Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Extreme Makeover: The Big Build

Guest Post by Julie Mata

The word revision can mean a lot of different things. Maybe your manuscript just needs trimming. Maybe you need to knock down a few walls to provide better flow. Or maybe something more extreme is in order. Think big cranes and earthmovers.

When I finished my novel, Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens, it was roughly 41,000 words. I was convinced it was pretty close to perfect, especially after several agents asked to see the full manuscript. That’s when reality set in. They liked it but they wanted changes. Big changes. My knee-jerk reaction was to emit a shrill Ha! and do some serious flouncing. As I stewed and simmered, a nugget of wisdom hit me. Agents know what sells. Their job is to test the strength of plot hooks, to analyze character and voice and conflict. Usually, you have to pay for that kind of professional advice. And, it was good advice. So I started to revise.

One agent wished my story was “a bit longer and more complicated,” and she thought “some of the emotional situations weren't addressed well enough…” 
Yeah, it’s pretty vague, but I realized she was right. My story needed more… story. I began to hunt for places where I could add conflict. Those boys who tease one of Kate’s schoolmates? They begin teasing Kate too. And her best friend doesn’t just dump her. They have a big fight in the school hallway. I also ramped up the conflict between Kate and her mother. Each new addition gave me chances to have Kate reflect, to feel sorry or sad or vindicated. As I made the story “more complicated,” my main character came more to life.

Then, I reexamined my “emotional situations.” If the plot points are the bricks of a story, then emotion is the mortar. I had a lot of bricks and not enough mortar to hold it all tightly together. I wrote new scenes and more inner dialogue. In all, I added about 13,000 words. I decided it was ready, again.

I resubmitted to three agents. Each one found new reasons to decline it.  The agent who wanted more complications also passed, but she gave me one last suggestion. It was along the lines of, chop off your family room, move it to the other side of the house, and glue it back on. It meant substantially reworking my plot.  My first reaction was to emit a shrill… well, you know. I came around. Bottom line, she was right. It would improve the story. When I finished rebuilding, my manuscript had expanded to around 60,000 words.

I sent out a fresh round of query letters and found my wonderful agent, Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management. She sold it as part of a two-book deal to Disney Hyperion. With the help of good advice, I took a one-story house and added on a brand new addition, with more rooms and more levels. I flipped it, and it sold. So the next time you receive thoughtful criticism, feel free to emit a shrill “Ha!” Then, take a big step back and evaluate the feedback. Will it make your story stronger? If the answer is yes, do it. It may mean lopping and chopping. It may mean donning a construction helmet and undertaking a big build. But in the end, you’ll have a much stronger story with a bedrock foundation and, hopefully, a shiny new contract.

Julie Mata's debut middle grade novel, Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens, hits the bookshelves on May 20th. Julie co-own a film/video production business, where she works as the producer and writer. Previously, she pounded out copy as a television reporter, producer, and freelance writer. She has also owned chickens, although none were zombies, as far as she knows.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Come on Muse, Give me a Break

Guest post by Nancy Stewart

What is it about muses? I know they take their work seriously, and yet conjuring up mine can be quite a chore at times.

I almost always search for her at the computer. She’s usually there, but not today.  Sometimes she hides in my Favorites List.  But not today.  How about the Homepage?  Nope.  One more try my lists of guest posts.  Occasionally, she will transform herself into a bright new post from an old one.  Today, no such luck.

Not one to give up, I go to the gym.  Strangely enough, she hangs out there.  And usually her gym ideas are good ones, full of life and vigor.  She particularly likes the elliptical.  Actually, so do I.  But after 25 minutes of trying to coax her to visit, I give up and move to other machines where I’ve never seen her ply her magic. One lives in hope.

On the way home, I stop by the bookstore and congratulate myself on a stroke of genius.  She can’t not be there. It’s a muse kind of place, after all.  She’s not there.  Not even in the kids’ books section.  She’s always in the kids’ books section.  ‘Getting great ideas,’ I tell her, but she rejects that notion.
Ah, well.  I give up.  I’ve learned there’s no future in sleuthing after a muse that does not want to be detected.  So home I go.

I consider the computer a lost cause, so I opt for a glass of iced tea and a comfy chair.  And then, like a tiny bee buzzing in my brain, she’s here.  She speaks of Bella and Britt and dolphins, of a middle grade novel set in Africa, of a chapter book series.

My muse is such a tease.  But when she gets down to business, there’s no stopping her!  Today, I’m only happy she visited, threw out a couple of notions then left me to ruminate. 

What is it about muses?  I still haven’t figured out that answer.  But though they are fey and capricious creatures, this author is grateful to have one.

If you haven’t met yours, don’t worry!  Give her the time and opportunity to make an appearance.  Carry that little notebook.  You know.  The one that everyone says to take with you?  It’s crucial for dealing for a mischievous muse emergence.  Read lots of books, particularly the genre you’re most interested in writing.  It’s amazing how she can virtually pop off the page to infuse you with a brilliant idea.

Above all, while you wait for her, keep writing.  I’ve found that most muses appear when one writes and writes and doesn’t give up.  Taskmasters they may be, these little creatures know their stuff.  You’ll be delighted when yours finds you.

How much do you rely on your muse? Do you have any tricks to make her appear -- or to be productive without her? Share your experiences in the comments!

Nancy Stewart is the bestselling and award winning author of the four Bella and Britt Series books for children:  One Pelican at a Time (eighteen weeks on Amazon Bestselling List), Sea Turtle Summer (International Classics Gold Book Award), Bella Saves the Beach and Mystery at Manatee Key. Her book, Katrina and Winter:  Partners in Courage, is the authorized biography of Katrina Simpkins and her life changing relationship with Winter, the dolphin.   Pelican and Nancy were featured in the PBS Tampa special, GulfWatch.  A frequent speaker and presenter at writing conferences and schools throughout the United States, Nancy is also the U.S. chairwoman of a charity in Lamu, Kenya that assists girls furthering their education through high school.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Behind the Curtain: Going Hybrid

Guest post by Kory M. Shrum

No, not like some vampire-werewolf sexy-time. I’m talking about the moment that an author abandons traditional publishing only to fall into the dark and mysterious arms of self-publishing. Oh, the danger! The intrigue! It’s enough to make a girl’s heart race.

The decision to step away from traditional publishing might seem even more bewildering when you consider the difficult and strenuous task of acquiring an agent in the first place. Why in the world would anyone change gears after investing so much time and energy into one path? Wait, I can explain.

After spending a year trying to get an agent, I finally signed a contract with the ever talented Ginger Clark. She’s amazing. All of her clients love her and then one day I found myself on the phone, listening to her say all of these fantastic words: “I love your book. The world you’ve created is so unique, unlike anything I’ve read before. I think it has wonderful commercial appeal” etc., all ending in “I’d like to offer you representation.”

I was head over heels.

And like most newbie-writers, I expected her to sell the book next week. A month at most. After all, wasn’t Stephanie Meyer dreaming about sparkly boys in the woods one day with a book deal the next?

But that isn’t what happened. One month turned into two, into four, six, then eight and it seemed that while we had mostly nice rejections (usually ending in an offer to see the revision), no one was committing. I even had an editor who waited a year (!) to finally reject the manuscript because she couldn’t decide.

In the meantime I wrote the sequel to Dying for a Living and started a third book called Water & Dark, a YA urban fantasy novel.

Ginger saw each of these books, offering suggestions for revisions before showing them to editors. But it was more of the same—lots of praise, lots of hesitation to reject, but ultimately, no acceptances.

We’d reached an impasse. After all, no one was going to buy the sequel to Dying for a Living when the first remained unpublished. And I’d had no success with Water & Dark either. So here I was with three unsold books and a seriously crushed spirit. (Do you know how hard it is to sustain enthusiasm through three years of rejection? Don’t get me started!)

And here is where I admit a couple of things about myself:

  1. 1)      I am the most impatient person I know
  2. 2)      I have control issues
  3. 3)      You can’t tell me no.

It was primarily these character flaws that led me to consider a hybrid career. After all, the beauty of self-publishing is that you can do it yourself (control issues) and you can do it immediately (impatience). And furthermore, no one can tell me I can’t do it!

Of course I could have handed the manuscript over to a smaller press, etc. But “Go Big or Go Home” is more my style. I figured that if I really wanted it done my way, then I would do it my way. And I’ve been blessed to know enough creative people to help me facilitate this transition without breaking the bank.

Except of course, I had this agent, and I was unsure of how this would affect our relationship. After all, Ginger is lovely and extremely supportive of her writers. When I expressed an interest in self-publishing, no surprise, she was supportive then too.

So we worked out a deal where I can continue to send her new work that she would continue to try and sell. And in the meantime, I will publish everything else independently.

*Birth of Hybrid career*

But why keep her, you ask? If I am doing everything myself?

Apart from the fact that she is awesome and the patron saint of wombats (sorry, you will have to follow her on Twitter to understand this reference), she is also quite business savvy. She has traditional publishing connections that I don’t have. And like any good agent she is part-coach, part-lawyer. She offers wonderful perspectives on the current market (i.e. that it’s not the book’s fault that the book didn’t sell) and she can navigate contracts and legal documents much better than I. It is nice to have a person with a better business/professional perspective of the industry in your corner, who is willing to lace up for you when necessary. After all, my ultimate goal is to have a larger role in traditional publishing, and she will be essential when that time comes. And fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to land an agent who is willing to support me as I build a hybrid career. I’ve heard not everyone is so lucky.

And there are many who built a self-publishing career first and then the agent sought them out. Thanks to the likes of Hugh Howey, the highly successful author of Wool, all sorts of deals are possible that weren’t before. Selling your paperback book to traditional publishers while keeping the digital rights (and direct line to your wallet) open can happen. (Ella’s mandatory interjection: Literary agents have to reject self-published authors who want to make the move to traditional every day because their books aren’t selling well enough. More on that from the ruthlessly honest Janet Reid.)

So if you know you’re the kind that can’t wait, maybe you don’t have to.

Kory M. Shrum lives in Michigan with her partner and a ferocious guard pug. When she isn’t teaching writing, or writing herself, she can be found promoting her first book, Dying for a Living.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Nonfiction for New Folks Conference - Oct 9-12

In Gulf Coast Texas, grass is raised on farms and then large slabs of green turf are sliced and stacked for sale, much like carpet squares. I didn’t think anything about it when a turf-laden flatbed truck crossed in front of us at the intersection. But my four-year old son was alert. He asked, “Why is grass growing on a truck?”

Is your own curiosity still very much alive? Do you wonder about things others take for granted? (Like, how can liquid detergent be sold in water soluble bubbles? Why do men look better as they age? Who invented toilet paper?) Do unanswered questions make you squirm? Are you yearning for a more welcoming market for your work? If you answered yes, you owe it to yourself to investigate writing nonfiction for children.

Boys are more likely to read nonfiction, especially reluctant readers. Common Core State Standards mandate more nonfiction in instruction. Publishers are clamoring for new titles. You are eight times more likely to be published in the nonfiction market than fiction

This is your time! But where to start? What are nonfiction publishers looking for? When do you have enough research? How do you write successful nonfiction?

Find answers to these questions and more at the NF 4 NF: Nonfiction for New Folks Children’s Writers Conference, October 9-12. Enjoy the wine country of historic Fredericksburg, Texas, while developing your skills as a nonfiction writer. The NF 4 NF Conference is intended for the beginning to mid-career nonfiction writer. Faculty includes Peggy Thomas (Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children), Kelly Loughman, Associate Editor at Holiday House, and many others. All were chosen for their expertise and experience with new writers, for their kindness, and for their sense of fun.

Fifteen sessions include research strategies, techniques for writing history, science, and biographies, writing for the educational market, and what you need to know about Common Core. Learn what publishers want, how to find a topic, ways to research it, and how to write an engaging and informative manuscript. Enjoy socials with faculty and participants including a Texas Barbecue--with line dancing lessons. There is even a five-hour research-based shopping session in town with a dinner voucher!

Kids are curious. They want to KNOW! You, as a nonfiction writer, can satisfy their wonderings and answer their questions. Learn how at NF 4 NF: Nonfiction for New Folks. Check the site for info about fees, housing, airports, weather, and a video of Fredericksburg. (Critiques are also available.) Conference is limited to 50. Registration is now open with early bird pricing.     

Monday, March 31, 2014

Reminder: April 1 is Free Open Submission Day

Just a quick reminder that Rate Your Story is open to the public for one day — April 1, 2014 — for submissions. Submissions received between 12:00 a.m. and 11:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight time will be accepted. Only manuscripts that adhere to the submission guidelines (e.g. one manuscript per person, less than 2,000 words, proper subject heading) will be accepted. Please make sure to familiarize yourself with these guidelines.

As always, PRO and BASIC members may submit at any time. And watch your email inboxes this week for the monthly eNews and bonus exclusives!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Behind The Curtain: On Being a Writer

Guest post by author Del Staecker

Ten years ago, after decades as a word junkie, I plunged into the world of writing.  It is a place many people dream of dominating through the miraculous application of their talents, yet it often proves to be a land of stark challenge seasoned by rejections.   After 128 of them I landed a royalty contract and a small advance for the hardcover release of my first novel.  That was before Kindle, Nook, print-on-demand, and the rise of self-publishing.  Since then I have seen five more of my books published in multiple formats by two publishers, received flattering reviews, appeared in most forms of media, won some awards, and earned a few dollars.

My success, slow in coming and limited, has taught me much about the “publishing game.”  Based upon my experience, here is what I believe (with interjections from RYS blog editor Ella Kennen, for a different perspective):

  1. The big (six) publishers value bankable names more than literary quality. (Everyone wants to make money off of writing, and publishers can't stay afloat if they can't pay their editors, copy editors, interior designers, cover designers, accountants, and publicists -- not to mention pay for the costs of creating and shipping a physical book and paying the booksellers... oh, yeah, and the authors. So, does money matter? Absolutely. But does that mean that the Big Six don't care about literary quality? Absolutely not.)
  2. Agents want commissions.  It’s their business.  A small number of good ones truly wanted to be writers, but settled for being “in the literary game” and earning a pay check while still loving words and writing.  They are a Godsend, but are few and far between.   (Agents put in the work first with the hope of making money later -- that takes a love of their job and faith in their clients. Can they be pulled in a zillion directions and be slow to respond? Yes. Whether an agent who harbors dreams of being an author is better than one who doesn't is up for discussion.)
  3.  Most small publishers want to grow, and ultimately be big publishers.  But that will never happen, so they mouth all sorts of tales as they search for the next “breakthrough book/author.”   Again, some are staffed by book lovers, but many are not.   Few small publishers know anything about marketing beyond telling writers that it is their own responsibility to sell books. ("Small publisher" is a vague term; some small publishers have amazing reputations and are very good at selling within their niche. Many small publishers have very poor sales track records. Do your homework before you sign any contract.)
  4. The “slush pile,” once sifted through by interns and low level staffers at” the bigs,” was farmed out to agents, and then finally became the morass of self-published, print-on demand, and e-books that flood Amazon’s book section. (Yes, basically. Agents and publishers still get mountains of slush, though -- not a small number from people who self-published first and, disappointed with their sales, want someone to "fix" things. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.)         
  5.  Readers, as a group, are not increasing in relative number.  They are inundated by the onslaught of choices thrown at them.  More and more writers, plus static growth in readers, equals confusion over what to read. 
  6. Bookstores.  As youths ask, “Bookstores?  What are they? ”
  7.  #6 leads to Amazon.  Also lovingly known as, “the 800 Lb. Gorilla.”  A blessing and a curse.  It keeps authors’ works available, but has expanded the slush pile to a point beyond the limits of the reading public.
  8. Blogs?  Widely recommended, can be excellent forums for sharing ideas and techniques, but I doubt that they sell many books. (Does your own blog about writing sell many books? Probably not, though it may help you establish or reinforce a social network. Does going on a blog tour where your book is reviewed or showcased help? If the audience is right and the reach is broad enough.)
  9. The future?  It is so wide open that anyone’s guess is as good as the next person’s. (More hybrid authors -- those who mix-and-match between traditional and self-publishing; more tailored ways to reach the target audience; a continued struggle to capture reader's attention; 

Often I am asked, “What would you do differently, if you could?” 

My response is that I would simply focus more on my writing.  I would still participate in all the usual marketing and promotional efforts, but I would not get “angst ridden” over their application.  I believe if someone focuses on the money and fame they will be sorely disappointed.   To avoid that, I would spend a great deal of time remembering certain moments.   For example, I would savor the time at my first event when a credit card machine failed and an attendee walked through a blizzard to a cash machine, returning to purchase my book.  Later he tracked me down through my publisher (before I had a website) to tell me how much he enjoyed my work.  Or, I would relish the day after Christmas when a publisher called me to say that he read my book on his rare day off and liked it very much.  And, I would relive as many moments as possible of my sponsored tour of three Mediterranean bases as a U.S. Navy Writer on Deck.   Most of all, I would constantly tell myself, “It’s about the writing.”   So, if I could change anything, anything at all, I’d just write and write and write.

Del Staecker is the author of, to date, five mystery and suspense novels and one nonfiction book. Del describes himself as a storyteller. He has been a soldier, lived on a boat, and has completed all but one item on his list. He is a member of the Royal Society of Arts, London, United Kingdom and currently he lives and writes in his Pennsylvania home, which is shared by his wife and the colorful characters in his head. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Writing Contest Wrap-Up

We promised a contest wrap-up post in our winners' announcement last week, so here it is.

Total Entries: Just shy of 300. (Pretty amazing for our first-ever contest!)

Number of categories: 3

Most popular category: Picture book

How our judges reviewed your MSS:
Our judges read manuscripts on a completely "blind" basis. All names and were stripped from manuscripts by a non-judge first and each was given an alphanumeric code. The manuscripts went through two rounds of judging. Round 1 judges selected top-ranking entries in each category, and those were considered finalists. New Round 2 judges took over in ranking the finalists and choosing winners and honorable mentions.

Number of finalists across all categories: 29

Number of prize winning manuscripts across all categories: 9

Number of honorable mentions: 12

Quantitative "Takeaway" from the contest:
By the numbers, it's obvious that writing is fiercely competitive. Especially if you write picture books for children (that category received more than 60% of the total submission count.)

Qualitative "Takeaway" from the contest:
From one of our judges: "My biggest issue [while judging] was how to weigh writing style versus originality. I decided to favor originality, figuring an author could hire an editor to help with style, but originality is something you can't buy."

Well, there you have it. Congratulations to everyone who entered—the courage it takes to put your work out there in the world is something to be applauded.