The Courage to be Published

Next Tuesday, Deadly DesignJune 2, is a birthday of sorts. If a book can have a birthday, that is. Let’s say they can.

My friend Debra Dockter is going to see her first book in print. Sitting in bookstores. In hardcover. With a dust jacket. (It’s awesome cover art, by the way). It’s humbling and inspiring to have seen this entire journey.

We joke that Deadly Design is my step-book – I’ve certainly spilled enough ink on it! I’ve read almost every draft that exists. I’ve seen scenes come and scenes get cut. I’ve seen characters get cut. I’ve seen characters come back, only to die in the next round of revisions, and be resurrected later.

Being a beta reader is tough.You have to be supportive and constructive, and not be afraid to tick off the author, and be ready to stand your ground. Hopefully, you’ve phrased your words well enough that no offense is taken, that the author reads your comments and slowly nods and says, oh, yes, of course, why didn’t I think of that, you’re so clever, what would I do without you? Being a beta isn’t about being a rude, brash, sanctimonious SOB. It’s not about destroying someone’s baby; it’s about helping them raise that baby. Every writer should be a beta reader, because it lets you see this entire crazy roller-coaster without having to actually be on the roller coaster.

I honestly don’t know how Deb did it. I don’t know how any of us do it. Her perseverance and dedication are phenomenal.

I remember the book that Kyle originally appeared in, sort of:  a medical mystery she’d drafted. The character I liked most was this smart-ass twelve-year old. Sometimes, characters demand their own books. I knew even then that Kyle was too big for this one – he couldn’t be a secondary character. And Deb knew it, too.

But that roller coaster. My God. How many drafts? How many red pens? I remember one year for Christmas, Deb gave me red pens. 🙂 How many queries to how many agents? She’d send out queries, and the cars would slowly start to inch their way up. There was no telling how long it would take for them to reach the top – sometimes, not more than a day or two, other times, a month or two. One memorable agent responded more than a year later with “Hey, sorry! Send me the first chapters!”

And I remember sitting in my favorite coffee house one afternoon and getting an email. Penguin’s interested. They’ve made an offer. What do I do? I sat there for a minute, and then typed back, Let’s sit here for a moment and appreciate how surreal this moment is, okay?

We talk about how brave it is to finish a book — and it is, definitely, that takes work and patience and dedication and time away from things you’d also love to be doing — but I think the real work begins when you start querying. When you start putting your baby out there into the world to be either rejected or accepted. Over and over and over and over and over. That takes a special kind of courage. A kind I’m not sure I have. Courage to open the emails and see the rejections. Courage to keep trying. Courage to sign on the bottom line, wondering if this is really the right agent, or should I hold out, or what do I do? Courage to remain patient as your agent shops your book to editors. Courage to either accept or reject the first offer.

And the courage to face the re-writes! Because there will be rewrites. My God, will there be rewrites.

So when you see a book – any book, but hopefully Deadly Design – on the shelves at your local bookstore next week or the week after, remember that. I don’t think being published is about fame and glory and money; I don’t even think it’s about sharing your creation with the world, as noble as that sounds. (Dr. Frankenstein wanted to share his creation with the world, too, remember!)

I think it’s about courage.

So, Deb and all the other published authors out there — I’m raising my cinnamon dolce latte in salute to you.

Photo Challenge – On the Way

There’s an alternate route home that I take sometimes, past this small cemetery. I kept seeing this one particular huge headstone in the center of it, and knew that someday, the conditions would be right to photograph it – but it would take the exact right moment, the exact right sunset, and I’d have to be packing (my camera, that is!).

One night, on the way home — all three conditions were met.

cemetery 7 vgt

Photo Challenge: Broken

There was really only one photo I could think of for this week’s challenge. (Then, as luck would have it, a second appeared!). Both are taken at the same site about a mile from my house, tucked away below a hill; one of my favorite places to go to be alone. The car has been abandoned ever since I can remember; the wall was once part of a small house, I think. Both broken – but both still here.

plymouth dash 2

wall 1

Keeping It Real

At the OWFI conference this year, there was a workshop on “Keeping it Believable,” which I think should be mandatory for ALL writers. Not just sci-fi and fantasy writers (though it was geared towards them) but EVERYONE. I mean, seriously, how many times have you watched a TV show or a movie and suddenly screamed That can’t happen! He can’t bloody drive a car with two broken arms, a broken femur, and no fingers! Or something similarly ridiculous?

So here’s the top things I took away from that session:

Do your world-building in advance – but don’t info-dump! Readers need to be grounded in Something. Does that mean we jump in with forty pages of description about your alien world and all the flora and fauna and the lack of gravity and the technology and the purple panda bear-type things that the locals call kumquats? NO!!!!!!!  It’s up to YOU to figure out how to work your world-building into the narrative. The more you know about your world, the easier that will be. No info dumps!

Start with the story. You have a character and he has a problem. So what if it’s set on an alien planet? The reader will get that soon enough. It’s the character and his problem that are going to draw the reader in first – and keep them reading. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is a good example of this, and here’s a link to the first few pages of it:

See how Ness deftly weaves the subtle hints about Todd’s world into his narrative? There’s no two-page lecture on how fissionbikes work, or a five-paragraph discussion of talking germs. He lays a trail of crumbs, and lets the reader follow it. That’s what a good world-building is all about.

You have to consider everything. If you’re writing a fantasy that’s set on a world like Earth, your work is easier than if you’re writing a sci-fi novel set on an alien planet where the gravity is different. Gravity – whether there’s more or less of it in your fictional world – affects the physiology of everything in that world. It’s up to you to research how. If you’ve decided to put two moons in your sky, both have to exert a gravitational pull on your world – which will affect tides, which will affect weather patterns and climate, which will affect where people can live and agricultural patterns . . . see? And before you think that your readers won’t care – they absolutely will, and they won’t be your readers for very long if you don’t care enough to do the thing properly . . .

Because everything matters. If you say the shirt is cotton, then where did they get it? If you mention oranges, but you’re on a frozen planet, where do the tropical fruits come from? Can your five-foot tall, 90-pound MC wield a broadsword with one hand? Probably not. But she might be using a rapier. Why have the animals of your world evolved as they have? Remember, gravity affects physiology. Climate affects everything. Cause and effect. Everything matters.

Your aliens, particularly if your protagonist is an alien, should be human-like. What the presenter meant was that you need to think about emotions, religion/spirituality, ceremonies and rituals, worries and concerns, family life, etc., so your reader can relate to them more easily. If you have a YA protagonist, make their lives as much like a human teen’s as possible. Are they worried about fitting in? Being popular or as good at something? Do they worry about living up to their parents’ expectations? Think about How To Train Your Dragon – it’s pretty hard for us today to relate to the Viking way of life, so we had to have a protagonist that didn’t fit in. 🙂

Language, language! Just for a minute, think about the last sci-fi or fantasy book you read. Or, if you haven’t read one lately, think about this:  Cthulhu. HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE THAT NAME?????? I worked with the Lovecraft stories for two solid months and I STILL have no idea!!!

Bottom line:  If you can’t pronounce your characters’ names, place names, or ANY of your made-up words, change them. Readers have no patience for it. (I hear you:  Tokien made up his own languages! Yes, and he was a trained philologist. He was allowed.) And yes, J.K. Rowling had made-up words – but they were simple. Muggles. Apparate. Expecto patronum. Even her spells were loosely based on Latin words, which – since we get so many English words from Latin – is familiar to most of us. So. Keep it simple. 🙂 And for the love of all that’s holy, NO APOSTROPHES IN YOUR NAMES.

Writing fantasy and sci-fi isn’t easy! WRITING isn’t easy. Every genre has its own rules and problems and pitfalls – and rewards. And no matter what the genre, you have to keep it real. Your historical has to be accurate; your murder mystery has to have all the forensics stuff right.

But. If you’re willing to do the work, your book will stand out.

(Next week:  keeping it real in magic!)

Category Fiction: Can It Work? Let’s See!

All my life (well, most of it, anyway), I was taught that if you want to make a splash in the publishing industry – if you want to be published, in fact – you need to Be Different.

What exactly does that mean? A different voice? Style? Totally different way of looking at something? Departing radically from the norm? When we think about authors who have Been Different, we tend to think about Stephanie Meyers, who made vampires the YA thing, or Terry Brooks, who brought fantasy back in the 1970s.

But is there ever a time when you shouldn’t do that? When you should follow the tried and true? When you should – gasp! – go the route of category fiction?

Well, according to some of the presenters at the OWFI conference this year – YES.

Mel Odom has written more than 140 books. Yes, 140. Published. Books. Not counting the ones available only in e-book. He writes category fiction. These books average between 30,000 – 50,000 words, and because they’re category fiction, they have to follow certain rules.

I hear you! But where’s the creativity in this? But this is . . . trope! Trite, even!

Yes. It is. That’s also why it sells.

I also talked to a lovely lady at lunch, Callie, who makes a living writing category romance. She told me that one day she just quit her job, walked home, and told her husband, “I’m going to write novels for a living.” Within a few years, she was making double his income. She has a personal assistant. A personal assistant! From writing category fiction for a relatively small romance press. She’s happy. She has contracts and a series, and stand-alone books. So does Mel.

Both make very good arguments for this (besides the money). If you know the genre, they’re easy to write. Romance, for example:  boy meets girl, there’s trouble between them over something, and in the end, they should live happily ever after. Westerns:  bad guys vs. good guy, and in the end, the good guy should win. Other than that – the sky’s the limit with what you can do with it. Your characters are yours. Your plots – as long as they follow the publisher and genre requirements – are yours.

Take romance, for example. How many different sub-genres are there? Regency, contemporary, medieval, Scottish, Scottish medieval, colonial America, pirate, cowboys/Old West, and LGBT (which also has the added benefit of all these other genres! I just recently saw an agent who was looking for LGBT historical romance, preferably before 1920). These run the gamut from ‘sweet’ (meaning no, or almost no, sex) to erotica. That’s a HUGE spectrum. Within that, there are so many tropes to choose from – young debutante vs. rake, Scottish chieftain forced to wed to save his clan, aristocrat vs. aristocrat, aristocrat vs. commoner, woman stows away on a pirate ship . . . you get the drift. In other words, it’s like my historical sandbox I talked about a few months ago:  yes, there are boundaries, but within those boundaries, the possibilities are almost limitless. And best of all, this is what readers want!

Plus, Mel even gave us a blueprint! For a novel of 30,000 – 50,000 words, you should have 25 – 40 scenes, each averaging 5 pages. This forces you to keep them short, tight, and compact; this in turn keeps the story moving forward and doesn’t allow you to lollygag or drift into some wild goose chase that doesn’t further the plot. So if you’re writing a romance, you already know several scenes. Same with a mystery. You have to introduce the characters. You have to have a murder. You need to introduce all the suspects (he suggested 6). Once you know the characters, their problems, and what the story’s about, you should be able to put together the rest of the scenes and get to work.

It’s not set in stone – he made this abundantly clear, because sometimes you find the characters doing their own thing, and sometimes you find that your scenes aren’t making sense and you need to change up a few things. Callie even goes one step further:  she spends as much time as she needs to do all of her research and character sketches and plots ahead of time, so when she sits down to write, she’s ready. She has everything she needs on her desk and on her walls, and there’s no excuses.

Your scenes are easy to do. You get index cards (or Post-It Notes). You jot down a one- or two-sentence synopsis of 1 scene on each card. You arrange them however you need to – I like to stick mine to a wall. This is your road map – the guide through your novel. As you finish a scene, cross it off. I mean it. Put a big red X right through it. Not only does this encourage you to write, but it feeds our need to complete things. Instant gratification. You see the progress. (This is why some people LOVE to mow lawns, by the way – they love the instant gratification of seeing their progress.)

One scene written. One card X’d out. One day done. Still feeling froggy? Go for another one! It’s only five pages.

Is this going to work for everyone? No. Of course not. There’s part of me that recoils from this like I recoil from snakes.

There’s also part of me that says . . . personal assistant???

I’m not saying I’m giving up my novels. Not for anything. You’ll have to pry those out of my brain with a melon scoop. But it’s an interesting idea. And I’ve got a couple of old ideas that I’m thinking of dusting off and revisiting, just to try this out and see where it goes.



Starting Over

I’ve always been a pantser. Sort of, anyway. I used to be able to sit down and pick up where I’d left off the day before, confident that my characters would guide me down exactly the right path. (Sometimes, they detoured down Really Bad Paths, though, and I’d have to turn them around.) My writing is a little different today, but I still need to “go with the flow.”

The sad thing is, I’ve been a pantser in my life as well. Go with the flow. No plans. Do this. Do that. Happy to not have a 9-5 job and still be able to support myself and my 13 cats and 6 horses.

And that’s coming back to bite me in the butt.

Because I am about to become a cliche.

I’m almost forty. My job has evaporated before my eyes and I have no idea what I want to do with the rest of my life. I have roughly a month to locate Something Else To Do. I do have an emergency fund – thank you, Suze Orman! – but it’s also pretty much my life savings because my life hadn’t been about fiscal responsibility until recently.

I teach history. And Anthropology. And Geography. And American Government. At least, I used to. I used to be the most valued instructor at my school. The one you could always trust to take as many classes on as possible, to avoid having to go out and find someone else to do them. The go-to person. Now? Now I’m a used Kleenex. Not the kind you use to wipe make-up off your face, either, or the kind you use to dab at your eyes at a wedding. No. That would be okay. I’m the one full of green slime that you hold with two fingers as you drop it into the nearest trash can.

It’s not my fault, actually. It’s the fault of the Affordable Health Care Act, and colleges that are too cheap to hire more full-time instructors and/or give health insurance to at least a few valuable adjuncts. No one is complaining about my teaching. It’s circumstances.

Doesn’t matter. It still sucks.

So I’m the cliche. In middle age – God, I can’t believe I’m even writing that about myself! – I have to totally restart my life from scratch. I have a degree in history, which makes me one of the most unemployable people on earth, second only to philosophy majors (and French literature majors, so maybe I’m at #3).

And the thing is . . . I have no idea what to do. I did a year ago. Two years ago. I dreamed of what I wanted to do. Write novels. Move to England. (If anyone knows how to make a living by just living in England, let me know!) I had a lot of ideas, but now . . . now they all seem very hollow and idealistic and unrealistic. Buy and restore houses. Write novels. Become a writing coach or a copy editor.

Now? Well, here’s my list.

  1. Win the lottery.
  2. Um . . .
  3.  ???
  4.  ???

How DO you reinvent your life? I have no idea. I’ve spent the past fifteen years building the life I have now. Besides explaining the rise of Hitler, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the function of the medieval Catholic Church, and the events leading up to both the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, I don’t have many job skills. Besides creating online courses that engage students and make them start to think about things they’ve heretofore avoided thinking about, like the ozone layer and other cultures and pollution and food distribution, I don’t have a lot to put on a resume.

But at the OWFI conference last weekend, I talked to two women who were once in my current position, and instead of rolling over and dying (which, I’ll be honest, has crossed my mind more than a few times in the last few weeks), they decided to pursue their passion – writing. One woman, Callie, said she quit her job at noon, walked home and told her husband, “I’m going to be a writer.” Four years later, she was making double his annual salary, just by writing romance novels for a smaller press. She even has a full-time assistant. An assistant! Another just retired from teaching, and is currently pursuing a career in writing – yes, again, category romance.

And then there’s author and presenter Mel Odom, who has written – get this – more than 140 published books, and that’s not counting his e-book only titles. Seriously.

The one thing Mel and Callie had in common was this:  they go with boiler-plate novels. Tropes. Category fiction.

YES, I hear you screaming in agony. Trust me, I understand! But let me make their point before you decide to put out your eyes so you don’t have to read any more. Their argument is this:  yes, it’s a trope. Yes, each book is a boiler-plate. Yes, every book is essentially the same. But – and let me make this clear – this is what readers of category romance, et. al., want. They know how the book will end when they pick it up. That’s WHY they picked it up.

I know, I know. I adore my lovely rambling urban fantasies, and my wonderful, snarky, smart-aleck young adult. I’m not giving them up for anything.

But – I’m thinking of giving it a go.

If it works, great. If it doesn’t – hey, at least I tried something new. And maybe trying this will help my other writing. And if it does work, then I can go from being one kind of cliche to another! 🙂 I totally get that it’s not for everyone – heck, I don’t even know that I can make it work! How do you create an entire novel that revolves around whether a guy and a girl will or won’t get together? I’ve read romance novels. I know how they go, and I still don’t know if I can write them or not.

In my next post, I’ll look at how they broke into this kind of writing, and how it works, and what you can do if you want to try it out, too. For now . . . just keep an open mind?

Florida Book Signings

If you’re in Florida the first week of June, stop by!

debra dockter

Hi Follow Book-lovers,

If you happen to be in Florida the first week of June, I’d love to see you at one of the following locations to discuss Deadly Design and sign some books.

Tuesday, June 2nd – Tampa, FL
Inkwood Books @ 7pm
216 S Armenia Ave, Tampa, FL 33609
Friday, June 5th – Ft. Myers, FL
B&N #2711 @ 12 pm
13751 Tamiami Trail, Fort Myers, FL 33912
Saturday, June 6th – Miami, FL (Coral Gables)
Books & Books @ 5 pm
265 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables, FL 33134

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Agents, Authors, and Query Letters, Oh My!

This weekend, I went to the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference in Oklahoma City. It’s a good gathering of writers from all over – Kansas, Oklahoma (of course), Texas, and Arkansas (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few).

If you’ve never been to a writing conference, you should. It’s a great excuse to come up out of the basement, put on your sunglasses, and meet other writers. Plus, if your novel is nearly ready to query, you can pitch to agents and editors who might be interested.

There were several agents at OWFI this year, and they all shared their knowledge, experience, and opinions about the querying process. If you hope to get published by one of the Big Five – and even some smaller presses – you have to have an agent. No way around it. They’re the gatekeepers. (I will not make a comment about keymasters . . .) Anyway, they ALL want to find the Next Big Thing. They all want to discover that next Night Circus or Angels and Demons. Believe it or not, they want authors to do this properly so they know if this manuscript is a good fit for them or not.

So here’s some of the tips I took away from the conference. Some are pretty basic, and yet new authors always ignore them; some are more particular.

Follow the querying guidelines set out by the agent and/or agency. Every agent and agency has a different set of guidelines for querying them. Some aren’t even accepting queries right now. If they aren’t, they’ll say so on their website. Make sure you follow those guidelines to the letter. If they want a one-page synopsis plus the first twenty pages, send them exactly that. If they want a one-page query with a short author biography, and the first two chapters, send exactly that.

Never, ever say “Dear Agent.” This is a red flag that you don’t care enough about your project to do a proper query letter – or enough about the agent to even find out their name! At the very least, do that much. But you should go further. You should read interviews the agent has done. Follow them on Twitter. Look at the other novels they’ve accepted. Read their blog, if they have one. You can reference something in the query – “I read in your interview with Writer’s Digest that you’re looking for x and y. I’m hopeful my manuscript will be a good fit with you.” That shows them you care.

And on that note, never, ever query an agent who isn’t looking for what you’re writing. If they only represent Christian fiction, your vampire erotica is probably not what they’re wanting. (Although there is this sub-genre of Amish werewolf novels that’s sort of interesting . . .)

Be polite. Always. Something I didn’t know, but learned this weekend:  agents apparently talk to each other! Who knew? If a book isn’t quite for them, but they know someone who’s looking for something similar, they’ll pass it along (especially in their own agency). They belong to online groups. They follow each other on Twitter. They’re Facebook friends. If you’re nice and your project is good, they will tell others. If they reject you and you get nasty with them, they will tell others.

Make it appealing to the eye. Brent Taylor of TriadaUS Literary Agency was very, very big on this. He wants concise queries that get the point across and hook him in just three paragraphs. Three short paragraphs. The shorter, the better. Agents get 300 queries a week – sometimes, they get 300 queries a day. If they see huge blocks of text, they’ll skim. Because of that, they may pass on your novel. Be concise. Get to the point. Tell them the following:

  • Who is the MC?
  • What is the inciting incident (the one event that starts them on the path)?
  • What does the MC want (motive)?
  • What’s standing in their way of getting it?
  • What will happen if they don’t get what they want? What are the stakes?

And ideally, you’ll do all this in three short paragraphs that also provide the voice of the novel. According to Brent (and bear in mind, this is his preference; see #1 above), your three paragraphs should be structured like this:

  • Paragraph 1:  Introduce your MC, their voice, and their motives (what they want). Why should we sympathize with them? Voice:  If your book is funny, make the query funny. If your MC speaks with an accent, make that come across.
  • Paragraph 2:  Introduce the conflict and the stakes. What is the MC’s goal? What’s keeping them from their goal?
  • Paragraph 3:  What happens if the MC doesn’t get their goal? Don’t give away too much – definitely don’t give away your resolution! End it on a suspenseful note that makes the agent want to know more.

Do your homework about your genre and your competition. Agents often want to know (again, see #1 above) that you know your competition. They need to be able to immediately compare your novel to others, to quickly get across what it’s like. (Sort of like saying “It tastes like chicken!”) By comparing your book to similar novels, you give the agent an instant inkling of what it’s going to be like. In turn, they can use that to pitch your book to editors.

Spend time on your query. Lots of time. Lots. Draft. Revise. Edit. Rewrite. You’ve spent a lot of time on your novel. Make sure your query letter is just as perfect! And see #1 above. 🙂