Stuck in the Middle with You

Whose opinion matters more?  The writer?  The critique partner/beta?  The reader?  The agent/publisher?

These questions have been swirling through my head lately.  At first blush, the answer is “the readers”.  I mean, they’re the ones who will ultimately decide whether or not to buy a book, whether they connect with the character, and whether they want more.  But the more I learn about the world of publishing, the more I’m finding that’s not the case.  A reader may love a story, but agents and publishers may hate it.  I recently read how Harry Potter came to be, and almost never was.  If you don’t know the story, I’ll elucidate for you.  You see, the manuscript for “The Sorcerer’s Stone” was rejected pretty much across the board and finally landed on the desk of a publisher, the last publisher.  All other avenues had been exhausted.  This publisher took the an excerpt home to “read” and ended up giving it to his young daughter.  (At this point in the story, I have images of the Grinch giving Little Cindy Lou Who a drink of water, patting her on the head, and sending her to bed).  She read it and absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to get more, to find out what happened next. The publisher had hated it and was going to turn it down.  Fortunately for everyone (especially J.K. Rowling), he decided to listen to his daughter and accept the manuscript.

So, unless the reader happens to be a publisher’s daughter, they don’t seem to have much of a say.  I’m certain books are passed on all the time that readers would love.  It’s not the agent or publisher’s fault. They pass on books for all sorts of reasons.  Their client list is too full, they already have something similar, it’s not their cup of tea, they don’t believe enough in the project.  They have to use their judgment as to what will sell and what won’t.  Sometimes they get it wrong.  For example, sixty agents passed on “The Help” by Katherine Stockett.  Sixty.  Stockett tried for three years to get it published.  No one thought it would work or that audiences would like it, but people loved it.  So, again, it goes back to the reader’s opinion.

I recently became part of a wonderful sort of experiment: an online critique group.  It’s a forum with a small number of people, a max of ten, who post their stuff a chapter at a time for critiques from the other members.  No, this doesn’t count as publishing, as only registered members can read the works and everything is password protected.  Unlike some of the other writer’s forums I frequent where you can only post a chapter or excerpt here and there for help, you can post as much as you want.  I’m also a member of a flesh and blood critique group that works the same way.  We meet once a month and read a chapter or two and get feedback.  The only problem is if you work faster than that pace, which is the purpose of the online group.

So I joined and posted the first couple chapters of my new work in progress.  And they hated it.  More accurately, they hated my main character.  They found her shallow and self-absorbed.  However, they loved my plot, and that kept them reading.  I was a little miffed, to be honest, because I thought she was a typical teenage girl worried about prom and the boy she likes.  I will caveat and say my fellow critiquers said they were not normal teenage girls and that’s probably why they couldn’t relate/didn’t like my main character.  Nevertheless, I’ve found myself in a quandary.  I don’t want to have a completely unlikeable main character, but I need her to be a little unreasonable at the beginning so there’s room for growth.

My answer: I co-lead a small group of youth at my church.  All teenage girls from ages fourteen to eighteen.  So, I offered to let one of them read my first two chapters (and ended up with several of them reading it, but that’s the way it goes).  Their initial impressions were that they loved the character.  This only deepens the quandary, leaving me feeling stuck in the middle.  I have a character adults dislike, but teenagers like, in a book written for teenagers.  Yes, I know my adults come from one group of people who may be biased, but I have to wonder: will other adults feel the same way?  And if they do, will they be turned off and not want to read it?  Unfortunately, no matter how much the teenagers may like it, it’s adults I have to impress.

It seems a bit counter-intuitive though, doesn’t it?  I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing it right.  But then again, I don’t know how else it could be done.  I guess if an agent/publisher were interested in a book but weren’t sure how it would sell, they could do a test audience.  That takes time and money though, and what’s the point if the test audience doesn’t like it?  Ultimately, I don’t know any way it could be done differently.  So I’m going to do the only thing I can at this stage of the game: plug on and see how the book turns out, if it’s good enough, query it and see what responses I get.  Then, if the adults in the publishing world dislike her, I can reconsider a revamp, or hope I get lucky and someone’s teenage daughter reads it and convinces her publisher father that it’s good.  I won’t hold my breath for that one though.

 

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Bullet, Consider Yourself Bitten

I have just entered my first real writing contest, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA).  You have no idea how nerve racking clicking that submit button was!  I spent the last week editing my manuscript one last time, then I spent this past Saturday on final revisions.  I think there will always be things I want to change or add, but I reached the point where I had to stop fiddling with it.  I can make edits up until February 5, or until they receive 5,000 submissions, but I refuse to look at it anymore.  I’ve checked (and re-checked) formatting, making sure my chapter numbers are all in order and all line up and the spacing didn’t get off, until my poor little fingers are worn out from typing.  I’ve read the thing so many times I could almost recite it verbatim.  Now, I can only wait.

The first round cuts will be announced on February 24, my birthday.  Until then, I’m going to put this manuscript out of my head and focus on my next.  Okay, mostly out of my head.  I still have a couple of partials with agents and I’m going through a final round of betas.  If I don’t make it to the next round of the ABNA I’m considering taking this manuscript to the Backspace Conference in New York in May.  I figured one more round of betas reading my revisions wouldn’t hurt.  Yes, I know I just contradicted my prior statement that I’m leaving it alone.  I’m mostly leaving it alone, that counts right?

To be honest, the most difficult part of the submission was the personal information.  I never know what to write in a bio or “personal anecdote”.  On the whole, most writer’s are fairly self-deprecating, so trying to come up with statements to sell myself is especially hard.  At least it’s over!  On to the next story.  Sally forth.  Tally ho!

Just a note: I’m not really expecting to get that far in the contest (see aforementioned self-deprecating comment), I’m just proud I talked myself into submitting my work.  I’ll keep you posted though.  Does anyone else have experience with ABNA?  I’d love to hear if you’ve submitted in the past and how it went, or if you submitted this year (if so, good luck!).

Your Love is Like, a Roller Coaster Baby, Baby, I Wanna Ride

The song “Love Roller Coaster” has been in my head.  The Red Hot Chili Peppers version, not the Ohio Players.  (Yes, I had the “Beavis and Butthead Do America” soundtrack and yes, it was awesome.)  I feel like I’ve been stuck on this ride, but I can’t get off because no matter how many ups and downs there are, I still love it.  Writing is a roller coaster.  Every bit of it.  At least, it is for me. From start to finish I have so many ups and downs I feel like a pogo stick.  From the story idea, to putting it on paper, to changing the idea, to changing the order of chapters, to writer’s block, to character development (you go through a whole separate coaster ride along with your character), to revisions, to querying.  Everything goes up and down, up and down, up and down–highs and lows.

I experienced this roller coaster in one day recently when an agent (a dream agent) rejected my full manuscript because it was too similar to something the agent already had.  Low: rejection.  High: the agent liked my concept.  Low: but the agent didn’t want it.  High: there’s something similar, which means my story is (maybe) marketable.  Low: there’s something similar, which means my story isn’t as fresh as I thought/hoped.  High: I don’t know how similar.  Low: it doesn’t matter, the agent rejected me.

I spent one good day and night wallowing in my rejection, then pulled myself up by my boot-straps and kept plugging on.  I’m going through one more round of revisions before submitting my manuscript to a contest (fingers crossed!).  Three days after I decided on the contest, I experienced another high when another agent (a dream agent) requested my partial.  Then quickly a low when I realized the agent asked for a synopsis too (eek!).  Fortunately, I think I got my synopsis in decent shape (see my post on the horrors of the synopsis here).

Right now I feel like I’m more in the  middle of the roller coaster, or the big incline at the beginning.  I’m slowly click-clacking my way to the top, unsure whether there will be a big drop on the other side, or whether the track will run flat for a while first, or maybe there will even be another hill to climb.  Regardless, I’m in for the whole ride.  That’s the thrill, right?  Not knowing what’s coming next.  It’s a good thing I love roller coasters.  As soon as I get off this one, wherever it may stop, high or low, I’m ready to step on the next and start all over.  Because that’s what I have to do.  It’s what we all have to do if we truly want to be writers.  This business is full of ups and downs (mostly downs), but its the ups, those few glorious moments, that make it worthwhile.

Just Do It

Whenever non-writers find out that I wrote I book, I typically get the same reaction: “Oh wow, you wrote a book?  I could never write a book.”  Lately, this has been bugging me more and more.  Not to sound self-righteous or anything, because believe me, I’m not.  Like the majority of writers I know, I’m extraordinarily self-deprecating.  My husband fusses at me all the time for saying negative things about myself.  That being said, I just don’t think writing a book is that amazing of a feat.

Anyone can write a book.  Writing a good book?  Well, that’s another story.  Writing a great book is much harder.  Getting published? That’s a completely different ballgame altogether.  But writing?  You just have to have the desire.

I wrote my first book a few years ago.  I’d intended to write others in the past, had started several, but never progressed past the first few chapters.  I didn’t sit down with the plan to write a book.  I sat down with an idea for a story and started typing.  Next thing I knew, I had 10,000 words, then 30,000, then, 50,000.  Then I decided to do some research to see how many words a first book was supposed to be.  The answer I found (which turned out to not be entirely correct) was 80,000-100,000.  Before I knew it, I had 96,000 words.  (That particular book has now been cut down to 84,000 and shelved for now.  I’m sure when I start revising again that will go down even more).

Now, I can understand not having the time to write.  I wrote that first one in a three month span between taking the Bar exam and receiving the results when I had nothing else to do.  But then again, I can’t.  I wrote my most recent book (a 78,000 word Young Adult) even though I have a full time day job.  If you still think don’t have time, start small.  Aim for 50,000 words.  That’s a typical middle grade novel.  Or write a children’s book.  If you want to write, you make the time.

I’ve heard others claim they just weren’t creative enough to write a book.  So write non-fiction.  Write a cookbook.  Write short stories or poetry.  Write a blog.  Still others have claimed they just aren’t good writers.  That may be the case, or maybe you haven’t given yourself the chance.  You never know until you try.  Plus, there are lots of places on the internet, like Absolute Write, where you can post your work anonymously and get feedback and help.  Or join a local writer’s group.  I do both and I can’t tell you how much my writing has improved since getting help from other writers, and I considered myself a pretty good writer to start with. (Again, not tooting my own horn…okay maybe a little…but I’ve always excelled in my writing courses and spent the first few years of my legal career doing nothing but writing appellate briefs.  It’s one area I’m pretty confident in my ability).

When I started writing fiction, I had no idea how to space things, or how to structure dialog.  I didn’t realize how  weak adverbs made my writing, or how vague I could sometimes be.  It’s easy to forget that although you know exactly what you’re talking about, others can’t see inside your head.  I must say, being on the trial team in law school also helped tremendously in this area.  For example, we were told to bring a picture to class, then had to describe that picture to our classmates without letting them see it.  Once we were done, we showed the picture and our classmates told us whether or not they got the correct image in their head.  Conveying images through words is a valuable skill in the courtroom, but I highly recommend this exercise for anyone who wants to write as well.  My point is, there are resources you can use to improve your writing, so don’t let the concern that you’re not good enough keep you from trying.

I can see where writing a book might be a challenge to someone with a learning disability, such as dyslexia, or someone with chronic health problems.  I can even see the challenge for a book that requires extensive research.  But, I know people who have overcome all of these mountains and more and written books.  Full time students and stay at home moms, retirees and those in the work force.  It doesn’t have to be done in a month or two, it doesn’t even have to be done in a year.  It just has to be done.

If you’re one of those people who is in awe of someone who can write an entire book, don’t be.  Be in awe of the good books, the great books, the published books, but always keep in mind that just writing something isn’t that big a deal.  You can do it too.  You could even write something good, or great, or published.  You just have to try.

In My Own Little Corner

In high school I did a bit of theater (I know, shocking for an introvert!  But when on stage, I’m someone different.  Kind of like when I’m in court.) and one of the plays I was in was “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella”.  At one point, Cinderella sings about all of the things she can do in her own little corner.  That song is currently cycling through my head.  Like Cinderella, I can do great things when it’s just me, in my own little world.  The line that’s always stuck with me is “I’m a huntress on an African safari, it’s a dangerous type of sport, and yet it’s fun.  In the night I sally forth to seek my quarry, and find I forgot to bring my gun.”

That’s me.  At least, that’s what I’m afraid I am.  Afraid I’ll go off to do something great and dangerous, then find I’m woefully under-prepared or inadequate.  A few posts ago I mentioned that I was considering going to a writer’s conference.  When I come up with ideas like this, I like to mull over them for a while.  Let the idea age and…and okay, I’m really a big chicken who comes up with grand ideas and then puts them off for later because I’m scared to face them.

For instance, not long after I decided that maybe, perhaps, I might ought to go to a conference, maybe, I received the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators if you are unfamiliar) magazine advertising my local spring conference in February.  What a great opportunity!  But, alas, it’s the weekend of my birthday and I already have plans.  Darn!  Maybe next fall…

More recently, however, I’ve come across a conference that I’m struggling to say no to.  I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about it, and it sounds like an amazing opportunity to actually have my work read and critiqued.  The only problem is the cost.  The conference tuition alone is pretty expensive, but when I add flight, and hotel, and meals…whew!  I, of course, tried to claim it cost too much, and we just don’t need to spend that kind of money, but my husband (in an attempt to valiantly save the day I’m sure…or push me out of my comfort zone, which he is notorious for doing) said “But you’re worth it!  If this will help you pursue your dream, we’ll make it work.”  Despite my protests, he remains firm.  So we came up with a compromise:

The deadline for early registration is February 1.  If I don’t hear from the agents with my material by then, I’ll register and go to the conference (eek!). Now I’m doubly nervous and hoping I hear back from an agent more desperately than ever.  If not, then I shall brace myself and venture out on my own into the wilds of a conference.  I’m petrified that once I get to there, in the midst of the lions that are agents and the elephants of other writers, I’ll realize I forgot my gun and get mauled and trampled and come home utterly defeated and out a substantial amount of cash.  Deep down, my real fear is I’ll realize I’m just not good enough and return with dreams dashed.

My husband and I spent this past weekend in a blissful state of dorkdom, i.e. having a Harry Potter marathon and discussing how much better the books are than the movies.  More to the point, it brought to mind a quote from J.K. Rowling.  “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”  I realized I can’t refrain from doing something based on the grounds that I may fail.  And honestly, that’s what I’m doing by putting off conferences.  So, I’ll wait (not so) patiently for the end of January, and if I haven’t heard anything, I’ll register for my first writer’s conference.  Until then, I will make myself more knowledgeable about these sorts of things.  What is the attire?  Is it really worth it?  What should I take?  I would love to hear feedback from anyone who has attended one (or several) before.

Cloud of Cough Syrup Induced Crazy

After a hiatus for the holidays, I’m ready to get going on my writing again.  I tried to write over the last few weeks, but my brain just didn’t want to get in gear.  I think it was a mix of all of the food/goodies making me want nothing more than a nap and of all the rest of my brain power being used for planning/packing for trips and buying gifts.  I kept saying “as soon as the new year starts, I’m going to get back on a good pace”, and I meant it, but unfortunately, my year has kicked off with a cold.  Sore throat, bubbly head, stuffy nose.  Instead of writing, all I want to do is lie down and nap.

The frustrating thing about it is that I recently came up with a new story idea.  Plot lines and characters and whole chapters have been scrolling through my head, itching to get put down on paper.  The mixture of cold medicine and coffee that’s keeping me going right now can’t be conducive to writing though.  I’m afraid what will come out will look like Lewis Carroll crossed with Hunter S. Thompson.  Of course, that combination of wackiness and crazy might end up being genius…or, more likely, it would just be incoherent ramblings (much like this post I’m afraid) and the story I have in my head would get all crossed up and come out wrong.  I have this image of my characters’ arms coming off their heads and mouths on their legs, their eyes boring into mine imploring “Why?  Why did you do this to us? We had such promise!”.  See?  That’s exactly the type of strange writing I’m afraid will come out right now.

So, dear writer friends, what do you do when you’re sick?  Do you push through the cloud of cough syrup induced crazy and write anyway?  Do you plot?  Outline?  Or curl up under a blanket and wait until you’re well again?