Monday, April 1, 2019

Reading List 2019 Part I

Prepare to be underwhelmed.

The Crossing (2018), Jason Mott

Family Trust (2018), Kathy Wang

Unsheltered (2018), Barbara Kingsolver

It doesn't seem possible that I've only read three books. On my list, I note that The Crossing was finished on February 13, which means I read nothing at all in January??? I feel like I'm missing at least one book in there, maybe two, but I can't remember. I don't think I've had such a down cycle of reading, well, ever. Except maybe when I was a college student or the kids were very small. I actually am reading a book right now but it's not grabbing me all that much and there's virtually no pull on me.

And with that, I think it's also time to announce a break from the blog. I think of things I want to say here, but I don't put the work in until I wake up Monday morning and then? I just have no energy for it. So, we'll see if a month off gives me some new energy. Have a good month!

Monday, March 25, 2019

A trip to the past

Quite often, when we face an uncertain future or an uncomfortable present, we retreat into the safety of the past. Perhaps we look at old pictures or videos, listen to favorite music, pay a visit to an old haunt. We loll about in warmth and golden light, bathed in the memories of good friends, good fun, good food, good times. It can be nice to get away from the pressures of today and the gnawing fear of that space on the calendar marked 'tomorrow.'

But sometimes, even a trip to the past is not the sanctuary we're looking for. On a drive through the old neighborhood, you find the new owner of the house you grew up in has painted it a different color, built a garage on top of the garden, or cut down the tree you used to climb. The empty lot you used to play hide-and-seek on has a strip mall on it. The old elementary school is now a community center, an office complex, a senior citizen complex. Even the past can get run over.

This was illustrated clearly this past weekend when I took advantage of an offer from Blizzard Entertainment and dropped in to check on the world of the World of Warcraft, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) that took our world by storm. My wife and I played over the course of about five years, from the mid- to late stages of the game's first expansion, The Burning Crusade up until about halfway through the Cataclysm expansion. I dropped out due to a combination of factors (I may have blogged about this before, but I don't remember): waning interest in the game, rising interest in writing, and technical problems on Blizzard's end that for a time made loading in and out of different zones frustrating at best, impossible at worst. To my surprise, I didn't miss the game as much as I thought I would (I missed the people, though; I was fortunate to fall in with a good bunch), which in itself says it was a good time to get out.

But I did miss it, and would find myself thinking about it with the hazy glow of nostalgia. So, when I saw Blizzard was offering a free weekend of play to inactive players (including a free upgrade* to just short of the most recent expansion, Battle for Azeroth, released last year), I decided, why not? It might be fun to peek in, get the lay of the land, and maybe have a little fun.

As you can gather, it was not all rosy glows and warm fuzzies. The game has changed, which I knew. The abilities I had gotten used to over the course of seven years of playing my paladin (and my warlock; can't forget him) were...there? Sort of? Some of them? I had to spend time rearranging the location of all my spells and abilities on my toolbar because some things were gone (Hammer of Wrath? Exorcism? Holy Wrath? Where are you?) and there were new things that I didn't even have a clue about how to use.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Heck, every expansion brings changes. The paladin I left alone in Stormwind was very different from the one who started out swinging a wooden mallet in Elwynn Forest five years before. No, the worst of it, the most disappointing of all was losing my name. Blizzard seems to have a policy that they'll keep your character forever, but after 2 expansions of inactivity? They'll release your name. And it was gone, just like that. I was surprised at how much it bugs me, even though I was there for a weekend, nothing more.

Actually, there was one other thing that bugged me.

When I left the game, I was in a guild. An active, chatty guild. Log into the game, and there would be a bunch of greetings in guild chat, a constant conversation running as background text like a CNN chyron, only instead of the news of the day, it was the news of the guild. Jokes, snippets of personal information, in-game accomplishments, requests and stories. More than the other people running around you in the game world, that guild chat let you know you were part of a community, not alone. And it was gone.

I know that some of the people I played with way back when are still in game, but I have no  idea if they're still on the same realm or moved off, or if they switched factions or started playing other characters. I do know the guild has been disbanded, and no one I knew was around, and that even if I did figure out how to play my character again, it wouldn't be the same.

At least I've got my memories.


Monday, March 18, 2019

Opportunity stolen


When I was a kid, I was spoon-fed the Myth of America. You know the one. It tells us that America is the land of opportunity. The land of the free. The place where anyone could become anything. Where a boy could be born in poverty in a log cabin, where he was so poor he had to walk to school barefoot, but where could still rise to be the leader of the nation if only he worked hard enough. That Myth. America was not perfect, we knew. We made some mistakes—slavery, for example. The long, dark period where women couldn't vote, for another. But given time, we always righted the wrongs, both here and abroad. Maybe it took time. Maybe it wasn't easy. But it got done. And anyone could be anything, if they were willing to work hard.

In a deleted scene from my currently on-query project, a character argues that America has become less a meritocracy and more of a feudal society, where wealth and opportunity is increasingly handed down from generation to generation, and people are more likely to become rags-to-riches stories by hitting the lottery or going viral (not always for the right reasons) than they are by studying and working hard. He points out the increasing entry of dynasties into politics (Kennedys, Bushes and, maybe, Clintons), sports (Hulls, Bonds, Mannings) and entertainment (Smiths, Coppolas), where wealth and power gained by parents have allowed the children to either pursue their dreams free of the fear of failure, or provide them with the leg up needed to succeed. Meanwhile, he notes, it becomes harder for others to gain entry into the club. Mobility, he says, is dead.

This idea seems to be in evidence all over. Statistics have suggested mobility in America has decreased over time. In his 2017 book, Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves suggests that not only has upward mobility been stifled, so has downward mobility. Reeves argues that the top-most economic classes (in this case, the top 20%, not the fabled 1%) have constructed a glass floor to keep themselves—and their children—from falling out of the upper classes.That they are using their money and status and connections to engage in 'opportunity hoarding.'

After watching the 'college cheating scandal' blow up last week, this seems more evident than ever. If you have not been paying attention, a federal investigation turned up an operation in which parents paid a middleman to get their children into top colleges, either by cheating on college entrance exams or by bribing coaches into falsely recruiting the kids for their athletic teams. Said the mastermind of the operation, "I created a side door."

What boggles my mind in all this are two things: first, that the parents did not apparently trust in their own children's abilities to get into these schools (though after seeing the video made by daughter of privilege, Olivia Jade, maybe they were right not to trust her). Second, couldn't the gobs and gobs of money spent on getting their kids into school be better spent on, I don't know, tutors? Better prep schools? Test prep classes? According to a story in The New York Times, parents were paying between $15,000 and $75,000 per cheated test. Another paid $1.2 million—million!—to get their kid into Yale. Are these schools really that good? If you have that kind of money to drop on faking your way into school, does your kid really need that kind of education? Hell, if you're dropping a mil on Yale, why not set up an endowment or use it as seed money to outfit a residence hall with geothermal or something? Why not at least let that money benefit others as well as your own kid?

As a parent, I want my kids to have a better life than I had growing up (and mine was pretty good), and to be well-positioned for success as they enter adulthood. It is, really, what any parent wants. This cheating scandal, however, is a direct example of what Reeves called opportunity hoarding, taken to the extreme. We all recognize that wealth has its privileges. This is not a simple privilege. This is not just stacking the deck. This is outright thievery, thievery that denied actual deserving students of opportunity, an opportunity to be anything.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Yet another query post

And just like that we're back in the dark.

Among the many things to not like about the return of Daylight Saving Time is that, as I write this, sunrise is still 21 minutes away. Yes, it will not be dark when I start my drive to work. Yes, it will be lighter in the evening when I make my way home from work, but it was still light when most people were driving home, anyway. I can take solace, I guess, from the fact that the sun rises one to two minutes earlier each day, so by the time March is over, it will be light at this time. And I guess the other benefit to Daylight Saving Time is that we don't have the sun rising at 4:30 in the morning. But if they can do it in Alaska, I guess we could do it here.

Ah, well, I come not to gripe about Daylight Saving Time but to talk once more about queries. After the last two weeks of talking about querying, I'm finally querying. Hurrah! Querying is a funny beast. Right now, I have over 100 agents on my list, a mere drop in the bucket in terms of actual number of agents out there, but a good number to start with. My list includes BIG STAR agents at BIG STAR AGENCIES as well as just starting out people working for themselves and all manner of folks in between. All of them, however, have a track record, actual real clients, and a reputation that is not "Watch out for this scam artist!" or "I signed with them and sent my finished manuscript and heard nothing for two and a half years."All of them are people that, based on reputation at least, I can see myself working with.

The tough part now is figuring out the query strategy. Carpet bombing the agent world, aside from being exhausting (seriously--I did five yesterday and was shot for the afternoon), can be counterproductive. The simple truth is, though I've polished my manuscript, though I've vetted my query with people I trust, I really don't know how good either of them are. If either the query or the opening pages is flawed, what then? If I blast my entire list, I'm sunk (most agents don't like getting the same project a second time unless they ask for it or it's really, really revised).

My solution is to try to send out small batches of queries equally divided between agents who like pages included and agents who don't. I figure if I get requests for pages then the query is pretty solid, and if I get requests for additional pages/fulls from the ones who ask for pages included, then the query and the opening pages are pretty solid.

The only flaw with this plan? Well, two, actually. The first is small sample size. You can argue that three queries in each category is not really enough to draw conclusions from, especially when there are so many other variables involved. Maybe, despite their website, the agent has decided they don't want what I'm selling right now, or they have another client with a similar project. Or the dog eats their slush pile. Or they closed to queries right before I hit "Send." There are a lot of things that can skew the results when you're dealing with small numbers.

The second thing is the wait times. Publishing is a slow game. Odds are good that I won't hear anything from any of these agents for at least a week. Looking at Query Tracker, most of the agents I queried yesterday have at least a three week wait time between queries and responses. So we're back to the waiting game.

Hey, look at that, the sun is up! Time to get on with my day. How about you? Any particular strategies for querying that you employ?

 

Monday, March 4, 2019

Gearing for battle

It seems like almost every movie that includes some sort of battle--be it epic fantasy, war, even a sports film--features a scene in which Our Heroes prepare for the coming fight. We see Our Heroes gearing up for battle: sharpening swords, fletching arrows, shining armor, taping up sticks, lacing up the cleats, all while looking strong and determined and ready to carry the day. You've probably seen it so many times you don't even think about it!

Some time this week, maybe as early as tonight, I will step into the fray and fire my opening salvo in my latest battle to break into the world of the published. It will be a long fight, with many battles. How have I been preparing myself for this battle?

The manuscript: Like the armor Our Heroes wear, this has been polished to a high shine. Holes have been patched and repaired. Excessive bits that add unnecessary weight or could get in the way have been trimmed and removed. (Of course, me being me, i.e., a writer, just yesterday I thought of something I could easily add somewhere in the first thirty pages of the manuscript that would add just the right touch to the scene. This could go on forever.)

The query: Like the unending supply of arrows Legolas fires into unending legions of Orcs, my query is straight to the point.

The list: There are thousands of literary agents out there in the world. As of right now, I have over 150 on my list that could be a match. Almost every day, I learn of a new one. Good thing I have a Quiver of Endless Arrows!

Synopsis: What can be harder than boiling your story down into a 250-word query? A synopsis! It doesn't seem right, but the query letter is really just the hook--WHO is the protagonist, WHAT is her problem, WHAT happens if she doesn't solve it? The query needs to make the agent want to read. The synopsis, on the other hand, is the condensed version of the whole book, a reduced outline. I have somehow managed to create a single-page synopsis for my nearly 400-page manuscript, in case anyone asks. And speaking of things agents ask for:

Excerpts: Some agents ask for the first five pages of your manuscript when you query. Some want to see the first ten. Some want thirty, some want fifty. Some want 'the first few chapters.' Some agents want sample pages embedded in the e-mail, others want them attached as a word or pdf. To prepare for any and all eventualities, I have created multiple files with titles like PROJECT NAME--10, PROJECT NAME--20, etc. That way, I can just grab the right file whenever needed instead of having to go back into the massive manuscript and cutting and pasting (every time I select a large block of text in my manuscript, I have the near-paralyzing fear I'm going to inadvertently delete it all and not be able to get it back).

And finally: Something to help me forget I'm querying.

Actually, this is ideally the time to be working on The Next Thing. Usually, I've had the idea of The Next Thing right around the time I'm wrapping up The Last One. This time around, The Next Thing is not presenting itself. Maybe I've had too many of those martinis.

So, that's it,  that's how I've prepared myself for this latest round of the publishing wars. Many of you have elected to skip this step in favor of doing it yourselves. For anyone out there who reads this blog that isn't self-publishing, are there any items in your arsenal that aren't in mine? How do you prepare yourself for this battle?



Monday, February 25, 2019

And still another wall (and still not THAT one)

I thought I would be done.

When I posted last week, I thought I would be done by now. My brief wall notwithstanding, I was pretty certain I would put a bow on it and be finished by the time this post rolled around. I was wrong. You see, I hit another wall.

After finishing my post last week, I had to work despite the holiday, co-leading a snowshoe walk at a state park in the afternoon. It was cold, in the upper teens, and though it wasn't windy, there was enough of a breeze that, when we stopped in an open area, you could really feel the breeze cutting in. Still, everyone seemed to enjoy it. That night, I managed to work through about eight manuscript pages, crossed the 300-page mark. At the end of the evening, I had under 90 pages remaining.

I made the mistake, perhaps, of staying up to watch the Bruins on Monday. They were in the midst of a 5-game road trip and played in San Jose, 10pm start. The wild game (a Bruins 6-5 overtime win) ended around 1am, leaving me with five-ish hours of sleep before going in to work the next day. In general, I am not one who believes that being cold and/or tired makes you sick--germs make you sick. Viruses make you sick. On the other hand, perhaps cold and tired can suppress your immune system and help you get sick. It certainly seems possible. It might explain what happened next.

On Tuesday night, after work, after dinner, I sat down, opened the manuscript, and...nothing. I picked at a paragraph, rearranged a couple of sentences, felt so tired I could not concentrate at all. Unlike the previous week, this was not a case of me being befuddled by what I had written. I literally could not summon the energy to think properly about what I was looking at. For the first time in I don't know how long, I went to bed before 11pm. Theoretically rested, I went to work the next day. By afternoon, my throat was sore, my back was sore, and I had to face the facts: I was sick. No Bruins for me on Wednesday (another late game, this one in Vegas), no editing work, no nothing. I might have actually been in bed before ten that night, I don't remember.

I stayed home on Thursday. While a sick day can sometimes be an opportunity to make some progress, I didn't even bother. Sometimes, the body knows best.

The good news for me is that I recovered fairly fast. On Friday I was back at work--both the job and the manuscript. And over the weekend, I steamed through the manuscript. Last night, though I tried to make the last push to finish, I had to call it a night, just 14 pages short of the end. Tantalizingly close.

It's important to listen to your body. As much as we want to push on, there are times when the thing to do is to shut it down, give in, and get some rest. There will be another day.

MUSIC:

Love this song. The chorus kind of sums up how I felt in the middle of this week!



Monday, February 18, 2019

A wall, but not that wall

Way back in school--and I'm talking elementary school, mostly, so it was a long time ago--our teachers tried to impose a certain degree of structure on how we wrote. Whether it was an essay or a short story, we were introduced to the concept of writing and revision. We would write up a 'rough draft', get it back from the teacher with notes and corrections (a LOT of spelling and punctuation, and confusing of things like 'your' and 'you're', 'their' and 'there', and 'then' and 'than'), and then turn in the 'final copy'. At that level, I recall that 'final copy' was pretty much presented as 'copy your paper over but correct those mistakes when you do'.

Even back then, I was a bit of a wingman. I recall how I would sit at my desk, first draft to my left, fresh sheet of paper to my write. But instead of straight copying the first draft (with corrections, of course), I would rewrite almost straight out of my head. I was generally a pretty good speller back in elementary school, probably better than I am now, so I didn't make a lot of mistakes of that type. I did always have crummy handwriting, though, so maybe I had to write a second final copy to make sure it was legible, I don't know.

I can't say for sure why I did it that way. I guess it always felt write to just go from brain to page instead of from paper to paper. There's often a better way to say something than the way you just wrote it, right? It never really caused a problem. I don't remember getting any 'final copy' back from my teachers with the 1970s and 80s equivalent of 'WTF???' scrawled across it in bright red ink (we also used to have to staple our rough drafts to our final copy when we turned it in), so I presumably never changed things all that much, and maybe my teachers were just glad that I was embracing the concept of multiple drafts, I don't know.

I still do things this way. I'm on what is probably technically the fourth draft of my WiP. It went through two drafts before it went out to beta readers, then it went through another, and now it's going through a fourth and (hopefully) final revision before it meets the cold, cruel world of querying. It's gone well, and after a slow start, it's picked up speed. In the last week I've gotten through 95 pages and cut about 1800 words of excess verbiage. Yay, me.

Last Wednesday, I hit a wall. On opening the manuscript to where I had left off the day before, I encountered a 500-word section that brought me to a screeching halt. Unlike most of the rest of the manuscript, which has been through three revisions, this was something new, created by my head while I was supposed to be lightly revising the last time. In essence, I was looking at a 500-word 'rough draft' stuck in the middle of something that is third, fourth draft, maybe even 'final copy', and, like many 'rough draft' level items, it needed work. Badly. I know exactly what the passage is supposed to do, but after 30 minutes of trying to figure out how to make it do what I wanted it to do, I just cut the whole thing and called it a day. After close to a week of advancing 30 pages a day, I stopped on the same page I started on.*

I suspect this is what makes editing and revision so difficult for many people, including yours truly. There always something you can add, some better way to say something, some subtle alteration that can really make your writing pop. But every time you add something new to a manuscript, you're adding something raw, wild, unpolished, something that needs to be looked at again and fixed up to match its setting. I'd say one of these days, I'll figure out how to do this writing thing right, but I've been doing it this way since grade school. Seems like a bit of a habit.



*Oh, by the way, after dismantling the wall, I buzzed through 77 more pages that week, so it wasn't much of an obstacle once I decided it didn't need to be there.