Month: August 2015

Writing What You Know In Fantasy

IMG_0149When I was in high school, I wrote a book. Everyone in my high school read it. This was back before personal computers so I hand wrote the whole thing and then typed it up on a typewriter. I realize this ages me. It was a very long time ago.

I was not a popular kid. I was, in fact, a weirdo. In the dictionary, under the term “weirdo”, I am fairly certain there is still a picture of me.  However, the kids at my school loved my book. The AP English teacher told me I was cursed to be strange for the rest of my existence. That was just how writers were.  He then quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald to me.

“Writer’s aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person”

I loved that. From the time I was seven, I thought of myself as not a person but a writer. I did not want to be a girl. I definitely did not want to be a boy. I thought I might like to be an angel if I could get one of those swords made of light, but that didn’t pan out. So I decided I would be a writer instead of a person. And this was way before I was introduced to old F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Anyhow, I wrote my first book when I was fifteen. It was about 75,000 words.  I thought I would be published before my junior year, and I would be able to help take care of my family. So my dad had a colleague at his office proofread and type up my manuscript. It was a story that involved suicide and a teenage outsider trying desperately to be who his parents wanted him to be.

I knew nothing about publishing. I did not know how to write a query letter, but my dad found a publisher for the genre  through his beat up copy of the Writer’s Market  (I don’t remember if YA was a thing back then – I was in whatever category Judy Blume was in). We sent the whole manuscript in to exactly one publisher with a little cover letter. I mentioned that I was fifteen so I knew how to write about adolescence. Well, not so much. Turns out the book sucked, and I didn’t know anything. About anything.

However, someone at the publishing company took time to write a long constructive rejection letter.  It was the most perplexing thing to me. It said the same things my dad always said. You have to write about what you know, and you have to have some perspective.  The material does not have to be original, even Shakespeare stole from history and mythology, but good fiction must have a strong perspective and that makes the work original. The kind editorial assistant told me to keep up with my craft. I would improve over time as I gathered more life experience.

At the time, I was devastated by this because I wanted to write fantasy, not about the mundane crap that I thought I knew. And there were no dragons or elves living anywhere nearby.  I was totally obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien growing up, and I was sure that one day I would be the American version of him. I even started to study archaic languages in college just like him. It turns out that was not my thing. I now look back on one sentence from Fellowship of the Ring that strikes me as almost prophetic. It read something like  “Frodo found it curious that adventure found him at the age of 50, just as it had for Bilbo.”

Well, I suppose I am like Frodo and Bilbo in that I find adventure has befallen me rather later in life than I planned.  I studied Tolkien (I actually went to Oxford to walk the same halls, went up to the lake country to see the same things he saw). In time I came to realize that even though Lord of the Rings was fantastical, Tolkien did write what he knew. And he was, even more than I am now, quite mature when he wrote his masterwork.  He did not have to know actual orcs. He fought World War I. He did not have to know someone like Sauron.  He saw first hand the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Berlin must have looked an awful lot like Mordor to him. He saw his peaceful homeland bombed and fractured by war. He was, himself, a hobbit.

In the end, like Tolkien,  I wrote about what I knew and fantasy all at once. It took a long time. But that long and thoughtful rejection letter sent to me at fifteen may have hurt at the time, but it encouraged me for decades. My life has been a long and painful journey since I left the Eden of my childhood, and I thank God for it everyday. My experience is very different than Tolkien’s but it gave me a story to tell. I did meet dragons along the way that sent towers crashing to the ground before my eyes. In my life, I have encountered all manner of monstrous and glorious beings, some mortal and all too human, and some demonic and all too eternal.

Now if just one of those agents I queried would have mercy on me. As an update, this past week I got one more rejection (personally addressed form email) and two partial requests (three chapters each) so I am inching closer to at least sharing a bookshelf with Papa Tolkien.

The First Cut

IMG_0099I remember back in my childhood, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Rod Stewart lamenting that ‘the first cut is the deepest‘. Over the weekend I sent out a whole slew of queries, partials, and some with my dreaded synopsis  for my book, Shadowed Castles all in hopes of landing that coveted agent.

Today I received my first rejection. It was polite but most definitely a form letter. I am not devastated as this was for a cold query to an agent at ICM Partners. It was a long shot. Also, this agent only judged my work from a very short query letter. Several agents have requested my work in part or full so this is not the end all, but perhaps the beginning of a long string of politely worded rejections. I sent out a lot of queries.

Thank you for thinking to query me with your project. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like a good fit for my list at this time. Again, thank you, and best of luck finding an agent.

While this is not something I was hoping for, it beats the latest industry trend of simply ignoring query letters from writers whom the agent is not interested in. I still have to send out the full requests, and for those and any other full requests I may receive, a rejection will hurt much more. The scary thing about these rejections, I am told, is that once an agent rejects your work, then that whole agency rejects your work and you may not submit to them again. They will just ignore you if you do. At least, that is what I am told.

In order to keep rejections down to a minimum when we get to the high stakes round, partial and full requests, I am going to put my whole manuscript, all 32 chapters through one last set of edits. I have had three people that I trust edit for me, but I still find the unbearable errors of sentence structure (should there have been a comma there?), tense, spelling (there instead of their– you know the kind of errors spell check doesn’t pick up), repetitive words (did I really just use the word huge in three sentences in a row?), out of control adverbs (I like adverbs rather a lot), and inconsistency in voice.

It will be less sleep for me as I do my 1500 words plus a chapter or two of edits each night, but it will be worth it. Because the truth is, the first cut is not the deepest. It’s the many cuts, the sting of rejection after rejection that mauls and tears at your spirit. I would rather not suffer those slings and arrows if there is a way to avoid it.

Courting Silence and Rejection

IMG_0144Well, there’s no more putting it off. It is time to send off all the partial and full requests I acquired at the Writer’s Digest Conference. Also, on much advice, it is time to send out a butt load of queries to agents who skipped this conference.  I feel somewhat better about my query ability thanks to Janet Ried (Janet Reid’s Amazing Blog for Writer’s) . However, I can’t help feel, despite my finely crafted query letter, painstakingly brilliant synopsis, and a fully edited manuscript that I am in for a world of silence and rejection.

In Janet’s blog post on Tuesday, August 19th, she enumerated my specific fears about the whole query process and what will become of me if I screw it up. True, she was answering some question about the difference between YA and Adult. Heck, Janet has never heard of me. But the list in that blog were my actual fears. She mentioned being exiled to Carkoon where I would have to dwell among kale plants forever. I have an irrational fear of kale, and I do believe that kale is a legitimate punishment agents will inflict on unworthy writers. She also mentioned this Super Secret Agent blacklist thing that sounds pretty legit to me. Well, then she claimed none of the horrible things she mentioned would happen. I really wish I believed her.

I do understand that rejection and silence is part of the process a writer must go through, but that doesn’t make this any easier. Even J.K. Rowling was rejected 16 times. Maybe it was 18. (And boy do those agents/publishers feel silly now). So it happens to even really terrific writers. I accept that, and I am going to share all my humbling rejection with those readers who accidentally stumble upon this blog and wonder how they got here.

If you are reading this and have never actually met me before, I don’t mean to alarm you, but the minions of Hell know who you are and are inflicting this blog on you as a preview to other torments they have devised. Wait until you get to the Monday morning, no coffee torment. It’s truly diabolical.

In this first round, the opportunities for rejection, silence, or positive response will come from:

  1. 4 unsolicited queries with no sample pages
  2. 8 unsolicited queries with synopsis and sample pages per submission guidelines
  3. 5 partial requests from conference

I will be doing this in a dozen or so queries (according to submission guidelines) at a time. In a place where demonic minions did not tread, eventually I will get an offer of representation, or many, and will have something useful to share with other aspiring writers. In the meantime, try not to laugh too hard at my plight. Now, it is past my bedtime and I must retreat from reality once more.

Battling the Monday Monster

IMG_0149After a weekend of conquering both query letters and a synopsis, writing an entry for a flash fiction contest (write a story in 100 words or less), and some productive editing, the real world returned as it does and kicked me in the ass. Yes, Monday and the dreaded day job came and mightily pooed on me.

I really should just get rid of my television. It does nothing to improve the state of being that is Monday. It’s impossible to tell the news from the shows. And when I get home from work, it’s all just the news. I feel a responsibility to be informed, but let me tell you, that will not happen watching the news, and it won’t matter which channel you are tuned to. It’s all garbage. Best to turn that television off until season six of Game of Thrones.

More often now I find myself feeling like some alien-invaded body. During the day when I’m stuck in traffic, sitting at my desk writing code, or in a meeting discussing solutions to this or that problem, I feel a sense of non-being, almost if I’ve become a damned to being one of Screwtape’s decimal points for all eternity  (You have read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, yes?)

My daughter moved back to college this weekend. It’s her senior year. She won’t be moving back in with me. That’s still nagging at me. Money is tight. It always is, always has been.  So it’s off to the day job, five days a week most of the time. That’s the reality of writing. It won’t often provide a living all on its own. It’s an art and for me it’s a need. As much as my life requires oxygen, it requires me to spin these tales.

The thing I look forward to the most all day long is retiring to my little office as the sun goes down, lighting candles, going under my headphones, and disappearing into worlds of my own making. There where all manner of frightful beasts stalk and reign, I disappear in a world more gloriously real than any Monday morning traffic jam, design meeting, or whatever the latest news story is being touted to distract us from the real horrors of this world. Here I confront those demons that taunt all of us.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process one does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will stare back at you.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Once I emerge from my revelry of spinning words into tales, I take to my bed with a book in hand. This week I am reading Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaimon’s Good Omens, Hollow City (the latest in Ransom Rigg’s Peculiar Children), and Citizens of London by Lynne Olson which is a historical account of Americans living in London as World War II broke out.

In Good Omens, a book about an angel and demon trying to prevent the apocalypse, the demon, Crawley (he’s thinking of changing his name) says that demons don’t have nearly the imagination of man and so there really isn’t much for them to do. Humans think of far more horrible things to do to one another than a demon ever could.  He’s rather glum about it. I’m kind of with poor old demonic Crawley on that point. I doubt we have demons to blame for crappy Mondays. It’s like Simon said in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. “Maybe it’s just us.”  I would rather there were dragons to slay, magic rings to fling into fiery mountains, or swords to pull out of stones to awaken a savior king. So I write and I read so on Tuesday I can do that whole day job thing once more.

While Waiting To Take a Bath

So I do not believIMG_0151e I have been banned from the publishing industry. In fact, I think that despite myself, that my trip to New York to attend the Writer’s Digest Conference was well worth the money, sleep deprivation, and steady attack of nerves. I won’t say my pitch was perfect but good enough to get a fair number of requests for pages and one full request from well-respected agencies I would not otherwise have access to. I am excited so now I am going to take a bath. I rarely take enough time to do the bath thing- it’s usually a shower in a hurry. Sometimes I forget to take off my clothes. I am still so surprised that they come off. But that’s another story.

So I guess the real work begins. I must now write a 2 page synopsis (gulp and I’d rather face a fire-breathing, garlic eating dragon), compose a much improved query letter (I hope), and do one last intense edit of my 487 page manuscript.  I would like to give a big thanks to Janet Reid (Janet Reid’s blog) and her wonderful seminar on the query letter at the Writer’s Digest Conference.  I really needed this. I can write a lovely 150,000 word manuscript, but that 100-200 word query letter…well, like I said in my last post, I was crap at. Let’s hope I am much improved. On we go…until next time