Donate to Equality Orlando and get a query critique

I’m sure you’ve heard about the abysmal news from Orlando this weekend, in which the largest mass shooting in American history occurred at a gay night club. Over 100 people were killed or injured in the attack, and thousands are lining up to donate blood for those injured. In addition to donating blood, you can also donate to Equality Orlando, which will offset costs for the victims and families of the deceased.

You should donate anyway, but YA writer Phil Stamper is offering an extra donation incentive for writers. If you prove you’ve donated at least $5, Phil will provide a query critique within a week. The very popular #PitchWars contest is coming up, and Phil will help you get your query polished for the competition.

Since I’m in the query building stage, and I wanted to do my part in contributing to the Orlando relief efforts, I participated. If you have a query, even a rough one, I recommend you participate as well! Also of interest, Phil also offers really competitive editorial rates on his site in general. You can get a full developmental edit of your manuscript for only $400! He is an agented writer and the mod of a YA writers subreddit, so I think he will be a reliable source of information.

Let’s unite to fight hate, guys. Even if you don’t have a query, I hope you donate and spread the word.

A promising year for Paradisa?

Last year at ConCarolinas, I was given feedback on Paradisa’s opening that sent me into a year long spiral of self doubt. In this past year, I had to decide whether my style and POV choices needed to be modified. I had to decide if I was going to stick with present tense. I also had to figure out how to open my book in a realistic way, and how to reorient my plot to be fueled by character agency instead of relying on the characters to go along with my plans.

I am now on the other side of those choices. I have a manuscript that was well received by my second beta round and, in general, only requires a few more cosmetic upgrades before completion. I have decided to switch the book to past tense, in order to increase my marketability (and I really don’t miss it that much tbh). I also came to the conclusion that while the live slush readers were entitled to their opinions about voice and POV, I cannot force myself to write in a way that is unnatural to me. I asked my second round beta readers about whether the book is “deep enough” in the characters, and one actually said it was too deep. A couple of them said it was too shallow. Most said it was fine. So obviously psychic distance is a matter of taste and I’m not going to chase something unnatural to me just because it appears to be a trend. Deep POV annoys me. I’m sure it annoys other people. Those people are my audience.

I have not changed the opening to Paradisa much since October (although Millie Ho guided me to which line is my perfect opener, and it was a line that originally existed three paragraphs down the page.) I think editing it anymore at this point would be unwise, but I was still scared to have it reviewed by Legitimate Official Gatekeepers. It was my best effort, but that rarely is enough these days.

On Saturday morning at ConCarolinas, I saw that the slush reader for Baen Books was doing a very interactive and intimate face-to-face feedback session for submission packets later that day. He needed a synopsis and a cover letter, along with the first five pages. I had no synopsis or cover letter. Cue me writing like a mad person trying to summarize my book in two pages and give it a back cover blurb. If nothing else, this exercise forced me to create two very valuable pieces of a submission package that I can use later though.

At 4 PM, me and five others entered the room to face the slushmaster general. I didn’t really think of this as a pitch to Baen as much as a gauge of “will submitting my book to a place that takes 9-12 months to respond and doesn’t allow simultaneous submissions be worth it?” And also “are there glaring errors that I need to fix, because seriously, I wrote this blurb letter in 20 minutes of sweaty frenzy and no one has seen it before?” Baen, for those who don’t know, has published John Ringo, David Weber, Mercedes Lackey, Larry Correia, Catherine Asaro, Larry Niven, David Drake, and Tim Zahn. They are one of the smaller SFF presses, but their works have gone on to be nominated for Hugos and other awards. On the downside, their catalog contains the leader of the Sad Puppies, but there are Sad Puppy authors in pretty much every SFF publishing house. And Niven, Flint, and many of Baen’s other authors are far more progressive than I am, so they represent all stripes.

One by one, we brought up our packets. He read our letters aloud, and commented on their execution. He read the first five pages of everyone’s books until he reached a point of doubt/disinterest. When he hit that point, he would go to the synopsis and see if the story was going anywhere. A few times, based on these summaries, he commented that the participants did appear to have a story, but their opening started too early or had too much noise. He said that if he had the full, he might find a point in the synopsis where things kick off and start reading the manuscript again from there.

Honestly, he was one of the most generous slush readers I’ve ever heard of. Most agents offer a rejection if they aren’t captivated in the first line of a query. This guy gives the summary, the writing, and the synopsis a fair chance, and literally hunts for the story. He gives everyone a huge benefit of the doubt and treats manuscripts with great care. I respect that greatly, although I recognize that most agents or publishers will not be so thorough.

Still, out of the six of us, Paradisa was the only submission where he did not stop reading the manuscript pages until they said my time was up. He was engaged enough by the story that he didn’t feel the need to check out the synopsis. I was pretty stunned. Even though he was a nice man and a generous slush reader, he was still very honest with all of the participants. He pointed out areas of weak writing, of confusion, and even of things that annoyed him. He wasn’t sugarcoating things for the sake of it, which makes me feel like his very few words of critique against Paradisa may in fact mean something. Although I may have eventually lost his attention with the rest of the book, I haven’t done anything wrong yet.

I mustered up some courage and spoke to him one on one after the panel. We chatted a bit about what makes a book “a Baen book” and whether mine could fit that mold. It’s still a long shot, as I believe only three books from his slush have been published by Baen in the last eight years. I’m still not sure I will submit to them first, as their waiting period is so incredibly long. But it’s nice to know that I’m on the right track and have gotten the thumbs up from at least one pro. It’s given me the confidence to knock out Paradisa’s final edits this month and maybe start querying it in July.

As a footnote, I also participated in the same live slush panel as last year with the first page of The Shadow of Saturn. They had more positive things to say about it than they did about Paradisa. They just advised me to cut out a paragraph of some poorly paced exposition that didn’t serve the character. But they liked the opening paragraph, and that’s what I wanted to know the most. I wondered if I should open with a paragraph from my childhood, and they seemed to enjoy it, so we’re going with it!

2016 has been a great year so far. I’m stoked to have this renewed confidence in Paradisa, and to take the leap into publishing it. Maybe there’s an agent or publisher for me out there, after all.

Eight Ways I’m A Not A “Real” Writer (And One Way I Am)

There are a lot of clichés about how similarly writers behave, and I’m not sure I respond to all of them positively. Every “You Know You’re A Writer If You Do This Stuff!” list never seems to resound with me. Sometimes it actually makes me wonder if I am a “real” writer, or if my personality isn’t actually suited to this craft. How can I be so disconnected from something I’ve done literally all my life?

1. I don’t care about strangers. You know the image of a writer on a park bench, eyes flitting around and observing people, scribbling character ideas and dialogue in her notebook? It’s not me. At all. It’s so incredibly unlike me that I wonder if such people actually exist. Sorry, I may be a writer since birth but that isn’t going to overcome misanthropy and social anxiety. I don’t like strangers. I definitely don’t want to spend 100,000 words worth of headspace with them, nor do I want to pay any more than passing attention to them. I tend to only find people interesting once I actually know them. Most of my characters are based on things that are familiar to me and that I already care about.

2. I don’t care about tea. Or coffee. Aside from a daily latte to get my butt out of bed at 6:00 AM and awake enough to do chemistry, I have no interest in hot caffeinated drinks. There is no correlation between drinking caffeine and writing/creativity to me. I tried, but I just found it distracting. I was trying too hard to down the coffee before it went cold, which led to about twenty minutes of coffee drinking and zero minutes of actual writing.

3. I can’t write in public. This combines 1 and 2! How can anyone write in a coffee shop when you have both coffee AND strangers to distract you? :P Even with headphones, I can’t help but look over my shoulder, hoping no one is spying on my laptop. This extends to airports, airplanes, lobbies, etc.

4. I don’t like prompts. I’ve actually written a whole post about that one before. I understand that a flash fiction writer will need prompts in order to be prolific. But the whole “writing exercise prompt” thing always felt inorganic to me. If it’s not my idea – something that I elected voluntarily to write about – I’m not going to care. And if I don’t care, the writing will appear forced. My post about prompts offers a pretty decent hypothesis for why I am this way – I’m a plotter and a stewer, and prompts simply don’t give me enough time to build a convincing piece.

5. I don’t take rejection personally.  Many of you have submitted queries to agents or publishers and you became disheartened after 5 or 10 of them sent you form rejections. Darlings, do not stop there: you’re just getting warmed up.  Maybe it was a really extensive and frustrating job hunt that hardened me up, but I see any response as positive response. I’d rather cross an avenue off my list than have it sitting open on a spreadsheet, waiting to be confirmed or denied. Plus, I think many writers discount the sheer volume of queries one must make in order to pitch a novel successfully. It took me 60 applications just to find a job in a STEM field – and only 5 of those got ANY response, positive or negative – so I expect it’ll take at least double that to convince an agent to sign me. I can certainly imagine frustration that you’ll never get published after a couple hundred failed submissions – and I’ve felt the sting of beta readers’ comments directly –  but I don’t know why a handful of form letters has such a way of hurting writer feelings.

6. I’m not an avid reader. Out of all these, I’m the least proud to admit this. I do enjoy reading, and I find it informative/inspirational as a writer, but it isn’t like oxygen to me. I don’t need to read a book every week to survive. I’m usually too busy writing to have much time reading. I hope to find a better balance between the two in time, but I will never be the introspective bookworm who’s always curled up with some tea and a blanket. I’m more of a film person, actually – an admission which often earns offended gasps in the writing community.

7. I hate wearing glasses. They may look cute on you, but they don’t on me. They don’t make me look smart or creative. They’re just a veil over a face that needs all the help it can get. Especially because my prescription is so bad that I can’t buy cute frames. And because of my job, I don’t have the option to wear contacts to work. I’m going to a LASIK surgeon as soon as I can afford it.

8. I don’t believe the book is always better than the movie. Sometimes it isn’t.

And the one way I am a real writer?

I love telling stories. That’s it. That’s all the romanticism and reason I need. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a filmmaker in a novelist’s world, or maybe it’s that I have the emotional range of Ron Weasley (aka, a teaspoon). But even if I’m not the stereotypical hipster in a sweater and glasses, with no desires outside of writing and living in a city apartment I can’t afford, the muse for telling stories and creating worlds has burned within me all my life. At the end of it all, I don’t care that I’m not the writer people think I should be – and you shouldn’t care about what people expect of you either. Honestly, I’d say the person that actually is all eight of the above probably doesn’t exist. Or if she does, somehow she’s been made an industry standard :P

What other clichés about writers do you reject? What romanticism would you like to see vanish? What assumptions do people make about you as a writer?

Beating The Publishing Odds

1 in 1000.

That’s a commonly cited rate for an author’s odds of publication.

But those odds don’t scare me. I’ve already beaten those odds. I’ve been the 1 in 1000 before. I’ve actually been the 1 in 50,000 before. Chances are, you have too. Everyone has had something extremely unlikely happen to them, something monumentally unusual (my dad survived a place crash when he was 19. I like flying with him because the odds of him experiencing that twice in his life are astronomical). Everyone has accomplished something despite life being stacked against them.

I got into my NASA internship by the skin of my teeth. Sure, I had a good teacher recommendation, which probably helped me get into the top 50 candidates (out of about 1500, I’ve heard). But the SC Space Grant can only send 6 people per year to NASA internships. It doesn’t matter if NASA program wants you if SC’s funding runs out.  And by the end of March 2012, when I was selected, all six slots had filled.

Literally fifteen minutes before Marshall called SC Space Grant to request me, one of the slots freed up. A Citadel student revoked his acceptance. I was pulled out of Physical Chemistry to chat with the Space Grant ladies upstairs, who told me I had to make the choice immediately. If I didn’t take this slot, another student would probably be summoned by one of the Academies to replace it. Some luck, huh?

As for the 1 out of 50,000, I placed 2nd in a pool of 100,000 students when I was in 7th grade. I had the 2nd highest score on some national math competition. I still think that was a fluke, and just a result of daily practice (thanks Mr. Derrick), but hey, I’ve still got the plaque. (I also think that I may have that ratio wrong, but I’m going with the “odds of placing 1st or 2nd in a pool of 100,000” line of thinking. Which I suppose would be 1 to 50,000. As you can see, I was better at math when I was 12 :P)

Let’s also consider that the odds of getting a novel published, for skilled writers who actually know their craft, is not far off from the odds of getting a job any other field. I’ve heard that “1 in 20” is the magic ratio for “full requests per group of queries.” If you send out 20 queries, at least one agent should request a full….and that’s how you know you’re on the right track and have a publishable book. After 50-100 queries, a marketable author should have an offer of representation.

I’m amused to say that those odds are identical to how my chemistry job search went after college. My odds were almost consistently  “1 interview per 20 job applications.” By the end of my 5 month search, I submitted about 60 applications. I ended up with three interviews, two of which turned into job offers.

They want you to believe that publishing is competative…and it sure is. But so is everything else! No one approached me and threw dollar bills at me to be a chemist. I had to bust my butt to find a job, particularly because chemistry is a scarce field in my town. There are maybe two dozen chemists in Charleston who aren’t Ph.D professors or managers. And you can bet that The Citadel, CofC, and CSU all graduate a few dozen chem majors every year. I certainly beat the odds and came out on top in this field….so why not writing too? All I have to do is be as marketable an author as I was a chemist. ;)