Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why I don't talk about writing in "real" life

Friend: Hey, how's that book thing coming along? 

Me: Oh, really great. I just finished edits and now I'm querying. 

Friend: I thought you were editing before? 

Me: Well, I was rewriting last time I talked to you. Is that what you mean? 

Friend: …

Me: Well, I mean, rewriting is major stuff, big changes, and then I had to proofread those changes, make sure everything looks good. 

Friend: Oh that makes sense. … So, is it going to be published? 

Me: I'm querying right now. 

Friend: … Just … like, waiting? 

Me: *stifles a sigh* Yeah. Basically. But I'm starting another book next week. 

Friend: Why next week? 

Me: It's National Novel Writing Month. 

Friend: What?!

Me: It's just an event where people try to write a whole book in November, cheering each other on, competing to see who can write the most. 

Friend: Why November? Just so you can have the book published in the spring then? 

Me: Never mind.  The book is great. Everything is great. 

Friday, October 18, 2013


This post is going to sound pretty whiny at first, but I promise, if you stick with it to the end, it will get a lot better. We just have to wade through the muck to get to the good part.

Our church has a robust charity and welfare outreach program. On the grand scale, the church and congregations do some amazing things for millions of people all over the world. On the small scale, we provide a lot of one-to-one service. We clean people's homes, we help them with rides, find jobs, and all kinds of other little things that make a big difference.

One of the most common "little" things we do is to bring meals to people who are struggling. Maybe they just had a new baby, or mom got put on bedrest, or they lost a family member, or anything, really. We bring hot meals into homes where people are struggling emotionally and spiritually and provide a brief respite from their problems.

This type of service is so common, that I actually think we overdo it. I know people have brought me meals when I definitely didn't need them, but they want to feel helpful, so I accept the "help" and just go about my day.

But for some reason, every time I am asked to do this for someone else, I end up feeling like garbage afterward. Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting people to be extra gracious. If your sister just died or you just miscarried, you're not always going to be cognizant of the people around you, and I get that. It's fine, and I don't expect anything different.

But I do feel like I at least deserve to not be treated with overt, deliberate rudeness when I've done something nice for someone.

I recently brought dinner to a family. The mother's sister died (the aunt of the children in the home). I was asked by our compassionate service coordinator to bring food for fourteen people (six people live in the house). I made lasagna, salad, garlic bread, and brought some cookies from the bakery. It wasn't fancy, but to feed fourteen people it was still time consuming and expensive.

I want to reiterate here: I did this because it's the right thing to do. I was asked to help, so I help. I don't expect explicit gratitude.

I also don't expect to be yelled at. For the house to be obviously in the middle of a football-game-viewing-party. I don't expect to be belittled for being "late" (I dropped off dinner at 5:45), or for asking for my carrying tray back. The adults in the house (they sent a teen out to get the food from my car) complained loudly about what I brought and how much I brought.

And I felt like garbage. 

All the way home, I cried. My kids were cranky and hungry - we hadn't eaten yet; our dinner was waiting for us to reheat when we got home. And I thought about all the other times this has happened to me, and I always end up feeling the same way.

I took time out of my busy day. I postponed my children's dinner. I tried to do something nice, and there are plenty of days I don't feel like making dinner, but I do it anyway because that's my job.

And then it hit me.

I'm not going to participate in these "let's bring meals to the people who are making lots of demands" anymore.

Instead, I will pick one family to bring dinner to each month. A family like mine, where mom is often stressed out and busy and could really use a pizza night but pizza is too expensive and they just can't imagine packing the kids in the car to go get dinner, so instead they serve cereal because they're exhausted. A family where dad got a new job and is working longer hours and everybody is just tired and cranky. A family without a big, obvious tragedy, but who would really love a night off.

Because that family won't feel entitled to the help; and they won't crap all over me for doing it.

That might sound selfish. But I want to serve. I want to help others, to give of my time and talents and substance. But I really don't want to feel like a loser for doing it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The 7 Rules of Twitter Pitching

Today was another twitter pitch party, and another day of people everywhere celebrating one another's work. However, it was also a day of people everywhere headdesking as they watch others spoil the fun for everyone.

I'm not the world's expert on this, and I'm obviously not an agent. But I have participated in a few of these, I've read all the rules carefully, and I've gotten a disproportionately large number of requests from these pitch parties. Plus, I'm a total twitter-addict and I feel safe in saying that I understand the "rules" of twitter and twitter parties.

1. Don't tweet all of your successes on the hashtag. 
You can tweet that you got some bites, but don't tweet every single success. One tweeter sent out a tweet every. single. time. she received a request from an agent, and she did it in rapid-fire succession. It looks like you're gloating, and it spams up the tag.

Be excited, tweet off the hashtag (just don't put the # in front of the tag, for example), DM a friend, email, text, call, whatever. Just don't be a Gloaty McGloater Pants and spam up everyone's feed. You're making it harder for agents to see other tweets.

2. Make sure your story, and the stakes, are clear.  

You do not want people to read your tweet-pitch and say, "What?!"
Some examples:

"Joey must decide if his shoes are important enough to stop the war against the elves. #Adult #Romance"

"Teenage witch Angie accidentally invents a new super robot and then falls in love with it. #Adult #Thriller"

These are made-up examples, but I promise you, they are no less confusing than a lot of the tweets I see on pitch parties. Yes, your pitch needs to be catchy, but it also needs to make sense. I promise, something that makes sense will trump a catchy piece of nonsense any day of the week.

Here's an example of what your pitch should look like:

Stakes are clear: girl needs to save her brother and overcome a family curse. The words "quest" and "curse" lead me to believe this is speculative fiction of some kind, though the author goes on to clarify that it's magical realism. It's succinct, it's clear, and it makes you wonder how the problem can possibly be solved.

3. Your category needs to be clear. 
If you're pitching in an all-adult twitter party, then you better be writing adult fiction. If you're pitching in an all-YA twitter party, then you better be writing YA fiction. Same goes for those "children's" pitch parties that accept all PB/MG/YA pitches - don't pitch an adult fairy tale and insist that it's "good for all ages".

DO NOT pitch if you don't meet the qualifications to pitch. Nobody will believe that your 17-year-old protagonist is so mature that she's really a New Adult character, or that your 24-year-old mother is so fun and ironic that teens will love her and you'll sell like crazy in the YA section.

Know your category and stick to it. Another pitch party for your category will come around, don't worry :)

4. Your genre needs to be clear. 
If you genre is not clear in your pitch (more on that in a second) and you have the extra characters, please, please add your genre to the tweet. Abbreviations are fine. Fant = fantasy. UF = urban fantasy. Para = paranormal. R = romance. Thr = thriller. Lit = literary. You get the idea.

If you're pitching genre fiction, your genre should be pretty obvious from the words you use in your pitch. This won't always happen of course, but it should happen more often that it does. Words like "magic" and "sorcery" and the names of fantasy creatures like fairies, wizards, unicorns, centaurs, dragons, and elves tip us off that the story is a fantasy. (If it's not high/epic fantasy, you can specify urban fantasy with a quick "UF" at the end of your tweet). Vampires and werewolves are obviously paranormal, and you don't need to specify it. Time travel, robots, cyborgs, spaceships, and such all signify science fiction. If you use one of those terms in your tweet, you don't need to label the genre, it just takes up characters in your tweet that you can put to another use.

Pitching a story that sounds like science fiction but then tagging it with #Romance doesn't make you sound like a genre-bending genius, it makes you sound like you don't know what you're doing. You probably DO know what you're doing, so make your pitch reflect that.

5. Follow the rules. 
This really should go without saying, but alas. It does not.

If the party hosts ask you to only pitch once per hour, that's your limit.
If there are category qualifications, or genre specifications, follow them. Don't pretend you wrote a science fiction novel when the most "science" in your story is the cell phone your main character uses to text her boyfriend. You're just wasting everybody's time (including your own).

There are unspoken rules in every twitter pitch party:
Don't favorite tweets unless you are an agent or editor requesting work.
Don't post fake pitches unless you tag them #FakePitch. I know. It's fun. But don't ruin the tag for everybody.
Don't post unless you're ready to submit TODAY.
Don't tweet directly at an agent or editor.
Don't promote other stuff on the tag. That's called spam and it sucks. If you have relevant information, post that, but don't post links to your books or promote giveaways or whatever.

6. Support others
Retweet their pitches. Respond to their pitches with a compliment or a question. Follow somebody who made a pitch that you love. Lots of ways to share the love, and support is what makes this community so great :)

7. Make your pitch as "proper" as possible. 
I know. 140 characters is not a lot, especially when some of them are eaten up by the necessary hashtag. But PLEASE make your pitch as clean as possible. Substituting "your" for "you're" just because it's two fewer characters is not acceptable, and nobody will assume you're saving space. They'll assume you don't know the difference.

Use numerals if you have to, but only two describe a number of things. "2" instead of "two" is acceptable, but "2" instead of "to" or "too" is not.

Yes, this will require some tinkering, but it will be worth it. When others are shouting improper nonsense into the interwebs, you'll look a lot better by comparison.

Of course, this is all just advice, and you should treat it accordingly. But, I promise, I'm not trying to sabotage anybody or stop anybody from pitching. Quite the opposite: I want you to pitch, and I want you to do it well. I'd love to cheer you on as you make your way in this messy world of publishing :)

Go forth. Tweet. Pitch. And win the day.

Or something.

Edited to add Rule #8:
Do NOT, under any circumstances, tweet your pitch, and then spend the rest of the day tweeting "Scroll down to see my pitch." Or "Visit my website to see my pitch." No. You play by the rules, and you do not make agents and editors work for the opportunity to see your pitch.

Similar: Do not say "Request my work and then we'll talk about my pitch. It's too complicated for twitter."

Okay. Now you may go forth and tweet and pitch and win.

EDIT: The rules of how often you can pitch have changed. Please follow the new rules on Brenda Drake's profile. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Nicholas Sparks, Sexism in Publishing, and Love Tragedies

I feel like I rag on Nicholas Sparks a lot, and I feel kind of bad about it. He's a person, and he has a passion for writing, and he has managed to make a very successful career out of his passion/hobby, which is no small feat. He's not a bad writer, and I want that to be very clear, right up front.

He's just kind of a douche bag jerk face.

This blog post started making the rounds, in which a writer describes her encounter with Nicholas Sparks at an event. In a nutshell, she asked him if he'd ever been described as a "chick lit" writer and if he thought his career would have gone differently if he was a woman. And he, of course, responded with compassion and understanding, bemoaning the presence of sexism in his industry.


He didn't do any of that. Instead, he insisted he didn't write "romance" or "chick lit" and that instead his genre was "love tragedy" (more on that in a second) and that women have "for some reason" been unable to break into his genre.

Here are the problems with this situation and how Sparks is a contributing factor:

1. He balks at the idea of writing "chick lit" or "romance" 
The fact that he is so offended  by the idea of writing for women is a huge deal. "What? Me? Write books for women? ICK." is basically what he says here. Notice that he doesn't deny the existence of chick-lit, or women's fiction, and therefore propagates the idea that these categories are completely legitimate.

I want to be clear: There is nothing wrong with chick-lit or women's fiction or romance. I don't love it, it's not my thing (neither is love-tragedy, but I digress), but it's certainly not inferior in any way to any other genre. If you think it is, you can stop reading now because there's very little you and I can agree on.

However. Chick-lit and New Adult are the exact same thing. Except one has been cast as "For Girls Only." The same is true with Women's Fiction and plain ol' Fiction. There's nothing inherently wrong with these categories, per se, but the problem comes in when we start to think of the "girl" books as inferior books, which Sparks obviously does. And a lot of other people feel the same way; Fiction is for men, who like to think, you see. Women's Fiction is for those pesky females who enjoy their feelings and junk.

It's a marketing thing, and I get that. But the more we are okay with people sneering at Women's Fiction, the more we assist in spreading the message that "girl" books are inferior.

2. He insinuates women are incapable of breaking into his invented genre
I don't know what "love tragedy" is and I've never heard the term before. Based on my experience with the English language, however, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it's a love story in which at least one person dies or is otherwise traumatized. Based on my (admittedly limited) experience with Sparks' writing, that feels accurate.

But that leaves me wondering. Has no successful female author ever written a book that featured people who love each other, but something went horribly wrong for them? I mean, I know about Margaret Mitchell and Daphne Demaurier and Jodi Piccoult, but surely they don't count. After all, that's all Women's Fiction and not at all the same.

3. He invents his own genre
And this is probably the biggest problem of all. By inventing this genre to distance himself from the distasteful reputation of "girl" books, he draws yet another line in the sand of "us" and "them". Just in case any females were to be taken seriously as literary writers instead of girl writers, he's drawn another box to keep them out.

Look, I don't hate Sparks. I don't hate his writing, I can even say I enjoyed the two books of his that I read. They are not bad, and I won't pretend otherwise. Yes, he's formulaic, but there are a lot of writers of both genders and in all genres who are and I don't really care that much.

The problem I have with Sparks' comments is that they are indicative of a pervasive problem in the public's consumption of literature. I don't think it's wholly the fault of publishers or marketers or writers or consumers or distributors or anybody, but rather a lot of people making a lot of decisions based on a lot of things that they perceive other people are thinking or doing. But a lot of women who write literary fiction are shelved with women's fiction, and a lot of women who write fantasy are shelved with paranormal romance because there's a kiss between a knight and a queen and that makes it girly.

And make no mistake about it, Sparks writes Women's Fiction, and you can tell that based on who his fans are. I don't know a lot of men who ooh and aah over The Notebook or A Walk to Remember or Dear John or whatever other romantic cry fest he's churned out. He writes books for women and he makes gobs of money at it and I hate that he pretends women and women writers are somehow beneath him for it.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

We don't need no stinkin' rules.

There are a lot of writing rules out there, particularly for fiction writers. Well, to be honest, they probably exist for other kinds of writers, too, but I don't pay attention to those rules as closely. A lot of these rules make sense and they have purpose, but they're also extremely flexible.

I'm currently re-reading Harry Potter, and I'm about two-thirds of the way through Prisoner of Azkaban. (Why does spellcheck not yet recognize "Azkaban" as a word??? Come on, Google, get with the program.) In two-and-two-thirds of a book, I've come up with some of the most breakable rules in fiction, according to JK Rowling.

Breakable Rule #1. Don't use adverbs. 
JK Rowling never met an adverb she didn't like, and she uses one to describe almost every piece of dialog. I think she uses these to avoid using cluttered dialog tags. You know, instead of "shouted" she uses "said loudly" and instead of  "mocked" she uses "said mockingly." So, potayto potahto, if you ask me.

I counted one sentence with four separate adverbs in it. Part of this has to do with her audience; the early books are intended to be middle grade or early young adult, and kids that age aren't as adept at reading body language. So Snape can't just smile at the kids, he has to smile coldly to get the point across.

HOWEVER: If you're not writing for kids, or if you're relying on adverbs to describe everything, there's a good chance you're using the weakest words possible. To say something fiercely is not as powerful as demanding, commanding, pronouncing, or some other strong-sounding verb.

Breakable Rule #2. If you can't read a sentence aloud in one breath, it's too long. 
I've counted no fewer than four sentences with over one hundred words in them. They're heavily punctuated, and they all make sense, but they are looooooooong. Sentences routinely clock in over forty or fifty words, and will change subjects multiple times as they go. But it works within the voice she's constructed.

HOWEVER: If your sentences sound rambly when you read them out loud, they're too long. Cut. Slice. Punctuate.

Breakable Rule #3. Don't use passive voice. 
Example of passive voice: "While Hermione was checking that the coast was clear..."
Changing it to active voice: "While Hermione checked that the coast was clear..."
Rowling breaks this rule... oh, I dunno, approximately a thousand times in each book. Seriously, almost every verb that could be active is written passively. Harry never ran, he was running. Ron never waved his wand, he was waving it. Hagrid never hummed, he was humming. On and on and on.

The big reason this one can be broken is because the story is so good. If the story wasn't so perfectly engaging, you'd never be able to overlook this one. There's no "HOWEVER" on this one, because you really shouldn't break it. Rowling gets to. She's the queen.

Breakable Rule #4. Don't break POV. If you're in limited 3rd, stay with that character. 
Chapter one of PS/SS is in omniscient third. Chapter two starts in a semi-close-omniscient third in Harry's POV, but it's still not a traditional limited third. Throughout that book, we break POV. The quidditch game when Hermione sets Snape's robes on fire? That's obviously not in Harry's POV. Rowling breaks the fourth wall a handful of times, but then returns to the limited third POV.

Throughout the series she breaks POV, sometimes in a big way. CoS and PoA both start in omniscient third. GoF starts in omniscient, and closes the opening chapter as if it's a dream, sliding awkwardly from one POV to another. HBP has two chapters that Harry knows nothing about, like a double-prologue. The Prime Minister chapter is told in a completely different voice, and then Spinner's End is yet another voice. The POV problems tighten up a lot as the story progresses through the later books, but it's still not 100% consistent.

HOWEVER: If you're head hopping around like mad, it's confusing. If you're going to change POV, make it for a single scene, or a single chapter, at a time. Make the transitions obvious. (No Goblet of Fire omniscient-storytelling-narrator-to-dream sequences, mkay?)

Breakable Rule #5: Show, don't tell. 
BLAH. Sometimes telling is the best way to get through some information. Lots of things happening on Halloween (always)? Turn the page, it's several weeks later, and I'll tell you that by saying "Hermione stayed in the hospital wing for several weeks." Boom. Done. This could have been really boring, and stretched out, or we could have described the weather changing as Hermione stared out of the hospital window or something, but just saying it was the best way to get it done. "The end of summer vacation came too quickly." One sentence wrapped up four weeks of the timetable. We didn't need to see it all, we can manage with just being told.

Rowling also breaks this rule repeatedly when Harry passes out. And he does pass out A LOT. After being attacked by Quirrelmort, after meeting the dementors (twice), etc. Dumbledore sits down and just tells Harry everything he missed. (There's another very famous book series that uses the knock-the-main-character-unconscious-while-we-do-the-complicated-stuff-and-fill-her-in-quickly-after trick, but it's not done as seamlessly, so obviously this isn't a one-trick-fits-all kind of a trick) (I use a lot of hyphens. SorryNotSorry).

HOWEVER: If you find yourself glazing over as you re-read your work, it's definitely too boring, and that's a good sign that you're telling too much. Telling is good for glossing over big chunks of time or information that would otherwise be useless to the story. Use it sparingly. But by golly, you should use it sometimes.