Monday, July 28, 2014

The anchors that weigh us down...and how to break free of them

Anchors. We all have them. They can be both physical and mental. Some are so invisible that we don't realize how much they're holding us back. Or even that they're there at all, until they decide to put themselves front and and center. Sort of like this:

In cleaning out my office today, I was faced with an anchor that was both physical and mental--the hefty filing case filled with drafts of the first book I ever wrote. It took up almost the entire bottom half of my bookshelf. 

I love this book with my whole heart. I truly do. But seeing it there, heavy, and sagging, reminded me of how much it weighed down my writing career for a number of years. 

Like many beginning writers, I thought that book was going to be my be all and say all. That if I put the necessary work into it, someone would snatch it up eventually. And because I worked on it for so long, I didn't put much energy into anything else (including honing my craft). 

Of course I queried it too soon, and got a ton of rejections (and surprisingly, some partials). But I still clung to it, even after I realized the idea wasn't marketable, the story structure was too scattered, and most importantly, that the main character didn't jump off the page. 

And finally, last year--at long last, I commanded--"to the trunk with thee." It may come back out eventually, but I've set my energies in other directions. And I'm much happier for it.

I was also reminded of this recently on Janet Reid's blog, when someone asked whether bidding on a critique on their manuscript would hurt their chances with their "dream agent." (And while we're at it, yay Pens for Paws!). In the comments, I said, "Sometimes it's difficult for us writers to remember that the sun doesn't rise and set around one book. But making connections and fostering learning opportunities is always money well spent."

Anchors come in all shapes and sizes. Lingering self-doubt. Low self-perception. A marketing strategy that didn't work. A person from the past who causes you to regress into someone you aren't anymore. A panda bear gnawing your leg. A squirrel grabbing you by the nuts.

And yes, some anchors can be difficult to let go of. But if they hold us down long enough, we'll start to drown. (Not that anchors actually drown things, but they'll definitely keep us stuck in one place).

We have to drop them and figure out what the next course of action is. And remember the bright future that lays ahead. Writing that next book. Or trying a new marketing strategy. Or, if you've lost an agent (or editor), dusting yourself off and moving forward (and writing that next book). 

I posted this video on my blog a few years back, but I think it still applies: 

So now to you. What are your anchors, and how have you broken free of them?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

We've Selected Our 50 Entrants for the August Mystery Agent Contest!

 Check the list and see if you're one of the lucky 50 folks* who get to pitch our August Mystery Agent!

If your name's on the list, you'll need to email us your pitch--50 words or less--for your completed and polished middle grade or young adult manuscript. Send it to operationawesome6 (at) gmail (dotcom) by July 30. In the past, we've emailed stragglers to get their pitches in on time, but with 50 entries we're not going to be able to do that this time, so make sure you follow the guidelines and meet the July 30 deadline!

Please format your pitch like this in the email:

Email or twitter: 

Good luck to all!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

*(There are 49 here, btw, because we had a mixup with our last contest and that person has a guaranteed slot in this one) 

Friday, July 25, 2014

What's Your Story About? Exploring Theme in Fiction

That’s the question we get any time we tell someone we’re writing a (insert your form here – story, novella, book, space opera…) And that’s the question we’re told to have a ready answer to, just in case we bump into our dream agent in line for a McMuffin on the way to work, or in the elevator at a writing conference. It’s the log line, the pitch, the meat of the matter. But what is this critical nugget really? If the piece we’re writing has a shot at capturing the hearts and minds of an audience, it’s the theme.

When someone asks what your story is about, how do you answer? Do you give a brief summary of the action?

For example, “my story is about this poor girl who is harassed by her evil stepsisters until her fairy godmother comes and turns her into a princess so she can go to the ball and meet her prince and live happily ever after.”

That is, after all, what Cinderella is about. Isn’t it? Maybe not.

Try this: “my story is about the belief that by putting goodness and love out into the world, goodness and love will be returned to us. It’s an exploration of the golden rule, set in the world of princes and fairy godmothers.”

Which one do you want to read?

The first tells us what the story is about in terms of action. The second, though, tells us what the theme of the story is.

The Importance of Theme

Let’s look at the idea of theme for a moment. Have you ever finished a book and put it down, asking yourself what the point was? Maybe there was great action, and a rollicking plot, but at the end you’re left feeling like it was hollow somehow. That, writers, is the absence of theme.

All stories should have a theme – from literary (where sometimes the themes seem to take over all action and bring the plot a standstill) to genre (where occasionally theme suffers for the sake of the plot.) It was easy to identify a theme in fables or parables – the theme was the moral or teaching. But in fiction, we don’t always seek to teach.

Think about it this way – the theme of your work is the concept that links the story to the audience. It’s what makes the story universal. It’s what elevates it from a good story to a story that will keep readers thinking long after they’ve put the book down.

As I’ve written more, I’ve learned to build theme into my work somewhat organically. I’ve even discovered that I have themes where I didn’t intentionally place them. But the best work, I think, develops when a writer has a theme in mind as they craft the story, allowing it to work in and out of the words, wrapping itself intricately through the scenes and chapters and adding an extra layer of complexity to the story.

How do you approach theme? Do you build it in intentionally, or have you discovered your themes after the fact? Can you think of any books you’ve read recently that have done a nice job with building on a theme?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Behind the Contest - A Few Pointers from A Contest Judge by SC Writer (guest post)

First up, my credentials, so you know I'm not just pulling this out of thin air. I've co-hosted "Query Kombat" twice and "Nightmare on Query Street," hosted "The Writer's Tank" and twice hosted "Become an Agent," and I was a slush reader in "In With the New." So, yes, I've went through...dang, nearing a thousand queries and first 250 words.

When going through the slush to pick entries for the contest, we usually have a hashtag that we slush-readers use on Twitter. On this hashtag (different for each contest) we tweet our thoughts as we go through the slush, but I've never done a blog post on the subject.

1. It is SO, SO, SO subjective.

Maybe you need to be a slush-reader to truly understand this, but picking entries (and, to an extent, requesting material) is so subjective. We're not trying to make you feel better by saying this, we're not babying you: IT IS THE TRUTH. Very rarely do I ever feel 'satisfied' when I make my final picks. Most of the time I'm torn apart because there were so many others I wanted to pick but because of the limit on entries, I couldn't.

The same is true for agents. They can, technically, request a ton of material, but that means they'll fall behind on their own clients' work. No human can read five manuscripts a day. Agents must be picky for their clients' sake and their own sake.

2. In picking entries, it came down to "I MUST MUST MUST have this entry on my team."

This is related to point #1. Ultimately, especially with "In With the New" where I could pick only 4 entries from a slush of 191, I picked the entries that I just had to have on my team. Subjectivity played a huge deal.

This must be true for agents as well, and I've seen many echo the same sentiment: they must be dying to request. You've got to force them to request. Otherwise, if they find any reason to pass, they will. Of course, different agents act differently, but I've heard this sentiment many times and as a contest host, I do the same thing.

3. Follow submission guidelines. Please.

I automatically passed on an entry that forgot its header of Title, Word Count, Genre. I didn't even read the entry. I passed on one that had 200 sample words instead of the required 250.

Do yourself a favor and follow agent guidelines. They're there for a reason, and it's annoying and frustrating when submissions don't follow guidelines. It doesn't help you, either; it's an automatic pass.

4. Don't try submitting to agents that don't rep your genre UNLESS they specifically say something to the lines of, "I'm not sure what I want, I picked up manuscripts that totally surprised me, so feel free to query if you think I'm a good match."

I passed on every picture book in "In With the New" because, simply, I didn't know how to judge it. I didn't know what were "good" or "bad" picture books, so after trying once and giving up, I didn't read the PB entries. Same went for many Middle Grade entries. I'm getting better at MG books but still, at many times I ask my co-host, Michelle (who writes MG), to take a look at the entries that I think may be good.

If an agent has a list of genres they are looking for and yours isn't on it or even NEAR the genres they're looking for (if you have a contemporary and they're asking for commercial, be cautious, but go ahead and query), DON'T QUERY THEM! There's a reason they have a list. Also, don't ever start the query by saying, "I know you don't represent literary, but..." because, as I've seen on Twitter, some agents auto reject that.

5. Angry rejected writers put a stain on the entire process.

I've had a few writers who grew angry at one another for their critique suggestions. This didn't only happen once, it happens many, many times. I hear about it, and it gets ugly. The writers who do take the suggestions gracefully, even gratefully, are far FAR more in number than the angry writers. I'd love to say that I think about the graceful writers more, but a small stain in a white carpet catches everyone's eyes. I love the graceful writers, they're the reason I host contests after all, but I'll always remember angry writers. (I love the nice writers most, though. They make me happy. So don't think I hate hosting contests - I don't! I love love love doing it because of the nice writers.)

Agents don't like sending rejections. No one does. But it's a part of the process. Deal with it. If you ever even think about replying to a rejection, unless it's a "Thank you so much for your time!" and that's it, don't even send it. Never reply to rejections. Not with excuses, not with (even polite) requests to look at the submission again. Don't ask for suggestions to improve, either. If the agent wanted to send a personalized rejection, they would have.

6 (and most important). IT'S SO SO SO SOOOOOO SUBJECTIVE!!!!!!!

Repeat that in your head until you believe it. Think about a book someone loves but you hate. Think about your best friend's favorite book. Is it the same as yours? If not, are you seriously going to get upset about it? Obviously not. Don't get mad at agents who reject you. Their tastes are not the same as yours, your critique partners, or anyone else.

SC is the host of the 'The Writer's Tank' and 'Becoming an Agent' on his blog, and he is the co-host of 'Query Kombat' and 'Nightmare on Query Street.' He's a YA and Adult writer and loves YA, Adult, and especially literary...basically any good writing. He's a HUGE Harry Potter and Les Misérables fan (mainly the book but the musical too). Dumbledore is his favorite character in the whole world. Jean Valjean is a close second.

(There's a long story behind his icon. Don't ask.)
and visit/ follow his blog for news on more contests and writing tips!

I hope my points helped!! Any questions? I'd love to answer them in the comments.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Guest Post: Submission Tips From An Editorial Intern

I won't rattle on today because, as you may have guessed from the the title, we have a guest post with the fabulous Jennifer Blackwood. 

Thank you for having me on Operation Awesome today! My name is Jennifer Blackwood, and I am lucky enough to be an editorial intern. I’ll point out a few things I look for when a submission crosses my desk.  

This is the first thing I look for in a submission. It is what keeps me going throughout the story—or makes me stop after 50 pages. It’s what sets your story apart from others. I will faithfully read a story with an overdone trope with a stellar voice as opposed to a unique story with a weak voice.

Some things to look for before you submit:

*Passive voice (using “to be” verbs). There are definitely times where using a “to be” verb is warranted, but make sure it isn’t every sentence!

*Telling- especially emotions. It’s very easy to fall back on, but super easy to fix! Helpful hint: Utilize the “find” button in your document to look for any emotion words (Angry, frustrated, happy, etc.) Instead of using these, show the reader with dialogue, facial expressions, reactions, etc. By doing this, you will draw the reader into the story (and hopefully make it farther in the submissions process!)

*If you have dual point of view, make sure your characters have two distinguishable voices. I often see submissions where the two main characters sound like the same person. Make sure they have their own distinct mannerisms, opinions, dialogue, and thought-processes. 

Dialogue- Dialogue should move your story forward. Oftentimes, in submissions, I see really stiff dialogue that does nothing for the characters. Make sure that each character has their own unique way of speaking. If you took away the dialogue tags, you should be able to tell who is talking just by their style.

A good example of this is Derek from the movie Zoolander. Everything that comes out of his mouth is unmistakably Derek. J

Mechanics- Your submission does not have to be perfect. Commas are the bane of a writer’s existence, I totally get that. I can forgive that. What I can’t forgive is twenty typos per page. Before you send in a submission, make sure to spellcheck. Have a critique partner read over it. It’s a safe bet that your submission won’t make it past the interns if you submit a rough draft riddled with typos and grammatical errors.

Overall story- I have read dozens of submissions and it strikes me as odd that 90% of what I read in the submission pile is THE SAME STORY. Sometimes I do a double take because I think haven’t I just read this? I love me some good, solid tropes (older brother’s best friend, anyone?!?!) but make sure you bring something to the table that makes your story stand out. Tropes I am seeing a lot of: Virgins, rape, bad boys turning good, teens discovering they are werewolves/lycan/fae/anything supernatural on their birthday. I’m all for these tropes if done in a stellar voice with a unique twist!  

Introspection- There is a time and a place for your characters to get deep and philosophical. 

The beginning is not a place to bog down the reader with a ton of introspection. Like wasabi on sushi, a little bit of introspection goes a long way. With that said, you shouldn’t leave readers in the dark about what’s going on with the main character, but ten paragraphs of introspection probably isn’t a good idea for the first few pages.

Professionalism- It is really important to be professional in your query. There are a handful of queries/submissions that stick out in my mind—and usually if they stick out, it means they did something really good or REALLY BAD. Usually the latter of the two. I’ve seen submissions with title pages saying it was a rough draft, others saying I was lucky to be reading it. Some said that if it didn’t get picked up, they planned to self-publish in the next month or so…

These probably aren’t things you want to say when you are submitting to a publisher. Or anyone you are querying, for that matter.

Anyhoo, that’s just a little peek inside the mind of an editorial intern. Thank you for having me on the blog, Operation Awesome!  

Jennifer Blackwood is an English teacher and New Adult author. She lives in Oregon with her husband, son, and poorly behaved black lab puppy. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s binging on Veronica Mars episodes and white cheddar popcorn. Blackwood writes about gray area issues with steamy tension and sizzling romance. But don't worry—her tortured heroes always get their happily ever after they deserve. She is represented by the fabulous Courtney Miller-Callihan from Greenburger Associates. Her debut novel, UNETHICAL, comes out later this year with Entangled Embrace.