With a Little Help from My Friends

HelpingSo, this last year I had the personal goal to earn the Writer of the Year award through the Alaska Writers Guild. To do this, I had to accumulate the most points of anyone who entered the Guild’s anonymous bimonthly writing contest for members, wherein entrants write within rotating categories, and see how close to the deadline they can turn in a piece without getting disqualified. (Oh, wait, was that last part just me?)

Now I’m not all that super at nonfiction, and I truly suck at poetry, but, hands down, the hardest one of the contests for me to write was the category of Alaska Mystery. I think I’m getting phantom chest pains just thinking about it.

Two months seems like it should be plenty of time to write a story with a maximum of 2500 words, but that can seem like a mighty tight deadline when you spend the first six weeks of it feverishly drafting and then summarily executing- I kid you not- twelve different story ideas. It was very easy to feel very discouraged very quickly. And so I did, verily. With hardly more than a week left before the deadline, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But the trouble was that I keep this pesky husband. And we sometimes talk to each other about our goals and stuff. He knew what I was working toward, and he knew how important it was for me to enter every contest, even the difficult ones.

That man gave me no rest.

Every time I sat down, he’d start pestering me. “What are you working on? Are you doing the one with the mountains? With the serial killer? With the fox? What are you doing? Why? Why not? (Have a cookie.) What are you working on?” The man was relentless. And he would hear not a word of giving up, not on my goal and not on this Alaska mystery contest.

And that was before he started telling everyone we know about it, too. *shudders*

I don’t know about you, but I have confidence problems sometimes. Sometimes too much, most times not enough. My husband, and a few close friends like him, give me the kick in the pants when I want to lie down and surrender, and the tackle of forbearance when I’m full steam ahead on a really bad idea.

The secret weapon of all successful writers is tenacity. And for some of us, a little of that tenacity can be sponged off others. I tend to break down my cheerleading squad into two broad categories: writers, and nonwriters.

Writers Your fellow writers are the monarchs of commiseration. They understand what it’s like to be blocked. They know the brain-addled madness of waiting- for beta readers, for query answers, for book reviews, for sales reports. They understand the pain of rejections. They also know when a story of yours isn’t working, and are usually able to articulate what’s wrong. They’re widely read and industry savvy. Your writer friends are ideal when you have a piece that you’re working on and could use a little guidance in making it presentable.

Nonwriters These are the people who, although maybe they enjoy reading, don’t do any writing themselves. And as well as being legion in numbers, they’re also chattier than a giggling high school clique back from spring break. Once you let one of them know (cough, cough, husband, cough), they’ll all know, and they’ll all want to know why you’re not done yet. They don’t know how long drafting takes, let alone editing and submissions. And they don’t care. Your nonwriter friends are ideal when you have a concrete goal combined with motivation issues.

So there you have it: my fail-proof formula for squeezing out a piece even when it hurts. One part cheerleader, one part drill sergeant, writers and nonwriters alike are always at the ready to help their buds with what is important to them. Of course, you still have to want to reach your writing goals yourself, and be willing to put in the work, but the endless harassment loving encouragement of your friends, family, mail carrier, and grocery clerk can be the final nudge to help you get that story out the door and into the wide world.

(And it works, too- I did win Writer of the Year at the 2017 guild conference! Yay!)

So if you find yourself struggling, whether with improving a piece, or just summing up the motivation to work at it, clue in your pals! They’ll hold your feet to the fire in a way you never could for yourself, and they’ll cheer you at every victory along the way.

Happy writing!

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A Year in Review

Back in February 2013, and at the gentle urging of my much beloved NaNoWriMo, I purchased my very own copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published at just over ten dollars. With it came the right to a twenty minute session with the authors to discuss my pitch. I mark that moment as the first upping of my game.

Another such moment came when I signed up for Twitter, which I had been resisting for years, mostly for pride’s sake, and began connecting with a larger writing community. Almost immediately, I tumbled headlong into the loving arms of what would become my core cadre. These folks, most of whose names have appeared on this blog multiple times, began wheedling, cajoling, teasing, and threatening me into taking the next step. And I owe them endless thanks.

I finished a final draft (for reals this time) of my book, finally embracing the idea that eventually, a baby must grow up and go out in the world to seek its fortune. I set aside the red pen that had been semi-permanently affixed to my right hand and started writing the second book. Meanwhile, I secured and regaled a group of fantastic beta readers to tell me everything that was wrong with my book. Then I wrote a novella. And finished another novel. And another one.

But my focus didn’t stay fixed on just writing novels. I started a writing blog. (And here you are. Hello!) I filled it with all my wishes, tips, and crazy adventures in the literary world. Hopefully, readers were able to find something of value on here (and I’m always open to questions and suggestions). I wrote bunches of short stories and, full of terrified misgivings, even sold a few. I began entering writing competitions. I even went to a writing convention.

Then I queried agents. (Gasp.)

It’s been a pretty productive year, I think, as far as productivity goes for the struggling wanna-be author without a dollar to her name. I didn’t make much money or sell any books, but I covered a lot of ground in networking, writing, and learning about the publishing game. Maybe some day I’ll make enough money at this to buy a cheeseburger. And I’ll definitely consider that a win.

As far as the upcoming year goes, my writing plans are few and simple. I want to complete at least two more books. And I plan to keep querying agents until my book finds its one true love. That is all. But really, that involves a lot, probably everything I did this year and more. And I’m very excited to continue this amazing literary odyssey I’ve set out on. Who knows where I could end up?

So how about you? What are your plans for this new year in writing? Lemme know in the comments below! Happy New Year and welcome back!

PS- Back in December, I declared January Beta Appreciation Month. Go hug a beta reader. It’s good for you.

Apocafest Winners!

Ah! Sorry I’m a bad person! In all the craziness of yesterday, I completely forgot that I was breaking promises. (And remember that if you want to read the original apocalypse scenarios, they can still be found in the comments here.) But fear not, gentle readers! The random bystanders have spoken!

Judge One: The Noisy One (Yes, this one is me.)

Creativity: Michael (Frogs- nobody suspects the frogs)
Plausibility: Liam (Asteroid- gosh, it read like a timeline in a history book)
Scary: Nanopals (Cords- creeeeeepy)

Judge Two: The Girl With Great Hair

Creativity: Nanopals (Cords- electronic Death: don’t trust toasters)
Plausibility: Liam (Asteroid)
Scary: Liam (Asteroid- it’s scary ’cause it’s true!)

Judge Three: The Guy Who Doesn’t Do Commentary

Creativity: Michael (Frogs)
Plausibility: Liam (Asteroid)
Scary: Liam (Asteroid)

Judge Four: The Guy Who Took Voice Lessons

Creativity: Mary (Sasquatches)
Plausibility: Liam (Asteroid)
Scary: Nanopals (Cords- Human eating appliances- can you imagine if someone made a movie like that? Cars driving around with laptops tracking us… It’s like transformers but they’re not on our side!)

Given that Liam and Nanopals were at this point locked in a tie for the scariness category, a panel of three preschoolers was polled to decide between them. (This was all extremely official. They wore little hats and everything.) Below are the final winners of Apocafest:

Final Winners:

Creativity: Michael
Plausibility: Liam
Scary: Liam

NaNo Prep

This is the last Monday I have before November, which kicks off National Novel Writing Month. (If you aren’t doing this, you should. If you don’t know what this is, I don’t know you.) Paradoxically, NaNoWriMo is not the busiest month of the year for me. Really, my pace of writing isn’t much higher than it usually is, and it’s probably actually easier because there’s so much support and encouragement. The busiest month of the year is the month before NaNo. In particular, the week before NaNo is killer.

Different people approach NaNoWriMo preparation differently. Some like to compile playlists. Some like to outline. Some like to character sketch. Some like to stock the kitchen with ramen and Snickers bars. I dabble in most of those things. But my biggest time sink during NaNo prep often has little to nothing to do with my NaNo project.

This month I am preparing and sending out six short story submissions to various magazines across the internet. I like to do this so that all that nail-biting while I wait for responses gets sucked into the attention black hole of writing a new novel. Likewise, I’ve prepared a batch of five agents who I’ll be querying with City of the Dead. Also, I am planning, prepping, and writing (where appropriate) all the blog posts for next month so that I can concentrate on NaNo. The problem is that the month is nearly over and I still have much to do. And I’ll be spending two of the next four days in a local high school mentoring for the Young Writers Program (the youth oriented version of NaNoWriMo) during the precious, rare time that I usually spend on my writing career. (I regret nothing! I love spreading the writing love around, and this is exactly the sort of project I would have swooned for in high school.)

So you will of course understand if I more or less blow off a meaningful blog post this week. Sorry. I remind you all of the looming deadline for Apocafest (tomorrow! see this post for details) and encourage you to put up your best apocalypse scenario of 200 words or less. See you all next month!

Apocafest

In the spirit of Halloween, let’s wreak death and mayhem on billions of people! But it’s okay, ’cause it’s only in our minds. In the comments of this post, put up your best apocalypse scenario of 200 words or less no later than 11:59PM October 29th.

Before you all start chanting ‘nukes’, a huge aspect of scoring will be creativity, so you probably want to avoid cliche apocalypses unless you’ve got a really fresh twist on an old classic. I and a hand selected panel of judges (aka- random people I bother on the street) will select winners, which will be announced on Halloween.

As with Pitch Party, winners will be awarded fantastic postcards in each of these three categories: creativity; plausibility; and scared-my-pants-off-ivity. Let’s get this party started!

"Human Skulls" by Jono Pare

These guys? These guys did NOT make it…

Pitch Party Alert!

‘What’s this?’ you say. ‘A non-Monday update? THE MADNESS.’ But this is so important that I felt it necessary to spit in the face of tradition and put something up. (There will still be a regularly scheduled update on Monday.)

Okay, so I’m sure you all know what a pitch is. It’s your little blah blah about your book that you use to try and hook a person’s interest in your story. You need to have one if you plan on querying an agent or publisher so that they have some idea of what they’re even looking at, and it’s pretty much the blurb on a book’s back cover that you look at when you’re deciding whether or not to shell out your hard earned cash for this book. It’s what you use to convince readers that they want to read your story. So pitches are pretty important.

Unfortunately, they’re also difficult to write. (You want me to compress my 500,000 word opus into a paragraph?) So, we’re having a pitch party over on Twitter for all we of the writerly ilk to practice. It starts Friday Aug 16th at 10 pm EST and participants should have two pitches prepped and polished.

For the first round, participants use their short pitches of 140 characters or less (small enough to fit in a tweet). I know, I know, it sounds painful. SO PAINFUL.

Then everyone votes for their favorites and we settle in on the five best (unless there are five of us. Then we settle on two). The finalists then pitch their longer versions of 100 words or less. Winner gets COOL POINTS! Possible high fives as well. Maybe even a postcard. You won’t know unless you come! Use the #PitchParty hashtag so we can all keep track of each other and let the party begin! 😀

UPDATE: Okay, this party is spreading. Looks like we’re doing the short pitches over on Twitter, but don’t despair if you’re not on Twitter, because the longer format pitches will be posted in the comments of this post. Round One- twitter. Round Two- here. Everyone is welcome to pitch and to vote for a winner. Tips and suggestions are part of the party, so if you have any, please speak up!

Also, there will be postcard prizes! One for the best short pitch, one for the best long pitch, and one for the most helpful commenter. This is going to be great!

On Stalking

It appears that yet another of the writing competitions I was participating in has magically disappeared. At least they didn’t take my credit card number with them. I suppose this is all a result of my insisting on doing competitions that have no fees attached. And so, rather than taking my short story through a final reading and then submitting, I found myself sitting on my computer, purposeless and discouraged. That inevitably leads to two things: twitter and sudoku. Neither of those things is good for my productivity.

However, twitter let me know that a literary agent I’ve been following is closing for submissions soon. That always makes me perk up. Nothing spurs me like a hard and fast deadline. So I started nosing around to see if she’d possibly be interested in my work. Twitter led to her agency’s website. Which led to Goodreads. And then churning her name through Google and clicking on any reputable looking link that might give me clues. And then it hit me. “I’m totally stalking her.” I know it’s all part of the game. I know she’d probably rather people internet stalked her than to get an inbox full of total garbage that is nowhere near her preferences. But still. Yikes.

I may be alone in this, but trying to find a literary agent seems a lot like trying to find a decent boyfriend. You kind of have an idea of what you want. You hang out in places those sorts of people might be. You try to get to know them a little better, even if they seem totally out of your league. (Because let’s face it: as an unpublished no-name loser, pretty much EVERY established literary agent is going to be out of my league.) And the odds aren’t really in my favor, either. These hypothetical boyfriend-literary-agent-chimera types can afford to be choosy. There are hundreds of potentials out there, and odds are pretty good that they’re going to be funnier than me, or smarter than me, or prettier than me. (I’ll let you decide whether I’m talking about pretend-dater-me or my book at this point.) But I don’t make a list of these potential boyfriends and then proceed to pick apart the internet trying to find what makes them tick, all before even talking to them. That’s how restraining orders happen.

But that’s how it works in the literary world. Dream Agent, whoever he or she may be, isn’t going to come find me. And besides, I’m not going to pepper my query letter with creepy references to the dress she was wearing at her nephew’s birthday party last month. But I do have homework to do. So I’m going to cyberstalk, and I’m going to read through the acknowledgements of my favorite books, and I’m going to fish around the websites of similar authors, and I’m going to do everything I can to figure out who would most proudly display my awesome book on his or her shelves. I should know what an agent likes before querying. I should be aware of what is on said agent’s list of sold books. And if a particular agent CANNOT STAND shih tzus, I should know that because I really don’t want to send her my Legends and History of the Chinese Lion Dog. And she really doesn’t want to receive it. Because she hates them.

So, from my stalking over the past several months, here are a very few tips I’ve gathered from agents themselves about some good and bad tactics when first introducing yourself, whether via query or in some other way:

Good:
Personal connections, such as common hobbies (but again- don’t be creepy)
An awareness of agent’s interests
A liking of books by agent’s clients
Knowledge of and adherence to submission format requests
Polite, confident, interesting queries or introductions

Bad:
Opposites of everything above
Mentioning how much your mom and three best friends loved your book
Half nude pictures to “get [agent’s] attention” (not joking)
Comparisons of self to or dismissal of other insanely wealthy and popular authors
Threats of suicide
Lying about references and who you know

Bottom line? Don’t be creepy, crazy, and arrogant. A little common sense probably goes a long way here. Oh, and the agent I was stalking this morning? Turns out she doesn’t like epic fantasy. Good thing I checked.

Please, let me know more good and bad tactics you’re aware of in the comments below! I know you’ve got them!