Reading to an Audience: in which I read to an audience.

This weekend I participated in a workshop put on by the MinnSpec authors group about reading to an audience. Something I have very little experience with. So I signed up to read an excerpt.

I did not expect to be as nervous I was. My history with Improv pretty much wiped out any fear I once had about public speaking. But there is a difference between acting out a scene you’re making up on the fly, and reading a piece you’ve spent months obsessing over every word choice. In the former, if you say or do something stupid it’s the character who did it, and you were just making it up anyway. In the latter, you’ve had time to rehearse so any mistakes can’t be waved away as no time to prep, and you have to portray all the characters, and maybe you’ve put in too many multisyllabic words that’ll make you tongue tied, and not to mention that the audience is all other writers who will know that you’re a hack who writes in cliches…

So anyway, when I stepped up to the mike my nerves responded with the full body shakes. I got through it somehow, and I don’t think the shaking was that obvious (though I haven’t watched the video to confirm) (oh yes, there was video). In fact the audience seemed to enjoy it, and gave some very good feedback, and when I read the passage again to implement the notes there was no shaking at all. I did have the advantage of going third so I could take advantage of the tips given to the first two authors.

So without further ado, here is the video of me reading a short excerpt from Tooth or Consequence. Actually I read it twice, pre and post notes.

Tooth or Consequence reading

Progress Report: Everything is Great, Everything is Grand

http://youtu.be/t9_zKm2Ewaw

via The Muppets – Life’s a Happy Song [Official Music Video Lyrics] – YouTube.

Things have been going quite nicely as of late. The seemingly endless winter appears to be overish. My arm is healing. No more cast, no more pain, but I do have to do regular physical therapy to regain full strength. I’ve started a new job that I really like, though it is occupying some of the brain space that used to be devoted to writing.

On the writing front, I turned in my last Betsy-Tacy review for Forever Young Adult. I don’t know yet when it will be posted, but you can read the first four here, here, here, and here. It’s been great revisiting these books that meant so much to me growing up. As well as sharing them with people who feel the same. I’ll probably put a cap on the reread by reading Emily of Deep Valley, the only one I’ve never read. As well as the long out of print Betsy-Tacy Companion, which I treated myself to as a Christmas present. Since FYA wasn’t promised those, I’ll post the reviews here.

Last summer one of my stories won the Geek Partnership Writing contest. I’ve received the certificate in the mail and the official announcement is now posted here.

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Got to admit, it was really cool to see my name.

In other contest news, for the fifth year in a row I’ve entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. This is the third year for Random Acts of Nudity. In 2012 it reached the semifinals, last year it was cut in the first round. This year it’s reached round 2, but didn’t reach the quarterfinals. Still it bested last year’s result.

Speaking of ABNA, one of the fellow writers I met through the contest runs a blog called Word Soup. He takes five hundred words of a work in progress and “boils” or cuts and condenses it to trim out the excess without losing the content. Just reading the previous posts has trained me to look for the unnecessary wordage in my writing. So I offered up a passage from Tooth and Consequence to be boiled. You can read it here. While not every suggested rewrite sounds exactly like my voice, most are spot on. I’ll definitely be coming back to his suggestions when I start revising this manuscript. Considering that my most recent revision on a different story cut 15,000 words without fundamentally changing the story, boiling is a skill to hone.

This Sunday I attended a discussion with fantasy author Emma Bull, hosted by the Minnesota Speculative Writers Meetup Group. Ms. Bull is the author of many books, including the urban fantasy classic War For The Oaks, which happens to be set in Minneapolis.

A few of the highlights:

She is in the process of writing a short story, or possibly a novella, inspired by the character of Wonder Woman, if rather than a comic book super hero, she were an urban fantasy character. I want to read that! She thinks it will become a series, though it will have to be finished and published first. She admitted to working a bit slowly, so it could be a while before it sees print. If anybody hears about such a story, let me know.

She is also working on the sequel to her novel Territory, to be called Claim. The novel is set in Tombstone Arizona in 1881. The gunfight at the o.k. corrall will be a major event within the book. I asked her if the gunfight in the book would follow the course of the historical gunfight and she said yes, mostly. She’s clearly done extensive research on the gunfight and Tombstone. It’ll be interesting where the fantasy element comes in.

One of the things she was most excited about is a fitness app called Zombie run. The conceit is that the runner is a messenger for a town in a post zombie apocalypse world. You run with your headphones in and s voice gives you missions to complete and warns you when there are zombies chasing you and you need to speed up. It also follows an episodic narrative. After talking at a convention about how much she loved it (she’s now completed both a 5 and 7k) she was contacted by the story editor for the app, and has written two episodes since.

She said the fastest she’s ever completed a book was when she collaborated with Steven Brust on the epistolary novel, Freedom & Necessity. She started it out of the blue by writing a letter by a character she was discovering as she wrote. She realized it was a game and the only person she wanted to play with was Steven Brust. She put it in an envelope, drove to his house, rang the bell, handed him the letter and drove away. He had no idea what it was all about, and thought he’d done something so terrible she could only confront him in a letter. Once he opened the letter, he was on board. They then wrote the book in turns by answering each other’s letters. I kind of love that idea, where you have no idea where the story is going until you get your partner’s section. Though they did stop about halfway and plot out the end. I’d love to try this sometime.

Finally one of my favorite moments was when she said that during her research for Claim she saw an update in a Tombstone Epitaph from the period. It said something along the lines of “We still have no information on the origin of the severed arm found in the road last Monday.” She read that and thought “I know where it came from” and a new subplot was born. I like this because it’s so similar to a story Neil Gaiman told during a talk I wrote up a few years ago for Read Comics. In which he read a news story about a large brass bed found in the London sewer system, that no one could figure out how it got there and his first thought was “I know.”

To close out this list of good things and links, I made a batch of chocolate tarts filled with caramel whipped cream, for a charity bake sale at work. They sold out within ten minutes. They were delicious if I do say so myself. I’ll probably write up a post with the recipe soon.

I wrote a story about Neil Gaiman’s toaster

There are many things I should be working on right now, but the idea for this weird story would not release me until I’d written it down.

 

A Plan Gone A’Rye

In retrospect there were a few holes in the plan. Perhaps he could have been more thorough in his research, but Corsokrops of the Guidant Nebula was morphological life form of action. He was proud that his superiors had selected him for a preliminary role in what was sure to be a spectacular conquest. His assignment was to spy on the most powerful person in America. The intelligence Corsokrops gathered would be key in overthrowing the government. The global chaos following the crumbling of a super power would pave the way for a full scale invasion.

Corsokrops studied American current event publications, to find the one person who would have the most important secrets.  To be honest he skimmed the publications, as he was wont to do. He hated wasting time, not with such a glorious mission at hand. The articles were terribly dry, and while there were some recurring names, they provided few clues. He soon discovered, toward the middle of most of the publications, a list of public figures, ranked in order of importance. The same name appeared at the top of each list. The man carried an impressive title, American Gods. Not just one god—a pantheon. Clearly this was the man Corsokrops was searching for. He infiltrated the man’s home, disguised as an innocuous appliance. He settled in to absorb the state secrets.

He had misgivings from the start. The man’s appearance was altogether unkempt. He had a mass of wild, curly hair, that rose and fell in odd, abrupt angles, and several days’ growth on his chin. His clothes were rumpled and seemed to be chosen only because they were all of one color. There was none of the gravitas Coroskrops expected in one of his station. The man, for his part, regarded Corsokrops skeptically.

“Have I always had this toaster?” he wondered aloud. Corsokrops emitted a high pitched hum. A subliminal tone to assure the man that he had indeed always had this toaster and there was nothing to be alarmed about. The disheveled man shrugged and loaded Corsokrops with two slices of raisin bread.

This is where the plan started to fall apart. He had chosen the form because he had seen it in numerous American homes. It rarely appeared to be in use. Not like the large cold box or or the radiation cooker. He believed its function to be primarily esthetic. Of course he had made his studies late in the evenings. He was not one to wake early if he didn’t need to. The bread played havoc with his central processor. Soon he was billowing smoke from very uncomfortable parts of his anatomy.

“What’s the use of a toaster that won’t toast?” The man grumbled. He turned Corsokrops over and dislodged the charred bread. Corsokrops was grateful for his assistance, but damned embarrassed just the same. What a terrible miscalculation! “And look at this mess!” The man sighed. “Crumbs everywhere.” He lifted Corsokrops and carried him toward the waste receptacle. Corsokrops hummed frantically. “Well…maybe it can be fixed,” the man said, setting him back on the counter.

This routine repeated daily, but Corsokrops was initially optimistic. He could connect into the man’s electric thought translators. There was no doubt he was gathering vital information. There was a crisis brewing involving a woman with clothing fasteners for eyes, luring children into a parallel dimension. Corsokrops’s superiors would be very interested in this. The woman could be a valuable distraction or a formidable wrench in their plans.

He paid close attention to the event as it unfolded. A female child was currently in her clutches, but surprisingly it looked as though this insignificant minor could gain the upper hand. Corsokrops waited on baited vapor to learn the outcome. It was slow coming. Almost as if the man didn’t always know what was happening. Sometimes the events seemed to shift and rearrange themselves. As though reality had changed its mind. The eventual conclusion was not, as it turns out, relevant to the invasion plans. It was still quite satisfying.

He continued to watch the man’s devices, searching for vulnerabilities in the country’s defenses. America was far stranger than he’d initially realized. Sometimes it was called England. Ghosts often popped up. And assassins. Deities died and were born. For a while an entity called the Doctor was looking promising. Nothing came of it.

Corsokrops feared his superiors were growing impatient. He  was desperate to produce something of value. He expanded his searching to older thought translators. The man was constantly discarding translators in favor of faster, more distracting models. He found vast records of unusual and engrossing phenomena. A secret city that existed below and concurrent to a well known one. A fallen star that became a sentient being. And the discovery of something called the San Grail.

It was only recently that the penny dropped. The duck pond was what did it. It could not be both a duck pond and an ocean. Preposterous. What he’d taken as accurate histories were in fact flights of fancy from a remarkable—but insignificant to the scheme of things—mind.

He filed a disillusioned report to the home office. They politely informed him that the invasion plans had been scrapped over a decade ago. He was written off as lost in action. Their many extraction orders had gone unanswered. Corsokrops performed a diagnostic test and determined the problem was due to build up of raisins in his incoming message receptors.

“You’ll want me to come back then?”

“All espionage positions are filled at the moment,” the bored sounding bacterial life form said. “I’ll see if I can find you a place in accounts if you like.”

“I guess. No hurry.” The man had finally started the sequel to Neverwhere. Corsokrops hated to leave in the middle.

 

This story was inspired by this question and answer from an interview with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer.

9. I don’t really have a relevant question, so I’m just gonna ask how many toasters you have at home?

NG: “There is only one toaster and it is TERRIBLE. It eats toast, and then I have to turn it on its side and shake it to get the toast out. And toast crumbs come out too and go all over the kitchen.

Why do I have such a toaster? Surely I can afford to replace it. Sigh.”

The whole Q&A can be found here.

Progress Report: Reviewing and Revising

I’ve written a review for Forever Young Adult on Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series. I’ll be reviewing the whole series for them, but this one covers the first four books. I’m thrilled to be writing these reviews because I love both the books and and the website. Here is the link.
I’m currently working on a rewrite of My UnDead Ex, and trying to ween myself from my dependence on exposition. It’s an uphill battle. I’m still querying Random Acts of Nudity, to no avail. I don’t know how much longer I’ll keep going, before retiring it and starting over querying another project. I’ve also gotten some feedback on Tooth or Consequence and have got some inklings on what to do with the revision. And I’ve written a short children’s story that I think will make a cute picture book, though I don’t think my drawing skills are quite up to the task. It might be something to work on in between projects. I think I’ll leave you with an anecdote that has been on my mind lately.
I was around eighteen and working behind the bakery counter of a grocery store. One day a baby in a shopping cart appeared in front of the counter. It must have been pushed there by a parent. In fact I’m sure it was. But in my memory there is no parent just the baby. This was without a doubt the most adorable baby that ever was. It has big round eyes and chubby cheeks. And even chubbier legs. It was smiling a huge toothless smile. Other shoppers stopped to aw and coo over it. One of the produce stockers came over and tickled the baby’s bare toes. This was one ridiculously cute baby.
I remember very clearly the thought that went through my head as I watched this scene unfold. I thought, in all seriousness, “Anything that cute can’t be what it seems. It’s probably an alien in disguise, here to enslave humanity with its adorableness.” That was the day I realized I was kind of eccentric.

Progress Report

Once again it’s been a while between updates. Lots of things have happened since then. Most exciting for me was that my short story, Wandering Eye, won the Geek Partnership Society’s Scot Imes Award for short fiction. The official announcement hasn’t been posted yet but when it is, the story will be available to read on their website and I will link to it.
The award has given me a little confidence boost and has motivated me to start submitting more of my short stories for publication. I also attended a lecture hosted by the Minnesota Speculative Writers Group on the subject of selling stories. I learned a lot, but what struck me the most was the point that writing stories is great, but they can’t and won’t do anything for you if you don’t try to sell them. It’s better to let them sit on an editor’s hard-drive than sitting dormant on mine. So I’ve been polishing up my small backlog of stories and begun sending them out.
I got to read the story out loud at the award ceremony. It was my first public reading (for a very small audience) it went pretty well, though I was cursing myself for including so many multisyllabic words to trip over. The ceremony was held at CONvergence, Minnesota’s annual genre convention. I’ve gone for the last three years. It’s a big melting pot of geek culture and always a lot of fun.
I had a photo op with the Tardis.
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That is my Little Doctor shirt I’m wearing, available for sale here.
As usual I attended several book themed panels and left with tons of titles added to my To Read list. Including some from special guest authors Paul Cornell, Emma Newman, and Adam Stemple. I can’t wait to get reading.
Speaking of reading, I recently read Jo Walton’s Among Others. It had been recommended and lent to me by my sister and her husband. They told me I had to bump it to the top of my pile. I’m so glad I listened!
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It’s a beautiful, original, quiet, treasure of a book. The main character spends the majority of her time reading books herself. There’s magic and fairies and terrible danger but they’re not presented like any magic or fairies or terrible danger I’ve ever read before. And I’ve read lots of stories involving magic, fairies, and terrible danger. I’ve even written a couple.
One of the most compelling aspects of the book for me was how immersed in books the main character is. The books she reads are all classic scifi novels. Nearly all the books she mentions were on my family’s collective shelves as I grew up. Even though the book is set in an English boarding school in the seventies and I grew up on the North side of Chicago in the eighties, the authors referenced Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name a few, gave me the same sensation as if it were set in my old neighborhood. I knew that world like the back of my hand.
So I’m urging anyone to whom that sounds remotely interesting to bump it to the top of your pile.
In other news, I finished the first draft of my middle grade fantasy. And yes it involves fairies and magic. It is my sixth completed manuscript which is a nice milestone. I’m tentatively calling it Tooth or Consequence, it’s 40,000 words long for the time being. I’m currently editing it to get it into the hands of my beta readers.
Speaking of whom, two of my critique partners also had great news. One got picked up by an agent and another got a book deal. I’ve read their books and they couldn’t deserve it more, they are both so talented. I can’t wait to encourage everyone I know to buy their books, they are terrific.
And I participated in Write On Con, an online writers’ conference. There were many informative articles and forum events about the publishing world covering just about every angle. All of the conference content can be found here.

 

Progress Report: On Creation

I’ve been MIA from the blog for a while because I’ve been writing. I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo with my critique. My goal was to write 25,000 words in 30 days. It was touch and go for a while there, but I just made it. I’m now nearly done with the first draft of my sixth novel. It’s the first that I think I’ll probably add as many words as I cut once I start editing. The world needs fleshing out, but I’m really pleased with this one. It’s a middle grade fantasy and I’ve had a lot of fun writing it. It’d been over a year since I’d started something entirely new. I’d forgotten how exciting it can be to not know what would happen until I wrote it.
In the writing community there are two common methods of writing: pantsing and plotting. Writers who plot, work out the entire plot either in notes or outlines, or just in their own heads, before they write one word of the first draft. Pantsers, aka writing by the seat of your pants, don’t have a plan. They just see what plot appears as they write it. Of course there are infinite variations of either method. I tend to work best in a hybrid of the two.
Two or three months later I begin writing the draft. At this point I’m pantsing, letting the ideas come as they may, getting to know the character and their world. I may have an idea where things are going, but I’m never more than a single chapter ahead of myself. The story happens as I write it. And what I write informs what will happen next. For example, early on in this draft I had a character give Ben a gift. I didn’t know what the gift would be. I went through a couple of options, a sweater, a board game, a hat. Nothing felt quite right. I finally settled on an empty birdcage. Then I had to come up with a reason why this character would give her an empty birdcage. I decided it was because if she put a slice of bread and jam in the cage and hung it outside her window overnight, she’d find something inside in the morning. That led me to figuring out just what she would find. The thing she found in the cage has become vitally important to book overall. Things have happened that I had no inkling of when I began writing, and wouldn’t have had she gotten a sweater instead of the birdcage.
So I write, adding in new characters and plot elements as they come to me. But usually, somewhere between chapter five and ten, the plot tells itself to me, from wherever I am in the draft all the way to the end. I then plot it out chapter by chapter and continue to write based on those plans. That’s not to say what I eventually write matches what I wrote in those chapter plans. Even after I think I know where things are going, new scenes/characters/plot elements do crop up. I guess that makes me pantsing plotter, or maybe a plotting pantser.
The only downside to this method of writing is I tend to derail when I get to a part where I know what comes after the scene I’m about to write, but not what happens in that scene. I either stop writing until I’ve come up with a way to get from point A to point C or just write anything and hope it works. For example in the most recent chapter I knew Ben would find something she’d been looking for, but there would be an obstacle preventing her from getting it, only I didn’t know what the obstacle was or how she’d eventually get around it. I knew that this part was coming well before I got to it, and I’d been thinking of what it could be for a while. Everything I’d come up with just didn’t fit or would cause insurmountable consequences (just because you’re making something up doesn’t mean you can do anything you want). When I finally reached the point were I needed the obstacle, I stopped, let mu mind rest for a few days, thought about other things, and then out of the blue I had it. The perfect B to take me from A to C. But those days when I didn’t know if I’d find a solution were scary.
I think I’ve only got two more chapters to write in this book and I’m fairly confident in what will happen. I’ve already had an idea for the next book—not a sequel to this one. It’s a bigger, wilder idea than anything I’ve done to date, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull it off, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have fun trying. I’m also sure I’ll be riding waves of inspiration right into big nasty walls of uncertainty. That’s how I write.
In the meantime, I’m still querying Random Acts of Nudity. Nothing new to report on that front, though that could change soon. And my critique partners are reviewing My Undead Ex this month. I’ve already gotten really good feedback on it and should get more during our meet-up. Maybe once I’m finished with the current WIP I’ll go into revision mode on Undead Ex and finally fix some of the draggy parts. The new idea needs some time to percolate before I begin writing.
I’d be curious if any of my writer friends and acquaintances are also pantser/plotter hybrids. Or if my method would make them crazy. Or if they are hybrids, but their method is entirely different. Share in the comments if you are so inclined.

Progress Report: Good News/Bad News.

Good news: I’m a prophet. I said in my last post I might not make it through the pitch round of ABNA this year and I didn’t. I know the future! The disappointing future!
Bad news: see above re: ABNA. I’m not gutted. As I said in my previous post, the contest is unpredictable, particularly in the first round where everything hinges on 300 words or less. I’m happy with the pitch I wrote. It’s not much altered from the one I wrote last year which resulted in the same book reaching the semifinals. It didn’t help my odds that this year there was only 400 available slots in YA as opposed to the 1000 of last year. I think I likely got a perfectly decent score on my pitch, but it wasn’t enough to squeeze into the top 400. I’m okay with that. And echoing again my last post, there is much to be gained from ABNA that doesn’t include winning or advancing in the contest. This year I got another awesome critique partner (outside of my regular critique group), who already has a great YA book out. I’m looking forward to reading and possibly helping with the sequel, as well as getting her take on Random Acts.
Good News: several of my friends from the board and members of my critique group did make it past round one. I plan on cheering them along to the final round.
Bad news: I heard back from the three agents who had requested the full manuscript of Random Acts. They all passed. Two said they were open to reading it again should I revise and would look at my future projects. One of those two rejections made me cry. Not because it was mean, it was anything but. The agent said they loved the manuscript and thought long and hard about offering to represent. But they didn’t think it was ready.
I wept bitter tears. I wasn’t expecting to take it so hard, I’m usually pretty good at brushing off disappointment and soldiering on.
Sometimes it is hard to see past the “no” and absorb the helpful and positive things the agent/editor/ critic said along with the rejection. All I could see when I read the letter was that I’d come very close to succeeding but it WASN’T GOOD ENOUGH.
After indulging in a tiny pity party, I could then take in that this agent had said they loved my work. That they wanted to see more of it. And had given me good advice on how to improve it. Yes, they’d said it wasn’t good enough, I just hadn’t been able to see the “yet”.
Good news: an editor from a small press saw a twitter pitch* for Random Acts and asked to see the first few pages. Not long after sending the requested pages the editor responded and asked for the entire manuscript. I don’t know if anything will come of it, but just having it looked at by a publisher is a big accomplishment.
Good news: I finished my fifth manuscript, The Living UnDead. It is the final book in a trilogy. And the farewell to characters I created in my very first novel. It’s also my longest book, coming in at 126,000 words (in the first draft. The count is bound to change once I start editing.)
I started it in the summer of 2010, making it the book it took me the longest to complete. I also started and finished both Outlook Grimm and Random Acts of Nudity between starting and finishing this one.
Bad news: I’m not writing. For the first time in two and a half years, I don’t have a work in progress. I know what my next project will be, but since my critique group is planning on doing our own not-National Novel Writing Month in April, I’m waiting until April 1st to start drafting. I plan on using the time until then editing Living Undead to send to my beta readers and on planning the new book.
Good news: I made a chocolate mousse cake!
I got the recipe from the One Pot Chef YouTube channel. It’s probably the got best ease of prep to decadence ratio of anything I’ve ever made.
Bad news: My elliptical broke about a month and a half ago and I haven’t been doing my daily hour of exercise as a result. I was already gaining back some of the pre daily exercise weight, because of all the baked goods before it broke. So I’ve ordered a new elliptical and am trying to cut back on the treats. We’ll see if that helps.
*AS a part of a Twitter pitch event. Authors were invited to pitch their book in a tweet and agents and editors could view them and request. It is never a good idea to randomly pitch to an agent on Twitter or facebook, or any other social media platform, unless they say they re open to that.

A Short Novel About the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest is less than two weeks away. Entries begin being accepted on January 14th. For those who don’t know, ABNA (for short) is a contest run by Amazon (yep, that Amazon) for unpublished novels. The entrants get the opportunity to have their books reviewed and the winner gets published. I highly recommend any and all new and not so new unpublished authors give it a shot. The upsides of the entering are multiple. There is no cost or fee to enter, even if your book is cut in the first round of judging, all you are out is the time you spent preparing the entry. There can only be one winner (actually not true this year, but I’ll get to that later) and with a pool of ten thousand entries, it probably won’t be you. But that doesn’t mean there’s no benefit for entering and not winning. Every good thing that has happened to me as a writer can be traced back to ABNA. Participating in it taught me how to write an engaging query, provided me with valuable feedback on my work, and put me into contact with other authors I now consider friends. Some contestants have gotten agents because of the exposure they got in the contest. Some of the self published authors saw their sales spike. I know I’ve bought books based on reading the excerpt during the contest.

So here’s how it works. The contest opens on a certain date, this year January 14th. It stays open for two weeks or until ten thousand people have entered, whatever comes first. Each phase of the contest mimics steps an author takes in trying to get traditionally published. The entry consists of a 300 (or less) word pitch, an excerpt of the first 3000 to 5000 words of the novel, and the entire manuscript. The first round is the pitch round. It’s about the same as a query letter you’d send to an agent, with the exception of that you cannot put your name in the pitch. The ten thousand pitches are read, judged, and scored. The top 2000 scoring pitches advance to the next round. In that round the excerpt is reviewed and again scored. On top of that Amazon makes the excerpt available to the public who also can comment on the excerpt. Their comments don’t effect the judge’s decision but it is a great opportunity to get feedback from strangers. The top 500 scoring excerpts move on to the quarterfinals in which a Publisher’s Weekly employee reviews and scores the entire manuscript. Every one of the 500 hundred gets a review, but it’s not guaranteed to be a good review. From there the top 100 manuscripts become semifinalists. The judging panel, usually consisting of Amazon executives, editors, and one or two successful authors, choose the six finalists. At this point the excerpt is back in play as members of the public are invited to read the excerpts and vote on the one they want to win. In previous years there were two winners, one from young adult and one from general fiction. They were awarded $15,000 and their book was published. This year is a little different. This year the single winner is awarded $50,000 and their book is published, while the five other finalists get $15,000 and their book is published. All six finalists get published! That’s pretty exciting.

Here’s my history with the contest. I first entered in 2010. I discovered its existence just a few weeks after completing my first novel, My Undead Ex. I was looking for something to do with it now that it was done. I stumbled onto the contest perhaps a day or two before the entry period closed, so I threw together a pitch, proofread the entire manuscript in a twenty-four hour period, and entered. Needless to say, I was cut at the first round. I was about as clueless as it was possible to be. I wince now when I think about the mess of a manuscript I entered. And my pitch was as dry as dirt. But I had lost nothing for trying, and wrote it off as a learning experience.

One year and another finished manuscript later, the contest was back and so was I. Again I entered My Undead Ex. But a lot had changed in that year, to start with I wasn’t quite so raw and had more than a few days to clean up manuscript. Secondly, I’d discovered the ABNA forums. I hadn’t participated in message boards much prior to that. My few forays usually ended with me being grossed by the backbiting and skeeviness that sprung up like fungus in even the most innocuous seeming group. But this was different, this was a bunch of authors with a common goal. Some of the discussions were silly, some enlightening, many were newbies like me, asking questions of the veterans. The most significant one for me was the pitch thread. Participants posted their pitches for others to comment on, and comment they did. They said what wasn’t working and offered advice on how to improve it. I learned quite a bit about what makes a pitch work from reading other people’s pitches. I posted my own and got invaluable help, and tried my best to pass on what I’d learned. So entry time came again, and again I entered. And I made it through the pitch round. My excerpt was posted and I got a few reader reviews. They were neither glowing or discouraging. The official reviews were similar, highlighting a few good aspects and pointing out things that I could work on. And I was cut from the competition. I wasn’t disappointed, I was happy to have made it a little further than before and gotten some feedback from people I didn’t know, as well as having made some writer friends.

(All these years later, My Undead Ex, a book I love and have written two sequels for, still doesn’t feel ready for publication. I’ve learned so much about writing in the intervening years, it needs another thorough revision before I consider it.)

So another year passed. This time I entered my most recently finished manuscript, Random Acts of Nudity. I felt it was my best work. I went to the pitch thread again, and got help. And was sure to offer some in return. I went in feeling good about my chances. I didn’t think I’d win, my goal was to get to the quarterfinals and get a Publisher’s Weekly review. I waited nervously for the list of entries that made it past the first round. And my name was on it! Which put me back into waiting mode. In the meantime the excerpt was posted, and it started getting reviews. Lots of reviews! Lots of really positive reviews! People were reading my work and they liked it! And then the official excerpt reviews came in and they were also mostly positive. I’d made it to the quarterfinals! So again more waiting. The new list came out and I expected for that to be the end of the road, but there was my name again, I was a semifinalist! And the Publisher’s Weekly review was posted and was mind-blowing in its positivity. A professional said good things about my book! I was over the moon. So the only thing to do was wait to hear about the finalists. I tried not to get my hopes, but I admit I occasionally fantasized about being flown to Seattle for the awards luncheon. Then the finalist list came out and my name was not on it. Was I disappointed? Yes, a little, but not devastated. And the books that were on the list entirely deserved to be there. The whole experience was so great and validating. I don’t regret it for a minute.

So here I am again. I’m planning on entering Random Acts again. Since entering it last year I’ve queried it to agents and gotten some interest. I’ve taken the editing course, and chopped about eight thousand words out. It feels much tighter. It is still under consideration with a few agents, and if they were to offer to represent it, I’ll withdraw from the contest. However there’s no predicting when I’ll hear from them, and no saying whether they’ll make an offer. So the plan is still to enter. That $50,000 is too tempting. I’ve got a pitch I’m happy with, and feel like the last edit cleaned up any lingering errors. I don’t really have a goal this year. Last year was so phenomenal, it would be hard to top, short of actually making it to the finals. And while that would be awesome, it’s anything but shoe in. There’s no guarantee I’ll even make past the pitch round this time. The contest is infinitely variable.

So as a three year veteran of the contest, I thought I’d offer up some tips for a successful ABNA experience. Just keep in mind that my definition of success doesn’t necessarily include winning the contest.

1) Read the official rules. Read them twice. Know them inside out. There are several ways to get disqualified if you’re not paying attention. For starters if you’re name is anywhere on the pitch, excerpt, or manuscript, you’re out. And there is a minimum and maximum word count. If you’re novel is 49,999 words, it’s too short and not eligible for the contest. If it’s 150,001 words it’s too long and also not eligible. Read those rules, there’s lots of them, but it’s what you need to know. If you need help understanding the rules feel free to go the forum and ask, but the person responding will probably just go to the rules page for the answer.

2) Visit the pitch thread. Writing the pitch is often harder the writing the book. Take the help that is out there. The pitch is the first thing that gets judged in the contest (and in the traditional publishing world as well). if your pitch doesn’t entice the judges, your entry is dead on arrival. Even if you don’t post your own pitch to be commented on, read the ones that are already there. Try to figure out what makes you want to read that novel, or what is keeping you from the same. But I do recommend posting your pitch. Usually we as authors are too familiar with the novel. What we think makes perfect sense, could leave the reader scratching their head. Or turn them off entirely. Getting outside feedback is essential. And remember 300 words is the maximum for the pitch not the requirement. If you can effectively sell the story in less than 300, do it. 250 seems to be the sweet spot.

3) Expect negative feedback. You will never please everyone. It’s not possible. Nothing is universally loved. Name a beloved book/movie/work of art, I’ll find you some one who thinks it’s over rated. Even the Mona Lisa has its detractors. Don’t expect nothing but praise. If you put your work out there, whether its the pitch, the excerpt, a two sentence quote, someone will pipe up to criticize it. They may be wrong, they may be right. Last year during the excerpt phase even though I was moved on to the next round, one of the official reviewers gave me some feedback that initially felt a bit harsh. After a day to nurse my wounded pride, I realized it was a valid criticism, and I’ve worked on improving my writing on those lines. If you can’t take hearing criticism that isn’t one hundred percent positive, the contest isn’t for you. In fact publishing in general probably isn’t for you in that case. But the contest can give you a taste of whether you can handle it.

4) Don’t be a sore loser. The contest eventually leads to 6 lucky entrants being published, but that leaves 9,994 who don’t. Odds are that if you enter, you will be cut before the final six. You may be disappointed. You may think the judges were smoking crack for cutting you. You may want to smack some sense into the reviewer who called your entirely original creation derivative. You may need to blow off some steam. By all means do it. Talk to your friends, rant to your cat. Write a letter you won’t send to Amazon. Write a short story where book critics meet creative and horrible demises. Whatever you do, don’t voice your sore feelings in public. And yes the Internet is public. In the years I’ve been following the forums, inevitably after each round of cuts, the boards flood with people declaring the contest is pointless, unfair, rigged, a sham, a joke— now that they’ve been cut. They didn’t seem to feel that way while they were still in the competition. This is a bad idea beyond it making you seem inexperienced, bitter, and immature. I’ll go into why in the next tip.

5) Don’t just root for yourself. The forums are a great place to connect with other writers. They can help you perfect your pitch, keep you company as you wait for the results, and give you tips on whatever the next leg of your journey is. Whether it’s self publishing or looking for an agent, somebody there has already done it. These are connections you want and need. I’ve seen two of the finalists from one year, who were in direct competition with each other, cheering each other on and actively helping each other find paths to publication.
Last year I went to the pitch thread to get help, reconnect with friends I’d made the year before, and make new connections with new contestants. One new contestant seemed like a great new contact/friend. Their book sounded like something I’d read. I helped them with their pitch, they paid it forward with good advice for other authors. When we both made it through the pitch round, we digitally high-fived each other and consoled those who didn’t. We chatted on the forums as we waited for the results. I read their excerpt when it went public. I liked it and left a review with my thoughts on what I liked and what I thought needed work. They did the same for me.
Then the official excerpt reviews came in and the list for the next round was posted. I made it through, they didn’t. I offered them my condolences and encouraged them to keep trying. I didn’t hear back from them. The next time I saw them in the forums, they were railing against their official review. In fairness, the reviewer didn’t word their main criticism in the most diplomatic way, but the meat of it was the same criticism I’d had for the excerpt. It was the same issue nearly everybody who reviewed the excerpt pointed out, just in kinder words than the reviewer had used. But the author posted repeatedly about how blind and unfair the reviewer was, each post growing more vitriolic. It wasn’t fun to read, left a bad taste in my mouth, and lost the author some of my respect. Then they went on to declare that the whole contest was stupid for not recognizing the brilliance of their book. Which, though I don’t think they realized it, was a swipe not just at the contest but all the people who the reviewers had advanced to the next round, including myself who had considered that person a potential friend, who had been rooting for them, who would have been happy to congratulate them had the positions been reversed.
As I said before, everything good to happen to me in my writing career can be traced back to this contest. And most of it is because of contacts I made. People I met on the ABNA forums pointed me toward the contests that led me to the agents that are currently reading my book. I met the editor of the anthology that published one of my short stories through the facebook group associated with it. My critique group consists entirely of people from the boards. I doubt they would have let me into the group, if they thought I’d lash out if they said anything negative about my work.
I know I’d be wary to help this author again. But I probably would, since I did see potential in their excerpt. But whether I would or not is moot because they haven’t come back. They’ve let their hurt pride cut them off from a valuable resource. (By which I don’t mean me, but all the ways they could get help and exposure. As I’ve said a few people have gotten book deals based on the contest, people who got no further than this past contestant. But their work caught the attention of an agent, who very well could have been following their behavior on the forums as well.)

So there you have it. My best advice: be sane, be courteous, take your lumps, and take a chance. It all translates to the publishing world as well. Good luck to everybody entering.

Progress Report (formally known as this week in writing)

The biggest thing that happened since the last update is the conclusion of the editing workshop. I learned so much from the class. I plan to do a post at a later date of the most important lessons. It wasn’t without it’s trials. The teacher had a look at the first chapter of Random Acts of Nudity. Her major feedback was that I was over writing. Using ten words where two would do. Overwhelming the narrative with flashbacks and digressions. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard feedback on those lines. But it was the first time I could see the problem for myself.

I must admit, it threw my confidence for a few days. There was so much that needed to be cut! Would I still have a book by the end? How could I be so blind about how bad the writing was? Was it even worth editing? And it got into my head as was writing my current WIP. I kept questioning every line as I was writing. Am I doing it right now? Which words do I need? It almost paralyzed me.

But after a couple of days the feedback sunk in. I could look at the text I was editing and see what was essential and what could go. I’ve edited the first five chapters, and have cut around four thousand words so far. And the book is essentially the same. I might end up with a much shorter book by the time I’ve finished this latest edit. But I’d rather have a very good 50,000 word book than a decent one of 70,000.

And I reminded myself that the book I was beating myself up over, had gotten to the top one percent of ABNA. It had garnered a glowing Publishers’ Weekly review, excess words and all. The book is not worthless, but it has room for improvement.

Another development is that my critique group read RAON in its entirety. They too gave me valuable feedback. Helped me see areas that needed to be fleshed out and/or clarified. I love my critique group, they’re so encouraging and generous with their time. Though they don’t sugarcoat the critique. I’ve decided to put querying on hiatus until I’ve finished this round of editing, and implemented their feedback.

Of course I already had it on submission with a few agents as this was going on. I’ve heard back from three of the four who requested pages. Two have passed, offering similar feedback as my editing teacher. One I’ve yet to hear from. And one requested the complete manuscript! That was very exciting. And she had seen the pre editing class version. We’ll have to wait and see what happens there.

And in spite of the self imposed hiatus, I couldn’t resist entering another pitch contest, and got another request. So I sent out the new streamlined version of the first three chapters this afternoon.

On the non RAON writing front, I did not finish the WIP in time to begin a new project for NaNoWriMo. Between the WIP, the intense editing on RAON, critiquing this month’s manuscript for the group, and holding down my day job, I just didn’t have the time. But I do have a pretty good idea of what my next project will be. I’m thinking of trying my hand at Middle Grade fantasy.

In the meantime, I’ve bounced back from the self doubt, and the end of the WIP is in sight. It’s currently at 113,000 words. I expect to add another 15 to 20 thousand by the time it’s done. It’s the longest book I’ve ever written, (previous champion is 80,000). Granted once I’ve cut the excess, it’ll likely be closer to 90,000. Regardless it will feel good to get to the end.

Finally in baked goods news, I went on a bit of a baking spree. I made chocolate chip cookies, chocolate ganache cookies, and dark chocolate peanut butter cups. And now my pants are way too tight. So the baking is also on hiatus. Except for the batch of pumpkin bread I made this afternoon. I basically used the same recipe as the banana bread, but substituted pumpkin pie filling for the bananas. It’s super moist.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!

This week in writing

It’s been more than a week since my last progress report, but these few weeks in writing doesn’t have much of a ring to it. So what’s happened? I’ve heard from two agents. One was one of the four who requested pages. She was very nice. Said the concept is fabulous, but that it wasn’t quite the right fit for her. The other is one I queried during a time when she said every query would get a personal reply, even if it was a no, rather than a form rejection. A form rejection is a prewritten letter just saying no, with no reasons behind the no. Her response was also a pass, because she had recently signed an edgy YA, and that mine sounded too issue driven for her taste. So, no agent yet, but both rejections were encouraging in their way. Neither said the concept wasn’t sellable or that the writing was bad. The first specifically said it was likely an agent out there that will want it. But that she isn’t that agent. The other already had a project that could possibly compete. The  interesting thing to me about her feedback is I don’t think of Random Acts of Nudity as an issue driven book. I see the sex tape as the catalyst of the story, not the focus of it. It’s an important part of the story but its not all sex tape all the time. but I’ve been working on the book for over a year, I’m too close to see it objectively.

Also going on is the editing class. It’s been really interesting so far.  This week the task is to read the entire manuscript and cut any scene that does not advance the plot or the character arcs. I’m pretty pleased so far, I’ve found a couple of brief scenes that can go, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve got many wasted scenes. They almost all tie into either the overarching plot or are important to character growth. With one exception. There’s a scene just past the halfway mark that does neither. It’s just a sweet moment between the main character and her sister. I should cut it, but I can’t. I love it! Which means I really should get rid of it. There’s an adage that goes “kill your darlings.” It means don’t get so attached to any of your writing that you can’t change or cut it. It can apply to the wording of a sentence or entire scenes. I’ve never had a problem changing sentences, but hooboy, this one is tough. I’ve marked the scene to delete, but haven’t actually done it yet. My critique group is reading Random Acts this month. I’ll ask them if they think it should go.
I’ve also made a little more progress on the WIP. It’s very close to being finished. Maybe four more chapters until the end. If I can finish it by the end of the month, I’ll start a new novel for National Novel Writing Month.
And in baked goods news, I made banana bread from scratch just because I had all the ingredients on hand. It’s delicious, I don’t think I’ll ever use a mix again. I also made a deep dish pizza for my sister’s birthday dinner. It was just okay. Since I had left over ingredients I tried a different dough recipe and made a stuffed spinach. Also just okay. The pizza code is tough to crack, but I will prevail!