A Confession Lost Momentum

Around when I made my last post on here, a call came to my house from some friends of my sister-in-law that she’d been rushed to the hospital. The next day we were consenting to surgery to excise a very large tumor that turned out to be a particularly aggressive form of cancer. That was the first of three things blindsiding my family. I did keep writing, and reading the entire time, but pulled back on the querying or publishing or promotional side for a while. Needed to recharge the batteries, as it were. So I gave myself a year off from that (while finishing projects, mind – always be writing and reading if being a writer is your goal!) and am now looking to self-publish an older project while I query a different one, just to see how it goes.Meanwhile to deal with grief and the loss of the remaining member of his immediate family he got into horse racing and we are now in the midst of purchasing a young gelding, who’s been well-cared for by our trainer. Being out in the country, being around lots of animals, is very good for the soul in a way that it’s easy for an urbanite (mostly urbanite, part of my childhood was rural) like me to forget.

 

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Querying update

Needless to say I’m a sloooow queryer. I read about people who put something out there with all guns blazing, pumping out dozens in the space of a week. I’d rather just put out a few at a time and wait for responses to come in before pushing out more. I’ve read of people who send out fifty query letters only to then find that their query letter or opening pages had some flaw that would cause nearly everyone to reject, that possibly could have been fixed a lot earlier.

For now, I’ve had two partials out (so there’s some interest – yay!), have received one form ‘R’ as well, and am waiting to hear back from the rest. The form R I didn’t feel too badly about – while the agent does rep the genre, it seems her tastes are more towards domestic cosies, which isn’t really my style. So it’s just as well. I don’t see landing an agent as taking whoever I can get – I want to work with someone who can sell books, but also likes my stuff.

Of the two partials, one has come back with an ‘r&r’ – revise and resubmit. She didn’t feel it was quite ready, but from all the threads I was lurking on about r&r’s on Absolute Write, it should still be seen as a plus! And something most of the posters had gone through at some point. I do plan to workshop it a little more and am trying out Scribophile. Finding a good critique site can be tricky – some posters go too easy on you, while others are more concerned with their own snark than anything else, or the site itself can be hard to navigate (I have major issues with a lot of sites on one browser, and am not techie enough to fix it).

Doing substantial revisions based on what comes down to one opinion can be risky (especially when the advice is on the vague side and given the subjectivity of writing in general) but I don’t see the harm in giving something one more run-through with readers, etc. if it results in something better.

Querying again

I sent out maybe five query letters last fall for one novel I’ve finished, and heard back from about three. So I’m forcing myself to start following agents on my new twitter account and next will be looking up my password for Agent Query Connect and so on.

Sometimes I don’t know what I’m waiting for – a stock market crash? Mercury to come out of Retrograde? Someone next week on YA Writers in Reddit is going to be critiquing queries, so I’m going to submit it and see what they have to say. I tried #Pitmad on Twitter and got no bites, but each time I clicked ‘refresh’ there where 300-400 new tweets. If I were an agent, I might do a search for something super-specific like “Magic Ponies” or “Werewolf Bartenders” and otherwise …I’d probably only check out whatever my colleagues and friends were favouriting. I can only imagine what their inboxes must look like.

It’s impossible to know what will hook someone even after researching their blog, twitter feed, client list or Goodreads profile, especially when every aspect can’t be included in a 200-word pitch. Especially when you’re one of hundreds. According to some query advice sites, a *really* good query letter should get a 75% request rate, though. While I have no clue whether that’s true or not, some authors do get multiple requests right away, even if no one ends up liking the manuscript. So they’re doing something right that’s eluded me so far. Hopefully I’ll figure it out.

Life as a would-be writer: How to deal with critiques Part Two

One issue that comes up a lot in critique are the various biases and personal tastes or pet peeves people bring to critiquing. It’s hard to help; we all have our ideas about what makes writing good or bad and while some aspects are objective – proper spelling and grammar for example – others vary from person to person.

This is something to pay close attention to for both the person whose work is being critiqued, and the one doing the critiquing.

For those who have gotten some feedback on their work, it helps to familiarise  yourself with the people providing it. Take a look at what other works they’ve commented on. Do they point out the same problems in other people’s works as well? How knowledgeable are they – are they tailoring each comment to the work, or quoting the same line from whatever how to they last read? Do you think their comments on others’ works are valid and insightful or are you secretly hoping the author will ignore everything they say?

If you’re the one providing a critique for someone else, always try to view the work on its own merits and if there’s something you’re not familiar with, leave it for someone else to point out. For example, if you’re unfamiliar with the Fantasy genre and read mostly romance, be wary that there may be tropes or conventions you’re unfamiliar with. Pointing out repetition or confused sentences can still be useful, but posting ‘wtf is a travois?‘ much less so. For those seeking feedback, how familiar that person is with the genre you write in is another thing to consider.

Humour is particularly tricky area. Me, I like sharp wit and satire with the teeth of a shark. Others prefer slapstick or toilet humour. Just because something isn’t to your tastes doesn’t mean no one else will find it funny, or offensive, or just plain dumb. And some people are more tuned in to broader cultural norms than others. Some people get offended by nearly everything, others by nothing, while other people still have a fairly good idea where the boundaries are that most people would consider acceptable within a given context.

Another controversial area is style. So many people love to proffer advice about cutting out ‘useless’ words, especially adverbs and adjectives. However, it’s often those very same ‘useless’ words that wind up making us sound unique. Fiction isn’t essay writing, nor do all writers strive to be Hemingway. While it’s often good to avoid repetition, it can also be a strong literary technique. One Hemingway was fond of using, for that matter. Some people like stripped down to the bone prose, focusing primarily on what happens next, while others like a little purple and don’t mind stopping to admire a sunset even if it involves the dreaded rosy fingers. When someone nitpicks about their use, it is wise to ask yourself if this was an effect you were deliberately trying to achieve, or were you being unintentionally verbose?

If you do find yourself particularly confused about where you are with your writing, you’re best off finding someone who is a skilled writer who ‘gets’ your work. Not everyone will have equally useful or valid advice to offer, but the most helpful are those who know what you’re trying to achieve and can help you get there.

Busy everywhere but here

Spring came (and fully deserving a red carpet welcome after this past long, cold winter) and meant lots and lots of yard work on top of everything else I’m trying to get done. Sometimes I do miss living in a condo. One thing I’m not terrible good at is focusing on a single thing and finishing it …

For now I’ve finished the cover for The Fortune Teller’s Curse, got a Kindle/Amazon account and am waiting for a few things to process. Since I’m not a US resident, there was some special tax form I had to fill out. I also applied for an ISBN number, which Canadians can apply separately for here: http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/services/isbn-canada/Pages/isbn-canada.aspx

Paperwork and filling forms are probably my least favourite things to do. But now, they are done.

I’ve also finished a second book, for which I’m drafting a query letter to send to agents. There’s a #pitmad on Twitter in June I need to get ready for as well, especially since I’ve missed the more recent ones. I’ve no clue how to hook an agent, but it’s worth trying.

On top of all that I’ve been binge-reading a pile of best-sellers I’d long meant to get around to reading and hadn’t. So the past month or so I’ve read Books 1-4 of GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones for TV watchers), the first Mortal Instruments City of Bones (sorry, hated it though I’d wanted to like it), The Time Traveller’s Wife, the first Harry Potter and also decided to re-read as many Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett that I can get my hands on. So far I’ve gone through Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic and am halfway through Equal Rites. I’ve also got Deborah Harkness’s Discovery of Witches on hold at the library, which I’m looking forward to reading.

 

Life as a would-be writer: How to deal with critiques Part One

I’d posted this on an old, now-neglected blog and a recent discussion on Reddit inspired me to continue with something I’ve had on the back-burner for quite some time: a series about critiques. The first will be how to deal with critiques, then, why it’s important for would-be writers to give critiques and finally, how to critique, which some people are leery of doing for various reasons.

How to Deal with Critiques:

I’m on several different writers forums and one skill writers have to learn in addition to is handling feedback from others. It’s always important to get another’s view of whatever you’re working on at some point, whether it be the openings scenes, a couple of chapters or a beta to look at the overall novel. Novice writers make a lot of common errors such as overly purple descriptions, clunky dialogue or too much ‘set-up’ and not enough story, but even experienced writers get too close to their work sometimes. The best critiques often come from complete strangers – people who don’t care whether you’ll like them or not afterwards, since they don’t know you to begin with. That isn’t to say you can’t ever use family or friends, but you need them to be honest. Not just saying ‘yeah, it’s great!’ while grinning through clenched teeth.

So you polish that opening thousand words or some middle chapter or a short story, then find some other people to read it and … then what. If you’re like me, you cringe each time you open up any response and think maybe working in the dreary world of excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, or being a cashier somewhere is a way more realistic option. Then you spot one paragraph no one commented on. That’s good, right? Unless they stopped reading there … Honestly, I find the best thing to do at that point is close the damn thing up and wash some dishes or go for a walk or do something to distract myself for a bit. Then I go look at it again.

Now. I know how my brain is skewed: towards the negative. I’ll miss any ‘I can’t wait to read more!’ three times but things like ‘this seemed too distant’ or ‘cut this line’ pop out straight away. So my first piece of advice (well, second if you count stepping away for a bit being first) is to be aware of how your own perception trips you up. Some people go too far to the other extreme and see the ‘I love your writing’ while missing any ‘but…’ that follows.

Writers often get attached to their work and as such, it’s necessary to step back from it and weigh both the good and the bad that other people are pointing out. It might be ‘your baby’, but it isn’t perfect. When reading through critiques, it’s also important to make sure your expectations are in line with your degree of experience. A first attempt at a novel will probably get picked apart a lot more than if it’s the tenth you’ve written. And it will have a lot more problems that need fixing.

Next, remind yourself that all forms of art are subjective. What you are soliciting is one person’s (or a few people’s) opinion about the piece you have submitted, not you personally. And no one is infallible. Some things may fall flat for nearly everybody. Those are the most important things to work on fixing straight away. Other parts, some people will love and others will hate with equal intensity. There’s almost nothing that absolutely everybody will love. So keep that last part in mind. You will never please everybody. So don’t worry about it. The ones you really want to please are the ones who already like your writing to a degree, or are tuned into the same wavelength.

Sometimes you know deep down something isn’t right, but can’t figure out quite what. That’s when feedback from others is invaluable. Once you know what needs to be fixed, it can be easy. One thing to keep in mind is that no one is ever completely 100% right about everything (even me, shockingly enough!), and someone is rarely 100% wrong either. In fact, sometimes the most important comments to heed are the ones that initially strike you as so very wrong. I’m not talking about where someone’s been rude or trolling or trying to be clever, but where you just want to grab them saying ‘hey, what the hell??’. Even if after careful consideration you do think they are still hugely wrong, it’s important to know exactly why you think they are. What set off that reaction. Anything that produces a visceral response needs to be weighed. It might be that the writer anticipated some problems already, but not what that person had pointed out. Being blindsided is always unpleasant. But worse is having a blind spot that persists through endless revisions.

Where it gets trickier is when dealing with conflicting advice. In the same chapter I once put up, one person thought the emotional nuances were very well-done, and another person thought it was too distant and wanted a deeper POV. As someone who prefers to be subtle and reads fiction written in first person only reluctantly, I decided to leave it as is. Ultimately as the author, it’s your responsibility to write in the style you’re most comfortable with. Please yourself first.

One more thing to keep in mind is that each person has their own biases and personal tastes or pet peeves they bring to critiquing*. Some people like lots of internal monologue – they like to be told exactly what the MC is thinking each moment. Myself? I prefer it kept to a minimum, and only if there’s not a better way to express it through dialogue or action. Some people will nitpick any description – does it matter if his jacket is red? – while others love paragraphs dedicated to building an entire world they can then immerse themselves in. As a writer the key is to try to strike what feels like the right balance to you. Maybe the person who picked at the description passages objected not because he or she doesn’t like much to begin with, but because the description didn’t work on its own. Maybe it wandered all over the place, lost and in need of directions, or was full of pureed metaphors. In that case it might be useful to seek out a critique partner who is stronger in those areas.

Lastly, thank the person for taking the time and effort, even if you don’t wind up taking a single thing into consideration. Never get defensive, never argue (though asking for clarification is perfectly fine) and never lash out at the person. Most people just want to help and mean well. In my experience, if someone’s really off base, others are usually happy to step in and say so. As for those who gave the best feedback, be sure to thank them too and let them know how helpful you found it. And most importantly, try to pay it either back or forward. My next post will be about integrating critiques into your work-in-progress.

*I plan to bring this up later in a future post about How to Critique

Favourite quotes about novels

One of mine, defending reading fiction to those who would disparage it, comes from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It is still one of my favourite books of all time. Back when I was first writing, I began my own updated version of the story, switching it to a “New Age” retreat and inspired partly by Moliere’s plays as well. I’ve since lost whatever it was that I’d written and sometimes I wished I’d kept at it, especially since re-workings of Austen novels later became quite a trend.

“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”

What are YOUR favourite quotes about novels, books or reading?