Five Points to Hufflepuff, Please

English: Coat of arms Hufflepuff, house of Hog...

Coat of arms Hufflepuff (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every week, I read a number of submissions for the online journal Fiction Fix, and the authors’ cover letters are available, as well. Although I don’t always read the queries, I sometimes check them out to see if there is any kind of intro to the story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started reading a piece, only to wonder if it was some sort of attempt at humor or just terribly written. If the author clues me in with something like, “This is a dark comedy,” at least I’ll have an idea of how I’m supposed to read it. One time, I had to re-write a critique when I found out that the current story was a lightly edited memoir, recorded from an elderly woman who had served as a nurse in WWII. There were still parts I thought should have been cut, but I could no longer argue that it was unrealistic; as subjective as the point of view was, the events had actually happened.

One other thing that Fiction Fix does is to award well-written or unique cover letters. The ones that are nominated by the staff for Fiction Fix‘s Gypsy Sachet Award are tagged, and I always read them. I’m actually quite disappointed, sometimes, when the cover letter knocks my socks off, and then the story that follows is just meh. I do understand that writing a great query does not guarantee publication, but it goes a long way toward warming an editorial staff toward a particular author.

When it comes to submitting queries for my own stories, I keep these preferences in mind. I want to include all the pertinent info, but I also want to do so in a way that doesn’t bore the agent or editor to death. They have to read this stuff all day, and mine shouldn’t be the one that makes them decide to take a lunch break at 9:00 A.M.

I keep a file of all the queries I’ve ever written to literary agents, and once I receive a rejection (or once it’s been so long that I have to accept I’ve been rejected, form letter or no), I change the font of the entire thing to red. So far, I have twenty-seven of these ugly red things, going back to late 2004. I know, in almost nine years of literary agent querying, that’s not very many, but if you consider that eleven are from this year. . . it’s kind of depressing.

Why do I keep the darn things hanging around, reminding me of my failures? Well, for one thing, I don’t want to send the same query to the same place that’s already rejected me. For another, I don’t want to make the same mistakes, and at least I can look back and see if I’ve improved.

Assisting me this with year’s queries was literary agent Mary Kole, whose advice I obtained from her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Kole gives a brilliant sample query from one of her own clients, although she is quick to point out that “even the most amazing query in the world can’t stand in for a brilliant book” (271, Kindle version). Too true. It’s also true that it’s hard to make a bad story sound good (while being honest, that is), but it’s also a sad fact that many agents request a query only – no sample chapters, not even a helpful synopsis. So while it’s easy for agents to say that they’re looking for a great novel, not a great query, if the only thing they ever see is the query, it has to be top notch.

There are two querying problems I’ve always had: boiling the plot of a novel down to a few short paragraphs and keeping it interesting. Brevity is a problem of mine, anyway (which you know if you’ve read many of my posts), and it’s especially hard snail mailing a query because all that necessary heading stuff eats up so many lines. With this most recent go-round, I’ve both e-mailed and snail mailed queries, and believe me, it was fun trying to cram the same info into two very different formats. But I did it, with Mary Kole’s help.

To digress for a moment, I’ve read countless sample queries, and I’ve written many more than the twenty-seven rejections currently on file. Plenty of how-to publications outline the proper cover letter format, and supposedly all the author has to do is fill in the blanks with her particular information, and the job’s done, right? Or, say you see a great cover letter that won an author a literary agent – I should just be able to swap out his info for mine. But it never works out so neatly. I find that successful letters have personal touches that simply cannot be copied. It’s all very well for an author to candidly admit that he and his wife blew the $500 he received for his award-winning short story instead of buying groceries, but I haven’t won $500; I don’t have a cute little story like that. Plus, since my published works were for adults, and I’m currently shopping a middle grade novel, mentioning my publishing history hardly seems pertinent.

So how to achieve just the right tone, find the perfect words to not only adequately say what I need but also win over an agent? Kole gives an excellent formula for coming up with what she calls the meat. “The best way to hook me into reading further is to make me care,” she writes (264). Good point. How does one do this? Well, by answering some very basic questions about the story: “WHO is your character?”; “WHAT is the event that launches the story (the Inciting Incident)?”; “WHAT (or who) does the protagonist want most in the world?”; “WHO (or what) is in the way of her getting what she wants (her obstacle)?”; and “WHAT is at stake if the protagonist doesn’t get what she wants?” (264). Put that way, it’s a lot easier than, “Tell us about your novel in three paragraphs.” For someone who’s known to ramble, specific parameters are a must. (Plus Kole answers her own questions using The Hunger Games as her example, which is awesome.)

After going through this exercise, what I had was bare bones, but I was able to succinctly state the most important aspects of my story. (This can also be used as a writing tool, to show how much a story still needs to develop and/or how much exposition needs to be cut.) At least the meat of my query was good.

As for the rest, ugh. I muddled my way through and was much more confident than in years past, but I was still missing that last bit of inspiration.

It finally came – late – from one of the agents way down on my list. (Actually, she was the last one, but the one before her was a snail mail query that I hadn’t yet sent, so I was able to tweak it, too.) This agent works for quite a large agency; she was one of twenty-one agents listed on the website. I love it when agents have bios because, otherwise, I’m unsure of how our personalities might mesh or collide (although that’s not a problem yet). This particular agent set the bar really high, asking for a “wonderful, personalized query letter.” And the kicker: “Five points to Ravenclaw if you can make me laugh out loud!”

I’m always afraid to admit that I love Harry Potter, especially since I write fantasy. Oh, it’s just another J.K. Rowling wannabe, I can hear them saying. But it couldn’t hurt, I thought, to mention that Harry Potter was my inspiration for getting into kidlit again. Or that the five points would do me more good in Hufflepuff than in Ravenclaw (and that has more to do with me being a Jill-of-all-trades than a Cedric Diggory groupie).

So I sent those two queries off, and my fingers are crossed. If one of them lands me an agent, maybe I’ll provide the letter as one of those useless samples that kind of (but not really) helps other authors. The important thing is to be yourself in your query, and this particular agent was one of the first to give me specific permission to do that. I suppose it’s only fair to let them know who they’re dealing with, anyway.

Good-Bye, Little Decade

English: Traditional Devil's Food Birthday Cake

Birthday Cake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I write this, it is the last day I will ever be twenty-something, and while I would usually rather crawl under a rock than draw attention to my birthday, this one’s kind of a biggie. I could not wait to get out of my teens. I started college when I was seventeen, the youngest kid in my orientation class. I was always self-conscious about my age and went to great pains to stay inconspicuous. Every birthday, I thought, “Well, at least now I can say I’m in my twenties,” “Now maybe I’ll get some respect, since I’m past twenty-five,” and so on. But even now, I know that most of you are probably rolling your eyes, thinking I’m still a baby. I reach this age with mixed emotions because there were things I always assumed I would do before I hit thirty. But here I am, as unpublished and anonymous as ever, at least as far as the brick-and-mortar bookstores are concerned. But is that what life’s all about, anyway? I’ve thought a lot about what did happen in my twenties lately, and it’s been a pretty eventful ten years, even if I didn’t accomplish every single goal.

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Two months after turning 20, I set my wedding date and started planning. I finished writing my first novel and started the long process of revising. I graduated with a BA (English/Philosophy) six months to the day before my wedding. I hardly noticed that I was finished with school, so immersed was in the editing and typesetting process of the second volume of Fiction Fix.

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Thomas and I got married two months after I turned 21. I was actually the breadwinner the first five months we were married (scary thought because my salary was not spectacular). We lived in a tiny apartment and loved it, although we were excited (and naive) about becoming homeowners in the near future. 2004 was also what I think of as the Year of the Hurricane. There were four big storms, at least for Northeast Florida, and we spent many a night playing Scrabble by candlelight. A couple months before my next birthday, Thomas and I put a deposit down on our condo.

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Not wanting to go month-to-month on our rent, Thomas and I moved in with his parents the weekend that I turned 22. Then our condo complex’s original builders went out of business, and it turned into a huge fiasco. We were assured our condo would be ready by September—November at the latest. We should have just walked away, but the $4000 we’d put down seemed like too much to lose. Oh well. One cool thing I did that year was to travel to New York with a group of choral friends, where we performed contemporary British composer John Rutter’s Requiem in a mass choir in Carnegie Hall. Even better than singing in Carnegie Hall was being directed by Rutter himself.

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In May of 2006, Thomas and I became homeowners. We tried to put the extra six months of waiting behind us, figuring that in a couple years, we’d make all our money back, plus some, then get a house where we could raise a family. Ha. Anyhow, we moved in and adopted our kitty Willow shortly afterward. That fall, I had gum surgery, in preparation for getting braces. But before filling my mouth with metal, I found out I was pregnant.

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It was mostly the year of the inflating, pregnant belly (and everything that goes with it). I cannot forget that this was also the year the last Harry Potter book came out. My parents, Thomas, and I went to Barnes and Noble for the midnight release. I read it aloud all the way home and much of the next day. (Thomas read ahead while I napped—hey, give me a break, I was pregnant.) Sad to think we’ll never go to a midnight Harry Potter book release again. Our first son Peter was born a few months later. The middle-of-the-night feedings, colic, and reflux were a pain, but his first few weeks are still magical to me. It’s a time I also associate with the movie The Departed, which we watched almost constantly for a month or two. When Peter was four months old, I got braces. At that point, the economy had already tanked, and my job at my family’s small business started to disappear. I transitioned to bookkeeper, which is much less than full-time. If I’d known, then, that we would have to survive on little more than Thomas’s salary, I probably wouldn’t have paid $6000+ to fix my bite, but it was money better spent than the $4000 we wasted on the condo’s deposit.

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For several months, my family focused on my maternal grandfather and his failing health. I’m so glad that he lived long enough to know Peter, whom he adored. We honored his 89 years with a beautiful memorial service. Just a few months after Grandaddy died, my church ordained me as a deacon (in the Presbyterian church, we’re the lay people who provide pastoral care for the congregation and staff), and I know he would have been proud. On the writing front, I took a break from Fiction Fix to concentrate on being a mom. And on the mommy front, Peter was more and better than I ever could have imagined. I worried I would never lose the baby weight, but constant exercise and an appliance installed in the roof of my mouth that made it almost impossible to eat helped me lose an extra 20 pounds. Never fear, my orthodontist fit me with a new appliance, and my appetite was back by the time we took Peter on his first trip to Disney World.

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On my 26th birthday, we went to Disney again, and I became extremely sick. When we got home, I was diagnosed with double ear infections and tonsillitis. But the fun was only starting; the antibiotic I took gave me hives that covered my entire body, including inside my mouth. Ugh. It was also the year when we realized that we had already lived in the condo three years and would continue to live there longer than expected. A lot longer. But we cringed at the idea of selling it and only breaking even or maybe even taking a couple-thousand dollar hit. I wish we had. But I had high hopes for making lots of money and paying off the balance because I finally landed a literary agent. That means publication, right? Wrong. It took the better part of two years to figure out that she didn’t care at all about selling my book to traditional publishers.

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We went to Universal Islands of Adventure the weekend that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened. (Very bad idea, especially when you have a toddler in diapers.) Later that week, Peter was ring bearer in my cousin’s wedding. The next month, Peter was potty trained, his incentive two more trips to Disney World. In between the trips, I finally got my braces off. By that point, people were bugging us about having another kid, and with the braces off, I was ready to entertain the idea. Less than two weeks before I turned 28, we found out we were expecting our second child. I was also in a writing funk. I was looking for a good reason to ditch my useless agent, so I told her I was pregnant and didn’t want to write anymore. That’s not exactly true, but I had given up on publishing. I’d thought about starting a website, but I was too depressed by the whole not-getting-anywhere thing to do much about it. When I found out I was pregnant, I spent my meager savings for my website on baby stuff.

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I spent most of the year tired. A few months before we welcomed baby Ian, Peter started three-year-old preschool at the same elementary school I attended. Thomas also went back to school to finish his bachelor’s. Due to laziness, tiredness, and being pregnant, Peter and I ate at Five Guys a lot, which was probably a big factor in gaining more weight with baby number two than baby number one. Ian was born two weeks before Christmas, and things weren’t quite as magical as when Peter was born. It took us a while to adjust to a very different little boy, but we love our baby just as much as his big brother.

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Without a doubt, this has been the busiest year of my life thus far. I kind of got my writing mojo back and started this blog and discovered Smashwords. I started working with Fiction Fix again, after a four year hiatus. I also started getting up at 4:30 every day to exercise; it’s the only time I can do it now that Peter’s in school five days a week. I joined three different committees at my church and also started taking Sewanee’s Education for Ministry four-year course. We took the boys to Legoland to celebrate their birthdays, then Disney World at the beginning of this year. We put the condo on the market in January, figuring no one would ever want to buy it, and within 24 hours, we had an offer (although for much less than we originally paid). It was a whirlwind, finding a place to live and moving so quickly. The condo days are finally behind us; we actually have a house big enough for all of our stuff, although we weren’t brave enough to actually buy again. Since I’m not publishing bestsellers yet, I decided to start substitute teaching at Peter’s school, and I’m earning an income, while still not having to work full-time. I’m once again searching for an agent. Maybe I’ll actually get published one day. And if not by a traditional publisher, I’m determined to make my book the best it can be and publish it as an ebook, if nothing else. I always thought, Well, if I’m not published by the time I’m thirty, I’ll just save a chunk of money and self-publish. When you start writing a book at nineteen, you think that ten-plus years is more than sufficient for perfecting it and going through the entire publication process. Well, guess what, thirty is here, although a hardback copy of my book is not, it’s not the end of the world. Instead of giving myself a timeline, I have a list of prospective agents, and once they’re exhausted, I’ll go to plan B.

As for my thirties, my boys will be adolescents by the end of this decade. I’m sad, on the one hand, that I won’t have cuddly infants anymore, but I love watching them grow and learn. Maybe during this decade, we’ll plunge into the housing market again, maybe not. At least now we’re much better informed. And maybe that miracle of publication will happen for me. My dream, one that I have every time I volunteer in Peter’s school library, is for a child to come in one day and ask for my book. Wouldn’t that be cool? But if not, the best thing about being forced into some semblance of patience is that I’ve discovered how many other joys there are in life.

Now, bring it on, thirties!

Apparently There’s an Award for Blogs with ADD

The Versatile Blogger Award

I was pleased and surprised last week to receive a message from fellow blogger, Christi Gerstle of Novel Conclusions, awarding me the Versatile Blogger Award. That’s awesome–there’s a blog for people like me, who can’t seem to stay on topic. I appreciate Christi for enjoying my blog enough to think of me. In return, please click on her link, and you can read her blog, too.

There are a few requirements for this award. First, display the award certificate on your website. Then, announce your win with a post and a link to whoever presented your award. In return, present this award to fifteen deserving bloggers, and drop them a comment to tip them off after you’ve linked them in the post. Lastly, post seven interesting things about yourself.

I am really going to break the rules here and only award three bloggers the Versatile Blogger Award. It’s not that others don’t deserve it, just that I don’t get to invest as much time as I would like reading other blogs, so I feel unqualified in choosing one over another. But the following bloggers, I promise, deserve it and are worth checking out.

1. Amy Quincy’s Writerly Musings

Do yourself a favor, and check out Amy’s blog, if you don’t look at any others. I knew Amy before she became disabled. I admired her then, as a writer and a woman, and since she became wheelchair bound a few years ago, she’s only grown in my eyes as a human being. I am inspired every time I read her blog, and I usually end up giggling quite a bit, too.

2. The Oregon Pilgrim, Danielle Harris

I look forward to reading Danielle’s posts. She is extremely thoughtful and a busy mom, just like me. (I think she’s actually busier—wow.) This year, she’s striving toward simplicity, and I really appreciate following her weekly progress, even if I don’t strive quite as well as she does.

3. Ari and his Ari Files

Friend, fellow writer, and musician, Mark Ari (only don’t call him Mark because he probably won’t know who you’re talking to) helped me to become the writer I am today. I don’t know how to thank this guy enough. He is awesomeness on a stick, and I also credit him with founding the University of North Florida’s literary journal, Fiction Fix.

Okay, so the seven things about me:

1. As much as I love to write, music is just as important to me, even though I don’t talk about it much here. (I guess because writing about music doesn’t do it justice; it’s very experiential and subjective.) I get it honestly, with two grandparents who were church organists and a father who was very close to going into the music ministry. If I were to list everyone in my family who is musical and all the things we do, this would turn into an e-book. Let’s leave it at this: I cannot imagine my life without song.

2. I used to hate to read. In fact, when I had to do summer reading as a kid, I would pull all my Dr. Seuss books out and go through them as quickly as possible, just so I could fill all the blanks on the sheet that my teacher sent home. (It never occurred to me to cheat.) I loved it when my mom read to me, but otherwise, I didn’t want to waste my time. And the really unfortunate part is that I can’t remember the title of the book that changed it all. It was a book my mom loved as a kid, which she encouraged me to read. I can picture the pastel blue and pink cover art, but the title escapes both her and me. (I think “Sally” was part of it? Maybe?) Oh well. I think I was about ten or so when she coaxed me into reading it, and I’ve been an avid reader ever since.

3. I used to collect teddy bears. Every Christmas until I was in my mid-twenties, my parents gave me a bear, and I still have most of them (along with a number of other stuffed animals).

4. My first car blew a gasket on the way to school one day, filled the whole thing with smoke—and on the expressway, too. It was my first semester in college, about a week before finals. Ah, good times.

5. I am a cat person. I guess my parents and I were the crazy cat people, always attracting strays to our porch. We finally adopted two newborn kittens when their mother was killed by a neighbor’s dogs. I had to beg my parents because they didn’t want to deal with bottle feeding and raising kittens. But I succeeded, and those two boys, Greysox and Cuddlebug were a part of the family for the next sixteen and seventeen years, respectively. My parents no longer have any pets, but my husband and I adopted our fat cat, Willow, when she was about three months old, and she’ll be seven in March.

6. My favorite movie is Aliens. Not Alien, Aliens plural. There’s nothing wrong with the first one; it’s just not as awesome as the second. (I like to ignore that the other sequels even exist, although I thought Prometheus, a prequel of sorts, was pretty cool.)

7. I thought about talking about my favorite author, but it’s too hard to choose, and besides, I’d rather talk about my three favorite boys. They are my husband of going-on nine years, Thomas, and our sons, Peter and Ian. Thomas and I enjoy nothing more than spending time with our little guys, watching them learn, grow, and play together. We also really love going to Disney World! (Yes, Mama and Daddy are big kids, too.)

I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

Books

Never have. But there is a certain goal that I have for the near future – let’s say 2013. You see, it’s been a while since I’ve lived in a novel. I’m talking about the kind of book that won’t let me go. The kind of book that I can’t set down if I walk from the couch to the kitchen. The kind of book that makes me forget to eat, that makes me stay up past my bedtime. I read several earlier this year, starting with Suzanne Collins‘s The Hunger Games trilogy. Not only did I let those three books consume me, but I made them consume my family as well. I waited with foot-tapping impatience for first my husband and then my parents to read them. I felt like I was betraying those books when I moved on to a completely different series, starting with Diana Gabaldan’s Outlander. And at first, I wasn’t excited, but I’d promised a friend I would read it. It was jarring to move from dystopian young adult lit to a very adult time travel-slash-love story, but I eventually got into it and had the same can’t-put-it-down kind of experience. I could not wait to get my hands on the next book, Dragonfly in Amber.

The problem was that, after I finished Outlander, my life changed in many ways. My elder son graduated from a two-day preschool to preschool five days a week. My infant son became mobile, and the more he moved around, the less freedom (and free time) I had. I rejoined the staff of the University of North Florida’s literary journal Fiction Fix after more than four years off. My responsibilities are lighter than when I left—reading submissions, commenting on them, and voting—but with seven submissions every week (and no guarantee that any of them will be short), I read a lot of fiction that I might not otherwise choose. Within a month of getting back on board with Fiction Fix, I started this blog. Then I took on a book review project for a publishing company. I thought I would have time to read those books alongside my own for-fun reading, but I eventually took my fiction in sips to meet the review deadline. A couple weeks later, I started a four-year Education for Ministry program through Sewanee’s School of Theology. Finally, I decided to try my hand at e-publication, which required much research, even more reading, and, of course, writing (check out my story “Stranded” at Smashwords.com).

And it wasn’t as if I was sitting around, wondering what to do before. I had a day job and a twenty-one mile, one-way commute; I volunteered at my church and my son’s school; I sang in a volunteer community chorus that rehearsed once a week. Oh, and the freelance writing thing. Can’t forget that. I didn’t stop doing any of those things. I just piled on the fun.

I choose how full my life is, and I love all its varied facets. Things could be easier if I lived a little closer to the action, but everything else is pretty much a constant. And my kids aren’t even into sports or other extracurricular activities yet. I can only imagine how much busier it will be then. Kiss sleep (what’s left of it) good-bye. But not my books—never that! I have to consciously choose not to make a book stretch over two (or more) months. So here I am, trying to make myself accountable.

With Fiction Fix, at least I read a constant stream of fiction. If nothing else, I’m aware of how I don’t want to write by reading an unfortunate number of bad submissions. But I really want to read things that inspire me. In fact, that’s a requirement for writing. I want–need–to read something that hurts to put down, something that makes me want to pick up my own pen (or laptop) and write.

In May 1996, I first heard about schools requiring students to read twenty-five books per year, so I decided to create a list of the books I read to see how I measured up. I’ve kept up with it in the sixteen-plus years since. Fiction to non-fiction, novella to super novel, self-help to founding documents of the United States—if it’s too long to be in a magazine, and it’s complete, I count it. Some years, I barely read more than twenty-five, while several others, I’ve read over one hundred. I squeaked by with thirty from May of 2011 to this past May. I’m already at sixteen for this twelve-month period, so I feel pretty good about reading another nine in the next five months. But I don’t just want to pick up nine quick reads to make my goal. There are books I own that I’ve wanted to read for more than a year, and you now know why I haven’t been able to so much as open them.

When I was pregnant in 2007, my goal was to read every book in the house, 1) because I didn’t need to spend money on new books when I already owned so many that I hadn’t read, and 2) because I didn’t know if I would ever have time to read again after having my baby. I finished all the books I had, then read all of my husband’s. If I did it then, I will find a way to do it now, and I’m even giving myself an extra three months to do so (although I hope I can read much more during that time).

Below is my list, including two books that people lent to me, so I need to read and return them in a timely manner. You can follow my progress on Goodreads (at the sidebar on the left), and get on my case if I’m not reading quickly enough. And if you have any recommendations, why not send them my way? I love a challenge.

Voyager (Outlander) and Drums of Autumn (Outlander) by Diana Gabaldon

11/22/63: A Novel and The Wind Through the Keyhole (Dark Tower Novels) by Stephen King

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Inheritance (The Inheritance Cycle) by Christopher Paolini (which basically means I need to re-read the preceding three books in the series, too)

The Lost Hero (Heroes of Olympus, Book 1), The Son of Neptune (Heroes of Olympus, Book 2), and The Mark of Athena (Heroes of Olympus, Book 3) by Rick Riordan

The Help Deluxe Edition by Kathryn Stockett

Read the Submission Guidelines First, Folks

Teen and Young Adult Fiction

Teen and Young Adult Fiction (Photo credit: Blue Train Books)

I haven’t kept up with my blog this past week, but it’s for a good reason, I promise. Or at least the original intent was good.

You see, a writer friend posted something on Facebook about Harper Voyager, an imprint of the publisher HarperCollins, allowing unagented submissions of science fiction and fantasy for the first two weeks of October. When I first read it, I thought it was too good to be true. But then I saw that it included young adult fiction, and I have a young adult fantasy novel that I’ve been peddling to different agents for years. Two babies and an almost-two-year stint with a scammer agent have caused several hiccups on my road toward hopeful publication, but I recently became enthusiastic again. And why search for an agent if a publishing house is seeking submissions?

There was one stipulation that made me hesitate, and it was that the manuscripts that are chosen will be printed digitally. My dream has always been to see my book on a shelf in a bookstore or clutched in an eager reader’s hands, but I figured I had nothing to lose. Getting my foot in the publication door in any way possible would segue into traditional publishing later, I hoped. So I pulled out my manuscript and went back to the beginning, working on one final revision.

It has not gone as quickly as I hoped. I have sacrificed a lot of extracurricular activities (such as writing this blog) to proofread and edit. On a really productive night, I might get through twenty-five to thirty pages (and my manuscript is over two hundred forty double-spaced pages). I told myself I needed to have it done as early during the submission window as possible, so I wouldn’t kill myself to do one last proofread before the deadline. But with an ending that I’ve recently changed and little time to devote to polishing it, it’s become the last-minute rush that I feared. And I didn’t want to blow it by turning in a manuscript that read like I was flying by the seat of my pants.

The deadline is this Sunday. Optimistically, I thought I might finish editing by tomorrow (Wednesday), as long as that pesky new ending didn’t trip me up. Then it occurred to me that I really would be in panic mode if I tried to submit it on the last day, only to find out they required a synopsis, too. And there is nothing I loathe more than writing a synopsis (but that’s for another blog).

What was it about today that made me finally look up the submission guidelines? Was it God’s cruel trick, since I’m so close to the end of my revision? I guess it’s better finding out today rather than Saturday or Sunday. Finding out what? you ask. That I’ve been working my butt off, trying to trim my book to under sixty-six thousand words, and Harper Voyager requires a minimum of seventy thousand, although they prefer eighty to one hundred, that’s what. Usually, my problem is that I am too verbose, so I have struggled to take the axe to my poor literary babies. And this time, all that hard work has put me out of the running for a potentially career-changing opportunity. Now, I can come up with fluff all day long, but when it comes down to it, I need to be true to my story. It started out at over seventy thousand words, but over the years and after much editing, it has come to life only after I’ve pared it down and chiseled away the rough edges. And it fits right into the conventionally accepted length for young adult fiction. Why Harper Voyager doesn’t have a separate requirement for young adult fiction, I don’t know. . . but I have a good guess.

I am one of many readers for the University of North Florida’s online literary journal Fiction Fix, and let me tell you that we receive a ridiculous number of submissions—and we’re not big like Glimmer Train or HarperCollins. Like the Field of Dreams, if you publish it, they will submit. Manuscripts, that is. Good, bad, grammatically depraved, eloquently penned, we get it all. And although our submission guidelines are not all that stringent, I can attest that there are times when the format (or lack of format) of a particular story decides whether it stays or goes. No, we don’t require twelve-point Times New Roman, double-spaced, but if an author decides to single space some eleven-point font or smaller, I’m probably going to get a headache and say, Why didn’t you have more respect for the person who would have to read this? No! And what makes the people at Harper Voyager any different? Their submission guidelines are there to help them control the quality and quantity of what they have to read.

While lamenting to my mother this afternoon about the whole debacle (and admittedly feeling a tiny bit of relief that I am not going to kill myself, after all, to meet the deadline), I laid out all the facts. My story fit all the criteria listed; in fact, it seemed as if Harper Voyager was talking to me, like it knew about my story and wanted me to submit it. Except for that itsy bitsy thing about the word count. (And did I mention it’s the first thing listed on their submission guidelines?) Maybe if I did a good job of pleading my case, they would make an exception for me, right? I mean, after all, J.K. Rowling broke the rules and submitted Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1)
to an agent who didn’t generally consider that kind of fiction, and look where she is today. By not submitting, am I missing out on my own J.K. Rowling moment?

Mama pointed out to me that they will probably receive so many submissions that they will be looking for excuses to reject manuscripts. Can’t meet the number one requirement on our list? Out! Don’t care if it is the best young adult manuscript ever—learn to color inside the lines like all the other kids!

Does this make them hateful and limiting? I don’t think so; it’s a business decision, to which there are natural consequences, such as being rejected for submitting something that doesn’t meet all the requirements. And I would encourage anyone who does have a manuscript that qualifies to give it a whirl—what can it hurt? As for me, I can still try the agent route. Or I could publish on my own, who knows? One thing I know for sure, I am going to read the submission guidelines first from now on, so as to curb the headaches and heartache that come with striving toward a useless goal. And I am still motivated to write, with or without Harper Voyager as the carrot dangling in front of me, thank goodness.

I am moving on, publication or not. Time to write.

From Muse to Masterpiece

Writer Wordart

Photo credit: MarkGregory007

When my muse inspires me to write, why can’t I put onto paper exactly what comes into my brain and just have done with it? Why isn’t it brilliant the first time? I wouldn’t even mind the process taking a while if I could trap the thoughts and phrases mentally until I’m ready to sit down and transcribe them verbatim. That never happens, though. I can’t tell you how many of my stories fizzled out because I had a great idea, but when I finally had the time to write, I’d either lost every bit of passion for the story, or my attempts were feeble in comparison to what I thought was in my head.

This week, I thought about writing a short story, which in itself was weird. I never think of anything less than novella-length, unless I’m commissioned to do so. But I was stimulated, I think, by an invitation for submissions from Glimmer Train. I don’t have anything for them, I thought. Then—BAM!—short story, fully formed, in my head. And on Monday, of course, when I was so stupid-busy that all I had time to do was take notes on my iPhone during the red lights on my daily commute.

That night and the next, it was all I could do to type a few scenes and details that I didn’t want to forget. Then Wednesday I had time (well, I actually stole an hour from my sleep) to poise my fingers over the shallow keys of my MacBook and type away until the whole thing was out of my head. I forced myself to keep at it, even when I didn’t know how to transition from one scene to another. I finally finished, and I even proofread it, something that I often leave for later, exhausted by the initial output of imagination onto the page.

What I’ve discovered from participating in fiction workshops and reading hundreds of submissions for the online literary magazine Fiction Fix, is that many writers stop there. They might not even proofread, or if they do, their skills are so poor that it doesn’t do much good. And while I understand that you might need to take a break to regain enthusiasm, a first draft does not equal a finished piece.

According to Laura Cross’s The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent, agents only accept one percent of submissions (27). Now, you don’t have to have an agent to be a good writer, but if you’ve received rejections before, from agents, literary mags, or publishers, consider the following statistics about submissions sent to agents: “87 percent of content is considered amateurish and unpublishable” and “3 percent has a potential market but is poorly written or researched” (28). Nine percent have problems marketing or target markets that are already saturated, or they might have potential but need revision. Only “1 percent is considered well written, promising, and ready to be presented to a publisher” (28)

Why do so many writers assume that their stories are worthy enough to send to magazines and agents and publishing houses? I’ve workshopped with people who could take zero criticism. If a room of other writers had issues with their stories, it was because we couldn’t read them properly, not because there were problems with those stories. Well, I guess that could be the case, but if your goal is to sell a book, the public won’t buy it if they can’t understand it.

As an editor as well as a writer, I am not only ready but excited to correct, revise, polish. I seek critiques and opinions from fellow writers and readers, and I’ve developed such a tough skin that you could take a hatchet to my literary arm, and I wouldn’t bleed (well, not much). It is not only necessary but fun, to me, to watch the lump of raw story as I mold and shape it into (I hope) a masterpiece.

The stories and books that you read and enjoy, that make you wonder how the author was able to work such a complex twist into the ending, took a lot of a hard work to create. It is extremely rare (if it happens at all) for someone to write a story that needs little revision. If Madeleine L’Engle, who had already published several novels, received a decade of rejections before she published A Wrinkle in Time, it is only reasonable to assume that your writing will need considerable work before it garners the positive attention you desire. Join writers groups. Read anything you can get your hands on. If grammar and spelling aren’t your strong suit, seek a teacher or professor who can help with your manuscript. If you can afford them, go to conferences, workshops, and look for independent editors who have edited writers you admire. And when you’re ready, pull your literary ax out of you writer’s toolbox, and begin hacking away at the extraneous stuff that gets in your story’s way. When you’re done with that, pull out your chisel for the fine-tuning. Even though it takes considerable time and effort (during which you won’t feel very profitable), you can make yourself into that one percent to out-do your writing competition.

I guess if I’m going to take my own advice, I need to roll up my sleeves and get to work.