First World Writer Problems

So, I went to WorldCon back in September. While there I learned a ton about the industry, agents, editors, other authors, and all that writing stuff. I met a boat-load of writers, a few of whom have kept in touch, and we started a writing group that is pretty great. In short, I had a blast.

I also learned what agents are looking for, and got a better idea of how to make an agent want to read my book. So, of course, I got back home and sent out a half-dozen queries with my newly refined and sharply honed pitch. I included such information as ‘I heard about you through XYZ author you/your agency represents and they spoke highly of you’ and ‘I’m looking for an agent who can help me grow into a career writer’.

And it worked. I got several partial requests and waited for the glory.

But alas, it did not come.

So, back to the other writers I met and the group we started. We’ve had a few meetings now, and things are going really well. They’ve pointed out all many of the reasons my story was not hooking agents in the first chapter and I’ve fixed most of those. Good news, right? Well, yes and no.

See, now I’m in the middle of a rewrite after they pointed out some weak motivations in one of my primary characters. I know where I’m going with it, but it’s going to take time to fix. Which wouldn’t be an issue if I hadn’t just gotten a partial request last week from an agent.

This is a first world writer problem. I had a manuscript for an agent, sent the query, but by the time she decided she wanted to read more, I had already started fixing all much of the bad stuff in my manuscript. In essence, I’ve shot myself in the foot, because I can’t send in the partial without a completed full to back it up! I’m wishing I had found such a great writing group a long time ago.

The best I can do at this point is finish my revision as quickly as I can and get it sent out before she loses interest. Publishing is a slow business, though, right? I mean, I’ve got some time, don’t I?

Maybe I better go work on that revision…

Writing Group

So, next week is the inaugural meetup of the online writing group I and a couple other people have put together. The four of us met up at Worldcon in San Antonio and we kept in touch and decided we would start constructively criticizing each other’s writing.

The plan, as it exists now, is to send out links to our work on Google Drive and read it ahead of time. Then, when meeting time comes, we’ll all get on Google Hangouts and video chat about what we meant by all the harsh and painful comments we left on each other’s brilliant prose.

So, to get the ball rolling, I sent out my link to the other 3 and over the course of the last couple of days, they’ve responded with their own. Huzzah! First task complete!

Bonus: I’ve started reading their stuff, and it’s all good! That means I’m not stuck in a group with some people who can’t write, so hopefully they’ll be able to help me improve my writing and I’ll finally get this mind-vomit published!

Yea, I just referred to years of writing, editing, revising, rewriting, plotting, and self-cutting as mine-vomit. Deal with it.

Hopefully everything will go swimmingly and our first meeting will be a huge success with everyone logging off full of inspiration and new ways to make their projects shiny pieces of brilliance. More realistically, I just hope we all wrap up the night and don’t hate each other.

NaNoWriMo

Ahhhh, November. Best known for that holiday where friends and family gather to beat each other with serving spoons and turkey legs while children turn their noses up at casseroles and insist on eating nothing more than the scant leftover Halloween candy Mom and Dad have tried to squirrel away into the back of the pantry to save for themselves on a rainy day. Oh yeah, and it’s National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo rubs me two distinct ways: 1) Huzzah! People are getting into writing and for a month being an author who isn’t published yet is a little more normal and slightly less shameful! 2) Who the hell do these people think they are? They’ve been trying to write for less than a month! Come back in a few years with a stack of rejection letters and tell me how much you love the craft!

Most of the time, I’m more firmly in the former mindset. NaNoWriMo is a great way to get people interested in writing and to bring more people to it as an art form and a skill. It’s also a great way to develop the community, and get readers to understand the perils of writing and maybe cut some of us a little slack when we take too long getting that next book in the series out (yeah I’m talking to you, beta/gamma readers; you know who you are). So, in the spirit of NaNo, here is some advice from a guy who’s never tried to write a novel in a month:

1) Write. When you feel the ‘muse’, when you don’t feel the ‘muse’, and when the ‘muse’ has had WAY too many Jaegers and thinks that guy at the bar is a girl and keeps telling you to get her number. Sit your ass down and write. Write every day, even if you only stare at a blank page and write ‘what the hell?’ over and over again. Sit there and do it.

2) Don’t judge your work… yet. You can’t expect to have a shiny diamond of a novel after a month. In fact, similar to a diamond, after a geologically short period, it’s much more likely to look like a powdery mess of coal than anything sparkly and jewel-ish. Only after ages of heat and pressure (I’m not talking about cute squeezy pressure, I’m talking ass in a vice at the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic on your head pressure) will your pretty piece of stardust be morphed into that diamond you knew it could be. It will probably still disappoint you, but just like jewels, novels are judged by more than just their size and cut.

3) Join a writing group. Writing groups (good ones at least) are invaluable. They will give you feedback, help point out things you didn’t see, provide encouragement, tons of advice, and perhaps a few contacts. Writing Excuses has a great podcast about writing groups, you should check them out. In fact, there’s number four.

4) Find some good podcasts and blogs. I will give one example of each here: Writing Excuses and Terrible Minds. Writing Excuses is a long-running pod with such unheard of characters as Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal. If you didn’t catch it, that ‘unheard of’ bit was sarcasm. If you don’t know those people, Google them and realize what you’re missing. I’ll be here when you get back and begin contemplating how you could have thought your life was complete before being acquainted with those people. The pod covers a huge range of topics, all related to writing, generally talking about genre and speculative types of fiction. Brandon comes from a background of writing MEGA epic series in the fantasy genre, while Howard has a ridiculously long running web comic of a sci-fi comedy bent, Dan writes mostly horror and sci-fi, and Mary is a puppeteer who also writes beautiful books and recently out-Rothfussed Pat Rothfuss in his #RealRothfuss twitter campaign for charities. Terrible Minds is Chuck Wendig’s blog and is as full of awesome as Writing Excuses. I met the ‘Dig at WorldCon 2013 and he is a genuinely wonderful person, and an extremely talented writer. Read what he says, or else… No but seriously, these two sites are treasure troves of writerly goodness that you NEED to be tuned into. These are by no means the only ones, but they’re my two favorites.

5) Go ahead and feel inadequate, but keep writing anyway. As writers, we all get days/weeks/months where we don’t feel good enough. We feel like what we’re writing sucks, nobody will like it, and in fact they will not like it so badly that they’ll ridicule us publicly for it. As a bit of insight: every good writer feels that way. That feeling is what makes people who are mediocre writers strive to improve their craft to the level that it’s outstanding. People who don’t feel that way from time-to-time won’t push themselves the same way and their so-so work will stay so-so and people won’t care enough about it to take notice. The overwhelming conviction that you’re an impostor and you shouldn’t be trying to tread where giants have walked before is a real emotion and should be treated appropriately: with coffee and chocolate. The thing that no one thinks about is that those giants whose footsteps dwarf your own on the path to publication started out just like yours, you were just too busy being lost in the woods to notice them until they were freakishly huge. Your feet will grow, you just have to keep walking.

6) Don’t stop come December. I’ll repeat my last phrase from number 5: keep walking. If you liked NaNo, make every month NaNoWriMo. Keep the story going and when you’ve finished that first draft, let it sit, write something new, and come back to it for a second pass.

Writing is a beautiful release that I think everyone should try at least once in their life. So sit down at the computer, start up Spotify, and jam out to Two Steps from Hell while you crank out that epic. I look forward to seeing your name on a cover some day.

More Things I’ve Read Lately

For another installment in things I read lately: Fierce as the Grave by John Hornor Jacobs. I was supposed to include the Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett in this, but I’ve been swamped at work and haven’t been able to listen to my audiobook as much as I’d like, so that one will be pushed to later.

Fierce as the Grave is a collection of four short stories, all dealing with death/undeath, which you may have gathered from the title.  They go quickly, but that’s sort of the point of short fiction. Entertaining, thought-provoking, and creepy; just the way good horror writing should be.

Verrata: Futuristic sci-fi horror short about a guy with a slug that connects him to the internet. His slug starts to go haywire and he starts seeing visual errata (verrata, if you will). It’s better than I make it sound. Neat premise, fast read, A little dark. Liked it a lot.

Heaven of Animals: In short: zombie wranglers. John takes the problem of a shit-ton of zombies and comes up with a solution. He then writes a short story about it. There’s a horse named Dharma.

Bone China: I’m not going to tell you exactly what this one is about because I think trying to figure out exactly who the old lady is is part of the fun. Basically, old woman in Arkansas has way the hell too much money and decides to throw a party with some interesting guests.

Sneaking In: This one might have been my favorite, simply for the ending. It’s the classic boy meets girl and they have sex in a graveyard type story. So overdone, if you ask me. In case you missed it and aren’t living inside my head, that was sarcasm.

So, there you go. 4 stories for a buck. A quarter each, and you have some entertaining dark stories to read on the shitter, or in bed. Hopefully those are two different places. I’m generally not a fan of short stories, preferring something meatier to really dive into and swim around in for a while, but I enjoyed these.

You can find Fierce as the Grave on Amazon here for $0.99 on your Kindle.

Going Back

Around a month ago, I submitted a manuscript to an agent I was extremely excited about. I had met him at a convention, spoken with him at length, and convinced him to take a look at the first two novels in my fantasy series. I made some quick revisions he requested, and sent them off.

Then I waited. Far less time than I expected, honestly.

Then the rejection came.

But lo, and behold, the rejection came with sound reasoning, and the assurance that he would be interested in seeing those manuscripts revised and any future projects I may work up.

This is a win, but it brings me to the topic I want to discuss: revising, reworking, or rewriting.

Based on this feedback, I’m straight up rewriting. There are several reasons for this, and most of them filter back to inexperience on my part when I started this project. This novel was the first piece of fiction I had tried to write since grade school and I wasn’t very good. There were fundamental problems that simply rewording a sentence or dropping a few adverbs wasn’t going to fix. So, I rolled up my sleeves, tucked my pants into my galoshes, and trudged through the sewage.

Yes I just compared two years of writing and revising to poop water. I’m classy like that.

I currently have the stance that what I wrote, edited, modified, cut up, had someone else edit, gave to readers, shopped to agents, and tried desperately to get published, is a beautiful and shiny first draft. A first draft that has been edited twelve times. A first draft that will serve me well when I need to refer to the next events to come in my rewrite. A first draft that I can treat as a wonderfully detailed outline.

That hurts a bit, but when I’m done with this rewrite, I will have a much stronger book, with dense prose, a tight storyline, stronger characters, and better relationships.

At least I fucking hope so.

Things I Read Lately

I think I’m going to start a category of ‘things I read lately’ where I’ll talk about things I’ve read and what I liked about them. I’m not going to talk about stuff I didn’t like, because that sort of negativity doesn’t help anyone. Everyone likes different things, and if me saying I didn’t like something keeps you from checking it out, I may have helped you rob yourself of a great experience. These aren’t really reviews, because I’m not going to go into detail and rip them apart or talk about themes and such; I’m just going to summarize and say why I liked them. So, without further ado:

Promise of Blood, a Powder Mage novel by Brian McClellan. This sizable novel is an epic fantasy set in a flintlock fantasy world with Powder Mages who can do cool stuff with gun powder, Knacked who can do low-level magicky things like go without sleep forever, and Privileged who are straight up magic wielding bad-asses. It centers around a small cast who are well developed, follows some well though-out political intrigue, and throws in some deities stirring things up, to really create a mess. A fun read, that I recommend. The rest of the trilogy is forthcoming, and in the meantime Brian has some short-stories on his website you can buy for your e-reader. I reviewed one of them here.

The Darwin Elevator, first of the Dire Earth Cycle by Jason Hough. For one reason or another, I spent the whole time reading this thinking it was an Angry Robot book, which has nothing to do with how good or bad it was, I was just surprised when I looked on the spine and saw Del Rey/Spectra there. For clarity, I have nothing against either publisher, in fact, the folks at Angry Robot are extremely nice people, and their books are top-notch. Moving forward. Darwin Elevator follows Skyler Luiken (did I spell that right? I’m not sure), a smuggler of some renown, as he tried to save the remnants of humanity from a nasty disease called SUBS that has generally made the Earth a shithole. The only safe-haven for people is a space elevator that some aliens sent to Darwin Australia that keeps the disease from advancing while you’re near it. Jason does the infected zombie thing well, giving the disease enough of a uniqueness that I don’t just think ‘ugh, really, zombies?’ The characters, story, and conflict are well built, which helps, because he isn’t just relying on the existence of zombies to create the plot. They are A problem, not THE ONLY problem. As I said before, this is the first book in the Dire Earth Cycle. I think the last installment just dropped last week. We should look into these.

What I’m working on next: I’m currently in the middle of the audiobook version of The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett, and I have started on John Horner Jacobs’ short story collection Fierce as the Grave, which is also very good and currently on sale for 99 cents in the Kindle Store. I’m on a bit of a horror kick, I guess.

Happy Reading!

Self Cringe

—After a few people have talked to me about this post, I feel the need to clarify that this is meant to be a commiseration type of affair. It’s meant to say ‘hey, I know some of you out there have done a dumb thing like this, and you’re not alone. If It ever happens again, try doing this thing that helped mitigate the situation.’ That’s it. I’m not trying to soapbox or anything like that. It’s just a blog.—

 

You know that feeling when you’re watching a terribly awkward social situation unfold and you see what’s coming, and you feel embarrassed for the guy who’s just digging that hole deeper and deeper?

That’s Cringe.

When you’re the one digging the hole, and you finally realize what happened…

That’s Self-Cringe.

This just happened to me in a rather public way on Twitter.

I’ve only been actively Tweeting for about a month, so I’ve got a lot to learn about that particular subset of the social media scene. Apparently one of the unspoken rules about Twitter is that you don’t make jokes about why someone is or is not following you. I didn’t realize this, so when someone I follow made a comment about having to re-follow someone after a bug caused them to unfollow them, and a third party commented, I said (innocently, because I thought it was funny) ‘so that’s why <third party> isn’t following me. It’s a bug.’ (paraphrased, but you get the idea.)

You have my permission to hiss, bite your finger, groan, moan, heckle, and look away. Except you probably can’t because it’s a train wreck.

Third party called me out on it right there. Which I’m actually grateful for because it helped to show me what I had done wrong. I hadn’t even realized that what I did was drop a nice sized deuce in the ginger ale. Third party put me on the spot and said it wasn’t cool to call him/her out in a public forum like that.

Of course I immediately realized what I had done, and even at the safety and distance of my desk, I blushed. The bottom of my stomach dropped. This is a person who I respect and who I want to respect me. This is a person who I have met, made a good impression on, and have developed a small professional relationship with. And now I’ve probably fucked all that up.

I did not try to sweep it under the rug. I have always been the sort to own up to what I say/do, and face problems head on so they don’t bite me in the ass later. So I immediately acknowledged that what third party saw/inferred was a reasonable inference, but I did not intend to insinuate that. I saw the subtext, and tried to reassure him/her that it was unintentional. I did this both on Twitter and via email where I could expound more than 140 characters’ worth, and could reassure them that putting them in such an awkward situation is not how I would pay back the kindness and professional/personal courtesy they had shown me.

If you ever find yourself in this position, where someone takes something you said in a way you absolutely did not intend, the best thing I can suggest is to own it, acknowledge that person’s feelings, and then try to make amends by ensuring that is not what you intended to communicate.

Equally important, if not even more so: learn from it. Don’t do that same thing again next week when a similar situation pops up. Not committing the error means you don’t have to hustle to make up for it.

Learn from my mistake.

EDIT AFTER THE FACT: This is not intended as a way of pointing fingers or calling anybody out or trying to make a big stink about anything anyone said or did. This is just me being cathartic, and trying to show people a (reasonably) graceful way to react when your sneaker slides through the social cow pie. Because it’s going to happen.

My Ideal Editor/Author Relationship

I’ve been going back and listening to a bunch of old Writing Excuses podcasts. For those who have been intentionally avoiding all things related to writing in the last several years, Writing Excuses is a brilliant podcast with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal where they talk about writing, publishing, cartooning, graphic novels, etc. in a short, easy-to-digest format. It’s updated weekly and is only 15 minutes long because we’re in a hurry and Americans have a short attention span. This podcast has really given me a bunch of blog ideas, but the one I have most strongly latched onto is the idea of working with an editor or and editing agent.

A lot of writers operate under the guise that editors are the enemy of purity in literature and seek to destroy all that is holy and worth cherishing in their works. I used to be one of these people. I think this feeling stems from an insecurity about the value of their written words, and a simultaneous belief that what they have written is the best thing to ever grace a page. I may be revealing too much about myself here, but I have both of these thoughts almost constantly battling in my cerebrum. Part of me wants for people to read it and love it, and the rest of me is overwhelmed with terror that they will laugh me out of the room.

This story is perfect! No one is going to like it.

What I have grown to learn, though, is that people in the industry, particularly agents and editors, want your book to succeed, and the things they will tell you in the editing process are intended to improve the manuscript. They will not tell you something they do not believe will make your story better. Agents don’t make money if you don’t get a publishing deal. Editors don’t make money if that deal doesn’t make them money. Agents and editors like to make money.

If we then rationally consider those points, we come to the logical conclusion that an agent who knows their stuff will only help make our books better, and an editor who knows their stuff will only serve to make that better book even better. Better + Better = Good As It Gets

In that case, I can’t wait to get an editing agent to grab hold of my manuscripts and tell me what’s wrong with them. I can’t wait for an email with an attachment saying ‘I’ve found these 42,659 places you can improve this’. I can’t wait for this because I know when all that is done, when I’m all through being pissed off about how much of my blood I’m having to sap from these pages and replace with someone else’s brain spatterings, I will have a stronger story and a better book. In the end, that’s what we’re doing this for. We’re writing stories for people to read and enjoy.

My Ideal Editor/Author Relationship is the one where he/she knows what I’m trying to say, can find a better way to say it, and can then convince me that the better way is really better. I want to publish my stories, but I want them to be better than I can make them on my own.

Because the readers deserve the best story we can give them.

Paid Reviews

There seems to be an ongoing debate lately about authors paying people to review their books on websites like Amazon, Goodreads, etc. Some see this as simple commercialism: you have to get your brand out there, and you have to present it in the best possible light. Others see it as a violation of the trust between author and reader: the reader should be able to check reviews for honest feedback about the novel in question before deciding if they want to spend their hard-earned money on it, or something else.

So we apparently have a problem. Publishing is most certainly a business, and how does one promote a business? Advertisement, sponsorship, spokespeople… isn’t that what a reviewer is? A spokesperson? Don’t other businesses use them? What makes a published book any different?

Honestly, I have a hard time coming to a purely rational and logical conclusion that purchased reviews are inherently wrong and evil. How are they any different than a food manufacturer who tells you this product has less fat, but doesn’t bother to mention that it actually still has more calories and sodium? Or when an ambulance chasing lawyer pops on your TV screen and line of people tell you how much more money you’re going to get out of that guy who hit your car. Most of those people were never injured: they’re paid actors. So what’s the big deal?

The big deal, to me at least, is that it feels dishonest. It feels like the author is trying to trick readers into buying their book by falsifying the public’s reaction to it. Reviews are one of the strongest word-of-mouth generating media authors have, and anyone in publishing knows that word-of-mouth is what sells books. Sure a flashy cover will make someone pick it up off a shelf, and a good blurb will do a lot to get someone to buy it at that point, but word-of-mouth blows that away.

What these authors are doing poisons the well. It makes readers question the glowing positive reviews for the books out there that are actually that damn good. If a book has an overall 4.9/5 star rating, no one is going to believe it was actually that well received, even if the author never paid for a single damn review in his/her life. And the really shitty part is that author can never outright prove that those reviews are real without every single one of those people coming forward and saying ‘I’m a real person and I actually loved this fucking book!’

As an author, I have too much pride to pay for a review. I want my work to speak for itself. I don’t want to have to pay someone to write some bullshit smattering of nonsense that sounds like they might have read something one time, and leave a 5 star entry so someone will buy it under false pretense.

Those are my thoughts on it.

The other part of this is that someone out there decided it was a good idea to straight call out some writers for buying reviews. Now, I don’t know many of the authors on the list, but I’ve met a couple, and you know what? Some of those people are DAMN good writers. Good enough that they don’t need to purchase reviews because people already love what they do and tell all their friends about it. For my own edification, and because I like the guy, here’s a link to Hugh Howey’s response to some twerp calling him out for buying reviews. Personally, I think it’s bullshit. I met Hugh at WorldCon, and he was a great fucking guy. Top Notch. You know what else is top notch? His fucking writing.

That’s why he has a bunch of really high rated reviews. His shit’s good.

After all that, I want to close with this: Yes, paying for reviews seems like shady business. It makes me, and others I’m sure, second-guess what we see on these websites, and that can spell murder for someone who’s an author-publisher and trying to get sales based on the genuine ratings they have. Saying that, though, can we really look at it any differently than commercials in any other industry, or restaurant/auto shop/other business reviews on Google or Angie’s List?

Regardless, if you’re going to put out a list of people doing this shady business, you should be REAL fucking sure you have the goods on them before putting their names out there. Because if you’re wrong about them, you’re not only putting yourself in prime position for a lawsuit, but you’re recklessly putting their career at risk, and that’s the sort of behavior we should be condemning.

In the Face of Rejection

Fellow writers will all know what it’s like to come finger to eyeball with piles of rejection letters. If you don’t know, then you are either the greatest writer to ever grace the planet, extremely lucky, or a big fat wuss who’s never tried to put your work to the test against an editor or agent.

I’ve sent out around 40 queries up to this point, which means I’ve put my first manuscript against nearly every agent in the genre, and several of the acquiring editors. The ones I haven’t queried just didn’t feel right for me, for one reason or another, or were closed to submissions. I have three of those queries unanswered right now, one of them has a full manuscript, and the others probably haven’t opened their slush pile boxes long enough to slog through to my submission. It’s only been a couple weeks, so I don’t expect to hear back for a while.

So, 40 queries, 3 awaiting response, (I’ll do the math for you here, that’s what my Physics degree is for) that’s 37 rejection letters. I’ve been told no 37 times. While on the surface, that may not seem like a lot, it feels like way the hell too much. And it’s SO easy to look at 37 rejections and think ‘that must mean there’ s something wrong with my writing; it must really suck.’ And some days I do. Some days I want to just set the laptop aside and walk away from writing for good.

But I never do. Here’s why:

Every now and then I get some real feedback. Three times out of 37 letters, I’ve gotten some feedback from an agent where he/she tells me some unbelievably encouraging things, and gives me ideas on where I can tighten up the story and how I can improve my chances of publication. Those rejections are the little flecks of gold in the pan that keep me sifting sand from the riverbed.

Those rejections help me grow.

I take heart in those because usually there’s enough good stuff that I know I’m on the right track, I just have to take the Turtle Wax to that sucker and make it shine (some cases it seems more like sanding it back to bare metal and giving it a whole new paint job). Constructive feedback is a beautiful thing, and all we have to do is sustain ourselves on it long enough to get that one gorgeous letter that says ‘I read it and I love it, now change these 200 things and we can sell it.’

So, fellow aspiring authors, or those who have already been published and still feel human and fallible, hang in there, keep writing, keep working, and keep improving. One day you’ll look back on that time you almost gave it up and think ‘I’m glad I stuck with it just a little while longer, otherwise I’d never be where I am today.’

Now, get to work. You’ve got stories to tell and rejections to read.