Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Being Awesome, Week 15

Wow, I can't believe it's almost June. Anyway, a peek at all the things in life to be grateful for:

  1. On Sunday, we had a BBQ with friends. Great food, board games, excellent conversation, and someone showed us the glorious result of mixing cinnamon schnapps with apple cider (that should almost get its own mention).
  2. I took the entire weekend off from writing, editing, CPing, brainstorming, plotting—everything. And I felt much better for it when I went back to those things on Tuesday.
  3. My critique partner finished my latest manuscript, and her feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
  4. An exterminator came to take care of our (completely destructive, non-pollinating) carpenter bee problem. Yay for being able to go outside!
  5. The QueryKombat entries have been received, and I'm excited about the huge amount of talent in the pool of contestants. It's going to be a great contest. 
  6. A new game I ordered online arrived in two days—a huge surprise, since I had no idea the post office delivered packages on Memorial Day.
  7. I think I've finally perfect my S'mores in the oven recipe. 
  8. I have coffee (I got busy and forgot to write this in advance, so at 6:30 in the morning, I am ALWAYS grateful for coffee).
What about you? Tell me in the comments about your awesome things this week.

Monday, May 25, 2015

When Genre and Query Letter Don't Connect

One of the hardest things about writing a query is trying to infuse some voice into it. But it's also really important to make sure your query fits the genre you're telling me your story fit into. Consider the following (made up) query:
Ten-year-old Harry hates living with his aunt and uncle: They make him live in a closet, they're mean, and they spend all their and money time making his jerky cousin even more horrible. When Harry gets an invitation to a private boarding school, it's like his dreams came true.
Although his aunt and uncle initially resist letting Harry do anything he wants to do, they can't wait to get him out of their house, so they finally agree. At school, Harry has something he never thought possible for a thing like him: friends. They explore the school, learn new things, and have adventures. But there's a dark side to the school—one of the teachers watches Harry with an evil eye. Large dogs guard secrets. And men with dark plans threaten to take away the first home Harry has ever known. He must face his fears and confront the man who killed his parents or risk being killed himself—or worse, expelled. 
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE is MG fantasy, complete at XX,XXX words.
When you get to that last sentence, your eyes should skid to a grinding halt. What? Sorcerers? Fantasy? Where does the query hint at any of that?

Nowhere. I left it all out. I didn't mention magic or half-giants or three-headed dogs or Platform 9 3/4 or supposedly dead wizards returning. Which is really unfortunate, because that is what makes the story what it is. The purpose of a query letter is to entice agents to want to read your story, not someone else's. It needs to be an accurate reflection. Queries for humorous stories should have some humor in them, queries for horror novels should be a bit spooky. Your YA query shouldn't read like it was written by a 60-year-old. The whole thing has to fit together, and it has to relate to the manuscript. Requests mean nothing if the agent rejects because they requested one book based on the query and received something completely different.

If I'm an agent and I got the above query, I'd hit delete. Why? Because it tells me one of two things: either the author has no idea how to write a query letter or he doesn't understand what fantasy is. And both of those things tell me the author hasn't done research, which makes me afraid to read the book, not enticed.

Have a friend who hasn't read your query look at it and read it. If they're not grasping the main, most important concepts in your book, it needs more work. Start over and try again.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Being Awesome, Week 14

I can't believe I've been doing these weekly posts for 3.5 months. Not only do I overall feel more positive about life in general, but I've saved a LOT of brain power that would've been spent trying to figure out what on earth to blog about instead. Here's a look at the past week.
  1. We finally agreed on patio furniture!! It's backordered (of course), but in a few weeks it's going to be very comfortable to sit outside.
  2. I got to see Avengers: Age of Ultron! Woo-hoo! What I'm looking for from these movies is basically cool special effects and awesome fight scenes, and I got a lot of that. 
  3. Brunch with friends. Yay brunch! Found a new place near my house that's pretty good and very cheap.
  4. My second draft of my work in progress is finished and being read by the first round of critique partners. 
  5. My husband figured out how to cook the perfect steak. 
  6. I learned how to make baked s'mores in the oven (it's about as easy as it sounds).
  7. An afternoon playing games with friends. 
So, yeah... half of these awesome moments are about food. But you know what? I'm supposed to be taking it easy and relaxing and enjoying life, and food is yummy, so I'm OK with it.

What about you? What awesome things did you do last week?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Common Writing Mistakes

I've been reading a lot of first pages over the past couple of months. A lot, a lot, a lot. (My best guess is around 300, so while I am prone to exaggeration sometimes, when I say "a lot," I mean it.) And here are some (made-up) examples of problems I see over and over. Look out for and avoid these mistakes on your first page before entering contests like QueryKombat.

Even in contests with a mentor round, like PitchWars, your first page should be polished and ready before you hit send.

Ex. 1: "Wait!" He says huridly, and walks toward me.

Problems: 
  1. One of those words is misspelled.
  2. There's no need for a beat and a dialogue tag. Either show him walking or use the said, but not both.
  3. Adverbs are generally disfavored, especially in dialogue tags, but here it's doubly unnecessary because you could just show him moving as if in a hurry.
  4. The comma doesn't belong there. 
Try: "Wait!" He rushed toward me.

Ex. 2: There was a tree and it was really tall.

Problems:
  1. To be verbs are not all that interesting. They have a place, but try to limit them. Especially try not to use more than one in a single sentence.
  2. To be verbs are a sign of telling. Don't tell us there's a tree, show it.
  3. When linking two complete sentences with a conjunction, there should be a comma before the conjunction.
Try: The tree towered over the rooftops.

Ex. 3: Shane and Adam sat on the steps, looking out across the lawn. Angela watched them through slitted eyes, pretending to listen to her sister, Tina, chatter on about cheerleading. Under the trees, Barry and Lisa make out. Joan does backflips across the lawn, oblivious to it all. A scream cuts across the quad. Shane raises one hand lazily to his eyes as if he doesn't care, but his heart races. Engrossed in their kissing, Barry and Lisa appear not to notice. But I know something is wrong.

Problems:
  1. Raise your hand if you have any idea what's going on in this scene, because I certainly don't. I don't know who these people are, who (if anyone) I'm supposed to care about, or why.
  2. Holy head-hopping, Batman!
  3. Wall of the text. White space is your friend. When new things happen, start a new paragraph.
Try: Focus on one character, at least on the first page. Give one point-of-view and let us see what that person is experiencing.

Ex. 4: As the light from the trees hits my eyes, my cell phone rings. I fumble for it in my pocket as I think about the day my mother died. The caller ID fills me with dread, as I blink away the tears brought on by my memory.

Problem:
As, as, as. The word "as" is supposed to connect two things that have a direct correlation: cause and effect. The light hitting the main character in the eyes has nothing to do with the main character's phone ringing.  I feel like "as" is the default connector for a lot of new authors, but it's also used incorrectly most of the time. (I found a really good article on this a while back, but I lost it - if anyone has the link, I'd love to see it).
These are just a few examples, but they help illustrate why it's so important to get another set of eyes on your first page before querying or entering contests. Ask a friend to tell you what works, and what doesn't. Take advantage of critique giveaways. Use contests hashtags to find someone to swap with (and if that first person isn't right for you, find another. You're not married to the first person you switch first pages with). The best way to improve is to use your resources.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Thoughts on the Marathon Bombing Verdict

April 15, 2013, started like any other day. I got up and started working, not having lived in Massachusetts long enough to remember the state holiday, and my daily routine not taking me anywhere near the marathon route (I work from home, so I mostly go to and from the coffee pot in my kitchen on work days). No, I remembered the marathon when my best friend posted a picture on Facebook, of her view of the finish line, standing right under the Canadian flag.

Every person in America saw the pictures of that flag, less than five minutes later, when the bombs went off. Now, my friend got lucky—she posted that picture, said good-bye the people she'd been chatting with, turned around and walked home. When the bomb went off, she was more than a block away. I have no idea what happened to the strangers she was talking to, but there's a good chance they weren't so lucky. Dozens of people at the site were injured, three were killed. She easily could have been one of them.

She posted moments later, "Was there an explosion? What happened?" I googled frantically, then sent an avalanche of texts. "Go home. Get away from the marathon route. Go home and stay there." I checked in with everyone I knew in Boston, and sent the next few days reassuring everyone I knew elsewhere that I hadn't been anywhere near the bomb site. In my spare time, I thanked every deity I could think of that my friends and family were safe. Other people were not so lucky.

That Friday, I woke up the constant buzzing of my cell phone. Message after message said the same thing: Do not leave the house today. Where are you? Are you OK? Stay inside. These are confusing messages at any time of day, and I hadn't had my coffee yet. Finally, thanks to social media, I figured out what was happening—in a completely unprecedented move, the entire city of Boston was on lockdown, including the neighborhood I lived in.

Like everyone else in Boston, I turned on the TV. One of the bombing suspects was dead, the other in hiding somewhere in Boston. Reporters were carefully not disclosing the location where they thought the remaining bombing suspect might be, but I'm pretty smart, and I heard the police helicopters circling overhead, so I could do the math. The newscasters on one station were broadcasting from a "secret, undisclosed location," near where police were searching. One of them was also standing in front of an unmistakable sign, posted on a building near the mall by my house. And when I say "by my house," that's not "a ten minute drive." That's Boston nearby - the mall where the reporters were gathering, near the action, was located less than a mile from my house. A fifteen minute walk if you were tired. Most Bostonians think nothing of covering that distance by foot regularly.

I spent the next nine hours expecting to hear gunshots through my window, worried a terrorist was about to come pounding on my door. I'll never forget how that felt. And now that the verdict is in, I'm reliving the whole thing.

I'm not sad that Tsarnaev was sentenced to death. I've always supported the death penalty, but now... I don't know anymore. But I'm not happy about the verdict, either, and I thought I would be. But it doesn't change anything. It doesn't bring back the three who died at the marathon or the police officer murdered when they fled. It doesn't help regrow limbs for those who were lost. I'd be happier if the government took all the money they'll spend on appeals, jail, and housing Tsarnaev and donated it to the victims and their families. But that can't happen, either. Not in our system. So instead, I'm feeling this weird emptiness.

Maybe I'll feel differently on execution day, but somehow, I doubt it. More likely, I'll turn off the internet and television, hug my loved ones a little closer, and try to remind myself of the finer things in life.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Being Awesome, Week 13

There's a lot of good stuff going on in May, with Nestpitch ending and QueryKombat starting. Here are just a few things for me to be grateful for that happened during the last week.
  1. We bought a BBQ! Yippee! That means we can now enjoy eating food cooked outside. It also means I can eat a lot more hamburgers, since all of the fast food places and most of the restaurants around here insist upon overcooking their meant. I like burgers.
  2. I got to have lunch with my agent, and she's just as great in person as on the phone, email, and Twitter. 
  3. Our lawnmower arrived! This is extra exciting, because we ordered it about a month ago, and our lawn was starting to get a little scary.
  4. After too many missed classes, I went back to yoga. I feel stronger, more flexible, and all around more centered already. 
  5. Draft two of my work in progress is coming along. It'll take some time, but at least I'm moving in the right direction.
  6. I completely nailed some balance and strength exercises. I mean, I killed them. It's an awesome feeling.
  7. Friends on Netflix. 'Nuff said.
Share your awesome moments in the comments!


Monday, May 11, 2015

First 250 Dos and Don'ts

With QueryKombat right around the corner (and PitchWars coming up soon after that), here's a glimpse into things I do (and do not) want to see on your first page.

Do: Show us your character's awesome voice. I want it to sound like they're talking to me directly (without them actually breaking the fourth wall and talking to me directly).

Don't: Introduce all of your characters at once. I know they're all awesome characters and you love them and want to show us everyone, but dropping your reader into a party scene with seventeen different people can be super confusing (and if it's not first person, I may have no idea who your main character is).

Do: Introduce me to your world. Whether that's a sci-fi world with dragons or a contemporary world or your main character lives in a shoe, give me some sense of it. I don't need an entire 250 words of description, but some hints as to where I am are nice.

Don't: Shove the first 10, 15, or 30 years of your main character's life into the first 250 words. There's a time and a place for backstory, but that place isn't on the first page.

Do: Review the rules on dialogue tags, beats, and punctuation. This is an area where I see a lot of mistakes.

Don't: Start with a prologue. We want to see what's happening in the story now, not what happened years ago or what happens later. A lot of agents shy away from stories primarily told in flashback.

Do: Spell check, grammar check, ask a friend to read. A mistake on the first page could be the difference between a "YES!!" and a "maybe" or a "maybe" and a "no."

Don't: Drop me into the middle of the action without any grounding in the scene. It's good to have things happening on the first page, but a sentence or two at the beginning will orient your reader. Let me know who the main character is and show me why I want to root for them. Just don't give me three paragraphs of purple prose that leave me with no idea what your story's about.

Do: Let me know who's talking and who the main character is before dropping me into dialogue.

Don't: Use common, overdone opening scenes - character waking up, character describing herself in a mirror (I've never seen this done with a male protagonist, but don't do that, either), character in mortal peril, waking up for a dream, opening with weather, etc. There are dozens of lists out there of openings to avoid. Here's what literary agents have to say.

Do: Give me a reason to want to keep reading. Try to end the first page in a hook that makes me desperate to read page two.

What about you? What are your best tips for the first page? Tell me in the comments.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Being Awesome, Week 12

Last week I went on a MUCH-needed vacation, so this one is pretty easy. Vacation = bonus awesome things.

  1. Meeting my baby niece. She's kind of a lump, at only six weeks old, but she is a cute lump.
  2. Spending four days with my sister and her husband. Even better, giving my husband time to get to know them - the only time he'd previously spent time with them was at our wedding and theirs, where socializing was necessarily limited (and included 20+ other crazy family members who also wanted our attention).
  3. Spending four days with my best friend in the world. 
  4. Did I mention that there was a board game convention? I adore board games. Nothing makes me happier than spending this one weekend a year playing games with friends I don't see often enough.
  5. Lots and lots and lots of other friends, most of whom I only see a couple of times a year.
  6. BEACH! (We went to San Diego.)
  7. Eating nothing but Mexican food for four days. This is huge to this poor, displaced CA girl. Mexican food doesn't really exist where I live now, unless I want to make it myself.
  8. On the plane, I managed to add a significant amount to my work in progress and came up with some ideas for fixing the middle section, which I may or may not choose to implement sometime this month (or I'll do it in June - I'm not in a hurry).
  9. Time to read books I am not editing.
  10. Finally got to see Thor: The Dark World. Yes, I'm ridiculously behind on movies. And I have half a season of Agents of Shield to watch before I go see the new Avengers movie next weekend. 
What about you? What awesome things did you do while I was gone?