Author Mentor Match: That’s a Wrap

Keep-calm-and-write-on-e1390258489967What a wild ride that was. When the Author Mentor Match submissions window opened it felt more like a floodgate had broken. There was a wealth of brilliant ideas, kernels of genius, clever characters, and inspirational concepts. There was a lot to work through and a very hard decision to make.

We conferred behind the scenes about how hard it was going to be to actually PICK one when it came to that time. It was the first time I feel like, as a writer, I could put myself in an agent’s shoes for a minute and understand the conflict of weighing out the love of a submission against your knowledge of the industry and the strength of other submissions your pile.

I would have loved to take on more than one, but since I can’t, I do want to offer some feedback (super general) and shed some (hopefully) welcome light on this process.

First, I must remind every writer out there — whether you submitted to Author Mentor Match, are in the querying trenches, or are on submission — reading truly is a subjective experience. It is not line we’re feeding you. What works for one reader (editor, mentor, agent), might not work for another. What makes me fall in love is not always as predictable or as easily explained as I would like. What I fall in love with, you or someone else might loathe.

Query widely. Get a lot of feedback. Make your own choices about who you listen to.

Now to my thoughts.

Query letters/description:

This is the hardest part to get right in a submission. Learning to write a brilliant pitch, and also subtly pitching yourself as the author, is a craft in and of itself. These pitches were not expected to be perfect, but I did read the pages faster for the ones that felt more polished.

  • Length: I believe in 250 words max to talk about your book. It’s clean. It means you have boiled down the concept and understand the story at it’s foundation. As a screenwriter, the logline (which is one single sentence) is the king, and so I am particularly hard on this element. If the description needs too much lead in or meanders in the pitch, then you probably have a problem in the pages.
  • Concept: I am a commercial writer. I look for something I think will sell. I am looking at the story concept. I am looking at the author concept(who you are and why you wrote this story). I know very well how much both must line up to make a project viable.
  • Passion: I am a Gryffindor. Passion is my middle name. (Not really, it’s Faith. But close enough.) If I can feel the author’s heart pulsing in a pitch, I know it will resonate on the page, and that is something I can work with.

First Page:

The most critical moment in the submission process. Does your first page make me (an agent, an editor) want to keep on reading?

  • Starting in the wrong place: By far my most common hang up when reading submissions. There were submissions where I felt the first page was confusing, either because of opaque writing or character’s voice not feeling defined enough to carry me through. I was more inclined to read when it started too late rather than way too early.
  • Prologue: Please take caution when using a prologue as your first chapter. I encountered this a few times, and it was frustrating. Please take caution when writing a prologue at all. It must be deeply vital to the story and just as gripping as your main story pages.
    • Try cutting the prologue and then having a fresh reader take a look at the first chapter on it’s own. If they can read on without the prologue, find a way to integrate the most boiled down, crucial information from the prologue into the first few chapters.
  • Voice: This is so frustrating and I genuinely am sorry to include it! Voice is critical. The voice has to be right, or there has to be proof that it can be revised, and that is a fine line.
  • Hook: The hook needs to be on the first page. This sounds impossible, but I promise it isn’t. No matter your genre — I write fantasy, horror and contemporary— there must be something on page one that makes the reader need to know more. Commonly in my submissions, the hook didn’t come for a many many pages and by then I was starting to lose interest.

Plot/Pacing/Structure:

As a screenwriter, these elements of story rule my world. If I can see there is a plot buried inside, then I am much more inclined to read or want to work on something.

  • If you are in the second act and your story still hasn’t taken off, you have some problems. BE BRUTAL in the first thirty pages.
  • I see story as a series of tiny shifts in the character’s life until BAM the inciting incident throws them into a new reality. Those first twenty or so pages are doing a lot of work, and if they aren’t, then ask yourself why.
  • All stories take on a similar structure. Whether you are telling a non-linear literary character piece or a punchy action adventure, you are working with the same story moments. When too many are missing or misplaced, the plot will not work. Very often I found this with submissions and ended up having to weigh what WAS working against what WAS NOT.

Character:

The part of the story that makes us care.

  • Character is so closely connected to voice that it almost feels like the same thing. When one is lacking, the other can’t shine. I had a lot of submissions where voice oozed but character didn’t grab me, and vice versa. I am going to go with character every time.
  • Secondary characters are VITAL. There were some submissions that I LOVED, that had so much of what I was looking for in the main character and the plot, but the rest of the characters felt flat.
  • Along the same lines, there were some stories where I felt like too many character personalities were at play or that the dynamics were wrong. It made reading the pages harder as I went along.
  • Often, I would love a concept and even like the characters, but then just couldn’t find a personal way in to the story. To work as a mentor, much like it is with an agent or editor, I really need my own way in. I need to see that I can add something to your pages.

I hope this sheds a little light on the submission process — even if you did not submit to me or to Author Mentor Match at all. This will not be the last time you submit your work and receive a pass. That is a hard reality that I am sure you are aware of.

There is a saying the screenwriting (or that’s where I’ve heard it):

Throw work at it. Rejection, feeling blocked, discouragement, fear, whatever. Throw work at it.

Or, as I like to say: Throw writing at it.

Keep writing no matter what.

 

 

 

 

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Waiting Ring

ring When you are a writer in pursuit of publication you wait. A lot.

First, you wait for feedback from critique partners and beta readers to tell you your manuscript is ready to query. This is an important stage of waiting. It helps you build up strength in your patience muscles. It teaches you that you can’t harass friends, that passive aggression will do little more than make them want to block your email. Waiting on readers forces you to develop a range of coping mechanisms needed to manage the heavyweight Waiting Tournament that lies ahead of you, known as:

Cold Querying.

This stage of waiting comes with a whole new set of challengers. In one corner there’s Inevitable Rejection. This is a brawny, unscrupulous, and unfortunately unavoidable opponent. Sometimes it strikes fast. Sometimes it is a slow, brutal stalemate of DID THEY GET MY QUERY WILL THEY EVEN RESPOND, in which you recheck their company guidelines and bite your nails to the quick.

In another corner you will face the Partial Request. Often, the Partial Request tag teams with Inevitable Rejection to combine their strengths in a pleasant, sometimes long-awaited Form Letter. Occasionally, Partial Request bows out, and you are upgraded to FULL REQUEST challenge.

This, my querying beauties, is the big leagues. Full Request enters the ring, distracting you with shiny hopes and dreams of Offers, and Contracts, and Emails full of flattery and begging. But then Full Request pulls out it’s secret weapon: Waiting for a Response.

At this point, you are tired. You’ve already fought through three rungs of hell to get to Full Request status. You begin to question your ability to defeat this challenge. Your anxiety seeps to the surface and gives you bitter beer face. You are constipated by the lack of movement in your inbox. You wonder if all the offers are somehow being captured by Full Request’s henchmen, Doubt and Self-loathing. You know you shouldn’t give a flying fuck but you do, you can’t help it, and what’s worse, your hands are tied.

Yes. You start work on another manuscript. Or you start a YouTube channel (like this one). Maybe you take a trip or focus on family or educate yourself in the art of underwater basket-weaving. But you are still WAITING. No winner has been declared. No loser has been declared either.

My friend, Sara Biren told me a story today about waiting in the Geek Squad line at Best Buy. A woman showed up waving a piece of paper with her appointment confirmation and demanding instantaneous service. She was sent to the back of the line. After listening to this woman complain, Sara told her, “There are a lot worse things than having a broken phone and having to wait in line to get it repaired.”

Sara knew I needed to be reminded of this, but she was nice enough not to bitch slap me with it. She was nice enough not to say, “Get over yourself. First world problems much?”She has been in the Agent Waiting Ring. She is now in the Editor Waiting Ring. Her patience muscles are bigger than mine.

When Sara was finally called to the desk, she received an upgrade and got a shiny new case to protect the Precious. Her children were happy because they’d spent the afternoon hogging the Best Buy in store iPads. Waiting had paid off.

Sometimes, Waiting is just giving the Upgrade a chance to find it’s way to you. Sometimes, Waiting is right where you need to be.

So You Think You Can Write

sytycd

It is no secret that I watch — pretty religiously and usually while drinking or snacking to further differentiate myself from the sinewy dancers bodies — So You Think You Can Dance. It is pure entertainment, and unlike American Idol or The X Factor or The Voice, the talent on this show are (usually) highly-trained performers who have been working toward this much of their lives. There is less nonsense, in other words.

Besides that, there’s the other, slightly more private and embarrassing fact about me, that I secretly wish I could dance. I do not secretly harbor the same fantasies for being a singer. I also live with the daily knowledge that my future will never include me formed in the graceful lines of a pirouette. (As proven by my foray in Hula while visiting Hawaii this summer, which can be viewed here.)

But I’m straying from the topic. As I watched So You Think You Can Dance this season, I have also been in the very emotionally abusive (totally masochistic, I should specify because the agents have been very kind) journey known to all aspiring authors as querying. 

Of course, to soothe my own misery, and because I’m a writer who looks for storytelling tools, I drew some parallels between the Road to Publication and the Road to America’s Favorite Dancer, that I am now going to share with you. (And, because I know you’re getting ready to ask, there will be visual aids.)

1) There is a long line of talented, charismatic, maybe even gorgeously beautiful (for writers, more social networking savvy) people in front of and behind you vying for the same position as you are. There is room for many to succeed, at some level, but the majority won’t make it past this point.

sytycdThat is not meant to be discouraging. Querying agents is an ambiguously difficult task, where you can never really know if you’re doing it well or if you will ever make any headway.

Confession: I have developed a serious (borderline neurotic) phobia that all my emails go straight into spam folders. I have fantasies, and not the good kind, of the internet netherworld where emails from me wander around in limbo. Even when I get prompt replies, I then worry over my response email. Really…it’s becoming a problem. One with no solution because as a querying writer it is essential to maintain a front of cool. In other words, no psychotic Twitter stalking, no emailing to check they received your other email. Guys…we just have to wait.

2) Even if you make it past this stage into the first round of eliminations, (or what can be compared to a partial request) that may be where your journey ends. This, of course, is up to how well you dance and how willing you are to be vulnerable on stage. (Is your writing “there”? Did you revise enough for a stranger to connect with your words?) Also, what kind of contestants they are looking for this season. Producers have an idea of the kind of show they want to make, you just may not be what they are looking for. (The “Not for me, not right now” response.)

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Many writers, after multiple partial requests without an upgrade to full, will give up. It is draining to have the hope dangled — even with good intentions, as I am inclined to believe agents generally have — in front of you, for it to then be snatched away.

Confession: I try to see requests as nothing more than a first date. The agent is grabbing coffee with your MS, flirting, maybe fantasizing about kissing, maybe looking for an out. It is not a commitment for more, but could result in further courting.

3) You make it to the top 20! Yay! This is further than almost every other dancer in America. You should be proud. You should be grateful. You still just really want to win. Winning is the goal, not placing, not getting some recognition only to be told you’re not popular or talented enough for the big time. (You’ve had a full requested, but still no offer of representation. You’re progressing, but your goal is an agent willing to rep you, not nice words about how much they love your book…just not enough to take it on.)

Your road to dance success may not be through So You Think You Can Dance, it doesn’t mean you can’t dance.

sytycdeliminationsUltimately, you want an agent who gets your book, can conceive of how to make it better, will be able to sell it, and will defend it right along beside you to anyone who doesn’t get it. Submission is a bitch, mediocre feelings won’t carry you through it. An agent who passes because of that is a kind person indeed, who respects their position in the author’s life and sees they aren’t the best to represent them.

Confession: I actually would rather continue to search for the right agent than sign with the wrong one.

4) You make it to the top 10. (A position I will equate with having an agent, but being in revision still, maybe even out on submission with no luck. I have no agent, though I feel I will always be in revision.) You’re gonna go on tour, you know that much. You’re popular. Your talent is real, and your discipline to improve has so far held up. Any number of things can result in your elimination at this point, but the greatest seems to be that you just aren’t what America is drawn to right now. It’s really not about your skill, but what you’re selling.

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Jenna, who I thought was a very talented dancer with a lot going for her, never seemed to grip the audience. In the end, both she and Tucker were eliminated after dancing beautifully all season.

Confession: I am not a technically perfect writer. My grammar can be lacking. I’m a fan of a comma in odd or random places, and my education has come from reading a lot, writing a lot, but not going to school a lot. This does not make me better or worse. In fact, betas on my early drafts probably wanted to strangle me, but somehow also still loved the story. However, technique isn’t the most important thing. Technique can be improved by practice and a willingness to learn, something easily managed by all if we put our minds to it.

5) Even when you make it to the end, you still may face disappointment and set-backs. (Expectations for your publishing deal, your sales, your fame and fortune are not met.) The truth is, this is what it all leads up to. The finale.

aaron

This season of So You Think You Can Dance featured a really talented tapper who made it to the finale. Aaron had auditioned three times for the show. He had made it to Vegas twice. He had made it through multiple cuts only to be sent home before the Top 20. Finally, he made it into the Top 20, then the Top 10, then the Top 4. His skills as a dancer were top notch. He had a great charisma on stage. He was masculine and strong and, really, not bad looking. I was rooting for him. Sure, I liked Fik-shun. I thought he was talented. I loved him with Amy, etc. But I wanted to see the happy ending for Aaron. I hoped, after all the years of him knocking on this door, him seeking this prize, the answer would be America’s Favorite Dancer Is…Aaron.

Why? Because I want that. As do all writers on the journey toward publication. To pretend we don’t dream of a great publishing deal, a New York Times Bestseller, a film adaptation that doesn’t suck, would be a boldfaced lie. This dream isn’t about the realistic, the what we know will probably happen, because in the end we will be happy to be published and continue writing books — no, the big dreams are what keep us sending out queries, revising, writing. We must write, this will not change if we are never validated by a publishing deal, but the yes from an agent, the sell to an editor, is our goal.

We hear nonstop about the subjectivity of this business. So You Think You Can Dance beautifully illustrates this concept. In the end, what another person loves is not up to you. Be a champion of what you love. Write the stories you want to write, with the characters you can’t ignore, and have faith that you will one day become Your Agent’s Favorite Query, That Editor’s Must Read Submission, The Bestseller Everyone Loves, or The Book That Someone Won’t Be Able To Put Down.

On the Inevitability of No

I had something happen today that caught me off guard: a rejection from a full request. Now, my agent situation has always been a little weird (and not something I am comfortable openly discussing on my blog), but when I received this rejection, I found myself grappling with a lot of emotions.

The rejection was incredibly kind, and actually, made a point to clarify that it wasn’t the quality of my writing or the interest in the book, but rather the agents belief they weren’t the right advocate that led to them passing.

If you are thinking, “Aw, that’s nice, at least you know it’s not because your book is shit.” Then you and I are very different people. Rejection is rejection. It all comes from the same place: not loving your book enough. Like in romance, a guy telling you it’s not you it’s him may seem like a nice reason for breaking it off, but the fallout is often the same. You, left in a puddle, feeling not pretty/cool/clever enough to hold his attention.

I am not complaining. That’s actually not what this is, though I did ugly cry for a little bit afterward. The agent’s interest and willingness to read my book was an incredible opportunity, as well as a boost to my confidence. A boost that shouldn’t be negated because this agent ultimately decided to pass. A boost I will hold on to despite my melancholy over the rejection.

Receiving a “no” must be weighed very carefully with what you already know about your book, your talent, and your belief that you have done all you can to package it in a way that appeals. You must go back to your core and make sure it remains solid. The wobblier you are on whether your book is worth reading, the more likely you are to give up.

I constantly hear agents and other writers say, “If you can do anything other than write, do it.” They say this because rejection is an inherent part of this process. Just yesterday I was speaking to a friend about books — mine, others, all of them — and I told her that at some point every writer has to get to a place where they accept that not every person is going to love their book, and some may even hate it. It takes one agent to fall in love for it to be repped. It takes one editor to want to make out with it for it to be sold.

There’s a verse in the bible that says, “Woe, when all men speak highly of you.” Not everyone should love your book or you. You will have people telling you no until the one you’re supposed to work with says yes. I remember when I was a teenager, my mother gave me this advice in the context of popularity. I wasn’t very popular, nor was I very mainstream. She always encouraged me that those things weren’t what shaped interesting people, and that embracing the fact that not everyone “got” me would allow me to be more open to the ones that did.

I respect the no I received today. I wrote the agent back to thank them for reading, and for seeing it wasn’t for them. Both things are valuable to me as a writer. Does it still sting? Was I hoping this would be it? Sure, yes, of course. I am not much for lying, I wanted this to work out.

That doesn’t change the fact that I have no choice but to keep trying. When Rae Carson was in Irving earlier last month, she shared how she was repped by an agent before her current agent (the one who was able to sell The Fire and Thorns Trilogy). Nothing was wrong with this agent other than the fact that they ultimately didn’t have the same vision for The Girl of Fire and Thorns as Rae had. This distinction made all the difference in the success of selling her book as YA.

I thought about this story today, again, as I was weeping into my coffee because I received one, very courteous and thoughtful, no. Being a writer goes beyond no’s and yes’, beyond selling or not selling, beyond the ironclad door of the industry, and the shit that you see getting published while your masterpiece sits on your computer unexamined. (Hello, Fifty Effing Shades of Gray. Not the actual title so I will not italicize.) Whether your book is really a masterpiece (it’s probably not, let’s face it, that was hyperbole) or not, isn’t what I’m talking about right now. Your passion is what makes it worthwhile. Your willingness to revise is what takes it from meh to marvelous!

And then, when you’ve done all you can and you wait for more responses — praying, crossing fingers, and jumping backwards in a circle for good measure — you write another book in the hopes that one day you get to do it all again.