Monday, April 30, 2012

Who Knows?

First, let me apologize for not posting last week.  Like everyone else, writers need a vacation as well. I'm not only back, I'm refreshed, ready and excited to share some news with you.

Besides being a writer, I'm a bit of a movie fan with musicals being among my favorite genre. West Side Story is a particular favorite of mine. For those of you who don't know the premise, it's basically Romeo and Juliet meets singing fifties street gangs. One of the songs in the movie shares its name with today's blog post. Before you ask, song titles aren't protected under copyright laws so I'm within in my rights to use the song title. It's also quite fitting given the news I want to share.

The song Who Knows is sung by Tony, our protagonist, our Romeo. Tony breaks into this song after getting a visit from his buddy, Riff, who's trying to talk him into coming to the dance. Riff wants his help in confronting the members of the rival gang who figure to be at the dance. Tony's no longer in the gang and doing his best to stay straight, and Riff just doesn't see the appeal. Tony tries explaining to Riff things are going to get better because he's convinced there's something exciting in his future. Riff uses Tony's words against him and convinces Tony to come to the dance by saying something along the lines of what he's waiting for could be at the dance. Thus inspiring Tony to burst into his catchy rendition of Who Knows in which he ponders his future with wide eyed excitement.

The point of this summation? I feel as though I'm having a who knows moment with my writing.

As you may have guessed by now, I'm fond of entering writing contests. I think they're a great way to gain exposure and high placements look good on query letters when you don't have any publishing credits but you're trying to land an agent.

Back in February, I entered a young adult novel contest sponsored by Australian publishing company Hardie, Grant and Edgemont.  This contest was strictly for unpublished young adult authors who've penned a novel that's true to life.  No fantasy or paranormal offerings were being accepted. They wanted novels with plots and characters teens could relate to. If you know me, you can imagine the appeal of this contest for me. Though I've recently dipped a toe into the paranormal pool, my first love is and always will be realistic novels. When I first started trying to break into the business, I longed to have a line of young adult novels featuring disabled teens in leading, romantic roles. Publishers didn't think that line could hold up to the popularity of Harry Potter and Twilight and the like.

Imagine my happiness to find a contest that was strictly for the kind of books I so love to write. Finally, someone else, a publisher no less, shared my vision. I entered happily and have been waiting ever since.

Good news. No, I didn't win. Winners haven't been announced yet. I did, however, make it to the finals. I'm among the top thirty of the two hundred fifty manuscripts submitted. If I win, the prize is publication of the novel.  This could not only launch my career but my dream.

I don't know when the results will be announced, but I'm waiting with cautious optimism while the chorus of Who Knows floats randomly through my head.

Who Knows?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Is this a Cliché?

I think you are great writer, but no offence please, but some bits in your stories are kind of cliché and I personally think you are better than those who need cliché to their story.

The preceding statement was posted on the comments page of a story I uploaded to my favorite on line site. It was not doctored or altered in any way. How it appears above is how it was written on my comment page. Who said it isn’t important nor is the fact that it contains quite a few grammatical errors.  In looking at this comment, I get the sense that English was the reader’s second language. Of course I can’t be sure, and it isn’t the point.

The point I’d like to make is about clichés in writing. This reader is not the first to point this out to me. In fact, in 2008 I had a story reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly as part of the semi final round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, and that reviewer made the same accusation if you will. However, that reviewer was able to expand and give me specific examples of clichés contained within my work. Interestingly enough, in the first round of this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, one reader said some of the phrases were a bit clichéd and pointed them out to me.

By now, I’ll bet you’re wondering what these dreaded clichés are that I can’t seem to break the habit of using. The most common offender is this one: Her heart skipped a beat at the smooth sound of his voice. It’s her heart skipping a beat that is the culprit. This, I’m told, is a cliché. What I haven’t been told and what I’ve yet to discover is how to avoid this pitfall.

Most of the novels I write, including all of those in which I’ve been told I lean too heavily on the clichés, are targeted to young adults. For those of you that don’t recall being a teenager or aren’t closely acquainted with any, it may come as a bit of shock to learn that teens have a way of making even the simplest thing something quite dramatic. That aside, even at this age I still remember that feeling of first falling love. I remember my heart alternating between feeling like it skipped a beat and feeling like it was going to beat out of my chest from how fast it fluttered. My palms were sweaty and my mouth was dry. What’s wrong with conveying these feelings to the readers who should be able to identify with them? And if I shouldn’t do it this way, how should I do it?

Another cliché I’ve run into is something I’ve addressed in a prior blog—the old formula argument. For example, one of my novels is about a California girl whose father’s new job forces them to relocate to Oklahoma where she meets a local boy with a mysterious past. This was a story I entered in one contest and was told that the city mouse/country mouse theme is cliché. One of my most recent, and wildly popular stories, follows a young girl whose father’s criminal past forces them to relocate. At her new school, she falls in with the wrong crowd. Again, new girl in a new school is an overdone cliché. As I summarize these stories, I see the repetition, but these are two examples of numerous stories I’ve written. Let me assure you not all of my stories follow the new person in a new school theme. I’ve written a story about a young boy whose parents discover he’s gay and how that changes his life and guess what? That story isn’t anywhere near as popular as those clichés I’ve written. Go figure.

In my defense, I’m not the only author doing it. Many authors, including many who are much more famous than I, have built their careers on these clichés and formulas. Not only do their fans love them for it, but they expect it.

There’s no way around it. I’ve got to face the hard fact that some of work contains some clichés. You know what? Until those stories that stray from the beaten path become more successful I think I’ll leave things the way they are. I think the true fans will not only forgive me for it but be glad I did.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Wishful Thinking

Not too long ago, I discussed my failure to advance in this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. One of the things I expressed displeasure with was the fact that my story was read by two reviewers with such widely differing opinions that it cost me a place in the next round. It seems the reviewers’ opinions had to be unanimous, if they were positive that is.

To allow my fate to be decided by only two people really bothered me. It still does, but it’s not just this contest in which this happens. Every time I query a literary agent, I’m asking one person to decide the fate of my dream. Sometimes that one person is looking at nothing more than a one page query. On the strength of that query alone, he may choose to reject me. You know what? I’m afraid there’s no other way to say it, but that’s depressing.

Having an agent reject me is an especially hard pill to swallow when public opinion has been so strong in my favor of late. No, I’m not talking about those well meaning friends and family who pile on the praise every time I ask them to review a new story. I’m speaking about my loyal fans on my favorite e-book web site where I’ve been posting stories for the past year. These fans are always asking if my books are in print because they’d like to own copies. They’re always encouraging me not to give up when I let them know of a new rejection, and they always claim anyone who rejects me is crazy and doesn’t know what they’re doing among other things.

Thinking about the flattering opinions of my loyal fans got me wondering. Why can’t literary agents allow public opinion to influence their decision to represent an author? I suppose it’s because it’s too tough to trust. Not to mention, the market is so saturated with budding writers all vying for a spot on shrinking shelves that agents don’t have the time to devote to that type of research. Agents are busy. They need to know right away how they feel about an author and her story.

The truth of the matter is agents sometimes get it wrong. Some are quick to tell you their business is subjective and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Still, it would be nice if I could respond to those who reject me by sending them the comments made by my fans when I’ve been rejected. The point of this would be that the agent would reevaluate the marketability of the work and possibly make an offer to represent me after all.

It’s wishful thinking of course, but it would be nice if today’s agents would allow themselves to be swayed by public opinion. With so much of our world having gone digital, it wouldn’t be hard to find out what anonymous people are saying about those of us authors who are willing to market to fans and build audiences pre publication. Maybe we’ll get lucky and an agent will read this blog and start the trend.

Until then, I’ll have to stick to the status quo.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Pushing Past the Pain

Any writer, whether published or still trying to break the glass plane of the industry, will tell you how difficult it is to succeed in publishing.  For most writers, rejection is a given. There are very rare success stories of immediate publication upon discovery, but most writers have to pay their rejection dues. Rejection is such a standard in our industry that books and seminars have been published on everything from how to avoid rejection to how to cope with rejection.  One of my favorite books is one that has stories of early rejection from some best selling authors.

How I handle rejection depends on the day. There are some days when I take it with a casual shrug and some days where I’m hopping mad. Still there are other days when I’m ready to pack it in. I allow myself to doubt my talent and question whether or not the investment I’ve made thus far is worth it. I’m not speaking strictly of the financial investment. There is one, but there’s also an emotional investment and an investment of time.

This weekend, I witnessed something that reminded me that sometimes you just have to accept the rejection. You have to know what you want and be willing to go after it no matter what it takes. You have to be willing to push past the pain.

Believe it or not, this revelation came in the form of a junior cheerleading championship. Those of you who know me, or know a little bit about me, know that I have a daughter who’s a competitive cheerleader. Side note, anyone who tells you cheerleaders aren’t real athletes and don’t work hard hasn’t seen the effort this sport takes. 

This past weekend, my family and I traveled to Long Beach, California for the Jamfest National Cheerleading Championships. Even if you don’t know anything about cheerleading, I’m sure you can imagine that nationals are a big deal. My daughter has spent months learning the routine and perfecting her tumbling.  The fact that she even went was a small miracle in and of itself given that she sustained a knee injury in early March that sidelined her for a month and forced her coaches to pull her tumbling pass from the routine.

The two day competition was scheduled to take place Saturday March 31st and Sunday April 1st.  Wouldn’t you know my daughter started to come down with a cold on Wednesday night.  It started with a stuffy nose and sore throat. By Friday night, the cough was added. Saturday morning, my daughter was run down and tired but she competed anyway.  Saturday night, we hit the hotel bed early only to be awakened late in the evening by her coughing that kept up for quite some time. During this time, my husband mentioned telling the coach she might not be able to compete on Sunday.  My daughter’s answer was ‘I have to compete’.  With the aid of non drowsy cough syrup and her can do attitude, she pushed past the pain and competed. The prize for this perseverance came in a third place finish for the squad and a life lesson for both of us.

After seeing my daughter so determined to compete and see her hard work to fruition, it started me thinking about my writing journey. It made me remember that sometimes things are difficult and don’t happen as fast as you want them to or even in the manner you want them to, but hard work can and does pay off. You just have to push past the pain. 

Next time I'm feeling blue about being rejected, I'll think of my daughter. If a twelve year old athlete can do it for a lot less payoff then I can too.