What 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have these amazing women in my life. Women that are bold and brash. Women that are gentle and maternal. Women with voices that can always break through the noise in my head.
I have a woman in my life that sends me Buzzfeed articles. She gets that I will always care about anything Harry Potter and not-so-secretly wish Hogwarts was a place I could live in outside my imagination.
I have a woman in my life that believes I am going to be a famous writer. She believes it sometimes when I do not. She believes in magic but not in a silly way. She is a unicorn.
I have a woman in my life that knows what it’s like to feel trapped by your own dreams. We chase those dreams, and also wonder what our lives would look like living easier dreams. She lets me bitch about. She joins in.
I have a woman in my life that has a new baby. We are in different stages of the same adventure. When I think of her as brave, I remind myself I am too, because we both decided to love a little person more than we love ourselves.
Tonight I was talking with a woman that came into my life through serendipity and became a conduit for miracles. I was telling her how I was scared and tired. How I was just looking for a moment to stop, to breathe because lately it felt like my lungs were full of water.
She told me to remember that we aren’t given more than we can handle, but sometimes the universe has more faith in us than we do.
Everything really comes down to that. Faith. Do you have faith to move mountains? Do you believe you are not alone in your fight?
Sometimes, despite all the women I have, and the husband I know I can lean on, despite my bravery and my stubbornness, despite knowing I’m not really alone at all, I find myself adrift. I worry. I sit on my computer and scroll through Facebook, looking for distraction. I wish I could bypass this traffic jam I’ve been stuck in for longer than I like to admit. I wish I could just be different. Be settled. Feel easy.
I wonder if I missed something, somewhere on the life road map I keep flipping around hoping to make sense of. Because if I am in the thick of it — if I’m really doing life right — wouldn’t I stop feeling lost?
I’m going to venture out on a precarious limb here and guess that the answer is NO. Moments of clarity come only when you have already decided to believe. This is a problem people without a notion of Faith encounter. Faith is believing without seeing. It’s bang-a-rang. It’s closing your damn eyes and just stepping.
Faith can burn out. It can grow dim and hard to see. Fear can start to look like it, playing your emotions with logic and reason. Anger can mask your need for it. Longing can pull you away from it.
Here’s some honesty, guys: I’m terrified.
I am scared most of the time of everything I’m doing, but I can’t stop. The point of no return is a distant memory. I’m deep in the woods without a flashlight. I can’t get out without moving. I can’t move without faith.
And we know what this means. Raise your empty glass, prepare your handful of imaginary pudding. It’s bang-a-rang time.
It sometimes takes a lot for me to dig myself out of my own mind. On days like this I find it difficult to do much more than coast. I am a bad coaster. I don’t like to feel unproductive, or directionless — and I really don’t like to be at the receiving end of my own disapproval. On those kinds of days — or weeks, or over-long months — I try to place this wandering mind on something to refocus it. Some of the ways I do that are as follows, in no particular order, with no discernible reasoning:
- My son’s long black eyelashes. There is something mesmerizing about sapphire blue eyes curtained in charcoal lashes so long they can tickle your cheeks when he kisses your nose.
- Real Estate. Not real estate in my budget were I looking to by a house or apartment. Not even real estate where I live or have lived before. Usually real estate in the most fantastic sense of the word.
- Wander around the park (Central or Prospect) and pretend I’m in the woods. This is good for many reasons. Quiet. The location of the first third of my novel which I’m in revisions with. The chance to climb a rock or a tree. Running water. Playing pretend.
- A nice glass of wine well before evening time. This may be counter productive since wine can also make you tired, but it definitely calms me down.
- Default to reading some YA I need to familiarize myself with in order to be able to hold conversation with the rest of the YA writer/bloggers out there. I am behind. Sometimes this helps by merely triggering my longing to see my book in print and putting my brain back in the place it needs to make sentences someone might want to read.
- Remember that everyone needs a break and then turn on an episode of Weeds because I am way, way behind on it.
Being a writer, mom, and wife I forget sometimes to also be an individual person with many facets and needs. Sometimes I forget to place my mind on things beyond my need to finish rewrites. (To just get.it.done!) This can be a bad place to write from, because it can make you very selfish and one-sided. Writers revel in their solitude, but solitude and hard work is not the only way to create. And probably not the best.
Some things I like to do when I’m trying to remember how to write a sentence are, at random:
- Run through the ABC’s, then try to do it backwards. This never works. I would fail a sobriety test were this actually part of the criteria.
- Get up, get something to drink, sit down. Get up, get a snack (usually a bagel), sit down. Drink my drink while I stare at the letters on my keyboard that have turned into hieroglyphics. Go to the bathroom because I have drank my drink and now everything that was in my bladder seems to be trying to make room for everything I just drank.
- Check Facebook. Like a whole bunch of friends status updates. Be unable to update my own status because I can’t remember how to write a sentence. Get annoyed that I don’t have more friends to stalk.
- Disturb the dog.
- Turn on the TV and then wish we had cable.
- Check Zulily to make sure there is nothing I missed when I checked it this morning/remind myself why I don’t need anymore clothes/shoes/stuff for Sam.
- Text someone. This can be difficult because I am using only symbols.
- Check on Samuel, who is sleeping if I am writing at home, and wish he would wake up so I could blame him for my inability to get anything accomplished. I don’t blame him to his face, to his face I give milk and fruit snacks.
- Try to read and then get annoyed that whoever I am reading was able to finish all their sentences. Feel guilty for wanting to beat them over the head with their published book. Promise myself when I have a book published it will annoy some other writer and hopefully motivate them to push past writers block.
- Think about Anne Lamont and her infinite writing wisdom. Remind myself that most of what I would be writing right now if I could would probably be shit.
- Sometimes I read a passage from a YA book I like, like this one:
“I also become a little fixated on his eyelashes, which ordinarily you don’t notice much because they’re so blonde. But up close, in the sunlight slanting in from the window, they’re a light golden color and so long I don’t see how they keep from getting all tangled up when he blinks.”
(*If you know where that’s from then we should chat about how awesome we are.)
- That usually reminds me that I am also writing something I love, and I can put the words together, even if I have to try a hundred times to get it right.
- Then I begin to type, and sometimes I lose my grasp on reality, I forget the world exists, or that writers block ever happens to me at all.