March Madness for Writers

Why should the basketball fans hog the month of March? I say that writers have just as much (if not more) claim on going a little crazy over something they love, and that March is an excellent month to flex your writing muscles and try something a bit out of your comfort zone.

Tomorrow I kick off a new month-long writing challenge. Unlike December, which boasts a host of distractions, March tends to be a bit tamer (though Easter has snuck in there at the end this year). It can also be something of a dull month, stuck in between seasons, without much to break it up. Which makes it prime territory for setting some writing goals and mixing up your routine.

As with December, I plan to challenge you all to write every single day, even if just for fifteen minutes. But there will be plenty of opportunities to stretch yourselves beyond basic output, allowing you to customize the challenge to fit your individual goals and aspirations. This will also provide writers used to producing daily to participate at their own level and, I hope, find some fresh inspiration.

So, spread the word, and don’t forget to drop by tomorrow for all the fun challenge details. In the meantime, happy writing!

Retread, Rehash, Rejuvenate

question-markWe seem to be in a particularly vicious cultural cycle, right now, where our books and television shows and films busily retread familiar territory. If one comic book movie does well, then by all means, let’s make several more per year. A young adult series featuring a love triangle with a paranormal twist hits the bestseller lists? Then let’s publish more of those. And of course, we all know that if a stand-alone does well, a series will do that much better. Better still, let’s remake something that succeeded years ago, or in another format. Hit musical? Make it a film. Popular TV show? Get those tie-in novels out onto the shelves. Everything from titles to cover art to marketing campaigns play off of each other, trying to capitalize on a wave of success.

This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. After all, we saw an awful lot of space adventures in the wake of Star Wars, and a huge rise in boarding school adventure stories following the success of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Artistic and entertainment industries struggle endlessly between commerce and creativity, the desire to succeed and sustain themselves warring with the need to be original and produce something fresh. At the end of the day, the corporate entities behind the entertainers — publishers, film studios, television and cable networks, etc. — need some measure of financial success in order to survive. And so, they revert to what has worked in the past, hoping to mine a trend for all it’s worth and to wring every possible dollar out of the public’s interest in the latest popular story. They believe they are serving two masters, giving the public what it obviously wants, while keeping an eye on their own bottom line.

But are they giving the public what they want? Do we really want to see new versions of the same old stories, or endless sequels of the biggest blockbusters? Our own behavior says we do. Not exclusively, of course. People enjoy surprises, after all, so new stories in whatever format can always catch our attention, assuming they are well done. But what is it with the repetition? Why are we so welcoming to the familiar, whether it’s new adventures with old friends in a serial or the same story delivered in a new way?

Some would say we have no choice, that there are only so many stories in the world, and each new book or film or television show simply finds a way to shine a new light on what has been there for centuries. I wrote early last year about this limited-plot idea, and there’s a great deal of truth in the theory that, when broken down, all stories fall into one of just a few categories. We gravitate toward the stories we know, looking to learn something new each time, to discover hidden depths or gain fresh insight into what appears to be familiar ground. There’s something visceral about encountering many of these stories, the best of which include archetypal characters recognized the world over. We want to travel with the hero or heroine on their impossible quest, fall in love with the romantic couple, sacrifice for the greater good. The trappings can change, to a greater or lesser extent, but the heart of the story will still focus on that emotional link to the audience.

How does this affect you as a writer? Should you write your own version of the latest popular story? And if so, how does this jive with the common warning not to write to the market?

typingThere’s a vast difference between writing to the market and adapting or rejuvenating a classically popular story. Writing to the market involves analyzing current trends and producing something that slots in perfectly, and the trouble with this approach is that it is nearly impossible to write something good to trend in a short enough time span. Keep in mind that most books hitting the shelves have been in production for more than a year, and editors purchased those stories a good two years ago. To purchase similar works today, they would need to have faith in a trend continuing for another two years, and that’s assuming your manuscript is written and ready to shop. This makes writing to trend a risky proposition.

The reason you see so many similar books in the wake of a hit is that quite often, many people are already writing on a similar topic. There’s a weird sort of synchronicity in entertainment, as if the ideas are floating in the air and various writers have been infected all at the same time. This is how we get two asteroid movies in one year, or a lot of vampire books within months of each other. Yes, if the trend continues, there will be some people who produce similar works because of it, but there’s no predicting the staying power of a trend.

Writing your own adaptation or retelling of a popular story, however, offers much more room for creativity and can veer as close to or as far from a trend as you wish. Adapted fairy tales are the current rage, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid them as source material. How closely you stick to the original story framework or bury the bones, so to speak, is entirely up to you. A story can strongly resemble its inspiration or the original can all but vanish into your rejuvenated tale. Use the most basic plot points or embellish every detail you can squeeze from the classic. Delve into children’s stories, myths and fables, religious tales, or eighteenth century novels. We’ve seen a fair number of Jane Austen retreads in recent years, but what about the Brontes? Dickens? And of course there’s always Shakespeare.

Just for fun, come up with an idea for an adaptation of your own. Whether or not you follow through with the writing is up to you. But choose a story, and then determine what you’d change and what you’d keep. Would you modernize the setting? Alter the sex of the characters? Make a child’s story more adult? Or transform an adult tale into something suitable for younger readers? Maybe you want to come up with more than one way you could adapt the original. How different can you make it? How would you make it yours?

If you’re interested in more thoughts on adaptations and retellings, the folks at Writing Excuses have an excellent podcast on the subject.

What do you think about adaptations and retellings? Do they intrigue you as a reader? A writer? Or would you rather read something entirely new (in as much as that’s possible)?

Friday Links

We’ve made it to Friday, once again. I hope you all had an excellent week, getting plenty of writing time in amongst all your other tasks. Any exciting plans for the weekend? I’m dropping by to help at a friend’s tag sale, and maybe tuning in to watch the Oscars on Sunday, depending how much work I can squeeze in between the two. And just maybe I’ll crack open a book with a cover.

But first, I bring you this week’s Friday Links. I hope they keep you entertained on this run up to the weekend, or give you something interesting to check out in the next few days. Have a terrific weekend, and happy writing!

U.S. Regulators Approve Random House Merger with Penguin – An update on the status of the merger between these two major houses.

2012 Nebula Award Nominees – A great list of this year’s finalists. Congrats to all!

How to Write While Managing a Full-Time Job – Some practical tips from Chuck Sambuchino.

A Special Post on LetterMo – One writer’s take on how Letter Month is helping her with her craft.

A Multiplicity of Voice: On the Polyphonic Novel – A great look at the form and some recent examples, at The Millions.

The Forest for the Trees: Fitting Goals into the Big Picture

There are ten days remaining in February, which makes it a good time to check in with your writing goals and see how you’re progressing. Are you on track to accomplish what you’ve set out to do this month? Do you need to devote a little more time to your writing over the next week and a half? Or perhaps you need to start thinking about tweaking your goals as a result of unforeseen distractions that have put you off schedule. You might even be ahead of where you thought you’d be, in which case, yay for you!

However, today I want to talk about the big picture, rather than the smaller details that are your individual goals. There’s a great deal to be said for focusing on tiny pieces of the puzzle, the steps that eventually bring you to the next level of your writing career, but try to remember that these goals are just that — stages in the process. Professional writers write and revise, they get agents and/or editors, publish and publicize. They experience ups and downs, just as unpublished writers do; they face periods where no one seems interested in what they want to write, of rejection or sluggish sales; published writers find themselves dropped by their publishers, their books remaindered. For every writer who experiences the joys of landing on a best-seller list, there are many more who simply plug away, book after book, with decent but unremarkable sales. In some instances they reinvent themselves, switching genres or adopting pen names to revitalize their careers.

A writing career can best be likened to a long, grueling marathon, one with hills and valleys, where the runner cycles through energy and exhaustion, over and over again. Sometimes you’ll be sprinting way ahead of the pack, making great strides, pushing through all of the milestones you’ve been aiming for, and at other times it will feel like you’re climbing the steepest mountain, the peak nowhere in sight.

The important thing to remember is that whatever your obstacles, whatever might be standing between you and your next goal, you need to pace yourself and just keep going. If life has been uncommonly busy and you’ve missed hitting a goal or two, take a step back and look at what you want to achieve in the long term. Pick out the path you need to take, and then continue onward. If you need three more months to revise your manuscript than you initially planned on, don’t despair. Three months is a tiny percentage of your writing career, and time well spent if you’re making your book better. Be disciplined, but be flexible. Jog, don’t sprint. Keep one eye on the ground beneath your feet, and the other on the horizon, and remember why you’re making the journey. Good luck, and happy writing!

Giveaway Winners!

WildInvitation_smallThanks to everyone who entered the drawing for the two ARCs of Nalini Singh‘s WILD INVITATION! We had more than 400 entries.

Without further ado, I’m happy to announce that the randomly chosen winners are LISA O’BRIEN and AZTECLADY. Please watch your inboxes for information on how to claim your ARCs. I’ll be contacting you shortly.

Keep an eye on the blog for more fun giveaways in the coming months, along with book chat, writing tips, etc. Happy writing, everyone!

Friday Links

Happy Friday, everyone! I hope you’re all ready for a lovely weekend of reading, writing, and perhaps a little bit of leftover Valentine’s romance. Don’t forget to checkout this week’s ARC giveaway, which runs until Monday, February 18th. In the meantime, I offer you some entertaining and educational links. Enjoy!

17 Essays by Female Writers that Everyone Should Read – A nice assortment courtesy of Flavorwire.

My Brain Is a Jerk – YA author Laini Taylor on writing and perfectionism.

British Newspaper Archive – Researching English events of the past couple of centuries? Check out this great resource.

A League of Ordinary Gentlemen: A Conversation with Julian Barnes – The author chats (in spite of himself) with The Millions.


A Little Bookish Love

WildInvitation_smallHappy Valentine’s Day, book lovers! I have a wonderful giveaway in honor of the day. For all you lovers of romance, I’m happy to announce I have two Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) of Nalini Singh‘s WILD INVITATION, her collection of Psy/Changeling novellas including TWO brand new stories, which does not hit bookstores until March.

Would you like the chance to win one of these ARCs? Simply leave a comment here on the thread between now and Monday, February 18th, 2013, at 12:00 noon PST. I’ll drop by then and choose two winners at random.

One comment per person, please. Also, if you have not commented on this site before, your comment will be held for approval. I’ll be at a conference through Sunday, and there may be a delay in my pushing through comments, so please rest assured that I will get to them as soon as I can.

ETA: This giveaway is now closed. Winners posted separately above. Thanks to everyone who entered!

Down-and-Dirty Query Letters

No one can write your query letter for you. You may be tempted to ask a friend, or to look online for some sort of query service to take the burden off your shoulders, but at the end of the day, you as the author need to suck it up and write the query yourself.

All of the things that make you nervous about writing the query are the very reasons why you need to do it. The query letter introduces you to an agent or editor, and provides them with the first idea of your writing skills and style. It sells someone on the potential of your story, sinks the hook and reels them in, making them anxious to read your manuscript. And beyond that, it can be an indicator of your professionalism and your personality, of the sort of person you are and whether the agent or editor will be able to work with you.

All of which can feel like a lot of pressure, I know. So here are a few things to keep in mind when you sit down to write your query letter.

Be sure to include:

  • Your full name and contact information.
  • Title, completed length, and genre of your project, for fiction; title, projected length, and subject, for nonfiction proposals.
  • Pertinent personal information, which includes any links between your life and your subject matter (such as, your book is set in Cairo and you lived there for a year, or your protagonist is paramedic and you have similar training, etc.), platform for nonfiction projects (career details, blogs, lectures you’ve given, expertise, etc.), previous publications, and contest wins.
  • Project pitch.
  • Why you believe this project might be appropriate for this agent/editor.
  • Status of your submission process, including whether any other agents have requested partials/full manuscripts.

In addition, it’s nice to add one or two stand-out personal facts that hint at who you are beyond your resume, such as what you do in your spare time, if you grew up in some interesting spot, have an intriguing day job, etc. It’s not required, but it humanizes the correspondence and you might just hit on something you have in common with the agent or editor.

Things to leave out:

  • Apologies for having no previous publications/contest wins, etc. Everyone starts somewhere. If you don’t have any of these to include, just don’t mention the subject at all.
  • Discussion of how you’ve dreamed of being a writer since childhood, an explanation of how many unpublished books you have in the drawer, the names and ages of your children, a dedication to your spouse for enabling you to take the time to write, etc.
  • Pitches for additional projects. If you have other works completed, you can mention the fact and even the genres, but don’t pitch multiple projects in a single query letter.
  • Promises that the project being queried will be the next New York Times bestseller, make a million dollars, change civilization as we know it, etc.

When it comes to writing your actual pitch, make sure to include specific details rather than providing a generic description. What makes your story different from others in your genre? Name the characters and locations, mention some of the steps leading toward the climax, and be sure to state the protagonist’s goal/journey/ambition. If you can also write using the tone of your book, do so. Pitch a comic novel with a humorous tone, fantasy with more epic language, etc. This does not mean you need to pitch it in the voice of your protagonist, just that you should keep the sound of the book — its emotions, level of formality, pacing — in mind.

Avoid mistakes that flag you as careless or unprofessional, including:

  • Sending the identical query to a list of agents as a mass email, with all of their addresses listed in the cc: field, or as an obvious blind copy addressed to yourself. Take the time to personalize the query and email agents individually.
  • Failing to follow submission guidelines. Make sure you check the agency’s site for how they wish to receive queries.
  • Addressing the agent by the incorrect honorific. Take the time to look them up and ascertain if you should use Mr. or Ms.
  • Claiming to include an SASE in an electronic query.

Treat your query with the same care you would your actual manuscript. Take some time to write it, then set it aside for a couple of days before going back to revise. Run spell check. Try reading the query out loud to catch missing words or awkward phrasing, and have your critique partner read it over, as well. Take a professional approach to your query, remembering that while it’s an important tool in your quest for publication, it is also just another piece of writing, and writing is your job. Good luck!


Friday Links

Happy Friday! I hope you’ve all had an enjoyable week and have some excellent plans for the weekend — including a bit of writing time perhaps? Regardless, I’m glad to offer up this week’s collection of Friday Links for your perusal. Enjoy!

How Writers and Readers Can Use Twitter’s Vine – Twitter’s new means of posting short online videos.

Urbex Photography by Rene Vermunt – Some fabulous inspirational shots for anyone looking for some writing prompt material.

Max Sebald’s Writing Tips – Some great tips and thoughts from the late writer.

English Literature’s 50 Key Moments from Marlowe to J.K. Rowling – Interesting list, whether or not you agree with all the choices.

Locus Online’s 2012 Recommended Reading List – The magazine’s annual listing of the previous year’s best in SFF.

Checking in on Your Goals

Who made writing goals for the month of January? Who fell short of those goals? While it can be far easier to keep to task when you set yourself small goals each month of the year (instead of those major year-long resolutions), that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily accomplish everything on your list. So here we are in February, with a new month’s worth of goals to strive toward, and the added burden of a few items lingering from January. What to do?

Cut yourself a break. No one’s perfect, and life has a habit of getting in the way. I had a huge list of things I aspired to accomplish in January, wanting to ride the wave of that post-new year enthusiasm. Unfortunately, I calculated without the nasty cold that ate a good half of the month, sending me into coughing fits that left me needing a nap, and cutting back severely on how much energy I had to tackle my to-do list. Not everything is within your control, and while you may have procrastinated here and there on some of your goals, the chances are good that other obligations also popped up and required your attention. That’s always going to be the case, and it’s best to just adapt your plan and move on.

So how do you get back on track? Reassess, and try to be realistic while you do so. It’s no good to simply shoe-horn your leftover goals for January in with your February goals and try to catch up that way. February is already a short month, and the chances are good you’ll get frustrated and further behind. Instead, look at what you failed to finish in January and determine if any of February’s goals hinged on those. For instance, if you intended to submit queries in February but never quite finished honing your query letter like you planned in January, it’s pretty clear which of those tasks need to be accomplished first. You might hate the idea of waiting to submit your magnus opus, but without a strong query letter, your efforts will be for nothing, so accept that those queries might go out in March instead, and put your attention back on the letter itself.

Prioritize. Which of your February goals are most important to you? Can some, or some part of one, get delayed more easily than others? If you have a contest deadline looming, polishing that project might take priority over starting something new. Look at the big picture and not just the month ahead. If you owe a manuscript to your editor in May and you’ve got three months of work in order to complete it, that’s not where you want to steal your time.

Focus on what you can control. It’s wonderful to plan to finish a novel and revise it this month, but you won’t truly know the extent of the revisions necessary until after you’ve written that final chapter. Maybe you’ll end up with a clean manuscript that needs minor tweaking, and maybe you’ll decide to rework the entire center of the book. With goals that are dependent on outside factors, it sometimes helps to approach the task differently; plan to spend two hours each day on your book revisions until they’re complete, rather than setting a deadline for the revisions themselves. On the other hand, if the book is contracted, you will have a deadline for those revisions, and you’ll need to rework other areas of your schedule to adapt.

Remember that you set the goals to begin with, and only you can determine how and when they are met. If new opportunities arise, if you’re sick and can’t focus to write, if surprise house guests descend and throw your schedule out of whack… it’s all right. It’s important to be committed to those things you wish to achieve, but the balance between goals and everyday life is entirely up to you. Good luck with all of your aspirations, and happy writing!