Sunday, July 16, 2017


Like many writers, I have an obsession with notebooks.

One of my favorite things about summer, in fact, is that the stores have "school" supplies for great prices. They might become cheaper as we get closer to the start of school, but they are still irresistible right now.

This morning, I needed to run to Target for drinks and dog food. I ended up also getting these:

It doesn't matter that I already have several unused notebooks. When comp books are 50 cents, leaving the store without at least six is not possible. Not for me.

Comp books are my favorite.

I have many favorites.

If comp books are great, how great are those little mini comp books? Great enough to be my favorite.

My favorite notebook is next to the mini comp book. It's a slightly larger notebook with a fabric cover. And it lies flat when opened.

Sometimes at work meetings, they pass out these great notebook. Those are my favorite!

And then there's the great notebook I got for my birthday. It even has a pocket. No wonder it's my favorite.

My favorite notebooks are made just for writers. How can any writer not love these?

And can a desk really be a desk without one or more yellow pads? They may be simple, but they are a workspace essential. And that's why they're my favorite, especially the half-size ones.

Then, of course, there's the sticky note. Maybe not technically a notebook, but they're beautiful, and easy to color code, and you can put them anywhere (including a white board), and they're my favorite.

I have other notebooks. There are few places I can go in my home where I don't have a notebook nearby. It might come as no surprise, but whichever one I'm using is my favorite.
Now I'm thinking about buying another one. I think a dot-ruled notebook would definitely be my favorite.

Different sizes, shapes, styles--each helps me in a different way. The only notebook that is not my favorite is one that can't hold up to being used, a cheapie that falls apart or where the ink bleeds through too much.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

How to Succeed at PitchWars Without Even Crying

We're a little more than a month away from the opening of PitchWars, and writers everywhere are starting to talk about it. They've even started to pimp their bios. As a veteran of four PitchWars (two where I've gotten feedback and two where I haven't), I thought I'd share some pointers to help you make the most of your PitchWars experience.

What is PitchWars, anyway?

First, in case you haven't heard of PitchWars, let's explain what is it. PitchWars is an online writing contest in which agented, published writers, agency interns, and other industry pros each select a manuscript from the hundreds of entries and mentor an author through the process of polishing the manuscript and submitting to the Agent Round, where literary agents have the opportunity to select entries for possible representation.
It's a way to avoid the agent slush pile. If you make the Agent Round, the agent can be pretty sure you've submitted a quality manuscript that has been vetted and workshopped by a professional writer.
There's no cost, although beginning last year a small donation gave entrants a chance to pitch to additional mentors. I don't know yet what this year's policies will be.

Sounds Great! Tell me how to win.

Like everything in the publishing world, being chosen by a PitchWars mentor is a fight against long odds. Although there are typically close to 100 mentors, there are many more potential mentees than that, and each entrant pitches to multiple mentors. The odds of being chosen are better than they are in the slush pile of the typical agent, but they are still slim.
The good news, being chosen may be the ultimate goal, but it's not the only way to win. Here are some tips to increase your chances of having a successful PitchWars.
1. Define "winning"
You're most likely to have a good experience if you broaden your definition of what it means to win. For some, the only positive outcome is to be chosen by a mentor. These entrants are more likely to be disappointed.
Over the course of the contest, you'll have the opportunity to broaden your circle of writing friends. You'll gain the experience that comes from submitting and, more likely than not, you'll start to develop the thick skin that is necessary for success in the publishing world. You might get feedback from your chosen mentors (if only a sentence or two), and you might get information that helps you improve your work.
Three years ago, I received positive feedback from my chosen mentors, but all agreed on one thing: my manuscript was too short. I followed their advice and entered the same manuscript the next year. Again, I wasn't chosen, but the feedback I got was amazing, including one author who said she loved my book, but didn't choose it because she thought it was too polished for her to be of any help.
Not everybody gets this, but you might. And if you don't, that's a kind of feedback too. There's always more work to do.
2. Respect your mentors
There are several ways to show respect to your mentors:
  • Carefully read their bios, which contain information about what they like, and pitch to mentors who are more likely to like what you wrote. This increases your chances, and decreases the odds that you will be ignored.
  • Understand that mentors are volunteers who receive nothing in return but the honor of helping one writer get closer to his or her goals. They go into this knowing (and not liking) that they're going to disappoint a lot people, and that some people will even become angry when they are not chosen. Don't be one of those people.
  • Give your mentors your best work. I can only imagine the time it takes to consider dozens of entries and look through additional chapters or full manuscripts requested from the lucky few who become finalists. Make their jobs harder and more enjoyable by giving them your best writing. It doesn't have to be perfect, but make sure it's good.
  • Be friendly and courteous when mentors post on Twitter. Much of the contest communication is carried out over Twitter. Mentors often drop hints about what they're reading.
In all of your communications with the mentors and other writers, be nice. Be positive. People are here because they want to be helpful. Most of the mentors are sincere when they say they'd pick everybody if they could.
3. Don't stop with your pitch
Many PitchWarriors submit their pitch package and then stop and wait for the announcements of who was chosen. Although this is a perfectly valid way to participate, you can have a better experience if you participate more fully.
Even if you're not a fan of Twitter, you can bask in the (mostly) positive glow of the Twitter chats. It's very much like a conference, where even introverted writers can absorb energy from other writers. Watch for hints that might refer to your work, or might not. Encourage other participants who are feeling down or doubtful. Or hopeful.
It's corny, but true: the more you put in, the more you'll take out. Even when I've participated without any response, I've enjoyed hanging out online with other writers, other people with the same hopes and dreams and frustrations.
4. Redefine "winning"
Even if you're not chosen, find the positives in your experience. It's fine to be disappointed. We all are. But don't be bitter or angry. Look at all these positives:
  • You've gained query experience.
  • You've had fun hanging out with writers.
  • You've put your work out there for others to judge, a very difficult thing to do.
  • You might have gotten some feedback. Even if it's not much, it will help make your story better.
  • You've learned more about how PitchWars works, information you can use for an even better experience next year.
In this world where participation trophies are too common, it sounds trite to say that everybody who participates in PitchWars is a winner. And, it's not entirely true. People who come out of it bitter and angry or convinced that their writing sucks are not winners.
But, people who come out of it understanding the positives, and realizing how hard it is to write something that's ready to enter in a contest like PitchWars, and how it's even harder to put that baby out there for other people, have won PitchWars. You've gained valuable experience that will help you persevere through the difficult query process, and you've had a fun couple of weeks (or more) of playing the game.
So, yes, there is crying in PitchWars, but if you do it right, the tears will not wash away all the experience and resolve you can win by having the courage to play the game.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: The Writer's Data-Book by Amber Florenza

The other day, I was browsing Amazon, looking for interesting writing stuff, and I came across The Writer's Data-Book by Amber Florenza. It costs just under $7 and I was curious, so I bought a copy.

Writers who like to plan your books meticulously will find a lot a lot to love in this book. Even if you only sketch out a few characteristics and useful facts, the worksheets Florenza provides will be useful.

The worksheets focus mainly on characters, although there are pages to help you put together an overview of your book and even draft the dreaded synopsis. Mainly, though, the worksheets give you a place to fill out information about your main characters and the "secondary characters  who matter" and "secondary characters who exist," as the book calls them.

Among the more interesting pages, useful even for pantsers, are worksheets that help you keep track of a character's family and pages where you can sketch out the floor plan of a character's house or other important places.

Many of the left-hand pages throughout the book are lined for notes, and there are blank pages at the back of the book where you can draw or mind-map or whatever it is you like to do.

One interesting element I don't remember seeing before is the concept of flavors for your story. There are a few worksheets where these flavors are included.

The book is clearly a Print-On-Demand book. Mine is dated the day I ordered it. It is available in several colors so you can choose your favorite, or even color-code your projects. The author has also generously provided instructions for printing additional pages that are easy to locate online. In fact, I suppose if you really wanted to, you could print pages without buying the book, but that's cheating. The author deserves something for the work she put into planning her worksheets. Nowhere does she ask you not to do that, but the workbook is reasonably priced and includes those extra spaces for notes and sketches, as well as some pages that are not available for download.

Although the book is a plotter's dream--or could be, if it included more worksheets for scenes and other plot elements beyond the basic book summaries--I think pantsers can also use it for ideas or to track certain details. There's no rule that says you have to fill out every line, but we all need to keep track of stuff. It's a good deal at $6.75, especially since we can print more pages. Even if you use something like Scrivener to keep similar notes, sometimes there are advantages to the old analog way of doing things, especially if you want to make sketches on note paper.

If you're looking for something to help you plan your next story or make notes about your current work in progress--especially information about characters--give this workbook a try.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Feeling Positive About Long Odds

In an interview on the Agent Hunter blog, Gemma Cooper of the Bent Agency was asked:

How many submissions do you see annually? And how many of those submissions will end up on your list?

Her answer:

"I see around 6000 submissions annually, and take on about 2-3 new clients a year."

Based on other things I've read, I'd say this might not be a typical answer. Many agents take on fewer new clients each year and receive more queries.

Let's break down those numbers, shall we?

I don't have exact stats, obviously, but I'm betting at least half, maybe even 3/4 or more of those submissions can be immediately eliminated from competition, either because the author queried too soon with a manuscript that is not yet ready or because the author failed to do the requisite homework and queried an agent who does not rep that kind of story. None of us wants to believe we're one of those writers, but if we're not, chances are good we have been.

If we've sufficiently polished our manuscript and done our homework, this means our odds are improved from impossible to merely astronomical.

In a typically perverse writerly kind of way, this gives me some positive feels.

Another reason this makes me feel better is that it means when an agent says my story does not connect with her the way a story needs to if she's going to rep it with the required enthusiasm, it might not just be a line. Agents may indeed be superwomen and supermen, but even super heroes have limited time. Well, usually. Unless their super powers include manipulating time, a power I'll bet most agents would love to have but, sadly, just don't.

It's not like the agent is accepting everybody else's manuscript and declining mine. Better books than mine are likely being rejected on that same day.

I've had other writers tell me they love my story, people who didn't have to tell me anything at all. This means there might still be that one agent out there who doesn't automatically push my query into the pile of 5,998 that will not make it. 

There are a lot of agents out there. If they all choose one or two, or even three, new writers, that's still a lot of new writers. Maybe I'll be one of them. Maybe you will.

And if not, we'll keep chugging along because we believe in our stories, but mostly because we just love writing them.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

What About That Whole "Rejection" Thing, Anyway?

I've seen talented writers give up after a couple rejections. Rejection is a part of professional freelance writing, no matter how good you are.
In many cases, rejection means you tried too soon. It's tempting after typing "the end" to immediately start querying, but you have to revise. Not only that, but it takes time to learn the craft. You're not likely to be a virtuoso the first time you sit down to a piano or pick up a guitar. It takes practice. Writing is the same way. You have to practice and pay your dues.
Even after you've worked a long time at getting good, you're probably still going to be rejected. There are so many reasons that have little to do with the quality of your writing:
  • The publication (or agent) recently published something similar.
  • Something about the query didn't grab the editor.
  • The piece isn't quite what the publication is looking for.
  • It doesn't fit upcoming themes.
  • The editor didn't feel a personal connection to the story.
  • The editor was in a bad mood that day.
  • Other writers sent in stories that are more timely or interest the editor more.
There are many more.
One way my career has helped my personal writing is that I can look at my writing like a project and create a little distance between me and the writing. I can accept editorial feedback without taking it personally. And I can understand that not every piece is right for every publication, even if the publication seems like a good fit.
I've received a lot of rejections, including two in the past week. My policy is to react to each rejection by sending two more queries. I still have to send one today to meet the two-per-rejection goal. 
Some rejections sting more than others, like when you get a positive response, such as a request for the full manuscript, and then get rejected. But a professional realizes it's part of the game.
It's like baseball. (Life's little secret: everything is like baseball.) A successful batter gets out a little less than three times for every hit. Great hitters still get out more than twice as often as they hit successfully. Over the course of a season, even the best hitters have many games where they fail to get on base.
As Ted Williams, maybe the best hitter in history, said, "Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer."
But Williams was wrong. Most writers, especially when they are starting out, face even bigger odds.
The thing about writing is, there's more competition than ever. It's always been a competitive field, but now, thanks largely to computers, everybody thinks they can be a writer. A lot of people think it's easy money.
It's not. It's hard.
No matter how good you are, your piece is likely one of hundreds competing for a few spots in a publication. It can be an incredible article or story, and still not quite be what a publication or publisher wants.
Like the great hitter who strikes out with the go-ahead runs on base, you've got to take the disappointment and turn it into resolve to make up for it next time, knowing full well that the odds are you won't succeed next time either.
Or you can take your ball and go home. There's no career after that decision. 
To paraphrase a baseball quote from Tommy Lasorda: There are three types of writers: Those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happens.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Give your muse wings

Even an apprentice muse (think of Clarence in It's A Wonderful Life) can help you find the creative impulse in yourself. Remember, writing is like playing an instrument. You're not going to be a brilliant guitarist the first time you pick up a guitar, no matter how good the instrument is. When you're starting out as any kind of a writer, you have to give yourself permission to suck. Badly.

One thing I've learned about writers is that even the best think they've completely lost the ability to write while trying to finish a book. Steinbeck wrote in his Grapes of Wrath journals that he had completely lost the ability to write and that the book wasn't good enough to keep working on it. Twain put Huckleberry Finn aside for years before giving it a try again. Douglas Adams was a notorious procrastinator who suffered from crippling writer's block and had to be locked up in a hotel room with somebody who made sure he'd write.

None of us is Steinbeck or Twain or Adams, especially when we first pick up our instrument. But if they can have those doubts and that loss of confidence, it's OK if we do too. We just have to follow their example and keep plugging away anyway. It comes together eventually. Few writers publish their first complete works, or even the first three. The actual number depends on the writer. The only way to learn to write is to write, so those first efforts are going to be bad, maybe embarrassingly bad.

If you're writing, even badly, you're a writer. Fortunately, if you're writing, you'll get better (at your own speed, of course). Allow yourself to be A Writer. Make a deal with an apprentice muse that if she'll help you, you'll give her something back. If you need to create a ritual sacrifice to your muse, go ahead. Offer her a drop of your of your favorite drink if she'll help you get through an hour of writing, even if it's not very good. Or whatever works for you.

Every time a writer writes "the end," a muse gets her wings.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ditch the chapters--for now

Many of us think and write in chapters. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a common way to think about your story. What's more, if we're in a critique group, our chapters have a habit of being about the same length as the number of pages we read at each crit session.

I'm guessing many of you can't easily imagine writing a book without doing it a chapter at a time. Today, I'd like to present an option that I've found freeing in my own writing:

Ditch the chapters. For now, anyway.

The basic building block of any story is the scene. According to many writing teachers and books about writing, a story is a string of scenes joined by sequels. You most likely know this, and you might use a certain number of scenes in each chapter.

But what if you don't worry about chapters while drafting your masterpiece? What do you gain?

Freedom. Freedom to end your chapters where they make the most sense later. Freedom to skip a difficult scene and move on to the next one. Freedom to concentrate on your scenes and worry about the bigger structural pieces later.

We've all rearranged the order of our chapters at some point in our writing. If you concentrate on chapters, this can give you a plot where the chapters make sense, but some of the scenes seem wrong. It's much easier to move scenes around than chapters. You probably do that anyway, which makes it so you have to redo several chapter endings.

You might insert new chapters, and have to renumber everything.

If you're having trouble with a chapter, you might skip it and move to another chapter. If you think in scenes, you can skip to a new scene.

If you think about scenes rather than chapters, if you keep each scene in a Scrivener file instead of a chapter, you can concentrate more on that basic building block, and you free yourself to reorganize and rearrange in smaller bits. You start to think more about your scenes and sequels and make sure they work, rather than thinking about your chapters.

Writing scenes and ignoring chapters can also help you plow through the story while keeping your inner critic in check. If you tell your story without structuring it like a book, you free yourself to write that crappy first draft without the additional mental pressure that comes with writing a "book." You're just writing. A story or a project or whatever is much easier to grasp than that monumental book concept. Just get it down and structure it later. Let it be messy. It might even be helpful to use a simple editor that discourages you from thinking about your formatting, like some of the distraction-free writing programs that are growing in popularity.

Later, when you revise (I recommend waiting until a draft near the final one), you can put in your chapter breaks. You might discover that you can come up with more effective chapter breaks if you wait. Like cliffhangers? Break your chapter mid-scene, or between the scene and the sequel.

Try this approach, especially if you struggle with structure or plot. Enjoy the freedom it gives you.