Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge 2011

Magemanda from the blog Floor to Ceiling Books is spearheading a Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge, where participants read and review at least 12 speculative fiction books over the course of 2011. To learn more about the challenge, go here. I first heard about the challenge from follower KB Lawrence *waves*.

I have a bunch of spec fic books on my Christmas list and some still hanging out in my TBR pile like:

If anyone has any female spec fic writers (besides Atwood and LeGuin) they can recommend, please do so in the comments.

Want to join in but not sure where to get started? Check out iO9’s 10 Recent Science Fiction Novels Which Make Great Gifts.

Happy reading!
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Read It Loud, Read It Proud

Last Wednesday night, I did something crazy.

Ok, well, maybe not so crazy, but crazy for me. I read at an open mic event for stories that were three minutes or less.

This was nothing like the readings I do at meetings for my prompt-based writing group. There everyone reads what they wrote in the time allotted for the prompts in a warm, fuzzy, high-fiving atmosphere.

The open mic was different. There was a microphone for one thing. And a recorder. And a timer. Scores of plastic folding chairs. And the oddest assortment of people – young, old, handicapped, MFA students, creative type townies… Oh, and me.

People were supportive of one another, but the stench of competition was in the air as well. You see, after everyone reads, attendees vote for their favorites. The recordings for the top three stories would then be archived online for all time’s sake. And the writers were hungry to share, to read, and, most importantly, to win.

I was hungry too, but in a different way. The open mic is a monthly thing, and I had been wanting to go since the start of the summer. However, real life conspired against me (buying a house, moving, houseguests, general disarray). Finally (finally!) the stars aligned and I was able to attend this month’s meeting.

My goals were only to read my story in three minutes or less and not goof up. Both of which I achieved. This month’s winners haven’t been announced yet, but that’s ok. I’m just happy I went. I’m pretty sure I read at a reasonable pace and paused at the appropriate places. It was nerve-wracking and exhilarating all at once. I’m grateful it’s over, but I’m also glad I did it. And I’m positive if I had not been used to reading my work at writing group, my open mic attempt would be an epic fail.

Coincidentally, a recent post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog talked about public readings. As the author says:

“Each time I read, I explore my own text, emphasize words differently and take chances on intonation and pacing. I’ve absorbed silence and learned to pause when the belly laughs were so loud and long, even I had to chuckle at my own writing.”

This kind of immersion is so helpful in evaluating your own work, which must be why so many writers advocate reading your stuff aloud when you are revising.

I’m not sure I’ll be going to the open mic next month. Despite the obvious benefits, the whole process can be a bit stressful. But if I were to go, I am already thinking about what I would read. Theoretically, of course 🙂
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Feedback Frenzy

I’m always vexed to learn I’m not perfect.

Yesterday was no different when I received my feedback on my entry for the Golden Rose contest. I already knew I wasn’t a finalist but that was ok since I’d be getting back critiques from three different judges (two published, one unpubbed). I chose to enter this contest for that very reason because there’s no one who writes romance let alone historical romance in my writing groups. So with this contest, I would finally be getting critiques from my so-called peers.

Overall my scores were pretty good, confirming my gut feeling that I’m close and getting closer everyday. But where one judge liked my secondary characters, another thought they were two-dimensional. Where one liked my clean prose but thought I had no style, the other thought my style effectively conveyed mood and tone. One thought my storyline tried and true, another compelling. Hmm…

But two things the three judges had more or less in consensus:

  •  I’m still doing more telling than showing in a few instances
  • After an opening scene chock full of external conflict, internal conflict takes over and affects the overall pacing.

No bueno. But instead of a “I’m just not that into your book,” this time I have actionable advice I can use on another revision. All for 50 bucks. I’ll take it.

One thing I found interesting about this whole process was the unpublished judge was harsher than the two published judges. Resulting in a difference of about 10 points. Maybe she didn’t get the story; maybe she’s still a bit green when it comes to craft and critique. But I have to wonder if we unpublished masses are harder on each other because there’s so much competition out there these days. Manuscripts must be perfect like never before for writers to break into the market. A sobering thought.

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From the Revision Trenches

(or How to Make Layering Work for You)

I’m back at work revising my historical romance novel. Again.

I let it sit most of the spring and summer. During that time I had a request from an editor (who I still hope to hear back from some day) and had rather encouraging rejections from the two agents I’ve queried so far.

I also entered the first couple of chapters into a historical fiction and a historical romance contest – not for fame and glory but for the guaranteed feedback that came with the entrance fee. The historical romance contest is still pending (fingers crossed!) and the historical fiction contest announced the winners earlier this month. I didn’t place, but I did get my critique back – full of good’s and very good’s for all aspects evaluated (POV, character development, dialogue, historical accuracy, grammar, etc.).

While that made me feel all warm and fuzzy, the person who evaluated my work did not give me any suggestions on how to improve, which little-naive-me was counting on. So I’m left with a glowing critique, no accolades, and no where to go. I’m hoping my feedback from the other contest will be a bit more enlightening so I will be able strengthen my MS even more in time for the Golden Heart.

In preparation, I’m going through the MS chapter by chapter. Tinkering, tightening, and fixing the little typos that (STILL!) keep cropping up. I’m also focused on heightening tension and emotion throughout the story. My scene intros and outros are pretty strong already – provocative breaks that should induce page turning and openings that immediately ground the reader in POV and place.

So now, I’m just need to make sure the scenes, from start to finish, sing. Easy, right?

I’ve discovered during this round of revisions that I have a tendency to understate things. When it comes to the romance genre, this isn’t a good strategy. You want the reader to experience every emotional high and low. They should be put through an emotional wringer over the course of the story so the ending provides the closure they’re craving. That’s not possible if you are always downplaying actions and reactions like me.

So throughout my MS, I’m looking for places where I haven’t capitalized on the potential the story offers. Then I revise it, primarily using a technique called layering.When you layer, you are forced to look at what you have already written and see what is missing. Once you have your answer – whether you need more dialogue, insight into your character’s thoughts and so on – you have to recast the scene to incorporate the missing pieces. This iterative process often results in stronger scenes that operate on multiple levels – a win every time.

Here’s a section from my novel. Alex, the hero, grabs the heroine and backs her into the wall to confront her. Her response: “At least this time you did not hurt my injury,” like he did earlier when his temper got the better of him and he grabbed her injured shoulder.

Example 1

Alex felt a brief stab of guilt at that. “A terrible accident, my lady. You already have my apologies.” He noted the girl’s disappointment when he did not lessen his hold on her and leaned closer into her face. “You know I mean you no harm. Why can you not trust me? With all of your secrets?”

Reads ok. We get a sense of Alex’s remorse and that the girl is goading him a bit to get him to back down, but he doesn’t. But I wanted to make it a bit stronger, so I layered in a bit more of what Alex is thinking during the scene:

Example 2

Alex felt a brief stab of guilt at that, but he pushed it aside. “A terrible accident, my lady. You already have my apologies.” The girl frowned when he did not lessen his hold on her. So she would play games with him? He swallowed the blind anger that reared up inside him once more. He leaned into her face, his eyes holding hers. “You know I mean you no harm. Why can you not trust me? With all of your secrets?”

IMHO, this scene is now much stronger with Alex’s internal thoughts leading the reader through the confrontation. Not a whole lot was added, just a line or two and some general tinkering, but the dynamics are clearer and the tension is heightened.

I’m not surprised I have to spend so much time on this, as I tend to write spare the first time around and need to bulk up in later passes. When I finish a draft, I have action and dialogue covered, but that’s about it. Then I need to layer in movement, setting details, description grounded in the senses, and emotion. It’s just how I tend to write (which you can read more about in Anatomy of a Story). My problem now is pushing myself to take sections that work well already and make them awesome.

I have to keep reminding myself not to settle for good enough.

I encourage you to read The Art of Layering, a fabulous overview by romance author Renee Ryan, for more examples and tips to apply layering techniques to your own work. I stumbled upon Ryan’s article thanks to a post on Romance Writer’s Revenge.

What are your tips and tricks when it comes to revision time?
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Submissions Blitz

If you told me six months ago I’d be in the midst of a submissions blitz, I would have laughed. But I’m not laughing now. Instead, I’m just trying to keep all my balls in the air while not losing my momentum.

In the past three days I’ve sent off:

  • Two microfiction entries for my local alt weekly’s annual flash fiction contest
  • A SciFi short story to a bona fide literary venue
  • The first 50 pages of my historical romance for the Golden Rose contest

And just last month, I sent out a query to two agents and another short story.

So what gives? I’ve been doing more polishing and submitting than actual writing, and it’s a strange feeling. But, here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Apologies in advance for the epicness of this post, but I found it helpful for me to get all this stuff down.

Know when your work is ready.

This is so hard. So hard. And I still wonder every time I send something out if I’m deluding myself. Even though I know I’ve revised my work for hours, shared it with others, and have been actively working to improve my craft, I still doubt.

For a long time, that doubt was paralyzing. But I’ve made some head way and had enough small victories here and there to assure me that I’m not crazy for wanting to write and ultimately see my work published. So although I’m ready (and this blog is a testament to that), it’s harder for me to evaluate my different stories and novel-length projects to determine their readiness.

For some projects — like the SciFi short story and the literary short I’ve submitted – I felt really good about them from inception to completion. Members of my critique groups responded to them positively. They’ve been pretty positive about most of my work, but there was something more encouraging, perhaps more genuine, about their reactions to these particular pieces. So I went with that feeling, found appropriate venues for the stories, and sent them off before I lost my nerve.

With my historical romance novel, I’ve been a bit more cautious about sending it off into the world (and I’ve addressed this before). Because it’s a much bigger project than a short story or piece of flash fiction, I figure I need to be a bit more strategic in how I handle it. A stalling tactic, a self-defense mechanism, perhaps, but I still think it’s reasonable to want to tread carefully with a work of this magnitude. Hence the contests, the constant revisions, and the postponement of a massive query flurry. But I’m getting closer. I just received my critique sheet back from one of the contests I entered and was encouraged by the evaluation. I’m getting there, slowly but surely.

And then there are stories that are as good as they’re gonna get before the deadline. Like my microfiction entries for the local alt weekly contest. I participated last year and found it to be a challenging exercise at a time when I was just buckling down with this whole writing seriously thing. I knew I wanted to enter this year, and of course the timing of my big move hampered that a bit. But I made the deadline and was satisfied with my work. The experience also gave me the chance to look over my entry from last year, and I felt there was a marked improvement in my writing since. So regardless of the outcome for this particular contest, I already feel validated.

The more you submit, the easier it gets.

Submitting is scary. Working up the nerve to get your stuff out there can take a while. And we as writers are guilty of filling up the blogosphere with all our self-doubts and the oft-repeated publishing myths of evil agents and frustrated editors who like nothing more than to crush our dreams.

Knowing the ins and outs of submission requirements is essential. But I’ve also made enough mistakes to know that it won’t be the end of the world if something goes wrong. Some venues are more forgiving than others. That’s the way of things. I recently had an agent contact me to let me know my attachment didn’t come through. I was thrilled she took the time to let me resend. Given all the mythology around editors and agents, I had no reason to expect this second chance. But I took it and moved on.

Sending out your work does get easier over time. I know that just in the short time I’ve been sending out my work, my process has become a little more formalized after each submission. My mental submission checklist grows longer each time I click send. The thought of a query no longer sends me running for the hills. I think it’s really owning the professional part of writing for publication that has done it for me. I want to be a professional writer; hence, the need for professionalism in all things. I am now better able to separate myself from my work by embracing the professional – not the personal – aspects of writing when submitting.

And I’ve had help getting past the me in my writing. Blogging, writing groups, open-mics… all these activities have helped me to not only practice writing, but have also helped me get used to getting my work out there. Putting myself on the line. I’ve learned about accountability and ways to settle my nerves. And the more you do it, the less terrifying it becomes.

Relish that period of time between clicking send and getting a rejection response.

It’s heady. Sending your writing off into the world. Once you’re sure you’ve attached the right file or included the proper salutation, that is. Then you’re full of optimism that maybe, just maybe, something good will come out of all this. After all, as of this moment, you work hasn’t been rejected yet. Anything is possible.

Sure it’s possible that the pieces I’ve sent out in the last few weeks can be accepted for publication or selected as Numero Uno in a contest. And until I get rejected, there’s no reason to think otherwise. Why? Because I need that positive thinking to propel me into a new project or to revisit a previously stalled WIP. I can’t be wallowing in self-doubt if I expect to be productive. It’s done. My work is out there. And all I can do is pick up the pen and move on.

The fallout will come. The odds tell me that much. Despite all that I’ve learned about craft, how attentive I’ve been to my work, I may get a form rejection tomorrow, a week from now, next month, who knows… but I’m just getting closer to yes, right?

Have a contingency plan.

With the exception of the microfiction, I know where I’m sending my different stories next if and when those pieces are rejected. I have a contingency plan for each one. I have to. I care too much about these stories to let them languish if they are not accepted on the first try.

There’s always another venue. Aim high, yes. I am certainly doing that. Targeting the best agents instead of defaulting to an e-publisher. The literary venue with the pro-rates instead of the online ‘zine run by frustrated MFA rejects. But what if you’re left with rejection after rejection, even after scraping the bottom of the barrel of possible outlets? That is what I fear the most.

I’m at the point with many of my stories where I’m just not sure what more I could be doing with them. I’ve polished them on my own, shared them with my critique group, entered contests, revised some more, and then what? The only way to move forward is to submit your stuff and see what happens. It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at once, make no mistake. But oh-so-necessary as well.

Rejections are fuzzy. A rejection could mean your work didn’t fit the venue. Or it just might mean your work sucks. And until you have a decent enough sample of rejections, it’s difficult to know whether you need to work harder at craft or just work harder at finding the right fit for your story. I won’t know where I’m at until I get some feedback, even the form rejection kind. But I like to think I’m ready for it.

The balls are in the air. Let’s see where they land.

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