web analytics

On Waiting

Today I’ll be talking to all you writers out there, you hopefuls. You can get the short version in a Twitter thread I wrote:

But I’ll go into a little more detail here.

When you’re querying agents about your manuscript, it’s like walking a tightrope. Without a net. There is an exhausting amount of tension involved as you try not to fall. When querying, that tension comes in the form of hope—you’re hoping all the time that an agent will have a favorable response to your query and/or your first pages. And if they do, you’re then hoping they’ll like the full manuscript. Constant hope is tiring to sustain. And as with tightrope walking, any little nudge—a lack of response, a bunch of form rejections, no sign of interest from anyone—can send you crashing right over the edge.

Let’s say you get an agent. Hooray! Well, now your agent is going to be sending your manuscript out on submission. More waiting, but this time you have a safety net under your tightrope. While your manuscript is in the capable hands of your agent, said agent may also be giving you guidance on what to work on next. You’re no longer alone in this venture.

[Note: I realize many authors will say, “I was never alone! I had critique partners and beta readers and fellow authors!” This may be true. But there is a marked difference between the support of your fellows—which is still a wonderful and lovely thing to have—and the support of people who are actually in a position to submit your work and make things happen on your behalf.]

Okay, so your agent is submitting your manuscript. There’s still a modicum of that exhausting, infernal hope that an editor or publisher will take it, but it’s not as exhausting as querying because of that safety net that is having an agent.

And then! Your book gets accepted by an editor! After you celebrate, you will wait some more, this time for editorial notes, and then more notes, and then more notes, and also a cover, and marketing info, and a finalized publication date. BUT. While this is all very exciting and you may be impatient to get through this process, the hope element is over. Now we’ve moved on to anticipation. Because there is no longer a question of whether your book is going to be published. It’s really happening! No more tightrope. You’re on the ground now, in the center ring, with the circus around you. It’s dizzying, but there is no fear of falling.

Well, maybe you’re a little afraid your book will suck and get terrible reviews. But you have an agent and editor and publisher who believe in you, and that goes a long way psychologically. From those lonely days of querying and hoping, you now have a full support system and—thanks to the guidance of your agent—other books in the works in case this one isn’t as successful as everyone, well, hopes.

Hoping alone, though, is very different from hoping together.

Knowing you won’t bear the sole brunt of the fall, should falling occur—that counts for a lot.

So what I’m saying here, that I said in much shorter form via Twitter, is that when people tell hopeful authors—authors without agents yet—to get used to waiting . . . Well, yes, that’s going to be a big part of the process. But I’ve noticed the people doling out the advice usually already have agents, and sometimes have editors and publishers as well. They’re speaking from a place with a safety net and support system. And while they’ve walked that tightrope that is querying, they are now in a position of privilege that feels out of touch with where querying authors are. Similar to the, “You’ll make it if you try hard enough!” school of encouragement, the, “Just be patient,” school doesn’t address fundamental problems. Like the very real psychological stress of not knowing an outcome. We like to make light of how we check our emails repeatedly and have trouble focusing because this hope takes up so much of our energy, but it’s a significant (and not always funny) issue. “Just be patient” doesn’t alleviate that stress and in fact often adds to it by making querying authors feel like they’re doing something wrong. Like there’s a wrong way to wait.

We’re waiting. We’re being as patient as we can be because, seriously, we have no other options. We’re on this tightrope, and we’d love a safety net. The truth is, we may never get one. That’s a stressful reality. So please, if you’re an author giving this advice, don’t be patronizing. We know you mean well, but you’re not always helping. Sometimes you’re even throwing us off balance.

21st Century Yokel

So I have a YouTube channel now, and I recommend you subscribe to keep up with all the videos because I won’t always be posting them here. The link to the channel itself is on the sidebar to the left. (Scroll down to all my online media buttons.)

I’ll try to get more sophisticated with my recording and editing methods. But for now, enjoy this short video about author Tom Cox’s work. And if you watch long enough, you’ll catch a glimpse of my cat Minerva.

Sanitizing YA?

There was a Twitter thread earlier today about “sanitizing” high school parties in YA fiction. It seemed to be referring to some other conversation that may or may not have been going on, a stance that the parties are “unrealistic.” And I think these are two different arguments.

I didn’t party in high school, and I didn’t know anybody who did. (Or if they did, it wasn’t obvious.) I went to a handful of “parties,” but these were not like the movies. No houses packed full of students spilling alcohol everywhere, music blasting, precious items being broken. The parties were somewhat small and fairly tame. There was sometimes alcohol, but there was also stuff like Win, Lose or Draw. (Which is hilarious to play if you’ve been drinking btw.) ::shrug::

Anyway, everyone’s experiences vary. What is “realistic” to one person may not be to another. Aaaand there’s the whole “it’s cliché” angle to these teen parties in books and movies. But to say that a suggestion to remove such a scene is “sanitizing”? That feels extreme.

I mean, sure, if the person who is suggesting the change is doing it because they feel like they don’t want to encourage that kind of behavior, then they’re sanitizing the story. I can see why that might be considered problematic, but I won’t delve into that here. However, if they’re saying it should be changed because it’s not realistic, then . . . That’s just a personal opinion. I mean, look at most writers and editors. We were the bookish kids, the quiet ones. Parties like that sometimes don’t seem realistic based on our experiences.

The Twitter thread spent a lot of time talking about how teens need to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Agreed. And some of them party and . . . want to see parties in their books, I guess? Some take drugs and want to read about other kids who take drugs? But some of us didn’t party, and we like seeing the quiet kids front and center because we felt so insignificant and overlooked in high school.

Look, teens who party and do drugs and get in trouble with the law—they’re out there. It’s not an experience I can identify with, but I know it happens. And there’s a place for those stories, too. Maybe it’s because I don’t write those kinds of books, so I can’t see where the scrubbing is taking place. Do agents, editors, publishers really squash stories featuring problematic teens and the issues they face? I honestly don’t know. As I pointed out in a previous post, I was told my teen fiction wasn’t edgy enough, so . . . I’ve experienced the flip side of this problem.

Bottom line for me is that I’d want to know the reason behind an author being told a YA party scene (or sex scene, or drug scene) needs to be changed or omitted. Because I don’t think it’s always simply to sanitize the text, or keep the reader “safe” from those things. Maybe it is some of the time—in which case, that should be addressed—but sometimes the reason may really be that the scene isn’t realistic (or the editor doesn’t think it is, anyway), or else it’s cliché. Those are valid opinions. Not everyone shares them, but they aren’t necessarily wrong.

There have always been books, and music, and movies that parents or adults don’t think appropriate for young adults. This is nothing new. And if a publisher thinks, No parent is going to want their kids to read this, then they might not publish it. Not out of spite or a need to whitewash teen experiences, but because they’re a business and want to sell books. And though teens do buy their own books some of the time, parents buy books the remainder of the time. And school librarians. And teachers, if they keep a classroom library. And school librarians and teachers won’t buy books that will get them in trouble with parents or the school district. And a publisher won’t risk their business for something they don’t think parents and teachers and librarians will buy.

Then again, sometimes you’ll find one who hopes the book will create buzz through shock value. They hope kids will buy it in secret and smuggle it to their friends. But one copy passed around a dozen people doesn’t amount to many sales either.

So, again, it might not be that they’re “sanitizing” YA. It might just be that they see no profit in it. If you write edgy YA—if you write parties and sex and drugs and jail for teens—go for it. Prove them wrong.

Synastry, Transits, Progressions

Of all the posts on this site, the ones about astrology charts get the most hits. I’m not sure why; I can’t possibly be the first result when someone Googles astrology. But since that seems to be what many people are interested in, I thought I’d write a bit more about it.

An astrology chart is like a fingerprint—it’s unique. Sometimes people ask, “What if two people were born at the same hospital at the same time?” Well, I don’t know. I’ve never seen a case like that. But I think that there’s a lot more to a life than a star chart, so while some of the themes in those two hypothetical lives might be similar, their lives wouldn’t necessarily be the same. If you look at a family—that’s a number of charts interacting in what we call “synastry.” Synastry is a fancy word for taking two people’s charts and comparing them to see how those two people might (or might not) get along. Most people use synastry to look at love relationships, but you can use it between parents and children, between siblings, between coworkers, anyone you might have a personal relationship with.

Synastry is handled in a couple ways. I usually look at the individual charts and see where planets interact, whether one person’s planets fill empty houses in another person’s charts, etc. But there’s also a way to create a composite chart that more or less shows a picture of the potential relationship. I don’t have much experience with these, so I can’t really say much about them. But my understanding is that you read the composite chart in the same way you’d read a natal chart.

Things get complicated when you consider transits and progressions. When you look at the current placement of planets in respect to a person’s chart, you’re looking at transits. If a natal chart is the big picture of a person’s life lessons, their obstacles and advantages, transits are more immediate things happening right now as the planets move. Transits are what daily horoscopes are based on.

Progressions take the planets in the natal chart and, well, progress them. They show where the planets would be now if progressed . . . by various methods*. Progressions can indicate change in a person’s life cycle, as their planets shift and so does their Midheaven and Ascendant. Again, I don’t look at progressed charts very often, but it’s an interesting idea. In fact, even as I write this I find myself thinking I should go look at my progressed chart.

If you’re ever curious about your chart and want to know where to get yours, I generally use astro.com (which is free) but also have on my phone a professional app called TimePassages that works well, too (not free). For the most accurate results, you’ll need to know where and when you were born—not just the date, but the actual time, which is usually on your birth certificate. Or, if you have a mother like mine, she calls you every year on your birthday at the exact time you were born and reminds you of all the pain she went through.

I catch a lot of grief from my scientist friends and religious family members about this stuff. For the record, I find it interesting, but I still firmly believe in our ability to make and change our own circumstances. Your chart is only as important and influential as you allow it to be. Nothing is inevitable. I find looking at my chart sometimes gives me perspective. However, I don’t let it dictate my life. How you handle yours is up to you.

* Methods for determining progressions vary. Some astrologers move each planet forward one degree for each year of the querent’s life (solar arc progression), some do it by moving the chart forward one day for each year (secondary progression). Those are the two most common techniques, but there are others. You can see them on the Wikipedia page for progressions.

Random Video

So I haven’t done a video in a while because of a laundry list of reasons, but here’s a short thing I did to get back into it. Though the thumbnail options YouTube gave me sucked. I must make the dumbest faces when I talk.

This isn’t about writing, btw. I just unboxed a couple of rosaries I picked up while in Paris. Because I collect rosaries.

Suspending Disbelief

I saw an interesting question posed on Twitter this morning: “How does an author create a tale that allows readers to suspend disbelief?”

It made me think of those YouTube videos where people pick apart movies for how unrealistic they are. We do that with books sometimes, too. So what makes the difference? Why are we willing—even eager—participants in some fiction and resistant to other?

I believe there is a natural barrier between us and fiction. We understand, when entering a book or movie, that it isn’t real. There is a sense of, “Make me believe it.” The author’s job, then, is to make that barrier permeable.

Think about all the things that pull you OUT of a story. Characters that don’t behave in ways that seem realistic, for example, or stilted dialogue. Sometimes it’s the world that doesn’t make sense. If a fantasy author has created a town or country or planet, it still must function within parameters that readers relate to. The place may be very different from Earth, the characters may be aliens, but there are some universal truths that we rely on when entering a fictional world. Touchstones, if you will. If the internal logic of the world doesn’t hold up—if every few minutes the reader is saying to him- or herself, Why did they do that? Why is this world set up this way? It makes no sense, no society would be built this way—the barrier is too solid.

So if you want to create something really different, you have to lay the groundwork of there being very good reasons for things. It can’t be because “it’s always been this way.” There needs to be an explanation of WHY it was ever that way to begin with.

Another reason people begin picking stories apart is sheer boredom. If nothing interesting is happening, the reader begins to look for something else to entertain them, and your world or characters may be the victim of their detachment. When you’re really into a book or movie, you’re carried along on a wave as the plot and characters move along. You feel immersed. Later, someone might point out a plot hole and you’ll say, “I never noticed.” But, boy, when you’re bored you notice everything.

Think about long car rides, looking out the window, trying to find anything interesting to look at. Or, if you grew up going to church, synagogue, some house of worship, think about sitting there and looking around at people, the walls, the chairs/benches/pews. Every stain, crack, speck of dust came to your attention. That’s what happens when a reader is bored, too. They start gazing at the wallpaper and noticing the wrinkles, rips, mismatched seams.

Boredom, then, is one of the particles that forms that barrier to fiction. The reader shouldn’t ask, “Why am I here?” He or she should want to be there, in your world, with your characters. They should never want to leave.

These things don’t only apply to fantasy and sci-fi, though the barrier to those is probably thicker. Authors of these kinds of books have more work to do to make their worlds and characters believable. But even real-world based fiction must give readers compelling characters and situations that, even if far-fetched, the reader can be made to accept.

I love Tana French’s books, but there is one called The Likeness that really stretched my believability. The entire premise is predicated on a detective who looks so much like a murder victim that they insert her into the victim’s world to root out the killer. The book is well written and entertaining, but I still had trouble giving the premise credence. And since no reliable reason was ever given for the, er, likeness . . . Sure, “long lost twin” is weak, but I’d believe it over random chance.

What pulls you out of stories and/or makes them unbelievable to you? Which books have you encountered with this problem? Did you finish the book or put it down? Let me know your thoughts!

IWSG: Publishing Paths

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

This month I’m insecure about the fact I entered Pitch Wars for the first time ever and have so far not received any requests for more pages. Between that and the fact that I keep being told by agents I’ve queried that my writing is “really good,” “engaging,” “flows well” . . . yet somehow no one wants to represent or publish it . . . I don’t know what to think or do. Which leads somewhat indirectly to this month’s question:

What publishing path are you considering/did you take, and why?

As of now, I have eight books on the market. Two were published by small publishers, the others I self-published. I’ll be self-publishing Faebourne too.

For some manuscripts, I do try to get an agent. If I think the book might be commercial enough, I do an extensive round of querying. If, however, I know it’s too niche, or if it’s something I know I can sell on my own (like Sherlock Holmes or Regency romance), I self-publish.

I guess a part of me still hopes to someday be published by a bigger house. I don’t know why. A lingering desire for legitimacy? For someone to say I’m good enough? Hence the most recent heartbreaking year of queries. For this particular manuscript I’ve sent out 134 queries, and at the moment I’m waiting for answers on 3 of them. The rest were rejections or no responses. And now I’m hoping maybe, just maybe, a Pitch Wars mentor might see something good in my work. But that appears to be a no as well.

It’s tough to stay confident in your writing when no one else seems to believe it’s worth their time or effort.

Yet my Sherlock Holmes books and Brynnde sell well. So at least a few people like and read my work. And I have hopes Faebourne will follow in Brynnde‘s footsteps. All signs point to me continuing to self-publish because I come out ahead on those books. (Mostly due to my husband who handles the marketing.)

In short, my publishing path is something I determine on a book-by-book basis. If I think there’s a chance an agent might like the manuscript, I do some querying. Otherwise, I self-publish. I don’t really bother with the smaller publishers any more because I haven’t had much luck with them. I’m better off having full control of my ability to price and market, and in determining which format(s) to produce, etc. I’m sure there are some great small publishers out there that actually do market and won’t just churn out a ton of books and hope they sell, but I’ve ceased looking for them. If a publisher wants me to do the marketing for them, well, I might as well put the book out myself and keep more of the profits.

So this manuscript I’m shopping, well . . . First I have to get Faebourne out, and then I’ll decide what to do with it. Scrap it. Overhaul it. Or eventually put my faith in it and self-publish. Its fate remains to be determined.

Looking for Grit

Back when I was first trying to become an author—a long time ago, just after I graduated from Emerson—I wrote a book that was in the vein of the Judy Blume novels I’d loved as a kid. It was called Nick Terpiccio, Eighth-Grade Hero and was light and funny. I duly combed my reference books of agents (I said it was a long time ago!) and mailed off queries (yes, in the post). I had some nice responses, all saying I had talent but this wasn’t for them. But the response that stuck with me was one from an agent who said my book simply didn’t have enough grit.

Book needed more Jeff Bridges apparently.

It tackled no issues, really. The main character wasn’t battling drugs or dealing with abuse. Nick’s biggest problems were that his two best friends were fighting, and that he liked a girl. Bubble gummy stuff, I suppose, but the novel was meant to be fun and upbeat.

The agent’s letter went on to more or less say “kids these days” (and this was the early aughts) wanted “edge.” I remember that word distinctly. And I guess that must be true because it seems dark books are popular. Angst is in. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. (This article suggests it might be.) It’s just not what I write, really.

The article linked above talks about YA books featuring black protagonists being shot, kids being abused, etc. The stance is that not all kids deal with this stuff, and even if they do, why would they want to read about it? Shouldn’t reading be an escape? Well, yes and no. I think we read for a lot of reasons, often subconsciously. Escapism is one reason, but we also read to know we’re not alone. When we talk about “representation” in literature, we mean seeing people like us. Straight white people don’t have a problem with that since most books have straight white characters. But people of color, people with different sexualities, people with complicated blended families or whatever—they have trouble finding themselves in popular books. That’s starting to change, but when you consider the vast number of books, it’s just a tiny drop in the bucket.

Still, it might be a valid question to ask, “But even when diversifying characters, do they always have to be in gangs or doing drugs or sexually abused?” The article above asks more broadly (and I’m paraphrasing): Why not depict a happier, more hospitable world? Well, readers aren’t stupid. They’ll find a happy-go-lucky world to be fake and therefore won’t invest as fully*. They want complicated worlds and complicated characters. They want the book to reflect what they know because that’s how they’ll connect and identify. Sure, the world may not be as bad as some of the dystopian novels out there, but it’s easy to imagine things going in that direction. And it’s just as easy for us to feel relieved that, hey, at least we’re not living in that world.

*Unless it’s Stepford. Then we’ll know what kind of book we’re in.

I fear I’m starting to ramble. Let me condense my thoughts here. 1. I once wrote an MG book that was considered too happy. 2. I read an article that suggested YA literature isn’t happy enough. 3. Even though I don’t write dark, angsty books, I can see why they might be popular and that they have a legitimate point of view on the world.

This is the world we live in, after all, and while it’s nice to read fluff sometimes, there’s nothing to be gained by hiding our heads in the sand, either. And to only produce happy-go-lucky books for kids would be doing just that. Though I think a few happy-go-lucky books would be good. Anyone want Nick? (Just kidding, I don’t even still have the manuscript. Remember floppy disks? Yeah, neither does my computer.)