Querying…Again

OK, so I’ve been over this manuscript, what? A million times? Rough draft, second rough draft, third rough draft, final draft, three edits with MR ED, after which, a year of self-imposed edits, one edit with a completely different, third party editor, several contests, a half dozen SmartEdits, another edit this month, and finally a proofread or two. I even thought of a scene that I’d forgotten to put in, and have bookmarked a scene to take out in case I can’t get permission to quote two lines of lyric. This baby about as tight as it’s going to get.

And so today, with tentative fingers, I decided to open my query (newly polished from a LitReactor query class I took in December). I spiffed it up, and then opened QueryTracker and scanned down my list of agents (since it’s January, thankfully many have opened to queries again), studied their web sites, including the types of clients they represent and the titles of books they’ve helped get published, and, OH MY GOD, I clicked SEND on three of them.

“No big deal,” you say.

Are you shitting me? I started hyperventilating after the first one.

Especially when I saw my email after I sent the first one. Why is it my formatting is so wonky? Many agents want the first few chapters imbedded into the email. Once I copy and paste, the formatting goes right to hell and stays there. I’m not a newbie, I know how to format a manuscript now. I’m doing it the right way. And this story is so straightforward; there are no text messages and very few email, only some italics, so it’s not like I’m trying to perform literary gymnastics.

It’s not just the query letter, or my email server problems. I’m well acquainted with my story, and it think it’s a good  great one. I’m well-versed in penning business letters, I do that every day. I’ve married the pitch to my business style in a beautiful ceremony that’s not too staid and not too sappy.

That part doesn’t bother me. My (now) angst is the result of moving on to the next step. This story is finished, complete, as good as it’s going to get. Now I leave the artist phase and enter the hopeful-for-an-agent phase, to be continued on to the product-selling phase.

I queried three agents today.

*deep breath*

I’ve done it before, and it’s not any easier now than it was then. It’s like getting on a roller coaster and realizing your seat belt isn’t secure. WHEE! and oh, shit.

This part of the process takes time, and you can’t take it too seriously, or you’ll lose your mind. I have a plan, though. I’ll distract myself by working on the next edit. It’s been nagging at me for a long time.

And maybe I’ll query someone else tomorrow.

Another Kernel of Wisdom via the San Francisco Writers Conference

I know. I am pitifully behind. That’s because I’m semi-recently returned from the 2013 San Francisco Writers Conference. Thanks to this great conference, my head is *b-u-r-s-t-i-n-g* with ideas. Unfortunately, having been out of town for over a week, the other areas of my life are bursting as well.

Before I forget, I would like to relay the best advice on storytelling that I have ever received, thanks to a SFWC workshop lead by Mary Knippel and Teresa LeYung-Ryan. These are two, very smart ladies, and I don’t love them because Mary and I shared lunch and Instagrams of Mark Hopkins’ famed room service hamburgers, or that Teresa is so effusive, she dragged me into a photo after last year’s workshop.

Are you ready? Because this is the wisest sentence I’ve ever heard about writing:

Someone we care about wants something very badly and is having a difficult time achieving his/her goal.

Honestly, it was a lightbulb-over-the-head moment. (Yes, I know. I’m slow. That’s already been established.)

Wiser words have never been spoken. Okay, so you can study hard and obtain a Masters of Fine Art in literature. You can take all the classes on story arcs and layering and the intricacies of denouement the world has to offer. You can belong to the critique group made in heaven (I’d have Edgar Allen Poe, Ayn Rand, and Carly Phillips in my fantasy crit group), or to national writers organizations. You could line the basement walls with past issues of Writers Digest. You might even be able to lock yourself in a room for eight hours straight with no internet and no distractions and tap at the keyboard until your fingers atrophy. You can hang out at conferences and learn from the best.

You can do all these things and more, but if your story cannot be told in this simple sentence, you don’t have a compelling story.

I grew up eons ago, when creative writing teachers claimed a good story had to have conflict – man against man, man against nature, or man against himself. I’m also a fervent believer of having a beginning, a middle, and an end. (You wouldn’t believe some of the writing I’ve read that has none of this.)

Someone we care about [protagonist] wants something very badly [possible end result] and is having a difficult time [the journey] achieving his/her goal.

It’s so simple, I’m wondering why I’d never considered it before. Like, DUH. No wonder I had a difficult time writing the first novel. (By the second one, I’d kinda-sorta figured it out. By the third, I’d fleshed out stories for each of my characters before sitting down to write.)

My new mantra also makes for an excellent measurement for the casual elevator pitch or for the first sentence of a query letter. Breaking down your story to its most basic form (a single sentence) crystallizes the concept, making it easy for the prospective agent to see what the heck your story is about.

I spent the plane ride back to Detroit devising a simple sentence to explain each of my novels. See?

Finding Cadence:

After her husband dies, Cadence Reed tries to find a new normal, but confronted with Carter’s secret life and with finances in disarray, she battles a powerful attorney (and once friend) for control.

Virtually Yours:

A bereaved parent wants to get closer to an online moms’ group, but traverses a minefield of secrets that could blow up the friendship, until the truth finally comes out.

Virtually Yours Forever:

Janna and Ashe are (finally) getting married – that is, if she can lose ten pounds, if Ashe can get over his cold feet, and if the Virtual Moms can book flights through a Snow-maggedon Nor’easter.

Acorns and Oaks:

Amberly Cooper escapes frozen Michigan to her tony life in LA despite a few minor roadblocks: her grandma is crazy, her mom doesn’t want to leave, her Cali friends are uninspired, and oh…she’s 14.

While these aren’t perfect, completing this exercise helped focus my attention on the story, the guts of the matter.

Everything else is icing.

 

Some Covers to Consider

Now that I’m winding down on the edit, it’s time to look at cover designs. I participated in Indies Unite for Joshua (a great cause, by the way, check it out) and bid on a cover designer, and that’s how I’m now working with Sessha Batto. Here are a couple:

Image

Then there’s this one:

Image

Can you say “excitement?”

:-)

Where Was the Battle of the Log Lines on This One?

I hope everyone’s Christmas (or whatever you choose to or decline to celebrate) was merry and bright. That goes without saying.

Last week, the Query Tracker blog featured a must-read post on log lines. For the new writer or others out of the loop, a log line is a one sentence explanation of your book (or movie) meant to hook the audience. Think bubble blurbs under a channel you have surfed to, or for those who remember TV Guide, a comprehensive yet pithy summary of this week’s episode. An example from one of my favorites, That ’70′s Show:

Bohemian Rhapsody
Donna takes some “creative” photos of herself to send to Eric, but unfortunately they end up in the wrong hands.
One sentence. We know who is experiencing the dilemma, and we can deduce what “creative” means in the sentence (racy? pin-ups? NUDE?). From there, the imagination takes us on a course of possible plot twists that might result from the shift in story line. There is enough information there to either tease a fan to flip the channel (or put in the DVD) at the appointed time. For those who despise the program, there is also enough for the hater to make a decision to pass.
A log line is the basis of the standard elevator pitch, where the author has three to five minutes to convey the essence of their work to an agent. Sometimes we pitch via email, but more frequently the pitching is done at crowded conferences where every wannabe author is nervous and perspiring. Been there. You could chop through the anxiety with a machete and build huts for the homeless with the resulting debris. Building a pitch is much like writing a news story. Start with a solid log line, then attach the next most important sentence, and the next. Make the first 25 words the best you can and read it out loud. And then of course, you’re going to edit that baby until it sounds professional, and you’re going to practice it so many times, you’ll be blurting it out in your sleep.
In my case, on my first effort, I found it nearly impossible to get the gist of my story down to 50 words. I had a hard time getting it under two pages. Thank goodness, with some coaching from my cheering squad, some great reference books, and years of practice, I’m doing much better now. :-)

This isn’t the only reason why, but writers should practice crafting log lines, and pitches, even as you struggle to write to those magic words “The End”. Your novel might be the next New York Times best seller, but in order to sell it to an agent, your pitch, whether written or verbal, has to be totally outstanding. Even if you decide to self-publish, if your blurb doesn’t catch the eye of your potential reader, you might as well go home and start over. If the premise doesn’t sound massively appealing to you, how do you expect it to sound to a stranger? You might also want to practice log line writing in order to test your story. Is there something about your novel that sets it apart from the others in your genre? If the premise is the same old formula (for example, boy meets girl, they fall in love, there’s conflict, they get back together and live happily ever after) (or, for those action lovers, man goes to work just as the world is beginning to end, the government enlists him to help save the world, there’s conflict, but he saves the world and everyone lives happily ever after), how is your log line/pitch written so that it transcends stereotypes and sounds fresh?

I am musing today over log lines, because this weekend, after a marathon of cleaning, a massive consumption of food, and the requisite present opening, I had the opportunity to catch two movies. Both were released in 2011. Each starred a former actor from That ’70′s Show. Both were cute, light, romantic comedies. And both were basically the very same story. Blatantly the same.

One was No Strings Attached, the other was Friends with Benefits.

Or, boy and girl suffer from bad relationships, decide to hook up with unsuspecting friend for relationship-less sex-capades, but eventually – and despite many denials to the contrary – fall in love with the booty call, and live happily ever after.

Watching these movies made we wonder if the same writers were working on both projects. Or if Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis discussed their simultaneous projects in friendly phone conversations. (Maybe they don’t talk to each other anymore?) I then wondered if anything could be done to either one to make one movie stand out from the other. (No. The only thing that could have been done was to release one of the movies a year from now.) Maybe Kutcher and Kunis should have done one of the movies together, leaving Justin Timberlake and Natalie Portman to do the other.

As a writer, I think of my stories as completely unique. But is anything really unique? The challenge is to write the best story you possibly can, and use your log line as a tool.

Writing: For Pleasure or Profit?

Now that I have my manuscript wrapped up (for now, at least…I hope I don’t open it again for last minute tweaking), I’ve been researching the agents I want to target. This includes cyber-stalking on Facebook and Twitter. Of course, I click on almost every link. I would click on every link, but who has time? There’s a lot of good information in there. Stories about success in getting published, and of course, the sad tales of repeated rejection, and if not outright rejection, then a facsimile of it based on agent teasing. Mind you (agents in waiting), I have no first-hand knowledge, only anecdotal notes from my friends and colleagues.

It’s not enough to spell correctly, un-purple your prose, toss out the cliches, and tighten weak grammar. An author must get out and SELL. You not only have to write a book that wows, you must write a query letter with zing and a synopsis that won’t leave the potential agent snoozing. It’s a tough market out there; the ocean is full of fish, and a lot of them are way more talented than I am.

This caused me to think: Do I want to write for pleasure or for profit? This journey has been a long one, to be sure. It’s tough writing a book. You not only have to be reasonably creative, you also have to have a strong work ethic. Do I really want to peddle my baby? And once sold, I know it won’t make enough money for me to quit my day job.

Since I am hunkered down in my castle waiting for the Snowpocalypse, I thought I would explore this. Why do I write?

The biggest reason is because I must. I have ideas in my head, and stories I want to tell. So far, a select few have read my book, and the consensus is that most like it. A few like it a lot. I love the fact that I have written a 95K story that entertains. To me, that’s the best part of the whole deal — taking my idea and molding it to a complex and mildly funny tale.

It’s not all fun and games. I wish the words would fly from my head and into my computer without any thought at all, but writing is hard work. There are rules (yes, some to be broken); there is always something to learn.

I honestly wish I would have started earlier, or not stopped when the kids came. Although I must say, being able to write witty notes to elementary school teachers came in handy.

So, even though I’ve sent out 1.25 queries every week this year, I won’t take the rejection personally. I won’t quit; I won’t get depressed. I’ll keep plugging along, getting the next story out of my head and onto the page.

Tweaking the Baby

Last Friday, I finished the edit on VIRTUALLY YOURS, and sent it back for a second pass. I also gave it to a few select beta readers for their input.

You know how I was so happy when I first finished it? Then I was deliriously happy when I placed in the Query Tracker contest? And I was bubbling with joy when I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference and received so many thumbs up from so many agents? Then so happy that Mr. Ed loved it and offered great tips and encouragement?

Well, I felt that way for what? almost the entire weekend…then the doubts started sprouting up like so many mushrooms in my basement.

Since Monday, I have re-edited the manuscript a total of two times and am currently doing the third pass. Never mind that before last Friday, I went through three times before.

See, I thought of more things to add, more things to remove. I thought of plot lines that were mysteriously left up in the air with no resolution. I thought I should bolster the dialog of my Best Man, give him some colloquialisms to get my point across. I checked my commas and quotation marks, made certain my homophones were correct. I took out telling and inserted dialog. I even woke up in the middle of the night and remembered what I’d forgotten!

I feel like an over-protective hen mothering my egg. Since I’ve gained weight in the last month, I just hope I don’t squash it. I want a published novel; I don’t want an omelet.

This leads me to wonder: Is a Work in Progress ever complete? Those magic words “The End” in actuality mark a beginning. Will I ever walk away and say “I’m finished, this is it,” or will I constantly be tweaking my baby until the end of time? (or publication.)

I’m getting ready to query (which is another post altogether – talk about the work involved researching agents and houses!), and now the dread begins to settle.

I’ve incubated this little sucker for almost a year. I’m proud of the story and even more proud of how far I’ve gotten in this journey through fiction.

When do I know she’s ready for an unveiling? When do I cut the cord?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

A NaNoWriMo Update

Don’t you wish every month was November?

That’s what I was thinking as I crossed the 20% mark on my current attempt at NaNoWriMo. Ten thousand words by Thursday? Day 4? I was doing the happy dance while breaking out a treat (no margaritas – too cold, but I allowed myself have a chocolate cookie).

After months of tinkering with two manuscripts, held up by personal crises, work schedules and general laziness,  November 1st came in like a lion. The ideas, they flowed from the brain down to my fingertips and onto my computer screen, helped in large part by Write or Die. (I can write 2K words in an hour and a half using that software. A cattle prod, yes. A godsend? Double yes!)

Super-charged with motivation and energy, yesterday was spent writing two articles – all in an hour – then I tackled Major Re-Write #2. This was a bear – prompted by my editor, I decided to change one of the characters from loving sister to loving gay brother. At first I was wallowing in disbelief that such a major shift would be helpful – not to mention, wondering what kind of headache I’d be left with at the end of the exercise – but, YAY! it worked!

I’ve also caught up with my editor…again.

Perhaps my infused energy had to do with NaNo (I’m fully willing to give the activity my full support) or maybe it had to do with my husband being in Austin for two days. I need complete silence to write – no ambient TV noise, no clatter of dishes (and yes they are still in the sink), no piano playing or occasional harumphs coming from his side of the room. I write best when I don’t have to think about preparing dinner, much as I love to cook.

Yesterday was a marathon – six whole hours! I could do this for a living. Yes, I could.

However, I think I’ll keep my day job until this writing thing can sustain me.

On to Week 2.

Writing and Re-Writing is Learning Something New Every Day

When last I visited this blog, I was still in San Francisco, just about to meet the person who is helping me edit my book. Since then I have been inundated. Not only did I come home to a week’s worth of laundry, a pile of Day Job responsibilities and tasks, and my husband unable to find clean sheets with which to change the bed (they were on the couch in our room, right under his cell phone charger), I also left the Bay Area armed with a lot of information.

Things to do! Things to do! Does it ever end? I guess the operative word is “NO.”

First off, I was instructed to make a grid in order to count my characters and their interactions with each other. I’m not much for high tech, being barely able to navigate the internet, so I took a piece of graph paper. Along the top, I listed my characters; same with the side. I then went through the manuscript and made hash marks.

At first I wasn’t sure what this exercise was supposed to do. Then the light bulb came on over head… “Ah,” I thought, “This shows which characters are strong and which are basically wallflowers.” I didn’t start off wanting to make anyone a wallflower – I wanted all the women to be equal, more or less – with regard to relationship to each other. I can now see where some of them are going to need a decent reinforcing.

The second thing I did happens to be something I just finished. I listed all of my scenes and came up with 115. Currently, each character has a chapter, and while that might work out later in the book, the beginning seven chapters are full of people and the reader is lost amid the sea of names. It’s the one thing my beta readers found confusing. Eventually, I will take a scene from let’s say #53 and put it between 5 & 6. I’m not exactly sure how that’s going to work out, and I’m having a difficult time thinking beyond the linear aspect of the book. It starts out on November 1 and ends on November 30. It appears I’ll have to rethink my strategy, which is difficult with two holidays to contend with (Halloween is discussed and then there’s Thanksgiving, or climax day).

I also took a notebook and have started sketching out all of my characters, not only in this book, but in the first one I’m currently editing. This includes a checklist of questions I answer as each one. Then I pen a little bio; it includes age, what the character looks like, schooling, basic likes and dislikes, family members, etc. I realized I had to do this, especially after the editor remarked he thought of one of my characters as Bette Midler-ish, with loud voice and red hair – when in actuality she’s petite and blond and her chutzpah comes from within. I know what my characters look like in my head, but rarely do I ever describe them on the page. Character description is something romance writers are known for. (I’m not really writing romance, but there are elements.) I attribute my lack of attention to the fact that I’m not a girly girl, but it’s something I need to do.

I’m amazed that I never thought of this on my own! Or perhaps I shouldn’t be amazed I never thought of this on my own? After all, I’m not schooled in the art of writing; whatever talent I have is innate and didn’t come via university training.

It might take more than a couple of weeks to muddle out of this edit. What with email, time differences and the fact that my head is thick as a brick, this might take until the end of the year to complete.

Oh, well. I’ll be learning along the way.

Critique is a Writer’s Best Friend

I’ve been scribbling furiously and typing to the point of renewed carpal tunnel syndrome for the last three years in an attempt to put my ideas into novel-length words. The tally? Two finished, two in various states of disrepair and a sequel being sketched out ‘for later.’ One full manuscript made its way to an agent, the other full – my first – is so completely incoherent and massively wordy that I’m going to have to disassemble it and start over. In between are two blogs and several short stories, several contests (one where I placed!), several reviews and rants.

Fiction writing is different from editorial writing, business letter writing, poetry, text writing and writing stormy missives to your Congressmen. It’s different from writing love letters to your spouse and chiding email to your children. Fiction writing is a strange and wonderful animal all to itself.

I dropped out of college, so I was unable to obtain a sheepskin for my forays into English/journalism/art. I went to college during the mid ‘70s, so I’m not sure how much book learning I remember. I’m the first to admit that I am clueless, but I’m a quick study.

In my quest to finish my novel explorations, I’ve learned a few things. The one BIG thing any fiction writer is needs a supportive critique system. I don’t care if you are a well-known and well-published author — a fresh pair of eyes often lends a perspective the writer may be unable or unwilling to view. There are Rules for Writing (of which I was oblivious). Of course, after immersing myself in rules, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference and learned at a workshop how to break the rules.

At some point, the aspiring author is going to want to get out of her pajamas, leave her cave and set about finding legitimate critique for her work. It happened to me.
Critique will point out more than spelling errors or problems with grammar or misplaced punctuation. (I don’t know about you, but I cannot proofread my own work.) A thorough critique will outline structural deficiencies, like problems with time line or story line, overuse of certain words or – God forbid – the dreaded cliche.

Do NOT make the mistake of giving your work for critique to family members or friends who are less than brutally honest. Of course, your mom is going to love your work and thinks your book will be on the New York Times best seller list for a year. Duh! You may want to utilize friends and families as readers in order to determine that your work will or will not put them to sleep. However, for the purposes of critique, find professional help.

For a long time, I relied on online friends who share my same passion for writing. They have pointed out the obvious flaws in my work, and led me to the library for reading material on writing the right way.

Online writing friends may be in the midst of their own manuscripts – and if they are like me, they are world-class procrastinators – so the fledgling writer may have to pursue other outlets for critique. When it comes to writing web sites, be sure you read the Terms of Service and be wary of any critique service that charges a fee. There are plenty of writing web sites that do not charge a fee. The big names include ReviewFuse, Romance Divas or The Next Big Writer, to list a few. I was also invited to a small Ning group (Writers Collaborate), and there are more out there.

The downside to online groups is that many other writers join to get critique as well. I am not well-versed in critiquing work other than for the obvious misspelling or simple sentence structure. The only other thing I can add is “I like where this is going and want to know more.” While a hook is important, some writers want an in-depth deconstruction.

I am a busy woman and can’t commit to creative writing classes, but I have always been interested in finding help in the flesh. I was recently invited to a small, in-person critique group of some members of the Greater Detroit Romance Writers of America. I am the fourth person. In such a small group, it’s far easier to communicate ideas than it is in a larger forum. The other women, most of whom don’t necessarily write romance, are helpful and one was an English teacher in a past life.

As with any relationship, if your group offers unhelpful criticism – and that does happen – it may be time to find another group. A writer needs to feel safe and that any points made are not done out of meanness or spite. On the other hand, if you truly want to better your work, a certain amount of outside perspective will be necessary.

My quick tips:
1. Don’t take it personally. Your critique partner isn’t trying to make you cry, he/she is trying to help you.
2. Try revising the trouble spot in a few different ways, instead of plowing through with the first thought in your head. You may find the second or third (or eighth) idea is the real gem.
3. Really listen to the suggestions. You’ll learn a lot and it will improve your writing.
4. Put your work away when you feel overloaded and come back to it later. It will look strangely different once it’s been marinating for a few days/weeks/months.
5. Finally, don’t lose your voice in the edit. Your voice is your most important asset. There may be occasions where you feel the critique is not valid. If the words work, listen to your head. If we all followed the rules and all wrote the same, it would be a pretty dreary world.

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