All posts by AmericanClare

Writer, traveler, mom, recovering MG teacher, photographer, the usual.

Be Careful What You Wish For.

This isn’t a post about how if you become a successful writer it’s actually a huge pain. I’m sure for some people that’s true, but honestly that can be true about any kind of success.

What I mean here is that if you are a writer who is trying to get an agent or win a competition (or both!), you need to be careful about whom you query and which competitions you enter. I’ve already spoken in a previous post about “dream” agents, so let’s talk writing competitions.

It is very easy to think that if you just write a decent draft of a novel or short story or flash fiction that if you send it out enough, you will get somewhere with it. I had a short story a few years ago that I really loved and I sent it out to at least ten different competitions. It was a good short story, if I do say so. But I didn’t win anything with it. I didn’t so much as get long listed (something that I’ve been lucky enough to do several times). I decided that I’d put my research skills into finding a home for this story I loved. And then it hit me – why hadn’t I done that in the first place? After looking up the winners lists and reading the stories for the competitions I’d entered it became glaringly obvious that eight of the ten were never even a possibility. My story, while literary, leaned towards young adult (that is my preferred genre) and only two of the competitions had a short list that contained anything similar.

I had entered competitions based on their deadline dates and my haste to get my work out there. In other words – a bit of ego with a generous sprinkling of naivety. I decided to stop throwing money away and began to be much more vigorous in my research of competitions. I gave myself a tight monthly entry fee budget so I had to really mean it when I entered something. And I’ve won everything I entered since. And I’ve had a much better rate of success.

None of this is to say that if you have a story you love and just choose more carefully you’ll succeed. Because the other part of my mistake was haste. Being in a huge hurry to get work published is probably the most common error I see in editing clients and in competitions entries I read. If you’re still in a rough draft stage or you have yet to put your MS aside for a while and come back to it for a ruthless revision* – for the love of all things literary and wordy – wait. Wait until you can get two things in very good shape. Your opening three to five chapters (depending on the length and genre) and your plot. No one makes a long list that doesn’t have an opening that grabs attention. I personally have edited down the openings of my last two books specifically for competition entries that I later expanded when asked for the whole book. Equally, no one makes a short list that doesn’t have a cohesive plot. Go chapter by chapter and be sure each one moves the story along in some way. No, all of them. Really.

So best of luck to you in your endeavors. Keep at it! I want to read the story that keeps you up at night and burns to rush out into the world. When it’s ready.

*totally stole that phrase from Sara Grant and Karen Ball – fantastic workshop!

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Why Rejection is Good.

I have a confession. I have this agent I’d really really love to have. Or at least I think I would. I saw her at an event and every comment she made matched my own opinions. She was funny, passionate, and didn’t care about grammar – just story. I tried to pitch her there and then. It didn’t go well because I was so keen that I made a total idiot of myself. That was over a year ago. I followed her on twitter*, checked podcasts for appearance, and semi-stalked her in that way authors sometimes do when they think they’ve found their agent soul mate.

There’s a problem though. She doesn’t want me. I’ve queried her twice. Once with decent material and once with something I know to be solid and some of my best work. She doesn’t want me. Even worse, upon receiving the second rejection I realize they’re form rejections. Double ouch. Quadruple ouch. I’ve been lucky and across two projects I’ve gotten some really nice personal rejections with constructive criticism and legitimate reasons for a no, like they’re already trying to sell something similar.

Now, I’ve also gotten a lot of ‘I just didn’t connect to the _character/plot/material_.’ Which is another one that hurts. My form rejection from my apparently not-to-be soulmate of an agent put it in a way that set off a light bulb even if I also found it a bit condescending at first. She she pre-formattedly wrote: You deserve an agent who will feel just as passionate about your work as you do. 

My initial feeling was – yes, of course I do but I want YOU to be passionate about my work! Here’s the thing though, she’s not. She’s not going to be and it’s not her, it’s me.

When you are looking for an agent, you cannot set your heart on just one. You cannot choose one based on how their tweets make you laugh (My Rejector!) or their taste in shoes is impeccable (Juliet Mushens) or because you’d really like to have a coffee with them one day (Molly Ker Hawn). You need an agent who is passionate about your writing. You need an agent who likes your style, your voice; who sees the story you want to tell and says ‘Ohhhh!’

I should’ve looked more carefully at this agent’s list of authors and seen that I wouldn’t fit in. Not because I am a lesser writer, but because my style wouldn’t jibe. Some people have truly eclectic lists, but most, if you look carefully, have a what I’ll call a pallet. Writers of similar shades, not in stories told but in how they’re told. This agent I won’t have**, tends toward authors that write in a smart, more literary way. I write contemporary YA with a focus on realistic dialogue, diversity, and mature plots. I write with an eye to being easy to read because I want my stories to be read by teens who might not otherwise or who are reading my book for a break from that god-awful A Tale of Two Cities that sent me running from literature for several years it scarred me so.

Somewhere, there is an agent who will love the kinds of stories I’m telling. And no one else will do. The same is true for you – do not settle for anything less. So, from here on out we are looking at rejections differently. You are interviewing them to join your storytelling team and if they say no, it’s because they are not the right person to promote your book. Nothing more, nothing less. Keep interviewing and researching for the right person and you will find them.

 

*as of this post, i’ve stopped. see there!

**see how I flipped it? I won’t have her!

The Seeds of Greatness

from Paul Simon’s ‘Late in the Evening’

Then I learned to play some lead guitar
I was underage in this funky bar
And I stepped outside to smoke myself a “J”
And when I came back to the room
Everybody just seemed to move
And I turned my amp up loud and I began to play
And it was late in the evening
And I blew that room away

When you listen to this, do you ever hear that line, ‘And I blew that room away’ and think, ‘nah, probably not’? Because he’s talking about just starting out and he’s high and I think probably he was good, but not great. I imagine he had some friends in the front row who said, ‘awesome.’ But I find it hard to believe that in his early days of being a performer, he got up and truly knocked the socks off everyone in the room.

There are however, many people who believe that type of mythology. They see it in movies, read it in books, and hear stories from artists who might possibly be romanticizing their start. I’m not saying geniuses don’t pop up, but even David Bowie reported that his early stuff was awful as have Joni Mitchell and Steven King.

When I was in film school many years ago, I watched the original ’39 Steps’ by Alfred Hitchcock and was deeply relieved to find it unbearably awful. If we try to create from a place of believing that talent is only rooted in some natural place, then we will only ever fail. I think it’s a relief to understand that the mythology around genius is often false. Because it means that better and best are achievable things, rather than unknowable genetic secrets.

So here’s to improving your skills at whatever task you’ve set yourself, though I am here to particularly cheer on your words. Write that terrible first draft and edit it into a shape that you can share with others who will help you fashion it into an ‘over-night’ success. Because the seeds of greatness are there, no matter how murky the water may seem now. Come on, blow us away.

Joanne Harris’ #TenThingsAboutKidsBooks

Joanne’s tweets came about post World Book Day rants (not just by her) regarding celebrity helmed books. I didn’t say celebrity ‘written’ very much on purpose. Tweets are hers, italics are mine. 

1. You wouldn’t think of feeding rubbish to a child because ” it’s just kid food.”

Well, actually I know a few parents who do just that. Feed their kids not great food because it’s easy. That’s what some grownups do with kids books too. They look for the easy, which is sadly often mass-market fiction aimed only at sales with little to no regard for story or message or literacy. 

2. And yet people so often assume that kids’ books are less important than books for adults. They’re not.

Preach, sister friend. 

3. Children’s fiction is a specialist area, requiring a great deal of expertise.

In order to write great kid lit, you have to be aware of things like stages of learning, vocabulary growth, scaffolding of new skills, and you have to have a sense of humor that relies on wit not cruelty or bias. 

4. It is not a shortcut, or an easy option, or a vehicle for your vanity project. It carries a RESPONSIBILITY.

A responsibility not to indulge in your baser instincts or knee-jerk reactions, amongst other things. 

5. Its purpose is to awaken young minds; to encourage imagination and empathy and promote a love of reading.

So you have tell a great story, but not tell it so hard there’s no room for imagination. You have create characters that are flawed, just as kids see themselves, and are still lovable, just as kids need to know they are. 

6. That’s why the writers and illustrators of kids’ books have to be professionals of the highest calibre.

Insert clapping emojis here and repeat. 

7. Children are very good at knowing when they’re being patronised.

They will literally stop reading and throw your book in a corner. 

8. They are also great at calling bullshit on things that are overhyped. If they don’t like it, they won’t read it.

See that corner. 

9. Children’s fiction needs to be as diverse as our society, and a lot more inclusive.

Stories are how young people learn about their society. Once upon a time, around a fire, stories were used to bring children into the tribe. Now that our tribe is so much wider, books have to do that job. The old stories aren’t enough because that group of people didn’t know what we know, they didn’t have neighbors, and they didn’t need to be able to do more than find food and shelter. Today’s children will have to get along in a world that is shrinking the distances between cultures and experiences.

10. That’s why there’s no such thing as “just a kid’s book.” That’s why children’s authors matter.

Bolding is mine because it’s true!

Where have you been?

Since I last and too long ago posted on this site, I have been:

  • To Scotland with my family for two weeks.
  • To America, to my hometown, with my kids to say goodbye to my dying grandmother.
  • Through the first week of school in Reception (that’s British for pre-school but it’s IN an elementary school) with my youngest.
  • Too many school committee meetings because I volunteered to help. Big mistake.
  • To see a play about death. Aren’t they all about death?
  • Walked 13 plus miles with two lovely writer friends. We talked about writing. And boys. Also babies, food, mud, and other great feats of physical activity we’d performed. What we didn’t talk enough about was staying on our route, which made for extra sore feet. I’d do it again tomorrow.
  • Back to America for my grandmother’s funeral, on my own. I spoke on behalf of all the grandchildren and it was possibly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
  • To a workshop on plot wherein I got feedback on my WIP synopsis. Conclusion? It’s not good. But I already knew that!
  • To my writing group and then to the pub, where we talked about perseverance.

And now I’m home. Again. Trying to get back into the swing of writing life. Be patient dear reader. More to come.

What You Thought You Wrote

In a recent workshop I attended with Sara Grant and Karen Ball called “Ruthless Revision.” Sara said these wise words: You read the book you think you wrote.

If you’ve had a single person unfamiliar with your WIP read it, you probably already know this. You give it to them, excited for their response, and they like it but have questions. Then they ask you things that make you instantly, hopefully only internally, defensive. Your reader doesn’t know what genre you’ve written. They’re uncertain of the setting or the protagonist. They can’t see what you see when you reread your opening for the fifty-fifth time because what you ‘see’ isn’t actually present in the text.

A number of people at the workshop asked how one finds these things in our novels. How do spot these flaws? How do we fix them? There was some quiet bemoaning of the effort involved to perform many of the fine, though labor intensive if carried out over hundreds of pages, suggestions Sara gave our group. To me though, if you’ve spent the time and the brain juice on 60,000 words, why not spend some more on making those words good? The answer of course is usually because we’re scared. If you start going through with a fine-toothed comb, you’ll soon find the whole thing was a house cards from the start and your impostor syndrome fears will all turn out to be true.

Another answer is sometimes that we are too smug. Oh come on, you’ve been smug about something at least once in your life! Sometimes we just think that our story or characters are so good that people won’t care if they words are tight and glowing. Because that happens, to be sure. But it doesn’t happen often and, be honest, what are the odds it’s going to happen to you?

So we have to do the work. We have to examine our chapters, plot points, character motivations, world building, and pacing. One short cut for finding where your writing is weakest is to share it. Wait? Did I just suggest exposing oneself to criticism? Yes. I did. Of all the exercises we conducted at the workshop, the most helpful one was having feedback from two strangers on the first three pages of my current WIP. The questions they had told me everything about what was missing – what was not present in the text for a reader to experience the book I think I wrote. It was not fun. Going back to the opening of a book I’d tucked away a month ago thinking that, as first drafts go, this one wasn’t total shit. But once I started, it was electrifying! And now, well, I feel a little smug if I’m honest.* My opening is pretty cracking!**

If you’re still reading and don’t believe me, find me on twitter and message me. I’ll read your first five pages and I’ll answer five questions about your MS. For *cough* free *cough*. Offer expires on August 17th and I make zero promises on how quickly I’ll get back to you – but I will get back to you.

*all smugness left me five minutes later, but it was nice while it lasted.

** is it? i’m not sure now!

Joanne Harris’ #TenThingsAboutEditing

Somehow the Lady Harris knew that I was starting to edit the first draft of my current WIP today and decided to grace/terrify me with some advice for editing ones own writing. As usual, I’ve add my own little opinions and ideas because, hey, this is my blog and I’m mostly talking to myself here anyway. 

1. However much self-editing you do, at some point you’re going to need a competent editor. But before that…

Yes. You can’t keep it forever and you can’t depended solely on self-editing if you want to be published. 

2. Allow time – at least 3 months if you can – before editing your work. You need to be as objective as possible.

Wow. Three months? Um … well .. I’m going to say a minimum of one month because time passes for us working mums like dog years. A month is a long time. I can’t remember what I ate yesterday … ok that’s not true because it was cake and sausage rolls, but I can’t remember what I ate day two days ago let alone what I wrote a week ago. I’ve read my own writing from three years ago and it’s like someone else wrote it. 

3. Read your work aloud as you go. It’s the most valuable editing tool there is.

This works for a lot of people, including me. I can also suggest having someone else read it to you if you’ve really gotten stuck or find a scene particularly sticky. Someone you trust.

4. Change the font when starting a final edit – you’ll be amazed at how much more detail you’ll notice.

Oh, go on, change the font, change the line spacing, change the layout. MSW0rd has a cool thing called “read mode” that makes it look like a little novel page/spacing wise that can help you spot over-long paragraphs fast. 

5. Your dialogue will be improved immeasurably if you remove all or most of the adverbs

Yes. Also a fair few tags as well. 

“You can’t be serious?”
“I am.” 
“Well, that’s a bit radical.”
“Try it; you might like.” 

Would you be confused as to who might be saying the above if you’re reading a scene with only two people? No? Me either. Keeps it punchy. 

6. Editing is hard work. You only have so much attention-span. Don’t exhaust it by doing too much.

I don’t know what you’re tal…zzzzz.

7. Listen to your instincts. You know when something doesn’t feel right. And if you notice, so will your readers.

Yes. Do give it time though. This is where that waiting time comes in. If you finish a draft and immediately set to work again, a lot might not feel right because you’re not really able to see it properly. 

8. Editing isn’t an afterthought. It’s an essential part of the process. And yes, EVERYONE needs it. Even you.

For the love of God, please listen to Joanne! And every agent ever. No one is so good they don’t need to edit. If you’re self-publishing, you don’t get to skip this either. Nor do you get to try to have it done as cheaply as possible. It will show. It will hurt your story. 

9. Most books will need editing a number of times. That’s life. Live with it.

Anywhere from three to fifteen. I’ve heard of higher, but those were usually epics that just got completely away from the writer. 

10. Identify your bad habits and the words or phrases you tend to overuse. Deal with them before someone else does.

Just. So. That. Saying the same thing twice. Repetition of descriptive words for bodily noises/functions like burble, gurgle, bubble. – these are just some of mine. What are yours?