Archive for December, 2015

Last FG Cover

Last week I teased the first not-quite 500 words of my daughter’s and my second book, THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER. The idea is to present various drafts of this as time goes on, as sort of an archeological core sample of its evolution.

I invited comments, and received quite a few (thank you!), both positive and negative, and many offered advice. But overwhelmingly, people wanted clarification of what was going on. So I guess 500 words wasn’t quite enough. Therefore I am going to present a little more of the chapter, to the point where I answer many of your questions. I realize I risk boring you with passages that are too long, but I expect you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t interested, so here we go. (As before, the all-important first 250 words are a slightly different color.)


 

 

Chapter One:  Secrets

 

My arrow struck the goblin right between the eyes. He vanished like a popped balloon filled with smoke and glitter.

Three more of the short scaly green beasties darted out from behind the trees, braver as a group. They raised their axes and bared sharp piranha teeth, then at some unspoken signal ran right for me, screaming and taunting: “Die, Princess!”

Stupid goblins. They always clumped together like that, making a nice fat target. I stood my ground and fired two arrows, one right after the other. My nymph magic gave me a tiny bit of influence over the wood, so I barely had to aim. Two more clouds of green smoke drifted away in the cool breeze.

The last goblin halted in his tracks, alone and uncertain, and dropped his weapon as he prepared to flee. But before he could turn to run, I took two quick steps and swung my fist hard at his chin. Why waste an arrow?

That made four down.

The eerie silence of the dark woods didn’t fool me; more attackers waited for me and my elf-made bow. They always did. I listened for wing-beats in case the sprites were flocking, but I heard nothing from the branches above. So I knelt in the mossy leaves and pretended to tie my bootlace.

When I heard the loud crunch of snapping twigs I smiled. A small giant, maybe. Or a troll. This was getting too easy.

Still kneeling, I eased my bow off my shoulder and slowly reached for an arrow. Then I stood and spun toward the sound, nocking my arrow and drawing it with a single swift motion. An ogre stood five feet away, rotting teeth bared and a massive tree branch gripped in both hands above his shaggy head.

I froze, my arrow pointed directly between his bushy eyebrows. It was Mr. Perrault, my Emissary to the Ogres, my court advisor, and my friend. “This isn’t funny!” I shouted to the forest. “The ogre-born are my allies. I earned their respect and they accepted me as their princess.”

“Bah! Who needs a princess when ze pot is on ze boil? We are hungry.” He lumbered closer, licking his lips. “Twelve years old is the perfect age for cooking.”

I let the bowstring go slack and lowered my bow. This is stupid. I wasn’t going to play Faye’s game.

With a grunt, the ogre swung the club down toward my head and I squeezed my eyes shut.

The illusion of the bow in my hand and the dark forest around me dissolved – along with Mr. Perrault. The afternoon sun lit my face and the sounds of distant sawing and hammering rushed in. I opened my eyes to find myself in the middle of our large back yard bordered by trees on three sides, and wearing my new winter coat and jeans. My knee was wet where I’d knelt in the snow, and my sneakers were soaked.

Faye O’Quinn, my chief advisor on the Seelie Court, took a deep breath as she recovered from her taxing faerie magic. She looked up at me from where she sat, in a patio chair in the shade of the main house.

“You would have let him kill you, Princess?” She raised a delicate eyebrow and brushed a strand of long auburn hair from her pale, perfect face. “Not the best way to preserve your reign, I must say.”

“No, Faye,” I huffed. “Mr. Perrault may have ogre blood, but he would never hurt me.” I stared the part-faerie in the eye. “That was a dirty trick, testing my loyalty.”

“It is not your loyalty I question, Princess. Ogres are untrustworthy, no matter what they promise. I want you to be prepared for that.”

“Cheese, Faye, it’s not like I’m ever going to have to fight a real ogre or goblin. They’re all gone, right? I stomped through the snow toward our new home, catching the smirk on my mom’s face where she was kneeling, planting winter flowers in one of the built-in wooden planters. “What are you laughing at?” I asked her.

Mom straightened and tried to hide her smile. “I’m very proud of you, Catherine. I must admit, Faye’s training has really improved your reflexes, and your magic is coming along nicely.”

“But?” I raised an eyebrow.

She tilted her head. “But don’t you think punching that goblin in the face was a tiny bit … unprincess-like?”

“Mother. Punching a goblin in the face was what made me Princess of the Fae-born in the first place, remember?”

The fae-born were all that were left of the fae – faeries, elves, gnomes, and so on – after they had mixed with humans and blended in hundreds of years ago. Now they all looked pretty much like everyone else, unless you had the ability to spot them like I did. Most of the friendly fae-born were ruled by the Seelie Court, which I’d re-formed as my first act as Princess. The fae-born choose me to be their princess last summer because I had royal blood … and because I’d broken the other candidate’s nose.

Mom gave me her best Mother-of-the-Princess look. “Well I don’t think punching people sets a good example, Catherine. The fae-born all look up to you, now.”

I rolled my eyes.


 

 

Some of you may notice I took your advice.  Thank you.

The challenge here, of course, it to give enough back story from the first book to bring new readers up to speed, but not so much that it creates a huge info-dump. There’s a delicate balance between boring your loyal readers and losing new readers. I’ve also got to fill in what has happened since the end of the last book, which technically counts as MORE back story. And, of course, how do I introduce to new readers all of the familiar characters and their relationship to the story and to the hero?

If I haven’t said it before: writing is hard.

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Last FG Cover

This is either going to be an interesting long-term experiment, or a boring waste of your time. You’ll have to let me know.

I’ve reached the point where I can no longer usefully procrastinate on my daughter’s and my second book, the sequel to our first, The Last Princess. So I’ve been forced to begin actually writing. This second book is called The Last Faerie Godmother, and it picks up almost immediately after the first one ended. And that is where our problems begin.

TLP is a fairly complex story. It is contemporary fantasy, so there is some world-building in there, as well as an extensive cast and a complicated plot. We don’t really want to spend our first chapter on a protracted “So, what had happened was….” On the other hand, even the most engaged reader will need some amount of reminding who everybody is and how we got to where we are now. Plus, this is a children’s book – upper middle grade, to be precise. So some amount of hand-holding is probably warranted.

All of this is meant to convey the fact that I am having some difficulty finding the balance between moving forward and looking backwards. Plus, I want that killer beginning.

So here’s my proposal. I’ve written what I think is a pretty good beginning for TLFG. I’d like to try it out on you and hear what you think. Knowing, as I do, that you have not read the first book (because it hasn’t been published), you will be filling the role of the fresh reader who somehow managed to pick up this book first, despite the fact that it presumably has “Book Two” written on the cover. I think this opening is working, but I thought that about every one of the dozen different openings I wrote for our fist book, so I realize this may not make the final cut. The long-term experiment part is where I will post every substantially different version of the opening to TLFP here, and you can compare and observe the process in real time.

Quick note: some importance has been placed on “the first 250 words,” as least for purposes of pitching contests and pitch critiques, etc. The theory is that your average, stereotypical slush reader will decide within the first 250 words if they will keep reading or not. But there are about a dozen layers of this onion; the first sentence will decide if your reader will read the first paragraph; the first paragraph will decide if they will read the first 250 words; the first 250 will decide if they will read the first 3 pages, etc., etc. etc. And all of this is utterly subjective and made-up. But still, probably true to some degree.

So I’m going to present the first not-quite-500 words. The text will change color when you reach the end of the first 250 words. The reason I did this was to illustrate something else: the first 250 words of any book will set up a certain expectation of what is to come. But in many cases (in the best books, in my opinion), this first impression can be yanked out from under you before too long. That is the case, here. In fact, one of my alpha readers – who is very familiar with the first book – asked me what the punchline was, because the character in the first 250 words are not much like the character we left at the end of the previous book. This reader is familiar with my style, and she sensed I was preparing to pull the rug out. So I’ve given you more words so you can see what I mean.

Here it is:


 

Chapter One: Secrets

My arrow struck the goblin right between the eyes. He vanished like a popped balloon filled with smoke and glitter.

Three more of the scaly green beasties darted out from behind the trees, braver as a group. They raised their axes and bared sharp piranha teeth, then at some unspoken signal ran right for me, screaming and taunting: “Your days are numbered, Princess!”

Stupid goblins. They always clumped together like that, making a nice fat target. I stood my ground and fired two arrows, one right after the other. My nymph magic gave me a tiny bit of influence over the wood, so I barely had to aim. Two more clouds of green smoke drifted away in the cool breeze.

The last goblin halted in his tracks, alone and uncertain, and dropped his weapon as he prepared to flee. But before he could run, I took two quick steps and swung my fist hard at his chin. Why waste an arrow?

That made four down.

The eerie silence of the dark woods didn’t fool me; more attackers waited for me and my elf-made bow. They always did. I listened for wing-beats in case the sprites were flocking, but I heard nothing from the branches above. So I knelt in the mossy leaves and pretended to tie my bootlace.

When I heard the loud crunch of snapping twigs I smiled. A small giant, maybe. Or a troll. This was getting too easy.

Still kneeling, I eased my bow off my shoulder and slowly reached for an arrow. Then I stood and spun toward the sound, nocking my arrow and drawing it with a single swift motion. An ogre stood five feet away, rotting teeth bared and a massive tree branch gripped in both hands above his shaggy head.

I froze, my arrow pointed directly between his bushy eyebrows. It was Mr. Perrault, my Emissary to the Ogres, my court advisor, and my friend. “This isn’t funny!” I shouted to the forest. “The ogre-born are my allies. I earned their respect and they accepted me as their princess.”

“Bah! Who needs a princess when ze pot is on ze boil? We are hungry.” He lumbered closer, licking his lips.

I let the bowstring go slack and lowered my bow. This is stupid. I wasn’t going to play Faye’s game.

With a grunt, the ogre swung the club down toward my head and I squeezed my eyes shut.

The illusion of the bow in my hand and the dark forest around me dissolved – along with Mr. Perrault. The afternoon sun lit my face and the sounds of distant sawing and hammering rushed in. I opened my eyes to find myself in the middle of our large back yard bordered by trees on three sides, wearing my new winter coat and jeans. My knee was wet where I’d knelt in the snow, and my sneakers were soaked.


 

There are actually a couple of rugs, here, and the entire chapter will end with a punchline of its own. But I haven’t actually written that far, yet. And my daughter refuses to read what I’ve written until I finish the chapter. So you got the first look.

Tell me in the comments what you thought. Did this grab your attention? Would you keep reading? Are you completely lost? Would you keep moving forward, or put this down and go look for the first book instead?  Or maybe something by a completely different author?

Thanks in advance, and keep an eye out for alternate openings, when I inevitably change this one.

image

“Whaaaat?!” I hear you cry.  “But the querying process is so angst-inducing.  So demoralizing.  So fraught with soul-crushing rejection.”

Maybe.  But if you’re using “fraught” in a sentence, perhaps there’s your problem.

Rejection doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  It’s like wine-tasting.  You aren’t required to love every sip of wine you sample.  Maybe you won’t like any.  It doesn’t make you — or the wine — defective.  It means you aren’t a good match.  And if you can identify some clue as to why you aren’t a good match, then you’ve learned something and you’ll be able to make a more informed choice the next time.

Most agents have been doing this for years, and can make very informed choices.  They can tell just from from the color or the bouquet or the oiliness or the legs of a glass of wine if it’s likely to please them, and they will pass up far more glasses than they will actually drink.

(My dearest agents, lest you think I’m comparing you to winos, be assured I am not.  I know if you reject my manuscript, it is not because my book is poorly written or badly plotted.  It is because I use words like “lest.”  And because you have an educated palate.)

What I’m driving at is that you, as a querying author, can also develop an educated palate.  For choosing the right agent for you.  And for crafting your query.  Look for those little hints agents often include in their rejections: “I did not connect with the main character,” “The story didn’t draw me in,” “I was not as invested in the outcome as I would have liked.”  Not to say you have to retool your manuscript to “fix” it every time you get one of these comments.  But perhaps you can detect a pattern.

You may — hopefully — reach a point where you get more positive responses from your queries, on average, than you did when you first started.  You will realize you are on the right track; you are doing something right.  Either you’ve hit on the killer pitch, or your agent vetting has gotten better, or your opening pages are hitting all the right notes.  Whatever it is, you’ve discovered the Joy of Querying.

I’m finally at that point with my daughter’s and my manuscript, THE LAST PRINCESS.  I’m actually smiling as I hit send on those blind queries, now.  Because I can feel the tiny little potential in each one, that this might be the one that leads to our book-mate, our manuscript-match.  Our agent and advocate.

Rejections are inevitable.  If I wasn’t prepared to handle rejection, I should never have tried to write a book in the first place.  We just got rejected by our dream agent after tremendous encouragement and a substantial rewrite to her specifications.  I got rejection nailed.  But success … now that is something I am beginning to smell.

It has the bouquet of a fine wine.

tim+allen

Last week I posted a short piece describing my daughter’s and my reaction to receiving a “pass” from our dream agent, in our quest to publish our middle grade novel, THE LAST PRINCESS.

At first, the comments were mostly sympathetic and encouraging. These were nice; we love the online writing community, and like it or not, our confidence is often reliant on the camaraderie of others. This may be why I blogged this news in the first place; our experience may not have much educational value for you, the reader, but it is certainly cathartic to talk about it.

But then the comments took a turn. The topic of discussion become a series of bitter laments by others who had tried finding an agent but failed, and then testimonials by those who proudly bypassed the process altogether and encourage others to do so, too. Here’s an example:

I don’t wait for the approval of agents any longer. They have wasted enough of my time. For people who are not creative themselves and who cash in on writers’ creativity, agents are far too impressed with themselves. They have some contacts in the publishing industry and when they pass your manuscript around (if they judge it worthy) and run out of contacts, you get a rapid rejection. Invest in a good editor, copy editor, proofreader, book designer, etc. and publish yourself. The days of needing the approval of an agent or publisher to publish your book are over.

There are two problems with this, for my daughter and I personally. And perhaps for many of you, as well:

1) Our book is middle grade. The audience for this book is children from age 9 to 11, primarily girls. How many 9-year-old girls shop for books on Amazon? How many will have the means to purchase a book they discover there, or convince their parents to buy it based on only a couple of reviews (which we can’t control) and a cover image (which we must pay for)? How many children have their own e-readers and an open account with which to purchase new books? Whatever that number may be, it is not high enough to justify the expense of self-publishing and the career of self-promoting. Besides, the traditional market for young adult and children’s books is surging. I still maintain that children buy books they can touch, which means to find them, they need to be in bookstores. Self-publishing is not the way to get there.

2) We’re not quitters. I had a similar response here to this kind of “advice” before.

This “solution” to our setback reminds me of certain advice about dating and relationships. Suppose you have a pal who has gone on a number of blind dates over the last nine months. Several of these were very encouraging, and the most recent led to a second and third date, but ultimately no connection. Would you advise your friend to give up on dating and love altogether and buy a cat, because they don’t judge and who needs the approval of a life-partner anyway? Sure there are expensive vet bills and constantly having to buy cat food and cat litter and cat toys and air freshener, and clipping their nails, and keeping them off the furniture, and getting the cat hair off your clothes. But at least you won’t have to deal with rejection ever again. Because people suck, am I right?

Thanks but no thanks. Nothing good ever came from giving up. There were a thousand points along the path to our current manuscript, and we could have thrown in the towel at any one of those points. But we didn’t. So why should we give up now? Every successful author was once an amateur with a manuscript, struggling to break in to the market. We’re in good company.

We encourage you to join us.

never-give-up

05_queryon

Rejection always sucks.  No doubt about it.

Our dream agent — the one who was so enthusiastic and speedy in her praise and interest — has decided to pass on THE LAST PRINCESS, despite our revision.  She did say that our efforts were very good, and that we satisfied many of her concerns.  Interestingly enough, the major reason she stated for deciding not to represent this book was not one she had mentioned in her previous comments.  So I’m not sure how she expected that aspect to change.

It really doesn’t matter. She said no; there’s no point in begging or pleading or asking why.

December and January are notoriously dead months for agents, so we won’t be renewing our querying efforts again until February.  This is probably a good thing, because I don’t want to try to compose query letters feeling down.  Time will heal.

I’m philosophical.  We’ve had rejections before; this is not much different.  Sure, we got our hopes up.  It happens.  That just means there was more than ordinary interest.  There’s nothing bad about that.  But there are two other very positive things about this experience. First, it didn’t take very long.  It would be fairly standard to wait three months to hear back on a query, then another several months to evaluate a full manuscript and provide the kind of detailed feedback we received.  We got through that in little over a week.  Some authors take six months to complete an R&R.  We did it in less than two.  And we had our final answer less than a month after that.  So this could have taken over a year, and we got through it all in about three months.  Second, we got excellent professional feedback on our manuscript, and as a result of our revision, we have a much more marketable and appealing book.  So this one step back is really kind of two steps forward.

In the meantime, we’re moving forward on our second book.  And the more of that we have finished, the better we look when an agent does take an interest.