Taos Bound

I wrote this on Sunday after arriving in Taos for the writing workshop that will takeover the next two weeks of my life.

To say I’m anxious would be an understatement. I’m not quite shaking in my boots though because as intense as the workshop will be, I know it’s also the next logical step for a writer in my position. I’m no longer a newbie, but far far far from being an expert, and that’s exactly who this workshop is tailored for.

And you’d be surprised at just how much the knowledge that this is the right time for such a step settles the nerves.

After spending the last week and a half reading other participants’ work, I know that they are all in that in-between place I’m in—with different strengths and weaknesses—and most importantly, with things they can teach me. This is a self-selected bunch of serious writers, and I’m proud to count myself among them.

Add on top of that, two SF legends as our teachers, and there’s no excuse for me not to learn something. A lot of somethings…

I know all this. But still…scary.

As I mentioned in Know Your Genre, I fear I’m not as well read as I should be. Then when Week 1 submissions were expected sooner than I anticipated, I sent out a panicked SOS to my CPs and local group. Of course, everyone was very helpful, and I managed to apply their feedback and suggestions in time to send my work off to the workshop participants. But instead of feeling relieved, it just made everything seem more fraught.

Then there’s the fact that I know no matter how positive a workshop experience could or should be, there’s going to be some hard parts too. People will point out things about me and my writing that’s going to be hard to hear, and sometimes, even worse, harder to fix.

But I guess the whole point of something like this is leaving yourself open to new experiences. Giving yourself every opportunity to learn, and when it’s all over, find ways to adapt and change and better yourself and your craft.

So that’s me for the next two weeks. I look forward to catching up with you when I get back.

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RIP Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury passed away today.

I read every book and short story of his I could get my hands on growing up, and the dogeared books still grace my bookshelves.

We read “All Summer in a Day” in my eighth grade English class and that story almost made me weep. His work explored every aspect of the human condition, a feat made more impressive by his output.

Here’s an interview with Bradbury, where he discusses his work. It’s a half-hour long, but time well spent with one of the most influential figures in speculative fiction.

Also, he discusses his inspirations in writing science fiction in this recent piece from The New Yorker.

Interview with the Editors of Crossed Genres Publications

Today, I am pleased to bring you an interview with Kay T. Holt and Bart R. Leib, co-publishers and founders of Crossed Genres Publications. Kay and Bart are also founders and contributing writers to the excellent and informative Science in My Fiction blog.

After they accepted my story “The Tradeoff” for the Fat Girl in a Strange Land anthology, I thought this interview would be a good opportunity to learn how the anthology came about, what the editorial life entails, and what’s next for Crossed Genres Publications.

So let’s get started.

What was the inspiration behind the Fat Girl in a Strange Land anthology?

Crossed Genres has always been a publisher that supports underrepresented groups. Fat women have always been hidden in literature and film, or represented as examples of what not to be. We wanted to show some of the ways in which fat women are ostracized, and shoehorned into stereotypes, and display some of the mental and emotional consequences of those stereotypes. We also wanted to prove that fat women can be proud of who they are, and are deserving of their own stories.

“Fat”, “girl”, “strange”, and “land”… Why this combination of words? Why now?

The title as a whole is a play on Heinlein’s famous novel Stranger in a Strange Land. A few years ago Kay started a series of short stories which were collectively titled Fat Girl in a Strange Land. When the time came to title the anthology we appropriated the title. “Fat” is a term almost always used as an insult, so we’re using it to shift the power it has into the hands of those it would insult; similarly, “girl” is a condescending term for a woman. And the “strange land” in this context is more literal, since all the stories involve the main characters traveling to places they’ve never been (sometimes metaphorically).

I know when I first came across the call for this anthology and then tried to come up with overweight female protagonists in the speculative realm, I drew a blank. And I wanted to change that. Fellow antho author Sabrina Vourvoulias has an excellent post on this invisibility in Unabashed Fat on her blog. What do you hope this anthology achieves for the genre? For readers?

When was the last time you saw a woman on the cover of a spec fic book who wasn’t either 1) skinny, or 2) cartoonishly fat to the point of absurdity? Women main characters are rare enough, let alone overweight ones. If a young girl who is overweight can’t find a single story of futuristic fiction with an overweight woman, is she to assume that people like her don’t exist in the future? How would that girl react? We want fat girls – and women – to read Fat Girl in a Strange Land and see themselves reflected in the struggles of the characters.

Now, in addition to working together on Crossed Genres Publications, you are married in real life. How does your real life partnership inform your literary one? Are there editorial duties that one of you is naturally more comfortable handling than the other? How do you decide who does what?

We don’t always co-edit every book we publish; for example, Kay edited our two novel publications, RJ Astruc’s A Festival of Skeletons and Kelly Jennings’ Broken Slate, while Bart edited our new anthology Subversion: Science Fiction and Fantasy Tales of Challenging the Norm. When we co-edit we split the actual editing evenly.

The rest of the publishing responsibilities – art editing, book production, publicity, etc. – gets split up, often according to our strengths. Kay is a talented artist with art history experience, so she does most of the art editing work; Bart handles most of the distribution and publicity. It can vary somewhat by project, or depending on who has more time available. 😉

What is your best advice for writers out there given your editorial experience?

1. Follow the guidelines. You would not believe how many people get rejections because they didn’t. Read them, put your submission together, then before you hit Send, read them again. Don’t give the editors reasons to reject you before they’ve even looked at your story.

2. Put together a good query letter. Study the subject, look at examples, even take a class just for querying. Yes, your writing should speak for itself, but if an editor sees a sloppy email, why should they assume your writing is handled with any greater care? A query is the first thing an editor sees – make sure it isn’t the last.

3. Accept your rejections. Everyone gets rejected – everyone. Heinlein was rejected for 2 solid years before he got his first acceptance. Dr. Seuss was on the verge of burning his only copy of his first book, And To Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street, after getting rejected 27 times. A rejection does not mean your writing is bad. There are lots of reasons to be rejected, and the only thing you can do is revisit the story, make some changes, and send it right back out again.

4. Don’t be afraid to be different! During those 27 rejections Dr. Seuss received (mentioned above), one letter claimed “This is too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.” Seuss has gone on to sell millions of books in dozens of countries, winning Academy Awards, Emmys, the Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody award along the way. Regardless of what some people think, readers really do want to read new and unique stories.

You recently discontinued Crossed Genres Magazine to focus your efforts on speculative fiction anthologies like Fat Girl in a Strange Land and novels, including INK by Sabrina Vourvoulias out later this year. How is this change helping Crossed Genres Publications move forward?

The primary change is really financial. We’re taking the funds we were putting into the magazine and redirecting it to novels and anthologies, allowing us to pay a little better, and focus our resources on fewer annual projects.

The other real benefit is escaping the grind of publishing something new every month. We’re very proud that we’ve never missed a publication date in 3 years of the zine, but it’s definitely worn on us. The last CG Magazine publication (Quarterly 4) was released on January 1, and we’re really looking forward to narrowing our focus to 4-5 publications per year. By comparison, Fat Girl in a Strange Land will be our 9th publication in the past 14 months.

What’s on the horizon for Crossed Genres Publications? Any plans for additional anthologies right now?

At the moment our publication schedule is set through the end of 2012. In February there’s Fat Girl in a Strange Land. In July we’ll be releasing a collection of short stories by author Daniel José Older, who we’ve published a couple short stories from already. And in September we’ll be publishing INK, a novel by PA author Sabrina Vourvoulias. It’s possible we may add another title we have in mind for the end of 2012 (November or December), but at the moment it’s more likely that that project will be published in early 2013.

We’re still accepting novel submissions! And don’t be surprised to see another submission call for a new anthology in the near future!

EDIT: That new anthology submission call is for Menial: Skilled Labor in SF due by May 31st, so put your thinking caps on!

Thanks again to Kay and Bart for participating in this interview!

Follow them on Twitter for new developments in science, social justice, and of course information about Crossed Genres Publications. Or get to know them through their personal websites:

Kay T. Holt is @sandykidd on twitter and blogs at http://subvertthespace.com/kayholt/

Bart R. Leib is @metafrantic on twitter and blogs at http://subvertthespace.com/bartleib/

Crossed Genres Publications (http://crossedgenres.com/) and @crossedgenres on twitter

Science in My Fiction blog (http://scienceinmyfiction.com/) and @SciInMyFi on twitter

***

Fat Girl in a Strange Land is now available in print from Amazon and Createspace, as well as ebook formats.

Book Description:

“For every supermodel, there are thousands of women who have heard “Why don’t you just eat less?” far too often. Except as comic relief or the unattractive single BFF, those women’s stories are never told. Crossed Genres Publications presents Fat Girl in a Strange Land, an anthology of fourteen stories of fat women protagonists traveling distant and undiscovered realms.

From Guatemala, where a woman dreams of becoming La Gorda, the first female luchador, before discovering a greater calling in “La Gorda and the City of Silver”; to the big city in the US, where superhero Flux refuses to don spandex in order to join her new team in “Nemesis”; to the remote planet Sidquiel in “Survivor”, where student Wen survives a crash landing, only to face death from the rising sun. Fat Girl in a Strange Land takes its characters – and its readers – places they’ve never been.”

Order today!
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Resource Roundup – Querying Your Masterpiece

You’ve finished your book, you’ve revised, you set it aside, and you’ve reread it (revised some more ad nauseam) and decide it doesn’t suck. Now what? Well, if you want to be traditionally published, you start looking for agents. Someone who loves your book as much as you do and will shepherd it through the publishing process. But to find the right agent, you need to query them, and not just any old query will do.

As in previous posts in this series (Finding the Right Word, Conjuring Up Titles, Crafting Dialogue, and Opening Your Story), I focused on online resources. There were a ton of posts out there, many of which I’ve gone through and evaluated for their usefulness. But if you’ve come across other valuable resources, please tell me about them in the comments, and I’ll include them when I add this to my Resource Roundup links on the sidebar.

So let’s get started. And remember, I’m talking about full-length novels. Not non-fiction, not short stories, as those both have different query letter elements that I don’t address here.

Is Your Work Ready? Are You Ready?

This is a huge question. You can feel like you’re ready. You can envision your name in print, see your novel on the bookshelf, have already made a list of the celebrities who will play your characters in the movie version. But what about your book? Is it ready?

Alternatively, your book may be ready but you aren’t. You keep tinkering with it, hoping for perfection, while days, months, years tick by along with any chance of breaking into the marketplace. In one case, it’s the cart before the horse. In the other, it’s insecure writers holding themselves back.

Not sure if you are ready? Take a look at Jody Hedlund’s How Can Writers Know They are Ready for Querying? where she talks about things writers can do to determine whether they should be querying or not.

Your Story and the Marketplace

It also helps if you have a sense of where your story fits in the marketplace. This is why you must know your story’s genre (what section it should be in at a bookstore). It is also why some agents may ask you list comparable titles in your query letter. Not sure where your story falls? Book Country has a great genre map that displays all the different subgenres within genres like Romance, Mystery, and Science Fiction.

What about the line between literary, commercial and genre fiction? Miss Snark provides a great overview of the distinctions here. Nathan Bransford’s What Makes Literary Fiction Literary? is also worth a look.

Then to make things more complicated “upmarket” fiction is also on many agents’ wishlists these days. Chuck Sambuchino of the Guide to Literary Agents Blog says it bridges commercial and literary fiction in What is Upmarket Fiction? Defining the Classification. Another blogger calls Upmarket Fiction the Non-Genre Genre.

Different genres have different story conventions, different word counts, etc. For a great overview of word counts for different genres, take a look at Mystery Writing is Murder- Word Counts and Colleen Lindsay’s Word Counts and Novel Length.


Submission Checklists

Still think you are ready? Then take a look at these checklists (ranging from micro to macro issues) to ensure your manuscript is up to snuff before you submit:

Preparing Your Pitch

The pitch section of your query letter is the most important element. Full stop. Not the credentials or the ass-kissing as to why you are querying this agent in particular, although that can sometimes help.

Note that for some agents, the sample pages might actually be more important than the pitch, so be sure to take a look at my earlier Resource Roundup post Opening Your Story, but in terms of the query letter itself (not your whole submission, which may include things like synopses and sample pages), the pitch is uber important to get right.

The pitch is the part of your query, generally up to three paragraphs (depending on who you talk to), where you describe your story. It is a sales pitch – you are trying to sell the agent on your story, convince them that it is the best thing ever and they want to see the whole novel right now.

Think of all the backjacket copy you’ve read over the years, and try to model your pitch on books in your genre, emphasizing in particular the main character(s) and conflict they’ll face in the book. The tone of the pitch should also match genre expectations and hint at your authorial voice.

It’s a tough order for just a couple of paragraphs. How do you distill a whole book’s worth of action and conflict into just a few lines? The answer is you don’t. As Roni Loren says in Single Best Piece of Query Writing Advice I Ever Received, you write your query based on roughly the first third of your novel. The query pitch is all setup. It’s that teaser trailer that makes you want to see the movie even more.

The more attuned you are to strong pitches, the better your query will fare out in agentland. The Miss Snark’s archives are full of query pitches and one agent’s brutally honest impressions of what works and what doesn’t. Query Shark and the BookEnds Agency’s Workshop Wednesdays also provide critiques to queries people send in for feedback. Valuable stuff if you haven’t nailed your own pitch yet.


Query Letter Basics

But let’s back up a minute. There are other elements of your query letter besides the pitch. Take a look at There Are No Rules’s 5 Elements of Query Letters and Guide to Literary Agents’s Breaking Down the Query to get a sense of how the whole letter should look. Nathan Bransford’s post How to Write a Query also provides a nice overview.

Have your query written? Make sure you haven’t made these mistakes: Rachelle Gardener’s Top Ten Query Mistakes and JM Tohline’s Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Literary Agents.

Knowing what your book’s comparative titles are is also important, especially for those agents who specifically request them in their guidelines. As agent Suzie Townsend says in The Art of Pitching:

Comparable titles tell me the targeted audience for a manuscript, it gives me a better idea of whether I might like it, it gives me a better idea of where I might sell it, how I might pitch it, how editors could pitch the book to their sales team. AND Comparable titles also tell me how well-read the writer is when it comes to their own genre.

Any way you can personalize your query for each agent can also help you stand out of the slush pile. But beware. As kidlit agent Mary Kole says, “Just like with citing comparative titles, if you’re not going to do [query personalization] well, don’t do it at all.”

Want to see queries that get results? Check out the Guide to Literary Agents blog’s Successful Queries series. Agent Rachelle Gardner also provides a nice overview in Anatomy of a Winning Query.

And remember, there’s always going to be contradictory query advice out there, as Nathan Bransford talks about in this post.

Do Your Research

One author claims that a well-written query, sent to well-researched agents should result in a high percentage of requested pages in How to Ensure 75% of Agents Will Request Your Material.

That may seem like an obscenely high percentage considering the number of literary agents out there, but one thing is true: The more research you do on agents, the better sense you’ll have of whether or not they’d be a good fit for you and your novel. And do yourself and agents everywhere a favor – if they don’t represent what you’ve written, take them off the list.

Writers in the Storm’s post Hunting Agents and Jill Corcoran’s post Researching Agents provide a great overview of how to find information on agents.

You could always purchase the current copies of Writer’s Market or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, or sign up for services like QueryTracker or AgentQuery. The Guide to Literary Agents blog also has series call New Agent Alert, which is a great way to stay on top of up and coming agents.

But no matter which agents make your list, be sure to cross-reference them with the list of agents at Predators and Editors to ensure they are on the up and up.

Managing the Process

You’ve got your query and your list of agents. You are ready to go. You could just go ahead and blitz all agents at once. No one is stopping you from doing that. However, for most agents, you get one shot, and you want to put your best foot forward.

That’s why most people recommend sending your queries in batches or waves. Pick a few agents and send them your stuff. Then wait to see what happens. This can be a long process, but it builds in time for the writer to receive feedback on their query or pages so they can then tweak them for the next round of querying. See Nathan Bransford’s definitive post The Batch Querying Theory and Agency Gatekeeper’s The Middle Way – A New Method of Timing Your Queries.

In addition to you query, agents sometimes want to see your opening pages or a synopsis of your work. A synopsis is an overview of your story’s plot, written in a specific format.Writer’s Digest’s Your Essential Synopsis Checklist provides a great starting place. Remember that some agents will want to see a long version or specify a shorter one, say two pages. I recommend having a couple of different versions of your synopsis ready to go for when you start querying.

It can get tricky trying to keep track of when you sent which query to what agent, especially when agents all have different response times (or nonresponse times as the case may be). The Writers in the Storm post Organizing This Mess – The Great Agent Search Part 3 provides an overview of using subscription-based tools like Writer’s Market or do-it-yourself Excel worksheets. PS. I’m using Excel and it’s going just fine.

Following Up, Requests, and Other Query Etiquette

When sending an agent a requested partial or full, it is a good habit to paste your original query letter into the document. That way if the agent is reading your partial away from their email – more and more true with the prevalence of ereaders – they still have all your contact and query information at hand.

Getting Past the Gatekeeper’s post On Checking In is a great resource for writer’s wanting to follow up with agents. This particular agent also believes that each writer gets one revision, if they go about it correctly (Getting Past the Gatekeeper’s “Here’s my revision, will you read it? How to Submit a New Draft). Follow her advice if you realize after much revising and hand-wringing you’d like to send a new version of your materials to an agent.

And remember, each email, each interaction you have with an agent, should be polite and professional, because at the end of the day, regardless of your dreams, publishing is a business.


The Call

What happens when you send the right query to the right agent? The agent will call the author and offer to represent them. Go ahead and cheer – after all this is a major accomplishment. But don’t let your joy overwhelm your common sense. There’s still work to do.

In fact, you should have a number of questions in mind when speaking to the person that will potentially represent you and your novel:

Most agents understand that they aren’t the only agent you’ve sent materials too, so do not be afraid to ask for references from current clients. You also want to give yourself enough time to contact other agents to see if they are interested in throwing their hat into the ring. BookEnds’s post You have an offer… is a good resource for this process.

Getting the call is a moment many writers dream of. But as agent Scott Egan cautions, Getting the Call Means Your Work Gets Harder, so be sure you are ready.


Don’t Give Up

The long query slog got you down? One blogger urges writers not to complain publicly, or stop writing, or get too impatient while waiting to hear back from agents in The Three Most Important Things Not To Do When Waiting To Get “The Call”.

Need help deciphering your rejection letters? Perhaps Adventures in Children’s Publishing’s The Writer’s Rejection Dictionary can provide some insight.

Alexis Grant’s post What I Learned from the Query Process provides a great overview of querying and ways you can learn from it.

What happens when you get close after countless rounds of queries and revisions? AuthorAllison Winn Scotch tackles this in Setting Aside a Beloved Manuscript.

Tinker with your query, trunk the novel and try something else, but whatever you do, don’t give up.

Other Resources

And as always, if you have any querying resources that you have run across, please share them in the comments. Thanks!
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And Now for Something Completely Different

That’s what I did this weekend: Something different.

The husband of a friend of mine was asked to teach a self-defense class at the local Y, aimed at women starting their first year of college. Since he never taught this type of class before, he asked me, his sister, his wife, and a couple of her friends to come over to their house to practice the class. He’d get a chance to troubleshoot the material while we learned how to defend ourselves.

Now, I have never taken a self-defense course in my life. I’m at the taller end of the spectrum and athletic in the sense that I played sports in high school and still do stuff to stay in shape. I’d like to think I’m not an easy target, which is probably why I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve needed to “defend” myself.

But it just so happens that I put a lot of my female characters in situations where they need to defend themselves, and until this weekend, I only had my imagination to guide me in crafting those scenes.

The class had a presentation component and then a hands-on part where we practiced kicks, punches, and techniques to maim opponents. It was surprisingly fun and hugely informative – especially for that writing part of my brain.

For example, personal attacks are usually power-based crimes, where the offender is seeking control over another person (sex is only part of the equation). And it is essential that they win the confrontation. In the attacker’s frame of mind, they must be justified in attacking, there must be no other alternatives, the benefits of the attack outweigh any consequences, and they must have the ability to attack. Without all these factors, they will choose another victim or opportunity to strike.

There are certain behaviors that can signal trouble:

Forced teaming – where the attacker will align themselves with you in a certain situation to gain trust and receive preferential treatment.

Charm – a learned social skill directed at you to receive preferential treatment

Too many details – the attacker creates a story to gain your trust but includes too many details to create illusion of authenticity

Typecasting – the attacker fits you into a social group you don’t want to be a part of so that you react against it and behave in the manner the attacker wants.

Loansharking – the attacker gives you something you didn’t ask for so you feel indebted to them

Unsolicited promise – The attacker says, “I’m just going to do x, and that’s it. I promise.” You believe them and let down your guard.

People who discount the word “No” – You say no. The attacker presses the issue, and you say, “Well, ok.” Cycle continues, chipping away at your consistency so that when you say no and mean it, the attacker disbelieves you.

Many of these behaviors are also found during the courtship and seduction of characters in romance novels as well. I’m not sure what the lesson there is, but it’s something to think about…

I also got a review of flight-or-fight behaviors:

  • Tunnel vision
  • Acceleration of heart and lungs
  • Constriction of blood vessels to unneeded parts of the body
  • Dilation of blood vessels to muscles
  • Shakiness
  • Degradation of fine muscle control

Some of these behaviors show up in my actions scenes, and some of them I’ll be sure to include for that extra punch of authenticity.

Also – and I can’t stress this enough – doing the actual punches and kicks and whatnot opened up a whole mess of sensory impressions I can use in my fight scenes. Before, I would envision a scene and write it down, relying primarily on visual impressions. I thought that was enough. I was wrong.

Now I know the proper techniques of some moves and can better explain them. I know what it feels like to be that close to another person with your hand on their windpipe or your knuckles knotted in their hair. It makes a huge difference, and if you can add those details to your story, it will certainly kick things up a notch.

Have you ever done something on a lark and had the experience enrich your writing abilities?
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