Friday, December 18, 2015

On Star Wars and Killing Your Darlings

(I haven't seen episode VII so I cannot spoil it for you; this is about the first two trilogies. Minor spoilers, I guess, but the statute of limitations is up on those, so… too bad.)

Like most people in the developed world, we've been preparing ourselves for a new Star Wars movie. We've been watching the first six all week long, ready to see the seventh on Friday morning. While watching them, I thought specifically about George Lucas killing his darlings and what I can learn from his example. 

We own the bluray edition. This means the versions of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are not the versions I grew up with, but are the digitally enhanced versions with new "cool" CGI scenes inserted in. 

Since I first saw the new version of Episode IV, the scene I hated the most is the scene where Jabba visits Tatooine to threaten Han. Jabba's just walking around (squirming around???), looking all non-threatening and insignificant. Han steps on his tail. 

Let me repeat that so you really think about it: 

Han Solo, a lowly human with no allies in the immediate vicinity, steps on Jabba's tail and Jabba, the supposedly terrifying and cold-hearted gangster, is surprised and makes a stupid tongue-hanging-out-in-shock-and-pain face. In one move, Han is mocking Jabba and Jabba lets him do so. Jabba's guards don't do anything about it. 

The scene is an eyesore; even late-90s technology didn't help much and it's obvious that Harrison Ford is superimposed against the digital Jabba. Jabba acts against character, and the idea of a menacing monster is undermined, changing the way we would think of him in episode VI. The conversation is stilted, the wide shots make Jabba look like a child's toy, and the overall impact is a negative one. 

Had that scene been in the original movie (especially if it had been done with 1970s special effects), it very well could have ruined the movie altogether. A campy  space opera is one thing; a campy space opera with inconsistent characters and terrible special effects is another.

George Lucas obviously loves that scene. It was cut from the original version of the film, but was one of only a handful added back in, and the only one (as far as I can remember) to be added in that actually had any plot-related substance to it. As soon as it was possible to do so, he added that scene right back in. 

And it was a mistake. 

Without that scene, Lucas had to resort to Hitchcockian methods to introduce to the legend who is Jabba the Hut for two movies. The first time we see him, he is truly a terrifying monster. Sure, he looks like a fat blob, but that's all the more reason to fear him. He wields all that power and strikes fear into the heart of our great, beloved Han Solo without ever getting up off his couch. 

With the added scene, our first impression of Jabba is a silly turd-like worm-man. 

The movie was better without that scene, despite how much Lucas obviously loved it and wanted it to be there. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that cutting that scene was a significant reason Star Wars was the hit that it was back in 1977. 

Sometimes, you have kill your darlings. You have to take out the scene you love. Maybe it doesn't fit thematically, or it puts your characters in a slightly different light. Maybe it's unnecessary, or maybe the special effects just look really stupid and amateurish (sorry… I can't think of a book-equivalent for that one). 

Lucas got to add his darling back in, because he's George FRAKKING Lucas and can do whatever he wants, but even he felt the heat for putting that scene in the new version of the movie. And while there's an argument to be made that the backlash was just from a bunch of over-protective needs who didn't want their precious movie to change at all, I think it goes much deeper than that, and even the angriest of nerds knows it. 

So kill your darlings. Kill them dead and don't look back. Don't be George Lucas. Except for the part where he created an unforgettable story and world full of characters we love. Do that part. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Writing contests, baking cookies, and taking advice

How do you make cookies?

I want you to really think about it. How do you make cookies? You might follow a recipe, or you might not. If you're an avid baker, your mind might be dancing through a dozen different options, trying to decide what type of cookies to make first. 

We might try to say there are some basic ground rules when making cookies. You know, the rules that are always followed. If we did, what might those basic rules be? 

Well, for starters, you need butter and sugar. 

Unless you're making vegan cookies. 


Then you for sure need flour, right? 

Oh... Unless you're making gluten free cookies, or flourless cookies, or no bake cookies… Right. No-bake cookies exist, so we can't even say that baking is a requirement. 

Sugar? Well… yeah. I'll give you sugar (or at least a sweetener of some kind, according to your dietary choices). And the cookie should be small enough to supposedly eat all at once. Shareable cookies are their own thing, and are really a variation on the original… 

You know what. I lied. There are absolutely no basic ground rules for making cookies. Do whatever you want, call it a cookie. All it needs to be is delicious, according to someone. 

What does this have to do with writing contests and advice? That should be pretty obvious. 

Cookie = your story
Cookie rules = writing advice

There are absolutely no rules that apply to everyone, everywhere. All you have to do is tell a good story, a story that is enjoyable to someone, somewhere. 

Now, is it possible (and arguably a very good idea!) to go looking for advice? Yes. Especially when you are just starting, or if you want to try something new, or are feeling stuck. Just as a recipe can guide you, so can writing advice. Just as a Pinterest board full of beautiful cookies can jump start your baking engine, so too can a well-written book or even an article about writing. 

There are rules that apply to many stories. Many cookies are baked with butter, flour, and sugar as the main ingredients. They are delicious.

There are rules that I will apply to all of my own stories, because that's how I function. My cookies almost always have chocolate and never have lemon in them. 

There are rules that will apply to one story and not another and neither one is worse off for it. Chocolate chip cookies are not inherently "better" than thin mints, and those are not inherently "better" than white chocolate raspberry cookies. They are different and they require a different recipe. 

So when you are entering writing contests, or soliciting feedback from a critique partner, remember your recipe. Remember that those offering advice might like different cookies than you do, and they might not have any idea what a white chocolate raspberry cookie is even supposed to taste like. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Why is it always about "women and girls"?

A family member told me on Facebook to "stop playing the victim" and "leave the pity party" when I said the media is too critical of women's bodies. He said "Why is it always about women and girls? Boys feel the pressure too."

For the record- it is not "always" women and girls. Men and boys feel pressure too. But I absolutely will not shut up about the pressure women and girls face because it is enormous. 

I blocked him and moved on and honestly thought that was the end of it. 

Turns out it's not. 

Hours later, I'm still fuming. Why is it always about "women and girls" when we talk about body image? Do you really want to know why? I'll tell you why. 

Because I was 11 the first time I lied about my weight. 

Because when I lied about my weight, I could tell by the other girls' reactions that the fake number I had given was still too high. These 11-year-old girls were well aware of what an "acceptable" weight was. 

Because I was twelve when I started skipping meals until I passed out. 

Because I was taught that every calorie had to be earned. "You ate it, now negate it" was bouncing around in my head every time I ate or exercised. 

Because I grew up watching my mother yo-yo diet. Her advice to me was always, "It's better to never gain weight than to try to lose it."

Because I have friends who have genuinely done celebrity "cleanses"- drinking that cayenne pepper and lemon water mix for days at a time. 

Because, up until two years ago, I had a mental list of all the things I hated about my body. It was 51 items long. 

Because I know a woman who says she has "hideous earlobes". She wants to have surgery to change her earlobes. EAR. EFFING. LOBES.

Because a friend posted on Facebook a summary of all the miles she ran one month (hundreds) along with a picture and every single comment on that post  was about how she looked. 

Because when a friend's daughter was called "fat" by her peers, the mother's friends all jumped in to emphatically say "YOU ARE NOT FAT!!!" as if "fat" was the absolute worst thing she could be and THANK GOD she wasn't. 

Because when I posted a picture of my baby bump more than one woman used it as a chance to insult her own looks.  ("I don't even look that good and I'm not pregnant" or similar) 

Because when the pregnancy made me so sick that I didn't gain any weight until my third trimester, people congratulated me

Because a friend scolded me for being too harsh on myself and then immediately turned around and complimented another woman for losing a lot of weight and "getting so skinny all of a sudden!" 

Because I own Spanx and my husband has never considered such a thing. 

Because even before I owned Spanx, I owned control top pantyhose and slimming jeans and yoga pants. 

Because a house guest saw my wedding photo hanging on the wall and said to my husband, "Boy. She pulled a real bait n switch on you, eh? That baby weight sticks around."

Because I know a woman who wants to get a "feather lift" — which is a kind of facelift that doesn't look like you've had a facelift because you can't age but you can't look like you're trying not to age. 

Because Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, a professional athlete at the top of her sport, was criticized for having TOO SMALL of a butt. 

Because female athletes are consistently criticized for having too small of breasts. 

Because Sarah Palin was photographed in booty shorts for a running magazine and you know not one person has ever thought of asking President Obama to pose shirtless. (Yes, the paparazzi photographed him shirtless, which is disgusting in its own way)

Because I know a woman who won't wear sandals, here in Phoenix where is it over 100 degrees for more than 100 days each year, because she says her feet are too ugly. 

Because actresses proudly declare that they wear multiple pairs of Spanx under ther evening gowns. 

Because when Kate Hudson had a baby, she bragged about spending the entire day on a stationary bike (while her baby was...?) so she could get back to her prebaby weight quickly. And I was impressed. 

Because Heidi Klum is expected to walk a runway in her underwear only a few weeks after giving birth and then people have the nerve to complain that the costume she wore blocked her lower abdomen so we couldn't really see what was happening down there. 

Because when I talk to other women about exercise, many of them refuse to do it because they don't want visible muscles. 

Because my 6-year-old, who can't read, saw a tabloid with Kim Kardashian on the cover and said "She has a really big butt" 

Because when you visit, 47 procedures are aimed at women. Five are aimed at men. 

Because 92% of cosmetic surgery procedures are performed on women. 

Because 85% of people with eating disorders are female, and 95% of those report that they started their unhealthy habits before age 20. 

Because more than half of teenaged girls in America use unhealthy methods to keep their weight low (skipping meals, purging, etc). 

Because 40% of 10-year-old girls think they are fat. By the time those girls are fifteen, that number doubles. 

Because Heidi Klum saved her son from drowning and the media commented on her breast that was momentarily exposed. 

Because beauty pageants are still very much a thing. 

Because Victoria's Secret sells padded DD size bras. Because DD sized breasts aren't big enough. 

Because every spring, I see hundreds of articles about getting ready to wear a bathing suit, how to buy a flattering bathing suit, and how to cover up your unflattering bathing suit. Every single one of them is about women in bathing suits.

Because I know more than five women who have not worn a bathing suit in the last decade because they're too embarrassed to do so. 

Because I've stood in my closet and cried because I couldn't find anything to wear. I "needed" something that covered my breasts, minimized my tummy, flattered my hips, slimmed my thighs, emphasized my butt, and somehow made it look like I wasn't trying to do any of those things. 

Because when I was in high school, the boys created a list of features of "the perfect girl". Kristen's feet. Tara's hands. Kelly's hair. Katy's hair color. The list was two columns on the front of a 8.5X11 page and another column and a half on the back. That's approximately 100 items on their list. Breast shape. Breast size. Calves. Teeth. Lips. Nose. Fingernails.  And we were all flattered to be included. 

Because it's a small, personal problem and it's a huge, global problem. 

That's why.

That's why it's always "women and girls" when we talk about body image. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Controversial Advice on Twitter Pitching

I've blogged before about the etiquette of twitter pitching and some hints for crafting a pitch. Today, I'm going to give you some of my stats on twitter pitching and what my most successful pitches were.

Fair warning: This advice is different than most advice you'll see on this subject. For that, I do not apologize.

First up, some stats. I pitched my most recent novel in three twitter pitch events last year. Across those three events, I had 51 requests. Some of them were repeats some very enthusiastic agents (one agent favorited five of my tweets in one event), and many were small presses (which I was not pursuing at the time), but still. Fifty one. That's a lot by just about any measure. If your work is ready, you'll find someone to love it (my agent actually first connected with me via one of these pitches, so... magic is real).

These are the pitches that generated the most requests: 

Her mother's cryptic journal. An ancient spell. A prince on the run. Waking Sleeping Beauty was simpler when it was just a dragon  (105 Re-tweets, 12 requests)
A mother sacrifices power so her daughter can live. The daughter sacrifices love so that she can die. Sleeping Beauty retelling (37 Re-tweets, 12 requests)
Sleeping Beauty in a broken desert kingdom, forgotten for centuries, saved by a woman who shared her curse. #A (59 Re-tweets, 9 requests)
Defeat a dragon. Break a spell. Escape royal assassins. Yet the most difficult task Nadina faces is to not fall in love Ad/Fant (50 Re-tweets, 5 requests)
Nadina has found the key to breaking the curse that has kept her alive for the last 400yrs. She just has to keep him alive.  Ad/Fant (15 Re-tweets, 4 requests)
A mother's race to save her daughter's life. A prince on the run, a dragon in the desert, and a sleeping beauty to wake. #A Fantasy (47 Re-Tweets, 4 requests)

Other pitches generated one or two requests. Some of those generated a lot of retweets (one had over forty retweets, but only one request). Retweets can be helpful at boosting your signal or telling you what people connect with, but the request rate is what really matters, so that's what I zeroed in on for this post. 

The thing that these highly requested pitches have in common? They sound fun and interesting. They make someone say "Oooh. I'd read that." 

Other than that - the "fun" factor - they have very little in common, and they don't really follow the standard advice most people are giving on this subject. The feed moves by so quickly (it is absolutely impossible to watch the feed in real time, even if you sort it by genre or audience), nobody is analyzing your tweet to say, "Hmmmm... is this following all the rules of a Good Pitch?". A twitter pitch has exactly ONE job: 

Catch someone's attention. 

That's it. That's all it needs to do. Now, there are a few things that can make you more effective at this. I recommend clicking on the Ten Tips for Twitter Pitching for a more lengthy explanation of some of these, but here's a quick overview. 
  1. Your pitch needs to be clear, concise, and as grammatically correct as possible. 
  2. Your pitch should include the appropriate hashtag for your genre and audience whenever possible. 
  3. Your pitch should use pithy language that reflects your genre and audience. 
  4. Your pitch should reflect the tone of your novel. You want to attract agents who want to sell funny books? Be funny. You want to attract editors who publish violently dark books? Be violently dark. 
And, of course, DO NOT LIE. Do not pitch "Sex, Robots, and Rock N Roll!" if your manuscript is a quiet, literary piece featuring neither sex nor robots nor rock n roll. (If you want to sell a manuscript about sex, robots, and rock n roll, maybe that's what you should be writing... but that's a different topic for a different post). Getting someone's attention only gets you so far - once you query those agents or editors who request your work, they will see your work. That's when a good query that follows all the rules and a clean manuscript matter.

So that's it. That's my advice: Make your pitch sound fun and interesting. This usually means focusing on a specific element or tagline, and sometimes means you'll ignore the stakes of the novel. Stakes are more elegantly defined in a query letter and are incredibly difficult to squeeze into a tweet. If you can manage it - GREAT! Do it!

But don't bash your head against your desk trying to force it to happen, especially if you have some perfectly good, effective pitches lined up otherwise.

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

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A "Regular" Writer Responds to That MFA Dude

I know some big names (Chuck Wendig among them, bless his soul) have responded to that MFA Dude. The article came rolling through my social media feeds a couple days ago, at first being shared with lots of praise and "This is what I've been saying for years" sort of comments. It was shared by people I like and people I respect and people whose work I love.

So I read it, and I read it thinking it would be a positive experience. Here are my reactions, as they came to me the first time I read it.

We are either born with talent or we aren't. Well, that's not so bad. I mean... I could have been born with a talent that I just didn't recognize until I was older. That happens all the time, right?

Oh. I had to have discovered it and started using it by the time I was a teenager? Welllll... I had an easy time writing essays in high school. That counts, right? I'm sure it counts.

If I complain about not having time to write, I should drop out? Well, I'm not in an MFA program, so I don't have anything to drop out of. *keep reading* Oh. He means I should quit altogether. I guess I don't really "complain" about not having time, it's just that I'm nursing a colicky newborn and had a failed adoption last fall and my husband lost his job twice in the last year and that's not really an excuse for not writing, I guess...

Oh, I AM a serious reader! I have something going for me! Yes!


I never read Infinite Jest. I should get on that. It'll improve my feminist fantasy writing, I'm sure. I should also read Tolstoy. It's shameful that I never have, honestly. I should never admit that to people. Maybe I should give Jane Austen another chance. There's more there for me to try to love, I can get smarter. I just need to try harder.

Well. I'm not trying to be a sh** writer and I'm not writing memoirs so maybe this part doesn't apply to me.

MFA professors don't help people get published. That's good to know, I guess. Money wasted? I don't know. I'm getting confused by this.

Nobody is supposed to think highly of me and I'm supposed to keep my writing a secret.

I've done this all wrong.

Yes. I'm sort of kidding. But mostly not. I really did have these thoughts, and I really did doubt myself for a day or so after reading the original article. Serious doubts. The kind that are so loud you can't hear anything else so you go vacuum the house just to drown out the noise. I'm overwhelmingly grateful that published writers, people a lot farther down the path than me, responded to this guy. I needed to hear those voices. 

And we all need to know how words can affect people around us. 

Friday, February 6, 2015


Not to give away the ending or anything, but the post sort of sums it all up. If you want the quick and dirty details:

I've officially signed with Kirsten Carleton of Waxman Leavell Literary. 

Pitchwars was involved and she originally contacted me via a PitMad event this past summer. 

That's the short version. 

Here's the long version: 

I started querying my first novel, SNOW FALLING, in the summer of 2013. As I was putting the finishing touches on that novel, I had the idea for what would eventually become SANDS OF IMMORTALITY. When I talked to other people, everyone said, "Write that book instead. That's way better than the Snow White one." 

I queried the Snow story anyway and racked up a whole lot of rejections, as would be expected. I wrote the next book - which is loosely based on Sleeping Beauty - and kept moving forward. I started writing in November of 2013, and in fact this novel was the only time I ever finished NaNoWriMo. 

In the late summer of 2014, I started querying SANDS OF IMMORTALITY. I entered it into some twitter pitch contests, one of which was the #PitMad contest. Kristen requested my work based on this pitch: 

Her mother's cryptic journal. An ancient spell. A prince on the run. Waking Sleeping Beauty was simpler when it was just a dragon
At the time, however, Kirsten worked for an agency that required exclusives. My query was with five other agents, and one already had a full manuscript, so I had to hold off on querying Kirsten. 

Then came PitchWars. I entered. I was chosen by Mina Vaughn and we worked on my manuscript. When it was all done, I started querying. I got requests back immediately, so I felt really confident in my work. By this time, Kirsten was working for Waxman Leavell. They didn't require exclusive submissions, so I queried her with the new manuscript. She responded pretty quickly (next day, actually) asking for a partial, and then the next week asking for a full. 

Then the holidays started. 

And publishing slows to a crawl during the holidays and I sat, staring at an empty inbox for about four weeks

Let me tell you, THAT was the agonizing part. Having fulls and partials out, knowing that everyone was enjoying time with their families and I wouldn't hear anything for weeks and weeks. 


Kirsten emailed me last week, offering representation. We spoke on the phone and it was just easy. I'm not big on phone calls in general, but she had an excellent idea for tweaking my ending a bit. I was exceptionally nervous about this because my ending is definitely not a Happily Ever After, and it's not for everybody. But she doesn't want it to be a Happily Ever After, she just saw a way for it to be bittersweet in a more realistic and powerful way. 

That sold me. 

She got my book and my reasons for doing it the way I did. She liked the ideas for the whole series and wanted to work with me all the way. I was sold already, but I wanted to do the right thing and make sure I had all the information before I made a permanent decision, so I contacted everyone else who had my work. Two more agents requested fulls (one had a partial already, one only had the query), and I sat and I waited, refreshing my inbox like a crazy person for ten days. 

But here we are. Today, I signed the contract and I am officially represented by Kirsten Carleton. I'm so excited to make some changes and to make this book the best book I can produce and eventually work towards putting it on some shelves! 

For those who like the stats: 

First manuscript:
Queries sent: 70
Requests: 10 (including partials, fulls, and 2 R&Rs that asked for wildly different things)
Months on the query circuit: 15

Second manuscript:
Queries sent: 27
Requests: 10 (including partials and fulls)
Months on the query circuit: two, then a break for PitchWars, and then three more, for a total of five.