How to Boil a Frog

Posted: March 15, 2017 in Writing
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“If I’d known then what I know now….”

There’s this fable about boiling a frog which goes something like this: If you put a frog in boiling water, he will immediately jump out.  However, if you put the frog in water that is comfortable and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will happily stay in the water until he is well and truly cooked.

I’m the frog.

When I decided to write a novel* I went into it with the conviction that if I really gave it my all, I could probably finish a whole novel good enough to be published, and I could probably do it in a year.  This was a real commitment, because I would have to do all of the writing  between two jobs and three kids, after chores and after everyone else had gone to bed — and I am a big fan of sleeping.  But with each chapter my confidence grew, which was good, because the job of writing the novel become more complicated, too. If I had known when I started just how much research and foreshadowing and weaving of complex plot points there was going to be, I might never have gotten up the nerve to climb into the water in the first place. But, really, the water was only slightly warm at that point.

A big part of my initial conviction was that I would not only write a novel, but get it published as well. And when I decided to turn up the heat, it seemed like just a little bit of heat. I mean, writing the novel was the hard part, right? Now I just needed to write a letter and send it out to a couple of dozen agents. I bought a copy of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market and I was all set. Another couple of months and I would be Published.

The water was still pretty comfortable.

But I’ve since learned that writing an acceptable query letter is almost as much work as writing the novel.  If every word in a novel counts, every word in a query counts about 200 times more; not only do you have to get across the setting, tone, characters, and stakes of your novel, but you have to make them so irresistible that an agent must want to see the whole manuscript based on just your query.

Little wisps of steam had begun to rise at this point, but I was happy where I was.  I could keep this up for a good long while.

In an effort to improve my query and those ultra-important first pages I started entering pitch contests.  This, naturally, turned the heat up even further, but I had been prepared for that — in fact I welcomed it.  That’s why I entered the contests in the first place. I wanted to up my game, get more feedback, become more competitive.  If I could perfect my pitch and query I was sure to get an agent sooner rather than later.

This is about the time I discovered a little-known (to me) fact, which is that 90% of writing a novel is re-writing the novel.  As the rejections began to pile up, and more and more feedback came in (and as I slowly relaxed to the possibility that the feedback was correct and I had more work to do), I embarked on the first of a series of full-manuscript revisions.  Each resulted in a new pitch and a new query letter, and a whole new round of rejections. The water began to swirl and bubble, but it felt good.  Maybe I could get one of those drinks with the little umbrella in it.

The water is uncomfortably hot, now. But I’m not ready to get out — not after everything I’ve gone through.  I’ve gotten too used to being in the thick of it.  I’ve been here far too long to just get out and dry off with nothing to show for it.  I’ve learned a tremendous amount since I started. And, of course, I firmly believe that this revision will be the one that lands me an agent.  But, if I had known then what I know now….


*The second time. My first novel was utterly directionless and took about 18 years to finish writing the first draft.

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I’ll be the first to admit sometimes I just can’t find the motivation to dive into another big revision of my manuscript. After a time one gets used to the chapter-by-chapter scale of writing, and whatever your pace is, that pace becomes comfortable, familiar. If you are part of a critique group, you can get feedback on that chapter within a week or two, and fix most issues in a couple of days. But full manuscript revisions?  Not only do they take more time to plan and actually write (it’s like taking a finished tapestry and deciding to replace all of the yellow theads with green theads), but once you’re done, getting meaningful feedback on your changes can take months. This is especially onerous if you have interrupted your querying process and wish to get back to it.

So … you’re not querying, and not exactly writing, either. You’ve put aside any other writing projects because you want to put this one to bed. You do a lot of planning and mulling of possibilities and testing of various ideas, while the clock ticks relentlessly.

This is where I am. I recently received some useful feedback and embraced the suggestions, seeing real possibility of improvement if I can make the changes just right. But the other two books I’m working on have been shifted to the back burner, and no matter how much I stare at my notes, I can’t seem to get excited about actually messing with the latest “final” version of my manuscript. That one is still in the hands of beta (gamma?) readers, for chrissake! Sure I want to get back to querying, given that the possibility of success ought to be higher with the revisions in place, and I want to get back to working on the sequel, but even if I do, how long will it be before I can rustle up anyone willing to read it and give me feedback? Because I don’t want to burn any bridges, querying with a flawed manuscript (again).

The motivation to revise (again) has taken a sabbatical.

You remember how I’m always saying how entering contests is good for your craft and career, even if you never actually get picked for any of them? Well, here’s some proof. In my online critique group someone started a forum topic on the recent Pitch Madness contest. “Who’s entering?” “Want to swap entries and gI’ve each other feedback?” And like that. I posted my entry — a 35-word pitch and the first 250 words of the book, along with the genre and age group. I didn’t get picked in the contest, this year, and given that this is the third year I’ve entered with a different version of this same manuscript, I later commented that I was beginning to question my ability and the marketability of this particular book.

Someone else on that thread said that they’d read the entry I had posted, and doubted I had anything to worry about. They would be delighted to read my full manuscript and offer feedback, if I wanted.

I responded immediately that I would gladly welcome the kind offer, but first I needed to finish this pesky revision.  And, boom, I had my motivation to get on with it.  Because I had a reader already lined up, eager to give feedback, so I could get back to querying.

You never know where motivation will come from. Be on the lookout for it and when you glimpse it snatch it up like ambrosia. Because sometimes it apears just like a gift from heaven.

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They say with age comes wisdom. I’m 53, and I’m still waiting for mine.

But I’ve been a serious writer for much less time. I wrote in high school and college, and even eventually (20+ years) finished a Dungeons & Dragon’s-inspired novel, but I didn’t get serious until about 4 years ago, when I embarked on a middle grade novel with my daughter. For this novel I approached it from the very start with the intention of being traditionally published. I already had a good foundation of how to write good dialogue and descriptions and pacing and tension and all of that. But this time I wanted to end up with a novel that somebody else might actually want to read.

So I got busy.  I took online courses and bought books about plot and downloaded lectures on the 7-point story structure. I found the online writing community and became an active participant in a critique group. I discovered the universe of writing hashtags on Twitter and jumped in with both feet. I figured out how to access my manuscript on my smartphone and bought a portable keyboard so I could write anywhere or anywhen. I kept my enthusiasm at a constant slow roiling boil, and was always working on some aspect of my book or its plot or its characters or the world-building or the query or the synopsis.

And when I thought everything was ready, I went into a frenzy of querying agents.

I wasn’t ready. Actually, the manuscript wasn’t ready, but both statements are equally true. The thing about querying is that for the most part, once you’ve queried a given agent and they pass, you’ve pretty much burned that bridge. There are exceptions where an agent might ask for a Revise and Resubmit, or tell you the manuscript isn’t quite ready but please keep them in mind if you decide to revise it on your own. These are pretty rare. And while there are hundreds of agents out there seeking books in any given genre, the list isn’t infinite. If you’re not careful you will eventually run out.

In the past, whenever I managed to get some feedback on my full manuscript, I typically endeavored to revise as swiftly as possible so I could get right back to querying.  But now I’m a bit more philosophical (if not not yet wiser). I’m realizing I don’t want to cross off another swath of potential agents by sending out a manuscript that isn’t ready. So I’m developing some patience. I’m taking my time to make sure these latest edits are going to stick and solve the problems pointed it by readers. I’m realizing I don’t want to do this forever, and I’m realizing the end of my list of potential agents is not that far away.

Maybe I’ve gotten some of that wisdom after all.

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This is one of those Life Lessons that pop up in the course of going about one’s day, which perfectly illustrates a concept you have difficulty explaining to others:

ALWAYS START YOUR BOOK WITH ACTION

The thing about cramming an entire concept as integral and complex as this into a six-word fortune cookie is that you loose the complexity. You loose the way the concept is meant to integrate into the rest of your story. So what you end up with is just a “rule” which inexperienced writers often treat like a law set in stone. Then, when they critique the work of other writers (which every writer should do as part of their education), they flag every instance when one of these “laws” is broken, without understanding how it is possible to break the rule and still write well.

Here’s an example: DON’T START YOUR BOOK WITH DIALOGUE. This is a good recommendation.  It often gets misquoted as “Never Start Your Book with Dialogue.”*  The reason for this advice is pretty compelling and common-sense, once you understand it. Without any reference or character description or setting established, your reader can’t hear whatever voice you are writing or hear whatever emotion is supposed to be there. Writers are engaged in a constant juggling act, balancing between describing details and leaving details for the reader to fill in. Its like creating a coloring book with hints built in letting your reader know what colors to use where.  When you describe a turbulent ocean, you don’t necessarily need to describe the whitecaps and the spray and the tang of salt in the air.  You can — many writers do, and more, but if you suggest them, the reader will visualize the parts you leave out. But if the first words in your book are: “Hi. How are you, today?” your reader won’t know if the speaker is male or female, young or old, pleasant or sarcastic.  You can tell them in the very next sentence, but by then your reader will have already tried to fill in the missing details, and more than likely, they will have gotten them wrong. When that happens and your reader is forced to revise their mental picture, it takes them out the moment. It is irritating to have to go back and read it again with the new information.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make dialogue-first work.  Here are some examples I came up with on the fly:

“Touch her again, señor, and you’re a dead man.”

“Ma’am,” the morgue officer prodded gently, “can you identify that little girl?”

“Take us to your fishing line!” The translation matrix was on the fritz again.

“I love you, Daddy,” she said for the last time, but the elevator doors had already closed.

“Grab the shotgun, Billy — that fox is creepin’ around the henhouse agin.”

“Play with me, Sarah,” said the ventriloquist dummy, even though I was the only one in the room.

“But Mommy, why do we have to slaughter Henrietta?”

“Tell your brother I—” The grenade exploded, taking half of my dad with it.

The reason these work (if, in fact, they do), it is because I made it clear how the voice should sound before the end of the first sentence. Thus, the coloring book has hints about what colors to use.  Robert Heinlein opened several of his very popular stories with dialogue (proving there are real-life exceptions to the “rule”):

“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer announced. “A boy.” — Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)

“He’s a mad scientist and I’m his beautiful daughter.” — Number of the Beast (1980)

“We need you to kill a man.” — The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1988)

Okay. So, rules can be broken if you understand the reasons behind them and follow the spirit of the rule. That first one I mentioned above, about starting with action. This is possibly the most misunderstood piece of advice.  The advice, ALWAYS START WITH ACTION does not mean there has to be a car chase, a shootout, or a sword fight in paragraph one.  In fact, all of those things are bad ideas (in general), for precisely the same reason starting with dialogue is generally a bad idea — you don’t know who the players are or who you are supposed to cheer for, and you don’t know what everyone is feeling.

No, by “action” they mean “activity.” Avoid beginning with long descriptions, backstory, or other set-up. Start with the main character doing something.  The action doesn’t have to be extra action-y, it just has to be activity, not description. The other part of the “rule” that often gets misinterpreted is the word “start.” This does not mean only the first paragraph or the first scene (here comes the learn-y part, where I discover something in my own writing that illustrates this point, hence the reason I’m writing about this in the first place). “Start” means the first part of your story, or your book.  That might mean the first three chapters.  That might mean everything up to the inciting incident. And it doesn’t mean you stop there.

In my daughter’s and my middle grade book, we did a pretty fair job of keeping the momentum going all the way to the end of chapter three, when our hero learns she must go on a quest. And then, inexplicably, we stopped pedaling.  The rest of the book is a quest, and yet our hero stumbles from one step to the next, and the adults she meets hand her whatever she is looking for. Well, in fact they give her just enough to make her move to the next step, which draws out the quest and drives the story. But what has been missing is that the hero is not active in accomplishing each step.  She just shows up.

We’re going to change that.

Another “rule” you may have run afoul of in your own writing is: ALWAYS USE ACTIVE VOICE, NEVER PASSIVE VOICE. Most new writers I’ve interacted with take that to mean just replace all of your passive verbs with active verbs. Nope.  I mean, sure, do that; it will make your book more interesting and stuff, but you don’t have to be obsessive about it, and you don’t have to become the verb police. What the suggestion actually means is make sure there are things going on in your story, that you move from one scene to the next through activity, rather than by telling us about activity.  “Show, don’t tell” means just that.  Rather than say, “They played basketball while they talked,” have them actually moving the ball around during their dialogue. That’s active voice.

But it isn’t always enough, as I’ve recently learned. You can have a very active voice and still not have your character doing anything. My point is this: you can’t just collect a stone tablet full of writing commandments and prop them up and look at them when you write. You need to understand the reason behind the advice and know when it is acceptable — or even appropriate — to ignore it. No “rule” is correct 100% of the time. Learn about that 2% when it’s not.


*Any advice that contains “never” or “always” is probably suspect. You will be able to find countless books where the author blatantly broke that rule, and did so successfully.  It’s like evolution; the ways in which we tell stories are always changing.

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I touched on this briefly a few months ago. I’m not sure it sunk in. Of course I realize that not everyone I encounter on every writer-related website, discussion group, or social media feed is a regular reader of my blog. But I like to think they are. And I still field questions from writers asking if there is any place where they could, maybe, get a little feedback on their writing.

The level of ignorance being perpetuated is as astonishing as it is disheartening.

In one group a popular discussion started with the question:

Does anyone know of a “share site” or group where we can gather and share our stories to see if they are viable?

The question is perfectly valid. Here is a new writer seeking to expand her awareness of the writing community. She, quite naturally, gravitates toward the notion of a group of writers who swap their stories and offer constructive feedback. What shocked me were the responses.

The most common suggestions were LinkedIn and Facebook.

Wha…? How…?

Linkedin is a button-up social network for career management. There are discussion groups there, for sharing concepts and posting relevant articles, but posts are limited to 450 words. How much of your novel can you get feedback on in 450-word bites? And where is the mechanism for inviting critiques and analyzing feedback? And where is the motivation to give feedback? Facebook isn’t much better. LinkedIn and Facebook are like trying to construct a house with Tinker Toys.

One “expert” fella posted this gem (the origianal poster is a children’s writer):

Seriously doubt you can get valid comments from other adults … Suggest you beta test concepts with a group of children.

Because 8-year-olds are going to be able to coach you on your pacing, emotional arc, and key plot points. Another respondent recommended asking “friends, family, kid’s teachers/babysitters.” Worst. Advice. Ever.

This is a writer’s group. A group of writers. Who presumably write. How do they not know about critique groups and critique partners? Clearly none of these people are reading my blog.

I helpfully pointed out local face-to-face groups and Ciritique Circle and Agent Query Connect. But, honestly, these are a first step. The bare minimum anyone should do before attempting to put their writing “out there.” If you are serious what you want is a critique partner. Or three. CPs are the next evolutionary step on the ladder to getting published. What a dedicated, organized, and active critique group is to “asking your mom” to read your manuscript, a CP is to a critique group. Groups are essential, but they can be flakey. You have to commit to meeting every week or every other week, and you may find yourself surrounded by writers who simply don’t enjoy or “get” your particular genre or age group. Surely, you can find romance groups and sci-if groups, but what if you are writing children’s historical fantasy? You may be spending your weeks fielding advice from people who are not your audience and have little or no experience with books like yours.

But a critique partner? The idea is to locate individuals who specialize in just the kind of thing you write. Then swap manuscripts and keep each other on target. Writer besties. Someone who gets you, and who’s book you also love.

But were would one go to find such a unicorn? See, this is why everyone should be reading this blog. Invite your friends.

Here are some links. Get clickin’.

Critique Partner Matchup.  This Google Group has listings for 9 different genres/categories, including YA sci-fi fantasy, MG, poetry, romance, and adult contemporary.

Romance Writers of America offer their own critique partner matchup.

Agent Query Connect has multiple listings for CPs in various genres in their Wanted Ads forum.

Ladies Who Critique is a site set up specifically to make CP matches, broken down by popular age groups and genres. Men-folk also welcome.

The Write Life posted a piece titled, “40 Places to Find a Critique Partner Who Will Help You Improve Your Writing.”

Finally, keep an ear to the ground by way of Twitter; #CPMatch is a thing and it happens a couple times a year. During the Twitter party you pitch your book and browse the feed for others who you think might make a good CP match. Follow Megan Lally for details, or get it straight from her blog.

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Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave or possibly just awoken from a prolonged coma, you will have noticed that all of the literary genre’s have come unstuck. Once upon a time they were pretty straight-forward: fantasy, science-fiction, romance, horror, mystery, western, and “mainstream.” There were books for adults and books for kids, broken into books for little kids (board books, and storybooks) and books for big kids (Nancy Drew and The Babysitter’s Club). And like old-time manners, these genres and age groups kept politely to themselves and did not step outside of their own social circles.

Then Something Happened, and the genres started to mix and mingle and breed offspring which had their own ideas and demanded to be recognized. Horror and fantasy got pushed aside by paranormal and magical realism, while science fiction shelves became segregated into military, post-apocalyptic, and space opera. Today there are hundreds of genre “grandchildren” to be found (biopunk, cyberpunk, decopunk, dieselpunk, solarpunk, and steampunk are all established genres).

And of course children’s books age categories went through a similar evolution: pictures books, early readers, and chapter books for the little kids, and “juvenile” and “teen” gave way to lower middle grade, upper middle grade, young adult, and new adult.

The mixing continues. Today you can find historic fantasy, comedy space western, and paranormal romance.

The challenge of coming up with something original seems a bit daunting. I have been scribbling down notes for a new series of adventure books for a lower middle grade audience (because they can be shorter), that has a steampunky feel to it. Well, fantasy steampunk. Contemporary fantasy steampunk adventure. Ahem. The thing about steampunk is that is has definite adult conventions, such as buxom women in leather bustiers, dark alley murders, and lots of absynth. Naturally, none of these things have a place in books written for 7-10 year olds. I discovered in my research into children’s steampunk that there are not very many books written like this. To be sure, steampunk is very popular in the young adult market, where those adult themes can make an appearance, but not for “children.” This means two things: there are few examples I can use for inspiration and guidance, but it also means this is a largely untapped market, if I can find the right balance.

There is certainly a great deal of material left to work with in the steampunk genre. Kids love the idea of building elaborate gadgets – have you been to a toy store lately? Kids love any kind of machine that goes – fast cars, flying machines, rockets, submarines, walking tanks, you name it. I do not intend to set this in Victorian England, which is the gold standard for steampunk, however I have seen plenty of examples of people being transported to parallel worlds or alternate timelines where technology is more primitive or electricity and fossils fuels are unavailable.

I just happen to have this contemporary fantasy world laying around (from my daughter’s and my Fae-born series, where descendants of the fearie-folk live among us). In the third book were were planning to have the classic fae of old descend upon the earth when their faerie realm is unlocked, resulting in a war. It would enhance that storyline and perfectly set up the new series to have the fae’s magic and presence in our world completely disrupt our modern technologies. If you take away electricity, that pretty much kills everything – vehicles, the power grid, communications, even nuclear and solar power. What you have left is clever clockwork versions of traditional gadgets. Lots of steampunk relies on crystals for power. Our hero will have access to magic. And LEGOs. And comic books full of superheroes for inspiration. Imagine an 8yo inventor with a cape and a jet pack (powered by a flying spell), and goggles that let him see through walls. With faerie assassins and gangs of goblin thugs to fight, as well as mysteries to solve with clever gadgets.

Meet Thomas Brökkenwier, the Gadgeteer.

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There is a lot of advice out there about querying your manuscript, but one of the most common pieces of advice is “Don’t give up!” Variations on this include “Aim for 100 rejections a year,” and “Don’t stop querying until you’ve queried at least 80 agents.”

Fine. I have no problem sticking it out that long. I’ve gotten a grip on my self confidence and can keep this up for as long as it takes. The problem actually comes when you start to run out of agents to query. So what do you do then?

I’m not sure it’s possible to run out of agents to query — only to run out of places to look. There are hundreds of agencies in the U.S. alone, and even if you strike out with one agent, rarely is it prohibited for you to try again with a different agent at the same agency. So where do you look? Following is a list (far from exhaustive) of places you can find agents eager to read what you’ve got, or at least eager to take a look.

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  • Annual Guide To Literary Agents. This is basically an alphabetical directory of agencies, with detailed information including what they are looking for, what terms they offer, recent sales, how to submit, and the names of individual agents. The book also has detailed articles on how to write a good query, how to write a synopsis, what agents look for, etc. The book also contains a directory of conferences. In addition to this book, you can also find similar books such as Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, Christian Writer’s Market, and Poet’s Market.
  • AgentQuery.com.  “The Internet’s largest free database of literary agents.” You can search by quite a large selection of genre keywords in fiction and non-fiction.  The site also contains many resources for writers, including information on e-publishing, networking, what to do with an offer, etc. There is also an active writer’s forum, including critique groups and genre discussions at agentqueryconnect.com.
  • ManuscriptWishlist.com.  This site continues to expand and improve, and now includes extensive articles by active agents and writers, and a monthly e-newsletter to whitch you can subscribe. Manuscript wishlist grew out of an annual Twitter event during which agents and publishers would post on the hashtag #MSWL what kinds of things they were looking for. The main (and best) feature of the site is the searchable database, which focuses on what each individual agent is looking for and how best to get their attention, as well as specific submission guidelines. There is also mswishlist.com, which is basically just an agrigator of Twitter posts using the #MSWL hashtag, which by this point is just a contrast stream. This site also has streams for #AskAgent, “queries” (such as #500queries, #100queries, #tenqueries, etc., where agents post their responses to a set quantity of queries they receive in the course of their daily routine), and #PubTip, as well as a listing of agents on Twitter, including the genres/age groups they represent. You can click on any of these tags, such as MG, and get a filtered list of agents who represent that category.
  • Twitter. Yup. It isn’t just for witty observations and pictures of you lunch anymore.  Haunt the writerly hashtags, such as those mentioned above, as well as #QueryTips, #AmQuerying, #AmWriting, or even just your genre or age group, and you will find an active flow of tips, advice, announcements, offers of assistance, and upcoming events. Many of those who post on these hashtags are agents seeking submissions or offering the benefits of their experience. This is a great way to connect with agents who share your tastes and interests.  Pay attention to the contests, too, because even if you don’t choose to enter, most of them include a roster of participating agents and their bios, wishlist, and contact information.

These are all really just the starting point. Because once you find a potential match through one of these resources, you will want to investigate further before dashing off that query burning a hole in your hard drive. Find them on Twitter and explore their posts. Visit their website — many have both an agency page as well as a personal page. Search the Internet for interviews and read them; you will often discover some pet peeve to avoid or some special interest you share. But most importantly, you will want to find that thing in common between what you have to offer and what they most want to discover in their in-box. This is the key to personalizing your query to each agent.

My last piece of advice is to start a spreadsheet to keep track of who you have queried, by date, and what responses you receive, if any.  Many agents will indicate that no answer after a certain amount of time = a pass.  I personally use Microsoft’s OneNote, because it is free and mobile. I have it on my PC, my iPad and my phone, and they are all automatically synced.

Now, you should have no problem putting out a query a day, or five a week, or whatever goal you set yourself. Get to it, and good luck!

Just Write It

Posted: January 25, 2017 in Writing
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The best thing about pitch contest season is how motivational it is.  No kidding, every contest has its own Twitter presence, and while participants and others wait (often for days) for the results, those Twitter feeds fill up with encouragement, cheerleading, pats on the back, and success stories. And these are great. That’s 7/8th of the reason you should enter in the first place.*

The other thing these Twitter feeds fill up with are little motivational games like “Tell us what you listen to when you write,” or “Who do you imagine would play your main character in the movie version of your book?” These are fun, but here’s the thing: sometimes new writers will collect the answers to these questions and all of the success stories and so forth from more experienced entrants, and build little shrines to them. They begin to think things like, she listened to Mozart when she wrote her book and she was a finalist, so I must find a Mozart channel on Spotify.

Just No.

These are very much like when a new writer will earnestly take to heart such “rules” as Never Start A Book With Dialogue, or Always Begin With Action. These are not rules, and even if they were, most rules are meant to be broken when called for. New writers are eager sponges looking for any secrets that might help them corral those untamed words that erupt from their fingers. And in that vein, then often cast these tidbits of advice in stone and pray to them.

This reminds me of a story (possibly an urban legend) of a woman who would always cut then ends off a roast before putting it in the oven, because that’s what her mother did and her grandmother before her. She eventually learned that the reason her grandmother cut the ends off was because her pan was too small to fit the whole thing.  You want to understand the reason these “rules” were voiced in the first place, and judge for yourself if the issue for which this advice was given actually applies to your writing.

All of this to say: just write it. It doesn’t matter if your favorite author only drinks white wine (she may have a low tolerance for sulfur), or that one professor shuns anything written in italics (telepathic dialogue in italics was an overused trend in pulp fantasy about 30 years ago). I only write after 10 pm; it doesn’t make me a better writer, nor is my muse an insomniac. I write after 10 pm because until then my 8yo is awake and greedy for my attention. You do you. Find what works and stick to it. Advice is fantastic, and so is the voice of experience, but you don’t have to twist yourself into a pretzel to succeed.

Also, new writers are often overflowing with reasons to fail. I’m here to tell you, don’t feed that beast by convincing yourself you’ll never be great because you hate white wine and always fall asleep by 9.

Just Write It.


*There’s also winning, but that hardly ever happens. Well, in fact, it happens every time, but hundreds of people enter these things, and there are only so many spots.  But that’s why you keep entering; to increase your odds.

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A couple of weeks ago, I gleefully told you about my economical and oh, so convenient solution for writing on-the-go: my iWerkz folding bluetooth keyboard, which lets me write on my phone anywhere and at a moment’s notice.  This is great for getting in some writing during my short breaks at my retail job.

But let me be honest — I still want a laptop.  And I still don’t have the money for one.  And even if I had one, it would not be as portable as a phone.  Well, I found a perfect middle-ground, and I am in writer-geek heaven.

I happen to have a two-year-old iPad Mini.  I hear, you … what happened to “economical”?  Well, you can pick up a brand new iPad Mini 2 direct from Apple for less than $270.  There are better deals and refurbished iPads available all over the place, including deals on eBay for around $150.  Mine had bee pretty much claimed by my eight-year-old son.  I bought him a dandy 7″ tablet from Barnes & Nobel for just $50, and now I have my iPad back full-time.

So what’s my killer solution? I found a rocking keybord case for the iPad Mini. It’s made by Zagg, who is known for quality cases for Apple devices, and this one is called the Zagg Slim Book for iPad Mini 2 or 3.  It’s been around for a couple of years, because the iPad Mini 2 came out three years ago. And that’s the best part of this; instead of the original retail price of $119, I paid only $26 for my case on Amazon, with free shipping.

It’s fantastic. As you can see, above, it looks just like a MacBook, with an aluminum keyboard with black, back-lit keys.  The top row of buttons take you to the home screen, turn the iPad on or off, launch Siri, launch search, and control video and audio playback and volume.While small than a standard-sized keyboard, this Zagg keyboard is surprisingly easy and enjoyable to use.  It really is as if I turned my iPad into the world’s tiniest MacBook. The keyboard even supports the familiar alt/tab feature that lets you easily switch between apps.

But that’s just the beginning. The “screen” part of the mini laptop (the actual iPad itself) is attached to the hinge mechanism by a series of very strong magnets. Which means you can detach it and use the iPad without the keyboard. This also means you can flip it around and use the keyboard behind the iPad as a convenient stand for viewing videos. And in this configuration, you can fold the keyboard flat behind in what they call “book mode.”

slim-case-book

 

The rechargeable keyboard has a two year battery life.  That’s right, two YEARS. Even if it’s only half that….

Here’s a nice video review.

The best part is that I can carry this around with me. I’m planning to get one of those padded slip cases for a little added protection and to hold a pencil and note pad. I already have apps for Wikipedia, Webster’s Dicionary/Thesaurus, and, of course, Microsoft Word and OneNote — all free. On an iPad, Word works without a 360 subscription, and it is integrated seamlessly with DropBox. I used my new keyboard case to compose this blog, and found it effortless.

If you happen to already have an iPad (Zagg makes this exact same case for the full-sized iPad, too), you can turn it into basically a touch-screen reversible laptop for under $50. The reversible touch-screen Windows laptop I bought my daughter cost ten times that much. If you decide to try this case, I’d love to hear your reviews.

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If you are a querying writer with aspirations of becoming an agented author, pitch contest season is like June for college graduates — polishing their resumé and practicing their interview face. For us writers, it is time to get our bits ready.

The “bits” to which I am referring are your 140-character Twitter pitch and your 35-word longline and your 250 to 300-word synopsis and the first 250 words of your finished manuscript.  Plus, you’ll need to have your genre worked out (pick ONE; fantasy steampunk horror romance is not a thing). Know your age group (pick ONE). Choose a couple of good, contemporary comps (NOT Harry Potter, NOT 50 Shades of Gray, and something you’ve actually read and an agent has actually heard of).

Also, you know, just know your story and your characters, because many of these contests will ask you to come up with a clever “code name” for your book, or answer a “character question” as part of your submission. Sometimes these contests will pop up out of nowhere, and you will discover you have only a day or two to get everything compiled and ready to submit during a small window.

Let’s take Sun vs. Snow, for example. This year the entry window opens on January 23. So, as I write this, there are still almost two weeks to prepare.  On the above-linked website there are very specific instructions for how to format the e-mail you will submit, including spacing, what font to use, where to bold, etc. There is a character question, so even if you have all your bits neatly organized in a folder, you still need to write a pithy (100 words or less) answer to this.  Then when the window opens at 4pm Eastern time, you have less than 5 minutes to hit send, because they only take the first 200 entries. In past years the contest filled up in four minutes.

READ THE CONTEST GUIDELINES CAREFULLY. Because this really is a case where judges will be overwhelmed with entries and must whittle down to just a few who can go through. What do you win? That varies from contest to contest, but generally “winners” of dinferential stages earn close, personalized feedback from professional editors, who will help you polish your ms and query and get them ready to present to agents. These contests almost always earn someone a contract with an agent. But don’t enter if you’re not prepared to do a lot of revisions very quickly.

Getting in is hard, because these contests are fiercely competitive, but they are worth it because someone always makes it through, and the odds go up the more you participate. Not to mention you will have an opportunity to receive free, professional feedback — not only on your ms, but you can learn from the feedback others receive. There is almost always a Twitter feed you can follow to read live comments from the judges as they evaluate the (usually) anonymous entries. It’s fun (and terrifying) to imagine they they might be talking about your entry.

You have nothing to lose, so why not give it a try?