Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Off to a Great Start...or Maybe Not So Much

I thought I was done. My manuscript was written, revised (and revised and revised and…), polished, proofread. I’d written my query letter. I was working on my synopsis. My novel was ready for the world.

Then I entered a contest. Not a big one, mind you. It was one of those agent-sponsored one-sentence pitch contests, which I love. So I’d fashioned a one-sentence pitch that I was really pretty pleased about, and the only other thing the contest had asked for was the first paragraph of the manuscript. No problem there.

When the contest’s submission period opened, I pulled up the file for my manuscript so I could retrieve my first paragraph.

Now let me stop there for a second, because here’s the thing... I like the beginning of my manuscript. I think it’s compelling. I think I have a great hook. A man learns that his terminally ill daughter has been promised to a mysterious technology upon her death, a technology that harnesses souls as a source of power.

One problem though. Looking at the first paragraph, that wasn’t actually how the book started. Oh sure, a few paragraphs in all those things happen, but that first paragraph, well all it contained was a knock on the hotel room door disturbing a man’s rest.

Really? Was that really how I’d started my novel?

The paragraph was, I was dismayed to realize, boring. How could that be, after the number of times I’d been over the manuscript? How could I not have seen that?

Maybe because I knew. I knew what happened in the beginning of the novel. I knew about the devastating telegram that my protagonist received a few paragraphs in. So I’d never really looked at the first paragraph as a standalone, as the very first impression the reader would have of the novel, a paragraph that would either make a reader want to read more or wouldn’t.

Hell, if not for the contest forcing me to see my paragraph as a standalone, I might never have really looked at it that way.

It was a frustrating revelation, but it was also eye-opening. Maybe more importantly, it made me reevaluate my novel in a way that I’d never done before, to look at a single paragraph all on its own. And not just a single paragraph. A first paragraph.

And let me tell you, it's an interesting exercise.

The good news is that not only do I think I know how to fix it now, but I think my fix might add a whole new element to the novel, one I’d never considered before. I can already see it in my head, and I love the scene I’m envisioning. It’s vibrant and active, and while the main hook will still come a few paragraphs in, I think my new start is going to make a reader want to read on, and that’s what we, as writers, are ultimately going for, right?

So yes, I thought I was done, and now--thanks to a one-sentence pitch contest--I know I’m not. In fact, right now I’m facing down quite a bit more work to incorporate my new ideas. But you know what? I’m happy. I’m happy to have solved a problem that two days ago I didn’t even realize existed. I’m happy because ultimately the changes I'm going to make might mean the difference between selling the novel and trunking it. I'm taking this as the gift that it was.

Has that ever happened to anyone else, one small thing that leads you to suddenly view a manuscript in a whole different light? I’m curious.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pardon Me, But Your Roots are Showing

The last few months I’ve found myself thoroughly entrenched in the world of novels: writing, revisions, market research, queries. It’s a world in which I’m feeling more and more comfortable. My roots though, well my roots are in short stories, and this week I’ve had the comfort of returning to my roots.

I spent a good part of tonight working on revisions for a short story that will be appearing in an anthology in a few months. The revisions for the story have been fairly extensive, but I always find it a great learning experience to work with an editor on making a short story publication-ready.

Before I sold my first short story I never really thought about the work that might still have to go into a story post-sale. I can’t exactly say that I believed that just because an editor decided to accept a piece for publication that it would be perfect. It was more, I guess, that I had never actually given it much thought. In fact, I realize now how many things I’d never realized about the short story publication process.

What I’ve come to realize is that sometimes you need to put as much work into a short story after you’ve sold it as you do when getting ready to submit it. And that’s not a bad thing. Sure, sometimes it’s exhausting, and sometimes--when you just can’t seem to get a particular scene right--downright frustrating, but any time you have the opportunity to make a story even stronger, you should go for it.

I’ve sold a number of short stories, from small press anthologies to national print magazines, and the editorial process is always a little different. Sometimes there aren’t edits at all, or the edits are minor and happen behind the scenes. Other times the edits are extensive and require weeks of back and forth between writer and editor. Sometimes it’s just a matter of saying, “I agree,” and okaying the editorial suggestions. Other times it’s a process of rewriting and rewriting again to get it just right.

The edit I’m working on now is definitely one of the more challenging ones. It’s for a great anthology of dark speculative fiction that I’m excited to be a part of--I’ll let you know more about it soon--and the story I sold to them is an older story, but one for which I’ve always had a special fondness. The editors have really impressed me, too. Their editorial suggestions have been insightful and detailed. They’re making me work to get it right, and I’m grateful for that, because I know that the all the effort is going to pay off in the final product.

Truthfully, I welcome these chances to work with editorial staff for another reason, too. I think it’s helping to prepare me for the bigger edits that will come if and when I sell a novel. I’m learning not only how to work with editors, but how to be an author that editors want to work with. I’m realizing it’s not only writing skills that make a good author, but interpersonal skills as well. In some ways, writing isn’t as solitary a gig as people would believe.

I sent those edits off a little while ago, and I felt good about it. Hitting send on that email brought me a great sense of accomplishment. And what I love most about it is knowing that at the end of this journey, I'll have an anthology to hold in my hands, one with my story inside.

Now it’s time to return to the world of novels with its synopses and pitches and query letters, but it’s always nice to return to my roots. I think I’ll do it more often.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Synopsis or Bust

Oh synopsis…how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

One…

One…

Hmmm…

Okay, so I have no love of synopses. Still, with the excitement of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) quarterfinalist announcement this week in my online writing circles, I found myself motivated to get back to the novel synopsis I’ve been avoiding the past few weeks.

I’m excited about getting this novel out into the world. Of all the novels I’ve written over the last few years, this one is my favorite. And despite it being knocked out in the pitch round of ABNA this year, it’s also the one for which I have the most hope.

Besides, I have that ABNA entry deadline to thank for actually getting the revisions finished finally. And when I say finally, I mean finally. I’d been working on those revisions off and on for years.

Still, there’s that dratted synopsis to contend with before I can get it out there. I’ve been wrestling with it for weeks. Honestly, I think I’m having the same trouble with the synopsis that I had with the pitch, and that’s juggling the story elements and characters.

My novel, The Road of the Dead, is more complex a story than I usually write. It has multiple storylines and multiple character arcs that weave together throughout the story. It’s told through multiple points of views. So whenever I dig in to work on that synopsis, I find myself getting tangled. How do I balance my three primary characters without the synopsis sounding choppy? And that blasted Chapter 1, which is so important in setting up later events but isn’t told from the point of view of one of those primary characters but rather by a recurring but vital secondary character…how on earth do I do handle that in the synopsis?

I’m determined to get through it though. It’s synopsis or bust for me. It’s only a synopsis after all, not some evil nemesis, right? Or is it?

And if anyone’s reading, I’m wondering… Have you ever tackled a synopsis for a multiple POV novel? How do you handle multiple story arcs in a synopsis without the synopsis becoming choppy and cumbersome? What are your struggles with the writing of a synopsis?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lessons Learned from ABNA

I’m watching today as some of my fellow writers await news of their fate in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) competition. At some point today--and if Amazon holds true to tradition, it might be well into tonight--the announcement will be made of those making it on to the Quarterfinals.

Last year, I was among those awaiting news. This year, I’ll be cheering from the sidelines since I got knocked out of the competition in the pitch round.

It brings mixed feelings. Sure there’s disappointment. I would love to have that competition anxiety today, to feel my heart beating a little faster each time my computer chimed its new message alert, to have that beautiful feeling of potential there, that this-year-it-could-be-me high. But I’m finding that I’m also excited for those people who might be moving on, particularly those people who I now count among my friends. There’s also curiosity. One of these people will be a published novelist soon. (Not to mention curiosity to read the excerpts.)

Besides, I’ve already gotten something out of this year’s ABNA: a polished manuscript. That deadline forced me to get myself in gear and finish the revisions I’d been working on off and on for a few years now. It forced me to work on my pitch. That’s prize enough itself.

I’ve also made some great new writing friends. Plus, it’s been a lesson in networking, and many of the other contestants have graciously supported me by voting in the “Fresh Blood” contest, where I’m a finalist.

Maybe more importantly, it’s also been a great reminder that no matter how much work you’ve put into a novel, no matter how strongly you believe in it, the details matter. You need to have a strong pitch (or synopsis or other marketing material) to get your novel read in the first place.

So while it stung a little to get knocked out so soon in the competition this year, particularly after making it to the top 100 last year, I’m still happy I entered and will be looking forward to doing so again next year (hopefully with a much stronger pitch).

Good luck to those who are still waiting for news on their entry. I wish each and every one of you the best, both in ABNA and beyond. This is just one step in the journey. Onward!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dear Author, Don’t Quit Your Day Job

I’ve come away pretty much unscathed from the judging of the first two few rounds of the “Fresh Blood” finals (and for more about the contest and my entry, please see my previous post, Fresh Blood. Who me?). That’s not to say I haven’t gotten criticism, because I have, but it’s been mild and quite constructive. Some of the other contestants haven’t been quite so lucky.

We were warned at the start of the finals that the judges were prepared to “pull no punches” (to quote the copy on the website). Their point, in part, was that if an author isn’t prepared to handle editorial criticism, no matter how rough, then maybe this isn’t the place for him or her.

I think it’s a fair point. Criticism, sometimes brutal, is a part of this business of writing. And though so far in this contest I’ve escaped the worst of it, I’ve received my share of the tough stuff. It’s funny, too, because as a writer actively pursuing publication, one of the comments I get the most is about putting myself out there and opening myself up to so much criticism.

Truthfully though, taking the criticism is not nearly as hard as some people believe. I think being a short story writer for so long now has prepared me well to handle it when it comes my way.

Take, for example, my critique circle. One of the best things that ever happened to my writing was a critique group that I joined a number of years ago. The group had a zero sugarcoating philosophy. Criticism was served raw.

It was sometimes brutal. It was the kind of group where, when you opened up your critique, you needed to sit down, inhale deeply, and find your center before reading what your critiquer had to say. It was also wonderful. If you got praise, you knew it was genuine, but the criticisms, once the cringe effect wore off, helped me polish my fiction (particularly since even now, with the group mostly defunct, I still hear their voices in my head sometimes as I’m editing). It also helped prepare me for the criticisms that often come with rejection of a submission and--dum da da dum--even after publication.

I’ve received plenty of editorial criticism over the past few years. In fact, my favorite rejection letters (which I call “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” letters) are the ones that say: we didn’t like this because... The bottom line is that personal criticism, no matter how rough, is something to appreciate. For one thing, it means that an editor thought enough of your work to respond personally. For another, it sometimes contains a gem of wisdom that can potentially mean the difference between the next response to a submission being a rejection or a sale. That said, my one caveat (to myself and other short story writers) is to trust your instincts. Just because a criticism comes your way doesn’t make it automatically right. Ultimately the short story (or poem or novel or essay) is yours and you need to make the final decision as to what’s right for it.

Post-publication criticism is the one area I’d never considered before I actually received some. Sure novels get reviewed…but short stories? Apparently, short stories too.

For me, that post-publication criticism has always been the hardest to take. Maybe it’s partly because the sale itself feels like an affirmation that a story has merit, so to hear someone else say, “Nah, didn’t see anything to this,” is difficult. I had one critic call a short story of mine “pointless.” Wow. That was rough.

But for me, it’s also difficult in part because while I might end up agreeing with the criticism, I can’t change it. For example, recently someone who reviewed a short story of mine, “How We Fly,” (Abyss & Apex, 1st Quarter 2010) criticized that I’d used the same simile several times in the course of the story. They were absolutely right in their complaint. I went back and searched my document only to find that I’d used the word “vellum” four times. Yikes. It wasn’t intentional. In all the edits that story went through--and there were quite a few--I never noticed the vellum overload. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it, which makes that criticism very hard to bear.

Ultimately, as writers, criticism is something we have to learn to live with. Some people say that writers need to be thick-skinned, to let the criticisms just roll off of them. While I understand that, I disagree. I think our skins needs to be porous. I think we need to hear the criticism, absorb it, mull it over, and then either take it or let it go, and then move on.

Besides, there’s one thing of which I’m pretty certain. There’s probably nobody out there who’ll be as critical of my work as I am.

So if there’s rough criticism coming my way in the “Fresh Blood” contest, I say bring it on! I’ll welcome it, if only for the fact that it would mean I’ve made it through to another round of the finals. Moreover, I’m ready and eager to hear what the judges have to say, both positive and negative, because while there’s a one in five chance that I’ll win (odds that I love) there’s a four in five chance that I won’t, and I plan to take away whatever I can from this contest. While I may not win, there might just be a piece of advice somewhere in these rounds that will help me to make my novel even stronger and result in a sale the next time out.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Fresh Blood? Who, Me?

Today, voting opened up for the next round of the “Fresh Blood” novel contest. I didn’t even get beat up too badly by the judges this round--although I’ve determined that they simply hate my title. I wanted to share the contest information tonight, and ask for your vote to help me move forward, but I also thought it might be fun to share a little bit about my journey with this particular novel, and a little bit about the contest itself.

Those of you who know me personally probably know that National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is something I look forward to each November. I’ve participated every year for the past seven years. Heart of the City was my 2007 NaNo effort, a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel.

The concept actually came from a short story I’d written for Apex Digest's annual Halloween contest. The contest isn’t for Halloween stories, but rather has a different theme each year. That particular year the theme was “post-apocalypse,” and I have a particular weakness for apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, so I couldn't pass up the chance.

I was happy with the concept I came up with for the contest, but not so happy with the story. As a friend of mine explained, the concept was too big for the 2000 words the contest allowed for a story. It needed to be, my friend told me, a novel.

To no one's surprise, I didn't win the Apex contest, but then November rolled around and with it another year of NaNoWriMo, and so Heart of the City got written. (And okay, so maybe they’re right about that pesky title. Now if only I could think of a better one.)

I didn’t love the novel after I wrote it. My initial reaction was that it would be a trunk novel and no more. Then Amazon announced their second Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition, and on a whim, I decided to pull out Heart of the City and see if there might just be something salvageable there. so I spent a huge quantity of time rethinking and revising it, and then submitted it to the contest.

Much to my surprise, I made it to the top 100 in the contest. In the process I got a review from Publisher’s Weekly, a prize in itself. The review was mixed. They called the story “compelling,” and my ending “artful and unexpected,” but warned that the science wasn’t “rigorous” enough and the characterization could be stronger. I was thrilled with the review. The positive comments gave me the motivation to want to get it back out there in the market, and the criticisms gave me areas to work on.

So work on it I did.

Then Leisure announced their “Fresh Blood” contest. It’s a contest for unpublished horror novelists, the idea being to find the next big writer of horror fiction. The contest was run in competition with Chizine and Rue Morge. And the prize was a publishing contract with Leisure Horror--a publishing house whose horror I’ve been reading since I was in my teens--along with a contract for a limited hardcover run with Chizine. Beautiful prizes, really.

Sounds good, right? I knew I needed to enter. But there was one catch. I didn’t actually have a horror novel written.

Or did I?

I thought about Heart of the City. Certainly it was a dark novel. Sure, it had some strong horror elements. But could I classify it as a horror novel? I wasn’t really sure. Then I thought: what the hell, why not take a gamble. So I submitted it.

A few months later I got the notification that I was one of ten finalists. I was blown away, both shocked and thrilled.

Now, I’m one of five remaining contestants competing for the prize. The rounds going forward will be judged solely on votes. From this point forward, the author with the least amount of votes each round will be eliminated. Each month, there will be different judging criteria. This month it's based on cover copy for the finalists’ novels.

So here’s my plea... If you could take a minute and throw a vote my way, I would be so appreciative. The info for this round of the contest can be found at: http://chizine.com/freshblood/march.htm and voting instructions are at the very bottom of the page.

For those who want the quick version of how to vote, you can vote as follows:

Send your votes to freshblood@chizinepub.com. In the subject header, make sure to put "Fresh Blood Vote," as well as the name of the book for which you're voting. (That would be Heart of the City).

Thank you all so much.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Art of Highway Singing - or- Learning How to Network

Tonight I contemplated networking. Truthfully, tonight I’m still contemplating networking. I'll admit it’s not my strongest area. There are people who are born networkers. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. Networking to me feels a little bit like standing in the middle of the highway and singing. It isn't a comfortable thing at all. So for me networking is going to have to be a learned art. But that’s okay, because I’m realizing that it is learnable.

In the next few days, though, I’m going to get the chance to put my networking skills to the test. A novel manuscript I wrote a few years ago is one of the five remaining entries in a competition to find the next new horror novelist. It's an amazing opportunity. At this point I have a one in five chance of a publishing contract with a prominent genre publisher. The catch? The remainder of the competition is based on public voting. And while there will be--American Idol style--a panel of judges to help the undecided make their voting decision, let’s face it...the determining factor is going to be how well the contestants can drum up votes.

So tonight I sat down and made a list of places where I’ve set out networking feelers over the past few years, and I was actually pleasantly surprised. And you know what? There was a little bit of a lesson in my list, too. Sure there are the obvious places: friends, writing groups, work colleagues. But beyond that, how about the places where I share my love of amateur photography? And what about alumni groups? And why couldn’t I ask for a shout-out in the newsletter that I once co-edited?

It was a good lesson for me, a reminder that as a writer (and as a person), not to focus too narrowly, but rather to really look around at all available channels. More, it was a reminder to not compartmentalize the “writer” part of me from the rest of me. It’s a lesson I’ll remember.

So will I win the contest? I’d love to win, of course, but only the next few months will tell. I do know one thing. Win or lose, I plan on taking my lessons on the art of networking with me into whatever ventures come next.

When the details of the next round become available, I’ll be sure to post them here. And if anyone out there is reading yet--I know my blog is still very new--I’d love to hear about your own networking lessons.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lisa vs. The Blog

Should I admit that I set up this blog last September? I was excited about it, too. I knew what I wanted to name it. I knew how I wanted it to look. I knew the kinds of things I wanted to write about. All I needed to do was start.

But how does one start a blog? With an introduction, right? So if my blog was going to be about writing, then should my introduction be about my writing? Or should it be more personal? Or both?

Can we say “overthinking,” boys and girls?

I found myself staring at the blank page as an adversary, which rarely happens when I’m writing fiction. My little blog became my nemesis. It became The Blog.

Periodically I would recommit to the idea of blogging. Yes, it was time again to think about The Blog. It was time to write that first entry. I’d open up a blank document and write a line, maybe two, maybe even a whole paragraph. Sometimes I’d even start off feeling that high of inspiration. But it never took long for the resistance to set in, and eventually I’d put it aside for “tomorrow.”

So flash forward six months and then some, and I’m once again contemplating The Blog, still untouched, and the whole concept of, as a writer, how much do I reveal.

Now in all fairness to myself, it’s been a rough six months. I separated from my husband of 16 years and had to have Bandit, my faithful feline companion of 17 years, put to sleep after a prolonged illness. So I’m cutting myself some slack.

And due in part to the events of the past six months (and a few others prior to that), I also understand my resistance to The Blog. It’s the intimacy of blog writing and the fact that I’m an intensely private person.

I’m a fiction writer. My short stories have seen print in a number of small press and semi-pro publications over the last few years, so I’m no stranger to having my words read, and some of those stories have been quite personal for me in ways that people who know me may or may not recognize. But fiction, by its very nature, puts a comfortable distance between the writer and the story. In a short story or a novel, I’m not, after all, writing about myself. I’m not a writer whose fiction is thinly-disguised biography. You won’t find my life’s story in the pages of my fiction. Rather, the pieces of me that find their way into the arcs of my stories are more intangible.

I know some might argue--and rightly so--that there’s often more truth in fiction than not. Still, though the emotional core of a story might be drawn from real life, or maybe a theme, a subplot, some universal truth, ultimately the story itself is fiction.

A blog, though, well that’s an entirely different beast.

Still, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I believe that even a private person can have a blog. And, of course a blog doesn’t necessarily equate to a journal (though I do believe that a successful blog should have some degree of intimacy; otherwise, what’s the point?).

So I think perhaps my reticence itself should serve as the best introduction, a feeling-out of sorts into this whole new world of blogging, taking that first tentative step onto that thin ice before I’m ready to dance on it.