Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Risk With Revisions

Since September, I've been engaged in this wonderful thing called revisions.

No, I'm not a sadist (or is it masochist? which one likes to be punished? I forget). I really do enjoy spending time with my characters in my story world.

But there are risks with revisions.

If you're like me, when you finished your first "this is it!" draft, you got your manuscript out to a handful of beta readers. They probably picked up a few (a thousand or so) mistakes.

If you happen to have a couple of extra bucks (or euros, or Thai Baht, or whatever you use) you might have even hired a proof reader who found every single stray comma, adverb, or you-name-the-offense that reared its ugly head in your manuscript.

But then something else happened... you discovered that you had holes. Or you could do some scenes better. Instead of telling the reader "He was pissed," you showed, "He pulled off his belt and bit into the leather, yelling until tears burnt his cheeks."

This is the area of risk.

The moment you make updates to the story, whether a line, a paragraph or a whole new chapter, you have introduced the possibility of silly errors. We are human after all, are we not?

What's my solution to this? No, I do not want to bother my eagle-eye readers, or pay a few hundred drakma to an editor again (apparently, my children have expectations of being fed).

Read Out Loud

When you are done, reread that chapter out loud. It may seem odd at first, but this is the most effective tool a self-editor must use. In fact, reading out loud is a critical piece of my revision process. I read the entire manuscript out loud and as I read, I find mistakes, and more importantly, lines that don't sound right.

Let Technology Work For you

Although you should (must) read out loud, you will not catch everything.

Sometimes, your eyes overlook the obvious. Example:

  • breath or breathe
  • through or though
  • lighting or lightening

We've all seen it happen. That one little letter gets passed us, just to embarrass us. After all, you've written the darn thing, and if you're like me, you know those lines so well that you can almost recite it without reading each word. Unfortunately, I am not able to turn off my automatic read-ahead mind. I'm not that disciplined.

As I've said before, I use (and love) Scrivener.

[Soap Box: If you don't use Scrivener, I don't understand. At $45, it is the single most powerful tool you will ever use as a writer. Visit my friend Gwen Hernandez's site to learn how to use it. Even better, sign up for her class.]

When I'm done editing, I highlight the paragraph in question, right-click and choose "Speech" --> "Start Talking."

(Note, you can do this in MS Word also, but I'd rather pretend that everyone uses Scrivener)

On the Mac, the voice of the reader is fairly decent. The beauty is that you hear the mistakes immediately. As I listen to the narrator, all I do is highlight words, or sections that sound odd. I don't edit right then and there. I don't want to miss other mistakes that the narrator may pick up.

In Scrivener (or Word) highlighting is fast. So you won't miss more than a micro second at best.

Or you can do this with hard copy of your manuscript at hand. Listen and follow along on the printed document. When something catches your ear, highlight it.

When you hit the end of the chapter. Correct the mistakes. But wait, you're not done. Listen to the corrected section one more time. Yes! Do it. Be picky. This is your work. Listen again. Make sure you didn't just introduce another mistake.

I use the computer narrator all the time. It's a powerful feature. And although listening to the whole book is time-intensive, it is invaluable. The things you hear, will surprise you. Also, the experience of hearing your story read back to you is fresh and powerful.

I highly recommend it. Give it a shot.

Do you have any special tricks? If you try this technique, let me know if it works for you.

Fight the good fight!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Give Yourself a Promotion

"How can I get promoted?"

ACMA 1333 Samian decree 2
Secret handshakes go back a few years...
I hear this all the time at work. Everyone wants to know how they can get to that next level, then the next, and the next one after that.

Implied in that question is that there may be a secret handshake, a magic book, or fraternity that if they joined, then "it" would all come together. Whatever "it" may be.

I don't have the heart to tell people the truth -- not everyone is promotable.

Sorry, but it's true.

So when someone asks me that question, I tell them, "If you want to be a leader, then lead. If you want to be a project manager, then manage a project. You don't need the title to make it happen."

Show me. Don't tell me that you want to do something. Do it!

And when you do it, you'll show us all two things: you have the desire and the will to achieve even when you don't have the official title.

We must mentally promote ourselves to the role we aspire to hold. The answer is within us, waiting to be tapped.

No one wants to hire a project. But I can guarantee you that everyone wants to hire a winner. That person who has shown desire and will to do the hard work even when there is no guarantee of payoff.

Sound familiar?

So you want to be a traditionally published author? Then do everything that's consistent with "being" a published author. Show the professionals in the industry that you're also a professional. You have to be the baddest badass out there. You are not competing against the slushpile. You're competing against those on the bestseller list. That's what the industry is looking for. Elevate your game. Give yourself a mental promotion--now!

Or maybe you will self-published. Then behave like a professional author for your readers. Give them your best work. The beautiful cover, the professionally edited novel, and build the personal connection with your fans who will spread the word for you like the plague. You are trying to win their trust. You're trying to establish a sacred agreement that if they take a chance on you, then you in return will honor their valuable (and diminishing) free time. You will give them the ride of their life.

By the way, these habits are not mutually exclusive. We have to do all of the above and then some.

Eliminate "good enough," or "pretty good" from your vocabulary. Only the best qualify. The good news is that it's all up to you--me. The bad news is that it's all up to you--me.

If we want to win at any game, then we must play the game as if we've already won. Believe in yourself, so others will believe in you.

Bad things happen to good people all the time. Lady luck shows up on the wrong table sometimes. But in the end, if we play the game fully, with passion and excellence in heart and mind, then on my scoreboard, we've already won, haven't we?

Believe in yourself, then do it. And when you do, the rest will believe in you too.

Fight the good fight!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gratitude

I'm a natural optimist. Always have been.

It's not to say that I've had a rosy life, or that all is wonderful now, nor am I delirious enough to assume that from this day forward, rose petals will pave my path (although, I must admit, if that happened, my wife would be very impressed).

All I mean is that I believe my outlook on life is directly correlated with how I choose to experience it. If I think good things will come from fighting the good fight, then good things will indeed happen.

Last September I attended the Southern California Writers' Conference. I blogged about that experience and continue to reap the rewards of the guidance I received from that weekend.

As I've already mentioned, at that conference, I took an opportunity to meet with agents and editors. Amongst the people I met was prolific author and veteran editor Laura Taylor. Here's a brief bio from her site


1985 to Present: award-winning author of 22 novels for a variety of international publishing houses, including Bantam-Doubleday-Dell, Franklin Watts, Inc., Berkley Books, and Harlequin-Silhouette Books. Current works in progress include a mainstream novel and an associated screenplay.
Some of Laura's awards include:

  • TWO-TIME MAGGIE AWARD WINNER
  • LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD WINNER FOR BEST NEW CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE AUTHOR
  • CAREER ACHIEVEMENT AWARD WINNER FOR SERIES ROMANCE STORYTELLER OF THE YEAR
  • TWO-TIME REVIEWERS CHOICE AWARD WINNER FOR BEST SERIES ROMANCE – BANTAM BOOKS LOVESWEPT IMPRINT
  • CAREER ACHIEVEMENT AWARD WINNER FOR BEST SERIES ROMANTIC ADVENTURE
  • BEST CONTEMPORARY MAINSTREAM NOVEL AWARD WINNER


Also, she's a member of Readers Rule -- these are authors (like Bob Meyer) who have earned the stamp of approval of readers by selling 100,000+ books. To put it in context, Laura Taylor has sold more than a million.

Why do I mention all this?

Because the great Laura Taylor is now endorsing my novel, Aces. Her blurb is below.


"ACES from author Ara Grigorian is a powerful, well-crafted, and compelling novel guaranteed to delight readers."
— Award-Winning Author and Editor Laura Taylor


I am eternally grateful for this. In a very crowded and tough marketplace, it's hard for a debut author to get noticed. This is officially my second endorsement--the first from bestselling author Michael Levin. I have update the "Aces" page on my site with both blurbs.

The more I expand my network of friends in the writing community, the clearer it becomes that there are a lot of gracious and giving people amongst us. I am honored to be a member of this tribe. With the help and guidance of people like Laura and Michael, I can't help but have an optimistic view of the future.

Whether 1 year, 5 years or 10 years from now, you can rest assured that I will continue to fight the good fight!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Art is Never Finished

"Art is never finished, only abandoned."
Leonardo da Vinci


During my senior year in undergraduate school, I enrolled in an Art History class. This was a fun class. Basic premise was that through art, we could learn about the history of the people, the region, the era.

The professor (I can't recall her name) told us that during the renaissance, the only reason the artist in question stopped the work of art (painting, sculpture, murals, whatever) was because the sponsor of the piece "wanted the damn thing already." They were tired of waiting.

The artists generally had a hard time parting with it, because in their view, the work was not ready.

For an unpublished author, this is an interesting dilemma. We want to be published, yet each time we look at our manuscript, we find maybe "one more thing" to touch up. Speaking for myself, each time I read my manuscript, I want to modify something--again.

If you're doing it right, you're always learning about the craft, you're always reading more novels, and you're always writing. These three things have one significant impact -- they make you a better writer.

So it's only natural that what you know today, makes you slightly better, than what you were say, a month ago.

This isn't a dilemma in and of it self. But it's a problem if you don't hit send. I spoke to a few agents recently and they said something that nearly dropped me on my arse (I was going to say ass, but the way the British say it so much more refined.)

They each said that more than half the people that are asked to send in pages, don't. Don't! In other words, the agent is showing interest. They ask you to send them the manuscript (partial or full) and yet, the writer in question never follows through.

There are a variety of reasons, I'm sure. One is probably fear. What if they hate it? What if they love it? And when you start asking these questions, it is a natural step to think, "It's not ready yet." I need one more review, one more beta reader, one more proof reader, one more scene, one more adverb. That last one was a joke... you never need more adverbs, he said, passionately.

The reality is that you have no deadline. When you have no "sponsor" (agent, editor, etc) the only gate is you and your own inner-voice that doubts you and reminds you that you're not good enough, smart enough, or just enough. Please do not misinterpret this. You should NEVER send out material that is not ready. You need to slave over every word, and clean it up with a toothbrush, and have trusted people read and critique it. You must do these things and these things will take time -- a lot of time.

If you are signed, you don't have a choice. You throw caution into the winds and you let fate take its course.

Here's my recommendation. Set a deadline. Create goals that will challenge you. Declare it to others in your writing world. Then be committed to that timeline. Have integrity in your own words. Amazing things happen when you put yourself out there.

Then test it. Test the quality of your work. Be ready to share it with some people that you trust. Get their feedback, and be brutally honest with yourself. Be ready to internalize and understand the criticisms you get. It's not personal, it's opinions that may make your manuscript better.

I have a small, but badass set of first readers who want to see me succeed. So they will not let me make a mistake. I also have a mentor who is a NYT bestselling author who will call me out on the deck. He doesn't let me get away with anything. I also turned my work in to agents and editors at a conference (20 page critiques) to get their feedback. Was I nervous? Yes. But not knowing was worse. And once I had all the arrows pointing north, that's when I knew I was ready for a final proof read. Once you're there, the only next step is to jump in with both feet.

If you don't, then you take the risk of falling into Leonardo da Vinci's astute observation. Your art will never be finished, and one day you may decide to abandon it.

How do you know if you're ready? What criteria do you use?

Fight the good fight.

Monday, October 31, 2011

I'm a Liar

Some months back I served on jury duty.

For those who may not know what that is--"it's your civic duty, son." At least that's what I've been told.

In a nutshell, it's where a large number of unhappy people come together in a poorly-lit hall, where unhappy county employees treat them poorly, and a judge hopes that the unhappy people are ready to participate in the legal process of determining ones innocence or guilt.

I was on the panel for a criminal case (gang related stuff... fun). Not a lot of pressure. Rival gangs, where the life of a 22-year-old sat on the balance. Like I said, no pressure.

The judge and attorneys started with some basic questions. What is your occupation, have you served on a jury before, etc?

When they got to me I said I had two jobs. By day, I set information technology strategy in the entertainment industry, but by night, I write novels.

(By the way, you better learn to say it with pride and power. Use your words to remind the universe that this writing thing is real. Your muse will hear it if you believe it)

Honoré Daumier 018The next step was where the attorneys asked different questions of the potential jurors, with hopes to select the best fit and to eliminate the worst.

The defense attorney, a scary looking guy, who could have been a gang member himself, suddenly turned to me.

"Juror number nine, have you lied before?"
"I lie all the time," I said.
He flinched. Literally took one step back. "I write novels," I continued. "It's my job."

Somehow I was selected for the case, and I must say it was exhilarating, depressing, scary at times, but in the end, I felt good about what we had done.

At the end of the case, we all had a chance to talk to the lawyers. The attorney in question approached me.

"That thing about being a liar... that was a first. I had to tell my wife about it," he said.

I know I was grinning.

The job of a fiction writer is to create a world where the reader finds herself living in that town, with those people, in that time period--but the place never existed. We create characters that you want to believe could be your best friend if you ever met them--but they were conceived in the author's mind. We create situations that make you feel like they could absolutely happen to you--but they never did. We can also take seemingly innocent questions like, "Where were you?" and turn them into a 90,000-word story.

We are liars. We don't make excuses, nor apologize for it. We lie because we can. We lie because our readers expect it from us. We lie, because the truth of our world is sometimes scarier than the worlds we create on the pages you read.

But when it comes to the stories we tell, we never hold back, we never take the easy path--there we always tell the truth. The people, the places and the situation are all fabrications. But the message and the sincerity by which we tell the story is true. We find the most painful or exhilarating emotions in our lives and transpose them to our characters. These fake people become the vessel to tell our truth. The only truth we know.

Those who know writers will sometimes wonder why we're a bit moody sometimes, or seem hurt or even sad. It's because, when we write, the worlds and the people we create are real. They carry our truth. We are vested in the story, in the characters and their outcome. These lies need to feel true to us, otherwise our readers will never believe us. And that would be a crime worthy of a judge and jury.

"Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all... so long as you tell the truth." 
-- Stephen King, On Writing

Fight the good fight.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Figure Skating and the Subjectivity of Writing

I recently spoke to a fellow writer who was, to say the least, confused.

Let's assign a name to this writer -- Paul. Eighteen months ago, Paul landed an agent. In fact, three agents were interested in Paul's manuscript. He received accolades like, "brilliant," and "original," and "would be honored to represent."

He selected a reputable agent and they spent three months polishing said manuscript. The agent knew exactly who would love this story, and the agent was right. The editor at imprint of major publisher said "yes" and all was golden. Edits, proofreads, the whole nine yards.

Shake up at publisher, editor leaves, and the manuscript is now an orphan. Publisher is no longer interested because a) they already have titles slated for release similar to Paul's manuscript, and b) the shakeup is because they want to exit that genre anyway... so, best of luck.

No worries, right? After all, this thing is solid. Agents wanted it, and the first editor approached gobbled it up. How hard can it be? Nine months later, Pat is hearing things like, "the conflict isn't big enough," "I'm not connecting with the characters," and similar phrases.

Paul's a good guy, highly skilled at story telling, has written an excellent story, and I am sure it'll get published (if he doesn't then I worry about my own chances).

I wanted to cheer him up. But more than cheer him up, I wanted to explain something regarding the nature of this industry. Granted, what do I know, right? I don't have an agent, I don't have a deal... but I read a lot, I talk to a lot of insiders, and I know the nature of business--the machinery, the cycles... Because, after all, that's what I do when I don't write.

I asked Paul, "Do you watch figure skating?"
"What?"
"Figure skating."
"As in, guys in very tight pants spinning on ice?"
"Yes, that's it."
"Yeah, I guess I've seen one or two competitions during the Winter Olympics. Why do you ask?"
I felt like Master Yoda. I whipped out my iPad and found what I wanted on YouTube.


But before I played it, I gave Pat a bit of background about Torvill & Dean. During the 1994 Olympics, they were no spring chickens. They were both in their mid-thirties at that point, competing against teenagers and others who were in their prime. This was a story book return for Torvill & Dean. They had won Gold in 1984 in one of the most electrifying performances the sport had seen. Perfect 6.0's across the board. Back in '84 they were it. Could they repeat in '94 after a ten year lay-off?

We watched and Pat got the beauty of their performance. "That was beautiful," he said. "But I don't get it. What's your point?"
"Everyone said Torvill & Dean were the best that year, that they recreated the sport, that they raised the bar for beauty in figure skating. Yet..."
"Yet?"
"They got the Bronze medal."
"Bull$hit!"
"Yup. The judges claimed they wanted the dancers to go back to the 'traditional' and what Torvill & Dean did, included an illegal lift. Of course, no one was able to actually point out when this phantom lift occurred but that was not the point."
"What was the point?" he asked.
"30 million people saw one thing and cried over the beauty, but all it took was two judges to change the history of the Olympics."

The sport of writing is objective on all levels.

Good writing will eventually find its way. It may not happen today, or this year, or even this decade. But we all understand--must understand--that writing is a marathon. There will be false starts. There will be moments of unadulterated joy, and years of face-on-the-asphalt pain. That's how it goes.

Most people get hung up over the miracle stories. Sometimes writers get lucky and all the stars align--more power to them. But the reason we hear of those cases (example: first novel written was picked up with a three book deal and movie rights optioned, blah, blah, blah) is because they are so rare. Those are the carrots that lure so many people into this world of writing, but only the few will last the marathon.

It is a statistical improbability that anyone reading (or, alas, writing) this blog will have that type of fortune. So what? 

Do you think I would stop because of a rejection? I certainly hope you know me better than that. I hope I know myself better than that. But who knows, right? We are all human.

When the moment of truth stares me in the face, I hope I have the mental and emotional fortitude to smile, learn from it and go back to my next manuscript. Because I have stories to tell. And I will face many judges who will say no. One day, a judge will say yes, and I will keep the same cautious optimisim I have today. Because Torvill & Dean were objectively awesome, but the subjective nature of the game they played in, gave them bronze.

Fight the good fight!

BONUS - 1984 Winning Performance


Monday, October 17, 2011

Gordon Ramsay and Writing

"Have some f@%&ing pride!" Ramsay said.

For those who don't know Gordon Ramsay, he is the revered chef who owns and operates some of the finest restaurants in the world, He also hosts some of the most entertaining cooking reality shows.
Courtesy of LA Times

I work from home often, and when I do, I watch Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America as I eat lunch.

If there's one phrase to define him is "Quality without compromise."

He is a fanatic over the quality that goes into the food. The attention to detail is unparalleled (editing). He focuses on the customer (reader), and the appropriateness of the food given the clientele (genre).

In Kitchen Nightmares, he enters restaurants that are struggling... no, I'm being kind. Some are atrocious and you wonder what it will take to turn them around.

He satars by ordering the signature dish... and nearly vomits. Then he observes the kitchen in action--the management, the leadership, the effectiveness of the staff. He studies the competition, then looks at the menu. He has a multi-faceted approach to turning around nightmares into dreams come true. And if they listen to him, they will succeed.

The one thing that always shocks me is that he is there to guide the chef/owner--he is their master Yoda. He points out, in painful detail, what needs to be done. And invariably, the chef eventually reverts to their stupid ways of being.

The fundamental element in Ramsey's approach is quality control.

As I ate Nutella for lunch (don't judge me! and don't tell my wife) I watched an episode where Ramsay went off the rails on the owner/chef.

He was yelling, nearly spitting in the guys face. "Have some f---ing pride!"

As a writer, who aspires to be a published novelist, I take his point to heart. I have printed these words (without the f'ing part since my eight year old may be curious and my wife will kill me) and have hung it on my office wall.

We must have pride in what we do. We must play this game all out or risk living life wondering what went wrong.

It is harder than ever to get published. What would have been acceptable lapses in the past, is now your nail in the coffin. Assume that the current state of your manuscript is exactly how it would get published. Would you be happy? Truly happy?

If you tell yourself, "the editor will help me out with this problem," then you've already lost. If you second guess a scene, but choose to ignore it, then you might as well uninstall Scrivener, give your books to the nearest library and focus on your day job. You need to produce the absolute best product you can create.

Yes, it is a subjective world, and what I may think is great, you will think is an appropriate toilet paper substitute.

But your perception of your work must be as objective as possible. No compromise.

If you have a doubt--a nano-second of hesitation, then please do yourself a favor and address it. Know that you did it all, everything within your power to make it happen. Because if you do, then you can rest your head on the pillow knowing that you did not compromise yourself, your story and your characters. You were true to your craft.

You showed pride.

Fight the good fight!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

BadTip PubTip Tuesday #2 - Skip the Proofreading

BadTip PubTip Tuesday


You want to get published? You want to stay published? Check back every tuesday for groundbreaking advice!

Disclaimer: This is a joke. Don't sue me.

Skip the Proofreading

The world has changed and so has publishing. The modern writer needs to get ahead of the ball in order to make it. Proofreading is one of those old-school concepts that should be buried with yesterday's underwear.

The problem with Proofreading is two-fold:

RelojDespertadorFold #1 

Proofreading takes time. A lot of time. You may be able to write a novel in 30 days, but this proofreading, and editing, and other nonsense will take months, maybe years.


I have one word for you: time to market. -- okay, fine... it's one phrase.

Advantage #1 -- You get your book out there as soon as you are done!

Finish fast, publish fast. That should be your motto.

Don't sit around waiting, pondering, improving. You writing is a work in progress. Get it out there... which leads to the other advantage...

Fold #2

Writing of the 21st century needs to be collaborative.

Once you've proofread your manuscript you have effectively excluding your customer from the process. Dear writer, who is your customer? The reader.

People finally understand that Social Collaboration is the most powerful way to connect with your customer.

Imagine how wonderful your readers will fill if they find your mistakes.

Imagine your reader informing you via Twitter: "Page 1, Par 3, Sentence 3 -- You wrote *beat* instead of *bet*"

Then you thank them, maybe even retweet it.

Your reader will feel connected to you and your writing. They will be your fan for life.

Don't be selfish. Share your work and the process with your fans.

Advantage #2 -- A personal connection between reader and writer

You have a choice. I've shown you what's behind the door. It's up to you to walk through it, or pretend you don't know the truth.

Now, go and write!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

BadTip PubTip Tuesday #1 - Lead Characters are Passé

Welcome to the first issue of "BadTip PubTip Tuesday."

You want to get published? You want to stay published? Check back every tuesday for groundbreaking advice!

Disclaimer: This is a joke. Don't sue me. 

Lead Characters are Passé

Let's face it, strong lead character are boring and predictable -- they always win.

Who needs the rugged and handsome hero like Dirty Harry or the sharp and badass heroine like Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy? Not agents, not publishers and certainly not readers.

Even George Lucas learned the error of his way. In the original Star Wars he had a central protagonist, Luke Skywalker. The story was his. In fact the trilogy was about him. What a stupid move!

Thankfully, a couple of decades (and many soy lattes and Perriers later) uncle Gorge corrected his mistake by releasing the first prequel, the Phantom Menace.

As articulated by Red Letter Media (check out the video below), George made it abundantly clear that you don't need to have a leading character to make billions of dollars.

Quiz: in the Phantom Menace who was the Main Character? ... yeah, I didn't think so. Proof positive! You do not need a leading character.




Badtip Pubtip of the week  Forget about a memorable lead character. The ideal characters in a novel are random, with no real purpose nor direction. Things should happen to them and around them. And if they win or defeat the enemy, it should take the reader entirely by surprise. Readers love to be surprised this way -- it tests their ability to guess at the author's creativity.

Now go and write!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On Conference, On People & Withdrawal Symptoms

The Conference

This was my first official writer's conference. I was innocent. Now I'm corrupted.

The conference was the Southern California Writers' Conference in Newport Beach. I didn't know much about the conference but their site made me feel a bit warm and somewhat fuzzy. And when I saw that they had "Advanced Submission Critiques" given by agents, editors, and writers, then I knew that this would be good for me.

Like most writers, you never know if you're good enough. I needed to know if my style of writing was sellable. If my story was good enough. If this story had a chance. I set up advanced meetings with three agents, an editor-in-chief of a boutique publisher and a freelance editor/award winning author.

The conference lasted three days, but I have a suspicion that the impact will last considerably longer.


The People

It's always about "who." In all endevours of life, the Who always trumps What. With the right people, a horrible event will be memorable.

I was surrounded by writers, some like me--trying to break in--others who have broken in, and some who are stuck in the middle. The profession of "writer" is a tough one. Success can be measured in many ways. But one thing is for sure, it's a lonely endeavor.

Fundamentally, we're all the same. We've all chosen to tap into our imagination to produce words that generate sentences, which propel paragraphs into works that we hope to share with the world.

One of my longtime friends was going to attend. When Aline Ohanesian told me she'd be there, at a minimum I knew that I could hang out with one cool person.

But I was also committed to experiencing this conference fully. And that meant meeting and fraternizing with the citizens. I would not hide out in my room (not that hiding out is my DNA... but you get the point).

And from the first moment, I came across amazing people.

I met Mark Koopmans of Hawaii. With his badass Irish accent, I immediately liked him. He's co-writing a memoir of an opera singer who should have been the next coming of... but life took different turns.

I met my tweeter "friend" Tameri Etherton (@TameriEtherton) in person. That was great in and of itself, but also discovered that she's an awesome person to boot.

Laura Taylor
I met Gayle Carline, now a Tweeter friend (@GayleCarline), who was as down to earth as it gets.

It turns out that most writers are very cool and funny. They're also good at telling stories.

Then there was author/editor/lifetime achievement award winner Laura Taylor who rocked my world. One of these posts, I'll share more details... 

I was embarassed by editor extraordinaire Jean Jenkins over the course of a workshop and then four different conversations. It seemed unreal that she would want to help me--a nobody. She didn't have to offer but she did.
Gordon Warnock

Also, literary agent, Gordon Warnock of Andrea Hurst who gave me hope in the industry and the process. Down to earth, intelligent, and actually read my submission with care. He recalled specific passages and gave me the type of encouragement I needed.

But the thing that stuck with me were two people that seemed dismayed and ready to quit.

This is a subjetive business. Which means that most will hate your work until one person of influence doesn't. 

It broke my heart. I don't like it when people give up on their dreams. Maybe they're not good enough. But maybe they are. And all they have to do is keep at it until the right champion emerges.

I had a long chat and hope that the dream hasn't vanished. Dreams are always worth the fight.


Withdrawal Symptoms

I found validation at this conference.

Validation that my writing is good. In a subjective world like writing, if a handful of professionals agree, then that's the fuel I need to keep me going. I have work to do, we all do and always will (remember the best of us will remain rookies until we die). But I am more confident today then I've ever been.

Validation that the industry is not a complete mess. It is a mess on many fronts. But there are some that believe in the power of words, and believe that great writing can be discovered at a conference. I applaud those agents and editors who are not jaded and take the time to help and encourage the next generation of writers.

Validation that if I keep at it, good things will come. As Stephen King said, "it was my time."

Now, I'm suffering a bit. I loved the conversations with the editors, and agents, and writers. Being in that world for three days highlighted for me how much I really enjoy that world.

I want more of it, but for now, I will play the game and never lose focus over what's possible if I just keep on fighting the good fight.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Are you a Putter-inner or Taker-outer?

"Some writers are taker-outers; I'm afraid I've always been a natural putter-inner"
On Writing -- Stephen King

I am happy to announce that I am exactly like Mr. Stephen King... well, only when it comes to my 2nd draft habits.
Credit: Free images from acobox.com

Stephen King, in his seminal book on the craft, describes that he had a propensity for writing very puffy stories in his early years (high school years). One editor, who rejected one of his short stories gave him the magic formula.


2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%

This formula, he claims, was one of the reasons why he believes his writing began to improve. He focused on cutting.

Now, this works for some types of writers. Stevie (yeah, I call him Stevie... we're very close) writes monster novels, typically in the 180,000+ word range.

I am not thay type of writer. It turns out that this is a good thing, since, unless you are Stephen King, publishers shy away (reject) books larger than 100k words.

My first draft is light, typically ranging in the 60k-70k words (see my previous post on 60,000 in ten days).

Writers who have been studying the craft, and have listened to the advice of the veterans, understand that your 1st draft should sit and simmer. Some say two weeks, others say one month. Mine is a minimum of two weeks, but I try my best to get engraossed in something else so that I am away from the story for one month. I want to forget the details. I want to forget the names of some of the characters. I want to forget and create as much distance as possible.

Because when I come back to it, I want to read it like a first-time reader. I want to have distance and objectivity.

When I do return to it for the 2nd draft, themes emerge, the motivation of secondary character crystalize and scenes that I may have glossed over get clarified.

As you can imagine, as I read through, I bubble up with ideas -- ways to complete it, refine it, and improve it. I may even change the ending. I even take out handful of scenes and replaced them with new ones. So it's natural, that the word count will grow.

My propensity for adding is tied directly to the fact that I write my first draft fast. My story world will disintegrate if I don't write it fast. Some facts:

Aces -- 1st Draft = 8 weeks
Rocky Peak -- 1st Draft = 4 weeks
Ten Years -- 1st Draft = 2 weeks

(side note: by writing this data out, I noticed that I have been increasing the velocity of my writing drastically. I hope I don't expect to improve on that when I start the next one.)

So, what this means is that I am a natural putter-inner. And I put in plenty. More facts:

Aces -- 1st Draft = 74,000 --> 2nd Draft = 93,000
Rocky Peak -- 1st Draft = 65,000 --> 2nd Draft = 98,000
Ten Year -- 1st Draft = 60,000 --> 2nd Draft = ???

It goes without say that 2nd and 3rd drafts are nice and slow. They are leisurely strolls through the story world.

What are you? A putter-inner or a taker-outer? Do you add, or cut? Do you sprint through your first draft and then stroll through your 2nd and 3rd drafts?

Monday, September 12, 2011

60,000 Words in Ten Days


This is not a marketing gimmick. For one, I have nothing to sell... not yet.

This is something that two years ago I would not have thought possible. In the past I never quite finished my stories. And those that were almost there, really sucked. I got over that hump with Aces. But this type of productivity is not the norm for me.

So what did I actually do?

I wrote a 60,000-word romantic comedy in two weeks (ten actual days of writing). And I'm still having a hard time believing it.

Flashback...

Back on August 25th, just before I drifted off to sleep, a seed sprouted in my brain--a story about forgiveness and closure. I dreamt about it and when I woke up the next day I had a surge of flammable adrenalin.

The next day on the 26th, I wrote a blog about my new story. I flippantly said that I was having an affair. At that point in time, I was developing the idea. And as the parts of it came together, I started obsessing over it.

The fact is that I was in love--and I mean that sincerely. I was in love with the idea. I was in love with the characters. I began to feel those butterflies and anticipation and longing that one feels when you fall in love. I could't stop thinking about the story. I wanted (needed) to know how things would come together. Would they come together? Is it possible to fix things that went wrong in the past?

And when I get this way, my dreams are shattered. I've blogged about this as well. My world of dreams and reality get blurred. This is a curse, I admit. I was not able to sleep. I would work off the fumes of love and passion.

As I developed the story, I used a tried and true system that has worked well for me in the past (James Scott Bell's framework for plot and structure). This time, I incorporated what I learned in his seminar which I attended in Los Angeles.

By August 29th I was ready to start. I want to stress, that this is a very short, even by my impatient standards, period of planning time. But I had identified what I needed. I knew my main characters very well. Too well. I knew the conflict and the challenges. What I didn't know was how I would end it... but I never know that.

To get into the right state of mind, I spent time flipping through old year books (oh yeah, I worked myself up). I reminisced, bringing back and tapping into those awkward days. I read the notes that my friends wrote ("You're the best. KIT" -- "Lakers rule!"). Then I hit the mother load. I had forgotten that during 9th grade I kept a journal for about three months. As I read the horrible melodrama that was my life, I knew that I was ready to explode with content.

But I did one more thing on the 29th. I analyzed one of my favorite romantic comedies -- Notting Hill. I even blogged about it for you. My new story is a romantic comedy so I wanted to assure that I had not left any page unturned.

I bagan to write in earnest on August 30th. I wrote the first chapter and stopped there. I have this ceremonial thing that I write the first chapter and evaluate the voice, the dialogue and the characters. The next day I gave it to my wife. She smiled and said the thing every writer wants to hear. "I want to know what happens next."

The surge was unstopable. On Sept 7th I tweeted the following:


The next day, on Sept 7th I tweeted this:


Nine days of writing and I was at 53k words.

By the next day I was sitting at 60k words. Which happened to be the goal for this particular story.

I wrote fast, because I honestly couldn't stop the process. I was scared that I would lose it if I didn't burn through it. Also, I needed to know how the story would end. I used all my tools that I've written about in the past. Scrivener, Evernote and the iPad. Not to mention Nutella (#nutellaWriters) and espresso.

On Sept 9th, I was done. Over the past couple of days I've taken a break. I have to tell you, writing like that has a burn out effect. I was (am) exhauseted. To keep up this clip I would wake up at 4 AM to write until 6 AM. Then from 7 PM until 1 or 2 AM.

Now, I'm done. And a bit shell-shocked.

Now I'm letting it simmer. I'm creating distance from the story. I will return to it in a month (maybe two weeks... maybe one). And I have to say, I'm dying to read it. I'm already considering a few additional scenes... but I must admit, maybe I wrote those scenes already. 

I can't recall. 

It was all a blur. 

A dream, but a real dream.

Fight the good fight!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Plot & Structure Analysis - Notting Hill

When I come across a book or a movie that I like, I immediately want to analyze what they did right. I want to learn from it, but also appreciate the clever use of tried and true techniques. It takes creativity and ingenuity to write yet another love story, while at the same time keep the story fresh.

A tool I use to study effective structure is from James Scott Bell's best seller "Plot & Structure." Whether you're a plotter or a pantser, it's wise to consider the major scenes of your story and how they sustain the story starting with the first sentence all the way to "The End."

Quick Refresher

The foundation this model is built on is that stories follow the three act structure: Beginning (Act I), the long middle (Act II), and the end (Act III).

Mr. Bell argues that a novel's structure is held together with a well thought out initial disturbance and two doorways of no return leading to grand finale. 

Early in Act I, we come face-to-face with a disturbance. This is where the lead's normal life is altered (it can be a change, trouble, etc.)

Act I ends when we arrive at the first Doorway of No Return. This is the transition into the confrontation of Act II. The key is that it must be a doorway of no return. If the lead can say, "Screw it, I don't care anymore," then there's no real conflict. It needs to matter, greatly. And turning back needs to be impossible (physically or emotionally).

Throughout the second act, the stakes need to rise. It needs to build up to something drastic which makes the resolution or winning even more critical than ever before. Act II is the longest portion of the story.

This leads us to the second Doorway of No Return. Like the first one, it's a kick in the pants, with no choice but to enter the doorway. This propels us into the final battle, the confrontation, the do or die section of the novel. This second doorway drives us directly into Act III, the waging of battle.

Finally, with the end of Act III comes the final battle and resolution. Then there's the aftermath where the story leaves a lasting impression, or a resonance.

The book has plenty of samples and clarifying explanations. But with this high level refresher in mind (because I know that you've read the book and if you haven't you can win it -- see my contest), let's see how it works in the real world.

Applying The Model

I like real examples. I need to see it. More importantly, I need to do it on my own to internalize it. Although on the surface I get it, concepts never really sink in until I apply it to things that I understand. For illustration (and educational) purposes, I will apply it to a romantic comedy, Notting Hill.

Notting Hill -- Starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant

SPOILER ALERT -- If you haven't seen the movie, I will be giving away key plot points and the ending. You really should watch it. It's a fun movie.

The Hero - HG
The Heroine - JR

The Disturbance


HG is a not-so-successful book store owner (they only sell travel books--clearly, he has not been following the industry trends). In walks the biggest actress of the time. He immediately recognizes her, but does his best to be low-key about it. Is this the disturbance? Sure, a mini disturbance no doubt. But the real one is coming.





A couple of funny scenes later, she buys a book and leaves. He's a bit taken by the surreal nature of the experience, but moves on. HG leaves the store to buy coffee and juice. On his return he runs into JR spilling the juice all over her. Major disturbance.



First Doorway of No Return

She's a mess, but as luck would have it, he lives across the street. She needs to change so she agrees to go there. She changes, he apologizes, they laugh, she leaves. All's sort of back to normal, right? But you can see that trouble is brewing. They stare a little too long, smile a little too easily. But she's gone. Done... maybe not.

Doorbell rings. It's her. She forgot her bag at his home. She grabs it, they stare at each other and... she kisses him! No friendly kiss on the cheek. This is the real deal.

Is this a kick in the pants? I don't know about the rest of you, but if a world-famous actress, who's the hottest thing on the planet, kisses you in a passionate moment, chances are things will not be the same for you. You have slipped down the rabbit hole. THE FIRST DOORWAY. This is a key point. He's a regular guy, going through the motions of life and the biggest celebrity has suddenly kissed him.

Escalation of Stakes

We're in Act II now. She leaves but the very next day calls him. More funny scenes ensure (otherwise, it wouldn't be a romantic comedy). She joins him as his date to his little sister's birthday. This is a classic scene that you must see. After dinner they take a walk and enter a private park in Notting Hill when she has an emotional moment, realizing that people do sometimes love each other forever. They kiss again and they fall for each other.

But all's not well.

Turns out, she has a boyfriend (another famous actor). And when he shows up in London, HG understands that he was silly and naive to think that an average bloke like him, would ever have a chance.

She leaves, he's broken hearted. Things are not the same for him. He is damaged. This is the escalation of conflict.

Second Doorway

Some months later, out of nowhere, she shows up at his house.

She's distrught. Pictures taken of her when she was younger have hit the rags -- nude shots. He takes her in and comforts her. She's a mess but in a short period of time, he gives her peace, comfort and more importantly friendship.

Later that night, they make love. The next morning, she asks if she can stay with him longer. He says, "Stay forever."

That's the SECOND DOORWAY. He's in love. He wants her to stay with him--forever! There's no turning back now. Impossible.


Lights Out

We're in Act III now. And you know what that means--something's got to go wrong. And that's when the Fit hits the Shan. The fairy tale doesn't last long.

In fact, it lasts, about 25 seconds in movie time. The paparazzi find her at his home and take pictures of them in their underware.

She pops a fuse, blaming him, saying that he will get all the benefit of the exposure, while she will regret it forever. This breaks his heart. She goes diva on him and storms out (typical celebrity).

It's all bad at this point. Months pass. He's in a state of depression. This is appropriate for someone who has entered through the second doorway. He had it all... for a few seconds, but still had it all, and now she's gone.

He then hears that she's been in London filming a new movie. He needs to see her (emotional death is at stake if he's not with her), so he goes to visit.

She's a bit distant but invites him in. As he watches them shoot, he hears her tell a co-star that she doesn't know why he (HG) showed up. HG finally gets it. He leaves without saying a word.

Final Battle

The next day, she shows up at his bookstore. This is another classic scene. He turns her down when she asks if they can try again. She explains that she didn't want her co-star to know what was really going on in her life. But as far as HG is concerned, his heart can't take it anymore. He needs to have a clean break, because he's certain that she will break his heart again. She leaves with a classic gut-wrenching scene. "Remember, that I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." She walks out and he's left there planted.

But a romantic comedy must have a happy ending, right?

He calls his friends and recounts what happened. As he explains the whole thing to them, it dawns on him that he was a "daft prick" and got it all wrong.

The chase is on.

They're trying to find her before she leaves the country. They finally find her at a press conference where she's explaining that she will take a break for some time and leave London immediately. The last question, goes to the gentleman in the pink shirt. Yup, it's HG. He asks her to take him back in front of the press, and of course, she does. A true knockout ending. Done with brilliance.


The aftermath

We see a montage of scenes from red carpet appearances together, to their wedding, to the final scene where they're in the same private Notting Hill park where she learned to believe in everlasting love. They're on a bench. He's reading a book. She's laying her head on his lap while caressing her tummy -- she's pregnant.

Everyone--even the mega-stars and bookstore owners--deserve happiness.

Final Thoughts

I hope this has been helpful. Try it. Pick a movie, TV show, or a novel and see if you can identify these scenes. When they're done well, they make the story world believable. And the more you do it, you'll get a better feel for what makes for convincing scenes that move the plot along.

I have a separate journal for this type of analysis.

Do you also analyze your favorite movies and books? Do you dissect them to see what made them great? How do you do it? What do you look for? Do share.

Fight the good fight!

Friday, August 26, 2011

I'm Having an Affair...

Francesco Hayez 008Get your mind out of the gutter! Not that kind of affair!


The thing is... *sigh*

The thing is that I'm developing a new story and... I must confess, I'm falling in love with her... *eyes get misty*


It doesn't mean that I don't love my other stories. I do. They're all special.

It's not them, it's me. It always is...

I'm pitching Aces, while giving Rocky Peak a make-over... but the new one is... you know. New.


I hope they'll forgive me. In the end, if I love the story, and have the talent needed to pull it off, then it'll benefit all of them.

I feel that loving your story is critical. Your love and passion will translate into a story that will pick up the reader and take them through the roller-coaster ride you've written. You need to be head-over-heels with the story. You need to feel the ache, the longing to write more words. You need to feel justified when you don't sleep, or eat lunch. You need to feel it so strongly that time away from the story is time away from your once-in-a-lifetime love.

Am I being overly dramatic? Maybe.

But the reality is that from the day you start writing the first word of the story, to the day that it hits the shelves, you will have read your manuscript a few dozen (or hundred) times. Think of your all-time favorite book. How many times have you read it? Five, ten?

If you don't have a passion for your story, you'll get sick of her, before she's had the chance to evolve and shine into the beauty you know she will become. And that's not fair to the story that is trying so hard to break free from your head and onto the page.

What's your relationship with your stories? And how do you create separation between yoru "other" stories?

Fight the good fight!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

CONTEST- By Writers, For Writers

On October 1st, 2010 I started to blog about my writing journey.

On October 27th, 2010 I created my Twitter account.

Today, I have nearly 1,300 followers on Twitter, and 50 on my blog. And to each of you, I am grateful.

Seth Godin, in his book "Meatball Sundae," challenged me. He said, write a blog and see how it changes your life. And change it has. I have met more wonderful people than I could have ever imagined. I have learned more than I could properly account for. I am more excited about the future than I have ever been. And it's thanks to you (well... maybe not you. Yeah, you. The one over there, with the red baseball cap. You need to comment more often!)

So, in honor of these two milestone, I want to give away two -- that's right, TWO -- books to my friends.

Both books are by the guru himself, James Scott Bell. These books and Mr. Bell, have helped me in ways that I will never be able to properly repay. The books are:
  • Plot & Structure: This is a must for all writers. It has been a game-changer for me

  • Art of War for Writers: An inspirational and powerful book for all facets of your writing career

Did I mention that they are SIGNED by Mr. Bell?

Oh yeah. I'm giving away the kind of thing you'll add to your last will and testament.

The contest starts NOW and ends on Friday, September 30th, 2011 at 9 PM PST.

One day before my blog-a-versary.

The contest is open internationally. 

The rules are simple. I would love to hear your best advice for other writers. By Writers, For Writers. There are more people now than ever that are jumping into the world of writing. Each time I speak to a high-school student who tells me he/she wants to be a writer, I run through a bunch of things that I feel I need to share and explain. Why not go to the community of writers and ask them? Some of you are already published. Some will be published soon. Some, like me, are inching your way closer.

Your advice can be about:
  • What made your writing better? For example, was it something you read on dialogue, plotting, creating better structure, or character development. What made your stories better?
  • What helped you transition into a better or more effective writer? This could be a tool--like Scrivener--or an advice--like a writing quota.
  • Industry advice?

How will this work?
  • Write your advice directly into the comments below (preferred)
  • Or if you're really shy, then email me at araTHEwriter [at] gmail [dot] com
At the end of the contest, I will consolidate the feedback and bring it all together into the "Best advice: by Writers, for Writers" post. Each of you who contributed will be famous... sort of.

How do you win?

+ One winner will be picked by me and a two other secret people. We will debate and choose our favorite advice. Maybe Mr. James Scott Bell can be coerced into giving his opinion also... maybe :)

+ One winner will be picked by Random.org by a entry system:
- Each comment gets +5 entries (for your contribution)
- Follow my blog and get +1 entries (for your good taste)
- Already following my blog, you get +2 entries (for being a visionary)
- Spreading the word via your blog, Facebook or twitter +2 entries (make sure you tell me about it. For example including my Twitter account @araTHEwriter in the tweet is a fast and easy way)

Simple. Got it? Great. Now go and do it.

Just to kick this off, I'll be the first to share with two! ... I hope I win...

Daily and weekly word quotas: For years I floundered. But when I read Plot & Structure I understood the power of the word quota. It immediately helped me create a writing structure that helped me write an average of 1,500 words per day and then up to 2,500 words per day. It enabled me to be focused on producing words on paper. There is nothing more powerful than seeing you inch your way closer to the finish line

One stinkin' rotten word: My mentor, Michael Levin, said every writer should write one page a day, every day. But he understood that sometimes, we were too busy or too tired, or too something else. He said, on those days, write one word. Write "The" if that's all that comes to mind, then walk away. But he knew something that little 'ol me was unaware of. Once I wrote one word, I wrote a sentence, then a paragraph... until I had written a few hundred words. One stinkin' word is all it takes to get things rolling sometimes.

As a bonus, here's The Word Quota advice by James Scott Bell... in his own words...



Check out his other videos on his YouTube channel.

Fight the good fight!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I'm Lazy

It's true. But don't assume lazy is bad.

I think our schools and teachers have taken this perfectly good state-of-mind and have applied all types of bad connotations to it.

At it's core, I suppose being lazy is being averse or disinclined to work. One of my favorite non-fcition books is Timothy Ferris's Four-Hour Workweek. He asks, "Are you being active, or productive?"

I've never appreciated people who work hard and produce nothing. I appreciate people who work smart, and work on the right things. Work in and of itself is meaningless. Work should produce something. The question is, what is it that you're producing by working.

The high school years
When I entered 10th grade, everyone was yapping about college, applications, letter's of recommendation, GPA, SAT, blah, blah, blah. I needed expert advice. And no, Google was not an option back then. I'm not sure if we even had electricity yet.

I spoke with my Math/Physics teacher who I greatly respected. I told him I thought engineering would be good for me. I liked creating things from nothing. I loved solving problems. And I had a natural curiosity for why things worked the way they did. So he told me to skip the big schools where I would be one of three hundred students in each class. He pointed to the local university--Cal Sate University Northridge. I thought this was brilliant. My older brother had just started there.

I grabbed my brother's CSUN catalog and flipped to the back. I wanted a shortcut. It turns out, any SAT score would do if you had a GPA of 3.00 or above (not the case anymore by the way, but this was during the Jurassic era--less competition). For my international readers, 3.00 basically means you're getting a B (85%) on all your subjects. Maybe an A (95%) here and there offset by a C (75%) somewhere else.

Perfect. I had the solution. I knew how to maximize the result by minimizing the work. If I maintained a 3.00, I wouldn't need to study for the SAT. Suffice it to say I graduated with a 3.01. Yes, I've always been good at doing just what I needed to get by. The thing is that high school was somewhat irrelevant. College mattered and so would graduate school. But seriously, high school? High school was the time to fall in love, play the guitar, go to the beach, and live life. Tell me, honestly, what would create better stories and memories? Junior-Senior prom or the mating patterns of squirrels? Okay, bad example. It would be interesting to learn about a squirrel's mating pattern, but hopefully you get the point.

Back to wasting effort. Some of my high-school friends had higher GPAs than I did. They also planned on applying to CSUN. But they, for some ungodly reason, were enrolled in SAT classes. They were nervous, they had flash cards, you name it. Why? I didn't get it at all. That was wasted work. They would produce nothing by doing that. This is what I mean when I say, if the work produces nothing of value or of consequence, then don't bother.

In fairness, I knew that I would do well in the math section of the SAT. As for the English section, since English was officially my fourth-language, I knew it would be a tougher nut to crack. So, I read close to 1,000 comic books and probably close to thirty novels the summer before 12th grade. In the end, although I didn't "study" for the SAT, I did something else that helped me indirectly. I did the things that helped fuel my imagination and more importantly, my passion for stories.

###

Fast forward to this past January when I completed Aces. My mentor was so excited about it, that when I asked him to give me some guidance with the query letter, he told me to hold off on that. He took my manuscript and approached agents that he knew--agents that he had worked with in the past.

My lazy-gene kicked in. Why work on this horrible thing called a query letter, if I really didn't have to. However, I decided that some effort would probably make sense. After all, as much as I appreciated the desire to help me, I didn't know what would or could happen. But frankly, beyond a half-hearted attempt at the query, the months of January through March were just that--half-hearted. Instead, I worked on a new novel.

So what happened? From January until July of 2011, three amazing agents were considering my manuscript. The third agent sat on it for three months. I know it's easier to say no than it is to say yes. The maybes are the worst. But I got valuable insight from three great agents.

As I mentioned in my last post, I knew it wouldn't end well. None of them represented my genre, short of an author or two who were house-hold names. So to pick me up would be very very irregular.

In early Feb, the first one passed. In late March, the second one passed.

In April, when I finished the first draft of my new novel, I woke up from my lazy stupor and started reading on the topic in ernest. Some of my twitter friends, specifically @KatLovesBoho (Kathryn Sheridan Kupanoff) and @IamJPRoth (Jo Perfilio) gave me the type of feedback that helped me get it to a point that was closer.

In July, the third agent finally said no. That's when I got guidance from the great James Scott Bell, which got my query letter to the 90% mark. Then I reached out to Writer's Digest, 2nd Draft service. And finally, when I got more feedback from new agent Lauren Ruth, I knew that I was finally ready.

At this point, each and every word has been looked at, dissected, and washed with a toothbrush so many times that I can't imagine a query letter that would do a better job of capturing my story. And even then, it may not be enough. *Le sigh*

"Wait!" you must be yelling. "Nearly five stinkin' months on a one page letter. Five months to create 250 words? And that may still not do it? This sure seems like a lot of work for little value."

I think the math points to less than two words per day. Not very efficient. But this is a case where the work you put into the query letter is directly correlated with the improved probability of landing an agent.

Here's the thing about the publishing world. To get published by a major publisher, you need an agent. To get an agent, you need to query them. Each agent gets an average of 200-300 query letters a week. Some into four digits digits. If they like the query letter, they will ask for pages from your manuscript. No agent, no major publisher. So how do you get noticed by an agent? No, spraying perfume on the email query letter will not do the job. And even your keen insight into the mating patterns of squirrels will not do it.

The way you get noticed is two step process: (1) write an amazing query letter then (2) hope and pray.

I've got the hoping-and-praying bit down. And for once, I feel good about the query letter.

Fight the good fight!


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Genre, Genre, Genre

I've been struggling with this "Genre" thing.

When I set out to write Aces, I thought of it as a contemporary romance novel. There was no doubt in my mind. And when I was done, I was still there. No doubt.

Now, after a few "professional" readers have gone through it, I have some doubts. Some will say, that it doesn't matter. But I have to disagree. I'll explain later...

My mentor sent my manuscript to three agents that he had worked with in the past. All three, awesome agents. All three, don't represent the genre. They represented Literary, or Children's/MG, or women's fiction, but not Romance. So when my manuscript went out to them, I knew how it would end.

And of course, I was right. I didn't expect them to offer representation. What I did get was two pices of information from each. One that encouraged me, and another that confused me.

Here's the basic reply I received:
"Thank you for letting me read this... loved/enjoyed the story... the characters are <<enter a nice phrase here>>... but... I don't represent <<fill in the genre here>>."

I was elated to see agents saying they liked what they read. But because I'm a bit of a scheptic, I also knew that they were probably being a bit nicer than normal, because someone they knew and respect had sent them my novel. So maybe they didn't love it... maybe they liked it. Maybe even liked-liked it... but probably not loved it. That's cool. At least they didn't voimit all over my manuscript.

That was the encouraging part. Now, for the confusing part.

You probably noted the little <<fill in the genre here>> comment.

Each of them said my novel was a different genre.

One said -- Romance (cool... she nailed it)
Another said -- Commercial fiction (oh, I see)
A third said -- Mainstream (okay...)

I'd like to think I'm reasonably intelligent. And with all my books on the craft, the market, and access to google, I would find the answer to this mystery.

After all, maybe all three are sort of the same, just a variation of the definition.

So I searched.

Nathan Bransford said on his blog back in 2008...

"... commercial fiction is kind of an umbrella term for genre fiction (Mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, westerns, historical fiction, etc.). Chances are, if you're writing commercial fiction you're writing with some genre or genres in mind and are targeting readers of that genre(s)."

Okay cool. So according to this, romance fell into commercial fiction. One and the same. My theory was holding up nicely. At this point I hoped that maybe even mainstream could fall into that definition. I crossed my fingers (and a couple of toes).

So I jumped over to Agent Query.com under Genre Description, where it said:
"Commercial fiction often incorporates other genre types under its umbrella such as women’s fiction, thriller, suspense, adventure, family saga, chick lit, etc. Commercial fiction is not the same as "mainstream" or "mass market" fiction, which are both umbrella terms that refer to genre fiction like science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and some thrillers."

Say what? So, according to AgentQuery.com, commercial is not equal to romance. Mainstream is romance. Great.

I read more. It went on to say, "Commercial fiction uses high-concept hooks and compelling plots to give it a wide, mainstream appeal."

So, commercial fiction has mainstream appeal. But it's not mainstream. Got it? Sure you do.

Well... I was confused. Nathan can't be wrong. He was a super agent for a while, turned author. Highly respected... but... but.. there's that but again.

I knew what to do. I would check out Dummies.com -- you know them. They do all the "___ for dummies" books. I found "Exploring the different types of fiction." Perfect!

It said, "Commercial fiction attracts a broad audience and may also fall into any subgenre, like mystery, romance, legal thriller, western, science fiction, and so on."

Oh, for the love of--! So commercial does include romance...

The challenge is that depending on which genre is the accurate genre, it changes the agents that I would approach. More importantly, it also changes the manner in which the query letter would be written. Why? This is what another agent who read my query letter said: "It sounds like contemporary romance, not commercial fiction."

:) Well... I thought they were the same. But I knew exactly what she meant. I had thought of this book as contemporary romance when I wrote it. So naturally, in my query letter, I would focus on the relationship of the boy and girl. Of course it would come across as romance.

You may ask, "If you wrote it thinking it's contemporary romance, why don't you just stick to it?" Go ahead, ask. Good, I thought you'd never ask.

Because, yet another two insiders said, "I don't see this book in the romance section of the bookstore. No bare-chested guy on this cover. It will be in the 'General Fiction' area with a lot of great love stories."

It sure would be nice if we had an equivalent to the unifying theory of physics. Maybe we can call it the Unifying Definition of Fiction Genres.

Am I over thinking this? My wife, in her infinite ability to cut to the bone said, "You're the author. You choose." I hate it when she's right. Which, if you've been keeping count, is nearly always.

In the end, I think it comes down to researching the agent. Check the site, find interviews, read their blog. Look at what types of novels the agent represents. Then look and see what they call that genre. If that "type" of book fits yours, call it whatever that agent calls it and be done with it. Simple... I need another double espresso!

Fight the good fight!
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