Release Date

Finding Frances Book CoverSo, I finally got my release date for Finding Frances (!). It is:

Monday, February 3, 2020

I’d hoped it would come out before the end of this year so I could enter it in a contest through PNWA, but this is fine (I’ll have to wait until 2021 to enter it).

Other than that, there’s not much news. I’ve got my MFA residency coming up in January, and I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be my third semester.

I’m working on finishing up the Now Would Be Good collection about my character Sarah, which I’ve now decided is going to be a novel in parts rather than a short story collection. Each part will just have its own arc, in addition to the whole book having one.

My critique partner is almost through Sadie Speaks, so I may pick that one back up and revise it.

I’m still shopping Ugly around, without much luck. I’m a little irritated about that one—I’m not getting as many bites as I think I should. They all say they want something different (which this story is) but it seems like they really just want the same thing as always. Frustrating.

Ugly Updates

I don’t have much of an update right now, except I found out that Ugly is a semifinalist in the BookLife Prize. This is a contest for self-published and unpublished manuscripts. You can see the public entries (you don't have to display your book/review) at the contest listing page. The funny thing is that all the others have book covers and mine’s just a gray box. I keep wondering if I should put something up there, but I don’t know what that would be. I’m not going to pay someone to make a cover.

I’ve also got a friend doing another read of Ugly to see if I need some “light moments” (as an agent suggested I might), and to help me find good spots for them if so. Once it’s ready, I’ll send it to the agents who asked for it at PNWA.

I’m looking forward to starting the third semester of the MFA in January, but other than that, my writing world is quiet because all my time is going to the statistics class I’m taking (or more specifically, suffering greatly from).

How Not to Be a Writing Contest Judge

I got feedback from the PNWA literary contest I entered early this year. I entered four categories this year (young adult, romance, short story, and short nonfiction). It was interesting. For the most part the feedback was generally positive (and in some cases like one judge for Ugly, really positive). But one of my judges for Ugly was atrocious. Bad enough that I’m going to share what they said to show what you should never do as a writing contest judge. Fortunately I have pretty thick skin when it comes to critiques of my writing. And for context, what they judged was a one-page double-spaced synopsis of the overall story and the first 27 pages of the book.

I’m going to start with their comments about mechanics:

The author might consider using stronger verbs instead of all the adverbs. Start chapter headings midway down the page. If this is a modern story, phones don’t dial.

Strong verbs don’t have anything to do with mechanics—it’s grammar, industry practices, etc. Second, the industry standard for chapter headings is 1/3 of the way down the page not halfway. And third, talk about picking nits. That’s what editors are for.

In their comments about my synopsis/plot, they said:

Good job of placing main character names in all caps and the title. Just because a girl doesn’t wear make-up doesn’t make her ugly. The author might try a different approach for bullying. Is she a nerd perhaps? Some people are beautiful without make-up. I suggest a better title.

Uh… I was bullied for being ugly and fat. Maybe the reader should tell all teenagers not to be mean about people’s looks? I don’t really know what to say. And in Oklahoma, it would be very hard for a girl to be considered beautiful without makeup. Things may be different in the Pacific Northwest, but that’s not where the book is set.

In the viewpoint section, they just commented that I stayed in the right point of view. Woot.

In the characterization section they said:

The author might try using a character plan to round out their characters before writing the story. They can be found on the internet. The reader doesn’t identify with the protagonist nor cares because the character doesn’t sound realistic.

To tell someone something “can be found on the internet” without pointing them to something specific is actually pretty insulting.

About dialogue/internal narrative, they said:

There isn’t much dialogue and it’s short. The author might try to distinguish characters by habits, certain phrases used, etc. Most of the story is internal narrative which is good, but could use improvement also. If the main character was molested, the author might consider her thoughts on it and how she feels. Is she afraid of boys or men? If she thinks she’s gay the author might have her gaze at other girls in the locker room or wear boy clothes. Something to show the reader what is going on with her.

Is she afraid of boys or men? No. If she thinks she’s gay… have her gaze at other girls (she’s not actually gay, as it turns out) or wear boy clothes (she wears nothing but jeans, unisex t-shirts, and Converse or Vans). If the book has little dialogue and little action (mentioned below) and lots of internal narrative, what is that internal narrative doing other than telling the reader what is going on with her? It’s normal for different readers to contradict each other, but it’s not acceptable for one reader to contradict him- or herself, especially when they’re supposed to be doing a close reading.

On conflict/tension/pacing:

The author talks about tension and conflict, but the reader doesn’t see it. It’s more empty words. The pace is also slow.

I am confused by this comment. Are they saying I stopped the story and wrote, “Hey man, reader, that right there was some tension!” I used the word ”conflict” twice in the entire manuscript (not in the selection they had) and never used “tension.” And “more empty words”? That’s just tacky.

They completely skipped the hooks/transitions and the setting/description sections. Then for voice, they said:

The voice could be stronger for YA and more action.

Generic much? And action has nothing to do with voice.

In the final category, which is meant to be the one section that the reader can be subjective in giving their opinion of the overall appeal of the story to the intended audience, they said:

I don’t believe a YA would find this story interesting. It lacks action and the characters aren’t well-defined.

Nobody in the genre would refer to “a YA”—they’re called teens, last I checked. It’s obvious this person got roped into judging a genre they have no understanding of. Just my great luck to get this one.

Seriously. What a jerk. This was not worth my 35 bucks.

PNWA Conference, 2019 Edition

Last weekend I was at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual conference, which is why I didn’t manage a post. It was good—I attended several informative sessions and keynotes. I also pitched some agents and editors and had several requests for Ugly, though one of them asked me a question that had me all flustered. She wanted to know about the plot and I still struggle to talk about that. I know it has one, but explaining it is always so difficult for me—I get stuck in the details and things like theme. And one of them who was really interested in the story asked me if there were light moments, because she said tough stories like that need them. And I realized not really—it’s positive at the end, but it’s fairly depressed (that’s the word one of the judges used in response to my entry in the literary contest, and I think it fits, unfortunately).  So now I think I need to rework it some. Just not sure how much…

This writing thing sure is difficult.

In a possibly bizarre move on my part, I decided to become a sponsor for the PNWA literary contest short story category (YA was taken). This means I cover the prizes in the category and in return get a few perks, including being featured on this page (mine isn’t there yet but should be soon) and getting a free conference admission and the opportunity to mix with the agents and editors in smaller settings at the conference (not sure how much traction I’ll get there with my inferior social skills…).

Also, I have some ideas for improving the contest and based on my experiences as a multi-time entrant AND my new position as a sponsor, I plan to propose them and see what happens.

Writing in 2018

2018 was a tough writing year in some ways, but also good. I had a bunch of rejections on Finding Frances, but I finally heard back from the editor I sent it to in September and she requested a full. This is the last shot for that book, but she sounded really interested in the sample she read, so I am hopeful. I should hear in the next few weeks. I’m sincerely hoping that even if it’s a no, she’ll give me some feedback on it. I’ll be setting it aside, but it would be good to have some pointers on what to try next, when I do decide to crack it open again.

I also spent a good portion of the year frantically working on Ugly, my 2017 NaNoWriMo book, trying to get it ready for the PNWA conference in September. I had several requests on it, which is pretty exciting since those were my first pitches on it (six pitches and six requests, including four fulls). The five I sent are all still out there (I skipped one of the agents because she doesn’t like something that appears in one of my other books, so she probably wouldn’t be a good fit for me). I didn’t send them until early November so I’m not expecting to hear anything for a bit. 

Also, of course, I spent half of the year on the MFA, which was great. I got two short stories done, both of which I’m happy with. One of them is going to be expanded a bit, but I like the short version and plan to enter it in some contests. I’m looking forward to the residency coming up and starting the next semester, especially the playwriting course (should be fun). I already made up my reading list and just need to get my faculty advisor to approve it or make her changes to it. This semester my mentor is Allison Amend. She’s written a few novels for adults. Still, I’m hoping to learn a lot from her, even if she isn’t focused on YA. 

I also judged for the mainstream category of the PNWA contest, which was a challenge and time-consuming, but also beneficial. It still took up most of May. I was bummed not to final in any of the categories I entered, but such is life. 

I was bummed not to do NaNoWriMo this year after a five-year successful run, but I had to prioritize the MFA. I may be able to do it 2019 because I won’t be doing the MFA that semester (I don’t have enough vacation so I have to wait until 2020 to start back).

Not directly writing-related but still significant to me, I also lost my favorite cat, Marvin, who would have been my muse if I’d had one. But I got a new little guy (Maddox) who’s actually a lot like Marvin. Not that he’s a replacement, but still. He’s affectionate but not overly so. 

Marvin made creepy by a Happy Light
My favorite picture of Marvin
Maddox posing for the camera by the window
The new guy, in a rare moment of calm

I suppose that’s it for 2018. I’m hoping 2019 has more actual good news in it than 2018 did, instead of just prospects. 

PNWA 2018 and Ugly

This weekend was the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual conference. I only went for three of the four days because I couldn’t spare the vacation, but it still went really well. Friday day was all about the pitching of Ugly (my first time with this one). I did two 90-minute pitch blocks (tiring) and pitched two editors and four agents, getting requests from all of them. I even more or less memorized my pitch—all 6 sentences of it. Yay me. Both the editors requested fulls and two of the agents did, too, with the other two requesting partials. This was a really good result. I told all of them that I needed about another month to get it ready, so now I have to scramble to make that happen.

Friday night was a panel session with Donald Maass, Dori Hillstead Butler, Christopher Vogler, Cat Rambo, and Chris Fox, with rapid-fire questions from moderator Robert Dugoni. One of my favorite moments was when Maass told us about the bad poetry he wrote as a student and how one of his teachers begged him to just “think of the reader.” We got to here about when they first knew they wanted to become writers, what their first writing jobs were, when they first knew they could make a career of writing, what they like best and least about being a writer, and more. Then Friday night was capped off with this monstrosity (which I couldn’t finish):

Giant Banana Split

Saturday I went to a few sessions, glad the pitching was over. But then I ended up pitching Finding Frances to an editor at a session I was at (I was impressed by my boldness) and she asked to see it. I sent that query off later that afternoon.

Sunday is a short day at the conference. I attended just one session, called “How to Strengthen Your Novel Plot by Implementing Movie Structure.” Since this semester in the MFA I am focusing on plot and structure, this one seemed appropriate.

So in summary, I have Finding Frances with an editor (I also have two partials out with agents from previous queries), have to get Ugly whipped into shape in a month, and then have to send it off to six different people. On top of that, I have deadlines for the MFA for the next three Fridays, so this will be quite a month. Busy, busy, busy.

PNWA Conference

I mentioned in my previous post that I’d be attending the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Annual Conference. It’s a regional conference, but it’s also well-organized and respected across the country. Many editors and agents based in New York and other places come out for it. It went really well this year. And it was nice to see all my writing friends, too. 🙂

Writers JourneyOn Thursday I did a master class with Christopher Vogler, who interpreted Joseph Campbell’s anthropological studies of mythology and stories into a pseudo-formula for writers many years ago. It eventually came out as a book called The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which provides a solid structure framework called the Hero’s Journey, which writers can use to construct a satisfying story. There’s some controversy about the true universality of this story structure (some feminists claim it only applies to men’s stories, for instance). My opinion is that while it is not the only possible good story structure, it can be a useful guide for almost any story. But there are definitely other story structures out there. Regardless, his class was good—Vogler’s a good speaker and he’s very emotionally involved in stories and his work with them, which really draws in the audience.

Queen SugarThursday night, the keynote speaker was Natalie Baszile, author of Queen Sugar. I admit I hadn’t heard of this book, though I’ve bought it and intend to read it because it sounds good. Oprah even picked it up and made a TV show out of it, which is apparently quite good. I know a lot of people snootily look down on Oprah, but I think she generally has good taste in books. Anyway, Natalie’s talk was all about her journey to publication, which was… long. She peppered the speech with family stories, some of which were funny (the box of Louisiana delicacies that were shipped every year, only to arrive as a box of rotting meat) and some of which weren’t (her father growing up in Louisiana and experiencing the small-town embedded racism there).

Friday was all about pitching. I pitched a book I’m writing under a pen name to an editor and four agents and had good results. One of the agents had rejected Finding Frances two years ago so I asked if I could resend it and she said yes. On top of that, I had a request for the first 50 pages of Finding Frances from an editor at a large publisher. I’ll send it to the agent soon, but I’m going to wait until I hear back from the editor who’s already got it before sending it to the new editor.

Fearless WritingOn Saturday, I went to several different sessions, mostly about craft. One was on hooks and how important they are, especially at the end of scenes and chapters. I went to a session about writing nonfiction for kids, something I’ve thought about dipping my toes into. I went to another session on writing diversity, which had a bunch of great tips. Sunday I went to a session called Fearless Marketing, with Bill Kenower,  the guy who wrote the recently-released Fearless Writing. He’s a little intimidating because he’s excessively passionate about everything, but the session was good. One final nice thing about the conference is that most of the sessions are recorded, so I bought fifteen of them on CDs. Gives me something to do on the horrible drive to and from work.

Upcoming Conference

Starting this Thursday, I’m going to be at a writers* conference, run by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. It’s 3.5 intense days of talking to writers, learning about writing, and learning about the business of writing. I’ve been the last two years, as well, and this time I’m staying at the hotel, which is expensive but saves me the hassle of the hour on the road every day, a drive which is especially frustrating because said day runs early morning to 9:00 or 10:00 at night.

I managed to get two pitch sessions. At PNWA, the sessions are kind of a mad house, quite different from ones I’ve done at other conferences. Here, you are in a room with 150 other people for an hour. Agents and editors sit behind a line of tables at the back of the room. And you line up in front of the one you want to pitch next, get four minutes with them when it’s your turn, and move on to the next line. Depending on the popularity of the people you want to pitch, you usually get two to four pitches done. It all sounds a little intimidating, but I actually have found it’s not. Most of the agents are nice, even if they say no. Still, it’s helpful to have a pitch semi-memorized so you don’t have to read off something. I’m meeting with a friend this evening to practice.

However, I have a dilemma. I can’t decide what to pitch. I feel like I should wait on feedback from the other people on Finding Frances before querying/pitching anyone else. Maybe I’ll get more feedback. I ended up sending the revised manuscript to the agent who said she’d take a second look. (Though the more time passes, the more I’m thinking I should have figured out more things to change…). I was originally planning to pitch Sadie Speaks, however, I just sent that to a freelance developmental editor and she came back with recommendations that I change almost everything. Now, I’m not going to, but many of her points do require some serious reworking. The other option is to pitch a romance I’m writing under my pen name, but I’m only halfway done with the third draft on that one, and that won’t be the final draft, for sure. One thing that is also different about this pitching is that they don’t have a rule that you have to have the manuscript ready to send—you can wait weeks or months to send it. So I could do either.

So, quandary. I guess I’ll prepare two pitches and practice them with my friend tonight and fly by the seat of my pants on Friday, pitch day.

 

* Okay, I admit I never know if that should be “writers’”, “writers”, or even “writer’s.” It drives me crazy, the not knowing.