Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Quarter in the Toilet

My husband teaches religion classes to high school students for a living. So he's always coming up with object lessons to teach different principles. One of my particular favorites is called "The Quarter in the Toilet." It involves herding the entire class into the bathroom and holding up a quarter. He asks them how much a quarter is worth and someone says, "Twenty-five cents." Then he asks them what its value is and someone says, a little slower this time, as if he's aged fifty years in a single moment, "Twenty-five cents." Then he chucks the quarter into the toilet and asks, "And what's its value now?"

Except for some enterprising freshman, most of his kids aren't willing to go in after it; to everyone but that freshman, the quarter actually has negative value now. Still, a quarter is a quarter is a quarter, in the hand or in the bowl. Whether they value it or not, that quarter is still worth twenty-five cents.

As a writer, I sure feel like a quarter in the toilet sometimes--especially when I'm querying. I often only feel as good as my last response, so when a rejection rolls in, my confidence dips. And when the rejections pile up, my confidence plummets.

But the truth is, my worth as a writer has nothing to do with how everyone else values my writing. My worth as a writer is defined by certain inherent characteristics--my talent, my passion, my desire--and those things never change.

It reminds me of Max Lucado's beautiful picture book YOU ARE SPECIAL. His main character, the much maligned Punchinello, only receives ugly gray dots from his fellow wooden puppets, and in a society built around public praise or scorn, those gray dots might as well be the plague. But then Punchinello meets Lucia, another wooden puppet who bears neither the stars nor the dots of her fellow townspeople. Punchinello asks her why her stickers don't stick, and she tells him: Because she cares more about what the woodcarver thinks than what the other puppets think. Because she knows her worth as a wooden puppet is intrinsic. It has nothing to do with how much the other puppets reject, or adore, her.

Now, obviously, constructive criticism is, well, constructive; I'm in no way suggesting that we don't consider and try to incorporate the feedback we receive. And it's pretty much impossible not to feel that tiny thrill when a request or, gasp, an offer of representation comes. But in the end, those things do not define us. In the end, we are worthwhile writers simply because we are.

Do I always think this way? Sadly, no. There are minutes and hours and days and weeks when I feel about as valuable as a quarter in the toilet. So this post is just as much for me as it is for you. I plan to look back at it whenever I'm feeling low. Because even when I don't believe it, I know it's true.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book Recommendation: WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

In a recent blog post, Nathan Bransford asked his readers to name their favorite books of 2009. As I skimmed the comments section of that post, one title kept jumping out at me: Rebecca Stead's WHEN YOU REACH ME. After looking up a brief blurb on the book, I decided to give it a try--and promptly finished it within about a day of checking it out from the library.

Ms. Stead's sophomore novel chronicles the sixth grade year of main character Miranda. That year ends with her mother's appearance on the old TV game show THE $20,000 PYRAMID, but it starts with her discovery of a strange note. The note, written on an old, crusty scrap of paper, asks a favor of her: write a letter describing the events of that year, and then deliver it to the note's unknown sender. If she doesn't, she risks her friend's life. But if she does, she'll be turning her back on just about everything she thought she knew.

The absurdity of this request, and the seeming randomness of all the little details she includes, pushed me to the end faster than I would have liked. When I'm enjoying a book, really enjoying it, I like to hold back, give myself something to savor for at least a few days. But I couldn't stop reading this; I had to know--HAD TO KNOW--what was going on.

If you're looking for a good book for your nine- to twelve-year-old, give this one a shot. In fact, if you're looking for a good book, period, look no further.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Not Perfect Yet

We're going home for Christmas this week. (A nice thing about marrying your high school sweetheart is that his hometown is your hometown, so you get to spend every holiday at home. An un-nice thing about marrying your high school sweetheart is that his hometown is your hometown, so you spend all those holidays bouncing back and forth from one house to the other, with the relatives constantly chorusing, “Hey, where you going?”) So I’ll be leaving Bob behind for a while. And that’s kind of scary, because I’m letting him be something I’ve never let another manuscript be: Not Perfect Yet.

Not Perfect Yet is much more than In Need of a Line Edit. Not Perfect Yet is even more than Will Tweak This Scene Later. Not Perfect Yet is what a manuscript becomes when you write with the full realization that you don’t intend to keep some, maybe most, of the words you’re writing. When you write for the sake of getting something, anything, up on the screen.

For this reason, letting Bob be Not Perfect Yet has been…liberating. I don’t get bogged down in a chapter, a scene, or even a sentence. I put something down and move on. So I know Bob has problems. One scene (the one I’m STILL writing) has been dragging on for eternity and will need to be tightened. One character’s dialogue (Mr. Jenks’s) always sounds not quite right and will need to be fixed. I’ve fleshed out the back stories of a few other characters and will have to go back and rewrite the scenes in which they appear from this new perspective. Like I said, problems.

When I’ve discovered a problem in previous manuscripts, I’ve fixed it right then--or convinced myself it wasn’t REALLY a problem, for this and this and this reasons. Because my manuscripts had to be Perfect at every possible moment, or at least as perfect as I could make them before I started the next draft. I had to be content with the state of my manuscripts every time I left the computer, and (I thought) that meant they had to be Perfect. Now that I’m letting Bob be Not Perfect Yet, I’m discovering not-perfect is okay.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m committed to making Bob amazingly, stupendously, super-fantastically great--I might even go so far as to say perfect--and letting him be not-perfect right now could be, might be, a necessary step in that process. I’m sure you figured this out a long time ago, but it’s been a revelation for me. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. This is the season of miracles, after all.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Query Update

I’ve been trying to be a good girl and put this off until the end of the month, like I normally do, but I just can’t keep it bottled up any longer. So, without further ado, the numbers:

Total queries: 75
Pending queries: 18
Full requests: 4 (4 pending)
Partial requests: 10 (2 pending)
Rejections: 36
Non-responses: 7

Squeak! In addition to the FOUR FULL MANUSCRIPTS I now have floating around out there (two more than last month), I also received a rejection on a requested partial that actually left me in a good mood. The agent said my writing had “a terrific confidence and polish to it” (her words, not mine--woohoo!), and even though she didn’t completely connect with this story, she encouraged me to query her again with my next project if this one didn’t land an agent--which, she seemed to think, was by no means a guarantee. What a lovely thing to say. And what a confidence booster--in myself and in this industry.

Meanwhile, one of those most recent full requests came from an agent who admitted she didn’t do much fantasy, but since she liked my blog and the biographical paragraph I included in my query, she was willing to give my manuscript a try. It just goes to show you never know who’s going to be reading the stuff you send out into the ether, so you better make sure it represents you in the way you want to be represented.

That’s all for now. I’m off to refresh my inbox:)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Miss Snark's First Victim's Drop the Needle Critique Session

Check out the Drop the Needle critique session Authoress is hosting over the next few days (including a few lines from Bob--he's #11). These submissions are 250 words that represent danger in some way, and critiques should focus on the tension and pacing--and of course, whether (or not) you want to read more.

Definitely head over there and share a comment or two. Or ten or twenty. Every comment will be helpful; I know I'll be looking for all the feedback I can get. And if you're a regular reader of mine, don't feel like you have to sugar-coat anything you might say about Bob. He's pretty tough--and we both know that any criticism you have you only share out of love:)

Monday, December 14, 2009

(Work-in-) Progress Report: Bob

Word count (to the nearest thousand): 20,000
Status: Slogging through the first draft
Attitude: Determined

I’m calling him Bob until I can come up with an official title, which, at this rate, will likely be the last words I type. I’ve really been struggling with titles lately…

Anyway, this is the first book I’ve worked on since I started blogging, the second I’ve written since I started outlining, and I must admit, it isn’t progressing as quickly as I’d like. I would have expected my word count to be double or even triple what it is by now, based on the rate at which I wrote my other first drafts, but it is what it is, I suppose. I suspect the paltry word count has to do with my second child, who isn’t nearly so, er, content as her older brother. And the fact that life, no matter who you are or what your circumstance is, tends to get busier and busier as it goes along.

Still, I love this concept, and I love how the characters are starting to emerge. I’m trying to be a little more purposeful with my characterization in this novel, but they still have to develop page by page, line by line, grimace by grin. Of the unplanned characters, my favorite so far is Ms. Mahoney: She’s pretty large and likes to be in charge:)

No matter how long it takes, I’m committed to making Bob everything he can be--because I really think he could be, might be, really great. Amazingly, stupendously, super-fantastically great. (Not that the project I’m currently querying isn’t great; I’m just easily excitable, I guess.) And to take a little of fellow writer Natalie Whipple’s advice, I’m not going to settle for anything less than that.

Well, I’d better be getting back to it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hang around for a minute and chat. So what projects are you excited about, and how are they coming along?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On Dialogue ('Cause Everybody's Talking About It)

Excuse me while I wipe the single teardrop from my eye. Puns will get me every time:)

My husband and I recently had a conversation. It went something like this:

“My children are killing my muse!” I screeched.

To which my husband replied, “Don’t ever show your face on this mews again!”

“What?” I asked.

“You know,” he said. “From THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE.”

Oh, look, another pun. And there goes another teardrop. But muse/mews aside, this sort of exchange happens often in our home. He says something, I say something, he says something back, and I think, “Wow, that’s good enough to be in a book. We’re like two regular Jane Austens--minus the accent and, you know, those little feather hats.”

But then I sit down to write and this comes tumbling out:

“It’s not going to turn out to be something salacious, is it?”



“Mom!” I exclaimed, genuinely disgusted.

“Well?” she pressed, still looking stern.

“No, of course not!” I took a step back. “Gosh, what do you think I am, some kind of--harlot?”

Harlot? Are you (am I) kidding me (myself)? What person under the age of sixty-eight (let alone a teenager) uses the word harlot anymore? Now, in my defense, this was only the first draft of a novel I had the good sense to scrap, so that ought to count for something. But still. I should have known better.

Why is dialogue so difficult to write convincingly? We only use it every single day. I really don’t have the answer to that. I was just proofreading a few things from Bob, my current work-in-progress, yesterday and was struck by how awful some of my dialogue sounded. Maybe it’s because I’m still in the early chapters and the characters’ voices are still settling. Or maybe it’s because I still have some things to learn.

Imagine that: I haven’t attained perfection yet. But I’m pretty sure I’m on the verge. And when it happens, I’m sure you all will be the first to know:)

Any of you have any good (or bad) lines of dialogue you'd like to share? Or any advice for me on how to write it?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Recipe Recommendation: NASCAR Chicken Casserole by Carol Gordon Bickford

This recipe comes courtesy of Carol Gordon Bickford via Rachael Ray. Before my two-year-old discovered PBS, I watched a lot of THE RACHAEL RAY SHOW in the mornings, and when she had NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon on as a guest, she invited his mother on as well to share a recipe or two. Which is why I call this dish NASCAR Chicken Casserole.

Here is the original recipe from Rachael Ray’s online hub, and here is my slightly less labor-intensive version:

NASCAR Chicken Casserole

4 to 6 chicken breasts (or up to 1-1/2 pounds)
1 package tortillas (8 to 12)
1 large onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped (your choice of color)
1 4-ounce can diced green chile peppers
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 6-ounce can tomato sauce
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 cups of cheddar cheese, grated (or 8 ounces)

Cook the chicken breasts however you prefer. Boiling works well, roasting even better, and either one will take you about an hour. If you decide to roast, try seasoning liberally with salt, black pepper, and any other spices you like, wrapping in aluminum foil, and baking at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour.

Saute onion and bell pepper over medium to medium-low heat until the onion turns translucent and the bell pepper starts to soften. Add diced green chile peppers. Mix soups and tomato sauce in a small bowl; add to the vegetable mixture.

While those flavors combine, mix chili and garlic powders with the 2 cups grated cheese. Then layer all ingredients (chicken, tortillas, vegetable-soup mixture, and cheese mixture) in a 9x13-inch baking dish and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.

Obviously, if you’re in a time crunch--or if you live in southern Nevada in the summertime, like me--you can shorten the bake time or change the baking temperature. That’s the nice thing about cooking over baking: Everything’s negotiable:)

Definitely try this recipe. It’s a kid--and parent--pleaser.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Of Shoes and Ships and Football Games, Blog Contests, and Things

Minus the shoes and ships. Sorry.

Sometimes, when I’m starting to feel low about my prospects of breaking into the world of publishing, I remind myself that at least I don’t work in the college football business:) That is one truly messed-up industry.

In other news, Authoress is hosting a fun holiday contest over on her blog. Just pen a few new lyrics for a favorite holiday tune and enter them in the comments section of today’s blog post. The lyrics should be “writerly” (her word, not mine--which is too bad, since I’d love to take the credit for adding that one to the dictionary) and, of course, appropriate; the winning lyricist, as chosen by super agent Lauren MacLeod, receives a bona fide query letter critique. The contest opened earlier today and runs through Wednesday morning, so good luck channeling your inner Irving Berlin. If I can come up with something by then, I’m sure I’ll join in. Right now, my chronic poet’s block is acting up…

Well, that’s all I got. Anybody else have anything exciting going on around the www?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I'm Holding Out for an Agent

I asked my husband the other day, “Let’s say an agent offered me representation…and only that one agent did…and after talking with that agent and a few of her (or his) clients and just relying on my gut…I decided not to go with him (or her). Would you think I was crazy?”

My husband looked up from what he was doing for exactly one-point-five seconds, exclaimed, “Yes!” and looked back down.

But I really don’t think I would be. Allow me to explain. I am a writer, have been for pretty much my whole life, and after working at this for years and years and years, I think I’m not so bad. Now I don’t think I’ll be a Nobel laureate anytime soon, or a NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author--heck, I might not even publish a book in the next year, the next decade, or the next lifetime--but I do think I can write. There, I said it, and I’ll say it again, with an exclamation point this time: I think I can write!

And because I respect my talent--and myself--enough, I really don’t want to settle. I want to find an agent who absolutely adores my work, and I want that agent to be someone whose, er, agenting I absolutely adore. I want that agent to be someone I can spend my whole career with, someone who understands me and my goals. I want to feel confident in that agent when the market’s down, when I have writer’s block, when I don’t think I can take another round of revisions. In short, I want a business partner/drill sergeant/pep talker. And if she (or he) has a lovely singing voice, that would be nice, too:)

Now I realize my opinion may change two, three, maybe seven manuscripts down the road. And there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever get that first offer, either. But for now, I’m holding out for an agent, and he’s (or she’s) gotta be strong, and she’s (or he’s) gotta be fast, and he’s (or she’s) gotta be fit for a fight--’cause this industry’s a killer.