Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dear Querying Writers: Use Common Sense. Now, Relax.

Once upon a time, I was a newbie to querying agents. I fretted over every word in my query, dragged my heels about sending it out, finally did at the insistence of my boyfriend, received some requests, and every little thing sent me into a panic. If I do this, will the agent hate me? How should I respond to this? Or this? What do I say in a cover letter? Is it okay if I send the manuscript media mail? Do I put a rubber band on it? If they want internet files, do I put them in a folder? Or just send files loose? Should I tell them I'm working on something else? Should I send this revision?

Every new thing to come along provoked a freak out. For awhile. However, my query search last for three years. Many many queries. Eventually, I grew casual. Professional, but casual. I just went by the rule of thumb, "Would it bother ME if someone did this?" And, "If it does bother this person, would I still want to work with them if they were bothered by such things?"

As a querying author, or an author who intends to query someday, or even an author with an agent on submission to editors, you should keep up with what's going on in the industry, sure. You should be aware of standards. And you should follow guidelines. But please remember, agents ARE just people. Some of them will be more forgiving than others, some will be annoyed by X and not by Z, etc, and there are a lot of good agents out there. As long as you conduct yourself with as much common sense as you can muster at the time, there will be an agent for you even if you make mistakes.

Some of the things I did while querying that could be considered mistakes:
--I replied to my first "positive rejection" with a gushing email thanking the agent SO MUCH and telling them I'd be querying another project soon (aaaand about a month later I did...she didn't ask for pages)
--I emailed several agents who had had my full for a month letting them know I had a MUCH BETTER version now
--I rushed a revision and queried too soon
--I emailed some agents three times with three different versions of the Magic Under Glass query over the course of two years
--I queried some agents that I'd heard kinda bad mojo about because I knew they HAD SOLD SOMETHING
--I talked about most of my submissions and rejections on my blog, plus posted teasers regularly and blabbed about the story and plot all the time

At the time, I used my best judgment with the information I had available at the time on how to handle a situation. Sometimes, in hindsight, it turned out to be wrong and I stopped doing it. But I never did anything that was so heinous a crime that I was blacklisted from all agents ever. In fact, no one ever really seemed overly annoyed or whatever and I always had plenty of requests (in fact, one of the agents I kept pestering with new revisions ended up offering representation, although she was not the agent I signed with), and in the end I got a lovely agent.

Now, I know there has been some various debate on whether posting excerpts of your work or reviewing books (especially critically) on your blog, etcetera, can hurt your chances to sign or sell. I think it is definitely wise to discuss these matters, follow these discussions, and think about what you might be saying and who might be reading when you blog (or Tweet, etc) and if you feel comfortable with what you're putting out there. But please, do not go overboard. Again, use common sense. "Don't talk about the submission process" doesn't mean you can NEVER tweet "aw, man, I got a rejection", it means, you might not want to post a breakdown of everyone who rejected you.

And even if you DID make some manner of error in blogging about all your rejections or really snarking about books or posting a chapter of your WIP, and now you are freaking about it... Well, trust me. These things fade and they never bothered some people to begin with. If you feel that what you did was a bad idea in hindsight, delete the posts and continue on your merry way. If you feel that you are doing what you want to do, such as honestly reviewing books, continue on! Just as you can't please all of the people all of the time, it is not that easy to piss off all of the people all of the time. Unless you are running around making a general jerk of yourself on a regular basis or are remaining willfully uninformed, you're probably fine, especially because social networking IS relatively new and people are still figuring out how to manage it and use it and what's appropriate and all that stuff.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Why comics and e-books have me questioning story structure

It is sometimes commented upon that until the internet happened, writers did not have so much feedback from their fans.

However, that was not true in the comics industry. Comics (at least, in this part of the world) have most commonly been told in short, chapter form with a letters column in the back, encouraging their fans to bitch and moan about the latest issue, or write tomes of effusive praise, or point out that Nightcrawler's hand had five fingers on page 15, panel 3, or whatevs. There is something else about comics, too: They were not expected to end. Ever. Can you imagine Superman ending and that's it? They don't end, they just get canceled if they aren't selling. A little like TV, but even more neverending, and without the structure of a "season" to hang that year's plot on.

There is something else different about comics too. Self-publishing is perfectly acceptable in the comics world. Many excellent comics began as self-published works, and some of them were picked up by a larger publisher from there, and some didn't. Although the comics industry is still dominated by superheroes, scratch the surface and the level of experimentation of not just art, but storytelling, in the comics world, IMO, is astonishing. And one thing I think is very fascinating is that comic creators can choose whether they want to tell one story with a beginning and an end, like a novel, or whether they want to tell an ongoing tale that can either be passed on to other creators, or end when the artist/writer simply gets burnout, or dies.

In writing, we don't really have that option. Sure, there are a few never-ending series, like in the mystery genre for example, but even then there are few examples outside of a fairly formulaic "every book solves a mystery" or "urban fantasy story where uh-oh, there's a NEW sexy vampire in town." There are comics that simply follow the slice-of-life dramas of a groups of characters. There are comics that combine slice-of-life relationship dramas with save-the-world traditional fantasy elements like Elfquest and Thieves and Kings (which also has prose sections within the comic). There might be story arcs, but there is no common rule dictating that the story should be a trilogy and then end...a level of freedom that FEW novels (I'm not saying none) manage. Of course, I'm sure the self-publishing element is part of it, and for every good comic there is a slew of bad ones, don't get me wrong.

Also, obviously there are things you can do in visual storytelling that just DO NOT WORK in novels. I bump up against the frustration of these limits all the time, as someone who once wanted to be a comic artist (but realized she doesn't have the patience with art that she does for writing). But I don't see why a serial story of short "episodes" in prose form couldn't work.

A friend of mine had a story on her blog some years back called MARZ Saga (she knows who she is ) that I won't attempt to summarize here, but it was basically, a very creative little character drama that went on for years, in the form of short slice-of-life "episodes" that fed into a larger plot of character development and human growth. (Okay, see why I don't summarize things? That sounds totally boring.) But anyway, the characters felt VERY real to me, and their interactions felt very true to life, and she was very good at getting in the heads of people of wildly different backgrounds and throwing them together. It was good stuff. I can't ever see it as a novel. It worked as episodes. It was not a novel-type plot arc at all. It also lacked an ending. I didn't care. I doubt Thieves and Kings will ever end either, but it's still my favorite comic, and you know, I'm not sure I WANT stories like that to end. Life rarely has neat and tidy endings, and some types of stories don't have to, in my opinion.

That isn't to say I don't adore the traditional idea of what makes a "good novel": the hero's journey, the tension of every page, the ending that delivers, three-act structures and defined character arcs and all that stuff. It makes for wonderful stories. Obviously, they are the kind I write and love and hope to continue to write for a long time.

But I also am cautiously excited about the idea that e-books could allow for some variations in structure, since authors have the ability to write shorter works at cheaper price points and get them to readers quickly. For example, after Magic Under Stone, I'm sure some of you will still want to know what happens to Nimira and Erris. Maybe, if there was enough demand, I could even get a third book out of them. But their whole lives just aren't going to book-worthy, unless I keep concocting rather tedious disasters for them to contend with. There is a point, however, where one might scale back. Cover a smaller, more intimate drama in their lives, maybe over the course of a few short stories that readers who are desperate to know their fate after the book ends could purchase for 99 cents, or things like that. We're already seeing a little of this, of course. This could go for the end of any book. Writers who keep thinking about their characters after the book is done could keep sharing the thoughts without spinning out an entire book from it. Or someone like me who draws all the characters throughout their development could share my sketchbooks with readers in ebook form.

There is the potential for some pretty cool stuff. And frankly, although even the suggestion that there could be a demise of print sends me into absolute DESPAIR, as I love having and holding tangible books, that is the sort of thing that gets me very excited about ebooks.

I have a feeling there is a post inside of this post, a post I didn't write, that gets my thoughts across in a less muddled way...but, there you have it for now.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

EDIT-TASTIC, the Musical!* All about editorial letters, editorial stages, editorial process

*(not actually a musical in any way)

I've gotten in a few conversations about editorial letters this week, plus I have Between the Sea and Sky copyedits, which I am taking a break from to write this post. This will be the all-I-can-tell-you-about-professional-editing post.

STAGE 1: First Draft

The first draft might not REALLY be your first draft, but it is the first version you show to your editor. Let's start here. Before you have an editor, you probably polished the living daylights out of your first book before it sold. And then you will get an editorial letter. (Note: Editorial letters can arrive anywhere from "almost instantly" to "over a year later" from the time your book sells.) It may be easy-peasy. Or it might make you throw up your last three meals. I was told the editorial letter for Magic Under Glass would be "light" so I was expecting almost nothing, and then when I got it, I was like "WHOA THIS IS MAJOR", but having since edited another book and talked to other writers about their editorial letters, I can tell you it actually was on the lighter side. So. Editorial revisions will probably shock you a bit, the first time.

If you have sold more than one book initially, or you sell another book on proposal, you will have a new experience. The deadline! Suddenly you will be expected to write a book faster than ever before, and you might be stressed out because you may find the manuscript you turn in is not as shiny and polished as the first manuscript your editor bought. Especially because you probably had some second-book-itis going on. Note: THIS IS OKAY. Editors expect this. Really, they do. It's okay to let it go, because if you spend too much time picking at it, your editor might then give you a letter that goes entirely above what you were working on. Case in point: I stressed over a theater subplot in Between the Sea and Sky for ages. I sent it to my editor, finally all shiny. My editor suggested I might want to cut that entire subplot. I instantly agreed and almost entirely rewrote the book in six weeks. With Magic Under Stone, I think I delivered a good story with a beginning, middle, and end, but I didn't stress excessively over the loose ends and messy bits.

STAGE 2: Editorial Letter

Your letter may be just a letter or it may include the marked-up manuscript. I've had both. And both times, I have tackled it the same way. I read the letter (with a mixture of excitement and trepidation). I usually think "OHMIGOD THAT IS BRILLIANT" about some of the comments, and "I agree! But how do I FIX THAT?" about others, and maybe a couple I think, "ehhh." All of them must be considered. I take the letter, and the manuscript, if I've got it (for Between the Sea and Sky, this process occurred in a New York City hotel room), and write down a response to all of my editors points so I can discuss it with her. Some of it will just be "I love this idea, and here's how I think I'll fix it, sound good?" and some of it will be asking her to clarify things, or me explaining what I was TRYING to say, and possibly a little brainstorming from there. I talk to her, and at this point I am usually quite excited. I know some writers cry and bemoan their revision letters, but unfortunately I have no advice for that, I actually love the revising part.

Editors, mind you, do not give advice like critique partners. Quite often they don't just say "here's what's wrong", but they actually help you, with brilliant points, shape your story so it's more like what you meant to say all along. I don't know how they do this. But, they do. Unless you have an unlucky match, which happens. I have heard quite a few editorial horror stories, but most writers get through them, and I hear many more editor love stories. Not worth stressing too much about.

Once I know my editor and I are on the same page, I go through the manuscript and break it down, chapter by chapter if necessary, marking on the ms or on notebook paper depending on how involved I need to be, creating a road map for myself of what I need to do. Some people handle line edits first and then major edits, some vice versa. I just work chronologically. It might look like this:

Ch. 5--Add extra description of the house.
Ch. 6-7--Bring chapter 8 forward. During the conversation with A and B, streamline to convey that A doesn't want B to know he is a were-chinchilla, but B actually already knows.

And so on, going into as much or as little detail as I need so I know everything that needs to be done as I go.

(At least, that's how it would look, if I wrote about were-chinchillas.)

When I'm done, usually in 4-6 weeks, I send it back and wait for the next round. So far my next rounds have been tiny. But it is totally normal to have one, or two, or even more rounds, getting more and more focused with each round. After that comes copy-edits.

STAGE 3: Copy-edits

Copy-edits can be a painful surprise to some authors. Some copy editors are very picky about details, and meanwhile some authors maybe wrote a book where the full moon happens every other day. The copy-editor fixes things like "Why is Mary age thirteen on page 1 and fifteen on page 12?" And grammar and style, and maybe some inaccuracies or research things. My copy editing hasn't been too painful. I'm not sure if my copy editor is just not a huge stickler, or if it's because I don't write crazy-complicated books and I am pretty good at keeping track of ages and timelines and such.

Line editing and copy-editing (which can occur in separate rounds or together; your editor does the line editing, but there is some overlap to what these two rounds accomplish) are more about details and word choices than the big exciting creative parts. As such, I find them quite easy, but also very headache inducing, and some writers actively despise them.

STAGE 4: It's almost a book!

At this point, you may get ARCs! Yay! And there is a final page pass where you are no longer supposed to make large changes, but are just supposed to make sure the grammar is right and things like that. it's pretty easy now, although I also kind of hate the final pass because at that point you're just kind of sick of the book, usually.

And say goodbye. Your baby is almost ready to be born. This part is kind of sad, at least for me, because I will never work with that particular book again, and if you are saying goodbye to the entire cast of characters, you might feel downright weepy. But soon they will be shared, and that is very exciting.

DISCLAIMER: This is based on my own experience with Magic Under Glass and Between the Sea and Sky (which hasn't yet gone through all the stages) and discussion with other authors. Different publishing houses and editors do things differently, and there are no absolutes in publishing. I have tried to make this as general as possible, but you still may experience variations. If you have eight rounds of line edits and each one is delivered by an elephant, that might be totally normal for your publisher.

P. S. I almost forgot to mention I am going to a retreat in a couple of weeks with a ridiculous number of other YA author luminaries. We will be doing v-chats. You can ask us questions. Maggie Stiefvater is collecting the questions here. No obligation, as we already have a lot of awesome questions, but if you have more, now is your chance!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Starring the Jaclyn Dolamore Players! aka, Thoughts on Plagiarizing Myself

So, I have a little trick I do when I am having trouble with a new character. I cast one of "the Jaclyn Dolamore players". These are old, pre-existing characters that I know very very well, and I just ask myself to think "what would they be like born into THESE circumstances?" And then, hopefully, the character will grow from there and become their own person.

Of course, I do run the risk of writing the same thing over and over. So I feel kind of bad about it. On the other hand, I do think of writing sort of like making a movie. And if I was making movies, I might keep casting Colin Firth over and over in different roles. Or I might travel back in time so I could cast Rex Harrison. You know, when you see a Rex Harrison movie, that you're getting some arrogant British sexiness right there, you just don't know what role it will take. Will I pity Rex in "The Yellow Rolls-Royce", or sort of want to smack him but still find him oh-so-sexy in "My Fair Lady", or will it be darkly hilarious like in "Unfaithfully Yours", or...

Okay, this is not about Rex Harrison. I promise.

Perhaps what bothers me more is the recurring themes. Of course, there are certain themes I embrace as hallmarks of my work. It's no use escaping them, really. Like "outsider character finding their place in the world" or "the struggle between doing what you love vs. doing what is expected/practical/profitable". But then...there are just the little plot tics and weird things that insist on popping up, again and again, insidiously. If I compare any two of my manuscripts, I can easily spot one thing they each have in common, like a villain who turns out to not really be so bad but he has issues with his dad. Augh, I used it twice! Shh. Pretend you didn't notice. Or a big plot involving raising the dead. I'm always raising the dead in my books. Or the love interests bonding over a book. (I know books are sexy, but stop it, guys!) Or snotty intellectual family members. The list is really endless. Sometimes writing feels like a minefield of trying to avoid the same plots, but even when I try...they sneak in.

But then, I think, maybe this is okay. I like Colin Firth movies not just for Colin Firth, but because I can rely on them to be a certain kind of movie. That's the trouble, really, defining the difference between writing the sort of things that make my writing mine and giving my audience a comfortably Jaclyn Dolamore sort of book, and writing things that are just the same. I'm sure we all have that writer or filmmaker we checked out on because their work became stale. For some, it takes twenty books, and for others, just a handful. I hope to keep putting new twists on the stew in my brain for a long, long time.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spanish Magic Under Glass cover!

Yesterday was my birthday, and the publishing industry so kindly provided me with coincidental gifts! Like the Spanish cover to Magic Under Glass aka "Corazon Mecanico" aka "Clockwork Heart". I think it's absolutely lovely and I like the new title too. I love how different this is from my other covers. How interesting to see all the interpretations.

I also heard from my editor that copyedits for Between the Sea and Sky are on the way, which I presume means ARCs are not too far off. I've already started to get a number of requests for them. The ARCs I receive from my publisher are limited and will be saved for giveaways. But if you are a reviewer, you can always email me and I will forward requests to my publisher, or you can email my publisher directly, to be considered for a review copy. But if you want one from me, you will have to win one in one of my EXCITING CONTESTS! Yay! Just like with Magic Under Glass, I will give away one or two heavily sketched-in copies. So watch for it!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Plot driven fiction vs. character driven fiction

I'm working on my fifth book (if you exclude two that are definitely DRAWER NOVELS) (whoa, I've already written four legit books? Sometimes I still can't believe I actually write entire novels, beginning to end...even when it's my job and I've done it six times if you do count drawer novels, it sounds very daunting) and I see this is going to be a plot driven novel.

I've noticed now that my novels tend to fall into one category or the other.

Character-Driven Novels:
--Take longer to write, and are more difficult, because the characters come with strong personalities and I have to figure out what they would actually DO that could be an interesting story. I have to work with them, because they won't change just to be exciting. Dialogue scenes are particularly hard, because the characters in my mind are very natural. Too natural. Like, hey guys, I've got a story to tell here, I don't have all day.
--Haunt me all day and night. I have dreams about the characters, and I think about them in little out-of-story vignettes.
--Are harder to write, but more fun to have written. I like to reread them, and imagine the what-happens-after.
--Are cozier. They tend to have more humor and sweet moments to balance the tension, because I would be happy just writing about these characters buying their groceries, and in fact, have to resist the urge to do so.
--Compel me to get out my sketchbook a lot more often, to capture those little moments that don't fit in the book.
--Tend to be romance and relationship driven.

Plot-Driven Novels:
--Are written more quickly, because although I have an outline, the plot is so exciting that it compels me to keep writing to see exactly how it will unfold.
--Are very fun to research and world-build, at least so far, because so far my plot novels have had a very intriguing historically based setting as well as an exciting plot.
--Are fast to write, but yuckier to revise, because I don't love the characters as much to spend tons of time with them.
--Aren't as interesting to me in the long run.
--Rely on constant tension and mystery to propel the reader forward.
--The setting is vivid, but the character's lives don't run beyond the bounds of the story. If you walked into the book on the "off-time", you'd see everything dismantled and the characters sitting around drinking coffee or something instead of being their real selves.

You can probably tell which I prefer. Character novels. And yet, I think I need to write a little of both. I think I push boundaries more with my plot novels and write them in a blur of excitement, and then I cozy up a bit with the character novels. So far I only have one novel out, Magic Under Glass, and it's a plot novel. Between the Sea and Sky is a character novel. Magic Under Stone is the only novel I've written to be equal parts both, I think because I knew the characters much better than when I wrote Magic Under Glass. So I have yet to see which my readers seem to prefer.

Extreme examples of character vs. plot novels would be the Betsy-Tacy books vs. The Hunger Games series. I throughly enjoyed both. The Betsy-Tacy books are comparatively easy to put down (in fact, I rather like to stretch out the experience of a character-driven novel), but dear to my heart. I reread them. Hunger Games has compelling characters, but if it was just a little story about Katniss, Gale and Peeta in their town, the readership would be much less. I read every Hunger Games book in one day the moment I got my hands on it, but I'll probably never read them again. (Some people do, obviously this is a matter of preference.)

As a reader, character novels are always the ones I save in my collection and read again and again. But plot novels are the ones I devour in a day. Both experiences are enjoyable, but if I could pick one kind to read, it would be the former! And some novels straddle the line--I think Harry Potter is a good example. And some novels will be one thing to some readers and another to other readers. It's all about what is compelling you to read on.

Which do you prefer to read or write?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Serious Topics

One of the most popular posts at my blog is the Mermaid-y Interview with L. K. Madigan. So I know she has a lot of fans out there. I've known about this for days because my agent broke the news, but today she made a public post that she has pancreatic cancer that has metastized to the liver. You can send her and her family thoughts, prayers and well-wishes here:

I've known Lisa for years. I have a little hanging mermaid she sent me that says "Impossible is a word humans use all too often." I hope Lisa can have many more beautiful moments on this planet. But I know pancreatic cancer is rough. My partner's mom died of it six years ago. In fact, curiously, I had a dream the other night, days before I heard Lisa's diagnosis, where Dade's mom visited me in my dream to tell me she was happy and watching over us. I never had a dream about her before, and this one was very vivid. I live my life with a deep faith that there is another world we can't quite see, that loved ones watch over us, that some "magic" can be real, that things happen for a reason...but on the surface I also doubt every day. I fear death. But moments like that...well, I really feel sometimes that Dade's mom has moved some things around to take care of us, and maybe she knew I needed a dream like that just then.

It's a sad day for so many of us in the writer community who love Lisa and hate to see something like this happen to anyone who still has so much to do and so many books to write. But the comments are her post truly are a beautiful outpouring of love.

On another note, also serious in a very different way, there has been a fresh crop of talk about illegal downloading of ebooks. Saundra Mitchell has a good post about it here.

I do think illegal downloading is something blown out of proportion. In some ways, it gets the word out. And I think only a fraction of downloaders would actually buy the book. We have no way of knowing how many. 5%? 10%? 20%? But I think a bigger concern is the idea that it is OKAY to download things illegally. I remember when mp3 downloading first happened...I think at first everyone thought of it as not much different than the decades-old tradition of making mix tapes. "Oh, now I can hear that one song I used to listen to ten years ago again...what was that?" Before we knew it, everyone was downloading full albums. All the time. Lots of people just assumed all musicians were rich anyway. But you know...they're not. And writers definitely aren't. Every time you buy a Magic Under Glass hardcover, you basically paid my wage for about...three words, by the time you add up all the editing and marketing and other stuff that goes into a career. And believe me, I don't make a lot of money. And three words isn't a lot. But when you add them all up, they make books. If you bought my book, it's kind of like three of the words in it are yours because you bought me the time to write them. If you checked it out from the library, three of the words in it belong to that library copy, and that's good too. You can even pick up some used words at the used bookstore. But for goodness sakes. Don't steal them. Just find some legal way around it, and it's a better world. And please don't encourage it in your friends either. (And fellow writers: I feel like we should all emphasize this at school visits while we have a (mostly) enraptured audience of the next generation!)