Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lessons Learned at #tenqueries

Over the past four years, I've found a healthy, thriving community of writers on Twitter. In fact, it's a great place to find other authors - published or not - to share ideas with (and maybe some frustrations).  There are also a lot of contests and writing challenges. And to make Twitter even more appealing, there are agents, editors, and publishers tweeting advice, helps, and tips. You might even trip over the wish list of an agent or twenty at #mswl (manuscript wish list).

One of my favorite places to play is #tenqueries (followed closely by #askagent).

So, what is #tenqueries?

It's a peek inside the brain of an agent as they go through their inbox. It's an opportunity to see what agents are looking for, to learn the things that are likely to earn your query a 'no', and to see that moment when everything clicks for a 'request'.

But lately I've seen a negative response by writers to the #tenqueries hashtag.  While I understand that there is a lot of rejection in the timeline, I don't necessarily view that as a bad thing. This, my friends, is the reality of trying to be published.  Although we may be burning with a deep need to write, the publishing world is a business, and we need to understand the business.

#tenqueries has taught me a lot. Instead of seeing a pattern of rejection, I see a pattern of mistakes that writers (myself included) make.

I'd like to share some important truths I've learned by watching the #tenqueries feed.

  • Research agents before you query. There are countless passes in the feed with the explanation of 'I don't rep that genre'. That is an immediate 'no'. And really, do you want an agent who doesn't have a passion for the genre you write? I want an agent who gets it, who loves the genre, and who will be a fantastic representative of my work.
  • Personalize your query based on your research.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen the 'dear agent' get a pass.  Studying an agent's website will give you a feel for their personality and likes. Choose agents who will represent your work well, and let them know you would like to work with them specifically.  This means spending time on each and every query, but it's time well spent.
  • Follow the submission guidelines.  Every agent has them on their website. Most agents won't open attachments (can't blame them). Some want a synopsis, some don't. Some ask for one chapter, others want five pages.  Give 'em what they ask for - usually pasted into the body of an email.  Your words won't make it past the 'no' filter if you don't follow the guidelines.
  • Study the publishing world. It's important that you have a good idea of how long a manuscript should be. This varies depending on the genre - for example, adult novels will typically be longer than young adult novels. It won't hurt if you have read a lot of books in the genre you write, either.
  • Edit, edit, edit, edit.  Messy grammar, punctuation, etc. usually results in a quick trip to the pass lane.  Your writing can't shine if the agent is distracted by mistakes. Who knows, you might be lucky enough to spark interest regardless, but do you want to chance it?
  • Find critique partners you can trust to be honest.  This means sharing your work with another person, and a yes-man isn't going to benefit you. Agents can't be worried about hurting your feelings - they are in this business to publish books.  If your crit partner can't constructively criticize your words to help you improve, they aren't helping you.  
  • Don't give up. If this means reworking a novel, starting a new novel, or researching other agents to query, do it! Learn from your mistakes and move forward. You will never succeed if you quit.
And now that I've made my list (OCD person here), I can get back to writing. I've shelved my last project and moved on to something new and better.  I'm excited to apply this knowledge to the query process.

My goal? To find an agent who is a great fit, and who will have deep belief in my project.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Lessons of Comic Con

I think it's pretty obvious from my blog that I write, and that one day I hope to be a published author.

What many - okay most - of you don't know is that before I got serious about writing for a broad audience, I wrote a bit of fanfiction. (I won't divulge my penname here - it's not important, and outing myself as a fanfic author should suffice. Although, it IS important to state that I will never take the stories I wrote as fic and try to pass them off as 'original' fiction. It would be a disservice to myself and to my readers - giving them shallow, underdeveloped characters - and would feel unethical.) The reason I mention this here is because the fact that I'd written fic gave me an interesting opportunity this month. I was invited to sit on a panel at the Salt Lake Comic Con FanXperience to discuss the impact of fanfiction on the publishing world.

At first, the idea of sitting at a table to discuss fanfiction was a little...unnerving. But it was an excellent opportunity to be a part of Comic Con, so I decided to do it. What I didn't realize at the time was that there were a lot of writing panels at Comic Con. A LOT! I was excited to attend as many as I could - and none of them were disappointing.

I learned some pretty important truths during those three days, and I'd like to share them.

1.  There is nothing shameful about having written fanfiction. It was a great way to exercise writing muscles that I'd forgotten existed, provided an incredible kinship that resulted in talented crit partners, and offered a ready-made audience for someone who wanted to know if they could affect a reader with their words. (I could, and I did. It's an awesome feeling.)

2.  In meeting many other authors, some who were there to present their craft during panels or on the main vendor floor, I came to the conclusion that I AM an author. I CAN be published if I keep working, keep writing, keep the faith.  Save me a spot at a future Comic Con, I'll be joining you. 

3.  Commitment to my passion is key. I need to set aside time every day to write, to research, and to read. A completed, edited, query ready novel is my goal. I'm getting close with my latest manuscript, and I have two others on the shelf to query later.

4.  My excitement about writing is powerful, and when I share it with people I meet, it connects us. My quest is to turn that in-person excitement and energy into a query that exudes the same passion.  There's an agent out there waiting for my story, I just need to find him/her and knock their socks off with my pitch.

5.  I have an amazing support system. My husband (who prefers sports to books) attended my panel, and is behind me 100%. He tells me, "You can do anything." A couple of my kids were there, too. They feel my distraction when I'm writing, and yet, they support me.  The resolve that grows from their support is intense. I want to succeed for them, for the sacrifices they've made to allow me to chase my dream.

6.  If I quit, I'll never be published.

7.  Fans/geeks/nerds are the best kind of people. Creativity thrives in their midst.

8.  I want to sit on a panel for my own book one day. 

And on that note, I'm heading back to my writing cave. I have a chapter to finish.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Thoughts on a Cold Day

I encountered a homeless man on a cold, grey day in January, sitting by the window of a convenience store.

His clothing was worn and dirty, his old yellow coat pulled up against his neck, zipped to the top, a knitted red scarf tucked in around the edges. His hands, in torn and ragged gloves, were wrapped around a cup of coffee. Probably the warmest thing he would experience all day.

The small shopping cart that held his meager belongings was pushed against the wall, a copy of a free local paper spread over the top.  He smiled as he turned the page, moving to the next story.

Long white hair flowed down his back, a little greasy, but combed. It was the same color as the beard and mustache that covered most of his face.

He looked up as I passed.

I smiled and said hello.
His weathered face crinkled into a large, friendly smile. Deep blue eyes, surrounded by wrinkles of age and time, sparkled as he told me good morning.

He went back to reading, and I went inside for my morning soda and a muffin.

Walking through the store, I couldn’t get his face out of my mind. His serene nature, as he sat in the cold with a simple cup of coffee and a newspaper, haunted me.

I couldn’t help but wonder when he’d last had warm food in his belly, when he’d last slept somewhere heated.

It wasn’t in my power to provide him with shelter, but I knew I could at the very least provide him with a little sustenance.  So I picked up a breakfast sandwich and made my way to the register.
I’ll never forget the feeling of handing the man a warm sandwich.  I’ll never forget the surprise that colored his expression, the smile that spread across his worn features.  I’ll never forget the kindness in his eyes or his words of thanks.

Most importantly, I’ll never forget the feeling of rightness from doing something small for another human being.

Are you wondering why I would share this experience?

I’m not looking for an ‘atta girl’, or even expecting you to understand. But I haven’t been able to get his face, his smile, his kind expression, out of my thoughts.

You see, when I pass homeless people on the street – and I pass quite a few every day as I drive to and from my office downtown – there is a deeply ingrained sense of ‘me’ and ‘them’.

Society has trained me to see them as different, as slackers, as lazy, as people who made bad choices and ended up in a bad situation – their travails their own fault - and I am blameless when I pass them with nary a thought.

But on that cold January morning, I saw past the dirty, ragged clothing. I saw past the misfortune and the lowly circumstances.

That day, I saw gratitude and kindness in the eyes of another human being. I saw a fellow child of God.

Yes, he’s a man whose path is different than my own, at least at this point. His story is unknown to me. His joys, his pains, his successes, his failures: a mystery.  I wonder if he was a soldier whose benefits have run out. Was he married for fifty years, and upon the death of his spouse, lost all? Did a medical emergency drain his resources? What happened to lead him to this place?

I fail to truly understand his life, because I’ve never walked in his shoes.

And yet, the truth is that we are more alike than different.

The more I ponder on the situation, the more I’m inundated with memes on Facebook and other social media that scream about ‘the takers’, the more political propaganda I see, the deeper my feelings over this occasion go. 

Reality for so many in our country is that we’re one payday, one month, one medical crisis, from where this man sits. As we pass them on the street we have no way of knowing their stories, no way of comprehending what brought them to this place – and we can’t envision our lives turning to this particular path.

We are ‘us’. He’s a ‘them’, receiving not our compassion, but our scorn.

As a society we do this a lot.

Our religious sect vs. theirs.

Christians vs. Muslims.

Rich vs. poor vs. middle class.

Citizen vs. immigrant.

Heterosexual vs. homosexual.

Republicans vs. Democrats vs. Independents vs. Libertarians.

Our country vs. the world.



We look for and cherish the differences instead of the similarities, nurturing the distrust of those who aren't like us.

What it boils down to (in my eyes), is that the substance which makes us human and decides who we are is mostly the same – whether we have brown eyes or blue, brown skin or white, worship God or not, feel attraction to the opposite sex or the same, have a lot of money or none, or live in this country or another.

If you change that substance too much, life won’t happen. It can’t happen.

And that is only the stuff of our physical nature.
So, we are all born, our lives are lived in various places and manners, but we all end up in the same place at the end of our journey, as we breathe our last.

I believe the value of the time we spend on this Earth is measured in the compassion we have for others, the love we have for our fellow beings, the actions of our daily lives.

And I hope and pray that if I make an error in judgment in my life, it is an error on the side of humanity, of compassion.

Because “There but for the Grace of God, go I” is more than a saying.

Monday, February 3, 2014

It's Gonna Be O.K.

Last week I had one of those 'oh crap' moments, you know, the ones that drop a rock in the pit of your stomach and leave you feeling a little off-center.

See, I had a mammogram the week before. My first. One that I procrastinated for months, then years. On Monday of last week I received the letter every woman dreads - and a phone message to follow up  - "There are areas of your scan that need further evaluation."

I told myself not to worry. This test was a baseline. This was my first. I'm healthy. My doctor didn't find anything suspicious at my checkup.

But try as I might, I couldn't block the doubts and fears, the worries and the 'what if's'. It was a long week, waiting to do a follow-up visit.

Finally, this morning I got up early and headed to the Breast Care Center for more scans.

I entered the building with a smile on my face, masking the trepidation I was feeling. My chest felt heavy and my stomach twisted - I was thankful I hadn't eaten. The receptionist seemed to recognize me, and quickly handed me off to the other receptionist, the one who checks in follow-up visitors. And this time, I wasn't taken into the part of the building where they do yearly check-ups. This time I was taken to the other side. The side for returners.

Sitting in the waiting room, legs crossed, foot bouncing, watching the women around me, all of them there for further evaluation or follow-up, like me, I started to think again of the 'what if' scenarios, each more worrisome than the last. My eyes wandered around the room, taking it all in, and I noticed a sign on the wall.

My throat closed slightly, and I could feel myself tearing up. Because I wanted to hear that it would be okay, to KNOW that it would be okay.

And I knew that for some of the women sitting near me in this room, things hadn't been okay previously. See, this is the room where women who were following up after surgery, who were getting their 6 month check-ups, who had been down a very difficult road, went - not just those of us who needed 'further evaluation'.

Minutes felt like hours as I waited, even knowing that I would, at the very least, know what they had found before I left the building.

The tech who came to get me was kind, cheerful, and helpful. We chatted as she adjusted my breasts and the machine, taking more pictures. Her attitude and her knowledge put me at ease. I knew I was in the right place, and in good hands. And when I was told I needed to undergo an ultrasound as well, I felt confident that things really would be okay.

And they were.

For me.

I am lucky. The follow-up was necessary to see some areas that were difficult to scan - nothing more. My scans were clear, and there was nothing else I needed to worry about. I go back in a year.

Huge sigh of relief.

Now, you may be asking why I would write about this experience on my writing blog. I have two reasons.

First, I was writing this blog in my head as I waited. It was a great distraction from the 'what if' scenarios I'd started to spin. (Being imaginative can be awfully scary at times). I knew that, whatever the outcome of my scans, I needed to put my feelings down on paper. I needed to let go of the worry, the anxiety, the stress of the prior week, and there is no better way to do that, for me, than words.

More importantly, I wanted to be an example - to my daughters, my friends, to any other women who have procrastinated their care.

Yes, there is a measure of discomfort in a mammogram. Yes, you may feel slightly awkward as a tech handles your breasts, moving and compressing them. Yes, you might just get a call or letter telling you to come back for more scans.

But this can literally be a life or death situation.

A little discomfort can be the difference between finding an anomaly early, when it's highly treatable, and finding out that you are in a critical situation that will require surgery, medications, and radiation.

Please ladies, for the sake of yourself and your families, get a mammogram. Schedule it now.

Then we can celebrate our good outcomes together.