Friday, January 31, 2014

A New Step

"One step done and another begun and I wonder how many miles"--New Speedway Boogie, Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia

Entering senior year of high school, my biggest concern wasn't whether or not I'd get to go to the college of my choice (I did) or whether I'd get to go to the prom with the girl of my choice (I didn't); no, my biggest worry was what I would write for my senior quote.

The quote was a 30-word blurb that would appear in  the yearbook underneath my picture. Unlike the Magpie, who had something like a half a page to play with in her yearbook, we had a whopping thirty words. It was like twitter without the hashtags, only know one knew what twitter was, because it didn't exist. After a lot of worry and scratching my head, I finally came up with something that I liked. It led off with a quote from a Grateful Dead song (you're surprised by this?), managed to reference my friends, and paid homage to my family. It was pretty good, I think, except someone screwed up the song lyric, turning "Gonna leave this brokedown palace" into "brokedown place." I was a bit upset about that, you can bet.

At the time, I was actually thinking ahead. Long-range planning, as it were. The way I figured it, if they did senior quotes in high school, surely they would have them for college. So, there I was, a high school senior, trying to come up with an appropriate song lyric for something that was going to happen four years later. And of course, I did. And, of course, I went back to the Grateful Dead, the lyric quoted at the top of this post: "One step done and another begun and I wonder how many miles." It's a great line, and I thought it would make sense at that point in my life, graduating from college. I was all set.

Of course, we didn't have senior quotes in college.

Truth be told, I don't even think I have a college yearbook. If I do, I can't find it, but no matter, because by the time I got to that point, I was no longer worrying about senior quotes; it just didn't seem as important as it had in high school. The lyric, however, has remained with me to this day, and it often comes back to me when I find myself on the cusp of something new, when I find myself at the start of a new stage of life. Like now. I am thrilled to say that this week, I signed an agreement with Carrie Pestritto of the Prospect Agency, and I am thrilled. Carrie has a growing list of clients, a growing list of sales, and she's enthusiastic about agenting, and my work. We hit it off really well, and I am looking forward to a long and successful partnership.

But now, back to that quote: One step done and another begun, and I wonder how many miles? The lyric is a reminder to me that getting an agent is not the end of this journey, it's merely a step on what is still a long road. The real goal is getting published, and getting published well. I believe we writers sometimes get so consumed in the search for just the right agent that we forget that goal. Getting the right agent is just one step; now it's on to the next. I have enjoyed the moment, but it's time to get back to work, time to take that next step.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Do You Or Don't You?

Conventional wisdom holds that agent-hunting writers should stalk agents on Facebook, Twitter, blogs--whatever social media watering holes agents gather at (yeah, that doesn't sound at all creepy, does it?). There's a good reason for this: agency websites are often not updated a whole lot beyond major personnel changes and latest client releases, whereas an agent's personal blog, Twitter feed, or Facebook status posting can clue you in on what an agent is looking for RIGHT NOW, and can tell you how deep in the slush pile they are.

I have yet to join the Twitter-verse, and I keep my Facebook friends list under tight control, so I tend to read and follow agent blogs. Many agents use their blogs as a way to educate writers, to help them--us--understand the ins and outs of the publishing world, to help us craft better books, better pitches, better queries. I've learned a lot from agent blogs over the last few years. For agents, not only does it give them a higher profile, it might--might, I say--help improve the quality of the queries coming in over the transom. Maybe.

Whatever your social media platform of choice, the big question is: do you engage? Do you comment, ask questions, relate your own experiences?

There's a certain degree of fear and doubt that goes along with leaving a comment on an agent's blog, especially if that person is on your query list: Will I sound stupid? Will I say something offensive? Will they track me and find my blog to be the most pointless drivel ever committed to the internet? Almost as bad: Will my comments come off looking like self-serving ass-kissery? This is over-thinking of the worst kind, paralysis by analysis.

There is an eventual point to this (I think), but for today, I'll leave it at that. So again, the question: Do you engage with agents on social media? I look forward to your answers.

Friday, January 24, 2014


Today's post comes from the Department of Better Late Than Never.

It turned out to be a pretty good day.

Despite the fact that it was yet another day of waking up to sub-zero temperatures, and that I could not get my act together in time to get a post out this morning, the day got off to a good start. Early this morning, I had one of those moments--A Moment, in fact. I was looking at a news story on the web and I had An Idea. Not a full-blown idea with a fully-realized story (stories don't come to me quite that way), but something to put in the hopper, something for the Back Room. It was intriguing, and it's got potential, and I shouldn't even talk about it right now, because we know how fragile these things can be.

I had other good things happen today, too. One of them was getting to read a whole bunch of essays by middle school students, one of whom used the word that makes up the title of this post. I added the dashes; it just didn't look right the other way: superdedupery. Yep, it needs the dashes. Amazingly, the young man's teacher did not put a single mark on the page at super-de-dupery, though she marked other things on the page. Anyway, I'm appropriating it, and encouraging all of you to do the same.

Reading the essays gave me a certain appreciation for what agents go through when attacking the slush pile. Many of the essays had such a sameness to them, that you could read the first paragraph and just know where it was going and how it was going to get there. Others started out in a way that made me sit up and get excited, only to fizzle and leave me disappointed. Out of some forty essays, maybe four were really good. On the other hand, I suppose only about four or so were really bad. The good news is I did not end the day despairing for the future of the human race. Kids today do care about important things; it's not just all video games and texting their friends.

Forgive my rambling; perhaps the cold is getting to me. Let's heat things up a bit:

Have a Super-de-dupery weekend!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Weekend Update

Hmm, this is one Monday where I feel less prepared than usual. Let's see, what's new?

-We took the Magpie back to college yesterday, and already the house seems much quieter. Sadly, her roommate had to leave school at the midpoint and she was assigned a new roomie. The good news is, they seem to have hit it off so far.

-After a week of relatively warm temperatures, it looks like we're heading back down into the single digits, with a smattering of sub-zero nights ahead. Interestingly, when I used to work at a particular environmental education center on Long Island (roughly 5 years in two different stints) I remember Martin Luther King Day weekend as being the coldest of the year, and we always had groups, usually Girl Scouts, at the place. Meanwhile, our family has been up here for ten years now (wait--almost 11) and it definitely seems like the trend has been for warmer (relatively) winters with the bulk of the snow occurring later in the winter than it used to. Of course, I haven't kept records, and ten years is nothing when we're talking about climate patterns, but still.

-On the writing front, I actually put some time into a 'new' project that has languished for quite some time while I was wrasslin' with BARTON'S WOMEN. I'm a little stuck with it, though this could be because it's been ignored for so long. Meanwhile, I edited my short piece for the Elephant's Bookshelf Winter anthology, and finished edits for the three pieces I have going in my writers' circle book. I have been quite fortunate so far to have worked with editors who are very professional and very qualified. An interesting thing is that the process for me (so far) has been much like working with a beta reader--yet different at the same time.

-We caught up on BBC's Sherlock--I have to say, the episodes were interesting and entertaining, and while Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes can be a complete tool, it's really nice to see that he's a little more human, a little more cognizant of how he affects people--though he still can't help but be a tool on occasion. I'm curious to see how they handle the new dynamic, what with Watson ***spoiler!*** being married. Hopefully, Mary will get to be more than just a pretty face, and a pressure point for bad guys to get to Watson. She's off to a good start.***end spoiler!***

-Cracked into A Dance With Dragons this week. It's slow going so far, as I reacquaint myself with characters who were largely missing from A Feast For Crows. I've found most of the Martin books to be this way, a little bumpy at the start, then picking up and providing one hell of a ride.

-Hmm, time for some music, perhaps? Sure, why not:

-And that's it for me--how was your weekend?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Yeah, I'm Behind the Times



Back when I played World of Warcraft, there was a leader of another guild who was friends (possibly in real life, though I'm not 100% sure) with a member of our guild. The other guild was a pretty serious raiding guild, whereas our was not. They did mostly 25-man raids, we did mostly 10-man raids. Still, when his guild had raids 'on farm' (i.e., when they could speed through them almost by rote and complete the whole thing fast), or when he was looking to complete old content for achievements or legendary weapons, he would sometimes fill out his roster with people from different guilds. Because or my guild buddy's relationship to this guy, and because I was able to carry my weight, follow instructions, and not die stupidly, I sometimes got to go with him.

Communication in the raids was accomplished via a voice program called Ventrilo, or 'vent' for short, which was useful so the raid leader could hand out assignments, talk strategy, and review failures, if need be. There was also a lot of idle chatter, because getting 25 people who are scattered all across the world moving together is a lot like herding cats, and there's a lot of down time. During this idle chatter, this raid leader would actually say "O-M-G" and "L-O-L"—just like that, spelled out. Not type it out in the on-screen raid chat, but say it, out loud. I suppose he was being ironic or something, hard to say, I never really got to know him all that well. Personally, as it stands, I tend to steer clear of acronyms like those, even in internet type of communications. When I played WoW and used  guild or party chat (which was on screen), I used full words, proper capitalization, and correct punctuation where ever possible. I will admit to using 'lol' a lot when things were funny, because it turnred out to be the best way to quickly communicate the emotion. But never in spoken speech.

I watched Sharknado Wednesday night.

O. M. G.

L. O. L.

That was the biggest laugh I've had all year, and if ever there was a time to use OMG and lol, that was it. Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Last 10 (almost) Books

Way back in March I saw someone somewhere do a  blog post--or hop, or meme--asking about the last 10 books you've read, and how you heard about them. I started a post on it, then dropped it because I think I got distracted by...well, something...and then ended up forgetting it all together. Well, here I sit on a chilly Monday morning with nothing to write, and I thought, Yeah, I'll do that last ten books thing. There's just one problem: I can't remember the last ten books I've read.

Back in March, I didn't have too much of a problem. I still have that list in a draft, and it's a nice collection, a fairly eclectic mix of old (On the Beach) and relatively new (The Art of Racing in the Rain), across various genres and styles. And now? Hmm, let's see. Not counting the one manuscript I beta read for a friend in October, or the one I'm beta reading now, here's where I'm at:

The Secret History, Donna Tartt. I keep hearing about Ms. Tartt, mostly from agents who say things like, "I'd love to have something like Donna Tartt", so I grabbed this one from the library. I'm about 2/3 of the way through, and I'll be honest, it's been a struggle. This book is very highly-regarded, but it's not working all that well for me. Still, I hate to put books down unfinished.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy. This is a word-of-mouth book, heard about from many people. Roy writes in a really intriguing way, and I enjoy reading about different cultures.

And The Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini. I enjoyed this. A very sad story by Hosseini. This would be word-of-mouth, I guess, or publicity from the publisher.

In One Person, John Irving. I was disappointed. I felt too much like I had read these characters and setting before, and Irving has developed a tendency to lecture about literature. As an Irving fan, I was aware that it was coming out, not sure how.

A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin. I'm amazed at Martin's characterization and his ability to surprise me. I'm not a big fantasy (if you call this fantasy, I'm not sure) reader, so the fact that I will crack open book 5 of the saga this week tells you plenty.

The Night Strangers, Chris Bohjalian. I've enjoyed the three other Bohjalian books I've read, but this one fell a little flat for me. This was a 'found' book--I ran across it at a rummage sale in the fall. I 'discovered' Bohajalian on the shelf of my library two years ago.

And that's all I can remember. My reading is down a bit this year, in large part because I've got a lot of things on my mind that have kind of pushed reading to the back burner. Interesting to me, most of what I've read recently I've 'discovered' by word of mouth, or, in the case of the biggest names on the list (Hosseini and Irving) via the publicity machine of their publishers.  What about you? What books have you been reading, and how did you hear about them?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Tyrion Lannister and the Ugly Stick

I mentioned in my post last week that Ned Stark was probably my favorite character in Game of Thrones, but it was neck-and-neck with a character that I was pre-conditioned to dislike: The Imp, Tyrion Lannister. For those of you not familiar with the story, Tyrion is a dwarf, and this is how he was introduced:

"…the youngest of Lord Tywin's breed and by far the ugliest. All that the gods had given Cersei and Jaime, they had denied Tyrion. He was a dwarf, half his brother's height, struggling to keep up on stunted legs. His head was too large for his body, with a brute's squashed-in face beneath a swollen shelf of brow."

Now, at this point, about 50 pages into the Bantam paperback copy, I was already predisposed to disliking the Lannisters in general, and I now expected the worst of Tyrion. When he speaks for the first time, he's perched above a door like a gargoyle, dispensing 'advice' to the bastard, John Snow (I felt obliged to call him a bastard, because there is a major fascination with bastards in GoT). By the end of the scene with Snow, I wasn't sure what to make of Tyrion—he was a Lannister, and ugly,so he must be a bad guy, right? And there was something vaguely threatening and unsettling about his appearance in the scene, even though the words he shared with Jon were wise. As the book unfolded and we got into Tyrion's head, I found him to be one of the most interesting characters in the book. Tyrion was extremely smart and resourceful, witty, even charming, in his own way—a far cry from what I expected. He was also desperate for his father's approval and love, and hardened by the scorn of others.

I hate to admit that I allowed myself to assume Tyrion was bad because of his physical appearance. So many ugly characters in books and movies are also ugly in thought and deed, and I let that influence my expectations. We are preconditioned to dislike ugly characters. Sadly, art is a reflection of life and society, and our society places a high value on physically attractive people—too high a value, in fact. It's that judging a book by its cover thing. Martin did a terrific job in Game of Thrones in turning this trope on its head—Tyrion was not pure as the new-driven snow by any means, but he turned out to be a far more interesting, likeable and sympathetic character than his beautiful sister and brother (though, mild spoiler, his brother redeemed himself later on in the series, to a certain extent).

In her post yesterday, Angela Ackerman warned againstwriting cardboard villains. One of her admonitions was to not fall into the trap of making them ugly. I agree, and would point out we should make sure we carry this into life beyond our writing as well. Have a pleasant weekend, all.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Monday Musing: Being Limited

We live in a world that is being increasingly sorted. Whenever I log into Facebook, the same posts from the same people just keep popping up to the top of my feeder, never mind that I already saw it on Friday morning…and Saturday afternoon…and night…and yesterday, and never mind that I didn't comment or like the post. If I scroll down, past four or five other things I've already seen half-a-dozen times, posts from other people are sprinkled in, even though they're newer than the stuff that keeps floating to the top. There may be a way to change this. I need to remember that Facebook has a tendency to change settings at a whim and without warning.

Facebook, I believe, is showing me what it thinks I want. These are mostly people with whom I've interacted a lot in the past, so I must want to see what they've got to say, right? Maybe it thinks I've forgotten to comment and like the post, so it's going to hit me with it over and over until I do, I don't know, but it's annoying.

It's this way all over the internet. Look at a book on Amazon and there's a menu that says, "People who bought this also bought…" On Netflix there's a category called, "Because you watched [insert film/show name here]". The cash register at the supermarket spits out coupons for products similar to the ones I bought (but rarely for the products I actually buy—my cats eat Friskies, not Nine Lives, and if I tried to feed them Nine Lives, they'd either snub it or throw it up all over the carpet).

From a marketer's perspective, this makes sense. I haven't read any studies but I expect targeted marketing has a much higher return on investment than the shotgun approach. As a consumer, we don't have to wade through so much stuff that's not of interest to us. Still, I can't help but wonder what we're losing with all this. The internet makes it so much easier to discover things so far out of our normal 'zone'—why allow ourselves to be limited?

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Heel Turn

I've been circling around something for a while now, posts almost made, but then pulled back, decided on, then undecided on. The post was initially supposed to be about characterization and Game of Thrones, using the fate of Ned Stark as a basis, but I kept backing off. Now, inspired in part by Bonnee's review of on her blog last week and by my own viewing of Disney's Frozen, I've decided to go with this. BE WARNED: Spoilers abound, so if you haven't read GoT or seen Frozen (and plan to), you should probably go somewhere else.

Early on in Game of Thrones, we see Ned Stark, Lord of the North, beheading a man for abandoning the Night's Watch, a collection of misfits, outcasts and criminals who guard the kingdom's northern boundary against…all sorts of things. Ned makes a point of telling his youngest son that the one who passes judgment should be the one to dole out the punishment as well. Later, when Ned assumes the duties of Hand of the King, we see that he as honest, a man of integrity and principle, and a man who is overmatched by the complexities of the politics of King's Landing. After uncovering a rather tawdry secret about the Queen, Ned gets outmaneuvered (largely because of his sense of honor), betrayed, and thrown in the dungeon. He's given a choice: admit to treason and he'll be exiled to the Night's Watch. Hold to the truth and he'll be executed.

At this point, I was highly conflicted. Ned was my favorite character in this book, and I wanted him to remain true. There's no way, I thought, that Ned would lie. And then he did the unthinkable: he lied. He confessed to a crime he didn't commit. He traded his honor for his life, and I was ready to throw the book across the room.

Now, allow me to jump a few steps to the right, to Disney's Frozen. In Frozen, two princesses grow up isolated from each other and the world because one of them (Elsa) has powers she can't control. When Elsa is of age to take the throne, the castle gates are opened for the first time in years. Townspeople and foreign dignitaries pour in, and it's party time.

One foreign dignitary is Hans, a prince from the Southern Islands. Anna, the younger princess, meets him and is instantly smitten. So is he. They dance and talk all night; it's like Cinderella all over again. As for Hans, he's one hell of a nice guy, and he asks Anna to marry him.

When Elsa's powers get out of control (largely because Anna and Hans come to her with news of their betrothal), she runs off, and Anna follows. Elsa has left the town in a deep freeze, kind of like the one that's settled over my house this week. The problem is, it's July. Ann runs off and leaves Hans in charge while she tries to track down Elsa and break the spell. Hans is a star. He personally passes out blankets to freezing people. He provides food. He's dedicated to saving every man, woman and child in the kingdom if he can. When Princess Elsa is on the verge of killing two men in self-defense, it's Hans who stays her hand—"Don't become the monster they say you are!" he implores. What a guy!

And then he executes perhaps the most unexpected heel turn since Andre the Giant in 1987.

He leaves Anna to die, lies to everyone, and stands aside so that Elsa can be executed. It turns out, he was lying to Anna all along. The whole thing was a scheme to gain power and prestige. And I was ready to throw my popcorn at the screen.

Two stories. Two unexpected events. But one of them was right, and one of them was wrong. In Game of Thrones, what I didn't tell you is, aside from being principled and honest, Ned Stark was also dedicated to his family and his children. While not exactly warm and cuddly, he is shown throughout as being a good father who loves his children. The reason Ned ultimately admits to a lie is because the Queen has his daughter, and it's implied that things will not go well for her at all if he insists on telling the truth. My hand was stayed—I did not throw the book. As I commented on Bonnee's post on the book, Martin did an absolutely brilliant job of pitting Stark against himself. As much as lying was OUT of character for Ned, protecting his children was totally IN character.

And what of Hans? His heel turn came out nowhere. While we may have thought the romance between Anna and Hans was too good to be true, there was never ANY indication at any time that he was anything but what he appeared to be. Yes, the moment was shocking, but there was no foundation for it at all. When I think about some of the books I've read recently that have had surprising plot twists (see anything by Gillian Flynn, for example), if you look back you can always see hints throughout. There was nothing of the sort with Hans. The Magpie has seen the film twice, and she couldn't even see it coming the second time!

Keep this in mind when building up for the plot twist. "Never saw it coming" plot twists are fine, provided there's a reason for it, and the reason should be visible in the story. It doesn't have to be obvious, but it should be something you can see in hindsight. And it has make sense. And that's what you have to do—make it make sense. Give us Ned Stark, not Hans. Spoiler over, have a nice weekend!

Oh, and yes, that IS former governor of Minnesota Jesse "The Body" Ventura in that video (with the hat and glasses), thank you very much.