“But that’s MY novel!” When your idea is written by someone else.

At some point, it’ll probably happen. You’ll have this FANTASTIC idea for a novel. The characters are unique. The setting is all yours. The plot – hah! No one will EVER come up with this! You’re feeling great. You start to dig into the research . . . and come to a screeching halt when the first thing you Google turns out to be . . .

Your novel.

Written by someone else. 

How could this be? You were so sure! Unique characters! Your setting! A plot no one else could ever come up with! Then WHAT IS YOUR NOVEL DOING ON SOMEONE ELSE’S AUTHOR’S PAGE ON AMAZON?????

I know. It sucks. Been there, done that. Sort of, anyway. Mine was more creepy than this, though. I’ve been working on an urban fantasy series for a while now, and I think my plot and characters are pretty unique to the story. Without giving too much away, in one of the books, secondary character Bridget is possessed by a demon at a church, and my MC, Erin, is desperately trying to save her. Only my beta readers have seen it. Then one day, I decided to attend a writing group at my local library, just to see what it was about. Imagine my shock when one woman started to read a scene from her novel . . . involving characters named exactly the same names as mine, and set in a church and a demon has possessed one of them. 

I seriously don’t think I breathed for about ten minutes. No, it wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t as if she’d grabbed my manuscript and tried to pass it off as hers. But damn! It was close enough. And it still creeps me the hell out. (And no, I never went back.)

But you’ve probably also heard the saying there are no new stories. And it’s kind of true. Look at how many people came out of the woodwork to blast JK Rowling for infringement over some things in the Harry Potter novels (none of which, BTW, were held up). I still swear I’ve heard the term ‘muggle’ before from some book I read as a child, but I can’t tell you which one. And I don’t really care, either.

Here’s the thing:  you can write a story and it can be similar to another, or it can have certain similarities. But will it be word for word, 100%, just like it? NO. Why? Because you wrote it, and you’re bringing different views, different experiences and justifications, different expectations, different research, to the process.

Take my own example as a – well, example. Without knowing anything more about that woman’s idea and manuscript other than what she read aloud to us, I can tell you that we were going in VERY different directions. I can tell you that our characters were creme brulee and Jell-O (see, I took inspiration from My Best Friend’s Wedding there!) – my Erin is kick-ass and street smart, argumentative and stubborn, and quite likely an agnostic (though we’ve never really discussed it); her Erin was quiet, depressed, faithful but doubting that faith. My characters are best friends; hers were mother/daughter. Just due to their very different outlooks on life, our characters should make very different choices – which will influence the directions of the novels. It was also very clear that hers’ was a Christian novel. Mine is – not. 🙂

I can’t imagine the gutting, wrenching sensation you must get when you find a book already published that, on first glance, is just like yours. I can’t imagine spending years working on a novel, only to find that its doppelganger was published just a few months ago – or maybe, God forbid, years ago. But – when you can breathe and when you can think without hard liquor in your hand – look at it rationally. Sure, on the outset there may be quite a few similarities. Look deeper. How is yours different – and more importantly, how is yours better? 

In a blog post, author Bryn Donovan wrote:

I believe that some myths are deeply rooted in our collective unconscious. Magical weapons, resurrection, demons, fairies or “little people,” changelings, ghosts, heroic quests, and other elements show up in stories across the globe.

How true is this? Think abut the books you read growing up. You and I may or may not have read the same things, but in many classrooms across the country, certain books are required reading, and librarians certainly know what we want to read and what’s popular, and strive to put those books in our hands. And even if you haven’t read the books, you are probably familiar with the movies. We’re all inspired by the things around us. Everything we see, read, watch, and learn becomes part of us, and probably, in some way or another, will make it into our novels. We may not be aware of it, but it’s true.

There have always been hero quests. There always will be. A young boy finds out he is the only one who can save the world. Let’s see. Lord of the Rings. The Sword of Shannara. Harry Potter. Star Wars. In fact, look at the plots of Harry Potter and Star Wars for a second. As Melissa Donovan points out in her blog, their plots are uncannily similar:

A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger (a non-human character), which leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he must receive training to learn skills that are seemingly superhuman. Along the way he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves — the same villain who killed his parents.

So if you’ve got that in mind – it’s okay! What can YOU bring to the idea to make it fresh and yours?

Or this one:  a girl falls in love with a boy who isn’t what he seems to be. Twlight. The Vampire Diaries. The Mortal Instruments. Beauty and the Beast. Even Cinderella (if, of course, you flip the genders). Make it yours (though I will tell you, shape-shifters seem WAY overdone at the moment, and for the love of God, do NOT put  a menage-a-trois in your shape-shifter novel thinking that will make it fresh – it won’t. Just. Won’t.).

It even happens to the big authors. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about just this:  her husband told her a story about an effort to build a highway through the Brazilian jungles, but when the project had to be abandoned, the jungle swallowed the entire thing – the road, the machinery, all of it. She loved the idea. She adored it. She had a love affair with it. And then she got sidetracked by life and the idea left her – but then, months later, she discovered that Ann Patchett was writing a book about the exact same thing. There were differences, but the plots were eerily similar. As she puts it:  “. . . we each counted backwards on our fingers, trying to determine when I had lost the idea and when she had found it. Turns out, those events had occurred around the same time.”

See, fantastic ideas are just that – and if it occurred to you, there’s no doubt it occurred to someone else, too. The key is to make sure you bring enough of yourself to the novel to make it yours. 

And just to prove that there are no new ideas under the sun, here’s a sample of blog posts and forums about this exact topic:

http://www.bryndonovan.com/2016/04/26/someones-already-written-a-story-like-the-one-youre-writing-and-thats-okay/

https://www.writingforward.com/writing-ideas/are-there-any-original-writing-ideas-left

http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?112580-Writing-a-novel-and-then-realize-another-book-has-a-similar-plot

https://theawl.com/this-witch-wrote-my-book-bb480ee9d264#.z77xha56w

And here’s a previous post I wrote about seeing Liz Gilbert in person:  An Evening with Elizabeth Gilbert and An Evening With Elizabeth Gilbert, part 2

Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

The Flawed and the Vulnerable: why characters need to be both

Have you ever read a book and about halfway through – for some reason you couldn’t quite put your finger on – you started to feel bored?

There’s a lot of reasons for this:  lack of forward momentum, too much backstory, poor writing, not enough tension, nothing big for the characters to do, no important stakes. But there’s another reason that could underlie all these things:  boring characters. I don’t mean characters that do nothing, or have boring dialogue. I mean characters that are too perfect.

In writing, there’s an axiom:  give your characters flaws. Or more accurately, give them vulnerabilities. No one wants a hero that can’t be stopped. Where’s the fun (and tension) in that?

Imagine if we’d known Harry couldn’t be defeated by Voldemort. Would anyone have bothered to read the last book, let alone 8.3 million of us in the first 24 hours? Nope. The tension lies in the not knowing. If the reader has doubt your hero can really pull it off – whatever ‘it’ is – then they’re invested. They’re rooting for your hero. They want to see him succeed – but it’s up to you to make sure the reader is on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails, turning the pages long past the time they should have gone to bed.

I’ve been reminded of all of this in the past week through my new favorite TV show, Lucifer, as well as the latest installments of two of my favorite book series.

luciferIf you’re not familiar with Lucifer, it’s a fantastic show, and the main character, played by the devilishly handsome Tom Ellis, is Lucifer. In the flesh. Got bored with Hell and decided to go to Los Angeles and get a life. Though truthfully, it’s much more complicated than that, and the writers really should get Emmys for how well they’ve done with this material.

Lucifer is a tortured soul, mischievous and charming, the consummate bad boy – but beset by his own demons (both literally and figuratively). As an angel, he can’t be harmed, except by a heavenly weapon – but then he meets Detective Chloe Decker, and for some inexplicable reason, if she’s around . . . he’s mortal.

This instantly raises the stakes.

Add in the fact that he’s always with her on cases and in shootouts and the stakes are raised even higher. Let’s face it:  a hero who can fall off a ten-story building without a scratch is, well, a bit boring. Put him in proximity to Chloe, though, and suddenly there’s tension, because there’s real danger.

51gpkfudefl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Now. If you’re not familiar with Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series, you’re in for a treat. Charley is a private investigator, but she’s also the Grim Reaper. She’s shiny and bright and spirits from all over not only see her, but cross through her to the other side. She was born that way. She’s also smart, sarcastic, and funny as hell even when the situation doesn’t call for it. For instance, in this book she went to rescue a client, got caught, and now they’re both about to die:

“He must be returned to the earth,” she said. “He must learn from his mistakes and be allowed to grow again.”

“You’re going to replant him?” I asked.

“And you as well.”

“Can I come back as an azalea?”

I love Charley. But I admit, this book is slightly on the boring side for one reason:  Charley can’t die. We didn’t know that until a few books ago. The first few books in the series are fantastic because Charley can’t help but put herself in harm’s way; sometimes it’s to help someone, and sometimes it’s just because she’s That Kind of Person, but we’re always on the edge of our seats because we know something bad is coming. She can heal fast, but she’s not immune to pain, torture, or dying. But now we know she’s a god, and she can heal herself. There may be a few things that can kill her, but not many. So we no longer have the great tension we once did of ‘how will she get out of this?’, because we know she can.

But by this time, Jones has created an entire world of secondary characters that are almost as endearing and fun as Charley herself – and they’re almost all mortal. She’s fiercely loyal to her human family and friends, and will do anything to save them. So we do worry for them, and for her daughter Beep, who is in hiding. But as I was reading the ending of the most recent book tonight, I realized that I was a little disappointed – because I knew Charley could get out of it any time she wanted, really. The tension of that scene was gone.

bjfioefvegrhthtThe other book I’m reading is Feversong, the last book in the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning. I. Love. These. Books. In the world Moning has created, everything has limits and rules.

Basic premise:  MacKayla Lane can see the Fae. The walls between Fae and mankind have crashed, and Mac needs to put it back up. Not easy, but she has help from the other sidhe-seers, as well as Jericho Barrons and the rest of the Nine. We don’t know exactly what the Nine are, but we know they can’t die – well, there is one way, but let’s not go there. If they do die, they just magically go back to an original starting point, heal, and then come back to Dublin.

The rules:  Mac’s human. To defeat the Fae, she can use one of two weapons that can kill them. She can also snack on Fae in order to gain their capabilities, but if she does, she’s vulnerable to her own weapon. The Nine can regenerate, but it takes a while, and in the interim, they’re gone. Sure, they return eventually, but will it be in enough time? That’s the question. So there’s built-in tension with the rules, especially before Mac knows they come back. They are vulnerable. Plus, we really like them and don’t want bad things to happen to them, either. 🙂

This is why, when you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, or – well, anything – your hero must be flawed and vulnerable. Vulnerable is the key, though. Lucifer is flawed, but without Chloe, he’s not vulnerable on any level. She makes him that way, both physically and emotionally. Charley is flawed, but again, not very vulnerable. It’s the people in her life that are her Achilles’ heel. Mac – and the Nine – are both flawed and vulnerable in certain circumstances.

Flaws make us human. Flaws lead to downfalls. Flaws lead us to make irrational choices, to do things we’d normally not otherwise do. Flaws in your characters do the same thing – they become overconfident, overlook things, get hurt, cut people out of their lives, make mistakes. In a truly good, character-driven book, it’s the flaws that help drive the narrative.

Flaws  and vulnerabilities are what we identify with as readers. Who wants a perfect main character?

That’s just boring. 🙂

What’s in a gait? Horses and how they move.

As I peruse writing message boards – especially those seeking advice on certain questions – I often see some variation on this:

“How long can a horse gallop?” “How long can a horse go without rest?” “I’ve got my hero needing to ride his horse 20 miles in one hour. Is that possible?”

Yeah. NO.

Nothing pulls a reader out of a book faster than finding something that’s Not Right. If I read that a horse is galloping for an hour straight, I’ll chuck that book straight across the room! So I thought this week, I’d see if I could clarify a few things when it comes to horses and their gaits.

The basic gaits:  The way a horse moves is called a gait. Horses have four basic gaits:  walk, trot, canter, gallop. (We won’t get into the gaits that some breeds are specially bred for.)

  • The walk is a four-beat, flat – well, it’s a walk.
  • The trot is two-beat; the horse’s diagonal legs move together as a pair. Human equivalent is a jog. Here’s a link to a short video on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkRieNqW56o (There’s also the pace, but unless you’re writing about Standardbred racing, I wouldn’t worry about that.)
  • The canter is a three-beat gait; most horses find the canter easy to maintain, and it’s easier to ride than the trot.
  • The gallop is the fastest gait a horse has. It’s four-beat, and cannot be maintained for long (it depends on the fitness of the horse, the terrain, etc. but it’s like having a person sprint. They can’t maintain that for long.) Horse racing is the gallop. Here’s a video of the most famous match race in history – Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral, 1938. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVT2MPNCqgM Notice how at the end, Seabiscuit’s legs are nothing but a blur? That’s why horse races only last 1-2 minutes. Horse just can’t maintain this pace for that long.

Here’s one of the most fantastic videos I’ve ever seen – this is Edward Gal and his most famous ride, Moorlands Totilas. This is Grand Prix Dressage. Unless the horses in  your book DO Grand Prix dressage, they won’t be doing any of the movements you see here – but this will give you an idea of the basic gaits and how they differ from one another. Totilas enters at the trot; the walk is at 3:29; the canter work begins at 4:00. Also – most horses who do dressage work, even at the Grand Prix level, don’t make it look this damn effortless. Totilas is in a  class by himself.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GT6Yn7SLkmQ

How long can a horse maintain its gaits? It depends on a lot of things – are they at liberty? How fit are they? How much does the rider weigh? How much other weight is the horse carrying?

When you see Westerns with the riders galloping their horses hell-bent across the desert – YEAH, RIGHT. Doesn’t happen. Not for long, anyway. The same thing with the stagecoaches and the four-horse teams cantering or galloping down the road – just NO. Maybe for very short bursts, but those stagecoaches were bloody heavy! Mostly, those horses walked and trotted. Mostly they walked. Have you ever seen True Grit? Remember the scene at the end where Rooster Cogburn gallops the pony to death in order to save whats-her-name, the whiny little girl? That’s the reality. That’s what happens when  you gallop a horse too fast, for too long.

It also depends on the breed or type of horse you have. If you’re writing a Western, your horses are probably going to be a mix of several breeds. The cavalry had Thoroughbreds, which often escaped and bred with local stock, producing a tough, smaller horse that was more suited to the environment. If you’re writing a medieval history and you have knights, they would have ridden draft or draft-crosses – horses big and heavy enough to carry a rider, his armor, and his incredibly heavy saddle. Here’s a chart that shows some of the major draft breeds – as you can see, there’s quite a bit of difference between them all!

draft_horse_breeds

ALSO – if you research this further, you’ll find that many times, Western riders have different terms for the gaits. They refer to a trot as a ‘jog’ and the canter as a ‘lope’. In point of fact, if you show Western, these are the proper terms. ‘Lope,’ however, is often a four-beat, quasi-gait, and not a true three-beat canter, and the ‘jog’ is often more of a shuffle. To illustrate, here’s a video from the 2008 Quarter Horse Congress:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stEgqgnbC4M (I’m trying to be fair, but I absolutely despise the way Western Pleasure has gone downhill! When I showed 20+ years ago, proper gaits were still rewarded – ugh.)

I hope some of these videos help illustrate the basic horse gaits, and maybe clarify any questions you might have had. 🙂

Notes from a First Page Panel

Let’s face it:  first pages are hard work. Half the time you start your first page without knowing where your novel’s going; many times, those original first pages end up getting heavily edited, if not actually deleted. Been there, done that! And what might seem fine to us just isn’t fine to agents and editors.

The Rose State Writers Conference was in September. One of my favorite parts of this conference is what’s known as the ‘First Page Panel.’ Attendees bring the firs page of their manuscript and drop it into a box when they arrive that morning; at noon, the box is brought into the main auditorium, we all gather with box lunches, and the panel – composed of the guest agents, writers, and teachers – tell us what they like and don’t like. Each page is read aloud; anyone on the panel has the right to stop the reader at any time.

At first, the panel’s nice. After they get through about 10 pages, they start to get a bit tougher. 🙂 Here’s some notes from this year’s panel:

First – not too much backstory or dialogue. A lot of the pages broke this cardinal rule. In fact, one agent went so far as to say this:  No backstory. No exposition. Start with the character and their problem. You can fill in everything else later. Otherwise, it’s lazy writing. 

Don’t start with dialogue. Especially when there’s no speaker delineated, or grounding for the reader. There’s no context; it’s just wasted words. And contrary to popular belief, it generally doesn’t incite curiosity in the reader, unless it’s the right dialogue. Most isn’t.

While I’m on the subject of dialogue . . . Dialogue cannot be used to get information across. “As you know, Bob . . .” Just don’t. Agents will throw your manuscript across the room and curse you forever. Well. Maybe just for a bit. 🙂

And before we leave the subject of dialogue . . . Give us an idea of your MC in your dialogue. Age? Speaking voice? Dialect? (Not too much of that, though.) Remember, show us what they’re like. That means the voice, too. What words they use. How they structure sentences. What they talk about.

Make sure you set the time and place, and let the reader orient themselves. Don’t set them adrift! This is one of the reasons why starting with dialogue is bad – because there’s no context. Think about your favorite movies. Do they start with dialogue? Or do we start with a few opening scenes that let us know when/where we are?

But:  Choose your details carefully. Watch the pacing. Too many details will slow it down and the reader will walk away. This is NOT an info-dump. This is not backstory. Setting is never separate from the story. Choose your details well. Give just 1-3 telling, specific details; the reader will do the rest. More, and the reader will start to skim, or even get resentful. If you describe a house as a “pink Victorian,” for example, the reader knows what that should look like, and they’ll fill in the rest with their own imagination. And this gives them buy-in! The house they imagine won’t be like yours, and it won’t be like anyone else’s, either. It’ll be theirs.

Create conflict from the get-go – or at least, create interest intrigue for your readers. Hook them with a question. As I’ve said before in other blog posts, that’s the job of the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page – to lure the reader in by asking questions they must know the answers to. 

The first page should ask questions. Questions should be asked throughout the book. Picture these as stepping-stones, leading the reader from one to the other, until they are done. But don’t lay down your questions in a way that confuses the reader! Lay them down in order. Answer one, raise two more. Sure, we’ve got this solved – now what conflict arises because of that?  Or, as author Katherine Center put it so eloquently,

“The readers are in your roller coaster. Lock them in and take off!”

BUT . . . There’s a subtle line between making people curious and overwhelming them. Once they’re confused, they’re lost. Don’t pull them out of the story! And don’t let them put the book down.To hook readers, give them one little thing that’s out of place. Set up questions for them. One example from the conference was this gem:  “When I got home the door was locked – and I never lock the door.” Doesn’t that put a question in your mind? Maybe two or three, even?

Emotions:  make the reader feel them. Show, don’t tell. Every single word needs to be there because it’s important to the story. Make sure the reader knows what they have to know. Give the basics – that’s it. Description kills the urgency. The pace of the story should reflect the characters’ emotions.

And on that note, watch your writing. The first page may be all you get to entice agents, editors, and readers. Do. Not. Use. Adjective and Adverbs. Too many adjectives make agents and readers ‘too aware of the writing.’ They notice and stumble over it. Make the words disappear. Never pull them out of the story. And don’t make them think about the language. Or again, as Katherine Center said, “Thinking is hard. Stories should be easy!”

One tidbit I learned is that agents have what they call the ‘modifier zone’ – the point at which agents stop reading because the author is putting in too many modifiers (dapper, plush, etc.). Just tell us what’s what. Tell us what we have to know to move forward. Picture the first page as the opening scene of a movie. Do we need to know everything? No. Should we have some hint, some clue, as to the central conflict and characters? Yes.

Prologues:  it’s hard to gauge a novel on the prologue, especially if it’s about 5 pages long and the agent or editor has asked for the first five pages. It’s often written differently than the rest of the novel, and usually it’s info-dumping. Get to the story.

More importantly, ask yourself:  why am I starting the book here? What is the purpose of this scene? If the answer has anything to do with backstory, you’re not staring in the right place. Backstory = prologue, in most cases. Get rid of it.

We weren’t able to get through very many in an hour and twenty minutes – of the 50+ submissions, I think we read about 15 aloud. But those 15 bold guinea pigs helped their fellow attendees, and I hope they may have helped you. 🙂 I do, however, want to leave you with just one more tidbit from Katherine Center:

“Anyone who writes has to know what they LOVE to read.” And then they should be writing that. Not something else. That. “Write the story you wish was out there in the world. If it’s romance – great! Whatever it is that lights the reading fire in you is what you should be writing.”

 

Katherine Center’s website:  http://www.katherinecenter.com/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/first-month-first-week-first-lines/

 

 

Inspired by true events . . . authors, agents, and publishing.

Last Saturday, I trekked 60 miles – about an hour and a half – to hear a ‘publishing panel’ at the Wichita Public Library.

I didn’t really know what to expect, and since I was about 15 minutes late (darn my addiction to white chocolate-cinnamon chip scones!) I honestly can’t tell you who the panelists were – I know one of them was former Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low-Weso, who is co-publisher of Mammoth Publications (https://mammothpublications.net/). (No, the information’s not available on the library’s website, either, sorry!) By the time I got there, they were taking questions from the audience.

Most of the audience seemed to be beginning writers – there were some that were already published, either by small presses or self-published. I have to say that I think the panelists would have been best if left alone to answer the questions. However, there was a facilitator – a librarian – who simply wouldn’t let that happen. By the time it was over (half an hour early), my inner teacher had kicked in and I wanted to stand up and say LISTEN PEOPLE, IF YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW THE ANSWERS TO YOUR QUESTIONS, LET’S GO OUTSIDE AND I’LL GIVE IT MY BEST SHOT! It was pretty clear that most people had come to get specific answers to specific questions – but they didn’t get them. And I felt so bad for them.

But I did want to address one question that was handled so poorly, the advice given was useless. Here it is:

I’m already self-published, but I haven’t had much success. How would I break into mainstream publishing? The facilitator wouldn’t let the panelists answer this question. She answered it herself and her answer was total crap. Her suggestion was to get a blog and get your books listed on Goodreads.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Here’s the real answer:  GET AN AGENT. It really is the only way to break into mainstream publishing, even with small houses. Very few reputable publishing houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts. They just get too many! Last year, a fairly well-known sci-fi publisher accepted open submissions (no agents) for 30 days. They had more than 5,000 submissions. They did not read them all. Agents, for better or worse, have become the gatekeepers of the publishing world.

Agents aren’t just a gateway, though. They may be the first people to really critique your book and give you honest, unflinching, realistic views about it. I love my beta readers in large part because I know they will tell me that crap is crap. But so many people don’t have those kinds of betas – they have the kind that gushes over everything and proclaims it perfect. (Much the same way I imagine Trump’s handlers must do every time he opens his mouth and tries to utter a coherent sentence and fails spectacularly.) Agents don’t have time to do that, though. This is their business. They’ve got to sell books to publishers in order to keep their cars and houses. That’s why they’re so choosy about the projects they take on. On average, agents will only take on a teeny, tiny fraction of authors who actually query them. They don’t have time to do more.

Your first taste of how critical agents can be will come with the query letter. (For more on this, see my blog post https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/agents-authors-and-query-letters-oh-my/ ) But I will say this:  the days of a form query letter addressed to ‘sir or madam’ are OVER. If your query letter isn’t 100% right, kiss that agent goodbye. Agents have requirements on their websites. Follow those requirements. Follow them to the letter.

There’s several responses you might get to your query letter. A lot of agents don’t even respond to query letters if the answer is ‘no,’ and I think that’s just wrong. Some will send a form letter back – ‘thanks but this isn’t for us.’ If the manuscript is good, but not their thing or not quite ready, they might send a personalized note – ‘Hey,  I really liked x, y, and z about this, but I’m not the best fit for the project,’ or ‘Like the concept, but the main character needs work.’ If they like the manuscript and they think it’s close to being ready they might say ‘look, I’m excited about this project, but there’s changes that need to be made to it. I’ve got them listed on the next page. If you’re willing to do that, then resubmit when you’re done and we’ll talk.’

If you get that last one, the agent’s interested. Really interested. If they take the time to not only read your manuscript, but also to make detailed notes about what they’d like to see changed, they’re interested.

Of course, what you really want is an email that says “OMG, I love this – can I call you at x time on x day to talk about representation???? Please????” 🙂 Been there, done that, best feeling in the world!!!! But even then, you might find that the agent isn’t the best fit for you and your work – and it’s up to you to make that decision. They might be asking for changes you’re not willing or able to make. That’s where you have to take a step back and say okay, do I want to be published – or do I want to be a writer? No, they’re not the same thing.

But to get back to the original question –

Agents are the ones who know what editors want. A lot of them started out in publishing, as either editors or junior editors. They know how to make a pile of pages into a book. They know which editors are actively seeking new projects – and what they want. And agents are the only good way to break into traditional publishing.

The sad fact is this:  yes, there are a handful of self-published authors out there who had the traditional publishing world come knocking at the door. A handful. That’s it. Hugh Howey had this kind of success with Wool (it started as a short story that evolved into an online novel; but by the time Simon & Schuster came along, it was already making more than $100,000/month on Amazon). And of course . . . E.L. James and Fifty Shades of Grey. But seriously? That’s like IT. So the odds of your novel a.) making it big on Amazon and b.) attracting an unsolicited bidding war between the Big Five are c.) astronomical.

I did a blog post a while back that included a bit about self-publishing – https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/09/13/what-the-bleep-do-publishers-want/ – and the fact is this:  if you’re self-published and your novel isn’t doing well, it’s time to pull it and think about why that is. That’s what a good agent can help you with. (Also, a good freelance editor, who will – for a fee – read your manuscript and make suggestions. If you’re not good at editing, spelling, grammar, etc. I highly recommend you do this.)

One last sad fact to leave you with today:  most writers won’t break into mainstream publishing, depending on what your definition of ‘mainstream publishing’ is. If you’re only shooting for the Big Five, it’s a long uphill slog. If you’re okay with a smaller press, you’re in luck – they’re much more willing to take on new authors and more willing to work with you to make that novel successful. Again, these are things your agent will discuss with you.

But if you want to be published ‘mainstream,’ finding an agent is the only way to do it.

Some helpful links:

http://www.writersdigestshop.com/writers-digest-october-2016?utm_source=writersdigest.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wd-bak-bl-161001-oct16-preview – this is the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, which had some great insights into what agents are seeking, as well as a list of new agents seeking authors. No, there’s no articles here, but you can run out to your local bookstore and grab it. 🙂

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/11-steps-to-finding-the-agent-wholl-love-your-book – from Writer’s Digest.

http://www.sfwa.org/real/ – from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, on how to find an agent.

 

 

 

 

 

The Procrastinating Writer

If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you probably know one thing about me:

I like to procrastinate.

Well. Wait. That’s not really true. I don’t like to procrastinate; I need to procrastinate. Yes, there is a big difference.

One thing I know about my writing – or anything in my life – is this:  If it feels wrong, if it feels forced, there’s a reason for it. Something with a capital S is telling me wait a minute, hang back, let’s see where this is going, this isn’t quite right, we need to regroup . . . a bit like Bill Paxton’s character in Twister when he thinks the tornado is going to change tracks and if they keep going they’re going to be right in its path.

A lot of people procrastinate for the wrong reasons – they’re bored, or they don’t want to do the work. That’s NOT what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, until yesterday when I heard this fantastic TED talk by Adam Grant. Here’s the link:  http://www.ted.com/talks/adam_grant_the_surprising_habits_of_original_thinkers/transcript?language=en#t-300538

Grant is also the author of a book I almost bought yesterday, Originals:  How Nonconformists Move the World, and his belief is this:  procrastinators are more likely to be creative, and more likely to be world-movers, than non-procrastinators. Let me be clear:  this doesn’t apply to all procrastinators!!!!!! Some are just goof-offs and there’s nothing to be done there. But for some us – and yes, I’m including myself in this subset for one very good reason – procrastination serves a purpose.

It gives us space to think.

It gives us space to be creative.

Seriously. Walk with me for a minute. Let me explain.

We’ve all had writer’s block, yes? I don’t need to explain the mechanics of it to you – the numbing doubts, the overwhelming choices, the dread of putting fingers to keyboard and finding nothing there. Some will tell you it doesn’t even exist; some will tell you the only way to get through it is to keep writing, even if it’s nothing more than dribbles of cold pudding. Write, damn it! Write! Write! Write! Sort of like a prison guard telling prisoners to move these cement blocks over here and stack them and now take them and move them over there and don’t you dare stop! There’s no purpose to moving the cement blocks; it’s just something to keep the prisoners active. Writing, when you have writer’s block, can be the same way.

Here’s what I find, and this was the big revelation for me in Grant’s TED talk:  procrastinating gives you the chance to, as he puts it, “doubt the default.” You were 100% sure your novel was going in X direction. But then you get writer’s block. Why? Maybe your brain is doubting the default. Maybe this isn’t the best idea after all. Maybe it’s trite, overdone. Maybe it’s not what your characters would really do. Maybe, if you walk away for a bit, you’ll come up with something better. Here’s what Grant had to say about that:

Vuja de is when you look at something you’ve seen many times before and all of a sudden see it with fresh eyes. It’s a screenwriter who looks at a movie script that can’t get the green light for more than half a century. In every past version, the main character has been an evil queen. But Jennifer Lee starts to question whether that makes sense. She rewrites the first act, reinvents the villain as a tortured hero and ‘Frozen’ becomes the most successful animated movie ever. So there’s a simple message from this story. When you feel doubt, don’t let it go.”

Because here’s the thing:  your brain doesn’t stop thinking about your novel and your characters just because you’re not writing actively. It’s still processing. Somewhere, deep inside, little gears and gizmos are whirling away. Or alternatively, your characters are waiting for you to listen to them again. However you personally look at it. 🙂 Grant noticed this, too:  he said that one reason we like to-do lists is because once we cross something off the list, we can stop thinking about it. But those ideas we procrastinate on? We can’t cross those off the list. They’re just – there. So our brain works on them. We may not know what to do about them. We may not want to do anything about them. We may not know what direction to take next. It’s okay.

We’re procrastinating with a purpose.

Grant talked about this as well. He was writing the book I mentioned above, and had a chapter on procrastination. So:

I thought, “This is the perfect time to teach myself to procrastinate, while writing a chapter on procrastination.” So I metaprocrastinated, and like any self-respecting procrastinator, I woke up early the next morning and I made a to-do list with steps on how to procrastinate. And then I worked diligently toward my goal of not making progress toward my goal. I started writing the procrastination chapter, and one day — I was halfway through — I literally put it away in mid-sentence for months. It was agony. But when I came back to it, I had all sorts of new ideas.

So being a procrastinator can help generate new ideas and more creative angles and solutions to problems than forcing yourself to work through to the end.

Right now, I’m stuck again on Nicky. I had that great revelation a few weeks ago about how the rest of the novel should flow, and that opened me up to a wonderful, absolutely wonderful, run of writing. But now – I’m stuck again.

I’m not worried, though. I’ve been here before. I’ll be here again, with Nicky and with other books. I’m procrastinating, but I trust the process. (Meanwhile, these two new characters just showed up on my doorstep one night to ask if I’d write their story and of course I said yes, get in queue . . . but they’ve decided they’d rather try to jump ahead of everyone else.)

So that last bit is very important – I’m not not writing. I’m still generating ideas and jotting down scenes and listening to these two characters and their crazy romance and doing research. It’s just that I know if I push it on Nicky right now, I will get crap. I don’t want crap. I don’t want to waste time on crap. More importantly, it won’t be the right crap. It won’t be anything I can work with. I know that about myself and my habits by now. Heck, even if I walk away from writing completely for a while, I know I can come back to it and pick up where I left off.

Of course, you can’t procrastinate forever. And there’s a very fine line between creatively procrastinating and being lazy. One gives you space to generate creativity; the other generates nothing.

But if you’re stuck on your novel – give it a try.

 

Here’s some other links on the same topic: