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Svetlana Mintcheva nailed this topic in Salon on Monday.  In case you missed it, the current conversation around the writers’ water cooler is about Lionel Shriver’s address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, about “cultural appropriation” on September 8.  And in case you missed that, here’s some of what she said:

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

Lionel Shriver spoke at length.  She cited a case at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where, during a private tequila party in a dorm room, some of the party-goers wore miniature sombreros.  When photos from the party circulated on social media campus-wide outrage ensued, the party-goers were placed on probation, and the party’s hosts were ejected from their dorm and impeached from the student government.  The hats were labeled “cultural appropriation” because people of color, especially those of Mexican heritage, felt their use created an environment where they did not feel safe.

Shriver talked about how this attitude has spread to every minority or disadvantaged group to the point where nobody else is allowed to touch any tradition, experience, costume or way of doing or saying anything — look but don’t touch.  The majority of her talk was about cultural appropriation in fiction.  She said:

The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.

Look, there’s cultural appropriation and their’s cultural misappropriation.  One is insensitive, hurtful, unethical, and unfair, and the other is speculative fiction.  In this time when “We Need Diverse Books” is a huge movement, how are writers supposed to write about diverse characters if we can’t touch anything that might fall under the definition of “diverse”?  This begs a vision of the future when books must be written by committee, and when memoirs can only contain a single character.  Because what if a brunette is offended by a dark-haired character written by a blonde author?  The entire children’s market will evaporate until children learn to write novels.  And historical fiction will go the way of the dodo.

I understand why individuals and even entire swaths of society are offended by Amos and Andy or Sambo’s Restaurant or any of the thousands of other cases of cultural insensitivity created for the sole purpose of making a buck.  And I understand that when books misrepresent the details of a culture, it can perpetuate stereotypes.  I have great respect and high hopes for the “Own Voices” movement; share your culture with us so that we can learn the truth about it and have a proper perspective.  But….

There are a few voices out there who loudly oppose Shriver’s view.  As always, the backlash is not representative of the whole and those that lash out in anger often do so because they are truly, legitimately angry, fighting to be understood every day of their lives.  But like waves in a pool after a cannonball dive, one backlash leads to another in the opposite direction.  The conversations I am hearing now are non-marginalized writers asserting their right to write what they want. Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote eloquently about this.  True or not, some writers feel they are being told they should not color outside the box — not write about cultures or events outside their personal experience, because doing so is cultural appropriation.  And maybe it is, but my point here is that cultural appropriation is part of the whole fiction deal.  Yes, Virginia, a white writer can write about the Asian experience, because research.  But if it is done in an exploitative or hurtful or inaccurate way, then it becomes misappropriation.  I think there is a difference.

Suppressing writers — of any culture — is never a solution.  The notion that minority characters should only be written by minorities is a dangerous dead-end.  There are plenty of white writers who stereotype white people in their books.  Read pulp, read romance, read men’s adventure.  Who’s to say that when only black people are allowed to write about black people the stereotypes would stop?  I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest they wouldn’t.  Silencing writers won’t solve that problem.  Because who do you silence next?

I think a lot of the legitimate anger in the diversity movement stems from one very real fact: most of the time, a book about a cultural minority written by a white author will outsell a book written by a member of that culture.  It has happened time and time again.  If I was one of those authors I would be furious , too.  But the answer is not to suppress the white authors.  Most of the time when those white authors write a popular book about a minority group or specific cultural event, awareness and interest goes up which increases sales of other books on that subject – by any author.  No, instead I think real change in the industry must come from the publishers.  Awareness is growing slowly, but it could grow faster.  Publishers see marginalized voices as a risk, but I think it is a risk that could pay off.  The publishing industry is white-dominated, but if more people of color became part of the publishing industry, that would help, too.

I’m a write writer.  Not a damn thing I can do about that.  But I can take the time to see both sides of an issue — even if I will never quite have the perspective of the other side. I can try on the glass slipper, but it will never fit.  I won’t go into the issue of white privilege, other than to say unlearning is hard.  Maybe having that attitude is white privilege, too.

The primary and overarching message behind the diversity movement is clear: write what you want, but write it in a respectful and accurate way; in other words, do it well.  There are far more voices in the diversity conversation that are respectfully educating the writing community than those who shout their anger.  If you are yourself from a marginalized community, share it with us, raise awareness, be heard.  Feed the popularity.  If you are not, you can play, too. But remember — people from other cultures are gonna read your stuff, and if you misrepresent — misappropriate — the soul of their communities, they have every right and every reason to point it out.

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Last week I talked about the importance of stakes in your fiction.  Basically: get some.

Fine, but how do you find them?  Where do you put them?  How do you make them work?  To clarify, “stakes” are the thing the hero of your story is after.  The thing they are invested in.  The thing that makes your reader want to turn the page to find out if they succeed.  Most tension is derived from the stakes, because if we don’t care about them, roadblocks won’t bother us.

There are two basic kinds of stakes: Personal Stakes and Public Stakes.

At first glance, you might think Public Stakes are automatically bigger, and therefor better for your story.  Saving the world, or the town, or even just the clock tower are bigger than your character, and so the obstacles are naturally bigger as well.  However Personal Stakes are often more emotional, and if you have a character in which your reader can identify, those personal stakes become magnified.  An orphan boy who is forced to live under the stairs is automatically more sympathetic than a local official.  So if that boy’s stakes are to become a wizard, say, your reader might be more interested than the governor trying to save the town from bankruptcy.  Surely, keeping thousands of people from ruin is bigger than one boy becoming a wizard, but which do you prefer to read about?

Of course, of you can include both kinds of stakes in your story, that much better.  But if you have to pick just one, stories with strong personal stakes tend to be more popular and sell better.

So you have your stakes.  Where do you put them?  My advice — as close to the beginning as possible. Certainly within the first 50 pages.  It’s not absolutely necessary to put them on page 1, but the earlier the better.  Getting readers (and agents) to turn the page once they are invested is easy (well easier). But how do you get them invested in the first place?  Your stakes.  They have to want it as much as your character.  So if you can build you stakes into your hook, you’re golden.  The natural place to define the stakes is the Inciting Incident, which is the first major plot point, but stakes = tension, and tension = suspense, and all of those = reader interest.  So if you’re struggling to find a way to make your opening irresistible, consider introducing your stakes early.

Okay, you’ve gotten your stakes and introduced them.  Now, how do you make them work for you?  Simple: you add suspense.  That boy who wants to be a wizard?  Make his family block his efforts, introduce a bully, make him powerless to pursue his dream.  Oh, and put him in the dark about his past and any advantage he might have.  Create roadblocks.  Add time limits.  Let him fail and lose faith and momentum.  Build the tension and suspense.  The purpose of all this is to force your character to act, and give him/her opportunities to fail, which in turn further raise the stakes.  And the purpose of all of that is to make your reader unable to put your book down, because they need to know what happens next and what happens in the end.

And that’s all there is to it.  Easy as becoming a wizard.

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Last week in That “Aha” Moment I talked about how you never know when a good idea will strike, and also about when you may have to let one of those ideas go.  I closed by telling you how my new Critique Partner and a professional editor both pointed out what was missing from our book, and that I would share with you what that was, in case it applied to you, too.  It was really quite a game-changer.

What’s been missing from my daughter’s and my book were the stakes.

stake
[steyk]
noun
  1. something that is wagered in a game, race, or contest.
  2. a monetary or commercial interest, investment, share, or involvement in something, as in hope of gain: I have a big stake in the success of the firm.
  3. a personal or emotional concern, interest, involvement, or share: Parents have a big stake in their children’s happiness.
  4. the funds with which a gambler operates.

 

In fiction, this means the goal or outcome the hero wants. And more importantly, what is in the way of achieving that goal?  Another word for this is “suspense.”

To be fair, we did eventually get around to adding in stakes to our novel by the time we got to the end.  And we went back and diligently hinted at it in the early chapters, too.

This is, apparently, not sufficient.

Our first clue (ignored) was when we struggled to come up with a longline, or 35-word pitch.  For sure, this is not easy under the best circumstances, but the crux of the pitch is the stakes. If you can’t figure out what your main character has at stake, there is a problem with your book.

We began writing THE LAST PRINCESS by the seat of our pants, without an outline, and letting the story evolve as we progressed.  In fact, we never actually intended the story to include a villain, but one sort of appeared organically, and we added him to the story.  In the end the final conflict is rather juicey and full of hard choices — stakes — but that suspense, that energy, that urgency, is simply not very apparent at the beginning.

It needs to be.  In fact, I’d suggest that by page 50 (page 30 for children’s books) it should be clear to your reader what is at stake for the hero, and just as importantly, what will happen if she or he fails.  And remember, failure is an option.  It depends on what kind of book you want to write.

What does this look like?  Imagine I told you I had a guaranteed winning lottery ticket worth millions, and I was willing to let you have it.  Now, imagine I told you the only way to get it is to climb up the outside of the U.S. Capitol Building and retrieve it from the top of the dome.  Before midnight tomorrow.  Now you have some suspense.  Can you do it?  How will you do it in time?  How will you get past security?  Do you have the skill and equipment?  What if you get caught?

It doesn’t have to be that dramatic.  A woman is engaged to a horrible person but falls in love with a different, wonderful man.  But she must marry the first in order to save her dying sister.  A boy has a dream of becoming the best cornet player in New Orleans, but he lives in poverty and can’t afford nice clothes to audition for the band.

So how do you sharpen the stakes?  Pour on the pressure.  The engaged woman learns the wonderful man loves her back, and he’s rich, too.  But her fiancé is the only surgeon qualified to perform the life-saving operation.  And when he gets jealous he drinks.  The cornet player earns the money to buy a nice suit, but his mother loses her job and can’t afford to buy food for the family.  If you really want to lay it on thick, add a time-bomb: The band auditions are this Friday, then the talent scout is leaving town. The sister’s condition is worsening by the day.

For our book, we need to put the conflict with the villain right up front, and make it clear what the hero has to lose — personally — if she fails to defeat him.  That’s the thing about stakes, they have to be personal.  It’s not enough to just save the kitten from the fire.  The kitten has to be personally important to the hero.  Ask yourself this question:  What would happen to your hero if he/she fails?  If their life could pretty much go on unchanged, your stakes aren’t high enough or personal enough.

This’s what was missing from our book.  We had stakes, but they weren’t personal enough.  It came own to saving other people or going back to her normal life.  Not enough suspense.  But now we know how to fix that.  We’re going to have to let go of some of our favorite lines, even favorite scenes.  But the results should help make our manuscript irresistible to readers — particularly agents.

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Ideas come at the oddest times.  In the shower.  In the car.  In the middle of an unrelated conversation with your spouse.  At that last possible moment before you drift off to sleep.  You never know when you’re going to get one.  Which makes ideas precious.  So precious, in fact, that sometimes you’re compelled to hang on to one tooth and nail.  This can become a problem if you are committed to selling a novel.

Writing a novel, that’s the easy part.* Hanging onto ideas is a necessary skill; sometimes they get lost betwixt “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after.”  But the harder part of writing a novel is re-writing a novel.  It turns out this is a huge step in the process of selling a novel.

Think of climbing Everest as an analogy for selling a novel (no, I’m not being overly dramatic — you try it.)  Doing your research, psyching yourself up, taking the training classes, getting in shape, buying all your gear, and getting to the base camp — that’s writing the novel.  Planting your flag on the summit — that’s signing a contract with a publisher. All of that mountain in between the base camp and the summit?  That’s re-writing (also known as slogging).

This is where you will find you need to begin to let go of some of your precious ideas.  Ideas that have served you throughout the writing process, informed your characters, served as a framework for your plot.  Because it will take lots of people reading your manuscript and giving you constructive feedback to work out all of the hidden hitches and subtle slowdowns you can’t see yourself. And by “people” I don’t mean your mom (unless she is an accomplished novelist or literary editor).

My daughter’s and my novel, THE LAST PRINCESS, has been “finished” for over a year.  We’ve workshopped it and rewritten the first several chapters, taken the advice of beta readers and editors, and revised and resubmitted to an interested agent.  But despite these spasms of retooling and polishing, we do not yet have agents lining up for a chance to offer us a contract.

Then we got two more people to read it. One was a #PitchWars mentor from whom we won a three-chapter critique, and the other was a shiny new critique partner we found though #CPMatch.  They both noticed something — or at the very least described something — that no other reader/agent/editor had ever pointed out before. And bang! we saw what was missing.

That “Aha!” moment.  This idea means we will have to rewire a lot of things in the book.  Disconnect A from B and attach Q.  Find a new place to plug in B without short-circuiting F-J.  And do it in such a way that all of the original buttons, dials, bells and whistles still work correctly.  Or, hopefully better than before.

Wanna know what the editor and CP pointed out that will make our manuscript magically delicious?  If you eat all of your vegetables and promise not to complain when I say it’s time for bed, I’ll tell you next week.  Stay tuned; it’s a good one.

 

 

 

 

 

*I know this; I’ve written two.

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As an aspiring novelist— No, strike that. As a novelist who is aspiring to be published, I’m beginning to see how reaching my goal is something like achieving the speed of light. As one approaches success, one finds it becomes exponentially harder to keep moving forward.

Of course, for writers, the answer to the question of how to continually improve one’s craft is simply to keep writing. And I’m doing that. In fact I’m doing that this very moment. This blog is as valuable or more to me as it is for anyone who reads it and learns some tiny fragment of wisdom or gets a momentary smile. I’m also working hard on my third novel and have plans for several more. I have a loooooooong way to go before I am going to run into the issue of struggling against my own momentum.

No, what I’m talking about is actually getter my most recent book published. We move closer and closer to success by increments – some of them only measurable by highly sophisticated scientific instruments in some high-tech lab – but with each rejection, each bit of feedback from a contest judge, each new insight from a fellow query-trench commando – my daughter and I learn somthing which we can apply to our manuscript or our query to better entice an agent. But I fear the big easy fixes are all past, and the only improvements ahead are increasingly more subtle. Or more difficult.

We have run our first several chapters and query letter through countless beta readers, workshops, critique groups, and contests. We’re getting requests. But still no offers. I’m beginning to suspect if there us something wrong with our book, it is somewhere in the middle. One of the things that drives me so enthusiastically into many of these contests is that if we get in we can have our whole manuscript edited by a professional editor with a proven track record of success. Because we can not afford to pay a decent editor.

This is where a dedicated critique partner comes in.  He or she can be your personal editor, your cheerleader, and your writing partner all rolled into one.  If you can find a fellow writer who gets your writing (and whose writing you get), and with whom you get along, it is better than an editor.  For one, it is free.  Of course, you have to be willing to give as well as you get with regard to reading and critiquing your partner’s work, but as I’ve observed in the past, giving critiques is as good or better for you writing than receiving critiques.

So where do you find a critique partner?  Find your CP wherever fine writers are sold.  Or, less cheeky, fin them on Twitter, joining contests, querying, and looking for advice and tips just like you are.  Last week there was a #CPMatch Twitter party, and these happen all the time.  Sometimes writers host these parties, where you pitch your book on Twitter with the #CPMatch hashtag, and other writers seeking a CP will look for someone with a book that appeals to them.  Sometimes writers host these on their blogs and announce them on Twitter.  Or, you could just send out a call for writing partners through your own social network.  However you do it, be aware it may take several tries before you find a compatible partner.

Hey!  Just like dating!

Edible Writer’s Blocks?

Posted: August 24, 2016 in Not Writing
Tags: , ,

Gummy LEGOs

Today I’m taking a break from my endless font of writing wisdom to share a fun project I did for my kids while they were on summer vacation. In a previous post I spoke about taking on another creative project as a way to deal with writer’s block.  Here’s what I did:

Home-made gummy LEGOs.

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I started by building a custom form in which to pour liquid silicone, which in turn became my candy mold.  This frame is just perfect for a standard one pound liquid silicone kit, available at hobby shops or on the Internet.

The individual LEGOs inside the frame represent the pieces of candy the mold will eventually make. Make sure you press down firmly on all the LEGOS to reduce gaps.

 

 

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The liquid silicon kit consists of two parts you mix right before you pour.  One part is white and the other part is blue, so you can see when everything is fully mixed.  If you see streaks, the silicon won’t harden properly.

TIPS: You only have about 30 minutes before the mix starts to set, so mix quickly.  I recommend using a bowl with  a round bottom and no corners, then transfer the mix to a second bowl to make sure it is completely streak-free.  It will have the consistence of spun honey.  I suggest you pour slowly from about a foot high to reduce bubbles.  Just pour into the center of the form and it will slowly spread out to fill the whole thing.

IMG_7322Once the silicon is in the form, tap it around the edges to dislodge any bubbles that may have formed.  Don’t worry about any bubbles on the surface; they won’t affect your mold. Let it dry for 24 hours.

IMG_7323When the mold is dry it will look exactly the same, but will be hard and rubbery to the touch.  Now it’s time to remove the LEGOs.

You will probably see some “flash” or thin little flaps where the silicon seeped between the LEGOs; you can just tear those off with your fingers.

 

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The silicon is food safe and very flexible, so you can bend it quite a lot to get the LEGOs out of the mold.  You’ll need to do this to get the candy out, too.  Notice that the mold is so perfect you can actually see the word “LEGO” stamped on each of the little studs.

 

 

 

5116d71e40a34aea4af05689e7ac03d5Now the candy.  I use one small (3 oz.) package of Jello, any flavor (not sugar-free), plus two of the small packets of unflavored gelatin (these typically come four to a box).  I also include corn syrup, like Karo (clear, not dark). Here’s the recipe:

In a half cup of COLD water, stir in a quarter cup of corn syrup until it is completely dissolved.  In a sauce pan add all of the gelatin and Jello to the water, and mix with a spatula until it is completely dissolved.  This make take some time.  If you don’t so this, the candy won’t come out clear.  Next, heat the mix on medium low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid burning.  You will probably have some foam on the top, which you can skim off if you’re REALLY patient.  But here’s another way to get rid of it:

Pour the mix into a tall glass and let it sit over night.  Once hard, you can wiggle the giant gummy glob out of the glass and cut off the foamy part with a knife.

Now you can reheat this mixture either in a saucepan on medium low or in the microwave (about 30-45 seconds).  To get it into the mold, you may have suIMG_7328ccess pouring it (if you have the right kind of container to pour from). I ended up making a mess.  I tried using a straw with my finger blocking the top end and dribbling it in, but in the end I used an eye-dropper.  Try to fill just exactly to the top.  Next take the flat LEGO base-plate you used to build the form, and brush on a little bit of vegetable oil.  Then you can use it as a cover (the studs will fit perfectly in the mold’s holes).  This will make the candy “functional” so they can be stacked just like real LEGOs.  Be aware that if you over-fill, you will get over-spill, like I did.

Let this sit for a few hours — I found putting it in the refrigerator made it way easier to get the candy out.

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(This is what happens if you overfill!)

Enjoy the blocky fruits of your labor.  Now you have something fun to munch on (and play with) while you go back to your writing!

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In just the last few hundred words of our work in progress, THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER, my daughter and I moved our heroes and our story from modern day America (with fairy-tale creatures) to Northern Ireland in 1507 (chock full of faeries).

From a writer’s standpoint, this is like waking up on Mars.  Without a spacesuit.

How did people talk?  I don’t mean just how to write an Irish accent, but what words do they use?  Many, many turns of phrase we take for granted when writing modern dialogue didn’t exist 500 years ago.  And things had different names.  Not to mention, they had an entire vocabulary of words for objects and activities that no longer exist today.  They had different greetings, different common expressions, different superstitions.  And they surely talked about other things than we do today.

What did people wear?  Believe it or not, there are not a great deal of books with pictures or descriptions of what average people wore in Ireland in the 16th century.  I know; I’ve looked.  I can tell you what nobility or soldiers wore in England in the early 16th century, but that doesn’t quite work, does it?  I’ve read that the Irish of that time wore yellow, since the association of green with Ireland is a much more modern occurrence.  But I need slightly more detail to describe what my characters are wearing than “yellow.”

What did they eat?  What was their daily routine?  How did they travel?  Where did they sleep?  How did they treat strangers?  What did a house look like?  A castle?  A dungeon?  What did they buy and what did they make themselves?  Where did they get money?  What did a market look like?

I was so excited when we finally got to this much-anticipated point in our book.  This is the “inciting incident” that sets up the whole rest of the book, in which our heroes must pass for natives and figure out a way to get home to the present.  But as my fingers hovered over the keys, itching to write the next scene, I found I could not make them type.  I don’t know where I am!  I can’t describe anything, write any dialogue, or even understand what my characters should see upon waking up.

Gah!  It’s like being a virgin writer all over again, except without the benefit of that cocky naivete that lets you just bully your way through a story despite your utter ignorance.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: virginity [in a writer] is overrated.

 

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There’s been a be it of a debate over at my critique group.  This isn’t the first time this has happened.  Our long-standing debate has been a kind of a glass-half full/glass half-empty philosophical conundrum for as long as I have been a member (three years).

The feature in question is the Hook Queue, in which members can enter the first 1,000 words of their story and get feedback.  This sounds great on paper, and in practice many, many members like it.  I don’t happen to be one of them.

See, here’s the thing.  The whole critique group is based on a credit system; you have to critique the work of others to earn the credits you need to spend in order to submit your own work.  It creates motivation and an atmosphere where giving critiques is as valuable or more valuable than receiving them.  Which is actually true.

The Hook Queue is a little different.  Entering into the Hook Queue costs you 3 credits, but you can earn them back by critting 10 other hook submissions.  Here’s how the queue is described:

This queue is a little bit special. Here the critter is playing the role of an underpaid editor searching for that special perfect snowflake of a manuscript amongst a pile of hopefuls.

Anyone can post into this queue but you must have extremely thick skin. The queue is meant to give you an indication of how good your hook is and where editors might stop reading, and more importantly, why.

The theory is that you should run though these quickly (you are timed) and when you feel like stopping, make a short note explaining why at that spot.  It is quite a contrast to the regular story queues we use for chapters, in which additional points are awarded to critters for making more verbose critiques.

The Hook Queue is only open one week per month.  And after each one the debates roll out anew.  Some people (myself included) want more detailed comments on these all-important opening pages of our story, not a cold brush-off.  We want to know what is working so we can make more of that.  But the entire concept of the Hook Queue is that members are asked to pretend they are editors or agents, when mostly likely none of them actually are.  Critters are only guessing at what an editor is looking for.  These people are writers themselves — an entirely different breed.

The people in favor of this method like to point out (according to everything they “know” to be true about slush readers) that they are all just looking for reasons to reject your manuscript.  One member went so far as to suggest they already have all the clients they need and the slush pile is their lowest priority, so in order to get home to their families they slam through it — just like the Hook Queue is designed.

I’m here to tell you it just ain’t so.

The editors, agents, and slush readers I’ve spoken to (quite a few) express their love of their work.  They can’t wait to find the next great book that takes their breath away, and they invite anybody with an Internet machine to send them their manuscript. But don’t take my word for it.  The other day I ran across an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit, being conducted by a slush reader for a New York literary agent.  He answered questions for hours revealing, among other things, that he does it for no pay because he simply loves books, and would rather read a good story than watch television.  Here are a few of his comments/answers:

Most agents will read nearly 100% of all queries and probably something close to that in full requests. What the readers like me are doing is helping to level them out. We’re making sure that good stuff gets noticed quick, because the agent is racing to find new talent before someone else scoops them up. And we’re leveling the agent out when they fall in love with a book that may have some serious flaws. Trust me when I say this – Agents and readers alike want desperately to be in love with your writing and your story. We live for it. Look at it less as gate-keeping and more as trying to find the gold nuggets in the sifting pan faster because there’s only one giant pan and a thousand gold-hungry sharks swimming in it. More eyes is better than less.

 

A good slush reader has to be aligned with the agents interests. The agent wants to find great writing and great/talented authors to sign. Slush readers that are just looking for reasons to hate things last about as long as critique partners who like to tell you how horrible you are at writing (maybe a week?). Now, we sure may get a bad rep for pointing out things that we feel are flaws (especially when the writer doesn’t agree) but I can tell you that what we present is opinion and sometimes Agents ignore their slush readers completely and go with their gut and sign authors they simply love.

 

Anytime a [slush] reader likes a work, it’s good for the author and the agent alike. A reader helps the agent have a pulse on what the “average joe” reads and likes. It gives the agent a more rounded opinion of the work. It can help the agent overcome a gut reaction or objection, and it can point out a flaw that the agent didn’t see.

So, if you are in the query trenches right now, desparing because you think the keepers of the keys to your publishing kingdom only have eyes for your mistakes, buck up.  The people you’re querying want to love your book.  As this slush reader said, “There are exactly 1000 things pulling the attention of an agent at any one moment. If you can keep them from caring about anything but reading the next sentence, you’ll have an agent by tomorrow morning.”

Now, I just need to wade back into the debate and convince everyone that our Hook Queue has got it’s head on backwards.

PitchWars-Logo

This is the big one, kids.  The gold standard of pitch contests, and one of the longest-running. There are something like 130 mentor teams participating this year, broken into four age categories: Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult and Adult. The contest runs from today through November 9.

But what is it?

Oh! I didn’t see you there, under that rock.  Okay.  PitchWars is a contest for writers with complete manuscripts and a polished query letter. You choose four mentors or mentor teams (a lot of those this year) and submit your first chapter, query, and contact info. Over the course of the next three weeks, those mentors will review all of their entries and request additional materials from those writers whose manuscripts they like. And by “like” I mean they feel like they can connect to the story and the author, and can offer concrete advice for revising the entire manuscript to agent readiness. These are experienced people — slush readers, professional editors, published authors. Many of them are past PitchWars winners.

Then, for the next two months, the chosen mentees will be in constant communication with their mentors, frantically revising their manuscripts and query letters according to their mentors’ advice.  Then, during the first week of November, these revised pitches and manuscripts will be showcased for participating agents.  There are over 60 of those, this year.  The goal, of course, is for an agent to sign you.  That happened to over 50 people last year, and over 200 in the 4-year history of PitchWars.

Do you have a manuscript you are ready to query?  If so, and you want to enter, the details are here.  When you are ready, the entry form is here.

Good luck!

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People will tell you writing is work, you must treat writing like a job, no serious writing ever came from treating it as a hobby. Basically, you have to commit.

Okay, sure. There are merits to those viewpoints. But never forget writing is an art, an act of creativity, a process of love and tears. You can’t force it. For many people (myself included) the secret to good writing is like the secret to catching a soap bubble: you can’t pluck it out of the air, you have to let it land.

To be sure, you can learn how to judge the falling bubble, note the prevailing wind, and know when and where to place your hand for the best chance to capture the bubble intact.  You’re still going to miss occasionally, and some days it’s too windy or there are no bubbles at all.  But you will eventually learn to catch more bubbles and keep them alive longer before they pop.

Here’s the thing about that: you can’t consider yourself a failure if there are no bubbles, or if they don’t blow your way for a period of time.  Everyone has dry spells — fishermen, farmers, actors, lawyers.  We writers think ourselves special and give it our own name; WRITER’S BLOCK.

Made you cringe, didn’t it?  Like a cat just walked over your grave.  Yeah, I know.  It’s how we’re trained.  Like avoiding walking in the woods alone in the dark.  It becomes ingrained on a subconscious level.  But I think pauses are an integral and vital part of the writing process. Since it is a creative endeavor, it is naturally tied to your mood or your state of mind, and sometimes your state of mind is like a turbulent wind sending all of the bubbles away.  Don’t panic.  You’re not failing.

Writer’s block is like a forest fire.  Sometimes it’s best to let the fire burn itself out.  In places like Yosemite people went to a lot of trouble to put out naturally-occurring forest fires to “save” them, but we have since realized that naturally-occurring forest fires have been burning unchecked for precisely as long as there have been nature, forests, and fire.  Nature adapts; fires are part of the process, letting new growth access to sunlight and other arboreal sciencey things.  It’s the whole Circle of Life jazz.  Interfering with it just futzes it up.

Same with writer’s block.  It will pass, and in most cases take with it whatever was gumming up the works.  I talked about forcing yourself to write in an earlier post.  Unless you are a journalist or you make your whole living from putting words on paper, just let the forest burn.  New growth will come.  Trust it.  If you put out the fire every time, you will do long-lasting damage to the forest.

I got to a rough patch in chapter two of my second book, and ended up not writing anything meaningful for about three months.  It felt like I would never write again, like the whole forest was burning down.  And then I started writing again, and started happily churning out pages again, working late into the night instead of turning in early, and even pulling up my manuscript at work during my lunch hour.  The new growth was lush and inviting, and has a real chance to grow into a might forest since all of that old wood is gone.

So, if you are experiencing writer’s block, do what I do: embrace it and let it happen; find some other outlet for awhile and don’t beat yourself up. The desire to write will come back to you in its own time. You can’t nab it out of the air, you have to let it land.