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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Don’t Forget To Laugh

I deserve a great big smack. Yup, I forgot my 8th deadline. In my defense…wait, I’m not sure I have one. Can I just apologize?!

I don't know what happened...

I don’t know what happened…

I decided last month I would write about the thing we often forget when immersed in writing – our sense of humor. I can attest to the great amount of laughs we all imbibe in. Yet it isn’t talked about often enough, in my not so humble opinion. I want people to remember to smile – even as we get hit with “tough love” critiques, rejections and the inevitable “What on earth were you thinking in chapter X?”  Maybe that is just me.

Not completely, anyway.

Not completely, anyway.

So many thing about writing just plain hurts. But if you look, you’ll see plenty of laughs. Especially at yourself. For example, one writer talked about sending a query to an agent with “Dear Agent.”  *cough* Yeah, I did that too. Oops. Needless to day, I had a rejection email.

The query trenches, or preparing to self publish, is enough to test a writer’s dignity, skin thickness, and make them wonder if they truly have enough talent.

I'd say this hit the shark on the nose...

I’d say this hit the shark on the nose…

It’s during this time many show their humor. Whether passing around virtual cups of caffeine, wine, chunks of chocolate or rashers of bacon, humor is used to cheer on the writer-ly community. And it can be a sanity saver. I send emails of thank yous, talk to several writers who gently keep me off the ledge, and make jokes at my own expense to keep schlepping forward. We chose a hard road to travel. No matter how you publish, working towards the end imagined, getting smacked down is going to happen – and often. Getting back up can be an accomplishment in, and of, itself.

The smack down comes from everywhere...

The smack down comes from everywhere…

And now you know my secret. Laughing. Find a reason, no matter how hard I fell, to let others giggle, guffaw, chortle or snicker. Granted it might be because I did a carpet slide into the closet trying to get out of bed, klutzing my way into the dolphin pool at Sea World, forgetting my name when talking to someone I admire, the self – V8 smack for stupidity when sending out a query, or laughing at my rough drafts – it’s worth it.

hamster checkmate

Lesson? Don’t let the mistakes get you down, or the rejections, or the long days and longer nights. We are here to help you smile again.

live long

What’s in a name?

“Someday I am going to publish my book.”   A lot of work happens with that goal.  A story is inside and must escape onto paper, or word processor, or something.  Plot, setting, theme, characters, genre, the list goes on and on.

My fellow contributors on this blog have been giving a lot of good advice on writing.  Today I want to take a moment and look at the business side of writing.  We all enjoy the art side, and talking about books, movies, the stories and what we like and didn’t like.  However the business side of writing is also a large arena full of decisions, and in today’s market a lot of decisions need to be made.

Self publish, large publisher, indie, e-pub, and POD.  However, I want to focus on something even more basic.  Your name.

Why stage and pen names?

John WayneMark Twain, John Wayne are two examples of a pen and stage names.  Mark Twain is the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  Marion Mitchell Morrison, better known by his stage name John Wayne, was an American film actor, director, and producer.

There are many reasons writers chose to have a pen name.  It keeps their worlds separate.  As a writer, you want to become famous. However, fame has a price.

No privacy.

Look at many famous people today; the paparazzi follow them everywhere.  Your name is your identity.  Your family and friends know you, professionals know you.  Some people want to keep family and friends separate from the professional side of things.  Now Samuel Clemens doesn’t sound like too bad of a name, but he liked the Mississippi River.  Mark Twain was a depth call used on riverboats.  The Mississippi River was a prominent part of his works.  Those who rode the river were familiar with the river culture would immediately identify a book by Mark Twain as being a part of that life.

Today the publishing world has genres and sub genres that a name will be forever associated with the genre the author writes in.  However, a good writer may want to try a hand at a different genre.  Thus, a pen name would allow the writer the ability to explore a new area of writing.

Your pen name becomes your identity.  If you go to a writer’s conference, sign in as your pen name.  Introduce yourself with you pen name.  You are that persona.  Think of it as your writing business.  Thus in today’s world it would be Mark Twain, LLC.  The LLC is not part of the pen name, but think of it as part of it.  Your writing company so to speak.

Some of the contributors to this blog are using pen names.  So it isn’t as uncommon as you might think.

Using Your Own Name

 

You can also use your own name.  Just be careful where and how you do things online.  It is you.  For me I want to see my book cover with my own name on it.  However, that choice has pros and cons to it as well.  How do I separate my writing life from my personal life?  It all blends together, but I am comfortable with that.  Other people are not, so a pen name would work better for them.

Now with all that said before here is the take home point.  Before you begin to build a platform, (I’ll blog more about that in the future).  Before you send out query letters, you need to decide on a name.  What will that name be under (or over) the title of that best seller you are working so hard to write?

What do you think?  Is a pen name for you?  Why or why not?

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?

Don’t Cut Your Own Throat

Hi, Gang.

It seems to me that the question of having an agent before you get a publishing contract is weighing on many of our minds lately. Let’s face it, some of us have become so enamored of the battle cry, “You must have an agent to get published!” that it is bordering on becoming one of the Ten Commandments.

I’m afraid I’ll have to call BS on that one. Yes, it is a good idea to have an agent, but if we honestly believe that we have to have one before we can even think of getting published; then how did all those other folks get published without one?

Steven King worked without an agent for three years after Carrie was published, and J.K. Rowling didn’t get an agent until after the first Harry Potter story―which she self-published―began to sell big. So, where did having an agent first factor into the two biggest names in writing getting published? That’s right… it didn’t.

I’m not certain exactly when, “Publish, or perish,” turned into, “Agent, or perish.” But, I do know that it is one of the biggest lies in this crazy business of ours. If either The King, or Ms. Rowling had bought into that lie, Steve would still be teaching High School English class, and Ms. Rowling would still be waiting tables.

Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to have an agent. Having an agent is one of the best things a writer can do. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if you don’t have an agent―well, let’s just say you’ll deserve the screwing you’ll eventually get.

My problem lies with the fact that so many of us have bought into the lie. I have actually noticed aspiring authors ready to commit literary suicide over the fact that they couldn’t get an agent first. They honestly believe that if they can’t land an agent, their dream of being a writer is over. They believe that they must be a horrible writer if an agent isn’t willing to take them on as a client, and they should just quit.

I’ll admit that it is a very good thing to have an agent first, but with more an more agents ‘cherry picking’, this is just not as practical an option as it used to be. When added to the increasing number of writers who ‘found an agent’ after they had a publishing contract in hand, it should be pretty obvious that the old agent first fallacy is falling down like a house of cards in an earthquake.

Plain and simple, brothers and sisters, this is a t-o-u-g-h business. And if you are pinning all your hopes on acquiring an agent first, you are cutting your chances of ever getting published to the proverbial bone.

Yes, submitting to a publisher who accepts unsolicited/unagented material is a slower, and sometimes more ego crushing process. In short, you better bring your A-game. However, if you’re not getting any interest from an agent in the first place―Whaddya got to lose? And I’m not even going to go into the self-publishing/e-publishing arena. But it seems to me that if any of us are really serious about making it in this business, the last thing we would want to do is slam the door in the face of any opportunity to become a successful author.

One thing I can guarantee, gang: If you go into a fight with one hand tied behind your back, the odds are you’re going to get your tail whipped.

The other thing I can guarantee is: If you happen to take any legitimate opportunity to get published, and start making a name for yourself among the only people who really matter―the readers―both agents and publishers will be beating on your door with both fists.

How you got there isn’t nearly as important as actually getting there. No one will care how you snuck into the spotlight, so why cut off possible lifelines when you’re drowning anyway? Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Later, Gang. 😉

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.

BE RUTHLESS.

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?

Writer’s Troubles for the Holidays

Christmas is done for another year.  Was it a pleasant one? Was it horrible? 

I would hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday season, but that isn’t possible for a lot of people.  With all the pain that is out there, there is also healing.  Writing can be a great tool for such things.  Sometimes we have no way to release the anguish we feel from actions of others, or ourselves.  My suggestion is use the pain, transform it into something that will help you grow or move on. 

Write. Write about what happened, how it made you feel.  What you were thinking and doing when things turned for the worst.  Then move farther than that.  Change what happened.  Add an alien or a zombie.  Twist it and turn it till all you see left is a speculative fiction shadow of what was.  Make the people or things that hurt you into something the imagination would be in awe of, and overcome them. 

Sometimes the hurt stalls all thoughts in the mind but what has occurred.  There will be one day when it doesn’t hurt as much, it may take years or decades, but when that time comes;  maybe, just maybe those writings will help heal you.  It may let you see how you felt then, and compare how you feel in the future.  Healing takes time and never is fully finished.

And don’t worry. Not all writing was made to be published.

So as the New Year comes our way, I send my greetings and hopes for all of those braving another day.   Things will get better, I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but they will.