Saturday, October 29, 2011

Writing query letters

At my writer's group last week, we decided that we were each going to challenge ourselves this month: one woman is going to do the NaNoWriMo challenge, and two of us are going to (gulp) actually try to query real agents.

I know I did this once before and had modest success (a request for a partial and full manuscript)--but I haven't heard anything from them since and I'm also realizing how unusual that experience is.

So, over the last couple of days I've been polishing my query letter, my one-page synopsis, and the first chapter of my novel. And today--just now, actually--I sent the first of those letters off into the great abyss.

To be honest, it's terrifying. You'd think the process would be more hopeful. After all, what if one of those agents loves me? But right now, I can't find hope anywhere. Not in my cold fingers. Not in my tight stomach. And certainly not in my head--which, while it knows I've written the best story I can (for now), is pretty sure that the story isn't good enough.

But I still have to try.

It's been a long time since I tried to do something that I could potentially fail at. Usually I'm pretty good about hedging my bets. Still, I think it's good for me to stretch a little. And I did (do) enjoy the process of writing the story. I've learned a lot. (I'm also learning a little about how my students must feel when they turn a paper in.)

I'm almost positive one of those emails will be a swift "no" (I was trying to change some formatting and gmail read that as "send" before I was finished with the email so I had to send a very unprofessional apology). The others will probably be no as well. (And, for the record, I'm not looking for sympathy here. Just stating a fact. Publishing is notoriously competitive).

If something good happens, I'm sure you'll hear about it.

If you don't hear anything more from me here for months and months, you'll know how to interpret my silence.

If I feel anything at all right now, it's a little bit of relief. I've taken that first hurdle and survived. Now I just have to wait.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


So, as many of you know, I'm relatively new to the whole idea of writing and publishing. (The one attempt as a teenager to send my manuscript to Tor books--yes, directly--did not pan out so well).

Right now, I'm trying to finish up revisions so I can enter Miss Snark's Baker's Dozen in a week and a half. (Self: you can do this!)

However, there's a slight catch. I need a logline. I hate writing good loglines. I have a good paragraph pitch, but the one sentence thing trips me up.

Luckily, I found this great post by Nathan Bransford, on writing great loglines. Now I just have to follow through.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Writing Conference

Today I had the chance to attend a writing conference with Mette Ivie Harrison and Rick Walton, both relatively well-known authors in children's publishing.

I'd forgotten how invigorating conferences can be. There's something about meeting with other people who share my passion and learning lots of good ideas about writing that gets me inspired to write more. (Of course, the same thing happens to me at academic conferences--and I'm going to one next weekend--so we'll see if I wind up with conflicting goals afterward!)

Mette and Rick both talked to us for a bit before and after the critique sessions, then we broke into groups for first-chapter or picture-book manuscript critiques. I was in the novel session, with Mette. It's always interesting to me how much I learn from the critique of other people's work--I learn what works in an intro, and what doesn't work as well.

And of course, the critique of my first chapter was really gratifying for me. I've looked at that chapter and revised it lots of times (I think I'm up to 7 or 8 now) and it's hard for me to see it clearly anymore. I always feel like my own writing isn't quite as good as I think it is. Mette had us read our chapter out loud (well, as much as we could read in 10 minutes). I kept thinking as I read that I just sounded silly (I suppose this is why I identify with my MC so well)--and then, miraculously, people started laughing at the right spots and I realized I'd done something right. Better yet, the only criticisms I got were minor suggestions (mostly about wording), which means I finally have the shape of the chapter down--and Mette even told me that it was ready to send out. (It's not--I mean, the first chapter may be, but I'm in a revision mess in the middle right now that I will start sorting out as soon as I sign off here). But. But. It was nice to finally realize that *maybe* this is something I can do, if I work at it hard enough.

I also realized that I'm a lousy judge of my own work. That's why I have a critique group--right?

Anyway, enough about me. I really wanted to record some of the things that stood out to me from the conference.

Rick and Mette both stressed that you need to write because you love writing--not because you want to be published. Or because you want to make money at it. If you write for those reasons, you won't find the process satisfying. If, however, you write because you love it, you'll be more motivated to keep writing (which, in turn, ironically makes you more likely to get published). I'm trying to do this. I would like to get published (wouldn't we all?), but it's true that there's a gratifying feeling to finally putting together a piece in the way that I want it to read.

Mette also said: don't quit your day job.

In our break-out session, Mette stressed the idea that every story has an inner and outer journey. That's probably old news to people who have been writing for a long time, but her comment clarified for me something that I've sensed intuitively.

When we got back together again with Rick's group, Rick and Mette took questions from the group. The questions included finding an agent (most of that was familiar to me, which made me realize how much I've learned in the last six months) and self-publishing (Mette's recommendation was: don't do it, unless you have a specific reason for doing it. Most self-published writers--but not all--self-publish because they can't get published in traditional routes, which means they have short-changed themselves, ultimately, in never learning how to take that final leap as a writer.)

I asked: how do you know if you're ready to send your manuscript out? My current hope is to send out my manuscript after I finish the revision I'm working on, but I'm not sure if that's polished enough. Mette's response? "If you're asking, you're probably delaying sending it out." (In other words, you're probably ready. She may have been under the misapprehension that the rest of my draft was as polished as the first chapter. It's not, unfortunately).

Rick's answer was my favorite, though: when in doubt, send it out!

And finally, probably the day's best advice on becoming a writer, from Rick: Read a lot and write a lot and get good at it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Nobody tells this to beginners

I've been having a little (okay, not so little) crisis of faith this week regarding writing.

I entered a little writing competition (query and first 250 words of a manuscript) on a blog this week. I didn't win--but that didn't surprise me, particularly after getting some great feedback and seeing the strength of some of the other submissions. Losing didn't even particularly depress me. No, what depressed me was seeing the gap between what I recognize as quality writing and my own writing.

Now, I realize that, while I've been writing for years (and teaching writing for 10+ years), this creative writing thing is a more recent development. It doesn't help that I feel like the world's biggest cliche--how many English profs do you think there are out there who are secretly nursing a novel? Thousands.

Anyway, I'm getting off my point. My point was that it takes years of work to get good at something--even (especially) at writing.

I've found some comfort in a quote that made the Facebook rounds last week, attributed to Ira Glass:

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Sometimes I wish there were an easier way around this (and I know my students wish this!). The truth is, there isn't. You just have to slog through. And believe in yourself, which is easier said than done.

After hitting a particularly low point last night (just ask my husband), I sat down with my husband to watch Castle. Now, Castle is not usually particularly high-brow, but we're big fans of Nathan Fillion. This particular episode was so apropos that I had to laugh. At the end of the episode, Richard Castle's daughter Alexis asks him about the framed rejection letter he has in his office. He tells her that rejection is not a sign of failure: quitting is.

I think I need to take the Castle quote and the Ira Glass quote and put them up in big letters where I can see them. And then I need to stop complaining and start revising.

(After I dig myself out of my pile of papers that need to be graded, that is!)