Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Afterglow

It seems fitting to put up this post on the last day of November, a month generally associated with being thankful for the people and blessings and opportunities in our lives. I have so much to be thankful for this year I cannot even begin to tell you. As I bask in the afterglow of the last few days' events, I would like to take a moment to give thanks and reflect on what I've come to know as truth.

BE THANKFUL FOR FRIENDS AND FAMILY
My family, and many of my friends, were there when my journey as a writer began, and they will be there with me until the end. It began with my Mom, who at age three, helped me write the words that I dictated for my very first book, "The Cat and the Mouse Who Were Friends." I supplied the illustrations, and went on from there to spend many a play-date, forcing my friends to sit at the table in my room with a stack of paper and pens "writing books." My oldest friend Ilene and I used to have sleepovers where we would stay up late and play a game called "Book Titles," where we would make lists of titles and essentially pitch the stories to each other. My classmates in elementary school were some of my earliest cheerleaders, listening with rapt attention as I read my stories aloud in Creative Writing, or "ordering" the books I'd write from my handmade catalogs that mimicked the ones we would get from Scholastic book orders. My parents, who gave me my first typewriter, and later, a computer. And in the years since, my cheerleading squad has grown to include new friends who tirelessly read my work with red pen in hand, brought me baked goods, chocolate bars and took me out for coffee when I was feeling like it would never happen, and some whom I have never met in person but no matter because they knew just the right things to say, and meant them sincerely. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Shelli Cornelison!) Remember who was there in the beginning, before "the call", before "the deal", and cherish them. People who continue to believe in you, even when you are filled with self-doubt as is par for the course, are worth gold.

HAVE FAITH IN THE UNIVERSE
You can't have a dream come true if you don't have a dream. Words and thoughts have power, and if you hold fast to your dream and persevere with patience and determination, you can reach your goal. The end result may be different than what you envisioned, or even on a different timeline than you'd hoped, but I do believe everything happens for a reason. Often, when we reflect, all the pieces and speed bumps of the past make sense in retrospect. Be grateful and thankful for every speed bump, hiccup, criticism, road block, detour and failure. They helped shape who you are right this very moment, and have faith that these things are ultimately responsible for making you a stronger and better writer and human being.

PAY IT FORWARD
Everyone would like to be successful and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Too many, however, when they feel that first glimmer of success, forget that not that long ago, they were also someone struggling to make it all come together and happen. If you find yourself fortunate enough to be in the position of achieving success in your chosen venture, always remember the importance of paying it forward. Mentoring and being there for someone else is the greatest reward of all (see first paragraph about the importance of cheerleaders!). I am eternally grateful and thankful to every single person I have met since the day I first put pen to paper who took the time to give me feedback, criticism, referrals, and the time of day. I know, without question, that what happened for me the other day would NEVER have happened without that. Besides, it's good karma :)

BE PATIENT
Good things come to those who wait. The delay is never the denial. All that good stuff. Annoying as hell, yes, but true nonetheless.

BREATHE
It's so easy to get so caught up in the whole process of making it happen that it's easy to forget to exhale. Writing, while exhilarating, can be stressful. What's my word count? Is there enough plot/action? And then querying and writing a synopsis. And then waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more. Enjoy it. Enjoy every moment, every piece, for each has its own unique experience to savor. If this is what you feel you were born to do, then know and have faith this is part of the process. Everything in its due time. Breathe in, breathe out.

Hope you take a moment to give thanks to those who are supporting you along your way, and to the universe for everything you experience. And thanks to you for taking the time to follow my journey!

Monday, November 28, 2011

The post where I get to announce I have an AGENT!!!!

Wow. I would be lying if I told you I haven't dreamed about writing this post. The thrill of actually finding a person that champions my story and my writing with as much passion as my mother does is, quite honestly, one of the most incredible feelings on Earth.

Two years. 9 revisions. Lots o'queries, the bulk of which were long before the book was truly ready to query. 16 Fulls, 3 partials, many rejections. I truly felt, at times, like I was on a roller-coaster. After all this time, and so many mistakes, the book was FINALLY ready and where I wanted it to be. But was it too late? And then, something happened that changed everything.

Do you ever meet someone and just know that they were brought into your life for a reason? Something about the moment you meet seems super-charged, as if the universe were orchestrating this moment into play for a very specific reason? I felt like that when I met YA author Jessica Brody at a writing workshop she led this past November. Our instant banter led to an easy friendship, and she was kind enough to pay it forward and offer me up a referral to her agent, Bill Contardi at Brandt and Hochman. She couldn't sing his praises enough, and she was also honest in saying that he had never once signed anyone she'd referred, but she encouraged me to go for it. I did, and Bill responded instantly, requesting the full, and then, last night, I got "the email", the one I'd read about on so many blogs where the agent says they loved your book and would like to set up a time to talk to you.

I have to be honest and say that I had to read the email three times at least before I screamed and called my family downstairs, because I'd grown accustomed to seeing, "I read BAND GEEK and I really liked it BUT . . ." This one said that too, but there was no BUT. Bill is an unbelievable agent. He not only represents Jessica, but Alyson Noel, who is one of my favorite YA authors, like, EVER! He's well respected and has worked in publishing for close to 30 years, including having a background in film and handling the film rights for clients like Meg Cabot and Ursula LeGuin. Holy cow!

The feelings racing through my brain and body were indescribable. How can you put words to that moment where suddenly everything you've worked for and dreamed of might possibly be one step closer to fruition?

Five minutes on the phone with Bill the next day, and I knew he was the right one for me. He loved the book, the voice, the character, and is as passionate about the project as I am. He has vision for where to send it and what it's future potential might be. In that moment, I got what all those blogs are saying. You shouldn't just sign with someone because they are interested in your project, nor should you mourn the ones that said no because you thought they seemed so perfect. You should go with your gut. The person you say yes to should be as excited as you are about your work, and not one iota less. And you can hope that when they send your work out into the world, their excitement can't help but be contagious. The "no's" are a gift, because they are clearing the path for the right one.

So the journey continues, and now the road merges in a new direction. I've never been so excited to hurry up and wait anew.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NaNoWriMo Pressure

It's everywhere, on every blog, all over Facebook, on Twitter, in your inbox. Excited updates from fellow writers getting down and dirty in the trenches with their NaNoWriMo projects. Some are at the halfway mark, some have already exceeded it. Some burst out of the gate with nearly 10,000 words their first day. Truth it, it makes me feel slightly queasy and break a sweat.

No month makes me feel more pressured that I have to keep up, that I must write, that I'm slacking in some way if I'm not keeping up than November. The truth is, I'm not wholly sure how I feel about NaNoWriMo. I think it's a fantastic idea to force writers to get their butts in chairs and start writing, and give them an excuse to write daily. They are given license to write utter crap and not stress it - it's about quantity and not quality, after all. Best of all, you can connect with other writers as a support system to keep egging each other on. However, for me, it adds an element to my writing that doesn't sit well with me and makes it feel less organic all around.

I know myself better than anyone, and one of the biggest pieces of advice I ever received that gave me comfort was when I read on someone's blog that writing is not a race, nor a competition. The business inherently moves slowly. NaNoWriMo makes me feel like the tortoise surrounded by a pack of hares. I believe in just getting the words out on the page, but I can't just literally stream-of-consciousness utter crap to simply get words on a page. My instinct remains to edit and make sense of it all, and I find it hard to move forward if there isn't something linear and substantial to build off of.

I admire greatly the perseverance and determination of those that can sit daily and pump out the words and in the end feel the sense of accomplishment from having met your goal. I just know it's not for me. So I cheer you from the sidelines, but respectfully step off the track, and embrace every month as NaNoWriMo, hoping I will find myself with my butt in a chair, writing, and remembering that it's not a race.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Choosing The Right Tense For Your Novel

When I write, I tend to immediately lapse into past tense. That would be fine, except for my tendency to then occasionally slip into present tense, then back into past tense, and so on and so forth. Do you do this too? How do you choose which tense is best for your story?

There are many schools of thought on which is the most pleasant tense to read. I've heard writers argue that writing in the present tense allows your reader to experience events along with your main character, so they are in no way ahead of him, and therefore feel everything as he/she feels it. It creates suspense effectively because the events are unfolding in real-time. However, the downside to using present tense is it can make flashbacks or back story feel a little less flowy because it demands a shifting of tenses. Also, for some, reading in the present tense can get annoying in a long story.

There seems to be a growing trend in novels of late to write in the present tense, but because this is not the conventional choice, you should carefully decide if there is a strong reason to.

When you choose to write in the past tense, the events of the story have already occurred, and it allows for the MC to have had time to sit with their experience and perhaps have learned something from it or grown from it in some way, let alone survived it, etc. This can help provide greater overshadowing at the beginning of a story and create suspense.

Sometimes, the only way to know what the right tense for your story is is to write it both ways. Which sounds more natural? Which makes the reader feel more involved in the story and wanting to know what happens next? The tense you choose to write in can change the entire feel of the whole book. And above all, when you've completed your manuscript and made your choice, go back over it (more than once!) to make sure all your tenses agree. Nothing is more jarring than being pulled in and out of the past and present in a story unless the device is intentional (i.e. a flashback.)

As you read, take note of the tense the writer is using and think about how the story would change if it were written in the past vs. the present and vice-versa. Do you agree with the author's choice? I'd love to hear about some books you've read recently where the tense made the difference for you in making the story great!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The post where I write about the book I started writing when I'm supposed to be writing a different one...

I sat down to work on my WIP today, and suddenly found myself writing another story entirely. It's a whole new novel, one much darker and edgier than anything I've ever written before. However, it came to me last night in a burst, whole, complete with a beginning, an end, some semblance of a middle, and a very clear main character who spoke to me and outright told me his name. When I didn't really like the name he offered me, he argued with me that that was his name, and I could give him another if I liked that other people could call him by to add depth to his character, but that that was his name. Who was I to argue? It actually made sense with the story I'd been given, so I decided to sit down this morning and see where it went.

It was one of those writing experiences that is truly a gift - where you sit down in front of the computer and the book just begins to write itself. The words flowed freely and I knew where the story was going, which is not always the case for me. I know I should be working on my other WIP, but this story is demanding my attention. It wants to be written, and now. Has this happened to you?

The truth is, I'd reached the dreaded murky middle of my WIP, and I was not as excited to dive into it because I wasn't sure what I wanted to have happen next. Therefore, writing something else entirely might, in fact, be the best thing I could do to save my other story. Sometimes, it really can be a good thing to take a break from a work that starts to feel forced and is not flowing naturally and work on something completely different. You're still writing, still being creative, and you can always come back to the work later with a fresh eye.

I love that this project is not my normal style of writing. It feels refreshing and inspiring to write more dramatically. It allows me to draw richer characters that don't rely on humor and dialogue as much to move them through their story. It allows me to work on my description and emotional interplay between the characters and the intensity of the world around them. It feels like what I should be working on, as evidenced by the fact that I sat down and wrote over 20 pages today, which is unheard of for me.

When it comes to writing, go with your gut. Don't be locked into one story, whatever you might be working on, and feel like you can't work on something else if the muse strikes you. Go with the flow. There's nothing wrong with having several stories going at once, and having the option of working on wherever your head and your heart takes you that day, especially if the pieces are drastically different.

If you're not comfortable with completely switching gears, take time to jot down notes of what comes to you. Write out whole scenes, even if they're out of context. You can always come back to them later. Stay with the idea while it's fresh in your mind, even if you need to back burner it for awhile, but you won't be scratching your head trying to remember the details later. Good luck!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing the Dreaded Query Letter

Just seeing the words 'Query Letter' give me an involuntary shudder. Admittedly, I hate them. How is it possible to take several hundred pages and sum them up succinctly, flavor them with the voice and tone of your story, and put them into one to two paragraphs to relay the entire essence of your book? And further, how do you pitch yourself as an author worth taking seriously when you do not have a long list of writing credits?

The truth is, I don't have the answer. I struggle with it myself. The best place to start is by reading other query letters. Very often, agents will offer up ones from their published clients that show what worked for them and why they were hooked. What do theirs have that yours don't?

One of the biggest mistakes that can be found in a query is that it is too wordy. I speak from personal experience. Back when I started querying my novel, before it was truly ready to be queried, I might add, my query was nothing short of an epic. Too much detail, too many character names - in short, it was utterly craptastic. That summer, I attended an amazing online writing conference called WriteOnCon, and they offered up a Query contest which was to be judged by agent Joanna Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary. You can imagine how thrilled and excited I was that she chose mine as the first one to break down. (You can read her comments here.) Although it was unnerving to put myself out there like that and have all my newbie mistakes on display, Joanna gave me an incredible gift - she actually told me what I was doing wrong (and peppered it with what I was doing right, thankfully.) For must of us, we send our query out and when we get no response, we either tweak it or continue to send another round. I actually had new direction now, and from the comments, other writers were helped by it too because they had made similar mistakes. If you have the opportunity to enter your query in a contest, or get feedback from other writers on it, do so, preferably before you submit it to half of New York City. After making these changes, interest in my book jumped.

Shortly after, I befriended YA author Eileen Cook online, and in our banter, she was kind enough to offer to take a look at it for me and sent further comments and revisions my way, helping me turn it into the query it is today. Ever since that further change, the interest spiked again. It underscored the truth that a great, tight query is everything. You have an agent's attention for approximately 45 seconds or less. If you can't hook them and get that idea across, they are on to the next one. They literally get hundreds every week, so yours must stand out.

As for pitching yourself as a writer with limited credits, look into your history and see what parlays as experience. For me, I had a history in motion picture development as a reader, as well as writing Outreach materials for a PBS station in Seattle, specifically for a popular children's television show. I'd graduated from the Screenwriting program at UCLA extension, and of course, maintain this writing blog. Not as effective were the countless hours of my childhood spent in front of a typewriter fancying myself the next Judy Blume, or the meeting I got to have with the Editor-in-Chief of Putnam Publishing when I was thirteen based on a submission, or the interest I'd had from the Disney Channel in a script I'd written when I was a teenager. Nothing ever happened with those things, so they aren't useful, except to me to reassure myself that this has always been in my blood and been my passion for as long as I can remember. You don't need to spell out "I've never been published." Saying "This is my first novel" can be enough. But don't overdo it. Less is more.

For some great tips on query letter writing, check out YA author Elana Johnson's blog entry, and even better, her free eBook "From The Query To The Call." For an excellent list of 10 query no-no's, check out this link. AgentQuery.com has a great how-to list that gives you great structure and tips. Another great resource is The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters. A quick Google search will bring up countless more.

What are some great tips you use to make your query stand out? Good luck, and may the force be with you.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What's Original Anymore?

One of the biggest challenges in creating a new work is making it original. There will always be a market for romances, thrillers, a good cozy mystery, and a road trip novel, but what makes yours stand out? Agents and publishers want to see that spark of something they haven't seen before, so how do you catch their eye when everything has been done before? Living proof of that is the plethora of novels out there right now on zombies, vampires, angels and mermaids. Not to say they aren't good - many of them absolutely are - but isn't one zombie or vampire the same as the next? It absolutely can be, and can ensure your book stays in the proverbial drawer, unless you do the work to make sure it has that extra somethin' somethin'.

When I am writing something new, i.e. a road trip novel, for example, the first thing I do is try and read every novel I can get my hands on that falls in that vein. I also watch any movie I can that fits that subject too. I do this first for inspiration, that it may spark some ideas of my own. I do it second because I want to make sure I don't duplicate what someone else has already successfully done. However, here's the reality: We know in every good road trip novel, there are a series of mishaps that keep the pacing going and keep the reader turning the page. Will our MC get from point A to point B? What obstacles will she encounter along the way that keep him/her from getting there? Will he/she find romance along the way? The answer is: Most likely, yes. This is what is known as a formulaic plot. (Think of the movie "The Sure Thing" with John Cusack). However, let's give that a spike. Yes, it's a road trip of sorts, but so much more: Think "Thelma and Louise" with Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis and a young, shirtless Brad Pitt. They face a lot of choices that determine what happens next and an unexpected twist at the end. THAT'S what you want to aim for. Another great example is the recent YA novel "Au Revoir Crazy European Chick" by Jon Schreiber, which is best described as Ferris Bueller meets La Femme Nikita. Perry, the main character, is forced to take his European exchange student to the prom, which ends up to be a night on the run through the underbelly of New York City when she actually turns out to be an assassin. The twists are surprising, and the author successfully manages to have the reader suspend their disbelief and take the wild ride along with the MC. Just driving from point A to point B, running out of gas and falling in love is not enough to engage the sophisticated teen literary tastes of today. Think out of the box.

Here's an exercise to make yourself feel better when you feel like your writing feels "un-sparkly": Pull out 20 of your favorite books and see if you can break them down into a simple formula. You can bet each one has one. Then try and discover what gives each one their "spark." If you need a little extra help in coming up with some great plot ideas, check out Martha Alderson's new book "The Plot Whisperer" and watch her video series on Yahoo.

Most of all, if it doesn't come to you all initially, don't despair. That's what revisions are for. Additionally, sometimes real life will surprise you and throw an idea in your path. For example, just the other night I went to a writing workshop and found myself lost in downtown Los Angeles at 11 p.m. with some pretty interesting peple on every corner. Though I was not quite so into it at the time, that's the kind of stuff you want to save up and channel for later, and you can write it honestly because you've experienced it. You know what it felt like to have that adrenaline pumping through your body, the panic setting in as eyes are on you alone at a stop light, praying for it to change so you can peel out of there and find that freeway on-ramp. Don't worry about getting it all in in that first draft. Think sparkly!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Pity Party of One

Ever have one of those weeks where everything seems to happen at once? Rejection after rejection? Even people who you queried six months ago decide that NOW would be an excellent time to let you know that your work is not for them? Seriously? Other than throw a pity party of one to celebrate an utterly craptastic week, what's a girl to do? (Other than eat chocolate, duh!)

Well, here's what I did. First, I sat on the couch and cried. Crying is actually really good. I'm a cryer. I believe it's important to get out what's inside instead of letting it bottle up, and it had been as bottled up as the genie in Aladdin's lamp, I assure you. Then I talked to my mother, my friends, the barista at Starbucks, whomever knows me, knows how hard I've been working, the endless hours of revisions I've put in, letting them build me up by reminding me I really am a good writer, that this is so subjective, that all it takes is one, etc. It wasn't enough. I still felt craptastic.

Two rejections followed by two new requests for the full. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster. But I kept reminding myself - I believe in this book. I know it's a great, fun story. People have told me, at the minimum, numerous times, the film potential this book has - and that is what brought me back.

Although I believe in this story as a novel, I must consider that there are many mediums in which to tell a story. It's important for you to consider too (Not my book, yours, silly!) If it feels like the response is not what you want it to be, try reworking your story in another medium and see if that helps it find its more organic voice. At the minimum, putting a novel into screenplay form demands a certain structure that your novel may be lacking. Certain things need to happen at certain points in the story in order for a screenplay to flow. Are those things happening in your novel at certain points? If not, that may be part of the problem. How often have you watched a movie with great actors and a fun storyline, but NOTHING HAPPENS for too long a stretch. Characters walk, talk, sleep, eat and canoodle, sure, but what else happens? When you translate things to a visual medium, it's hard to get away with that and it may underscore what is hard to see in the pacing of your novel.

After my burst of inspiration that my novel was far from dead - it is still actively garnering interest and holds much potential to be reworked into another medium if necessary - I decided to be brave and dive into the stack of recent rejections. Of course, I made coffee first and grabbed more chocolate. And something salty. Salty and chocolate together . . . yeah. But anyhow, when I took the time to really read the rejections, the biggest thing that I saw that came through on every single one was the validation that I could indeed write. Perhaps what I had written was not for that person, but they all told me I had great talent, they loved the story, they loved the characters, parts made them laugh out loud. So, in fact, I was doing something right. It was the missing piece that was where the subjectivity came in, and what is one man's trash is another man's treasure, right? For example, I just finished reading a current bestselling adult novel this past week, and at the end I wanted to claw my eyes out with a spoon. Up until the end, it had been fantastic, and then it utterly fell apart and was completely unsatisfying. How could that get by the gatekeepers of publishing? And how could readers scoop it up like candy? And how could Hollywood then embrace it as a movie? The ending STUNK!!! But...that's just MY opinion. Just one in a sea of opinions.

And so it is for me...continuing to look for the one soul that connects to the whole package because they see all the other stuff AND see the further potential. I have no doubt it will happen. Just a matter of when. So when I'm feeling discouraged, I have to remember one very important thing. I really do believe in myself and my ability to write. And above all else, it has to start there. If I can't believe in myself and my story, why should I expect anyone else to?