Category Archives: Critique

A Matter of Queries and Representation

What a week and a half it’s been!

I apologize in advance for any meandering, poor spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors you may find in this post. I don’t sleep well on a normal day (what is a normal day anyway?). The past 10 days my abilities to ward off restful sleep have been exceptional. This is a superpower you do NOT want.

Before I get into my big news (and it’s big, let me tell you, it’s BIG), let me give you a bit of background.

I don’t query randomly. Every single agent that I’ve ever queried is someone that I genuinely think would be a great fit for both my writing and, more importantly, me. That’s of course all based on the limited information I can gather by Googling, reading interviews, stalking on Twitter, and chatting them up.

There are a LOT of fantastic agents out there, of all stripes (and spots, and paisley, and I suppose houndstooth…).

That said, everything has to click in both directions. I have enough rejections from those same agents citing “wonderful writing/world building/characters/other words describing stories” but they just didn’t “make the connection” (or some variant thereof) to wallpaper my office and some surrounding surfaces.

They came fast and fairly consistently at first. I’d query, and then receive a rejection the next day or week.

I went back and rewrote my base query letter (I tweaked it a little for every agent). Responses went from generic forms to personalized responses (not all of them, but some). I even had a few requests for partial submissions.

Following that path I continue to tweak and tinker my query, all the while continuing to get further input on CROW’S BLOOD from my awesome Alpha/Beta Readers (including my wonderful wife, who put up with so MANY drafts) and Critique Partners (Colten,
Rachel, and Clare) and worked to make it better.

I entered CROW’S BLOOD in contests. You know the best part about contests? The community and support that comes out of them. They’re a fixed point. Everyone entering is (in theory) at the same point of their writing process and/or career as you are. They know what you’re going through, they’re doing it too.

Renee Ahdieh chose to mentor me in Brenda Drake‘s Pitch Wars. With her helpful pokes and prods I polished CROW’S BLOOD even further. Trimming out a few scenes that were so necessary in my head (I’d done so much world building to support them!) that weren’t actually needed in the book. She’s also a master at spotting my Shatner Commas and teaching me to identify them as well (I’ve removed 3 from this paragraph alone).

Last week I got wind of an agent I really liked reading my full… MY FULL!!! Excitement warred with dread. What if he didn’t like it? What if I didn’t stick the landing? I wanted to scream (politely) “If you find anything drastic, I’ll fix it!”. But I didn’t. Because I am a professional! (stop laughing!)

I waited, and slept poorly, and waited.

Thursday was a normal day (there’s that “normal” word again). Things teetered on the edge of going oh-so-perfectly and/or blowing up spectacularly at my day job. I was packing up to go home when my phone sounded the “email in the writing mailbox” notification (it doesn’t say that, but it is distinctive).

It was an Offer of Representation! He wanted to have “The Call”.

I hyperventilated for the first (and hopefully last) time in my life. I had an offer! From an agent!!! I remember thinking “Ok I need to get my head on straight before I reply so I don’t come off as a complete idiot…” I barely remember the drive home.

After dinner (I have no idea what, or if, I ate) I painstakingly crafted my reply. It took me 35 minutes to write and edit that email.

“I’d love to chat.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that was about the level of awesome I was functioning at). We scheduled for the next morning.

The call was awesome. I acted like a complete noob while trying to be all professional and cool. The agent in question handled the situation like I was a sane and perfectly functioning adult.

He answered all of my questions and asked a few of his own (which I think/hope I answered).  I let him know I had some other Fulls out and needed a week to get those settled before I signed (because it’s the right thing to do), which he was completely cool with. We ended the call, and I sat there, stunned, for a good 30 minutes before reaching out to the other agents with my full.

Here we are, a week after that call. I’ve badgered several agents with questions and clarifications, and I’ve communicated and settled everything with each and every agent that had my full, a partial, or even a query. I won’t go into details on all of that here, they’re not the point.

Today, I’m proud/pleased/excited to say:

I am now represented by Leon Husock of the L. Perkins Agency!

P.S. Leon said to save some of my celebratory antics for when we sell CROW’S BLOOD.
To which I say:
Leon, this is nothing. When that happens, the world won’t know what hit it!

I’m going to sleep now.

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Filed under Agent, Alpha Readers, BookB, Critique, Ego, family, Feedback, Grammar/Spelling, Id, Motivation, Query, Research, Revision, Validation

Don’t Ever Stop!

So… This little thing called PitchWars happened. It’s what triggered this particular post, but it’s not what this post is about so I’ll cover it very briefly.

It’s a contest where writers submit their first ~250 words and a Query to the four mentors of their choice and hope to get selected. In short (because I’m rubbish at being brief) I was selected by the Awefantabulous Renee Ahdieh.

Renee is exactly what I want and more importantly need in a mentor. Her feedback has helped me add layers of depth to CROW’S BLOOD that I knew were missing, I just couldn’t see where. I’ve learned some of my pet phrases, identified some comma issues I have, and so much more, and I’ve exterminated them with prejudice.

Anyway!

Seven weeks later, our part in PitchWars wrapped on January 22nd as it went to the Agent Round. The first 250 words were posted with a 35 word pitch (here in case you’re interested), in hopes of Agents commenting and making requests.

It’s those requests that bring me to the point of this post. I had 0 requests. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Let me tell you a bit about how this little writer’s ego works: I’m a brash, cocky, confident bastard. Except when I’m not, which is often. The key is that I try not to let that side show to the world at large too much. The only person who sees that side of me most often (my wife) does a great job of propping me up so I can continue being the confident bastard that I am.

I’d be lying if I said getting zero requests didn’t sting. It cut pretty deep. Those are my words! Right there, with that zero looking me in the eye, I could have quit. Packed it all in and reclaimed my TV and video games. I could have given up the dream and driven my wonderful wife insane.

I could have listened to the mean voice in the back of my head that kept whispering “Zero, that’s how many people give a damn about your words. That’s what they’re worth. That’s what your worth. Give it up. Go home. Loser!

I’ve heard that voice before. That’s the voice that comes around any time I put myself out there, whether I’m public speaking, writing, tweeting, or posting on my blog. I don’t like that voice. I made the decision long ago not to listen to that voice. That voice is an asshole. The things it says aren’t true and are designed to cut us where it hurts the most. That voice is borne of fear.

We all have that voice. The difference between those who go on and those who fold isn’t a matter of skill, or worth, or ego. It’s a matter of will.

So here’s what I have to say, not only to those who didn’t get requests in PitchWars, but to those who have ever queried, or submitted, or done anything that brought around that voice:

Don’t. Ever. Stop.

Do what you love, whether it’s writing, drawing, dancing, singing, building life-size models of X-Wings out of Lego, whatever it is, as long as you love it (and it doesn’t hurt anything).

As for PitchWars… Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! I’ve learned so much, and met so many wonderful, dedicated, and helpful people.

Until next time, I’m going to go write and revise, because that’s what I do, and I love doing it.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.” – The Bene Gesserit

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Filed under Agent, BookB, Character, Contest, Critique, deadlines, Editor, Ego, family, Feedback, Grammar/Spelling, Learning, MacBook Pro, Motivation, Pitch, Query, Revision, Twitter, Validation

An Open Letter to all PitchWars Mentors and Mentees (from a Mentee)

For the past few years Brenda Drake has run a crazy level contest (over 2,700 submissions/675 entrants)  on her blog called PitchWars. Let me just steal some words from her description:

Pitch Wars is a contest where published/agented authors, editors, or interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer suggestions to shine it up for agents. The mentors also critique the writer’s pitch to get it ready for the agent round. Writers send applications (query and first page of manuscript) to the four mentors that best fit their work. The mentors then read all their applications and choose the writer they want to mentor for the next five weeks. Then we hold an agent round with over a dozen agents making requests.

Sounds pretty awesome doesn’t it? Well, as someone who was cherry-picked by a ninja-Mentor this year (the AMAZING Renee Ahdieh) with CROW’S BLOOD, I can confirm that it most definitely is. I’m hard at work based on her editorial/critique notes. It’s keeping me quite busy.

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen a LOT of Mentors tweeting and commenting that they hope their Mentees don’t hate them for being too harsh or nit-picky with their notes. I have a single word response to that: Impossible!

So, Mentors:

First: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I say that from the bottom of my heart. Even if you’re not my Mentor and we’re technically competing against each other: Thank you! You’re awesome, amazing, and wonderful people to be doing what you’re doing.

Now, onto the rest of it.

Don’t pull your punches! We understand that they’re thrown with the best intentions (ok, so maybe that’s not the greatest metaphor). Keep giving it to us straight and professional, we can handle it. We’re not made of fine gossamer glass.

You have to trust that we know our work isn’t perfect, or we wouldn’t have entered PitchWars in the first place. Moreover we know that you know our work isn’t perfect. You got a look at it before you picked us. In many cases you saw more than the 5-page sample from the original submission.

You’re giving your time and effort, not to mention expertise and insider knowledge to help us get our work into the best shape possible in a limited window of time. There isn’t time to pussy-foot around playing nice. We need to get the job done.

On the flip-side: Mentees:

First: Congratulations, you were selected by a Mentor as either a primary or an alternate. That means you’ve got some chops. Take a few moments, pat yourself on the back, and inflate your ego.

Done? Good. There’s a lot of work to do.

There’s a certain level of trust every Mentee should be bringing to the table. Trust that we’re in good hands and that every note that comes across that table is an effort by our Mentor to improve our work.

That said, the bulk of the hard work should fall on our shoulders. It’s our book. This is our shot. We can’t afford to miss it. Every last one of us should be taking this opportunity and holding on to it, squeezing it for all it’s worth to get at the soft golden centre.

If your mentor gives you some hard truths that’s a good thing, they’re paying attention. We all have our natural talents, those bits of writing that just flow, those aspects of the work that we could sink ourselves into for days (plotting, dialog, world building, description, etc.). But we all have our weaknesses that we can only compensate for with craft (Shatner Commas, making that character that we know inside and out feel real, punctuation in general >.<).

Craft = Work. In many cases Craft = Hard Work. That hard work is why you’re here. If your writing was perfect you wouldn’t need a Mentor. So if your Mentor shines a light on the rust and broken bits of your story, don’t complain.

Roll up your sleeves. It’s time to get to work.

-Alex

P.S. Renee has been fantastically professional, if the other Mentors are half as good as she is there’s going to be one hell of a fine showing at the Agent round.

P.P.S. I’m aware I could use the word protege, but Mentee is a word, regardless of what my browser, word processor, or operating system say. There are many reputable sources.

P.P.P.S. At some point we need to have a long talk about split infinitives.

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Filed under Contest, Critique, deadlines, Editor, Ego, Grammar/Spelling, Learning, Pitch, Query, Revision, Validation

Thiiiiiiiis close!

The last five days have been harrowing, dreadful, bone-chilling days. With my latest revision complete and polished, and with my Query Letter and Pitch polished for #PitchMadness, I really only had one thing missing from my arsenal: A Synopsis.

Let me define that little eight-letter-word for you as best I can: 
Synopsis [si-nop-sis] (n):
  1. A brief or condensed statement giving a general view of some subject.
  2. An evil  creation of agents and editors for the express purpose of torturing writers.
  3. A soul-sucking vampire in word form.

There’s no perfect consensus in the writing world on what exactly a synopsis is but this is what I’ve found to be most often repeated:

  • 1-5 single-spaced pages
  • Block formatted paragraphs (no indents)
  • Double-space between paragraphs (a single blank line)
  • No smaller than 10pt font
  • Outline ONLY the main plot of your book
From what I’ve seen, 2 pages is the standard length for an agent (at least with the agents I intend to query in my first round that require them).
Sounds easy enough right? Just take your ~60,000 – ~115,000 word (240 – 460 page) book and boil it down to ~1,000 words. Oh, and keep it interesting! Remember: You’re selling your idea here!
Simple right?
ARGH!!!
So here’s what I did: 
I went through my manuscript, skimming chapter by chapter, and making notes of the major points of that chapter. I tried to keep it short and ended up with around 2,900 words.
Then I went through and mercilessly cut anything that didn’t directly have anything to do with the main plot. 1,900 words.
I pared, whittled, reworded, and tweaked every sentence, revising from my quickly written notes to the most sparse text I could get while still maintaining clarity and some semblance of flow. 1,300 words.
I did that two more times, ending at just over 1,000 words, which fit nicely within 2 pages at 10pt Arial and 10pt Times New Roman.
Then I called it a day.
Now, that ordeal is done until I’ve had someone other than me, who’s read the last revision, go over it and tell me what I’ve done wrong.
I have to apologize and thank my wife and children for bearing with me and giving me the time to work on this and a sounding board for my complaints, and my friends and followers on Twitter who have had to deal with me exploding/ranting/whining/begging over the past five days. I’m sorry if I’ve gotten on any of your nerves.
– Alex

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Filed under Agent, BookB, Critique, Editor, Grammar/Spelling, Learning, Pitch, Query, Real Life™, Revision, Story Elements, Twitter, Word Count

So… Yeah. This writing stuff is work!

See the progress meter down to the right? That’s right: Revision 4 is complete!

It took very near two full months to go through this revision, and that’s with someone else’s notes guiding me and helping me along. A big THANK YOU (again) to my Critique Partners  Colton Hibbs, Clare Mitchell, and Rachel Russell! Rev 4 would have been a whole lot faster, and mostly useless without you. I can only hope I’ve lived up to your notes, direction, and help.

That said, I didn’t cave on everything suggested, and not just because there were conflicted opinions between my CP’s. Rather because I didn’t necessarily agree and writing isn’t a democracy!

I’ve also posted a few things here and there for critique: A 35 word pitch and the first 250 words of the manuscript for #PitchMadness. You have NO idea how hard it is to fit the concept of an entire book into 35 words while keeping it compelling and interesting! NO IDEA!!! (unless you’ve done it with your own).

In undertaking these public critiques I kept getting one piece of feedback over and over. You see, CROW’S BLOOD is a book about…

WAITAMINUTE!! I have a 35 word summary to tell you what it’s about. What am I doing writing it from scratch?

A noblewoman is murdered and Flynn, a talented thief, is being framed. Hunted by monstrous Inquisitors and Royal Guards, Flynn needs to pull one last daring heist to catch the killer and clear his name.
Do you see the problem? I do… now. How could I not.  
Here’s a hint:
ARGH!!!!
So, back to an old problem that I’ve covered before, names! There is no part of writing that induces panic in me faster than coming up with a name for a character. It has to fit! Worse still, this is my Main Character we’re talking about!!! CRISIS!!!!!!
So I’ve wrestled, and whined, and annoyed my friends and loved ones to the point where they want me to go lock myself in a room for hours on end (so I have!).  I’ve come up with a new name for my MC. Everyone, say hello to my new MC, he’s identical to the old MC with a different name: Ren! It’s short, simple, mono-syllabic (which I like for this character). In Old English it means Raven. In Welsh it means Ruler. And in Japanese it means Lily (and is a boy’s name).
.
.
.
F###!
FYI: For those not in the know about the character Flynn in Disney’s Tangled: HIS REAL NAME IS EUGENE!!!

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Filed under Alpha Readers, BookB, Contest, Critique, Feedback, Pitch, Query, Revision, Word Count

One Third of the Way

I’m well past my due date for checking in. I haven’t even blogged in July!

That little progress bar at the right is moving along though. Slowly but surely, and as fast as it can with only an hour or two on most nights.

I’ve just come back from visiting my father in Winnipeg, which is a truly, uh, flat place. He’s lived out there most of my life, doing his thing, which I have to admit is doing a lot of good for a lot of people. I know my kids miss seeing more of him though. I do too.

Winnipeg has one thing I definitely do NOT like: Mosquitoes. Mosquitoes that were likely the cause of any and every mass extinction since they came about. That mosquito in amber in Jurassic Park? Yeah, my money is on IT being the reason dinosaurs were wiped out.

Pterodactyl-mosquitoes aside, we had fun spending time with family and seeing the sights out there.

I’ve updated the Movie List a few times recently. Between writing and other Real Life™ stuff this year I haven’t seen nearly as many movies as I’d have liked. I’m hearing that Pacific Rim is good fun though, so I’m working on seeing that.

On the writing/revising side of things (because, really, that’s the point of this blog), things are going relatively well… I think. That’s the problem with being a first time writer, and a really good reason to have Critique Partners: You’re too close to your own work, and you simply don’t know what you’re doing wrong!

No! Really! One of the major points of this revision is to give more depth to Flynn, the MC. I know I’m giving some more depth, but is it enough? Can there be too much? I really have no idea…

So I plan to forge onwards until this revision is done, then send it to my Alpha Readers and CP’s (and 1 or 2 new sets of eyes) for more feedback. I hope that they won’t shun me…

I do know that I’ve cleaned up some of what my CP’s and I found were real pain points plot/story wise. I only hope I haven’t opened more in doing so.

As for a deadline? I aim to be done this pass before the end of August, mostly because at the end of September I’ll be reaching a year on this book and I think I should be moving faster.

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Filed under Alpha Readers, BookB, Character, Critique, deadlines, Feedback, Learning, Real Life™, Revision, Voice, Word Count

Doing My Homework

I have 3 full critiques back on CROW’S BLOOD, for which I must give heartfelt “Thank you!” to my Epic Critique Partners: Colton Hibbs, Clare Mitchell, and Rachel Russell.

Not only did each of you trudge your way through my last revision, you took the time and effort to provide me with detailed and insightful criticism. Some of it is so obvious now that you’ve pointed it out that I don’t know how I didn’t get it right the first time. Your notes will make my work better (if I’m up to the task), and that’s awesome!

All of them (and the partial Critique I received from the lovely and talented Kat Ellis) highlighted one pretty major problem: It takes far too long to connect with my main character Flynn (and even longer in some cases to like him at any level). As he’s the main POV, that’s… awful.

Here’s the thing: I know these characters, every one of them. You can ask me a question and I can quickly tell you how each one would answer it. What sort of things they would like and dislike. How they would react under certain circumstances. I can even describe the mannerisms, idioms, and rhythms of their speech. From my main character, down the the smallest side character, (yes, even to the one guard that sucker punches my POV character).

I can’t tell you what they had for breakfast (unless it’s relevant), but I can get inside their heads if the need arises.  I didn’t do this by building out detailed character sheets or writing throw-away scenes with them (though I did that for some more prominent characters).

It’s just something I do whenever a new character is created. I put myself in their shoes/boots/socks/sandals and work my way through them. What motivates them. What are their goals in life. It usually comes pretty quickly.

Problem is: It wasn’t coming across on the page. So what was wrong?

That’s where the homework came in. I’ve spent the better part of my evenings reading, and doing exercises from a workbook on Deep POV, while it’s not perfect, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything in there. It’s written by a professional who certainly seems to know what they’re doing (at least considerably better than I do).

The best part is the exercises. I’ve read plenty of websites describing and giving examples of how to give good character, and great POV, but none of them went so far as to give relevant exercises in a work-book format. Something about it all just “clicked” (I think).

So I went through that workbook (it’s only 60 or so pages), did all the exercises, and took a look at my own Work In Progress. What. A. Mess. I have “tells” everywhere (something I tried desperately to avoid and clean up last pass), narrative separation/distance, and my POV character does indeed seem flat and voiceless (he’s NOT like that in my head). I have my work cut out for me to reel this sucker in to a deep POV.

Needless to say, it’s going to take a while for me to hit my stride on this revision pass, and I may reach out to some of my CPs earlier on (if they’re amenable to looking over some small chunks) to see if I’m on the right track, or ruining what good I had. I’ve spent most of this evening (my first night back at revising my own work) and have only worked through the first 5 or 6 paragraphs.

Like I said, slow going. But I’m trying to be careful with my new powers, to ensure that I employ them for the forces of good.

As for copy edits, and Canadian (not “British”) spelling vs. American spelling, and my blatant and continued misuse of commas… I’ll get to them, once I’ve sorted out my critical character issues.

– Alex

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Filed under Alpha Readers, BookB, Character, Critique, Editor, Ego, Grammar/Spelling, Id, Learning, Revision, Viewpoint, Voice