Spring Cleaning

Last weekend, I put my writing aside and set about the dreaded task of …dun, dun, dun…Spring cleaning.

Now I realize there are some out there that relish the thought of scrubbing, polishing and organizing all of the surfaces of their homes. Those people are freaks to be commended.

I, though a highly organized writer and worker in my day job, am not a great housekeeper. There. I said it.  I’m blessed to have a family who helps a lot and doesn’t really care if the dusting is put off a week. Mind you, if you come to our home, you’re not in danger of being hauled away to the decontamination ward or anything like that. We just find that there are a lot of things we’d rather be doing than spit-shining our baseboards.

Alas, every now and then we have to do just that. And as much as I dislike heavy-duty cleaning, I always feel better after it’s finished. There’s something wonderful about the smell of Pinesol; something so refreshing to survey your kingdom and not think to yourself, “Man, I hope nobody shows up to visit unannounced today.”

As I enjoyed my day of sparkling clean freshness, (because you know it’s not going to be this clean for more than a day) I started thinking about how nice it would be to feel this way about my manuscript. Don’t get me wrong, I love my manuscript. I’m proud of it. But I’m not naïve enough to think that it is perfect. I do have some pages out with agents, but that doesn’t mean I can’t go back over it again and do a little Spring cleaning on it too.

I reread my manuscript with my rubber gloves on and dust mop at the ready. I found a few things that I could tidy up to tighten my writing.

I swept out the qualifiers. Qualifiers are words that are added to modify the meaning by limiting it or enhancing it. Examples are: almost, maybe, possibly, very, often, sometimes. Those words aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, but if you’re trying to convey a strong point, using “almost” in front of it stops the action.  My main character uses qualifiers because she isn’t confident in herself. She does a lot of internal thinking and guessing, so I use words like “might” and “sometimes” with her. The antagonist is decisive and sure about himself. No need for him to say, “I think he has the information and I think I can get it.” No. He doesn’t think those things, he knows them. So instead he says, “He has the information and I can get it.”  It’s stronger and more in character for him.

I waxed the dialogue until it shined. My story contains a squad of six soldiers. When they’re together, dialogue can become confusing.  Hopefully I have written these characters in such a way that they have distinct personalities and react in specific ways to situations. I realized that not every squad member has to comment in every scene. They can be present and not carry a large part of the conversation.  Sometimes one of the squad was simply drumming his fingers on the table, a habit of his. That’s enough to make his presence known without him speechifying about what is going on in the scene. 

I scrubbed the familiar go-to words. Every writer has these. When you are writing your first draft, you write what comes to mind in order to get the story onto the page. I have discovered I have a tendency for my characters to nod. I have no idea why. It just happens. Nodding is something that people do every day. It’s not odd for a character to do this. But for whatever reason, my characters seem to nod all the time. Some of those instances had to go.

My manuscript hasn’t changed all that much but it is definitely sparkly-fresh with the scent of citrus and bleach.  

Let’s Get Ready to Ruuuuumble!

Its pitch contest season and I couldn’t be more excited!

Pitch contests are designed to allow querying authors an opportunity to “pitch” their stories in an unconventional way.

Pitch contests can be valuable tools for the querying writer. Not only does it get your manuscript “out there” and seen by agents, bloggers, other writers, but it allows you to practice your log line and narrow your story down into its essential components. As you can tell from my last two blog posts, narrowing your story down into small 1-2 sentence chunks is almost as difficult as writing the story. It’s not fun, but it is essential for writers.

Pitch contests can also help writers gauge “the competition.” I use quotation marks because I don’t really view other stories by other writers as my competition. I believe that every story is worth telling and I want other authors to succeed too. When someone from a pitch contest garners an offer of representation, I cheer for them. But I have to face the fact that publishing is a business, with market trends, salability, and various other words from Econ class that I failed to commit to memory.  By reading pitch contest entries, I can see how many stories are similar to my concept. (Thankfully, I’ve not seen any other Frankenstein-themed stories out there!) Right now, fantasy/paranormal/dystopian has a lot of competition, so those authors will need to work to stand out from the pack.

I’ve already participated in the Twitter-themed #PitMad. It was successful for me because I got an agent request from it. So I’m marking that one in the Win column, even if she ends up passing.

I plan on participating in the Pitch Slam contest later in April. That one really interests me because its music based. During the contest writers will be not only be submitting pitches and pages, but they’ll be pairing them with music. I have one awesome song in particular that matches my story perfectly. I’m pumped about it! (Air guitar!)

But next up is the “Dear Lucky Agent” contest run by Chuck Sambuchino. You may remember that name from my bodacious Bill & Ted synopsis post.  So, not only does he help authors hone their craft, he gives them opportunities to pitch their stories as well. The winner will receive a critique of the first 10 pages and a subscription to WritersMarket.com! Wow!

The contest is open through April 9. To enter all you have to do is submit your 35-word pitch and mention the contest in social media like Twitter, Facebook or a blog. Here’s the link for more info.  http://tinyurl.com/pcmopmq

(See what I did there?)

If you’re a writer with a finished manuscript, I hope you’ll join me in the contest.  If not, then I hope you’ll wish me luck!

Toothpick

Last blog I talked about narrowing my story down from 88,000 words into a 1-2 page synopsis. This week, I’m going smaller.

Today I’m participating in #PitMad. For those unfamiliar, #PitMad is a Twitter pitch contest run by Brenda Drake, the queen of contests. (I don’t know if she actually has a crown, but really she should.)  All day today writers are invited to pitch their finished manuscripts on Twitter. Agents will watch the feed and favorite any works they’re interested in reading, inviting writers to submit their queries or pages. It’s simple “contest.” (I use quotes because there is really no winner to this contest, unless you count the prize of landing an agent a win. And I do!) All you have to do is include the #PitMad and genre hashtags (#YA for me) and tweet your pitch.

‘Hey, that sounds pretty easy,’ you say.

Wrong.

If narrowing down your story into a synopsis is hard, try doing it in 140 characters. No, make that 130 since the hashtags take up a precious 10 spaces.  It’s like whittling that giant oak tree in the back yard down to a toothpick. But it can be done! All it takes is knowing the core conflict of your story. What is the one thing you answer when someone asks, “So, what’s your story about?”

I spent a lot of time yesterday (and today) trying to perfect my Twitter pitch.  Silently cursing myself for basing my story on Frankenstein, an eleven character title, and for picking a twelve character concept, regeneration.  (Why, oh why, didn’t I base my story on ET? Only 2 characters!)

I’ve come up with five versions of my pitch to use today. One of them has already been successful garnering agents’ attention. I will submit my query and go from there.  It’s exciting to see social media being used in this way – for good, not evil!  It’s also exciting to read about other works as well.  Some of the tweets I’ve read today I am sure will end up in print. Even if I don’t find the right agent for my story today, I am glad I participated in this “contest.” Examining and fine-tuning my manuscript only makes it stronger, makes me a better writer, and makes me feel like a winner already.

I’ll be tweeting ya!

Follow me on Twitter  - https://twitter.com/EmCeeCollins

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Synopsis

I have some confessions to make.

First of all, I am an unashamed fan of Keanu Reeves.  Sure, you make look at me with sneers and condescension, but I won’t take it back. I think he’s a great and versatile actor and not one performance that I’ve seen of his has disappointed me.  So there it is. Mock me if you must.

Don’t worry, this will all make sense. I’m a professional.

Secondly, I confess I’ve recently discovered that while I managed to get a pretty good grip on writing the query letter, my synopsis writing skills may need some help. When I began my search for an agent, I discovered that many of the agents on my wish list require a synopsis up front.  I had produced one in September for a retreat, so I polished that version up and sent it out to one of the agents whom I’m querying.

Now that I’ve decided to attend the Arkansas SCBWI conference in May, I’ll need the synopsis again. Rereading my previous attempt at a synopsis caused me to yawn. The writing is alright, the facts are there, but it was just…boring.  It felt most non-triumphant.

In an attempt to polish my synopsis, (and so I won’t be sent to military school in Alaska,) I found a helpful resource – Chuck Sambuchino at Writer’s Digest. Listen to this dude, he knows what he’s talking about.  He’s written synopses for many well-known movies. One of them for “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” one of my all-time favorite movies.  AKA, the funniest comedy in the history of history.

I have witnessed many things, but none so bodacious as what happened when I read that synopsis.  Suddenly I got it.  (Air guitar!)

Whittling down my story into 1-2 pages was about as easy as stuffing ten historical figures inside a phone booth parked outside a Circle K. I had been getting stuck deciding which things were important enough to include in the synopsis and which things can be left out. Rufus  Mr. Sambuchino cleared up the confusion by giving concrete examples. His advice, think about how you would explain your story to a 12 year old child.  Leave out the unimportant details and clutter and get to the main part of your story.

It was hard to cut out some of my favorite characters and subplots in the synopsis, but in the end, my synopsis reads more like a most excellent adventure instead of the dry history report that it was.

So thanks Mr. Sambuchino, dude. You’ve been a most excellent barbarian.

Until another Tuesday, Be excellent to each other!  

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/synopsis-writing

(Bill & Ted references in italics) 

Agent Buffet

Yesterday was another fabulous winter weather day for me. Meaning –  the day job was closed so I got to spend the entire day writing.

Only, I didn’t write one single word. I shopped online.

I’m not talking about browsing for shoes, deciding what to read next or hunting down kitschy Sci-Fi t-shirts. (Although that does sound like fun now that I think about it.)  I spent a good portion of my weekend and my Monday morning researching literary agents.

I’ve polished my manuscript as much as I can, so it’s time for me to find an agent who wants to partner with me to sell my work to a publisher. It’s not as easy as that one sentence can make it sound.  I sat down at the laptop with my SCBWI Publishing Guide, my spreadsheet at the ready, QueryTracker.com opened and loaded, and I kind of had this “now what” moment.

It turns out that finding an agent isn’t as easy as clicking a few links.  In fact, finding for an agent is much like going to the longest all-you-can-eat buffet you can find on an empty stomach.  The choices are mouth-watering and endless. You just have to decide what you’re hungry for.

Do you really want the fried chicken -  the seasoned vet who requires exclusive queries and only replies when she requests pages? Or are you hungrier for the spicy shrimp of an agent with a smaller client list who responds within a week?

Authors have to be careful -  choose the wrong dish and you could wind up with a case of rejection indigestion.

I did my research. I used QueryTracker and Publisher’s Marketplace. I read blogs and twitter feeds. I considered other writer’s comments and opinions, looked at notes from meetings and conferences.  I used almost every color highlight that Excel has to organize my choices into one big tasty menu spreadsheet.

Next I worked to hone my query to the individual agents on my list. I even found a few tweaks to make in the query based on agent wish lists. It took some time, but in the end, I believe it will pay off. My top choice agent – the prime rib of the bunch – may end up passing on my manuscript, but at least I know I’ve sent her my best effort tailored specifically to her.  And now I have a list, a smorgasbord if you will, of other agents I can query if she passes.

The author/agent relationship is vitally important in the publishing world.  Each author has to find the agent that will be as excited about the manuscript as they are. Each agent has to find the authors that will commit professionally to make the manuscript as polished and professional as it can be.  I believe there is someone out there that will be perfect for me and vice versa.  Working together on a manuscript we both are excited about will produce a delicious combo. You might say that I’m “Mac” looking for my “Cheese.”

On the Broom

I’ve never been one to jump on bandwagons. Following the crowd is just not in my nature. In fact, if something is extremely popular, more than likely I will run screaming from it.  For example, I have never seen the movie Titanic, haven’t even read one whole page of the Twilight saga, and in spite of living in the smack middle of the south, I loathe country music.

I’m not saying these things are bad. They aren’t. They’re just not my cup o’ tea.

It’s not a conscious choice to avoid the things the rest of the world loves. It just somehow happens that way.  Perhaps my early years as a Sci-Fi geek somehow conditioned me to think against the grain.  I was often the lone girl in midst of Star Wars debates.  And while my friends were watching Dallas (original version) on Friday nights, I was tuning into PBS to watch Doctor Who (original version.)

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that while you’re tuning into the Olympics to watch the figure skating or snowboarding, I’m staying up to watch the late night broadcasts of my favorite Winter Olympic sport -  Curling.

My love for Curling began during the last Winter Olympics. I was home for almost the duration of the games due to a bad case of pneumonia. I was heavily medicated and miserable. Most of the time I couldn’t tell if it was day or night outside my window. I slept a lot, but after a few days, I was tired of sleeping. Desperate for something else to do in the middle of the night, I turned on the TV to ESPN 2 or 3 (Or Ocho!) and watched my first Olympic Curling match.

At first I was confused and certain my spiking fever had led to hallucinations of some kind. (Especially when the men’s team from Norway were playing. If you haven’t seen them yet, you should go google “Curling Pants”) But I soon came to realize that there was, in fact, an actual Olympic sport that contains sweeping. With brooms! It was madness! But it was also completely mesmerizing.

For the uninitiated, Curling is like shuffle board on ice. One team member slides the stone, also known as rock, (made of actual granite from Scotland or Wales, where the sport originated) down the curling sheet (long patch of ice) and tries to land the stone in the center target.  While the stone is moving down the ice, two other team members use brooms to sweep the surface of the ice in order to change the direction or momentum the stone.

It’s a complex game of strategy that involves offense (getting your stone in the house for points) and defense (guards placed in front of the target to keep the opposing team’s stones from getting in). There is constant collaboration between the team revolving around the amount of force and direction in each throw of the stone.

The game comes with its own unique phrases that don’t make a lot of sense.  Call it literary license.  “On the broom” does not mean you ride on the broom. “Losing the handle” refers the rock, not the broom. The matches are divided not by quarters or periods, but ends.

Oh, and there’s a lot of yelling! The women seem to especially like to yell at the stones as they travel down the sheet.  Kind of like I do when I’m bowling.

The sport of Curling has everything – history, drama, skill, strategy, and whimsy.  It’s out there on the fringe of sports with its own cult following. Less than popular. More than appealing to me.

So Shaun White, you’re awesome Dude. Evgeni Plushenko? You deserve every medal you’ve ever won.  But for my money, Curling is the sport to watch.  One day, I’d like to try Curling. If my body can bend that far down without breaking, that is.  

I think I’ll call my broom Firebolt. 

Snow Miser

They say “if you don’t like the weather in Arkansas, wait for tomorrow.”  It’s true. Our weather is pretty much all over the place.  It’s not uncommon for us to sport shorts and flip-flops one day, then pull the hoodies over our heads the next. Right now it is 21 degrees. Next Monday, they’re predicting 69 degrees.  It’s kind of exciting when you think about it -  not knowing what to expect when you wake up each day.

I am not a summer person. I hate the sweltering heat that leaves your steering wheel too hot to grip and forces you inside just so you can breathe.  Seriously, when you can see the heat, it’s too hot.  I have friends who love the sun and would literally live on the beach. Forget having a roof over their heads, a beach umbrella would do.  Sometimes I envy their ability to soak up massive amounts of Vitamin D and look radiant and sun-kissed.  Most of the time though, I think they’re crazy.

Me? Give me mounds of snow to crunch in and pure, crisp air to breathe. The more layers I have to add, the better.  Cold air makes me feel alive and refreshed. To me, Icicles are prettier than sweat-ringed arm pits.  Snow trumps sand.

Right now, I’m in my element.  It’s cold.  Just a few days ago I was frolicking in the snow with my snappy winter fedora. (Yes, I frolic.) My friends are speaking to me through chattering teeth and bringing Snuggies to work.  But before too long I’ll be cranking up the AC and fanning myself like a poor Southern Belle overcome with the consumption; while my friends will be happy to sport glorious tans and designer sandals.

Isn’t it great that we both get our way at least some of the time?

I’ve been thinking about polarizing things lately. I read a book last weekend. (This book will remain nameless. This is a spoiler-free zone!) This was the last book in a particular series. And I have to say, it didn’t end in the way I predicted.  Credit to the author because that is actually a good thing.  If your readers can predict what will happen, why would they read the book?

While I felt like the writing was awesome, the story well-concluded, the protagonist triumphant, I was still left with an unsatisfied feeling.  Why?

Because heroine didn’t pick the right guy!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not all about the dude.  I get that.  But a major portion of the book was about the emotional/romantic journey the protagonist was taking.  And try as I may, I just can’t remain neutral in a triangle situation.  

I went to the internet to see if other readers had the same reaction to the conclusion of this series as I did.   What I found was very interesting.  The reviews on Good Reads and Amazon were about as polarizing as Heat Miser and Snow Miser.  I saw a lot of 5*, but there were 1* and 2* reviews as well.  The comments showed why –  the readers were squarely on Team A or Team B.  They either loved who she ended up with or, like me, they wanted her to choose the other guy. 

As a writer, this is something to consider. She successfully created two characters who were polar opposites, but who each garnered emotional connections to readers.  Each of these guys had attractive qualities, but they were both deeply flawed as well.  There was growth and change in both of them. As a result, readers actually cared who the protag picked.

I suspect this author knew this was going to happen and she ended the story in the way she wanted.  I admire her for that.  I can’t wait to read what she writes next. 

Until then, I’ll be sitting huddled here with the rest of Team A, wrapped in my wool scarf and waiting for the next snowfall. 

What’s Next?

Last week, I made the important first submission of my manuscript.  I sent it, with prayers and hopes, on its way and now I wait for the response.

The day after my submission I found myself sitting at my laptop saying, “Now what?”

Truth be told, I had no idea.

I have writery things I could be doing. Things like making a list of agents to submit to, polishing my query letter, proofing my manuscript for typos and mistakes for the umpteenth time.  But I couldn’t find motivation to do any of those things.   

Now I’ve read that sometimes the best thing a writer can do is to take a break. Walk away for a few days or weeks even, refresh, cultivate ideas, be inspired by little things.

Yeah, I figured out that I’m not so good at that kind of thing.

What did I do instead?  I wrote the first 500 words of the next manuscript.  Then I wrote the next 500 words. And then I wrote more. Now it’s three whole chapters.  

I feel refreshed, inspired, and ready to continue. I can’t wait to see what happens next in this story. 

You say, “But Michelle, you’re the writer, you decide what happens next!”

Yes, I’m the writer, but to me, the best part of being the writer is letting the story tell itself.  It’s the discovery of the characters in the midst of the words that is the reason I’m writing in the first place. It’s the magic that brings me to this slightly uncomfortable chair with strategically placed pillows, and sofa table that has become a writing desk. 

I can’t wait for the rest of this story to pop out of my head. I didn’t intend to write a series when I began the last manuscript. I know my genre. There are a lot of trilogies (with novellas in between), but I know the odds of a debut author actually selling a series are slim.  Yet somewhere in the middle of this process, I discovered there was a much bigger story to tell.  It was just the beginning and I want to know what is going to happen next.

I hope that one day other people will want to know too.

(By the way, if you recognized the title of this blog as a quote from “The West Wing” then you win! It’s one of my favorite shows of all time. Writers, if you want a Master Class on writing voice, watch it. Aaron Sorkin is a wizard with words!) 

5…4…3…2…1…

The purpose of this blog was not only to document my journey as a writer, but also to discuss the path to publication, whatever that ends up being.

Everything I’ve written to this point has been a step on the path, a mile on the road, or whatever “journeyish” metaphor you like.  I’ve had moments along the way where I’ve thought, “this is gold…this is the most brilliant arrangement of words anyone has ever strung together! The readers will weep with joy, underline this passage, and refer to it daily! ”

There have also been moments where I thought, “Oh yeah, I forgot…I don’t actually know what I’m doing!”

This, I’ve learned,  is COMPLETELY NORMAL! I have to say that it does give me some comfort that other writers experience this phenomenon.

I’m taking another step in the process tomorrow. I’m submitting my full manuscript to a professional.  I feel somewhat like Neil Armstrong because this isn’t a regular step – it’s a giant leap for me-kind.

I’ve been given the opportunity as a part of an SCBWI retreat (Writers: Join! Go to events! It helps!) to submit directly to an editor, which is not the normal process.  I’m very thankful for this chance and I’m going to take it.  My manuscript is as ready as it can be and I’m anxious to hear what the editor has to say about it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that I’m nervous.  Back to the Neil Armstrong metaphor -  When I was a kid and learned about the moon landing, I wondered how the astronauts kept from hurling in their space suits when they blasted from the Earth. (I was prone to motion sickness as a child.)  I imagined them ripping off their helmets and losing their Tang into airsick bags.

That’s kind of how I feel right now.

Either I will be get a great response or I will get a less than great response that will contain helpful feedback to improve my manuscript. I know this and I appreciate this.

Yet already, I find myself clamoring for the airsick bag.

But, the countdown has begun and it’s time to take off.

I’ll let you know when I get to the moon!

Every Writer Has A Story

Every writer has a story.  I’m not talking about the story they’re currently crafting on the page. I’m talking about the story of how and why they came to be writers.  For some writers, the story begins in Kindergarten. For others, retirement. The circumstance and motivation is different for every writer.  The passion, the unwavering drive to create a world and weave characters within it, is the same.

I’ve told bits and pieces of “my story” on this blog before, but I thought I’d share where and when my story started today.  I’m taking  a look back before heading into the next phase of this journey – querying agents.

Like a lot of writers will say – I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Back then, I don’t think I had a lightning strike moment where I said, “I SHALL WRITE FOR A LIVING. LET IT BE SO!” No, nothing like that at all.  I just remember being carried away by the books I read and wanting desperately to be able to create that sensation for myself and others. I had a huge imagination and it needed somewhere to go.

In fifth grade, my class was given a writing assignment to pretend we had a time machine and travel to the past OR to the future and write about what you find there.  Every kid in my class wrote about going to the past.

Every kid except me.

I knew why they did it. It was far easier to write about Lincoln being assassinated or Columbus discovering America because we learned about those things in history class and they could easily give the facts by rote.  That was boring to me. Why would I waste my time writing something that has already been written? So I took my time machine to the future.  I wrote about flying cars and shiny surfaces and friendly aliens who came to help our planet.  (And this was before I started watching Doctor Who!)

My teacher raved about my paper. She made certain to praise me for choosing the future instead of the past.  I have to admit it, I was proud of that paper and the big red A+ I got on it.  It made me feel like maybe writing could be “my thing.”

The following year in 6th grade English, our assignment was to write about something you’d experience at the County Fair. (Down South, y’all.)  I wrote about going on the Ferris Wheel and looking down at the people below.   One of the lines I wrote went something like : Below me people bustle from rides to games to booths like ants scurrying across a picnic table in search of food.

(And this was before Veronica Roth wrote the best Ferris Wheel scene ever written in Divergent. Ferris Wheels-we must think alike, right? Right?)

I remember the line because my teacher, Mrs. Johnston, thought it was literary genius! (What sixth grader uses bustle?)  She read my paper aloud to the class she was so excited by my little sixth-grader work. When she returned my paper, that line was underlined in red. The top of the page read, “Michelle, you’re a writer!”

So, thank you Mrs. Johnston.  Maybe I am.

That was the start of my story. Thanks to a wonderfully supportive family and friends (including my biggest cheerleader, Lori, who will NOT let me give up no matter what I say or do) I’m off now to put the finishing touches on my WIP.  If all goes well, I’ll be querying agents very soon.

I’m anxious to see how the next chapter “My Story” goes.