January 07, 2011

Oh, the questions you will ask...

I posted some time ago on my other (now closed) blog about the questions my son asks me. All the time. I dusted it off and updated it. (Think of it like those oh-so-fun re-cap episodes on long-running TV shows. You're welcome.)

My son likes to ask me the same questions. He gets the same answers, but I think he lives for the hope that one day I might forget I answered the question, or change my mind, or ... you know, forget I answered the question. Or maybe he just enjoys slowly driving me insane. It's a toss-up.

1. What's for dinner?
You never really want to know, son. You just hope the answer will be pizza. It's not like you want anything other than pizza, so the answer, unless it's pizza, never satisfies you. I know it's too much to hope you will eat a vegetable, but I have to keep trying. And no, Pepsi and a Kit Kat do not, and will not, EVER count as "dinner."

2. Why do you love the dogs more than me?
Love is infinite. I don't have to love something less to love you more. Please note: The dogs don't complain when I kiss and hug them and make smoochy woochy noises. Also, they never slam the door, get all grumpty-grump with me, and they like me ALL the time. They also never piss me off to the point I think about locking them in a closet, and two seconds later, even though I'm still FURIOUS with [insert HULK MOM ANGRY action here], they don't have the nerve to ask me to fix them something to eat. Seriously. That's love, kid.

3. Why do I have to go to school?
To get yourself an education so you can apply for college and move out of my house in five years. I just want what's best for you. And also, the return of my sanity. I love you. (No, I don't love the dogs more than you. See response to Question 2.)

4. Why do you have to work?
Yeah. I'm real sorry my deadlines and writing schedule interfere with my slave duties. (I've said it before, and I'll say it again, you're old enough to read directions and work a microwave.) The thing is, you enjoy food, shelter, and that Xbox 360, all of which cost money. I know you think I skip on over to the magic present forest and pluck all that we need from the enchanted trees of wonderfulness, but no, kid, I gotta work.

5. When will you get paid? I want _____.
You know how it works. Every so often, when it's the third Tuesday of the thirteenth month on a full moon and a blood sacrifice has been made, mommy gets a paycheck. After I do things like pay for food (lots and lots of food because you EAT EVERYTHING) and shelter and Xbox 360 points, we examine the tattered remains of my checking account and decide if you can have _____ and I can have chocolate. And vodka.

January 06, 2011

Rejection letters I wish I wrote

Eons ago in a land called Las Vegas, Nevada I worked as an acquisitions editor for a small publishing company. Part of my job was to vet incoming submissions. The submission process worked there like it worked at other publishing houses: I would read queries and/or partials, write up rejections, or if something sounded interesting, I'd kick it up to the managing editor (and then he'd reject it, and I'd write the rejection letter). Every so often, a shiny concept would burst through all the crap, and we'd get ourselves a new author. It was rare, though ... like finding a gold nugget in your toilet rare.

At the time, I was also an aspiring writer traversing the ups and downs of the submission process with a little project called DADDY IN TRAINING. (I told you, EONS ago.) So, I felt deeply for those writers who sent their work to us, and I wanted to pet them and hold them and call them George.

Eventually, I got over that urge. I also realized the importance of using form rejection letters. It was just easier to check a box (because most submissions were rejected for the same reasons), and end with, "We wish you success with placing your project elsewhere," than it was to send out a personalized letter that outlined why their suckitude was so massive.

And that suckitude often had little to do with their writing, and a lot to do with their attitudes. I can classify these writers, too. I bet every poor sap acquiring editor can. I've named a few below, along with what I really wanted to say in their rejection letters.

1. I have a concept so great I can't tell you about it, but if you send me a contract and money, I'll give it to you.

Who are you? God? You do NOT have a concept so great you must keep it a secret until we've exchanged papers and gold bullion. How many of these queries did you send out? How many offers came pouring in? And if it is an idea so astounding, it would rock the entire world to its core, then why the hell did YOU think of it? Because you obviously don't know how to follow submission guidelines or how to turn off the ALL CAPS on your keyboard. If I'm wrong to reject you and your universe-ending concept ... well, just add me to your really, really long list of unappreciated, stupid editors that you will not submit to again EVER.

2. I know you don't publish what I'm pitching, but believe me, you'll make an exception because you'll LOVE my book just that much.

No, I won't. You know what I love? Writers who pay attention to guidelines and who understand that we cater to a niche market with an audience we spent years and years building, and who like us BECAUSE we cater to those specific topics. THEY don't care if you wrote the next great alien action-adventure romance set in the Andromeda galaxy and beyond, so WE don't care. We are a publishing company. We want to make money. We want to make our customers happy. We want manuscripts that will enlighten and/or entertain our readership who expect us to deliver quality books about our specialties. Capiche?

3. I know you only accept queries, but I've enclosed my partial anyway to save you the time it would take for you to request it.

Gee. Thanks. Now, I have to figure out what to do with this massive envelope of crap I did not ask for, and even if you wrote it with gold ink, I don't really want to read it because I'm annoyed you sent it without getting the go-ahead. In other words, I'm CRANKY and do you want me to read your unrequested partial while I'm feeling like a troll on the hunt for human flesh? We have guidelines for a reason. Never assume that you are an exception because your awesomeness will automatically slay an editor's inner beast. NOBODY'S that awesome.

4. I've sent you a gift because I read on the publisher's website that you really like snow globes. I hope this will smooth way for you to consider my work. (Wink, wink.)

Bribery doesn't work. It's not cute. It's ... well, kinda creepy. My publisher will not allow us to accept gifts of any kind because we publish advice and reviews about certain topics, and our reputation is built on our integrity. Maybe you should look up that word, so you know what it means before you send out more of your creeptastic bribes to other publishers. (Note to self: Add "Don't send presents to editors ... duh!" to the website guidelines.)

5. Dear Editor of the 700th publishing house I've sent this letter to ... you know, the one I've copied so many times, the ink is kinda gray, the paper is cheap, and the query printed out crooked. I don't really care because I'm too lazy to research your company, your name, and your current address, and then write a tailored, professional query.

Wow, dude. I got a paper cut whipping out my form rejection letter for you. I checked the box, "Does not meet our criteria." Unlike you, I actually signed my name at the bottom with real ink and everything, and hey, look at my professional letterhead and pretty paper. It's more than you deserve.

Well, that's just a sampling. Crazy, right? You can see why editors go home all puffy-eyed and soul-weary, and stick a straw in a bottle of Jack to suck on while they watch CSI reruns. Writers make them insane. And they deal with the same crap every day. I got letters like the ones I've listed above all the time. It's why they rank a classification and not a, "Hey that's a weird one-time thing, huh?"

Getting a well written query about a project we might actually publish was a real pleasure--like getting a whiff a lavender floating through the stink of a shit-filled field. Finding a writer who paid attention to the guidelines, to how I spelled my name (one L, people, ONE L), who researched what we published and could tell me why their book would fit in with our catalog ... oh, lawd. It made me wanna weep with joy.

These were the same writers who, even if rejected, would send me a nice thank-you. Maybe we couldn't take on their project, but I was lot happier to help guide them in another direction, or send specific suggestions about their works. Unlike the writers who, usually guilty of any of the infractions I listed above, would send me letters telling me how I stupid I was for not accepting their books, which were obviously bestsellers-in-waiting. (Seriously. If you never want to sell a book, go on and be a douchebag to an editor. It's a small world, folks.)

At the end of the day, the one way a writer can get some notice is to be polite and professional. You'd think that would be a given, but yeah ... not so much. Be humble, have a sense of humor, take any rejection with a grain of salt, and be nice. Even if it kills you.

January 05, 2011

Dream on

I like to dream. Sometimes, I can loll on my couch or bed for hours doing nothing more than thinking. I did it this morning. I woke up too early, and I didn't want to get up. I mean, sure, I could have had an extra hour of productivity, but ... the hell with that.

I lolled.

In the dark and quiet of my bedroom with my puppies snuggled on either side of me, I just let my thoughts run wild. I don't always think about my books. Okay, yeah. A great deal of the time, I'm mentally gnawing on the bits of stories, but I also dream about other stuff. Things I want. People I miss. Places to visit. I explore it all in my mind.

There's something wonderful about taking a journey through what-might-be. It doesn't even matter if what I'm dreaming about comes to fruition. The fun part is searching through the possibilities. I can try on one after another without worrying about how much it costs, if it'll fit, how I accomplish it, or if it can be done. All it really costs me is time, and when I finally drift back into reality, I feel inspired. And hopeful.

I know it's difficult for some people to just ... be. It probably feels strange to just sit and do nothing. I have friends who think so hard, I'm surprised their brains haven't melted. I know what it's like to have thoughts tangled up in to-do lists, productivity charts, and organizational worries. Not to mention the guilt weaving through all that mess because there's so much to be done and there aren't enough hours in the day. It's exhausting. But I never want to be so worried about everything all the time, I forget to dream. Or ignore the opportunity for lolling because actively doing nothing feels wrong. Like I said before, the hell with that.

I know not everyone processes the way I do. There are loll-arounders like me, and you know, those other people. I suppose as long as we all find some way to dream, to inspire ourselves, and to enjoy life, no matter how small the moments ... well, it's all good.

January 04, 2011

I got flow, baby

I get questions all the time about how I deal with writer's block. I don't have a method, mainly because I don't believe in hitting a mental wall so hard, the words stop flowing. I'm not discounting the trials and tribulations of other writers who struggle to put words on the page. We all have our experiences, and our methods for staying productive.

Mine is simple: Write anyway.

That's not to say that I haven't struggled. I've stared at my manuscript and thought, "What the hell am I doing?" And always I come to that point in a book where I think, "THIS is the book I will not finish. Just because I've written eleventy others, doesn't mean I know what I'm doing."

I've talked about doubt and fear before. Those little bastards can drill into your brain like earworms, whispering, whispering ... about how much you suck. Well, there's always someone somewhere who thinks I suck. So what? I still have to finish the book. I still have to make the deadline. I still have another book to write after this one. Dear earworms: Shut up. YOU suck.

I get in my own way all the time. I'm the queen of procrastination. I can find multiple reasons why I must play Rock Band and/or clean the bath tub instead of make word count. It's stupid. It's ... so not cool. But there I am, with drum sticks or sponge in hand, drumming or scrubbing, and thinking about the book. Which is wonderful an' all except I'm not psychically capable of using Word yet (but that would be awesome, right?).

I also know that as much as I futz around, I'll still do what needs to be done. I know that if I get stuck, I need to re-think my direction. Sometimes, it means going back and rewriting an earlier section, or introducing a new character, or I need to dump the plot thread and start over. Eventually I figure it out--sometimes because I'm doing something else, such as playing drums or scrubbing the bath tub. (Justification, just another thoughtful service provided by yours truly.)

Eventually, I sit down, suck it up, and write until my fingers go numb and my eyes get red, and I forget to eat. The words flow because, as Chuck Wendig says in The Penmonkey's Paean, "This book is not the boss of my shit," and damn it, the novel gets done. Because it has to. Because this is my job. My dream. And writer's block and earworms cannot stop me.

December 30, 2010

The people you know

Writers are nosy. We eavesdrop. We watch. We take notes. Then we use whatever information we glean. I don't mean we necessarily take a ... well, say a conversation between an arguing couple, and put it on the page exactly. I mean we use that moment--a moment that certainly doesn't belong to us, but we claim anyway--to create something new or to improve something already there in our work. We remember facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice, the look in someone's eyes as they whisper or they laugh. It's the well that we draw upon when we write about our characters.

It's not always a conscious process. Our ears and eyes and minds are open to the experiences unfolding around us. Granted, I know that for myself, I can be so interested in what other people are doing, I forget to pay attention to what I'm supposed to be doing (or, y'know, that I'm with a person who wants to talk to me and not watch me stare in fascination at the people around us ... what?). The thing about being an observer, about being someone who's constantly in her own head, thinking about stories or dreaming about traveling or wondering what that girl over there is feeling as she shovels ice cream into her mouth (Did she break up with someone? Does she just REALLY like vanilla? Is she gonna finish that whole thing?) ... um, well, you can see the problem.

Anyway.

If we're really lucky, we find in the actions of others a plot twist, a character flaw, a sudden realization for solving a problem in Chapter 12, or a snippet of something we haven't quite defined, but we save for later. Being all up in someone else's business (quietly and indirectly, of course) is only one way writers fill the well. Sometimes, we steal from the people we know ... and by "steal," I mean "appropriate for creative purposes." A friend's quirk or catch word, something funny said in conversation, an incident that becomes an inside joke, a look or gesture ... these things are imprinted along with other observations. Sometimes, we use them on purpose, but mostly, I think they enter the flow of our writing on their own.

I enjoy being alone in a quiet room with just my computer and my thoughts (and my puppies for emergency snuggles). I can spend hours--hell, days--on my own without talking to or looking at another human being. But eventually I seek out connection. Sometimes, it's just being with a good friend, and sometimes it's going out among the masses. Sure, it's about being counted among them, even though I don't usually feel part of the crowd. I'm on the outside of it all, waiting ... and watching.

December 18, 2010

Writer's FAQ: What's an editor's role?

In one of my writing workshops, a participant posted: "Remember how I said I was relatively new to this? Well, reading what you said about your editor ... I suddenly don't know what an editor is for. I thought they just made sure all the sentence structure was good and made sure points came across clearly. How does an editor make choices for the progression of a story? Please help me understand."

If you're hiring a freelance editor, then yes, we're talking about an individual who line edits and critiques your work. However, editors at publishing houses are more "big picture" kind of people, and don't really do a lot of the nitty gritty work (that's for the copy editor).

When you sell your book, you have to start thinking of your novel as a group project. Everyone from the editor to the marketing department will have input on some level. It typically works like this (at least for me):

* You submit a proposal to your editor, who will usually respond with feedback. You adjust accordingly and then write the entire book, which you submit to the editor. Even if you sell a complete novel for the first time, there will almost always be revisions. I think of the editor, her assistant, marketing, publicity, and even the freaking copy editor (who usually makes me crazy) as my team. I listen to their concerns and their suggestions. They have experience and knowledge about publishing that I don't, so I usually follow their advice. They want the book to be a success, too, so why would I discount all they have to offer?

* After you submit the finished novel, you will almost always get revisions. Sometimes, your editor will offer a few in-manuscript edits, but usually the feedback is in the form of an email with very specific suggestions about tightening plots, cutting or adding scenes, strengthening characters, and so forth. Then you revise the book. I usually follow my editor's advice, but there are times I choose not to take a suggestion and I always explain why. Sometimes, the editor will ask you to cull through the manuscript a third time, just to make sure everything's as good as possible. (Or even more times, depending on the book, the author, and the production schedule.)

* Once the editor approves the final manuscript, it goes off to production. This is usually the time you'll get marketing's version of your blurb, and you and your editor fix and tweak where necessary. This is also the time that marketing will do a cover art conference and your editor will often ask for your ideas. While all of this is going on, you should be working on the next book due (or the next book to sell). At some point, you'll get the copy edits. A lot of publishers are now sending electronic edits (which is fine with me b/c I was an e-book author first and that's how I learned track changes in Word). You'll spend some time going through the manuscript and approving the fixes (or rejecting them) and answering any queries the CE makes about content. (You make want to drink alcohol through this process.) Then you send the copy edited manuscript back to your editor, who goes through the manuscript and makes the final changes that you approved and/or added/changed yourself. Then it goes back to production.

*After a while, you get the galleys. Galleys are the typeset copies of your manuscript, basically the final layout that goes to the printer. It's your last opportunity to catch errors such as typos or misspelled words. At this point, it's too late to make major changes. (In fact, if you try to change more than 10% of the book, you can be charged typesetting fees because it costs the publisher money to reset the entire work.) You're really just making sure everything's in order and ready to go. BTW, your galleys are what the publisher uses to make your ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies). These are the versions of the books that go out to booksellers and reviewers. Usually the ARCs are issued before any needed changes are made in the galleys, which is why there's always a disclaimer on the ARC about it not being the final version, and that it may have errors, et al.

December 17, 2010

So what? I'm still a wri-ter. I got my word moves...

Being the awesome mother I am, I hied my slovenly ass up to the middle school to sign my son out early so he could come home and start winter break with a big ol' nap. (See? I AM awesome.)

One of his friends was in the front office checking out, too, and he looked me over and asked, "Are you sick?"

"No," I said defensively. "I'm a writer on deadline." I think what he meant to say was, "Holy crap, lady. You actually go out into public looking like THAT? Aren't you afraid of causing the elderly to have heart attacks and frightening small children into lifetime therapy?" Only he's twelve-a-teen and knew better than to tell me I looked like cat puke.

Anyway, I (lightly) punched him in the arm and said, "Don't call me sick. I don't want to be sick. If you say sick, I might get sick." What I meant to say was, "It's not polite to notice I look like cat puke and then point it out by asking me if I'm sick. And oh yeah, shut up."

Someone recently mentioned to me the horror of witnessing the half-asleep, bra-less, PJ-wearing moms who drop their kids off at school. I said, "So what? I do that, too." On weekday mornings, I'm trying to get my kid to the Big Place of Learning pre-coffee and post-get-child-out-of-bed-without-going-Hulk, so the hell if I'm gonna worry about putting on a bra or ditching my comfort clothes on the off chance my appearance will make strangers blanch. I'm in my car, not skipping down the street with breasts a-swinging and pajamas a-flapping. Also, I'm trying to keep my shit together long enough to get home and get caffeine. If your eyes bleed from gazing upon the a.m. carnage of the drop-off lane, I offer this advice: Look. Away.

When I'm writing, I don't pay attention to much. If my children are silly enough to ask me questions, they receive glazed-eyed looks. I am able to muster up a laugh when my son, obviously forgetting he has the abilities to read directions and operate a microwave, pops in to ask for food. (Kitchen, son. Son, kitchen. Hope you enjoy a lifelong friendship.) To continue ... I walk around in a zombie state, muttering to myself, and I forget to shower and to eat and to do the dishes.

And yeah, I often venture out of the house in this state, usually wearing sweats, old T-shirts, and whatever shoes I can find. (Not the pretty ones, of course.) I put on my glasses, too, because driving without them would bring terror galore to Plano, and grab my purse (not a pretty one, of course). I only want to reach my goal of hitting the grocery store or post office or Starbuck's. I don't think about who might see me and render the judgment of "oh-em-gee, cat puke alert." I'm in my own head, thinking about my current story, or my upcoming story, or another story I really want to write. I don't particularly care what someone else might think of my disheveled self, mostly because I'm not looking at anyone else. Honestly, I don't give a damn what you look like or what you're doing because if you didn't come out of my vagina, I'm not responsible for you or your shit. Feel free to offer this same courtesy to me (and anyone else who might be standing in the cereal aisle staring at all the Fiber One options).

December 16, 2010

Doubt and fear can suck it

Writers are neurotic messes. If you venture into creative endeavors, especially if you're crazy enough to try and live off whatever proceeds you can scrape up through said endeavors, then it's almost a requirement for you to be neurotic. In fact, it helps. Sometimes. I think.

Once you find the Holy Grail of the Search for Publication---an actual contract with an actual publisher who pays you actual money---a whole new set of neuroses is yours. Here's some of mine (I still suffer from most of these ... and yes, all writers probably need a brain scan. Or chocolate.):

* There are two Michele Bardsleys and they bought the other one's book, not mine, and at some point, someone will realize they've sent out the right contracts to the wrong person, and take it all back.

* Even though I signed the contract and sent it back, it's probably winding its way to a person who will realize I am the wrong Michele Bardsley, a terrible mistake has been made, and they will cancel everything.

*I haven't gotten the signing check, and NOW IT'S TOTALLY CONFIRMED that they're trying to figure out how to tell me they meant to give the contract and money to the other Michele Bardsley, who is obviously a BETTER WRITER and not a WHINER.

* I have the contracts and the signing money, so those suckers at the publishing house can't take back the deal or the cash. So now I have ... oh, shit. I have to write the book, and it has to be GOOD. No, GREAT.

* I'm mired in the book that is due in four ... er, two months and it's the crappiest crap of all crap ever. What was I thinking? I can't make a deadline. I can't write an ENTIRE BOOK based on my sucktastic concept. What was the PUBLISHER thinking?

* Even though I've managed to finish eleventy-whatever books just fine, this is the one I will fail to complete. The novel's stupid, anyway, and the middle is beyond awful. And so is the beginning. But not the end. Because I will never reach the end. I. Freaking. Suck.

* I reached the end, the book is done, my brain is fried, but, you know, the book is all right. Yeah. It's good. I can relax (oh, wait, another book is due). Note to self: Do not chew off nails waiting to hear back from the editor. Do not email your agent more than once a day to ask about revisions. Do not assume, ever, you won't have revisions because you're just that good. You're not that good. Just ask all those Amazon reviewers.

* Just got a huge revision email for the novel. Why did I think it was good? I should've realized that the heroine is unlikable, the action is implausible, the plot has Buick-sized holes, and ghosts can't sing. THEY CAN'T SING. Oh, and hey, it needs a few more words, too ... say 10,000 or so.

* Finished the revisions and the second set of revisions and did all those "few quick, tweaks", got through the copy edits without grinding my teeth down to nubs, read through the galleys, and now, miracle of miracles, the book is published. Even though I have placed a moratorium on reading my own Amazon reviews, a reader has emailed me about something someone said ... so now I have to go look. Why that pompous, ass-faced, motherf---. No. Nope. Uh-uh. Everyone's entitled to their opinions about my work. Even if their opinions suck.

Oh, yeah. This happens, people. Every time. Even if I manage to overcome the neuroses of one area, there springs forth a new place for doubt and fear to grow. By the time the book I've stressed out over (and over and over) finally hits shelves, I'm deep into the emotional mine field of a different project. Writers are really, really, really good at carving away at their own self-esteem and confidence (and we don't need the help of bloggers and reviewers, thanks).

Once you're published, there is a different crop of worries to cultivate: getting good sales numbers; trying to make bestseller lists; coming up with concepts that will ensure new contracts; promoting the upcoming release while trying to write the book that will come out a year and half from now; and getting paid. (There's always concerns about getting the publisher to cough up your moola.)

I've heard aspiring writers say, "I wish I had your problems." Hell, I've even said that to published authors when I was trying to get a foothold in this business. The point is that hey, you may have climbed one mountain, but in the distance, there's another one, bigger and more difficult to conquer. You know, like life. And doubt and fear can make you stumble or fall, or it can blind or immobilize you, or get you so lost, you want to curl up in a cave and cry yourself into a new reality.

So, writers have to make a choice: Let doubt and fear whittle away at the core of our passion for telling stories, or keep climbing the damned mountains no matter what. As long as you keep taking the steps, you'll get somewhere. It may not be exactly where you imagined when you started the journey, but it's different than from where you started. Keep going. Keep writing.

And tell doubt and fear to suck it.

(P.S. Check out Chuck Wendig's the Writer's Prayer AKA the Penmonkey's Paean.)