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.

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A Creative Hunger

Greetings, readers. Today I’m going to take you down the tunnel of a thought experiment that applies to all writers, even those folks over in contemporary fiction who remain incredibly sane and outstandingly plain.

There are pages published and digitalized on the idea of a creative hunger, of the itch to write when you’ve gone too long without it. You have to interact with the real world and go people watching and cultivate your mind’s garden, etc., all that good stuff. But how do you satisfy the hunger for the weird, the strange, the supernatural when your life does not discreetly have those elements in it?

A writer takes a new job, packing their schedule from morning to late afternoon of sitting at a desk in an office, surrounded by paperwork and paperclips and paper airplanes he imagines throwing to their boss’ office. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. It is steady, secure, mundane work, that has them swinging between an optimistic Mad (Wo)man and the drones from Office Space.

Why did the writer take this job? And to expand the question, why do we inject our lives with not just the ordinary, but the mundane?

Is it because we need money to eat and keep the lights on and for gas? God, no. The writer does this– we do this– because we hunger. Let us go further and say the writer doesn’t have writer’s block. S/he is perfectly content with the words they are able to hammer out when they get home, and their creative output before taking the job was satisfactory.

The short, easy answer is to say that Stephen King was struck when he was out walking. Chaos and destruction did not find him at home as it did to Will Ferrell’s character in Stranger Than Fiction (highly recommended). He was out in the world, doing that whole ‘living’ thing. It was his regular exercise. But that’s the easy answer, so I’ll go into detail.

You’ll never be struck by anything- inspiration, the solution to that latest itch, a minivian– if you aren’t out there. But the writer sits at a desk and works all day because s/he knows of the hunger. The hunger will find them easily if s/he starts walking and living and people watching, things s/he (maybe) actually wants to do.

But to be a prisoner of the paycheck, to be a drone of the office where you are only partially permitted your mind? That is what the hunger truly is. Not fresh air or social interactions or the “weekend” drink- that’s what the hunger needs. What the hunger is, is that creative energy you find in dark places, when all other lights go out. (Yes I just hammered a Pirates of the Caribbean paraphrasing with a LOTR quote; I do not apologize).

The creative hunger is a muscle that develops when your body and mind are doing all those uncreative thing. It’s not just the spark that makes you want to carry a notebook everywhere, that’s not so spectacular. This hunger is something that must be satisfied, a void that must be filled. But that void needs to be knotted up with nowhere to go, with nothing to do but grow.

For some people, finding that hunger is going to be as simple as having a full-time job and being, always, too exhausted to write, at which point starvation will call upon them and they will, as every expert advisor gives, Make time to write. For others, the hunger bleeds into you and becomes such a part of you that even as that office drone, you are a writer.

Ultimately, and the reason I write this article, I call your attention to the hunger because it’s the writer part of you, no matter your genre, that will find you if you let it, if you stop looking for it and let it fester and gnaw and starve, until that day you master it, learn to feed it, and it becomes all that you are.

Adding the Familiar

If it’s one thing Spec Fic writers know how to do, it’s research. Half the time I believe many could CLEP out of most of the courses in colleges throughout the country with the amount of science, history, mythology, and psychology we study, cross check references, and verify.

We find the tiny details to use in our storytelling, to twist, turn, reverse, and basically create something new out of the old.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen an issue becoming more than just a once in hundred manuscripts. The authors used unfamiliar foundations for their stories. And it can throw a reader completely out of the world they created.

Yes, there are always exceptions. And sometimes you have use them.

The myth red cars receive more tickets than any other color. I lost the link to the police officer, and mathematician, who stated that it would require every red car to receive twelve tickets per day for that to be true. He poured through statistics, used a program to compile every ticket given in the US for a five year period, color of the car, etc. His findings? White is the most ticketed color of any make, model or year. Statistically it makes sense – white is the most common color. But you can’t tell that to the world in general, they will argue that their cousin’s best friend’s sister owned a red BMW and was ticketed so often she lost her license. Never mind she drove 90 in a 65 every day to work.

What I’m driving at is the need to use the familiar. I used a unicorn in a recent MS. Granted it talked, was the size of a Great Dane, released flatulence in the form of rainbows and its horse apples turned out to be pure gold. Oh, he’s a carnivore. But I also kept to the familiar – white coat, cloven hooves, dainty, blue eyes, a sparse mane and tail.

Familiar landscapes, weapons, and creatures easily imagined. Then the author veers off the familiar and uses little known theories of science, and tosses the reader on their keister, wondering what happened.

Science is moving forward at a breakneck pace. At times it can be very hard to keep up. Now imagine how it is for the general population. Granted, most hard SF readers know as much about the latest scientific developments as the scientists who discover them. But in general, most know only what is published through various news sites, science shows, books, etc. They don’t know about the latest developments of the Higgs-Boson theory, the many different string theories, heavy gravity and how it relates to string theory, the new body parts recently discovered, the cures for cancer that are currently in testing, recent discoveries in the world of veterinary medicine, the DNA found in several fossilized animals and how they believe it can be cloned, or how dragons became so popular with various unrelated cultures throughout the world.

Now to circle back. I had three hard SF books cross my desk in the past month. The premises were great, the writing outstanding, and they weren’t rewrites of Star Trek/Wars. Of the three, two used unfamiliar foundation for their science. It required two hours of intensive research to check their facts. What? It’s part of my job. But the point is, what they used was so unfamiliar, not even published yet, and tossed me out of their work – because it was unbelievable. I had to call my cousin in Kuaui, an astrophysicist, and verify what I found. The author had the foundation information correct. Although it surprised my cousin the author found the ongoing research.

This isn’t the 60’s and Gene Roddenberry’s world any longer. Our readers are savvier, more up to date on scientific developments in general, less likely to believe, and harder to keep inside the worlds/realities we create. Our biggest hurdle is convincing them that yes, an intergalactic war will happen, or in an alternate universe, people still fight with swords, or that unicorns can show up during Mardi Gras and change your entire outlook on life.

Giving them a little bit of the familiar helps to suspend their belief and reading to the very last page.

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.”

Why?

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.

Those Infamous Lines

I love movies. Every now and again, a line from a movie is perfect for a scene in my writing. I can quote The Princess Bride like nobody’s business. And even in my darkest writings, I find the humor of Maverick, Wayne’s World or Robin Hood: Men in Tights to be useful at keeping the reader willing to continue with my ramblings.

Most of us are guilty, using lines to interest the reader, communicate something found universally within various media. Shoot, Laurell K. Hamilton uses The Princess Bride in almost every Anita Blake novel.

An issue came to light recently while editing another author’s work. Throughout the MS were several lines from still copyrighted movies, action scenes from recent blockbuster movies, and even love scenes.

I had to note each one, noting the movie and actors, remind the author copyright laws are still in effect.

The point? When talking to someone, quoting a movie line is fine. When working to be published? You’d best acknowledge the movie to prevent legal issues.

It is argued that all plotlines are the same, it is the creativity bring the plot to light which is unique to each author. The voice, a twist on the characters, a different world – all are unique. But when quoting from others’ work, whether book, movie or speech, keep in mind the copyright.

Most don’t mind if we quote every now and again. Shoot, several authors and actors have said they find it flattering if remembered.

But we all get upset if it’s stolen and passed off as someone else’s.

“If I must, I’ll take you a piece at a time,” he said, pointing the sword, a piece of cloth at the end.

Sound familiar? Yep, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the 1991 movie with Kevin Costner, spoken during the last sword fight with the Sheriff. Makes for a great action line, no denial there. Yet if you try to pass it as your own line during whatever action scene, and someone recognizes it, you could find yourself in hot water.

What about those fairy tale retellings currently so popular? Many of us understand those are not under copyright. The new retellings will be, but the originals aren’t. Not a problem.

Most copyrighted works are recent, but by no means the only ones. Gone With the Wind is still copyrighted by Mitchell’s estate, a book more than eighty years old.

If you are going to use lines and scenes from other works, err on the side of caution, make sure you tell where it came from. When revising and editing your own work, keep a thought in the back of your mind if a scene is straight from a recent movie/book. I admit to finding little things every now and again, but they were caught and revised. Our imagination can work things in without conscious thought.

It’s also a good reason why Critique Partners and Beta Readers are so important, they often catch them if you don’t. Always a good thing.

I’m not saying don’t use them, I’m saying use them carefully.

We Welcome TJ as a new contributor

TJ has been a guest blogger and has come on board as a regular contributor.  She Blogs over at Writing From the Padded Room.

I have recently decided to take all those worlds and characters out of my brain and attempt to publish. Can always be found with caffeine, a dog when creating and a cat when editing, and often wearing a really pretty purple huggy jacket. I have held many jobs from shoveling water to upper management in a Fortune 500. Former correctional officer, a lot of upper education and way too many student loans, I have lived in 14 states, ventured out of the U.S. on occasion and more often than not, can be found allowing my mind to wander into places that may be best left alone.

Looking forward to more from TJ.

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:

YOURSELF.

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?