To pitch, or not to pitch …

If you’re a writer, on Twitter, and have at least one completed manuscript, there’s a good chance you’ve participated in a pitch contest (if not, why not?).

So far I’ve entered four: one was on a blog where you submitted your query letter and first 100 words, and an agent would give feedback and make requests; another was a ‘first pages’ contest, where you submitted your first 250 words; yet another was a based on query letter and your first 250 words (also for agent requests); and the most recent one is Pitch Madness (curious about this one? It’s running right now and you can learn all about it over at the amazing Brenda Drake’s blog).

In the first contest I didn’t get a request, and the agent called my query “confusing”, BUT I did get great feedback from her on voice. Excellent. I took this as a win.

In the second one, the first pages contest, I actually won. Which earned me a query critique (rewritten multiple times since the ‘confusing’ comment) from an agent, and she had lots of good things to say. Win, win.

In the third contest, I didn’t make it to agent round but once again got good feedback on both query and first words. Also, I met one of my critique partners through this contest. Win, win, win.

In the meantime, I shelved that first manuscript and wrote another one, The Doctor’s Daughter, which is women’s fiction with a dash of magical realism. You can read the excerpt here (reworked from the excerpt below, which is what I entered for Pitch Madness … also, I’ve changed my main character’s name, but I’ll post on that another day). There were a few GREAT contests running while I was finishing up my edits, and while I SO wanted to be the impatient writer and enter them, I’ve waited until now.

Why? Because entering an unpolished manuscript into a contest is like serving undercooked chicken at a dinner party — pink chicken makes you sick, and guarantees your friends will NEVER eat at your house again. Similarly, an unfinished or imperfect manuscript guarantees you’ll disappoint (anger) agents who might be hooked by your pitch/first words, and good luck getting them to request anything from you again!

Pitch Madness is still running, so I’m not sure how my entry will shake out in the end. I made it through Round #1, where slush readers (aka ‘slush zombies’) read through 420+ entries and whittled them down to 167 to go through to Round #2. I’m one of those 167, which is great, and I hope I make it into Round #3, which is when the final 60 entries get a shot at grabbing an agent’s attention. But whether I go through or not, there’s a lot of amazing stuff I’ve taken out of playing along:

  1. It’s FUN: Contests can be super stressful — especially when hints are being tweeted out, which amps up the excitement AND obsessive nature of querying writers. But for me, I find them more invigorating than stressful — it’s exciting, watching and wondering how your entry is faring, and ultimately it’s an opportunity to learn, learn, and learn some more.
  2. It’s GOOD PRACTICE: Getting ready for Pitch Madness meant polishing my 35-word pitch (and this is SUPER TRICKY, taking 80,000+ words and turning them into only 35), perfecting my query letter, and making sure my manuscript is as good as I can get it (read: polishing, not fussing). On the note of getting pitch-ready, I know my limits and enlisted help — if you’re looking for query/pitch critiques, Lauren Spieller is awesome (she’s a writer and agency intern, but runs a query critique biz on side).
  3. It’s EDUCATIONAL: Before I started paying attention to contests I had no clue what Steampunk / Speculative Fiction / New Adult / Fantasy vs. Urban Fantasy really meant. I’ve loved learning all the different genres, and what writers can do to make their books stand out — including within my own genre!
  4. It’s a COMMUNITY: I’ve talked about writers helping writers before, and what a kick I get out of that. I have been both on the receiving and giving end of this, and think it’s one of the VERY BEST THINGS about being a writer these days. And social media makes it easy for us to connect — to support each other, be cheerleaders, offer critiques, and celebrate successes.
  5. It’s MOTIVATING: When I know a contest is coming up, especially a big one like Pitch Madness, I push my Type A into high gear and am always amazed by what I can do with a deadline. Also, I love seeing the success stories … and there are plenty that come out of contests … because on those days where the writing feels impossible, or I’m sure it’s never, ever (ever) going to happen for me, those stories remind me to ‘buck up, buttercup’. Hard work trumps all. So don’t give up.

So on that note, here’s my Pitch Madness entry:

Title: THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER
Genre: Women’s Fiction (magical realism)
Word Count: 83,000

Pitch: Following an odd premonition and news of her father’s death, surgeon Penley Attwater is forced to return to her traditional hometown, only to become a surrogate for her late parents’ one remaining embryo—her sister.

Excerpt:

Like always, it started in my toes.

As if stepping into a too hot bath, the prickly warmth enveloped my feet before reaching into my thighs with fiery fingers. Then the heat wave crashed into my chest, quickly moving higher to mark my cheeks with blistering circles. Under the garish bathroom light my sweaty face glowed neon pink. I took a few deep breaths and waited. Soon it would be over.

Many middle-aged women know this well: the menopausal hot flash. But today was only my twenty-eighth birthday, so I was nowhere near the change. Besides, I’d been getting them since I was about six years old.

If only I understood why.

“Penley?” The soft rap of his knuckles against the cheap wooden door startled me, and I knocked over the toothbrush holder that sat on the edge of the sink. With a soft plop our toothbrushes landed in the toilet bowl and quickly sunk to the bottom.

“Shit!” I said, too loud for the small bathroom.

“Hey, you okay in there?” Bradford tried the knob and I was glad I’d locked the door.

“I’m fine!” I leaned heavily against the sink, queasy from the heat.

Silence. “All right, but don’t take too long,” he finally said, his voice retreating. “I have a surprise for you.”I held my breath, letting it out when our mattress squeaked Bradford’s return.

Back when I was a child the flashes always ended in a raging fever, which had been resistant to any remedy my physician father could come up with.

Revisions — Part 2

So about a month ago I wrote about starting revisions, and how overwhelming it was. My manuscript at the time was 90,000 words, and it felt like a nearly impossible task to weed through all those words and decide which ones stayed, and which ones met their demise. (Curious about my book, The Doctor’s Daughter? Have a look!)

Well, I’m happy to say the book currently sits around 82,000, and I’m *nearly* done killing all darlings who got in my way. There was a lot of red pen used. I had great beta reader and critique partner feedback, which helped me figure out what needed to come out, or in some cases, what needed to be added in. A lot of the time while revising I felt like this (I got this…I got this…Noooo! Plot points don’t line up…*insert expletive*:

Michael Crichton has a great quote, about how books aren’t written — they’re re-written. I believe it. It took me four months to write my 90,000 words, and it will have taken me nearly as long to revise it by the time I’m done. But once I do, hopefully I have something that can’t be put down:

However, I should stop procrastinating and get back to it. But I’ll leave you with a few tips that have helped me through my revisions:

  1. Eliminate intensifiers, like very, really, totally, completely, and remove every ‘suddenly’ from your book.
  2. Keep dialogue tags simple. This was probably one of the best pieces of advice I took from Stephen King’s On Writing (my fave writing book). Skip tags like ‘he jeered’, ‘she tittered’, and stick with he said, she said. Also adverbs are NOT your friend, a la SK.
  3. There are plenty of nonessential words, but probably the worst one (and easiest to remove) is ‘that’ — at least 90% of these can go. Trust me on this one.
  4. “I saw Sarah go in the kitchen to turn the kettle on…” This is classic tell vs. show. Change to “Sarah turned on the kettle.”
  5. Smiling, nodding, laughing, sighing. *Sigh* This is a tough one to fix, for me. It’s not always easy to signify what a character is doing/how they’re feeling. These are okay…just in small doses. Always ask, “Do I really need this here?” and if not, slash away!

Why I love other writers, and Twitter.

I follow a lot of other writers and aspiring novelists on Twitter. And almost as many agents and publishers. Which means every day I’m seeing plenty of good news in my stream … writers getting agents and book deals, agents signing authors and sharing ‘happy publication day’ tweets, and a whole lot of publishing love.

And every.single.time I see one of these good news tweets I give a ‘congratulations’ shout out. Even if I’m having a bad writing day. ESPECIALLY if I’m having a bad day. Because these writers? They’ve worked DAMN hard to arrive at this good news place — whether it’s getting an agent or a book deal, finishing a new book, receiving a great review, winning an award, learning of a publication date … regardless, they deserve to be recognized for not.ever.giving.up. Plus, every time a writer gets her publishing wings I’m reminded what is possible. And I decide I’m never.giving.up.

I’ve heard rumblings of writers not feeling the love for other writers (market is tough and competitive, blah blah blah). That we’re sort of jealous and territorial about success, kind of like this:

But when I see a tweet about a writer getting ‘the call’, or read someone’s good news on one of the message boards I visit? I don’t feel all Black Swan-like. Nope. You’re more likely to find me doing this:

In my experience, writers love helping other writers, especially via Twitter. Stuck on a line in your query? It won’t take long to get some tips, or perhaps even an offer of a critique. Frustrated by your revisions? Add #AmRevising to your tweet and you’ll find out you’re not alone. Up at 5 a.m. writing, wondering if you’re crazy to be doing so when everyone else is sleeping? Check out the hashtag #5amWritersClub — used every morning by a bunch of super supportive, crack-of-dawn writers who will keep you company. I have been endlessly amazed at the kindness of the writers I follow on Twitter, and how willing they are to help one another out.

So when it’s my turn to announce the good news? Here’s what I imagine I’ll be doing:


And the best part? I know there will be a whole crew of other writers celebrating right a long with me … Kermit flail and all.

Habits

First, an update on my query adventure…

32 queries sent

3 full manuscript requests (Woo hoo!)

12 rejections

So if you do the math, I’m still waiting on over half the queries to come in as ‘yay’ or ‘nay’. The last two requests came after I tweaked my query letter yet AGAIN (hair pulling has stopped temporarily), and I’m completely prepared to do more tweaks as needed. I’ve signed up for a webinar today about how to write a killer query and it comes with an agent critique — even if I don’t touch this query again there will be another book needing another query. I am determined to become BFF with my queries!

Which brings me to the topic of habits, specifically writing habits. I try to get up to write around 5:30am at least 3x a week. With coffee in hand and computer on lap, I write until the kidlet gets up. Sometimes I get an hour and a half; sometimes I get 30 minutes. But either way, it’s a habit that’s working for me. I learned my lesson with Life After Lilies — it took me nearly six years to write, and there were long stretches of time when I didn’t write a single word (like the first six months of my daughter’s life). It was always a challenge to get back into the story, to pick up where I’d left off. My writing box was filled with rusty tools after those breaks, and it took longer to get back into a good rhythm.

So with this next book (which I’ll talk about soon!) I was committed to a different process. I had a glorious weekend at home — alone — this past month and I wrote nearly 17,000 words that weekend. A great start. I’ve since added nearly another 4,000 words and because I’m so entrenched (in a good way) in the story, the plot teases me regularly. I can see the full story arc, and that’s exciting. I’m determined to complete this book by January 2013. Three months to go…

Do you have a writing habit? Would love to hear about it!

 

Writing the unexpected

So another Friday just passed, and yes, there was a rejection. Actually, this week there were 3 rejections in my inbox. But, there was also a (very exciting) full manuscript request yesterday! So the stats as they stand today:

15 queries sent / 2 full requests / 9 rejections / 4 no response (which are probably rejections – my experience is showing interest shows up quickly)

I’m going to talk more about queries and getting ready for submission in my next post, because I’ve learned some great tips along the way. But I wanted to mention this great workbook I came across called Writing the Breakout Novel’, by literary powerhouse Donald Maas.

The idea is to take your manuscript, or a work in progress, and put it through the paces of questioning EVERYTHING YOU’VE WRITTEN. Characters, plot, themes, premise…everything is fair game. It’s not meant to be a quick process. In fact, Mr. Maas says he expects the process to add not only significant time to your project (like, perhaps, years), but also length. But the end result will be worth it.

One of the interesting things this book talks about is the idea of writing the expected. Which is not what you want to do. I’ve had the experience of writing a particular scene and feeling all “Yes! This is flowing. This is good. This is exactly the way it should be written…” when the reality is that it may be flowing because it’s not a fresh idea. It’s familiar, which is why it feels easy to write. And if it’s familiar to me, it will also feel familiar (read: boring) to the reader. So this workbook forces you to question all these ‘familiar’ points – to dig deeper and write not the first, second, or even fifth idea that comes to mind, but rather go long and search for the fifteenth idea and use that.

I’m excited to see where this workbook takes not only my current novel (if I choose to put it through the process, which I just may), but also my second one that I’m working on right now.

Now to find a strategy to temper my impatience…

 

 

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