Saturday, August 31, 2013

Creating a Buzz

I posted a new writing comic on my So You Write webcomic today! Click it to read the big version.

This was inspired by a conversation I had with a guy online some time ago (before I got signed to any agents). He believed that the best way for me to get an agent would be to create a PDF of my entire book and make it available as a download from my website. Apparently if it got very popular that would totally make an agent want to work with me.

Never mind that agents and publishers tend to be interested in work an author has released to the public through their own devices--a.k.a., self-published--VERY RARELY if it hasn't sold a very high number of copies. The figure I've heard is around 5,000 copies sold in less than six months. (Sold. Not given away for free download.) Unfortunately, some people's idea of a lot of copies is around four dozen, and some people's idea of a lot of copies is a few hundred. They don't understand that buying a book without acquiring first worldwide rights is a different thing, and publishers have to believe you're worth it if that's the situation you're in.

You hear about blog-to-book contracts sometimes, and you hear about people getting discovered after, I dunno, getting a deal for writing a bunch of fanfiction and then changing the names so it's no longer technically a knockoff of an established work. These things make the news because they are WAY rarer than most people think. They're like winning the lottery. You don't get these deals by being a fantastic writer. You can't arrange for it to happen to you, though being a good writer and a well-connected social media guru can certainly help your numbers. But they most often happen to good books because of luck. Someone reviews it and it somehow gets back to a celebrity or a person who has a lot of Twitter followers. Or the author has an inspirational situation and the support goes viral. Or the author knows a well-connected author and gets their support. There are tons of great self-published books out there that will never get this treatment. The most likely way for you to get a contract from a big company is still to find agency representation and sell your book to a publisher.

Does creating a buzz matter? Not really, for fiction. That is, not really for getting fiction published. None of the publishers who have considered my work have asked my agent whether I have a lot of Twitter followers, whether I've gotten positive reviews on my short stories, or whether I am hooked into my fanbase on Goodreads. And furthermore, my agent didn't ask those questions before she signed me. Fiction is primarily about the book--and its marketability. The publishers are marketing experts. They know they can generally do a much better job than you can, though your job as an author certainly involves promotional events and social media. They do not make a decision to offer you a book contract based on whether your work is already popular.

For nonfiction, it's completely different. I'm trying to sell a nonfiction book too, and suddenly all that social media and cultural relevance stuff is important here. So my book proposal, designed to show that there is interest, points out my film appearances, magazine interviews, published articles, public speaking experiences, and popularity in my community. (I don't honestly feel like 2,000+ subscribers/350,000+ views on YouTube is a lot--viral sensations would laugh at me--but it's also not small potatoes, so it's reasonable to mention.) I have a decent following on Tumblr (around 1,000) and not so much on Twitter because I don't tweet enough, and I very rarely actively promote anything to try to get followers or subscribers, but just creating content seems to have worked well for me. But if I say something through one of those channels, people generally listen, and the content is interesting to them. Having that is important if you're doing nonfiction, because who the author is matters more than what the author's writing. They want you to already have a platform. For fiction, you rarely hear about platform until after they've expressed interest in your book.

And that's why no, I'm not putting my book up for download on my website. :)

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Internet

I'm thirty-five years old. I had just started college at the point when the Internet pretty much began to explode.

As a person who is not quite a digital native but who naturally defaults to computer-related and Internet-oriented solutions for many problems, I think I came into it at a good time. I got my first computer in 1996 and by late 1997 I had made my first website. It didn't actually go online properly because I didn't understand what I was doing, but then I was required to take a technology-related class in music school and ended up building a site as part of the class. Initially housed on my school server, then on America Online (where I had a volunteer position in exchange for free service), and finally to my own domain, my website became the dumping ground for anything and everything I wanted to say.

I have always been a communicator and writer, so it makes sense that I'd be an early adopter for any opportunity to access resources and share opinions on writing. Before the Internet, I occasionally met other writers through pen pal situations or in school, but never once had the opportunity to exchange writing and engage in critique partnering. People in my family and occasionally friends read my work but they mostly seemed to be humoring me during my teenage years, though there were some notable instances during which I wrote a series of stories and they became really popular in my circle of friends, who would eagerly await the next chapter and pass them around to each other. Their responses weren't criticism. Just fun.

Once I had access to the Internet, I immediately began using it to seek out criticism, and I finally found what I was looking for. A novel I wrote in 1996 got a lot of valuable feedback from people I met online. Learning to take criticism was quite an experience. I was never hostile to criticism, but had a tendency to try to explain why I'd done something rather than look at what the critic was saying and figure out how I should change it so they wouldn't say that anymore. A piece of criticism doesn't mean you did something wrong, necessarily, but it does mean there is probably something you can do so someone else won't think whatever you don't want them to think. I learned how to do that and how to apply criticism, and when to reject it.

I also learned a lot about publishing in those days. I learned the proper ways to approach it and never made the mistakes a lot of people make when they think they're doing something harmless (though actually I published quite a few short stories on my website, only to find out when I began submitting to magazines that many of them wouldn't consider "reprints," some even specifying that they didn't want it even if all you'd done is post it on a blog). There are now SO many more resources online for writers than there were in those days, and so much more opportunity for connection in writing-related communities.

I feel like I got a bit of a late start. When I see young people making large strides in their careers, getting signed early in life, selling their books to large publishers, I wonder whether I would have been one of them had I been a digital native. I was always a self-starter but when I was a teen it wasn't there to find--the communities and individual connections that made my fine-tuning and publishing process possible. When I was a child I was writing weird little poems and essays and stories on my family's hand-me-down Apple II, saving files to 5½ floppies with paper labels bearing the handwritten titles "Julie's Disk 3" and whatnot. They didn't go farther than that because there was no Internet for them to go into. The best I could hope for was a nice dot-matrix printer where I could get a hard copy and hang it up on the fridge. I think I would have improved faster and sooner if I'd had what "kids today" have.

That said, had there been an Internet when I was a kid, I probably would have found a way to thoroughly embarrass myself in front of the entire world, so maybe it's just as well.

Monday, August 26, 2013

What it's like to have your work professionally edited

I asked my Tumblr followers whether they'd like to see me cover any particular subject on my blog, and one of them wrote this:

inkycompass answered: What it’s like to have your work professionally edited! 

Well, inkycompass, first of all I don't know whether I've been unclear elsewhere, but I haven't had an editor at a publishing house edit my work, if that's what you mean. That will happen when I sell one of my books, and I'll be sure to answer more comprehensively when I have something to say about my personal experience with it. But! I do still have insight. In three parts!

One: Professional-level editing advice I have received

Though I haven't gone through edits with a mainstream publisher, some of the people who have looked at and commented upon my work have been publishing industry professionals. More than one of my beta readers had edited professionally, and their edits were usually more sophisticated than the edits of my other readers. They tended to use the Microsoft Word features a lot more, with comments and cross-outs/word substitutions as well as justifications for their changes.

I've also had my work commented upon by my agents, of course, and though both of them provide editing tweaks for their clients where necessary, neither had much to say on my manuscripts/proposals. I believe my fiction agent is more of a hands-on editor than my nonfiction agent, because she comes from an editing background, but she said mine was unusually clean and she didn't have editing suggestions for me. My nonfiction agent had editorial feedback to the tune of moving sections of my proposal around, and also complimented my proposal for being well-written.

And the publishers who have come back with negative feedback so far have usually rejected for some content-related reason (lack of personal connection with the story, had a similar title already, etc.), and some even complimented the writing, so I have yet to get any specific style or technical editing comments on my writing from publishers.

Two: Professional-level editing advice I have dispensed

I won't go into a lot of detail here, but what it's like when I edit a person's writing professionally is, well, pretty comprehensive.

That is, if the author is ready for that.

Sometimes I just send back a piece with bits and pieces of pluses and minuses with a couple spelling corrections. If you get this from me, I probably think it's not ready for a scouring, because I only get really picky on things that seem like they could really be good if those things got cleaned up. When I edit someone's manuscript, I comment on the style and grammar and spelling with corrections, and I also usually provide comments, talk back to characters, ask questions, and say what I liked (so the author will know what is already working).

Three: What I know about the professional editing process: edit letter and line edits

But I do know what I'm in for when I get a contract and have to deal with the next (oh-so-fun) part. Once you have your book contract and release date and whatnot, the editor you're working with sends you an edit letter. You receive an explanation of how they would like you to use your edits (how to save the file and respond to comments/questions/edits) and probably a deadline. You get a specific stylesheet that explains how that publisher wants certain things (like, what's hyphenated, how numbers are written, capitalization conventions) and what they've changed in your manuscript. And then when you're through with this edit (or possibly a couple rounds of this), you get copyedits and line edits. You'll have to respond several times, and much of this process is really determined by how your publisher works. I once did the proofreading on a book when it was in a ridiculous unbound hard copy:

I once read a pretty interesting take on having one's first book edited by the publisher which was written by ABNA YA winner 2011, Jill Baguchinsky for her book Spookygirl. Her editing-specific posts are here:

The Road to Publication Part Four

The Road to Publication Part Five

The Road to Publication Part Six

The Road to Publication Part Seven

Jill's journey was a little different because she won a contest and her timeframe was way faster, but it's still got some interesting stuff about working with a mainstream publisher on the editing phase.

I hope that gives you a decent perspective even though it's from someone who hasn't personally been through it yet!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Getting the call: My fiction agent story

I didn't have this blog yet when I signed with my first agent, and I promised readers while telling the nonfiction agent story that I'd tell the fiction agent story when I got around to it . . . and today seems like a good day to tell it!

So here's how I came to sign with my current fiction agent and what the call was like.

The book idea

Bad Fairy began as a short story. I wrote it in response to a prompt from a friend who'd decided we should all write retold fairy tales, and what came out for me was the Sleeping Beauty story from the bad fairy's point of view. I posted the story on my website, got a lot of good reviews, and had one reader tell me he thought it would make a good novel. I decided to find out if he was right.

The short story was written in 2000 and I started writing the novel version in 2003. It was one of those projects that snowballed for me, going in all kinds of directions and ending up at a bloated 255,000 words at the end of five weeks. (I don't mess around when I'm writing.) I was very busy and had a time-consuming job, though, and a lot of editing to do, so it wasn't ready to query for a very long time. I fiddled with it, cutting, adding, editing, changing, revising, for years. And I finally decided--despite its ridiculous length--that this was going to be IT. This was going to be the book I was going to approach agents with. For the very first time. And I sent my first query on January 31, 2006.

The querying process

Querying went very well for me. I had a couple writer friends who had been down this road before, and they had warned me to get ready for rejection. But instead of the smackdown I was half expecting, four of the seven agents I queried requested material from me. I must admit I got a bit overconfident at that point. What were they even talking about? I asked myself smugly. This is easy! I fulfilled the partial requests and was rewarded with a full manuscript request from one of the agents. And I'm sure she spit coffee all over herself when she saw the word count. (I hadn't exactly advertised it in my query. I'd been hoping the agents would get hooked on the story first, which apparently worked, but yeah, that was deceptive.) To make a long story short, the full manuscript request was an easy rejection for that agent; she told me no one would take a book this large, but encouraged me to keep writing because she thought I had a "wonderful voice."

I jumped to another project after that, unwilling to admit that I would need to do some serious work on Bad Fairy before I could get taken seriously. I wrote a shorter book in the YA category, started querying it throughout 2008 and 2009, and almost never got nibbles from agents. I just couldn't seem to hit the sweet spot, and it was all the more maddening because I knew I knew how to query. Given the depressing state of affairs, I went back to the drawing board and dove into a full rewrite: I reconceived Bad Fairy as a trilogy. The first volume's first draft was 171,000 words. It was just as unlikely to hook an agent at that length as its previous 255,000-word version had been. So I trimmed and trimmed until I got to 146,000, and was overjoyed to have written a fantasy novel under 150,000 words.

Querying began again in late 2011. I got the same kinds of responses as the first round: Lots of interest, lots of full requests, etc. But then two agents reading the full manuscript came back with rejections and complaints about pacing or a saggy middle, leaving me wondering if after all that tightening I still had a flabby book.

Finding Michelle

In June of 2012, I went after a new crop of agents and ended up querying agent Marisa Corvisiero. Her profile said she accepted "well developed plots and rich characters with unique voices," as well as fantasy and science fiction, so she was my pick. And Marisa wasn't the one who answered me. My response--an enthusiastic reply just four days after my query--came from Michelle Johnson, a junior agent. I found out later that Michelle had swiped my query from her boss because she had just seen Wicked, the musical, and had fallen in love with the tale of the supposed villain portrayed sympathetically. With my story bearing such a resemblance to Wicked, she was immediately intrigued, and she asked for my full manuscript. . . .

With one huge caveat. My word count was 146,000 words. She said she'd be thrilled to look at it if I could cut it down between 85,000 and 115,000 words, because otherwise it'd just have too much against it in getting published.

A tough choice, to be sure. But after rejections calling me out for pacing problems, I knew there had to be some chaff to find. I figured this must be the kick in the butt I needed, and proceeded to take on the edit of my life. And it was quite a process, I'll tell you. I was enthusiastic about the chopping because I could see where I was going, but at the same time, it was an exhausting and painful process. It wasn't long before I'd been through the whole book once and still needed to lose words, and soon every cut I made was bleeding.

When I posted this online, its caption was
"Don't mind me, just having my soul amputated, thanks."

But I did it. I went in there with a hatchet, then with scissors, and then finally with the tweezers, and at the end of it all I had a manuscript of 115,000 words. No more, no less.

Michelle later told me she opened the document, saw that word count, and howled with laughter. I'd taken her quite literally.

The 30,000+-word slashing had taken me just two weeks. I sent it to Michelle, and she acknowledged receipt and began to read on July 2. By the end of July, she wrote me to apologize for the delay, saying she had been prevented from finishing my book due to rush read requirements for other potential clients. It had annoyed her because she was enjoying my book so much, and she was excited to be getting back into it now. Obviously, I was flattered.

Not long after, I was skulking around on Twitter and saw this tweet from Michelle:

Considering the fact that Michelle's profile picture featured her with coffee, I figured that must be a pretty damn good book she was reading. And I had a sneaking suspicion that she was talking about my book. After all, she'd just told me she was about to start reading it again.

Then it happened. On August 8, Michelle wrote me to ask when we could talk, and the next day during a morning phone call, she said, "I would love to offer you representation for Bad Fairy."

Talking with Michelle

Most authors talk about being nervous during the phone call. I can definitely say I was not at all nervous, but that's probably just my personality. I was excited to talk to Michelle, but I was unsure if I was going to be able to sign with her--I still had others considering my work--and her responses to my questions were going to be what determined that. When I first heard that literary agents were required for most mainstream publishing, years and years ago, I researched the questions I'd want to ask and added to them now and then. I had a whole bushel of questions for Michelle, and some of them were pretty important to me because Corvisiero seemed like a small agency without much publishing history and Michelle had been an agent for a comparatively short time. But as Michelle told me her background, it became clear that she had more experience than showed on the surface. She'd been in the book world for years, managing businesses, editing, consulting, and performing some agenting duties without an official title before she interned with any agencies. She was still being mentored at the time, but she was also a self-starter and had managed to get Big Five publishers to look at her clients' work within a week of signing them.

But beyond her professional qualifications, we connected personally. She began our phone call by immediately launching into the compliments, telling me how in love she was with my book, and occasionally quoting from it throughout the conversation. She praised the cleanness of my manuscript and we discussed our shared editing background. And she had easy answers ready when I asked her what the submission process would be like and who we'd be submitting to. She assured me that I'd be as involved as I wanted to be in developing the pitch package and that she would maintain up-to-date communication with me on the results.

(And yes, the tweet was about me.)

Paraphrased are some compliments and thoughts she offered me:

"I have to tell you it's probably the best book I've read in many many years."

"I can't wait to read the second one and the third one."

"You should have no fear. You will not be a new author long."

"I don't want to give you this hugely inflated ego, but you should have one, really, honestly."

"It was just an incredible work of fiction. It was just incredible what you've done with that story. Okay, I'll stop, I'll stop doing that." [I was like, no, don't. Haha.]

"I have to guard myself because the first thing I want to say about your book is that this is the next Harry Potter, and EVERY publisher and agent has heard that so much our ears bleed."

"I've never read anything that I've been so excited about. And I've been reading really exciting things all my life. But this just transported me. I don't know how else to say it."

"It's so incredibly well-written, and the character is so incredibly intense and real. I don't know anybody who will not associate that, with Delia."

"I usually have a lot of feedback as far as edits and stuff go, but yours was the most pristine manuscript I've ever read. Not just from the really-awesome-story standpoint, but it was really really clean."

"As I was reading it, I was thinking there wasn't a thing that I would cut, and usually there is. There just wasn't a thing, and I really enjoyed going to school with her. You really just nailed it."

"I love Delia. I think she's my new favorite hero."

[On the second volume:] "I can't wait to see it. I can't. Can you please just write it? Now?"

I knew she wouldn't be offering representation if she didn't think the book was great, but it's still really flattering and exciting to get that kind of praise from a publishing industry professional, and to think she must really mean those things if she wants to take a chance on me. After the nice conversation, I told her I'd consider her offer and asked if I could look at the contract. I did more research, thought about the pros and cons (feeling encouraged by this article on signing with a newer agent), did the homework you're supposed to do with other considering agents, and signed the contract on August 20, 2012.

Discussing the particulars of submission isn't really a good idea (unless you're doing it retroactively, maybe), but I will say my submission experience has been great with Michelle. She's always been very communicative and supportive, and she lets me be really involved in the process. In addition, Michelle doesn't just sit around looking at Publishers Marketplace to find people to submit to. She has pitched my book to people she's met at conferences, at events, and even through Twitter-based editor wish lists. She's got her eyes everywhere and I think she's really in that perfect spot between knowing how the industry works and knowing where it might be going. There was a bit of a delay and red tape in my submissions process when Michelle decided to leave Corvisiero Agency and start her own new agency, which is now a three-lady team.

Inklings Literary is doing well, with books selling to large and small publishers and occasional additions to the client list. Michelle represents a broad range of adult fiction genres and a couple specialized nonfiction genres, while her other agents fill in with YA and MG of many genres and a couple different nonfiction genres. I've gotten to know a few of my agency siblings and I follow their blogs and Twitter accounts. It's been a fun ride, and I'm just waiting to have my status changed on my client page from "on submission" to publishing details and a release date. And I think Michelle can make that happen. Fingers crossed!

Watch this space for good news. :)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Don'ts of writing a novel

I asked my Tumblr followers whether they'd like to see me cover any particular subject on my blog, and one of them wrote this:

embodiedspirit answered: Don’t’s of writing a novel :) Cliches to avoid, overused plots/character traits etc.

That is a really big question, embodiedspirit.

My biggest problem with it is that almost anything cliché, overused, or tired can be given new life if framed in an interesting way. So I think rather than list a bunch of don'ts that TVTropes has already done to death way better than I could (followed inevitably by massive caveats and exceptions), I will instead discuss a very general overview of what not to do.

First, a very simple formula:
  • Bad Idea + Bad Execution = Bad Book
  • Good Idea + Good Execution = Good Book
  • Bad Idea + Good Execution = Good Book (usually)
  • Good Idea + Bad Execution = Bad Book (usually)
In other words, it's all in the execution. And giving someone guidelines to good execution is NOT an easy thing at all!

Without naming names, I will give some examples of books that fall into these categories and explain why what the author did resulted in a good or a bad book. You may be able to recognize what books they are by how I describe them, but I would appreciate if you wouldn't try to call them out in the comments if that happens. 

Bad Idea + Bad Execution

I hesitate to say anything is a bad idea, actually, because most bad ideas can be executed in some way that at least provides an opportunity for redeeming factors. So for my example here, I'm going to have to go with something that is problematic at its core. I once came across a book that was set during America's pre-Civil-War slavery era . . . and its protagonist was a white man who was kidnapped and sold as a slave in a revenge plot. Measures were taken to somehow change both his appearance and his behavior so that he "passed" as a black man and a slave. This was not science fiction or presented as alternative history--it was written as if there were realistic ways a man could be disguised unwillingly as a slave and reeducated in a camp to make him speak, move, react, and respond like a slave, and it was framed as though this could have actually happened in the American South.

Completely ridiculous premise aside, it was also offensive to attempt to swipe slave narratives and graft them onto a white man, and to frame the entire debacle as an injustice mainly because it "unfairly" happened to someone who was not black. (The author's self-written descriptions insist that the book is "historically accurate," even though it includes descriptions of white people being kidnapped and having their skin dyed, with this practice presented as widespread due to lack of black people to enslave. What.)

Anyway, the execution was a little less terrible than the premise, but it was still extremely poorly written, full of offensive presentation of black people as being "built for" slavery while the poor white protagonist is not and ohhh how he suffers because of this, and in no way containing an authentic portrayal of how human beings talk, interact, think, or feel. It also had a disturbing tendency to launch into graphic descriptions of rape and violence, which aren't terrible if the book's intention is to disgust you, but I was alarmed by how common it was for everything but the violence to be glossed over and relayed dully--as if the author was enjoying writing the grisly scenes and only filled in plot and character so these things could happen to someone and she'd get to write it. (Happily, this book is self-published and no legitimate reviewers have ever praised it, so at least there's no one but the author to blame for the travesty.) Both conceptually and writing-style-wise, the execution was awful. This book was a Bad Book.

Good Idea + Good Execution

It seems a simple enough plan. There's a tradition that states the next princess has to come from a certain place, but none of the girls there know how to be a princess, so they establish a school to train the potential princesses and one of them will get to marry the prince. But of course the main character isn't necessarily sure she wants to become a princess, considering what she learns in the course of her education, and someone else is probably a better choice. It's such a catchy premise. So much potential. So much room for development.

Another book with a good idea
and good execution, IMO.
And--surprise!--the author delivers! But not only does she satisfy all the complicated requirements of a book about arranged marriages; she also gives us immensely in-depth character development. We know exactly why the protagonist feels the way she feels and why she does what she does, and there are also very organic elements woven in--we experience natural understandings of the protagonist's culture, of her family relationships, of her own psychological development, of her changing from who she was to who she's to become. The author takes a plot that affects a kingdom and makes it personal, so its bigness doesn't make its characters get lost. And on top of that there are very unique cultural and interpersonal aspects invented for the story that I've never seen before. It made for such an enjoyable, immersive read that I had no trouble "diagnosing" this as a Good Book.

Bad Idea + Good Execution

This may be controversial, but yes, I think this premise is extremely silly. Aliens come to Earth. They want to enslave the human race. And the only thing standing in the way of their complete domination of humanity is . . . a group of middle-school kids who can turn into animals. How anybody read this idea and decided it sounded like a good plan for a book is beyond me.

Turns out it's absolutely phenomenal. The way the author took these characters in this ridiculous situation and made it about children going to war--and how it took their childhood away--was mind-blowing considering the improbability and goofiness of the plot. There were all kinds of reasons why the premise is ridiculous, and sometimes the characters had to say/do things that seemed inauthentic in order to keep the plot going, but the author did almost everything right to keep the action character-driven and realistic. She acknowledged every character's strengths and weaknesses, had them grow and change based on these, and had them play off each other. She had them developing loyalties, pushing their limits, and experiencing lasting psychological change based on what happened to them. And she did something children's authors almost never do: She depicted a gray area between good and evil, which enabled some of the villains to be sympathetic and some of the heroes to do terrible things. I wince whenever I try to tell someone what this title is about, because despite how silly it sounds, this is a Good Book.

Good Idea + Bad Execution

When I encountered a book with an attractive cover and a wacky premise, I thought I'd be in for a great ride. The author, in a Lemony-Snicket-like fit of absurdity, decided that children are too young to go to Hell after they die, and created a special place where children go if they were bad. The idea was appealing because hey, that has so much potential--not to mention that it echoes a classic: Inferno by Dante Alighieri.

Unfortunately, not a single aspect of the book delivered anything I wanted to see. The main characters had no authentic emotions and came right out of prototype boxes (you know, because you can't have a nerdy, goody-two-shoes character unless he is also frequently bullied, wears glasses, has one of the first three names you'd assign to a caricature of a nerdy guy, is afraid of everything, is allergic to everything, and is very intelligent).

The supporting characters were walking, talking jokes, and the jokes weren't funny. The premise made no sense because it couldn't decide whether being bad while on Earth was something children would be punished for or respected for, and the internal consistency of the world was a mess because everything was engineered toward making a joke, not making sense. And the author apparently believed that if you throw enough poop and fart jokes into the mix, children will be entertained (even while the story also makes repeated literary and historical references that will go over their heads). I stress that I was put off by the potty humor and I am a fan of Captain Underpants.

The idea was so much more promising than the delivery; it was bewildering how un-fun it was to read, what with the narration seeming to congratulate itself on its hilariousness as the humor was delivered. You could practically hear the author slapping his own knee and saying "Get it? Get it?" In my opinion, it would have been a fun book if someone else had written it. Instead, it was a Bad Book.

SO! I think the takeaway point here is that execution is pretty much everything, though you also need to be able to sum up your book in a non-ridiculous-sounding pitch statement if you ever want to get past the querying stage. I can't give you a don'ts list other than don't write cardboard characters, don't disconnect your plot from its people, don't write a world or plot that is internally inconsistent, and don't employ poorly written narration/dialogue. And let's be honest, that list basically tells you "don't suck." Nobody means to suck.

If you want to not suck, I recommend looking at books that are executed well. Don't look at what they did; look at how they did it. When you tell your friends about your favorite books, do you tell them what happened, or do you tell them that you fell in love? Very few things, other than the obvious, are non-negotiable "don't" list items. When you realize that just about anything can be a good book if it's executed well--and that not executing it well can make even the best ideas fail--you start to focus less on the what and more on the how.

Make your readers fall in love with your characters, which will make them care what the characters do and what happens to them. Make a believable setting for your characters, and present it naturally. Make your writing accessible and clearly rendered so we forget that we're reading words and just let the story wash over us. If you can do that, it doesn't matter if your concept is overused or if your character has cliché traits or if some of your plot elements are predictable.

Make us want to read it and you'll be allowed to do anything.

Want to share books you've read that fall into these categories? What are your Good Books and your Bad Books, with combination of idea and execution? Sound off in the comments if you want!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Wow, busy social week!

Whew! I'm enjoying my Sunday at home.

This past week I think I just tried to do too much.

Sunday: Went to the mall with Victor to see Despicable Me 2. We ended up goofing around in the area, shopping for toys, taking the bus back to my neighborhood, and eating at the Philly Phlava restaurant.

Monday: Biked out to my mom's house after work to hang out with her and fix her computer.

Tuesday: The only day I didn't have a scheduled social event this week, but it was eventful anyway because of some interesting publishing news about one of my books which I won't repeat here.

Wednesday: My friend Kim came into town because she was dropping friends off at the airport, and she stopped by to say hi. She brought me some handmade headbands and a little star ornament.

Thursday: Jeaux Day. Jeaux and I get together every week but it's usually Wednesday. Since Kim was coming we moved it to Thursday. He and I met up after work for food at Jason's Deli and went to his house to watch an episode of America's Got Talent and listen to the latest installment of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. You should be listening to that if you haven't been, but try not to look directly at your speakers while it is on, as you may hallucinate.

Friday: Usually I do my webcomic, Negative One, on Fridays, but couldn't this week because I had plans with Monika, so I took care to squeeze drawing into my schedule earlier in the week and posted the new issue Friday morning. After work I met with Monika and we ate at a Thai restaurant, followed by going to Mojo's used book store and browsing. We both got a coffee drink too.

Saturday: My computer's power supply started making a weird noise, so I invited computer nerd friend Jeaux over to fix it. After a couple trips to the store, we ended up buying the right device and he installed it for me. Then that night was a birthday party for Megan, so my friend Eric came to get me and took me to the party. It was a karaoke celebration and we all had a lot of fun.

In the party event thread on Facebook, leading up to the date, someone I knew from high school was also invited and happened to be a friend of the birthday girl's, and he was commenting that he distinctly remembered me singing harmonies during some science club competition. I didn't remember the particular time--after all, I was ALWAYS singing--but I think it's pretty awesome that he found it so memorable. That was in 1995 or 1996. We friended each other on Facebook.

Also someone at the event wandered up to me and addressed me by name and said that he'd seen me in a movie. That happens every once in a while--someone has seen the documentary I'm in and recognizes me in person. Kind of neat. And I got compliments on my singing and got to meet a bunch of Megan's friends--who are mostly awesome library nerds because she works at a library. I had a nice conversation with a fellow who was interested in the fact that I'm a writer and said he hoped my book would be in their library once it's published. :)

Sunday: And today I finally got to stay home and not do much. I did more work for an editing client, did some laundry, avoided my dishes, and gave a phone interview to a reporter from South Florida Gay News. (They're doing a story on asexuality but I don't know when it will be published. I'll let you guys know.)

I really hope next week is less eventful so I can get some creative work done. Also going to be doing some editing on an older project so wish me luck!

Friday, August 16, 2013

When do you give up?

I come into contact with young aspiring writers all the time. One of the things they always want to know--often before they are even done writing their first book--is how they take the next step. "How do you get published? What do you do? Is there someplace I send it? What is this stuff about querying agents?"

And the real answer for every one of these kids, so far, has been "You're not ready to do that yet."

No, it's not based on some silly belief that young people can't be writing publishable work. I believe some of them are. But none of the teen writers who have specifically asked me that question and then shown me their work were ready for querying. They weren't ready for publishing. They needed more editing, more revising, and ultimately, more practice.

Some of these kids read and write enough to become competent, then impressive, then maybe publishable. At that point my advice changes a little, pointing them to resources for peer editing and query tips. I don't give that advice to people who aren't ready to query. Sometimes I'll tell them straight up that they aren't ready to query. Sometimes I'll give them a few pointers and knowingly let them do their thing, because at that stage sometimes they're just not going to listen--they think you're being a naysayer just because of their age, and they wholeheartedly believe they're the exception. That doesn't really work when I have no "rules" that you have to break. I have no preconceived notions about young writers. If your writing is immature and underdeveloped, I will give the kind of advice I give to anyone whose writing is immature and underdeveloped. It just so happens that most immature, underdeveloped writing comes from immature, underdeveloped people, and the good news is that they get better.

So what do you do if you meet an adult whose writing just isn't there?

That's the main purpose of this blog entry. I want to discuss my position on what the heck you say to adults who just plain won't ever get there.

Picture this. You're working with an adult writer whose writing is terrible. Or maybe it's just mediocre. In some way, it's 100% clear to you that this person doesn't have it and probably will never have it. And they want to publish. They want to know why they keep getting rejections. They want your help.

So do you tell them? Do you tell them "This just isn't your thing, man. You need to let it go"?

I say no.

I wouldn't ever tell a hopeless writer that they'll never amount to anything.

Why not? Well, for three reasons.
  1. It's pretty damn mean.
  2. They will perceive YOU as an unsupportive jackass rather than perceiving THEIR WRITING as the problem.
  3. It won't work. If they love writing, they won't quit, even if they're horrible at it.
Now I don't mind being honest. I will out-and-out tell an author who asked for it whether I think they're there yet. I'll tell them what's wrong with their word choices. I'll tell them how cardboard their characters are. I'll point out the clichés in their plots and the snags in their pacing. I'll tell them what they've done wrong and I'll show them how to be better.

But I won't tell them to quit. Even though honestly the majority of people I've given editing advice to won't ever succeed in the mainstream publishing world. (And of course I should note that it's not like I'm one of the gatekeepers in said mainstream publishing world. I'm not an acquisitions editor or a representative for a publisher. But as a person who's been editing fiction and nonfiction for over a decade, I can certainly tell you what isn't there yet, even if I might be wrong about what's good enough.)

I've seen a couple of people over on QueryTracker who have publicly displayed data showing that they've sent close to 300 queries. They're surviving on never give up. I've seen query letters written by adults that I can't believe were written by adults. They're never going to get any requests, but they think the name of the game is determination. I've seen manuscripts written by mature, driven people who usually do not have communication problems, and yet they fall apart completely when they try to write a novel--to the point where I couldn't even begin to help them fix it. And when I tell them how far they have to go, they put on their "whatever it takes!" face. Because we've all been told this is a rough business and that even the best among us have to deal with rejection. We wear the rejection slips like battle scars, imagining that one day we'll be able to show them off and laugh about how hard-won our success was, reminiscing about those days when everyone told us we'd never make it.

But some of us never will.

And unless you're an agent or a publisher, I wouldn't bother saying "no" to those folks. They will see the writing on the wall once they cross their personal threshold of how much rejection they can endure. Or maybe they don't have a threshold of that sort and they'll just keep going. You don't have to discourage them, and you shouldn't--not just to spare their feelings, but because it's not worth doing. If the publishing industry can't crush it out of them, it doesn't belong being crushed out. It's something they love and something they want, and telling them they're wasting their time would be a waste of YOUR time (not to mention a bad move if you want to continue on friendly terms with that person).

And even though it's probably unlikely if you've got an adult with no self-awareness of their work's low quality . . . you never know when they might surprise you.

"Read more, and keep writing" is the advice I give to developing writers. Writers of all ages have breakthroughs, and while it's rare for a mature writer to transform from a hopeless writer into a publishable one, it isn't impossible.

When you're chasing a dream with odds like these, "It's not impossible" sometimes starts to sound pretty good.

Monday, August 12, 2013

My Editing Policy

I first began editing books for authors over a decade ago. The acknowledgments section for the first book I edited professionally read as follows:

I've always been, uh, weird when it comes to the written word. Editing is actually hard for me because I do it naturally and tend to overdo it. For the manuscript mentioned above, the author ended up hiring me after I met him at a book signing (not even kidding: I literally only went to his table because it was Halloween time and he had candy on the desk). We somehow struck up a conversation that led to details regarding his current website designer putting typos into his site and how annoying that was. He kept in touch because he wanted me to do his website, and eventually he sent me his book so I could read the material I was helping to promote. I read it, and he asked if I'd seen any errors. I told him I'd seen a ton, and when he wanted to know what they were, I replied, "Um, you wanted me to keep track?" He then offered me $100 or $5 per error--whichever was more--if I'd read it again. I accepted. And found over 400 errors. I was afraid he'd think I was just being extra nitpicky because I wanted money, so I divided the errors into degrees of severity and only charged him for the top tier (which had just over 20, I think). He was kind of blown away.

My detail-oriented ridiculousness has continued to this day. My fiction agent said my manuscript was the cleanest she'd ever seen in a submission. My nonfiction agent said it had been a pleasure to read something so polished. It's not that I don't make mistakes once in a while. I just always seem to catch them in a first read-through.

I find it kind of funny that Dr. Lott also wrote me a recommendation letter in which he said the following:
Should I ever be so folly-stricken as to be bringing a manuscript to print, I would immediately seek Miss Decker's services.
Apparently he isn't the only one. After reading my book reviews, seeing my writing advice, or glimpsing a critique I've issued for someone else, people often flood my inbox with editing requests. It's surprising how often they believe I will be happy to edit their first draft manuscript for free. It's also surprising how often they are willing to pay me but not willing to understand when I won't take a job. So I figured I'd make a little public statement about my editing policy.

1. Time is WAY more important to me than money. If you want to hire me to edit your book, I have to feel like it's worth my while. That means that if you try to hire me but I decide you aren't ready for editing of the caliber I would dish out, I will turn down your project. (This is honestly to save my time and your money, not because I want to be nasty.)

2. I am not a developmental editor. I hate reading books that are in their early stages of development, and this is largely because I am a disgusting perfectionist and I will eat your book alive. It will be time-consuming for me and I won't like it. Therefore, if you want to hire me to edit your book, it needs to be so close to perfect in your opinion that if you were of a self-publishing mind you could self-publish it tomorrow with no qualms. I don't want to work with something unless you think I'll just be catching a few typos and making a few comments. (It's very likely I'll be catching more than a few writing mistakes and crapping on your story rather mercilessly even then, but I want to know you've done EVERYTHING that is in your power to do.)

3. Unless there are exceptional circumstances (most of them related to you being one of my friends), I absolutely do not read books that aren't finished. That should go hand in hand with the above, since you're unlikely to have a polished draft if you're not even done writing yet, but honestly if you're trying to feel out whether the book is "working" yet, you need to find a beta reader, not a professional editor. Don't get me wrong; I can beta read the hell out of a book. I just prefer not to. Especially if I've never spoken to you before.

4. The nitty-gritty: I usually work for $30 an hour. I'm freelance, so if it bothers you that I'm that expensive but come with no guarantee of quality through an editing company, you can negotiate a flat fee with me to read your first ten pages, on which I will offer comments that you can use to determine whether I'm worth paying for more. I might also decline your project at that time if I think you're not ready. I prefer to work with writing that is going to be sent for evaluation (to agents or publishing markets) or for publication (if someone is self-publishing or already has a publishing contract). That's the level of quality I dish out, so if your writing isn't publishing-worthy, I will tell you.

5. My critique partners get an exception on all of the above. People who have read for me will usually get some degree of reciprocity, though sometimes I'm still mean to them and tell them to clean up their act before they show me anything else. I still ask them to show me polished products, though I have actually read first drafts for a few of my friends who didn't have anyone else to ask. If you have edited for me, or want to, I may offer editing to you as a thank you.

6. I am ruthless when it comes to typos, misused homophones, and punctuation. I am a little more lenient when it comes to word use and sentence structure, but I'm still pretty evil while allowing some interpretation for personal preference. I am not interested in overcorrections like "don't start your sentences with coordinating conjunctions" or "don't split infinitives" or "no sentence fragments"; I think natural style is part of language's evolution and unnecessary pedantry impedes comprehension instead of streamlining it. And if your story is ready for this kind of analysis, I may point out plot elements to tell you what they made me think or if I saw what your foreshadowing was doing; I may explain what I think are good and bad choices in your narration and character development; I may comment on or critique trope use or clichés; I may complain about your pacing; and I may talk back to your characters. My comments can be pretty in-depth and comprehensive, and you're doing well if the majority of my comments are just me sharing my thoughts rather than telling you what you should not do.

That's it for now. Back to the book I'm editing (for the same client highlighted above, for whom I've been chewing up words and spitting them out since 2000).

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Importance of Names

In December, I'm going to be an aunt.


And because I'm the family names nerd, I am going to be using my talents to help my sister come up with names that fit the difficult requirements. Because my sister's last name is Japanese, they want the first name to be American-sounding, but still be a name that can be easily written and spoken in Japanese without too much trouble. (It would be kinda awkward if half the family had trouble with the baby's name.) My sister knows I'm a names nerd because I have been studying naming trends since I was a kid. I own several baby name books and enjoy reading them for fun as well as for research.

My interest in names showed up in my writings; even when I was writing terrible fiction as a fourteen-year-old, I was putting a lot of thought into the names and coming up with realistic solutions. I wasn't just giving characters names I particularly liked (though sometimes I did really like a name I chose). I was giving characters names that made sense in their situations. I should make it clear, though, that I do NOT mean I gave them names that fit their personalities or their function in the story. Even as a kid I knew that was just silly. Names should be character-appropriate only if there's some reason their parents knew or would affect who that child would become, because names reflect the opinions and inclinations of the parents (or whoever bestows the name), not the child.

My first novel, Double Vision, was about twins. The protagonist's name was Cristabel. I didn't actually even like that name very much (I tended to not like names that included the "Chris/Cris/Kris" syllable), but I wanted her to have a name that's kind of a pain in the butt to say, and yet she insists on making everyone use her entire name instead of a nickname. Her twin brother is Benjamen, and I just figured a family that picks a three-syllable name for one kid would probably pick a three-syllable name for the other. (I don't know why I picked an alternate spelling for his name.) He goes by Ben, though, and thought it was ridiculous and impractical for his sister to insist on being called Cristabel. He called her Crissi all the time and pissed her off. It was a running gag for them to fight about it.

Because the plot revolved around a bunch of characters whose parents took experimental drugs and all had twins because of it, I got to flex my name-trend muscles and come up with names that made sense for all these sets of twins. Parents are much more likely to choose names that share a first initial, a rhyming sound, or a theme if the siblings are multiples, though of course some parents will give their children unrelated names regardless. So I had some twins with rhyming names (Cara and Sara, Dustin and Justin) some twins with same-initial names (Nadia and Natalie, Laurel and Lilly, Carmen and Candace), some twins with same-theme names (Misti and Celeste, Laurel and Lilly), and some twins with unrelated names (Craig and Mike, Zachary and Brian, and of course the protagonists). This was probably the most realistic aspect of the story because obviously other than that it was terrible.

I went on a naming rampage for my next book. The protagonist was Skyler--a name I'd heard and liked shortly before starting the book--and I gave her a ton of older siblings mostly just because I liked naming people (Joyce, Zoe, Dominic, and Alex). And then she had a female friend named Austin, who in turn had a female friend named Charlie (not sure why), and then Skyler started dating a boy named Jason and suddenly all his friends were in the picture. They not only had names (of course) but also had nicknames--every one of them had a ridiculous nickname of some kind and I had such a fun time making little charts noting who was who. I remember having a minor character named Shasta. (I had a friend with that name when I was a very young child, before I started elementary school.) My sister read part of the book and told me I shouldn't name minor characters things like "Shasta" because that's such a memorable name and she was a throwaway character, and giving her a name like that could make readers think she was important. I disagreed, of course, because when people name their kids things they don't consider whose story they might be a minor character in, but given that feedback I did end up changing the character's name to Sharon. Who knows why.

I think it was about that time that all the girls were playing that MASH game to pick who they would marry, and I developed a complicated version of it to figure out how many kids we'd have and delighted myself for hours coming up with names for them. (I would seriously fill in the blanks to assign my adult self umpteen children just so I could name them and draw pictures of them and give them all their very own pet cat.) In biology class, we studied genetics and learned a silly game for flipping coins to come up with our future children's genotype and phenotype for various traits, and my sisters and I played the game over and over, enabling me to draw the result--and, of course, name it.

The House That Ivy Built--the series I wrote in my college days--was similar as far as names went. Huge cast because I liked making people up and naming them. Some had very odd names (though that makes some sense because not all of them are from our dimension). I gave my protagonist a ton of roommates and got busy naming them all--Adele, Alix, Bailey, Bradleigh, Cecily, Dax, Ivy, Jared, Keenan, Miki, Neptune, Nina, Perry, Peyton, Robin, Tab, Thursday, Weaver, Zeke, Zoe. (I must've liked the name Zoe a lot to use it for two different books.) Just about everyone's name had some kind of history behind it. Some of them had been named after someone else. For some of them, I looked up the history of the name and determined whether it matched their ethnicity (and had a reason for it if it did not). I completely made up some of the names (hey, I think the name "Bradleigh" is cute for a girl!), and I stole some of them from media I liked (a character on Avonlea was named Cecily and I liked the sound of it). And I kept introducing new characters and putting a lot of thought into what to name them.

And then, in recent years, even though I still really enjoyed paying attention to naming trends, I more or less stopped being strategic about the name choices for my protagonists. Most of them just came from nowhere. For Bad Fairy, it was based on a short story I didn't put much thought into, and I kept the same names. When deciding on a name for my bad fairy, the name that came out was Delia. Because I'd recently watched Beetlejuice and the flaky mother character had that name, and I'd had yet to hear it elsewhere. The names for the other fairies were pretty random too. I either made them up or just gave them old-timey-sounding names. (I figured fairy culture as far as names went would stray toward picking "nature" names more often than humans would, but since they share a language and a LOT of their culture with humans, I thought they'd have a lot of the same names.)

For Joint Custody, I wanted to give the protagonist a very weird but established foreign name to reflect the protagonist's Irish heritage, so he is named Bainbridge and goes by Bay. Having a weird nickname is one of the silly things he bonds with a neighborhood girl over, because her name is Marcella and she goes by Marz. (All the characters in Marz's family have odd names. Her older sister is named Vanilla and her younger sister is named Tallulah.)

For Finding Mulligan I didn't have a reason for naming the protagonist Cassandra, and I don't even like her nickname (Cassie). There were a lot of made-up names in that book too (especially in the fantasy world part of the story). I just pulled sounds out of the air and ended up naming people things like Laro, Milani, Sondi, and Nickel. Plenty of ordinary names too, like Margo, Lisa, Becky, and Barbara.

And for Stupid Questions, names just literally showed up on the page as I typed without me making any decisions on purpose. Summer seemed like a nice name for the protagonist's love interest. His name ended up being Nick. (I never say it's short for anything. Maybe it isn't.) His best friend is Bart. Nothing out of the ordinary. (You later find out that Summer's mom's name was Autumn. She was apparently into theme naming.)

Fairly ordinary names I've used in short stories include Megan, Shannon, Chris, Jamie, Emily, Kelly, Brittany, Mark, Tyler, Susan, Dawn, Iris, Grace, Laurel, Catherine, Cameron, Tamara, Stephen, George, David, Elizabeth, Claudia, Nancy, Ed, Bill, Darrell, T.J., Lillian, Valerie, Courtney, Anna, Casey, Avery, and Thomas. Unusual or made-up names from short stories include Brady, Kamber, JeLin, Seaira, Balthazar, Derika, Hendrix, Joplin, Lihill, Alet, Cyani, Mymei, Teinan, Cat, Bonne, and Windy.

Once I name people, though, I generally don't change the names. I had to do that once in The House That Ivy Built with a character named Adam, because of an association for his original name that I was kind of embarrassed about. And I never got used to it. It's about as permanent as naming a child, so I have to explore the options with proper respect. The characters will have to live with my decision, and so will I.

Anyone who has thoughts on what they do to name their characters is welcome to comment. :)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

New video: On Being on Submission

Here’s me discussing the process of going on submission to publishers through my literary agent and sharing some perspectives on what it’s been like. Subscribe to my YouTube channel!