Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Getting Started

The hardest part of any project, whether it be for work, for classes, for self, or for others, is getting started...

It's kind of like going to the gym. You don't want to go...you don't want to have to get changed into gym clothes, get in the car/golf cart/bike/mode of transportation and go there. But once you get there, you find it's not the most terrible thing in the world. If you're like me, you actually enjoy it.

Starting a new story can be like that. It's so hard to commit and sit down and put the first words to paper, even if you know there's no pressure because, odds are, you're going to change them at some point anyway. You're so roiling with ideas and images and raw color that trying to direct it into coherent sentences, one at a time, sounds maddening. That's usually where I get caught up-- I see so many different scenes of the story at one time that I can't decide where to start. At the very beginning? Somewhere in the middle and go back? Which do I set down first? And then my brain explodes and I don't write anything at all. So here are some tips on how to overcome the self-imposed "writer's block" and get to work!

First of all, do you have an idea for a story? Well, it doesn't have to be anything brilliant...it can be nothing more than a kernel, a feeling to go off of. You can build off of anything. If you need inspiration, start reading. Turn on some music. Go for a walk. Or just start writing something that is inspired by your favorite genre. Myself, for example: in the pursuit of starting a new book, I decided to stick with my favorite story style not only to read but also to write-- the retold fairy tale. I then picked my favorite fairy tale of all time-- Beauty and Beast.

Oh, and random fact: did you know that the beauty/beast fairy tale is initially inspired by East of the Sun, West of the Moon? Which was in its own turn inspired by the even more ancient story of Cupid and Psyche? You should look these up and read them. If fairy tales are your genre of choice, study them. Study your genre, your industry. It counts as research and it counts as work. If you know the roots of the themes you are telling, you will be better able to incorporate new trends or even really old trends that appeal to your geekier audience. If I, for example, use something along the lines of dripping candle wax on a person in my own story, those who know East of the Sun, West of the Moon and Cupid and Psyche will think "Oh snap!" The details are everything. And if you study the stories, know every retelling and reworking of a single thread, you will also be able to see where there is a tale missing. Which is exactly what I did.

Now I won't give away my ideas for my book. You'll just have to wait and read it. But I did notice a version of the beauty/beast story that is missing, that I've never come across before, in all the versions I have read. I've read a few, just so you know (that means a lot). So I jumped on it with great enthusiasm. This is going to be good.

Next step-- brainstorming. This usually helps if you do it on your own first and then with a group of two friends. Get paper and pen (pen, not pencil-- you don't have time to erase so don't even give yourself the temptation. If you need to get rid of something on the page, scratch it out and move on) and start writing down ideas, any idea, every idea, that appeal to you. Don't worry about chronology, or tense, or picking one or the other. Get down every interesting bubble of an event, character line, character thought, scene description, names, reasons, tie-ins, motive, conclusion, introduction, blurb that you can think of. You can sort them out later. This is raw-data collection time. Having the friends help will open you to knew ideas and thoughts. I'm not saying have them help you write the story. But I can say from personal experience, having other people give you swift, unrelenting things to consider for your story will get your own brain moving and will inspire your own ideas. And they will actually have something interesting to contribute that you can use as-is or rework as you see fit. Don't feel like you have to use their ideas. Turn things down, even if it's just for an arbitrary reason, and keep thinking. You'll be amazed how quickly those pages fill up.

Then read your notes. Make final tweaks to what you'll keep and what you won't. Then write.

You don't need to worry about where to start. Usually it's easiest to start at the beginning. Chapter One. But if you're having trouble doing that, and you can't decide which scene to start with, pick the scene in your mind that stands out the most or keeps coming to you most frequently. If it's your close companion, your most persistent visitor, chances are it's somehow the most appealing or tricky to you. Go with that.

And write...don't worry about it being perfect the first draft. Don't spend time at this point agonizing over which word to use or which sentence is finely honed. That's the editing process. First things first, get the story told. Work until it's done. Feel like a mad scientist or like you belong in a straight-jacket as you pace around your office, talking to yourself, staring at the wall, or laughing for no reason. When the muse does get you, you'll find your own set of manic expression-isms for it. But always come back and start typing/scribbling again. Don't give up, push through those moments when you feel like you need to stop or you just don't know. It's alright to write a book like a beaded necklace with gaps in between. You can fill in the gaps later and turn it into a cohesive rope during editing and smoothing.

But write...

Friday, July 27, 2012

Taking Rejection with Grace

And hello there writers and readers alike!

Those of you who know me may have heard of my step forward in the publishing realm earlier this week. After sending out close to 50 queries and receiving a handful of rejections, I got an email asking for more samples. The agent was intrigued.

Now. You can understand my delirious excitement. So I'm dedicating this blog post to rejections-- or further inquiries-- and how to deal with them.

First off: when you have your book or short story, and you've gotten your pile of query letters stacked together and ready to go, be prepared. You are going to be rejected. Probably a lot. There are those lucky few who get accepted on the first go. But believe me-- it's a small number. And it's not necessarily because their work is better than yours, or that yours is worse than average. It's not that they didn't work hard and just lucked out, either. It's a combination. Because knowing the market, knowing your potential agent, knowing your work, and having a realistic view is hard.

The people who get published on their first try are very blessed. It could be they knew exactly what they were looking at and knew exactly how their book filled the niche. But it's more likely that they had a good, strong manuscript, knew their agent's potential tastes, had researched the market and their niche, and then on top of that won the lottery of the agent actually liking it. Because acceptance is such a transitory, opinionated thing. No matter how hard you work, no matter how great your book is, you can do nothing if the agent/publisher doesn't like it. Nothing. You could have the next Lord of the Rings and an agent could still reject it just because it didn't strike their fancy. Actually, if you have the inclination, it's really motivating and hilarious to look up how many rejections some famous authors got. You can do so here and here but I'll sum up as well:

Stephen King was told that his novel "Carrie" would not sell.

William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" was rejected 20 times and described by one particular publisher as an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.

J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was rejected a dozen times and was only taken on by (then) small publisher Bloomsbury when the CEO's eight year old begged him to print it. (Now she's richer than the queen of England and has an entire theme park dedicated to her Potter-verse...huh...)

Ursula K. LeGuin, whom you've heard me mention before, was rejected initially concerning her award-winning novel "The Left Hand of Darkness".

One publisher told George Orwell that "it is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA".

You can go ahead and laugh at those words.

Frank Herbert's "Dune" was rejected a good 20 times as well.

Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle In time" was rejected 26 times.

Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" -- 38 times.

"Chicken Soup for the Soul" --134 rejections.

Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" had so much trouble that she initially self-published it.

Judy Blume was rejected for two years.

And last but not least, certainly, Dick Wimmer received 160+ rejections during 25 years.

...but I digress.

So. Rejections are not uncommon and not the end of the world. It doesn't mean your manuscript is rubbish. Keep trying. But learn from it, and don't get stuck on one thing.

My author mentor told me this summer that after I had finished sending out the latest queries for my high fantasy piece-- a book I've been working on since the 6th grade-- that I should start something utterly new. I'm going to take that advice and do something along the lines of urban fantasy (ish) since that is now the looked-for genre in today's market. I'm going to try my hand at a 19th century comedic retold fairy tale.

So keep writing-- always start new projects. Keep those rejection letters like a proud collection of shrunken heads (what, is that weird?). Don't get discouraged, even if those rejection letters are nasty. Most of the time you'll just get a form letter with no positive or negative suggestions. Every now and then you'll get a zinger.

My most negative rejection letter read something like "your manuscript is nothing like anything we would publish". Along those lines, in any case.

But my nicest rejection was from this week. Now to my next point. What do you do when an agent asks for more.

Keep calm. Celebrate a little, because if nothing else you've finally gotten confirmation that your story can intrigue someone. There's hope. But understand that an agent or publisher can ask for more of your manuscript and still reject you. So don't get too excited yet. Until you've signed a contract, you're not published. Until you're published, you're not (words of wisdom).

Send them what they want and keep your fingers crossed. In my case I was hopeful but not out-of-my-mind so, because the email that had been sent to me was from an Intern. Warning sign number one. He wasn't a higher-up who could decide from the get-go if he liked it. He needed to get approval elsewhere.

In the end, a few days later, it became apparent the higher-up in question hadn't agreed with the Intern that my work was the right thing for them, and I received the anticipated rejection letter. It was full of praise, though, saying "I congratulate you on creating an imaginative world with interesting characters and sterling action scenes. The sample was an enjoyable read." Oh, well...keep up with comments like those! I was of course disappointed, but not crushed. I had expected something like this. But it is still a step in the right direction, my first positive response to my manuscript. There is hope.

I have to date received 40+ rejection letters. I'm not giving up.

And neither should you. If you get rejection letters, learn from them. If you get further queries, think on them. If you get a contract, rejoice! But all in all, treat publishing less like fairy dust and rainbows and more like the industry it is. This is work. Even if it is the best work in the world, to our eyes, it is still work; we must still represent ourselves as professionals; we still have to deal with all the industry warts.

Perhaps if you give it a kiss the toad will turn into that prince...

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Fourteenth Book!

Today's post will be a geek-out post. An utter and amazing and ridiculous geek-out post.

You know when you get really obsessed with a series? The characters are endearing, funny, riveting, and so flawlessly drawn out that you're left flabbergasted by the utter audacity of the author being so good. It's just...just...not fair!

The plot is stunning, twisting, un-guessable, makes-you-jump-out-of-your-chair/bed/beanbag-and-scream or read so quickly you can barely process the words because you want to know what happens so badly. And yet at the same time you dread reading the last chapter because that will mean it's over.

You can't stand to put the book down, but you can't stand to read a moment longer because the sheer awesomeness makes you shiver. Every word feels like water to someone in the desert, or the most succulent food to someone who is starving. Cheesecake, honey, tea with milk, strawberries...whatever it is, it's incredible, and you can't get enough of it.

That is what the Miles series by Lois McMaster Bujold is like for me. You've heard me speak of her before. If you have never read these books before, you  need to. You have to. And I know, they're science fiction, and not everyone likes science fiction. Well let me tell you this-- this is not hard science fiction in that you can't understand half of what they're saying because it involves theoretical and practical physics that may or may not yet exist. That's Asimov's job, and takes a different mindset altogether to read. That's more like drinking a dark, dry wine, or eating a 75% dark chocolate torte. With raspberry puree. Yet Bujold's writing isn't soft science fiction either-- no timey wimey wibbly wobbly here. And let's admit it-- Dr. Who is fantastic and no one will ever be able to come up with a time-travel television series that tops it. But it's not physically practical, which ousts it from the hard science fiction genre. Keep apples and apples together, and oranges and oranges together (or would Dr. Who be better classified as a banana? Hmmm...)

Bujold falls somewhere in the middle. All of her science fiction sounds plausible, at least to me (but I'm no physicist), and yet it doesn't take a highly scientific mind to get it. Nor does it bend the edges of reality. No, she is delightfully detail-oriented, character-driven, and hysterically profound in every sentence she writes. I love her vocabulary and character development.

She has several anthologies in the Miles series, as well as several books that stand alone. The anthologies that I own, in order (and I have them all to date) are "Young Miles", "Cordelia's Honor", "Miels, Mystery, and Mayhem", "Miles Errant", "Miles In Love", "Miles, Mutants, and Microbes", "Memory", and "Cryoburn". Cryoburn ends off with what could have been a cliffhanger (an utterly agonizing and incomprehensible one!!!), leaving lovers of the Miles series gnawing their fingertips wondering if Bujold would have another for us...

...and word is out.

She does.

The next (the last?) in the series, "Captain Vorpatril's Alliance" (found here on Amazon.com) is coming out November 6th of this year. Focusing more on the illusive Ivan Vorpatril, cousin to main character Miles Vorkosigan, this novel promises to give new depth and understanding to the teasing, keep-out-of-trouble Ivan. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Bujold gives us regarding this engimatic young Captain. And yet I also wonder...if this next, newest novel of Bujold's, the fourteenth in the highly popular series, is focused mostly on Ivan rather than Miles, will she end there? Will she pen another that more or less concludes Miles' own story?

Will the fans let her do otherwise?

I know, personally, that I would love for her to keep writing until every possible tale has been told. I want more and more all the time. I'm absolutely in love with the characters-- Miles, Ekaterin, Gregor, and all the rest. With the conclusion of the last book (no spoilers) I can't imagine her not continuing.

So. November shall be a momentus month. And I'll hole myself up for about two days straight reading.

Friday, July 20, 2012

I was going to spend this post writing about books or publishing or agentry or something clever like shwarma fried eggs, but, at the moment, after getting the news of last night's/this morning's tragedy in Aurora, CO, it seems a little trite...

The phrase "oh the inhumanity" doesn't come to mind. "Oh the humanity" does.

I once heard, and I couldn't quote the originator of this claim to save my life, that some believe humanity is not innately evil. They said that the origin of evil is society and culture.

What in the world are society and culture made up of? I believe the answer to that is without question human beings.

If our innate nature was good, then it would be hard to be evil. Unfortunately it is all too easy to do the things we hate in ourselves. Saying nasty comments about this or that driver as they cut us off, for example. And why is it that the people it is easiest and most common to be utterly despicable and hurtful to are the ones we love the most?

There is nothing harder in the world than saying "I'm sorry".

Well, I'm not going to go on a rant about sorrow and death. But prayers go up for those affected by the shooting. And the hardest thing to do? Pray for the shooter. It is so easy to rise up in arms and shout for justice when really we just want vengeance. Don't mistake me-- I'm one and for all in support of the death penalty. But the right mindset should follow us who are not directly involved in doling out justice to this man.

In any case, I spent this morning sending out a few more electronic submissions, but to publishers direct instead of agents. That's new for me. I received this update via one of my groups on LinkedIn about someone who had compiled a list of publishers who are actively seeking new submissions. Now, like any list, it's not entirely accurate. Some of the publishers have since reneged on their claim that they are seeking submissions. But those are relatively few for such an extensive list, conveniently organized alphabetically by genre of manuscript that the publisher is seeking.

You can find that list here, but a word of advice: find your genre/style that you fit in, and go through and open all of the publishers that are in your country of residence in another tab or window, as it may be. The reason I say only go for those that are in your country of residence is because if you send to outside countries you get tangled up in world rights and the like, which can be difficult if you don't have an agent or publishing company from your own country who know the job dealing with it for you. Also, if you send to outside countries, you have to order online international 'stamp' vouchers, which you then have to wait to arrive, and then stick in your query package so that, if the publishing company deigns to, they may respond to you with paid postage.

A hassle, I'll assure you.

So go for the country-of-residence publishers. And then judge the book by its cover. If the website looks like a Dungeons and Dragons fan club (as some of the Fantasy designated websites I looked at this morning did) or a kinky erotica page (ahem) skip them, even if your manuscript falls within those margins. You're representing yourself as a professional, and if the publishing company can't be bothered to do the same, you probably don't want to work with them. This is when you can be picky and choosey about who takes on your project. Don't sell yourself short. Beggars can't be choosers, in the end, but consider-- if that publishing company with the partially dressed cat girl in the arms of the burly, barely clad dragon warrior on their front page decided they just couldn't stand to not have your book in their catalogue...would you be pleased? If the answer is yes, go for it. If the answer is no...

...don't even bother sending. There are plenty of publishing companies out there, so don't give in to the mindset that you have to scrape at the dirt to send your work off. Aim high. You can pick small publishers, of course, but try to pick those that will suit your needs. In a way, even as you are selling to them, they are selling to you, and if you don't feel inclined to buy the product, don't put down the money.

In the end, the moral of this story is know your worth. Hard to do as a writer, as an artist of any kind, but have some pride to go with your humility. And stick to your guns. You don't have to be picky and only send out to the Big 5 publishers or agents, but you don't have to send to every local printing press with a sexy fox chick as their mascot.

Besides, in this huge long list that I've linked above, there are plenty of well-known publishers or at least less-well-known but still respected companies listed. Baen Books, publisher of one of my favorite authors, Lois McMaster Bujold, was on the list. I summarily submitted to them. I will have to wait 12-18 months, apparently, for an answer, but that's alright. I have things to do meanwhile, including waiting for other responses to my queries. I have received since my initial send-out about 9 rejections back. Typical and not disheartening. Of the 39 I sent out I may get back 39 rejections. Will that stop me?

Nah. And it shouldn't stop you either. The author mentor I have been talking to told me she received over 80 rejections before she found the right agent. Don't sweat it. You could be that author who receives over 300 rejections, and then your work is reknowned throughout the world. You'll look back on those times and laugh, maybe write a memoir, and future hopeful writers will look at your example and take up their arms and work hard.

Just look at Harlan Ellison, for example. He had a writing teacher in either high school or college, I can't remember, who told him he should never write again (note to teachers: never, ever do this). When his first story was published, Ellison proceeded to send a copy of every edition to this professor. And now Ellison is, if not very well known, an inspiration to many writers and even movie producers (though not perhaps agreed upon as such in some cases).

So don't give up, never get rid of your earlier writings (it may make for a really funny manuscript in later years, kind of a 'Then and Now' anthology) and keep hacking away. Maybe it feels like chopping down an oak tree with a herring, but if nothing else, you're going to have some biceps by the end of it all...

Monday, July 16, 2012

Diana Wynne Jones

If you're a fan of the literary genius of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others of the sort, then you must not leave out Diana Wynne Jones, who has written over 40 books and who was in fact taught by Lewis and Tolkien both while she attended St. Anne's College of Oxford (my jealousy knows no bounds...)

I discovered this author only after seeing one of her works turned into an animated film by the reknowned artist and director Hayao Miyazaki-- well known for Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime), My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika) among others. I've grown up watching Miyazaki's films and was always utterly enchanted by them. Thus, reading the inspiration for one of his films, I became as equally enchanted at that which caught his own eyes.

"Howl's Moving Castle" is an utterly delightful book. You could read it in a day, if you tend towards habits I shamelessly embody of settling into a book for 7+ hours straight. In fact I spent almost all of today rereading another book by Robin McKinley called "Chalice". But I digress. The characters are charming and hilarious, the humor subtle and tending to the dark, and the 'universe' of the Land of Ingary and all around it is gloriously painted. I was hooked upon my first perusal of it. The white lines of a well-creased binding already exist in great quantity on the spine of my copy, even though I've only owned it perhaps a couple of years.

About a year ago I discovered that Jones had come up with two other 'companion' books to Howl's Moving Castle. I wasn't sure exactly what 'companion' was meant to mean in this situation, so I put them on an amazon.com wishlist and then promptly forgot about it. More recently, I came into possession of a Barnes & Noble giftcard (for those of you who know bookworms, always gift in either direct cash with a strict label of "for books" on it or give bookstore gift cards. It gives them the excuse to buy books in a way that doesn't make them feel like a person on a diet sneaking cake) which, as I just explained, gave me the excuse to buy a couple books. One of those was "Castle in the Sky", the primary companion book to "Howl's Moving Castle". The secondary copanion book (which is actually qualified as a down and out sequel, actually) for those of you who'd like to know is called "House of Many Ways" and I have not had the opportunity to either acquire it or read it as of yet.

I finished reading "Castle in the Sky" in a few days-- I would have finished quicker had the time allowed itself. But towards the end I found myself so utterly absorbed that the car ride I was currently enjoying slipped away from me. One moment we were travelling along the back mountain roads of northernmost Georgia and the next, as I was turning the last couple pages, we were speeding through Atlanta down the connetor. My reaction was...Ah? Oh.

At first I didn't see how this book was a companion to "Howl's Moving Castle" other than that it was somehow in the same universe as the land of Ingary. The main character, Abdullah, lives in Zanzib, which is somewhere south of where Ingary lies. That seemed, at first, the only connection. But when Abdullah's true love is stolen from him by a djinn, the quest to return her and the adventures that result really get the story going. And by subtle inference characters once long loved in "Howl's Moving Castle" begin to show up...at first merely the mention of witches and wizards in the distant northern land of Ingary...of a moving castle stolen by the djinn...of seeking a wizard's help to find said moving castle...

And then all chaos breaks loose when Abdullah finds himself inexorably thrown into a bunch of characters we all know and love. Though Abdullah I'm sure questions that sentiment at least initially...

In the end (truly) Jones' handle of the 'companion' delegation of this book is flawless. I was thrown completely off guard by the subtle inferences and utter lack of anything resembling "Howl's Moving Castle" at first other than land names, so that by the time the stories came full circle, I was page-turning in utter glee. There is nothing more delightful than stumbling upon a cherished character like a well-loved friend found in an unexpected place, especially when they've been lurking in the corners of hiding in plain sight the entire time.

I cannot wait to get my hands on the third book at this point. At some point in my life, buying books to read will be excused by the term 'research' for my job...I already have a list growing slowly. I am apparently rather antiquated when it comes to what's going on in the young-adult/adult fantasy genre, and seeing as how that is the genre I am looking to engage with, I need to better udpate my reading list with what is new and lively in the market. "Graceling" by Kristin Cashore is next on the list for eventual accrual and perusal. I did however finish the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, so I can't say I'm completely out of the loop.

But note to all potential authors out there: if you are looking to be in the market and say, hey, I read books that come out yearly all the time. I read one of my favorite authors' newest book this year already. I'm fairly up to date. Think about it. If that author, such as Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Patricia McKillip, Piers Anthony, Ursula K. LeGuin, or Lois McMaster Bujold, (all favorites of mine, some of whom have new books fairly frequently) have been established for more than a decade, you're out of the loop. They can write anything and it will be published, because they're good and they've earned their place in the literary world. Up and coming new writers have to go beyond the genres and styles that these literary giants embody. We always have to be new, and not new in the way that these authors mentioned above have to be, but so new that it can look like nothing every written before. Ever. So if you're researching, you not only have to learn about the established writers, you have to read what is coming out from the new writers, the ones who are on their first or second or maybe third book. At least those who have only been out in the world in the last five years.

For example. Urban fantasy (as opposed to High Fantasy [ex: Middle Earth versus a magical Atlanta, GA]) is apparently the new hit in today's market. Something to consider.

Friday, July 13, 2012

I'm going to make this post short...

...because I just spent all day sending out to 39 literary agents in the hopes that one of them (maybe even one of them) will make my dreams come true.

Disney Princess moment much?

And the funny thing is, I've got the contact info for four more agents. Three only accept snail mail submissions. I'll have to wait till I get home and have access to a printer and stamps. The other will not accept submissions until September 30th. Patience must be expressed.

But today, all 39 agents were email agents. I love those. Saves money, saves (essentially) time...but the formatting can be stressful if you have an evil computer, like I do. The secrets of the universe are held on my laptop, and I'm not about to even try figuring them out. Strange paragraphing suddenly occurs after you've saved it just the way you want it?

Can't explain that...

I got all those agent names, contact info, etc. off of Agent Query, which I wrote about in my last post. You should read about it.

But for now, I'm going to go let my brain leak out my ears onto the table, where it belongs.


Monday, July 9, 2012

Today I'm going to introduce you to a website that will make all your dreams come true...

Well, maybe not that great. Still, this little database is pretty neat. It's called Agent Query and has everything you need to send off your manuscript to people who may, just may, want to work with you.

There have been arguments far and wide as to the pros and cons of sending your query package to a publisher direct or to an agent, first. Here's my thinking on it: publishing houses are huge. Really huge. The publisher I've been working for this summer is rather small, compared to such places as Houghton Mifflin and Random House and Penguin. Still, they receive on average about 20,000 unsolicited manuscripts every year that they have to go through. This is called the 'slush' pile and doesn't count all the manuscripts they receive from sister/brother companies in Europe, Asia, and Australia or the manuscripts they receive from authors already on their client list. They accept only 30 titles total for the year. The chances of your piece getting noticed, much less found, in that slush pile? Mmmm...very small. Very. Small. And chances are your piece is going to get read by an intern. Like me. Not by some high up editor. When your piece is read by an intern -- like me -- it has to first be approved by me, then has to be approved by all the other interns, however many there are, then has to be approved by all the editors, however many there are, and then has to be approved by the highest of the high. Just in order to be considered. At that point we may not even have the full manuscript.

An agent, however, receives far fewer queries than the big houses. They read your piece directly, because while Agent Houses may have interns, individual agents probably will not. And if you get the agent to take on your project, they will do the hard work of sending out to publishing companies for you. They have the connections, they have the names of who to send to, they know which markets are looking for what. At least, assume they do. That is their job after all.

So my philosophy is to send to agents over publishers. Your chances may still be low, just because publishing is that kind of industry, but they're better. Now all you need to know is-- what do I send an agent? And how do I find them?

First of all, you need to know what a Query Package is. A Query Package is exactly what it sounds like. It's the packet of materials you send to an agent to give them an idea of what you have and inquire if they want it. Normally a Query Package will consist of part or all of these things:

1 - A query letter. This letter gives a very brief introduction to what your book is about and about you as the author. It's supposed to be the absolute best writing you've ever done, and it had better be. For more information on query letters, read my earlier blog post here.

2 - Sample work. Usually an agent will ask for either the first three chapters or the first fifty pages. It depends on what their requirements are. And I'll tell you the truth-- if your query letter is supposed to be the best writing you've ever done, these have to be even better than that. Your query letter is simply the hook. The sample work has to make them absolutely nuts for your manuscript. And I've skimmed many a query letter only to turn down the sample chapters.

3 - A synopsis. There are very few guides on how to write a good synopsis. Everyone's too busy looking at the query letters. I ran into this problem myself until very recently while talking to my mentor. My synopsis, a first draft I had never touched since, was about 18 pages. They're supposed to be about five pages. Try to go no longer than that. Seven is the max. Think of the synopsis as an extended version of your query. You still want to make them crave more at the end, so don't give everything away. Maybe not even the conclusion. Just get them to that point and...oh? You want to know what happens? Request my full manuscript. If you please.

4 - A "SASE". A "SASE" is a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and you never ever want to send a query package without one. Don't forget the stamp. Or the address. I've received both in my internship, and if you send an addressed envelope with no stamp, in the trash it goes. If you get some who pities you when you send a stamped but no addressed envelope, you may get it back to you if they take the time to look for your address on your query letter (where it should be, note) and write it in for you. Chances are, they'll simply chuck it in sheer frustration. And you won't get a response without one.

If you have all these things as well as anything else an agent may ask for, you're on your way to doing a good job. Read the requirements of every agent. It'll prove that you were listening and doing your research.

Also know exactly what they do and do not publish. If you send your adult novel to an agent who represents children's picture books, you're just going to annoy them and provide new filling for the junkyard. Good agent listings will have their genres, age ranges, and also what they do not publish specifically.

Pay attention to whether an agent accepts paper or email queries. Never require signature upon receipt of your manuscript if you send it in the mail. They will refuse it. Until you're their client, they're not going to take any extra steps for you. At all. Remember that.

Now, at this point you may be thinking, this is going to take a lot of research. Well, that's true. But here comes the handy dandy link that I put in above. That website is called Agent Query and it's a database of listed agents of all sorts. You fill in the search bubbles-- keywords, fiction, non fiction, and it will give you a list of agents with all of their information. Emails, addresses, names, their preferences, their requirements, their rejection qualifications, their agent houses if they belong to one, and whether or not they're accepting queries at the moment. Never send a query to an agent who isn't accepting. Your manuscript will go right in the trash. Chances are they won't even read it.

I've been using this website for years, but I was always a bit worried that it wasn't quite legit. However, my mentor this summer put my fears to rest by telling me she has used the exact same website in the past. She's even listed in the testimonials of how well it works. Because guess where she found an agent? Right there.

Get a list of agents. Write it out, type it out. Collect all their information that you need regarding their contact and their requirements. Use their name in your query letter, not just 'to who it may concern'. Make it personal. Make sure you get it right. Then make your packages. Do it neatly and professionally. Send out as many as you can. Some people say that you should write in your query letter that this is a simultaneous submission, but I don't see the point. I've been told too many times to not put in potentially detrimental information in your query letter. For example-- never tell your agent that you've never been published before or that you have no experience at all in the publishing industry. It doesn't matter and will only make it look like you're trying to draw attention to a less than favorable aspect of yourself. So if the agent requests you mark your manuscript as simultaneous or not (that means you're sending it to more than one agent at a time) then do what they ask. Otherwise...don't mention it.

Have fun sorting through the lists of agents. They are jewels at your disposal. But always remember to get it right. And if they reject you the first time, don't be afraid to send to them again. You can always send to a single agent multiple times.

Oh and one more piece of advice...

Never, ever send to multiple agents within a single agency house. They'll catch you. Besides, nobody likes a tease.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Greetings! Today's message brought to you by Powdermilk Biscuits-- giving shy people the courage to do what needs to be done...

I saw the new Spider Man movie last night. Unbelievable. I haven't been that pleased with a super hero movie in years, probably not since the first Batman movie. Yes, I know, it even beat the Avengers for me. Though that very well could be blamed on the fact that, at the time I saw the Avengers, I had only seen the Iron Man movies. I guess I need to catch up on Captain America and Thor and the Hulk and all that...that'd probably help. But I mean, I found myself grinning outright during some of the inspirational parts, frowning or grimacing when it got bad, and I literally had to cover my mouth to stop myself from guffawing so many times I lost count. Finally they brought the true sarcasm and humor of Spider Man to the screen.

They really stuck to the original comic book story line, the casting was flawless, the soundtrack was inspiring, and the graphics weren't vomit-inducingly complex while still being out-of-your-mind incredible. As I was informed by my computer-whiz friend Will, the rendering had to have taken at least two years for them to do. It apparently takes 109 days to make a car drive down the road. You learn something new every day.

And they actually gave the bully some depth. That, above all I think, really sold me on the producers of this movie. Because only the really bad guys are really bad. True and total jerks may exist in the high school realm, but they're rarely criminal masterminds. Even they can know when not to poke the wrong buttons. And this time, Flash, or whatever his name was, actually had compassion without seeming fake. Hats off to you, my friends.

Besides, with a director's name of Marc Webb-- how can you not make the Amazing Spider Man movie, well...amazing?

Anyway-- that is not what my main message is. Instead I'm going to direct you to another article of interest for writers everywhere. That is, after all, what my blog is going to be mainly about. Books, writers, and the writing industry. All interconnected, don't you see. Yes, I even have a plan.

This author has been a freelancer since 2008, and I would never have known about her had my father not started sending me her blog posts and articles to read. A good source of information, my father. This article in particular comes from PJ Media, a blog domain with a sense of humor. Ever hear those complaints by 'official' writers that bloggers aren't true writers? Oh, they could be any old Joe just sitting at home typing away in his pajamas! Thus PJ Media was born.

What better article to introduce you to this finest of authorial sites than one dedicated to freelance? Kathy Shaidle's "Talent Isn’t Everything: 5 Secrets to Freelance Success" is a sharp, insightful guide to what you can expect (and not expect) in the freelance world. Freelance does not equal freeland. You don't just get to do whatever you want, and it's not always gravy. In talking to my author mentor at Peachtree Publishers on the subject of money, she submitted this outlook as well. Sometimes life is really good, financially, and sometimes it's really not. You could say that's true of any job, what with the economy falling and rising, but it's even more so with freelance. Because you don't have benefits with freelance. You don't have a five-ten year contract or unemployment grace periods from your company if you got laid off. Your income simply...ceases to be.

And you have to constantly put yourself out there. You are part and parcel the work, the advertising, the upkeep, the follow through, the social media, and everything else that goes with. There is never an end to any job, because as soon as that job is over so is your paycheck, and you need a new job right away.

You have to be flexible, you have to know that the customer is always right (even when they're dead wrong) and you have to know who you are and what you're offering. It's very easy when your boss or the CEO of a company tells you what your job is worth. It's so much harder to convince a prospective client that they want to pay you your fee. Some writers will then undercut their prices in order to attract their clients, to be competitive in the workforce, but in the end they're hurting themselves alone. Know your worth and stick to it. You'll attract better customers that way, in the end. A customer who is paying a lot on your hourly rate will want the project done quickly-- hence, less money. The cheaper client can rack up more hours, more of your time without worry, even if those extra hours are spent waffling between font styles. If you don't know what you're worth...? Shaidle's article cites six, count them, six sources on how to price your work and yourself according to today's most competitive freelance rates in all genres of the writers life.

And if you want to be a freelance writer because you don't want to engage with people, sorry Charlie. You have to be even more charming and personable as a freelancer. You are selling your product, your personality, your self. Now, you may be able to do that over email or the phone, rather than in person, so if that fits in with your original plans, then alright. But don't expect freelance to give you the window to your true inner dialogue. Sometimes silent thoughts do best to remain that way.

Shaidle also pinpoints several difficult to overcome trials of being a freelance writer-- or even a writer of any kind. Keeping normal hours is one of them. As a freelancer it can be incredibly charming, the idea that the world and all the hours in it are yours to divide up and conquor as you wish. But your clients are not going to work that way. Chances are they have a 9-5 job and/or business and are going to expect you to cater to their needs during that time slot. If you're sloshed from staying up all night writing and drinking chai tea (or whatever it is you may drink at 3 in the morning...) then you're not going to be able to cater to your income's needs, much less put a good face on it. They may not be able to see the circles under your eyes and your frazzled hair, but they will be able to hear it in your voice or read it in your email. You may have the power of youth or you may have the ability to survive on 3 hours of sleep at a time. But you can't live that way for very long. There will come a point when your body will just say no more and throw up the white flag. And according to Murphy's Law, it will be at that point alone that you miss the email that would have gotten you the million dollar commission. So stay sharp.

Another little tidbit that I thought was amazing (don't know why I didn't think of this before) was Shaidle's answer to proofreading. Any writer knows that after a certain point you just have to put down the manuscript, because there will always be something wrong with it, always something you can change. In the end you just want to throw it out the window, tear out your hair, and become a professional anything-else. You cannot stand to look at that section of writing one more time.

Now, one trick I know is that reading your work aloud helps you find the areas that don't flow, that stick in your craw, and that just sound plain weird. Last summer I spent a matter of about a week and a half reading my entire manuscript (all 300+ pages of it) aloud to try and find the bits that made me stumble. This works relatively well, but if you're not good at reading aloud you're stuck. Also, if you have been staring at the same piece for too long, even this trick can only go so far. But Shaidle has the next step:

Trick your brain into thinking it's reading the piece for the first time. Sleep on it. Always sleep on it. Then change the font, increase the size by one or two points, and then change the color of the font. These subtle but visual changes will make the visual subject that you're brain has already 'memorized' appear fresh, allowing you to point out typos, awkward sentences, and brainstorms you forgot to incorpoate. After you're through, you convert it back to normal type, and send it to your client/professor/agent.

Of course, writing like any other artistically based job is widely open to speculation, experience, and opinion as to how it will go and how it can go. But you can't get around just gold old common sense. Always take the advice from those who have been there. Maybe their advice won't be the thing that does it for you, but you won't know until you try. I am certainly learning a lot from my author mentor, learning things I had never known before because they're tidbits you can't get anywhere but from the industry itself-- no self help book will have them. She's also giving me fresh perspective, insights based on experience and new brainstorming. Maybe it'll work out for me. Maybe it won't. But it's got the wheels moving and the gears turning again.

One other thing-- all the help you ever get as a student or starting writer... All the advice, hours of editing, free or homecooked meals, supplies, articles, references, suggestions, and favors...

Pass it forward. Not because of karma or any other pay back mentality. Remember that when you're older and you've got something more or less 'figured out' that there are young people around you who are scared stiff and still uncertain as to what the heck they're doing. A pot of spaghetti in a real home, a chance to dog sit for extra cash and a day away from campus, a fresh look at that essay or short story, even a chance to talk to a published author or director of the office will seem like a gift incomparable to anything else.

Caitlyn, out...

Monday, July 2, 2012

Starting a new chapter, turning over a new leaf, beginning another tale...

I have recently been enjoying an internship with Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta, GA. There is a link on the left side of my page if you wish to check them out, whether that be for their publications-- just about exclusively in the children's to middle-grade age range, including picture and chapter books-- or their experience opportunities. Anyone desiring to learn more about the publishing business, or even the editing business, should definitely look here. They even have a Marketing internship. And trust me, all of it is very hands-on. You will not be making copies, unless it's to restock the pile of form rejection letters that you send out to those authors deemed not ready in the massive slush pile of hopefuls read on a daily basis. No, you'll work in the warehouse, evaluate and judge manuscripts of an unsolicited or suggested sort, and dodge the office cat. I have no idea what his name is, so I just call him "gravity-cat" or "cat" for short. Seeing as how he spends much of his time sprawled out in the middle of the hallway, surveying his domain, gravity has a stronger hold on him than normal. He suffers with a silent dignity.

I will not relate the sordid details of some of the more savory and intriguing slush manuscripts recieved on a daily basis (at least, if I did, I'd have to kill you) but you can't even imagine. I certainly had no idea. There is never a dull moment. But it's not all prone to cynicism and wonderment at the thousandth ABC book recieved that week. While the mediocre far outweigh the hilariously or horrifically bad, and even further outstrip the good, those that are considered good and make it through the hierarchy of critical eyes are gems that sit with you.

Besides, when at the end of the day I can say, "Oh, I spent the day reading children's books," I can quite confidently assert that I love my job.

Anyway, to the point of this prelude: while interning there I was able to converse with a published author (I only realized this tidbit after the fact) who I discovered, after discussing publishing and authorship and future goals and the like, is basically living my dream. She was published first at the age of 23 and has four books already published with another coming out this fall. Her genre is young adult fantasy and she started out writing a high-fantasy quest novel. Now for those of you who have read my book, the one I am currently trying to publish, that's the description of it to a 'T'. Unfortunately the industry is glutted with such tales, and it'll be very hard for me to publish my first novel, my brain child. I know this, and I won't give up.

But, this author did give me some great advice and even evaluated the synopsis of my manuscript. One of her suggestions was, after I do a final little polish of my manuscript and send it off once more, to leave it alone and do something new (I've got an idea floating around in my brain, and no I won't tell you what it is...). That's what worked for her, and the book she wrote after leaving her first piece alone was what got published. In any case, before I get to my new project, she gave me suggestions on how to polish up my novel, change names and titles to make it scream less "FANTASY" to a potential editor, even change the age it represents. Apparently my book is not 'young-adult' but 'adult'. I can see that, and if changing the age-range makes it easier (or at least less impossible) to market to an agent, I'm all for it.

She also sent me a lump of gold more valuable to me than any book or article I've ever read before on how to publish one's novel. A friend of hers wrote an article on how to write a query letter. Anyone who has ever tried to get anything published before will hear those words and shudder. Query letters are my own personal arch-nemesis. The drafts I have used for submission purposes in the past have taken me months to construct, agonizing over every word and sentence, going through dozens of edits and editors and opinions until I was finally so sick of it all that I'd pick a final draft in surrender and send it off.

Using this article (Query Letter Guide), it took me three hours...and, amazement abounds, I may actually like the finished product. Hm.

Now, this article may not work for everyone. But I think it really addresses many things that authors have a hard time with. When anyone ever asked me what my book was about, I'd stammer and struggle, because, well, there's so much to it. How can you summarize something that takes up 300+ pages? However, that's what the query letter does, and if you can't confidently tell someone what your book is about in three sentences or less, you're going to have trouble. Better to even narrow that down to one sentence. If you can describe your book in one sentence, then you'll be alright.

The author of this article cuts down to the heart of what the letter should be-- an advertisement. You're trying to get your agent or publisher to crave more, to ask for the full manuscript, and be so wildly enthusiastic about your book that they can't stand to do anything else but publish it immediately and find a way to get you a movie contract to boot with merchandise and action figures and lunch boxes (ok, well, that may be a dramatization). Authors get so caught up in the details that they forget what the heart of their book is. Get simple. Who are you talking about? What do they do? What's the problem? And what's the hook? You don't ever want to give away the answer, because then all the editor has to do is put down the letter, bored or satisfied, and move on to the next piece that may capture their attention before the noon lunch hour.

From my own personal experience, your package needs to be really tight. Everyone tells you it has to be the best thing you've ever written. Of course, grammatical errors and spelling mistakes will only make you look like a fool. But concentrate less on those and more on making an impression. When I read slush at the publishing company, I rarely read the query letter word for word. I glimpse over it, get an idea of what I'll be looking at, and that's all I need. Because if it's really bad or mediocre, I know immediately. If it's going to be really good, I can usually tell. But the real juice comes from the chapter samples that are sent. The point of the query letter, then, is to make them want to get to those chapter letters. Quickly. Put down their can of soda or cup of coffee and read.

And if those first couple of sentences aren't the best sentences you've ever written, forget about it. Because that's where we cut off. If you catch my attention beyond that point, I'll read another paragraph, another chapter maybe. If I read the whole thing then you've got something. It has to build and build and keep drawing me in. Don't count on me getting to the second paragraph where things really get good. If it's not really good to start with, I won't get there.

Of course, I'm preaching to myself here, too. Working in the publishing industry directly and pouring through dozens and dozens of manuscript hopefuls every day has given me an inordinant amount of perspective, invaluable perspective. If you want to work in editing and publishing, intern with a publishing company. If you want to be an author, intern with a publishing company, especially the editorial department. It will not only make you feel a little bit better about yourself but also make you increasingly aware of how small you are in all of it. Perspective. Stay humble, stay persistent. And always have a good helping of audacity ready.

Read the article, even if you've got nothing to publish. It's sole point is brevity, and as such, it's a rather short piece. Because even if you've got nothing to publish now, chances are you'll have the need to represent yourself creatively and effectively in some way some day. These suggestions are universal at their core, even if they are literary in rainment.