Monday, March 23, 2009

The Internet is Eating My Brain...

....Or at least my time.

I woke up, got the girl off to school, and worked on revisions. Proud of my progress, I didn't think about how taking a little break might derail me for hours. I peeked in at my personal journal's 'friend list' and saw that Will Shetterly (a literary hero from my youth, World Fantasy Award nominee with Gospel of the Knife) had reactivated his account. That didn't exactly surprise me; I've joked that I could almost make a drinking game out of his dumping and reinstating his account. The shocker was that I let myself get sucked back into RaceFail 09.

Since it's there for the skimming (though a link page that had no "Mely is wrong" slant might be better, this one serves well enough), I can explain my thoughts without a recap. Everybody was wrong. Yes, darlings, those words sum up my thoughts and the explanation.

Even the people who right (which each "group" was at one time or another) managed to argue long enough to be wrong. What could have been (in another time and place, perhaps with different participants) an important conversation about race Sf/F between fans and industry professionals very quickly turned to Epic Fail. And it just won't stop.

Instead of cringing and backing away, I checked the links dating back to the last time I cringed and backed away. The Author Shit List sent me into a whole different tangent. "The Nielson Haydens were unfairly misjudged; I'll read more Tor as soon as they publish something I want to read." I've been meaning to read Elizabeth Bear for years. Guess I'll add the book that helped set off this firestorm to my list. Bull and Shetterly are mostly misunderstood...I'd only heard of three of the next six on the list, and one of three I knew only from RaceFail. Since I've got Stross's Accelerando on my desk waiting to be read, I was glad that his great sin was mainly intelligent commentary with a stupid quip about trolls. That makes for guilt free reading.

So I started to think it might all be guilt free for those of us not on the "you're evil if you don't agree with everything we say" side until my mind stumbled on Orson Scott Card. Years ago, and for writing other than was linked, I decided that I couldn't maintain my self respect and generate royalties for him. This was a quiet decision, just between my husband and I--at least my part was quiet; he practically crowed, as he showed me Card's literary spitting on everything I believed in and we fools who dare believe. I no longer have the link, but the one provided offers reason enough....

That's why I checked out the Ellison link. I read very little of H.E.'s work, but I appreciate the altered state it always leaves me in.

Gawd Damn. I'd not stuck my nose into what someone had referred to as "the Connie Willis scandal" because I'd assumed it was something dumb--she got mad at a fan maybe, or drank too much at the con. You know, something small that was no one else's business. Before I knew it, I was backtracking for firsthand accounts of what happened...

To the writer that I am: The manuscript wasn't rewriting itself while you followed paths to nowhere. You know better.

To the author I hope to become: Don't ever do that shit. Any of it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Soundtrack Revisions?

Whenever I hear anything off the Violent Femmes debut album, I'm sixteen again, just for a little bit. "Blister in the Sun" in particular brings me back to summer days spent with my friends, screaming lyrics out in a buddy's garage.

Tori Amos's album, "Little Earthquakes", isn't actually about multiple generations of a psychic Franco-American family struggling with their powers while the world teeters on the brink of catastrophic war, but you wouldn't know that by me. The CD was on such heavy rotation while I read Julian May's Intervention (out of print again, but worth getting used) that hearing one of the songs brings certain scenes or characters right into my mind.

My Work in Progress has been years in the making. I'd been working on a story that was important to me, but wasn't going anywhere. I had the main character and the idea, but idea does not equal plot. Then things came together, like they sometimes will in writing. I'd started fleshing out secondary and lesser characters in hopes of creating story from conflicting motivations. One of them insisted (in that way that is not schizophrenia) that he deserved attention. Low and behold, I'd already started telling his story in bits and pieces, I just hadn't known it belonged to him. When his theme song popped into my head, I knew that I knew this guy.

As important as knowing him, was being able to find him again.

Sometimes I suffered from writer's block. OK, I felt blocked a lot. Other times, I succumbed to the imaginary pressure from being surrounded by romance and paranormal romance writers. Was there a place in urban fantasy for my non-female driven work? Quinn got put on the back burner as I explored stories that didn't mean much to me but might mean something to one of the many editors seeking the next kick-ass heroine. I'd lose the feel of him. A play through (or five) of his song, though, and I was back in his head space.

Considering all that, plus that I've discussed the use of music while writing in various forums, I have no idea why it took a post over at Something Wicked to get me to expand Quinn's theme song into a full soundtrack. I have yet to write with the playlist, but it's already helped to block out the dozens of distractions that tend to suck me right out of my story and send me down various rabbit holes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Blue Diablo by Ann Aquirre

Eighteen months ago, Corine Solomon crossed the border and wound up in Mexico City, fleeing her past, her lover, and her “gift.” Corine, a handler, can touch something and now its history—and sometimes, its future. Using her ability, she can find missing persons—and that’s why people never stop trying to find her. People like her ex, Chance.

Chance, whose uncanny luck has led him to her doorstep, needs her help. Someone dear to them both has gone missing in Laredo, Texas, and the only hope of finding her is through Corine’s gift. But their search may prove dangerous as the trail leads them into a strange, dark world of demons and sorcerers, ghosts and witchcraft, zombies---and black magic….
~from the back cover.
The morning after finishing Blue Diablo’s advanced reader copy, I lay in bed wondering how I could explain more than the blub does without leaking spoilers. I could note how the first four pages are in present tense, like an odd holdover from Aguirre’s sci-fi series, only to suddenly move to past-tense for the last page and a half of the first chapter and ever after. Of course, this is the ARC, so that may not still be the case for the actual print run. Even if it is, it only takes you out of the story a little; I was in the middle of the second chapter before I thought, “Wait. Huh?”

I could tell, I thought, about how the heroine has an enjoyable personality with the sort of self-esteem issues that we get a little tired of in our friends but put up with. That’s when it hit me: not only did Corine’s thoughts and fears remind me of real life conversations, everything from those issues to the description of her looks, down to what she wore—in the text, not the obligatory sexed up cover-- reminded me so much of one of my best friends that I wanted to post a picture. (Don’t worry, D. I won’t do that to you; not only do I know it would be wrong, but also you’re scary when you’re mad.)

Aguirre managed to create a character who really could be one of us. Her power isn’t so bizarrely out there. I attended an intuition workshop that included psychometry. Each participant handled objects much like Corine goes—granted, with far less success and none of the price our heroine has to pay. She’s kick ass without being able to kick everybody’s ass; in a combat situation, she’s better armed with a cell phone ready to call 911 than with a gun, but she’s no damsel in distress waiting for the big strong men to come rescue her.

What would you do if you gathered all your courage and moved to a brand new place to escape the relationship that had almost gotten you killed? And if the ex who could still make your knees go weak tracked you down looking for help on something even more dangerous than what you had left behind? Pre-order Ann Aguirre’s Blue Diablo, due out on April 7, 2009, to read what Corine Solomon does when it happens to her.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Rethinking #Queryfail

When I posted about #Queryfail, I said that it was snarky but educational. Some just settled on snarky. You can read about the fallout here (expand comments) and here.

So I started to think, "Did the snark outweigh the benefits? Should the agents and editors who participated be ashamed of themselves?" My simple answer is, "No."

I mean no disrespect to those who think this was mean and unprofessional--they're entitled to their opinions, and I don't even think them wrong, even if my opinion doesn't fall along the same lines. I just keep coming back to the fact that #Queryfail gave us--the newbs who will always be newbs if we don't learn how to be navigate this hurdle--information that we're not getting anywhere else.

Another look at the Tweets I reposted:

Three paragraphs, no plot, no hook, and lots of "me, me, me, look how wonderful I am! The writer should have known better. Even the questionable query advice available online gives the basic clues. Yet, in the heat of writing and thinking about selling your story, it could easily end up you're too focused on selling yourself. You can bet your advance that we'll all be checking to make sure we haven't lost the hook and plot in our bids to get agents to "pick me".

"What if everything you knew to be true, turned out not to be true? What if it were, in fact, false?" Wow, a first sentence #queryfail. {That could have been me. I started out writing my pitch like a movie ad, too.} Like I wrote, that could have been me, and it was more writers than the one qf I quoted. Because we don't know any better. In advice on how to write a query, I must have missed that doing this is an auto fail and I've seen it again and again from myself and others. I got clued in by a fellow would-be (who got it from an agent). There are a lot of other newbs out there who don't have groups or partners who are now clued in, too.

Please consider my erotic novel 4 publication.I have attached the synopsis & complete manuscript as per you submission guidlines. OK, yes, the editor in question could have gotten this information across by writing "Don't txt-tlk in your queries and spellcheck!" Most of us already know that. Maybe some of us will remember that spellcheck won't catch the dropped 'r' on 'your' and have a second pair of eyes check our work before sending it out.

It would be lovely of the contributors to #Queryfail to reword the more unique entries so writers don't discover from Tweets why they've been rejected, maybe even before the rejection letter reaches them, or end up feeling humiliated even if no one else knows who they are. But it would also be lovely for us newbs to keep getting the info that might keep us from auto rejection.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The First #Queryfail Day

I had a wonderful surprise waiting on Twitter yesterday, but let me give a little background first.

An age or so ago, I decided to stop dreaming about becoming an author and to start working toward it. This meant an end to major fantasies--like accepting an Oscar from my novel turned screenplay that the studio couldn't imagine anyone writing but me--and and end to minor fantasies--like finding an agent for a manuscript that might never be ready to send out.

I focused on finishing the story most important to me. Then, with a few missteps like putting it aside to focus calls for submission, I went into revision mode. This was working just fine until The Amazon Breakthrough contest came around again. The first year, I couldn't even think of submitting anything. But now I had working manuscript, half revised. Surely, I could get the other half ready in time if the judges showed any interest.

At worst, I thought, the manuscript would be tied up in the judging process when I really wanted to send it out the old fashion way to agents. At best, it would make it through several stages and I'd have something to put in the credentials section of my query letters since school anthologies (with titles I don't even remember, no less) don't count. Who am I kidding? At best, my book is even better than I believe and I'd win the publishing contract.

First, I'd have to write that pitch, though. I sat in front of a blank screen, turning words over in my mind, until two experienced query writers from the writing group came to my rescue. They talked me through the process, corrected the worst of my silliness, and helped me breathe through a minor panic attack. Am I all set to go? Not at all. But they laid the foundation that might keep my work from being featured in some future #Queryfail Day.

Agents and editors on Twitter took the time to write about the queries they were rejecting (with a few that were accepted) and to explain why. Yes, it seems mean. How much would it suck to discover your work has been rejected while others got a giggle over it, even though they don't know who you are? But knowing why you got a "thanks, but no thanks" will keep you from making the same mistakes while educating the rest of us along the way.

Here are some examples from the three whose Tweets I follow:

1. Three paragraphs, no plot, no hook, and lots of "me, me, me, look how wonderful I am!" {Remember, the point is to sell the book.}

2. "What if everything you knew to be true, turned out not to be true? What if it were, in fact, false?" Wow, a first sentence #queryfail. {That could have been me. I started out writing my pitch like a movie ad, too.}

3. "Easily the boldest novel so far written in this fresh century of ours." Sure it is! And I'm dating Angelina Jolie... {I stand corrected. The point is to sell the story.}

4. Amputee porn. No, really. Just stop. {::shudder::}

5. Please consider my erotic novel 4 publication.I have attached the synopsis & complete manuscript as per you submission guidlines. {Really? You txt-tlked your hopeful editor to be? And explained the attachments--what?--in case she forgot her guidelines?}

6. I understand that my synopsis needs some work but I am not so great at marketing myself.

7. "A joyous and memorable journey that is both humorous and enjoyable."

8. "My book is differentiated from Twilight because the vampires have wings, and are half-breed angels."

9. fantasy romance query about a nun?...

10. A photo of author in full BDSM dress in body of query email. Yes, I got that.

It wasn't all failed queries and snarky education. The contributors also gave examples of what they accepted, but the 140 characters allowed on Twitter is too short to be of much use to us struggling neebies. For advice on how to do it the right way, check out agent Nathan Bransford's Query Letter Mad Lib, Anatomy of a Good Query Letter, and Anatomy of a Good Query Letter 2. Also see Jessica Faust's Personal Tastes and Holiday Critiques #1 (you can find subsequent Holiday Critiques by scrolling down to the "newer" link).

Monday, March 2, 2009

Speaking of Writers' Groups

If you're just coming to A Writer's Block, or have been one of the four supporters all along but have forgotten, this is the blog of a would-be-novelist on her way to making it or failing miserably. My babbling about books isn't just filler; writer's are grown from readers and seeing how others make the page come alive (or fail to, in our own estimation) can teach us more about the art than any "how to."

My first writing group consisted of best friends inspired by The Dead Poets’ Society. We were teenage girls who loved words and stories and each other. While I didn't know near as much as I do now to apply to the group, The Weird Writer's Society managed to do more than ego stroke. Sure, we were encouraging, but we were also honest about what we thought worked and didn't work.

Sometimes, that's all you need. I can see that with 20/20 hindsight, looking back to when I let an older poet coax me into showing my work. He was kind. He was also professionally published (as opposed to my poems and articles that found themselves in school publications) and offered critiques I wasn't yet ready for.

Fast forward to just a few years ago. I had the beginnings of more novel than I could count, all without a middle--or even a fourth chapter--let alone an ending. I'd dubbed myself the Queen of the First Chapter, so isolated in my writing that I didn't realize there were hundreds, maybe thousands, vying for the title. Then I discovered Kelley Armstrong's Stolen, second in the Women of the Underworld series. I loved it so much that I pestered my husband into reading it. He loved it so much that he bought all the books to date and dragged me to the web site.

The Online Writer's Group--a members’ only section of the site--almost intimidated me too much to join. But I was ready to relinquish my title and opening membership was on a trial basis, so I could quietly slink away if I discovered the group to be too much for me.

What I found was writers of various "levels", all working improve their own and one another's writing. Some of it was so good that I couldn't immediately see why it needed critiques at all. I knew, of course, that it wasn't easy to break into publishing; I didn't get yet how polished a piece needed to before an agent or editor would give it the time to discover how good a story it was. And other pieces were so bad that I marveled that the writers were brave enough to post them alongside the others. These submissions were neither ignored nor ripped apart. The writers, with full respect for their efforts, were shown the issues with their work.

I'd found a place were I could safely learn and grow in my craft.

The best advice that I never received as a would-be-novelist is to find a good writers’ group. They won't fill your head with how great your works is, as friends and family sometimes will, while ignoring every flaw that an editor will spot right before sticking your story under the slush pile. (If they do, let them know what you need. Then, if the members aren't in a place where they can help you, start looking for a new group.) Yet they are still encouraging (if, once you can step back enough to look objectively at your work and what's been said, you feel that they are more attacking than critiquing, find another group).

In learning to critique others, we learn a great deal about our own writing. It doesn't hurt that, along the way, we end up with the kind of support system we'll never find by sitting alone staring at the screen.