Sunday, May 31, 2009

How to Decide When to SEND!

Last sunday I posted on the issue of how long to wait once an agent or editor requests a full or partial manuscript.

The reason was, of course, that Donald Maass just requested the first fifty pages of my novel and I made the choice to say that I would like a little time to send it.

So, now we get to review some of the comments and try to make the most well informed choices that we can.

Picture that you will soon have the same thing happen for you. Are you ready--now? What would you do? What are some of the key things that you should think about?

The following points are based off of the comments from last Sunday. Check it out if you are interested in the details.


1. It does not matter when you send your stuff if it is crap.

I love this one. There is so much truth to it! Thanks notenoughwords.

In Maass's new book, which is pictured above, he says, "The majority of writers seek representation or publication years too soon. Rejection slips quickly set them straight" (p.3).

I have a friend that read screenplays for a Manager/Agent. He got angry with amateurish mistakes and was pretty direct about saying that it was rare for him to actually bring a screenplay to his boss.

And this, of course, brings me back to Pam Binder's advice to wait, because industry people have told her that most writers send their stuff too soon.

The important thing, in my opinion, is not so much to wait or not wait, but to know if what you are sending truly is slushworthy or if there is something to it that warrants an agent's request to see more.

How do you know?

I think that contests and short story publications are two of the best ways.

Diane and Patrick both have quite a few short stories published. I think that says a lot about a person's writing ability and, if the story relates to your genre or novel, that says even more.

2. Strike While the Iron is Hot!!!

The point Patrick made is that sending the full or partial off right away may not increase your chance of success, but it will increase your chance of getting thoughtful feedback. I might add that Patrick is not just BSing here. That's been his experience, and it has been mine. (Although I could add that an editor who liked my web page took some time to write a personal e-letter, even though I took about half a year to send her the first fifty pages).

Clearly, I did not strike while the iron is hot. I chose to spend a bit more time making improvements.

How many of you would feel you would need to do the same thing if you were asked to send off the first fifty pages or the whole manuscript right now? Just curious.

Well, here's the deal. Imagine that I, or you, were in the position to say, "I will email you the partial before you can get back to New York!" I think that would maximize the interest level. That would be striking while the iron is hot. That, by the way, is my goal for all future agent and editor interactions with this particular novel!!!

But regarding this novel--this particular moment in time--I plan to send off the pages within the next two or three weeks. And if you are wondering why I would wait that long it is because I have just one and a half more weeks of teaching classes and then it's an open week with kids in school/daycare. That means I will have a week to focus in on making improvements on the whole novel before I'm taking care of the kids during the day and before I move to Minnesota. And, just in case you want to know, I have detailed notes from an ideal reader who has recently read my novel. If I was just thinking of the first fifty pages I would have sent the stuff right away. I'm thinking about the whole thing.

I really want to be in a position to send the whole manuscript off when (if) it is asked for. Taking a bit of time will allow me to do that. And, I think, that's when a person really ought to maximize on an agent's or editor's interest.

3. Still Discovering New Things?

I think this is the hardest variable to factor in. What if you are still discovering new things about the world you write in or about the characters? What if you feel that there is a missing scene that you could start writing any day? What if you feel that your ability to craft a story keeps on improving and you feel the pull to just keep on revising and revising and revising?


Davin, over on the lit lab, responded to last weeks post on his Memorial Weekend blog. I thought that he had some insightful things to say. One thing that really struck me is that an author can work on a novel for years, but feel that their book is like a cake a five year old made. He posed the question of whether it's easier to fix a cake that a five year old made or just make a new one.

My thought was that it is better to send off a story after two years of work and get rejected than to continue revising and revising and revising. There is somethng real about rejection and, if the story has promise (which it better), the agent may include an encouraging note.

"Once in a while an unready but promising manuscript will cross my desk. Wanting to be encouraging, I send a detailed email or letter explaining my reasons for rejecting it" (Maass, The Fire in Fiction, p. 4).

With that said, I think there are three levels a story may be at, as far as submitting work to industry people goes: slush, promising, and ready to be represented.

Wouldn't it be better to find out if there was anything promising about those first chapters?


It's good stuff! I've just read the early chapters so far, but I must say that I loved the opening and it was a blast to read one of my favorite authors on the craft of writing talking about my favorite fantasy series. And one of my favorite subplots no less.

Let me know if something he wrote has clicked with you!

I could include more of the valuable comments from last week, but this post is already getting a bit long. AND, I REALLY WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK.


What's your experience been? Have you waited and waited? Why?

Have you sent off your stuff? What made you think you were ready?

Has a contest or a short story gotten your novel off the slush pile?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Dream and the Reality

You wake up at six and get your coffee. Maybe some toast or a waffle. Then you go to your computer and write your daily 2000. You're done by noon, and since the bills are now paid, the rest of your day is free. You know: family, get-togethers with friends, reading books. Maybe, a phone call from your agent, asking you if you want to accept the movie deal.

Is that your life?

Well, it's certainly not mine!

We all know that the odds of making a living - good or otherwise - from fiction writing are... well, let's agree that they're slight. This is the case even when writing and selling novels. (I understand that non-fiction writing is better in this respect, and technical writing better still.)

Anyway, I think it's fair to say that most of us have other jobs which pay the bills, and so we have to find time to write on weekends and during the evenings, which moms will know is supposed to be family time.

So, fiction writers, have you beaten the odds?

Do you intend to?

Or do you plan on writing for whatever money comes, and keeping your day job until you retire?

Friday, May 29, 2009

When writing what you love goes wrong.

Well, not wrong, actually. Rather...'When writing what you love could get you in trouble.'

What is this, you ask?

I'm close (another 500 words?) to a third of the way done in my new WIP. It's flowing, baby. Imagine: I was writing happily away in the train yesterday evening, when a particular (relatively important) character did something.

Something that made me not only pause, but say out loud (in a german train, mind you): 'Holy Sh*t.' I had to stop writing for the night, and I didn't write this morning either. I was, as they say, knocked for a loop: I had no idea this was coming.

I write for the MG/Upper MG group, so at their oldest my target audience is about 13. It's something (without going into it here) that makes me wonder if kid's parents would lambast me for...I'm pretty sure they would. And will, when it's published. (see, positive thinking).

What made me ashamed of myself was the fact I actually stopped writing and worried about what people would think when they read this. And I truthfully didn't know how to handle it.

I'm better now - I've decided to finish the first draft and see how/where it might be important and go from there. I won't let others determine how I write my WIP, but it sure gave me pause.

What about you? Have you ever written anything that you felt could/will get you in trouble? And how did you deal with it?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Books That Have Stayed With You

My second year of college I was reading A Prayer for Owen Meany on the couch of an apartment I was sharing with three other friends. It was the first book I read through the night, and I felt completely absorbed by the world in it. Of course it didn’t hurt that, if I had stopped, I would have had to confront the awful reality of finishing a 10 page paper on Shakespeare’s King Henry IV. But regardless, I read 300 pages that night, and it changed me. I’d been writing screenplays mostly at that point, still hoping at that time to someday move to Hollywood (shakes head), but there was something about that book that caused a switch in me, from screenplays to novels. I loved the idea of one lonely writer fitting an entire world into a book, and leave it, if they are fortunate, on the bookshelves, for people who make this wild decision to spend a week or two (or months, depending on your pace) getting into it.

Of course that first novel would later become my personal stink bomb of crappiness, but I grew from it, got a short story out of it, got published in a nice looking magazine, and moved on to #2 (My Master’s Thesis), #3 (Amazon Quarterfinalist), #4 (Stink Bomb sequel, but short story again…) and now #5, which is in the process of being partially considered by agents.

And yet I look back at that time, reading Irving’s book, then next reading Slaughterhouse Five, and I remember why I’m doing all this in the first place.

So I ask…was there a book that changed you, or a book that you have on your shelf that keeps you going? I’d love to hear them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Arguments with My High School English Teacher

I adored my English teacher in high school, Mrs. Reed. She was smart and articulate, and her native intelligence wrapped around everything she said like a fur-lined cloak on a cold winter day. She was an older woman from the old school of English lit, so through all the classes I took from her (four years worth!), there was an emphasis on the classics.

I look back at that time in my life and feel lucky I received encouragement from the three women who mattered to me the most at the time: my girlfriend (Victoria), my mom, and Mrs. Reed.

And man oh man, I would argue with all three of them! You could say I was a bit hot-blooded back then when it came to books.

Now I did not argue often with Victoria. Victoria was not a girl you argued with, especially when it came to books and writing. Partly because she was so much smarter than I was, partly because it was hard to argue with someone who was so damn pretty. And her writing was extraordinary. She would write me poems that would leave me breathless.

But I digress.

Mrs. Reed and I got along fabulously, except for one little book: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Mrs. Reed loved that book. She loved the moralistic tale, the turning of events, and the irony.

I hated it. Mainly because I was a young man, and, when it comes right down to it, Ethan Frome might as well been set in New York City with a pink martini glass on the cover. It was chic lit. Wordy chic lit.

With snow.

Mrs. Reed claimed the book was a great study in irony and had merits because it did not have a happy ending. She was confused that I did not like Ethan Frome, because we often talked about sugarcoated books and their emptiness.

I agreed about the irony, but I also pointed out that the book seemed less of a morality tale, and more of base projection. And not cleaver projection either.

The test for Ethan Frome rolls around and I get a C+. One of my worst test scores I have ever received. Ever.

“What happened?” she asked.

“I stopped reading the book.”

“What? But you correctly answered key questions about the ending!”

“I guessed; the book is so predictable.”

“I am disappointed in you, Mr. Pacheco.”

Oh man, okay, I admit, I felt a little bit bad. For three seconds. Because, we were talking about ETHAN FROME here, folks. The book is a TORTURE DEVICE for BOYS and YOUNG MEN.

“Tell you what, I will read Ethan Frome when you read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.


Thus ended the great Ethan Frome controversy. I never did finish Ethan Frome, and I am sure Mrs. Reed never did read the The Lathe of Heaven.

By the way, there is no point to this blog post. How can I follow the Great Synopsis Post with Über Commentary, which followed the Great Interview Post? I cannot.

But I can relate one thing. Boys in high school who read books like The Lathe of Heaven would rather get the WORST TEST SCORE EVER, than read Ethan Frome. Looking back, however, I treasure that argument. I think about Ethan Frome, and smile wistfully, putting me in the 0.00000000008% category of Men Who Smile Over Ethan Frome (per males born in the US from 1909 to 1999). Mrs. Reed, I tip my wine glass to you.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Synopsis Struggles

Can a writer hate writing? I say an unequivocal YES. See, I despise writing the synopsis.

There. I said it.

And the collective gasp escaped into the stratosphere.

It's true, though. I've sweated and labored over a work of art, revised with a killer's instinct, edited with love -- repeated the process ad nauseum -- and queried carefully. Very carefully. So carefully that I don't query those agents who require a synopsis.

That's embarrassing to admit -- and awfully amateurish of me -- but it's true. And it's not that I haven't tried to write the darn thing. I have. In fact, I have a collection of them. I've read blog posts and agent posts, scoured the Interwriter world for articles, and studied ones others have written. I've done my homework. And it still eludes me. Oh, the concept is clear enough, I suppose -- it's the product that eludes me.

When the insightful and thought-provoking filmmaker Brian McDonald outlined the Seven Steps that Tell a Story, I dutifully scribbled them down. But it was Uppington who provided the igniting spark.

"There's your synopsis," she said.

I wonder...

Seven Steps that Tell a Story

  1. Once upon a time...
  2. And ever day...
  3. Until one day...
  4. And because of this...
  5. And because of this...
  6. Until finally...
  7. And ever since that day...
You tell me: how do you go about writing your synopsis? Is there one thing that's worked for you? Or many? Do you know a magical phrase intertwined with complicated footwork and a sprinkle of salt over the left shoulder? I'm not looking for the magic wand, just some ideas and experiences to help guide my way.
After all, like McDonald says, we tell stories in order to impart a bit of survival info. Throw me a lifeline, will ya?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Guest Blogger Lisa Unger

This week we get a special treat. New York Times Bestselling author Lisa Unger has agreed to write a guest blog about her journey from aspiring author to published writer.

Lisa Unger is a New York Times, USA Today and international bestselling author of literary thrillers. Her novels have been published in over 26 countries around the world.

She was born in Hartford, Connecticut (1970) but grew up in the Netherlands, England and New Jersey. A graduate of the New School for Social Research, Lisa spent many years living and working in New York City. She then left a career in publicity to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time author. She now lives in Florida with her husband and daughter.

Her writing has been hailed as "masterful" (St. Petersburg Times), "sensational" (Publishers Weekly) and "sophisticated" (New York Daily News) with "gripping narrative and evocative, muscular prose" (Associated Press).

I have read her book "Black Out" and loved it. Her newest one "Die For You" is on my to read stack and I hope to get started in a couple of weeks. If you like mysteries Lisa's books need to be on your to read list.

Here's Lisa

I used to give this talk with some regularity when I was just starting out as an author. I chose this topic because my journey is somewhat unique, because I have a great deal of experience in the publishing industry, and because initially people weren’t that interested in hearing from an unknown author who managed to get herself published. Sad but true!

I don’t give this talk as often any more; my appearances are generally more focused on the book I’m hawking at any given moment. But themes from this talk come up again and again. And I hear from enough aspiring writers with the same thoughts and questions that I believe this might be of some help.

A word of warning: This is NOT a nuts and bolts guide to getting published, because, frankly, there is no such thing. Many books pretend to be that – and you might find some good ones out there that tell you how to seek an agent, write a good query letter, etc. But the truth is, there’s no one way toward this elusive goal. When asked, I always say: Getting published takes a little bit of ability, a little bit of luck, and just sheer, never-say-die tenacity.

However, the following piece does contain some practical advice, some philosophical advice, and a few of the things that I learned along the way. I hope my thoughts and experiences help you get closer to your dream.

Enjoy and good luck!


I guess what I want to talk about is dreams—dreams that become reality. I’m willing to bet that all of you reading this have pretty big dreams, otherwise maybe you’d be watching television rather than searching the internet about how to get published.

The author Julia Cameron, who wrote a tremendous book called The Artist’s Way, wrote in another tremendous book entitled The Right to Write that, “we treat unpublished writers as if they have an embarrassing case of unrequited love.” But I’ll ask you to consider for a moment that there is not a published author today who has not at one time been an aspiring writer. At one time or another every bestseller on the New York Times list, every critically acclaimed author you can name, had what you have right now, the dream of becoming a published author.

For me, the dream began when I was just a kid. I have always most naturally expressed myself through writing. I have always created stories to entertain myself and others. I’ve always dwelled in the land of my imagination more comfortably than in the real world. Being a published, full-time writer is the only dream I ever had for my life. And looking back, I can see clearly that every choice I made, whether I knew it or not at the time, has led me here.

It may be like that for you. Perhaps you’ve always been a writer. Or perhaps, you’ve decided just recently that you have a story to tell. Whatever your experience is, for whatever reason you’ve come to the craft, the first step in making your dream come true is very simple: Believe that it actually can come true.

For a long time, I didn’t really believe that it was possible to make a living as a writer. Mainly, because that’s what people always told me. So, I made it a hobby. All through high school, I won awards and, eventually, a partial scholarship for my writing. In college, I was advised by teachers to pursue my talent, to get an agent, to really go for it. But there was a little voice that told me quietly that it wasn’t really possible (Actually it was my father’s voice saying, “Kid, you’re off the payroll. Get a real job!). I didn’t see it as a viable career option as I graduated from Eugene Lang College—the undergraduate division of the New School for Social Research—and started my first job in publishing.

A real job delivers a regular paycheck, right? So I entered a profession that brought me as close to my dream as possible (without actually risking anything) … and paid, if not well, then at least every two weeks. But this is the second step toward making your dreams come true: Realize that it’s not about the money.

If you’ve come to the craft because you think it’s a way to get rich, put your pen away. Some people do get rich … there are a few celebrity authors that we all can name. And I’m not saying you can’t or won’t get there yourself. But I am saying that if that’s your motivation, then you are not a writer. A writer writes because he or she can’t be anything else. Not that we’re unable to do anything else, only that it’s a drive that exists whether there’s a paycheck behind it or not. I would be writing even I weren’t getting paid (and did for most of my life). I will still be writing if I never publish another word. If this is true for you, then you are a writer whether or not you’re published, whether or not you are getting paid. One must write for the sake of writing, for no other reason.

In my publishing career, I started as a publicity assistant and, eventually, over the next seven years, climbed up the ranks to an associate director of publicity at Penguin Putnam, one of the largest publishing companies in the world. I booked author tours, media interviews. I traveled the country with authors. I worked every day with some of the most successful writers in the industry, was intimately connected with every aspect of book publishing and had never been further away from my dream. I wasn’t writing a word; months would go by—nothing.

My job was very demanding and draining—fifty, sixty hours a week, late nights at book signings and events, traveling to conferences, author tours. And all the while, I was stealing time to write my first novel, Angel Fire. It took me nearly five years to get serious about it. That’s the next step toward making a dream come true, COMMITMENT.

You have a million other commitments, of course. There’s your family, your job, your life. But at some point, you have to make a commitment to pursue the dream. Maybe that means you get up an hour earlier, or stay up two hours later to write. Maybe that means you eat a sandwich at your desk and use your lunch hour to get some pages down or claim some time for yourself on the weekends.

There is no other way to be a published writer than to write, no matter what. Maybe it’s a paragraph, maybe it’s a page, maybe it’s ten pages when you can do it. But there is simply no other way to be a writer than to write. There are no short cuts, like anything worth doing. You have to dedicate at least part of your energy to accomplishing that goal.

Personally, I had an epiphany. I took a really long hard look at my life. It was pretty good. I was young, had a great job, a fabulous apartment, fantastic friends, and I was newly liberated from a terrible relationship. But I realized that I was devoting all my creative energy to a job that I didn’t love. And that if I took 10 percent of my energy and devoted it to my goal of being a published, working writer that I KNEW I could make it happen. And more than that, I realized that if I DIDN’T focus fully on my goal that ten years from now, I’d have to look back and say to myself, “You know what? You never even tried.” I couldn’t live with that.

From that point, it took me about another year to finish Angel Fire (my first novel published by St. Martin’s Minotaur under my maiden name Lisa Miscione). When it was done, I sent it to five agents and was fortunate enough to get signed on by one of the best in the industry (she’s still my agent today). Three months later she had brokered a two-book deal for me with St. Martin’s Press. This is the abridged version of my story, visit me at for more details—it’s a pretty interesting story, if I do say so myself.

Here, I’m going to move past the more philosophical ideas about making this particular dream come true and move into the nuts and bolts aspects of getting published.

Unfortunately, there’s no formula. And, of course, my story is not typical. There are not many people who sell the first book they’ve ever written. Many successful authors wrote five books or more before they were ever published. So that brings me to the other element in making dreams come true. TENACITY. Believe in yourself and never give up. In my experience the following five steps are the best way to go … and they can be repeated over and over again if necessary.

1) Finish your novel.

You may hear about people selling their idea, or their outline for a book they want to write. And this happens sometimes in the case of non-fiction. An established author might sell by synopsis. But for a first-time novelist, you really need to submit a completed manuscript. There’s more to the writing of a novel than a good idea and the ability to string a few coherent sentences together. An agent (and we’ll talk about why you need an agent), needs to see that you can create and resolve a story arc, that you know about pacing, how to create a strong narrative voice, develop characters, etc. To know that, they’ll want to see your finished book.

2) Find an agent

Congratulations! You’ve finished your book. Now, your next step is to find yourself an agent. There are about a million agents out there (well, not really, but you get my point) all with varying degrees of credibility. The Literary Market Place (LMP) lists all agents and publishing houses, offering detailed accounts of what they represent or publish. Go to the library or visit to peruse this industry bible. Some agents like military fiction or legal thrillers, some are more literary, some more commercial. The LMP will help you to compile a list of agents that might be right for you.

Another way to find an agent to query is to figure out which authors your work is most like. Is it a romance novel in the tradition of Nora Roberts? Then you might call that publisher and find out who represents Nora Roberts.

An agent is crucial for many reasons, and I suppose that could be a whole other blog. But the simple truth is that most large publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and there’s no other way in the door except to find reputable representation. So get yourself a good one. Easier said then done, of course. But the Literary Market Place is the best place I can think of to start.

3) Draft a compelling, professional agent query letter

Once you’ve decided which agents you’d like to approach, send your query letter (DO proofread carefully, correct typos, etc. … have someone else look at it, too) to one or two agents at a time. Some people will tell you that you can only query one agent at a time but this is not necessary. If more than one agent requests your full manuscript and leaps to sign you on, you can make a choice based on who else he or she represents, what they’ve sold recently, success track record, fee, etc. (BTW – Standard agent fee is 15 percent of earnings and no reputable agent will charge you anything until your book is sold.)

All you need is a simple business query letter. State briefly what your book is about, what your credentials are (education, publications, etc.), a personal statement about why you’ve chosen to query that particular agent, and a polite request for representation. (You might also include the first chapter of your novel, though some books will advise against this. To my mind, that’s what will sell your book or not. But like I said, this is not a nuts-and-bolts guide, so do what feels best.)

While poor grammar, bad spelling, and typos are all the hallmarks of carelessness and a lack of professionalism and need to be very carefully attended to, don’t get bogged down with anything else. Sending your work in colored envelopes to catch attention, fancy binding, and/ or stationery are all totally unnecessary steps. It may catch someone’s attention but probably not in a good way. Simple, professional, and focused, that’s the way to go. The writing is the thing. Your query letter is an introduction and must walk the line between professionalism and enthusiasm. It must be “selling” but also measured. Crazy lines like, “I’m so much better than John Grisham” or “You’re looking at your new bestseller” will really hurt you to the point that people might just throw your stuff in the trash. Seriously.

4) Prepare for rejection

Look, there’s simply no way around. It hurts, every time. You’ll feel that crush of disappointment on your heart, every time. But you’ll need to get over it and FAST if your dream is going to survive. It’s possible that the first agent who reads your book, loves it, that the first editor who sees it, loves it and buys it. But more than likely, you’ll query a couple agents at least before you get signed on. Even when you’ve found an agent, there may be rejection from publishers until you find one who thinks you’re brilliant. Even when you’ve found a publisher, there might be reviewers who reject your book, or readers who don’t like it for whatever reason. Get tough. Your dream has to be made out of cast iron because the publishing industry is one hot kitchen. Imagine where we’d be if great dreamers let their ideas get quashed by other people’s opinions. It would be a dark, cold world.

5) Keep writing

Just because your manuscript is out there, doesn’t mean you should stop writing. Keep at it. Come up with another idea, and get to work on it. Remember, it’s not about the selling. It’s about the craft. It’s about being the best writer you can be, every day, without fail. And you can’t do that without writing every day without fail.

It really is the question I get most often: How do I go about getting published? Everything above is the long answer. The short answer is: Write everyday. Get better every day. Keep getting your work out there in the most professional way possible. And never, ever give up.

It’s really that simple … and that hard.

Keep writing and good luck!

P.S. These are some of the best books I’ve read on the craft. You’ll understand more about the business and yourself if you take the time to read them.

The Forest For the Trees by Betsy Lerner
On Writing by Steven King
The Right to Write and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Sunday, May 24, 2009

How Long Should You Wait to Send a Requested Partial or Full?

That's me at the podium, doing a reading at the Tacoma Borders, and off to the far right (by the empty shelves) is a woman named Pam Binder. She is the president of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and a highly successful author. I think that she is a good source for advice.

It was sometime around the start of Fall that I asked her about whether or not I should wait to send my manuscript to an editor from TOR, who I had met at the PNWA conference. My reason for waiting was that I was getting a ton of valuable feedback right after the conference and I had just started getting workshop feedback from an award winning author named Megan Chance.

As a quick aside, Megan is awesome. If you ever get a chance to do a workshop with her or an opportunity to participate in a session of hers by all means do! And, if you did not know, she will be presenting on how to start your novel at this year's PNWA conference.

Well, Pam had unequivocal advice. She flat out said that industry professionals have told her that the biggest mistake new writers make is sending their stuff out too soon.

Her advice:


Make your story the best it can be.

Send the editor an email letter before you send the manuscript that explains things. But, by all means, wait until your story is as good as you can make it. Wait for Megan's feedback and your revisions.


So, I waited and I made changes.

A published author read my whole book and I made revisions based on her feedback.

Then, I joined a writing group and I made even more revisions.

Then, I submitted an excerpt from chapter one to a PNWA event called The Word is Out. That's how I wound up reading at Borders.

So, that's some of the history leading me up to the big question of when you should send a requested full or partial out to an editor or agent.

Now, I just meet with Donald Maass a week ago at the Write on the River Conference in Wenatchee Washington, and I was very glad about how it went. We had a good question and answer session. Then he told me a few of the things that he liked and requested the first fifty pages. Cool!

So, this brings me to the problem of when to submit those requested pages. Is my manuscript ready?

Well, I can already hear the four other guys in my writing group urging me to send the manuscript out NOW!!! That's what they said last Thursday night.

By the way, that was not my plan. In the meeting with Donald Maass, I made it known that I would like to work on the manuscript more before sending it. He seemed very cool with that and made it clear that I should send the first fifty pages when I am ready and make mention of our meeting in my email cover letter. This had me feeling settled on the issue, but then one of the guys in my writing group said that's just one of those things people say and Patrick made some good arguments for striking while the iron is hot. Hmmm?

I'd like to give you a few facts on my manuscript submission history and pose the question to you. I'd like your advice, but I would also like to hear your reasons for your advice so that we can generate some principles that could apply to all the followers of this blog. I will gather up the reasons and post the principles in my next Sunday blog.


July of 2007:

I had a request for the first fifty pages by two different fantasy editors that I meet at the PNWA conference. Also, an agent requested the first ten pages, which was nothing special--just her agency's standard request.

I waited about six months to send out the pages.

I emailed back and forth a bit with one editor. She liked my website. The result was an email back to me that explained how an editor had to be "in love" with a work to keep it from getting lost in the market. She said that she could throw it out there, but that she thought it would just get lost.

I did not email with the other editor and the result was a sorry Charlie form letter back.

I sent the first ten pages to the agent (six months after the fact) and got a nonpersonal rejection back.

March 1, 2008

I meet with an agent from a major house at a conference on Whidbey Island. She requested two full manuscripts. One was a YA play that I hoped to get made into a graphic novel and the other was my 115,000 word fantasy novel. She seemed very enthusiastic about my projects in the meeting and at other times when I saw her at the conference. I thought this might be my big break and I could tell that this agent believed in me.

Well, I decided to do the opposite of what I had done with the previous industry people. I sent the manuscripts out right away. They got lost in the mail, but still arrived within a week or so. The result was a personal letter full of compliments. Man, it read like a letter of recommendation. She had such encouraging things to say, but you know what's coming, the terrible word--"but, ..."

That was about a year and a half ago. I've done a ton of revisions since then and will most likely email that agent to see if she is interested in taking another look.

So, here I am now. You know my submission history, you know Pam Binder's advice, and you know that my writing group thinks that I should send my stuff NOW. What do you think?

Question of the Day:

How long should a writer wait to send a partial or full manuscript that an industry person has requested at a conference? Should you wait until your story is as good as it can be? Should you strike while the iron is hot? How long does the iron stay hot? Or, is it all about what's on the page, so the timing really does not matter?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Discussion about Authors' Websites

Today's post is more of a question. I'm thinking about authors' websites today. By this I don't mean simple blogs. I mean sites made up of various pages, preferably having their own domain. I think these are becoming a necessity for novelists, especially ones trying to reach an audience. I say this because, as a reader, I like to browse the websites of my favorite authors, and I'm always disappointed to learn that the author does not have one. I'm also a bit disappointed whenever the domain "" is owned by a fan or fan club, and is "unofficial."

I like a pleasing, modern and easy-to-navigate design, with multiple pages. I dislike when the website is made up of one page, or when it looks like it might have been created in the 90s, or has not been updated in three years. I don't like ads, though links to the author's books on Amazon (or other seller) are appropriate. I don't mind political issues being raised, if they seem to genuinely matter to the author, but I'm annoyed by partisan politics and I don't want to see the name of any politician! Seriously, I don't know why an author would want to risk alienating about half of their prospective readers, anyway.

I want to find interesting things to read on these websites. A short, fun-to-read bio. Pictures. A list of books or stories with a teaser, and maybe a link, for each. Maybe even a sample chapter, or a sample story. Advice for new writers. A list of their favorite books. And a blog, of course.

Anyway, I'm very curious to hear from other writers on this subject. Do you have a website? If so, did you purchase your domain? Did you make it yourself? Give us the link! Also, are websites a necessity, in your view?

How should they be designed, and what do you think they should (or should not) include?

Friday, May 22, 2009

How do you do it?

Let me preface this by saying: I am married, but we (at present, at least) have no kids. 

I write on the train, at home, on the couch, in the bus...I write everywhere, without a care in the world. I balance it all well, set up against two sort of demanding hairless cats - they share the lap with the laptop, mostly. 

My question for you out there with kids is: how do you balance it? I've read some recent blog posts from some that really got me wondering. Do you ever have any free time? Have you reconciled your MS and your child(ren)?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Recycling Old Stories

Well, it was my turn this week, and I have to say my mind feels melted, after re-watching the Lost Season 5 finale, finishing a Peanuts Biography, and witnessing my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers fall for the first time in the NBA playoffs in ridiculously dramatic fashion. (shakes fist! Damn you, Orlando!)

So basically…I’m exhausted, and I thought, boy, wouldn’t it be nice to have something I could just cut and paste? And that’s when I had an idea that might be helpful to you. I realized that, out of the 5 magazines my work has appeared, 4 of them are because I cut and pasted a section from a long-ago crappy novel.

Like a lot of writers (I think) I have several unpublishable novels locked up. But what I’ve been able to do is pull the good stuff out, (usually a short story or a flash fiction piece) slap on a new beginning and end, and voila! New story. Even better than that, if that newly manipulated short story does get published, when you send out that same novel it came from (if you still have hope it can be published) you can say in your query…

An excerpt of this novel has appeared in DudeYouTotallyRock Literary Review. Or something like that.

So…if you’re looking for a new way to market your stuff, but don’t have the energy or time to create something beautifully new and powerful, look back on the history of material you’ve created. You just might have something there that just needs plucked out of that 1,083 page book.

Has anyone else had any luck doing this? Or if you just want to vent about Lost or the Cleveland Cavaliers, I’d be happy to listen, cause I’m going nuts over here. =).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Meta-Writing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This post is about the good, the bad and the ugly as it pertains to meta-writing. Some writers are good with meta-writing. Many writers are bad. And a lot are just ugly.

What is meta-writing?

Meta is a Greek word with interesting contextual meaning. I like the “transcending” definition ( more comprehension. In my line of work, I deal in metadata. This is data describing other data. For example, for a database table, metadata would be a description of what kind of data a particular field collects. “Numbers of Impressions paid for in advance per 1000 views needy by the BAs for quarterly analysis.” Tags are a type of metadata, same for JPG properties.

Meta-writing, then, is thinking about writing in order to understand writing. For today, I am going to narrow the definition: meta-writing is thinking about the writing industry in order to understand how to obtain an audience for telling stories. In other words, thinking about writing in order to become a published writer.

And some people really suck at this. “Really suck” being a technical term.

Before I go on, let me apologize in advance for sticking together three separate and related, but not equal, systems to illustrate my point. Let’s talk about these:

Writing: The actual process of storytelling as it pertains to writing a story for a reader to consume.

Industry: The system in which consumes writing and exchanges monies (via publishers) and readers for writing (via authors).

Meta: Meta-writing, the process of thinking about the writing industry in order to understand its underlying motivations.

Follow me so far? Swear to God, I am sober here. I have not even had sugar this evening (yet)!

Why would you want to engage in meta-writing? Understanding the underlying workings of the writing industry can make you a better writer. We can slice this up a number of ways, here is “Good, Bad, Ugly.”

While I pulled the amount of effort expenditure for each category out of my butt, here is how it breaks out:

The Good: A writer spends the majority of time writing. She spends a small amount of time learning about the industry. This includes what publishers are looking for, how to format a query letter, and reading resources, like blogs, to learn the publishing industry mechanics. Otherwise, she would be writing in a vacuum, and, quite simply, a person who would never obtain an audience. A hobbyist, if you will.

A even smaller slice of effort is meta-writing: trying to understand why the industry does something the way it does. Understanding the underlying concepts behind the publishing industry will make better writers, or, one can argue, simply published writers (hey, I told you these were dissimilar systems!).

And this meta-writing is pure goodness. GOODNESS. Let me give you two examples dipped in awesomesauce (awesomesauce being a technical term).

Example #1 is this article: Faith and Good Works. It’s about the success of Mormon writers. This is clearly a study in meta-writing: trying to understand why some particular Mormon concepts seem to resonate with American culture and thus sell books. The article brings up more questions than answers, which is also a clear indication of meta-writing. It is quite the fascinating topic, and is, pardon the expression again, pure Goodness. It is talking about writing and the publishing industry from a cause-and-effect standpoint. NOM.

Example #2 is this essay: read this b4 u publish :-) This is an essay by Max Leone, with an articulate argument, in which the publishing industry and authors, not the YA male reader, is engaged in short-attention span suckage. This is also a great example of meta-writing. Max is questioning underlying assumptions, disagreeing with basic fundamental concepts for writing YA fiction, pointing out the overlooked, and in general throwing a bucket of cold-reality water on people who should know better. This essay is talking about writing and the YA publishing industry from a cause-and-effect standpoint. NOM.

This mixture of Writing/Industry/Meta-Writing is a good mix. As authors, we write. We can study the writing industry and we can think about writing as it pertains to a system, and become better writers. A writer in this zone, however, spends the majority of their time, um, writing.

Now I know what you are thinking. You can probably guess where I am going with this. And you would be right. Heeeee.

The Bad: Let’s display our chart again:

Sadly, we go from Good to Bad with no stop in between, because bad is wasteful, and wasteful, like hate in Yoda’s Fear/Anger/Hate/Suffering speech to little Anikin, leads to the Dark Side.

What is the Dark Side?

Not finding an audience for your writing.


Because all the effort on learning about the industry is wasted, along with the associated meta-writing. The circle of self-reinforcement is broken. Meta-writing here does not improve knowledge of the publishing industry. Knowledge of the publishing industry does not improve writing. Actually, this is self-reinforcement. A self-reinforcement of FAIL.

Here, a writer spends the majority of the time still writing, but a significantly larger slice of time engaging the publishing industry. And not in a good way:


  • Asking questions easily found through Google
  • Engaging in debate with industry over topics not pertaining to writing
  • Engaging in debate with writers over topics not pertaining to writing (politics would be a good recent example)
  • Arguing (poorly, I might add) with writers over the publishing industry (my personal favorite: a gigantic thread over why present tense is evil right when a book written in the present tense was burning up the charts)
  • Writing about a subject as it pertains to the writing industry in which the author knows little about

I could go on and on, the major symptom is a non-trivial amount of effort on the publishing industry that does not improve a writer’s storytelling.

What is worse in “The Bad” category is the amount of meta-writing that goes nowhere. Yes, it is very possible, and quite probable, to engage in meta-writing in a bad way. A classic example is trying to understand a literary agent’s motivation for not replying to a query letter (silence means no) by arguing this policy. How, someone please tell me, can an understanding of this policy (not the knowledge of the policy itself) help an author in the publishing process? Do I really need a deep understanding of this policy? Anyone? Anyone? Didn’t think so. It does not help to wrap my brain around this. It goes nowhere! It is the Black Hole of Effort. Zip. Zilch. Nadda. Zed Omega Fin.

Yeah, it is wasteful, and I am here to tell you, emphatically, to knock that shit off.

The Ugly: Oh my God. OH MY GOD. This is (and we’ve met them in person and online) the writer who is trying to understand the underlying system of publishing books in order to change the system so they can publish.

Now, on the surface, that sounds possible, and it is. It’s been done before. One example is the very rare Publish On Demand (POD) book author that is successful. Not only do they have a good story, they have a good story that people buy, and they understand the market to an extent where they sell books at steady clip on a weekly or monthly basis.

Do these people change the system? You bet they do. We may not see it, but somebody in the industry is looking at those dollars the author is pocketing and going “Now how do I get me some of that?”

But, my friends, this is a major digression. The majority of the time, this type of meta-writing is full of badness. Why?

Because the writer has a poor understanding of the underlying system she is trying to change.

Why do people do this? Why? Why why why why? It drives one batty. BATTY I SAY. It is well and good to meta until one can’t meta no more. But if one has no frack’n clue about the actual system, in this case, the system of getting published, what, exactly, are we accomplishing here?

Nothing. And I can prove it to you. Let me pick on literary agents again (I do this because they blog and are easy targets). Let’s go back to the example from the Bad Column: A writer is trying to understand a literary agent’s motivation for not replying to a query letter (silence means no), and then complaining about it in order to change that policy.

This is a classic case of not understanding the laws of cause-and-effect:

  • Agent: I have too many clients; I need to cut down on the time it takes to process queries. Silence means no.
  • Writer: That policy sucks, you should change it, it is rude, I am going to tell people not to query you!
  • Agent: I WIN POLICY! OMG, I hope they post that everywhere.

Here, the total lack of understanding of the relationship between the agent, her clients, the publishing industry, and other writers, drove someone to do the complete opposite of what they were trying to accomplish.

Frankly, this erroneous meta-writing pertaining to publishing baffles me. My current running theory: entitlement whores masquerading as writers. Lazy entitlement whores.

Now now now, I am not calling YOU a whore. But I point this out so you can avoid these people, because their Black Hole of Non-Effort will suck you dry if you hop on one of their bandwagons.

Conclusion: Now you may be thinking a self-professed hack writer, unpublished, is very arrogant telling people how to write.

But I am not. I am being ultra-arrogant: I am telling you how to think about writing. I may not be much of a writer, but I have a knack for looking at a system and saying, “wow, that part right there is a lot of wasted effort.”

Only learn details about “the industry” as they pertain about making one a better writer.

Only engage in meta-writing if it allows you to transcend your knowledge of the industry in order to understand it as a whole system.

In other words, stop fucking around and get back to telling a story.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Make Me Care: Adding the Third Dimension to Protagonists

I'm going to buy Donald Maass' book, Writing the Breakout Novel. I'll probably buy The Fire in Fiction, too. Oddly enough, it's not because he's a well-known (read: ridiculously famous) agent/author. It's not even because I attended his entirely dipped in Awesomesauce workshop this weekend. Nope. It's because Dave owns it and has read it -- and has just bought The Fire in Fiction, himself. According to Maass, it's the second most popular reason people buy books: personal recommendations / word of mouth. (The first being, of course, buying the book of an author you already know and love.)

One of the first exercises of the workshop was to choose a hero/heroine and jot down the qualities that drew us to him/her.

I chose Tarzan.

  • self-educated & super-educated; knows a variety of languages
  • logical and rational
  • active --> chooses actions carefully but unafraid to act upon them
  • stoic: didn't cry out when hurt; fell silently from the ocean liner into the ocean
  • loyal -- even in the face of death or pain
  • chooses right over might, regardless of his own physical strength
  • understands the law of the jungle: some must die; sometimes you must kill or be killed
  • a Renaissance man of sorts: educated & rationale, self-sufficient & independent; an active participant in his own life

Okay. So all of these apply to my father as well.

I think I was supposed to choose traits like compassion, honestly, courage, standing up for what's right even when it's hard...

But enough about me. Back to writing, we find that the problem with many novels is that you can't identify with the protagonist. You don't care if they live or die or achieve their goals. The following are steps Maass outlined in the workshop. I'm counting on Dave or Patrick to flesh out anything I don't make clear.

1. Add Heroic Qualities: Show a strength within the first five pages. Without this, we just don't have a reason to care. Even the darkest, most ennui-filled, and bottom-feeding scoundrel needs these redeeming characteristics. Explore your own hero & inject those attributes.

2. Add Extra Character Dimensions: Jot down the opposite traits, then weave them into the character. Reveal weaknesses, variety, opposites, anything conflicting and contrasting. Surprise us, keep us off balance and intrigued.

3. Create Inner Conflict: You must take risks, going where it's uncomfortable. Make the conflict strong, dramatic, uncomfortable -- show your protagonist torn between his/her greatest desire and its opposite.

4. Raise the Personal Stakes: The story doesn't matter until it matters to the character. When it matters to the character, it matters to the reader. How can you make the conflict matter even more? make it even more deeply personal?

5. Raise the Public Stakes: How can the problem get worse? How can the antagonist gain strength? Get help? How can more people within the novel be impacted? How can you lessen the time factor in order to create a greater sense of urgency? Under what circumstances would your protag actually fail to solve the conflict? Take him/her there. See what happens.

How do you flesh out a character? How do you make your audience care? What are your experiences with your characters?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Publishing Doom and Gloom

If you follow any of the agent blogs such as Nathan Bransford, Janet Reid, Rachelle Gardner, Jennifer Jackson, or others, the publishing business has been tough this year. Every one of them has seen more queries. They all talk about publishers buying less books. I have seen posts from each of them about the loss of jobs in the publishing business. What does that mean for us as writers?

It means that it's probably going to be tougher to get published in the near future.

So, should we give up and stop writing? Should we wait until the market comes back?

Absolutely not.

If writing is something that you love to do, now is the time to invest in yourself.

In business when the market is down, the smart companies invest in new products. When the market comes back, they are positioned perfectly to dominate the market.

It's the same for us writers. With the market as bad as it is today, we should copy the smart companies and develop new products. That means writing the next book, polishing the current one, writing a short story, starting a new blog, or creating a better author website. It also means that you continue to work on your craft, work on your queries, and polish your image.

Your goal is to make yourself easier to sell not only to agents, but also publishers. When the market does return, you will be positioned to take advantage with a better you.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pitching versus Dialogue: The False Dichotomy

Picture that you are at a conference. You get into an elevator with the guy in the picture. He's nice enough and likes to smile. It's a conference, so you ask, "What's your story about?"

It's a seemingly simple question. It's one that we ask and get asked all the time.

Well, picture the guy tells you that it's about underwear.
"Really? Underwear?"
"Yes," he says with a sly smile. "Actually, it's about moms that wear thongs and my mother's gigantic underwear!"

What do you do? Do you run out of the elevator as fast as you can when the door opens? Do you dare to ask more questions? Do you just laugh?

The guy in the photo happens to be Jess Walters and he was the key note speaker at the Wenatchee Write on the River Conference that I just attended with Patrick, Alex, a friend from my writing group in Ellensburg, a blogger that I just meet, and a couple hundred other people.

Jess Walters--the highly successful author--read a poem to the whole group that was about the shock of seeing a mom in a thong. And you know what, if you were in the hypothetical elevator with him there is absolutely no way that he could actually tell you what the poem is about. You had to just be there. He was funny delivering it. His descriptive language, especially about how he and his siblings folded his mom's underwear like it was a flag, was cracking me up. He was hilarious, but it was just as funny to watch all the ladies in the audience laugh and exhange knowing smiles.

So, how's this relate to all of us? We have to go through the challenge of explaining our stories to others, both agents and fellow writers. Sometimes the meaning is hard to translate in a short coversation. And that brings me to the point. It needs to be a CONVERSATION.

The big, big problem is that people are taught to pitch their stories more than they are taught to talk about them. So, when writers talk with writers I see that there is an unexamined assumption that we are supposed to give speeches to each other. Is it any suprise that meaning is lost? It takes dialogue to develop an understanding of story. And guess what, I'm going to say something that nobody ever says. The burden is on the listener, not the author.

I repeat, the burden for understanding someone's story is on the person that asks about it. I believe this is valid because in my experience, which includes five conferences, the agents and editors lead the "10-15 minute appointment" with questions (at least they do if you let them).

These questions are meant to be conversational.

I have learned this lesson the hard way. At one conference an agent pretty much chewed me out for giving her a speech and not giving her the chance to ask questions. Man that sucked, but it was a good lesson.

So, here's the challenge. Check out the questions that Donald Maass tells you he will ask. There's not much mystery to it, as he lays them out in his book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

What I love about the advice he gives is that he tells stories of how things go right and go wrong for people. You have to be able to explain what genre your story is in and where it fits within that genre. You have to be able to explain what the setting is, what's at stake, and what the main conflict is. He gives you all this in the form of questions?

And guess what? These are exactly the kinds of questions we should ask each other when we want to know about each others stories.

So, here's a little list of questions for the next time you go to a conference. You should be able to talk about the answers, but you should also be able to lead people through a conversation on their story. It's hard to explain so many words, and so many years of work. It's hard to explain subtle points and get across what makes a story meaningful. If you can do what you can to help people explain their story they will love you. It's a good feeling to successfully explain your story. It's a good feeling to have others understand.


What's the genre?

What's the setting?

What's the point of view?

Who is the protagoninst?

What do they want?

What would happen if the protagonist failed?

Who is the antagonist?

What's the main conflict?

How does the main character change by the end?

What authors have influenced you?

Any of those questions should be good for keeping a conversation going.


What have some good/bad experiences been when it comes to explaining your story to aspiring writers, agents, editors, ...?

Would you rather "pitch" your story or have a conversation about it?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On submitting short stories

I'm mainly a short story writer. I have one unrevised novel and one unwritten one left to simmer in its planning stages, so my knowledge of agents and the dreaded book synopsis is limited to what I've read. But I do have some experience with submitting short stories and some suggestions which I'd like to share this week.

1.Professional markets: A lot of writers routinely submit to the highest paying markets first, and when they are rejected, they submit to the next highest paying, and so on down the list. This sounds rational. The problem with this is that a professional market can hold your story in limbo for months (and months) before rejecting it, and by the time the story makes the rounds of all the highest paying markets, a year or two could have gone by. My advice would be to send the story to the highest paying market where you think it really stands a chance, and then to write another, better story.

2. Following publishers' guidelines: I don't know why, but short story publications have no agreed-upon standard. Anyone who submits stories knows how annoying this is. One magazine wants stories sent as attached Word documents in standard manuscript format. Another wants attachments in rich text format with double spaces between paragraphs and no indentations. Anther does not care about the format as long as you use asterisks in the place of italics, and remove your name from the attachment. Another doesn't accept attachments at all, but wants the entire story copied and pasted into the body of an email. Another has an online form but you have to be a registered user. And then, in addition to the formatting guidelines, each publication also has specific words you are to type in the subject line of your email, or your story will be caught in the spam filter. And so it goes. Yes, I know it's a pain in the neck, but I think it's important to read the details carefully each time you submit and comply to the letter. The fifteen minutes (or thirty minutes, if you're like me!) you spend doing this will be worth it when your story sells.

3. Word count limits: Here, again, each publication is looking for something different. I think you need to take these seriously. If they say they want a maximum of 6000 words, and your beloved story has 6218 words, then either cut out 218 words, or find another market.

4. Simultaneous submissions: This means submitting a single story to different markets at the same time. Most publications want you to wait for your rejection before you submit elsewhere, which can take months. I know that some writers do not comply with this one. After all, who wants to wait four months on a response, which will almost certainly be a rejection, when the story can be making its rounds elsewhere? It's tempting, no? BUT on the remote chance that two editors want to buy your story, you will have acted unprofessionally, and you will anger one of the editors, maybe permanently. I'm sure that every writer who does this realizes that they are taking this chance. (Some publications are ok with simultaneous submissions; this will be stated in the guidelines.)

5. Proof-read: I say this, yet I myself fall prey to typos every single time I put my fingers to the keyboard. The computer will fix some of them, but not all, and I don't usually spot them afterward either, even when proof-reading. In fact, I usually don't spot them until either an editor informs me, or the story has already been published. If you're fortunate, you have someone else that will proof-read your work for you before you submit.

6. Retiring old stories: There comes a time to withdraw old, unpublished stories from the market, and in my opinion, this does not mean when you have simply run out of markets to submit to. I think that as you continue writing, some of your older stories will inevitably appear amateurish - and to the point that no amount of polishing will make you feel proud of them. If this is the case, then please put them in your trunk. I have lots of unpublished stories, and I imagine that every other writer does, too.

7. Keep writing: That's really the key, you know.

Anyway, here are links to two of the most well-known market list sites: Duotrope and Ralan's.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Outside influences on your creative process

I've recently done a lot of thinking about extraneous aspects of the creative process here lately, with the lull in between the second and third agented book. I have to know your opinion. Do you do playlists? I've seen lots of entries lately, what with people making *entire* playlists and CDs and stuff for their MS. 
Me, I don't even listen to music when I'm writing. 
And do you get pictures of your characters and look at them? 

Do you plot beforehand or after?
Me, I don't do that either. 
And it makes me wonder if there's something wrong with me. I just sit my rear on the chair, put my hands on the keyboard and write. I do it in short sittings, no more than an hour, and usually crank out a chapter a day. The next time I start writing I read a few paragraphs of what I've done and then go on. It seems as though my ideas are plucked out of the air; very rarely has a picture inspired a book. Nature, yes. Paper, no.
No music, no pictures, no sparkly things. 
What is wrong with me?

What extraneous things do you do for your creative process?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

GENRE HEADACHES (Literary vs. Mainstream)

Recently I’ve discovered that I ‘sold out’ a few years ago, meaning I sacrificed meaning and richness in my writing for hooks, twists, and action. I’m not sure if anyone else is currently having this problem, but it’s a pretty huge and sad revelation. It seems the deeper I get into a character’s head, the further I get away from the linear storyline. Or, the faster I tell the story, the less I get into a character’s head.

Now I know what the typical remedy is. It’s in about 10,432 How-to books. “The trick, Patrick, is to find a balance between the two. Have your characters develop during the action. Show, don’t tell.”

Yeah, thanks, and I’ll get out of debt by playing the lottery too.

To be a literary writer, in my personal opinion, you must have connections, you must love the style of writing, and you must provide the potential for insight with almost every single paragraph or page. Is it medicine? Well, to hook, twist and action folk, it probably is. To be literary means you have decided to self-realize your own books without believing that, after every page, you are closer to a book deal. As a result, a literary writer must must must must must have connections, hence, the huge rise in popularity for M.F.A programs. Their struggle for notoriety and respectability can only be rewarded if they suffer in front of someone very very important, and grow on them, until their prose starts singing. Does that make them more of a purist or more of an artist? Definitely not. Give two people a brick, and they will each do something different. Whatever they do, that is their art. One might throw it through a window and cause panic, while the other might brush across the surface slowly, taking in the texture.

I have personal experience with this, I believe (God I hate sounding confident and/or absolute, but just give me this one paragraph). I was a literary writer who desperately wanted an audience. I read classics, or books that were at least trying to be classics, but instead of finding a Master’s program fit for a literary writer, I instead graduated from an M.A. program specializing in popular fiction. Thus, after running through the gauntlet of ‘make your sentences more active’, ‘you need a hook’, ‘why is your character feeling that way, make them more real’, ‘no one will publish a first-novel over 100,000 words, let alone one which is not a specific genre’, ‘you need a love interest’, ‘longer fight scenes’, ‘you solved the mystery too quickly’…….after all that, I came out of there split down the middle, and I’ve been writing what I call ‘Litstream’ novels ever since…

I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re a Litstream writer out there, and you’re getting rejection letters such as ‘weird mix of fantasy and reality’, or ‘Great book, I just can’t sell it’, you’re not alone. I’m sure this is the case with other authors who write in a different genre, such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc…and feel slightly trapped by their own formulas. Even literary writers deal with their own constraints.

But Litstream? =). Well, we tend to write whatever we feel like writing, and must therefore brace ourselves for whatever the business feels like doing. A small (large?) consequence when dealing with such tremendous freedom.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Four Readers, One Paramour, One Writer

The woman next to me, waiting for the flight, is impeccably dressed in business attire. But she wears a frown. Does she not like to travel? I find that hard to believe. She seems like one of those people who can travel for a week and still look attractive.

There is no wedding ring on her finger; I think her lover causes her frown. Only someone as attractive as she could put that frown on her face. She has a book in her hand, but she isn’t reading it. She wears an expression as if she is sitting in a meeting and pretending to listen. But she is not. She and I would get along. I know this expression well. My heart goes out to her, when I think of my wife, she makes me smile. This woman needs someone like that. She doesn’t need a man to complete her, she simply needs someone who will never take her for granted.

The man to the other side of me does not look entirely too happy either, but I believe the focus of his ire is the book in his hand. It is a thick, trashy techno thriller. Perhaps he was trying to relive the apex of Tom Clancy’s releases. That will be difficult. He and I would also get along. How many trashy techno thrillers have I stopped reading? Frankly, I have lost count. I bet he has too.

The young couple sitting across from me can’t keep their hands off each other. She reads a bad magazine, one of those awful glossies by women, for women. But she is intently reading it, unlike the prior two passengers, in-between the occasional autopilot caress she hands out to her mate. She even hums a little tune as she devours the text.

The handsome and athletic young man she is with simply is reading her. His eyes drink of her as if she was a glass of peach juice. She does not know he is devouring her with his eyes. They hold hands, and despite the hormones they are throwing about, it is very sweet. I believe the young man is thinking about babies. As in wanting one. With her.

The young handsome man is smarter than he looks. We would get along, these two and I. They would make me feel young just by basking in their hormonal glow, and I would enchant them with tales of my children, who I miss.

The last reader sits next to this couple. He is so far gone into his book, I believe the only way he is going to catch his flight is if he notices people leaving. It is a non-fiction title, and I have read the same book. I feel he and I would get along. I would love to discus that very book. The thought provoking and a bit disturbing insights made one rethink the unthinkable. Not a book one keeps inside, book born to not simply for reading, but discussion.

I cannot help but wonder what happened to those readers. Did the businesswoman reconcile her desires with her wayward lover? Did the techno thriller reader find his Tom Clancy replacement, and if he did, who was it? Did the couple go on to have beautiful children? I am thinking they did. And the last reader, the man with the provocative book, did he find someone to talk with him about the subject matter within? If so, who was it, and did they share the same opinion, or did it cause an argument?

There has always been a social network of readers, and sometimes they beckon me like a moth to a flame. Occasionally, I will introduce myself and talk about the text in question. But I try not to. My observations of their existence, if only for a moment in a forgotten day for a forgotten flight, is precious. A slice of life, connected by words, intertwined with a story, connected by flesh and blood. I do not want to interrupt their reading time. If you can’t read at an airport, where can you read?

I love readers.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Digging for Detail

"That's why writers love to write. They discover things. They surprise themselves the more they dig deeper into a subject." --Barry Lane

Every profession has its perks. Education, I'm telling you, has a bajillion. Take Barry Lane, for example. I never would have stumbled upon him if I hadn't been a teacher. His book, After the End, is a must-have resource for any teacher of English, writing, or course of Language Arts tendencies. The rest of the title reads: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision. And that would be, of course, because most people (1st graders, sevvies, juniors in college, memo-taking temps) hate revision.

But writers know it must happen. They understand that it not only makes the writing better, but that it takes tenacity and time. And guts. Especially when you have to strip a scene down to the bare bones, or start over, or hack off pieces with a machete. The courageous ones blog about it, like Anthony who recently rewrote a chapter seven times.

[Author Note: The flip side of teacher-inherited perkdom is The Eye. Rest assured, being a teacher of writing doesn't mean you write any better. It just means that you're trained to recognize the good, the bad, and the ugly. Writers, too, undergo this evolutionary adaptation. I've read of writers who can no longer read books because they're always picking the plot apart. Or staring in horror as passive sentences sprout mold and spore the whole page. It's hard to turn off the inner critic. Especially if you do it for a living.]

Good writing, like any endeavor, takes practice, training, and an innate knack of sorts. Lane writes that "rich detail is the end result of an inquisitive mind." So how do we train our mind to constantly seek the deeper layer of detail? How do we take a scene or chapter or character and dig deep? How do you coax out that metaphor or word choice or image?

Consciously: Take the scene you're working on and read it with new eyes. Mimic your four year old nephew and ask every question you can think of. Follow up with "why?" whenever you get stuck.

With a partner: Pick out several details (or have a partner do so) and ask for help. For each detail have the partner ask several questions.

Lane's example:
  • Detail: There are no parents on the planet
  • Question: Where do kids come from?
  • Answer: They spew out of volcanoes once a year.
  • Question: But where do they get born?
  • Answer: They don't get born; they were created at the beginning of time, like rocks.
With a character: Some writers pen pages of notes, digging for details, chipping away marble to reveal the work of art beneath. These stories or histories rarely, if ever, make it into the final work, but the act of creation allows the author to understand the motivations and background of each character.

Lane's advice:

  • Pick a character you're struggling with and brainstorm a list of details about him/her.
  • Give the character a problem.
  • Work out a solution -- but answer the "why," too.
  • The nugget of truth rests within the why.

Unconsciously: You can always tuck the plot away for a moment and dream about it; or try the Lewis Carroll method; or undergo hypnosis. Flippancy aside, some of my best ideas surface when I'm not thinking about plot or character development or even my WIP. The trick, of course, is catching those fleeting thoughts before they circle the drain and disappear in a herd of soap bubbles.

Revision is more than editing or changing a word here and there. It is re-visioning. To re-see. Or to re-think. Or to look at with new eyes. How do you revise? What methods do you employ? What helps you get through that seventh rewrite?

Monday, May 11, 2009

The True Meaning of Mother's Day

I stood behind him in the checkout line as he counted out pennies one by one. A single red rose lay on the stainless steel checkout counter, drops of water shimmering from the slight vibration of the moving belt.

He looked to be about eleven years old. I noticed that his T-shirt was not only many sizes too big, but there were tiny holes in the fabric near the seams where his skin was showing through. I wondered if it was a hand-me-down.

Near a split in the seam of his faded black skate shoes, his left big toe protruded from a hole in a gray sock. He stopped counting for a moment, his right hand grabbed the back of his jeans, and he jerked them back up. I thought they looked handed down as well, but given the baggy style of today's youth it wasn't clear.

I saw him turn and glance wistfully at the rows of candy bars on the display to my right. He gauged the number of coins still in his left hand, turned back to the checker, and put them back in his pocket.

I thought about handing him a dollar bill for a candy bar, but I honestly don't think he would have accepted it. Just by the way he moved, the way he counted his change, a look of pride emanated from every action.

After I had paid for my card and plant I exited the store. I saw him standing next to a bicycle that looked like it had been built about the time his father was born. Crusty brown padding squeezed out from the faded ripped leather cover that partially hid a rusty seat frame. Rust colored rims, each missing a few spokes were shod with bald tires and mounted to a frame that had one or two spots with flecks of paint.

He carefully placed the flower inside a dirty backpack that was missing one strap. He fastened three safety pins where the zipper had been, letting the flower stick out between them. He slung the backpack over his shoulder and looked back to carefully adjust it so the flower didn't fall out.

He mounted the bike, checked for traffic, pedaled out of the parking lot, and into the bike lane of the street. In a few moments he was out of sight.

I looked at the oversize Mother's Day card and the pricey plant that sat in the back seat of my shiny late model car and realized that it didn't carry the same impact as that simple red rose. It was a trivial task for me to drive to the store, pick out any card I desired, grab the biggest or best plant without looking at the sticker, drive back home, and present it to my wife expecting adoration for taking the time and effort to do so. When I compare that to the thought and effort displayed by the kid, mine fell painfully short.

The simple act of watching that boy was a lesson in itself. As much as I am able to buy my wife nice things, it really is the thought that counts.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mom's Day and Stories!


I had so many serious topics that I was going to blog about. I wasn't sure which one I was going to choose:

  • Upcoming ten minute meeting with Donald Maass, the legendary literary agent?

  • Nuclear explosion image to discuss feedback I've recently given?

  • A super successful example of a flashback?
Well, all these choices will just have to wait: It's mother's day and a puppet show just inspired me.

I was sitting in the kids' room, and I was very full from the Angus beef burgers I just ate. So, it was more like lounging back on my daughter's bed as I watched my wife put on a puppet show with Emily, who is five.
"I just moved too. Do you want to be friends with me," said the horse (my wife) to the frog (my daughter).
"Yes," said the frog, with a jump of excitement.
"What do you like to do?" asked the horse.
There was a long silence. At least it felt long to me, because I was all caught up in the action, and the relevance of the story topic. So, I asked the frog, "Do you like to jump?"
With a jump, the velvet green frog said, "I like to jump--on my bottom!"
And that's exactly what the green frog did. She jumped up and down on her bottom, and my son--who is three--just laughed and laughed and laughed as he sat watching the show in my daughter's pink fold up chair.
There's no fighting a little kid laugh like that. We were all laughing. Then the horse got into the act. In a horsey voice, my wife said, "That hurts. I don't have legs like you." And my daughter just cracked up.
Life can be hard, but moments like these make it good! I've got to credit my wife for putting together the puppet show and giving the kids her creative energy. Mom's make a big difference when it comes to loving the world of story. At least that's been my experience.
My Mom:
My first word was "book". Isn't that weird? Well, yes, but I also think that it is kinda cool. And it has everything to do with my mom.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm the last person in the world to paint a picture of having a perfect childhood. Far from it. But, when it comes to stories and story telling, I was truly blessed.
Now, I can't remember back to when I was one, or two, or three. But, I can recall a time just a few months ago when my mom and my dad's fourth wife (who is wonderful) read to my kids.
My family is scattered all over Washington and Oregon, but we all got together at the Tacoma Borders because I was selected by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association to do a reading with a few other people. This was a big deal for me, but as it turned out the best part of the whole thing was watching the grandmas with my kids.

On the steps of the children's reading area, three generations sat together. There was my step father, my mom, my dad, and my step-mother Norma. My wife and I just sat and smiled as the grandmas cuddled the kids in their laps and read with voices full of joy and drama.
I listened closely to my mom and knew that's why my first word was book. She loves to read to kids. There was a little black boy about my daughter's age who looked over and listened and I was so glad that he smiled and joined in with the story. That's what stories are meant to do--bring us all together.

Questions of the Day:
What do you or your significant other do to encourage imagination and a love of the story world?

What kinds of experiences did you have reading with your mom?

(I will have to do a post like this on father's day, because my dad is a character and has his own style of story telling. Maybe I won't wait that long, because he believes that he has a guardian angel named Fred who is so lazy that you have to swear and cuss to get his attention. My dad loves telling stories like that, and others that many might find embarrassing.)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Bonus Blog!

Lady Glamis, who regularly follows this team blog, has just posted the first in a three part series on how to create a visually appealing blog. It's good stuff and I would recommend checking it out!

Questions of the Day:

What works on our blog?

Any ideas on how we could improve the visual appeal of Adventures in Fiction?

Here's a specific idea for team members and those who follow this blog:

Would it be a good idea to include a picture of everyone that is on the team blog?

Personally, I like it when the blogs I visit have photos. So, I'd say yes. What do you think?

Is non-writing ever writing?

By "non-writing" I mean any activity that does not add to the word count of a work in progress.

I like daydreaming about my characters. I like to look things up on the internet, even if they are only marginally related to my story. I like to look for character names in my old baby name books. I like to take to take Google street-view tours of distant cities. (Hey, it's educational!) I like to make cloud diagrams in notebooks. I like to keep a pen and notebook nearby at all times, you know, just in case. I like to browse through books on Amazon, and authors' websites, even when I have not read their book. And I especially like to pretend that these activities further the progress my writing.

Yes, I like to think that they do, even though I know, in my heart of hearts, that they do not.

For me, planning is not writing. Research is not writing. Diagramming and scribbling notes are not writing. Dreaming is not writing. Blogging about writing is not writing. And thinking about writing is definitely not writing. The only thing that is writing is when I am sitting in front of my computer tying words in Word, and with my internet browser closed.

I don't know how it works for others, but for me, even writing with pen on paper is not really writing, either. To really and truly write, I have to use my computer. And the obvious problem with this, of course, is that internet is exactly one click away at all times. Real writing is hard work. And the constant siren-call of the internet is very tempting. Very, very. (The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak!)

Anyway, here is the imperfect and partial solution I use to keep myself focused on writing in the face of this enormous temptation.

I bargain with myself. Little things. I'll decide, for example, that today I have to write for one hour before I can check my email. Or maybe, I have to write for two hours before I can check any blogs, mine or anyone else's. Three hundred words might equal one coffee re-fill, or eight hundred words might mean lunch.

Oftentimes, just getting started is the hardest part of the writing day, and somehow, knowing these little rewards are coming makes it easier to begin the work. After getting started, if I've managed to establish some momentum, then I'll forget forget about the coffee, or the website I wanted to check out, or whatever it was that was so tempting initially.

It's silly, I know, but it works. Usually.

I'd like to hear from other writers. How do you keep yourself writing, when there are so many easier things you could be doing?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Well, on the West Coast it's still Friday***

 wanted to chat this week about what happens with a submission. I know I never really got what happened between the agent success and the sub, so I was a bit of an idiot when it finally came time to do it. So I thought you'd like to know about it. 

Lots of agents say they list a criteria of so-and-so many editors in a list in their mind about a book they're reading before they even offer, so it's likely your new agent has quite an idea of the editors in your genre and a good idea of where exactly they are going to be submitting that baby. (This is a good time to point out that an agent that subs and sells in your genre is generally a good thing, but an agent that is enthusiastic about your MS and is a good seller in other genres is great too, imo)

They'll work up the submissions package, which includes various things such as long and short and super short synopses, character arcs, further series clarifications, and so on. They'll work up the cover letter, which you likely won't get to see because it might make your brain explode to read the nice things they've said about you (If you want a good example of this check out Kristen Nelson's blog. I think she wrote about a couple cover letters) and let you know when they're ready to sub. Most agents will give you a list of editors they're going to hit up, some tell you after the 'pitch' fact (i.e. they call up the editor, wax eloquent about your book and when the editor says yes, send me the full *then* they tell you. 

Lots of agents submit in "rounds", where a specific amount of editors receive it and you wait for feedback. Depending on that editor and their reading style and their habits, as well as the relationship your agent has with that editor, it could be anywhere from 1 day to 4 weeks before she/he follows up with the editor about your submission. 

It's inevitable at some point that you'll get a rejection. It's how the game goes. But you can decide beforehand if you want to know or not. My agent asked me at the beginning if I wanted to have them, and I said I did. It's not that there's a lack of trust or anything, but I want to see what these people have to say about my beloved book. I mean, I've worked on it long enough and dreamed about it enough, why not really live the entire experience? Conversely, some agents won't forward it to you, or keep them to deliver in groups, to try and help. 

Then, once it's all started, you wait. And wait. 

And I'll cross my fingers for you. :) 

***Sorry, all. We're trying to find a flat in Berlin, where we'll move to here shortly, and I was stuck in a train for seven hours yesterday. Next time I'll schedule the post. :)