Wednesday, April 24, 2013

One Hour with an Agent

I've been quiet for a while, and when I'm quiet that means I'm means I'm nervous.

This might be news for some of you, but a little over a week ago I got the amazing opportunity to Skype chat with an agent!

Short version: I won a blog contest sponsored by Authoress. The Tiny Agent contest. There were twelve photographs of various agents as younglings.
I love pictures. I'm a picture fanatic - not taking them, but looking at them. You are looking at a moment never to be re-created ever again. The feelings, the face, every single thing about that exact moment is unique. I'll spare you more in depth commentary than that; suffice it to say pictures are one of the most magical things ever invented in my opinion.

I only guessed on three agent photographs. They were the three that I already followed on Twitter.

The next day the winners were posted, and I hopped on over to see who won. Keep in mind, that I didn't enter the contest to win anything; I just thought it was a fun game - and I love photographs. Besides, I only guessed on three out of twelve.
Imagine my surprise when MY name was on the list of winners...

I e-mailed the Anonymous Authoress to claim my prize, and a few hours later I had a Skype chat scheduled with Agent A.
If you recall my previous blog post, The Prince of Purple Prose Tries to Abdicate the Throne, I mentioned Agents A, B, and C.
This agent was Agent A.
From my perspective we had already met, and now the universe has conspired to embarrass me further by causing me to heckle someone who has already told me "No".

I seriously considered declining. If only for a moment. Not necessarily declining, but maybe not claiming my prize. After all, someone else was more deserving; I already had my chance.

But then I realized how Not-Often such a thing happens - not to mention how Not-Often I win something - so we scheduled the Skype session, and I spent the next day and a half panicking.

I woke up Friday morning at 7am (our chat wasn't for another two hours) I spent an hour and fifteen minutes performing every single one of my morning ablutions as if this were someone I had been romatically courting for sometime and this was the "third date". I must say, I looked as flawless as I possibly could.

Every curl was in place, eyebrows perfectly tweezed, it was even the inaugural wearing of my Malificent tee from I was so ready...
9:01 arrives and I see the smiling face of Agent A, and I hear their voice.
(Sidenote: I could write a whole entry on voices; how I think they are just as unique as a fingerprint, and how absolutely thrilling I find hearing the speaking voice of someone whose texts/tweets/blogs you read on a daily basis is.)
Agent A  broke the ice beautifully. When I'm in control of a situation I find charm and general conversation easy; when I'm the lowly one in a conversation I am entirely lost for words. I got to say "Good morning" and stammered out a couple of questions, and they took off with polite conversation.
About 6 minutes in they asked, "Can you see me?"
I replied in the affirmitave.
"Hm. Okay. Well, I can't see you..." they said.
My heart literally stopped beating for approximately 3 seconds.

I still don't know what happened. But in the next few minutes after they hung up and called back trying to assist me in getting it to work (Oh the torture! You don't even understand the embarrassment!) my internet dropped completely and the call was lost. When they called back we were both completely without video, and basically we carried on the rest of the conversation while I stared, nodded, and made Colten-Phone-Faces at the computer screen.

We spent an hour on the phone. Some ice-breaking, and the two minutes of "Can you see me now?" Hell; then we segued into the thing that I was too nervous to talk about, but the thing that an Agent and an aspiring author should talk about - my book.

"Actually," I began, "I believe you've already had an introduction to my work..."

We shared a laugh, and Agent A began to peruse a re-vamped version of my query I'd sent prior to our conversation.

Now here's where you other pre-published authors pay attention...

Agent A noted the ages of my characters. Bianca and Scarlett are 12 when the story begins, but approximately halfway through the book they turn 13. It's an important event within the story.
"This is Middle Grade, not Young Adult," says Agent A.

My heart sank.
See, I don't think I have what I would consider a MG voice. That's been one of my woes in categorizing my story in my queries. At some points the writing is...dark. The narration expresses character thoughts and emotions that I commonly read in YA but rarely see in MG. Hence my uncertainty regarding voice. I couldn't have been wrong all this time could I?

Agent A explains that given the borderline ages of the characters it may be categorized as Upper MG Fantasy - allowing for darker moments, but publishers are now (moreso than ever before) more stringent in regards to categories as a result of the flooded market.
"Readers, especially younger readers, tend to read about characters that are older than they are," Agent A explained. "So if you're characters are twelve/thirteen then you can expect nine, ten, eleven year olds to be the ones reading your book."
My mind exploded in that moment. Common sense! How had I not recognized this before? I was the 9 year old reading about teenagers. Middle grade doesn't mean your characters are necessarily Middle means your readers are!

Next big thing:
"You've noted that it's the first part of a series," Agent A observed. "Be careful. Some agents balk when they see the word 'series'. Ultimately, not to sound harsh, but it isn't necessarily you who decides if your book is a series. It's your sales. You can plan or hope for a series, but realize that book one needs to stand on its own because if it doesn't sell then your publisher will not want book two."

This is something I had already considered (thank goodness). Bianca and Scarlett's first adventure does stand alone (it lays A LOT of groundwork - but it stands alone).
I've noticed a few writers on Twitter with itchy writing fingers. They don't have an agent, they've been looking for a while, and their querying while writing the next five novels in their space opera. I always backed away from that kind of behavior (sometimes my best-friend Kim would have to pull me back). This is a business. It's best not to forget it. And writing a page of book two before someone tells you book one is worthy of being on a shelf at a bookstore is presumptuous at best, and utter foolishness at the worst.

Finally...the thing that has been the bane of my writing existence since day one.......

"Whoa!" Agent A said when they saw my word count. "96,000 words is too long for Middle Grade...It's rare to find a Middle Grade over 70,000 words."

In truth, Agent A isn't the only agent with that opinion...Agent Kristin Nelson also comments on word count here.

But I had a plan. See I took out the over-writing, but now with this news my mind instantly flew to a character who I had been considering removing from the manuscript since January. Agent A's advice just convinced me to write this person out of existence. ...Truthfully, I didn't mourn the character - he was kindof an ass.

"I can fix that," I replied with assurance.

There was uncertainty in Agent A's tone: "You can cut 25,000 words? That's over a quarter of your manuscript."

"There's a character that needs to go," I replied, "and other things that can be moved to future books if it's allowed to be a series."

"Well if you think you can..." Agent A replied.

"Consider it done," I promised.

A few minutes later our conversation came to a close, and I was invited to use Agent A's first name. (It took all of my reserve not to squeal)

.....Later that day one of my CPs and I traded manuscripts. In getting to know him I definitely trust his critique - a trust that has exponentially increased since getting to read his work. I wanted to wait until he had a chance to review my MS before making any changes. I didn't tell him at first how many words I was looking at cutting, or which character I'm looking to do away with (he still doesn't know that). I wanted an unbiased critique. I wanted to see if he naturally came to the same conclusion I on and so forth.
In the meantime, I've been writing up all of my CP critiques. I've finished reading all the MSs, all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. In looking at other's work with a critical eye my mind always travels back to my own work, and what it is missing. I get the first one sent out tomorrow, and the next ones will follow as I finish writing them.
Now, when the time comes and I get my critiques back (I hunger for that day) I can dive in with a machete in each hand. What was once a wild jungle, became a fenced-in preserve, then a cultured forest, and now it must be transformed into a stately garden - with only the best, most appealing flowers and trees on display. 

Now, do not misunderstand, fellow writers. These 25,000 words aren't going to go quietly, even with removing a supporting character and moving a few to Possibly Someday. Those people don't get much screen time anyway. They're important to how the story is written now. They add an interesting dimension to the world, but ultimately the story (at least book one) can be told without them.
I'm truly worried at losing less that what I intend to lose.
When I take out X characters I still have to accomplish the same purposes that those characters served by giving Oliver, Scott, Mrs. Hamilton, and Vanessa bigger roles than they already have, but doing it in such a way that it doesn't add words.
 I'm going to have to experiment and play with what must come and go, but I do know that the more words, scenes and characters that end up on the cutting room floor will mean that only the most necessary elements of my story remain - and shine.
It's definitely going to take work.

But that's all I needed. If someone had said straight out of the gate months ago: your word count should be ____, and your book is categorized as _____; I could have already been done.
We can research until our eyeballs bleed, but even Agent A stressed that guidelines like this are exactly that - Guidelines. This is a subjective industry, and as a result there isn't a magical formula that you can follow for landing an agent, or publishing a novel. But I'm a person who works best with deadlines and guidelines. So this nudge in the right direction was all I needed.
What about you?
What are some little known facts you've come across in your research or experience?
I hope someone out there found this helpful; let me know if you did!

Until we meet again...

Friday, April 12, 2013

What the World Needs Now...(and always)

I'm about to be more sincere than I like to be with total strangers...

Tonight before I wrote this blog I watched Disney's Pocahontas. If you follow me on Twitter you know that me watching such a thing isn't terribly unusual - often I live-tweet, and unabashedly admit that I'm singing/dancing along.
Pocahontas is special though; it falls in that family of films - there are a handful - that never fail to make me think: "If I were to go back in time and show this to people of (the approrpiate time period) then they could see their foolishness and maybe change hearts and minds. They would be profoundly altered for the better!"
This may be a naive thought, but I believe it with my whole heart.

As I was watching Pocahontas I was regularly checking Twitter, and the wonderful agent Eric Ruben Re-Tweeted NBC's @BreakingNews:

"Poll: majority of Americans support same-sex marriage with 53 poll respondents favoring it..."

The link to the article was attached.
I retweeted of course; it's a small, but wonderful accomplishment to celebrate.
The tweet however wasn't what caught my eye.
It was the first - and at the time of this blog Only - response to the tweet by a woman who (in this blog) will remain anonymous:

"@BreakingNews @NBCnews majority of americans were not polled. I don't support gay marriage and was not polled"

This really and truly hurt my feelings.  That may sound childish, or it may not carry the vehement disgust that some of you may believe it merits. In truth, the words of this stranger did not make me angry. I was not outraged, or taken aback; I was simply hurt.

I'm half-black.
One hundred years ago I would have been looked down upon (and in some parts of the world for some people that viewpoint hasn't changed). Certain human rights would have been denied me because of how I was born.
I feel so fortunate to be born as a child of the 80's who didn't have to suffer the animosity and struggle during the Civil Rights movement of the 60's.
But here I am, free. I attended school with all white children (almost without incident), I made exceptional grades, obtained a scholarship to a University I loved, and I now am a working adult who makes enough money to pay his bills and buy enough books on the side to keep me entertained and inspired.

But I can't marry the man I sleep next to every night. The Law (in my state) says I can't marry him.

I haven't followed the story of the man who was pulled from his partner's hospital bedside. I've seen the headline on twitter. Such stories make me sick to my stomach, angry at humanity, and at the end of it all I feel almost as powerless as I do right now.

It makes me angry because it makes me afraid. What if L (my partner, my love, my -in spirit- husband) got in a car wreck on his way home from work? He has no family to speak of - what happens then? Who will watch over him and care for him if not me?

That woman (who responded to the tweet), and people like her do not care who will visit my Love in the hospital in an emergent situation. They do not care that I will be taking care of that hospital bill. They do not care that when I crawl into bed every night that I sleep next to someone whose love has transformed me into a greater human being. They don't care that after two and a half years of kissing him I still get butterflies, how much of a cuddle-bug he is, or how my world becomes complete when he laughs.

I am being denied the right of marriage because of how I was born.
I will not get into this debate with anyone. Simply accept from before the time I could vocalize my feelings I was attracted to men. It is not a choice.

Pocahontas, Aida, The Help, Schindler's List...I could go on with the myriad of films and plays that demonize predjudice, preach against racism, and demonstrate the consequences of such thinking.

It is time for homosexuals to have their own "Uncle Tom's Cabin"; their own "Pocahontas"...

The challenge is a phenomenal one. The malice behind homophobia is far more insidious than any other in recent history. It has settled into the hearts of men and women; it has made it personal for each and every man and woman regardless of sexuality.
From what I have seen homophobia is fostered by the lie that if you agree that "gay is okay" then somewhere inside you must not only approve but also long to participate in that activity.

Homosexuals and their advocates have looked within themselves, and accepted whatever truth that rests there. They have found a certain kind of peace regarding themselves that defies description. The introspection and the (even momentary) uncertainty that allows for such a truth to be discerned is what terrifies a homophobic mind in my opinion.

What story can break that hold? What story can be told that makes them "see the light"? I don't believe it is simply a Love Story that we can tell - it must be more than that - a Love Story yes, but one for the ages.
Homosexuality among women generally isn't frowned upon - so long as it is strictly sexual. Men have enjoyed fantasies, films, and magazines depicting two women physically enjoying one another since time immemorial.
It is the Love that terrifies them, not the sex. So our story must then go beyond Love; or perhaps guide others toward a greater understanding of it.

The enemy is always the same. It has never changed; it simply wears a different suit of armor, and wields a different weapon.

Our enemy is Ignorance and his child, Fear.

I could go on, but I feel as if I've said too much.
I wrote this calling out to You. You - the one who read this and thought of that perfect story. The one that will write "Uncle Bruce's Fire Island Cabin" (I jest, but you know what I mean). We need something definitive. We need true Art crafted to break barriers, open minds, and change hearts.
I hope you're reading this.
I don't want my best friend's great-grandchildren watching a film 100 years from now and think "If I could have just gone back to 2013 and shown this to them then there wouldn't be any need for all of that arguing!"  

To the rest of you with me here in the trenches remember that this battle needs to be fought with Love, Kindness, and Respect.
Never forget our enemy is willful Ignorance. We must be patient and persistent with delivering Knowledge. That is the only way we will dispel the fear.

Love is the only permanent solution to hate.

Until we meet again...

Saturday, April 6, 2013

"It's Always Best to Start at the Beginning..."

For those of you who know me well, you'll know that the title of this post is a quote from my favorite movie as well as being a simply stated truth.

It's a quote from this lovely woman:

Every so often on Twitter an agent will comment about a book shouldn't start with your main character eating breakfast, looking in a mirror, waking up, etc...

Basically, if it's something that doesn't move the story immediately forward then the reader doesn't need to read it. Since the reader is human, and the character is (most likely) human then we all understand a morning routine, and if your character's morning routine is the same as everyone else's then move on. I know Dorothy probably woke up and brushed her teeth and fixed her hair in the mirror - that didn't get her to Oz any faster, and none of us wondered about what she had for breakfast.

However if you google "Literary Agent Pet Peeves" this offense inevitably is on the list. If you're reading this, then you probably know not to open with breakfast, or any other mundane task (unless the character's routine in is some way unusual and gives us a sense of setting).
If the book is written in first person then you know it's totally cheating to have them look in a mirror and describe themselves. If it were a game of Monopoly it'd be like you starting with $2,000 instead of the standard $1,500.

***An instance a mirror description worked well is in Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT, but that was because it was unusual for someone raised like Tris to look in a mirror. It provided setting, world-building, and also Tris's simultaneous pleasure and discomfort when she saw her reflection gave us a sense of character foreshadowing. If you're going to do it, then that is how it should be done.***

Enough of the obvious. If you've somehow found this blog then you already know - Start with the Action!
The proper starting point was something I had a very difficult time finding in my manuscript. See, like you, going in I knew all the basics, and what Not to do. There is a hidden formula in my mind though for revealing a fantasy world that you not only escape to, but also somewhere in your heart believe exists. For me it has to be gradual. A colorful cocktail instead of a shot - that illustration is crude, but accurate. Some people like to start with shots, then maintain a buzz with a beverage of their choice through the night. I like to sit, sip my colorful drink, and then when I get up from my chair I realize that my legs don't function quite as gracefully as they usually do. I like my stories told the same way - to change my perceptions without leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.

Often an agent or editor will voice their distaste for prologues. This was a stumbling block for me as well. My book has a prologue. The inciting incident that makes my girls who they are happens when they are infants. Nothing that advances the story occurs within the intervening 13 years, but that inciting incident has to be there because the only other participant in the Very Beginning is now dead.

So how do you know where to start your story?

First, you have to know what kind of story it is you want to tell. Your Voice and your characters will help you determine where to start.
But don't waste a word. Words are precious. You might be trying to write a sweeping epic with a million twists, turns, and nuances. You want to break every barrier, trope, and cliche and spin it on its head. Do it! But don't waste our time; don't water down our drink.
Some agents may think you're watering it down, and you won't get the chance to tell them "No, no! That's a special ingredient you won't feel until it kicks in around book 4."
That's fine. As long and your not beating around the bush, and you know you're not then that's totally fine. Some people like shots, that's all. Your agent will say, "Hmm. This tastes good, but it could use a little of this..." or "This is the best drink I've had in a while; got any more?"

It's all in the beginning.
Nothing hamfisted, nothing that's been done a thousand times over, but also nothing that weighs you down.
I tried deliberately slowing down the fantasy reveal in my manuscript. I thought it was all too much too soon. Thus the first several drafts were hilariously (dangerously) overwritten. Trust your story, trust yourself, and start where you know it starts; not where you want it to, or where you think it should. Trust that part of you that wants to cut loose and dive headfirst into all of your awesome!
Then find a CP; after that find a Beta the time the dust settles you'll have something worthy of an agent's attention.

Until we meet again...