Wednesday, April 29, 2015

ICYMI: A beginner's primer on writing a book

Once a month, I post at a literary blog called Segullah. While some of the posts are about religious topics, many are not: one of my favorite things about the community there is the group of smart, literary women who post and who frequent the comments section.

Last week, as part of the quarterly "How-To" theme, I posted some tips on writing--and querying--a book. The post was designed primarily for people who aspire to write but aren't very far on their journey. I thought I'd repost here, as I think the information is helpful.

Step One: Write

As far as writing, you simply have to start. Carve out time, even if it’s only fifteen or twenty minutes. Write. I’ve taught writing to a lot of college students, and many of them want to know the secret to writing well. But there is no secret: just practice. I tell them, write a lot. And read.
Neil Gaiman was once asked the trick of becoming a writer. His answer is pretty near perfect: “the only way to do it [write] is to do it.”

Step Two: Find readers

Any good writer will tell you that good writing isn’t possible without good readers. Once you’ve got something written (or even as you write), let it sit for a while, and then find people you trust to tell you how to make it better.

Step Three: Learn about your Craft

Becoming a good writer isn’t just about writing–it’s also about learning to make your writing better. Good readers can help. But you’ll also want to learn about the craft of writing; I heard LDS author Janette Rallison recommend that new writers not send out their work until they’ve read at least one book on craft. Some of my favorite craft books include Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, Robert McKee’s Story, and Janice Hardy’s website, Fiction University (not a book, but oh-so-helpful).

Also, go to writing conferences. LDStorymakers‘ annual conference is next month, and it’ s a great place to meet other writers (including potential readers), agents, and editors. (I met my agent there last year). Emily and I will both be there this year. If you write for children or young adults, SCBWI (The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) has local and national events and conferences. Not only are conferences a great place to learn about the business, but there’s a synergy that comes from being around people with your same goals that always motivates me to work harder.

Step Four: Revise

The more I write and teach writing, the more convinced I become that the best writers aren’t naturally good writers–they’re good revisers. Very few of us nail our vision on the first time through, and those people, as Anne Lamott reminds us in Bird by Bird, generally aren’t people we like very much anyway.

Step Five: Decide on a Publishing Path

These days, there are lots of different ways for writers to put their work out there. Some choose to self publish, via Createspace or any number of other methods. That can be a great choice, especially for people who want full creative control over their manuscript. But it isn’t, as it happens, a path that I personally know much about.

Another option is publishing with small or regional presses (like Covenant, Deseret Book, Cedar Fort, Jolly Fish Press, and many more). Most of these presses will take submissions directly from authors, so you can start submitting as soon as your manuscript is done.

However, I knew fairly early on that I wanted to try for a traditional publisher (which typically refers to one of the “big five” publishing companies–Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster–as well as to smaller but more established mid-size presses, like Norton, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hyperion). Part of this stems from a sense of legitimacy: I’m also a part-time English professor, and I knew that landing a book deal with a bigger company would garner more respect from my colleagues. (Which maybe isn’t the best reason for deciding on a publishing path).

But publishing with a traditional publisher means, more often than not, that you also need a literary agent to represent you because these publishers won’t take unagented submissions. Finding an agent can take time–months or years, in some cases. It took me two manuscripts and nearly four years to get an agent. Good places to start looking for an agent include Agent Query, Query Tracker, and Writers Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents. I also like looking at the acknowledgment pages of my favorite books to see which agents represent those authors I love. However, just because someone says they are an agent doesn’t mean they are a good agent: you can also check places like Publisher’s Marketplace that report agent deals (which requires a subscription and is self-reported, so not always accurate) and the forums at Absolute Write (where writers report their experiences with different agencies) and Preditors and Editors.

Step Six: Send Query Letters

A query letter is essentially a cover letter for your book: it explains what your book is about and what your qualifications are as a writer. Whether you opt for small presses or finding an agent, you’ll have to write one. Some of my favorite resources on writing queries are here and here and here.  Even when you’ve written a query, try to get several different pairs of eyes on it, including people who haven’t read your book.

A word of warning: querying is rough. Even authors who go on to be successful have lots of rejections. In my most recent round of querying, I sent close to fifty queries. I was relatively successful (I had requests from just over half of those queries), but even those requests mostly turned into rejections. (You can read more on my take on querying here).

Step Seven: Wait

Once you’ve sent out queries, it takes time to hear back from agents and editors. If an agent does want to represent you, they will typically set up a time to call and talk about your book and their plans for it (known in the industry as “The Call”).

Once you accept an agent’s offer, the agent typically asks for still more revisions before sending your book out on submission to editors. This looks a lot like querying, except that you have less control over what happens: your agent acts as an intermediary, sending the materials out and getting the responses from editors. In my case, my editor called or forwarded me the information every time an editor passed on my book (which was 11 out of 12 editors, in my case).

But if you’re lucky, one day you  might also get the call you’ve been waiting for–where your agent calls to say, “We’ve sold your book!” (In my case, to Michelle Frey at Knopf books).

Then you celebrate–and wait some more. For edits, copy edits, proofs, and eventual publication. Most of the Big Five publishers buy books 18 months to 2 years out from their publication date. (My book sold in February. It won’t come out until Fall 2016).

While this post is long, it’s also only a fraction of the information out there on the process of publishing a book. But for anyone interested, I’m happy to answer questions about the process in the comments!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Kiss, Kill, Vanish

Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica MartinezJessica Martinez is a master at combining lyrical prose with tense, sometimes dark plots, and Kiss, Kill, Vanish is no exception. Valentina Cruz, a pampered, wealthy Miami girl, finds herself on the run from everything she knows after witnessing her boyfriend, Emilio, shoot and kill another man on her father's orders. Hiding (and freezing) in Montreal, Valentina tries to make sense of her life and figure out what to do next. Posing for paintings by a spoiled rich boy, Lucien, gives her enough money to live on, but not enough to buy her self-respect. But when the unthinkable happens, Valentine finds herself forced to confront her past with a most unlikely ally: Lucien's drug-abusing, cynical younger brother, Marcel.

Martinez does a wonderful job painting the characters: Lucian's thinly veiled insecurity, Marcel's contempt, Valentina's own struggle to understand herself and the life founded on drug money. And some of her word-paintings for setting are stunning and vivid. Some readers won't like the allusions to drug use and sex in the main characters, and the plot-line is admittedly dark (and sometimes violent). The ending wasn't entirely plausible to me, and I spent too much time wishing Valentine would just get over her ex-boyfriend, but there was so much to love about the book (the writing, Marcel--surprisingly enough!, and the vivid settings), that these didn't detract from my overall enjoyment too much.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sky Jumpers: The Forbidden Flats

The Forbidden Flats (Sky Jumpers, #2) Peggy Eddleman does a terrific job of making her middle-grade world come alive in her Sky Jumpers books. In The Forbidden Flats, Hope and her friends are again called on to do what they do best: save their families and friends from danger by taking calculated risks. In this sequel to Sky Jumpers, after a massive earthquake upsets the chemical balance in White Rock, the deadly band of gas known as "bomb's breath" begins to lower. Calculations reveal that the gas will be low enough to make White Rock uninhabitable in a little over three weeks, unless someone can fetch a specific chemical from the Rocky Mountains several hundred miles distant.

Of course, Hope and her friends join up, and much of their adventure involves dealing with the various towns and groups that have sprung up along the plains. As always, Hope is intrepid (sometimes too intrepid), and the story moves along quickly. Since Hope's character was established in the first book, we didn't learn as much about her in this sequel, but Hope learns more about her birth mother and the family she came from as they travel through the town where her birth-mother was born.

But mostly, I was impressed by the fun science in the book. I'm not a chemist (that's my husband), but Eddleman's ideas about how a massive "green bomb" might have changed the chemical characteristics of rocks was fascinating--and, of course, Hope and her friends still get to do cool gravity-defying feats involving the Bomb's breath.

I read this one quickly--now to pass it off to my kids!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

An evening with Neil Gaiman

I haven't (yet) read a Neil Gaiman book I didn't like . . . though admittedly I haven't read all of his books yet. But I love the affectionate spoof on fairy tales in Stardust (and the murdered princes); I love lyricism and atmosphere of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and American Gods was blow-me-away brilliant.

Ocean at the End of the Lane US Cover.jpg

So naturally, when I found out he'd be speaking not too far from me (three hours isn't far, right?), I bought tickets.

And dragged my husband (who's read Sandman and seen Stardust so he wasn't completely reluctant) with me. (I also ran into some of my wonderful writer friends, including three of my agent-sisters! So that was fun).

The event organizers asked Doug Fabrizio, of Utah's Radio West, to interview Gaiman for the evening. He asked some good questions, though honestly I'd have been happy to listen to Gaiman rhapsodize about the phone book. (I think the interview will be broadcast on Radio West shortly).

I tried to take notes because I have a lousy memory without visual stimuli--but naturally, since the theater was dark I can only read half of what I wrote.

Some things I loved:

Gaiman on Fiction

He asked, "Are fictions safe? Should they be?"

He became a writer around age twenty, after a childhood obsessed with books (and funny bookish fantasies, like slipping into an alternate reality where The Lord of the Rings hadn't been written, and his role would be to make it look like a manuscript and get it published in this alternate world so he could become known as the author of LOTR). The clincher, he said, was thinking that at the end of his life, he didn't want to think "I could have been a writer"--and not know if he was lying.

Confessing that if he wasn't a writer, he'd like to design religions.

Great art isn't forged in the crucible of suffering--you don't have to suffer to write. But if you are suffering, writing can help you transmute pain into something beautiful. (There were several poignant moments where it was clear Gaiman has been thinking about losing his sometimes writing collaborator, Terry Pratchett).

Good writers make you forget the craft for the magic.

Gaiman on life in general

Doug Fabrizio asked if Gaiman would talk about his new hobby of bee keeping. Gaiman answered, "Everyone should have a hobby that can kill them."

Asked, "What are you afraid of?" Gaiman confessed to the normal things (including having his eyeballs melt while riding on a train, because of course that's normal), and then added, "I'm not scared of monsters, but of people who are certain of their own rightness."

On the differences between England and America: "England has history; America has geography."

Gaiman on the genesis of his stories

One of my favorite parts of the night was hearing how some of his stories came to be. Coraline was started in the 90s when one of his daughters would come home from kindergarten and tell him these creepy stories about a girl with her name who would come home to her mother--who wasn't her mother--and who would then lock her in the basement with all the other dead girls and boys.

After discovering (not unnaturally) that the local bookstore didn't carry horror stories for five-year-olds, he started writing her a story. He abandoned it for several years before realizing his children would be grown before he finished it, if he didn't hurry.

Then, of course, he couldn't sell it to his agent. "It's too scary," she said, refusing to send it on to Harper Children's. He convinced her to read it to her own children (then ages 6 and 8). If they weren't scared, she would send it to Harper Children's. If they were scared . . . he'd pay for therapy.

It worked. The kids loved it, his agent sent it on, the editors loved it, it was published, made into a movie and even a Broadway play.

Sitting at the Broadway premier, Gaiman found himself sitting by one of his agent's daughters, then about fifteen. He said, "This happened because of you," and explained the story to her, concluding, "This happened because you weren't frightened."

"I was terrified," she said. "But I knew that if I showed it, my mom would stop reading and I'd never find out how it ended."

Gaiman concluded, "So Coraline exists because she lied."

I think it's impossible to capture the magic of that auditorium, listening to a master storyteller, in the bare words on a blog post.

But my mind is filled with words now and glimmers of stories, and that might be the very best part of all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Storyspinner

I was able to meet Becky Wallace at a book launch she held for The Storyspinner at the King's English in Salt Lake City. She was wonderful and gracious and I loved hearing about her book. Luckily, the book it self is equally charming.

The Storyspinner (The Keepers' Chronicles, #1)This is the kind of YA fantasy I love: strong heroines, clever characters, a fun romance, and just the right amount of historical-esque details for a fantasy world.

Wallace uses six different POVs to tell the story of the Keepers who are charged with preserving a faltering magic that divides their kingdom from the southern dukedoms (and protects both sides, though the Southerners have come to believe that the Keepers are the stuff of legends). But when things start breaking through the barriers, a small group of keepers goes in search of a missing princess who can help heal the magic.

Meanwhile, Johanna is reeling from the death of her family and struggling to support her brothers while her grieving mother drinks away their livelihood. Her family were performers, respected tradesmen--but after her father's death they were sent away from their troop. When Johanna is invited to perform the storyspinning art her father taught her at a local duke's estate, she jumps at the chance--despite her mixed feelings about the duke's heir, Rafi. When dead girls start showing up all across the country, the same age and look as Johanna, it becomes clear that Johanna might be ensnared by a plot much bigger and much more dangerous than she could have imagined.

While some of the POV shifts were confusing at first (I didn't fully understand what the Keepers were doing), I quickly became attached to the characters, particularly Johanna, who is strong and spunky and smart. Wallace writes wonderful romantic scenes--full of sweetness and tension and that heart-pinging sense of longing.

And, this is probably just me and the coincidence of the heroine's name, but as I read I kept thinking of one of my favorite (and undoubtedly cheesy) childhood movies--Disney's Black Arrow (Lady Joanna! Beautiful Lady!).

Monday, April 13, 2015

Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30) When news came of Terry Pratchett's passing, I realized I was woefully under-read in his works. Based on recommendations I saw in several different places, I snatched this one up from the library. It was delightful.

Apparently this is part of a much longer series (Discworld), but it's the first with Tiffany Aching, who at the story's start is an unusually poised 9-year-old who wants to become a witch. She's eminently qualified because she is able to use first and second thought (essentially to think about what she's thinking), though witches are unusual in a chalky world like Tiffany's. She's also an exceptional cheese-maker and reluctant caretaker of her toddler brother. But when a faerie queen from another real steals her brother, Tiffany has to go after her armed as best as she can with a bit of knowledge purchased from a visiting witch, and the wee free men (also known as "pictsies"), who are, frankly, hysterical.

I don't know that I loved the plot of this book as much as I loved the characters. I adored Tiffany. Though she's the same age as my oldest son, she felt a lot like a kindred spirit, like the kind of too-old kid that I was at that age. (Though I would not have been self-possessed enough to hammer a river monster in the face with a frying pan--or to stake my youngest brother as bait! Tempting though that would have been). And the wee free men were simply hilarious to read about.

 I can easily see why Pratchett is so well-loved if this is representative of the rest of his books. I suppose I'll have to read more and find out . . .

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

IWSG Wednesday: Enjoying the Ride

It's another first Wednesday, so time for another Insecure Writer's Support Group post! This month, I've been thinking about the importance of enjoying the writing journey.
IWSG Badge

In a lot of ways, I have a lot to be grateful about in my writing journey. In the last four months, I signed with an agent and sold my debut novel (The Blood Rose Rebellion, due out in 2016 from Knopf). I signed my contract last week!

These are milestones I worked a long time for, and I'm thrilled to have reached them.


Something funny happened around the time I signed my agent. I'd looked forward to that moment for so long, I think I had it in my head that I'd be happy as a writer when that happened--that I'd feel validated, that I'd stop worrying if my writing was good enough.

Guess what? That didn't happen. Sure, I rode a euphoric high--for about three days. Then, suddenly it was that elusive book deal that I needed to confirm my happiness and give me confidence.

But even that didn't prove entirely true. Selling a book opened up a whole new realm of worries. (How can I help market this thing? What if readers hate it? What if I don't sell out my advance?) I still struggle to sit down and write. I still write words and re-read them and think, "this is terrible. I'm a fraud." And I half-expect someone to come by and revoke my contract. 

The truth that I'm slowly discovering is this: you have to write because somehow the writing itself satisfies you. If you write for any other reason (to sell a book, to hit a best-seller list), it will never be enough, because there's always some elusive goal beyond the one you've just hit.

You have to believe in yourself (or at the least, believe in your close friends' and critique partners' assessment of yourself on days when your own belief flags), because there will always be external forces that both love and hate you. And no outside approval will make up for your own failure to believe in your gifts.

In the meantime, I'm still here--and still writing.