SQUEE! Novel Rocket Contest News

A few months ago, I submitted the new and improved (although not quite perfect) Finding Cadence into the Novel Rocket Contest. Win or lose, an edit was part of the contest.

I didn’t figure to win. Let’s face it: I never figure to win. Anything. It’s not in my genetic makeup. In order for me to win anything, the stars have to be in perfect alignment, my cholesterol level has to be low, my butt has to be smaller, and, oh…my manuscript has to be flawless. None of these things apply to me – as the recent Powerball winner can firmly attest – so I enter contests for the sport of it. And to learn from the experience.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the results in my email inbox. (I knew I didn’t win. Had I won, there would have been YOU WON! in caps in the subject line. And a glittery background with shooting stars and smiley faces winking at me in the body of the email.) No, I didn’t win, but the comments from the editors caused me to SQUEE.

“This is good. Really good. Publishable good. I don’t know if the rest of the manuscript is as good as this, but if it is, you’re ready to be agented if you’re not already. I love your voice, your literary style, your descriptions and the story. It’s got it all. The competition this year is so steep. The steepest I’ve seen in any contest I’ve ever judged. Several of you are publishable. Some I could see sitting on the NYT bestseller’s list. Really. Of course there are some not so great entries too but you’re not one of them. It was an honor to read this. I don’t have a whole lot to offer you but even if you don’t take the category win, know it was very very close and you’re really close to that contract I’d think. The only overall advice I’d offer is to maybe run this through a copy-editor if you can afford it or a good grammatarian (probably not a word, but you know what I mean) if you can’t. Thanks for submitting. So good and I’m a tough one to please.”

So said Judge Number One from the Novel Rocket Contest. Then I opened up the file from Judge Number Two:

This has the makings of a lovely story, but it’s not quite there yet. A couple of questionable word choices early on didn’t bode well; excessive telling/explanation makes it wheeze soon there after.

I like the story. I like the musical references (including the character’s name), the depth of emotion, the layers of meaning. The characters are believable, the descriptions are vivid, and the situations are wholly realistic. The problem is a certain excess in zeal. While reaching for a lofty word or perfect phrase, it tends to want to tip over at times.

You’re a skillful writer, but it seems you’re trying too hard. Just let the story out slow and easy. I know you can do it, because you’re close to doing it now.

Judge Number Two was a little harder on me, but I can’t disagree. I have decided without a doubt that Finding Cadence is my breakout novel. While I love Virtually Yours and the characters of my Virtual Moms, and I love the story with Oaks and Acorns (and Acorns and Oaks and Darlings for Clementine, the companion books), these are light, fun, happy stories. They are entertainment.

Finding Cadence is much, much more than that.

I’ve been toiling over it so long, I can see where my story has transcended entertainment. (I know you might think I’m full of myself but) I can see this particular novel reaching toward art.

Of course, it’s going to need a lot more work.

Every edit, every beta reader, every contest and competition is a tool toward that end.

Guess it’s time to get off my momentary cloud and get back to it.

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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.

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.