Writing Conference

I am going to the Big Sur Writing Workshop! Let me tell you, getting to the point that I can say that has been a process! The first night I heard about it, I stayed up for hours wondering if I had the courage to go someplace so far away, by myself, to hang out with strangers and share my writing with them, take professional criticism etc. It's a scary prospect, but the more I thought about it and discussed it with Derek, the more I realized it's a great opportunity, and after writing for two years, this seems like the right time to do it.

Once I decided I had the guts to go, I had to register, then submit a query letter and an excerpt of my current WIP to get accepted. Whoever thought you had to be accepted to a conference? I sure didn't. Poppy and my sister helped me tear my letter and excerpt apart and put them back together several times. I emailed my materials to the conference coordinator on Monday and got my response yesterday.

I actually cried when I saw I'd gotten in. I know it sounds dramatic, but in terms of writing, I've known nothing but rejection. The relief of being validated after all that rejection was overwhelming. Now that I'm going to the conference, I'm working on getting my MS into better shape and making a list of things I'll need to pack because nothing is good for procrastinating like making lists.

Meet Poppy

As promised, today I will be introducing you to Poppy Williams, an aspiring author who I am proud to call my critique partner! Yesterday I told you my first impressions of Poppy and how we met. Today I'd like to share some more, and in her own words no less! If you're interested, you can read her interview of me over on her blog.

UPDATE (7/6/17): Please, for the love of God, forgive the horrible photo of me with blonde hair on Poppy's blog. It was a short phase and a terrible idea.

 

What is your current WIP about?

My current WIP is about a sixteen year old girl named Charlie Wilde. Every eleven years the town she was born and raised in plays host to an epic battle between good and evil. And this time, she had a role to play.

 Are there are any quotes that inspired your WIP?

There’s this great Marianne Williamson quote that really sums up my main character’s journey - “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure… We ask ourselves, “Who am I” to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” I love the idea that we as people have the capability to be extraordinary. But so often we dim our brilliance because we think we’re not worthy enough to be great. This is an issue that my MC struggles with and overcomes.

What came first in terms of inspiration: plot, characters, setting, or themes?

I was at work one day about four years ago when this name came to me. I thought to myself “That would be a great name for a character in a book.” By the end of the day I had the basic idea for my book come to me in a rush of ideas and images. So for me it all started with a name.

What’s something you admire about the main character in your manuscript?

Charlie is an artist, and I love that creative side of her. She’s also someone who is loyal, and would really do anything for the people she loves. I admire the journey that Charlie takes. When this huge responsibility is thrust upon her, she struggles with it, but she doesn’t back down. I love that!

When did you begin your WIP?

Technically I started working on this idea last November during NaNoWriMo. I wrote a good amount of words that month, but I was nowhere near finished. After doing some outlining and seeing my story take on some different aspects, I decided to start my first draft over. I officially started again on Friday August 31st. Which is the same day that my CP Danielle started (which I think Is kinda cool!)

How would you define the term critique partner?

Initially I was looking for someone who would read my manuscript after it was done to help me get it into shape to submit to agents. But then as I was writing, I realized I’d love to be in the trenches with someone! When I met Danielle, I realized that it was possible to find someone who was on the same page as me, AND as committed to this process as I was. For me a CP has been someone that I write alongside, toss ideas around with, and eventually someone who I’ll trust with my baby!

How has having a CP helped your writing?

I don’t think I realized how helpful having a CP would be. Even something as simple as going through the process of explaining my manuscript to another writer, really helped me a ton. Danielle had so many questions, some that I had answers for, and some that I’d never even thought of! And she also had lots of suggestions. We have similar tastes, so I think we built a really good rapport early on. And as we both progress with our books, I think the list of advantages will only grow!

What are you looking for most in a literary agent?

To me the most important thing is finding someone who’s passionate about my book. I want an agent who’s ready to fight for Charlie as much as I am! I think there needs to be a certain level of trust between a writer and an agent, so I’ll be looking for that as well. Handing my book over to an agent is almost like letting someone watch your baby (I’m assuming since I don’t technically have my own babies!). I want someone who I can trust with my book baby!

If you get published, what part of the publishing process do you think you'll enjoy most?

Doing book tours is a total dream of mine. I love meeting people, especially people who love books like I do! I also love the idea of people getting to know my characters and wanting to engage in deep conversations about them. I know that's the sexy side of being a published author, but it sure sounds fun...

If you could choose anyone to blurb your book, who would you pick?

Joss Whedon. Because he's awesome (no further explanation needed).

 

It always seems to me that Poppy is everywhere on the internet at once. If you're looking for her, check the following places before you report a missing person:

Twitter

Pinterest

Tumblr

Goodreads

Her Blog

Working with a Critique Partner

A few weeks ago, something awesome and unexpected happened. A writer named Poppy left a comment on my blog. I replied, then she found me on Twitter, and all of a sudden, I seemed to be bumping into her all over the internet! That's when I decided to learn some more about her. I found her blog (the adorably named Poppy Writes a Book) and read everything she'd written. I was so impressed with how dedicated she was to writing, how hard she works, and how well she keeps herself accountable. I also really liked the sound of her WIP, Season of the Defender.

Poppy had a tab on her blog called Crit-Harmony in which she expressed a desire to find a critique partner (CP). When I read this, I had just shelved my second novel and was gearing up to write the third. With this new book, I was determined to do things differently from my previous books. Finding a CP was just up my alley. So I summoned my courage and sent Poppy an email.

I won't lie. I was super anxious while I waited for a response. I was afraid she'd email back and say that I wasn't what she was looking for or that she'd already found someone else. But to my delight, her response came quickly, and it was full of enthusiasm. She complimented my blog (my blog?!?) and over the next few days, we emailed back and forth. We were interviewing each other to see if we were a good match. Derek was surprised by how seriously I was taking the whole thing, but finding a critique partner was not something I took lightly. Poppy was spot-on when she titled her search for a CP Crit-Harmony. The process is very similar to dating. We had to make sure we were compatible in all kinds of ways - how quickly we worked, how far along we were with our WIPs, our goals in terms of finishing said WIPs, etc. Eventually we exhausted our supplies of questions and basically shook hands. We agreed to be in it for the long haul, helping each other along until both of our WIPs were finished and query-ready.

Finding a critique partner is the best thing I've done in a long time. Knowing that Poppy is always working (and she is always working!) keeps me motivated to work, too. We help each other iron out wrinkly plot points, cheer for each other's characters, and sometimes just discuss our feelings about the publishing industry and this career we're trying to get ourselves into.

I've been thinking for a while about how to introduce Poppy on this blog. Ultimately I decided to interview her. Tomorrow you'll get to learn more about Poppy when I post her responses to my questions. You'll get to read about her WIP, her writing process, and more. Plus, she'll be posting an interview of me over on her blog.

P.S. There's a post over at Poppy's blog about how we met from her perspective. She's going to keep my identity secret from her readers until tomorrow, but it's still a fun read!

Dreaming of a Kinder World

Yesterday I saw something disturbing on Facebook. It was a collage of pictures of extremely skinny body parts, each one accompanied by a question like, "Would you rather have visible hip bones or a slice of cake?" (Insert WTF/rage face here.) Memes like that are nothing but pernicious weapons designed to make girls hate themselves; the the sickest thing is that it was no doubt created by a girl who wants to spread her own low self-esteem like a virus.

I wonder if I would realize how dangerous such messages are if I hadn't been a self-hating teenager myself. I didn't hate myself personality-wise, but I hated my body like crazy. I measured my weight and compared it to arbitrary numbers I'd heard, like, "a skinny girl shouldn't weigh over X number of pounds." I went hungry, got stomach-aches in school, was crankier than all hell at home, and I craved sugar constantly. I created an evil cycle in which I already hated my body, but I kept looking for more reasons to hate it, like I was afraid that if I didn't hate myself, I would become fat. (But wasn't I already "fat"?)

All of this ended one day during my junior year of high school when, during a routine check-up, my doctor asked my mother if she wanted to commit me to an eating disorder clinic. (Yes, it was that serious.) Luckily, she said no, but the fear of losing my free will jolted me out of my insanity. Ten years later, I have a very different attitude towards food, exercise, weight, and how I look. Now I eat when I'm hungry, I exercise for mental health as much as physical health, I gauge my weight based on how I feel in my clothes, and I choose clothing that is flattering to my body type so that I'm not setting myself up to fail. A-line dresses look great on a pear shape like mine, but you won't catch me near that rack of skinny jeans. Finally, I don't remember the last time I weighed myself. I happen to have a tattoo on my back that reads, "The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance." But in the the case of the number on the scale, keeping myself ignorant is one of the best choices I've ever made.

UPDATE (7/6/17): It's cute how I thought I could avoid the skinny jeans. I caved -- of course -- but I miss the days when boot-cut jeans were cool.

The book I'm working on right now is about women living in an environment where they aren't subject to the advertising and criticism that women get in our world. They aren't defined primarily by how they look. I would love to live in such a world. Only I don't, and writing about a place that's free of a misogynistic paradigm while I'm living in one myself is tricky. How do women compliment each other in this fictional world? Do they praise themselves for strength or kindness or intelligence? Do they still recognize and appreciate physical beauty? If so, how is their definition of "beautiful" different from ours?

As I write my characters, I catch myself wanting to describe most of them as physically beautiful in one way or another. In doing so, I would conform to 98% of young adult books on the market. Every heroine is beautiful, usually in some unique way, often in ways she doesn't realize until a boy tells her so, and even then she struggles to believe it because a pretty girl who doesn't know she's pretty is the safest bet for a guy. Despite my clear disdain for this cycle, I worry that readers won't like my characters if my writing deviates too much from the norm.

Romance is an even bigger problem in my fictional world. The way I understand evolution, men value physical beauty in women because beauty used to be an indicator health, and guys needed a healthy woman to bear their babies. For women, physical attractiveness wasn't as important. If they were going to be pregnant all the time (we're talking about a pre-birth control world here), they needed a man who was strong and skillful enough to bring them food and protect them from danger. While I think we've moved beyond this paradigm in some ways, it still exists in the idea of classical romance. (Hi there, Beauty & the Beast.)

If I decide to have my main character fall in love with a boy, can they be romantic with each other without resorting to the "girl pretty" "boy strong" tropes that people relied on back when we lived in caves? These questions make my brain feel like an elephant on ice skates.

While I contemplate writing about a world that's so fundamentally different from ours that readers may not be able to appreciate it, I'm going to go make dinner. And I'm making chocolate cake for dessert just to spite that awful collage from Facebook.

Creative Exhaustion

I began writing my third novel last Friday. I'm 10,000 words in, and I even have a title! Now that I'm drafting again, I've had to make adjustments to how I use my brain power. The part of my brain that's responsible for making stuff up seems to act like a vacuum, stealing energy from the rest of my brain and leaves me feeling kind of vegetable-y. Every morning, I've been writing. I start out fresh and excited, but by the end of the session, although I'd like to keep going, I'm forced to stop because I lose focus, like I'm running out of juice. Even this post is surprisingly difficult to write.

This creative exhaustion is even messing with basic communication skills. I was on the phone with my mom today and I had to stop half a dozen times just to ask her what we were talking about. My mind wasn't wandering. I wasn't thinking about anything else. Just drawing blanks. So that's probably what can be expected from this blog for a little while: blank pages. It sucks because I'm making tons of progress with the new novel and I want to talk about it, but it'll have to wait until later. Maybe my brain just needs exercise. I'd like to be to write 2,000 words and still have enough brain power left over to write a blog post or have a phone conversation.

So what have I been doing with all this brain-dead time in the afternoons? A lot of it has been spent planning an epic birthday party for my husband. I'm also trying to cook healthier meals for us, and that takes more time than it took me to cook meals that weren't as healthy. And I've discovered Eureka! I'm still mad at Netflix about their price hike, so I won't actually thank them, but I have enjoyed watching the first three seasons of this show. It's super geeky and full of awesome characters and surprisingly plausible science.

That's all I can muster for now. Here's hoping that anyone who reads this is getting along better with their brain than I am with mine!

Venus or Bust

I'm about to begin writing my third novel, which will be known here as Vix. I've been outlining, brainstorming and researching for a while now. I've profiled my characters and developed my setting. (By the way, my setting is THE PLANET VENUS!)

 By Brocken Inaglory via Wikipedia

By Brocken Inaglory via Wikipedia

I've also made an important realization about my previous book, Safira. I think it lacked energy. I focused a lot on character development, and this is probably why I love the characters so much. However, the plot could have been more exciting. The plot in that book was driven strictly by the characters. The setting had no hand in anything that happened, and there wasn't anything close to deus ex machina or even coincidence. Perhaps what that book needs is a healthy dose of serendipity.

Needless to say, I don't intend to write another plotfully lazy book. I've thought a lot about the plot of Vix and I've even broken the book into three acts. This is how Suzanne Collins writes, and I figured it couldn't hurt to imitate her. Yesterday I outlined the first act. My Excel spreadsheet includes the following:

  • Short description of the scene
  • Setting
  • What exposition is required to understand this scene?
  • What emotions do I want this scene to invoke?
  • How will I invoke these emotions?
  • Which characters are present in this scene?
  • What is each character's goal?
  • Do they succeed or fail?

I have a few empty cells to fill in tomorrow. And on Friday, I begin writing.

Cat Memes

FYI: This has absolutely nothing to do with writing.

A couple of weeks ago, I found this meme and sent it to my sister, whose cat also has a fondness for Fancy Feast:

fancy.jpg

Today she sent me this (that's her cat):

feast.jpg

LMAO

Genre & Demographics

I think it's safe to say at this point that my second novel failed to attract an agent. The majority of agents I queried have responded, and while some were surprisingly complimentary about the premise, etc., nobody really bit. It's been difficult for me to understand this novel's failure since I love it so much. I thought about the characters long after I finished it. Not to flatter myself, but it was like the first time I read Harry Potter. In both cases, the characters stuck with me. And they're still with me, but I'm trying to slowly push them aside because the reality that I won't be writing the rest of their story in sequels - at least not now - is painful.

One of my stranger guesses as to why Safira failed is that agents may be less receptive to new work in the summer. I had suspicions about this early on in querying because the agents who did get back to me took much longer than they took to respond to queries for my first novel. I queried Mina last December, and within two weeks I had most of my responses. This summer, agents often took longer than the response times they posted on their websites. I understand why they're taking longer - vacation, kids, etc. - but I wouldn't have believed they're actually less receptive to new work until Kristin Nelson discussed it on her blog. So I've added this to my growing list of personal query advice:

Query when it's cold.

Another reason I think my book may have been rejected is that it fails to conform to genre. I struggled a lot at first to determine whether Safira's story was an adult or young adult book. I went back and forth because my protagonist was 17/18 years old - right on the line - and while she did grow into her own identity in the novel (1 point for YA), the book was also adult in some ways:

  1. The story is told in 3rd person. I love the flexibility of 3rd person, but it's been out of fashion with the YA crowd for several years.
  2. Not only is it 3rd person, it's 3rd person limited, and I shift around a lot. At various points in the novel, my narrator is looking over the shoulders of my villain, my heroine, and at least two other characters. I love all that shifting because I like getting a complete picture of what's happening. However, I am an adult,  and I wonder if when I was a teenager, I would have struggled to identify with so many characters.
  3. My book is character driven, and according to Writing Great Books for Young Adults, which I recently checked out of the library, YA books are plot-driven. Of course, highly developed characters are desirable in YA as they are in adult fiction, but in YA, plot is the driving force, whereas character is often the driving force in adult books. In Safira's story, her development as a person drives the story forward more than the plot does, and I'm afraid a lot of teenagers would interpret the story as boring for that reason.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that now that I know more about YA and how to write it, I intend to do better next time. I've got a really great idea for my third book and I've already begun to draft early chapters. This book is going to take a lot of research, but it may just be the one that succeeds. For Safira, she's going on the shelf for now, but unlike Mina, she isn't staying there. I intend to revise that book, pushing it more toward the norm for YA, and maybe even query it again in a year or so.

Mars Rover Landing Party

As practically everyone knows, the rover Curiosity landed safely on the surface of Mars Sunday night. This is a big deal for NASA, JPL, the USA, and humankind, but it's a big deal for me because my husband works for JPL and he worked specifically on MSL AKA Curiosity. Back in November, when the rover launched out of Cape Canaveral, Derek and I got up early to watch it online. It was thrilling, watching it fly off into space, but it was also a bit nerve-wracking. So much work and money had gone into that project. It had a long journey to Mars and a difficult, never-tried-before landing.

Eight months later, on Sunday, August 5, 2012, around 10:30PM PDT, the rover landed. Its landing was tricky. Curiosity arrived at the planet's atmosphere going about 7,500 miles per hour. For a reference point, consider that a Boeing 757 (that's the single-aisle airplane that's common for cross-country flights) has a cruising speed of 530 miles per hour. My mind can hardly grasp a speed like 7,500 miles per hour, but that's how fast the rover was going. Between the time it reached the atmosphere and the time it landed, it had to slow down to nothing. Not only that, but it had to use a parachute to slow down, then it used a hovering sky crane to lower itself gently down to the surface. Honestly, the more you know about the landing operation, the more stressful it is - and the more shocking it is that the whole process went off without a hitch.

Since Derek worked on the project, we got to go to a landing party at Cal Tech. The party was great. We ate little snack boxes of fruit and cheese and drank bottles of "Martian Water". We sat with two of our friends, one of whom worked on the camera that took the first pictures after the rover's landing. Before the official NASA broadcast began, they showed little videos about the "7 Minutes of Terror" (as if anyone there needed to be more terrified). I heard Wil Wheaton did a video about the landing with JPL which I was hoping they would show, but they didn't. At least not after I arrived. You can watch it here, though.

While we were waiting for the official broadcast to begin, something cool happened: the International Space Station flew right overhead! I would have mistaken it for an airplane if I was alone, but given that I was surrounded by a bunch of NASA scientists, one guy ran up to the microphone and pointed it out. The whole crowd clapped as it flew overhead. It was like a good omen. One of my friends explained that the ISS circles the planet every 90 minutes, but all kinds of things interfere with our ability to see it, so Sunday night was a rare treat.

Everything got really exciting once the NASA broadcast began. The cameras were in the ops room, which I've seen in person, but I've never seen it full of people. And the rest . . . well, you don't need to hear it from me. At least a thousand different news sites have covered it. (A solid source of info is MSL's page on JPL's website.) The rover landed perfectly and the whole crowd at the Cal Tech party cheered and congratulated each other. Derek was getting so many excited text messages from friends that he couldn't keep up with them all. The first pictures came back from the rover only minutes after the landing. I love the one where the rover is looking at its own shadow in the Martian sunset. It's like it's saying, "Look, Mom, I'm here!"

After the Cal Tech event ended, we went to a nearby pub. It was 11PM on a Sunday night and there was standing room only. I couldn't believe it. I'm not big on crowds like that, so I hid outside until one of our friends pushed her way through the crowd and ordered drinks. Her gumption paid off when two of the tables behind her spontaneously vacated. We sat down, I ordered a slice of pie, and everything was well with the world.

rover-party.jpg

Being in the pub that night was one of the coolest experiences ever. It was filled to the brim with scientists who were all celebrating a momentous collaborative achievement. Everyone congratulated each other, and everyone clapped whenever a new image from the rover popped up on TV. You know how bars usually have their TVs tuned to various sporting events? Well, on Sunday night, every TV was showing the NASA channel. How awesome is that?

The whole event still feels like a dream. For eight months we've been worrying about MSL's landing. It's such a relief that the mission has so far been a success, and it's been surreal to see how much enthusiasm everybody is showing for JPL. MSL has its own twitter account, and some its tweets are surprisingly dirty ("Gale Crater I am in you"?) Even The Oatmeal made a spoof about the first landing picture! I love how much credit all the JPLers are getting for their work. I don't think I'm being too biased when I say they deserve every bit of it.

My Favorite Querying Advice

If you're reading this years or even months from now, you may not know it, but I only released this blog into the world two days ago. Before then (for TWO YEARS before then) the blog was private. Not even my husband read my entries. But if I want to be an author, I'll need the courage to expose my thoughts to the world. Making the blog public is practice.

Speaking of blogs, one to which I subscribe is that of author Susan Dennard. She wrote a great series of posts on how she got her agent. Most debut authors write posts like this, but too many are just braggy rather than helpful. Susan Dennard's posts are very helpful, so much so that I'm going to post links to each of them below.

Susan Dennard's Blog Posts on Querying:

How I Got My Agent (Part 1: The Parts of a Good Query)

How I Got My Agent (Part 2: The Prep)

How I Got My Agent (Part 3: Query Submissions)

How I Got My Agent (Part 4: The Calls)

Why I Scrapped My Prologue

Like most of the mistakes I may or may not have made during the querying process, this mistake is speculation. Why? Because in spite of all the queries I have sent, I've gotten a negligible amount of feedback in return, which means I have to guess when it comes to what I do right and what I do wrong.

The thing I think I did wrong this time is write a prologue for my book. I don't call it a prologue in the MS. I call it Chapter 1, and when agents ask for the first few chapters, I include it as the first chapter. However, I realized this weekend that everything I talk about in the prologue is covered later on in the book. Thus, the prologue is unnecessary.

I think this may have hurt me in terms of querying because my protagonist doesn't make an appearance until the first word of Chapter 3. Chapter 2 (what will now be my Chapter 1) is spent entirely on my villain. I don't regret that move. I like books and movies that explore the villain before the hero. After all, the villain is the one who complicates everything and puts the plot in motion. In my story, as in many stories, the heroine finds her opportunity to become a hero by reacting to the villain's villainy.

By scrapping the prologue, I now have a greater chance of sending the chapter that includes my protagonist off to agents. I hope that makes sense. Here's a summary:

  • My prologue is being scrapped.
  • Chapter 2 (villain's chapter) is becoming Chapter 1.
  • Chapter 3 (heroine's chapter) is becoming Chapter 2.

It may be too late for this revelation, which is why I call this a mistake. But perhaps I should think about it instead as simply being a new strategy.

The Cure for Impatience? Self-sabotage

Ever since I came close to querying, I've felt an incredible amount of impatience. I had this almost irresistible urge to query, to move on with the process. I've been writing for two years now with technically nothing to show for it. I'm sick of people asking how it's going and not being able to tell them anything concrete. And frankly, I want validation for my work. I've worked hard, but more importantly, this book is really good.

In light of the above-mentioned impatience, I queried Safira, and now I believe I did it too early. Not only was it too early, but I was sloppy about it. When I went back and revised recently, I found that there were errors - even typos - in the excerpts I had sent to agents. That is so embarrassing, and after all the hard work I've done, typos are NOT representative of my work or my potential as an author. I misrepresented myself. I sabotaged myself. And I may have done it in more ways than one. Here are the possibilities that I've considered for why I met so much rejection:

  1. My sample pages were imperfect.
  2. My book was misidentified in terms of genre/demographic.
  3. I queried the wrong agent.
  4. My query letter was bad.

I'd like the amend the last item by saying that my query letter was not poorly written. I think it's a beautiful letter, but it does several things wrong. It's too esoteric, it doesn't get to the point quickly enough, and it assumes previous knowledge of my work on the part of the reader - not directly, but there are better ways to explain the book. Yesterday morning I wrote a new query letter that I hope corrects my earlier mistakes.

A few weeks ago, I would have sent that letter soon after deciding it was good. But now I'm going to wait. I'm going to send it to my mom and sister and have my husband give it a once-over. I'm going to put it aside and then pick it up and re-read it repeatedly to make sure it is PERFECT. I'm also going to finish the round of revisions I began but did not complete last week. I'm going to finish revising and re-read new passages until I'm certain that the work is the absolute best I can produce. Before, I thought I couldn't afford to wait until Safira was perfect. Now I know I can't afford to send out anything less.

Praise Be to Betas

I am lucky to have a brilliant sister. We have a long history of reading together. Whenever I read a good book as a kid, I always passed it down to her, even though she's five years younger. Needless to say, she was always reading well beyond her age group even in elementary school. By the time she got to college, she was making recommendations to me, and now we've reached a kind of reading equilibrium.

Perhaps because we have both always read so much, we've also made good editors for each other. I helped her with college applications, English papers, etc. and she has read almost everything I've ever written. We've had issues at times. She can get very critical, although strangely, she's never been terribly critical of me. She gets very critical of my characters. I kid you not, these are some of the comments she's given me:

"I want to punch her right now."
"What a spoiled brat! Why is he even listening to her?"
"Someone should throw a snowball in her face!"

All of these also came from Mina. I learned a lot from this criticism, even though at the time it just made me laugh. (Funny Side Note: My mom saw a copy of those comments and had a talk with my sister about being nicer to me. We're both in our twenties and do not need her to intervene, but it was adorable.) My sister and I did have an issue at the beginning of Safira. Based on early talks we had about the book, she saw my MC progressing quickly, but I intended for her to develop slowly and steadily throughout the book. I think my sister found this a little frustrating at first, but once she was assured that Safira would indeed grow up by the end of the book - and become awesome, by the way - she relaxed.

The point of this post is to appreciate a good beta reader. I have the very best beta reader in my sister, and I have a few other gems, too. I know from reading my sister's papers (and reading all of the comments she sends me on my work) just how much time goes into editing and being a beta reader. It's not something I take lightly. If somebody has read your book from start to finish and given you honest and constructive feedback, that is a time to be grateful. The problem with me is that if I ever get this book published, I'm going to want to thank every single person who reads it, even though they won't be giving me feedback.

That sounds like a wonderful problem to have.

UPDATE (5/2/13): While at the time I wrote this, I thought it was a good idea to have seven beta readers, I now realize it's not. Seven is too many to keep track of, and not all readers are equally helpful. It's best to choose readers carefully and focus on quality over quantity.

Request Denied

So far, only one agent has asked to read my full MS. Today they declined. They didn't give any reasons for the rejection, just said they didn't fall in love with it. They did say there was a lot to like, but the whole thing could just be a nice form letter.

The rejection wasn't heart-breaking. In fact, it wasn't even surprising. But what does that mean? That I've gotten used to rejection, or that I didn't really want this agent to make an offer? I have no conscious reason to not like them. Last time I queried, I began to feel relief when I got rejections because I realized as time passed that I didn't really love my own novel. I had begun to write Safira by then and realized how much better it was, and I knew I didn't want Mina to be my debut. However, I don't think that's what's happening this time.

I really do love this story. Today I found a print of a painting on Etsy that reminded me of my MC. I ordered copies of it for some of my beta readers. With a few changes - eye color, adjustment of another feature - the girl in the painting could actually BE Safira, and I thought of how cool it would be if I could commission such a painting from this artist someday. I didn't feel nearly this much attachment to my previous story or its characters.

I've heard authors talk before about how happy they are when they realize readers care about their characters as much as they do. I never knew how that felt until now. I may have even raised an eyebrow at said authors for caring about fictional people. But the thing is, while writing this story, I lived with these people in my head. They were there all day, all night, all the time. I made up conversations between them in the shower. I had revelations about their motives while I walked my dog. I dreamed about these people. And when I finished my first draft and took a break from the MS for a few days, I felt grief. I really missed them.

The most surprising thing is that when I told my mom about these feelings, she understood. I expected her to tell me I was nuts. Yesterday I read a tweet by an author who just submitted copy edits for the final novel in her trilogy. She said that grief set in within minutes and I sympathized. At least she knows she'll get to talk about her characters again, though. She'll get to see fans draw pictures of her characters on DeviantArt. What's going to happen if I fail to find an agent, fail to get a publishing deal, and my characters for all intents and purposes DIE? It'll be worse than death. They'll be forgotten.

Unfortunately, there's little I can do other than wait for another opportunity to present itself. The MS needs a little more copy-editing. But in the face of disappointment, I frankly don't feel like working on a book that nobody wants to read. Maybe tomorrow. Until then, I'm going to watch episodes of Star Trek and regret posting news of that full request on facebook.

Ouch

I'm still working like crazy to finish Safira, get the chapters out to betas, get their feedback and incorporate it into the MS, etc. I was getting so anxious to query that I decided to query a little early.

Sort of. I sent one letter.

You see, as of five minutes ago, I had a top choice agent. Like, WAY top choice, to the point that if they called me, I would answer the phone with, "Yes!" even if they weren't calling to offer rep. (Don't ask how I'd know it was them calling.) When I queried this agent for Mina, they got back to me within 24 hours, and they didn't require a synopsis or sample chapters to accompany the query letter. Since their process was so simple, I thought I'd get it out of the way.

I queried yesterday morning and I've been frenetic ever since. I woke up early this morning and couldn't fall back asleep. I checked email all day. I was pretty sure I would cry if the email came asking for chapters.

But I just got it.

And it didn't.

It was a generic rejection. I didn't realize how much hope I had stored up in the idea of this agent liking my work until it turned out they didn't. I try to stay positive on this blog, but today, this just sucks.

Reading through a Rough Patch

I've had a few bad weeks. I'm not entirely sure why, but I wasn't happy, and I wasn't able to write. Those days are over now, but that's not the only good thing. I actually learned a lot about coping .

There were external things that helped me, things like chocolate and a good marriage, but I also need to give credit to myself for learning how to listen to my gut. During the Period of Misery (as I'm calling it) I slept when I was tired, I read when I wanted distraction, I bought flowers when I wanted to do something creative. I even colored a little. A friend of mine who's a kindergarten teacher turned me on to it, promising that the monotony and simple accomplishment of it relieves stress. And she was right.

I also caught up with a lot of the blogs I hadn't read in a while - mostly ones belonging to authors, literary agents, and editors, but also a few not related to writing. I keep up with my wedding photographer's blog and with a blog belonging to a florist I like back in Ann Arbor (near where I grew up) because they're both talented and it makes me happy to see their latest work.

I read a little of Stephen King's On Writing, and I was liking it, but then I read the synopses for some of his novels and got so creeped out that I had to put it down for a while. There are dark places in my mind, but no place so dark that I could sic a rabid dog on a desperate mother or cut a guy's foot off with a chainsaw. No, thank you. I had much better luck with The Elements of Style and James Scott Bell's Revision & Self-Editing. I even read a little fiction - Across the Universe by Beth Revis, Matched by Ally Condie, and the first 100 pages of Divergent by Veronica Roth. (Those pages were online for free. I will be reading the rest of the book when it comes out on May 3rd.)

When I look at the Period of Misery in this respect, it actually looks like I got a lot done, although at the time I felt like a sloth and a failure. That's what I like so far about this blog. It's helping me to see the positive, to let the good things stick and let the bad ones fade away.

Burning Hot

I play Lord of the Rings Online and I love it. I have a top-level loremaster and a mid-level champion. Derek has tried to get me into many different video games, but other than Plants vs. Zombies, LOTRO is the only one that's stuck, and for good reason: I love Tolkien. And the game does a great job of honoring the lore. Plus the setting of the game is beautiful and there's an endless amount of stuff to do. For example, right now it's the 5th anniversary festival and I'm gonna get me a fireworks horse if it's the last thing I do.

In LOTRO, the hunter class can do something called "Burn Hot" in which they use a ton of power to do a ton of damage. I know about this because as a loremaster, I have a skill which can replenish other characters' power, and hunters who burn hot often ask for more.) Burning Hot is a high risk, high reward kind of thing.

For the past three weeks, I have been Burning Hot with my novel. I have been working every single day, with the occasional one-day weekend break, and I have not allowed myself to get distracted with anything else. It's been hard because I've had family drama coming from three different directions, a house that Derek and I almost bought, and Derek's 30th birthday party, which I'm trying to plan. For the most part, I have given up swimming, video games, flower arranging, cooking, cleaning, and reading. I have eight different beta readers working on Safira.

UPDATE 7/6/17: That's too many beta readers.

I've been trying to stay ahead of them while simultaneously weaving their feedback into the manuscript to make it better. The book is getting better - of that, I am certain. But the high risk hasn't exactly paid off. I wanted to do the whole "Burn Hot" thing for one month, then I wanted to query and get back to enjoying life. Well, three weeks in, and I'm barely halfway through the novel.

Burning Hot fizzled to an end this past Wednesday. For two nights in a row, I could barely sleep. I felt feverish and restless and my mind was so exhausted that even watching Seinfeld was a strain. Derek called me "Zombie Wife" on more than one occasion. It was the insomnia that finally convinced me to stop. I like to sleep and the fact that I couldn't was more depressing than the idea that I wasn't going to meet my own deadline for the book. So I stopped working. I sent out a batch of five chapters to my betas Wednesday night and I haven't opened the MS since. On Thursday, I went to the Flower Mart downtown, took a long shower and a nap, and played LOTRO. By the time Derek got home, I was smiling and my brain was no longer a spiraling nightmare.

I'm still bummed that I won't get to query the novel next week. Frankly, I don't know when I'll be done. I swear, if it gets to the end of May and I'm not finished, I'm querying anyway. I intend to get back to work on Monday - maybe work at 90% of what I was doing before - and chip away continuously.

Here's what I've learned from this experience:

  1. This, too, shall pass -- hopefully soon -- and
  2. Burning Hot is a pretty bad technique. I will remember this if I ever play a hunter.

I was in a room with Stephenie Meyer.

The other night, Derek and I went down to Beverly Hills to see Jenny Lawson, AKA The Bloggess do a reading from her new book. She did a signing afterward. I brought her a little posy of flowers, but she was much more impressed by the miniature metal chickens people brought her. (This post on her blog explains why.)

Because Jenny is hilarious, her reading was great. It even succeeded in making my husband a fan. They did a Q&A after the reading and a moderated discussion with Soleil Moon Frye, but I learned that I do not like Q&A sessions. Nobody asked a single thing that contributed to the evening. A lot of people talked about themselves. One hideous woman (personality-wise) took the opportunity to PLUG her own blog! Derek and I almost starting booing.

Now on to the part where I feel incredibly silly. It happened about 10 minutes ago. I read a post Jenny wrote about the reading in Beverly Hills and looked at the pictures she included. One of the pictures had a very normal looking woman in it and I was kind of like, "Wait, she doesn't photograph the metal chickens or my beautiful flowers, but she photographs this lady in a cardigan?" Then I read the post and the woman is STEPHENIE MEYER. I was in the same room with her and didn't even know it and honestly, I could just shoot myself in the foot.

Derek doesn't understand why I should notice her. (He hasn't read Twilight and is one of many people who staunchly insist that it must suck even though they haven't read it.) Twilight is not my favorite series, but that woman did a lot of things right, including building a hell of a lot of sexual tension and making every adolescent girl's dreams come true in the forms of Edward and Jacob. If you can't respect her for that, respect her for the fact that she's been incredibly successful, or for the fact that in the media, she seems like a genuinely kind person.

TLDR: I was in a room with Stephenie Meyer *facepalm* and I didn't even notice.

Literary vs. Commercial Fiction

I have been writing.

A lot.

So much so that I'm almost done with the first draft of my second novel, Safira! (Remember, that's not really the title, just the name of the MC.) I remember drawing a map for this book before I even began thinking about characters. That was New Year's Day 2009, so over 3 years ago. After that I wrote some character portraits and random scenes that I hoped would meld into a cohesive narrative. I don't think I've kept a single thing from those early days. I mean, I have kept them on my computer, but I'm not using anything I wrote back then. Heck, I was working on this novel again for at least 4 months before I began Mina in November 2010. I worked every day on it, wrote like crazy, and again, all of that work is in folders that never plan to look at again.

I've done a lot of things differently with Safira, from dealing with self-doubt to using Scrivener to not caring about chapter titles. Another important thing I've been doing is reading. I go back and forth on whether reading while you're writing is a good thing. I'm sure it's different for everybody. What I go back and forth on is whether reading while writing is good for me. And I think I've finally come to a reasonable answer. Here it is:

Reading while writing is good for me so long as the book I'm reading helps me improve the one I'm trying to write.

Now, that's probably not the best way to describe what I mean. To be clearer, I'll give you an example. I recently read Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. I first heard about it when I read an article so long that it would be called a novella if it were fiction - Vanity Fair's How a Book is Born by Keith Gessen. It was a fascinating read that was recommended to me by a friend when he first heard that I was writing. (I have no idea why he knew about it. He's a lawyer.) Anyway, if you want a documentary-style read of how a book is written and published, read How a Book is Born. It's so fascinating that I read the whole thing in one sitting.

I read The Art of Fielding because it kept creeping up on me. I'd heard about it from so many different sources that I felt I could ignore it no longer. It was also bugging me because everybody described it as a "literary" novel. I have issues with this term, mostly because I think it's elitist, and part of my decision to read The Art of Fielding was to figure out why people were qualifying it as such. What was so special about this book? What made it different from almost everything else I read?

Everyday my husband asked me how my Literary Experiment was going. My answers evolved, becoming shorter and shorter, because I became increasingly obsessed with finishing the book. At the beginning, I think I told Derek that The Art of Fielding bugged me because there was only one female character and dozens of male ones. (This is true and it still bugs me, but it's no less true of Tolkien, and you'd have to torture me to get me to criticize The Professor.) I was admittedly more fascinated with the chapters that dealt with the female character because I could relate to her. The male characters did awful things like fart and pee and talk about it. I found that rather distasteful, although in my mind, I'm offended by the characters, not by the author - weird, huh?

By the time I finished the book, I knew why it was called "literary" while the rest of the books I read are called "commercial" fiction. The Art of Fielding is written with a close-up lens. It doesn't spare the reader anything, including farts and the color of the guys' pee. It paints characters in realistic shades of gray instead of the usual black and white. This is the kind of book I should be reading while writing. The only other author I can think of whose work has been equally beneficial is Jane Austen. I re-read Emma a few weeks ago and I'm certain it helped me write better. There's just something about those long sentences, that unforgiving eye, that makes me aspire to do better.

This book also taught me that I don't need to be stingy with language. Before, I was careful to always get to the point, keep the plot moving, to not go off on tangents or keep the reader waiting. This is all good advice, to a degree, but I think I took it too far. When I came back to my draft after The Art of Fielding, I allowed myself to go off on the occasional tangent, usually relating to a character's history or personality, and I think my book will be stronger for these little stories that flesh my characters out.

Querying Woes

I'm about as deep into querying as you can get right now. The biggest news is that I got two full manuscript requests a few weeks ago. Everyone was so excited - friends and family, husband - but the news has gotten stale and it sucks to have to keep telling everyone, "No, haven't heard anything yet." Other queries are being rejected through simple expiration. Those are the most disheartening because you don't even know if anybody read or even received it.

One thing I've noticed is that in the two cases where the agent response was a good one, they used my actual name. One of them even referenced the title of my book. All of the rejections I've received sans one have been addressed "Dear author" and none of them have said anything personal. That alone kind of sucks because it leaves me wondering why my novel was rejected.

Is my query letter bad? Is the pitch incomplete? Is the genre not something you actually represent (despite one website or another saying you do)? Did you just not like the premise of the book? Does it seem inappropriate for the age group I've written it for?

I don't have a clue why a single agent has rejected my query.

I know that all this is just part of the game. I've researched the publishing industry like crazy. I've read author blogs and autobiographies and articles and interviews. I've read agents' and editors' blogs. I pay for a subscription to Publisher's Marketplace and I scan Publisher's Lunch everyday to see if there's any news that might be relevant to my querying process. I've read through the sad, sad threads of other neglected queriers on Absolute Write.

So that's my update. Not crying-sad, but definitely sober. While I'm waiting for this querying thing to wrap up, I've started to write the next book. I think it will be far better than the first and I'm very excited about it, although anxious about how much time it will take. In characteristic Dani Fashion, I want to finish it like, tomorrow, so that I can query it and increase my chances of securing an agent and a deal because THAT would mean the fruition of a dream - that I can keep writing because it will be a job, and not just a hobby.