Move, Pitch, Get Out the Way

Yeah, I did just title this blog that…No, I’m not sorry. Yes, I hope that song plays in your head all day. Yes, it may seem “Ludacris”. Yes, I did just make a dad joke out of it. No, you can’t get a refund, this shit is free.

Now, on to the blog

This week, tomorrow actually, I’ll be pitching a novel to a publishing company at the Wyoming Writers Conference in Sheridan Wyoming. I know that this should be something I do at least every year but with the past couple of years spent in lockdown and my creativity taking a giant dump of late, I haven’t had the drive, material, or need to throw myself into the ring.

But, by strange happenstance, the novel that I had intended to independently publish started getting noticed by some publishers that I had sent it to months ago. Three days before its release date nonetheless, so I slammed the breaks down and took a breath. A pause. A consideration. That if the story was “Well written, with a voice we really like” that maybe I should give it another tour around the pasture before settling it on my own.

So here I am again, years later, still sweaty palmed, reading and re-reading, and choking on my elevator pitch and changing it a dozen times to get the most depth of the story in the fewest words. And it’s exhausting. The sudden surge of trepidation inspired me go through some of my notes from previous classes and books on pitching. And here’s what I have to offer:

  1. Agents and publishers are human beings. They’ve probably slept horribly, are sore and uncomfortable from sitting, have heard a lot of story ideas, and are probably thinking about the cash bar. Just like you. So don’t treat them like a god up on Olympus, cowering or waving tribute in their faces. Be kind, be polite, and use some of your allotted time to treat them with dignity and respect. They’re there because they love reading and want to find a good story.
  2. Tell them why you love your story. Yes, yes, the general plot, genre, main character and conflict…but what is it about your book that fills your heart. Why do you find a reason to read and re-read it? What were some of the best compliments you receive from your beta readers. Human beings respond to enthusiasm and genuine admiration. Otherwise, we’d never watch baseball. Moving on.
  3. Be organized. Have a synopsis ready, bring a query letter and your business card. It’s been a long day for them and you; stories might start running together and they may need a gentle reminder what the 1:20 pitch was.
  4. Be open to suggestions and critique. Whoof, this one is hard, right? After all, we just gushed about what we love in our book. While you love it (or hate it depending on how many goddamn times you’ve had to read it and rewrite it) it is also a good time, before you sit down at that table, to think of your fledgling story like a kid going off to college. Its stepping out into the world to be made better, smarter, stronger. It has a lot to learn, so let it be open to becoming something more and living up to its potential. It isn’t a reflection on you as a parent, it’s a starting point for even more amazing results to come.
  5. Follow up. I’ve sat in the pitch sessions where every agent gave me their card and asked for ten pages. I thought I was a goddamn genius and that they’d be engaged in a bidding war over my book within weeks. Um…hate to ruin the ending there but THAT didn’t happen. Sometimes agents are required by the conferences they attend to receive a certain number of pitches. Sometimes an agent is mildly interested and looking for something to pad up their own resume. Sometimes they’re just bust-ass tired and like a parent giving in and handing their kid a remote cause they just can’t listen anymore, they pass along their card with a defeated…”stay in touch”. That being said, if it happens, act as though it’s the bidding war situation, not the tired parent. Send them what they asked for, in the format they asked for it in, and be respectful with your letter. ALWAYS INCLUDING: your name, that you met at ‘such and such conference’ and that they requested your pages. If you can, PLEASE include some other more personal detail. “It was fun talking to you about your dog, Jasper” (write that kind of thing down on their business card) but don’t make it too personal “I hope his rash has cleared up.” (that’s getting creepy)

After it’s all said and done a pitch session is like any other interaction introverts dread. You have to talk, somewhat excitedly, about something you love and worked hard on, and thereby risk rejection and public shaming. But please remember that the person sitting across from you is also probably an introvert (or works with a lot of them) and just wants you to tell them a good story.

Good luck out there, and if you’ll be in Sheridan this weekend for the conference I’d love to sit down and chat about pitches, your book, all the wonderful things we’re working on. Happy writing.

Self-Editing (It’s Not Just for Polite Conversation)

I’ve read a lot of books on this topic, scoured blogs, took any and every class I could at conferences and workshops on the matter, but I always still feel like there’s vast room for improvement when it comes to editing your own work.

Part of the reason is that it’s incredibly hard after writing, rewriting, and rewriting again (times a thousand) to edit all of those words. Not because we’re narcissistic megalomaniacs and don’t think there’s anything wrong with our novel, but because there’s a true phenomenon that happens in our brains as we read (and re read, and re read again) our own work.

The human brain is complex and the way it takes in and interprets stimuli from outside is a complicated and delicate dance. If we were to notice every single thing in our world, we wouldn’t be able to exist in it. The noise, the colors, the sound, the smells are so varied and ever present that our brains would be in a constant state of interpretation that would cause us to vomit, or pass out. Or both. (Which is one of the reasons so many people on the spectrum can have a difficult time coping with crowded, noisy, overstimulating places). As a result, we tend to soften the edges of a lot of information, block it out, or keep it in the peripheral of our consciousness, allowing our brains to make up a great deal of what we take in, through context.

It can be the same as when we edit. We tend to be in a taking-things-for-granted-because-I-read-it-so-many-times-before haze. We coast over the words and retell ourselves the story we already know in our heads, rather than focusing on what is actually on the page.

You, the author who created this magnificent book, know what it’s supposed to say, you know what you meant when you wrote it. So in your brain, when your eyes pass over the words, it will fill in the missed words, ignore the double ones, and forgive the dangling participles because in your brain, it’s reading correct. Very rarely do we ever approach our own work as a completely new reader. It’s practically impossible to do.

Does that mean we shouldn’t edit? Fuck no. Unless you’re incredibly rich and can afford an editor to take your first draft to your final over the course of 9 rewrites. And if you are that author, why the hell are you reading this blog? This is for the poor, struggling authors who are trying to procrastinate their own editing by reading my blog. Not for big money-bag writers who bang out twenty political spy thrillers a year because they have a nanny, and a cook, and a dog walker, and a personal shopper, and a house cleaner…

Where were we—ah yes, self-editing. Here are some of the biggest tips that have helped me produce a much better final version (before I send it in to an editor for the one or two rounds I can afford).

  • Take it line by line, sentence by sentence. Is the structure sound? Does it make sense? Is it passive? Is it clear who is doing the action, who is in control of the perspective? Is there a random “pineapple” thrown in at the end of a paragraph?
  • Read it out loud. When all else fails, read it cover to cover, out loud. That’s when I find most of my mistakes. Or, if you’re not into that (or you live with people who aren’t into listening to you and by people, I mean cats) at least read aloud the passages, paragraphs and parts that feel awkward or over the top.
  • It’s not too late to kill some darlings. I have been known to cut out scenes/sentences/dialogue, in my final rounds that I knew didn’t belong but I clung to them like a freezing poor boy on the wreckage of the Titanic. Save them in a different file, but if you know in your heart it’s there to stroke your ego at your brilliant wordage but it’s not doing the story any good then show some humility and axe it.
  • Check your tense, check your POV, be consistent in those little things because they make a HUGE difference on whether or not your reader can follow the story and isn’t frustrated trying to do so.
  • Print it out. You can get a good deal at local or national printing companies (my local FedEx cashier knows me and it is so heartening every time she asks “new book?” and hands me the brown box of hope). Double sided, nothing fancy, cheapest version possible will still only set you back about $30 for a 250 page book. You will see things in ink that you cannot see on the screen, guaranteed.
  • Get a Beta reader or twelve. Yeah, it’s not really self-editing, but it’s part of the process that will help bring new eyes to your work. And usually it’s a low cost way to get a ‘real readers’ perspective on your work.

All right, that’s all I’ve got. Good luck out there. Don’t think this bullet list will take the place of a good professional round of editing, but it should help in your process. And maybe it can even help turn your first drafts into better drafts.

Em-Dash It All: The Changing and Fluid Nature of Grammar

Hello my little writer friends. It’s not often I jump of the creative train to offer you some solid advice on the science of writing, but I thought I’d give your philosophical pathways a break. Hopefully, unlike your sophomore English teacher, this won’t put you to sleep.

I’m a creative; a bit of a butterfly girl if you will, and my concern and study of the correct comma or punctuation usage is akin to my concern and study of the HOA Regulations. And while my garden grows amuck and wild like fairies planted it, it also makes for some unsightly overgrowth.

Some forms of writing can take more license. Poetry is a perfect example of this. There is also a funky new emergence of non-traditional work coming out of some literary journals that plays with time, space, language and form like Shyamalan played with screenwriting. So for those forms not all the rules will apply.

For the rest of us, who’s audience doesn’t want the jolt of unexpected grammar holes, it’s important that we keep up on the latest grammatical trends in the business.

“Wait! Grammar trends? But grammar doesn’t change! I memorized all of those rules from Mr. Cloyd, I KNOW how to use proper form!”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but we’re friends and I have only your best interests at heart, so here it goes.

Some grammatical rules always apply. I had started a list but it was getting too long so  I’m doing a total cop out and referring you to the ignanamous Daniel Scocco and his blog: Grammar 101. 

Even with this base, writers and editors have started to understand the importance of language as a living being. As time and modes of communication change and flow, so do the ways in which writers share their stories. I’m not here to judge whether or not the Oxford Comma is valid (totally valid), I’m here to let you know that writing well and clearly without the distraction of poor sentence structure remains your goal.

I tend to think of changes in grammar as happening like a Paris fashion show. All of these bigwig editors get together at giant conferences and spend hours drooling over the next newest trends in the industry. Whether it be hyphenation changes or comma usage, there’s always something that top-selling writers (oof, was I supposed to hyphen that?) or literary savants are playing with that make it more acceptable (even standard) for the rest of us to do as well.

Sometimes these changes are a direct result of what’s happening in the English language in it’s spoken form. After all, your modern-day hero isn’t going to yell out, “I shan’t do it!” or “Have you a moment?”. Jane Austen didn’t have the word “bromance” to describe Mr. Darcy’s and Mr. Bingly’s long standing friendship. We are experiencing a trend towards more passive voice as well as a heavier usage of the progressive form of verbs (‘they speak’ vs. ‘they are speaking’).

The changes I most want you to pay attention to are those that the industry is accepting as standard. Such as the single-space after a period vs. double space (as Chicago crooned, it’s a hard habit to break).

Lucky for us, in this world of mobile grammar, tools have arisen to help. Grammar checking software is like having an on call editor, standing by as you write to alert you of any mishaps. They’re getting reasonable in price and better with each year. Most are updated to reflect industry standards. Check out Grammarly, WhiteSmoke, ProWritingAid, Ginger Online, and LanguageTool just to name a few.

If you aren’t ready to download something yet, here are a few more resources that I’ve bookmarked on my own laptop.

The Punctuation Guide

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

The Chicago Manual of Style

I know it’s a vast, ever-changing sea out there, but stay strong little writer.

You ought not worry.

 

 

 

 

 

Edit Somber

Nope, that’s not a typo. You’ve all heard the adage (or if you’re a writer worth their Peter DeVries salt you have…)

“Write drunk, Edit sober.”

I’m not going to recommend you write drunk. You can… It’s totally possible, and more often than not, highly amusing the morning after. Unlike the headache you’ll be nursing.

DeVries’ meaning was simpler. Write with abandon, in love, fervent and without inhibition. Lower your boundaries and kiss the words you wouldn’t normally, dance with phrases you’d been afraid to hold in your arms. Grab the lampshade of crazy plot twist and wear that son-of-a-bitch as a hat while you twirl through the story.

But in the morning…edit like you’re highly regretful and aiming to pinpoint every mistake you’d made the night before so as to never repeat the debauchery again. Be remorseful. Be judgemental, and like the Spanish Inquisition, show no mercy.

I’m in, let’s say the twelfth round of editing on my WIP. A round that was inspired by a recent submission editor’s advice. This time I’m proceeding with a more somber attitude, one that knows I wrote it, in part, like a drunken idiot and now have dropped my ego enough to be receptive to the advice.

Never before have I been so close to getting a traditional publishing contract for one of my books. Part of this is due to a more polished product (it’s not my first rodeo…or book kids), a more general genre and subject (why do people shy away from paranormal romances and hot ghost sex?), and, I like to think, a cute, relatable plot that’s just enough dark to be interesting.

So, I’m buckling down and doing what I was told to help get this baby off the ground. I’m about thirty pages in and catching some of the ‘problems’ that were brought to my attention. But as I work, I have a concern:

How much of myself and my voice am I taking out of this thing to appeal to the personal likes/dislikes of one editor.

So we come back to somber. Serious. Earnest. Grave. Unsmiling.

Sometimes there are hoops we have to jump through to get to where we want to go. Sometimes we have to shelve our pride and ego and be willing to see past what we love about our work to what could be better.

How do we make sure it’s not just some dime-store novella like the fifty other ones on the shelf? How do I make sure, with all the dead darlings lying beside my computer, that its still my story?

I don’t know those answers exactly, but I’ll tell you what I do know.

I know my characters and the way they react to situations and each other. And where my grammatical prowess may be lacking, I will always stay loyal to them first. When the critique is centered on prepositions or wordy description, I can be earnest in cutting it clean. And not only will my story be stronger, it will be easier to read…hopefully to the point where hands don’t want to let go of it until they finish “just one more chapter”.

So my advice for this week is this:

Take good advice from people in the industry who know when it comes to the technical mishaps of your work. Take the advice to tighten your writing from people who have to spend hours of their lives sifting through the slushiest of slush piles.

But always keep true to the drunken passion of your story that made your heart dance and giggle while it awkwardly pulled that plot line in for a kiss. Keep your story’s heart, but don’t be afraid to pluck it’s wayward eyebrows and wipe its nose.

Good luck, in whatever step you are of your process. Editing, writing, or contemplation of either.

Next week is my homage to writer’s conferences, with some good advice on how to spend your time and get the most bang for your buck.

Happy writing, kids!

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Turning Point

No one likes to be rejected. Well, I can’t generalize, maybe there are those that get a kick out of it. Maybe for some, it serves as a driving force to continue with even more fervor. Maybe they’ve never had a problem with self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy.

I’m not one of those people.

My rational brain knows that there’s nothing personal meant. My rational brain knows that it’s just one opinion in a sea of possibilities. But day after day, letter after letter, even the most devoted to their art have to ask…did I miss my calling as a waitress?

Or a forensic anthropologist, or an archaeologist, or a pilot, or a teacher, or an EMT, or…ANY other job that doesn’t require me to put my heart in the hands of someone else to be judged and weighed to justify doing what I love?

Wouldn’t it be nice to just go into a nine-to-five, perform some task that doesn’t have to have any of my heart in it, go home, and get a paycheck and possibly health insurance if I’m lucky?

Writers…man, we’re a strange breed.

Rising in the dark early hours, still up at dark late hours, scribbling on napkins and notebooks. Our mental faculties always distracted to some degree by the dialogue in our heads. We write, we pour out, we mull over, and edit, and form, and shape, and create. We fester and brood. And when it looks, to our over-thinking eye, that it might be something worth sharing we throw it out into a world that’s saturated with thousands of other ideas worth sharing.

And we wait. And we hope. And we fester some more.

So it should be a relief when we get the rejection…the thirtieth or first, because now we know. And It’s better to know.

Isn’t it?

So you can go back to the drawing board and change your heart all over again. Mold it into something someone wants to read…make it something that’s acceptable.

Sometimes, you do everything they ask and find you hardly recognize your own voice afterwards.

So one has to wonder; if we take our hearts and cut them to fit the trend of the market, how much of us are we really offering to the world? And is it worth selling out to get our name on the front cover? And what makes that any different than a nine-to-five, heartless job with dental?

Except there’s no dental…

So much time, effort, and tears spent trying to tell the world a story, or explain the feelings of our hearts only to be told it isn’t enough. That if we change our story, that if we change our hearts we might be able to garner a $2.50 royalty someday.

Sounds like madness to me.

Sounds like unchecked mental disease.

At some point, don’t we have to admit, that maybe, our thoughts, our stories, are just not good enough, and maybe it would be less painful to just stop trying.

After all, life’s plenty painful enough on its own.