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Know Your Strength & Weaknesses

I am ankle-deep in what is shaping up to be the most challenging book I’ve ever written. I say ankle-deep because I was hoping to be knee-deep by now and that’s just not a reality at the moment. There’s way too much going on with his book, and a lot of it in areas of writing that I consider to be “weak” for me.

It’s important as a writer that you acknowledge your own strengths and weaknesses. The only way you become a better writer is by embracing and leveraging the former and challenging yourself with the latter.

For instance, I have a degree in Theatre. I am also and award-winning playwright. I know good dialogue. I know how to write it, I can visualize it coming out of the character’s mouths, and all the blocking and body language that would go with it in that particular scene. I think in terms of putting that in front of me visually as I’m writing it. My books are generally very dialogue heavy because that works for me.

I also love the sarcasm and very witty interchanges, and I especially love good wordplay, whether that’s delivering the punchline, or wielding a sentence like a sword that cleaves a character in half and leaves them bleeding. I think I’m pretty good at this. Not the greatest—yet—but I’m getting there.

Now for the list of what I’m not so great at:

Character descriptions. Believe it or not, I really struggle with giving physical descriptions of my characters in the context of the story. I even once wrote an entire book under my other pen name where I didn’t describe the protagonist in any way other than proclaiming her a female (in my defense the book was quite a few years back and one of my earliest). A reviewer called me out on it and I realized in stunned surprise that they were absolutely right. I’d never described her hair color, eye color facial features, or the build of her body. What the hell?

Describing someone’s looks is hard within the context of the story.  The last thing I want to do is pick some obvious ploy—having them stand in front of a mirror, having their best friend describe them (“Stop being so hard on yourself, Emma! I’d kill to have blonde hair, blue eyes, a perfect waist, big boobs, and porcelain skin, all in a toned five-foot six-inch frame like you!”). You have to come up with subtle ways to introduce it, like she’s playing with a strand of her curly hair with her fingers and it bounces back when she lets it go. Or she unconsciously rubs that scar on the side of her nose. Or some older relative telling her she has eyes like a summer sky. But of course, you have to work all that in as early as possible so people know how to picture this character in their mind. For me it’s just daunting.

The other area that’s tough for me is world building. Look, I’m an actor. I was trained to be an actor. The dialogue is the important thing. The interaction with the other actors is the important thing. The scenery is just there to be—scenery. It’s not the focus of the action. I’ve done tremendous shows that were in a black box environment and had nothing but a black curtain behind me and a couple of chairs. But it doesn’t work that way in a book. So I have to force myself to climb inside my character and stop for a moment to look around as they enter any new environment. What do they see, smell, hear? What can they pick up or put down or push aside? What in this environment do they need to interact with and how can I highlight that? What sort of wonderful and unique ways can I call attention to the lush world that surrounds them?

My final area of difficulty is introspection. The inner monologue of a character. As a person, I’m a natural born optimist. I have my down days, sure, but overall I am not much of a “wallower.” I’m a firm believer in picking yourself up and getting on with your life. Sitting there and beating yourself up over what happened or what you cannot or ought to change is only going to slow you down. When I write, it’s been common for editors who reviewed my manuscripts to comment that they need more, they want my character to pause and reflect a little bit longer, they need more internalization. My immediate reaction to the comment is, “But I did that!” Clearly, I didn’t do enough.

I know when I’m reading a book and a character has a very long, multi-paragraph internal monologue where they’re rehashing everything that’s occurred and how they feel about it, I have a tendency sometimes to skim it over and flip on past it. If I’m listening to an audiobook I literally wave my hand in the air like, come on, come on. That’s a personal bias of mine, and I’m learning to work through it.

I won’t lie to you, there are days when I think I should just chuck this whole manuscript and write something else. I have a file full of great ideas and some of those will be easier to write than others. But I love the story. I love these characters. It’s exciting and diverse and fantastical and if I don’t tell it, this story will never exist in the world. I just need to become a better writer to do it justice.

Check Your Submission Guidelines – Thoroughly

I participated in a twitter pitch event earlier this week, and lucky me! I got a great big ❤️ from two different indie presses. I was hoping to find a new agent, but an indie press is just fine with me, so I immediately headed over to their webpages to get a feel for the both of them.

The first thing I look at on an indie press is the quality of their book covers. Sadly, I’ve seen a few indie presses with book covers that look like they were photoshopped by the author with limited skill and put up hurriedly on Amazon the same night the book was finished. You know what I mean. If a publisher can’t give you a professional looking cover, then they’re clearly not going to be invested in you as an author.

Not every publisher will ask for the same thing upon submission. Some want five pages plus your query, some want ten. Some want the first chapter. Some want all of that plus a synopsis. Someone only want your query letter. Some want you to forgo the query letter altogether, and give you an outline of what they want to hear from you in very specific order, something like “give us your bio in the first paragraph, use the second paragraph to tell us why you’re the one to write this book, then give us the pitch in the third and final paragraph.”

If you’re submitting to an indie press versus an agent, they may also have formatting requirements for your manuscript that differ from the average one inch margins all around and double-spaced typing. So, of course I made a point to read these very thoroughly.

And here’s where the word “thoroughly” comes into play.

Some writers just skim this section, looking for the keywords of five pages, ten pages, first chapter. Don’t stop there, keep reading. Most indie publishers will have the usual blah blah blah about we’re looking for good writing, strong voices, unique narratives, and stories that thrill us! Yeah, who isn’t?

I read on to discover that indie press one was looking specifically for cyberpunk sci-fi and fantasy, and only short stories, as they’re an online magazine. I write YA sci-fi and fantasy but not cyberpunk, and I have nothing for them in the way of short stories. I’m not mad at them for giving me the like. They were taking a chance, in case I had something to offer them. I don’t, so on I go.

Indie press two was a little more complicated. They do publish novels, and their book covers were grade-A professional quality. They had several books that won indie book awards. Well, this looks promising! Query letter. Ten pages. Next paragraph probably full of the usual blah blah blah, but I’ll give it a read.

And it turns out this particular indie book publisher will not publish books with LGBTQA themes/characters, or books that depict any sort of spirituality other than Christianity.

Clearly, this is a Christian publisher. They don’t bill themselves that way because they publish more than just Christian themed books, but their adherence to strict Christian principles is very evident in their submission guidelines. And I am very grateful that they gave those details upfront.

I’m an active member of the YA community. My readers, my author friends, and my personal friends and family members embrace many different religions – and some no religion at all. I am a strong supporter of the LGBTA community and of #ownvoices in publishing. The book they were interested in actually falls within their guidelines. There’s no mention of anything other than heterosexuality within the book, and no mention of religion at all—neither really are applicable to the story, so they weren’t a focus.

I could submit the book, but I’d be betraying my personal values in aligning myself with this publisher. Likewise, the publisher would most certainly not be happy to see me tweeting and posting in support of things that go against their publishing platform. And I’m not saying any of this to bash the publisher—please don’t think that. They have a right to their platform, just as I have a right to mine. We’re just not a good fit. So back to the query trenches I go.

Read the fine print, guys. It’s important.

New Year, New Goals

We all know 2020 was a rough year, and writing-wise, it was a mixed bag for me.

Overall, I managed to:

  • Finish 2 YA manuscripts
  • Draft a new YA manuscript (and complete NaNoWriMo)
  • Query 3 YA manuscripts
  • Write and publish 2 romance novels
  • Write and publish 3 romance novellas
  • Publish a romance novella collection

All during a pandemic while dealing with a special needs child virtually learning next to me while I’m working from home at the full-time day job. It’s been a challenging year, but damn. I’m proud of what I got done now that I see it all written out.

So here’s the tentative plan for next year:

  • Continue querying my YA manuscripts
  • Self-Pub my Contemporary YA title
  • Complete another YA manuscript
  • Draft and hopefully complete a MG book
  • Write and publish 3 romance novels
  • Write and publish 3 romance novellas
  • Publish a romance novel collection
  • Try not to lose my mind

Along with the writing goals come the usual life stuff: eat healthy, exercise more, declutter, save more money. I might as well get a tattoo with all that since it repeats every year. I’m going to add in “travel more” as soon as it’s feasible to do so, finish all the online writing courses I have access to (Masterclass, various writer conferences, etc.), and just generally look for joy every day, even if it’s only in a small way or a brief moment.

What about you? What are you working toward in the new year?

Trying To Wrap My Mind Around A Whole World

I’m hard at work revising and ripping through the second draft of this year’s NaNoWriMo project, a YA fantasy titled The Seventh Race. Here’s the working summary:

Six continents. Six perilous races. Complete any one of them in the allotted time and win prizes and acclaim. Complete all six in a row, and you become the first person in history to complete the Seventh Race – winning money, glory, and a chance at a far better life anywhere in the world.

Only one group of youngers is allowed to compete every year, and Ree is determined to win it all and save herself and her older sister from a life of indentured servitude. She’ll have to watch her back – the others are as determined as she is, and now they’ve all become targets. There’s a sinister reason no one’s won the Seventh Race in the thousand years since its inception – and the secrets unearthed could cost them their lives.

So, in other words, this one is epic. Lots of moving parts. It’s got a great, diverse cast of characters, six hellish races across all sorts of terrain, climate and physical challenges, and most importantly, seven different cultures and people I have to detail and define (six for the countries on each continent, plus defining the culture and mythology of the Elders, who disappeared a thousand years ago).

This is some Game of Thrones and Throne of Glass level world building. I have never taken on something this daunting. World building is one of my weaker areas, so I’m really challenging myself. I know these characters, I know their quirks, their secrets (even the ones they keep from themselves), I know what they hunger for and how they interact with each other. I have a good plan for each leg of the race, I have the pivotal scenes. What I need now is the landscape, the history, the culture, the defined morality of each group. The players are on the stage, but the background scenery is partially built, or still a little flat and one-dimensional. I’ll be spending a good chunk of my Christmas holiday fleshing that out.

A world is a big thing to write.

I May Have Book News Coming Soon . . .

I’ve been through a bit of a writer rollercoaster lately (writercoaster?) first with my imprint shutting down, then my having to dump my non-responsive agent (who left agenting not long after). Now I’m back in the trenches with three different manuscripts under my arm, knocking on agent’s doors and begging them to pleasepleaseprettyplease read more than my first ten pages. It’s grueling, and the sad fact is for all of us in this position, only a very small percentage of agents respond at all. The few who do send you a perfunctory form letter rejection that gives you no feedback to improve your pitch or opening chapters, and if you’re lucky enough to get a request for the full manuscript, once again, very few follow up with a response. Getting a book published in the time of COVID is a daunting thing.

Just like any career in the arts, talent isn’t enough. Connections help, luck can be on your side occasionally, but persistence is your best chance for success. In the meantime, keep on writing, keep on studying your craft, keep on keeping on.

So.

I wrote two complete YA Fantasy & Sci-Fi books, my usual area of focus. And I wrote this one contemporary YA because the story ate my brain and demanded I write it out. BLUE is about a teen girl dealing with the fallout after her older brother was involved in an automobile accident that killed the father of one of her classmates. I’ve had a professional editor read it through and give me some developmental notes, reworked it a bit, tweaked it some more, it went out to Beta readers and they loved, loved, loved it. And they all cried at the end (Yay!).

But how do I pitch this? Honestly, contemporary stories are generally just not my thing. And publishing is weird. I may not get a bite because my previous books were YA Fantasy and I’m known as a YA Fantasy writer. And if I do get a bite on the new story, they’ll want more contemporary stories and I’ve got nothing to follow up with but more fantasy and sci-fi books and ideas. So I’ve made the decision to put this one out myself, and keep on pitching the others in the genre I’m most comfortable writing.

I’ve got a cover to commission, some formatting work to do, line edits to review, and I’ll be using Ingram Spark as a publishing platform so I’ll have bookstore distribution. I hope to have a cover reveal and launch date for all of you shortly after the new year. In the meantime, I’m still writing, querying, and persisting. Here’s hoping 2021 pays off for all of us.

L.E.

Presenting: My #NaNoWriMo Project

Six continents. Six perilous races. Complete any one of them in the allotted time and win prizes and acclaim. Complete all six in a row, and you become the first person in history to complete the Seventh Race – winning money, glory, and a chance at a far better life anywhere in the world. Only one group of youngers is allowed to compete every year, and Ree is determined to win it all and save herself and her older sister from a life of indentured servitude. She’ll have to watch her back – the others are as determined as she is, and now they’ve all become targets. There’s a sinister reason no one’s won the Seventh Race in the thousand years since its inception – and the secrets unearthed could cost them their lives.

I’ve been living this one in my head for a looong time – can’t wait to write it out! Wish me luck!