Sunday, October 23, 2011

Top 5 Reasons You Should Do NaNoWriMo This Year

"What's NaNoWriMo?" the uninitiated ask.

"It's National Novel Writing Month," the Chosen Ones answer. "It happens every November. You sign up online, then spend 30 days ('cause November couldn't have been one of the months with 31) furiously scrabbling to find a way to slap together 50,000 more-or-less coherent words."

Stunned silence is the general response, followed closely by: Why?

I'm glad you asked. Here, in no particular order, are the top 5 reasons you should participate in NaNo 2011:

1.  It's invigorating. NaNo is bracing. It's a blast of creative juice that soaks the Muse right out of her rather apathetic stupor.
Thanks! I needed that!
2. It's just what the doctor ordered. You know that manuscript? The sick one? The one you've been meaning to make some chicken soup for, take to ER, and rub its back till it feels better? NaNo gives you a whole month to indulge the headachy, snot-filled, fever-ridden work-in-progress. After 30 days of caregiving, you'll know beyond the shadow of a doubt whether or not the patient can be saved.

Is book unwell? Mummy's here, dear...
3.  It will force you to look at things from a new vantage point. With NaNo, there's precious little time for second-guessing. Or editing. Or proofreading, for that matter. It's a write-like-your-life-depends-upon-it undertaking. Which makes you overlook things that may have slowed you down in the past. Every new NaNo day marks uncharted territory. There is no time to revisit what you did yesterday. Get ready to be bumped out of your comfort zone!

I'm seeing things I never dreamed of!

4. Try something daring. Has your writing become rote? Complacent? ~ahem~ By-the-book (pardon the pun)?  NaNo gives you permission to throw away your crutches and safety nets. Try something you'd never normally do. Go ahead: it won't kill you!

This ain't the way I normally roll...

5.  You discover your personal writer's work ethic. No matter how supportive your cheerleaders, no one can write your book for you. (Technically, that's not true. Ghostwriters can. But that kind of negates the whole "I'm going to write a novel this month" thing...) NaNo shows you exactly what it takes to shoulder the book-writing load and git 'r done.

Keep moving forward...
What are you waiting for? Only a few days separate us from the beginning of NaNoWriMo 2011. Don't delay! Sign up today! Oh, and comment below if I missed your favorite reason for NaNo-ing. Happy writing...

All photos courtesy of MorgueFile, except the one showing the crazy person perched atop a 1-ton horse with nothing to stop her fall if the horse should decide he no longer wants her there. Yeah, that's me on my Percheron. 'Cause I'm just that stupid...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chiming in on "Shine"

People are all atwitter (literally) over the National Book Awards You're-Nominated / No-You're-Not hokey pokey dance with Lauren Myracle's "Shine." For those unfamiliar with the story, I encourage you to read the snark-free Publisher's Weekly article on the debacle. Go ahead. I'll wait...

ShineIn a nutshell, earlier this month, the National Book Foundation contacted Amulet Books, "Shine's" publisher. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall. The conversation may have gone something like this:

NBF: A book you've published has been nominated as a finalist for the National Book Award in Young People's Literature.

Amulet Books: Outstanding! Which title?

NBF: "Shine."

Amulet Books:Lauren Myracle's coming-of-age mystery about a Southern community dealing with homophobia and the fallout from a hate crime?

NBF: That's it.

Amulet Books: Brilliant! We can't wait to tell Lauren. Thank you so much for your call.

~hangs up~ 

General celebrating, hooping & hollering commences. Because, really, how often does one's book get into the Top Fr%&@king 5 Books of the Year? In the words of every Oscar nominee:
"It doesn't matter whether you win or not. It's an honor just to be nominated."
This week, however, the National Book Foundation "regrets that an error was made" and "apologizes for any confusion or hurt it may have caused Lauren Myracle." Imagine what a fly might have overheard on that call:

ChimeNBF: When we last spoke, I was calling to congratulate you for publishing a book that was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Amulet Books: Thank you. We are honored.

NBF: Yes. Well. You're not.

Amulet Books: I beg your pardon?

NBF: We regret that we called you in error. The book that's really nominated is "Chime."

Amulet Books: "Chime." Not "Shine."

NBF: Right. "Chime." By Franny Billingsley. No hate crimes in it. Witches. Spirits. Spells. Golden eyes. Tawny hair. That sort of thing."Chime" is in. You're out.

Amulet Books: How. Did this. Happen?

NBF: (chuckling) It's a funny story.

Amulet Books: ...???

NBF: The judges misunderstood the book title when it was read over the phone. Kai thanx bai.

~hangs up~

Stunned silence reigns.

Good grief.  Talk about a "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" moment in publishing.

So let me get this straight: For the National Book Awards, the titles of the finalists are read to the judges over the phone.

Just the titles? Not title and, oh -- I don't know -- author? Or title and synopsis? Or (work with me here) title and publisher? Just the titles.

This could cause significant problems. Imagine, for instance the confusion that could arise over hearing that "Double Shadow" was nominated. "Which book would that mean?" the judges might ask.

Sooo many "Double Shadows."
At most companies I've worked for, and when working with clients, when it comes to important communications, we like to employ a little thing called e-mail. Or texting. Sometimes, when we want to kick it old school, we actually print something out on paper.

That's not sarcasm. It's solid business advice that the National Book Foundation might do well to consider. Write it down. You're the NBF, for heaven's sake. You promote the printed word.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh here. What's your take on the situation? Chime in below...

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Mystery Guest Blogger: Q & A with An Agent's Slush-Pile Reader

Regular readers know that I facilitate a weekly Writing Practicum whose members are working toward publication. Most have no real publishing credits yet. Quite a few are great at doing their homework, reading online, studying up on the industry & honing their craft, but the aspect of querying (and the dismal acceptance rates from slush pile submissions) stymies them.

I have a friend who worked as an agent's slush reader. She was gracious enough to answer my Writing Practicum members' questions.

I thought her responses were great and asked her permission to share them with my blog readers. She agreed, as long as she retained her anonymity. (She's female. That narrows it down from 8 billion possibilities to just over 4 billion. Anonymous enough...) "I was waxing snarky and I shouldn't," she explained. I honestly thought she was quite kind, but will honor her request and keep her identity a secret.

And now, without further ado... A straight-shooting Q & A with an agent's slush-pile reader!

~Cue theme song & dancing girls~

The questions, in no particular order, follow:

Q:  I've studied websites like Query Shark & AgentQuery. I think I understand how to avoid making the major "newbie" mistakes, but what are some "red flags" that turn you off from an otherwise well-written query letter?

  • Starting out with high word count or very low word count as well and slamming me with adverbs and adjectives.  
  • If you don't do your homework and begin the letter with "Dear Sir/Madam." 
  • Spelling the agent's name wrong is a big no-no as well as mentioning books/authors that have unrelated genres or having nothing to do with your genre.  
  • I try not to be skeptical when the bio reads "first time author" but I've read enough really bad stuff from first timers that turn me off.  
  • Also, be nice.  We are people too.  If you come off as needy or a jerk we will probably be turned off to working with you.  
Honestly, I let a lot of things slide in queries because nobody is perfect.  BUT, if I am in the middle of a query reading day and the query starts out with "XXXX novel is a heart rending tale of redemption...(insert ANY descriptive word of what you think your novel is)" you just awarded yourself a rejection.  Those kinds of queries are a dime a dozen and are usually not written well at all.

Q:  When you've read through a pile of queries at a sitting, what specific aspects pique your interest and make one particular query stand out from the crowd?

A:  Oh geez, this is a toughy.  It's hard to tell.  Sometimes it is the writer's credentials, or if a writer can say they met me someplace, or tweeted me on Twitter (or are a fan of my blog is always nice).  The queries that wake me up out of a glassy-eyed stupor are the unusually creative novels that have amazing main character names, to die for plots, and a great voice.

The camel whispers in my ear what I must write.
Betcha never heard a camel's voice before!

Q: I keep hearing that agents and publishers want to find a writer with "a great voice." What constitutes a great voice? What qualities does a great voice have that makes that writing "work?"

A:  Ah, the elusive voice!  Anyone who knows me, or listens to me talk for that matter, knows that I am a speed chatter with loads of snark and humor.  When I write, my brain goes into hyperdrive and all my inner thoughts spill out on the page.  Some things are better left in my brain. However, THAT is the voice we agents / interns are looking for.  The voice can be sweet, unassuming, bold, masculine, crass, sarcastic, abrasive, brutal -- you name it, it's been written.  Mainly, we want to read a character whose voice matches the writing.  It is a difficult thing to pull off, but not impossible.  It just takes practice.

Q:  I want my query to be memorable, but I'm terrified of inadvertently doing something stupid in my letter that turns an agent off. Any advice?

A:  Short really is sweeter.  If you can't hook me onto your plot in the first paragraph, my eyes glass over.  It is my MAJOR pet peeve to read three paragraphs of why the author chose to write and why their book is going to blow my socks off.  Just tell me the damn plot already!  Get down to business, make it snappy, make me drool and then end it.

Q:  On average, how many manuscripts (or partials) do you request for every 100 query letters you read?

A:  Depends.  When I first started I requested about 6 partials and one full.  I do a little more now mainly because the quality of queries have increased and we are caught up in reading submissions.  My last batch of queries was 78 queries, 5 fulls, 2 partials and that didn't include what my boss requested.

Q: Are you ever "on the fence" about a project pitched in a query letter, or are queries generally easily separated into Requests and Rejections? If you are on the fence, what aspects can affect your decision?

A:  I sit on the fence all the time.  It is easy to dole out rejections when the writing is clearly awful and the query is a muddy mess.

However, there is an increase of decent queries that I am not sure if I love or not.  Usually, I star it and let it sit in my inbox for a few days.  If the plot sticks with me, I request it.  If I forget all about it and I reread it without interest, it gets a rejection.  A lot of the time coming back to it with a clear head on a different day makes me realize that I had been silly for not rejecting it, or glad that it is still around to request.

Q:  When you've requested a manuscript, how do you decide whether it's worth bringing to the agent's attention?

A:  This is going to be a novel length answer.  Many factors go into me pitching a book to the agent.  Just so you know, I pitch everything I've requested to my boss even if I am firm on rejecting it.  I am not an agent, so I am not allowed to reject a book without gaining her approval first.  As the intern I act like a gate keeper who gives the gate owner (agent) a whittled down version of the submission process.

Here are some tips that get you read:
  • Your first five pages need to be awesome.  They need to hook me and keep me reading.  
  • After I have requested a 50 page partial, I want to see a story that moves quickly with all the elements aligned.  The dialogue needs to be engaging, the characters need to be developed and the plot needs to be steadily increasing to a climax. If, after fifty pages, I am drooling for more I'll ask for a full (or keep reading as I give all manuscripts up to 50 pages to impress me). 
  • The full needs to deliver the goods.  There needs to be tension, deep character development, a story arc that has me glued to it, and a chain of events I can follow.  
  • I am not a fan of books that skips around a lot between the past and the present.  
  • When you get to a climax, I want to be plastered to the story and gasping (whether that means happy or sad is up to you) and the ending is crucial.  There is nothing more heartbreaking than an ending that drops me off a cliff abruptly. Very unfair.  
  • In a nutshell, 99% of writers query me with novels that are not ready to be queried.  Either the writing is not polished or the story is flawed, or any number of things can go wrong, like me not connecting with a main character to hating where you took the story (or taking your character through improbable scenarios).  
Not to break your hearts, but I have read three submissions I thought were wonderful.  One, my boss agreed was good, but with the other two she was not nearly as impressed as I was.  It is a matter of subjectivity, especially since a novel I hated and highly recommended she pass on, she loved!  Is it frustrating?  Yes it is, but to ease the irritation, it is just as insanely frustrating for us to root out a story we love as much as it is frustrating for you to get rejected.

Finally: Good luck to all of you!


I want to publicly thank my friend for agreeing to share her insider's wisdom with my readers. I hope you found her insights into the querying process useful.

Keep on keeping on!

Monday, October 03, 2011

Lovely, lovely, lovely...

Thanks to musician extraordinaire Stan Stewart, I am again honored with the "One Lovely Blog Award." Stan writes the unquestionably lovely Muz4Now blog with musings that are relevant to artists of all persuasions, not just musicians.

So, in keeping with the spirit of the award, I shall share 7 things about myself and pass the "1LBA" along to 5 (some say 15, but the rules on this are fuzzy) other worthy bloggers.

And heee-eee-eere we go:
  1. I have met President Ronald Regan, broken bread with Norman Mailer and listened to hauntingly beautiful Celtic music while sitting on the same couch as Frank McCourt. All were fascinating men, but I'm happiest when in the company of my husband of 23 years.
  2. I love to cook, though I rarely make a recipe "as written." I'm always convinced I can improve on the original.
  3. I could eat Thai or Indian food at every meal every day for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy with the menu.
  4. There is no such thing as too many Heath bars or too much coffee.
  5. Life without dogs or horses is not worth living.
  6. I love LEGOs. I've already informed my 8-year old daughter that when she outgrows them, we'll be keeping them for me to play with.
  7. I have a habit of developing deep and abiding crushes on my characters. This leads to carved-in-concrete casting opinions, which is certain to get me in trouble should any of my books ever be optioned for film.
And now, I'd like to bestow this award on some fabulously wonderful blogs:
  • Check out writer, painter, and purveyor of exquisite snark Alyson Peterson's newly established "Dirty Green Jello." Alyson once wrote the "Crazy Writer Girl" blog, which ended when her life exploded. But she's back now and I, for one, am glad of it!
  • Romance Writer Roni Loren's (@RoniLoren) "Fiction Groupie" blog is an excellent source of writerly information and (for those cold winter days) womanly inspiration. 
  • Quilting queen Kelly Smith's (@quiltinRedhead) "Redheaded Quilter" is part travel journal, part quilting blog, with the occasional recipe thrown in for good measure. Kelly is a wonderful writer with two books and a major editorship to her credit. I liked it better, though, when she lived just down the street instead of halfway across the country...
  • Tell-it-like-it-is writer Lydia Sharp (@lydia_sharp) writes "The Sharp Angle" where she discusses music, craft, current reading, and the state of the publishing industry with acerbic aplomb.
  • I manage a health and fitness blog for a client and through that blog have discovered Jeff and Mike Adams' (@TruckinFitness) "Truckin' Fitness." Their blog is consistently excellent, full of solid, interesting, usable fitness and training information.
And there you have it. Thanks to Stan, you now know far more about me than you ever wished to. And you've been introduced to some mighty fine bloggers. Go forth and read them to your heart's content. My job here is done!

Keep on keeping on.