How Do You Measure Your Success?

Have you done what you set out to do? No, really. Have you?

If what you set out to do was to top the NYT bestseller list for six months, chances are, you’ve failed. If it was to have your brilliant work optioned AND green-lighted for a major motion picture… oops. Failure. Short-listed for the Pulitzer? No? Please step out of the arena.

Bob Dylan wrote, “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.”

In each case above, the goal almost guarantees failure. So back up, bud.

Didn’t you set out to write, if you’re a writer? Didn’t you begin by learning basics of the craft? Did you do that? You did, didn’t you? Can you write a decent sentence? Do you know the basic rules of grammar? Not perfection. No one, hopefully, gets to a place where there’s nothing more they can learn. So, did you get all that under your belt? Well, good on ya. Success.

Did you actually complete the short story you started? Success.

Did you revise it and hone it and make it better? Yay for you. Yes.

Did you show it to someone other than your mother/wife/husband/dog? A crit partner, beta reader? Yeah, now you’re humming along. That’s brave. That’s success.

Did you write another? Major success. It’s better than the last one, too, isn’t it? Check.

Did you set out to write a novel and actually begin it? Did you outline the whole thing? Did you just grab what felt like a good idea and jump off the cliff with it? Doesn’t matter how you begin, only that you did begin. Did you? That’s huge.

What’s even more huge? Finding your way all the way down the road you set in front of yourself. Getting to the end. It never happens without detours, unexpected twists, roadblocks, delays, traffic jams, and, thankfully, stretches of sweet clear speeding along. But did you get to the end? High five. Champagne.

Of course, since you’re a writer, you know it isn’t finished. It needs revision, editing, and that will, no doubt, require several passes. But you did it, didn’t you? It may not be perfect. I don’t think any artists ever believes her work is perfect. But did you rework it, elicit other eyes, consider critiques, and revise? And revise again? And get brave enough to let it go?

Every day we have successes, but instead of enjoying them and wallowing a moment in the warm light of gratification, we look ahead at the bigger things, too often things we may never attain, and we miss the fact that we are doing something we love, step by step.

Are you a writer, and are you writing? Are you doing something that (when you’re momentarily done teeth-gnashing) makes you happy, deep inside? Do you know what courage that takes and how fortunate you are to be creating worlds and people to fill them?

Sure, landing an agent, if that’s the route you choose, will be great. Or a publishing deal with an indy publisher. Or a 3-book deal. And, yeah, the Pulitzer. Hell, why not the Nobel? But, just on the very slight off-chance that those don’t happen…

Look at what you have done, what you have accomplished. What you are accomplishing every day. I’d call that success, wouldn’t you?

Lift a glass! Celebrate your successes. Stop by and tell me what you think.

Now get back to work.


Social Networking: CAVEAT SCRIPTOR

Proceed with caution.

Much has been written on the effective use of social media, especially for authors. We hear the importance of building platform, and several sites are devoted to some of the most important aspects of using social media. Mostly, they focus on writing effective copy, branding one’s self, and building your “tribe.” I won’t go over those with different wording on the same subjects, and since I don’t Tweet and haven’t posted to my own blog since October, I’m not so super-qualified to write on those subjects.

I do want to discuss what I’ve come to discover is, to me, one of the most important aspects of social networking, specifically Facebook, since it’s where I spend most of my online social time.

I have many online “friends” from among our AQC writer compatriots. We chat rarely but often comment on or “like” shares and posts. We get to know each other’s likes and dislikes. A most important step in finding your “tribe.”


We become personally invested in one another. Even an occasional response to a comment is a personal connection. Every source I’ve read says that developing a personal bond, or link, or whatever you want to call it, with your friends or followers is the most important thing you can do toward finding and developing your tribe. People need to care about you to care about your product.

I can say for sure that those are the people whose posts I will read, and when they post that their book is available, I’ll grab it for my “stack” of Kindle reading.

But there is an opposite of that and we can easily sabotage ourselves.

Many authors, since that’s primarily our group of interest, have both personal pages and author pages. Their personal pages tend to be where they (we) show their interests, social and, sometimes, political leanings. Author pages, on the other hand, tend to be, in many cases, mostly self-promotion.

If there is nothing coming from that author but “here’s my book,” “here’s my book cover,” “here’s how to win a free ARC of my book,” and, oh yeah, “here’s another book you might like,” one, at least this one, becomes very quickly disinterested.

You may not want to share with online acquaintances the same personal info you share with family and close personal friends. Honestly, I’m not in love with reading where you have breakfast or that your kid finally learned to poop in the toilet (true post.) But, still, even if I overdose on funny cat/dog memes or love/hate political memes, I still feel more invested personally in those authors, maybe because of their wicked sense of humor or whatever, and consequently, I want to support them because they’ve personally interacted with me.

Isn’t that why we’re repeatedly told to personally reply to comments made to things we post?

Personal connection.

And there’s the rub. A tenet of effective social networking is not to pitch one’s self or one’s book or blog tour constantly. It may seem professional to only post things pertinent to your work, but, there’s no personal connection in that, and therefore, no feeling of belonging to that person’s “tribe.”

You can certainly refuse a friend request and refer someone to only Like and Follow your author page, but you are likely losing that person as a tribe member. If the only posts I see from a particular author are self-promotion, I soon pass right on by them.

I don’t pass by those fellow travelers with whom I share even a modicum of rapport. Because we have exchange on a personal level, I will always go to their author pages when they post from there.

But when all I see from an author is self-promotion, if that author doesn’t want to be a “friend” and let me see who they are, their likes, dislikes, random silly comments and such, then I’m not invested, and I don’t bother.

We know that a simple act of unfriending someone can have negative repercussions. (Although there are trolls, certainly, who deserve not just being unfriended, but having their heads held in a toilet.) We don’t need to friend everyone on the Interwebs. I’m only suggesting that, when deciding whom to friend and whom to refuse, we proceed with caution.

If you decide to refuse a friend request but want that person to follow your author’s page, and that page is only about your book, its cover, its pub date, etc, and maybe some friends’ books promotion, you’ve chosen not to allow that person to be part of your tribe.

That’s not how to build an audience, and what is platform but audience?

And when it comes to buying and helping to promote someone else’s book, whose are you going to buy?

I’d put my money on the one by the person you feel you know, with whom you’ve had some personal exchange. You may not even particularly love their genre, but you feel connected to them, so you’ll shell out that $2.99 and put in on your e-reader. Right?

I bet so.

I’d love to hear what you think in that regard.

Want Your Query Read? Three Things NOT To Do

I’m not an agent. I don’t even have one. But in the years I’ve been reading industry blogs and, particularly, the many, many queries and query questions that come into Agent Query Connect, I’ve learned a few things. (Veterans will know these things, so this is more for those entering the arena and intent to go the traditional route.)

There are more new writers trying to be heard than imaginable.

In an increasingly bottom-line business climate, fewer publishing houses are willing to take a chance on a new author, and fewer agents are taking on new authors’ books unless they promise a highly likely sale. But I’m not going into that aspect.

Before an agent can sell your novel, you have to sell the agent. Of course, you must have a great novel, but before you get through that door, you have one huge sale that comes first:


You have to sell yourself.

Not your personality or experience. You have to sell your ability to write a novel the agent will be able to sell.

Here’s where reading those many, many queries comes in. I only read a fraction of what an agent gets every day, but what I do read gives me a good taste of their jobs. And here’s the thing:

MOST of the queries I start, I don’t ever finish. If I were an agent, that would be an instant form-or delete/no response. Harsh, I know, but after a while, it doesn’t take much to KNOW.

And why? What are the sure triggers for a fast delete and pass? Here are three that do it for me, and I’m probably more forgiving than most agents could afford to be.

1.  Do NOT do your research

I don’t mean proper Elizabethan undergarments, either.

The most obvious, and, okay, I’ll say it—infuriating—is seeing that the writer has made little, if any, attempt to read up on what goes into a good query.

There are many guidelines, often confusing, and no hard-and-fast rules, but there is consensus, and it’s easily found. Agent Query itself is a good place to start. Query Tracker, Query Shark, Nathan Bransford, Rachelle Gardner, and many other sources.

They may differ as to where to put the title/genre/word count, they may differ as to the number of sentences that should comprise the hook, how many paragraphs the whole thing should be, how many names to include, etc. BUT having read each of them and more, one cannot help but get a strong sense of what should be in a good query and what should NOT.

When I see “How would you feel if you woke up and…” Reject. I don’t need to read on.

If it opens with “TITLE is a story of revenge and justice, dignity and degradation…” Reject.

I’m pretty sure all the sources would agree about opening with a rhetorical question or a telling of theme.

I’m not going into what you SHOULD write. Just know that if you don’t do that most basic research, IT WILL SHOW. Just as it will if you send a horror novel to an agent who represents Romance or an erotic fiction to one who represents MG.

If you can’t take the time to learn the most basic aspects of the business you’re trying to break into, why would the agent take the time to read any more?

2.  Do NOT check your grammar and spelling

Please use your spell-check, but DO NOT stop there. It will not flag “their” when you mean “there,” or “it’s” when it should be “its,” “then” instead of “than.”

No excuses. We all make the occasional mistake, but we should, no, MUST know the differences and catch them in proofing.

The same goes for run-on sentences.

There are many old “rules” of grammar that beg to be broken in creative writing. Fragments can be effective. Infinitives CAN be split.

It’s usually clear, however, when a writer knows her craft and is breaking rules for effect and when one simply isn’t yet ready for prime time.

The best of us make errors, and that’s why it’s important to have other eyes on your work. That’s why AQC is such a great place. But to get the help, you’ve got to show you warrant it. Harsh? Maybe. But it’s how it is.

3.  IGNORE basic guidelines

This harks back to the first. There may not be rules, but there are some guidelines that follow through. Ignore them at your peril.

DON’T begin with a rhetorical question. It begs a snarky answer and quick rejection.

DON’T start by telling what the story is about. SHOW who the protagonist is, something to make the reader care about him/her, what conflict changes his/her world, what s/he must do to set things right, and what stands in the way. Character, conflict, stakes. HOOK. Not a log-line, a good, solid, grab-ya-by-the-throat hook. There are as many ways to accomplish that as there are stories and authors, but every query needs a good one.

DON’T pour out a name soup. Keep the names to the barest minimum, usually only the protagonist. If Romance, the love-interest. Keep it to the minimum number of characters. You’re not synopsizing the whole novel, you’re teasing with its most tantalizing core to induce the reader to NEED to read more.

DON’T tell your novel’s themes in your wrap-up. If you haven’t written the query to show those, you haven’t created a query that does its job.

DO close professionally. Don’t say you look forward to hearing from them soon. That’s a pressure they don’t need, and if they’re a no-response agency, you may never hear from them. Don’t presume. And don’t say you’d be pleased to send the entire manuscript. Of course you would. They know that. Once you’ve written any pertinent bio information (and please, NOT that you’ve been writing since you were six) and shown why you’re querying him or her specifically (again, it’s that research thing,) then just close. Professionally. Thank you for your time and consideration. Nothing more is needed. Don’t kiss ass and don’t grovel.

What are the things that make you hit the “next” button without reading past the first paragraph or even the first few words? What would you advise someone pretty new at this game NOT to do in that oh-so-important query?

Murder For Fun and Profit

No, I’m not promoting a hit-person service. I refer to the well-worn adage concerning self-editing, a topic that surfaces as often as its familial admonition:  murder your darlings. Credit to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch for the oft-repeated advice.

In certain types of speculative fiction, the advice applies as well in a different, more literal sense.  We build evil characters and kill them off, always remembering, of course, that a villain is the hero of his own story. Even in the foulest character, there should be aspects that you empathize with. Something that makes you, the writer, and you, the reader care. And then…Blam! Squish!

Or, in demonstrating the extent of evil your beloved villain is capable of, you might show the threat to your protagonist, or his girlfriend/her boyfriend/husband/wife/dog by first having him (you) murder one or two lesser characters. Would anyone care, if they didn’t first care for the characters? No. So you create someone to love, and then…

I created a character in a novel and had her killed off. But I’d grown so attached to her, I rewrote so that she hadn’t really died. She walked through the rest of the story like a zombie with nothing to add except her presence. Guess what. She had to die a second time. I had to murder her twice. Better off dead, poor woman.

So I should have learned, right? But no. In the same book, I did it again with a major character. I and my characters loved him too much to let him go. In the end, he had to, though. Tough decision, but putting them both back into their graves made the story stronger.

But first I had to see, clearly, that my love for them added nothing to the tale, and, in fact, lessened its impact.

A post by another of our writers, T.J., recently reminded me of an aspect of this, be it in storytelling or in self-editing. It was a post on editing, but something I learned in gardening and landscaping grabbed me from reading her post.


In creating and maintaining a good landscape (which we do with words when we write), you have to cultivate ruthlessness. If a plant isn’t performing or has overgrown its space (poor planning on the gardener’s part), you can’t coddle it, or spend your life pruning it to a shape that fits but that isn’t right for the plant. You’ve got to dig it up, plant it somewhere else (in writing, I keep folders for “outtakes”) or just dump the poor thing.

People are going to spend more time and closer attention to your writing than your garden, so taking out (or moving) anything that doesn’t work is critical. Not timidly. Ruthlessly (as in cutting too many –ly adverbs.)

In the first pass, this isn’t so difficult. We cut huge chunks of absolutely brilliant prose with self-satisfaction. We didn’t need a page to describe the room. We didn’t even need a long paragraph. Ah, there now. I feel so much better, and so virtuous.

It’s that second or third pass. The fine-tuning. Everyone edits differently, but we all get to a place where we have to make some really hard decisions. A few lines that have held on. A short scene that is so tight and well-written. (Or a character or two who didn’t want to be dead.)

Oh, murder most foul!

Kill the suckers! No mercy. And if you did your job and made them characters (yes, even your bad guys), or scenes, paragraphs, even phrases that you and we love (or love to hate), it’s that much harder to do. And that much more rewarding to have done it, when you step back and view the finished work.

And there’s the fun. The satisfaction of doing the hard work. The profit? Not royalties (wonderful as they may be.) It’s how the work profits from our merciless killing sprees. And how we, as writers, profit in honing our craft, sharpening our eyes and the skill with which we deploy the sharp blade of the delete key.

It’s what we do, after all. Build worlds, people them, and then torment, torture, sometimes destroy. Our craft requires us to do it regularly. With vigor. With precision.

So, fellow hit-persons. Garrote? Scalpel? Other than great CPs and beta readers, what are your most useful tools and techniques?

Avoid Those Tired Tropes

Some old adages merit our attention as writers, particularly those of us who write speculative fiction. In the most recent post, Scott Seldon discussed the breadth of science fiction sub-types. Within speculative fiction, a broad genre indeed, there are so many more sub-genres, branches, and tributaries to explore.

Why, then, do we see so many repetitions of the most currently popular niches?

Here’s one such adage: if you’ve seen it/read it/heard it before, it’s been done.

It could well be argued that there is little truly original under the sun, but as I go through my email notices of new queries on AQC, I find so many young writers jumping on certain bandwagons, I’m surprised those wagons don’t tip over. Or have they?

Many years ago a man named Stoker terrified readers with an epistolary novel about a creature of the night who needed the blood of the living to survive in his Gothic realm. The undercurrents of the creature were erotic, but he, Dracula, remained a figure of horror, stalking prey in the shadows of night.

Then came teen vampires, nasty bloodsuckers. And then new blood, as it were, gushed forth when a certain writer brought the eroticism out of the shadows, and the vampire’s seduction became a homo-erotic apotheosis.

New life, or un-death, was breathed into the vamp. He was dangerous, of course, but the danger became alluring.

Enter the Twilight saga. Full disclosure: I have not read any of the books, nor have I seen any of the movies, nor do I intend to. I want my vamps scary. And now, he’s been overdone. He needs some time in a coffin in a dank cellar.

My point? I see query after query for slightly modified versions of the same story. If that many writers are writing what they just (sigh) love, love, love, one can be pretty well assured that ship has sailed.

Be brave. Ask new questions. Invent new twists, new futures, new pasts. Create different worlds.

Build a new world. New creatures, new gods. Explore old ones in new ways. Spec Fic is wonderful for the latitude it allows, from science fiction to fantasy to Gothic horror and beyond. Go beyond.

Stay off that bandwagon. Do not follow the herd. Don’t chase trends. Boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before.

I had a teacher once, maybe the best writing teacher a young kid could have had, who laid down a rule that any story or paper turned in using the word “thing” would receive an automatic F. Not that it’s a bad word. But it’s a crutch. She insisted we be specific, that there was always a better word than “thing,” and to use it without thinking of the more specific choice was pure laziness.

I would use that concept as a challenge. Don’t write about vampires, or werewolves, or soul-stealers, demons, or fallen angels. Not there isn’t a place for all of them. Not that there can’t be wonderful re-castings of those tropes. But isn’t speculative fiction about speculating?

What if…?

Never stop wondering. Question everything. In those questions are worlds of stories.

What do you think? Agree or disagree?

Baiting the Hook—A First Step in Crafting Suspense

Wait! Do NOT open that…

Box. Door. Window. Hatch.

We’ve all been there, reading a thriller, horror story. Or sitting in the dark of a movie theater.

We’re not going to jump if, behind the door is Johnny Studboy about to hand Mary Sue a corsage and a box with a ring in it.

But if we know that (fill in the huge evil character) has annihilated Johnny, taken on his appearance, and substituted the ring for another that changed the last poor girl into a…

You get the idea.

Last time, I wrote about how often it’s what we don’t actually show that lets the readers’ imaginations run wild. Hopefully we’ve given enough poisoned breadcrumbs along the path to send their imaginations in a direction we want it to go. We’ve just left them to paint in the details.

In crafting suspense, however, there are tried-and-true methods. I don’t intend to go into them all. Writer’s Digest recently wrote about many, quoting the movie-master, Mr. Hitchcock. He cites the couple sitting at a bistro table chatting. No suspense there. Unless we, the reader/audience have previous been allowed to know what they don’t. Under their table is a bomb, set to go off at 3:00. And, as the gentleman asks the waiter for the check, chatting pleasantly with his soon-to-be paramour, he checks his watch. It’s 2:55.

Bait the hook and reel ’em in. But first, bait the hook.

All kinds of speculative fiction, more often than not, depends on suspense to propel the reader. In fact, I’d say that, to some extent, every kind of fiction does. Even literary. But that’s another discussion.

Rachelle Gardner blogged about writing what you know, that it doesn’t mean sticking to what you’ve actually, physically experienced in your life, but writing from what, in the depths of your being, you know to be true, for you. Go deep. Write from your truth.

In the case of suspense, I’d posit that writing what you know should draw from the well of your experience. What has worked in making you both terrified to keep reading/watching, and unable to stop?

Here’s where you do show. Bait the hook. If we don’t know what Ms. Unholy Evil is capable of, we won’t worry when Johnny stops to give her a light. If we don’t know, from having seen what the thing in the box can do, or unleash, we won’t cringe as it’s about to be opened.

After a brief introduction, when a boy chasing his paper boat down the rain-filled gutter encounters a clown in the sewer, and Uncle Stevie is kind enough to show us what a fun-filled clown can do, well, need I go on? But I’ll be you did.

First you gotta set ’em up. Bait that hook. Show something mind-blowing. (To a degree appropriate to your story and genre, of course.) Then back off. Take your sweet time. But keep going toward that door. Or that lovely lunch date with the bomb under the table.

You know what works. The slow amble up to an “Oh, no, don’t do it” moment, and then cut. Make us wait to see if…

Think about it. What’s scarier? The actual moment when something flies down from the top of the bookcase (of course it’s only the cat—the monster is behind the curtain), or those interminable moments when Sally Stupid is creeping in the dark to investigate? You KNOW something is going to happen.

More importantly, you’ve shown just how horrific, or life-changing (or life-ending), it might be.

Then build those moments, accelerating to the big showdown or the big reveal. Each more intense, each reversal more devasting, terrifying, or challenging.

But you know all that. Right? Timing, pace, is everything.

But first, you gotta bait the hook.

What ways do you think are effective in doing that? Do you agree that it’s key? Are there times when effective baiting is not necessary?

Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

Writers are exhorted to show, not tell. Don’t describe what’s happening, put the reader INTO it. Naturally, there are exceptions to that “rule.” One being that there ARE NO rules. Sometimes, however, it’s what you DON’T show that keeps dear reader turning pages and makes those short hairs stand on end.

This can apply in many cases. Often what leads up to a torrid scene, the foreplay if you will, is by far more titillating than going with the characters into the details of the consummating act. Too often, the overused euphemisms for body parts and what’s done with/to them take away from the scene. Why?

The reader’s imagination is often far more vivid, given room to draw its own picture, than any you could draw for them.

Trust your readers.

Yes, you want to give them plenty of details, carefully chosen, to lead them where you want them. Perhaps you show what Mr. Bad Guy is capable of doing. Maybe we see him do it to a minor character. Maybe someone finds what he’s left behind. A madman is on the loose.

But say Cyndi knows something is wrong when she gets home (or to Grandma’s house.) The dog isn’t barking. It always barks. She feels it. She tries the door and it’s unlocked. She calls out. No answer. She pushes open the kitchen door and a scream freezes in her throat…

Cut to another scene.

Would the reader keep reading? You betcha. They hope to find out what Cyndi saw. Maybe it’s the madman gnawing on Grandma’s (fill in the body part.) Maybe it’s the dog, or what’s left of him. You can bet they’re going to want to know, and meanwhile, they will have filled in the blank with the worst they can imagine, based on what you’ve foreshadowed, teased with.

Or, say…

There are rumors of an alien presence. Most don’t believe it, of course. But it’s night (or maybe a sunny, spring afternoon), and Kyle is walking down the street (or across the meadow) when he hears a strange, high-pitched whine. He turns. He doesn’t see anything. He walks more quickly, though, and the air around him becomes electric, and he turns again, and before he can scream at what he sees…

What did he see? What happened to him?

Okay, those are cliff-hangers, staple of suspense from the beginning of fiction. But here we’re dealing with speculative fiction, and this writer finds the best element, across all the sub-genres within that broad family, is the one the genre is named for.


Let ’em wonder. Let the reader fill in the picture. Lead her to the well, but let her drink whatever is in there. Wait. Are you sure you want to draw up that bucket? To look down there?

When the story begins to show too much, it becomes like a movie that gets too graphic or too overloaded with special effects.

In my novel, a friendly, benign ally diverts a minor player while others carry out a plan that she, the minor player, musn’t see. But unseen to the others, a dark force takes him over. We cut to the others, and later, we come back to the discovery of a pair of legs akimbo in the supply closet. We don’t see what the discoverers see, but we know it’s horrifying. And the next time we see the “friend,” he has scratches on his face. What happened in that closet? What did they see? From earlier scenes, we have an idea, and it isn’t pretty. The reader can paint the picture as we move on, knowing what the nice guy’s friends don’t.

And what else can that invisible power do? Where is it from? How did it “turn” a nice guy?

The details we choose must give enough specific information to allow readers to fill in the details we choose to leave to them to imagine. And isn’t sparking the imagination the essence of Speculative Fiction? Different worlds, invisible forces. Things shown and things not seen.

Except in the mind of the reader.

Our job is to lead the reader to that well. To that room.

Do you trust your readers to use the colors you’ve given them to paint the picture, to make up their own minds about a question you’ve left for them?

It’s not enough that we speculate. That’s the nature of our fiction. But don’t we want to make the reader speculate as well?

I’ll leave you to think about that.