Love This Book

My quest for an agent continues.  This morning, I got my first request for additional material, which is awesome.  Will it lead to anything?  That remains to be seen, but any aspiring author should allow themselves some excitement and celebration in response to the little victories – an agent taking an interest based on my query letter and synopsis means, at least, that my query letter must be decent and my synopsis doesn’t need a rehaul.  I’m not making a bad or boring first impression.

For a debut novel, a request for additional material is a good sign that I’m doing my research right and presenting my work well.  Even if the agent turns me down after reading my first chapter, at least I’ve gotten a little nod that I’m marketing correctly, and the challenge, then, is to find an agent who wants what I’ve got to offer.

It’s important to remember, when marketing, that it’s a very different thing to be a good writer than to be a good seller of your writing, and not to get down about your writing just because you get rejected a few dozen times – particularly with novels.  Short stories are somewhat different, because the story is your selling point and the editors (or at least their assistants) are reading your work, not your query, as the basis for judgement.  A few dozen rejections of a short story means it may be time to look it over and polish it up some more.

With a novel, though, you’re counting on your query and possibly your synopsis to hook your audience (at this stage, an agent).  I think the most important component of writing a query, for me, has been confidence in the work.  It would be incredibly hard for me to have written a query letter if I wasn’t happy with – wasn’t excited about – the book I’m presenting.  But I do, honestly, deep down in the cockles of my heart, love my book.  I had a great time writing it, and I honestly believe it’s something that many other people will have a great time reading.  I see a lot of potential for it.

And this hasn’t been the case with novels I’ve written before (yes, I have some serious Fails), which is why I never tried to get them published.  My point here is, write a book you love, rewrite it until you’re happy with it and really really believe in it, and querying will just be a matter of conveying your own excitement to someone else, the way you would recommend any good book.  It will also take the sting out of the majority of your rejections, because you will know that this poor agent just passed up his/her big chance at your awesome novel.

Yes.  Once you have been brutally honest with yourself during the rewriting process (and gotten other people to be brutally honest about it, too), then you get to be egotistical and love the holy living crap out of your book.  You’ll have to, if you’re going to stay motivated in the face of rejection.

How to Take Criticism

I’ve guest blogged before about how to give and receive critiques. But I realized that I’ve never posted anything on the subject on my own blog, so here is one slice of the pie that is the topic of critiques: getting them and learning from them.

First off, if you take your stuff to a critique group, be professional. Don’t bring something you haven’t proofread yourself, haven’t bothered to run a basic spell check on, that your cat threw up on, or that you’ve formatted in some weird tiny font that nobody can read. It shows you respect your own work enough to present it well, and that you respect the people who are reading it for you enough to be considerate and not make them do all the work for you. Critiquers don’t do the work for you – they make suggestions and give feedback. Editors do the work for you (and I am one, if you want to know, and yes, I’m open for business, and my email is /shameless plug

Anyway, you also need to be professional in your response to criticism. Let the group know up front what kind of feedback you’re looking for (Full-out troubleshooting, or just technical help? Know your dialogue is shaky but want to concentrate on finding inconsistencies in the plotline for now? Not sure if a scene makes sense and just want to know if it does or not?) Do not expect a pat on the head from a critique group. That’s what your friends and relations are for. Go in ready to be torn to shreds. If you get nothing but praise instead, that’s a happy surprise and kudos to you for your excellent writing. But it’s better to be prepared for the worst than to go in cocky and then have the rug jerked out from under you. Confidence is good, but steel yourself for criticism. That’s what critiquers are supposed to give you.

Don’t argue with critiquers. Clarify, sure, if you don’t understand a comment, but don’t say, “Yes, this part does SO work!” if someone says it doesn’t. The correct response is, “Okay, thanks for letting me know,” or “What is it that doesn’t work here? Can you explain, so I understand what I need to fix?” You can disagree privately all you want, just not out loud.

Do NOT, NOT, NOT start editing as soon as you get home from a critique, especially if there are a lot of comments (more especially still if there are a lot of things that need to be fixed or changed). Process it overnight, at the very least. Cry if you need to. Just don’t decide one way or the other on anything the same evening you get a critique. Later, after you’ve thought it over a little, you can decide which suggestions you disagree with, which you want to work on, and which things you agree with but think a different solution than the one suggested would be best for the story.

So there you go. How to approach and take your lumps – I mean, your critiques.

A History of Writing

Like most kids, I made up stories when I was little.  Reading was an obsession for me so early in my childhood that I actually started screaming at a book one day because I couldn’t read it myself.  I had bouts of insomnia from the cradle on (to the present day…) and I figured out that parents get cranky if you wake them up every night for three weeks.  Luckily, I was old enough to read to myself by that time, so I read – sometimes all through the night – to pass the hours when everyone else was asleep.  Stories therefore became incredibly important to me, and that may actually be why, for me, reading is an escape from stress, a whole other world to believe in (if only for a while), and characters are company when they’re well-written.

My mom was publishing short stories and had written (and was writing) novels.  I knew books could come from people in homes just like mine, knew vaguely that rejection was part of the process and that if you just kept trying, you’d find the right fit for what you’d written.  These were great things to grow up aware of, as my storytelling became more serious.  Thanks, Mom!

And I did get serious about my writing.  Very early in my life.  At first, I just wanted my stuff to be typed instead of written.  My mom had a typewriter and let me hunt-and-peck my stories out on that.  Sometimes she’d type for me while I dictated stories to her.  I was somewhere around five-ish when, once, I was dictating a story (one long run-on sentence connected by “and”s) and Mom suggested, “This is an awful lot of ‘and’s.  You could break it up into separate sentences instead.”  As with most early writers, my initial response was “No!”  Mom typed it the way I wanted it.

Later, though, I looked over it and thought about it.  I think, up till then, I’d believed that stories came out perfect first try.  That writers just sat down and wrote off the tops of their heads, and however the story came out was just how it was.  As if stories were simply born instead of shaped and worked over and created through a process.  It had never occurred to me that a story could be improved.  I wrote the story out in separate sentences, the way Mom had suggested.  I read the first version, then the second version.  The second one was better.  Something clicked.

Then I became a serious writer.  Not a good one, but I tried, bless me.  Ha!  My mom taught me how to type when I was eight or nine because hunt-and-peck typing was slowing me down.  I started my first novel (drivel) when I was nine, finished it at ten.  It was about 150 pages of junk, but there was one great character who came out of it.  Having gone through much refining as I’ve matured, I still plan on using him as one of the major characters in my NaNoWriMo novel.

Again, many thanks to my mom, who took me along to science fiction & fantasy conventions and writers workshops and critique groups starting when I was about nine.  Also many thanks to the Southern Indiana Writers Group, who were my first critiquers (and are still the group I attend, when I make it to meetings (rarely, unfortunately)).  I especially thank the long-standing members who were there when I was a kid, because they actually gave me feedback and took my writing seriously.

And I’d like to thank the Academy – wait, no.  This isn’t actually a thank-you speech post, I just happen to have a lot to thank people for when it comes to my development as a writer.

Anyway, those were my early years and how I learned to refine my stories and talk to other writers about the process.  I have to say, one of the best things about the writing community (by which I mean workshops, critique groups, and so on) is how willing writers are to share with each other, and how excited we get to talk to someone who shares our passion for this process.  Even as a kid, most of the adult writers I met didn’t patronize me, but were instead thrilled to talk to me about my perspective on writing and give me advice and encouragement.

Sometime I’ll write a part two to this, about how my teenage writing went and what I learned from it and all that sort of thing.  For now, I’ll finish by posting (verbatim) one of the first stories I ever typed (I’m guessing it’s from around age 3 or 4 (?) because it’s typewriter print and my mom got a word processor not long after that):

lettl pegwn

oensupon a tieym ter wez a LettL PEGWEN AND HE WEZ Verrey Happey Bekaz momme Tokker Aev Hem.

it wiz gtten let and it wez the let sew the lettl pggwn put oen hez pejommez

the end

Clearly, my spelling had a lot to be desired.  My oldest sister compared it to Middle English.  If you can read that, I congratulate you.  It even takes me a while to muddle through it, and I wrote it.  😉