Unfinished Business

Last Christmas I only asked for one gift. Just one. I was thigh-deep in Sea Story brainstorming and I wanted a complementary project to fill my year with, so I asked my dad for a model ship kit. Being a model ship builder himself, Dad was enthusiastic. He even painted me this little pirate’s flag for me to hang when I was done:

(See my anchor necklace? Isn't it pretty?)
(See my anchor necklace? Isn’t it pretty?)

I was enthusiastic, too. I even included it in my 2013 resolutions. 2013 would be the Year Of The Sea.

My 2013 Resolutions
My 2013 Resolutions

The observant among you will note the model ship is the only resolution not crossed off. Yeah.

2013 was indeed the Year Of The Sea. After putting aside the Ghost Story in February, I sunk into the Sea Story and stayed there all year. There’s this line in my MS about the sea being all-consuming. It’s a little dramatic for the current context, but the Sea Story really did consume me in the most wonderful way.

No guarantees this line will remain.
No guarantees this line will remain.

All year I’ve felt this terrible guilt at my poor, unfinished ship. I even wrote it into my manuscript. Anna’s biggest regret is that she never finished the model ship she started building with her father when she was a kid. She spends the whole book trying to fix the unfinished ship after it is accidentally crushed. If these scenes are particularly poignant, its because they come from my own fear of disappointing my dad (and myself).

Poor Anna!
Oh, Anna.

As someone who views life as a series of finished goals, ending a year without achieving all my resolutions is a difficult thing. I had such plans. Where did I go wrong? But see, as well as being the Year Of The Sea, 2013 was also the year of Becoming, which sounds weird, but bear with me.

2013 was a wonderful writing year for me on the whole, but the start sucked. This was the year I almost gave up writing altogether. I couldn’t do it anymore, striving and striving towards a goal that was completely out of my control (publication).

I was tired of being an aspiring writer, tired of tying all my hopes to a few carefully addressed emails once every 18 months. Tired of trends and agent wishlists and endless requested revisions. Don’t get me wrong, none of these things are bad, but in early 2013 I was a person who defined herself based on the goals she achieved. Not being published, coming up on four years of hard work, just about killed me.

So, I decided to stop. Not stop writing, but stop aspiring. Stop defining myself by other people’s reactions to my work and just accept it: Published or not, I am a writer. Not an aspiring writer. Just a writer. That’s not a goal I’m striving towards, it’s just a thing that I am. I’m completely in-progress, but that’s okay. I have so much to learn. That’s okay.

2013 was the year I stopped aspiring and became.

I spent a lot of the year feeling guilty about that model ship, but I’m not anymore. I didn’t finish it in 2013, but I did start it. It’s in progress and it’s important to me and it will get done, dammit. That little painted pirate flag will fly.

People ask me what my writing goals are and the only answer I can give is this: to write. I’ve stopped tying my happiness to an end goal. I’ve found satisfaction and purpose in the journey, and this year has been so juicy and full and joyous because of it.

I’ll just have to wait and see what 2014 brings.

Peace and Love to you all this New Years!

Highway 1, California. Enjoying the journey.
Highway 1, California. Enjoying the journey.
Unfinished Business

Already Living The Dream

It’s the end of another hockey season. My team made it to the finals but lost the Grand Final against their main rivals throughout the season, which is exactly what happened last year. But this year felt different to me. Last year, losing that last game was absolutely heart-breaking — I could hardly bear to watch it. This year, I gave a cheerful shrug and patted a few friends on the back, sad to see the season go, but happy to have experienced it.

The difference was a realisation I had sometime in the last year, to do with hockey, but also to do with my writing. The realisation was this: The Goodall Cup is what every hockey player is aiming for, but that’s not why they’re here. That’s not why they give up every weekend for a job they don’t get paid for, that’s not why they leave their families overseas or commute vast distances to attend practice twice a week. They’re not here to lift a trophy, because if they were, eight (seven this year) teams worth of players would leave having wasted a great deal of time.

The reason they give up their winters every year is to play hockey. Every player who shows up, whether they play for the Sydney Ice Dogs or the Canberra Knights, is doing what he loves to do. They’re already living the dream, and they don’t need a pretty trophy to prove that.

I’m a fan and I wanted my team to win, but I don’t show up at the rink each week for that reason alone. I’m there to watch hockey. Win or lose, I’m there to see the game I love.

This time last year, while watching my team come just short of winning the Goodall Cup, I was also submitting a novel to agents. I’d worked on this novel for a year and a half at that stage, and upon receiving a revision request, would work on it for six months more. That novel didn’t end up getting me an agent — I had lots of reasons to hope, but none ended up getting me over the line. And I’ll admit, I was heart-broken. Shattered. Cast adrift.

But this year I’m revising another novel, and things feel different. At some point over the last year I realised the reason I spend hours each week — late nights, mornings, weekends and lunch breaks — writing and working on my craft isn’t to get an agent. It isn’t to publish a book or win some sort of invisible trophy. If it was, I would have given up years ago.

Those things are pretty goals, and I still want to achieve them, but they’re not the reason I do it. I write because I love to write. I’m already living the dream.

The work is its own reward. We only fail when we lose sight of that.

I also write because I love biscotti.
I also write because I love biscotti.

 

Already Living The Dream

How to Benefit From a Pitch Contest Without Entering

I’d never heard of agent pitch contests when I first started querying. I’m sure they existed — Miss Snark’s First Victim started in 2005 — but there certainly weren’t as many back then. These days, it seems every second writer blog is hosting a contest. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it pays to be cautious. Natalie C. Parker and Dahlia Adler have already written great posts on things to consider before entering a pitch contest, (go read them — I’ll wait) so I won’t cover ground they’ve already traveled, but I want to talk about how you can benefit from a pitch contest even if you have no plans to enter.

First, a story. Before I queried my last novel I had a bunch of people critique my query: critique partners, strangers on forums, my husband and even non-writer friends. I wrote a dozen versions of my query and stared at each of them until my eyes were dry and I could no longer tell a semi-colon from an ellipsis. Most of the responses I received were, “It’s good” or “I can’t see anything wrong with it”, so I thought I was ready to query. I was wrong.

From the first ten queries I sent out, I think I received one partial request. That’s it. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. Was it my book? Was it my query? Or was I just querying the wrong agents? No one could tell me. So, I decided I’d try a pitch contest. That contest was Michelle Krys and Ruth Lauren Steven‘s Christmas in July pitchfest. In this contest, Michelle and Ruth wrangled a slush pile of hundreds of entries down to a short list of 30, which were then perused by agents. I was one of the 351 entrants. I didn’t get picked.

By that stage I was getting pretty bummed about the whole process, and I could have given up right then. Instead, I decided to try a different strategy and I’m so glad I did. You see, there is so much to be learned from a pitch contest, even (especially) if you don’t make it through the to agent round. I didn’t get picked, but I kept following the contest anyway. What I learned completely changed the way I approached querying.

Here are a few important things you can get out of agent pitch contests as an observer:

1. The chance to read queries as an agent would:

Query contests are a valuable peek into an agent’s inbox. The overall quality may be higher, as the contestants tend to be the kind of writers who do their research, but you can still gain a good overview of what an agent sees when reviewing the slush. Some contests allow you to see all entries — the ones that make it through to the agent round and the ones that don’t. But even the contests that only post the winning entries can give you an understanding of what stands out to an agent.

Reading pitch entries as an objective observer can help you identify the elements of a good query in a way that having your query critiqued a dozen times might never do. What makes you stop reading? What hooks you? Would you request any of the entries if you were an agent? For me, I found that unless the story was seriously high concept, the two elements that stood out to me first and foremost were character and voice. What I didn’t care about? The minutiae of the plot.

2. A better understanding of the market:

As a querying writer it pays to have an understanding of trends: What’s selling? What’s overdone? If your story is part of a trend, are you on the forefront, breaking new ground, or are you at the tail end, at the point at which it’s more important than ever to stand apart? The difficulty is knowing what the trends are. You can’t rely on the books on the shelves, because those were often acquired years ago. What you need to know is, what is being submitted right now? What kinds of stories are swimming through the slush alongside yours?

The manuscript I was querying was a ghost story. It wasn’t until I read the Christmas in July entries that I began to understand how many other ghost stories were being queried by other writers at the same time. It wasn’t enough to rely on the ghostly element to sell it — I had to show how my story was different than all the other ghost stories out there. I could never have done that if I hadn’t had access to pitch contests.

3. The chance to see what kinds of stories specific agents are requesting:

Querying writers love agent wish lists. The problem is, these wish lists are often out of date, and may not reflect what an agent is actually requesting right this moment. Is an agent requesting a lot of thrillers? Maybe your YA thriller could be a good fit. Are they shying away from all things paranormal? Maybe your kraken-shapeshifter manuscript isn’t for them.

But more than this, seeing what an agent requests can be a good indicator of whether they are a good fit for you. You want an agent who will represent you throughout your career, not just for this one book. It’s important that your tastes line up so you can have hope they will love all your books as much as they love this one. If an agent is requesting a whole lot of  stories that look less than enthralling while passing over your favorites, maybe this is a warning sign you should heed.

4. The skills to write an awesome query letter:

By reading as many queries as you can, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, and identifying the parts of your story that stand out in the crowd, you will be fully equipped to write one kick-ass query letter.

After the contest was over, I ripped up my old query and started over. I looked closely at my story and picked out the elements I thought made it stand apart from other stories in its genre. Instead of writing a short plot synopsis, I focused on character and voice, and wrote my shortest query ever.

I ended up with a request rating of closer to 60-70%, and the number of full requests I received was well into the double digits by the time I finished querying. That manuscript didn’t get me an agent but it allowed me to make some valuable contacts, and I can sleep easy knowing I gave it the best possible chance I could.

I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should enter a pitch contest, but for me their greatest value lies in the glimpse they provide into an agent’s decision-making progress. You can see what other people’s queries look like — the good and the bad — and you can learn to make your story stand out. Don’t make my mistake and be satisfied with a query that inspires mere shrugs. You’re a writer. Write something that shines.

My first sunset over the ocean, and that's one off the old bucket list.
My first sunset over the ocean, and that’s one off the old bucket list.
How to Benefit From a Pitch Contest Without Entering

Musings on Resolution

I’m never sure how much to share about my writing/querying journey on here. I don’t want to appear unprofessional, but at the same time one of my favorite things to do is read through the archives of author blogs from before they were published, to read about the struggles and the journey, the doubts and the eventual success.

Very briefly, I started querying Restless last year and very quickly stopped after receiving some professional feedback that made me rethink the entire novel. I just finished a HUGE rewrite. It took me six months. Among the many things changed, the climax and resolution are quite different than they were before. I won’t tell you exactly what changed, but one particular thread did not end as happily as it did in the first draft, and it started me thinking about resolution.

As well as that, I played a game a few weekends back called Heavy Rain. It’s a fairly unique game in that there are numerous possible endings. You play as four different characters as they attempt to save a young boy from a serial killer, and according to your split-second decisions made at high-pressure moments, not all of them may last to the end. In fact, in some endings, the killer is not found and the boy is not saved.

In the ending I got, the boy was saved, the killer died, but the protagonist also died just before the end of the game. It all hinged on one of those split-second decisions that I didn’t realize was so important at the time. I didn’t get the perfect ending, and I was surprised by how much that devastated me. I don’t get that sort of reaction on reading a novel that ends on a bittersweet note. I think it’s about responsibility — in real life, and in this game, you’re always thinking about what could have been. What could I have done differently? Is it my fault? Why didn’t I…?

Interestingly, the next weekend I went back and replayed that pivotal moment. I got the perfect ending, the protagonist lived and it felt… hollow. It didn’t feel right. On reflection, that first ending really was the perfect ending. There were consequences to my/the character’s choices. The ending was tragic, but it was also hopeful. It was bittersweet, not sickly sweet.

I  think as readers and as consumers of entertainment, we want to see our lives reflected. Even when we’re reading a book about supernatural creatures, we still want it to ring true in an emotional sense. I may have felt differently ten years ago, but I don’t want the characters to get everything they want. I want them to lose sometimes, and I want them to learn from their loss and grow.

I’ve made a very particular choice with the ending of my novel that not all readers are going to like. It might take some tinkering to make it work, but I’m pretty convinced it’s the right choice, for my book and for my characters. A few years ago I would have written it differently, but these days what I’m seeking is the emotional truth. I’m looking for hard decisions and endings that aren’t perfect, but feel real.

Maybe that will work against me, but I’m hoping my readers (even if those readers are just friends and family) will come to the same realization I did while playing Heavy Rain. Sometimes the most satisfying ending isn’t the one where everything ends up happily. Sometimes the most satisfying ending is about losing, and growing, and learning to move on.

I love this photo of a storm rolling into Death Valley. Oh, wasn't that an exciting drive.
I love this photo of a storm rolling into Death Valley. Oh, wasn’t that an exciting drive.

 

Musings on Resolution

Flotsam and Jetsam

It’s been a little while since I posted last. In that time I’ve wallowed in a new story idea and I’ve completed another draft of Restless, which is now off with crit partners. This means I’ve got a bit of time on my hands, and it’s time to start making decisions about the Sea Story. I have my characters, my plot and my setting, but there is still one element I haven’t quite figured out. To me, it’s the most important part: Atmosphere.

All writers face the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s a hard question to answer, because as far as I can tell, ideas are the flotsam and jetsam of the mind. They are the waste product after all your experiences, all the things you see and hear each day, have been sorted and cataloged in your brain. They are the mulch of our lives.

There are so many ways I could answer that question, but there is one answer I think would confuse people. I get my ideas from video games.

Not the core ideas, mind you. Not the plot or character or setting. But the most important part: Atmosphere.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I can’t start a story until I have the atmosphere down. The few times I’ve tried, I’ve lost interest in the story pretty quick. But honestly, I never knew this about myself until I discovered video games, or one video game in particular.

Now, I know I won’t be able to convince you to play the game itself, but here’s a sample of the music:

True, I could probably just listen to some music, but there is something so immersive about video games. In a way it’s like my post on wallowing. For a few hours, or a few days, you can get lost in this other world.

The game above was how I landed on the atmosphere for Restless. The video game I will be playing this weekend, and which I hope will help me nail down the atmosphere for the Sea Story, is called Heavy Rain. I think you can hear why:

And once I have my atmosphere, there will be nothing left but… to write!

I’m excited and nervous and I’m trying not to think of how long it will take me to write another book. A book is such a huge commitment. You really need to be sure. You have to know it’s the story you can live with for the next year or more. And the great thing? I’m certain. I’ve been unsure with other stories,  but not this one. THIS is the book I’m meant to write.

I just hope I can do it well.

P.S. For the curious among you, Flotsam and Jetsam are different kinds of shipwreck. I think that’s kind of apt, don’t you?

Flotsam and Jetsam

Adventures At Sea

So, big first week of 2013. I’m determined to make it a great one, and it has been so far.

Things I’ve done:

Colour: Lagoona Teal
Colour: Lagoona Teal

Painted my bookshelves. I’ve been mulling over what shade of blue/green to pick for months, and I thin I landed on a good one. That’s the first bookshelf, partially packed. The bottom shelf you can see there is going to be my “To be read” shelf, and one of my 2013 goals will be to read everything on that shelf. I’m starting with Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb. The second bookshelf is still in the garage because it had a little accident in the wind and now must be repaired. Boo.

Sailboat!
Sailboat!
Beth in her natural environment.
Beth in her natural environment.

I went sailing! It was a dolphin cruise in Port Stephens (I feel so very lucky to live so close to such a beautiful place). I’m never happier than when I’m by the water, and so, as you can imagine, I was pretty dang happy. Also, research. Kinda. The Husband and I have decided that when we are rich and famous we will buy a big catamaran and we will live in it sometimes, traveling the world. We will also have jetskis, because jetskis are awesome.

And this happened:

End Draft 1 (or 7 if you're counting that way)
End Draft 1 (or 7 if you’re counting that way)

It’s a good 25k shorter than the original version, which is good because I expect it to grow another 10k in revisions, and I reckon 65k is easier to revise than 90k. So how much longer before I resubmit? A couple of months, give or take. I can’t wait. The sea story beckons…

This afternoon I had a look at the model ship I’m going to be making. And I cried. I decided to build a model ship so I would have another form of artistic expression other than writing, something to turn to when the writing isn’t going well. But… It’s going to be tough. Really tough. First job is to carve the hull out of a vaguely boat-shaped hunk of wood. I’ve never done anything like this and frankly I’m terrified.

Reminds me of revisions, actually.

So tell me, what did you do in your first week of 2013? Things going well so far? I hope so, but no despairing if they aren’t, okay? This guy says it all:

Adventures At Sea

How Baby Writers Become Big Writers

I’m a firm believer that the best way to grow as a writer, other than writing itself, is by living life. For one thing, how can we hope to adequately write about love and loss if we haven’t experienced it ourselves? But also, the world is full of stories. Every person is a storyteller. To learn to tell a good story, you need to immerse yourself in stories of all kinds. This is one of the reasons I don’t understand writers who say they don’t watch television or movies. My medium is always the written word, but I appreciate stories in all forms. I think watching good television can do just as much for your storytelling skills as reading a book.

There have been three things in recent years that have fundamentally changed who I am as a writer. I mean, there have been many more than three, but there are three I want to talk about.

The first is travel.

My first research trip

A few years ago, 2010 I think, I decided I was enough of a ‘real’ writer to go on a research trip. I wanted to write something creepy, so I picked the creepiest place I could think of to visit, my grandparent’s old place in Wiseman’s Ferry. I gathered my husband and a couple of friends and looked at a map. The Sydney Blue Mountains were kind of (not really) on the way and I’d never been so we decided to head there first.

The Blue Mountains took my breath away. The natural beauty is astounding, and the history, combined with the fog that blankets the place every night, gave the area a tremendous amount of atmosphere and mystery.

The next day we drove on to Wiseman’s Ferry, but it was Katoomba and the Blue Mountains that really stole my heart.

It was this trip that helped me understand one of my biggest drives as a writer and a reader. I’m not satisfied with a story unless it has a firm sense of place. Atmosphere and setting are often the first thing I know about my stories, and until I have that element, I can’t start. To me, setting is so much apart of the tone of the novel. I mean, think of Stephen King’s stories. The forests and towns and people of Maine are fundamental to all his novels. All my favorite stories have a tremendous sense of place.

Until I traveled to the Blue Mountains I really didn’t understand how much setting could affect my stories. Every trip I’ve taken since then has been about gathering ideas, getting a feel for places, understanding what makes places stand out. And now when I start a story I don’t have to waste time wondering why it just doesn’t feel right. I know it all comes down to setting.

The second thing that changed me as a writer is all because of my lovely husband, who introduced me to the world of video games.

My favorite game

The way I feel about video games is pretty similar to how I feel about TV. A story is a story and it’s all helpful to your development as a storyteller. But video games are different in that you are just that much more immersed in the world of the story. Watching TV is a passive activity, and yes, so is reading, but I think as writers we should strive for that video game-like immersion for the reader.

Laini Taylor referred to it as the fictional dream in reference to Stephanie Perkin’s Anna and the French Kiss (which I just read and HOLY MOLY).

I know I haven’t mastered it yet, but video games have helped me understand that feeling a little more. And the more I play games, watch TV and read books, the more I see what works and doesn’t work for me as a consumer of stories.

Lastly, I’ve spoken of my love of Veronica Mars. A lot. Well, that show taught me something that has fundamentally affected my writing.

Girl detective!

There’s this oft-told tale about the first season of Veronica Mars. All the way along, the writers were setting the scene for Veronica and her ex-boyfriend Duncan to get back together. But then Logan Echolls came along. Logan is not a nice guy. He has serious problems and he’s incredibly unlikeable. Veronica and Logan had serious chemistry.

What’s a writer to do? Follow the chemistry, of course.

When you’ve written something big it can be really hard to see past the words on the page. Even when you know something isn’t working, it’s so darn hard to press delete. But you need to follow the chemistry. Take an honest look at what you’ve written, get rid of what isn’t working and figure out how to make what DOES work just that much more awesome.

With this novel in particular, I’ve had to make some hard decisions. I’ve gotten rid of characters I loved because they didn’t work in the story (this would be an example of killing your darlings). I’m currently changing from dual perspective to single. In fact, the main character and concept I originally devised on that first trip to the Blue Mountains are completely different now.

Interestingly enough, the two things that have stayed the same are the setting and tone.

Veronica Mars taught me to follow the chemistry.

So, I’d love to know, what has televisions, games, books or living taught you about your writing?

 

 

How Baby Writers Become Big Writers