Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Happy New Year Blog Post Where I Ramble On About Digging Deep In Your Writing

I'm sort of a sentimental nerd when it comes to New Year's Eve. Whereas for some it's a cause to celebrate, to toast, to party with friends, to eat Chinese food and curl up with a stack of movies - for me, it's a time of reflection and often sadness. Weird, but true. It's as if we are tethered somehow to all that happens to us in that particular year and when that clock strikes midnight, that tether is broken and it all becomes a part of our past in a different way. There is a marker of distance between us and these events. For some reason, this makes me an emotional mess.

What is it about the past that makes us hold on so tight? Do we somehow believe that as long as we cling to it, a piece of it is still with us somehow in the present? And I'm certainly not alone in feeling this way. How many of you are thrown head-first into a memory, painful or positive, just by hearing a song, or seeing a scene from a movie, or even driving down a certain street? I honestly believe there is no place more powerful or raw to dig in for deep, emotional, real writing than in the treasure troves of our pasts. Those events, people and places that have left a lasting imprint on our hearts and lives. Why? What's the story there?

This year, dig deep. Look at what's inside you, what hurts to let go of, what feels GOOD to let go of, and let it come out to play. Mold it like clay and let it be your muse, guiding your words honestly and ferociously on to the page and see where it takes you.

I send New Years blessings to my writer friends, and hope you have a healthy, happy New Year filled with much laughter and happiness and that the words flow. Don't stress the whole I-have-to-get-an-agent-I-must-be-published-I-have-to-sell-a-ton-of-books-or-I'm-nothing thing. It's meaningless in the scope of the universe, really. Write for you. Write because you must. Write because you need it like you need oxygen in your lungs. Everything else is just a bonus, and you should never look to others to validate yourself in that way. Writing a book, or a blog, or whatever you write, is a huge endeavor and accomplishment of its own - one that many say they'd like to do but never actually accomplish. What's important is the journey - the dream, the persistence, the discipline, the dedication, the passion. The rest will come in it's own time.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Never Judge A Book By It's Cover

As a writer, I try and read every single new release within the genre I write in (contemporary YA for those following along at home) to best understand what is being published and why. Some of them are straightforward and obvious fun, and others make me scratch my head and say "Really?", but that's what makes this business subjective. When I came across one of the latest offerings, "The Summer of Skinny Dipping" by Amanda Howells, at my local library, I picked it up off the shelf and immediately dubbed it a frothy beach read I'd skim when I had the chance. Lesson learned: Never judge a book by it's cover.

Admittedly, the cover shows a seascape and an impossibly thin teen in a gauzy flowing wrap skirt and bikini top skittering amongst the waves, and the back offers up a stereotypical summer romance about the girl who falls in love with the boy renting the summer house next door the summer of her sixteenth year. Been there, read that, right? I thought so too. But that's the problem - the cover, and the brief description on the back, don't even begin to touch on the magic that lies on the pages within.

Although the book starts predictably in a light way, it quickly delves beneath the surface and deals with dark topics, deep emotions and makes your heart catch in your throat on more than one occasion. The writing is lyrical and beautiful, evoking all senses, and allowing the reader to crawl into the main character Mia's skin in a way that truly took me back to being sixteen again. Further, what took me most by surprise is that the ending had a twist I never saw coming - something you don't usually find in what I would have normally judged as a "lightweight" novel. Sure, there are seeds planted along the way, as any good writer should do to get the reader thinking, but this was so not what I expected that I literally found myself emotionally reactive at the end and had to sit with the story for a few moments after finishing it. I don't want to give anything away, because it's well worth a read to enjoy Amanda Howell's beautiful writing and sensitive love story, but I have to say she did an excellent job as a writer of taking the reader fully on her character's journey and immersing them in her world and her heart.

A lot of teen novels today have similar covers. It's the publisher that chooses these, not the writer, and my guess is it's based on sales of similar novels. If you liked x novel and it had x cover, you are likely to pick up this novel off the shelf and check it out. However, take that extra step and read the inside flap. Better yet, if you can, sit and read the first chapter or two, because what you see on the cover may not be what you get. If you pass on something because of a lackluster or even misleading cover, you may miss out on a gem of a story.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When is your novel ready to submit?

I am so happy for a writer friend of mine. She has been working on her novel for five years - yep! that's right - five years - and FINALLY got it to that sweet spot where she knew it was ready to start querying. She'd queried it before in another form and generated interest, even did a full rewrite for an agent at their request, only to have them pass. However, instead of that destroying her confidence, she dove back into the manuscript and kept what advice she found useful and brought it back to the story she wanted to tell, not the story somebody else was looking to hear.

Several years and many rewrites later, she sent out ten queries in her first week and instantly got three requests for the full from three top agents. This is the amazing stuff every writer wishes would happen to them. However, when you hear of someone's insta-success, or a huge amount of interest in their book straight out of the gate, there's usually a story behind it. There's usually years of hard work, agonizing rewrites, painful hours of cut and paste and spell check and tears, moments of wanting to give it up, moments of thinking it's there only to realize it's not. Sure, instant successes happen, but it's important to remember that nothing worth having in life comes without hard work. Writing is hard work, and although sometimes it's hard to keep the optimism level high and the words flowing, the only way to get your novel to where you want it to be is by doing the work.

So how do you know when it's done? The truth is - it's never done. There is always something, upon reflection, that you find that you wish you could tweak or change. For a novel to be ready, it must undergo many revisions. When I get feedback, I read it through and see if I honestly agree with it. If just one person says it, I mull it over and see if it feels right. However, if two or more people say it, I change it without hesitation. Then it's no longer a subjective thing; it's an identifiable problem.

If you send your book out in the world when the feedback coming back is still saying something needs attention in one way or another, you are only short-changing yourself opportunity. You only get to query an agent once with a project, unless they request changes or you've made a substantial revision and they initially expressed strong interest, in which case you can certainly contact them and see if they would be open and willing to reconsider your work.

When you feel your book is truly done, be honest with yourself. Are you just sick and tired of working on it and it is what it is? Have all previous concerns from feedback you've received been addressed? Were there things you received feedback on that you stubbornly refused to change, and if so, why? Are you just anxious to get it out there already? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, do yourself a favor - take a step back. Because guess what? Your novel probably isn't ready. And the beautiful thing is - at this stage in the game, time is on your side. There are no deadlines save the self-imposed ones. You have the luxury of being able to take all the time you need to make it right, and in the end, it will have been worth it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What's Your Story?

Yesterday was one of those magical life moments. I celebrated my 20th anniversary with my husband.

We met in college, in our junior year. He was sitting in front of me in a class and I thought he was cute so I passed him a note. We ended up passing notes back and forth for three days without ever actually speaking a single word to each other. On the fourth day, it was a freezing, stormy Boston day, and I asked him if he'd like to come over and have some hot chocolate and a real conversation. He did, and drank the whole mug, left to go to his 6 p.m. class, came back at 9, and basically never left. Now that I've been married to him for 20 years, I know that he absolutely hates hot chocolate.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because everyone has a story. The story of their relationships, the story of their friendships, the story of their career, the story of the moment of greatest joy or deepest grief, the story of the roads taken and not taken. These stories are the real fabric of life, the universal truths that we can write about that readers can dive in and relate to that make our stories more personal and believable.

If you're stuck in your writing, or you want to flesh out a relationship between your characters more fully, take a few minutes and pick a story or two from your own life and write about it in detail as if it were happening to the characters in your story. Chances are, when writing from your own personal treasure trove of memories, you will tend to remember little details that set the mood and propel the story. Things like: a song that was playing, if it was the most beautiful day ever or driving rain, the look on someone's face, how you felt inside, etc. Though you may never actually incorporate this story into your own, it will help you reach in and find the honesty in the piece you want to work on.




Friday, December 2, 2011

Finding An Agent

You've written the book, you've spent hours perfecting your query and synopsis, and now the time has come to get your baby out into the world. Where do you start? There are, literally, hundreds of literary agents out there. How can you possibly know who they are, what they like, and which one would be the best fit for your work?

The best place to start is by making your own personal agent "wish list", i.e. what factors are the most important to you in a working relationship. Remember, your relationship with your agent is a partnership akin to a marriage. You have to be able to feel comfortable to approach them with questions and issues, there needs to be clear communication, and that person has to "get" you and your work. Are you more comfortable working with a man or a woman? Huge established agency or a smaller boutique agency with a smaller client list? A newer agent or someone who has more experience? Someone who communicates to you every step of the way or someone who just checks in when there's something important to say? Based in New York or based somewhere else? (By the way, the latter point does not seem to matter much these days with the advent of the internet, Skype and whatnot - they all are well connected to the primarily New York-based publishing houses.) Written contract or verbal agreement? Only you can answer these questions as to what works best for you, and will help you hone in on select people as you begin your search.

The next step is to become familiar with several key websites that are a tremendous asset in helping research what each agent is looking for. Hands down, the best one I've found is Literary Rambles, which is literally a one-stop shop for finding the low-down on some of the top agents in the business. The site has specific submission guidelines for each agent, their interests as far as requested materials, and an abundance of links to further research anyone who catches your eye. You can branch off and read interviews on blogs, or see their listings on Publishers Marketplace, and so on.

Also excellent are sites like AgentQuery.com, which allows you to perform searches in a specific genre and also has information like comments from other writers, response times and request percentages, contact information, and much more. This site will also tell you if the agent likes to see queries by email or snail mail.

There are also many invaluable blogs, which I have mentioned in previous posts, and books like Writers Market and Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. These books are updated annually because editors and agents move around a lot, so it is always best to check the agency's website directly to make sure that particular agent is still there. Writer's Digest also has an online component with the most current listings if you purchase the deluxe edition. They also have a smaller resource guide that is specific just for literary agents, which can be found here.

Start small and send out queries to just a few at a time. Hopefully, someone bites with interest right away, but if not, you can take the feedback you get to help you tweak the query or hone your focus differently. For example,Agent A that works for mega-huge agency that you'd sell your first-born to work with may state specifically she loves paranormal and sci fi and you're sending her your contemporary romance. Show them you've done your homework. Know who they represent, especially if they rep writers similar to how you write.

And most of all, have patience. This process takes a loooooong time, unless you're one of the super lucky ones who gets an agent right out of the gate, but remember, they are the exception, not the rule, so don't feel like giving up if it doesn't happen on the timetable you've envisioned. Good luck!