Who Do We Write For?

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I recently received the final two rejections for Alex Bullied, both from agents who had requested more pages – fifty for one, the full manuscript for the other. Whenever I send a full manuscript, I am including my hopes and dreams. And this time, it was to an agent at Writers House, so, win or lose, I was feeling validated. An agent at a Major League Agency wanted more of me! But, alas, having done this for awhile, I know there’s a good chance it’ll just be a delayed rejection. Still, I can’t help but cross my fingers and hope.
Alex Bullied has been shelved – or, more accurately, drawered. I gave it all I had. The agent complimented my writing and the story. He just wasn’t passionate enough about it.

Let’s face it, it wasn’t good enough.

When I wrote my first book, Riding On The Wind, I spent months perfecting the first six chapters. I hadn’t yet taken any writing courses or joined a critique group. I didn’t even know what a critique group was. I knew nothing. What I did have going for me was a lifetime of loving books and reading. I wrote by instinct. I wrote the book I wanted to read. And I read Writers Digest and The Writer and any other writing magazine I could find. Inevitably there would be an article that addressed whatever question I had at the moment. I wrote and rewrote those first chapters until finally I had to make myself move on. But, those are six really good chapters.

On my third query, I scored an agent. I was so green, I had no idea that was a Big Deal. After a year, although it came close a couple of times, she could not sell my book, and we parted ways.
I had written that book for myself, for the reader I had been at twelve years of age. I did the same with the next book, Morning of the Mermaid, in which I imagined how the first mermaid came to be. By this time I had taken some writing classes, had found a critique group and was much more savvy.
I knew enough to be hopeful as I sent out the first queries. All rejected. I chalked this up to premature querying, something many beginning writers do. I attended a few writers conferences, paid extra for professional critiques from agents and editors. I rewrote and rewrote and sought out more critiques, all of which pointed to more rewriting. Would this book ever please the agents? Frustrated, I set it aside.
The story of Alex Bullied had been playing in my mind for a year and I started it with a certain amount of joy. This one would be so much fun. I aimed to write a humorous book for boys. If you’ve been reading this blog you know my trials and tribulations as I finished the manuscript and set out to hook an agent. To please critics, I rewrote. And rewrote. The book drifted from my initial concept. I wasn’t writing for boy readers anymore.
I was writing for agents.
This is a quandary many prepublished authors face. Who do we listen to? Who’s advice, who’s critique, do we take? How far from our vision are we willing to go? As far as we think it will take to get an agent? Who do we write for?
Literary agents are the gatekeepers to the Publishing Kingdom. To get in, we must please them, right? But what if, by writing to them, we lose ourselves, our voice, our vision?
When I am writing middle grade fiction, I imagine I’m writing to myself, at that age. If I start to think about agents reading, the words become self conscious and I do not think this is the way to brillant writing.
I caught an interview with comedian, writer and film maker Jordan Peele the other day. I had to write down what he said when asked if he had any words of wisdom for writers. (He was being asked as a film writer, but I think it applies to any writer) When I heard it, I thought, that’s what I’m talking about! He said:
Follow the fun. Don’t follow the practicality, don’t follow what’s going to get this sold, what’s going to make this good. You’re writing your favorite movie that doesn’t exist. What’s the movie you wish someone would write for you?
Follow the fun.

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Chasing the Dragon

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“Everybody’s a junkie for something. We’ve all got something
pretty funky that we do. Everybody’s a junkie for something. I’m
a junkie, you’re a junkie, too.” Everybody’s A Junkie from bimbo,
a multi-media musical, written and directed by Jack Barnard.

According to Wikipedia, “Chasing the Dragon” is a slang phrase of Cantonese origin from Hong Kong referring to inhaling the vapor of a heated solution of morphine, heroin, oxycodone, or opium. To a junkie, the term “chasing the dragon” refers to locating and ingesting your drug of choice. To me, a writing junkie, it means writing a great book, a book that attracts an agent, is sold to a publishing house and becomes a bestseller. Maybe it’s made into a movie. It’s my immortality.
Immortality – that’s a weighty matter with me. I suffer from Gerascophobia. That’s right, fear of aging. It’s a real thing. I remember a friend in high school lamenting, “It won’t stop!” It struck a chord with me. I’ve been a bit obsessed with aging ever since. It’s not fear of death. It’s not the dying, it’s how I’m getting there. Because of this affliction, I’m always doing the math. How long do I have to chase my dragon?
How long do any of us have, really? We don’t know. We should be actively chasing our dragons, our dreams. And we should have a good time doing it.
I came across this horoscope in a magazine: “In recent years, Libra (that’s Me) has walked over broken glass and hot coals. Life has certainly not been easy for you, due to an unusual array of difficult aspects; and at times, the challenges may have seemed nearly endless. (Yes, revising Alex Bullied has seemed that way) Now this period is coming to an end with the arrival of Jupiter, planet of good fortune, when it enters Libra on the 9th for the first time in twelve years. At that point, you will enter one of the very best years of your life. Get your wish list ready. (List follows) Your sparkling aspects will keep on coming. On the 30th, the new moon in Libra will be one of the most divine of the year. ( A new moon will always open a portal of ten days to take action toward something you want dearly.) (Queries, anyone?)
Yay. I’m not a big horoscope reader, but I like this one.
I made some birth year resolutions –
1. Finish Alex Bullied revision.
2. Query while I do this to keep me on track.
3. Write My Identical Cousin – inspired by real events. A middle grade novel set in 1965.
` 4. Turn Morning of the Mermaid into a graphic novel.
5. Celebrate the small victories.
This makes me accountable – to you, Faithful Reader, and to myself. If I’m going to do the math, I need to make it count.
The goal is not to keep chasing the dragon, but to catch that bitch, and take it for a ride.
Stay tuned.

 

Writing Humor is No Joke

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I’m taking my attempt seriously at making my middle grade novel, Alex Bullied, funnier. I need readers to understand immediately that this is a humorous take on bullying. It’s Revenge of the Nerds for the new millennium. No one thought that movie was pro-bully and neither is my book. So I have to make readers see that from the first line.

Could I teach myself to write funnier? Are there rules? Guidelines? It could be, as it is said with novel writing, that there are three rules – but no one knows what they are.
In the introduction to the book Comedy Writing Secrets by Mil Helitzer, we are told that the truth is anyone can learn to write humor. Humor writing can be taught and the skills can be acquired. This three-hundred page book with loads of overwhelming advice, gives a recipe for humor. The ingredients are Target, Hostility, Realism, Exaggeration, Emotion, and Surprise. It all starts with one cardinal rule: Don’t be inhibited. Its better to take a nihilistic attitude toward sensitive subjects than to pussyfoot around taboos. Nihilistic humor is based on the theory that there is no person or thing so sacred as to be beyond ridicule. That should include bullying, right? I mean, bullying is not a laughfest and I don’t mean it to be, but we can look at it with some humor, can’t we?
Gene Perret agrees in his book Damn! That’s Funny! Writing Humor You Can Sell. He says a quality that’s helpful to a humor writer is a sense of irreverence. By being irreverent, we purposely look for the fun rather than the gravity in everything. Mr. Perret encourages humor writers to “see the unusual, the bizarre, the zany, the wacky, the funny in whatever we observe. Don’t allow reality and pomposity to obscure your humorous point of view.”
One component for writing humor is realism. There has to be some fundamental basis of truth, something with which the reader can associate. The challenge is to take that truth and use another of those ingredients, exaggeration. Alex Bullied has that. A thirteen-year-old starting eighth grade in a new school, and the trepidation he feels, is reality based. The way The Mathia go after Alex is exaggerated almost to silliness. But maybe I need to up the silliness, the nonsensical. That’s what humor is, turning sense into nonsense. Stretch the truth to its limit.
Getting back to the recipe, three more ingredients are Hostility, Emotion and Surprise. I can think of few things more hostile than bullying. Emotion seems self- explanatory. How could you have humor without emotion? It’s no surprise that surprise is a major element of humor. Damn That’s Funny says it’s the essential element to humor. The funniest jokes are those with punch lines that surprise and, sometimes, shock us into laughter.
Finally that first ingredient in the recipe for writing humor – Target, which is the reader, our audience. The humorist expresses what the reader is thinking. I have to express what is going on in the mind of a thirteen-year-old boy. Whatever made me think I could do that? But then, why not?
There’s the voice, Alex’s voice, since it’s in first person POV. He should have a wry voice. His observations and thoughts should be twisted a bit. How do I do that? I think wry must come naturally, either you have it, or you don’t. The closest I may get is wry adjacent.
“Funny” is basically an attitude. It’s a whimsical, irreverent (that word, again), tongue-in-cheek look at practically everything. Humor is also subjective, so I know I won’t get everyone to laugh or even smile. Some readers are not going to like this book. Some are going to be offended by any humor associated with bullying. So be it. But this book also has an anti-bullying message, and may give a giggle to the bullied out there, to see Alex get what he’s given.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this blog post and the challenge of telegraphing to the reader that this is a comedy. I need to hint in the first line that this will be a humorous book. Even with bullying, laughter may be the best medicine.
I think I’m going to start with a fart. Stayed tuned.

Other People’s Blogs

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So many blogs, so little time. To keep up, we’d have to spend most of every day reading. Not even Sunday off. There is so much media out there: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and those of which I am not aware. When do we ever have the time to read them all, much less write our own?

And how do we find the ones we might like?

After I post a new entry, as I will this one, I receive half a dozen or so emails from Word Press telling me how So and So loved my blog and maybe I’d like theirs.

I have found a few that I like. But mostly, not so much. Sometimes I think the posts are a kind of vanity, equivalent to posting selfies on Twitter. Empty and pointless. There are a lot of would-be writers out there and a blog is a good place to start. But remember, quality still counts for something.

It’s not only aspiring writers who create blogs. Agents and editors have blogs. And, as hopeful published authors, we should follow these, right? But which ones? In pursuing some of these, I’ve noticed they tend to be sporadic about their postings. If you “follow” them, you’ll get a notice when they post. So if you find a couple or few you connect with, you may only hear from them once a month, if that.

I follow one in particular, Nathan Bransford, and I recommend his blog. He posts regualrly. He is an agent turned author and knows all sides to the business and has valuable imformation to impart. Sometimes he will take submissions of first chapters or queries and will pick a few lucky ones to critique and edit. Also, he’s funny and fun to read. Recently he posted about the demise of the blogosphere and while I don’t know that I agree with him, it’s interesting. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/

Many of the sites I’m directed to by Word Press are “Indie” authors. In the interest of supporting fellow struggling authors, I “followed” a few. I found them mostly annoying. Not  because they’re Indie, aka self-published, but because their blogs are devoted only to selling their books. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but there’s nothing there to interest me.

For instance, one is constantly having contests in which a reader can win a signed first edition of his hightly-acclaimed novel. He doesn’t say acclaimed by whom or what. And I can’t help but wonder how many other editions there will be.

I know this sounds snarky, but because of the convenience of Kindle, I can check a book out in a matter of minutes by getting a sample. I read the first chapter of the book written by the above blogger and it was obvious he didn’t have a critique group. If he did, he needs a new one. I know what we like is subjective, but poor writing is poor writing.

Another Indie author supplements his book promotion with almost daily quotes about writing. This just takes up space in my inbox. It’s funny, though, once I’m following someone I hate to unfollow. I don’t know what that’s about but the fact that I will watch shows I don’t even like because theyr’e on my DVR might have something to do with it.

Then there’s the guy who constantly announces his book is on sale on Kindle for ninety-nine cents. I read a sample of his novel and I liked it well enough. If he’d done his due diligence on the editing, I might have bought it. When I read something I think is so close to being publishable, I can’t help but wonder what the writer was thinking. Not that I know what’s publishable, clearly. Just my opinion. But to put all that work into something and then self-publish without trying to get traditionally published puzzles me. Unless he did and gave up. His site says he has 42,500 followers. Is that even possible? I wonder how his sales are.

Again, I know I’m being snarky. I am not down on self-publishing. Anyone who can sit and put between fifty thousand and a hundred and fifty thousand words on paper has my respect and admiration. If they can put those words into an order that makes sense and transports me, even better. But just because a writer decides to forego the agony of prospecting for an agent and go the independent route doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try hard to put out the best book possible. Also, unlike this blog I just checked out and didn’t “follow,” if you’re going to have a blog to promote your book, for heaven’s sake, at least proof the writing on the site. This person had so many obvious mistakes, it was embarrassing.

I like a theme to a blog, not just promotion and filler. I like an essay, maybe. I’d like to read about an Indie author’s struggle. What else are they doing to market their book? What do they want for their next one? Will there be a next one? What is their ultimate goal?

I think it helps to have a theme. It keeps the blog centered. A couple of friends in my writers’ group have blogs devoted, not to their books, but to the subjects of their novels.

For instance, C.L. Woodhams, author of The Outreach Committe, a story about a group of women who murder each others’ abusing husbands, writes a blog about domestic violence. It’s informative. Womenbreakfreefromabuse.wordpress.com

R.W.Richard, author of Autumn Breeze, Double Happiness, and A More Perfect Union, is a man writing in the woman-dominated romance genre. His blog, Romance:the guys’ POV, gives the man’s view of writing romance, but also general writing tips and helpful advice. http://romancetheguyspov.blogspot.com

Of course, C.L. and R.W. promote their books on their blogs as well and want to sell copies. But they give us more while they’re doing it.

Fortunately, I have been directed to a few blogs I’m glad I follow. These women are on their own journeys to publication. They also write young adult or middle grade. Theya re doing what I’m doing. And misery loves company, right? They post often enought to maintain interest. One of them plumps her blog with book reviews. I’ve bought a couple because of her reviews. Sometimes the blogs will feature an interview with an author or reblog something someone has written about the business of writing. Check them out at  www.wordsreadandwritten.com    and    https://dawnewebber.wordpress.com   and   http://lorellepage.wordpress.com.

What makes these blogs stand out for me is the writing. It’s personal, it feels chatty, not like I’m being taught something or being sold something. They’ve beenproofed and spell checked. And they care as much as I do.

By the way, chances are you’ll find mistakes in these posts of mine. I hope not, but it happens. I just want you all to know, it’s not my writing, they’re typos.

 

Trust The Process

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Every writer, through trial and error, develops their own way of approaching their work. While some use the “leap and a net will appear” approach, I outline. I like to know where I’m going. An outline allows me to see the story, to work out plot or characterization problems. I want to catch them before I’m a hundred pages in. I also outline each chapter as I come to it. I do back stories for most of the characters. I create a back story for the story itself, so I know what went on before it began.

I did all that for Alex Bullied. But thirty rejections tells me that it may not be good enough. The agent who asked for the full manuscript and then rejected it did give me some suggestions. He felt the plot did not hold  his interest as he had hoped and that the secondary characters needed more strength. With the help of my critique group, I am editing. I see what I missed and am correcting it.

A woman in that critique group, Amy, recently scored an agent for her young adult novel. She has worked on her book for three years or so. She has workshopped it at conferences and writing retreats. She hired a professional editor. High five to Amy. What this tells me is that it is accomplishable. That it is not a pie in the sky dream to try for an agent. What it tells me is to keep trying.

I try to remember: there’s no glory in easy.

There are times when my brain and creativity go on hiatus. Weeks go by while I do everything except sit my tail bone down to do the rewrites that I know are going to improve my book. I do not believe in writer’s block. I know the ideas and words are there. I trust the process; knowing that I’ve never take a break that I didn’t benefit from in the end. It always results in a pay off that I would not have anticipated and could not force.

Eventually I get out of my own way. I let it come to me, I let it flow. I think that’s part of it. We get so uptight, worrying that we’ll never get it right, that we stand in our own way. Relax, enjoy the process. Trust the process, whatever yours is.

And stay tuned.

 

 

Journey Towards Publication Update

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One day back in October 2014, I sent three queries. The following morning a reply from one of the literary agents awaited me. It read:

“I enjoyed reading these opening chapters a lot. Funny and turning a bully on its head this way is great and refreshing. I’d love to keep reading — can you send me the full MS? I aim to read all full MSs within eight weeks of receiving them, if possible, but please let me know if the status of  ALEX BULLIED changes with another agent such that you should need a more immediate reply. Thanks so much!”

He wanted the full manuscript. The full manuscript! And he’d asked for it the day after I sent the query! This was a new experience for me. I enjoyed the feeling of validation and being wanted all day. I sent the manuscript, called and emailed people and celebrated with Husband.

The wait began. I continued to send out queries, even though I thought getting an agent was a done deal. Twelve queries in all. October and November came and went. The eight weeks passed. I decided after ten weeks to give the agent a little nudge.

He replied to my email with this:

“I haven’t had a chance to look yet, I’m afraid — it’s been a very busy fall, but I am still looking forward to reading. Thanks for your patience, and more soon!”

Still encouraging, could still happen.

Then came this, on February ninth:

“Thank you for the chance to read ALEX BULLIED and for your patience in awaiting my reply. I have had a chance to carefully consider it now, and though I continued to enjoy your writing, I am afraid the plot at times lost my interest — many of the secondary characters felt too flat for me, so even though the writing and voice were strong, I wasn’t as fully immersed in the story as I’d  hoped. I’m sorry to not have better news for you, but this is, of course, such a subjective business, and so hope you’ll continue querying until you find the right agent for ALEX BULLIED. With warm regards, blah blah blah.”

I knew it was a rejection when I saw the email in my box. If it were an acceptance, it would be by phone. Bad news is always in the mail. But, I learned a couple of important things from this letter; I need to take a look at those secondary characters and he thought my writing and voice were strong and I appreciated that slight ego boost.

Since June of 2014 I’ve received about twenty rejections. I have another twenty-two or so queries still out. Of those it’s probably been long enough to assume half of them are a No. So that leaves maybe ten that are still in the maybe zone.

This probably sounds depressing to you and you may be feeling sorry for me. But don’t, this is typical. I know a writer who sent over three hundred queries before giving up and self-publishing. And remember, The Help wasn’t accepted until query number sixty-one.

I recently read a young adult novel called Vivian Apple at the End of the World, by Katie Coyle, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is her debut novel and I loved it. It has a great hook — about a teenage girl after what is assumed to be The Rapture and her quest, not for faith, but the truth. The writing, I thought, was wonderful. I could hardly put it down. I took it to my middle grade/young adult critique group and it’s being passed around and read by each. I wanted them to see what we need to aspire to.

I’ve also just finished a middle grade novel called Okay For Now, by Gary Schmidt that I thought was incredible. The story follows Doug, whose family moves to a new town just before he enters eighth grade. He hates the town, has a dodgy home life and school is not his thing. What does become his thing is the Audubon’s Birds of America book on display at the local library.

He begins to draw the birds in the book and each picture has an emotional impact on him The story is set in 1968 and told by twelve-year-old Doug and his voice is unique and compelling. He leaves information hanging, but as the reader, you don’t care. He dares you to guess what he means. I was willing to not know everything at the moment. It would all be clear soon enough and the pleasure of getting there was worth it. I highly recommend this book to anyone, adults included.

In the book Doug is shown how the birds are drawn by a library employee. He is taught how to take the drawing apart, shown how Audubon created the feeling of wind under a wing or the bird’s distress. After I finished the book and wiped by eyes and blew my nose — it had me almost weeping — I realized I needed to do with my next book what Doug did with those birds. So I have begun to reread it, to analyze how Schimdt created this story, to tear it apart and put it back together. And how I can apply all that to my next book, the one that no agent will be able to reject.

Stay tuned.

 

 

A Valentine to Writing

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I love you, Writing. You are the outlet for this well of creativity in me. I have friends – cooking, entertaining, sewing, training my dog, to name a few of my posse, but it’s not the same. There’s friendship and then there’s love. And you, Writing, are the love of my life.

I waited so long to find you. I had to try others out – pantomime, acting, puppetry and directing children’s theater. They were easy to break up with and I’ve never missed them.

I should have know, as a child, that you were The One. I used to make up titles and create characters. But I couldn’t string a story together. I wasn’t ready.

So I spent time with those would-be loves and hung out with your cousin, Reading. That was the best thing I could have done. Reading encouraged me in my pursuit of you.

You are not the easiest love, Writing. We often have a love-hate relationship. You make me doubt when that first, incredible hook of a sentence fails to appear. You make me write queries and synopses. You keep me waiting for replies from agents. You force me into critique groups and writing conferences. And after all that, you break my heart over and over with rejections.

I want to be good enough for you, Writing. Don’t give up on me. I promise I will never quit on you. I’m as serious as I can be about you. I’m committed. I want only the best for you. I hope you want the same for me.

Writing, I give you my heart. Try not to stomp it into mush.

I love you.