I’m Totally Judging You

judge1A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to help judge a writing competition. I’d never judged at this level before, although I had competed in several judged competitions, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from the process.

I won’t claim that I learned anything earth shattering, but I wanted to a post a few tips I would give writers submitting to competitions in general. Most of this stuff you’ve probably heard a dozen times, but they came up often enough that once more probably won’t hurt, right? Right.

So without further ado, here are my six tips for entering writing competitions.

Use a spell checker. Seriously. Few things are as distracting to me as a reader than an abundance of typos, and they are so easy to guard against these days. Most writing programs will tell you as you’re writing if your words are misspelled, and often even if they’re being misused. (Some even offer style suggestions! Crazy!) So just take a few moments before submitting a story and make sure yuor words is’nt wrong.

Follow submission guidelines/ competition rules. Are you tired yet of being told to follow the rules? I always am! And yet I was shocked at how many of the submissions I reviewed weren’t following guidelines. One wasn’t even the right genre for the competition! When submitting, please make sure you are submitting the right story to the right place and in the right way. Please don’t be That Guy that makes people like me have to keep telling decent internet folk to just follow the rules.

Make sure your story is a story. Does your story have an arc? Does it have conflict? Does it have characters? (I’m not even kidding.) If it’s missing any of these things, squint at it a little harder before sending it in. Even a very skillfully written series of events won’t go far if it’s just that- a series of events. Make sure your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, preferably with some kind of growth in between. Make sure it’s a story.

The first few paragraphs are key. Make sure that you draw your readers in immediately. When judging, I read through and rated submissions in batches. While I took care not to work while I was totally glazed over, it’s hard to get into a story that starts off in the wrong place, or even too slowly. Short stories have a limited word count so be certain you’re making the most of your space.

Sensory details really sell a setting. Again, limited word count. But that’s why you must make sure that you set the scene quickly and completely. Small, specific sensory details can ground a reader in a time or place with few words and make a huge difference in the reader’s immersion level. Of all the stories I judged, each one described what conversations were heard and what people/things/events were seen and what emotions were felt. Fewer talked about the colors of flowers or the city sounds of cars and construction. A couple talked about how the environment actually felt. Only one mentioned smells and tastes.

Take heart- There are a lot of good writers out there. Whether or not you win, you’re probably one of them! Even if you don’t place the first time, or the first ten times, don’t sweat it. Any writing competition is going to draw in writers of all levels and, while judges try to be objective in their criteria, there is some personal taste going into the matter, too. If your story doesn’t get picked, don’t quit. Polish the story a little more and find another place to submit it to. Never surrender!

Happy writing!

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Of Productivity and Patience

patience-is-a-virtueEvery Tuesday morning and Thursday evening, I put my kids to bed and get on my computer and curse my internet connection and open Scrivener. I write every day, usually at night after having put my kids down to sleep, but Tuesday morning and Thursday evening are special because those are the times when I write with friends.

Mary has been my number one writer friend for years and years and is pretty much my soulmate. My number two is Anna- who shares with me an almighty kitchen quirk and who gave me a questionable bag of flour that I can’t get rid of because it was Anna’s questionable bag of flour and I’ll be darned if I throw it out before I figure out what it is- and, even though both of them have moved away from me, we still carve this time out to write together. I love this writing time, and it feeds my soul in a different way than just writing by myself does.

In our little group dynamic, I am and always have been The Nag. I’m constantly blowing up their phones if they forget what day it is, or talking smack when their word counts are low, or coming up with new and improved ways to extort their stories out of them. My latest scheme is our Chapter Pact of Doom. (I am the only one who calls it that.)

Every other Friday, we are each supposed to post a chapter of our current WIP to a Google doc that the others have access to. This is kind of new and terrifying for me because I once-shy-of-never show first draft material to people, and here I am posting it to the internet to peruse at their leisure. *faints* But this just goes to show you how far I will go to try and shoehorn forward writing progress out of myself and everyone around me, especially when it comes to first drafts.

I write rapidly. Feverishly. I squeeze first drafts out with the hurried frenzy of Peter Rabbit popping through Mr. McGregor’s fence.

But there is another end to this spectrum. As important as it is to get stories quickly to market, there is a Zen to writing as well that cannot be rushed.

No matter how quickly you can put words down, writing requires phenomenal patience. A book that takes me two months to write can also take me two years to edit. I’ve been querying literary agents with only glacial progress for years. Even if I signed tomorrow, it would in all likelihood be years longer before a book of mine ever hit a bookstore shelf.

So here are a few things that I’ve learned to be patient about over the years.

Editing As quickly as I draft, I am at least that slow in editing. Everything about this process is super slow and thoughtful. A passage that took me minutes to jot down can take months to tweak into its polished final state. Drafting is all about just getting ideas onto the page. Editing is a hundred things more- checking for spelling and grammar; clarifying; refining the voice; making sure the scene and each part of it move the story forward; putting emotion on the page; grounding the scene in sensory detail; ALL THE THINGS. And that takes time!

Submitting Even after all these years, it still burns us. Crafting submission materials (blurbs, queries, bios, etc) is only half the battle. Then you have to research the heck out of who you’re going to send all this material to- and then tailor each submission for just that person. This does not happen overnight. (Or if it does, you’re doing it wrong.) And even after you’ve finally gotten your materials perfect and sent them to the perfect people, you still have to wait for…

Responses So, waiting for responses is actually one of the things I’ve gotten decent at being patient for. When I first started submitting stuff (to anyone, really- friends, beta readers, agents, etc), I felt like I was sitting in a boiler room on a bed of broken glass. There were even a few times where anxiety got the better of me and I thought I was going to die of a heart attack or something before the whole ordeal was over. But these days, I’ve learned how to keep myself busy while waiting for responses. I have other projects I work on. I send things out in batches timed so that there’s always a few out and a few more to send. I read exciting books. I occasionally skip the country on vacations. You know, things like that.

Fame, Riches, and Glory I’m, uh… I’m still waiting on this one. Completely. And frankly, this is probably a thing I’ll be patiently waiting for until I die.

Writing is a lot of work- the kind of work that happens quickly, and the kind that happens slowly. If I worked very slowly at all of it, I would never have the body of prose that I’ve accumulated, nor gotten through the literal millions of words of practice that I have. But if I was a slave to speed in its every aspect, sure, maybe I’d have a lot of work, but none of it would have the kind of polished refine that it requires to garner any critical notice, whether that’s from agents or publishers or readers. A writer requires both. And that is something that took me a long time to learn.

So whether you’re pouring on the heat to try and muscle through a first draft in three weeks flat, or reining in the horses to make sure you really get this one line just right, take pride in knowing that you’re giving your work just what it needs- a push of productivity, and a pinch of patience, each in due course.

Happy writing!

The Great Annual Resolutions Post

calvinresolutionHowdy, folks! Hey, look, we all survived another year! Wowza!

I made a few resolution shifts midyear last year. I switched over from the paper calendar system I had been using to a phone app called Habitica that is delightfully nerdy and keeps me on my toes. It taps into my love of check boxes, but then also has a built in reward system, so it works very well for me, and I think I’ll cling to it forever.

Overall, I had a good year, without too many dropped balls on my goals. My exercise goals got derailed every now and then by rugby injuries, and I jumped ship on a few writing projects, switching over to things that were more interesting at the time (because squirrel brain: the struggle is real). And as mentioned a few weeks ago, I did manage to scratch and claw my way to receiving Writer of the Year from the Alaska Writers Guild. But the goal I know you’re all just dying to know about: the rejections goal.

As you may recall from this post last year, I had a goal to receive at least forty-eight rejections. I counted short story submissions, queries, competitions- anything that pitted my writing against a slush pile. The final count is in aaaand… I failed! *sad trombone* As of December 31, I only tallied forty-four rejections.

I’m not being too hard on myself, because I still managed to achieve the two main objectives of the rejection goal: I got better at taking rejections as impersonal matters of preference, and I pushed myself to submit waaaay more than I usually do. As a result, I also had way more acceptances than I normally do! And as an added benefit that I hadn’t even anticipated, I had a super productive year for short stories too, because I had to make sure that I had fresh material to shop around as my old store of shorts got published. Overall, it was a very good year for my writing!

So I think I’m gonna stick with what works. I’ll keep with a forty-eight rejections goal for this year as well, since I felt really pushed and still didn’t quite manage to make the goal. I think I can hit it for reals this time! For novels, since I didn’t stick with the titles I had planned to work on, but still managed to get good work done with other projects, this year I think I’ll just drop the specifics altogether and just have a goal of two new first drafts, and a round of edits each for two first drafts from last year. I’ll work on whatever sounds most fun in the moment! I also plan to average one new short per month, although I don’t plan on worrying too much about how marketable they all are. And for daily goals, I plan a baseline of 500 words per day, and ten minutes of backshop, with Sundays off to rest my weary brain meats. I have goals for my spiritual, mental, and physical health as well, but that’s it for my writing goals.

Whew! All the things! I should have plenty to keep myself busy over the next year. I would love, love, love to hit that rejections goal, and maybe even outstrip this year’s number of acceptances. Heck, if we’re getting really pie-in-the-sky, I’d like to pick up an agent as well, haha, but that one’s a little less in my control. The only thing I can do is keep researching, stay consistent, and continue to hone my craft as much as I can. So that’s what I’ll do!

How about you fine folks? Any exciting new goals for this year? Let’s chat about them in the comments section! I’d love to know your plans!

Until next week, happy writing, and happy New Year as well!

Submissions Pump Soundtrack

Submissions. *sighs* Submissions are hard. And while I feel like I’ve gotten way better at it over the last year, it can still take a bit to get myself worked up enough to actually hit that send button.

So after I have all my research done, I’ve got my customized query or cover letters, and I’m done with the thinking, I start playing my jams and sending out those submissions.

Believer by Imagine Dragons 

Bodak Yellow by Cardi B (Radio version, haha) 

Me Too by Meghan Trainer 

Whatever It Takes by Imagine Dragons 

Lose Yourself by Eminem (This was my first pump song and the nearest to my heart. Sometimes I just listen to this one on repeat until I have done all the things.) 

(All I Do Is Win by DJ Khaled almost made the list, but I don’t actually own a copy of it, nor do I listen to it as much as the others. We’ll call it an honorable mention.) 

You may recall my rejections goal for this year. (Link here!) So far, I’m about 3/4 of the way to hitting my goal. I know that doesn’t sound that impressive, given that we’re 11/12 of the way through the year, but it’s actually quite a bit better than I thought I’d be doing. But in addition to a swanky check list that is slowly filling up, I’ve also had a few acceptances to soften the blows! Wahoo! I don’t think I’d have as many acceptances if I hadn’t been so stubborn about submissions this year.

Submissions can be difficult, especially given their high proclivity for turning into rejections. But only a submission can result in an acceptance, and only acceptances can propel your writing career forward.

So plug in those headphones and crank those tunes. The year’s not quite over yet and I’ve got a few more rejections to rack up. I’ll let you know the final tally in another month. Until then, happy writing- and submitting!

UPDATE: Discovered after publishing this post-

Motivated by NF 

First Impressions with Nicole Resciniti

NResciniti“It only takes a sip,” Ms. Resciniti told us. One needn’t drink an entire carton to realize the milk has soured, and readers treat books the same way. It doesn’t matter if the second page, or the second chapter, or the second novel, is magnificent; agents and editors won’t wait around to see, and neither will readers. This is why first impressions are so vital. They make the difference between ‘slush’ and ‘sold’.

Nicole Resciniti is a literary agent with the Seymour Agency. Like all agents, Ms. Resciniti sees a lot of wheat and a lot of chaff come through her inbox every day. Literary agents are so busy, and have so much material to get through, that a first impression is usually the only impression a query will get to give. Ms. Resciniti highlighted three parts of a submission packet as being key to a good first impression: a high concept hook, back cover copy, and first pages.

A high concept hook is only one or two lines, but carries a punch. Also known as a one-liner or a log line, your hook is what first grabs the reader’s attention. (High concept, a term which I have spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to define via Google searches, is what Ms. Resciniti calls “the familiar idea with a twist” and “a concept easily visualized.”) The hook usually goes something like this: “[Character + descriptor] wants [goal] because [motivation], but [conflict] and [possible consequences].” Pretty catchy, huh? It sounds better when you fill in the blanks. Try it out with your own story!

The back cover copy is two to three paragraphs that encapsulate the heart of the story. The goal, motivation, and conflict create the vehicle for the characters that propels them through the story, and should be front and center in your back cover copy. (Side note: Ms. Resciniti recommends that you have each of these three things for your main character, second main, and antagonist. All of them might not show up directly in the back cover copy, but they should in the story overall. Know what your characters want, dangle it in front of them, and then rip it away.)

Ms. Resciniti recommends a six-pronged attack in hooking readers within those first few pages.

Begin with a bang. Open with action, with characters in motion. Be visual. Avoid clichés, info dumps, background, coincidence, set up, and an excess of characters.

Establish the mood. Convey an immediate tone. Keep in mind your audience and the expectations of your genre, and respect- or subvert- the conventions.

Evoke instant emotion. Immediately establish an emotional attachment between the reader and the character. Make your character inspire emotions in your reader- admiration, pity, envy, kinship, sympathy. It’s not enough to have a passive character that we follow through the story. The characters should be active, making choices, growing and changing, and it should all happen in a way that the reader can feel.

Convey conflict. Conflict is the core of emotion. Present problems on the page quickly, and structure characters so that they are at odds with one another. Create problems that are based on the characters and their weaknesses. And for every problem that is solved, create two more.

Create visceral reactions in the reader. Incorporate humor/danger/tension to make your readers laugh, cry, and tremble right along with your characters. Never state an emotion or action- show it, and make the reader feel it too.

 Make a “what happens next” moment. Don’t immediately tie problems up neatly for the characters. Evoke curiosity. This goes hand in hand with conveying constant conflict.

A book on a shelf has about thirty seconds to sell itself: cover, title, back cover copy, and pages. Agents and editors are themselves readers, just of earlier forms of the book. You don’t need to impress them with a gorgeous cover, but you do need to grab their attention with your submission materials, and never let go.

Ms. Resciniti’s final advice? “Do not be discouraged. Do not.” Editing is hard, and submitting is hard, and selling is hard. Every step of the process is hard in its own way. But don’t give up because of the difficulty. The difficulty is the very thing that will transform your book from an awful first draft into a beautiful final product in the hands of people who love it. So do not get discouraged in the in-between. You can do this.

Tune in next week for the cliff notes version of Jane Friedman’s three hour intensive, How to Get Your Book Published. We’ll be talking about traditional, indie, and hybrid publishing, and the most important steps to take down each route.

Until then, happy writing!

Reedsy Broadcast Recap: Revising and Querying

EditingSome months ago, I listened to a broadcast hosted by Reedsy called Revising Your Manuscript and Query Letter; it was moderated by Ricardo Fayat, the founder and CMO at Reedsy, and presented by five editors and literary agents from their network. I’ve since signed up for several of Reedsy’s free 10-email courses through Reedsy Learning, which you can learn more about here. Reedsy is a self-publishing service based out of London and, although I haven’t quite hopped on the self-publishing bandwagon just yet, I’m always down with further educating myself.

Anyway, I took a bunch of notes from the broadcast and quickly forgot about them. But recently, in preparation for an upcoming writer’s conference, blew off the dust and thumbed through it to help me get ready for a manuscript review. So here’s the quick version of the broadcast.

Revising Your Manuscript

For your opening, make sure that you start with action- something visual, intense, and unexpected. (‘Action’ doesn’t necessarily mean a gunfight or crossing swords. Action can be much quieter so long as it’s clear and powerful, drawing readers in.) Whatever your opening scene entails, be original and above all else, don’t be boring.

Some of the most common manuscript mistakes the broadcast’s presenters see are:

  • Telling instead of showing
  • Unbelievable conflict (forcing the plot, character out of character, etc)
  • Confusing viewpoint
  • Unnecessary Wordiness
  • Disruptive dialog tags (usually, just stick to ‘said’)
  • Misuse of tense

Once you’ve revised your manuscript as much as you can (read: several drafts), it’s time to get other eyes on it. (The broadcast didn’t specifically mention beta readers at this point, but in my opinion, they should have. Beta readers are great!) Professional editors are spendy, but they can also be transformative.

Because it can be such a costly investment, take care to make sure you have the right agent for your project. Start by searching reputable websites, such as Reedsy. 😉  Once you have a few potentials, take the time to do some background checking. Ask for testimonials or recommendations from previous patrons.

When you have an editor you trust, send the following information: kind of editing wanted; genre, synopsis, and target market; and a sample of the book. When deciding what kind of editing you want done, keep in mind that different types of editing usually cannot happen in the same sweep. (If you’re specifically getting ready for submissions, the broadcast folks recommend focusing on developmental editing.) Also keep in mind that good editors are often booked out months in advance. Don’t expect a rush job.

When your manuscript is all edited up and ready to go, shift your focus over to preparing your submission materials.

Sending Out Your Query

Well known agencies receive between one to two hundred queries every day, so it’s hard to stand out from all that.

The first hurdle to jump is avoiding these common querying mistakes:

  • Rudeness, arrogance, and a lack of professionalism
  • Not following guidelines
  • Too much plot and not enough hook
  • Submitting work that isn’t fully edited
  • Lack of research (both within genre and in querying specific agents)

As far as researching agents and publishers goes, there are a lot of resources out there, such as Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, Authors Publish, Submittable, and Publishers Weekly. You can search through genre specific blogs for agent interviews with more specific information. Most agents these days also have a public blog you can comb through. If you’re on Twitter, you can run a search for publishing pundits’ manuscript wish lists.

This kind of specific information is perfect for a query letter’s personalization; personalization isn’t necessary, but does make you stand out a bit more, flatters the editor/agent, and at the very least shows that you did your homework. If nothing else, a more personal query encourages a more personal rejection, feedback which can then be used for later revisions.

While querying, it’s important to keep yourself organized, especially if you’re doing multiple submissions (which you absolutely should). Nothing screams amateur quite like accidentally querying the same place with the same piece twice. (Intentionality is different. If it’s been six months and you’ve completed heavy revision, it’s usually okay to resubmit- just be sure to mention it in the query.) Keep all your information in one place with a spreadsheet, keeping track of names, dates, etc. Prioritize your top agents and send out batches of queries (they suggest about six at a time), giving each batch about six weeks before moving on to the next group. As you learn from the process and (hopefully) feedback, make tweaks as needful. If you get feedback but feel strongly that it’s not appropriate for you or your project, don’t feel like you have to implement it. The agents and editors of this broadcast also suggest that, if you don’t get feedback, it’s okay to politely ask for it; you might still be ignored, but you also might get some insights otherwise left unsaid.

The thing that was stressed over and over throughout is to not give up. The submissions process is grueling. If you’ve been at it a while and still aren’t making much headway, don’t give up. Keep polishing, keep researching, and keep querying.

Happy writing!

Working v. Writing: Early Assessment

Working WomanLast summer was crazy-go-nuts. I mean, it was great fun, but it was the kind of great fun that I won’t be doing again for a while. So when we were deciding how we wanted our summer to go down this year, Husband and I agreed that it would be done here in Alaska.

Robert was a little mentally exhausted from this last school year, and so rather than take a summer job, he wanted to stay home as primary caregiver. And since we both know that I’m an incorrigible busybody, it was clear that I’d have to be out of the house for a pretty solid chunk of the time. So I procured me some summer work.

We’re about three weeks into it, and it’s been good so far. My hermitous little soul is pretty frazzled by the end of each day, but other than having to talk to strangers every single day (every. single. day. *inner screams*), I like the job and I like my coworkers and I like the customers. And Robert’s been an excellent stay-at-home daddy; even the kids are having a blast (probably in large part because Papa isn’t nearly the white-sugar-and-refined-grains-will-kill-us-all fanatic that mommy is).

My writing schedule has had to change as well, and I’m still sussing out whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Even when I was at home for most of each day, it was hard for me to write for significant chunks of time, because I can’t concentrate on creative work while the kids are being noisy or, paradoxically, being too quiet. Most of my writing took place at night, so that hasn’t really changed; it’s still the best time for me creatively and logistically. What has changed is the sort of work that I could do before that I now can’t.

I don’t spend the day mulling over writing questions like I did before. I can’t zone out and pick things apart in the back of my mind. Mine is the kind of mind that can have several little brainless things going at once, but only one true focus at a time; and while I’m on company time, that focus has to be on company matters. So when I do sit down to write at night, more of my time has to be spent hashing through the sorts of things that I would typically have already done by the time I sat down to write.

On the other hand, I feel like I can focus a lot quicker and harder on writing stuff now than I did before. There were certainly time constraints on when I could do writing before, but there weren’t constraints on when I could think about writing. And I feel like not even thinking about writing for a solid eight hours of every day rests my brain so that when it’s time to write, I can hit it hard without any mental exhaustion, boredom, whatever you want to call it. This is probably a good thing for me, because I’m mostly cured (in remission?) of my wandering mind during writing time and can really get crackin’ when the time comes.

All in all, I’m probably getting the same amount of actual writing done. I’ve just shifted and compressed the time I do it in. There is, however, one glaring difference I’ve noticed.

My submission rates have tanked. I have done absolutely zero market research. And you all saw what happened with last week’s blog post when I hit a snag. (Hint: nothing.) I haven’t even opened my most recent issue of Writer’s Digest. These are all the things that take the least concentration from me, but, word-for-word, the most time (except maybe reading magazines, haha). It’s clear that I’m prioritizing the creative aspects of writing above the more business-y aspects. And while that’s okay for the short run, it definitely won’t be good for my writing career in the long run.

This is still a relatively new lifestyle shift for me, so I’m hoping that as I continue to adjust, I’ll find my stride again and pick those things back up. But for now, do any of you writer folks who also have a regular day job have any tips for finding the balance? Pretty please let me know in the comments below!

Thank you and happy writing!