some face exclusion, ridicule, or are taken for granted. Some people are used for awhile or scoffed at from behind. Remember your vision is unique and that you have your own stories to tell. No one else can tell your stories the way you can. No one else should replace your words with their own. And yes, sometimes you must admit that a story or two will never have a wide audience—and that's alright.

Relax and breathe. Do everything you can, keep learning, keep trying, and never give up. No one ever arrives, this is one continuous journey.

Bonus: From the blog Writer Unboxed, contributor Jan O'Hara shares some inspiration on conquering writing fear, and fellow contributor Jon Vorhaus gives some perspective regarding letting the worries of the future stymie today.