Why I’m Not Yet Published

Last week, I met with some friends for one of our get-togethers. We all have busy lives, so when we can get together, we tend to spend hours talking. Invariably, it all turns to writing and books.

Invariably, it all turns to me. And why I’m not published yet.

I’ve been hearing this for quite some time, actually. It’s a familiar refrain, like “What could possibly go wrong?” from Top Gear. (I HATE YOU, BBC, I HATE YOU!) The problem (for me) is that I hear it not from other writers, but from my friends – and I love them, I really do – but my friends who do not write novels.

If you don’t write novels, you don’t know what it’s like.

I just finished Heather Sellers’ wonderful Chapter by Chapter (see last week’s post for more information). She addresses this problem in Chapter 25, “Writing is Revising,” and Chapter 26, “Just Want to be Done.”

Here’s the problem:  Agents receive 50+ queries before they wake up in the morning. Every. Single. Day. And when they sit down to read these queries, what they’re doing is looking for reasons to reject authors. They have literally thousands of manuscripts to choose from. They need to narrow the field. Some, they can toss right away:  wrong name, no name, not submitted properly, bad spelling and/or grammar, wrong genre. Some, they can’t reject right away because damn it, the author’s done the thing properly. So they have to read the first chapter or first five pages, or whatever they’ve requested. But guess what? They’re still looking for a reason to reject you. As a writer, your job is to never, ever give them that reason.

How? You revise. You rewrite. You do it over again. And again. And again.

Six years’ worth, if that’s what it bloody takes. Seven. Ten.

The other refrain I heard this past week, which I think I’ve heard before, is “Send it out already. It’s fine. It’s good enough. Besides, the agent and editor will fix whatever’s wrong with it – they’ll want you to make changes anyway, so who cares if it’s perfect or not? JUST SEND IT!”

NO!!!!

Here’s what Heather Sellers has to say about that:  “We have passages of brilliant writing. The plot holds together, basically, and there are some excellent moments in our book. Isn’t that enough? Can’t someone else take care of the other stuff? Tables of contents, indexes, chapter titles, fixing the weaker scenes – aren’t there people who do that? Well, yes. Of course there are. They’re called writers. That would be you.”

She then goes on to say:

“Just as no one loves your kids as much as you do, not even the greatest editor on the planet will care as much about your book, its details, its perfection, its publication, its success, as you do. You must be your own editor before you send the book out of your house and into the world.”

See, here’s the problem. The competition to be published has never been greater. It used to be that a nobody with a decent idea but no clue how to write it could be taken under the wing of an agent or editor, and guided through the process. Not anymore. You’re not an Idea Person. You’re the writer, editor, proofreader, researcher, advocate, and RE-WRITER, all rolled into one person. And you’re expected to know your competition. And you’re not competing just against the published authors – you’re competing against those just like you, who aren’t published yet, but desperately want to be. The question is, what are YOU willing to do to make your manuscript stand out?

Again, Sellers:  “Many writers believe – secretly or openly – that someone else will do this . . . ‘Won’t my agent get it ready for publication?’ They want that editor who exists in their mind, that fantasy person from yesteryear who is so devoted to their genius and their book that she puts everything on hold to help them fix it.

“It just doesn’t work that way.

“Not every writer passively expects someone else to do part of his work; there are plenty of writers who do everything they can to their books and then some. And after they’ve set aside the project for a while, they return to it and do even more to improve the book. You are competing with these authors.”

That’s me. That writer. The one doing everything to improve my book and then some.

It is not someone else’s job to fix my book. It is not someone else’s job to write my book. It is not someone else’s job to figure out why the plot’s not working quite the way I want it to. That is my job. And my job isn’t finished until I have figured those things out. And if you write novels, your job isn’t finished, either. Not until that book is the best it can possibly be. As Sellers says, this is a profession. Agents and editors are professionals. They will look much more favorably on your book – your baby – if you present yourself as a professional, too. And by making your book the absolute best it can be – no matter how long that takes – you’re showing that you are a professional. That you take publishing, and writing, and your manuscript, seriously. That you take them and their time seriously.

And THAT is why I am not yet published.

Photo Challenge: Ephemeral

When it comes down to it, isn’t everything ephemeral? Sunsets, flowers, people, buildings. Isn’t that part of what makes life so fascinating? Why we have to get out our cameras and document all the seconds, all the moments, before they flee?

But spring seems to be the most ephemeral season of all. You have to capture the blossoms – and the light – before they’re gone.

pink flowers 1 vghttps://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/ephemeral/

Falling Back in Love . . . With Your Manuscript

I have an entire collection of books about writing. I usually go shopping when I’m having a specific issue with one of my works in progress and I don’t quite know how to fix it. Books often give me a new perspective on the problem – and the solution.

This week, I picked up Chapter After Chapter:  Discover the Dedication and Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Deams by Heather Sellers. Sellers wrote the textbook we used for the creative writing course I taught a year ago, so I knew she was a good author. But this book is MILES beyond that textbook!

Heather’s a writer herself, and she doesn’t mince words when it comes to the problems writers face. She writes a lot like I do, in fact, and I’m loving this book for its voice and style and perspective. So far, my favorite chapter is Chapter 7, in which she talks about the fact that when we’re working on a novel, we have to be surrounded by that novel all the time. We need to sleep and breathe it. If we’re at the dentist, we should be thinking about character motivation. If we’re waiting at a train crossing, we can be making voice notes (or real notes, if you prefer that) as to what to do next or solutions to a problem you’ve been having. Or, as she puts it:

“You must allow the book you’re writing to wrap itself around you and permeate every single part of your life. Your book should always be running in the background of your mind, even when you aren’t literally putting words on paper in your studio.”

She then compares the relationship you have with your book to a new relationship with another person. In the beginning, it’s great! You’re in luuuuv with each other. It’s fresh and exciting and you can’t wait to show them off to everyone. But then – maybe you move in together. And you notice that they leave the cap off the toothpaste, or they snore at night. Little things begin to annoy you. You begin to wonder if you can get past the annoyances and rekindle the romance. The book, she says, is the same thing. Those first days or weeks are amazing; you’re getting to know the characters, you’re excited about how easily the scenes are coming. But then . . . “You may feel shackled. You feel like you chose the wrong book. The book has flaws. The flaws annoy the heck out of you. The book gets gassy! It’s terrible – there are parts of the book that stink. You get sick of the book.”

This chapter resonated so much with me, I can’t even tell you.

Like most writers, I’ve had that rush of first love. When the words come SO easily, and the scenes flow, and the characters are talking to you and everything that comes out on paper is solid gold. This book is Going Places! And so are you!

THAT’S when the book has you in its grasp. Its hooks are in you. You think about it 24/7. When I’m in the car, I’m thinking about it. When I’m on my walk, I’m thinking about it. When I’m trying to sleep, I’m thinking about it. When I’m with other people – or teaching – or eating – I’m thinking about The Book. Yes. Been there. Done that. It’s a wonderful heady rush.

Then reality sets in. The scenes stop coming so easily. You have to do research. You miss a day or two of writing. For me, I may lose writing time when I have to grade papers or oversee graduate testing. And then . . . . you lose your connection to the characters. The era. The storyline.

I’m facing this problem right now. I set Nicky aside for far too long. He’s still there; I can hear him in my head sometimes. But I’ve had so many other issues to attend to, that his book hasn’t be in the forefront of my life, 24/7, for quite some time. I HATE THAT. I love my books and my characters and I need to be with them. Sometimes, I need to be with them more than I need to be with ‘real’ people.

So what do you do?

Sellers has a great exercise for this, which I’m going to be working on this weekend:  “Make a list of twenty assignments – things that trigger you to think about some aspect of your book. Then place each assignment on its own card and stick one card in your glove box, your day planner, desk drawer, lunch box, mirror.” If you’re just starting on the book, these might be fairly broad. If you’re into it and/or making revisions, they’ll be a lot more specific.

Mine (so far) are going to include things like:

  • Research “shell shock” in World War I soldiers. Symptoms? What can I use?
  • Think about how to finish out that scene where Nicky nearly gets into a wreck on the curve and H catches him there.
  • How does he find out that his dad was murdered? Need to sort that out. Overhear something? A mistake on H’s part? Is that something he can think about while he’s waiting out the revenuers that one night?
  • Order the Winfield Free Press from the KS State Historical Society on microfilm so I can read it, too.

Later, Sellers recommends another exercise:  “In one sitting, create 100 index cards of tasks for completing this project (your book). Tiny, micro-movements – truly ten-minute chunks. . . .” This is positioning, another thing I used to do, and need to do again for Nicky. In positioning, you ready yourself for the next day’s writing time by making sure all your ducks are in a row. Do you have the research you need ready and to hand? Do you have a scene (or two or three) that you’ve asked your subconscious to start working on, so you can sit down and write them? Positioning, Sellers says, is like a map forward. If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you expect to get there? Dumb luck, sure, but that can only take us so far. Even a pantser such as myself can do this one! I love this idea, because it gives me a set goal for the next day. Simply spend a few minutes, a few hours before you need to write, positioning yourself. Then, when your writing time comes, you hit the ground running. Since I love to-do lists, this last one is my cup of tea. 🙂

So hopefully some of these will help you jump-start that project that might be languishing on your hard drive.

(ETA:  I tried this today. I spent an amazing 2 hours at the coffee shop, and wrote 7 pages, single-spaced, plus edited a couple of other scenes. IT CAN WORK!!!) 🙂

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/chapter-after-chapter-heather-sellers/1015562851?ean=9781582976174 – a link to the book Chapter by Chapter.

http://heathersellers.com/site/index.html – Heather Sellers’ website.

Pitches, Pitchapalooza, and What the Bleep Have I Done?

“If you can’t describe a book in one or two pithy sentences that would make you or your mother want to read it, then of course you can’t sell it.”– Michael Kordon, editor-in-chief, Simon & Schuster (Wall Street Journal, June 26, 1984).

I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing I really hate about writing, it’s the pitching process. Especially with that kind of pressure! Thank you, Mr. Kordon.

I know – it’s a necessary evil if you want an agent. I get it. But there’s so much to it. And the sad part is, I can write a pitch for almost any book I’ve read – but not mine. There’s something about self-aggrandizement that really gets under my skin and makes me want to rip my eyeballs out. Pitching my own book is almost impossible.

What do you leave in? What do you leave out? Is that secondary plotline really important? How much setting do you give vs. how much character development? Are you really getting the point across and grabbing someone’s attention? Every. Single. Word. Counts. Especially if you only have 250 words to do it in, like I did this past week.

Pretty much on a whim, I decided to try my luck at NaNoWriMo’s “Pitchapalooza,” hosted by The Book Doctors, Ariel Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. I haven’t seen a Pitchapalooza in person, though I know they do them at writing conferences and book fairs – basically, authors get 1 minute to pitch their book, not just in front of Ariel and David, but in front of a live audience. The best pitch wins a free consult with them, and hopefully will lead to a better book overall, and introductions to agents who are actively seeking something exactly like your book.

My friend Debra Dockter (debradockter.com) won Pitchapalooza at the Kansas Writer’s Association Conference a few years ago. They made suggestions and introduced her to her current agent. So I knew things could happen. You know, good things.

This Pitchapalooza, though, was online. You got just 250 words to convey the essence of your novel. In addition, the ideal pitch would:

  • showcase your writing ability
  • explain why YOU are the one to write it
  • show what’s unique about this novel
  • and create the same kind of “I have to know what happens next” feeling of a movie trailer.

Not hard, right? No pressure. None at all. So. After working with Deb on my pitch for my young adult novel (Nicky’s story!), I sent it in. They would choose 25 pitches at random to go on their website and be critiqued. The public would then vote and the ‘fan favorite’ would get a consultation.

Random + me = not a snowball’s chance in hell. But I sent it in anyway.

And surprise – I’m one of the 25!

The point of this whole thing is twofold.

One:  here’s a chance to see 25 pitches, for all genres and in all kinds of writing styles and levels of expertise, in one place, complete with fairly in-depth expert commentary on what they like about them – and what needs improved. If you’re not good at writing pitches (like me), this is a GREAT learning opportunity.

And two:  go vote for me and Nicky. 🙂 No, seriously, you should vote for your favorite, but if your favorite happens to be Nicky, that would be brilliant.

In the meantime, I’ll be frantically writing. Because Nicky’s story? It ain’t quite done yet. 🙂

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http://www.thebookdoctors.com/2015-nanowrimo-pitchapalooza – The website for the pitches, and where you can vote.

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Some helpful links for writing that pitch:

http://www.writersconferenceguidelines.com/getting-your-pitch-right.html

http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/thebusinessofwriting/a/How-To-Pitch-Your-Novel.htm

http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000755331 – the winning pitches for Amazon.com’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Awards.

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/pitching – the best of Writer’s Digest’s pitch articles, in one convenient location!

http://thrillerfest.com/pitchfest/pitch-tips/

Photo Challenge: Walls

As a historian, there are two things that make me very sad.

The walls that soon won’t be:

house 5 vg

And the walls that no longer are.

gates 2

But there are the ones that are still holding on, with help.

tower 1

Top photo:  abandoned house near Ponca City, Oklahoma. December 2014.

Middle photo:  remnants of the White House, 101 Ranch, Marland, Oklahoma. December 2014.

Bottom photo:  old grain elevator (yes, made to look like a medieval tower),101 Ranch, Marland, Oklahoma. Dec. 2014.

http://drc.nationalcowboymuseum.org/exhibits/cunningham/default.aspx – there’s a photo of the White House on this site. It’s the 6th photo down. It was demolished in the 1930s, after the 101 Ranch went bankrupt. If you look at the second photo, an aerial shot of the ranch, the only thing left standing is the grain elevator.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/wall/

A Magical Evening with Neil Gaiman

I’m a self-proclaimed geek. I don’t care about concerts, but I love going to lectures by authors. Hearing them talk about their lives and work and doubts and successes and any little bits of advice and wisdom they care to throw our way.

This Tuesday, I was among the privileged to see Neil Gaiman at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

First, you have to understand that I was channeling my inner Jeremy Clarkson to get there on time (GET OUT OF THE WAY, PEOPLE, YOU CAN GO NINETY ON THE TURNPIKE AND NOT GET CAUGHT!) and we had to park two blocks away and make a mad dash for the venue. I’d never been there before, so we got in, the ushers got us to our seats (Row K, ground floor). As I caught my breath, I started to look around.

Then I looked up.

And I couldn’t breathe again.

The Tulsa Performing Arts Center is, at heart, an opera house. You have the ground floor. Then you have two mezzanine balconies. My eyes swept to the back of the ground floor . . . and up . . . and up . . . and up.

Both balconies were full.

Neil Gaiman himself didn’t notice at first, either. He walked out on stage and quickly won us over as his charming, humble self. And then, about five minutes in, he glanced up, blinked, and said, “Look at you guys up there! I’ve just discovered you! Hello!”

The most amazing thing was that he didn’t read his own work – not at first. Instead, he came out and stunned us all by saying, “I’m delighted to be in Tulsa. Because my favorite author is from Tulsa – R.A. Lafferty. Would you mind if I read one of his stories to you first?”

No. Of course we didn’t mind. Not at all. Neil chose Lafferty’s hilarious short story, “The Seven-Day Horror,” and I don’t know if it was the moment, or the story, or the way Neil read it, or if Spaghetti Warehouse spiked my iced tea by accident, but I haven’t laughed so hard at a story in my life. Get it. I beg you. It’s one thing to hear an author read his own work, but to be able to see an author talk about their influences, and the stories that inspired them to write, is amazing.

Neil also talked about the early influence of the library, and how his parents would leave him there to read on his own and explore. When asked about the importance of arts in a world where budget cuts threaten them every single day, he said, “Quality of life is big and huge and important. And if you take away the arts . . . Churchill was told during the war that the art museums should be closed, because they cost money and well, there was a war on. And he said, ‘What the hell do you think we’re fighting for?’ The arts are the bits that make everything worthwhile.”

The arts are the bits that make everything worthwhile.

Neil read two of his own wonderful short stories from his new book, Trigger Warning, which started as a Twitter contest. Every month, he posted a new question to his followers such as “What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever found in February?” and chose his favorite responses, and used those as the basis for short stories. “I wanted to prove that writing is a craft, and you could do it as simply as that.” That you could take a very simple prompt, the glimmer of an idea, and from there, let the story evolve.

He took questions from the audience (in the form of pre-written note cards), but no matter how silly (“Who cuts your hair?”), he responded with thought and insight. Most questions were about his writing, and the craft of writing. When asked why he writes, he said, “There’s nothing else I’m any good at! You do not want me driving your taxi . . . What I’m good at doing is writing, stringing words together in ways that hang in people’s heads. When I wasn’t good at it, I had all the confidence in the world. Then I realized I wasn’t brilliant – but it was too late then.”

Then he said, “Pretty much halfway through anything, I remember I’m not very good, that it’s been a fantastic accident. That’s the point where I call my agent . . . and she says ‘Oh, you’re at that point in the book.'” For those of us who doubt our writing every day, to hear one of the greatest authors of today say this was very much a morale booster. My own little Battle of Trenton. 🙂

When asked why he writes, Neil said, “I write books because I want to read them and they don’t exist. Sometimes, I’ll write a book because I want someone else to read it.” His novel Coraline is an example. His daughter would come home from school and tell him stories she’d made up, about a little girl who comes home from school to find that her mum is missing, and a witch has taken her place. He thought, if that’s what she likes, I’ll see what I can find for her. “So I went to the bookstore and asked what they had in the way of horror for a kindergartner. And . . . they quickly asked me to leave.” 🙂

Someone else asked what he thought about breaking the rules of writing. “Before you break the rules, know what they are. Then, throw all of that out the window and do it your way.” But, he emphasized, you have to know the rules first. You need to know why you’re breaking them before you can do it.

I think my favorite answer came to this question, which he read aloud:  “How do you feel when an editor changes your work? And then there’s a little frowny face at the end of it – and that’s the correct answer!”

If you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman, you know his stories deal with the fantastic, with magic and fantasy and other wonderful things. Someone – who hopefully is hanging their head in shame still – asked something along the lines of “How do you justify writing things that aren’t real?” You could tell the question threw him; it threw all of us. You could hear the collective gasp from the audience, see people looking around for the culprit. But Neil thought for a moment, and then said, in part, “Fiction is a wonderful, tough thing . . . We understand something can be true – absolutely true – without actually having happened. People can read Neverwhere and they know there is no secret underground to London where lost people go, but they can go to London for the first time, take the Tube, see all the place names . . . and remember. And maybe it makes them more real, because they’re familiar.”

“Fiction is a wonderful, tough thing . . . We understand something can be true – absolutely true – without actually having happened.

As my friend’s daughter Sophie said later, it felt like Stephen King was there to promote his book; it felt like Neil Gaiman was there because he wanted to be there. He was utterly charming, self-effacing, and wonderful, and if you ever get the chance to see him in person, I urge you to take it. And don’t hesitate. Not even for one second.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/aug/13/ra-lafferty-secret-sci-fi-genius-poised-for-comeback – a story about R.A. Lafferty’s books from The Guardian.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/trigger-warning-neil-gaiman/1120056945?ean=9780062330260 – link to Trigger Warning

http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-02-19/neil_gaiman_trigger_warning – a link to the Diane Rehm Show, and her interview with Neil Gaiman in February 2015.