An Experiment in Control

February 6, 2014 at 8:36 pm (General, Writing) (, , )

Tomorrow marks two weeks of unemployment for me. I’m not panicking yet- last time I couldn’t get a job, it stretched for a whole six months- but it’s led to a lot of thinking for me, in between the cleaning and procrastinating. Mostly, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about control.

Because realistically, I can’t control my employment. I can put out applications, I can search and interview and do my best, but I can’t control what actually happens. It’s led me to other things I can’t control.

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I can write the best book I can write, but I can’t guarantee that the book will sell better than my writing a custom annotated bibliography practice back in the time when I was a student. It’s out of my hands, and in the hands of an editor who can decide that he or she wants to buy it. I can do my best, my fabulous agent can do her best, but in the end, it depends on a lot of factors, like what else is in the catalog, like what the current trends are, like the purely subjective likes and dislikes of an acquisitions board. A lot of factors, factors over which I have no control.

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Once a book is out there, the way it’s perceived is entirely out of my control. Books become, to many readers, very personal things. The way we enjoy them, the way we react to them, says a lot about us. I can’t control what people think of my writing. Once it’s out there, I can’t argue with people that I think miss the point, can’t tell them what I meant to do. Hell, J.K. Rowling is a superstar and she can’t get away with it without a furor. And really, that’s as it should be. Once it’s in the hands of the reader, it’s open to interpretation, to personal perception. I can’t make anyone like my book. I can’t control whether or not someone enjoys it. Love it or hate it, it’s out of my hands.

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Publishing is a crazy industry that attempts to balance art and business. It’s a juggernaut, really, that steams along to its own timeline. There are eight million numbers and considerations and factors and none of it is in my hands. I can make my contributions on one end or another, but I can’t control it. YA readers on Twitter the other day may have seen #TheArchivedNeedsaThirdBook. For some context, The Archived is an absolutely amazing book by Victoria Schwab. It’s creepy and atmospheric, exciting, heart-wrenching, unexpectedly funny, with the lyrical, gorgeous writing we’ve come to expect from Victoria. It’s sequel, The Unbound, came out at the end of January, and it is just as good. Where the first book was an external enemy, this book is largely internal; the main character is shattering and struggling to make everyone believe she’s okay. A very large part of this book is the realization that it’s okay to NOT be okay for a while after trauma. The story is such that things can end here; it’s the characters that need a third book, and there was originally supposed to be one, but as we know, in publishing, sometimes things happen. They’re not done intentionally, they’re not done to hurt anyone, but it is, at the end of the day, a business, and a business is about numbers and projects and yes, about passion. The hashtag was a fan movement to try to sway the publishers, but at the end of the day, a trending hashtag isn’t going to make a difference to the business. (It will, however, make a hell of a difference to an author to get that kind of outpouring of love and support). What makes a difference to the publisher is sales. Aside from the contribution of buying books from authors I love so they can hopefully make more of them, I can’t control other books. I can’t control other authors. I can’t control publishers, or timelines, or release dates. I can’t.

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I’ll be honest, Other People as a collective tend to piss me off. Not in a “you’re awful” kind of way, but in an “I don’t want to be dealing with you” kind of way. I am an introvert; I prefer not to deal with people if I can possibly avoid it, because I’m awkward and self-conscious and I hate feeling like an idiot in social situations. But I learned a long time that I can’t control other people. I can’t control behavior, or statements, or preferences. I can take accountability for my own actions, but not for theirs. I can’t control luck or good fortune, or bad fortune, I can’t make other people live with compassion or mindfulness.

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There are so many things out of our control it’s frankly a wonder we can convince ourselves anything IS in our control. There is so much about life that we don’t get to decide. We can’t choose the weather, or the climate (unless you choose to move, but even then, have you noticed how things have been recently?). We as individuals have a say in our government, but we don’t really choose it. We can’t control the jury summons or the illness or the falling in love. We can’t choose a lot of things, and where there is no choice, there is no control. It all seems rather a hopeless business, doesn’t it? But there’s something comforting, in a strange sort of way, about acknowledging how small we are, how generally powerless we are. Because when we admit to ourselves all the things we CAN’T control, we start to understand the things we CAN control.

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I can’t control what happens with my writing, but I can control the writing itself. Yes, there are bad days, where every word is a struggle and I’ll probably end up deleting most of them the next time I sit down to work, but those are generally rare. More to the point, what I can control is sitting down and DOING IT. I can control the process of sitting my butt in the chair and WRITING. I can choose to open the file, the notebook, the book. I can choose to exercise my craft and expand my voice. Whatever comes after is out of my hands, but it is precisely in my hands to shape the story and spill it onto the page.

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I’m not by nature a disciplined person, but I can change that. I can control that. I can make it better. Right now my apartment is slowly getting cleaner than any living space of mine has probably ever been, and it’s kind of creeping me out a little, because everything is getting organized and neat and in its place, and that’s just not normal for me. But I’m making the choice, here and now, to keep it that way. To start the good habits and maintain them. I’m usually someone who waits for the mood to write, or who waits for the day off, but I would very much like to get into the habit of writing at least five hundred words every day. Even if it’s not on my main project of the moment, just so I’m writing SOMETHING every single day. Starting good habits is hard. Maintaining good habits is REALLY hard. But- I can choose to have the self-discipline to enforce them, and right now, I choose that.

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I’m not able to control what happens to my books, but I can choose to keep pursuing the goals I’ve set. I can control whether or not I give up. Determination, persistence, they’re hard, especially because they traverse so close to the border of delusional and trying too hard. Sometimes, no matter how badly we want something, no matter how hard we work for it, it just doesn’t happen, and we do have to accept that. Sometimes that means we have to shift our goals. It doesn’t mean we have to give up. Determination got me my first book deal. I can choose to continue that determination.

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Okay, so this one is actually really difficult. Life has a way of throwing things at us, and it’s hard to control your outlook in trying times. But if I can’t control my emotions well enough to be optimistic, I can at least control them enough to not wallow in misery. I can choose to temper my outlook with a bit of joy and hope, or at least a really sick sense of humor. I can’t control the world, but I can control how I look at it, and I can control how I choose to move through it.

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Because at the end of things, the only thing I can really control is myself. All those other factors, all those other things, that I can claim to control, all those really boil into one single thing: me. And as long as I can control myself, as long as I can choose to make myself better, to do better, I can get by.

And what that also made me realize is something else I can control.

My gratitude.

So.

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Querying for the New Year? Pt 2

January 17, 2014 at 8:47 pm (Industry, Writing) (, , , , )

So last time, we talked about the first steps towards publishing.

So now, you have a finished, polished manuscript, one on which you’ve received honest and detailed critiques, a manuscript that is the best you can possibly make it.

You’ve done your research- you know if you want to self-publish, sign with an agent, or go traditional on your own.

You’ve done even more research- looked at self-publishing companies, looked up agents and what they’re looking for, looked up publishers that accept un-agented manuscripts.

So what now?

If you’re self-publishing:
There’s not a lot I can offer you from here; this isn’t a path I’ve taken. Just don’t commit to anything you haven’t researched. As you’re looking at different companies that can help you, look at the various prices they have listed, and start to list out your own budget. Go right down the line of expenses: editing, formatting, book design, cover design, publishing, returnable options, distribution, publicity. Decide what you can afford for each category, and where you can give a little on one to gain on another. If you’re not financially ready for this kind of investment, WAIT. You don’t want to put out less than your best. Not only will you be cheating all the hard work you’ve done thus far, but you’ll also limit your options in the future. If your first public effort is less than, um…well, less than good, it’s a lot harder to get readers interested in a second book, and that’s just not how you build a career. Also, if you can’t afford to do it right, you don’t want to ruin yourself financially in the hopes that it’ll be a runaway bestseller and make you tons of money in the first month. The simple truth is- and this goes for any form of publishing– you cannot rely upon publishing to pay your bills. Not at first, and honestly, many authors never make it to that point. Publishing is a dream, yes, but you have to be realistic about it. Having a book out doesn’t mean much if you sacrifice your ability to pay your rent. Or buy food. Explore your options, make your decisions carefully, and when in doubt, look to those who’ve had some success with it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

If you want to submit directly to publishers:
Again, not a path I’ve taken, but make sure you pay attention to submission guidelines. Every publisher that accepts unsolicited manuscripts will tell you EXACTLY what they want you to send them. For some, it will be the full manuscript. Some will ask for a certain number of pages or chapters. Some will ask for a synopsis, some won’t. I know the gut feeling is to say “Screw it, I’ll send them everything, I just know they’ll love the first pages too much to want to wait for the rest!” Yeh, don’t do that. Send them what they ask for, no more, no less.

Another gut feeling is to send the first few chapters through such a strenuous polishing process that those first pages are AMAZING- but then the rest of the manuscript hasn’t gotten that kind of attention. Agents and publishers both see this a lot. The first chapters have been workshopped to death and the rest just can’t hold up. You want your submission to be balanced, to be equally strong the whole way through.

Once you’ve sent it off, resist the impulse to send follow-up e-mails every ten minutes. This is hard, I know. Still, you’ve got to resist it. The process takes time, and harassing them with follow-ups isn’t going to persuade them to read your submission any faster. In those agonizing weeks and months while you’re waiting to hear from them, do something else. Go on a reading binge. Work on a new project. Learn how to knit. Something to help distract you from sitting and stewing about it. Keep track of your submissions, including when you sent it off. You don’t want to send out one, wait until you get a response, then send off a second. Send in bunches, small enough for you to keep track of, large enough that you’re not wasting time.

If you want to query agents:
Welcome to the query letter! Also known as the strangest level of hell since the invention of the resume cover letter. Which makes sense, given that they accomplish much the same thing. There are thousands, perhaps even millions, of sites out there with advice on how to write a query letter. I looked at a lot of them while I was querying. What I can share with you here is my own distillation, what I found in my experience worked the best for me.

Step One
Get the agent’s name right.

No, seriously, this does actually bear emphasizing, because too many people don’t bother. This is how your letter is literally opening. This is the agent’s first encounter with you. Do not say “Dear Agent”. You want to personalize it, you want to address it to the person you are actually talking to. At the same time, you don’t want to be overly familiar. Don’t use just the first name, or a nickname. Use the name he or she has listed on his/her website.

A note on titles: when it comes to using Mr, Mrs, Ms, or Miss, there are differing opinions on that. Mr. is usually pretty safe (so long as you are very VERY sure that you are addressing a male; names can be tricky things), but the feminine titles can cause problems. I know some people prefer to use the titles, insisting that it’s more respectful, but I honestly prefer to use the first and last name as listed on the websites. There’s less chance of causing accidental offense that way by using the wrong one.

Spell the name correctly. It’s on the personal website, there really is no excuse for getting this one wrong. This is one of the very few things about a query that is black and white right or wrong.

Step Two
Hook your book.

Different websites and books will give you different opinions about the order a query letter should go in, but this is the one I prefer. You’re writing to the agent to talk about your book, so start with the book. This is a single paragraph, sometimes two if they’re short, that should spark interest in your book. It’s not quite a back cover copy, but it’s more than a twitter pitch.

(side note: don’t pitch on twitter unless specifically invited to do so during a #pitchmad or similar contest; it’s rude and out of place and tends to really piss people off. On the same note, don’t pitch on facebook. Or in the comments of a blog. There are specific avenues acceptable for querying, and you need to stick to those.)

This isn’t the place to go into detail. You don’t need to say everything about your book, every plot point, every character, every twist. This is your book in the most general terms. Think of this as the elevator pitch. You have 90 seconds: GO.

(Personal example: Hamlet Danemark V, Headmaster of Elsinore Academy, is dead and buried, but some secrets seep past the grave: the poison of a man who murders his brother to claim his wife and position; the poison poured into a son’s grief and twists the sorrow bloody; the poison of pills meant to strip away a world no one else can see.

For Ophelia, poison is just another way to drown, and she’s drowned before. When Dane makes a promise to avenge his father’s murder, she knows she’ll drown again- in his pain, in his rage, in his play at madness that becomes all too real. Revenge, after all, is a messy business.)

Step Three:
Define your book.

This accomplishes two things: first, it tells an agent what they should be expecting; second, it tells them you know what you’re talking about. Or, if you don’t do this carefully, tells them that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

This is where you say the title, the word count, the genre, and where appropriate, the category. (I say that because Young Adult and Middle Grade aren’t genres, they’re age categories. Calling a book Young Adult tells us the age it’s meant for but not what type of book it is; it doesn’t tell us if it’s paranormal or romance or thriller or what.) This is fairly succinct, almost a stats listing.

Titles aren’t the be all and end all. A good title can be intriguing, and the ability to come up with good, compelling titles is a definite plus, but titles change all the time. You have to put SOMETHING down, and you should try to make it good and appropriate, but the fact is, titles are hard. A bad title is not going to kill your chances.

Word count tells an agent how well you know you category. Genres and categories tend to have ranges of word counts. YA, for example, generally runs 75K-100K. There are always exceptions, of course, either shorter or longer, but a 140K word YA novel is going to make agents a little leery. Sometimes that means there’s too much story for one book. Sometimes that means there are just too many words, and the manuscript is in desperate need of red pen and a machete. But sometimes, it means that it’s a tight, fast-paced, well-written story that tricks you with its length by coming off as a much shorter book when you’re actually reading it. Word count, as long as it’s reasonably near range, isn’t an automatic disqualifier. If you go over 200K for anything other than epic high fantasy or in-depth non-fiction, you’re probably in the auto-reject pile.

This is a bit more like a twitter-pitch. You don’t have to keep it 140 characters or less, but it is short, and it is to the point.

(Personal example: Complete at approximately 99,000 words, Elsinore Drowning is a haunting, modern retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s voice for a Young Adult audience.)

Step Four:
Let’s talk about you.

No, seriously, this is where you get to talk about yourself. Agents aren’t after your life story, but they do want to hear a little about you. What do you do, what makes you the best one to tell this story. If you’ve ever won awards for writing, talk about them here. Member of any writing societies? (Preferably official ones). If you’ve ever published anything, here’s the place to talk about it. If that something is self-published, you might want to include sales numbers (if they’re respectable). Do you have a blog with millions of followers, or some other Cool Thing that means people might fall over themselves trying to buy your book? YOU SHOULD MENTION THIS. All of this relates directly into your sellability as an author- your brand, as it were. If you have a devoted following, you have the beginnings of a devoted readership; agents like to know these things.

Be aware that most agents will google the crap out of you if they’re even remotely interested. If you’re full of BS, they’ll spot it.

And this is where good behavior on the internet becomes a really, REALLY important thing, because agents (and editors) pay attention. If you’re ranting and raving about rejections or the slow pace of things, if you’re throwing tantrums, if you’re insulting to other writers, authors, reviewers, or bloggers, you’re not winning yourself any points. Agents and authors don’t have to be best friends, but they do have to be able to work together; if you’re showing yourself to be an unholy terror, don’t expect too much interest.

One of my best friends had a first conversation with an agent and was shocked when her wedding pictures came up as a subject- they were on her facebook. This isn’t stalking, this is research, the same research you did before you queried agents. They want to know who they’re dealing with, and people, seriously, the internet never forgets. Make good behavior a habit now if it isn’t already and save yourself a lot of heartache. Rant and rave and cry and pout in private ALL YOU WANT- it can be a very healthy stress relief- but don’t do it online, don’t do it where anyone and his mother can see it. You’re presenting yourself as a professional. Act like one.

(Personal example: I come from a mixed background of theatre and writing and for several years have worked at Barnes and Noble and a Kids/Teen Lead, where I gush about amazing books, want to purchase far too many of them, and do a happy dance very time a kid comes back for more adventures. I am not yet published.
My writing awards were, by this point, really out of date, so I didn’t talk about them. My background in theatre was directly connected to the fact that my book was based on Hamlet, working in a bookstore gave me additional knowledge and audience. Is it a ton to go off of? No. Which is why it’s VERY SHORT.)

Step Five:
Why this agent?

Some people prefer to put this first, or to put it right after the definition of the book, but I prefer to put it here, because it leads directly into the list of what’s included with the query and allows you a graceful way to close out.

This is where you’re telling THIS agent why you’ve chosen to query him or her. You can- and should- create a query template for yourself, wherein the bulk of the letter is the same every time, but the initial greeting and this paragraph should be personalized for every single agent. Yes, it’s time consuming, yes, it’s work, but it’s worth it.

But please, for the love of God PLEASE, make it appropriate. If you follow them on twitter, GREAT, you can say so, but if you’re going to talk about it, make sure it’s relevant. Talking about how cute their kid is? NOT A GOOD IDEA. Besides being unprofessional, it’s also a bit creepy. But mentioning that they participated in a twitter wishlist and requested “A YA that has X, Y, and 3.5”, and here’s why I think mine fits, hey, that’s a very good use of it. Same with things they’ve specifically mentioned on their blog or website. If you met them at a conference and they requested this, give them a gentle reminder here (and if you’re sending the query as an e-mail, put THE NAME OF THE CONFERENCE+REQUEST along with your title in the subject line, unless they specifically tell you to do otherwise- this gives them the heads-up that this is something in which they’ve already expressed moderate interest).

Querying an agent is not like picking a substitute teacher. You are not going down a list of more or less equally skilled people who simply need to fill a space for a day. This is not a case of “are you warm? Are you breathing? Good enough”. You are seeking a highly skilled, specialized individual who with whom you will be able to forge a solid working relationship. You need to know why you’re querying this agent, and not that agent, and you need to be able to say that.

Also, list what you’ve included with the query. Agents will request different things from you- it’s highly personalized, and you need to be able to keep track of it. At one time, one of my submission lists had query only, three pages, five pages, five pages and synopsis, ten pages, ten pages and bio, three chapters, fifty pages. You have to know what you’re sending to which agent. This also tells the agent that you’ve paid attention to their submission guidelines. Avenues of research are useful, but only to a point- books are very quickly inaccurate, unofficial websites that gather information can be wrong or outdated. When it doubt, always go with what the agent says on his or her website. If there is nothing listed, only an address that says send queries to, just send the query. Some sources will tell you to default to five or ten pages, but honestly, if they want to see past they query, they’ll ask.

Do not send more than they ask for.

Send everything they ask for.

If an agent does ask for material to be included with the query, paste it in below the query in the e-mail. Do not submit the materials as attachments unless specifically instructed to do so by the agent. Attachments are terrifying. Attachments are risks. Most agents aren’t going to take that kind of risk on a query they didn’t ask for. Save yourself an auto-delete, and don’t do it.

(Personal example: While researching your agency, I saw that you were interested in stories with a unique voice, something I hope you’ll recognize within Ophelia. Below, please find the first five pages, a synopsis, and a brief bio per your site request. If this piques your interest, further material is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Note that I’m not the most graceful individual when I’m conducting professional correspondence. I’m awkward and self-conscious, so I’m a bit stilted, and as long as you’re basically socially functional, you can probably be forgiven for a little awkwardness. You want to smooth things out to the best of your ability, but if you come off as a little stiff, don’t fret about it. That isn’t going to be the thing that sends the agents running for the hills.

Step Six:
Sign off.

This is another one that might sound strange, but the way you end your letter is just as important as how you begin it. Do not sign off with Yours Truly or Love or Always Yours or anything remotely of that nature. No. Just don’t do it. This is still professional communication.

That being said, I really hate signing things Sincerely. I am sincere, of course (usually, but always in professional circumstances) but I tend to sign off with Respectfully. Not Impatiently Yours or Impatiently Waiting or Desperate To Be Published. If you go with something other than the traditional Sincerely, it should still be professional and respectful.

And of course your name.

SOME TIPS

Just some things to keep in mind.

Be patient.
Keep track of your submissions, and note what an agent says his or her response time generally is. Also note one very important thing: NOT EVERY AGENT RESPONDS. There are a (large) number of agents who tell you to assume that no response means no interest. If the response time has passed for these agents, assume they’re not interested, and move on. If the agent promises a response, note the time span. Then, if the time has passed, give it a couple more weeks and then send a polite, non-pushy email with your query information in the subject line along with FOLLOW UP, and simply state that you submitted your query on such and such date, and simply wish to inquire as to the status now that such amount of time has passed.

Be organized about it. I can be a little OCD, I admit it, but I have a notebook for every project. These notebooks are where I do my brainstorming, my outlining, my character explorations, excerpts, writing stats, and these are also where I (used to) put my query lists. Agent name, agency, how I found them, what they said they were looking for, what they wanted submitted, date of submission, expected response time or no response. Then, as I got answers (or didn’t) I updated the notes. I also kept separate folders on my computer. In the folder for that manuscript, I had a submissions folder. Every batch of submissions I sent out had another folder with the date, and within that folder, every agent had his or her own folder, which contained the personalized query, as well as whatever other material they requested. This way, I knew at a glance what I’d sent, knew exactly what date to use as start date. Anal much? Yes, probably. But you know what, I never lost track of any of my queries. And honestly, it reassured me, knowing roughly when to expect things.

Being patient isn’t easy. This is our dream! This is all we can ever think of in a day, and every minute that passes, we start biting our nails or drumming our fingers or whatever the nervous tic du jour is, and we want to KNOW. More to the point, we want to SUCCEED. But once we hit send, it’s out of our control. We can only control our behavior and what we submit. We can’t control agent reaction. We can’t control rejection or acceptance. So be patient. Find something else to do. Don’t pester, don’t nag, don’t rant and rave at every moment.

Don’t query before you’re ready.
This breaks down into two parts. First part: do you have your materials ready? And not just whatever it is they’ve requested. I know the common joke is that agents take forever to respond, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they come back five minutes after your query is sent and they’re requesting the full. If you’ve polished and polished and polished the first few chapters on the expectation that you’d then have weeks to get to the rest of it, YOU CAN’T TRUST THAT. You have to be prepared.

Second part: are you mentally ready for this? I’ll be honest, querying is exhausting. It is an emotional roller coaster. It’s one thing to SAY that we understand that a rejection is a lack of interest in our manuscript, not a personal cut. Sure. We can say that. But rejection is HARD, y’all. It is. And when the rejections start piling up, it can become overwhelming.

And here’s the thing: you’re allowed to be overwhelmed. You’re allowed to have a meltdown and start sobbing into your pint of Ben and Jerry’s. You’re allowed to have a freak out that you’re nothing and you’ll never be published and oh God what were you thinking. And you know, you can even rant about how agents clearly have no idea what they’re missing out on. Just do it in private. Do with it a friend or family member, someone who has the sense to listen and not try to say anything (and more importantly not share anything). Just don’t do it in public.

The process of querying is this crazy zigzag of hope and ecstasy and anticipating and fear and worry and despair and anger, and you have to be ready for it. You have to go into this knowing that very few people have everything fall in place easily, that for most people, there are many rejections, many silences. You get a request for further material and OH MY GOD IT’S AMAZING but then there’s a whole new level of fear.

Don’t be afraid to re-write your query.
There are so many drafts of my query letters it’s kind of ridiculous. I wrote seven or eight drafts before I ever set out the first round of submissions. Then, as I started to hear back from each round, I worked on tweaking my query, trying to tailor it better, or make it more intriguing. Sometimes I was successful. Sometimes I wasn’t. Always keep a copy of the query you actually sent out, but it’s okay to make it better for the next round of queries. You learn by doing. You learn by feedback. Improvements are never a bad thing.

Don’t be jealous.
This one is hard. We all hear about the people who send out one query to their ‘dream agent’ and get signed, and then six weeks later there’s a huge multi-house auction that lands a three book deal for seven figures and everyone is watching with green eyes and a large vocabulary of curses. The fact is, we hear about these things to such an extent BECAUSE THEY’RE RARE. Most of us have to slog through round after round, and maybe even project after project, before we get a little bit there. It’s easy to be jealous of other people. Don’t be. Luck will always be an element, but sheer determination factors in there too. Rather than dwelling on what other people are doing or getting, focus on what YOU can do. Look for the stories that don’t invoke Cinderella, the ones where it was patience and determination and persistence that got them to their goal.

It took me three years and three projects to sign with an agent, and now that I am where I am, I can be grateful for it, because Sandy is amazing. We’re very well paired, and she gets the dark and twisty products of my imagination. I am where I need to be.

Don’t give up.
You want this- so go after it. Learn from each experience, make it better for the next round, but don’t take those rejections as proof you should tuck this dream back into the corner of the mental closet. You can’t get anywhere by giving up. But, on that note:

Know when to give up.
Not on the endeavor- but maybe on that specific manuscript. If you’ve queried everyone you can think of that accepts your genre and category and not gotten anywhere, maybe this isn’t the manuscript that’s going to sign you.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

Because you’ve kept writing, right? You’ve got something that, built off your experiences, is stronger. Better. Something that you can work on to make even better, and even stronger. And when you’ve reached the point, many MANY MANY MANY queries in, that maybe that first project needs to get shelved for a while, you have something else. And you can start over.

Except it’s not starting completely over, because the experience has taught you a lot. You have an advantage this time: you’ve done this before, and you know more or less what to expect.

Like I said, I queried three different projects over three years. It broke my heart to shelve those earlier projects, but I knew it was the right choice. I knew what I had waiting in the wings, these things I’d written while trying not to go crazy while the queries were out, I KNEW these things were better. I knew they showcased my writing better, that I’d learned and grown and expanded into characters and story and pacing.

Each time, you have the chance to get better, to improve not only your writing but your querying. As long as you’re willing to honestly assess yourself and your writing, you have the opportunity to improve your chances.

Don’t beat a project long past any chance it has to attract someone- know when to put it away and put out something better.

Last tip.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The internet is a wonderful thing. It gives you access to a TON of people who have gotten where you want to be- so when you need to know something and you can’t find the answer- when you need to be reassured- don’t be afraid to ask. A lot of authors, especially in the YA community, have ask boxes on tumblr. They have blogs where you can leave comments. So ask.

Be respectful of the space and circumstances. There are times when it’s not particularly appropriate to ask some things; let common sense guide you.

But we’re here, on tumblr, on twitter, on facebook, on blogs. There are interviews and newsletters and signings and panels, and you know what? For as much rejection as we have to experience, even after we get those first steps in the door, publishing is a ridiculously inclusive community. People cheer each other on, because when people are reading, this is good for ALL OF US. We want you to succeed. We want to cheer you on when you announce your sale, when you have signings and events and features. We want to celebrate your successes with you.

So consider this post an open thread for any questions you have. I’ll answer what I can, and I’ll try to point you to others when I don’t know what to say.

Work hard, be patient, and the best of luck to you all.

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Querying for the New Year? Pt 1

January 14, 2014 at 7:50 pm (Industry, Writing) (, , , , , )

Welcome to the middle of January! When the New Year’s Resolutions are just beginning to flag and we’re starting to curse ourselves for making them in the first place!

No, but seriously, this is the time when our resolutions start meeting reality, and we begin to understand just what we’re getting ourselves into. And for a lot of people in this community, those resolutions have to do with publishing: get an agent, sell a book, have a book come out, etc. These are dangerous resolutions, mainly because: you can’t control a lot of that. A resolution is something you’re supposed to accomplish within THAT year, and if publishing is a realm of hopes and dreams, it’s also a land of harsh reality. The simple fact is, try as you might, even if what you put out there is your absolute best, you may not get to where you want to be in a single year. Sometimes there are miracles and your dream comes true right away, but for most of us, it takes patience and persistence.

BUT.

For those of you that are tackling this mountain this year, whether as a goal or as a resolution, here are some things to keep in mind, things I learned from my own process.

Are you really ready?

It’s incredibly tempting to say “Yes, oh my God, I was BORN READY!!!!”-

-but don’t. Take the time to really step back and look at your manuscript. Are. You. Ready.

-Is the manuscript finished? With very few exceptions, almost all of them non-fiction, your manuscript MUST BE FINISHED. This is for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to start a project than to finish one. Whether you’re submitting to agents or publishers, they need to see all of it. They need to see that your writing stays consistent, that you have a full grasp of the story and character arcs, that you can maintain the pace to a satisfying conclusion. There’s not a lot anyone other than a critique partner can do with an unfinished manuscript. If your manuscript is not finished, this is your first step: FINISH IT. Sit your butt in the chair and get it done.

-Is the manuscript polished? The only people who should see your first drafts are your critique partners. First drafts are full of mistakes and gaping holes, with many, many things that need to be fixed. That’s why they’re FIRST drafts. You don’t want to flash around anything that isn’t your best. Whatever you’re hoping to accomplish, whether it’s signing with an agent, selling to a publisher, or self-publishing, your manuscript needs to be the best you can possibly make it. The BEST, not “good enough”. If you’re satisfied with good enough, you’re cheating yourself, cheating your work, and cheating everything you hope to achieve. Editing is work- HARD work- but you owe it to yourself and to your story to do a solid job of it.

-Who else has seen it? And perhaps more importantly, are the opinions legitimate? I know that sounds kind of weird, but if the only person who’s seen your manuscript is your mom, you need to get some more feedback on it. Moms (and dads) are pretty much obligated to adore you and everything you do, so unless you are very, VERY sure that your family members will give you an honest and detailed critique, don’t base your good feelings about your manuscript purely on their approbation. Find people with experience writing, with experience critically reading. Maggie Stiefvater has a Critique Partner dating service from time to time, and if you’re in the market, definitely keep an eye on her blog for when the posts come up. If you can’t find a CP, especially if you can’t find a critical reader, consider making the investment to have a freelance editor look at it, for correctness if nothing else, but if you can get a detailed crit, that’s wonderful. If you’re writing Middle Grade, Young Adult, or New Adult, check out Manuscript Critique Services, run by four YA authors who know their shizz. (They’re by no means the only critique service out there, but they’re GOOD- and they give you a way to test the waters before committing to a full shebang). If you decide to go this route, do your research- there are a lot of freelance groups and individuals out there, at varying levels of skill, experience, and services offered, and you need to really decide what’s going to be best FOR YOU and FOR YOUR WORK.

If you’re planning on self-publishing, chances are you’re going to have to put money down; this is how most of the self-pubs operate. You’re making the investment on the expectation that you will sell enough to recoup that initial cost and hopefully then some. Given that, if you are self-pubbing, USE AN EDITORIAL SERVICE. An error in a blog post is one thing (still tacky, but hey, it happens, and it’s not the end of the world). Errors in a finished book also happen, but it’s rare to find more than two or three in the final copy. This is because humans make mistakes, and as much as we’d love to believe we catch everything, things happen. However, the number of mistakes and errors and screw-ups that get caught through the various stages of the editing process is staggering. Editors and copy-editors are invaluable, and if you choose not to go with traditional pubs, you should really consider making this investment. A good editor, freelance or otherwise, isn’t just looking for mis-spelled words or crazy commas. They’re looking at agreement, at word choice, at sentence structure and cadence, at consistency, at usage. A very good editor is also looking for correctness- do you know what the hell you’re talking about. One of the biggest reasons a lot of self-pubbed books get dismal reviews is because people can’t get past the lack of proper editing to get into the story or characters.

-Can you write the back cover of your book? This may or may not be something you end up ACTUALLY doing, depending on the path you choose, but you need to be ABLE to do it. The back cover is what you’re telling people who ask you what it’s about. The back cover is what you’re including in query letters or cover letters. The back cover is what gets people interested. It also says that yes, you know EXACTLY what your book is about, that you can sum it up succinctly, that you can make it a straightforward pitch. If you can’t intrigue someone with this, chances are, they’re not going to read on, and you’ve wasted an opportunity. If you self-publish, this is something you HAVE to be able to do for yourself.

Checks down the line?
Next up, we have:
Choose your path.

Publishing has, in many ways, become a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There are so many options out there, and you really need to be sure of which way you want to go, because it does change how you approach things. No matter what path you ultimately choose, the first step is the same.

-DO YOUR RESEARCH. Here in the age of the internet, there is so much information available for remarkably little effort. There are writer resources all over the place, there are author blogs, agent blogs, editor blogs. There’s twitter, and tumblr. It’s actually pretty easy to drown in the information, there’s so much out there. Do a LOT of research, and make sure you can understand what information is useful and what isn’t. Towering rages against traditional publishing by someone who sent out two unsolicited submissions to publishers who don’t accept the genre? Not useful. A point by point breakdown by someone who’s done both traditional and self-publishing, and what they liked and disliked about both? VERY USEFUL.

The thing is, you need to understand the decision you’re making. Too many people think of self-publishing as a cop-out, as something you do if you can’t make it in the big leagues. Too many people think traditional publishing is a dead form bent on sales at the expense of quality. Neither is true. Self-publishing is a completely valid way to go about getting your book out there, BUT: you need to be aware that all of the responsibilities that are normally shared within a publishing house will all fall on you, and you need to be prepared for that. Any path you choose requires a hell of a lot of work and commitment.

Something I will say- as a bookseller, not as an author- is that self-published books can be very difficult to get on the shelves. (And being completely fair, a lot of traditionally published books can be difficult to get on the shelves, if they’re a smaller house or smaller title). However, for a bookstore, the traditionally published books are a safer risk. Almost every traditional publisher has a returnable feature on their titles, which means that after a certain period of no sales within a store, the store can send it back to the distribution center, where it can cycle out to other stores (or wait ignominiously to be marked down to bargain, as sometimes happens). The store gets credit for the return, the book sits at the warehouse and go out again at a later point. Everyone wins. With self-publishing companies, the returnable feature frequently costs extra (sometimes a lot extra), and a lot of authors don’t make that additional investment. That means that if the bookstore brings it in and it doesn’t sell, we’re stuck with it. We can’t move it to make room for newer merchandise. It sits on a shelf or in the back room and waits to be marked down to clearance. Most stores aren’t willing to take that risk, because it costs us money.

Some questions to ask yourself: what are my expectations? And be honest with yourself about this. What is it that you want? What are you willing to put into it? This should be a financial consideration, yes, but it should also be a degree of work. How hard are you willing to work? How much time and effort are you willing to put into it? Be honest about your skills, and about the skills of those you may ask for help. For most people, putting out a book is a long-cherished, deeply-held dream, and yes, the package is a part of that. A bad cover, bad formatting, bad editing, can kill a book far more easily than most of us want to believe.

-Make a decision. After you’ve done your research, after you’ve asked (and answered) a lot of difficult questions about yourself, your manuscript, and your expectations and dreams, it’s time to make a decision. Do you want to self-publish? Do you want to traditionally publish? Do you want to sign with an agent?

For myself, the answers were no, yes, and yes, and that’s based more on my evaluation of my own shortcomings than any sense of snobbishness about self-publishing. I know what I can do- I also know what I can’t do. I can’t design a book to save my life. I can’t do a good job packaging. I can’t catch all of the errors and tweaks, I can’t find the things that another set of eyes and experiences can make amazing, and let’s be honest, I suck at self-marketing. I try. I do…badly. Even if I’d had the money to make the investment into self-publishing, it would not have been a good fit for me. Plus, my dream for as long as I can remember has been to go into a store and see it on the shelf. It may not be on many shelves, but it can be, and to me, that’s extraordinary. As for the agent, this was a no duh for me personally. I don’t have contacts, and while I know a lot about the industry, it’s not enough. More to the point, I don’t want to tear my hair out going over contracts and negotiating and trying to make sure all the numbers are right and the payments are done correctly and this and this and that. You know, the business stuff, the stuff that goes right over my head. Or under my feet, depending on how head-in-the-clouds I am on any given day. A good agent isn’t just evaluating the likelihood of your manuscript selling, isn’t just pitching it to editors with the valuable contacts and experience he or she has accumulated. An agent is also helping you manage all the business stuff. That being said, ALWAYS READ YOUR CONTRACTS. Read everything you’re signing. Read everything you’re sent that’s even remotely official. Just because you have Agent Extraordinaire managing the business aspects doesn’t mean you can be clueless. This is your livelihood. Well, part of your livelihood.

There are a few (few) agents who take on self-publishers, mostly in the business and loosely editorial realm. It’s a unique stance, and we’ll see if that widens or not in the next few years. So self-publishing doesn’t immediately mean that an agent to protect your interests is outside the realm of possibility- again, it comes back to doing your research and deciding if this is a good fit for you. If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, an agent is going to get you in far more doors than you’ll find open on your own. Most editors aren’t going to look at unsolicited manuscripts. Editors trust agents to show them things in which they may have interest, things that fill well on a list in a catalogue, things that show the agent has paid attention to the editor’s history and preferences. I’m not at all saying that trad. publishing is impossible if you’re unrepresented, but I am saying it limits your options.

Have you made your choice?
Guess what, it’s back to:
Do your research.

I know, you thought you were done with this, right? But now that you’ve identified the best path for you, you need to pick the right door.

-So you want to self-publish? There are a lot of companies out there that can help you. Or, if you want to create and distribute entirely on your own, there’s a lot you need to be aware of. Look at your options. Look at the quality of the products that come out of it. Look at the accessibility of product- will you be available to major retail websites? Major retail stores? Will you be able to sell through your own website? Look at the contracts- not every publisher will allow you to see even a boilerplate contract unless you’re signing it, but google the companies and see what users are saying about them. You want the best bang for your buck- the best product, the best terms, the best accessibility. Don’t just jump on the first wagon you see.

-So you want an agent? Check out the Writers’ Market guides, or Query Tracker, or Agent Query. Check out writers’ forums. Flip open the books you’d be most likely to use as comp titles, books you think would pair very well with your own, and check out the acknowledgments- agents are frequently listed as the lifesavers and mental health companions that they are. Check out agent blogs. Check out agent and agency websites. Follow them on twitter.

Follow.

Do Not Stalk.

Agents are very vocal about whether or not they’re looking for anything at the time, as well as WHAT they’re looking for. KNOW YOUR BOOK- know its age range, know it’s category or genre (s), know how you can compare it to things. Look at what the agent is saying they want- does your book fit? (Personal example: on the L. Perkins Agency website, the Fabulous Sandy’s bio said she was looking for things with strong voice. Ophelia has her faults, God knows, but a lack of voice isn’t one of them.) Where your book meshes with what they’re looking for is what you’re going to want to put in your query. Look at what an agent has sold- do they have sales? Recent sales? Do they represent people you’ve heard of? Every agent has to start somewhere, and a brand new agent isn’t the same as a bad agent, but you want to pay attention.

DO NOT SEND MONEY TO AN AGENT TO READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT. Agents make money when you do, and not before. There are a ton of very good, very reputable agents who aren’t part of the official association, so a lack of membership isn’t a red flag, but if they’re charging you up front? BACK. AWAY. Writer Beware is an excellent resource for known scammers and frauds. Trust your instincts- if you’re getting hinky feelings off something, you’re probably right in thinking that it’s sketchy. Then back your instincts up by checking.

I’ll talk more about querying below, but as you’re researching agents, start making a list of possibilities, agents you think might be interested, agents you’d love to query. Along with their names and agencies, write down pertinent information- website, query email, authors or books they’ve represented that made you think of them, what they say they’re looking for, submission guidelines. This way when you’re actually ready to query, you have all the information right there, instead of making a second desperate search all over creation (also known as the Internet). Agents are not all created equal. They have different personalities, they represent different things. You don’t want to spam every listed agent whether they represent your stuff or not. At best, you’ll be ignored. At worst, they’ll be pissed off, and remember you. That is not how you want to be remembered.

-So you want to submit to publishers without an agent? Yup, you’ve got your research too! And to be honest, yours may be more difficult than anyone else’s, because your information is a little more buried. Your task is to find houses willing to look at unagented manuscripts. Some editors will open to unsoliciteds for a time (like Editor Andrew at Carolrhoda Lab did for this past week) to see if there’s a golden find. Some will let you send it and not immediately shred it for mulch, but it’s kind of on the understanding that the only way it’ll ever be read is if someone gets REALLY bored in the bathroom. The ones you’re mostly going to be looking for will probably be smaller houses. Check websites CAREFULLY. Submission guidelines will be there somewhere.

Let’s leave it here for now, because this is a monster post that’s probably getting a little hard to read, and I’ll be back in a few days with Part 2: Prep Your Shizz.

And I’m going to spend most of the few days writing it trying to come up with a different title, because I can’t take that seriously.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Farewell, 2012

December 31, 2012 at 8:27 pm (General) (, , , , , )

2012 flew by so bizarrely for me that any attempt to do a true retrospective can’t but come off as stilting, but there were some things that happened this year that will always make this year stick out in my mind.

I learned a lot about myself as an author this year. I learned my habits, both good and bad, learned some of the things that do or do not work for me in a big way. I learned what it means for me to pace myself. I learned my limits- more importantly I learned which are hard limits and which I need to push.

I signed with an agent, someone who gets me. Someone who can look at a story so creepy even I can’t help but cringe and say she loves it- honestly. There are corners of my brain that are very dark and twisty, that produce scenes or even whole books that are so thoroughly, grotesquely creeptastic almost anyone would have me committed, and Sandy gives me full permission to take my characters and go play there. We can also, in the middle of an ongoing exchange about edits and cover ideas, have a conversation about David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King’s unambiguous bulge. Welcome to the professional world. I am incredibly, profoundly grateful for meeting and signing with Sandy. She’s honest with me about what works and what doesn’t, and even if I mention I’m thinking of pursuing an oddball idea, she justs says go for it, we’ll see how it turns out. She’s more than a champion for my work- she’s a champion for me, someone who can beautifully time something personal or something absurd.

I learned that all those worries and frets and neuroses don’t go away when you sign with an agent- they just graduate into something more complicated and challenging. Somehow when A Wounded Name, then Elsinore Drowning, was on submission, it occured to me that an agent isn’t simply tossing your work and your reputation out there to editors- an agent also stakes his or her own reputation on your work. An agent takes you on as a gamble, as the risk they’re putting forward into believing your work will sell. And they’re sending your work to people who may or may not want to gamble more money on you. I have a complicated relationship with money, and a decidedly odd perspective on numbers because of it, but as soon as the business comes into the art, the neuroses ratchet up.

I learned that being personable as an author is very, VERY different from being personable in retail. I am a shy, self-conscious, and socially awkward individual, I truly am. I’ve worked retail for more than eight years now, so I’ve learned how to appear not to be, but when you’re Bookseller or Cashier or some faceless position, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you do what you’re supposed to do and interact on an acceptably non-dysfunctional level, that’s about as much effort as you have to put into it. Do I put more effort in? Yes, because that’s how I was raised, and if I have to spend forty hours a week doing a job other than writing, I at least want to spend more time smiling than not. But, in a different arena, the difficulty can be much greater. On the phone with my day job, I’m answering questions with easy answers. Yes or no we have that, yes or no we can order that, this or that is the problem and yes or no we can fix it. It sometimes takes some ingenuity to answer a question (Um, I saw this book somewhere like five years ago, and it might have a red cover, or maybe black? Maybe there was dragon in the title? Or on the cover? Or maybe it was just in the story? Oh, and it was written by a dude. I think) but in the end, the answers are all right there, and nearly all of us can give the same answer to the majority of the questions.
As an intensely shy person, it’s a lot easier for me to be personable and put myself forward when I’m representing an established company. My work is less reflective of myself than it is of the company that trained me and employs me. When left to my own devices, or more importantly when left to adequately represent myself…it’s nerve-wracking. And when I’m nervous, I have this stupid little laugh, which just makes me more nervous. I’m constantly afraid of being tongue-tied, or just sounding like an idiot. I’m worried about giving the wrong answer, I’m worried about coming across as too forceful on some points, or too weak in others. I know that I can come off as a snob (and in some aspects, I am a snob, I can admit that at least) and it makes me paranoid about offending people. And it’s not just talking on the phone that’s so difficult.
Seriously.
I can be am awkward in emails. And that’s supposed to be the thing you can fall back on to NOT be awkward.
But this is all part of what being an author is. You have to reach out and communicate with people. You have to be able to represent yourself intelligently and well, you have to be able to carry on comfortable communication. I’m not sure I’m there yet. I become accustomed to people, and the worry decreases a little, but it takes a while, and there are so many new people to meet and speak with. We’ll call improving this one of my working goals of 2013.

I sold a book.

I SOLD A BOOK. But it wasn’t just me- it was also Sandy, it was also all those editors and editors’ assistants who read my work and gave responses, and it was the editor who said YES. I am incredibly grateful to be working with Andrew. He’s amazing. I think one of the biggest job requirements of being an editor- other than a skill for wrangling neurotic writers- is a boundless imagination, and Andrew takes a little boy’s unabashed pleasure in exploring all the possibilities of a manuscript. Reading the differences between the submission draft and what’s become more or less the final draft (minus pass pages, which haven’t happened yet) is astounding. And the thing is, I’m still very, very proud of the draft that went out on submission. BUT IT’S LIKE A MILLION TIMES BETTER NOW. That is an editor’s gift, something Andrew possess in abundance (in addition to a deep patience for my sending him questions that make me cringe with how I stupid I perceive them to be). In the course of this year, I went from someone desperately wanting to see my book on the shelf someday to someone who WILL see my book on the shelf someday. A finite day, in fact, sometime in the fall of 2013.

I have learned so much about the process of publishing, a journey that still fills me with shock and awe and wonder and a profound sense of gratitude.

And that may be one of the biggest things I’ve learned this year. Not that I was an ungrateful buttmunch before this year, but there are the things you’re grateful for, and there are the things that fill you with gratitude. There are these moments where suddenly, and completely unexpectedly, you’re just aware. I love that when I find really funny, REALLY inappropriate jokes about Hamlet, I have someone I can send them to- and who sends them to me in return. Really late on Christmas Eve, I woke up to find an email from an author I really admire both personally and professionally, whose debut novel filled me with a lingering love of words and rhythms, saying she wanted to blurb my book. I’ll release details when I can, but I spent the next…oh, two hours, at least, as Christmas Eve passed into Christmas morning, sprawled on bed and intermittently giggling with sheer euphoria. My emotions on Christmas Eve/early morning are complicated at the best of times (house fires born from Advent candles will do that to you) and this was astounding. I am constantly in awe of the Young Adult community, not just the readers but the authors as well. I grew up in theatre- even in the midst of close friendships, there’s always competition, because only one person can have That Role. The Young Adult writing community is so incredibly welcoming it’s almost terrifying. Even shy little people like me, that can really only handle making a few new friends at a time, has a place. You have a triumph and suddenly SO MANY PEOPLE are saying YAY. And meaning it. There’s no jealousy, no sense of displacement, no cliqueyness. It’s astonishing, and it’s wonderful.

I’ve mostly told my frequently revoked Adult License to go screw itself.
I may technically be an adult, but it’s bizarre how little significance that word has for anything. I live on my own, I pay my bills, I work for my living, and if I want to get something and have the funds I can, without any sort of explanation or justification. I still don’t feel like an adult. If I’m in the apartment, I am in my pajamas. I don’t wear them outside any more, except on laundry day, but seriously? There are stuffed animals on my bed. I still eat Lucky Charms. This Christmas I got a bathrobe with a penguin-head hood and it MADE MY DAY. And there are all these worries. I look at my bank account and worry, I look at my bills and worry, I think about putting gas in the car and wonder if there’s enough and I HATE IT. That worry? That endless stress about income and expense? That’s what I associate with being an adult. I had an apartment in college, had a job, had bills, but most of that was done with a greal deal of help, and the fact of being in classes, of having a set schedule and homework and teachers/professors in aspects of authority, that all contributed to this sense of isolationism, like the real world was still beyond the hedges somewhere. That feeling is, I think, what the basis of New Adult should be, but just as Young Adult started off in one area and grew, I think New Adult will as well.

I’ve learned that sometimes you can do your absolute best, do everything you should, and yet sometimes things just suck. Things just fall apart, or turn into a complete cock-up, and it’s not your fault.

I’ve learned, once again, that people can do senselessly horrible things.

I’ve learned, once again, that people can do senselessly wonderful things.

I’ve learned that Richard Armitage is really, really hot.

REALLY hot.

I’ve learned to let things go. To look at what’s before me, and what’s behind me, and say no, this isn’t going to work, or no, this isn’t the person I want to be. It’s not easy- I don’t suppose it’ll ever be easy- but I can let it go.

2013 is going to be a strange year. My book is coming out in less time than it takes to carry a healthy baby. I’m going to be speaking at a local writer’s group meeting in February and doing a signing at BEA in May/June, and I’m terrified because this is so far out of my comfort zone but at the same time, this is what I signed up for. I have new projects lined up for next year, and a couple of them scare the bejeezus out of me- and I’m so excited for them I can hardly see straight, because that fear, that thrill of adrenaline, is what gives me the courage to tackle those exciting stories. I’ll have to make some decisions regarding priorities- which includes this blog and how I schedule/structure posts. Over the course of this year, I’ll be meeting authors I really admire, and holy hell, how am I going to be able to keep from fangirling all over them? Because yes, they’re artists whose work I adore, but they’re also (strange as it seems to say it) colleagues, but they’re colleagues who cheer each other on, and yes, flail about each other’s work in the best ways possible.
2013 is going to include a fair share of rejections, I’m sure, but hopefully there will also be a measure of acceptances, of the book I’m releasing and the books I hope to sell. So far my book is still this little baby held close to my heart where very few can touch it, but once galleys go out, it’s out of my hands. People will have the choice to read it, and they’ll love it/hate it/want to burn it as they choose. That’s terrifying, and the prospect feeds right into some of the worst of my neuroses.
Which is another goal for 2013: try to rein in some of the more neurotic tendencies unless they feed directly into being productive.

2012 has flown by in such a way that it almost feels unreal that it’s over in a few hours, but this has been a year of such change, of such personal growth, that I can say it’s been a very good year, a better year than I’ve had in a really long time.

And that, as does so much else, brings my mind circling back to that wondrous sense of gratitude.

And that, too, I’m grateful for.

Until next year~
Cheers!

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Book Reviews and NaNoWriMo

October 31, 2012 at 11:54 am (NaNoWriMo, Writing) (, , , )

Here’s where I could apologize for the paucity of book reviews recently- except I’m not going to. I’m going to explain it, instead, because it’s going to continue for a little bit.

During October, I wrote the first draft for a new project. I work full time, had other engagements that necessitated being away from my writing habitats or even out of town entirely, which should give some indication of the quasi-obsession needed to come through eighteen scattered days of writing with 95,000 words. It doesn’t give much time for reading new things- some days I come away from my writing computer so thoroughly fried in the brain that I can’t do anything other than stare mindlessly at the tv or re-read old favorites I can nearly recite.

I’d intended November to be a month of decompression, binge-reading and not even looking at anything I’ve written. I like to let first drafts sit for a few weeks before I go back to them, and with a couple of things coming up this month, it seemed like a brilliant idea. I’d get to read all the amazing books I’ve been stockpiling, catch up on reviews, and the only chances for my brain to be fried would be coming home from work as we key up into retail hell (also known as the holiday season).

Then I signed up for NaNoWriMo, or NaNo.

If you haven’t heard of it before, that stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, huge numbers of people come together in an online community- that sometimes stretches to local or regional write ins and physical check in support groups as well- with the goal of writing 50,000 words in the month of November. For the most part, 50K isn’t a novel, but it’s a good start, and you have a ton of people cheering you on and helping you stay accountable.

NaNo on the whole has its ups and downs.

Some of the ups: similar to the Butt-in-Chair philosophy, it’s a way to just WRITE. To train your brain and your muscles, to develop habits that could stick with you, to find how you can be productive. Or how not. The accountability is fantastic, the community is amazing, and a lot of fantastic books are born as NaNo projects. It’s also a great push for those who’ve been trying to make themselves write.

Some of the downs: a NaNo project is not truly a novel. It’s a sprint, a sloppy mess that takes a lot of time, attention, diligence, and personal responsibility to shape afterwards into a novel, and even more into a good novel. Too many people hit that 50K and with little more than spellcheck start sending it off to agents or editors as soon as it hits December 1st. And NaNo doesn’t work for everyone- many can’t create that kind of word-vomit, or else are quintessentially opposed to creating a crap first draft in the name of later revisions if simply taking the time in the first place will create a quality draft.

NaNo requires a pretty serious time committment. If your goal is 50K and you write every single day, that’s a little over 1600 words a day. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot, and maybe for some people it isn’t, but that’s EVERY DAY. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick, if you’re tired, if you have eight million things you have to do, if you’re out of town, at a wedding, a funeral, having a baby, whatever, you have to average 1600 words a day. Of course you have the choice to skip some days and binge on others, which is fine as long as you keep that average in mind.

I like NaNo on the whole, but I had no intention of signing up for it. I was going to take the month for decompression, remember?

But then…

I kept seeing people on twitter who were SO EXCITED about NaNo and the community. I saw comments from people who are going to try writing for the first time. I saw posts from authors I love talking about NaNo projects, and the realization that whatever’s conceived in this month could be my next favorite thing from them was kind of enthralling. I was getting excited about NaNo, but I didn’t sign up because I didn’t have an idea that was ready. Then something I’ve been mulling over for two and a half years shifted and settled into something right, and I realized that if I was willing to be more than a little insane, I could finally rewrite this thing. This will be my first NaNo, though probably not my last.

Here’s the thing, though: NaNo is pretty much how I write everything.

Writing is perhaps one of the most idiosyncratic and individual processes out there. Everyone approaches it and does it differently. That being said, I’m a queer duck. By the time I actually start writing a project, I’ve been thinking about it for weeks or even months. I know the characters, the bulk of the story, the settings, the major story and characters arcs, half the time I’ve even got speech patterns set by talking -literally talking, out loud- with my characters. When I finally sit down to write a new project, most of it is already comfortable and familiar in my skull. Opening up that wordfile is like opening the floodgates.

I don’t write every day. Usually it’s on my days off, a little on the easiest work days if I can come home with most of my brain function intact, and on the mornings of days when I close. First drafts usually take me between four and six weeks of stretched out time- usually 15-25 writing days. For me, doing NaNo isn’t much of a stretch.

FOR ME.

What this does mean, though, is that I won’t be doing nearly as much reading through November as I’d like to be, which means there won’t be as many book reviews. I’ll still be posting on Sundays, and likely I’ll post some NaNo updates on Wednesdays. If you’re doing NaNo, feel free to add me as a writing buddy, I’m signed up at Dot_Hutchison . Feel free to check in here when I do my updates- accountability (a more positive spin on peer pressure) is one of the great components of NaNo.

If you’re a writer and you’re not doing NaNo- no worries. Life sometimes causes obstacles, and the simple truth is that NaNo doesn’t work for everyone. Some people come out of it feeling energized and triumphant, some come of it feeling depressed and miserable.

One last thing I’ll say about NaNo in this- if you ARE doing NaNo, and if you ARE interested in getting published- DON’T SEND OUT YOUR NANO NOVEL IN DECEMBER. Seriously. Take the time to make sure your novel is the absolute best it can be. You’ll need to flesh out, to tighten, to check for consistencies. You’ll need to polish the language. You’ll need to actually research agents or editors, whichever’s your thing, to make sure that you’re querying intelligently. If you come out of NaNo with those 50K words, you’ve done something amazing. Don’t waste/ruin that by sending it out before it’s ready.

NaNo is largely about discipline, about the ability to train yourself to a task. Maintain that discipline in other areas as well. It’s something you’ll have to learn anyway if you do acquire an agent/editor/self-publisher, and you’ll be pleased by how much better your book can be.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Please. Don’t Quit Your Day Job

August 19, 2012 at 7:00 pm (Industry) (, , , )

Sometimes the universe comes together in strange ways.

Every now and then at work, I’ll pass by one of my co-workers telling a customer that I have a book coming out (I guess they’re proud of me or something :D), or it’ll come up when I’m in conversation with a customer, and sometimes I get what I’ve always thought of as a pretty strange comment/question. I got it several times yesterday, and it was kind of bothering me, but then I woke up this morning and three separate posts on my Twitter feed held answers to that, so I figured this was as much a sign as I’m ever likely to get.

“Oh, you have a book coming out? And you’re still working here?”

Um…

There seems to be this mindset that you sell a book and BAM you’re in the bank!

Not so much the case.

There are always exceptions, but usually it takes a long time of steady writing before you actually have a solid enough foundation to quit your day job. If you have a spouse who can support the family- or if you’re on a trust fund- sure, writing can be your Main Thing, but for most of us, writing isn’t going to be what pays the bills. That’s why it’s called a Labor of Love.

The three posts this morning (one by Laurie Halse Anderson, one by The Rejector, and one by Barry Lyga) say pretty much everything about the money thing, with the exception of taxes. Mandy Hubbard has a post that helps add the taxes into the picture.

Writing is a passion, right up until you get paid to do it- then it becomes a job about which you’re passionate. The thing about jobs is that you can love them, and love them deeply, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to pay you enough to live off of. I say that from experience. I love my job, but without getting into numbers, I have to scrimp most months to make my bills, and I don’t live an extravagant life. My vice is books and I actually work my budget around them (sacrificing quality of food in order to make up the difference when I fall short), but I don’t have unreasonable expenditures; some months my savings account (which is a fairly new thing) takes a hit just to pay the power bill.

I’m not saying that to complain or to garner sympathy, because hey, at the end of the month, the bills get paid.

I say that because it’s given me a certain outlook on money, namely that it doesn’t stretch as far as we’d like it to. Even when I get a windfall of any measure (a surpise check, extra hours, or hey! selling a book), I tend to break down the numbers by expenses. It’s this many months of rent, or this much of a rent payment. Even in its smallest doses- oh hey, that’s three meals if I’m careful. I know how much I’ll pay in rent in a year, how much for internet, about how much for groceries and power and gas, and the financial life of a writer- being based on sales and projected sales- is far from predictable. You don’t know how or when your book will sell.

I’m a worrier, I admit it. I worry about that next rent payment, about that oil change I have to budget in, about unexpected expenses that pop up when we can least afford them (flat tires, etc). I’ve spent too many years playing the game of which paycheck I can use to pay which bills, which bills I can pay late if I absolutely have to, to be comfortable not having a steady, predictable income. The notion of quitting my day job? Makes my skin crawl.

There’s a me from the past- the one that thought being a starving artist would be totally romantic and nothing could be wrong with that- that thinks Yes! Throw the shackles of the day job away and write Write WRITE!

Then there’s the part of me that pays rent, that likes having food in my belly and clothes on my back.

That feeling that comes with selling your book is a high unlike any other. It really is. And there’s this part of you that looks at the numbers with wide eyes and thinks of all the things you could DO with that money. But there are bills, and there are taxes, and there are things you HAVE to do.

So please do yourself a favor and DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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BIG BIG NEWS!

April 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm (Industry, Writing) (, , , , , )

The Lolcats are going to help me with this one: I have BIG BIG BIG news, and big news always goes better with a lolcat or twenty.

Some of you may have noticed that I didn’t post on Sunday; there’s a very simple explanation for that. My brain right now, let me show it to you:

Well, less with the caffeine than with “OH MY F#*&Y^($Y# GOD IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING?!”. Yeh, the brain? It was none so good this weekend. There were lots of questions and worries and what ifs, most of them painfully ridiculous. You know the kind I mean, the ones you know- even as you have them- are stupid and unnecessary but you can’t help but freak out over them a little anyway? Okay, so maybe the caffeine does play into it a little.

But now I’m all:

I queried for three years on different projects before signing with the fabulous Sandy Lu, and if I’m honest, there was a large part of me that expected to have to slog just as hard to find an editor to take me on. How much of that was me trying not to get my hopes up to unmanageable levels is anyone’s guess. For three years, my computer greeted me with emails that left me wondering:

And some days that led to:

And sometimes, when a bite had seemed particularly promising or I was staring at the decision whether to keep querying a project or start over with something that might be stronger, my wonderful friends and family jumped in with:

But although I didn’t know it at the time, there was a light! And not even the ACME train tunnel painted on the rock wall kind of light, but REAL light! Because I found Sandy, who was:

And she sank her teeth into mine!

Now, all of this you’ve heard before (plus or minus some illustrations), but here’s the BIG BIG NEWS! A month ago, after some revisions, Sandy started pimping my manuscript out (because let’s face it, that’s really what it is, right? As bloggers, we pimp the books we love, and agents do the same thing; it’s just a different audience). And now…

And now…

*drum roll please*

MY BOOK SOLD!!!!

The official PM annoucement is yet to come, but Elsinore Drowning sold to Carolrhoda Lab yesterday, and I am…well, over the moon doesn’t even seem like enough. It still hasn’t entirely sunk in and there’s still a lot of work yet ahead of me but…HOLY CRAP MY BOOK SOLD.

So next fall, you’ll be able to find my book on a shelf and:

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go dance around the apartment like an idiot again. There’s a lot of the dancing going on right now. Feel free to dance with me!

Until next time~
Cheers!

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I Don’t Want To Be A Writer

February 5, 2012 at 11:00 am (Writing) (, , )

The bookstore is a natural habitat for writers. While doing rounds of customer service or answering phone calls or ringing people out, there’s at least one person every day who tells me “I want to write” or “I want to be a writer”. They check over the books on writing, the Markets, the notebooks, and they dream about writing.

And I call shenanigans.

Because you don’t want to write. You write.

You put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and you write. Aside from all question of skill or talent (and they are different), aside from any thought of craft or polish, you can write. So long as you can communicate in any way, even in dictation to a person or program, you can write.

No matter how busy your schedule or how hectic your life, you can make the time to write. Even if it’s just a few minutes here and there.

Saying “I want to write” is an excuse. It’s an admission of your decision, perhaps subconscious, to let it remain a dream.

So don’t want to write.

Just write.

In everything about this craft you’ve chosen to pursue, that is the one thing you can control. Publishing? Publishing requires a lot of external forces. You can work and work hard but there’s never a guarantee, because the process of getting published requires so many other people. It makes sense to say “I want to be published” or “I want to be a writer” because that’s something over which you do not exert complete control.

But what you can control is what you do to help that dream come through. Don’t allow yourself the excuses or the procrastination or the niggling doubts. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do it or shouldn’t do it. Just do it.

I don’t want to be a writer.

I am a writer.

Because I write.

So write.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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The Part That Kills Me

May 30, 2011 at 9:00 am (Writing) (, , )

You get an idea. You plan it out, you do the research, you write a novel. You let it sit for a little while, read a stack of books to make your brain unknot itself, and then go back and edit. And edit. And edit. And you do research on agents, you slave and fret over a query letter and a synopsis and putting everything together just the way it needs to be. You go back through, convinced it’s not right yet, and find some more things to edit. So you change your letters, update the pages. You stare at the computer.

And then, if you’re smart, you back away. For just a little while longer.

I hate that part.

I also happen to suck at it.

I recently(ish) finished a project I absolutely love. It’s a project that has been tumbling around in my head in one form or another for about eleven years, and I kept putting it off because it just didn’t feel right yet. I wasn’t yet where I needed to be as a writer to achieve even a measure of what was in my head, because what was playing across that mental screen was beautiful and terrifying and creepy and, perhaps most frightening of all, eerily resonating. I wasn’t there yet.

But finally- FINALLY- I woke up from a deep sleep and a dream and scrambled for the notebook by my bed because I finally, finally had the foundation that would let me support the character that had been living inside my head for so long. (On a side note, I do recommend turning on a light and putting on any necessary glasses before scribbling middle of the night notes- it’s very, very frustrating to try to translate the 3am heiroglyphics when you look at them again the next morning) I plotted and planned, I researched, I lost count of the number of hand cramps I got while writing out notes. I obsessed over it, really, even more so than my other projects. When I actually started writing, I couldn’t get it out of my head. My narrator didn’t step aside when I left the pages; she stayed in my thoughts, coloring the way I saw everything, and it was always easy to tell when I was actually writing because my sister would get frequent text messages mentioning how much my narrator was creeping me out- and how much I loved it.

And then the first draft was done.

I managed to set it aside for several weeks, my fingers itching the entire time, before I went back to do the first round of edits. I’ve been doing my agent reserach, been driving myself crazy working on several variations of a query letter (I loathe writing query letters) and I’m at the point where I can send it off.

But if I do, I’m an idiot.

Because I know- KNOW- if I can make myself wait a few more weeks and not touch it at all, I’ll see more to fix, more to tweak, ways to make it better and stronger.

But I SUCK at waiting.

And it’s times like this that make me wonder if it’s possible to want something too badly.

My dad doesn’t really get the whole wanting-to-be-an-author thing. He enjoys reading but he thinks of writing as a hobby, not something to take all that seriously. But, he’s really trying to be supportive because he knows it’s important to me, understands that it is something that I very much want to do even if he doesn’t get why. So every now and then, I get an emailed link or an envelope with clips from a newspaper talking about self-publishing or self-e-publishing.

I know there are people who make that work very well, but the key word there is work. As in- A LOT OF WORK. And for people who are willing and able to put in that kind of work, there can be a good pay off, but there are limitations to that as well. We get a lot of self-pubbed or POD mill authors in the store wanting to know why we don’t have their books on the shelves, and at least 98% of the time it’s because we can’t. If a book is print-on-demand, we actually cannot put it on the shelves, it is pre-pay order only. That kind of publishing also requires a substantial investment, requires a hell of a lot of time, and means you’re probably spending more time trying to promote and sell your book than writing the next one. I’m not knocking this, and I hope no one takes it that way, because I know it works for people.

But what I want- what I’ve wanted since I was probably five years old- is to walk into a bookstore and have a really good chance of seeing a copy of my book sitting on the shelf. I mean yeh, seeing it on websites would be great, but I want to walk in to a random store and see it. I can’t do that if I try to go this road by myself, and one thing I try very hard to be is honest with myself: I would SUCK at trying to do it by myself. Juggling the details, trying to do the publicity all by my onesie, managing the graphic design of the cover or the interior of the book or the website. Oh, and that whole pesky initial investment thing…I have to stress every month about rent and utilities and each time the gas prices go up I start lookinhg at Ramen. I don’t have a couple thousand bucks lying around to pay someone to print my book, before we even get into the idea of publicizing.

I’ve been querying for a couple of years now. This will be the third project I’ve sent out, and each round, each project, I learn so much more. I get feedback, some of it more useful than others, and each time, I think I get closer.

And I love this one so much. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written, may be my favorite thing I’ll ever write in some ways, so I think it’s a little hard for me to step back far enough to see if it’s actually ready. It feels ready.

So did the others.

So what I need to do is take that deep breath, close the folders that have all my submission materials, and not look at it for a while. I suck at waiting. I hate waiting. But I think I need to- because I so badly want this to be the one.

I need to step back. I need to look towards my next project, whatever that turns out to be (there are several contenders at the moment). And I need to not drive myself crazy with this.

Step away from the send button.

*sigh*

Anyone else in this position right now? I’d be really grateful to hear how you deal with it.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Don’t Judge A Book By…

April 16, 2011 at 10:20 am (General, Industry) (, , , , , , )

Stay tuned below for giveaway information!

We all know what comes next, right?

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Except, we do. All the time.

Almost always, the cover is either the first or second thing we see. We may see the title first, if the book is spined out on the shelf, but if it’s faced out it’s the cover that first has the chance to catch our eye. That’s what’s going to bring us over to the shelf, that’s what’s going to make us pick up the book and investigate further. It isn’t the cover that makes us buy the book- the writing and the promise of the story is what does that- but the cover is the bait.

And because the cover is our first impression of the book, we make certain judgments based on that.

We decide what ‘type’ of book it is, what the story is likely to encompass, who the target audience is, even what the tone of the book is going to be. The cover can make or break a book as far as getting it into people’s hands are concerned- and publishers are very aware of this. The covers are designed to make very specific impressions; let’s take a look, shall we?

Right off the bat, there are certain things you know about this book. The background of a galaxy tells you right away that this is sci-fi; deep space, given the darker colors, which already gives us a sense of isolation and tension despite the beauty. The positions of the faces give us drama- we know there’s going to be romance, but we also know that things are going to be complicated by coming from very different perspectives. We also know there’s a mystery here- from right to left (opposite the way most people scan the page), as the background passes through the gap between the two figures, the image changes from a galaxy of stars through some bright source and into something that looks more like water, which makes us wonder what else we’re going to find out in space. It also tells us that the target audience is female- boys may not be terrified to be seen with it, but the predominance of pinks and purples, along with the near kiss of the figures, means this is going to appeal much more to females than males. (Across the Universe, by Beth Revis)

Compare that to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It’s striking (eye-catching) in its simplicity, stark contrasts, basic colors, a memorable design. It’s a strong image, a little military with the font and the clean lines, and then the bird with the arrow. We know right away that there’s going to be violence in this book; we know it’s going to be dark, we know the threats are going to come from multiple angles, and we know that arrow is going to be very, very important. Yes, the bird is as well, but even the way the bird is shaped draws the eye to the arrow. This is a cover that’s going to appeal to males and females alike. Just from the cover, we know better than to expect anything approaching light and fluffy.

We also see this in Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron. The dark colors draw us in, especially given the contrast with the prismatic blues and silvers. Our eyes like the shiny in conservative doses, especially because the prisms make it seem false.. The skeletal leaves speak to ill health, the rusting machine components speak to decay, and the portions of number- like computer code- fascinate us. What do they mean? Are they counting down? Counting up? Listing things off? Up near the top we see the blending become more intertwined, but the page is dominated by the key. Keys are, by themselves, fascinating things, because if there is a key, there must be a lock, and if there’s a lock, there’s an obstacle. Instant promise. The fact that this key is so ornate just draws us in deeper. The deep, cool colors make it gender neutral, so anyone who likes that bit of darkness, that edge, to their books is going to be drawn to this one.

Then there are covers like that of Andrea Cremer’s Nightshade– this is very much aiming at a female audience. It isn’t just that there’s a girl on the cover (though that’s certainly a piece of it). Ignoring the tag line for the moment, we see blood dripping from the T of the title, see splashes of color in the throats of the lilies that could also be blood. The girl’s make up, the shimmering sheen of the cover, the pinks and lavenders, all indicate that this is geared towards girls. The flowers and the make up indicate that there’ll be romance, even as the hard gold of her eyes lets us know that this isn’t going to be a typical high school drama at the lockers affair. Those eyes aren’t human, and the way they’re shaded at the edges, to draw that gold into greater relief against a cover with a mostly silver cast to it, we know there’s going to be violence- you don’t have colors hit each other that hard for a soft novel. We know, as soon as we look at this cover, that the main character isn’t human, she isn’t soft, and that there will be both blood and romance. (Note: the cover is being redone for the paperback issue; this is the original hardcover image)

Boys are harder to attract, on so many levels. It’s hard to get them in the bookstores in the first place, because we as a culture have this strange obsession against boys reading- that they have “better things to do”. Boys are much more self-conscious than girls about being seen with books, and many are worried that they’ll be made fun of. Covers with lots of soft colors or with glammed up girls across the front are unlikely to find their way into boys’ hands even if the story itself is designed to appeal to both genders.

So for this, publishers rely on things like Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. It’s a bold cover, strong colors, red and steel blue-greys and dull bronze. We know right away that this is steampunk, which is something boys can really sink their teeth into because it’s machines and grease and shop class on a grand scale. (No, I’m not saying girls can’t sink their teeth into steampunk, but we’re talking about boys for the moment.) The wings give us flight, but there’s something almost skeletal about them, unfinished- there are obstacles and threats visible even from the cover. Boys are less likely than girls to pick up books with portraits on the cover, but on other issuues of the cover, at least it’s a boy (and he isn’t so pretty that a boy will a: make fun of it, or b: feel uncomfortable with it). This is something a boy feels safe picking up and being seen reading.

So, AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION TIME: what cover has jumped out at you recently? What about it made you take that closer look?

Leave me an answer before midnight EST on April 23rd, and you can win a copy (might be ARC, might be finished) of one of my favorite covers so far this year: Veronica Roth’s riveting debut Divergent. (US only, sorry- postage is expensive). But seriously, isn’t that cover amazing? And all you have to do to win this amazing book is:

1. Follow this blog: lots of book reviews, meditations on writing and the book industry, and lots and lots of pretty covers.

2. Tell me about a cover that has captivated you recently, and what about it caught your attention. What did you like about it? Why did it work? Make sure you include a name and an email in the comment so I can contact the winner.

That’s it, folks, and that amazing book can be yours!

Update 4.24: And, thanks to random.org, we have a randomly generated winner from the comments! Thank you so much to everyone who participated, and keep an eye out for more giveaways in the future. Congratulations, Danah! You’ve won the ARC of Divergent, and will be shortly getting an email from me to arrange details.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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