Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Magical Book of Crap

I took a day off from blogging yesterday because, well, I'm not your blog-writing butt-monkey, despite evidence to the contrary. ;)

So, today's topic is "The magical book of crap." Now I know that you're all going to start whining on me and flopping around like dying fish because only a few days ago I suggested you make a book to help motivate and encourage you. (Yes, I'm so evil for suggesting that.)

Relax though, the magical book of crap isn't a book you make, it's a book you find:

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find the absolute worst book you can find that is published and on shelves. Now be careful with this. You want something not published by the author, but something published by a publishing house that publishes other things. The more well known the house, the better, because it shows you just how high you can really aim in life.

It is preferable that this MBC be something in the genre you write in. Afterall if you write thrillers, you might think 'all' chick lit is crap, so that's cheating. Now why are you finding this book? I think it's pretty obvious.

To quote Stephen King's book "On Writing" (A book which I WILL be doing a blog about because it's fabulous and if you have only room for one more book on your writer's bookshelf, get that one.) King states: "Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell,I am doing better than this!

This is what you're looking for, that magical one book, the worst you can find of your genre, to serve as your magical book of crap. You're looking for the book that's published, hopefully by a known publisher, that is worse than what you're doing NOW. I'm not saying you should aim for mediocrity with your craft. One of the best assets you have is a strong natural writing voice, and craft. But if you see something worse than what you're already doing being published, then you know there isn't as much as you originally thought standing in your way.

Once you find your MBC, I would suggest taking the cover off and framing and hanging it on the wall over your computer. No matter what happens, there is likely someone who sucks a lot more than you do, being happily published. Now I don't personally know about this individual's connections or who they're sleeping with, but at least a few of them just really made it there on their own. And I've seen some pretty scary author pictures; I find it highly unlikely they're sleeping their way to the top.

Good writing is subjective. To some degree bad writing is too. Although I believe there is a point that most of us agree on as being bad writing. Continue to improve your craft and rise above mediocrity with the power of your words, but remember the magical book of crap. If they can achieve publication, so can you.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

I feel a need to BITCH: Good Advice/Bad Advice:

Ah, yes, so bitchy Zoe comes out to play now. This version of me is alternately called 'evil Zoe' for those keeping notes in a file somewhere. Yeah, so Pollyanna just took a coffee break and I'm slipping in here to bitch while she does. I was reading a book called "The Romance Writer's Handbook" and I stumbled across some of the worst advice I've ever seen and I feel absolutely compelled to share it with you.

Good Advice: Sending out a professional, intriguing query letter to catch the interest of an agent.

Bad Advice: Being unpublished and calling an agent, interviewing them about their methods, badgering them for a list of references, and then talking about yourself. (I promise you this advice was in this book.)


I should have been much more careful in buying this book, I'll admit. But I happened to skim past one page that had good advice on it, though now in hindsight I'm going to have to check another source to make sure it was right in light of THIS advice being published in the same book. To be fair to the author of this book, the chapter about calling agents was not written by her.

For all intents and purposes, this is very much a "noob" 'hello I just discovered the concept of typing the other day' kind of publication. So unless you are just brand new to writing, at least the first half of the book has very little new or helpful information. But I wouldn't recommend the book if you were brand new because then you might think that chapter 32, entitled "Bagging the Right Agent" was actually good advice.

The author of this chapter suggests instead of "wasting time with a letter" CALLING agents and asking them questions about how they run their business etc. to see if they might be the right agent for you. a perfect world. What the frilly heck? And no, she isn't just suggesting it to "name" authors (although surely a well known author has better sense than to call an agent interviewing them like she's going out for the high school paper.)

I felt compelled to rant about this. This is like the writer's version of telemarketing. How do all agents not HATE this woman for suggesting this to people? I can just hear them now: Oh, yes...please encourage a thousand publishing noobs to call my office. I'd be so very grateful.

Here is a direct quote from this chapter: "But whatever you do, don't commit. This is what I call the "******* Rule." Even if you really like talking to this person, and like what they have to say, don't commit during that first telephone call. Wait until you've had more time to think about it. There is still a chance the next agent might impress you more."

Right. In a perfect world. In what reality does an agent offer a noob who just wasted five minutes of his/her time, a contract over the phone? And I did double check this article. She's speaking to ANYONE looking for an agent, not just 'name authors.' And if she were speaking just to name authors it would be ludicrous because this book seems to be mostly aimed at newer writers.

I blocked out her last name above due to the fact that since then, she could have rethought this some and not want reminders of it possibly floating around on the internet. I googled her, out of morbid curiosity, and she's had a lot of success (at least according to her website). This makes me even more determined to be published. I was going to talk about the "magical book of crap" today, but that'll have to wait until tomorrow, or the next day cause I'm on a rant here.

So, now that I've ranted and been insane and come off very much like a manic depressive on speed...let me get to my point gentle readers...

Not all writing advice in published writing books is good. In this same book in another chapter it was actually suggested to describe your character using the mirror know... "Grace looked in the mirror. She didn't feel she was incredibly attractive, but her eyes sparkled blue and her golden hair framed her face like a halo."

This is something I hate reading. I think some people REALLY overestimate how much I care about what the heroine of a romance novel looks like. I want to relate with her, and I'll do that best, not by knowing all her physical traits, but by getting to know HER. Who she is, what she loves, what she hates, what scares her. Not what color her hair is. I'm not saying you should go a whole book without even mentioning hair color...get it in there early and be stealthy about it if you have to...but the mirror method IMO is not stealth.

So where then, is the writer supposed to turn? I would suggest picking up a book on critical thinking if you haven't already been taught this skill in schooling or in life. Don't ever take any one piece of advice as the gospel. Weigh it. Look for the reasons why it was suggested. If you hear a hundred people say QUERY THE AGENT DO NOT CALL. And then one published author comes along and says: "letters are a waste of time, you should call." Keep in mind that said author's success may have caused him/her to put blinders on to the way it was/is for a new writer.

Don't use ONE piece of bad advice spoken with authority as an excuse to take a road that deep down you know is the wrong one. If you aren't sure, keep studying and reading and eventually you'll find your way. And this includes my advice. (This should go without saying) There are many bridges I haven't crossed yet and many things I don't know. I'm on the same road you are on, you may be behind me or in front of me on it, but it's the same road.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Not to sound like a cult leader here, because I once sold Mary Kay, and let me tell you, sometimes the 'power of positive thinking' deserves a busted lip. There is only so 'happy happy joy joy' you can go before I start rolling my eyes. However... there is only so much negativity you need in your life, especially in your writing life. I'm not saying put your head in the sand and ignore anything bad about the publishing industry.

I'm saying, acknowledge the crappy stuff, but don't allow it to stop you. If this truly is who you are, you won't let it stop you. After all, what kind of lame-ass adventure are you really on, if it isn't 'impossible'? I'm a big fan of underdogs and watching them succeed against the odds. How completely lame is it if what you want in life isn't even a challenge?

I say find the biggest challenge, the most impossible thing...and go for it.

One of the most common bits of negativity repeated over and over to new and old writers alike is the incredibly bad odds in this business. "You'll never make it," though cloaked in nicer words like: "the odds are daunting," is bandied about like "You'll shoot your eye out." Just give the kid his Red Ryder beebee gun for God's sake.

I was on an online writing group where I heard about how insurmountable the odds were (not for the first time.) One individual stated that the odds for just ONE particular agent were 8/20,800. The agent received 20,800 queries (I'm not sure if the exact time frame was specified) and out of that, the agent requested 54 manuscripts only, and out of THAT the agent signed 8 new writers. (I still haven't been informed of the dismal numbers of those who got a decent book contract.)

Are you cheery yet? :)

Well, hold on...I'm getting there. In the first place, just hypothetically speaking of this particular agent, your odds are NOT 8/20,800. If this was a LOTTERY those would be your odds. But it isn't. As far as I know, agents have not yet become so disillusioned as to start pulling query letters randomly out of a hat. When they start doing that, THEN and only then will those be YOUR PERSONAL odds.

If you want to get a look at what you're up against, go here: Going on right now, is Miss Snark's Crap-o-meter. This is where writing hopefuls send in their queries to Miss Snark, and she snarkily tells them what's wrong with them. I wasn't ready in time for the crap-o-meter this time, or else I'd be getting snarked too. ;)

Now most of these are REALLY bad, IMO. Keep in mind these aren't your average querying writers out of this mythically large number you're up against. THESE are the savvy ones. The ones savvy enough and well read/well researched enough to even know about Miss Snark in the first place. This is the best and the brightest, people. And still, most of it is BAD.

So, read these and know there really is hope. I'm not saying it'll be easy. And I definitely think you need several people willing to rip your query apart so you can increase your odds, but it is doable. And yeah, even if you write the perfect query, you might not get a bite from this agent or that one. Just keep working at it. Find what isn't catching interest and fix it and move on to the next batch. But know, this isn't the lottery.

Do you have some fierce competition? Absolutely. But most of these people aren't it. In all likelihood, You aren't up against 20,800 people better than you. I mean you've got going into the circular bin right from the start all the people who sent to an agent who didn't represent their type of book, or wrote their query on pink scented paper. Then unless it's a really forgiving agent, all mispelled names are going in the crap bin too.

And I really don't believe this is a matter of vanity. In the grand scheme of things if a writer can't bother to find out the proper spelling of an agent's name, how likely is it that they will be knowledgable enough about the industry to not need hand holding every single step of the way? There is only so thin an agent can spread him/herself, especially on a new author.

Then of course the crappy queries take up a huge chunk of it. Yours could very well be in this category. See that it isn't. Then your odds become much much better.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Characters in our Lives:

We're all surrounded by characters every day. People who inspire bits of dialogue or parts of characters or story plots. A hazard of being friends with a writer is that something about you might end up in one of their books. We're people watchers. We observe the things other people try to ignore. We're little amateur psychologists, studying human behavior like we intend to start handing out meds.

Some people you meet just scream "character" when you see them. My friend Lisa is one of these people.

Lisa is one of the most colorful people I know. She was raised by a couple of hippies and for the first 8 years of her life she lived out of an RV running around topless. Her mom and dad used to grow marijuana on the kitchen table. This explains a lot about my friend. There are times when talking to her is about like carrying on a conversation with a baked potato, but you have to love her. It's really hard not to.

Right now she works in an area that can only be described as "Better Hoods and Ghettos." She works at a gas station and people call her "Bubbles." But don't let that fool you. She has a baseball bat and a Tazer and she's not afraid to use either of them. She's had to use them a few times on a couple of crack addicts, as well as the crossdresser who wants to be called 'Jasmine' when he's wearing his glittery dresses instead of his normal blue jeans and a cowboy hat.

Some pimp tried to recruit her and give her a ride but she threatened him with her tazer. I have no idea how this woman has the nerve to do half the things she does, but she just takes it all in stride and scary people stay away from her. Because, as it turns out, my friend is one of the scary people. Or at the very least, she's someone who makes scary people a bit wary.

She's got a California King snake named Phil Collins and a 'slutty cat' she named Barbara Walters (despite the fact that Barbara Walters is not in fact slutty at all.)

She has a boyfriend who wants to get a Prince Albert. Unlike a lot of women, she is unamenable to this plan. She claims it could be a choking hazard. She says all this to me with a completely straight face.

None of these exact scenarios have shown up in any of my characters or stories, and yet there is probably a piece of Lisa in some of my characters. I believe that everybody is a character if you dig deeply enough. Lisa's quirkiness is just all out there on the surface. But all people are funny, and have their weird little idiosyncracies. When we take the time to notice them, we see how rich, and multi-layered people are and it can only enhance the reality of the characters we create on the page.

Who are the characters in your life?

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Gift of Encouragement:

Well, it's Christmas, and though I'm an Ebenezer Scrooge up until zero hour, I end up liking it just a little bit by the time everything gets under way. I just had an incredibly low-stress, non-insane Christmas dinner with my family. No arguing or fighting, just a lot of funny stories and sarcasm. It's been awhile since we've had a Christmas so nice and stress free.

Even my grandfather, who is now one of the most conservative people you'll ever meet, was telling stories about his navy days where he once crawled under some saloon-style doors in a bar to get away before the cops arrived and threw everybody in the pokey. It was a pretty surreal holiday all in all. But nice.

When I was a kid the best part about Christmas was receiving, now the best part is giving. I get a bit of a thrill playing secret agent and discovering that perfect thing someone on my list has been wanting. My biggest score this year was discovering a movie my brother has looked everywhere for.

Still, while giving is is getting gifts, and no one can give you a gift like the one you can give yourself. Mercenary I know. Hallmark probably doesn't make a card for that. But it is true. No one knows what you need and want quite as well as you do. So, why not give yourself a gift this year. Maybe it'll be a little late for Christmas by the time you get it put together, maybe it'll be a gift to start the new year with...but you should have it. After all, you have been good this year right? Or...evil...but whatever.

If you're trying to become happily published, (Or if you are happily published and you're trying to become MORE happily published or more widely distributed) you need a little bit of magic sometimes to help you along. Even Pollyanna wasn't optimistic every day. Sometimes you see someone playing the "Glad game" and you just want to punch them in the nose. For those days, you need the magic, so make it now to use later.

Get yourself a large 3-ring notebook and make a pretty cover. (You totally deserve a pretty cover, trust me.) Then write up or print off every extremely encouraging thing said to you about your writing or about writing in general, that you either can remember or have somewhere. (You might have to go digging through emails and livejournal comments.) And don't forget those "nice rejection notes," the ones with the bits of encouragement on them. Also include any writing accomplishments so far, awards, other publications etc. etc. Hell, if you've got a couple of great reviews, put them in the book. When the days come that you want to pull off Pollyanna's arms and beat her to death with'll need the book.

On those days, you can look back over the genuine and sincere compliments people have given you about your writing, encouragement you have gotten as well as just things that personally inspire you. Then, as more people you like and respect say more genuinely encouraging things to you, add them to the book. Some days will be long and hard after all and you might need an hour's worth of reading material to put you back on track.

As the Christmas season winds down to a close many are looking toward the new year and all the hope and promise that often brings. So make your book, and regroup and decide that you will move closer to your goals in 2007. And have some eggnog. Because it's a wonderfully disgusting beverage that everybody should drink at least once.

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Dreaming of a Book Contract:

While some of us are dreaming of a white Christmas right about now, I've been dreaming of a book deal...quite literally actually...for the past five days. Also, while I like to be optimistic I'm not sure a white Christmas is on the menu for me this year anyway...I mean the sky is the most perfect easter egg blue, and that usually isn't a portent for snow. Not that I'm complaining mind's beautiful.

But I digress.

It's a lovely dream (the book deal thing, not the snow), and it's always just a little bit different. Of course it's always filled with the utter bizarreness of most dreams, like monkeys on roller skates doing the know. Still. So while we're all dreaming of either publication, a magical winter wonderland, or a little of both...I thought I'd take a bit of time to talk about the dreams that drive us.

I truly believe that whatever your dreams are...whether it's to run a poodle fluff and curl hair salon, open a restaurant, marry the man or woman of your dreams, or become happily published, that it has to be everything. It has to be what you breathe, eat, sleep, the driving force around which all else revolves. I think some people are afraid to dream that hard. Why? Because...what if you don't "make it?" Then it will be such a let down. You'll have put all your eggs in that one basket all for nothing.

What a waste.

But is it really?

I believe that "making it" is always a sliding scale. For now, you might just want to be published (if you aren't already.) But when that happens, you'll want more. More books, more readers. The more success you have, the more you'll likely want. You'll be like some kind of crazed nympho...except hopefully you won't be dry humping your readers like a dog. That's not very polite.

If you ever hit anything “NEAR” the big time, you'll probably want to be on the bestseller list. If you do that, you'll want to STAY on the bestseller list. Then you'll want to be a “bestselling author” that has several books that have been on the bestseller list.

I mean don't get me wrong, you can be wonderfully successful and never reach this list, but let's face it, it's great publicity to be there, and so many writers aspire to it, even if only secretly. I mean certainly practically EVERYONE wants to be on that's like the movie actor who someday wants to receive an Oscar. Not the mental giant gymnastics here. Most of us want it, and the earlier you are in your career the more of a pipe dream it is...still it's there. Then...assuming you do that, you might then want movies and action figures and blah blah blah. So it never stops. Understand that.

I've known people who get involved in a "cause" you save Christmas or create a law, or save some whales and dolphins, etc. They seem to live under the delusion that they will make their change and that will be the end of it. But it won't. When you pick a 'cause' or reason to get up in the morning, it never really ends. Writing for publication is like that I think.

As long as you still have the dream, you will either be working for success or working to keep it. If you truly understand that, you can relax a tiny bit. You may have this idea that one day promoting yourself just stops. It'll be some self-run machine and you can sit back and let the money or whatever flow in. But it won't be like that.

You'll always be working toward the next goal, the next dream. Because that's who we are as humans. Our dream just happens to be the writing dream. The odds are just in sharper relief. So keep dreaming and working toward your dreams but recognize that the more you dream and the more you accomplish the more you'll likely want. That's okay.

If you never reach any of your goals, then make sure you die trying. There are few things nobler than being so tenacious that you never give up on what you want no matter whether you have any guarantees of getting there or not. maybe if you ran into a burning building and saved a baby, two kittens and a three-legged puppy, THAT would be more noble...but we aren't all superheroes here. ;)