Tag Archives: #querying

Has Writing ruined reading for other authors?

Think back to when you were a child.  An innocence, where magic investagationand fantasy filled your world.  The tooth fairy somehow always knew when you lost a tooth, and you stared in amazement (though not disbelief) how such a tiny car could fit twenty clowns in it at the circus.

Then you grow up, and you discover why.  You were taken backstage and saw how the magic was done.  And like that *snaps fingers* the magic is gone.  You can’t ignore it.  The next time you went to the circus you looked for the trap door.  Even if the magician guesses your card correctly, you wonder how he did it.  ‘What’s the trick’, you ask yourself.  Not, ‘Wow, that’s incredible’.  You want to know the trick…  Because there is no such thing as magic.

You discovered the Great and Powerful OZ was just a charlatan behind a curtain using smoke and mirrors to play God.

Okay, I’m getting a little melodramatic, I realize that.  But it makes my point.  Critiquing is habit forming.

Since I’ve joined this underground society of writers I have done a lot of critiquing.  There are days I prefer it to writing.  But it is not without its drawbacks.

Even though my daughter is in high school, I recently started to read to her again before going to bed.  Sure the titles and topics of what we now read have drastically changed.  Little fuzzy woodland critters dancing gleefully in meadows have been traded for teenagers stranded in a town entranced by some dystopian virus outbreak, but still quality time is quality time…right?

I like to think my daughter enjoyed the times I’ve read to her when she was a little girl, but I’m not so sure this is the case now.

“I looked down the street.  All the houses had the same exterior brickwork, same mailbox, same landscaping…”  I pause after reading that last sentence.

“What?  Why did you stop?” my daughter asks.

“Exterior brickwork?  The author would have been better off saying ‘façade’.  It flows better.  ‘Exterior brickwork’ drew me out of the story a bit.  Don’t you agree?”

A sigh and eye roll later she replies, “Not as much as you analyzing every sentence.”

Critiquing is a wonderful tool.  I believe it helps me improve my writing as I become aware of other people’s issues in theirs.  But I recently noticed that I can no longer just read a book for the sake of reading.  I critique as I go.

I’m not saying I’m a master wordsmith, merely that critiquing helps sharpen your skills since you train yourself to look for pitfalls even experienced writers can fall victims to.  Like ending sentences with prepositions.

But like the grown up now looking for the trap door the tiny car parks on top of, there is a part of me that misses the freedom of reading without looking at word choices and inconsistencies.  Wires, pullies, smoke machines, and mirrors have replaced magic.

I still can enjoy reading, but it has become easier to get pulled out of it now that I read it from a more technical viewpoint.  I would never have noticed that a word appeared three times within a four paragraph stretch.  Head jumping never bothered me, and I would gloss over any semi-colons barely aware they were there.

Maybe it isn’t such as bad thing.  After all, those semi-colons have no place in modern society…

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Honest Rejection

resume I recently saw an advertisement for a college.  It showed a man in a cap and gown smiling.  Obviously, he graduated and is ready to strike out and find his place in the world.  To find his fortune.  To blaze new trails…etc…

The caption read “In searching for the perfect résumé, you overlooked the perfect candidate”, though I may be paraphrasing.  But, I found it rather profound.

I remember years ago, I was working at a small startup software company.  I had zero managerial training, and was right out of college myself.  I was working in the shipping and receiving department…actually, I was the shipping and receiving department.

One day one of the owners came to me with a stack of papers asking if I was busy.   Sadly, being a startup company we were doing mostly receiving with very little shipping, so I had to honestly tell them ‘no’.

The owner handed me the stake of papers, which were résumés, and told me to sort through them.  I was to make one pile.  Résumés that contained certain buzz words, and the rest toss in the circular file.

Wow.  Just wow.  I couldn’t believe what job hunting came down to.  If you had three words on your résumé, you pass.  I think the ad nailed it.  It doesn’t matter what’s inside, it’s all about the packaging.

Finding an agent or publisher isn’t much different.  I saw a recent video where an agent spent about ten minutes going through his slush pile telling viewers why he was rejecting their query.  He mentioned several times he wasn’t sure if this would be well received, but hoped that it would be taken for what its intention was – an insight on how capricious the process can be.  He admittedly says he can’t give ‘the attention and consideration that probably every submission deserves’ because of the sheer amount he receives.  To be honest, I found it enlightening and sincere though I could see how another wanna be author could take offense to it.  The agent went through a small sample rejecting them solely based on certain details of their letters (not sample writing).

Two were rejected based on the titles, one was due to him being underwhelmed by the plot, and another because the writer plugged themselves in a bad way.  In one case the writer misspelled the agent’s last name, but he said that’s fine, although on a bad day, it could lead to rejection without a further glance.

He said these were not arbitrary decisions, but rather a system he put in place in order to get through the massive amounts of queries he receives on a daily basis.

I believe we have to acknowledge that fact.  Decades ago people would type out a query or résumé, stuff it in an envelope and drop it in the mailbox.  Somewhere between two weeks to a couple of months later you’d receive an answer with an explanation of the decision.  But those days are as ancient as leaving the restaurant’s phone number with the babysitter and walking to school in a blizzard, uphill, both ways.

Today applying for a job or querying can be done en mass with mail merge and online forms.  Decades ago agents may have only received maybe hundreds of queries a week rather than a day.  Job positions solicited a handful of candidates rather than hundreds.  Sure maybe there are more agents and jobs available, but that simply means more to apply to for those of us looking for that elusive ‘yes’.

So I do understand why that agent posted that video, and I do sincerely appreciate it.  He even admitted that he knows his system isn’t foolproof and he undoubtedly let some good stories slip through his fingers.  But that’s just something he has to live with, right?   Unfortunately, that’s something the writer of that would have been successful manuscript will have to live with as well.

Hey, I understand the reason for the process, but I don’t have to like it.

The Non-Science of Popularity

Roulette_wheelWhat if Star Wars never made it big? Is there a universe where Fifty Shades of Grey is just sitting on the Romance/Erotica shelves of bookstores collecting dust?   Can you picture a world where talking about a boy named Harry Potter is received with blank stares and requests for clarification about who he is?  What determines success and failure?

Marketing is a big, but not the only influence.   For example, I’m a big fan of Michael J. Fox.  I think he is an incredible actor and based on what the media reports is a great person (I never met him personally).  His most recent sitcom, The Michael J Fox Show (2013-2014), was plugged for months in advance with tons of fanfare.  By the time the first show aired many followers of the 80’s actor were excited to herald in his return.  Yet, it only lasted four months before NBC pulled it due to low ratings.

The (now) highly publicized book, Fifty Shades of Grey, is an uncontroversial best-seller both in print and film.  Yet, many people have criticized James’ writing, even her fans.  The marketing for the book when it first came out wasn’t nearly as prominent as Fox’s television series.

So why is one continuing to generate millions of followers and dollars while the other one never even got to finish airing all twenty-two completed episodes?  There’s more to popularity than marketing.

Perhaps luck isn’t the accurate term, but there is a component of randomness.  Perhaps the Chaos Theory as explained by mathematician, Ian Malcolm, from Jurassic Park, can be used to explain the behavior of the publishing industry.  The industry is made up of people, and they are, by nature unpredictable.   A query sent to an agent on Tuesday may be rejected, but if it was sent on Thursday instead, the agent may have accepted it just based on the kind of day they were having, or maybe earlier that day they had a conversation that helped them relate to the query.  Timing is as important to getting representation as location is to the real estate industry.  But even getting published doesn’t mean success.  Success, if you determine it by sales and popularity is a numbers game.

Fox’s show didn’t spark interest, despite fans wanting it to.  But E.L. James’ no holds barred…uh, you know what I mean…yet grammatically questionable, erotic story was a guilty pleasure that came out at the right time.  Despite the romance and erotica sections on Amazon and in bookstores being full, she struck a chord with readers who were willing to look past whatever mistakes may have been made in her writing.

(Disclaimer: I have not read the book outside of one single line – which was for a challenge made by someone who did read it and wanted to see if I can randomly open the book to a page that did NOT contain any sexual references…I was unsuccessful.  I am only relating reviews I have read or heard, I did not read enough to evaluate Ms. James’ abilities.)

Regardless of quality, content seems to trump all.  If the people want it, someone will provide.  If people don’t want it, it will disappear.  It’s a classic Supply and Demand concept.

There’s a reason why after Twilight came out the YA section in every bookstore became flooded with vampire books.  This was quickly followed by movies, tv series, ‘Team Edward’ vs ‘Team Jacob’ wristbands, spin-offs, spoofs and fan-fiction.  Almost overnight the world embraced vampires and werewolves.  Everything was into bloody fangs and fur.

Shortly after our love affair for the handsome undead and lycanthropes, the world moved on to the ugly undead.   Zombie hordes took over the theaters everywhere, it really did seem like a zombie apocalypse hit Hollywood.

So what have we learned?  If you can predict what people will fall for twelve months from now, you can make it big in the publishing world.  That really seems to be the main factor.  It’s not luck, but it is about capturing the interests of the masses, and that’s far from an exact science.

Is it too late to write about a young attractive vampire who falls for a zombie with an S&M fetish?

The floggings will continue until morale improves.

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Sometimes motivation just escapes me.  Even when I have an idea that I believe has potential and just needs to be flushed out a little, finding the energy to bring it home just doesn’t happen.

It doesn’t help I have three full manuscripts sitting on a flash drive that haven’t caught the attention of any agents or publishers.  It doesn’t help that the average temperature outside has been in the single digits for the past two months either.

This is when people start to champion the optimist’s battle cries.  “Don’t give up hope.”  “You’ve got talent.”  “You just need to find the right agent.”  “It’s all very subjective.  But it’s a great story.  You’ll find it a home, soon.”

It reminds me of a previous job I had where, in my personal opinion, management was less than caring and ethical.  Sadly, for those who know me personally this doesn’t pinpoint the exact employer since I can say this about a few of them.

Anyway, most of the employees were not happy, and so being corporate leaders, management decided to make everyone read one of the most best-selling books of the late 20st century, Who Moved My Cheese.

Now for those blissfully unaware, this is a motivational book written by Dr. Spencer Johnson.  It’s an insightful story about finding strength to carry on even when the winds of change swirl about you at hurricane speeds.  It warns you that if you are incapable of adapting to your environment, you can find yourself in trouble.  It delivers this message with the help of a metaphorical maze populated by mice and two tiny humans.

In truth, Dr. Johnson brings up many good points and strategies within these pages.  Unfortunately for Dr. Johnson, corporate America was quick to exploit his message as quickly as governments exploit scientific findings and turned it into a weapon.

Armed with the good doctor’s wisdom, many companies, including my employer at the time, had their staff read this book and essentially said if you can’t handle change there is something wrong with you.  Apparently a strong, stable person should look at mergers, takeovers, and buyouts with enthusiasm, and look forward to cutbacks and layoffs as a child looks forward to Christmas morning.  Nothing says ‘happiness’ like a pink slip in your stocking.

I recall having at least four or five motivational speakers come in with a year’s time, and numerous inspirational theme days sprouted up including Hawaiian Day, Hat Day, and my favorite – Prom Day.  Each event encouraged employees to don the appropriate attire for the day.

When the movie “Office Space” came out I already left that job, but it brought about a serious case of PTSD.  I curled up into the fetal position and people tried coaxing me out from under my bed with pieces of cheese, promising not to move it away from me.  Well…it could have happened that way.

It baffled me that management seriously thought that hiring people to tell us to be happy and embrace change – which usually meant either being laid-off or seeing a reduction in compensation – would work.

It was a waste of time and money, and usually ended up causing more anxiety each time these mandatory meetings were scheduled.  It would have been less stressful to install air raid sirens to go off at random intervals throughout the day.

The worst part was that management tried to treat the symptoms, instead of the cause.  Of course, knowing their management style was the cause, what could one expect?

What does any of this have to do with writing, querying, and trying to catch the attention of an agent?  Not much, but it’s been a while since I enter a post in here.

However, this does touch on motivation.  While it does mean a lot to have friends and family support and stand by you when you are struggling, the bottom line is that no one can motivate you but you.

Speculative Fiction – Shaken, and stirred.

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I started writing my most current manuscript, Daughter of Lilith, as another fantasy novel.  However, since the main character of the story is part demon, and there’s a love interest I soon found myself writing a paranormal romance.  Gotta admit, it shocked me when my beta readers came back saying this isn’t fantasy.  I wanted to fight it, not that I have anything against paranormal romance, or any other genre.  Just never thought of myself as a romance writer of any sort.

While the romance sub-plot is important in advancing the story, it’s still a sub-plot.  I didn’t want to be a paranormal romance book like Twilight and the rest…

‘Wait,’ you say.  ‘Isn’t Twilight urban fantasy?’

The genre of speculative fiction is about as clean cut as insurance claim forms and the Federal budget.  What’s the difference between fantasy and paranormal? Can there be paranormal without romance?  If Bilbo Baggins moved out of the Shire and moved to Rivendell to chat it up with Elrond more often would such a story become urban fantasy since Rivendell is an urban setting?  Where are the lines drawn, and can it effect writers who are querying and labeling their works one way instead of an another?

Sadly, yes.  Some agents or publishers will see a genre and dismiss it.  Unfair?  For the writer, sure.  But in their defense, agents may receive hundreds of query requests a week, maybe even a day (honestly).  They need to have some filter in place, and if they select to filter by genre and are looking for urban fantasy and not paranormal romance, a query can be moved to the trash without a second or even a first look.

But many books and movies have more than one speculative fiction component.  I’ll take Star Wars again as an example.  You have space ships, lasers, and alien races.  Clearly this is a science-fiction movie, right?  Well, you have sword fights.  Sure the blades are made of light, but there’s no denying the techniques and battles are grounded in fencing and swordplay, a Medieval component and main form of combat back then.  You also have The Force.  A power that allows seemingly ordinary people to manipulate the world around them without any scientific explanation.  That’s practically a dictionary definition of magic.  Of course this is before the introduction of the midi-chlorides (don’t get me started on that). But for those of us who have grown up with just the first three movies…or rather the fourth through sixth movies, the Force had no explanation other than “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”  On Earth this is known as duct tape.  So if it’s a field created by all living things, where do these midi-chlorides come in?  Okay, I’m going off on a tangent here, I know.

The point is many books, movies, and TV shows have both magical and sci-fi elements.  If a mage uses a laser gun, or an astronaut lands on an alien planet where shaman can make it rain by casting a spell, how do we categorize these works?

There’s usually a clear line drawn between what is considered science fiction and what’s fantasy.  It’s only worse between similar genres such as fantasy, high fantasy, magical realism, paranormal romance, mythic fiction, urban fantasy, low fantasy, epic fantasy, dark fantasy…you get the idea.

The truth is most of these sub-genres overlap, and personally, I believe nit picking over what label to attach to one’s work should not be a prime concern for the writer, agent, publisher or reader.

If you want to say the story is paranormal because the main character is a ghost, fine.  If that ghost is also a wizard, call it fantasy, who cares?  And if that wizard created a time machine using midi-chlorides, make it sci-fi, no problem.  But if the inventor is Merlin, I guess we’re looking at Mythic Fantasy, right?  And if that time machine needs to be delivered to Arthur before Morgana unleashes a horrible spell that will destroy the entire planet, throwing it into eternal chaos for one thousand years, and Merlin must trek four hundred miles and battle her forces to get to Arthur we have ourselves a good old fashion Epic Fantasy tale…unless it takes place in modern times and Merlin fails, in which case it would be dystopian.

The aspirin’s on the bottom shelf, I’ll get you some water.

The waiting game

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Months, sometimes years of writing, editing, revising, getting feedback from friends, beta readers, CPs, SOs, SOBs, and others.  Finally you go over it again; once, twice, dozens of times checking for spelling, stray commas, poor word choice selection.  You know you’ll never be 100% satisfied with it.  You can read it a thousand times and know without a doubt that you’ll make numerous changes each and every time.  But eventually, you succumb to the reality that it’s time to let your characters take their first leap from the nest and try to fly.  You write, revise, edit, get feedback from everyone again and complete your query letter.  That takes weeks, or months.  You write your synopsis, which is another handful of weeks at least.

With all the confidence of a neurotic mouse you write up your email to a handful of agents you’ve researched that claim they will love to review your manuscript based on it’s genre and main character’s characteristics.  You hit the send button and…