Pitch Wars Pep Talk

We’re in the final days of the Pitch Wars selection period. The mentors are frantically reading through the subs, looking for “the one,” or deciding which of several “ones” they can best help. The hopefuls are handling the waiting in whatever way works best for them. Because tensions, and emotions, run high in Pitch Wars, I wanted to share what things look like on this side of the inbox.

I got a little over 100 subs, and you guys brought your A-game. I’m super impressed with the quality of the writing and the intriguing ideas I’ve been reading. And I have to choose just one manuscript to work with. This is going to be hard. As in, I’m losing sleep over this decision. When concepts and writing are this strong, it’s going to come down to which story clicks with me the most – something that’s completely subjective – and I think the other mentors are in the same situation. Agents are too, all year long, and I have a lot more empathy for them after doing Pitch Wars.

So, to everyone who subbed to Pitch Wars, congratulations on finishing a manuscript, on polishing it until it shines, and on being brave enough to put it out there. You are doing amazing things. Pitch Wars is awesome, but it’s not your one and only chance. I was a Pitch Wars alternate (when such a thing existed). I ended up publishing that manuscript with a small press. Then I found my agent in a different pitch contest. And the journey doesn’t end with getting published or getting an agent. There are still revisions and rejections and waiting and waiting and waiting.

The witty and wise Mr. Robison Wells said:

“Everyone’s in a different place, and that’s okay. Getting published doesn’t mean you’ll be published forever. Getting rejected doesn’t mean you’ll always be rejected… The truth is that most authors—even the really good ones with great careers—get depressed. They’re hard on themselves. They worry about the future. They regret decisions in their past… I don’t present this to make you stop chasing your dreams. I say it to make you feel better about this maddening business… You’re good enough. You really are.”

So, take a deep breath, soak in a warm bath, eat some good chocolate. Find something else to work on so the waiting doesn’t kill you. And no matter what happens with Pitch Wars, it’s just one step on your path. Keep going!

Why a one-star review made me happy

In the social media age, reviews are critical to a book’s success–a digital form of word-of-mouth publicity, which is the best kind of advertising. While we authors would love it if everyone thought our books deserved five stars, there’s no book out there that connects with everyone, and when a book only has five-star reviews, readers tend to be skeptical (rightly so, as the fake review industry casts a tarnish over the reliability of reviews).

There’s a saying among authors that you know you’ve “made it” when you get your first one-star review–the idea being that your book is really getting out there, even into the hands of people who might not be your target audience. Some of this could be meant to soothe the sting, because, yes, it hurts when some says your baby is ugly. Most authors (myself included) try not to pay too much attention to reviews, since obsessing over them can make us crazier than usual. I do know I have a couple of one-star reviews, and while I don’t love them, I’m learning they don’t have to be devastating.

In one of my one-star reviews, the reviewer was upset by the ending of my book. She said enough for me to realize she didn’t quite understand what I intended (and if I understood it the way she did, it would make me mad too). The review actually made me happy. Why? Because she cared enough to give it one star. She evidently liked the book, but the ending made her mad–she was invested enough to really feel something and to say something about it. It’s a compliment in a way an “it was okay” two- or three-star review or rating isn’t, at least in this case (If she had said she read twenty pages and hated everything about it so much she couldn’t stand it, that would have been different). This is a chance for me to learn something from a stranger who read my book–a stranger who thought the concept was appealing enough to become a potential reader. I can see where her misunderstanding came from, and while I can’t correct it in this book (though I am working on a follow-up short story to answer some questions readers had about the ending), I can make sure I don’t make the same mistake again.

So, don’t forget to leave honest reviews of the books you read. And if you get a one-star review, indulge in your favorite comfort food and keep writing. You’re one step closer to connecting with your target audience.

It’s okay to fall

My daughter recently went ice skating for the first time. The instructors started the kids out with a cheer: “It’s okay to fall!” And boy did they. A few of the kids had skated before–one even plays ice hockey–and those glided around the rink, their skates glinting in the artificial light, but the rest made a series of spectacular flops and tumbles across the ice.

My little girl–an odd combination of independence and caution–wouldn’t let anyone help her, but also didn’t want to let go of the wall. Finally, I convinced her to try skating with a “walker” to help her get her balance. She still fell. A lot. But she got her feet under her and slid around, and she had a smile on her face the whole time. She was unembarrassed needing a “crutch” to help her keep her balance, and the other kids she was skating with (some of whom had walkers and some of whom didn’t) all skated together without seeming to note the difference. Whenever one of her classmates fell, my daughter was quick to skate over and let them use her walker to stand again.

I realized I could learn a lot from her attitude. She had fun even if she wasn’t the best skater there. She helped her friends. She fell, but she got back up. She came to understand that falling is scary and a bit painful, but it isn’t ultimate failure. We don’t fall when we’re clinging to the side, but we also don’t learn, we don’t have fun, and we don’t help ourselves or anyone else. It’s okay to fall. The important thing is to get out on the ice and try.

If I’m a writer, why don’t I ever get to write?

Time to update my blog, since I was so busy in February I didn’t get the chance. I would love to say I was busy writing, but I wasn’t. I was (and am), however, doing things writers have to do. I’m working on revisions of The Haunting of Springett Hall for my publisher. I’m working on revisions of my next manuscript for my agent. I’m researching for future projects and brainstorming marketing plans (and feeling both excited and a bit panicked because July is getting pretty close). I’m paying bills and taking my kids to school and cleaning the house. I’m wishing I had time to go on a date with my husband or work in the yard or practice my harp. Or even to actually write.

How I met my agent

I’m super excited to announce that I’m now represented by the wonderful Abigail Samoun of Red Fox Literary! I’m really looking forward to working with her to shine up my manuscripts and find them great homes, and I’m already hard at work on the first round of revisions.

Now, for the traditional, “How I met my agent” story. I found Abi (or, she found me), in #PitchMas, a pre-Christmas Twitter pitch party where authors tweet a short pitch and agents can favorite it if they’d like to see more. My Twitter pitch was, “Ballgowns. Calling cards. Hellhounds. It’s shockingly difficult to be a proper Victorian lady when the monsters are real. #PitchMas #YA.” I sent my query and first three chapters, and she requested the full manuscript a couple of weeks later. A couple of weeks after that, she emailed me about some revisions she wanted to see. As we talked about the changes and the manuscript, she decided she would like to represent it. Given her enthusiasm about the story, her great suggestions for strengthening it, and how well we clicked, saying yes was a no-brainer. 🙂

For my author friends, I want to add that this is a manuscript I spent a couple of years writing and revising (learning a lot along the way), and I was querying and refining it for a year before Abi picked it up. It gets discouraging at times, but keep working and learning and trying! Never give up, never surrender!

Forthcoming July 14, 2015: The Haunting of Springett Hall!

After two-and-a-half years of intense writing and editing, two manuscripts, close to forty query letters, a dozen writing and pitch contests, countless critiques, and a dizzying number of ups and downs (plus about twenty-five years of dreaming!), I’m excited to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Cedar Fort Publishing for my debut novel, The Haunting of Springett Hall!

The past few days since I got the phone call have brought a deluge of emotions: shock, excitement, nervousness, and gratitude among the foremost. I’ve been signing paperwork, notifying other people I queried that the manuscript is no longer available, putting together information about the book and myself for the publisher, and celebrating.

After so much work and searching and waiting for this door to open, I’m struck by the realization that the door itself wasn’t the goal, and there’s a whole new, unfamiliar world on the other side: final edits so the manuscript’s as polished as possible for readers, marketing so readers know they want to read it, and of course more writing. I have more stories to tell and probably more reject letters to collect, since it’s true that failure is a part of growth. For now, though, I’m enjoying the high and saying thank you again to everyone’s who’s helped me so far.

If you’re a writer, keep writing, and keep writing what you love. YA paranormal is a tough sell these days, but this was the story I wanted to tell, even if I never found a publisher who wanted it. I believed in the story, so I didn’t give up on it, and now I’ve found an editor who’s excited about it too. I wondered if it would be worth all the heartache of rejection. It is.

Try and try and try

I’m currently wading through the quagmire of querying (and adding to my collection of reject letters), so when I came across this inspiring post from Elizabeth Gilbert, it struck a chord with me. I’d encourage you to click the link and read the whole thing (after you finish my post, of course 😉 ), but these were the highlights that really charged me back up:

“I also thought: ‘Hey – somebody has to write all those stories: why not me?’ … It has never been easy for me to understand why people work so hard to create something beautiful, but then refuse to share it with anyone, for fear of criticism. Wasn’t that the point of the creation – to communicate something to the world? So PUT IT OUT THERE. Send your work off to editors and agents as much as possible, show it to your neighbors, plaster it on the walls of the bus stops – just don’t sit on your work and suffocate it. At least try. And when the powers-that-be send you back your manuscript (and they will), take a deep breath and try again …

“My suggestion is that you start with the love and then work very hard and try to let go of the results. Cast out your will, and then cut the line. Please try, also, not to go totally freaking insane in the process. Insanity is a very tempting path for artists, but we don’t need any more of that in the world at the moment, so please resist your call to insanity. We need more creation, not more destruction. We need our artists more than ever, and we need them to be stable, steadfast, honorable and brave – they are our soldiers, our hope … Become a knight, a force of diligence and faith. I don’t know how else to do it except that way. As the great poet Jack Gilbert said once to young writer, when she asked him for advice about her own poems: ‘Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say YES.'”

League of Utah Writer’s Conference 2014

I had a great time at the League of Utah Writer’s Conference last weekend in Layton. I visited with old and new writing friends, had good talks with an editor and an agent, survived a harrowing game of Werewolf, and picked up several awards for my writing, including first place prizes in the categories of media article, spiritual essay, and creative non-fiction, and second place for flash fiction! I will be posting at least some of those pieces here on the blog in upcoming months.

My favorite moment in the workshops was when Daniel Coleman took on Alexander Gordon Smith in mock battle during Christine Haggerty‘s class on fight scenes. There were many other great presenters, and I’m an obsessive note taker, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite writing tips:

First, from Alexander Gordon Smith (whom you should talk to if you ever get the chance–it surprises me how upbeat and cheerful most horror writers are) on pacing and characters. He suggests that books are like living things, with their own physiology, especially their own pulse. Just like people, it’s important for their pulse to vary, sometimes speeding up to keep things exciting, sometimes slowing to allow for rest. His first rule of writing is to know your characters inside and out and let them drive the story. Immerse yourself in their point of view and try to see everything as they do, capturing all five senses. Let your sentence structure reflect their experience (i.e. fast, short, choppy, versus pleasantly slow and relaxed).

On a related note, Bradley Beaulieu spoke about story tension. He demonstrated how a good story has tension on every page, but that the tension should vary in intensity and in type. Types of tension can include unresolved questions/mysteries, romantic suspense, action, danger, interpersonal conflict, emotional issues (loneliness, homesickness, etc.), moral dilemmas, political drama, failed personal expectations, flawed social systems, etc. Constant high tension (like peril and action scenes) will make most readers numb or tire them out. Low tension (like unresolved questions) is more long-term and tends to be the thing that keeps readers turning pages for the whole story. When one type of tension slackens (i.e., an argument comes to an end), a new type of tension should increase (the character feels guilty for the terrible things she said to her sister). Varying light tension (romantic) with dark tension (danger) makes both feel sharper. Resolving tension/conflict too quickly leaves readers feeling cheated, but dragging it on too long makes them frustrated–it’s a balancing act and requires practice. He recommended not worrying about these things during the rough draft, so the story can flow naturally, but paying attention to them when revising.

Nathan Croft presented on the elusive topic of voice (the writer’s unique style of storytelling). He believes voice is ultimately your own passion showing through in the context of the story. He warned against waiting for your voice to come to you–instead, you have to seek it out, such as by studying it in books you enjoy, by experimenting with writing styles and techniques, and by paying attention to your own emotions as you write, your own personality (i.e., outgoing versus reserved) and the things that inspire you, like music, art, nature, etc.

These were just a few of the great presenters, but they were the ones that gave me the most food for thought. Something they all agreed on was that writing is an ongoing journey. Keep writing, keeping learning, keep having fun! I’m excited now to jump back into my current work in progress and apply these ideas.

Why it’s great being a writer (even when it’s not)

People say all the time that you have to be crazy if you want to be a writer. Most of the people saying this are other writers. If you wonder why, take a look at my week.

First–good news!–I found out the wonderful Molly Lee chose me to be her Pitch Wars alternate! I buzzed on this high for days, especially when I learned she fought off another mentor to get me.  This means I’ll get her feedback on my pitch and have a spot in the alternate showcase–a chance to get some more exposure and maybe catch the eye of an agent.

On the down side, I got rejection letters for two separate projects I’m trying to get published. Rejection is part of the process of trying to find the right home for your work, but that doesn’t make them sting any less. Of course, writers aren’t supposed to take things personally. Publishing is a business, after all. Even a stack of rejections doesn’t necessarily mean our work is bad, just that we haven’t found the right agent or editor. But we’re human. It still feels like a kick in the gut.

Then I found out that the Mormon History Association included an article I published last year in Pioneer magazine, “Growing the Kingdom: Mormon Pioneer Gardens,” in their “Book Notices/Selected Articles.” So, again, I feel pretty cool. It turned my week into a cycle of “I’m awesome! I suck. I’m awesome! I suck.”

Dealing with those ups and downs can be rough, especially because there are usually more downs than ups. Stack on top of that the fact that the majority of writers don’t make enough money to give up our day jobs, even when we do get published. In the meantime, we’re doing all this for the love of the craft, stealing hours from sleep or other pastimes to get our work done–writing, editing, critiquing, blogging, tweeting, querying, entering contests, reading, researching. All the while there are plenty of people rolling their eyes when we say we want to be authors, telling us to stop wasting our time.

I’ve asked myself why I’m doing this. Why I give up other things I enjoy–things that might even bring a steady income–to slave away over my computer and collect stacks of reject letters. At the heart of it, I keep going because I love writing too much to quit.

Aside from that, I’ve thought of some other things that make writing great, no matter which stage you’re at or what your ultimate goals are for your writing:

  • Everything is research. Seriously. Rereading your favorite book is research. So is going to a movie, playing with your kids, clicking endless links about food in 6th century China, working in the garden, having the flu, people watching, shooting a black powder musket, staring at clouds. If you’re paying attention, everything teaches you more about life and makes your writing better.
  • Writers can ask the strangest questions and get away with it. I was working on a scene where a character finds a bone (possibly human) and tries to use it as part of an escape plan, but I wasn’t sure if the scene was feasible. So, I went to the butcher ‘s counter and told him I needed a bone about the size of a human arm bone. The guy looks at me, at my two little kids smiling happily in the shopping cart, and raises an eyebrow. I add, “I’m a writer. It’s research for a book.” He relaxes and smiles. “Oh, all right. I have something that should work.” Now there’s nothing weird about it at all. Decomposition rates? How to make gun powder? The color ether produces when it burns? They’re all fair game.
  • In the balance between consuming and creating, writers are adding more to the world, contributing to the great dialogue of what it means to live and be human. At best, writers share their ideas with others, but at the very least they explore them themselves. Writing teaches you to look and think about things differently, including yourself.
  • When you get serious about writing, you reach out to others in the writing world, whether looking for feedback or advice or people who want to read or publish your work. This is a network of awesome people. Sure, you’ll find some you don’t get along with, but overall this is a great community to be involved in.

So, if writing is your thing, don’t give up on it. It’ll drag you up and down, but  there’s a lot to learn from the ride. Your goals may change over time, but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You’re way ahead of the people who never try. (This pep talk is mostly for me during the down times, but you’re welcome to listen in 😉 ).

Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and psychologist, said, “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself …”

Making money from your writing hobby

This post isn’t about making a full-time living as an author or writer. The only time I’ve been able to support myself solely on my writing income was when I was single and sharing living expenses with several roommates, but I’ve been able to supplement my income by writing, and worked on some fun and interesting projects in the process. Every freelance writer probably finds his or her own path to success, but here are some things that worked for me:

Develop a niche. It all comes back to “write what you know.” There are a lot of good writers out there, so you have to set yourself apart. I have graduate degrees in history and landscape architecture—a strange combination, but it gives me a unique and profitable set of skills. You don’t need an advanced degree to create a niche. Whether you love nature photography, or video games, or the mating habits of moths, if you focus on the things you know and feel passionate about, you’ll carve out your own space as a writer.

Network. Your niche is what you know, but who you know really does matter too. Tell people you’re a writer and you’re looking for work. Sometimes we’re shy to step up and say, “I want to write,” but once people know you have a talent for and interest in writing, you’ll start to find opportunities coming your way.

Put the “free” back in freelance. While your goal is to get paid, it doesn’t hurt to do pick up some volunteer projects on the side, maybe for local charitable organizations or other causes that pique your interest. It’s a great way to hone your skills and try new things, and it lets you meet people who may have paid work for you later.

Use social media. Start a blog, twitter account, or Facebook page devoted to more than sharing cute photos of kittens or what you had for lunch. Focus on your niche and connect with other people who share your interests. You can get paid for blogging, whether it be maintaining a successful blog yourself or writing content for the blog of an organization, but a professional-looking blog is also a chance to get your name out there.

Be professional. Even if you’re doing a job for free, or just maintaining a blog for yourself, always make it your best work. Think before hitting the “post” or “send” button. Proofread, or even better, have someone else proofread for you. Be honest—your reputation will make or break you, and you can’t afford to have people distrust you. Keep good records for your taxes; hopefully you’ll have some additional income to report at the end of the year.

Approach your writing with self-discipline. Writers are quirky creatures. We’re creative folks who often don’t conform well to regular schedules and chafe at routine. Because so much of writing happens unsupervised, though, it’s especially important for writers to be able to sit down and make themselves work. It can help to have a set time and place for writing, or just a general goal to write X number of hours a day, or break a project down into steps so it will be done by the deadline. Whatever method works for you, you have to love writing enough to be willing and able to follow through. Unfinished projects are the bane of a writer’s career, and will quickly dry up any potential work you might get from annoyed clients.

Try new things. Keep an eye out for writing jobs, even the part-time or temporary ones (which will be most of them). I’ve written everything from video scripts to field trip guides, and I’ve had a blast doing all of it. Some of the projects stretched and challenged me, but each one taught me new skills and opened further doors for me. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but also know your limits. Don’t take on a project if you know you don’t have the time or skills to complete it, and if you run into problems you honestly can’t solve, bring them to the attention of your clients as soon as possible so you can find a professional solution.

Most freelance writers don’t get rich, but if you follow these suggestions, you can turn your talent into a fun and profitable side job and pave the way for future successes as a writer.