Sunday, October 30, 2011

A synopsis

Synopses are tough to write.  I've already gone through and put 90K words together in what I hope is an appealing manner.  How, then, do I choose the best 100 (ish) for presenting the basic gist in a way that says "buy me"? 

I know they say that writing a synopsis is an extension of being a writer.  When I read about the importance of doing a good "hook," or synopsis, in the query letter, the agent writing it said, in effect, "You're a writer, so this should showcase your writing skills." Wrong, though.  Writing a story and writing a marketing blurb are such totally different modes, requiring such totally different skill sets, that it's no wonder to me now that people who laugh at 80,000 word drafts shrivel in fear at 100 word blurbs. 

What prompted this was my creation of the synopsis for Book Two of the series, soon to hopefully be published by Trestle Press as well.  For this, I invite audience feedback; please give me your thoughts.

ASCENSION: Return of the Gods
a novel by Stephen H. King

Eternal life with her husband.

That’s all Crystal wants.  Having survived the epic battle between her husband, the God of War, and his ex-wife, the Goddess of Love, Crystal sets her sights on achieving the impossible. 

She wants—to be a goddess. 

It’s not impossible, though.  Matt’s ex-wife did it, after all.  If it’s been done once, Crystal can do it again, whatever it takes. 

What it takes is assistance from some unlikely teachers—Thor, who breaks Crystal’s body several times while rebuilding her as a barbarian queen.  Hephaestus, who teaches her the magic of the forge and bestows upon her a priceless gift at the end of her time there.  Apollo, her husband’s bitterest rival.  Gaia, the mother goddess, serves as Crystal’s guide while treating Crystal’s quest as a grand source of amusement. 

The fast-paced action ends with another epic battle, but this time it’s one that Crystal must win on her own. 

What do y'all think?  Please, give me your thoughts.  Would you buy this book?


The Agent Relationship (a session at JRWC)

"Every agent lives in fear that they'll reject the next Harry Potter." - Arielle Eckstut

Finally I get to the end of the list, the only James River Writers Conference session I have yet to comment on: The Agent Relationship.  I confess to dragging my heels a little on this one, not because it was a bad session (it wasn't, not at all) but rather because I'm still not sure where I stand on the subject.  Personally, I've been either turned down or ignored by 69 agents.  While common wisdom (at least among agents and those who've made it through their gates) seems to say that if I were to just write better it wouldn't happen, both a large group of the rejection notices and a sizable number of actual cases tell me that it's a very subjective process.  When Harry Potter took five years before an agent finally did his daughter a favor and dug it out of a slush pile, and The Help was rejected 60 times, and I have enough of these stories to fill several blog posts, who in their right minds would consider these folks qualified to serve as gatekeepers for the publishing industry?  The Big 6 do; not a one of them accepts unagented submissions. 

More and more authors these days, meanwhile, are finding success in bypassing the matter entirely and going either small pub (as have I) or self-pub, thus proving that The Agent Relationship isn't as requisite as it seems. 

Can you see, then, the source of my internal conflict?  I went into this session thinking how great the information I gained from it would be, and ended the session thinking how great the information I'd gained from it was.  Now, just a few weeks after the conference, my notes on the session seem largely irrelevant.  That said, there are plenty of people out there who desire a Big 6 publishing contract, and I acquiesce to the assertion that if my own career follows a path I hope it does, at some point I'll need an agent if for no other reason than to decipher what's involved in movie rights and international reprinting rights.  Thus, I bring you: the session.

Kris Spisak, a well-known writing teacher and author and a member of the JRW board, moderated.  Two agents, Arielle Eckstut and Becca Stumpf, served as the panel in the absence of one agent who had a family emergency and couldn't make the conference.  We can always wonder what the third panel member would've brought to the session, but as it was the combination of Eckstut and Stumpf was brilliant.  Eckstut has her hand in many efforts, but as an agent she only represents non-fiction.  Stumpf, meanwhile, primarily represents fiction.  The two sides of the writing puzzle are very different in terms of approaching an agent, and it showed in their comments and responses. 

What is life as an agent like?  It's a very wide-ranging job, according to Eckstut; it's like a "continued liberal arts education."  If a never-ending process of determining what is selling currently on the market, extrapolating that to what will be selling when current manuscripts make it to market, and trying to sell publishers on the manuscripts in your "inventory" appeals to you, you might be an agent. 

At the same time, agents have a pile of queries to navigate.  Both agents on the panel agreed that queries typically are read in the evenings and on weekends, due to the massive time demands involved in serving their existing clients. 

What, then, makes for a good query?  First the panel mentioned a few things that make a bad query, the "automatic turn-offs."  Letters without the agent's name, or with the name misspelled (and let's face it, both Eckstut and Stumpf are fairly easy to misspell) were right at the top.  Queries addressing a genre the agent doesn't represent were also an automatic turn-off, one that even makes some agents angry.  "Eighty to ninety percent of queries are for books I do not represent," said Eckstut, a statistic that clarifies why an agent would consider misplaced queries an annoying waste of her time.  Finally, Stumpf pointed out that having the number of words in the manuscript at the start of the query was a turn-off.  Queries, she said, should follow the order "the hook, the book, and the cook," meaning that the first paragraph should draw the agent in as a reader, followed by a second paragraph with all the numbers and statistics about the book, and a third paragraph about who the author is.

What should a query be?  "Query letters should be professional and creative and to the point," Stumpf said.  They should establish a connection to the agent.  Eckstut pointed out that, from an agent's perspective, "Getting involved with an agent is like getting married." 

Titles are important, both agents confirmed.  Both said that every time they've seen a dreadful title in a query letter, the writing has been bad. 

Previous publications listed in a query letter?  Sure, both agents said, but only if they apply to the currently-queried genre.  If you've written articles for a magazine, Stumpf said, that fact shouldn't go in a fiction query letter unless the articles were fiction, themselves.  

Should you have a finished manuscript before approaching an agent?  Depends on the genre, apparently.  Stumpf unequivocally said yes, in her world of representing fiction, every query should have a finished manuscript behind it.  Eckstut said no; in the non-fiction world, "publishers live off the idea of hope on what your manuscript may be some day," and thus it's best to approach the agent with an outline and a chapter or two of your best work.  Building on the idea of hope is important enough, in fact, that it can play against the author to have a completed non-fiction manuscript, as that removes the mystery and reveals the book for what it is. 

Eckstut's view of a good query letter was also a little different from Stumpf's.  In the non-fiction world, the "cook," or author, is more important than the book--at least, it is in query letters.  It's more important to be able to specify a platform (member of such and such groups, having spoken in front of audiences of so many people, having a Twitter following of so many thousand people, etc.) than to spell out an interesting series of chapters.  The non-fiction author also has to be able to very accurately portray the competitive landscape for his book, and describe where his work fits into that field (as opposed to fiction books like mine, where I say something along the lines of "it's a book with a god and a dragon.  People who like to read about gods and dragons will read my book.").

Both agents described their views on their role as gatekeepers similarly.  "We are no worse critics than any average reader in the bookstore," Eckstut said.  Hearing them describe their approaches, I agree that assertion is accurate, at least if I'm to be considered an average reader when I walk into the bookstore.  When I shop for non-fiction, it is a competitive thing where I pick the book that most fits my need.  When I shop for fiction, on the other hand, I'll often buy two or three books where the title and the synopsis on the back interest me.

Both agents also pointed out that they'll research authors who have caught their interest with query letters.  It's for that reason, Stumpf said, that writers should avoid posting snarky stuff online.  She'll go into blogs and Facebook pages, and she views unprofessionalism there as a possible red flag regarding future dealings with the author.  Nuff said, though I admit that my own blog lost a few prior posts that evening.  It wasn't that I thought they were particularly snarky; it was more that someone else, thinking like an agent, might think that.  No point taking risks, right? 

That concern over professionalism, though, also resonated in her response to the moderator's question regarding what to ask the agent once an offer of representation is made.  Eckstut said, "You have to think of yourself in a power position."  No questions, then, are off the table.  Stumpf shrank back from such a bold statement, though, stating that some questions just shouldn't be asked.  She didn't go into specifics, but instead pointed out that a writer is assumed to have a handle on the basics of writing and publishing, and so questions about those most fundamental issues can raise a red flag in the agent's mind. 

What is an author to do when she gets multiple indications of interest or offers of representation?  I dismissed the question as fairly unlikely to happen to a newb author, and then ironically faced the situation personally a week later.  Meanwhile, the two agents had differing views.  Eckstut said that indications of interest (such as "I'd like to see the manuscript") should be communicated with other agents so that everybody has an opportunity to give the work the consideration it's due.  Stumpf disagreed, saying that she only wanted to know if other offers were on the table.  The bottom line was consistent, though--it's okay to query multiple agents at once, but it's considered professional to let agents who are considering the manuscript know when the work is about to be taken off the market. 

All in all, this turned out to be the great session I had thought it would be. Those who weren't there missed many revelations, as well as the opportunity to see me proclaim to the world that I have, in fact, written the next Harry Potter. 

Yes, I can be snarky sometimes.

Have a great day!


An evening as the God of War

We were invited to a Halloween party tonight by a good friend of Jessa's; reportedly, this party has been A Big Deal for a while now.  Considering the rave reviews we heard, I decided to forgo my initial decision to not do much Halloween-y stuff and instead assemble a costume, pour some Jello shooters, and par-tay like it's nineteen ninety--um, yeah.  Honestly, I lost the "woo hoo let's party" spirit some years ago, but I always enjoy getting out and meeting people. 

No, no, on second thought, that last is not true at all.  I sometimes enjoy getting out and meeting people.  Sometimes, on the other hand, I quite despise it.  Some day I'll figure out what the difference is between the two events. 

Tonight was neither.  It was interesting, really.  Probably has to do with the costumes.

Tonight Heide and I went as Matt and Crystal, the main characters in Cataclysm: Return of the Gods.  It was weird, in a way that only the author who's gotten into his characters' heads can find weird.  We dressed up as Matt and Crystal after the cataclysm, in the martial Greek God sort of way that Matt enjoys affecting.  Hell, he is, after all, the God of War.  Heide wore a costume that was supposed to be Athena, but the costume would've just as easily fit the personality of Crystal. 

Playing the part of Mars is tough.  I never, ever, break into his point of view in the stories I've written because, frankly, I don't think I can do it justice: what goes through the mind of an eternal being?  Still, I like to think about it sometimes, and tonight, wearing the outfit, I thought about it.  It was easy enough, being the outsider.  Nearly everyone at the party worked with the host or the hostess.  I knew nobody well, which left me free to simply observe.  Well, that, and enjoy a couple of Jello shots.

All in all, it was a typical party, followed by a typical drive home and then followed by a browsing of CNN.  Nobody seemed to have anything real to say.  Same applied to the conversations in the comments on the articles on CNN.  The article about deaths in the Northeast due to the weather drew derogatory comments toward a guy who was killed by a falling tree while sleeping in his house, and toward the President, and toward the environmental movement, and finally toward a guy who touched an electrified guardrail. 

Thinking back to a party I attended earlier, where I knew most everyone--I made some fairly snarky comments that were laughed at.  Were my comments useful at all?  Probably not.  Did they further the human condition?  Probably not.  They didn't hurt anybody present, but....

What would a god think?  If an eternal being were at a party you attended tonight, would he be impressed by the human intellect and compassion?  If he saw a recording of everything you'd said today, would he be thinking about how you should be his peer, or would he be happy that you aren't? 

Hell, I don't know.  I probably never will, but I can't help wondering. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

What's in a name?

"An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field." - Niels Bohr

Well, hell.  I guess I'm a couple steps closer to being a writing expert. 

I probably shouldn't come clean on this one, but I will anyway.  In all the glamor and glory over attending a conference, I forgot one of the most basic concepts of marketing: provide what your customers (readers, in this case) want, not what you want, and especially not what outsiders want. 

Let me start earlier.  I had several unattractive names at first for the book that's about to spring out into the world, things like "Goddess Part 1" and "Goddess Book 1."  I finally lit on Return of the Gods: Cataclysm because that really resonated with what I was wanting the book to be about.That's what the book was named through about 90% of its life.  Then I went to the conference, and a few people told me that the name stink, stank, stunk.  One of the speakers recommended "I was Married to Mars," and the agent sitting beside him liked it.  I sort of liked it too, and so I went with it. 

Okay, then, first mistake: taking advice from people who don't write, read, or rep my genre without consulting those who do.  Genre really does make a difference, not in the hard and fast "this can only be mythological fantasy" way a lot of people think, but more in the underlying assumptions readers make.  Most fantasy readers, ferinstance, expect titles to sound a certain way, just as most romance readers expect titles to sound a very different way. 

Second mistake: not being very thorough with my name change.  While this proved fortuitous, it's not a mistake I'll make again.  When you change the name of a work, you have to destroy every shred of the previous name.  That means in the header, on the title page, and yes, even the document file name.  I did the first two and several others, but didn't change the name of the file. 

It was fortuitous because the graphic artist doing the cover art took the name of the file and used it on the cover.  Wow.  That mistake, in conjunction with the graphical magic he worked, lit the front of the book up better than neon bulbs would have.  It really popped. 

Only problem was, it wasn't my book title.

When I brought the concern to the publisher, I received a response that I wasn't aware publishers knew how to give.  "Hey," he said, "you're the author.  You tell me what the title is." 

Such freedom!  Such responsibility! 

He continued: "Let me know today so we can finalize the artwork."

Such a tight deadline!

This time, though, I knew what to do.  I've built relationships on Facebook and gotten into several fantasy readers/writers groups, and so I posted my quandary into those groups.  They represented, after all, my ultimate target market.  When the dust settled several hours later, Cataclysm: Return of the Gods was a clear winner. 

Happily, it was the one I'd wanted to use all along.

So.  One of these days I'll be sitting in my parlor, a room no normal house can afford to contain, sitting on my Chair of Wealth and Fame, talking to someone who wants to know how I managed to be such an overnight success with my first book.  I'm sure I'll grin, ignore the fact that "overnight success" doesn't exist in a writer's world, and say, "Well, there was this one little glitch...."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

It Only Takes One Yes

"The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself." Mark Caine

"You can't do it," they said.  Common, current wisdom is that it's harder than ever for a new author to be published.  If you've been following this blog, you've seen that wisdom spouted many times.  My very first rejection, in fact, came on the same day I sent my very first queries, from an agent who flat-out said he doesn't represent new authors.  The same guidance came more subtly from other sources, too--agents running seminars at the JRWC, for example, who spoke of the need for an established platform and for how much more of an affect having a few thousand sales under our belt helped.

Can't blame them.  It's hard to break into any field.  It's devilishly hard to break into a field dominated by old-guard names when those paid to help authors are paid a percentage of the author's wages.  If the author makes very little, as newbie authors do (and ought to, to be honest, considering the time it takes to build skill in writing), then the agent also has troubles feeding his kids as well as his dream for a Maserati.

"Every agent lives in fear that they'll reject the next Harry Potter," Arielle Eckstut said at a conference I attended recently.  Other agents I've read have disagreed, but I question that.  The typical agent earns 15-20% of author's domestic and international earnings.  Harry Potter earned J.K. Rowling over a billion dollars, U.S.  Fifteen to twenty percent of a billion dollars is a crapload of money.  Tell me again how an agent wouldn't be bothered over turning that down?

In any event, I agree that my next book probably isn't the next Harry Potter.  Not that anybody who's got a whisker of sense is willing to suggest that they know the next HP on sight, but odds are quite in my favor if I suggest that my book isn't.  Hell, I know it isn't.  I saw the crap back when it was full of crap.  I changed its diaper, to use a crappy metaphor.  I've revised the crap out of it, to be sure, but it's still no Harry Potter.  I like it a lot, but--yeah, you know what's coming.

So all that said, I've submitted to 69 agents and 3 publishers.  I received 28 rejections, including everything from "it's not right for us" on a pristine postcard to the generic "this is a subjective business so though I don't love it please submit it to others" to a specific "it's not ready for publication and here's why..." comment (from a busy publisher, believe it or not) that, to my and the JRWC's credit, detailed all the flaws I'd already fixed as a result of a writers conference.

Depending on whether you count the lack-of-responses as rejections (and I do) I may or may not be somewhere close to The Help's 60 rejections.  But it doesn't matter.  It only takes one yes.

On a side note--I still want to see somebody track number of revisions against number of rejections.  I don't have time; I'm too busy writing.  But I'm curious whether The Help's 60 rejections all rejected the same thing, or if all of the Harry Potters that went into slush piles were the same submission.  I know in my case they weren't.  Sometimes I wonder whether I'd have gotten a different response from the earlier agents had I sent them version 7 of the query letter rather than version 1 or 2.

Nah, probably not.  I was still a newb. 

In any event, I got that yes a couple of weeks ago, and at first couldn't believe my luck.  A friend I'd been chatting with for a while on Facebook recommended Trestle Press, her publisher, and I submitted to them.  The publisher replied that he wanted more, and I gave him more.  He then said he wanted to publish me, but by that point I'd come back with loads of revisions to make based on the conference.

To revise, or no?  To revise is always a good choice, but it risks the publisher becoming vexed with you.I decided it would do my career some good to put him off a bit and revise--make the debut novel as good as it could possibly be.  I explained what was going on, and he was fine with it.  I blasted through, and then blasted through again, and to be honest I think I now have the best book I could ever have written. 

Long story short--I signed a publishing contract and am soon to be published.  I saw the graphical artist's draft for cover art for my book today, and it stopped my heart for a moment.  I wish I could bottle that feeling. There's nothing quite like seeing your name on the cover of a book, even when that book doesn't technically exist yet.

Look for more about the upcoming release soon! It's exciting, but oh, so much work.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

O Platform, Where Art Thou? session

"[Building a platform is] the new brushing your teeth." - Arielle Eckstut

Long time since I last posted; it's been a busy several days.  I executed my first publishing contract (yay!) and so soon I'll be a published author.  That said, I have to echo the words of every author I've read saying that once you get a publishing deal, life speeds up.  Over the past few days I've written bio and back cover synopsis and questions and answers--and lions and tigers and bears, oh my!  It's truly been a fairy tale existence, and I promise I'll blog about it soon.

Oh, I also cut the tip of my right ring finger off on a veggie slicer early in the weekend, so every time you see the letter l or o or a period, just know that it pained me to type that.  That's affected my motivation to write, to be sure. 

In any event, the session under consideration is "O Platform, Where Art Thou," a session that started right after lunch on the first day of the conference, well before it occurred to me that I'd be blogging about the sessions.  Thus, my notes on who was actually there are a little skitchy.  The program says the moderator was Kit Wilkinson and the speakers were Randy Freisner, Dave Smitherman, and David Henry Sterry.  Wilkinson was clearly a perfect moderator because I don't have her quoted anywhere in my notes, and everyone knows that a moderator's job is to provoke yet stay out of the action.  Friesner is an agent and Smitherman a publisher, but Sterry wasn't there.  I know this because he was replaced by his lovely wife, Arielle Eckstut, an agent at large and the source of most of my great quotes for the event. 

A platform, by the way, is the following that a writer brings to a publication deal.  I'd thought it important only for non-fiction, so I'd gone with the interest of learning something for the Grumpy Dean in mind, but I was soon convinced otherwise.  According to the panel, many publishers these days won't publish either fiction or non-fiction without a platform.

Someone--I believe Mr. Freisner--compared a platform to the tree stumps of old.  Hearing him describe it, I was reminded of a day in Colonial Williamsburg when an actor portraying one of our forefathers stood atop a wooden platform and started yelling to the people, which included all of us twenty-first century tourists standing around.  His message was interesting, in a vaguely historical way, so we listened.  Back in those days, platform required a talent as a speaker, but Mr. Freisner pointed out that these days a platform employes the natural talent of a writer to reach out to an audience and hold them.  We write, yes?  Thus, we should be able to hold peoples' interests as we write for them. 

How much time should a writer give to building a platform?  Some time, every day.  Eckstut compared it to brushing teeth.  Every day, for about fifteen to twenty minutes each day, seemed the consensus.  "If you want your job to be a writer," she said, "this is part of your job description."

A web site is key, the panel said, but there are a lot of web sites out there.  It's like a tree in a massive forest, Eckstut said.  You have to put a site up that's an extension of you and your brand. It also has to seem active, as must the entirety of an author's electronic platform. It's a lot of work, but it pays off.

It's not the publisher's job to build a platform.  The author can expect some collaboration in the efforts, the panel agreed, but Smitherman pointed out that it's "hard for publishers to reach specific markets.  It's easier for the authors" to do so.

The panel discussed book signings at length.  These used to be considered a vital part of an author's publicity efforts; now, most of the literature discounts them as largely a waste of time.  Eckstut disagreed.  "Book signings can be great, but only if you make them so," she said.  An author has to make a book signing an event.  It's possible, she said, to team up with other authors, promote the event through the social networks.  Blog tours are extremely useful in doing this. 

Overall, a great session.  You must get thee to the James River Writers Conference next year.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Taking the "Free" out of Freelancing session notes

"Stay curious." - Joe Williams

Where to go?

That was the question that faced me at 2:00 pm on Friday of the conference.  It had faced me several times that day already, of course, but I'd planned most of the day out well enough that I only heard it for a second or two.  For the final concurrent session, though, I was plagued.

Session Choice One was a discussion by two well-known lawyers about what can and cannot legally be put in print; quite an interesting topic, but I write fiction.  That's fic-shun, as in "I make stuff up."  Can't imagine a fiction writer being all that concerned about slander, since that's a fancy legal term for "you made stuff up but pretended it was true."  Our whole schtick revolves around making stuff up and not pretending it's true.  A bit about Copyright was promised as well, but useful as that topic always is, I can count on one hand the topics I'd less like to discuss than Intellectual Property Law.  None of them are name-able in a family-friendly forum.  Session Choice One: half Interesting But Useless, half Useful But Uninteresting.

Session Choice Two was a talk about how to write YA and children's books.  One word: Eww.  No offense is intended to those great authors who write for the great young adults and children of the world, but I'm not in either category.  Session Choice Two:  Not. My. Genre.

Session Choice Three was a discussion of using imagery and language.  This is something I need to do better in my writing, but I really didn't see it going where I needed it to go with just an hour in a group setting.  This is, to me, one of those master-craft skills to be honed at the tip of an overworked red pen.  Had there been absolutely nothing else going on, and had nearly everybody else at the conference not been piling in that door, I'd've considered it still, but I didn't, and in retrospect I'm happy to have made the choice I did.  Session Choice Three: Too Crowded.  That leaves....

Session Choice Four was a discussion on how to launch a freelance career.  The description includes "or push through to the next level," but I had no idea what that meant.  I don't have a freelance career, nor do I want one; my day job is awesome.  But I'd seen Mike Albo perform and looked forward to hearing his insights, and I'd read Joe Williams's credentials and was impressed, and in the end I decided it's always best to have some idea for a possible fallback plan in case everything else goes awry.

The moderator and three panel members all had exquisitely applicable backgrounds to the topic, having worked as freelancers now or in the past, and in Williams's case having worked as a guy who hired freelancers.

To say the panel's discussion was dark would be an understatement.  There were lots of great ideas and suggestions tossed around, but the underlying theme was how freelance money is drying up.  Kristen Green, one of the panelists, used to work for a single publication on freelance status making a decent regular wage, but the chances of getting there now are slim.  The panel agreed that articles that used to pay $250 or $500 are now paying $100.  The print media is shrinking, as evidenced in oh, so many ways, so the potential sales for articles is narrower for the more traditional media.

The online media, meanwhile, is expanding.  Williams mentioned the all-important word "content."  For every conceivable interest out there, he explained, there's a publication, and every one of those needs content.  Everyone needs content for their blog, for their site, for their e-zine.  The demand is increased, but as Albo was able to attest, the pay is shrinking.  Online publishers aren't beholden to the traditional models and so most tend to pay significantly less per word or per article than do print publishers. That said, Albo said he was confident that the pendulum would swing back the other direction, and content would regain its value even in the online market. 

To succeed: first, read, read, read, and then read some more.  Read whatever it is you wish to write about.  If you want to write travel articles, read them.  Same for food articles, or any other topic.  You have to get to know what's already out there, how it's working, and where it's being published.  Williams said one of his greatest pet peeves as editor in Boston was receiving submissions for articles his paper would never run a story on. One of the panelists said to make reading the publications for which you wish to write part of your daily job. 

Williams also suggested that we read large publications often.  On the topic of idea generation (summed up by Kristen Green's quote "An idea person is who you must become,") this was put forth as an excellent source.  Often the great ideas for stories are in the larger pubs on a national level and can easily be localized through interviews with local participants.

Timeliness was a mantra of Mike Albo's.  He pointed out that even the most important story in the world won't sell if it isn't timely. 

The opening quote from Joe Williams was a cornerstone in the idea generation topic: Stay Curious.  He described how he got to a story that did very well by asking about toothbrushes.  We've all seen the aisle in the store, where a bazillion toothbrushes battle for our purchase.  There are soft ones, medium ones, hard ones, and extra-extra soft or hard-as-a-rock ones.  There are purple ones and green ones.  There are toothbrushes with side spikes, chair rails, rotating gizmos, and all sorts of things.  Why are there so many?  He asked, and a story emerged. 

Hell, I'm curious now.  Got to go find that article.

On the matter of pitches, Green's recommendation was to build relationships with the editors.  Be easy to work with.  Make deadlines, and at least act happy when a change is recommended.  Be the person that editor wants to call.

Technically, be as specific as possible.  Williams said he'd get a ton of pitches that started like, "Summer's here!"  Yes, of course it is.  What, he'd ask, does that have to do with my readers?  Get to the point, make your pitch as readable as possible, and make it explicitly relevant to the pub you're pitching to.

Cold pitches are rarely useful; Williams ignored most of the ones he received.  That said, if you are making cold pitches (as most beginners are), work to get around the gatekeeper.  Williams described looking up the person in the middle of a chain of managers listed in a faceplate and called, asking for that person specifically.  Once he got somebody who wasn't interested mainly in saying no, he pitched the idea.

The accounting end of the business can be frustrating, because a freelancer must write a great many articles for a great many pubs to make a living at it.  Make sure to write everything down.  Checks come in a big mass, which admittedly doesn't sound like much of a problem unless you're not watching closely enough to catch not receiving one.  When you make the deal is the time, Williams explained, to make note of the pay you expect and to ask for the contact information (especially e-mail) for the accounts payable office (the folks who cut your check). If you are having a problem getting paid, don't call the editor to complain, as the editor is rarely the person responsible for paying you. 

Past publication does make a difference in getting future work, Williams confirmed.  They're called "Bona fides" and having successful articles mentioned in your pitch is a good thing.

"Time peg" is an important term used in the industry; usually people refer to "pegging" to something.  Anniversaries are an example.  If an anniversary of something (like, in Richmond, we recently had the 400th Anniversary of the Cittie of Henricus) is coming up, then it's a fair bet that somebody will want content on it.  Look for key events and anniversaries to catch salable ideas. 

Now is a great time to start honing the freelance skills.  The end of the year and beginning of the year, Williams explained, are when staff writers are on vacation for the most part, so editors are looking for content to round out editions.

All in all, it was a great discussion despite the somber mood, and I'm awfully glad I went.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

A tear on my pages

Look, you.  I'm a big (too big, perhaps, in a dimension or two), rugged former Infantryman who's a little rough around the few edges I still have remaining.  I didn't cry at my own mother's funeral, and that's a fact.  I eat nails for breakfast and drink my beer out of an old canteen cup at night.  I'm so tough, in fact, that Chuck Norris makes TOSK jokes when he wants to talk about toughness. 


Bravado (earned or no) aside, it really is rare for me to shed a tear.  Why, then, did I do so over a book, and in public to boot? 

No, unfortunately I'm not kidding.  There I was, having fled the office to an Asian food buffet that's right around the corner (and makes the best hot & sour soup for when I'm feeling worse for the wear, as I was today), slurping the soup.  I'd put a small paperback, a copy of one of my all-time favorites that I haven't read in years, in my coat pocket as I fled, and so one hand held the tiny (just 170 pages) book open while the other powered the spoon. 

The masterwork begins with a section by Ben Bova, the legendary author and editor of Analog magazine, explaining how he'd come to meet the novel's author, Spider Robinson.  I've been a fan of Mr. Robinson's books since a friend thrust a yellowed copy of Callahan's Crosstime Saloon into my hands many years ago.  I've read a great many things by a great many authors, but nothing struck me as solidly even back then as Robinson's prose.  There are some hilariously funny authors, after all--Douglas Adams comes immediately to mind--and some authors who really make you think about life and its meaning, but Robinson manages to do both in nearly every paragraph. 

I turned back to my old favorite, then, both to escape the turmoil of today and to cozy up next to a piece of humanity I hadn't been around in years.  His wit came through early in the Foreword: "In 1971, after seven years of college, with that Magic Piece of Paper clutched triumphantly in my fist, the best job I was able to get was night watchman on a sewer project in Babylon, New York--guarding a hole in the ground to prevent anyone from stealing it.  God bless the American educational system." ...of which I'm a part, so I--well, I understand. 

Callahan's bar is simply an epic place to be.  Robinson says it's "the kind of place you hear about only if you need to--and if you are very lucky."  I heard about it a long time ago, and I'm glad I did, because it opened my eyes to an entire genre of reading.  It's engaging, and it deals beautifully with the human condition, and it's funny as hell.

Why, then, did I shed a tear?  In part, it was a tear of happiness.  I'd given the yellowed copy of Crosstime Saloon back, and so reading it once again was quite like a homecoming, a return once again to a very happy place with a very good friend.  Stories of Callahan's will do that to you. 

I can't lie, though.  There was also a touch of awestruck delight glimmering in that tear.  There's something crystal-clear and brilliant about Spider Robinson's writing, something amazing.  It blazed at me before I'd ever written a word I didn't have to, and today, in the light of my experiences in populating two novels with words that kind of go together, it humbled me to my core.  I can only keep writing and hope that I'm ever that good. 

In the Foreword, Robinson says why he decided to write the book: "I sat up straight in my chair and said for perhaps the ten thousandth time in my life, 'By Jesus, I can write better than this turnip.'"  I should add for clarity's sake that his quote was uttered while reading sci fi rather than while eating a nice turnip soup.  I've said the same before, not while eating turnip soup either, and certainly not while reading Robinson's work.  I can do better than many of the authors out there, I'm sure. 

But not Spider.  No, I'll never be better than Spider.  I can only set my sights on being as good as he. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Interview with Karl Marlantes

"Had it gotten published when I wanted it to be, it would not have been half the novel it turned out to be." - Karl Marlantes

At the James River Writers Conference, I confess to expending so much energy building up expectations of greatness for many of the sessions that I didn't bother even considering what I might learn in others.  The interview with Karl Marlentes, author of NYT Bestseller "Matterhorn," was one of the latter.  It led off the second day, and to be honest I was focused more on the upcoming one-on-one meeting I had with an agent than on the session ahead.  It didn't take long, though, for the interview to suck my attention completely in. 

First off, I have to say that the choice of interviewer makes a significant difference, and this choice was great.  Joe Williams is a U of R grad and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, has been an editor for the Boston Globe and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is currently the White House correspondent for Politico, and is simply a very interesting guy.  I sat enthralled through the session on How to Take the Free out of Freelancing, where he was on the panel, and I can't wait to tell you about that session too. 

Karl Marlantes is no slouch himself.  A Yale grad, he told us of winning a Rhodes Scholarship, going to study at Oxford, and feeling guilty about his posh life.  He quit, returned to the Marines to serve in Vietnam, and once the war was over returned to Oxford with a chest filled with a couple of Purple Hearts and several awards for valor to complete his studies. 

Then the smart guy took 30 years to write a book.

I say that with tongue gently nestled into my cheek, of course.  It took a few years to scribe the draft, which at over a thousand pages was quite an accomplishment.  Then he read over the first draft and found he had "three pages about wet socks."  To a soldier, as I will verify first-hand, wet socks justify three pages worth of griping.  So do all sorts of rashes and sores and conditions and foodstuff that you wouldn't feed your worst enemy's pet, for that matter--none of which you really want to hear about if you haven't lived it.  He recognized, though, that he wasn't writing the book to soldiers, so the socks had to go. 

By 1977 the book was ready to be sold, he thought.  Unfortunately, there had been a lot of books about Vietnam written in the meantime.  The crest of the wave of interest in the topic had come and gone, and nobody wanted to publish another book about the war that we were all sort of embarrassed about by then. 

He put it in a shelf, pulling it out sporadically for editing and to try getting it published again.  He tried several times in the 80s and 90s; he usually quit after twenty or twenty-five rejections.

"What kept you going?" Joe asked.

Karl replied that he wasn't always sure.  He frequently asked himself, "Are you crazy?"  But in the end, "Our story needs to be told so that people understand who we were."

It's an impressive tale, one I wish now that I'd recorded in its entirety.  Karl spoke of, as part of his military duty assignment, carrying a message to the White House in his Marines uniform, and being made fun of by a group of kids across the D.C. street--how he wanted to reach out, to educate them, to make them understand.  It was clear this was the core of why he'd written the story.  "Not everybody should go to war," he said, "but we are all involved....  The soldier is the one at the end of the line pulling the trigger." 

When he finally got the nod to be published, he was told to shorten the book by quite a lot (twenty-five percent, if I recall correctly).  "I struggled with my artistic integrity for about twenty seconds," he quipped with a grin before launching into a tale of using an Excel workbook to track chapter page counts, calculating how much he needed to reduce each one by to get there.  The first few chapters were cut more because he knew they needed to be lean and gripping.  The rest were cut according to a grand plan set up in a formula-driven spreadsheet. 

Now there's something I can see myself doing.

I've read a lot of Vietnam books.  Some of them I had to read as part of my military history/"science" training at West Point, and some of them genuinely grabbed and held my interest.  That period of American civilian and military history was, and still is, such an enigma to me.  Race relations--or lack thereof--something that Karl said he'd never really faced before--caused the murder of several hundred people.  One thing my mind still can't really wrap around is what might cause somebody to purposely kill a guy who fights on the same side as them.  At the same time, the officer-enlisted relationship broke down completely over there.  Civilians mocked their own countrymen, their own heroes who came home from the war, alive and otherwise. 

I still don't get it, and probably never will. 

That's why I bought a copy of Matterhorn.  And then I had Karl sign it. 

It was a great session. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ten things I've never done

If any of you ever wonder where I come up with the strange right turns I occasionally take in my blog topics--blame Cricket.

I refer to the famous (or perhaps infamous) Cricket Walker, a Southern (and proud of it!) gal I met many years ago through a friend's recommendation to take her SEO (Search Engine Optimization) class.  I did, by the way--I took it.  I never once finished the dang thing, but I took it over and over (in e-mail format), telling myself each time that one day I'd be into SEO enough to actually complete all the lessons. It never happened, but I ended up so much into the people that the SEO became forgotten, almost irrelevant. 

SEO expert, then, I'm not.  Doesn't bother me much.  As the class went on, repeating itself in a several-week cycle, several groups spun off and I found myself immersed in a clan of awesome people.

This was back in the days before anybody would've known what the word "blog" meant, when Facebook founder Zuckerberg was still looking forward (I suppose, anyway) to prom night, when social media meant Yahoo Groups.  We had one, then two, then a dozen, groups there, all discussing various things: an SEO group to discuss lessons, a Coffee Shop to talk about whatever non-techie stuff came up, a techie group and a web techie group whose boundaries are still a bit fuzzy to me, and several others.

Central to all these was the founder, Cricket.

Cricket knows how to do a lot of things.  She's an SEO expert, for one thing.  Wrote the book on it, literally.  She also knows photography.  One thing she doesn't know, though, is how to let people sit around in silence.  If she does, anyway, she's never shown it.  She's always instigating discussions on this or on that, which is why I must once again bow to her newest challenge and list ten things I've never done.  I'll assume, of course, a qualifier that these would be things I've actually wanted to do.  For example, I've never hugged a cactus or imported an elephant, but those probably don't count. 

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. I've never hiked the Appalachian Trail.  Interestingly, another member of the group named that as well.  I'd've avoided it for that reason, except that it's something I've really wanted to do for a great many years now.  The way I see it, if everybody in America buys a copy of my book, that'll give me the funds to take the six months off to do the hike, in addition to buying all the expensive hiking equipment I'll need to prevent my being eaten by bears.
  2. I've never been to a Buddhist temple.  I've always wanted to go to one.  They're supposed to be peaceful places.
  3. I've never published a novel.  Working on this one, though.  Soon I'll check it off the list.
  4. I've never met the other, the famous, Stephen King.  Just once I'd like to have the opportunity to confront the guy behind the thirty years of daily name jokes I've suffered.  I doubt I would go at it that way, but it sure would be nice to have the opportunity to not do it.  
  5. I've never spent a day so immersed in the here and now that I didn't think of the future.  Well, okay, this is probably untrue, as I'm betting I was pretty good at this when I was a lot smaller.  As an adult, not so much. 
  6. I've never learned to play the guitar.  I've tried learning to play the guitar, but it hurts the fingies and there's always been something more important (or less painful to the fingies) to be done. 
  7. I've never built my own house.  I helped one of my stepfathers build his, and I've worked hard at reconstructing one of my own, but I've never started from scratch and constructed one.  It would be nice (though yes, I know a lot of work) to be able to point and say "I built that." 
  8. I've never practiced photography.  I enjoy taking pictures; really, I do.  The act of reaching through a lens and capturing a moment of emotion is awesome.  But I haven't worked at learning the craft, and I've made a point of avoiding it as I've become more artistically inclined.  I'm a writer.  But I'm not a great writer yet; that takes time and work to build.  I figure I'll add photographer onto that if/when God sees fit to either give me another few hours in the day or a money tree with which to support myself and the fam while I work on artistic pursuits.  In the meantime, I'm a dean of a college, and I do that very well.  
  9. I've never had any success big game hunting.  For those who refuse to consider Mississippi deer to be big game (and, I have to admit, you're probably right in doing so) I've never even been big game hunting.  My parents took me hunting for Bambi as a teenager, but I haven't been since.
  10. I've never actually met Cricket, believe it or not. 
By the way, if you're wondering who this Cricket person really is, you should go check out her blog at  Tell her I sent you.

Oh, yeah, and number eleven: I've never completed a dang SEO class.  


Monday, October 17, 2011


Yellow, red, orange, green. Artists carefully pick and choose which go where on the canvas. God seems to get by just fine, though, by splashing them everywhere.

Sometimes it's not so much the color that's there, but the color that's not, that makes me want to sing praises to the beauty and the majesty.  

I didn't write much this weekend, but with this close at hand, I had to get out of the house with my wife and drive.We drove west past Charlottesville and then turned north up Skyline Drive. 

Fall is the time of year when things settle down a bit.  It's almost like God is saying "Hey, you.  Stop.  Just for a moment is fine, but stop.  Look.  Pull the car over.  Get out."

"Put that fancy camera you're so proud of to work."

"Yes, summer was a spectacular time for you.  In the longer days you accomplished a great deal.  Even your relaxations were notable, frolicking at the beach and the pool and the park as you did."

"But hey, I'm still here.  Don't forget that."


Friday, October 14, 2011

One Novel's Journey session

"Through revision we get to the heart of the story" - Kathi Appelt

One of my favorite sessions at the JRWC ended up being the discussion titled "One Novel's Journey" featuring Meg Medina as moderator and Kathi Appelt and A.B. Westrick as speakers.  The choice of workshops was a tough call, as I'd also very much wanted to go to the one on pacing, but the overall view of the process of novelling seemed more appropriate to where I am right now. 

Westrick, fairly well known in the JRW circles, has been writing for a long time.  Medina asked when she began to take it seriously, and her reply was that there was a point where she couldn't stop writing.  She saw it in her children's reactions; when she disciplined them they'd ask, "Mom, did you get your writing time today?"  After a period that she described as "ten years of rejection letters" she decided to join in an MFA program, which is where she met Appelt, her mentor for the final project that ended up being her first published novel, Letters (due out early next year). 

There seems a great fascination among writers for how "the other guy," whoever or whatever gender the other guy may actually be, made it.  TheWriter Magazine that I'm reading right now, in fact, has an article describing the paths taken by several different successful authors (including Piers Anthony, one of my favorites).  You see investigations in the same vein posted all over the web.  Nearly all the stories I've read, though, touch on either the extended period of time it took the author to succeed, or the number (and occasionally the ascerbity) of rejections the author went through.  Rarely do they touch on the revision process which is, I think, the more interesting part.

The topic of revision came up early and often in this session.  Appelt revised her latest book, if I heard her correctly, 30 times before publishing.  Westrick stopped counting after 15 revisions, but she recalls rewriting the entire novel five times during the final semester of her MFA program.  Writing a novel is a lot of work.  Writing/rewriting a novel five times is ginormous. 

The overall number of revisions is significant in the general, comparative sense, but the path through the rewrites proved fascinating.  Westrick's first effort produced a story told in first person, present tense about a boy growing up in a dysfunctional family situation in the South that once was.  Appelt felt it was okay, but asked Westrick to give it a shot writing in the past tense.  When that attempt failed to destroy either book or author, she continued exhorting her mentee with what both said was a common phrase, "just try it," and thus prompted another rewrite to switch the POV from first person to third person.

Switching POV, incidentally, is tough.  I did an exercise in my recent creative writing class in which we wrote a scene (or selected one already written) and switched from one POV to another.  It's not merely a matter of changing pronouns.  Instead, the language, the perspective, the background knowledge, everything, must shift along with the pronouns.  Even the pacing changes, as I found when I switched Undercover Truths from third to first.  It's not an easy process at all, and so my hat's off to Westrick for carrying it through an entire novel. 

It didn't stop there, of course.  Appelt felt that the story's chronology was hurting it, causing it to read in too linear a fashion.  The MC seemed to merely be moving from one scene to another.  She picked a critical scene from mid-book and suggested Westrick begin with it, and then rewrite the work as a series of flashbacks.  This revision, Westrick said, was the hardest one, and I can believe her.  A novel by nature is a stringing together of a great many scenes, and clipping out and reorganizing all of the scenes in a manner freed of any chronological requirements/benefits represents a mammoth undertaking. 

It succeeded, though, mammoth or not.  Westrick said that after graduation in January she sent out queries and, in a month, had secured representation by an agent, and in another month had editors interested in her work.

There were quite a few gems, apart the obvious story arc, from the session.  Appelt commented on the risk of a mentor's vision impeding on an author's vision for the story, and though she agreed it was a tough line to dance, they read one of the e-mails from mentor to mentee and it seemed quite respectful of Westrick's status as the author. 

Westrick spoke up and equated the mentor-mentee relationship to an author-editor relationship, describing times when Appelt felt that a character wouldn't have said what Westrick had him saying in a scene.  This comment resonated with me, because I had beta readers doing the same thing with Married to Mars.  Westrick's insight paralleled my own experiences; she said, "the fact that she thinks the character would say this means that I haven't described the character well."

They discussed what, to me, were a couple of new topics.  Westrick brought up "desire line," which she described as the emotional arc in a story.  Appelt, in turn, discussed "controlling belief" which is part of the desire line consideration but serves more fundamental a purpose.  The plot, she said, is the overt, action-oriented pull on a character, dragging him merrily through the story, while the controlling belief is what pushes the character, serving as his motivating force.  Controlling belief, she said, is what allows the reader to invest in a character.  Meanwhile, it's never stated, but always shown.  She cautioned that a controlling belief doesn't have to be logical or true; it just has to be held securely by the character it's driving.

Medina did a great job as moderator, guiding but staying out of the way of the story for the most part.  She offered some verbal treats, the Thin Mints of the session (no TOSK blog post would be complete without a horrible metaphor), of her own.  "Writing is exhausting--exhilarating and exhausting, so when we finish a draft we just want a gold star," she said early on, and then later she agreed with something I didn't write down by saying, "we find a story by going to the place of longing in our heart."

"Writing is a gift--a present to those we love.  We don't want to give a half-assed present," Appelt said, giving me an excellent quote to close this entry out with.  There shall be no half-assed presents in my work going forward.