Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rejection-jection, what's your infection?

Imagine yourself snugged up against the gymnasium wall. Generation-appropriate music is playing, couples are dancing, laughing, talking and there you stand with Messy Melvin and Sniveling Sue playing the "I didn't want to come to this dance, anyway" tape in your head.

Rejection is one of the worst feelings we can endure as human beings. We suffer it as children when we are chosen last. We deny it in high school when the person we are smitten with spends the entire night dancing with the jock/cheerleader. And in my case, I dance in the middle of the gymnasium floor as if I could care less whether anyone was dancing with me. However you deal with it, rejection sucks the backside of a donkey.

That's pretty much how I feel right now. My manuscript sits and gathers dust while the rejections trickle in. The questions go through my mind: Was my query good enough? Is the manuscript strong enough? It's a simple matter. Your mind begins to focus on any perceived flaws that you may think the manuscript has or the query. You begin the process of re-writing the query or maybe re-working characters, but you continue to cling to the hope that just one agent will either request a full manuscript or call you up and offer you a contract. I think the worst thing that you begin to question is whether you should have started writing int he first place. I haven't traveled to that place yet, but I think I've been looking at the map a little bit.

It's scary. On the one hand, you know that this is what you love. You know, for whatever reason, God put a finger on your brain and said, "Writer". On the other hand, the agent puts a finger on the send button of the e-mail program and says, "Sorry, not interested." Ultimately, it'll come down to a question of who you're going to believe. Right now, I'm going to believe that this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm going to suffer the rejections and keep writing. I'm going to strengthen my characters and my queries and I will continue to dance the night away in the middle of the gymnasium floor as if I don't care. Someone will ask me to dance at some point, right?

That's all for now.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Note: Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

I was blessed recently with an opportunity to see an old friend that I hadn't seen in roughly 25 years. Yes, I'm that old. Rosco and I hung out together outside of junior high and high school within a small group of semi-outcasts, but for the most part, he and I were best friends and when push came to shove, we had each other's backs.

There were times where we would spend our time down at the Rexall drugstore looking at the latest releases of X-Men, Daredevil, the Wolverine series, Iron Man, etc. To this day, he collects comics and, quite frankly, has some amazingly valuable items in his collection. Rosco would purchase his comics and when no one was looking, I would steal mine... or steal the latest Playboy, whichever was easier. I say this knowing two things: One, the statute of limitations is way up (remember, I said 25 years) and I got caught and had to pay for what I had taken. I have to admit, this had a pretty huge impact on my life. There's nothing like having to apologize to a 70 year old man for stealing the smut mags that his store carries or paying for them with all of the money that you've ever saved up during your childhood. Sometimes I think the worst part is that my dad refused to let me keep the magazines!

I digress. Rosco and I were pretty much inseparable during these years. I will be quite honest when I say that I leaned on him as a friend. It sucked growing up poor and always being picked on by those in the grades ahead of me because they thought I was gay. Looking back, though, I realize how much having Rosco as my friend helped get me through those times. He was always there for me. We could sit for hours looking at comics or talking about being ninjas (back then, being a ninja wasn't cool like it is today, so we were kind of ahead of our time ;).

The point is, Rosco was my friend. Even after the time we got into it in the locker room over some dumb forgotten reason. We healed, moved on and continued our friendship.

When I moved to Manhattan, Rosco moved away to a different town as well. Like most guys, we didn't even think of exchanging numbers or an address. (I didn't have a phone growing up so it was kind of pointless to get his phone number.) In short, we lost track of each other. The last I heard, he had joined the army and was off to fight in Iraq. I prayed a lot about that and asked God to keep an eye out for my old friend regardless of where he was. I'm happy to say that was one prayer that he listened to and answered.

Fastforward 25 years and bring about the advent of Facebook. Keep in mind, too, that I had been actively looking for Rosco as much as I could on the internet. However, Rosco Smith is a pretty common name, so it was like finding a needle in a needle stack. Facebook made it easy though. One night, I had an IM from someone. I took a look and sure enough, it was Rosco. His message was simple: "I'm speechless. What do you say to someone you haven't seen or talked with for over 20 years?"

My reply, of course, was much more long-winded. After several months, Rosco informed me that he and his wife would be coming to Kansas City and could we meet in Lawrence. I told Andrea and of course, we jumped at the opportunity. I was kind of giddy about the whole idea. Long lost friend and what-not. The day came and we found ourselves in a Starbucks in Lawrence waiting for the Freestate Brewery to open so we could have lunch. We talked about old times. Rosco showed Andrea some drawings that I had given to him way back in the day. He should have torched them! I'll need to replace those with something a bit more contemporary, I think. We eventually got around to having lunch and continuing our chat. We were constantly amazed at the similarities we still shared and how things had been going for us. It got to a point where I told Rosco, "Man, you have no idea how happy I am to see you. You really helped me get through a lot of shit times in my life."

He smiled and said, "Man, let's all go somewhere a bit quieter so we don't have to shout." So, we got our ticket and left. Headed to a Coldstone creamery where we got some delish ice cream and headed to a park a couple of blocks away. We all sat on a bench and chatted a bit more, laughed, etc. Then Rosco got quiet. He said, "I spent most of my teen years deeply depressed. I spent a lot of time contemplating how I could just eliminate myself from the world. We had guns all over the house, but I thought those were too messy. I thought about jumping off the roof, but I was afraid of being paralyzed. But when it came right down to it, I thought about the fact that I had you as my friend and that kept me from ever committing suicide."

For the first time in a long time, I had nothing to say. I had tears in the corners of my eyes and all I could manage was, "Don't make me cry, dude."

He went on to say that later in life, his lovely wife had continued my legacy and had gotten him through some more tough and trying times. I thanked her, from my heart.

As we parted ways, we told each other that we definitely needed to get together again. I told Rosco not to EVER think that no one was there for him. I told him how much I value his friendship and that the world needs him and that I need him as my friend.

I look back at our conversation and am nearly brought to tears again by the gravity of what he said. This is the guy that I leaned on to help me through the rough times of my own teen years. I didn't realize that the whole time, he was leaning back on me just as much.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Death Becomes Us

The death scene. Aside from the sex scene, it's one of the most touchy things to write. How far do you go? How graphic do you make it? Do you imply things or do you just lay it all out? So many questions and so many choices.

So, when a contest comes along to write a death scene, it brought a question to my mind or maybe more of a thought.

Death scenes, depending upon the character, are incredibly personal and can be incredibly intense. To me, the main reason for this is because if you've developed a character enough, killing that character will create emotion. Whether that emotion is sadness or happiness depends on the character and what type of personality she or he has.

I truly believe that a death scene should be powerful. I realize that the characters are fictional, but as a reader, I become emotionally attached to characters. The same thing happens when you write characters. As a reader, one of the best death scenes I've ever read was in the Gunslinger series by Stephen King. In the last book (I think) one of the main characters is killed off. When this happened, I was not only surprised, but I was so struck by the intensity of my sadness that I broke down. This character had been so well developed that by the time the character was killed, I was emotionally attached. This person had gone from being a despot to redemption to hero throughout the course of the series and it was tough. I've purposefully left this character's name out so that I don't spoil it for anyone who may be reading the series. But I think you get my point.

So, where is all of this going? Back to the contest. I think contests are fun and cool and all sorts of nifty adjectives. So, I guess my question is this: How do I, as a writer, create a powerful death scene for a character that I haven't developed properly. I mean, sure, you can kill someone off in a creative manner and be graphic or not, but without having the background on the character and the love or hate... the death scene is meaningless. Anyway, maybe I'm sounding a bit silly, but I don't want to kill someone off (fictional or otherwise) on a whim.

That's all for now.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Chicken Coops

Several years ago, I wrote a middle grade novel that I called Legends of the Talking Crow: Fool's Gold. Obviously, it's still in manuscript form and hasn't been published. Despite that fact, it was one of my greatest learning experiences in the world of writing and it had nothing to do with the actual process.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had "finished" this manuscript and with a fire fueled by the excitement at the prospect of procuring an agent, I sent the manuscript off prematurely. Based on roughly 17 queries, I received 4 requests for full or partial manuscripts. I was pretty proud of myself. As the saying goes, pride precedeth the fall. And fall I did. I received four rejections. However, Barbara Markowitz of The Barbara Markowitz Agency was kind enough to not only read the entire manuscript, but marked it up with some incredibly sound advice.

She told me in her letter back that it was a good story, but that the writing needed to be polished. She mentioned that in the future, when submitting manuscripts that you should make sure that it is as flawless as you can make it and to please read through her comments that she had written throughout the manuscript. I did and I still have that manuscript today. The lesson that I learned was that you cannot hurry this process. The fire of writing a novel needs to be doused prior to the editing and revision process. Patience, persistence and an eye for detail are three of the most important things you can have as an author when doing your revisions.

An example of one of my foibles that Ms. Markowitz was kind enough to point out was my use of the word "coop" or "chicken coop" five times within one paragraph. Her point was that I had been incredibly redundant. To this day, I cannot write a paragraph without making sure that I don't do something like that. One of the things that this has done for me is it has forced me to learn to use synonyms a lot more often than I had been. Another thing that it did for me was that I learned to be more concise in what I was trying to say. If I can edit a sentence down to its basic parts and do it in two words, a noun and verb, then I will. It also taught me the value of working through the manuscript with as much patience as I possibly can, then working through it again with the same amount of patience.

The initial excitement is what I crave when writing. That love of story and words draws me in. If it weren't for that, I would never write because the revision and editing is a long and boring process. For most successful writers, though, this is what sets them apart from those who just write out a story and never have it published. God truly is in the details.

That's all for now.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Time keeps on ticking...

I'm very close to sending out query letters for 13th Summer. I'm excited and a bit apprehensive at the same time. The last time I sent out query letters for a book was in 2006 and it was for Fool's Gold, which I have since taken the time to revise and will take another look at after I finish things up with 13th Summer.

I sent out seventeen queries the first time and I received three or four requests for full manuscripts and one request for partial. All in all, I felt that there was a certain measure of success in those requests. Each one did end up being rejected, but the experience was priceless. I had one rejection that I received that taught me more about the writing process than anything else that I've been involved with. I'll talk more about that in a future post.

Now that time is really ticking away and I've resolved to get 13th Summer out the door, I keep having second thoughts about it. Did I miss anything? Does it read well? Are there any typos? It's beginning to feel as if I can look at those questions and actually answer them appropriately. I never felt that way about Fool's Gold. I was so excited about sending a manuscript out to agents that I didn't even think about what I was doing. Yes, I had spent time researching which agents I should send it to and I spent time crafting my query letter, but I hadn't really taken the time to tighten the manuscript down.

As a writer, I tend to let my feelings lead me around sometimes. This is the main reason that I get so caught up in the emotion of doing something. That's what happened with Fool's Gold. I think there are a lot of people out there who are just like me in that regard. So, the lesson that I learned is this: Take the time to sort out the details. I've done that with 13th Summer and I really feel good about it. I just hope it pays off.

That's all for now.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Good. Better. Best.

When we write, we always have to start with a good story. If you don't have a good story, no amount of amazing prose will help. To that end, once you have a good story, you start massaging it into something better. One way to do this is through the use of strong verbs and nouns. For instance, I might change that last sentence in this manner: A unique way to accomplish this is by incorporating strong verbs and nouns. It's basically the same sentence it just uses better words.

Where am I going with this? I want to use the idea of strong verbs and nouns as a metaphor for revision. When you feverishly begin writing your story out, you think, "This is perfect as it is. There's no way I'll need to revise this." All I can say to you is think again. The revision process is about making good better and better best.

When I wrote 13th Summer, I started out with what I felt was a good story. I really didn't think I'd need to do any revisions except for maybe typos and grammar. That changed fairly quickly. The first thing I had to do was get rid of a flashback in chapter 2. Simply put, flashbacks can work, but the chances of a first time author having a book published that uses flashback to do an info dump are pretty much nil. I rewrote the beginning and was pretty well satisfied that this would be it. Okay, not so much. I ended up having issues with my protagonist's vocabulary and worldliness. Basically, a seventh grader isn't going to use dollar words when a quarter word will suffice. He's also not going to have wisdom beyond his years. Okay, so... more revisions.

Of course, within the process, you can sit on the manuscript for a year and a half or so. That may or may not help.

Was that long enough? Hmmm... sit a bit more.

Okay, so after you've sat on it, you read it as if you're reading a book. Hmmm, yeah, not so bad. Good story. Still works. Humorous parts still make me laugh, sad parts still make me get a lump in my throat. So far so good. Let's let my wife read it.

Insert tumult and chaos, agreement and disagreement. No, this is MY manuscript, I'm not changing it. Okay, maybe that's a good idea, I might change it. *Sigh* Okay. That's actually a really good idea, I'll incorporate it. Did I mention this was the same idea all the way through? The point is, listen to your reader.

Once you've incorporated changes based on the feedback of your reader, you've probably taken a good story to the next level and made it better. Reread it and ask yourself this question: Are my characters doing things that they would do? Are they believable? Do they work? A week ago, I was at this point. I had, what I felt, was a very good story and it was well written. During this time, my wife had questioned one of the characters. At the time, I liked this character and I wanted to keep him in the story. Plus, re-writing without him would kind of suck. This late in the game, I'm ready to move on. I want to get this manuscript out and see if I can get an agent. I don't want to take the character out. I argue for him. In the end, I read the manuscript again and imagined that it didn't have the character in it. What I found was that without the character, the story was the same and the dialogue would be less complicated. If this ever happens to you, ditch the character, you'll thank me... no, you'll thank my wife in the end.

After I had taken the character out, I was able to change the first chapter. The action kicked into a bit of a higher gear and the very beginning of the story became more believable. During this time, I was also able to find a solution to something near the end of the book that was okay, and worked, but wasn't quite right.

I think there are three lessons to be learned from this. The first is that when you write, it works that muscle that sits between your ears and it helps kickstart the creative process. This allowed me to find a solution to something that was bothersome at the end of the book and it made a good story better. The second thing that I think is important is that you absolutely must listen to your reader and be open to suggestion. Keep in mind that your reader has to be able to be honest with you. Be open to what he or she will tell you, mull it over, disagree with it if you have to, but think about it and reread your story and imagine the suggestions that your reader has made are incorporated. The third thing is to reread your manuscript. Again and again.

I'm very pleased with the results that I've gotten from the rewrites that I've done and I think the manuscript is hovering somewhere between better and best. So, I'm off to reread it.

That's all for now.