#FAILURE IS NOT FATAL

#amwriting #amquerying

Just the other day, I posted this quote from Winston Churchill: Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. Normally, I’d just leave it out there and it would hopefully inspire some other folks the way it inspired me. But I’ve found that over the past few days, I can’t seem to get it out of my mind.

Maybe it’s because I’m at a point where some writers I know have given up: 100 query letters sent, no nibbles. A handful of really nice responses, praising one or more of the elements of my offerings. But no concrete interest to date.

Many people would move on.

It’s not that I thought it would be easy. In today’s anyone-can-publish environment, I knew it would be hard to find an agent or publisher the traditional way, as the bar is set so high. I knew that books set in the Old West aren’t all that popular, particularly when they don’t adhere to the expected story lines. I knew that rape and incest were topics that would be rejected immediately by some agents.

But I also know it’s a subject that needs the light of day to shine on it, and that I’ve handled it with both empathy and sensitivity. I’ve explored the effects of these horrors not only on the abused, but also on those who help others heal, who become the caregivers for the exploited, and who may feel guilt and despair because they think they should have somehow, in some way, been able to intervene and change the path of fate.

So, yes, it’s a hard subject. I often find myself drawn to hard subjects, like intractable physical pain; the plight of Native American children in missionary schools; Irish slavery in the Americas; hatred of those who are not “like us”; the failure of those we trust to defend us; being disabled in an able world; and An Gorta Mor. I have written or am writing on all of these subjects.

Knowing that WHISPERS IN THE CANYON was going to be harder to place is something that gives me the ambition to keep going with the query process. The book hasn’t failed because it hasn’t found the right agent, but I will fail if I give up on it.

Or it could just be the hardhead incurable optimist in me…

On the (Twenty)-Seventh Day of Christmas…

#amwriting #amediting #blogging

Hope everybody’s gotten a good start on the New Year. I was a little surprised to get my year-end stats and realize I hadn’t posted anything but a few short quotes since Thanksgiving. (Re-blogging others’ work doesn’t really count.) So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain what I’ve been up to.

On the writing front, I finished the final edit of my first manuscript, WHISPERS IN THE CANYON, based on a “revise and resubmit” request from an editor at a small press. (I resubmitted, but haven’t had any news yet – still got the fingers crossed.) I also had to admit that my query letter just wasn’t working, so started from scratch. The process of writing a query letter is completely and utterly different from writing the novel – it takes a long time time and a totally different set of brain cells to distill 100,000 words down to three paragraphs. Now that it’s done, I really like the finished product and have begun sending it out. We’ll see what happens…

Then I got my second manuscript, THE WOODSMAN’S ROSE, back from my critique partners – there were some problems with story flow, so I’m still working on a few new scenes, but most of the other edits are done. And I’ve been preparing my third work, RAINBOW MAN, for my critique partners – still got quite a bit of editing to do on that.

Last, but certainly not least, I’ve completed two new chapters of my latest novel, THE WINDS OF MORNING.

Sounds like I might have had my hands full, but this year I also decided to invite my family for Thanksgiving. Never done it before – always just had to bring a covered dish or dessert to someone else’s house, usually my mother’s, MIL’s, or brother’s. But I’ve got to say I really enjoyed it. I like to cook (on occasion) and I love to bake, so it was a really great experience!

As if that weren’t enough, my family makes a REALLY BIG DEAL of Christmas. That means the house gets decorated to the hilt – even the shower curtains get changed. Special Christmas dishes come out of storage, candy canes and snowmen rim the lawn, wreaths are put on every door, inside and out. Reindeer, snowmen, Santas, music boxes, cookie jars – oh, and trains, I love the trains! When I’m finished, the house almost looks like an old-fashioned “shoppe”! Glance in any direction, in any room, and you’ll see something of Christmas.

For much too long, my husband and I lived in a small 4-room apartment that had no room for a tree, so our Christmas tree went on the enclosed but unheated porch downstairs, which meant I only saw it twice after it was decorated: on Christmas morning and at our holiday open house. One year I found a cute little tree that I could decorate and hang on the wall, so at least I had the feeling of a Christmas tree upstairs. Two years ago, my brother gifted me two artificial trees (one full size, one 4′) and my sister gave me a table-top tree.

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The Wall Tree

At that time, we moved into a 10-room home, and decorating has taken on a scope it’s never had before. This year, I decided to use all the trees at my disposal, plus the live tree for the living room. Tiny tree went in the guest room, wall tree to master bedroom; full size tree to my office, 4′ tree to the TV room downstairs. And believe it or not, I had already accumulated enough ornaments for all of them!

Crazy, you say? Maybe a little bit. But living for 16 years without a Christmas tree in the house leaves its scars. And this year, a whole lot of healing took place!

Fortunately for me, the artificial trees can go out to the new shed with the lights still on them, though the decorations have been removed. Otherwise, it might just have taken me until Easter to get everything put away.

I’m at the end of the process now, holiday dishes and cookie jars about the only things that haven’t been put away. Which means that soon, I be getting back into my “normal” rhythm, and be posting a few times a week.

And next year, I’ll be sure to let everyone know there will be down-time between Thanksgiving and the middle of January. Hope you don’t miss me too much!

Win A Doodle! Hooray!

Had an awful or wonderful vacation? Win a doodle just for posting details on Mike Allegra’s blog!

HEY! Guess what!?!? I WON!!!

Second place, that is, and I’m getting an autographed copy of BLOOD ON THE FLOOR or HOW WRITERS SURVIVE REJECTION. It’s an anthology, and includes one of Mike Allegra’s works.

I’m really looking forward to reading it (and re-reading it whenever a rejection gets me down!)

Hey, Look! A Writer Fellow!

IT IS TIME FOR A CONTEST!

Here’s your chance to win an official Mike Allegra custom made doodle!

But first, a word from Giddy Happy Mike:

This is the cover of the July 2015 issue of Highlights for Children.

Highlights coverIsn’t it great? I especially like this part:

Highlights cover detailThat’s my story!

“Harold’s Hat,” is in the latest issue of Highlights (which is awesome)! And the editors decided to promote it on the magazine’s cover (which is awesomer)!

The issue arrived in my mailbox on Saturday. My son took one look at it, turned to me and said, “You are so cool.”

Best Fathers’ Day Present Ever.

The entire magazine is fantastic, by the way (Highlights is always fantastic). So be sure to pick up a copy for the little ones in your life. OK?

Thank you for indulging me. Now where was I? Oh, yes…

THE WIN A DOODLE…

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That Dreaded Query Letter: Critique by an Agent

Today I received an agent’s critique of my query letter, and it was pretty positive. She said it did a nice job of presenting a complicated plot succinctly. Hooray for that!

However, she felt the “stakes” weren’t quite high enough. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that after Adam Donovan kills a bank robber, he decides to tell the outlaw’s family of the death himself. The agent asked why he would do that, and further posed the question:

“What makes his moral code run so deep?”

I’ve been pondering over that all day, and I really don’t know how to answer it. I’ve confessed before to being a very literal person, and the question literally seems to me to be unanswerable.

It seems to me that a moral code is something a person has or doesn’t have. There are those who have set standards for themselves, and those who have not. That’s not to say that some standards aren’t flexible, or that some aren’t closer to being “wrong” than “right” (think Hannibal Lecter). But those without a code seem to do whatever appeals to them at a particular moment, while those with a code can usually be expected to react in a similar way to similar situations.

I consider my own moral code to be fairly rigid. It’s based on the ideal that I would never intentionally harm another being, or allow another being to come to harm if I can prevent it. (Kind of sounds like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, doesn’t it?)

So what causes one to adopt and adhere to a moral code? I believe that it’s first made up of the total of our lifetime experiences, including education and parental guidance, but I know that can’t be all of it.

My sister and I were brought up by the same parents in the same house and had essentially the same education. We were both well-loved, we were both occasionally spanked (all the kids of our generation were – we never thought it meant we weren’t loved). We ate together, played together, went to church together. Our birthdays fall only one day apart (so there goes the astrological explanation). Why then are we so different?

My sister worked one job for over 30 years; I changed jobs every 3 to 5 years. She worked in pre-school; I worked in finance. My sister still practices the religion of her youth; I don’t. She’ll “go with the flow”; I prefer to map things out. I tend to collect evidence and examine it from all sides; she’s more likely to follow her instincts. My sister inherited red hair and blue eyes; for me, gray eyes and brown hair.

We both love to read and we’re both optimistic.

So is it genetic? Part of it must be, don’t you think? If the corporal identifiers are so different, doesn’t it stand to reason that the internal processes must be different as well? What leads one to be more accepting, another more inquisitive, when all other factors would seem to be the same?

Can we ever know? Will brain mapping ever tell us why even identical twins have different interests or laugh at different jokes?

Or is the answer to the original question a whole lot more simple? Could it just be that the men I admired most in my young life – my father, my grandfather, my uncle – had a moral code that never broke? Could Adam be the reincarnation of them – my wish to have them all live again, if only in print?

I think that may be true. In fact, after further thought, I’m sure it is.

But it still leaves me with absolutely no idea of how to answer the original question:

What made their moral codes run so deep?

If you have a theory on this, I’d love to hear it.

Those Lowdown, Lonesome Query Blues

How does it happen? How is it that this perfectly written, perfectly polished, perfectly appealing manuscript of mine gets so little positive attention?

Of course I’m kidding. First of all, I know that nothing’s perfect. Secondly, I know that nothing will appeal to everyone. How many book are there that I haven’t taken out of the library? Tens of thousands. How many authors have I read once and not returned to, because they weren’t “my cup of tea”? Hundreds. How many times have I started reading a book and put it down before I finished? Well, that last number is probably 3 — I’m pretty optimistic that even the most unappealing work will eventually get better. After all, it did find a publisher!

Which, at this point, is more than mine has. I’m still trying to snag an agent. And that’s not as easy as I thought it might be when I started my quest.

Specifically, the number of rejections I’ve had on my query letter just hit 30. I think this is a milestone — it shows both that (a) traditional publishing is indeed a subjective business, and (b) that I’m persevering in spite of the obstacles. One I can’t do anything about, the other I can be proud of.

As I review the rejections, I’m struck by one thing: in an industry that requires absolute adherence to the guidelines in a query letter, there’s no cut-and-fast standard for responses. I’ve received everything from a 4-word text (“Thanks not for us”), to extremely helpful critiques from agents who enjoyed my work and wanted me to know specifically why they passed on it. I’ve mentioned a couple of those letters here previously and I’ve used the advice in all of them to improve my story.

Most letters are either kind or professional; even the form letters have thanked me for considering the agent. But a couple have registered pretty high on the rudeness scale. So how do I keep from getting aggravated, depressed or outraged?

Frankly, sometimes I don’t. But I try to keep those times to a minimum and go on to something that’s going to help me a lot more than grousing. Recently I’ve begun to send out two more query letters for every rejection I get, and two more for every query that hits its “expiration date” with no agent response. That way, each rejection turns into two new prospects for publication.

And I constantly remind myself that really great authors have received just as many, just as awful rejection letters to their masterpieces. Did you know that Rudyard Kipling once received a letter telling him he “didn’t know how to use the English language”? Emily Dickinson was told her work was “devoid of true poetical qualities“. Chicken Soup for the Soul received over 100 rejections, while the first Harry Potter book was rejected 14 times. Ouch! In the long run, I bet it didn’t hurt as much to get those letters as it did to send them!

So I thought I might try my hand at writing a rejection — specifically a rejection of a classic novel. I decided to turn Jonathan Swift’s delightful irony around; I’ve taken cues from responses I’ve received, included a few digs of my own, and created the following rejection letter for Gulliver’s Travels.

Dear Dr. Swift;

Thank you so much for your query, but we’re going to decline at this time. I know you’ve put a lot of time and effort into your project, however, your characters didn’t seem realistic. A ships’ surgeon who gets involved in shipwrecks? People who wage war for no reason? Where on earth did you get those ideas? And talking animals — well, it’s pretty cliché. You’re beating a dead horse there.

In addition, it is considered quite rude to refer to vertically-challenged folks as anything other than “little people”. I do so wish that you authors would observe the current conventions and mores.

I would also recommend researching “limited third-person POV”. Rather than hopping from one character’s thoughts to another’s, you should write your story from the point of view of a single character. Granted, this can be quite challenging at times when the character is unconscious, but rules are rules after all.

We also encourage you to gather beta readers and critique partners to help hone your craft; their suggestions can be invaluable, and you might have avoided some of the aforementioned pitfalls by seeking them out. Please keep reading writers’ advice booklets, taking writing courses, and study some books on writing well. And practice your writing — it is a learned skill.

Or perhaps consider that this business may not be for you.

Thank you for considering us for your work and we wish you well in the future.

Sincerely,

Bud I. Donhafacloo
Snobb & Bish Literary Agents

So tell me, have you received a rejection letter that made you wonder why you should keep going? Do you want to try your hand at rejecting a classic? Submit your “G-Rated” letters below — and have a ball!

That dreaded query letter …

Oh, the dreaded query letter! It is, in my opinion, the hardest thing in the world to write. Writing an effective query letter takes the ability to ignore your creative urges and write in a way that‘s totally foreign to your instincts.
books art-writing
Remember how you used to write book reports in grade school? You’d take someone else’s work and boil it down to a one-page review. Hard, right? A query letter allows you that same one page, except it also has to include some personalization, your biography, comparable titles, and any other little thing a specific agent wants to see. So, in reality, you have about a half-page to work with.

To condense a book of 80,000-120,000 words down to its most basic elements in three paragraphs (or as one agent recommends, 5 sentences!) verges on the impossible. Add in your voice, the stakes, and a hook that makes the reader say, “I’ve got to see more of this!” — and, well, you’ve gone right over the cliff.

My query letter for WHISPERS IN THE CANYON has undergone more than a dozen transformations. I’m still not totally satisfied with it. But the other day I heard what I believe is the most pithy and on-point advice since I figured out “show-don’t-tell”.  And it’s this:

Nouns do not create characters.

Huh! Was I trying to create a character with nouns? Or have I stuck to the basics and used lots of verbs? Let’s see if I can change something and make my query letter stronger.

I took a long hard look and realized that, though my query letter did not contain a lot of unnecessary nouns, there were a number of adjectives. But more to the point, I was not putting enough emphasis on the verbs. Take this sentence for instance:

Jesse is small, fragile, and shunned by the village for her brother’s misdeeds.

Reading it over, I realize I’ve put as much emphasis on the descriptors “small” and “fragile” as on the action “shunned”. The first question I asked myself was: Is it necessary for the reader to know that Jesse is small and fragile? The answer (at least in my unqualified opinion) is “Yes”. However, a simple re-wording of the sentence could move the emphasis.

Small and fragile, Jesse’s been shunned by the village for her brother’s misdeeds.

The readers still know what they need to know about Jesse physically, but now the emphasis is on “shunned”. This version, I believe, creates a more emotional response in the reader. And when you’re trying to get someone so interested they can’t help but want to know more, you need that emotional response.

Half a dozen small tweaks like that one have, I believe, made my query better. How about you? Are you in the query trenches? What do you think the strongest thing about your query letter is?

Bad News, Good News (2)

I got another personalized rejection in response to a query letter recently. If you remember, the first agent liked the characters and plot of WHISPERS IN THE CANYON, but she felt my writing was too brusque. I’ve taken steps to correct that.

The new agent likes my writing and the plot, but rejected it because she did not “connect with the characters” within the first few chapters. And that, to me, is a much more critical problem.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to do. So I shared the results with a good friend, also a writer, who read the first few chapters for me and felt the problem might be too much backstory. The portions of these chapters that told the family history were too long. They interrupted the flow of the story and prevented the characters from becoming the centerpiece of it.

Her recommendation was to remove some of it and “sprinkle” it through the later chapters.

“Sprinkle”. I really like that concept. Like you do for the lawn. If you just put the hose out there on the lawn, a small portion of it will be waterlogged, while the rest suffers drought. But if you set the sprinkler up to reach the entire lawn, all of it will be healthily saturated.

So I am again editing, and this time, I’m sprinkling the family history around. Perhaps the next agent who requests pages will find them irresistible. I live in hope.

Slainte!  And a tip of the Stetson to T. C. B. (You know who you are!)

Bad News, Good News

Sometimes bad news is a very good thing.

A little background: my manuscript, WHISPERS IN THE CANYON, was (in what I thought was a cut and polished state, like a rare diamond if you will), 120,000+ words long. But feedback from many quarters said “That’s too long”, “It’s not the optimal size for publication”, “Agents will reject a first novel of more than 100,000 words”.

I needed to optimize my chances at publication, right? So I managed to cut the novel down to 104,000 words. And then the queries went out, the contests were entered, and a request came in for the first 25 pages. Wonderful news, right?

Not exactly. A few weeks later, the agent replied:

Thank you for the opportunity to consider WHISPERS IN THE CANYON. I like the tone you set in these pages and I can see the potential for greatness in the characters. However, I found the writing to be abrupt; I couldn’t become fully immersed in your story because of the brusqueness.

Wow! Characters with potential for greatness! WOW!

But abrupt? Brusque? Never heard that before. But then, all but one of my advisers and beta readers had looked at the long version. I didn’t wait for everyone to re-review it after the cut. Could it be true?

A very quick look told me, yes, it was true. In fact, I’d have to say the agent was very nice about it. The 25 pages I sent her read more like bullet points than a story. I had gotten so caught up in reaching the magical 100,000 word mark, I didn’t stop to let the true composition of the work affect me. I was blind to the fact that the essence of my style got away. I was paying attention to the number of words rather than their quality.

So how is this bad news good? If the agent hadn’t taken the time to give me her personal critique (which she was under no obligation to do), the short version of the manuscript would have gone out to every future requester. It would have continued to be rejected, and rightfully so. But I might never have known why.

I’m going back to the long version of WHISPERS IN THE CANYON, making some minor adjustments (because there were short scenes and some verbiage that actually absolutely needed to be cut). But if the end result is 118,000 words, then that’s what it will be. I’d much rather be rejected for a novel that’s too long than for one that’s poorly written.

So you’ll have to excuse me now — I have a thank-you note to write.

A BADGE OF HONOR

A couple of weeks ago, I started sending query letters out. Yesterday, I got my first form rejection. I fully expected to be upset when this happened, and it took me a little while to understand why I wasn’t.

When this novel was first completed and I was looking for a literary agent, the internet was still a baby: computers were primarily used in business for billing and inventory control. At that time, I saw an ad for a literary agent near my home. I sent her an inquiry and I was thrilled that, for a fee, she agreed to represent my book.

How was I, a neophyte in the publishing arena, to know that no respectable agent charges a fee for representation? and for phone consultations? and for postage? I couldn’t Google her and I didn’t have a way to ask anybody about her, except for the “satisfied client” references she provided (all family members, as it turned out).

What did I know? I signed on, happily paid the fee, and she started sending out a form letter to various publishers with a tear-off at the bottom where they could check “yes” or “no”. It wasn’t a query letter — just a couple of sentences indicating the name of the book, page count and genre, and a single sentence bio. I assumed this was the way everyone did it, and as the “no” stack got bigger and bigger, I got pretty discouraged. After two years of fees and “no” forms, I just gave up.

Last year, when I took my manuscripts out to dust them off and try again, the first thing I did was Google my previous agent. Lo and behold! A Worst Literary Agents list popped up! There she was, in all her splendor. One of the phrases used to describe her was “highway robber”! “Incompetent” was about the kindest word I read.

So it wasn’t that the book was bad — the agent was! And as I went on to research how to write a query letter, synopsis, and all the other stuff agents might want, I realized that my manuscript was nowhere near ready for publication. In the first place, it was too long and I had to cut almost 20,000 words. In the second place, it wasn’t as tight and polished as it should have been. If my previous agent had been any good, she would have been able to tell me these things.

But now, after several months of editing, I have a tightly woven story, with polished sentences and an appropriate amount of tension, and I’m very proud of it. And I consider that first rejection a badge of honor. “Dune” got 23 rejections before someone picked it up, and “Gone With the Wind” got 38!

So I’ll hang in there and stay confident, because it only takes one agent to say “yes” — and this time I know how to make sure it’s the right one!

The Query Letter

The manuscript was completed, polished and pared down to the optimal length for a first-time author. And it was time for me to write a query letter and see if I could get an agent interested in my book.

There are a ton of resources online with instructions on how to write a query, and some that even tell you how NOT to write one. I read through most of them and developed what I thought was an award-winning letter.

Then I found an online forum created specifically for review and critique of Query letters. Maybe my query could be improved (slightly) to make the very first agent who reads it call me immediately. So I posted my beautifully polished letter and sat back to hear the praises sung.

Oy vez! Was I wrong! The comments flew thick and fast. You should this, you shouldn’t that, use this format, tell us that. Whew! Wait a minute! Let me just catch my breath for a bit and try to understand.

Okay. So maybe some agents want the title, genre and word count at the end of the letter instead of up front. I can work with that. Some want to see who my prospective audience might be: that’s a little harder, but I can do that, too. However, everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — wants me to “show, not tell”.

Huh? What?

Now, I’m a really literal person. I get hung up on semantics a lot, and this phrase is making no sense to me at all. I’ve written a story. Told a story. And this letter is telling you about the story I’ve told. So what do they mean, “show not tell”? They want diagrams? pictures? I’m completely stumped.

I try again and again to write this query properly, and still get the same critique: “show, don’t tell.”  My hair is coming out in clumps, my fingers shake when I type, and my feet are cold all the time. And still I get the same reaction. “Show, don’t tell.”

I want to give up.

And then some blessed person says, “You’re describing things to us. Show us the action.”

What? Wait! Oh, I get it — you want actions, not reactions. I’ve been giving you reactions. I see it now. One more stab …

and I have, at last, after 3 weeks and 12 attempts, a successful query letter.

Now of course the letter hasn’t been asked to do its job yet — I’ll get to that later this week. But at least it has the format and content it needs to catch that always-elusive agent’s attention.

So if, like me, you get stuck in the middle of Query Purgatory, there is a way out. If people are telling you “Show, don’t tell”, just give them the action. Take out the emotions, the descriptions, the stuff that was the hardest to write. They don’t want that. They want the action, the plot, the problems that characters face. Not how they feel about it, but what they’re going to DO about it.

And if you want, use my little formula: not “show, don’t tell”, but “actions not reactions.”

And now wish me the best of Irish luck as I prepare to send this lovely little letter out into the world on its own.