Randomness #2

I am an animal person through and through.  My dream, for as long as I could articulate dreams, was to be a veterinarian.  When that dream didn’t work out (thanks Organic Chemistry! Ugh).  I decided I would just own a lot of animals instead.

So, the day I graduated law school, my husband of two weeks and I welcomed three kittens into our lives.  All litter-mates, two orange boys and one black brindled calico girl (coincidentally, did you know that only female cats can be calico?  I have “The More You Know” PSA logo and music scrolling through my head now).  I bet you’re thinking “three, whoa crazy cat lady!”  It’s okay, my best guy friend, Sam, who is a stinking veterinarian now, calls me that every time I mention the cats.  Here’s what happened: my husband agreed to a cat after we got married…and he wanted to name it Mr. Oogabooga Steve.  I said no way, that’s a horrible name!  Then he said, if I’d let him name one Mr. Oogabooga Steve, he’d let me get two!  Naturally, I agreed.

My grandmother’s cat had kittens, so we trooped upstate to pick out two.  My husband wanted an orange male that reminded him of a cat he had as a kid.  I liked the black calico for the same reason.  But there was this tiny little kitten, it looked kind of afflicted with feet and a head that were way too large, but he was so sweet.  He kept climbing on my shoulder and purring in my ear.  I couldn’t decide between him and the calico, so the hubby relented and let me get them both (he didn’t think the runt would make it very long and didn’t want me to be heartbroken when it died).  We named the runt after my brother (who also has rather large feet–size 13!–and a big head) so we combined my brother’s name with Sasquatch for Kohlsquatch.  Since we got him the day I graduated, his middle name became Esquire.  The girl became Chaka Khan because it’s fun to call her like the song from the 80s (I feel for youuu, I think I love youuuu.  Here’s the video if you don’t know it.  You’re welcome), and my husband decided it was only fair to name one of the cats after his degrees too (Materials Eng and Electrical Eng) so she got Matlee.

They’re all more like dogs than cats.  They come when I call “kids!” or whistle, Chaka plays fetch, they respond to commands, and all three sleep in the bed with us (the boys next to me, Chaka next to the hubby).  Other than getting a little shaken when we’ve moved, they’ve had a happy, peaceful existence for the last four years…until this past weekend.

See, I’ve wanted a dog for a long time.  I had a black lab in college and I’ve missed a puppy dog in my life!  My husband finally gave in and gave me a dog for my birthday.  We went to several different shelters and looked on Petfinder and finally found one in a nearby shelter we liked.  My brother and I picked him up last Friday.  He’s a pitiful thing.  More like a cat than a dog.  He just lays there, doesn’t bark, isn’t hyper, likes to be petted sometimes.  The shelter said he was a Gordon Setter mix, but I’m not so sure.  His nose looks more like a Collie, but other features are like an Australian Shepherd, or maybe a spaniel of some sort.  Regardless, he’s 6 months old, and adorable, and scared. to. death.  All he did was lay.  He hates doors, doesn’t get the concept of a leash yet, and any sort of loud or sharp noise is life-threatening.

He perked up a bit when we got him home and he saw the yard.  We spent the weekend trying to get him out of his shell, but it seems like with every step forward we get two steps back.  My brother tried to run and play, but made the mistake of running at him, which freaked him out.  Yesterday we got him neutered and babied him all evening.  Slowly, he’s coming alive.  He came running when I called this morning and chased the ball a bit.  It will be a slow process, but I think we’ll get there.

The cats, however, aren’t so sure.  Friday afternoon we brought the dog to the back door and let the cats come up at their own pace.  They cautiously crept forward, tips of their tails twitching like furry radar.  Kohlsquatch was closest and he didn’t like it.  Chaka was the most brave.  Within minutes she was at my side purring.  She didn’t approach the dog, but was close.  Oogabooga wanted nothing to do with it.  He stayed furthest back.  Then he hissed.  That set off a chain reaction.  Kohlsquatch hissed at Chaka.  Chaka hissed at Oogabooga who hissed at Kohlsquatch, who hissed back, who hissed at Chaka, while my brother and I died laughing and the dog just laid there.  The funniest thing was, they didn’t hiss at the dog.  Then they all ran away and were upset for the remainder of the day.  Every time Oogabooga would smell dog on me he’d hiss.

They’re better now.  We brought the dog inside last night.  Literally brought him in since he’s petrified of doors.  (On another odd note, Oogabooga is petrified of socks.  I put a video on YouTube of him a few years ago).  Kohlsquatch stared.  Chaka came really close to him and sniffed.  Oogabooga hissed and ran away.  He no longer hisses at the dog smell though!  Baby steps.

So that’s my big, crazy fur family.  Three cats that act more like dogs and a dog that acts more like a cat.  I think we’re going to enroll the dog in training courses to help socialize him.  We finally decided on his name last night.  Atticus Hairyson.  Atticus because he’s a literature lawyer and I’m a lawyer who writes literature, and Hairyson after my favorite Beatle, George Harrison.

Here are the cats in their hissing circle. From left to right: Kohlsquatch Esquire, Mr. Oogabooga Steve, and Chaka Khan Matlee.

And here is Atticus Hairyson:

Nervous Wreck

*UPDATE* I made the first round cut of the Amazon contest!  I’m so excited!!  Excerpts will go up and the next round cut will be announced on March 20.  Yay!!

*UPDATE #2*  I got a request from the Cupid contest!  Double yay!

Today is D-Day.  I’ve currently got novels in two contests.  Cupid’s Literary Connection Blind Speed Dating, and the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you know all about Cupid’s contest.  So far, 26 entries out of 70 have had partials requested (4 entries were added after my last blog post on the subject).  The number was 27, but one of the entries was withdrawn.  Today is the day for fulls.  Every agent but one has used at least some arrows.  In case you’re curious, of the requested entries, I gave 11 a yes (12 if you count the withdrawn entry), 7 a no, and was split on 8.

So far, my little manuscript hasn’t had any requests (whomp, whomp), but there’s still a lot of day left so my fingers and toes and every other crossable appendages are crossed!  (And I’ve been praying pretty much non-stop that someone wants me.  In my head, I sound like Sally Field when she won her Best Actress Oscar.  Except it’s more “like me, please just like me!” but for some reason it’s in Sally Field’s voice).  The final results are posted tomorrow, but since today is the last day for requests, I’ll know by this evening whether my entry was successful.

As for ABNA, the first cut results are posted today.  Not sure when, since stupid Amazon is on the stupid west coast, with a stupid time zone difference, but I’m hoping at least by lunch.  I don’t think I stand much of a chance of getting through, but you never know!  I’ve written about the contest once before, here, but I didn’t go into much detail as to how it works.

They take 5,000 entries in two categories, General Fiction, and Young Adult (10,000 total).  The first round, Amazon editors review your pitch only and knock it from 5,000 to 1,000.  So there’s a 20% chance of making it through the first round (basically 1 in 4).  The second round, Vine Reviewers (still not entirely sure who they are) read 3,000-5,000 word excerpts of each manuscript and cut from 1,000 to 250 (25% chance).  Then Publisher’s Weekly reviewers read the full manuscript and cut from 250 to 50 (20% chance).  During the next round, Penguin’s editors read the full manuscripts and scores from the prior rounds and cut from 50 to 3 (.6% chance–yes, that says point 6).  The final 3 from each category have excerpts posted on Amazon and Amazon customers vote on the winner (33% chance).  I’ve got a .02% chance of winning.  But, someone has to win and I stand just as good a chance as everyone else.

Suffice it to say, I’ll be completely unproductive today as I continually refresh both Cupid and Amazon’s pages.  To all who read this blog who are entered in either, or both, good luck!  Let me know if you get through!

Grass Stains and Battle Scars

I’m not a quitter.  Never have been.  I don’t know if it’s just not in my blood, or if it’s the way I was raised, but I can’t quit things.  Sometimes, heck, a lot of times, I want to quit, I try to quit, but something deep within me won’t let go and instead, I plunge forward.

Take my knee for example.  I’ve always had bad knees (thanks genetics!).  I started playing sports when I was four (tee-ball).  I played softball for twelve years, basketball for four (two in elementary and two in high school), and volleyball for four (in high school on both my school team and a club team).  My knees started giving me trouble in the 9th grade.  I tried a brace, hated it, and threw it in the back of the closet.  Eventually, I just threw some tape under my patellas and played on.  Right after I graduated college I twisted my right knee during a game of tennis and it’s been downhill since.  I had arthroscopic surgery in 2009 that didn’t fix the problem.  For the last month, I’ve been going through physical therapy twice a week trying to avoid surgery.

What does this have to do with quitting?  Well, the therapist gives me different exercises, lately it has been weights, and a number of reps.  I’m supposed to stop when it hurts.  The only problem is, it always hurts, and there’s that little voice that tells me to push through and finish, to keep going through the pain.  That’s the way it was in sports.  You twist your ankle?  Walk it off.  Softball catches you in the shin?  Toughen up.  Push through.  Keep going.  Ignore the pain.  Get back out there and hustle.  Give it 110%.  That mentality is the opposite of the way you’re supposed to think during physical therapy, so it’s difficult for me to know when to stop.  (In case you’re wondering, the therapy didn’t work–it’s actually gotten worse–so I’m looking at open surgery in the coming months, bleh!).

Lately, I’ve been faced with adversity in my writing.  I have a book I absolutely love.  I love the characters, the story, the turns of phrase.  My beta readers and critique partners have loved it.  Agents have been interested, requesting partials and fulls, but I’ve gotten no bites.  I’ve entered it into contests, but still no dice.  So I started working on a new story, and again, I love it.  I love the concept, the characters, the underlying themes, the descriptive paragraphs, but I’ve reached a point where I’m stuck.  I know where I want to go, but I don’t know how to get there.  My CPs have loved parts and disliked parts, test readers have loved sample chapters.  I think the beginning is fantastic, but I’ve hit a wall.

I’ve been getting frustrated and disheartened.  Part of me keeps saying: “This is too hard.  You’ll never make it.  You’ve got a greater chance of being struck by lightning.  Give up and find something else.  You’re not good enough.”  The other part wants to punch my Debbie Downer half in the face.  That part keeps yelling at me like a coach: “Suck it up.  Who ever said it would be easy?  Put down your purse and play ball.  You’re talented when you don’t stand in your own way.  Don’t wait for the play to happen, make it happen.”  I want to quit, because it is hard.  It is next to impossible.  But there’s that something down deep that won’t let me.  I get a rejection and wallow for a few days, then I pull myself up and try again.

It’s got me wondering: is writing more like playing sports, or is it more like physical therapy?  Am I supposed to just keep going, keep pushing, keep working until I obtain my goal?  Or am I supposed to stop when it hurts too much?  I’m leaning toward it being like sports.  No one ever promises you’ll win.  Someone has to lose.  (Funny side note: my little brother started playing baseball at the beginning of the “let’s stop keeping score/everyone’s a winner” days.  This concept frustrated him to no end. (We come from a long line of competitive-ness–yeah, I made it up).  So he kept score on his own.  He kept track of his stats through every game and would adamantly refute anyone who told him he was a winner when he knew he lost).  Losing makes you tougher.  Without failure, you never truly appreciate victory.  It makes you work harder, strive to be better, and expect more from yourself.

So I’ll take my failures.  I’ll wear them like battle scars.  Like grass stained softball pants and torn jerseys.  Because those are indicators I played the game.  I did more than sit the bench and watch from the sidelines.  Win or lose, I played, and that’s what matters.  With every rejection or blocked road (or mind as the current case may be), I’ll work harder, strive to be better, and expect more from myself.  I may never be one of the elite, but it won’t be from lack of trying.

Painting the Picture

How important is setting in a novel? Does it really matter where a story is set, or if the scene is expressly painted for you?

I enjoy painting.  I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it.  Getting creative and messy with brightly colored globs of acrylic goo that I can smear in whatever patterns and shapes I desire can be wonderfully freeing.  Some people, however, prefer more constraint.  I don’t know how much the concept has taken hold in other places, but in the south a place called “Sips and Strokes” has been springing up everywhere lately.  It seems to be a popular venue for “girl’s night” (I don’t really know for sure since I don’t have a lot of “girl friends” and don’t do many girly things in the first place).  You take your beverage of choice and they provide the easels, paints, canvases and brushes.  Then they show you what to paint.  Each person’s comes out differently, but they’re all basically the same thing: a sunflower, or the Eiffel Tower, or a pot of flowers.  (They all seem to be girly things as well.  Bear in mind, I don’t really speak from experience since I’ve never been, but I have friends who love it and have reported back on the experience).  It’s basically a grown up version of paint-by-number.

Don’t get me wrong, I see the value in it (beyond “girl time” I mean).  If you feel creative, but need direction, or look at a blank canvas with no clue where to start, this sort of thing would be perfect.  It’s like the difference between a book setting the scene for you, and you making it up for yourself.  How much do you want the author to paint the picture?

Obviously there are books where setting is immensely important.  In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example, Harper Lee had to set the scene for the story to work.  The setting was almost another character.  Without it, the events wouldn’t have happened the same way, or mattered as much.  On the other hand, “Perks of Being a Wallflower” didn’t seem so dependent on setting.  Sure, we knew Charlie’s brother played football at Penn State, but they could have been from anywhere.  The main story could have taken place in any town.

To me, it depends on what you’re going for.  If your story is a socioeconomic commentary, it probably matters more.  If it’s a story based more on the characters and their interactions than the plot, or something more fantastical where the main character will travel to another land, I don’t think the city the character starts is that important.

I have a history of not including a concrete setting in the books I write.   I think it’s simply that the setting hasn’t mattered much.  It hasn’t been necessary to the plot.  In my head, my stories takes place in the south, because that’s what I know, but I like leaving it open to the reader to imagine it in their own city.  I like stories that don’t give it all away.

“Bridge to Terebithia” for example.  I couldn’t tell you where that story is set.  It very well might be mentioned, but it wasn’t important enough for me to remember.  And because it wasn’t important enough to remember, it could take place wherever I wanted.  Like in my backyard.  I felt closer to the story, more pulled in by the fact such amazing things could just as easily occur for me as for the characters.

Don’t misunderstand, I think stories with definitive setting are wonderful too.  “The Chronicles of Narnia” had to start in London, and C.S. Lewis did a great job describing the scene.  “Little House on the Prairie” obviously had to occur on the prairie.  “Harry Potter” had to describe the setting for the story to come alive.  Hogwarts was a character in it’s own right.

I guess this is coming to mind because I’m revising a manuscript and catching places where I’ve used southern phrases.  Like “gotten a hold of” instead of just “gotten.”  Which is all well and good if the setting were important, if I’d specifically said it took place in the south and included southern mannerisms, like Harper Lee did.  But for a more generic setting, I think the language needs to be more generic.

It comes back to painting.  I enjoy the creative release of slapping color on canvas in any pattern and combination I choose, so I like reading books where I can shape the setting how I want.  That’s one reason I write.  I’m not so big on the paint-by-numbers, grabbing me by the hand and leading me down the path mentality though.  What I’m saying is, if an author is going to set the scene for me, I want it to be beautifully and masterfully done, a Monet or Van Gogh.  Otherwise, it leaves me in setting limbo, with a half-fleshed out scene that’s set in Seattle or Maryland, just because, without giving me the real feel of Seattle or Maryland.  If it’s not important, I’d just as soon have it left out.

How do you feel?  Do you like books that leave the setting open for your imagination?  Or do you prefer to have the scene set for you?  Is it important at all?

For Those of You Playing Along at Home

Round 1.2 of Cupid’s Blind Speed Date contest started yesterday (i.e. the second 50 entries were posted for the Bouncers to weed out).  Just because I thought it was fun to play agent, and because I thought you might be curious, here are this week’s stats:

Me:

Of 50 entries, I said yes to 17, maybe to 7, straight up no to 17, and was split on 9.  Of my picks:

The first Bouncer put through 5 yeses, 1 no, and 3 splits

The second Bouncer put through 6 yeses, 1 maybe, 1 no, and 2 splits

The third Bouncer put through 6 yeses, 2 maybes, 5 nos, and 3 splits

The fourth Bouncer put through 9 yeses, 2 nos, and 3 split.

Two Bouncers agreed on 7 entries (3 yeses, 1 no, 3 splits), 3 Bouncers agreed on 1 entry (yes), and a whopping 4 Bouncers agreed on 2 entries (2 yeses).  So 33 entries have been put through to the next round.  This time there are only 3 I gave a yes that haven’t been put through.

If I were to play agent again, I would automatically reject 19 for not being YA.  Of the remaining 31, I would outright reject 7.  Based on the query, I’d reject 8.  The maybes would be rejected so that’s another 6.  That leaves 10, and considering the same factors as last time I’d probably request 5.  Remarkable how I ended up with the same number.  5 out of 50.

As it stands, 65 out of 100 have been put through to the next round.  In Round 2, twelve agents will be considering these entries.  I’m going to toss out a guess on how many of the 65 receive requests and say…20 will be requested by next Friday.

Tune in next week for the exciting (ha!) conclusion!

(By the way, if you haven’t guessed, I’m a total nerd when it comes to making lists, so yes, I have all of these in a color-coded spreadsheet.  And yes, my closet is arranged by color and by style, i.e. from white to black: short sleeved, 3/4 sleeved, and long sleeved shirts, then dresses in the same manner, then pants.  Yeah, I’m weird).

Slipping on My Agent Shoes

I posted recently asking who’s opinion mattered more when it comes to buying books: agent, reader, publisher, etc?  Recently, it seems this very question has been cycling through the publishing community.  (Check out this entry over at Jenny Bent’s blog).  Well, yesterday, I got to step into an agent’s shoes (kind of) and realized just how subjective this business really is.

I entered a contest of sorts at Cupid’s Literary Connection, a blog that “brings writers and agents together to form magical literary connections.”  I don’t know who Cupid is, only that he/she is a writer and must have excellent connections.  The contest I entered is a blind speed dating sort of thing.  I emailed my query and first 250 words of my manuscript to Cupid.  The first 50 on Friday and the first 50 on Saturday were entered into the contest.  In Round One, four “Bouncers”, three writers and an editor, weed through the first 50 and choose which will advance to the next round.  Next week, they’ll go through the second 50.  In Round Two, twelve agents are each given a set of “arrows”.  They read the entries and shoot arrows to choose manuscripts they’d like to request.  One arrow for a partial, three for a full.  They get a different amount of arrows each day and the cost per request increases throughout the week.  At the end of the week, their requests will be posted and connections will be made.

Sounds pretty awesome, right?  I was lucky enough to be one of the first 50, and even luckier that one of the Bouncers put me through to the next round.  Now I just have to wait another two weeks to see if I get any requests.

So, how did I step into an agent’s shoes?  All 50 entries are posted on the blog.  I numbered a legal pad and started reading.  Next to each number I wrote either “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” or split up my answers based on the query and the first 250.  Several received a “no” on the query and a “yes” or “maybe” on the first 250.  I’ve then been checking the blog, somewhat obsessively, and writing down which Bouncers put through which numbers.

Here are my stats:

Of 50 entries, I said yes to 22, maybe to 9, straight up no to 12, and was split on 7.  Of my picks:

The first Bouncer put through 1 yes, 1 maybe, 1 no, and 2 splits

The second Bouncer put through 4 yeses, 3 maybes, 2 nos, and 2 splits

The third Bouncer put through 12 yeses, 3 maybes, 2 nos, and 2 splits

*UPDATE* The fourth Bouncer put through 3 yeses, 1 maybe, 2 nos, and 1 split.

Bear in mind that 9 11 of those were entries at least 2 Bouncers agreed upon, so as it stands 32 entries have been put through to the next round.  There are still 9 7 entries I gave a “yes” to that haven’t been put through yet, and one Bouncer remaining.  Now, some I didn’t put through because they really just weren’t my taste and were, therefore, hard to judge, but most I tried to look past genre and judge on the premise and the writing.

If I were an agent looking for say, YA, and I received these queries one morning.  I would have immediately rejected 17 for not being the right genre.  Of the remaining 33, I would have outright rejected 8.  Based on the query alone (which is all most agents see), I would have rejected 5 more.  As for the maybes, they probably would have been rejections too because I didn’t love them, and I’d only have time to take on so many, so that’s another 5.  That leaves 15.  Of those 15, I was really interested in 10 (interesting note: only 5 of those were put through by the Bouncers).  Of course, how many of those 10 I’d request would depend on my schedule, what I already had on my plate, and if I had anything similar or had recently tried to sell anything similar, so let’s just guess and knock it down to 5.  That’s 5 out of 50.

It’s pretty eye opening.  I appreciate an agent’s job so much more now.  It’s such a highly subjective business.  I’m certain some of the entries I passed on would greatly appeal to someone else.  5 of my outright “nos” were put through by the Bouncers.  Several others had scores of comments underneath by people who loved the premise and sample; but it didn’t appeal to me.  So next time you get frustrated, remember how subjective it is and that there could be someone out there who will love your work, you just have to find them.  I think everyone should head on over to Cupid’s blog and try it out for yourself and see how your picks compare to the Bouncers!  It just might surprise you (and will give you an idea of just what some agents are looking for/interested in).

My “Cheers”

While I’ve been writing for a while, I only recently (like in the last year) joined the writing community.  I guess I always knew there was a one hanging out there somewhere, there’s a group or community for everything these days, but it never occurred to me that I, as a writer, was, or could be, part of it (don’t you love all the commas in that sentence!).  I dove in when a co-worker who has a great book published with a local publisher invited me to his critique group.  Through the group, I’ve met some wonderfully talented local authors and gotten excellent feedback on my own work.  That same co-worker/friend also told me about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which opened a world of conferences, contests, and other opportunities of which I was previously unaware.  I discovered the Absolute Write forums through a website that provided query letter guidance.  Eventually I stumbled across blogs and other writing websites.

I write this to say, the writing community amazes me.  It’s a relatively small world.  In relation to the rest of the population there really aren’t that many people who are serious about writing.  The actual publishing community is even smaller.  You’d think such a competitive field would be just that, competitive.  You’d think people would be reluctant to help one another because the query you just critiqued might be one an agent picks over yours.

But it’s not.  It’s one of the most encouraging, helpful, supportive groups I’ve ever encountered outside of church, and certainly from strangers.  There are people I’ve never met, and probably never will meet, who are willing to take time out of their busy lives to help me become a better writer, or draft the perfect query letter, or synopsis.  When one person gets a rejection, everyone is sad.  When one gets an offer or contract, everyone celebrates.  I know there are a few sour grapes here and there, but I’ve yet to encounter them.  On the whole, the writing community is warm and friendly and I’ve been thoroughly impressed.  It’s like walking into “Cheers”.  Everyone is glad to see you.  (Norm!)

For example, I recently entered a writing contest.  Another entrant sent me a message letting me know she also entered and asking if we wanted to help each other.  We exchanged excerpts and critiqued each others’ work, tightening the language, etc.  When we swapped back, we wished each other good luck and each promised to keep the other updated as the contest progresses, and genuinely meant it.  I believe in my work, but hers was really good too.  I wouldn’t be upset if her work beat mine out (disappointed I didn’t make it, yes, but in no way bitter or anything).  In fact, I’d be pretty proud to say “I ‘know’ her!”

In this time of sucky economy and high competition for jobs and with the seemingly grim future for paper and ink books, it’s refreshing that people still work together like this.  I find myself pondering why.  The chances of getting published are like a bazillion to one and it seems every book that gets a contract means there’s another book, or several, that won’t.  Yet, the majority of writers work together.

When I really sit down and think about it, I think every time a colleague makes it, it gives the rest of us hope.  If they can, someone we “know”, then we can too!  I also think it comes down to loving what you do.  I love to write, but I also love to read.  I’ve read some fantastic works on the AW forums.  Works I want to read more of.  Members generally only post a chapter or two, or maybe even a paragraph they’re struggling with, but sometimes that’s enough to hook me.  Enough for me to care about the character and want to know their story.  (As a side note, you’d be surprised the number of published authors who hung out at AW before they got their deals or who currently hang out there.  It’s really an excellent place for assistance from people who know what they’re doing).

I’m lucky to be part of such a great community and I hope my “friends” get published so I can read more of their stories, and so they can get the recognition they deserve.  What other professions can truly say that?  (Not many).