I am excellent at encouraging my children to be patient.
I am less than excellent at following my own advice.
When I submitted my first round of query letters to literary agents a couple of weeks ago, I knew that waiting for a response was just part of the game.
Ok, they all say to wait four to six weeks for a response. No problem. I’ll just keep busy and not even think about it until then.
I kept that resolve for about….half a day?
Throwing that query letter out into the world where I have no control over it, and waiting, waiting to get a request for more… or a rejection… or (THE WORST) no response at all, has left me a bit nervous.
SO, in case any of you are in the same boat, (or just want to share in my misery- thanks!) I’ve written the following handy guide to surviving the ‘query crazy.’
Don’t obsess over your e-mail Inbox. After all, if an agent is going to write back, they’re going to do it on their own time. It’s not as if you’re going to get a manuscript request withdrawn by not responding immediately. (But just in case you will, maybe check just one more time.)
Remind yourself that everything is a process. Whether you get picked up at this time or not doesn’t eliminate the hours…and hours…and hours you put into your manuscript. (And if you DO get picked up, you’ll likely be spending more hours on it. So really, this is like a mini-vacation!)
Catch up on housework. If you are like me, during the crazy writing and researching and submission processes, something in your cluttered sink has begun smelling like death. It’s as good a time to mend this as any.
Stop! I said don’t obsess over your e-mail. But, if you need to check if your mom has responded to your last and you just happen to check the rest of your inbox, who can blame you?
Bake. You’re cleaning the kitchen anyway. It’s always more fun to clean when something is baking in the oven, and then when you have the urge to stress-snack you have something homemade. So far in this process we’ve made it through two chocolate zucchini cakes. (Hey, it has zucchini in it after all- it’s practically a salad.)
Remind yourself that rejection is typical. After all, Kate DiCamillo was rejected 47(?) times before Because of Winn Dixie was picked up, and then she won the Newberry.*
Ride out the mood swings. “I hate my story now! It’s awful and they won’t like it either!” is not productive. You liked it before, remember? You will again. Be confident!
Let it go. Yes, you just realized you missed a typo in the first query you sent out. Don’t panic. Improve your proofreading, and hope that she won’t hold that ‘who’ rather than ‘whom’ against you
Try not to drive your friends crazy. You may get urges to pester sweetly ask your spouse/friend/beta reader/random facebook acquaintance for reassurance. “You like my story, right? Right? What about this bit? What about this character? What about…?” Settle down, friend.
Don’t check that e-mail again! It’s after working hours now- they won’t be writing you. (Unless they picked up your pages at the end of the day and just couldn’t put them down…maybe one more check…)
Hang in there, writers! And to the rest of you, thanks for your patience!
Anyone else have tips to make waiting (whatever your current wait is 🙂 ) more bearable?
* This is based off of my memories of a wonderful presentation she gave while I was in college. Knowing my memory… well, I’m reasonably sure the number is correct, but feel free to prove me wrong!
I had my first one just this week. After twelve years, I ought to expect them.
Each is a little different, but it’s just a theme and variations. I’ve named them “the teacher nightmares.”
I stand in front of the classroom. I have all of my plans in my head, ready to go, and I haven’t remembered to prepare any of the materials.
Chaos slowly consumes the classroom as the children, sensing weakness, descend into anarchy. Nothing I say or do makes any difference.
I am completely ineffective.
Granted, as nightmares go, my “teacher nightmare” is a mild example. I wake feeling uneasy, and it takes a while (and a few successful lessons) to be fully comfortable again.
Some of the other dreams that drift in from time to time…they aren’t so easy to shake.
Am I right in supposing that each of us has at least one nightmare that we can’t forget? One that haunts us and lends weight to the fear of the sailors in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when they realize that they are in danger of running aground on the isle where such dreams take on flesh and bone?
No, my annual nighttime expressions of classroom anxiety aren’t my worst dreams- not by a long way. At least they serve a useful purpose- they keep me on my mettle as far as planning and preparation!
After all, fear is a powerful motivator.
The start of ‘nightmare season’ got me thinking about novels that use dreams- specifically nightmares.
For instance, in Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, Jane’s pre-nuptial nightmares blend in to a frightening reality, warning her that the future may not be as bright as she hopes. (If you haven’t read it yet, yes, I KNOW it’s long, and has a great deal of backstory at the beginning. I still LOVE IT!)
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte (Charlotte’s sister) uses a nightmare in the beginning of the novel to introduce the main storyline- the tragic relationship of Heathcliff and Catherine.
Other classics such as Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and Macbeth involve characters tormented by nighttime terrors.
More recently, the ever popular Harry Potter’s nightmares not only terrified, but provided valuable (though at times, unreliable) information, and Katniss Everdeen’s nightmares strengthened her bond with Peeta, her fellow Hunger Games contestant.
Of late, I’ve worked on writing some nightmares myself. My male protagonist in my WW2 novel is a platoon sergeant. While James is able to keep his fears in check and put on a brave face during waking hours, sleep brings little rest. He is haunted by dreams- flashbacks twisted to remind him of every way he has failed and could fail the men he’s responsible for. He runs the risk of being crippled by survivor’s guilt- made inneffective by his fears.
If you’re writing just now, and are working towards well-rounded characters, it’s worth taking some time to consider how fear motivates them. How will they react when their nightmares appear to be coming true? Will fear and foreboding galvanize them to action, or paralyze them?
Can you think of any other examples of nightmares/dreams in stories you’ve read or written or watched? Did they ‘work’ for the story?
In any case, I’ll close tonight by wishing us all sweet dreams. 🙂
EPILOGUE: Teaching day one went well. No supplies forgotten, minimal anarchy, no bleeding or tears. Chalking it up as a win 😉
There are plenty of things to poke fun at in Minnesota.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my home state. But just as it’s easy to give a beloved family member a hard time for his quirks, it’s easy to laugh at the little absurdities of a familiar place.
Of course, it’s not comfortable for someone ELSE to poke fun at your family…or your home.
This is why I cringe a bit when the big movie companies attempt to set films in the Midwest.
Maybe you remember the movie that came out a few years back, “New in Town”? It was set in New Ulm, MN.
I spent a considerable amount of time in New Ulm, and no, I never met a cow in the road. Still, the little river town has plenty of quirks.
The movie missed them all.
Sure, they had a lot of jokes about snow, and yes, Minnesota gets a bit chilly. (Ok, fine. It’s cold enough that your snot freezes when you go outside most Januaries. It just makes us stronger!)
The problem is, the ‘it’s cold in the north!’ gag could be applied to thousands of locations.
New Ulm is fairly distinctive, as little Minnesota towns go. It has German immigrant roots, and it’s pretty proud of its heritage- hence the big glockenspiel downtown, and the statue of Herman the German up on ‘the hill.’
It also completely closes down by 8pm, so college kids, desperate for excitement, used to cruise around the aisles of the 24 hour Hy-Vee grocery store. (Rumor has it a Wal-Mart went in, so maybe there are more options now.)
I could go on, but my point is that the film’s writers chose a place that has some interesting quirks, but having never been there, they only took easy shots. “Hey! Let’s talk about snow! Oooh, and at least one character’s gotta have that goofy Midwest accent!”
I don’t imagine that these decisions affected the success of the film. Plenty of friends with New Ulm connections saw it and enjoyed it, and I didn’t come out of it outraged, just a bit disappointed.
And, thinking about it now, more than a bit frightened.
You see, while I’ve visited the majority of the ‘lower 48’ of the United States, I haven’t had much chance to leave the country.
Growing up in Minnesota, we made the occasional trip up over the border to Canada. These weren’t extensive visits, they were more along the lines of, “Hey! I went shopping in Canada! Culture!!!”
We went to Aruba for our honeymoon (AMAZING) and were excited to get local money and go to local shops and sites rather than the touristy places. The poor kid at the store where we bought provisions was completely flummoxed when we didn’t hand him American dollars. He figured out how to make proper change…eventually.
Aside from a very seasick trip to Victoria, British Columbia, that’s it.
And here I am, trying to produce a realistic story, set in an era I don’t live in, and on a continent I’ve never visited.
I’ve tried, oh how I’ve tried, to do it well.
I’ve poured over maps and histories so that my characters are where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be.
I’ve lost count of the number of first-hand sources I’ve read to get the ‘flavor’ of the times and places. I’ve focused hours on cadences of speech and proper word usage. (I had no idea that ‘tea’ could mean so many different things!)
I’ve found travel books at the library to get pictures of the landscapes and of construction materials common to different areas.
I’ve checked locations of railway lines.
I’ve checked native plants and when they’d be blooming.
I’ve checked weather conditions…
…and while I keep telling myself that I’ve done the work and it should be fine, I still have this sinking feeling that if anyone who LIVES in any of the areas I write about reads this book, they’ll KNOW. They’ll know that I’m writing as an outsider.
Here’s where the fear rears its ugly head: will my attempts be taken as they are meant- as an homage, though perhaps an imperfect one?
I hope so.
Maybe next time I just need to come up with an exciting plot set in a corn field.
Writers- how do you cope with writing in unfamiliar settings? (Or do you just avoid it?!)
Playgrounds are difficult. Supervising three children on our morning excursions leaves me longing for my afternoon coffee.
My eldest is an organizer. Last week she had half a dozen kids using the wood chips that covered the ground as ‘ice cream’ in a makeshift shop, which they ‘sold’ to other children, stashing other wood chips in a hole in the playset for a bank… it was elaborate.
My middle child has followed his big sister around for years, allowing her to run the games. That era seems to be ending. He will still go along, when he wants to, but he is also beginning to assert his independence. He spent most of that day trying to time out a run up the slide between other children sliding down.
My youngest just wants to play. She wanders and dreams and I try to steer her away from wandering too close to the swings, again.
I…I try not to hover. I keep a sharp lookout that they are all safe, but I try not to worry about the bumps and bruises, the dirty faces and the woodchips in their hair and whether the other children like them.
‘Try’ is the key word. How can I love my little crazies so much and not worry about them?
I feel some of the same anxieties for the characters in my stories.
After all, I have given them life, in a way. I’d like them to be happy in the little world I’ve made for them, able to muddle through their story and hopefully come out better for the journey.
The trouble is, like my children, these fictional people don’t live in isolation. They need to be able to play well with others, but in their case, the others aren’t their peers. They are their readers.
No one wants their kid to be ‘that kid,’ the one left on the sidelines, the one desperate to be liked but forever lonely.
No author wants their creation to be ‘that character,’ the one readers write off as cliché or predictable or unlikeable.
However, my protagonists didn’t exactly come out of their first exposure to professional readers looking like the popular kids. My feedback from the Athanatos writing contest pointed out a number of weak points.
Please, don’t write this type of character- it’s overused.
She’s too sweet.
Avoid using this name- we see it all of the time.
And so on.
The critiques were kindly given, and meant to be helpful. Still, my first instinct was “Mama Bear.”
WHAT? Oh yeah? Well YOU don’t know them! And I deliberately tried not to write her that way- GRRRRRAAAA!
When calm returned, I skimmed through my draft. Ok, some of the criticisms fit, maybe, but there were reasons why the characters acted that way…
There was the problem.
I knew my characters backwards and forwards.
My readers didn’t.
I needed to do a better job of portraying my protagonists. Their motivations needed to be more clear if they had any hope of being likeable. With a goal in mind, I got to work.
From childhood experience, I knew that if my characters seemed overeager to be liked, they would probably fail. (I mean, how can you NOT like him? Look, he speaks in poetry, saves puppies, volunteers every weekend, everyone in the BOOK likes him, you HAVE TO LIKE HIM!!!!!) Like the ‘cool kids’ on the playground, they’d need to come by it naturally.
First, things first. If you’ve written at all, you’ve surely heard the advice, ‘show, don’t tell.’ I searched out any places in the books where I said nice things about the character. If they made sense to the story, I kept them, but otherwise they were chopped. I searched out scenes where the characters showed admirable qualities, and strengthened them.
Second, no one likes a show off. I knew that my characters had flaws, and that these flaws drove them. My female protagonist is so overeager to maintain good relationships with her remaining family that she bends over backwards and sacrifices happiness to keep the peace, and inadvertently puts herself and others in danger. My male protagonist is so hyper-responsible that he almost gets himself killed because he can’t handle the guilt of someone else being hurt on his watch. Re-reading, I realized that I hadn’t shown the darker sides of these traits, and as a result they both just came off as ‘goody-two-shoes.’
I wrote and rewrote, trying to give my paper people room to breathe, to be flawed, to interact with others in organic ways. Several drafts later, I hope that I am closer to realizing that goal!
A good character needs a balance of positive qualities and flaws, of personality quirks and inane normalcy to live and breathe and become more than just flat words on a page. They need these things, this attention to background to become likeable- more than that, to become relatable for their readers.
Writers- what tricks do you use to make your characters likeable? (Or at least interesting- whether a character needs to be likeable is another topic 🙂 )
Readers- what stands out about the story characters you love?
My past experience teaching creative writing to elementary school students only went so far when attempting to write a novel, so I’d been brushing up my writing craft.
As you may have guessed from the title of my site, my time is not my own. It’s not easy to squeeze self-education in between meals, and snacks, and potty runs, and grocery runs, and play time, and Band-Aid applications, and stories and… more coffee, please!
My writer friends put me on to some very helpful articles, which I studied each evening while waiting for my middle child to finally give in and sleep. (What is it about bed time that shrinks a child’s bladder to something that can only stay unrelieved for five minutes?)
This article worried me, and it wasn’t alone in giving this sort of advice.
Start in the action. Start conflict right away. Hook your readers at once, or they’ll leave! No backstory!
I mentally sifted through my manuscript, and cringed. The action was there, eventually. but the first chapter…well, in the first chapter my MC has been invalided to northern England, effectively removed from the ‘action.’ This worked for the story, at least, I had thought it did.
But was there enough action?
Great. I’ve blown the beginning. I am submitting this thing to a contest I’ve paid for in a month, AND I HAVE NO BEGINNING!!!
I pummeled my brain for ideas, looking for SOMETHING that I could do to liven things up. Something that would make sense…
AH! The main conflict revolves around an undiscovered murder, committed four years previously.
I’ll write a prologue! With action!!!
I gave it a go, sat back and considered. It wasn’t too bad… though it did worry me that the characters involved wouldn’t become relevant again until much later in the story. Also, the murder was one of my bigger ‘reveals’…that was gone now.
But the articles SAID action…
I kept it.
It wasn’t until after I’d submitted that I read my first writing advice on prologues, how they’re generally frowned upon for first-time authors, and it’s safest not to attempt them.
The contest judges said essentially the same thing. Their response reminded me of myself, trying to kindly critique a students’ work. “Hmmm…I can see what you tried to do here…”
Long story short(ish), the prologue disappeared, and I tried some other beginnings, one of which involved a character waking up. Guess what else was on the list of things to avoid in your story if you’re a first time author?
In the end, I haven’t tried to add any crazy action scenes to the beginning of my current (final?) draft. They wouldn’t make sense. I tightened up the story, slimmed down the backstory as much as possible, and went with, essentially, a leaner, meaner version of the beginning I started with- which DOES have action, incidentally. It’s just that most of the conflict at the beginning is internal. I just panicked from reading too much advice and couldn’t see it.
My advice to those struggling with the beginning of your story is STAY CALM! There are many ways to add action and hook readers! Find good advice, but don’t forget the value of your gut instincts, or the feedback of other readers who are experiencing your story as the author of the article that is terrifying you hasn’t.
I’m confident that this new/old beginning is the best start for my story. Hopefully the people who will soon be clamoring to publish it (hey, dream big!) will agree…
Just for fun, I’ve included a slimmed-down version of my deleted prologue below, a deleted scene, if you will.
I’m happy with the fact that it is no longer part of the finished product, but hey, I spent enough time worrying over the thing. May as well print it somewhere…
France: May, 1940
“Are you all right, sir?”
“Yes, of course.” The captain lied, and finished wrapping the bandage around his arm, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. “Phillips, get the rest of these men back behind the new lines. There’s no use waiting around any longer.” The statement was punctuated by distant reverberations that could almost be mistaken for thunder, and brilliant flashes on the dark skyline.
“Aren’t you coming along?” Henry Phillips glanced over his shoulder. The rumbles of the tanks and artillery weren’t an immediate threat, but his foot hovered anxiously over the lorry’s accelerator.
“I’ve got to go back.”
“Captain, you don’t even know…”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know. No one’s accounted for him, he wasn’t with his company, and I can’t just leave. Not until I’m certain.”
“But the retreat’s been called, you’ll be going alone. Shouldn’t I…”
The captain clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Henry, for the lift. Get yourself safe, and God willing… In any case, I’ll, or we’ll, follow quickly, never fear.”
“Yes, sir.” Phillips hesitated a moment as the captain vaulted down, then added, “And good luck.” He was rewarded with a wave, then quickly put the lorry back into gear. With a roar of the engine and a spin of tires, he was gone.
The captain set a brisk pace in the opposite direction, towards the positions they had lately abandoned. He loped along through the night, surefooted on the uneven dirt track, breathing deeply, ignoring the throbbing pain in his arm. The May air was cool and smelled of damp green countryside, laced with petrol and cordite and acrid smoke.
The dark effectively disguised the wounds on the land, but as he reached the first buildings there was light enough from the fires to distinguish the piles of rubble, broken machinery and spent shells. The French and British Allied defenses at the ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line were broken, and the brief success of their counter attack could only buy them a little more time before they were overwhelmed.
The rumble of artillery was growing louder.
He navigated the shadowy streets, unchallenged. He’d waited until the very end, until everyone that he was responsible for was out.
Almost everyone, anyway. In spite of everything, I can’t just leave him behind.
He paused, catching his breath and trying to think. Where would he be? There was that house where I saw him the other day… He changed course, searching about for familiar shapes in the flickering shadows. Down one side street, one more alley-
He called out, and the figure turned towards him. He felt a surge of relief as he recognized the other man’s face. The feeling was quickly supplanted by irritation, tinged with fear as he heard another shell impact. Too close…
“Thank God I’ve found you. What are you still doing here? You need to get back to your company at once. This is irresponsible, even for you. I ought to… ” Another shell, blast followed by the rattle of shrapnel and rock flung up from its impact. “Never mind- we need to move. C’mon…” he reached for the other’s arm, then froze.
The dim light glinted off of the barrel of the Luger, leveled at his chest.
“What…?” The captain never had opportunity to complete the thought.
I’m a Midwesterner by birth. The joke goes that there are three standard responses in our conversations.
#1: “That’s not too bad.” This is suitable for any event from neutral to amazingly super awesome.
#2: “That’s not too good.” This choice works for anything from a minor inconvenience to tragedy.
If choices 1 and 2 just won’t do, the fall back is choice #3: “That’s different.”
Take that and apply it to romance…well, an old Ole and Lena joke comes to mind. (Best read in a thick Minnesota accent.)
Ole comes into the house to find Lena crying.
“Lena, what’s da matter?”
“Oh Ole,” she answers, wiping her eyes. “It’s just…”
“Ole, you never tell me you love me.”
Ole walks over, and pats her on the shoulder. “Aw, Lena. I told you I loved you on our wedding day. If something had changed…I would’ve let you know.”
Ba doom, Ching!
It’s not that my husband and I are not affectionate, and it’s possible that we might be overheard using the “L” word, but we don’t generally gush poetry as we gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.
That much emotion, publicly expressed, is just not comfortable.
In the setting of a novel, I’ll admit it, a bit of romance is ‘not too bad.’ Still, even getting a book out of the library with a cover that clearly indicates “THIS IS A LOVE STORY” makes me squirmy. Thank goodness for self-checkout…
Unfortunately, the catalyst that gets the murder and mayhem in my novel moving is (you guessed it) a romantic interest. If I wanted to write my book, I had to write convincing romantic-ish scenes. That other people would read. Riiiiiiiiight.
I steeled myself. It couldn’t be that bad.
The first draft was…ok. I felt like some of it was heavy-handed, but I didn’t know how to make it better, and it sounded kind of like some things I’d read, so I went with it.
After substantial polishing, I entered the novel in a writing contest.
Guess what? I should have followed my instincts. They thought it was heavy-handed too. I got called out on the same bits that I hadn’t been entirely comfortable with in the first place.
Back to the drawing board.
With feedback from the contest and considerable editing, I found a few tricks that helped ease my discomfort, and (hopefully) improved the finished work.
First, I hacked and slashed unnecessary dialogue. Anything that didn’t sound like real life or made me squirm WENT AWAY, and I discovered that the story didn’t lose any clarity for it. Allowing characters emotions etc. to be implied rather than stated strengthened those scenes and helped the story move along.
Second, I changed points of view. Rather than using the ‘love interests’ to narrate, I shifted POV to my antagonist whenever possible. He’s really my most interesting character, and his observations kept things from getting sugary while still letting the reader know the essentials.
Third, I strengthened the characters. I knew the characters I was writing well enough to know exactly why they would end up together; I needed to show those traits in my writing and let things happen naturally.
Have I mastered the dreaded romantic scene?
HA! Nope. Plenty of authors handle that much better than I. BUT, I think I can safely say that I’ve come up with a story that fits my voice better than my first attempts, and something that I can hand off for others to read with greater confidence.
What do you like to see in a good love scene? Any tips, writers or readers?
“I was given a manuscript to read, but it was so bad I sent it back/deleted it immediately.”
“A friend asked me to read their writing. I tried, but I couldn’t think of anything nice to say, so I just gave it back and said I didn’t have the time.”
“I wrote my first novel and it still sits in my garage- I was so proud of it at the time, but now I realize how awful it is.”
Sound familiar? If you’ve poked around in the world of writing at all, you’ve probably run into stories like these.
These stories speak to the deepest, most neurotic corner of my heart, and they tell me one thing:
“Your writing is possibly, even probably awful, and you’re just too close to see it.”
The temptation to burn the whole mess, (in effigy of course, let’s not get crazy here. I still want my laptop for recipes,) is strong. Just kill the story, move on with non-creative pursuits, stay happy and safe from rejection. I’d sure get more house cleaning done…
Deep breaths. Stay calm.
Writing is an art. Taste is subjective, BUT there are definite markers for good vs. flame-worthy.
The following are a few things I’ve tried, hoping to ensure quality.
Find Safe Readers.
I’ve run into a great deal of professional advice telling me not to lean on people I know as readers- especially not relatives or friends. As a newbie to this whole ‘biz, I’m going to come right out and say I ignored this. I needed readers who were going to leave me unbloodied from my first exposure as an adult author.
I was fortunate to have people who were both very literate, and honest enough to let me know if the overall project should probably be kept ‘just for me.’ After my book passed the eyes of four people I trusted, it was ready for the next step.
Find ‘Scary’ Readers
I entered my novel- a much earlier draft- in the Athanatos Christian Writing Contest. I made the first judging cut, (yay!) but not the semi-finals, (sigh.) Besides the experience of exposing my writing to professional scrutiny, I received a whoooole bunch of feedback.
Warning: Taking professional feedback was hard.
Still, once I got over the initial “But…but…but…” reaction to some of the constructive criticism, I was able to put it to work for me and come out with a MUCH stronger draft of the story than I started with. The experience was valuable and enlightening.
I’m not sure WHAT draft I’m officially on, and I still find sentences that could be strengthened and errors that I taught students to avoid. I’ve read, reread, taken a break and then read again. Articles by other authors have been invaluable in pointing out common errors- apparently I am very fond of adverbs, and unnecessary speech tags.
Especially in the case of dialogue, something might look great in type, but once you say the words you realize they sound bad enough to make angels weep. I hyperbolize, but seriously, reading aloud has helped me pay more attention to word choice and flow. My kids look at me like I’m crazy as I go around talking to myself, but they did that anyway.
Read Other Books
Apparently my female protagonist’s name was an extremely overused one. Who knew?
Avoiding clichés is easier if you know what other authors have written. Also, excellent authors encourage me to rethink word choices, to stretch and to grow.
Don’t give up!
If we give up, we’ll never succeed, or even improve! If one piece doesn’t pan out, the next might be better!
Besides, let’s face reality. If I give up now, the house won’t really get any cleaner- I’ll just be out one more excuse.
Do you have any tips to share that strengthen your writing and allay your fears?