Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Except for some enterprising freshman, most of his kids aren't willing to go in after it; to everyone but that freshman, the quarter actually has negative value now. Still, a quarter is a quarter is a quarter, in the hand or in the bowl. Whether they value it or not, that quarter is still worth twenty-five cents.
As a writer, I sure feel like a quarter in the toilet sometimes--especially when I'm querying. I often only feel as good as my last response, so when a rejection rolls in, my confidence dips. And when the rejections pile up, my confidence plummets.
But the truth is, my worth as a writer has nothing to do with how everyone else values my writing. My worth as a writer is defined by certain inherent characteristics--my talent, my passion, my desire--and those things never change.
It reminds me of Max Lucado's beautiful picture book YOU ARE SPECIAL. His main character, the much maligned Punchinello, only receives ugly gray dots from his fellow wooden puppets, and in a society built around public praise or scorn, those gray dots might as well be the plague. But then Punchinello meets Lucia, another wooden puppet who bears neither the stars nor the dots of her fellow townspeople. Punchinello asks her why her stickers don't stick, and she tells him: Because she cares more about what the woodcarver thinks than what the other puppets think. Because she knows her worth as a wooden puppet is intrinsic. It has nothing to do with how much the other puppets reject, or adore, her.
Now, obviously, constructive criticism is, well, constructive; I'm in no way suggesting that we don't consider and try to incorporate the feedback we receive. And it's pretty much impossible not to feel that tiny thrill when a request or, gasp, an offer of representation comes. But in the end, those things do not define us. In the end, we are worthwhile writers simply because we are.
Do I always think this way? Sadly, no. There are minutes and hours and days and weeks when I feel about as valuable as a quarter in the toilet. So this post is just as much for me as it is for you. I plan to look back at it whenever I'm feeling low. Because even when I don't believe it, I know it's true.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Ms. Stead's sophomore novel chronicles the sixth grade year of main character Miranda. That year ends with her mother's appearance on the old TV game show THE $20,000 PYRAMID, but it starts with her discovery of a strange note. The note, written on an old, crusty scrap of paper, asks a favor of her: write a letter describing the events of that year, and then deliver it to the note's unknown sender. If she doesn't, she risks her friend's life. But if she does, she'll be turning her back on just about everything she thought she knew.
The absurdity of this request, and the seeming randomness of all the little details she includes, pushed me to the end faster than I would have liked. When I'm enjoying a book, really enjoying it, I like to hold back, give myself something to savor for at least a few days. But I couldn't stop reading this; I had to know--HAD TO KNOW--what was going on.
If you're looking for a good book for your nine- to twelve-year-old, give this one a shot. In fact, if you're looking for a good book, period, look no further.
Monday, December 21, 2009
Not Perfect Yet is much more than In Need of a Line Edit. Not Perfect Yet is even more than Will Tweak This Scene Later. Not Perfect Yet is what a manuscript becomes when you write with the full realization that you don’t intend to keep some, maybe most, of the words you’re writing. When you write for the sake of getting something, anything, up on the screen.
For this reason, letting Bob be Not Perfect Yet has been…liberating. I don’t get bogged down in a chapter, a scene, or even a sentence. I put something down and move on. So I know Bob has problems. One scene (the one I’m STILL writing) has been dragging on for eternity and will need to be tightened. One character’s dialogue (Mr. Jenks’s) always sounds not quite right and will need to be fixed. I’ve fleshed out the back stories of a few other characters and will have to go back and rewrite the scenes in which they appear from this new perspective. Like I said, problems.
When I’ve discovered a problem in previous manuscripts, I’ve fixed it right then--or convinced myself it wasn’t REALLY a problem, for this and this and this reasons. Because my manuscripts had to be Perfect at every possible moment, or at least as perfect as I could make them before I started the next draft. I had to be content with the state of my manuscripts every time I left the computer, and (I thought) that meant they had to be Perfect. Now that I’m letting Bob be Not Perfect Yet, I’m discovering not-perfect is okay.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m committed to making Bob amazingly, stupendously, super-fantastically great--I might even go so far as to say perfect--and letting him be not-perfect right now could be, might be, a necessary step in that process. I’m sure you figured this out a long time ago, but it’s been a revelation for me. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. This is the season of miracles, after all.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
I’ve been trying to be a good girl and put this off until the end of the month, like I normally do, but I just can’t keep it bottled up any longer. So, without further ado, the numbers:
Total queries: 75
Pending queries: 18
Full requests: 4 (4 pending)
Partial requests: 10 (2 pending)
Squeak! In addition to the FOUR FULL MANUSCRIPTS I now have floating around out there (two more than last month), I also received a rejection on a requested partial that actually left me in a good mood. The agent said my writing had “a terrific confidence and polish to it” (her words, not mine--woohoo!), and even though she didn’t completely connect with this story, she encouraged me to query her again with my next project if this one didn’t land an agent--which, she seemed to think, was by no means a guarantee. What a lovely thing to say. And what a confidence booster--in myself and in this industry.
Meanwhile, one of those most recent full requests came from an agent who admitted she didn’t do much fantasy, but since she liked my blog and the biographical paragraph I included in my query, she was willing to give my manuscript a try. It just goes to show you never know who’s going to be reading the stuff you send out into the ether, so you better make sure it represents you in the way you want to be represented.
That’s all for now. I’m off to refresh my inbox:)
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Definitely head over there and share a comment or two. Or ten or twenty. Every comment will be helpful; I know I'll be looking for all the feedback I can get. And if you're a regular reader of mine, don't feel like you have to sugar-coat anything you might say about Bob. He's pretty tough--and we both know that any criticism you have you only share out of love:)
Monday, December 14, 2009
Status: Slogging through the first draft
I’m calling him Bob until I can come up with an official title, which, at this rate, will likely be the last words I type. I’ve really been struggling with titles lately…
Anyway, this is the first book I’ve worked on since I started blogging, the second I’ve written since I started outlining, and I must admit, it isn’t progressing as quickly as I’d like. I would have expected my word count to be double or even triple what it is by now, based on the rate at which I wrote my other first drafts, but it is what it is, I suppose. I suspect the paltry word count has to do with my second child, who isn’t nearly so, er, content as her older brother. And the fact that life, no matter who you are or what your circumstance is, tends to get busier and busier as it goes along.
Still, I love this concept, and I love how the characters are starting to emerge. I’m trying to be a little more purposeful with my characterization in this novel, but they still have to develop page by page, line by line, grimace by grin. Of the unplanned characters, my favorite so far is Ms. Mahoney: She’s pretty large and likes to be in charge:)
No matter how long it takes, I’m committed to making Bob everything he can be--because I really think he could be, might be, really great. Amazingly, stupendously, super-fantastically great. (Not that the project I’m currently querying isn’t great; I’m just easily excitable, I guess.) And to take a little of fellow writer Natalie Whipple’s advice, I’m not going to settle for anything less than that.
Well, I’d better be getting back to it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hang around for a minute and chat. So what projects are you excited about, and how are they coming along?
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Excuse me while I wipe the single teardrop from my eye. Puns will get me every time:)
My husband and I recently had a conversation. It went something like this:
“My children are killing my muse!” I screeched.
To which my husband replied, “Don’t ever show your face on this mews again!”
“What?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “From THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE.”
Oh, look, another pun. And there goes another teardrop. But muse/mews aside, this sort of exchange happens often in our home. He says something, I say something, he says something back, and I think, “Wow, that’s good enough to be in a book. We’re like two regular Jane Austens--minus the accent and, you know, those little feather hats.”
But then I sit down to write and this comes tumbling out:
“It’s not going to turn out to be something salacious, is it?”
“Mom!” I exclaimed, genuinely disgusted.
“Well?” she pressed, still looking stern.
“No, of course not!” I took a step back. “Gosh, what do you think I am, some kind of--harlot?”
Harlot? Are you (am I) kidding me (myself)? What person under the age of sixty-eight (let alone a teenager) uses the word harlot anymore? Now, in my defense, this was only the first draft of a novel I had the good sense to scrap, so that ought to count for something. But still. I should have known better.
Why is dialogue so difficult to write convincingly? We only use it every single day. I really don’t have the answer to that. I was just proofreading a few things from Bob, my current work-in-progress, yesterday and was struck by how awful some of my dialogue sounded. Maybe it’s because I’m still in the early chapters and the characters’ voices are still settling. Or maybe it’s because I still have some things to learn.
Imagine that: I haven’t attained perfection yet. But I’m pretty sure I’m on the verge. And when it happens, I’m sure you all will be the first to know:)
Any of you have any good (or bad) lines of dialogue you'd like to share? Or any advice for me on how to write it?
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Here is the original recipe from Rachael Ray’s online hub, and here is my slightly less labor-intensive version:
NASCAR Chicken Casserole
4 to 6 chicken breasts (or up to 1-1/2 pounds)
1 package tortillas (8 to 12)
1 large onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped (your choice of color)
1 4-ounce can diced green chile peppers
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 6-ounce can tomato sauce
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 cups of cheddar cheese, grated (or 8 ounces)
Cook the chicken breasts however you prefer. Boiling works well, roasting even better, and either one will take you about an hour. If you decide to roast, try seasoning liberally with salt, black pepper, and any other spices you like, wrapping in aluminum foil, and baking at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour.
Saute onion and bell pepper over medium to medium-low heat until the onion turns translucent and the bell pepper starts to soften. Add diced green chile peppers. Mix soups and tomato sauce in a small bowl; add to the vegetable mixture.
While those flavors combine, mix chili and garlic powders with the 2 cups grated cheese. Then layer all ingredients (chicken, tortillas, vegetable-soup mixture, and cheese mixture) in a 9x13-inch baking dish and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.
Obviously, if you’re in a time crunch--or if you live in southern Nevada in the summertime, like me--you can shorten the bake time or change the baking temperature. That’s the nice thing about cooking over baking: Everything’s negotiable:)
Definitely try this recipe. It’s a kid--and parent--pleaser.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Sometimes, when I’m starting to feel low about my prospects of breaking into the world of publishing, I remind myself that at least I don’t work in the college football business:) That is one truly messed-up industry.
In other news, Authoress is hosting a fun holiday contest over on her blog. Just pen a few new lyrics for a favorite holiday tune and enter them in the comments section of today’s blog post. The lyrics should be “writerly” (her word, not mine--which is too bad, since I’d love to take the credit for adding that one to the dictionary) and, of course, appropriate; the winning lyricist, as chosen by super agent Lauren MacLeod, receives a bona fide query letter critique. The contest opened earlier today and runs through Wednesday morning, so good luck channeling your inner Irving Berlin. If I can come up with something by then, I’m sure I’ll join in. Right now, my chronic poet’s block is acting up…
Well, that’s all I got. Anybody else have anything exciting going on around the www?
Thursday, December 3, 2009
My husband looked up from what he was doing for exactly one-point-five seconds, exclaimed, “Yes!” and looked back down.
But I really don’t think I would be. Allow me to explain. I am a writer, have been for pretty much my whole life, and after working at this for years and years and years, I think I’m not so bad. Now I don’t think I’ll be a Nobel laureate anytime soon, or a NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author--heck, I might not even publish a book in the next year, the next decade, or the next lifetime--but I do think I can write. There, I said it, and I’ll say it again, with an exclamation point this time: I think I can write!
And because I respect my talent--and myself--enough, I really don’t want to settle. I want to find an agent who absolutely adores my work, and I want that agent to be someone whose, er, agenting I absolutely adore. I want that agent to be someone I can spend my whole career with, someone who understands me and my goals. I want to feel confident in that agent when the market’s down, when I have writer’s block, when I don’t think I can take another round of revisions. In short, I want a business partner/drill sergeant/pep talker. And if she (or he) has a lovely singing voice, that would be nice, too:)
Now I realize my opinion may change two, three, maybe seven manuscripts down the road. And there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever get that first offer, either. But for now, I’m holding out for an agent, and he’s (or she’s) gotta be strong, and she’s (or he’s) gotta be fast, and he’s (or she’s) gotta be fit for a fight--’cause this industry’s a killer.
Monday, November 30, 2009
I went home for Thanksgiving last week, and except for the fact that my five-month-old decided nighttime was for crying instead of sleeping, it was a wonderful trip. We ate loads of turkey and my mom’s homemade stuffing, went on a Black Friday outing that didn’t involve busting doors (we cruised clearance racks instead)--and my favorite college football team even pulled off a win against their longtime rivals. But because Grandma was around to keep an eye on my kids, I started hopping online two or three times every morning. And then two or three times every night. And everything snowballed from there.
There’s so much to do online, after all. I had blogs to read, forums to post on, e-mail to check. Before long, I was stopping by QueryTracker every three or four hours and invading my inbox at least three times a day. And I never check my e-mail that often--the longer I ignore it, the greater chance I’ll have of actually finding something new, or so I usually think. By the time Saturday rolled around, I was feeling as jittery as a caffeine addict during a coffee strike. Every second I wasn’t writing or hanging out on Absolute Write was a second I wished I were. And every second I was didn’t satisfy me.
And then, like a ray of sunshine--or maybe a lightning bolt--it hit me: I don’t have to be this way. I don’t have to let my writing consume me. As my husband once so eloquently put it, my hobby is for me, I am not for my hobby. Writing is NOT the most important thing in my life; I have my priorities, and I’m sticking to them. I’m happier, genuinely happier, that way.
This isn’t the first time I’ve lived through this cycle of obsess and refocus, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Every car rattles itself out of alignment after a while; the trick is to get it to the mechanic before you wear your tires bald. Well, my proverbial tires are no longer balding. I’m happy to report I am comfortably, completely back on the hobby-writer bandwagon. I’m sure my mouse finger will appreciate the break.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Total queries: 75
Pending queries: 22
Full requests: 2 (2 pending)
Partial requests: 8 (2 pending)
Another non-multiple of ten up there in the total queries count. What is my type-A personality to do? Well, at least it’s a multiple of five…
Interestingly, the two pending partials are the same two partials that were pending this time last month. So in the intervening weeks, I’ve had two partials both requested and rejected while the others are still holding on. I wonder what that means.
Well, I hear my baby crying. No more ruminations on what these grand statistics might mean, I guess. I’ll leave that to you:)
Friday, November 20, 2009
1. Word processors. I can’t help but wonder if I’d be a writer without one. I’m sure I would have started writing, since I didn’t use one as a child, but would I have kept up the hobby if my only instruments were still a pen and paper or, gasp, a typewriter? I honestly don’t know. I don’t like to think of myself as a lazy person, but I think we’re all given to the path of least resistance. So I’m thankful for word processors, which make writing practically painless (blood, sweat, and tears notwithstanding).
2. A toddler who sleeps eleven or twelve hours every night (and has since he was six months old). This one is especially apparent now that I have another kid who doesn’t:)
3. Garlic presses. Love the taste of garlic, hate the mess of chopping it. This small tool has got to be one of the greatest inventions known to man.
4. The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District. I live in a small town about eighty miles northeast of Las Vegas, so the local library is about the size of my quaint starter home. Thankfully, that tiny library is part of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, which moves more books than Butterball does turkeys. I (heart) LVCCLD.
5. Hand-me-downs (and the neighbors who keep bringing them). With all the money we’ve saved on toys and clothes, we could probably purchase a small island.
6. No-bake cookies. I recently rediscovered the joys of these childhood delicacies. All you need to make them is a few common pantry items and about ten minutes. And with three whole cups of oats in every batch, I’ve decided they’re even good for you, too:)
Well, those, in my book, are some of life’s little miracles. What are some of yours?
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Anyway, measuring your own writing skill is tough. Giving something someone else has written an honest critique isn’t too difficult, but how can you be objective about your own work? You can write and rewrite and re-rewrite, but how do you know, once the words finally settle, whether they’re any good?
Turning to friends and relatives doesn’t help. While their opinions and encouragement are, well, encouraging, deep down inside, a teeny, tiny voice reminds you they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Well-meaning English teachers aren’t much better. They get pretty good at spotting tolerable writing, since most of what they spend their lives reading is barely tolerable crap, but that’s about it. By the time I was in junior high, my English teachers had stopped marking up my essays because they were convinced they were fabulous. But let me assure you, those essays were anything but.
Other writers’ assessments are helpful, even essential, but it’s still not quite the same. Sometimes you just want to know for yourself that these words you’ve been smashing together aren’t drivel, that you know that you know that you KNOW what you’re talking about.
Well, I haven’t figured out how to do that. (Sorry.) What I have figured out is how to measure my own relative writing skill--that is, how much I’ve improved. And that all comes down to reading.
When I was a teenager, I devoured books by a particular author. Of course I’m not going to mention a name, and I doubt that many people would recognize the name, anyway, but suffice it to say that she (that’s not too much of a confession, I guess, to let that pronoun slip) wrote the books that made the teenage Krista read. After a while, her books started exploring themes that I had no interest in, so I stopped reading them. But I still thought back on those first few books with fondness.
Now fast-forward nine or ten years. When a friend recommended another of her books to me, I decided to read it. I’d long since abandoned that genre, both in my reading and in my writing, but since my friend had suggested it--and since I still thought of this author as a generally good writer--I decided to give it a try. So imagine my surprise when, mere paragraphs into the novel, this author launched into a four-page-long info dump that was one part back story and two parts telling, not showing.
I couldn’t help but gasp. Was this the great novelist of my youth, the woman whose stories I couldn’t put down? Had she really written this? Had she really written all of that other stuff? After mulling it over for a few minutes, the answer came to me: Her writing hadn’t deteriorated over the past nine or ten years; mine had just improved.
To be fair, her characters were as engaging as they’d ever been, and because I wanted to know what would happen to them, I kept reading. But I was disappointed her books weren’t everything I remembered. I was disappointed they never had been.
So there you have it, another one of my solutions to everything. How do you know whether (or not) you write well? Just keep reading. Sooner or later, you’ll figure it out.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Here is Tyler Florence's original recipe from the Food Network, and here's my (slightly altered) version:
8-12 slices of bacon
2 apples (nice baking apples, like golden delicious or granny smith), sliced
8 ounces of cheddar cheese, sliced
8 slices of sourdough bread
Cook the bacon however you like (I recommend laying it out on a baking sheet and sticking it in a 425-degree oven for 12-15 minutes; you won't have to tend it and it won't go all crinkly). Then assemble the sandwiches, each with two to three slices of bacon and enough apple and cheddar slices to cover the bread.
Butter the outer sides of the bread and grill for four to five minutes over medium to medium-high heat, until the cheese starts to melt and the bread gets toasty. Flip the sandwich over and grill on the other side for about the same amount of time.
You'll notice that Tyler Florence slathers the bread with dijon mustard during the assembly phase. I'm sure that tastes fantastic, but my husband doesn't like mustard, so we never have any in the house. Normally I'd say a sandwich needs some kind of sauce to keep it moist, but the apples work nicely in that regard, so I don't miss the mustard--too much:)
I've been looking for a great recipe to share for a while, and this one's a keeper. I'd never have thought to put apple on a grilled sandwich, but it's the ingredient that makes this recipe sing. The bacon's not so bad, either. Has anyone ever gone wrong throwing a little bacon into the mix?
Friday, November 6, 2009
What I didn't remember was the baby, Gabriel--not until I reread it, anyway. I picked up the book again a few weeks ago to refresh my memory of its themes, but it was the baby that stuck out to me. I'd forgotten about little Gabe and his developmental struggles, his lack of perfection. I'd forgotten that Jonas flees the community with the baby to save his life. And I'd never even realized that, as he and Jonas are whooshing away on the toboggan, they're actually dying.
The ending's interpretation is up for debate, I guess, but as I read those final pages, tears dripping down my face, that was what they meant to me--this time. Interesting how the same words, the same scene, can communicate something so completely different to me now. Because although the book hasn't changed, I have.
My brother-in-law never reads the same book twice, but I read the same books over and over again for this very reason: to see how I see them now. And the disparity is never more pronounced than when I reread the books I remember from my childhood.
Take TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, for example. I also read this book for the first time in junior high (whoever decided fourteen-year-olds could grasp this one was a knucklehead), and when I read it again a few months ago, I was surprised at how little of it I'd understood back then. I remember my fourteen-year-old self saying something like, "Well, it was a good book [I think I mostly said this to sound intelligent], but what the heck did that Boo Radley have to do with anything?" But this time, as I stood with Scout on Boo's porch and saw her world through his eyes, all the subplots and the symbolism and the characters swirled together into one beautiful, complex whole. Tom Robinson, as it turns out, wasn't the only mockingbird in that story, just the more obvious one.
Does that ever happen to you? Do you ever pick up a book again and discover it afresh? Do you ever go back to your childhood in the pages of a book? And if so, what have you found?
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated) is, apparently, the month set aside for writing novels. The idea is simple: Start and finish an entire novel sometime between November first and November thirtieth. But the actual doing, of course, is much more complicated.
Consider, for example, a 60,000-word novel, which is actually on the shorter side. To complete said novel within the allotted timeframe, you’d have to compose an average of 2,000 words a day, or roughly eight typed, double-spaced pages. If you’d like to take a day off every week, you’re looking at averaging just over 2,300 words a day, or about nine and a quarter typed, double-spaced pages. And if you only plan to write on weekdays, you’re up to a little more than 2,700 words a day, or nearly eleven of those typed, double-spaced pages. And they’re probably not going to be terribly polished pages, either. Heck, I don’t even know if I’d have the time to put 2,000 stream-of-consciousness words down on paper every day, let alone anything that was actually readable by someone who wasn’t living inside my head.
But I think the thing about NaNoWriMo that really gets to me is the whole, I don’t know, randomness of it all. It’s like Valentine’s Day: If you don’t have a special someone, you probably don’t even notice the day’s any different (or you notice too much and work yourself up into a hand-wringing dither that only chocolate will fix). And if you do have a significant other, do you really need a special day to show that special someone you love him/her? I mean, don’t you show him/her that sort of stuff every day?
So it is with writing. Either you don’t write most of the time and you don’t plan to this month (or you decide to try and don’t last the first week). Or you do write, all the time, and then November comes along and you…what? Write all the time? Weren’t you already doing that? Except now your writing is probably far below its usual standard, since you’re struggling to churn out those 2,000 words.
I’m sure this method works for some people, and that’s great. Maybe it’s a wonderful way to produce a first draft and I just haven’t caught the vision yet. As it is, I think I’ll just hunker down and hold out for Turkey Day--and go buy myself a new pair of fuzzy socks.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Total queries: 59
Pending queries: 15
Full requests: 1 (1 pending)
Partial requests: 6 (2 pending)
Yeah, that non-multiple of ten up in the total queries count is driving my type-A personality crazy, too:) But I just didn’t have the time to dig up one more name, so I decided to leave it at that. I figure I’ll catch up the next time I fire off a round of queries.
You’ll notice I’ve added one more statistic to the list: the number of non-responses. I officially count it as a non-response once the query’s more than three months old (which you can read all about in this post, if you like), so I don’t have very many yet, since I’ve only been querying this manuscript for about four months.
Oh, yeah. I also picked up my first full request last week. I’m pretty excited about that, too:)
Friday, October 23, 2009
My husband laughed at this and said, “Wasn’t it just a few months ago that you were complaining about the writing? I believe you said something very much like, ‘Ugh! I just want to be querying again! I just want to have another manuscript ready to send out to agents!’”
He was right, of course. I did say something very much like that while I was editing my last book. That’s because I was starting to feel that same feeling I’d get whenever my parents would make me stop to eat food in Disneyland. There I’d be, stuffing my ten-dollar slice of pizza into my face as fast as I could stuff, scowling at all of the other kids skipping past, and knowing, just knowing, that their favorite ride was Big Thunder Mountain, too. That they were on their way there, and that they were going to get in line in head of me. As if Big Thunder Mountain were going to up and disappear sometime in between when they arrived and when I finally choked down that last fifty-cent pepperoni.
It’s irrational, I know, but sometimes we humans are just irrational beings (case in point: whoever decided mullets were attractive). And the truth is, while my life’s ambition has been to publish a book for as long as I’ve known what the word ambition meant (which is why I put up with all that querying), it’s not the reason I write. I write because I have to; because some days it’s the only thing that stands between me, my two kids, and the nut house; because it gives me a socially acceptable reason to talk to the voices in my head. I write because whenever I see something funny or beautiful or tragic, I imagine how I would describe it if I were writing about it in a book. I’m sure you understand.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I write for myself. As magnificent a dream as publication is--and it is magnificent and, for now, just a dream--it is not what keeps me going, what forces me to put at least a few words down on paper (or up on the screen) every day. I probably would have given up a long time ago if that were my motivation. And I’m not giving up. Because I can’t.
Monday, October 19, 2009
All right, all right, so I didn’t invest too much time or energy into finding an e-mail address. Besides, there’s a good chance that, more than twelve years after the book’s publication, Mr. Bragg isn’t even working for the Times anymore. But I would still love to sit down and eat lunch with him sometime, mostly so that I could hear more about his momma.
Although ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN’ does chronicle the rise and development of his newspaper career, at its core, the story struck me as being a tribute to his mother. It was interesting to read about his Harvard fellowship, of course, and the horrific atrocities he covered in Haiti, but it was his characters--the living, breathing, sweating, crying men and women around whom his life danced--that really engaged me. Especially his saintly mother. She took nothing from life so that her sons could have everything. I would like to hear more about a woman like that.
Every fiction reader should pick up a nonfiction something or other every now and then, just to remember that some stories are real. And this one provides a wonderful reality check.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
This new work-in-progress, which I will affectionately refer to as Bob, first came about as an offshoot of another (failed) idea; that was four weeks ago. So for four weeks now, I’ve been giving Bob the once-over, putting scene ideas down on paper, building up new characters and the world they will inhabit. Since I’ve been thinking about Bob for weeks, when I finally sat down to construct those first few sentences, I was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly they came together. At how effortless the tiny details were.
Perhaps I should clarify: The characterization and world building came together smoothly; the actual words and sentences themselves, not so much. I must be out of practice; it’s now been nearly four months since I wrote anything longer than a blog post. Still, I’m confident that the ease of writing will return, and I’m ecstatic that the story elements are so cemented in my brain.
So thank you, noble outline. I’m certain it will change, adapt, over the next weeks and months, but it’s given me something concrete and constructive to work on these past four weeks--so that I haven’t been tempted to jump right into the chapters.
What do you think, O wise blog surfer? Are outlines worth the trouble? And how long do you let a story germinate in your imagination before you start to give it life?
Monday, October 12, 2009
All right, true confessions time: I dislike synopses (and I only use the word dislike as an attempt at tactfulness). They’re hard to write, and even harder to write well. So I will definitely not be relying upon any of my own wisdom in trying to explain how to compose one.
I will say that it’s probably best to write two synopses, one longer and one shorter. The longer synopsis should be somewhere in the four- to six-page range, the shorter more like one or two. And now for a few professional pointers (and there’s really only a few because this topic kind of bores me):
The Longer Synopsis
“The Art of the Synop?” In this excellent post on the subject, agent Kristin Nelson presents a framework around which to build a four- to six-page summary. Her one caveat: Since she never uses synopses, either in her query requirements or when she goes out on submission to editors, her advice might not be too valuable. I disagree:)
The Shorter Synopsis
“The synopsis conundrum” As I was composing my synopses for the book I’m currently querying, this was the best explanation I found for what a one-page synopsis should be and how to write one. Agent Nephele Tempest’s post is a must-read on the topic.
Finally, for a great series that puts all these ideas together, check out these “How to write a really good synopsis” posts by fellow writer Anne. My particular favorite was the one entitled “How to write a really good synopsis, part XIV: alas, poor synopsis; I knew him, Horatio,” in which she compares three synopses of varying lengths for the same well-known story.
Well, it’s a start, at least. If you have any tips for writing a synopsis or know of any other helpful online references, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments section.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The query letter is probably the single most important tool for marketing a novel, and it’s made up of four main parts: a plot summary; a plot summary; a plot summary; and a brief biography, appropriate conclusion, and contact information. People disagree about a lot of things (whether you should have an introduction, what to include in your biography, whether you should even have a biography if you’re not a published author), but pretty much everyone agrees that the plot summary is the single most important component of the query. Fortunately, that means that pretty much everybody’s talking about it--and about query writing in general, too.
Perhaps the best place to turn for query-writing help is to the people who have to read and judge them every day: agents. Here are a few of their blogs that I’ve found useful.
1) Pub Rants Kristin Nelson is one of the best agents in the business, and in addition to the fairly frequent posts she makes on the subject, the Pub Rants sidebar is jammed with query-writing information. About midway down the page you’ll find the heading “Agent Kristin’s Queries: An Inside Scoop.” These are the actual query letters she received from several of her now clients, along with her commentary on the things that worked and why. A little farther down the sidebar you’ll find “Agent Kristin’s Query Pitch Workshop On The Blog,” which is all about that infamous plot summary.
2) Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent Nathan Bransford, another dynamite agent, also regularly discusses queries and query writing on his blog, and he’s kindly grouped several of his most informative posts under the sidebar heading “The Essentials (Please Read Before You Query).” Definitely some must-reads.
3) Janet Reid, Literary Agent Oh, look: another fantastic agent. And this one’s provided a few more fantastic posts about writing that query under her sidebar heading “If you’re looking for an agent.” I’m sure you’ll notice that Ms. Reid is a bit, er, more abrupt than either Ms. Nelson or Mr. Bransford, which just goes to show that agents have personalities, too, and that you should be looking for one that complements yours.
4) Query Shark This is another blog maintained by Janet Reid, and this one is all about the query. Here’s how it works: A bevy of unsuspecting victims jump into the shark tank (i.e., e-mail their queries to her Query Shark address) and hope that they get chomped. The getting chomped is often painful but always instructive. And the rest of us get tank-side seats to watch. It’s a great way to learn what the more common slipups are and how to avoid them.
There have got to be at least a million other websites with helpful information on this topic, including Kate Schafer Testerman’s ongoing “Ask Daphne! About My Query” series and Jennifer Jackson’s “Letters from the Query Wars” posts. So look around, and if you find a good one, feel free to share it below.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The truth is, most of the agents listed on the major online databases aren’t (total) hacks. So if you found the name on one of those websites, chances are, it’s all right. But there’s a big difference between a ho-hum agent and an oh-my-gosh-I’d-pee-my-pants-if-she’d-just-request-my-first-page agent.
Step #2: Sift your list. Keep in mind, you’re looking for quality and compatibility now. Here are a few websites that will help.
1) www.aaronline.org This is the official website for the Association of Authors’ Representatives. If agents are members of the AAR, they’re legitimate, period. But there’s still a lot more to consider, such as how active they are at the moment and whether their agenting style corresponds to your needs.
2) Preditors and Editors While every member of the AAR is legitimate, not every legitimate agent is a member of the AAR. That’s where Preditors and Editors comes in. Illegitimate agents are highly publicized here, and those agents with quantifiable sales are also clearly defined (they’re designated with a dollar sign next to their names). Preditors and Editors, however, can be (slightly) behind the times, so if you’re looking for up-to-the-minute information, Publishers Marketplace is probably the best place to find it.
3) www.publishersmarketplace.com I think of this website as sort of the online hub of the publishing industry. A lot of agents have listings here (although Publishers Marketplace isn’t nearly as searchable as the sites I mentioned yesterday), and they also keep a daily log of deals made to respectable publishers. A lot of this information, however, is only available to their paying members, and while I’m sure it’s well worth the money ($20 a month, according to their homepage), I’ve never found occasion to actually register myself. Especially when a lot of writers over at Absolute Write are already members and share this kind of stuff on the message boards.
4) Absolute Write Water Cooler The Absolute Write Water Cooler has a lot more to offer than just background checks, but these forums represent perhaps the best source of free, fresh information and anecdotes from other aspiring authors (and even some published ones). Here you can get a general feel for agents’ sales, response times, querying preferences, and more. In addition, after registering with the website, you can post your own questions and comments on specific agents and get answers and feedback from fellow writers.
Well, that should be enough to get you started. And once again, if anyone has any other suggestions for vetting agents, please post them in the comments section.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Researching agents occurs in two steps: First, you have to actually dig up their names; and second, you have to make sure that they’re legitimate. I’ll consider each of these separately.
Step #1: Dig up agents’ names. There are several great online databases for doing this. Here are my thoughts on the ones I’ve found.
1) www.agentquery.com Agent Query has put together perhaps the best at-a-glance agent listings online. You can search by agent name or agency or by such broader classifications as genre and whether the agent is currently accepting new clients. I like Agent Query because you can skim their search results and get a feel for what agents you might be interested in querying without actually clicking into the listing itself.
2) www.querytracker.net QueryTracker also has an expansive collection of agent listings, but they’re less readable than Agent Query’s, and most of their information is only available to members, anyway. It’s not difficult to become a member (you only have to fill out a short form, and basic membership is free), and I have never had any problems with spam or any other invasions of privacy as a result of my membership. But if you’re not comfortable with signing up, then QueryTracker is probably not the best site for you.
The great thing about QueryTracker is all the additional information it provides to its members, like statistical reports about query and submission response times and whether the results of those queries and submissions were rejections or requests. There’s also a message board embedded within each agent listing in which members can share anecdotes about their experience. All of this data is generated by QueryTracker’s members, who self-report on every aspects of their querying exploits.
3) www.litmatch.net Lit Match is a rough combination of Agent Query and QueryTracker. Its agent listings are more readable (though still not as readable as Agent Query’s, in my opinion), but it also provides several statistical reports (though not as many as QueryTracker or with as much depth). The nice thing about Lit Match is that these statistical reports are available to anyone, but you can’t contribute data to the reports unless you’re a member.
The one thing Lit Match does better than QueryTracker is track queries (ironic, I know)--your own personal queries, that is. As I’ve already mentioned, QueryTracker’s reports are better, but Lit Match’s personal query tracking page is just more readable. Of course, Lit Match’s creator is currently in the process of revamping the site, which he’s planning to unveil at the end of the month, so maybe all of that will change in a few weeks, anyway.
Phew. That took a lot longer than I thought. I guess I’ll cover step two tomorrow. But if you know of any other great places to find agents, feel free to share them in the comments below.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
At any rate, if you have anything even remotely to do with the publishing industry, I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that this is Banned Books Week. Awesome agent Nathan Bransford’s blog post on the subject raised some interesting questions, including whether censorship is even plausible in this digital age and the fine line between suppression and discretion. I don’t have much to say about that first one, but the second inspired the opinion that follows.
First off, let me just say that, in general, I don’t support governmental censorship simply because I wonder where it would end. Would the Koran, for example, eventually be censored because it engenders terrorist sentiment? (I am not suggesting that the Koran advocates terrorism, by the way, only that those Muslims who commit acts of terror often use a misinterpretation of its teachings to justify their behavior.) Not a pleasant path to start down. Indeed, the government does not have the right to make decisions about what we and our children read--but parents do.
In fact, it goes even farther than that--parents have not only the right but the obligation to make informed choices about the media that come into their homes. And that will mean banning at least a few of those things, books included.
You may call me unenlightened. You may call me a tyrant. But there are some books (and some TV shows, movies, and music) that my children will not read, watch, or listen to. I will not allow them (or myself, for that matter) to read, watch, or listen to anything with explicit sexual content. And until they’re old enough to handle certain themes, like murder, I will restrict their access to material with that content as well
Now I know what you’re thinking: How can I possibly expect to limit such things? They’ll have friends with access; they’ll find spare internet connections; they’ll have unsupervised time. And that is absolutely true. I cannot completely remove their ability to seek out such things, to choose for themselves, and I wouldn’t want to. But I can let them know what my standard as their parent is. And I can teach them why I want them to adhere to that standard.
So the government or the schools or the American Library Association can ban or not ban books all they want. The fact of the matter is, I don’t trust their opinions, anyway. And even if I did, their actions still wouldn’t change my responsibility as a parent.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
This no-response-means-no policy probably represents an aspiring author's greatest source of angst throughout the whole query process, and lately I've been trying to decide how I feel about it. On the one hand, it can be quite maddening (as in keyboard-chucking and/or straight-jacket-requiring) to compose the perfect query, personalize it appropriately, conform to all submission guidelines--and then spend the next several months and/or years of your life wondering if that e-mail ever arrived and, if it didn't, whether that could have been the One. But on the other, how would I feel if I had to wade through scores, perhaps hundreds, of random e-mails every day, at least some of which addressed me as Krystal or thought I'd be interested in the tragic true story (in novel form) of a half-eaten hot dog in New York City?
In a perfect world, I suppose, every agent would send you a system-generated response to assure you that your query had in fact arrived. But since I don't know how to do that with my own e-mail account, I guess I can't hold agents accountable for not knowing how to do it with theirs.
I know there are agents out there who manage to answer every query that slithers into their inboxes. I know there are even agents who manage to do this without the help of a posse of interns. But rather than crucify those agents who don't, maybe it's best to just give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they're really bad typists. Or maybe they spend all day raising a hyperactive two-year-old, and any spare minutes they have to check their e-mail are spent doing precisely that: checking their e-mail and not sending off form rejection after form rejection. I, for one, can relate to that.
Monday, September 28, 2009
My first real encounter with this so-called green-eyed monster occurred not long after my husband and I were first married. It started when, a few months later, we discovered we were pregnant. But it didn’t become a problem until, exactly nine days after that, we lost the baby.
Another month went by, then two. We started trying to conceive again, but nothing. And nothing. And still nothing. By the time six months had passed, my insides started twisting whenever I spotted a pregnant woman--and let me tell you, I was a professional pregnant-woman spotter by then. By the time a year had gone by, my insides stopped feeling altogether.
I don’t know why I held onto the jealousy so long. It’s pointless, exhausting work, after all, and I was hurting no one but myself. Thankfully, my pain--and with it, my envy--gradually did begin to mellow. I realized that I could look at expectant mothers again without wanting to scratch their eyes out (horrible of me, I know, especially since pregnant women had been involved), and I remembered this talk by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a leading authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a beautiful writer to boot.
Despite their religious overtones, his words apply to a large number of life circumstances, including baby craving. They reminded me that, in the grand scheme of things, another’s success is not my failure. That even when we seem to be competing against each other, we are really just competing against ourselves.
Now I’m having to relearn this lesson in my quest for an agent. It’s so easy to read about another aspiring author who’s just landed that dream agent, or placed seven partials instead of six, or sent a full manuscript to the same agent who only requested my partial (notice how each one of these is becoming more pathetic), and think, “What makes them so special?” or “Why can’t that be me?”
But the fact of the matter is, that success is not my failure. In fact, that success should only give me hope. Because I am not of the opinion that agents are only looking to fill a fixed number of slots on their rosters and turn everyone else away. They are simply looking for great stories, and I just have to find the one who thinks my story’s great. If Aspiring Author Number One can do it, then so can I.
Easier said than done, I know. There are definitely days--and sometimes weeks and months--when all of this feels hopeless, when I’m positive I’ll never see my words in print. But those days and weeks and months eventually pass, and hope returns. That’s what’s so great about being human: We’re generally hopeful creatures. And hope is a powerful antidote to envy.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Total queries: 50
Pending queries: 17
Full requests: 0
Partial requests: 6 (3 pending)
So I've only sent out ten more queries since my last query update, and all of them in the past week. I must admit, I let some of the rejection get to me and wasn't sure where I wanted to go with this project. But like the good writer/query ninja that I am (pats self on head), I ultimately talked myself into jumping back on that query roller coaster.
So if you're looking for some motivation, let me be your drill sergeant--sans the standard curse words, since that's not my thing: "Just what do you think you're doing, [insert last name here]?! Forty-two queries, and you think you're done?! You haven't even started! You sit your lousy butt back down in front of that computer, and you get back to work!"
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Then college came and went (I did manage to escape with a degree, thankfully), and although college was in general a muse killer, it did teach my brain a way to think. Ordered my thoughts in a way that they had never been ordered before. So when I was having trouble with the plot of my latest book and my husband suggested that I try outlining it in some way, I didn't snort derisively and lecture him on the finer points of creativity. I decided to give it a try. And it worked.
It wasn't a stringent outline, mind you. And it changed (a lot) over the course of the actual writing. But it was nice to see the plot on paper, to get a general feel for how the scenes would fit together and relate to one another. It made the editing easier, too, since it's easier to move sections of an outline back and forth than chapters in a book.
Lately I've been developing outlines for several other ideas I've had, and this whole outlining process has revealed another unexpected benefit: It's a great way to determine which ideas I'm passionate about and which ones will actually work. I've already put one concept back on my idea sheet because it wasn't going anywhere (or not anywhere I wanted to go, that is), and another one went down when its outline revealed that the concept wasn't plausible, even though I loved its hook. And I'm glad I figured that out now, before I've penned a single word, and not a hundred or two hundred pages from now, when my background in economics finally convinces me that sunk costs are indeed irrelevant.
So now I'm an outliner, although I still consider myself an organic writer, too. Maybe it's simply a matter of balance--and trying something new. So there you have it, folks, another solution to everything: When you find you have a problem (with your plot, your characters, your in-laws, or whatever), don't keep doing what you're doing. Maybe that moron on the other side of the debate isn't really such a moron after all.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Jamie Ford's debut novel is a study in contrasts. Its story is sweeping and yet intimate, its characters bold but still believable. It is the tale of Chinese American boy meets Japanese American girl. In Seattle. At the start of World War II.
The book's backdrop, then, is replete with inherent conflict, but the tension within the relationships provides the story's real substance. Stripped down to essentials, HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is a poignant sketch of how a boy becomes a man and how a son becomes a father.
Definitely check out this book. And if you're a writer, take a look at his agent, the indomitable Kristin Nelson, at her website and her blog--and hope that she reps whatever it is you're writing:)
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
but if the Beatles can compose
high on LSD
then maybe I can manage
on four hours' sleep.
This is for the insomniacs,
the overworked assistants,
the regretful garbage people who
at five-oh-seven in the morning--
but mostly for
who work three jobs,
refuse to give up on that
even though it's after ten,
and still love their children
enough to kiss them
Monday, September 14, 2009
The second draft is all right. Cleaning up my tendency toward verbosity is always a good thing, and scene management is easier once there’s actually something to manage. But then the third draft comes along…and the fourth…and the fifth. By then I’ve pretty much memorized every chapter word for word, the story sounds about as original as a TWILIGHT rip-off, and the characters’ eccentricities are starting to get on my nerves.
Still, I persevere. I do everything I can to make it the best it can be, I get some readers to give me their suggestions, I revise again. I force myself to write a query letter and (much, much worse) a synopsis, and then I stop, hold my breath, and hope that some small voice at the back of my head starts screaming, “All right! Be done with it! Send it off now!”
So I send it off. I close that abominable file for good and let out a very large breath. But then something really terrible happens: Someone likes it enough to request pages--but not enough to offer representation. And I find myself wondering, “What do I change now?”
If revising is my least favorite part of writing, revising during the query stage has got to be one of my least favorite parts of life. Because I usually don’t know what Agent A didn’t like, and Agent B might not agree, anyway. And even if a consensus about a specific problem begins to emerge, what if I start work on a major revision and Agent C stops by my inbox to request more material? Do I send them the (apparently) flawed original manuscript, or do I rush through the changes? Or do I just pitch the keyboard across the room and go find some chocolate?
The truth is, my rational side already knows the answers to these questions. One agent’s opinion is simply that. Many agents’ opinions are probably as good as a divine manifestation (assuming they agree). And just send those pages, flaws and all, with a brief note perhaps about the planned changes. But the rest of me still has a hard time dealing with all the emotional peaks and troughs. Sigh.
At least writing this blog post has been a bit therapeutic. Still, I think I’m going to take a break now and go look for that chocolate…
Friday, September 11, 2009
Eight years ago today, I was seventeen years old. My senior year of high school had just begun, and I was getting ready for school. I was also getting ready for a trip to the airport. My cousin was leaving on his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; he was headed to Brazil, and we were planning on going to the terminal to see him off.
So I was blow-drying my hair upstairs when I heard my mother, who watches the news every morning and (two or three times) every night, let out an involuntary gasp. I hurried downstairs to see what was going on and arrived in front of the television screen just in time to see the second plane hit live. We watched in silence for several minutes, and then my mother told me that I needed to finish getting ready for school, as my carpool was only minutes from arriving. I was going to go to first period, and then my parents were going to check me out for a few hours so we could drive downtown to the airport (suffice it to say, we never made it).
My first-period teacher often listened to the local news broadcast on the radio before class; on September 11, 2001, she never turned it off. It was from that broadcast that I learned that the Pentagon had also been hit. In another class I watched the first tower fall, then the second. When I got home from school, I learned that there had been a fourth plane, Flight 93, that had gone down somewhere in Pennsylvania.
I remember thinking that it was all very surreal. In my first-period class, I wondered if the world was coming to an end. As I watched those towers fall, it felt like I was watching a movie, not real life. But it wasn't a movie, as the residents of New York, Washington, D.C., and a small town in Pennsylvania can heartily attest. And the world didn't come to an end. Still, September 11th changed everything. It changed me.
So now I ask the same question Mayor Bloomberg asked: Where were you?
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Friday, September 4, 2009
Yes, you read that right: I wrote my latest book while pregnant with my second child, and I sent out my first batch of queries five days before she was born (actually, my first request came while I was still in the hospital). Now most people would think this was crazy, and at first thought, I'd be inclined to agree. But strangely enough, it's been this concurrence that's specifically kept me from going crazy. I look forward to the few minutes I get to spend doing query stuff every day because they're a break from my normal feeding/diapering/rocking routine. But then I can't become too obsessed with the query stuff thanks to all of that feeding and diapering and rocking I do.
So there you have it, folks--Krista's solution to obsessive behavior: Just go and find yourselves another obsession. They'll balance each other out, and you'll be one step closer to being a normal person. Actually, I think this is how all normal people become such; they have so many little obsessions that they end up with none.
I guess I'll have to let you know when I find a few more:)
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
So now for a few statistics:
Total queries: 40
Pending queries: 11
Full requests: 0
Partial requests: 5
Of those partial requests, only two are still pending, and several of those pending queries should probably go into the no-response category by now. Still, I'm pretty happy with those numbers. When I first set out on query round two back in mid-June, I told myself I was going to be content with two requests (which should give you an idea of how well query round one went), and I've more than doubled that number already. And this manuscript isn't even on the critical list yet.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
If you're reading this, I suppose that means you're my mom (look, Mom, I'm on the internet!), an unwitting victim of search engine failure, or (gasp) an aspiring author like myself. Well, read on, fair mom/victim/aspiring author. I'll try to make it worth your while.