Archive for May, 2015

Girl waving goodbye to her cat

Not to dredge up old wounds (or mix your own metaphors) … but perhaps when you were a child you had a pet that died, and your parents told you it had gone to a better place – a happy farm where animals played all day and had as much food as they wanted and mountains of chew toys. You knew your beloved fluffy was dead, but that wasn’t the point. You could imagine him in a better place, and because you could, fluffy lived on in your heart. Fluffy had become immortal.

As a writer, you often find yourself facing a dying scene or chapter. You know it’s not going to make it, and although you have bankrupted your creativity to pump life-support into it, you know deep down you’re going to have to let it go. You have to make peace with the fact that your darling is not going to be there with you when your book finds a publisher. Because the rest of your book needs you, and it’s not fair to the rest of your darlings that you spend all of the energy they deserve trying to prop up the one that isn’t going to make it.

Be strong, have a good cry, pull the plug, and then go celebrate its existence with the ones you still have. Because you can rest assured that your darling has gone on to a better place – a happy library where characters and scenes frolic all day and have as many readers as they want and mountains of novels they fit perfectly into. You know, scene heaven.

I call mine my “ideas folder.”  I couldn’t count the number of times I have resurrected killer phrases or setting descriptions or other choice tidbits. Sometimes I even bring them back into the same novel (it’s like a little miracle every time).

Right now I’m managing my grief by completely rewriting chapter one of my finished* novel. I have, in fact, made literally dozens of edits to the opening two pages of this novel (my daughter/co-author thinks I’m obsessed). I’ve run them though several different critiques sites, had a legion of beta readers, and entered them into all manner of query contests – paying careful attention to all of the feedback. By consensus there’s been something not quite right with every version. And it finally occurred to me that what I’ve been doing all this time has been triage and emergency surgery. Amputating a paragraph here, grafting on a bit of action there. Trying an untested and experimental new technique. Anything to make my novel stand out from the crowd. It had become a Frankenstein.

It was time to let the patient die with some dignity. So I’m starting the novel in a completely different place. Actually beginning with a blank piece of paper (okay, screen), and putting brand new words on it. And – Oh! – what freedom. All of the holes I’ve been trying to patch I’ve simple written away. Things I explained before I now show. There’s voice, there’s promise, there’s tension, and I’m clearly establishing the genre right up front. All of the things I talked about a few weeks ago when I posted Crafting the Killer Beginning. Want a taste?

Okay – just a nibble.

Chapter One: Princess Broken Wire

A pixie. Obviously.

The skinny girl skipping past me had short blonde hair and an upturned nose. She seemed to be smiling at everything she and her parents passed as they strolled though the craft fair. Definitely a pixie. I made another tick mark on my tally sheet, then hid it underneath my homework.

My shoulder blades itched as if any second Mom was coming back here to check on me. But I could hear her out front, telling a customer about an African Violet in one of Dad’s new ceramic bowls. I was safe.

I picked up a colored pencil and squinted at my sixth grade medieval history project. The tallest tower of Windsor Castle needed more brown. The tower where I would live as a princess, had there been any justice in the world and my dreams ever came true. They say, “Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it.” Yeah, I’m not seeing the downside, there.

“Look at me! I’m a superhero!” My little brother, Thomas, climbed up onto our picnic table and jumped right in the middle of my drawing, sending pencils and glitter pens flying. He still wore the red cape he’d gotten for his fourth birthday.

“Thomas! Knock it off! You’re wrecking my project.”

“Hey!” He balled up his fist and struck his fiercest warrior pose. “You’re a bad guy. Fight with me, bad guy.”

“Not now, buddy. I’m doing my homework. Go bother Dad.”

“Never!” He whacked me on the head with his “sword,” part of a foam rubber pool toy he’d found. “Ha!”

“Ow!” I really wanted to hit him back, but I knew he would just think I was playing with him and then he’d never leave me alone. This happened about nine hundred and forty-seven times a day.

“There you are!” Dad burst through the curtain separating our private area from the rest of our booth. He lumbered forward like a pot-bellied giant, his big hands groping the air with pretend menace. “I’ve got you now, Space Dude!” He winked at me – Dad to the rescue.

Thomas squealed with laughter and leapt off the table in a single, heroic bound. He danced around, beating on Dad’s shins with his sword until Dad lifted him up over his head. “Come on, hero. Let’s let your sister finish her homework.”

“Jet pack – activate!” Thomas dropped his sword and spread his arms out to the sides as Dad flew him out of our back area. Thomas’ rocket noises faded as they ducked back through the curtain.

Sigh. I gathered up my glitter pens and took a critical look at my drawing of the castle. Something was definitely missing. That’s when I spotted the ogre.

I could just see him, standing at the end of the alley behind our booth, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khakis and gnawing on a big, greasy turkey leg. He had a hook nose and black hair, and one bushy eyebrow all the way across his jutting forehead. Black hair curled on his long arms and legs, too.

Of course to everybody else he looked like a regular guy. You know how some people can look up at the clouds and find elephants and pirate ships and bunny rabbits? Me, I look at people and see faeries and dwarves and trolls. And they’re everywhere.

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Of course, you’re the first person to see it.  I haven’t finished the whole chapter, so even my co-author hasn’t seen it yet.  Which means nobody has given me any feedback.  So I may need to tweak it a bit.  I’ll let you know after the next round of query contests.


* “Finished” being a relative term, obviously.

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Okay, fellow pitchers: if you’re ready to pitch your manuscript (meaning it’s beta-tested and polished, and you’ve got your query letter and synopsis ready), here is a run-down of some contests you can enter in the coming weeks. These are necessarily the best way to get your work in front of an agent (as competition is FIERCE), but many successful writers found their agent match this way. More than anything, these give you an unparalleled opportunity to see your competition, see what’s working and what isn’t, and get some valuable feedback from slush readers and editors currently in the business.

MAY:

5/22 – QueryKombat 2015
This year’s Kompetition is open to Adult, NA, YA, MG, and Picture Books. Enter your title, genre word kount, query and the first 250+ words of your manuscript. There are over 2 dozen agents participating, as well as many editors and readers. This kompetition is run like a single-elimination, tournament. Entries paired up based on target audience and genre will go head-to-head, round after round, starting with 64 and ultimately ending with just 1. But agents will see all entries after the first elimination – so 32 entries will get seen by agents, then 16 of those in the next round, etc.

5/27 – #KidPit
This is Twitter pitch event, where you pitch your children’s manuscript on Twitter (140 characters or less) using the hashtag #KidPit plus your age group (#BB (Board Book), #PB (Picture Book), #ER (Early Reader), #CB (Chapter Book), #MG (Middle Grade), or #YA (Young Adult) and genre (#SFF (Sci-fi/Fantasy), #ROM (Romance), #FTR (Fairy tale retelling), #MYS (Mystery), #TT (Time Travel) and so on). You can pitch up to 2 times per hour, between 8am and 8pm EST.

JUNE:

6/4 – #PitMad
Like #KidPit, but for all genres and categories, using the hashtag #PitMad. This one also takes place between 8am and 8pm EST, and you can pitch up to twice an hour.

6/18 – #SFFPit
A Twitter pitch event for science fiction and fantasy (including all sub-genres), for Picture Books, Middle Grade, New Adult and Young Adult. Pitch your manuscript up to 2 times per hour (exact start and end times to be announced on Dan Koboldt’s blog).

6/24 – #PBPitch
Another Twitter pitch event, this time only for picture books. Pitch manuscripts only one time before 12 pm and one time after (no time zone specified). Subgenres hashtags can be included: #F=Funny, #CD = Character Driven, #NF = Nonfiction, #C= Concept, #L= Lyrical, #I= Interactive.

JULY:

7/1 – #70Pit
Despite the name, this is actually NOT a Twitter pitch event. In fact, you do not submit either your 35-word pitch, your query or nor first 250 words. For this event, you submit the 70th page of your novel. This is based on the “Page 69 Test,” which presumes that by page 69 things should really be happening, and this is often a better snapshot of your work that the first page. Different age categories will be submitted on different days over the course of a week, so each category gets equal attention.

7/3 – Pitch to Publication
The submission window is actually June 29 – July 3. Writers choose up to five freelance editors from the 20 or so participating. Each editor will pick three entries and work closely with the writer to polish their manuscript (in various stages) to get them ready for the Agent Round at the end of September. If manuscripts are chosen by agents for representation, there is a further round in October for submissions to publishers. Full details on Samantha Fountain’s blog.

AUGUST:

8/17 – Pitch Wars
Writers send in an application (query and first chapter) to the four mentors (published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns) that best fit their work. Each participating mentor will choose one manuscript and work with the writer over the next 2 months to get them ready for the agent round, where agents will make requests from the polished entries.

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There is a growing trend to set books in unusual times and places – gothic woods, outer space, another county, another century, etc. This kind of thing has actually been going on for as long as there have been books. What I think is happening more and more often these days is putting ordinary people from ordinary walks of present day life in those settings.

In my experience as a reader there are two distinct versions of this: those that are believable, and those that are not. And for me, this believability factor is really all about one thing – Does the writer make e feel like the character is really there?

I read a book recently which takes place largely in free-fall. Where it fell short for me was in the details that were missing. The author told me it was free-fall, made things float around, had characters navigate themselves around the habitat by pushing off of things, and so on. And maybe that would have been sufficient if the characters were raised in free-fall. But these were characters new to the experience. And what was missing for me was how did life in free-fall feel different from the life they were used to? How did it feel to swallow? What was it like trying to go to sleep with no “down?” Did it annoy them to have their hair floating around them like they were under water all the time?

Are these details important to the plot? Not necessarily (although an of these could be the perfect thing to hinge a plot-turn around), but that’s not the point. These kind of little details anchor your reader in your setting, in your character’s head, and in your story. This worked for Harry Potter; everyone at Hogwarts had grown up with pumpkin juice, but for Harry it was a brand new experience. Being in Harry’s head we got to be introduced to this new taste sensation. If we had been in Ron’s head, this would have been glossed over, like what it feels like to put on socks.

In the book my daughter and I are writing now (about to be writing; we’re plotting), the contemporary main character is transported to Ireland in 1507. Broadly speaking, everything is going to be vastly different. It would be overwhelming to dwell on every detail. There will be a period of reverse future-shock (“past-shock?”) when she realizes nothing about this world is familiar, but after that, after we move on, we must find ways to make the experience of daily life in sixteenth century Ireland seem real. And this is where we must put the “life” in daily life.

Not in the big things – traveling everywhere on-foot, no telephones, everyone talks funny – but in the small things. What is it like getting dressed when you don’t understand how the clothes work? What does it feel like after you haven’t had a bath in week? How does the air smell different? What does the water taste like? Why does everyone keep looking a me funny?

The thing about future-shock (and past-shock) is not the big changes – you expect those. It’s the little changes. Hair styles. Food. Popular music. Think of it another way: what if you only travelled ten years into the future? You wouldn’t expect to suddenly see hovercars or countries with completely different borders. But remember, the iPhone is only eight years old. If you arrived here from 2005, you would be astonished to find everybody walking around with mobile devices that respond to voice commands and that can make video calls in the middle of nowhere. If you told a story about that time jump and only mentioned that we now have a black president but didn’t mention mobile devices, you would be missing a huge part of the daily life experience.

The problem as a writer, of course, is that in this particular case, most history books deal with only the very big things, and do not give you a lot of details about what beds felt like 500 years ago. Or what shoes felt like, or what soap smelled like. And those are the details I need most of all.

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My daughter and I have been querying our book for only about three months. We’ve sent out a baker’s dozen queries. And out of those thirteen, we’ve only actually received six rejections. Plus one request for a full, still outstanding.

But still, mostly rejections. And that’s okay – we expected that. Except that we also have entered several pitch contests, and we’ve never gotten past the first round. I wrote about this experience a few weeks ago, but for some reason, this latest rejection and some comments we received on our latest version of our first page triggered something. Something I’ve never really faced before, not like this.

It triggered doubt.

I’m really questioning our entire opening, now, and I have started composing a new one. I have made changes to our first 250 words probably half a dozen times over the last couple of months, and my daughter keeps asking why. Mostly it’s been feedback – most of it very helpful – and my desire make the first 250 as hook-y as possible. To get past that first round in the next contest. But also because these most recent comments pointed out that the entire concept of my opening scene is flawed. I won’t go into why, but this means that I am cutting it and going back to the drawing board.

But here’s the thing about doubt. It doesn’t go away just because you do something about the think you have doubts about – it hangs around and outstays its welcome, and makes you question everything you do after that, too. In other words I’m doubting the new stuff, too.

I think I’ll just sit on this for a few days, then haul it out and look at it again. Who know; this doubt may have caused me to abandon a perfectly good opening, and all of this new effort is unnecessary.

If nothing else, it will have been a good exercise.