I, Too, Want to See You be Brave

Sara Bareilles’ radio hit, Brave, is more than just a fun song (and a great video) – it’s a helpful piece of advice.

Remember all of you (not just writers) that you have to be your own biggest fan and supporter throughout all of your work and life. You have to believe in yourself first or no one ever will.

How was I brave lately?

I went to a writers’ conference all alone, introduced myself to writers and industry pros, put my writing in front of three industry reps, and pitched my book to an agent. That’s a lot for one weekend, I think! I’m naturally a bit introverted, so it took a lot to really put myself out there.

There was a real possibility of failure! People could have hated my writing. Hated me. Hated my pitch. I could have made a mess of my name and ruined my chances at getting published forever.

Instead, I got great reactions to my personality, my writing, and my book pitch. I’m doing something right, it would seem! I met the lovely and thoughtful Patricia Nelson of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, who gave me great advice. I also met the incomparable Kristen Lamb, who told me she loved my writing and my pitch and has offered to help me find an agent.

I lucked out so hard! But then, luck is a bad word. I worked so hard. I worked for this and I put time and love and heartbreak into a manuscript and, after lots of work, finally started to see some payoff for it!

So tell me, readers: How have you been brave lately?

Chuck Wendig’s Random Cocktail Flash Fiction Challenge: Cherry Blossum

Author Chuck Wendig of TerribleMinds put out a Flash Fiction Challenge for this week. Go to this random cocktail generator, take the title of the drink, and make it the title of your very short story. Go!

I got the Cherry Blossum, a brandy-based drink, and ended up with this short piece of 544 words. Here it is in its entirety:

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Cherry Blossum

Jakob turned the delicate white hand over, his own grease-stained fingers leaving smudges on the porcelain finish. The fingernails looked all but real in the flickering factory floor lighting over his work station. On the fine wrist was the small black and pink stamp, branding this as a Sakura model S14 – an older geishabot. Must be obsolete by now.

 

He bagged and stamped the hand and sent it down the line.

 

The right knee joint, flawless, came next. Then the other hand, containing a small crack across the back side. He marked the damage on a yellow tag and sent the hand on. Perhaps that bit could be recycled.

 

Something lingered in the air. A spiced yet floral smell hung over Jakob’s table. It must have been the geishabot. He sniffed his own hands: sweet, cinnamon-like, powdery, and something green like springtime. Then the smell of burnt plastic from down the line took over and he crinkled his nose. The bot’s wrists must have been laced with the scent. Built in, most likely.

 

There was the back side of the faceplate then, a kind of smooth mask from this side. He hated handling the faces most of all. For a moment, Jakob pictured himself holding it up to his own face, this perfect doll’s mask that was like a miniature of his own features (though these bots’ faces were delicate, gently rounded, and fine where his own face was made up of a series of roughly hewn rectangles). With a small shudder he turned the faceplate over.

 

At first, it appeared flawless to Jakob. An eyeless but beautiful face with a small, narrow nose and delicate flower petal lips. It was lovely. It was perfection. Then he saw it: the tiniest warped spot just below the right eye. It was a small air bubble trapped beneath the uppermost layer of plastic finish. It looked like a small tear, frozen in time. Jakob breathed out through his mouth and bagged it up with a yellow tag.

 

When the end-of-shift bell rang, Jakob stood and wiped his hands on his apron. Hanging his things over the back of his chair, he reached over to turn out his light, forgetting that the bulb had been dead for days. The foreman said he would have to wait for a new one – they didn’t have any just now.

 

Jakob hummed a tuneless song as he walked through the misty almost-rain of the late evening. Neon signs flared and glowed in the particulate water drops that hovered in the air. The air around him declared halos of Girls! and Beer! and XXX. He turned left down a narrow alley and entered an unmarked green metal door. Sitting down at the glowing white and silver bar.

 

“You want company again tonight, mister? We got some brand new bots in from Suzaku. Real pretty girls.” The barmaid gave him a languid smile and stretched her dark, slender arm across the bar top toward Jakob.

 

“No thanks, Brandy. Not tonight. Just a drink,” he sighed and pulled his own hand back to his lap.

 

“Suit yourself.” She shrugged and went back to polishing a glass. “What’ll it be?”

 

“The usual.”

 

The spiced lily perfume that hung in the air made his nose twitch.

Plotting Along: Outlining a New Project

I didn’t use to outline my novels. In fact, I was grumpy and opposed to the whole idea until I was required to create one for part of a writing group project. I dragged my feet. I whined. I’m amazed I didn’t blog about it before, whining.

I thought that it would somehow squash or restrict my creative process. That it would ruin the way that I wrote. That it would take something away from me.

I’ve changed my mind, though. After being “made” to create an outline for my urban fantasy manuscript, I was forced to ask myself plot and character questions and then address them before I had more than a few chapters written. It was like getting advanced notice on what to watch out for in the near future, giving me time to prepare for it.

So now I’m working on the outline and characters for the second book in the same series (while the first manuscript is in beta reading this month). There are some important questions that everyone needs to ask themselves while in the outlining/plot planning phase:

  1. Are character motivations consistent?
  2. Is the conflict set up early and clearly? Is it resolved?
  3. Does the setting contribute appropriately to the overall mood or tone of the scene/novel?
  4. Does the narrative voice reflect character, genre and tone effectively?
  5. Is there a theme (or themes) you can identify in the story?
  6. Is this an original idea/characters? Is it too much of a familiar trope?

The Trouble with Editing

editing

I’m almost finished with a quick, by-the-seat-of-my-pants edit of my 1st draft manuscript. It goes into beta with about 7 people in just 3 days!! I’m thrilled but also feeling vaguely menaced at the same time. That’s not a lot of time to edit. Welllllll…

To be honest, I had this whole month to edit the 65,000 word piece (which is really very good odds, overall – less than 2,100 words a day to review!) but spent the first week of February celebrating the completion of my manuscript and the next week and a half sewing like a panicked woman for a hard deadline. That left just 13 days to edit the whole piece (more like 5,000 words to deal with per day). Only, wait! I also do freelance web copy writing and suddenly I had TONS of work. So now I was spending 7 hours a day doing freelance work and almost no time at all working on the novel.

Editing, one friend has said, is like being trapped in a gilded cage of my own devising.

I can’t wait to get out.

The Trouble with “Strong Female Characters”

We_Can_Do_It

I was inspired to talk about this topic thanks to a freelance job I have writing about gaming culture AND this great blog post from Chuck Wendig. Wendig addresses something very important to me in his post: the idea of agency. 

What is Agency and Why Does it Matter?

Agency and ego are tied together in a character, creating a fictional person who thinks, reacts, and – most importantly – acts to move the story forward. The character has motivation. She does more than reacts – she acts and, because of her actions, the story moves forward. In fact, without her actions, the plot would not and could not exist.

A “strong female character” who kicks ass but has no depth or human desires is no better than a damsel who exists solely to be rescued. It isn’t ass-kicking that defines a believable, human, interesting female character; it’s a metric we should rid ourselves of because, in the end, shooting and kicking and magicking aren’t what makes a character interesting. Ass-kicking does not inherently equal agency.

Identifying Agency and Evaluating Character

There are several simple “tests” suggested to identify if female characters are even remotely three-dimensional. The first and probably most well-known is The Bedchel Test which asks if two named female characters in a book (movie, comic, etc) talk about something other than a man. It’s a simple enough test, but a startling number of stories “fail” it.

Comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick offers the “Sexy Lamp Test” that goes like this: “if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft. ”

We are, I think, all of us looking for characters who are interesting, who think, who act, and who have drives and desires.

The Strong Female Character

So often, female protagonists are described as “strong” almost as a justification – a defense of the strange decision to choose to tell a story about a woman. Are we ashamed, in some quiet way, as a culture, to be telling women’s stories? Is it so bad and scary that we must defend our female characters with the traditionally male definition of “strong?” Next time you see one of these so-called “Strong Female Characters” remember to dig deeper and see what she’s really made of.

Destroying Genre Fiction, One Under-Represented Group at a Time

Last June (2014), something strange and amazing happened: women destroyed science fiction. It was far from a tragedy. Rather, prominent online literary magazine Lightspeed published a special issue featuring science fiction and speculative fiction by all female authors and guest edited by Christie Yant.
And somehow – somehow – the world continued to turn.
In fact, literature at large may have come out the other side of this terrible rebellion a little better off.
Why? Because in literature, as with all things in life, inclusivity makes a huge difference. Sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, region of residence: all of these voices are different and all of them matter. We live not in an increasingly-diverse world but, rather, in a world that is finally, increasingly, acknowledging its diversity.
This year, Lightspeed has returned to promote another underrepresented group of writers with their new Kickstarter (which has taken off like a rocket): Queers Destroy Science Fiction. This one will be guest edited by the incredible Seanan McGuire (who wrote WDSF’s anchor piece, Each to Each).
I know that I, for my part, can’t wait to submit something(s) to this year’s amazing guest edition and I hope that, my dear readers, should any of you qualify, that you submit something as well.

Query Letters 101: Your Query Letter

You may think you have an entire synopsis to impress an agent but really, you have one sentence. A great query letter is about so much more than a convincing synopsis of your manuscript. It’s about relating, conversing, understanding, and grabbing an agent’s attention.

  • No less than 250 words, no more than 700. Aim for about 400.
  • Don’t try to be cute and use weird paper or fonts. Stick with Arial, Cambria, or Times in 10 or 12 point font.
  • Use paragraphs! Don’t stick everything in one huge chunk of text. You’ll scare agents.
  • Personalize your letter! This sets good letters apart from great letters. While each one of your query letters is going to be 97% the exact same as the last, 3% of that should be personalized for each new agent you send it to. Show agents that you’ve put in the time and effort to get to know their tastes before querying them.
    • Always address each letter to the agent by name
    • Use one or two sentences to tell them why they are the right match for you.
      • “I noticed that you represent Gregg Olsen’s YA series ENVY. Because of this, I really think you’ll also enjoy my dark, psychological, YA thriller.”
      • “I had to query a fellow journalism woman!”
      • “I love that your nieces and nephews play such a huge role in your literary career. I hope one day, they’ll get a chance to read my novel.”
      • “I read your blog post titled ‘Be the Evel Knievel of Writing’ and it inspired me to finish my manuscript with a non-linear story structure.”
      • “I read your interview on Day-By-Day Writer and felt compelled to send you my query for _____.”
  • Use your letter to embody everything about your writing. Keep your voice and tone consistent but remain professional.
    Focus on the project you are currently pitching, even if you have been previously published. There is a place to talk about previous publications! Don’t worry. PITCH ONLY ONE MANUSCRIPT PER LETTER.
  • Be specific about plot details but don’t give everything away. You want to leave the agent wanting more so he will request your full manuscript!
  • Optional: Include the first five pages of your manuscript copied and pasted into the e-mail after the closing signoff. NO ATTACHMENTS. Some agents say not to include these pages, some do not specify. But there is always the chance that she will find herself just reading the pages anyway.
  • No e-mail blasts. It is unprofessional, lazy, and not personalized.
  • If another agent or publisher has referred you to an agent, mention it in your letter.
  • Query Letter Must Haves:
    • Personalized salutation, Personalized tidbit about agent, Title, Genre, Word count, Protagonist name, Description of protagonist, Setting, Inciting incident, Villain, Protagonist’s quest/purpose, Protagonist’s goal, Your Bio, Author’s credits (optional), Your name, Where you can be found online
  • Know your genre, type of project, and age group.

Much of this information came from an excellent class I took on LitReactor.com taught by the brilliant and lovely Bree Ogden. If you want more, sign up for some classes there!! There’s another Art of the Query Letter class coming up in February.

Check out the previous parts of the Query Letters 101 series:

Research and Glossary

Letters and Agents

Query Letters 101: Research and Glossary

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Research is Your Best Weapon

Care about your writing and your project enough to learn as much about the industry as possible. Being prepared, researching agents, and knowing the jargon is going to give you a huge leg up.

  • “Big Six” (Now the “Big 5” as Random House and Penguin have merged) – The six largest publishers: Random House, Penguin Group, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan
  • Commission – The amount an agent receives for their services. Agents typically receive a commission of 15% for all domestic sales and 20% for foreign sales. Agents only receive commission on works they sell, and thus aren’t paid unless the author is paid.
  • Exclusivity – When an unpublished author gives an agent an “exclusive” look at their manuscript, usually for a period of time. This means the author cannot then send their manuscript to another agent during that time period.
  • Genre fiction – A blanket term that refers to books with certain familiar settings and plot conventions. Genres include romance, science fiction, mystery and suspense, westerns, etc.
  • Partial – A partial manuscript. When an agent likes a query they may ask to see a certain number of pages or chapters. If they don’t specify, just send 50 pages.
  • Royalties – The amount an author receives on every net copy sold of their book (see “net sales”).
  • **TWO TERMS THAT YOU WANT TO USE VERY CAREFULLY: Author and Book. You are not an author until you are published. Until that point in your career, you are a writer. You have not written a book or a novel until you are published. Until that point in your career, you have written a manuscript.
  • Key agencies: know the reputable agencies. Check websites such as querytracker, absolutewrite, literaryrambles, and agentquery to read up on the good and the bad agencies.
  • Contracts and Rights: You can’t know all of the different types of contracts because every agency and publisher will be a little different. But know the overall norms of contracts and rights. Such as: how much percentage is normal for agents to take on your advance, what a typical advance from a publisher is, what the royalties on a paperback, hardcover, or e-book are…etc. This will help you to avoid pitfalls. It will help you avoid agencies or publisher out to take advantage of you. You can find a lot of advice on publishing contracts on the web.
  • Comparative Book Titles: It’s good to know other published books that are similar to yours. This will help you accurately categorize your manuscript. Also, by knowing the popularity and success of these comp titles, you can adjust your publishing expectations.
  • This is a fantastic glossary of publishing terms. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/08/book-publishing-glossary.html

From Query Letter to Sale (In an Ideal World)

Your manuscript MUST be completed (unless you are writing nonfiction) and have gone through as much editing as is possible. You may have sent it through one or more beta readings. You may have even paid a substantive or line editor to go over your manuscript.

You will send out approximately 80 bazillion query letters to appropriate agents. Steel yourself.

An agent(s) will express interest and request a full or partial manuscript. She will love your book and offer to sign you. It’s possible that multiple agents will request your manuscript at roughly the same time; a good agent will give you appropriate time to consider which agent/agency to accept an offer from.

A good agent will keep frequent contact with you, probably via a phone or Skype call. This is a serious relationship so be sure it is the right one. Be sure they are going to fulfill all of your professional needs.

An agent will give you ample time to look over a contract and should be able to answer any questions you have about it.

Check out the other parts of the Query Letters 101 Series:

Letters and Agents

Your Query Letter