I'm back!

After ten days of Mexican sun, I am sad and happy to be home.  Vacations are good for the soul.  Unfortunately, the rejection mill doesn't stop because one is taking a break from one's life.

I got a form rejection via email while I was lying by the pool sipping pina coladas (admittedly, there are worse times to be rejected).

And in the massive stack of mail waiting for me when I got home last night, there were a couple more.

Can I just say (if I haven't said this already) that snail mail rejections sting less.  I think because as soon as I see one, I know exactly what it's going to say.  With email, there's that little speck of hope that maybe it'll be a request, which is why it stings when I click on it and it's not.

I did finish two of the five books I brought.  The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein has officially won Favorite Book of the Year for me, beating out a lot of other really great books.  If you want to read a book with voice, read this book. If you want a book with a lovable protagonist, read this book.  If you like dogs or racing, read this book. If for no other reason than because I said so, READ THIS BOOK.

I also read Fangland by John Marks.  I have mixed feelings about this one.  A literary vampire novel it is.  It's scary, definitely.  But it was so weird!  Which I think is good, because days later I'm still thinking about it and still creeped out by it.  Beautiful writing and sort of a modern retelling of Dracula, though it fizzled a little once the story left Transylvania and headed to New York.  Cool ending, though.

I got through a third of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire before I allowed myself to give up.  I was trying to force myself to get through it, but then I remembered I was on vacation and I don't have to read it.  Not for me.

I got through a third of The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacqueline Mitchard.  Narrative was a bit heavy and passive for my tastes.  It probably didn't help that I've already seen the movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and that I know how it ends.  But I'll give her next book a shot (the sequel is No Time to Wave Goodbye).

I'm giving myself the weekend to get things organized around the house, before officially getting back to a writing schedule on Monday.  I flunked NaNo this year.  But it's okay, the book's not going anywhere.

Can Christmas really be just two weeks away?

Vacation Reading

So I'm about to embark on a 10-day vacation and will be ambitiously bringing five books to read.  I say ambitious because I consider myself to be a pretty slow reader.  Plus, you know how it is when you're hanging by the pool with friends... it's easy to get distracted.  Plus plus, I like having choices in case one or two books don't work out.

Here's what I'll be reading:

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacqueline Mitchard

No Time to Wave Goodbye by Jacqueline Mitchard

Fangland by John Marks

Notice no thrillers?  I honestly can't think of a time when I've ever wanted to read thrillers less than I do right now.

Time to pack!  Have a great couple of weeks, everyone.  I hope to come back tanned, chubby from too many pina coladas, and ready to work my ass off on my next book.

What I love about first drafts

1. They can be awful.

2. They can be awful.

3. They can be awful.

There's nothing quite like making stuff up without any worries about striving for perfection.  And the first draft is really the only place I have complete and total reign to do this.  Plot holes can be fixed in future drafts.  Extraneous dialogue can be pruned in future drafts.  Clichéd phrases can be axed altogether in... you got it... future drafts.

The only thing I worry about in a first draft?  Getting the story out.  It doesn't matter whether the writing's good (though it certainly helps).  It doesn't matter if I end up cutting 50% of it or more later on (though it would be great not to have to).  All that matters in the first draft is that I tell the story.  Because nobody's going to read it.  Nobody's going to critique it.  It's just the story, fresh out of my head, in its most raw state. It simply needs to get out of my head and into my Word document, so that in my second draft...

... I can fix it.

I know of writers who agonize over every sentence before they can move forward.  I know of writers who research for months, then spend a year creating outlines so detailed that all they have to do afterward is add in some dialogue and the book is finished.  Ken Follett, author of Pillars of the Earth, does this.  So does Jeffrey Deaver.

It's not my process.  Because I'm the kind of person who, if I let myself stress over perfection before the story's finished, will intimidate myself right out of writing the story.

Ah, the freedom of first drafts and giving myself permission to write crap!  It's nice to be here once again.


Note:
The blog is now dark until mid-December. Time for a break! Happy Thanksgiving!

Obsession

Confession:  The problem with querying is that I never stop thinking about rejection.

I think I may be masochistic.  And maybe a little bit twisted.  Because here's another confession:

The rejections make me feel kind of good.

Not really, really good (hell, no, they sting like a mo-fo). But a teensy bit good, because I can't help but feel that every rejection I get is a small symbol of my efforts to succeed at the thing I want the most... even if that attempt failed.  It means I'm trying.  And you can't get rejected unless you put yourself out there.

And oh boy, am I putting myself out there.

Writing about my rejections (somewhat gleefully, I might add) is my way of reminding myself that I wrote a novel and that I don't think it's terrible.  Good enough to get published?  No idea.  But I definitely don't believe it's terrible, and that's something. Just by having written it, I get to cross something off my bucket list.

But there's a flip side, too.

As I watch the rejections for CREEP trickle in, I can feel myself getting a bit more cynical.  A bit more jaded.  A bit more anxious.  And definitely more aware of the very likely possibility that This.  May.  Never.  Happen.

In fact, it's all I think about.

What I should be doing instead is writing the hell out of my next novel.  There's no reason not to. CREEP is finished, and MAGNOLIA is waiting for me.  It's outlined to the end, I'm 29k in, and I know the characters so well, I don't think I'll have to stress too much over the first draft.  The story's all there, it's just a matter of writing it.

And I am writing it.  Well, sorta. Little spurts here and there, but with nowhere near the aggression and inspired fury with which I wrote CREEP.

And why is this?  Why am I not cranking out 1,000 edited words a day (which is my usual first draft quota)?

Paralysis.

I.  Can't.  Move.

I feel like I'm holding my breath all the time.  Since this query process started (October 22), all I can think about is querying.  Who to query, when to query, how to format the query.  I'm constantly talking about the query.  I'm checking my email ten times more than I normally would, and I jump every time I see a new message in my inbox.  I wake up wondering who's rejected me today, and I go to sleep wondering who'll reject me tomorrow.

And it's awful, awful, awful.

There is nothing healthy about this at all.  I know better than to obsess about queries.  I know obsessing about them won't increase my chances of getting published.  It most definitely won't make me a better writer.

But yet I do obsess.  I do I do I do.  Querying has made me an obsessive FREAK, and any intention I had to be as cool as a cucumber during this process has been blown to smithereens.

I am the opposite of cool. I am so decidedly uncool that I'm embarrassed for anybody who knows me right now.  You know the girl at your work who only talks about herself and her problems, so much so that when you see her coming, you hide?

I AM THAT GIRL!  Run, people!  Run!

I need to stop this obsession now.  Because while I wait, holding my breath for something to happen, my life is passing me by.  Precious time that could be spent improving my craft is being wasted on obsessive email-checking and researching agents I've already spent hours researching.  I'm half-listening when Steve is talking to me.  I'm checking my BlackBerry during dinner.  I'm thinking about queries when I should be watching Grey's Anatomy and fantasizing about McDreamy.

I need to snap out of it.

Somebody slap me, please.

Ahh... the sweet thrill of the query rollercoaster...

Flying above the clouds because an agent actually said my writing was flawless...

... only to come crashing back down to earth because my characters are unlikeable and he couldn't care less what happens to them.

Sigh.

Book of Lies

Brad Meltzer is my hero.

After getting lambasted by several influential critics before his novel, Book of Lies, even came out, he didn't take offense.  Nope.  And he didn't cry foul.  Not even close.

He made a video about it!



Good for you, Brad.  Not for writing a bad novel (and is it really that bad?  Now I want to read it to find out!), but for having enough of a sense of humor to laugh about it.

Slow and steady

It's been raining steadily in Seattle for the past few days, and the forecast is calling for steady rain for the rest of the week.  I think for Seattleites, this must not be a big deal.  I can imagine that if you grew up here, you'd be used to it.  It would be your normal.  But for me, it's harder than I thought it would be.  Waking up every morning to gray, gloomy skies and the staccato of rain pelting the windows is depressing.

Screen shot from my Google home page (click to enlarge):
(And yes, I like to know the forecast for Toronto, too.)

I remember we had relatives who moved to Toronto from the Philippines a few years back, and they were in agony during their first winter.  It wasn't even that cold, but they were really freaked out by all the snow and ice and the below-freezing temperatures.  Even with winter coats and scarves and boots, Toronto was painfully cold for them and they wondered if they'd ever adjust.

They didn't.  They moved back to the Philippines the following spring.

My point being (because no, this really isn't a post about the weather), the lack of sun is draining my energy.  Freezing temperatures, I can handle.  Snow, I can handle.  But no sun?  I'm a night owl and a broody bitch by nature, but hell, even I need some sunshine in my life.  I'm on Vitamin D supplements and I have this little sun lamp that shines on my face for thirty minutes every day while I'm working, but it's not quite enough.  Tanning beds used to help, but my best friend and I swore off tanning last year because we're at that age where premature aging is a real concern (damn you, wrinkles!).

And so that, my friends, is my excuse for falling behind in NaNoWriMo.  If NaNoWriMo was a marathon, I'd have tripped back at the 5k mark and fallen flat on my ass.  And not been able to get up.

But I also have to admit that I feel no real sense of urgency with this new book.  And here's the good news. While it's bad for NaNoWriMo (that 50k goal gets further and further away), it's not really a bad thing overall.  I wrote my first two novels with an underlying sense of panic the entire time.  I was constantly worried I wouldn't be able to finish, and that's a lot of stress.

But with this new book, I'm not worried. It'll get written.  It will.  I've done it before and I'll do it again.  Whether I make the 50k goal for the month or not, I'll finish this novel.  I'll workshop it. I'll revise it.  I'll polish it till it shines.  And it'll be ready sometime in 2010, for sure.

There are a lot of things I doubt about myself when it comes to writing, but the one thing I no longer doubt is my ability to finish what I've started.  Seeing CREEP through to the end is by far my proudest accomplishment for 2009.  So, congrats to me for getting this far.

And congrats to me for wanting to keep going.

2009 reading list (so far)

I got an email the other day from a friend asking me what books I've read this year, and can I recommend anything good? Well, yeah, I can! I've also read some doozies.

Gee, now that I've listed them all, 2009 has been a really light reading year (in fiction, anyway).  Usually I read a novel a week.  Tsk, tsk.  I'll have to prioritize my time better next year.

Sweetheart (thriller) – Chelsea Cain 

Cross Country (thriller) – James Patterson 

The Lost Symbol (thriller) – Dan Brown

The Doomsday Key (thriller) – James Rollins 

Roadside Crosses (thriller) – Jeffrey Deaver 

Choke (mainstream) - Chuck Palahniuk

The Broken Window
(thriller) – Jeffrey Deaver 

Two for the Dough (mystery) – Janet Evanovich 

One for the Money (mystery) – Janet Evanovich 

The 19th Wife (mainstream) – David Ebershoff 

Heartsick (thriller) – Chelsea Cain 

Bones (thriller) – Jonathan Kellerman 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (mainstream) – Jamie Ford 

American Wife (mainstream) – Curtis Sittenfeld

Third Degree (thriller) – Greg Iles

Duma Key (horror/supernatural) – Stephen King 

Fight Club (mainstream) – Chuck Palahniuk 

Rules for Saying Goodbye (women's fiction) – Katherine Taylor 

Darkly Dreaming Dexter (crime) – Jeff Lindsay 

Billy Dead (mainstream)– Lisa Reardon 

The Shack (Christian/spiritual) – Wm. Paul Young

Water for Elephants (mainstream) – Sara Gruen 

Obedience (thriller/mainstream) – Will Lavender 

The Princess Bride (mainstream/historical)– William Goldman 

The Associate (thriller) – John Grisham

Heart-Shaped Box
(horror/supernatural) – Joe Hill 

The Time Traveler's Wife (mainstream) – Audrey Niffenegger

Lottery
(mainstream) – Patricia Wood 

I'll keep this list posted on the right side of the page.

Wow.  I've really been on a thriller kick for the past few months.  Probably since I bought so many books at ThrillerFest last July.

Here's my vow for 2010:  One book a week.  And I need to read more widely.

Have you read anything good this year?

Humble pie

Any day that I wake up with no rejections in my inbox is a good day.

I'm starting to forget what it's like to not be scared of my email.

I don't think I realized how much the rejections would bother me.  It's true, they really only sting for a moment.  But the thing is, they build.  It's like eating a spicy chicken wing that you think you can handle at first, but by the tenth one, you're frigging dying.

And if rejections were chicken wings, I've only eaten six.  The rate I'm going, I don't think I'll be able to finish what's on my plate.  My mouth is on fire and my stomach is starting to hurt.

The rejections are chipping away at what little self-esteem I have.   Maybe after three or five or eight more books I'll be desensitized to them, but right now, I'm feeling every one. I seem to lack the ability to file them away in a metaphoric box and move forward with my day. I have no doubt that a more seasoned writer could do this. I, unfortunately, cannot.

I have lost my ability to compartmentalize.

Every rejection is like a little piece of my Dream Pie being eaten. I only have so many slices to go until there won't be any Dream Pie left. S o okay, I'm already baking the next one, and hopefully there'll be several more after that, but let's be honest.  The number of pies I'm capable of baking is finite.  The day will come when I won't want to bake anymore.  Or I'll run out of ingredients.  Or I'll forget the recipe.

(All right, all right.  Enough with the food analogies.  I must be hungry.)

I guess the reality of this whole endeavor is finally hitting me.  I can no longer hide behind the joy of writing just for writing.  Now I'm trying to get published, and somehow, everything about writing now seems different.

I'm used to being judged as a person.  But to the Agent sitting at his desk reading his emails or opening his mail, I'm a query letter.  I'm five or ten or twenty sample pages.  I'm a Yes or a No.  And it doesn't matter how charming I am or how cute my smile is or how funny I might be in person... if my words don't slay him, he's rejecting me and getting on with his day without a second thought.

It's very, very humbling.

And for the last three weeks, all I've been able to think is:  I can't believe this is my life.

Even Andy Warhol got rejected

Click on image to enlarge.

And yes, this does make me feel better.

Blooper

What happens when you query when you're tired?

You end up putting "Query: CREEEP" in the subject line of one of them.

Yes, that's three E's.

Shit.

(Update:  Yup, totally got a form rejection on this one.  Not surprised.)

And now, back to the CRAFT of writing...


I spent the entire day (and I do mean the whole day—about 11 hours or so) writing and sending queries.  My back is killing me.  Half were sent via email and half were sent via the United States Postal Service.

And THAT'S IT till January.

I thought I could send just a few queries a week, but I can't.  It wasn't working for me.  It was consuming – and distracting – to constantly be thinking about which agents to query next. I'm behind in NaNoWriMo even though I have a working outline for the novel and all I have to do is write the damned book.  I think any writer would agree that the business end of writing sucks.  The art and craft of writing is a lot of more fun.

And so, with those queries out of the way, I can get back to doing what I love.  I'll deal with the rejections as they come in, but I'm not sending out another "rejection request" (thanks for the term, Larry!) until after the holidays.  Hopefully by then, I can figure out what the responses mean and retool the query letter if I need to.

But for the next seven weeks, I just want to write.  And read.

And now it's time for chocolate.  I definitely earned it today.  And apparently, so did she:

.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily...

2,675 new words today for the WIP (work in progress). BAM! That's pretty damned productive, if I do say so myself.

I'm trying to make up a little ground since I didn't work on MAGNOLIA at all yesterday.  It's day three of NaNoWriMo and already I'm a few hundred words behind schedule.  I was up late last night working on my CREEP synopsis, of all things (and it's finally done and polished, thank GOD... and can I just say, there's nothing more horrible than writing a synopsis), so there was no time to figure out what Matt, Jason, Sam, Rita, Finch, and Shank were up to in the uppity, history-rich Seattle neighborhood otherwise known as Magnolia.

I love first drafts.  I really do.  There are no parameters, no guidelines (except for the point you're trying to make in the scene you're writing... or, should I say, plot point, har dee har har).  In a first draft, you have permission to write like the wind.  Run-on sentences, comma-itis, cheesy dialogue tags, overstating, clichés... bring it on!  The story's coming out, and that's all that matters.  It can all be fixed later.

I sat down tonight intending to write a break-up scene between my two protagonists.  It was a slow start, but I pushed past it.  The next thing I knew, two hours had passed and I had two thousand words.  And guess what, they didn't break up.  Somewhere along the way, the argument veered into something else entirely, and now they're moving in together.

God, I love it when that happens.  Isn't it the most amazing thing when your characters smack you upside the head and do something you totally didn't predict?

For me, it's one of the best things about writing fiction.  I get to constantly surprise myself.

Life is but a dream.  Rejections and all.

Some small blog updates

Since not everyone spends time reading a lot of blogs (just mine, right?) I thought I'd draw your attention to the right side of this page for a quick moment.

I've got a lot going on that I update regularly, so to keep up with what's new:

Scroll down to see what my National Novel Writing Month stats are.

Check out how many queries I've sent for CREEP, including the results.

If you're looking for book recommendations, check out the boxes "What I am currently reading?" and "What did I just finish reading?" for mini reviews.

Check out what I'm writing, though this box probably won't update all that frequently.

And, of course, there are the labels and the archives, if you're ever searching for a specific post.

Once again, thanks for reading!

I wish I knew how to quit you

I spent four hours yesterday trying to write a basic three-act outline for the sequel to CREEP (tentatively titled THE CHASE), but it wasn't working and I gave up.  The seed of an idea is there, but it doesn't seem to want to evolve into anything more.

Simply put, I can't envision the story.

I've written two novels in my lifetime, and both started off strong.  Both had endings in my head, even though those endings changed multiple times as the story grew.  But with THE CHASE, I don't know how to force an idea to develop.

I guess I never had to worry about it before.

So, for NaNoWriMo, I'm going back to MAGNOLIA.  It's the very first novel I wrote, and it never got past the first draft stage.  I decided two years ago that it was too structurally flawed to just revise, but last winter I began to think I could rewrite it entirely (dropping all of the characters – and a few new ones – into a similar but much-improved plot, and changing it from a horror to a thriller).

The rewrite eventually stalled last summer at about 24,000 words, but reading back the eleven new chapters I have so far, I still feel a spark with that damned novel.  I can't seem to let it go.  As Jack said to Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, "I wish I knew how to quit you!"  I know exactly how he feels (minus the secret gay cowboy love story, of course).  Sometimes you can't let something go, even if it is causing you all kinds of heartache and stress.

If I can make my NaNo goal and add 50,000 words to MAGNOLIA (and yep, I have every intention of stealing what ideas I can from the original draft), I'll have a novel that's pretty close to being done by the end of this month.  Not sayin' it will be any good, but all writing is rewriting.  And more rewriting.  I just want to finish it already, so I can work with it.

In other news, I've retooled my query for CREEP.  I thought my first one was good, and so did my beta readers, but I realized this weekend it was lacking something – a strong voice.  Yeah, I've stated who the protagonist and villain are, and what the stakes are, blah blah blah, but I don't know that there's anything in my current query letter to suggest I can actually write fiction well.  In a query, a strong plot and interesting characters are essential, just like they are in the novel.  But also like in the novel, a writer's voice sells it.

I believe I have voice in my novel, but not every agent asks for sample pages right off the bat.  Sometimes that one-page query letter is all you have to make to an impression.

And I don't know that I've been making an impression.

I guess my first rejection really stuck with me.  If I can't grab an agent's attention with my prose, then I'm good as screwed, because we all know the serial killer thing has been done to death (pun intended).  And considering just about every plot has been dreamed up already, your voice is sometimes all you have.

For the record, I'm not changing the manuscript.  That baby's done.  But I'm learning I'll have to continue to rework the query as often as I need to, depending on the results I'm getting.

As for my strategy, I'll continue to query five agents a week.  Frankly, it sucks up too much energy to query more than that.  Every letter has to be personalized to some degree, and every agent's submission guidelines have to be triple-checked.  Some have blogs I need to read.  Almost all have websites.  Some want sample pages, some want a synopsis, and some want both.  And the list goes on and on.  Keeping my queries to five per week gives me a chance to make sure each one shines, that I haven't missed any small details, and also gives me a chance to rework things if I'm not getting the results I'm hoping for.

Keeping it to five also gives me a life outside Query Hell.

As for that life, I managed 651 stinky new words today for MAGNOLIA.

Hey, it's a start.

The end of October

It's time to start a new book.

NaNoWriMo begins on Sunday, and the word is that some 150,000 adults and 35,000 kids and teens will be up for the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a mere 30 days (damn, that's a lot of zeroes in one sentence).  I've registered twice for this crazy thing, but I've never gotten around to actually doing it.  But I'm up for it this year.  The timing is perfect.  I need to work on something new so I don't have the energy to obsess over every rejection and wonder whether I should be writing at all.

I have a pretty concrete idea for the next novel, which, under normal circumstances, would be enough to get me started, but with a goal of 50K in a month's time, I'm going to have to flesh it out a bit more before I start writing.  So that's this weekend's project (in between giving out candy and watching horror movies).  I need a beginning, middle, and an end.  I've tried writing a novel before with no idea of where it was going, and it was a gigantic mess.  A little planning is good.

Speaking of candy and horror movies, it should be no surprise to anyone that Halloween is my favorite time of year. October in general, actually.  The leaves turning yellow and orange (God, I miss the view of the Credit River from the Burhamthorpe Road bridge where I grew up – someone email me a picture, please!), Thanksgiving, Halloween, the way the air smells as it turns from cool to cold... October is the best month ever.

And boy do I love Halloween.  Ghosts and ghouls and goblins, oh my!  My favorite horror writer is, obviously, Stephen King (and when I was younger, Clive Barker, who wrote the Books of Blood series).  Favorite horror books are IT, Pet Sematary, Thinner, Carrie, Salem's Lot, Misery, and Interview with a Vampire (by Anne Rice).

Favorite horror movies are The Exorcist (which gets my vote for Scariest Movie Ever), Carrie, Interview with a Vampire, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Others, and The Silence of the Lambs (which could be classified as a thriller, but it's scary as hell, whatever the genre).  Oh, and Witchboard, a B-movie groaner that scared the shit out of me when I was 16.  I watched it alone one Saturday night when my parents were at the cottage for the weekend... so not a good idea. Don't play with a Ouija board, kids!  A Ouija board is not your friend!

What are your favorites?

And on that note...

Happy Halloween!


By the way, if you're dressing up this year, please try to do Halloween justice and be something evil.  I'm so tired of people – girls, especially – using Halloween as an excuse to pair a slutty outfit with some kind of animal ears.  Ladies, we have all year to dress like Playboy Bunnies (and I say this without malice or judgment – back in my club days, I rocked the midriff top, mini-skirt, and platform heels, as did most of my girlfriends).

But Halloween is special.  When else can you walk around in public with brain matter all over your face?  When else can you walk into a grocery store with ragged, bleeding stumps instead of arms, and have people smile at you appreciatively?

It's Halloween.  Go scare someone.

Are we breaking up?

As a rule I don't dis other writers, but I will say that nothing breaks my heart more as a reader than when a writer sells out.

I'm not talking about the fame or the fortune – I don't think it's selling out to want those things.  I'm referring to when a writer with a long list of wonderfully written, meticulously plotted books puts something out that, well... stinks.

One of my favorite novelists of all time (who shall remain nameless) put a book out last year I couldn't wait to buy.  After all, I'd read all nine of his books so far, and they're sitting on my shelves, well-worn and dog-eared.  All nine are crazy good.  His books are consistently character rich, with plots that bubble along merrily, and tight writing that disappears because the stories just take over.

Exactly the kind of book I hope to write.

So I rushed to the store to buy book number ten.  Though I was halfway through another book, I put that one aside to dig into the shiny new book by Mr. Favorite Author.  I even got ready for bed a full two hours early so I could read, uninterrupted and alone, under the covers while my husband watched TV downstairs.

Suffice to say, it was the biggest let down ever.  It was like reuniting with a secret lover – a hot, virile man you haven't seen in a year but with whom you have the best memories of the steamiest sex – only to find out he's gained fifty pounds and his "parts" no longer work.

The book was awful.

I knew this from the first chapter, sensed it as I read through the stilted dialogue and clichéd phrases.  Yet I plodded ahead anyway, figuring it would improve.  I mean, it's him.  Of course it'll get better.  He's never let me down before.

But as I lay there in bed, gritting my teeth at the long info dumps and the predictable twists and turns, turning the pages faster and faster in the hopes I'd get through it quicker (and who hasn't been there before, ladies?), I had to face facts.

It wasn't working.  The book was terrible, as if he'd submitted a first draft because he was up against a looming deadline and it was impossible to give the book the extra two revisions it needed.  As if the publisher had said, "Don't worry about it, Mr. Author Whose Recognizable Name Will Sell A Few Hundred Thousand Copies Even If The Book Is Shit, just give us what you have.  We have to get it out there.  Don't worry, we'll give it a quick polish. It's good enough."

But it wasn't good enough.  Not nearly.

And I gotta wonder, did Mr. Favorite Author know that?  Did he know his last book sucked?  And if so, what was he thinking?

As a writer, I'd be heartbroken.  Never would I want to see something with my name on it that wasn't the best it could absolutely be.  Maybe I'm a perfectionist, maybe I'm anal, and maybe I'm unrealistic, but I can't imagine working on future books any less hard than I did on the first two.

And as a reader, I'm just plain sad.  I'll still buy his next book – because hey, everyone's had a bad experience in bed before, it doesn't mean the relationship's over – but if the next one's not up to par, then I think we're done.  I can't afford to buy crappy books.  Nobody can these days.

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, and I want my money back.

Guest Blogger: The Six Stages of Rejection by Larry Buege, Writer

As I find myself dipping my toes into the waters of the Sea of Rejection—which are cold, deep, and filled with monsters—my friend Larry posted this to my Facebook. He's allowed me to repost it here, so that I can come back to it time and time again to remind myself what this really all about. Thank you, Larry!

Perhaps it would help if I shared what I have learned during my rejection years.  Hopefully, it will help you progress down the six stages of rejection.  I know it would have made my journey less arduous had someone guided me down the rejection path.

Stage One (Euphoria):
The manuscript is now complete and has received rave reviews from family members.  Countless hours have been spent sifting through agent listings in the most current Writer’s Market.  Web sites have been closely scrutinized and the pros and cons of each agency meticulously logged.  Finally, the candidates are narrowed down to ten prestigious agencies.  Query letters with sample chapters are sent by registered mail for overnight delivery.  While awaiting the expected response, a set of interview questions is compiled.

Stage Two (Denial):
Rejection letters begin to accumulate in the mailbox.  This cannot be! Surely there is a mistake.  Envelopes must have been inadvertently switched in the mailroom by some incompetent minion on minimum wage.  It is only a matter of time before the phone will ring and an apologetic agent will beg for forgiveness.  The apology will be magnanimously accepted.  Anyone can make an honest mistake.

Stage Three (Bitterness):
The last of the rejection letters have arrived.  Most are addressed to “Dear Author.”  A few have a name penciled in. Surely the agents must know the rejections letters would be recognized for what they are – impersonal form letters sent to countless authors across the nation.  They could have at least spelled the name right.  And did they really think Larry was a nickname for Loretta?  All that information was available on my website if they had taken the time to research who they were rejecting.

Stage Four (Vengeance):
More queries have been sent, and more rejections have been received.  The rejection notices are painstakingly placed in a scrapbook by chronological order.  It is only a matter of time before someone discovers the manuscript’s true literary value.  Then the agents responsible for the rejection notices will be contacted and their noses ignominiously rubbed into their literary incompetence.  The mere thought of this vindication provides a bit of personal satisfaction.

Stage Five (Depression):
The rejection notices continue to accumulate but are now loosely stuffed into the rejection scrapbook.  It is obvious the editors and agents are not even offering the proper courtesy of reviewing the proffered material.  They have no interest in unpublished authors.  Fame and fortune is viewed as a wistful dream.  Cold Turkey will never be published, and the world will never discover how the Yoopers repulsed the President’s preemptive strike against Michigan’s Upper Peninsula using the classic technique of shock and Awe.  Super Mensa will never make it to bookstore shelves.  Will Anastasia Petrova’s preternaturally high I.Q. be any match against an evil illegal-arms dealer’s vast financial empire?  Will she ever get her baby back?  Despondency settles in, and the word processor is ignored for weeks at a time.  Abandoning the writing career is seriously considered.

Stage Six (Acceptance):
Finally there is an epiphany.  Fame and fortune is no longer relevant.  Query letters are still submitted to agents only because that is what writers do.  The rejection notices are perfunctorily logged on spreadsheets to keep track of queried agents – nothing more.  The writing process has now become a totally adequate reward. Words are placed on paper.  Paragraphs are molded into stories.  Literary works, unread except by the closest of friends, begin to accumulate on the bookshelf.  There are no further thoughts of forsaking the seductive call of the word processor.  Writing has become the reason for living.  The companionship the computer will provide in life’s waning years is viewed with anticipation, not regret.  For now it is known that old writers never die – their muse just fades away.

May I have your attention, please.

Apparently there are a lot of things I could do to try and publicize this blog, but I don't want to.  If a perfect stranger comes across my blog (which happens once in a blue moon), that's cool, but the only folks I desire to keep informed of my writing trials and tribulations are my family and friends.

In other words, YOU.

(And if you're on my Facebook but we've never met in real life, then you still fall into the Friend category. Deal with it.)

So I'm pretty sure you guys are reading, but if it's not too much trouble, would you post a comment so I know you stopped by?  Comments inspire me! Comments let me know that I didn't spend an hour writing on my pretty little blog, complete with girly butterfly picture, for nothing.  I know some of you non-writers mentioned feeling intimidated by the writers who post witty comments here, but seriously, we writers don't care.  If you make a typo or grammatical error in your comment, we don't – and won't – judge you.  (At least not to your face. Possibly behind your back.)

I kid, I kid.  There is no judgment here.  I'm the one striving for fame and fortune (or at the very least, a small advance from a reputable publisher, and a book jacket cover that doesn't look cheesy).  The only person who gets darts thrown at her on this blog is ME.

I would just like to know who's poking around here.  And yeah, I'm gonna call you Top Lurkers out.  We've known each other a long time, people.  You are part of my inner circle.  You don't start commenting, I'm gonna start dishing secrets right here.  And save the juiciest ones for my next book.

By the way, if you don't recognize yourself in the list below and you're reading this blog post right now, you get a gold star.  (Metaphorically speaking, of course. Gold stars have gone up in price this year and we're still in recession.)  Thanks for the feedback and keep it coming. It means a lot.

Otherwise, may I present...

JENNY'S TOP LURKERS OF 2009 WHO DON'T POST COMMENTS:

The guy who sleeps next to me (most nights, anyway), who missed BOTH anniversaries this week.  (You might not think you're in the doghouse, but you are, even after our fabulous high-class dinner at WD.)

The girl who shopped my ass off last week and encouraged me to buy everything from Lulus to knee high boots to a sweater dress.  (Okay, admittedly, this one's flimsy, since I now look fabulous.)

The girl who went on a really bad date the other night with Torpedo Tongue Guy, who made me call her to fake a family emergency so she could get away.  (All right, this one's a little flimsy, too, since I really enjoyed making that call and have tighter abs now from all the hysterical laughing.)

The woman whose Siamese cat weighs an unbelievable 20 pounds, who really came to visit my kittens last month, and not me.  (The kittens do not miss you. I swear they don't.)

You know who you are.

And yep, I'm calling you out.  Because as any blogger knows, it's LONELY to post if nobody comments, and your comments would be especially welcome. I would love to know you're reading, even if all you do is say hi.

I couldn't – and wouldn't – do this crazy thing without you. And you know damn well I'm not talking about the blog.

Love you guys.

P.S.  You don't need a Google account to post a comment. Select "Anonymous".  Just be sure to leave your name (or secret nickname, if I gave you one).  Mom, if you need technical support, you have a trained computer tech expert living in your basement.  Or, Tim will help.  (Oh, oops, did I just say Mom? Readers, she's not the one who went out with Torpedo Tongue guy.  That would be gross... awww man, I'm now getting a visual I soooo didn't want!)

P.P.S.  If you guys don't start commenting and I find out you were reading, consider yourself warned.  I got dirt on all of you. Insert evil laugh here.

What's a query letter?

My cousin asked me this question on Facebook, and it occurred to me that maybe I haven't been very clear on what, exactly, a query letter is.

Ahem.  (Picture me standing up straight and speaking in my best professional presenter's voice.)

A query is a letter you write to a literary agent in the hopes that your concise, witty description of the book you've spent more than a year slaving over will entice him enough to request the manuscript.

You will send this letter via email or snail mail, depending on the agent's preference.  You will not forget to personalize the letter to include the agent's name, spelled correctly.  Nor will you forget to include a self-addressed stamped envelope (if querying by regular mail) for the agent's convenience, should the agent be so crazy as to reject you.

Once the letter is sent, you pray that the agent will love the premise of your story and ask to read the manuscript in its entirety.  Which, since he's not crazy, he will.

You will then send him the manuscript pronto (properly formatted using Times New Roman or Courier New 12-point font double-spaced with one-inch margins, with your name, the title, and the page number at the top of every sheet, hard copy or electronic, whatever he prefers) hoping he'll fall in love with the book and agree to take you on as a client.

Once the contract is signed, the agent will shop your book to all the publishing houses in New York City, generating a bidding war amongst the top five, because yes, your book is just that good.

Which will then result in the sale of the book for hundreds of thousands of dollars, allowing your spouse to quit his day job so the two of you can buy a villa in Tuscany.

Then, while you're leisurely writing the next fabulous novel (in your backyard, surrounded by grapes and olives which are lovingly cared for by your gardener, Benito, whose perfect abs make you crave chocolate because you're married) your book will generate incredible sales in every bookstore in the world, inevitably catching the attention of Hollywood.

A big wig movie production company will then option your book for few hundred thousand more, allowing you to buy a bigger villa in Tuscany (and another Benito).

And, since the movie will star Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston, you'll become even more famous, and your next book will sell for a cool seven figures.

In sixty years, after more than thirty bestselling novels, you will die peacefully surrounded by your children, grandchildren, housekeeper, chef, chauffeur, personal massage therapist, and the two Benitos, knowing you've made your mark on the world and that there's a special place in heaven for brilliant fiction writers.

That's the idea, anyway.

In reality...

A query is a story-hyping, excitement-generating, typo-free one-page letter full of exceptional, original prose that you send to an Awesome Literary Agent Who's Never Heard Of You, who'll glance at it for ten seconds, then send you a soul-sucking, self-esteem crushing rejection letter that rips your dream of being a published novelist to shreds, sending you head first into a depression you can't get out of for days.

In a nutshell.

(I got my first rejection today.  It's possible my explanation is a bit off.)

First query, first rejection

I sent out my first query today at 1:33 pm. Nausea notwithstanding, it felt pretty damned good to finally "get in the game."

I received my first rejection at 3:31 pm.

Thank you, Ms. Agent, for ripping the band aid off quick.

May all rejections be this speedy.

The End

CREEP is finished.  For real this time.  A total of five drafts.  Word count down to a lean, mean 106,400.  I could fiddle with it some more... in fact, I'm kind of itching to do one more draft (because hey, what if I missed something in the past 14 months that would suddenly pop out in Draft #6? And yes, I'm being sarcastic), but I know it doesn't need it. It's as good as I can get it.  Any changes I make at this point are marginal and essentially pointless.

It's ready.

And right there lies the problem.  I don't want it be.

I've spent so much time fantasizing about getting to this point that, now that I'm here, I feel... frozen.  I've tried so hard for the past year to focus on the story and the writing and the craft behind it all.  But now that I'm finally faced with the marketing aspect of it, I'm choking.

Choking, guys. C H O K I N G.

The query letter is written.  It's gone through six drafts and been looked at by 4 different people whose opinions I trust (writers and non-writers).  I think the query's good.  I've researched agents and have the first 50 all lined up in my meticulously organized, color-coded Excel spreadsheet.  Other than the synopsis, which I can finish in the next couple of days, there's no reason to not start querying.  I've even set up a separate email address so that when the rejections come in, they don't ping to my BlackBerry when I'm having an otherwise perfectly good day.

I am ready.

Except that I'm not.  Not really.  Not even close.

I don't want to find out that I'm not any good.  For the past two years since I decided to write "seriously" (whatever the hell that means), I've been operating under the delusion that I'm a good writer with great potential.  I needed to tell myself that in order to get myself to write every day.  But am I ready to find out that I'm not, in fact, good at all?

Blah blah blah, you say.  Shut the fuck up and query already, is what you're thinking. Enough with these pity party posts.  And you know what, it's okay to think that – if I was reading this stupid post, I'd be thinking it, too.  Hell, I'd be saying it.  Ask my friends.  I'm the bluntest chick there is.

But get used to it.  This phase of my "chasing publication" endeavor is not going to be rainbows and roses.  It's going to be HELL, and every writer who's been through it knows that all you can do is sludge through it with lots of chocolate.

And yes, I have every intention of posting all my rejections here.  Don't you worry about that.  This blog is about to get interesting.  For you, anyway. (It might be kinda painful for me, but you can't deny it won't be downright titillating for you!)

On a happier note, I registered for NaNoWriMo.  That's short for National Novel Writing Month, which is every November.  Never heard of it?  Neither had I, until I started writing again.  But believe it or not, thousands of writers participate in this challenge.  The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days.  That translates to 1,666 words per day, which is higher than my usual quota, but totally doable.  And the perfect distraction to the Circle of Hell I'm about to enter with querying.  I definitely need a shiny new story and a crazy high word count goal to keep my mind occupied so I don't keep refreshing my inbox every ten minutes. Y ou don't win anything for achieving the 50K goal, except, of course, the satisfaction of having written a good chunk of a novel in only a month's time.

So, my friends, as my perky first grade teacher would say whenever we left the classroom, "And away we go!"

I've lost that loving feeling

After a year of belonging to two different writing groups and taking various writing classes, I've started to become more focused on what other people think of my writing, rather than the writing itself.  Gone are the mornings when I'm jumping out of bed, eager to write the next chapter.  Now I spend my mornings biting my nails, wondering what feedback awaits me in my inbox.

Of course I know that constructive criticism is integral to improving my craft.  Every opinion I got, I asked for.  But I'm burned out.  I've received so many widely differing opinions on my work, I've begun to question whether there's anything in there anybody actually likes.

I'm also tired of critiquing.  I'm tired of having to analyze why something doesn't work.  I miss reading for entertainment.  I miss reading for escape.

I've forgotten what it's like get excited when a story takes a direction that surprises me, when a character says something unexpected, when fictional places on paper begin to feel three-dimensional and real.  This goes for both reading and writing.  Once upon a time, I used read and write for pleasure, simply because it felt fucking good.  Now it's all become a chore.

It's not fun anymore.

Next week I'll be sending out queries for Creep.  I can't control what agents will think of it, but I do know that in a few days – after five full drafts – I will cease to touch another word in that manuscript.  I will declare it complete.

If signing with an agent becomes dependent on making further revisions (if I'm lucky enough to even interest an agent), I'll be happy to apply any and all feedback that makes the book stronger.  But God knows I've asked enough writers what they think. It's time to put it out there and see what happens.  The book is good enough, or it's not... but either way, I am so done with it.

To keep my sanity while in Query Hell, I'm going to start the next novel.  And try to remind myself that, for the next little while anyway, the only opinion that matters is my own.

Still creeping...

I'm on draft number five. My mother thinks I'm obsessing.

I think my mother's right.

Help

I would rather write one hundred books than write one stinking synopsis.

I know I've been bitching a lot lately, but this part of process – for lack of a better, more articulate word – sucks.  There is no joy in Mudville right now.  I love to write stories, and nothing has felt more joyful or fulfilling than creating worlds and characters and conflict.  But summarizing the story?

S-U-C-K-S.

It's one thing to break the novel into plot points.  I can do that.  I have a detailed outline that's twelve pages long and it's easy enough to condense it down to five pages (the standard length of a long synopsis – a short synopsis is one page).  But then it's just a bunch of "And then this happened. And then this happened."

How I do make it compelling?  How do I inject voice?  How do I keep it from being wooden?  I've just spent the past hour surfing my go-to writer's website for samples synopses, and you know what?

Most of them suck, too.

I'm scratching my head.  Why the hell would an agent ask for this?  But I know they will, because many of them do.  And I need to be prepared.  Last thing I want is to write something on the fly and send if off.  But what I can't figure out is how to inject soul into something that is, in its very nature, well... soulless.

The query letter and synopsis are marketing tools.  Advertising, if you will. T hey're the equivalent of a glossy ad in a fashion magazine featuring a handbag you simply can't live without.  Their purpose is to create desire.  The agent is supposed to read my query letter and want to know more about the book.  The synopsis is supposed to show I understand story structure and character development, and that I can bring the story home.  But both need style, not just substance.  Both need to reflect my ability as a fiction writer to tell a damned good story.

A writing friend, in her quest for publication, hired someone in public relations to write her query letter for her.  She didn't feel she had the objectivity to do it herself, and now I see why.  She picked ten agents to query, sent out the letter she didn't write herself, and eight of the ten agents were interested.  She had deep discussions with each of them and ended up signing with her number one choice.

A few weeks later, the book sold.  Two-book deal, six figures.  I'm looking at the first right now. It's sitting on my shelf, in between Steinbeck and Tolkien.

And her manuscript wasn't even complete.

I've written two novels that are four hundred pages long, each.  I can write twenty pages of fiction in under ninety minutes if I'm focused.  And yet I can't write five pages summarizing a story I've already written to save my life.

Help.

Excellent!

I've only used the word fuck—or some variation of it—96 times in my book.

I thought it'd be much, much worse.

Glazed over eyes never lie

My book is putting me to sleep.  My book.  Not the one listed on the right of this blog page that I'm reading by another author, but the one I wrote.

I fell asleep last night only to wake up an hour later, sweaty and disoriented, with my little girl kitten draped across my neck like a heating pad.  My little boy kitten was sleeping belly up on top of my proofed pages.  I'd passed out, purple editing pen in hand, right in the middle of chapter seven.

Creep is boring.

What I can't seem to figure out is if it's boring because I've been working on it for a year and have re-written every sentence at least a half dozen times and have practically memorized each word, or if it's boring because it's actually boring.  I don't remember thinking it was boring two months ago. So I'm desperately hoping it's the former.

There's an easy solution to finding out one way or another.  I could ask someone to read the damn book.  The question is... who?

Beta reading is a horrible task.  I know because I've done it, in workshops and in my writing groups, and it's not that much fun.  You really only do it so people will critique your work in return.  Once you get past your curiosity of how good (or bad) other writers are, beta reading involves a lot of analysis.  It's like writing a book report.  You can't just sit and back and read for pleasure.  You have to "listen" for imbalances.   You have to "watch" for plot holes and inconsistencies.  And should you stumble across something that doesn’t work, you have to explain to the writer – in the nicest and most encouraging way possible – exactly why it doesn't work. And then make suggestions – again in a kindly, non-condescending manner – as to how to improve it.

Beta-ing is tedious, time consuming, and can suck all the joy out of reading.  And I wouldn't wish it on any friend or relative.

But neither do I feel comfortable heaving my manuscript into the lap of a fellow writer, because all the writers in my life aren't really close to me.  We've met online (in class and in writing forums) and have "chatted", but we've never met face to face.  Am I cool with emailing a completed novel to someone I don't actually know?  Not really.   It's not that I think anybody would plagiarize it – I've already workshopped large chunks of the novel – but it's too personal a thing to hand over in it's entirety to someone I don't know personally.  I can't explain it better than that.  The only person I could even consider asking was just deployed to Iraq, so he'll be a little busy for the next year (God speed, Greg).

I dream someday of having a small and steady circle of writing friends.  People whose faces I can actually watch as they read my work, and whose laughter I can actually hear as they get to a funny part.   We'd meet every other Tuesday for coffee and brownies and long-winded discussions about craft.  We'd like each other as people and respect each other as writers, and we'd give credit to each other in the Acknowledgments sections of our debut novels.

But it looks like I'll have to be published before that kind of networking happens.  My specific neighborhood isn't exactly a hotbed of literary artistry.  In fact, the girl who highlighted my hair the other week admitted she hadn't read a book since graduating high school.  Five years ago.

If I hadn't been at the mercy of her bleach, I'd have said something snippy (pun intended), but I smiled instead.  I wanted my hair to turn out nice.

Already I'm selling out.

The final countdown

And so it begins.   The fourth and final draft.

I don't know why it's always so scary coming back to my work after some time away.   It freaks me out, every time. I've given myself a nice, long absence from Creep – the third draft was completed on July 5th – in order to attack this last draft with what will hopefully be fresh eyes.  But after nine weeks away, I'm afraid of what I'll find.

I'm afraid it'll stink.  That my wonderfully fresh eyes will see a thousand glaring errors.

(There.  That was my ten seconds of self doubt.  Now I'm telling it to fuck off so I can get on with it.)

I'm going to be multi-tasking for the next couple of weeks.  Here's what I'm up to:

1. Final draft (proofing five chapters a day).

2. Agent research (yes, STILL – it's amazing how one can drag out a task one does not enjoy, and watching Kim Clijsters mount her comeback in the U.S. Open certainly doesn't help).

3. Query letter (which is written but far from perfect).

4. The dreaded synopsis (which as of this posting still does not exist).

I plan to work on each of these things every day.   My goal is to send out my first query letter no later than October 1st, a full month behind schedule.   But it's okay. It's got to be perfect.  Rushing won't get me published.

I feel a little crazy.  You'd have to be to do this, wouldn't you?

p.s.  I have an itch to start writing the sequel to Creep. Do I scratch it or wait for it to go away?

A glass of whine

I haven't even started and already I'm complaining.

I'm a writer.  I write stories.  I study and practice the craft of writing fiction.   What the hell do I know about marketing?

Slowly and painfully, I'm working my way through a preliminary list of literary agents trying to determine who to query (or is it whom to query? ... oh, whom the fuck cares).  The first ten or so I researched were kind of fun.  I'm now about halfway through my list and I want to kill myself.

I feel like I'm back at the University of Waterloo adjudicating bursary applications.  At first it was super fun deciding who got money and who didn't.  Oh the power!  But after my first fifty applications, I wanted to shoot myself in the head.  (I changed jobs instead.)

Faces and biographies and deal histories on Publisher's Marketplace are beginning to meld together like a five-cheese dip that was once colorful but has now turned into a weird, unnatural shade of yellow.  By the time I finish this list, I don't think I'll remember who I liked and didn't.  Sure, I'm ranking as I go, and my spreadsheet is pretty detailed with my pros and cons for each agent, but the names are becoming meaningless.

Unlike writing, this is so not fun.

Enough whine.  Time for chocolate.

See you in September

I'm disappointed I didn't do everything I said I would do this summer.

Having finished the third draft of Creep on July 5th, I had big plans.  I was going to read a lot, write a lot, research a lot, and generally be super productive.

Yeah, that didn't happen.   Not writing-wise, anyway.

I did get to go to New York for ThrillerFest and I learned a lot. Beyond that, everything else I did had nothing whatsoever to do with writing.  And now that's summer's over, I'm dismayed at myself and feeling awfully guilty.

I didn't read as much as I wanted to.  Only three books in the past two months.

I didn't make a lot of progress on my current novel.  Strategized, yes, but not a lot of actual writing took place.

I didn't finish my agent research.  Of the 180-ish agents on my list, I've researched about 75. I forgive myself for this one just a little.  It's fucking boring.

My query letter reads the same as it did back in June.  No excuses here.

And the synopsis I need to write summarizing my 400-plus page book into 5 concise pages of plot point and character development?  Never mind finished... it doesn't exist.

So what the hell have I been doing?

I spent time with my mom and stepdad, we built a huge deck in the backyard, we got a new car, and we got two new kittens.  We rented movies. I slept a lot.  I saw Showboat at the Village Theater and spent my birthday at the Teatro ZinZanni.   I changed my hair color.  I gardened.  We barbecued.

And that's about it.  In some ways, it really was an awesome summer.  :)  I feel rejuvenated, relaxed, and believe it or not, BORED.

This weekend is Labor Day weekend, and other than the U.S. Open (tennis), Labor Day weekend has always symbolized the end of summer and a new beginning.

Which, for my life here in the Northwest, means cooler temperatures, only patches of sunshine, mist over the Cascades, and rain.  Perfect for writing.  September and October have always been my favorite months and I am so looking forward to getting back into work mode full swing.

Summer is great, but I'm happiest when I'm working.

Growth

As I prepare to start what will hopefully be the fourth and final draft of my novel, I can't help but marvel at how far I've come.  I really have grown as a writer.  More than I thought I would.   And so, based on my own bumps and learning curves and trials and tribulations, here are my 12 best tips for anyone looking to improve their own writing skills (whether you write fiction or something else):

12)   Don't use twenty words when five will do.  But by the same token, don't sacrifice for tone for conciseness.

11)  Don't overstate and don't state the obvious.  Keep your prose clean and tight, and trust that your readers will get it.

10)  Good writing is all about rewriting.  Hardly anything's perfect the first time around. And that's okay.

9) With every project, set a quota and commit to it.  Even if you only write for two hours a day one day a week, you'll still accomplish more than you thought possible when you look back at your work a month or year from now.

8) Ask for feedback and really listen to what people have to say.  Carefully consider all opinions, even the ones you think are off base at first impression.  But also...

7) ... Trust yourself to know what feedback to apply and what to discard.  You're the only person who can decide what will work and what won't.

6)  It's okay to take breaks and do something else if you're stuck.  The work will still be there when you get back, and you'll be amazed at what fresh eyes can spot.

5)  It's okay to write out of sequence.   You can organize it later (I often write endings before I write middles).  With writing, what matters is the final product, not how you got there.   Every writer's process is unique.

4)  To be a writer – regardless of what you write – you have to be a reader.  No way around it.  Carve out time for reading the same as you would for writing.

3)  Network with other writers.  Their successes will inspire you and they give the most practical advice.  And since writing is a lonely craft, socialize as often as you can.

2)  There are general rules for writing well.  Learn every single one of them so you'll know how – and when – to break them.

1)  Stay true to your work.  Readers can sniff out inauthentic writing from fifty feet away.  Don't write "darn" when "fuck" is better.  And don't ever write "fuck" if you're writing for kids.

Wonders never cease

Out of the thirty-four birthday greetings I received on Saturday (yes, I counted for the purposes of this blog post), exactly four were phone calls.

Welcome to the era of the Facebook phenomenon.  Sixty zillion friends on your Facebook friends list, but how many of them do you actually know?  And care about?  Lumped together like peas in a casserole dish, no one person any more distinct than any other, with relationships built on poking, picture commenting, wall posts and, if you're lucky, an actual Inbox message.

A notifier on our Facebook home page tells us when it's someone's birthday.  Convenient, yes.  Easy, too.  And so very lovely when a Facebook buddy actually clicks on your profile and leaves you a thoughtful message.  I'm truly touched and grateful to all the folks who noticed it was my birthday and took the time to wish me well.

But yet, I have to admit it's sad to be wished a Happy Birthday via a social networking site by people I've loved and stayed close friends with for years.  Now that feels wrong.  Especially when you have my number and have used it many times in the past.

It's also the era of the BlackBerry phenomenon.  A BlackBerry has a phone feature that's almost an afterthought.  It pings nicely, but has nothing of real value to say.  I've had entire conversations take place over arduous and thumb-cramping texting, despite the fact that both parties involved have perfectly good long distance plans.  Ridiculous when you think about it.  And even more disheartening when someone who's got your phone number programmed into their phone opts to message you a Happy Birthday instead of calling. Calling would require one button to push.  You'd think it would be easier.

But I'm guilty, too.  As charged, on all counts.  So this, I must acknowledge, is karma.

I got seven times the Facebook birthday greetings than I did phone calls on Saturday.  It was depressing as hell, and I don't blame anyone but myself.  It's my fault, for letting technology take the place of real life.  Somehow I've let perfectly wonderful and intimate relationships slide into something I can fit into the palm of my hand.  I've allowed relationships rich with history to morph into two-fingered typing.  So it's no wonder hardly anyone thought to call.  I haven't set a very good example, and if my feelings are hurt, it's my own damned fault.

I really miss hearing your voice.  Don't you miss hearing mine?  And if you don't, what the hell does that say about us?

Happy birthday

Birthdays, for me, are always a time for contemplation.

And this next one's a doozy.  I thought 30 was bad.  But come this Saturday, August 22, I'll be 35.  THIRTY-fucking-FIVE.  Now before all you over-40's get mad at me, I ain't sayin' that's old. But you have to admit it ain't exactly young, either.

I had plans for age 35.   Didn't you?  Don't we all have some kind of internal timeline for the things we're supposed to have accomplished, a list we carry around silently, a checklist of sorts we formulated long ago when we were teenagers dancing in our bedrooms to The Cure and Depeche Mode?   I know I do.  To name a few:

Snag hot boyfriend.  This one's been on my list for as long as I can remember.  I checked it off at ages 17 and 18 (do I sound smug?), but of course, the boyfriend I got at 18 is the one that matters. (Steve reads my blog.)

Graduate high school.  Check, but barely. I nearly killed myself in my last year trying to play catch up after a series of high school mishaps, but I did it. On time.

Get a degree.   Check... sort of.  I actually have two degrees, just not the one I really wanted.

Get married.  Check.  (I married my hot boyfriend.)

Have kids.  No check.  Hasn't happened yet and I'm way behind schedule.  (Insert annoying sound of buzzer.)

Figure out my life.  No check.  This hasn't happened, either.  (Insert annoying sound of buzzer again.)

Do something amazing and immortalizing by the time I'm 35.  (Sound of buzzer one last time, doubly long and doubly annoying.)  Um, yeah.  Not even close.

I've talked often with my friends about The Timeline and I'm fairly certain I'm not the only one who's disappointed with the detours life has taken.  Some deviations were beyond my control and some were simply bad decisions for which I can only blame myself.  But the only real regret I have is that at some point along the way, I stopped trusting my instincts.

There was a point when I was a kid, maybe I was 13 or so, when I never doubted who I was going to grow up to be.  When it never occurred to me that I wouldn't get everything I wanted, and that life wouldn't work out exactly as planned.

But as I got older, external forces seemed to chip away at that belief.  Illusions turned into disillusions, and faith turned into doubt.  Hope morphed into cynicism, and reality got in the way of dreams.

And now, as I approach 35, I look back at the past three and half decades and am filled with regret that I didn't do the things I really wanted.  I took the advice of too many people with "good intentions" who believed they knew me best.  I took the path most traveled one too many times. I cast shadows over my own vision for my life, and focused only on my short term desires without ever contemplating the big picture.

And, somewhere along the way, I stopped listening to me.

I stopped writing, for one.   Life got busy and I quit making time for it.  I decided that shit jobs at Suzy Shier and Hopedale Video and CallStream Communications and Minroc Mines Inc. were all more important than putting pen to paper.  Big mistake.  As a result, my writing skills are about fifteen years behind where they could be had I stuck with it.   I will forever regret this, even if the stories I write now do require fifteen years' worth of life experience to make them worth reading.

But regrets cease to be helpful once you've learned from them.  And I have learned.   I really have.

And so my lessons for the coming year?  Learning to forgive myself and move forward.

Happy birthday to me.

Karma police

There's someone in one of my writing groups – who shall remain nameless – who offends me.  For the sake of ease, I'll refer to this person as a "he" (though "he" could be a "she").

In any case, this dude's an asshole, his critiques are mean, and on the writer's forum we both belong to, he's kind of a dick there, too.

There are two kinds of people in the world I can't stand.  People who are assholes for the sake of being assholes, and people who are bullies.  This guy is both.  His crits are unnecessarily harsh, even borderline cruel, and he doesn't seem to add much to any of the conversations he's engaged in.  Simply put, he's inflammatory.  He's condescending and his crits are nitpicky and unhelpful.  He critiques with the assumption that you had a brain fart, that you couldn't possibly have phrased your sentence that way intentionally, that you couldn't possibly have meant your characters to do that when surely they should have done this.

He's making me want to quit my writing group.

I realize that in any group setting there's going to be mix of different personalities and temperaments.  Different opinions, different agendas, different goals.  It would be boring if we all wrote in the same genre and all read the same kinds of books and all had the same opinions on everything.  Dissonance can be a great learning experience.   But the ultimate purpose of a writing group is to help each other become better writers, through open and honest discussion.  Without insults.  Without pettiness.  Without condescension.  Same as you'd expect in any other relationship.

Call me old fashioned, but I still believe in manners.  Politeness.  Sensitivity.  And, above all, respect.

His novel is out on submission now and I can't lie when I say a part of me hopes he won't get published.  But that's bad karma, I know.  Putting vibes like that out into the universe might result in them boomeranging right up your own ass.  I've seen it happen and I don't recommend it.

So I'll send this message out instead:  May he get what he deserves.  Whatever that may be.

Blurry eyes

I forgot how much I hate spreadsheets.  They make my eyes dry.  To think I used to work with them all day... no wonder my vision's regressed, even after having laser eye surgery in 2002.

I've spent the last few days working on a list of literary agents and staring at columns and rows that instantly blur together if I forget to blink.  I've got 180 names so far.   Gee, and I was hoping for 50.  Who knew so many agents represented – or are interested in representing – thrillers?  Obviously this is good news for me – the more agents I have to query, the better my chances of signing with someone.  I'm now sorting them into categories called (most originally, I might add) "A", "B", and "C".   This is not as easy as it sounds.  It requires a lot of research.  Very loosely:

A's are the agents I'd kill for.  Those with lots of experience, tons of publishing contacts, and a long list of bestsellers under their belts.

B's are the agents I'd be happy with, but maybe don't have the exact right background.

C's are the agents I'd still be glad to work with, but am not sure would be great fit.  But still worth querying, because you never know.

Note that the above categories have nothing to do with competence.  Obviously I wouldn't put anybody on any of my lists who wasn't competent.   But to decide whether an agent is right for me, it requires a very thorough background check.

First I check their profiles in AgentQuery and Writer's Market to see what types of books they're looking for.  No point in querying someone who doesn't represent thrillers.   Most agents are very specific about the projects they're willing to market.

I also need to know what their submission guidelines are.  Some agents just want a brief (250-word) query letter via email only.  Others want a query, a detailed synopsis, a resumé, and the first 50 pages double-spaced with one-inch margins in 12-point Courier font with your name and book title in every page header, snail mailed.  Don't forget to include the self-addressed stamped envelope for when they reject you.  And, of course, everything in between.

Then I'm checking their individual websites for their biographies.  What's their background?   How are they qualified to be literary agents?   Which authors do they currently represent?

Publisher's Marketplace (a site I pay $20/month to use) tells me all about their publishing deals dating back to the year 2000.  Which editors at which publishing houses they've sold to.  And, of course, for how much. $10,000? $100,000?  This stuff is good to know.

Finally, I read third party reviews to see what other writers think.  AbsoluteWrite (the writer's forum I belong to) has long discussion threads on almost every agent, and thank God for that.  I've dropped agents from A's to B's because of reports of terrible communication skills and even rudeness (the fact that they're even on my list attests to my hope that they'll be better with me).  Preditors & Editors and Writers Beware are excellent sites dedicated to exposing scammers and fraudulent behaviour, so I check those, too.

Totally exhausting and mind-numbing work, but there's no way around it.  I really do want to find the perfect agent.  This is my book, my career, my dream.  Don't I have the right to want someone amazing?  Because if by some miracle I find that perfect agent, hopefully I'll never have to look for one again.

So what am I looking for in a literary agent, anyway?

Ideally, I want someone with a lot of experience, who has a strong sales record in my genre and who has a genuine interest in helping me become a career writer.  It's also important that he/she is genuinely excited to work with a new author.  I'm surprised at how many agents seem to only want to work with published authors.  (And my question is:  Where do they expect to find these published authors?  Wouldn't most of them already have agents?  Are they hoping to snag someone who's not happy with their current agent?)

Which doesn't mean I wouldn't be glad to work with someone newer.  Someone who's young and ambitious with lots of energy can be a good thing, too.  Never underestimate hunger.

Above all, I want someone I click with.  Publishing is a business, but writing is personal to me.  I couldn't imagine going through this process (also known as Query Hell amongst writers) if I wasn't passionate about writing.   And you can't be passionate about something that isn't personal.

High hopes, I know.  But not high expectations.  There is a difference.

Panic

I'm staring at the 2010 edition of Writer's Market and trying to not to freak out.   It's an 1,176-page monstrosity filled with publishing and literary agency info.

A year ago, I started writing Creep. Now I'm going to be looking for an agent to represent the damned thing. I know this is part of the process, but I'm thisclose to fainting from fear. In a few weeks the rejections will start pouring in.  Can I handle that?

Writing the book suddenly seems like the easy part.   The fun part.  This next step is almost too horrible to contemplate.  Because I'll be asking perfect strangers what they think of my work.  And yeah, I've done that before in my writing classes and with my writing groups, but those folks were obligated to help me improve.  Their criticism was supposed to be constructive.  And they really couldn't be too mean lest they risk my wrath in return. Unlike agents, who have no stake in my success or failure at all, and will either love my work or hate it.  No in between.  No gray areas.   Just Yes or NoYou Rock or You Suck.   Send Me The Manuscript or Fuck Off Forever.

Okay, I know they won't really tell me to fuck off, but trust me, when someone doesn't like what you write, it feels like they've said exactly that, no matter how honey-coated the rejection.

I'm trying to take a deep breath but it hurts.

So it begins...

Control freak

You can always tell I've been writing when my desk is neat.

It's when I'm not writing that my space is disorganized.

I can't put a word to a page without first paying all our bills, ensuring every book on my shelf is in alpha order according to the author's last name, and the house is reasonably clean.  Yes, house.  As in, the entire house, kitchens and bathrooms included.

Something about a messy space distracts me.  Last month, when I couldn't seem to get motivated after New York, I looked around and realized I could see lint on the carpet.  I could see dust on our wood furniture.  I could see paw prints on the windows.  It suddenly hit me that it had been a couple of weeks since I'd really cleaned, and it was unbelievably distracting.  So I spent an entire day cleaning the hell out of the place.  And anyone who knows me at all knows that when I clean, I mean business.  It's not about neatening things up. It's not about rearranging loose stacks of paper into esthetically appealing piles.  It's about spraying, wiping, and sucking every speck of dirt – visible or otherwise – into oblivion.  It's about throwing everything unnecessary into a garbage bag. I'm not a pack rat, never have been.

Once I got the house looking and smelling rosy, I was able to work.

Can you say:  Control freak?

See also: Anal retentive.

(Clearly I'm reading Pahlaniuk right now...)

It's gotten to the point where I don't even nag Steve do stuff around the house.  I ask him once, it gets done.  He knows it's not worth the argument. It also helps that if I need something done, I let him know days in advance.  I learned a long time ago that he doesn't share my sense of immediacy when it comes to home cleanliness.  Men don't like to be told to vacuum the stairs when they're watching baseball.  Carpet lint just doesn't hold the same importance as the Blue Jays.

Creativity, for me, springs from a happy place.   A secure place.  A feeling that I am loved.  And, most importantly, a feeling that I'm in the driver's seat, and not just a passenger content to watch through slightly tinted windows as the world rushes by.  I write best when my house is clean, my husband is happy, our finances are under control, and there's a fridge full of food.  Everything has to jive... or nothing jives.

There's no in between.

It's a lot of pressure to put on myself, I know.  To keep everything perfect and balanced just so I can work.

Can you say:  Perfectionist?

See also:  Unrealistic.

Because nobody's perfect all the time.  And if the success of my writing depends on my ability to keep my life perfect, I'm in big trouble.