Look Ma, I Can Write

Starting in January, I began entering literary agent Janet Reid’s flash fiction contests that she holds on some Fridays. Partially because I’d been reading her blog for months, and partially because it’s good practice. In flash fiction, especially the uber-sparse 100 word kind that she hosts, efficiency with words is key. Doing some flash fiction now and then will help me learn how to spend my words wisely.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that an agent is judging them, and if I put something magnificent together, I get some reactionary words (or even compliments) from her. I live off reactions to my writing. Even if people don’t like it, I just want to know someone read it and felt something. (Preferably not “it’s a good thing you’re pretty,” but I’ll take what I can get.)

Given that many participants have been entering these contests for years on her blog, the competition is fierce with a capital yikes. The first time I entered, I nearly didn’t. I started reading the other entries and almost scared myself away.

Then, my second entry was a finalist. I think I sprained my cheeks that week.

This week, I got a mention. She often does at least a handful of these, where she doesn’t put the entry on the long or short list for winner, but something struck her about the entry, and she says so.

I’ve decided that I’d like to collect these accomplishments here on my blog and share the entries that are well-crafted enough to catch a sharp-toothed agent’s eye.

The link in the date is the original contest, with all the entries in the comments, and the link in what I achieved (finalist, etc) is the results entry.

1/15/2016
prompt words: scat, bop, diddy, cool, snap

“You’re such a scat.”

“Stop saying that. It doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

“It’s short for scaredy cat.”

“It’s really not.”

“Then what’s it—?”

“Shh.”

“That’s her ringtone.”

“She listens to P Diddy? Never mind.”

“We are a-go. Hashtag boob operation.”

“Sometimes, I wonder why we’re friends.”

“Wait, shit, my phone makes a noise when I snap a photo. What if she hears it?”

“Run. Okay, ready?”

“Ow!”

“Shh!”

“You’re on my foot! Okay. Shhh…. Got it! …Oh gross. Where’s the brain bleach?”

“What?”

“Not cool. This is not a drill!”

“Gimme that. …Oh. Oh God. DAD?!”

finalist
Janet’s comment

What I love about this is you’re not really sure what’s going on, but you can feel the energy roll off this story. This is verve and voice.

(If anyone’s curious, it’s a couple boys trying to take naked pictures of one’s sister and getting one of Dad instead.)

2/19/2016
prompt words: tank, chest, tray, sure, smith

When I was five, my parents called me “princess,” and I thought I could be anything.

When I was ten, I stole my mother’s makeup because I wanted to be pretty, too.

When I was fifteen, I wore tank tops to school and got detention because my chest was “distracting.”

When I was twenty, I was pressured out of shop class because I wasn’t strong enough to be a smith.

Now I’m twenty-five, my boss hands me a tray–“Get to work, princess.”–and I know I’m nothing.

mention
Janet’s comment

Not quite a story, but that sure didn’t stop it from breaking my heart

Edit: In case anyone else was curious about why the second one isn’t a story (I know I was!), I got some clarification from Janet later:
Of course this is good writing so I looked at it very carefully. I like the rhythm of it. I like the progression. I love the open and close “princess” lines.  But it’s not a story because it’s a series of events. To be a story, it needs some sort of what I call a twist: something unexpected that sheds new light or interpretation on what we’ve read. “my boss hands me a tray” and says “get to work princess” and I discover I’m strong enough (bringing in the last line) to wrap my tank top around his neck and rein him in. (which is godawful writing, sorry, but you see the point I’m making.)

The entries that are “not quite a story” are usually very very good writing and it just kills me to see that lack of twist. This one is a perfect example of that.

I personally disagree with her, but this is a great example of the subjectivity of this medium. I think it’s a flash tragedy while she thinks it lacks a twist to make it complete. There is no right answer. To me it’s one thing, to her it’s another. As frustrating as that might be, it’s the reality of art of any kind.

Not to compare myself to Van Gogh, but at the time, people barely considered his paintings “art” at all, and now he’s one of the greatest artists in all of history. The people at the time weren’t wrong, that was just what it was to them, and it’s something different to us.

PitchWars Aftermath

It took me a few days to sit down to write my reaction post to the end because, well, I dove right into work once it was over.

I feel great. Obviously, not as amazing as if I had a mentor, but not crushed. Not even hurt. I read the adult section of the list, felt a little disappointed (but not that stomach-dropping, skin-chilling devastation that I’ve had when getting rejections before), then read it again, more carefully, to see if any of my new friends had gotten picked.

That was it.

I saw someone I’d connected with as a possible CP Tweet about getting down to work, and I jumped right on that. We swapped emails within hours of the decision going out, and I had something to critique that same day from another CP. I contacted everyone I’d talked about CPing with to touch base, and I set myself daily goals: critique at least one chapter (if I have one in my inbox that day), write new WIP or edit PW MS for at least one hour, and study Japanese vocabulary. I know, one of these things is not like the others, but it still matters.

So, I’ve been busy since the announcement came out! One mentor who requested my MS sent me some encouraging feedback, and I’m waiting on some more from others kind enough to send to those they didn’t request from. I also won a free query critique from SWS, and promptly stopped retweeting their offers, so as not to hog them.

I’d go into what I learned from PitchWars, but it’d be a boring list of too many things to bother people with reading. Craft tricks were the least of them. The most surprising thing I realized, though, is that not writing in isolation is more inspiring.

Mostly because I didn’t have success forming a writing community before PitchWars, I’ve always written mostly in a vacuum. The exceptions being when I wrote in other fandoms–then I’d be surrounded by others writing HP fanfiction, or others roleplaying in Pern. But never for my own, original work. Now, I get to show people my work who will actually talk to me about it. Not sputter nervously about how they liked it, or shrug that they don’t know what more to say other than that it was good, but really talk to me. “This line was great.” “What are you getting at here?” “This scene is going nowhere.”

More than that, I’m reading their work. Talking to them about it. I’m reading more than I have in years. I’ll be honest–it’s hard for a book to draw me in if I pick them randomly off the shelf. I prefer going off recommendations. Friends whose artistic taste I trust liked this, so let’s give it a shot. Lately, I’d been trying to reread some of my favorites and getting … bored. I needed something new, but didn’t really know that was the problem. Now, I’m reading mentor books, I’m reading books represented by agents I’m researching, I’m reading the work of my peers to edit it. And the writing and editing my own work is coming easier.

In a nutshell, I’d say PitchWars changed my writing life. Not just that, but got me to sit down and reevaluate where my life is as a whole. I won’t go into details here, but I’d been floundering a bit with work. I realized while thinking about how happy and driven I was during the contest that I needed to refocus my priorities from where they’d been. I might end up actually moving back to the States when this year’s contract is up, or I might recontract for a fourth year, but I don’t know yet, and that’s okay. I have half a year to decide. Half a year full of writing and editing and critiquing and querying and possibly contests. Who knows where I’ll be by January.

I intended to write this as a reflection post that maybe other people could relate to, but it ended up being more about my specific situation. I’m not sure how many people shared my reaction, anyway. I don’t blame anyone for being anywhere on the spectrum from disappointed to crushed. Hell, I fully expected to be there, too. I expected to cry ugly tears at school and be stuck in the bathroom until I could figure out how the hell to pretend to be normal again. I expected to be okay after a few days of hiding in Supernatural and ruining popcorn because I sat down and forgot it was in the microwave for an hour. The last thing I expected my reaction to be was, “Oh well. Hey, who else is on here?”

I’m thrilled that it was, though. That bodes really well for future rejections from agents. My first submission of a novel to anyone, I didn’t make it in, and I was completely fine with it. The only thing better I could’ve asked for was for all the stars to line up and to get everything I wanted on the first try. Can’t blame a girl for hoping.

Nothing is settled yet with CPs. Feedback from a few mentors still in the wings. The aftermath of PitchWars hasn’t settled yet, but I feel good. I hope everyone else settles down into a good place, too, no matter how bad the fall from the announcement was. Do what you gotta do, and hope to see you with the other PW Determined Writers soon.

Why I can’t wait for an edit letter

I’ve spent my writing career chasing the elusive creature that is an Honest Critique.

There have been glimpses. An honest opinion or two about how the story progresses, a throwaway, “I didn’t like this part,” in among the praise. I’ve tried to wheedle more opinions out of my readers, only to hear that they’re “not good” at critiquing, or (worse) they don’t want to hurt my feelings. Which is worse because then you know they have things that they think could be fixed, but they won’t tell you no matter what you say.

Readers might not think much about how the story is put together except as far as what they liked or didn’t. Other writers might have been burned in the past, lost a writer friend to their honest opinion. That makes me mad every time I hear about it. It gives writers looking for help improving their stories a bad name. It makes, “I want your honest opinion,” into such an overblown trap that it has the comedic potential of, “Does this dress make me look fat?” You can’t convince them of your sincerity until you react to their opinion, and you can’t react until they give it to you. But they won’t. And I can’t even blame them.

At the beginning of this month, I had exactly two writer friends I could work with. One is my alpha reader and “whiteboard”–she lets me bounce ideas off her because talking to myself only takes me so far. The other is my beta reader, and the only person to give me decent critiques over a whole manuscript. Her strengths lie in line editing and pointing out where things don’t make much sense, but overall building blocks of the story haven’t seen much commentary. Does the plot work, are there holes, how’s the pacing, are the characters distinct and complex, is this scene even necessary, there should be another scene here, etc., none of that gets much attention. Great for final polish, but not much for finding the places that need an overhaul.

I’m still learning how to revise. I’ve finished four novels to date, but only extensively revised one. The one I submitted to PitchWars, the one I’m now hoping to get at least brief notes from mentors for, and at best get to spend two months working on with someone who will see me through the edit letter. Honestly, I would’ve dived into this contest with the same enthusiasm even if there wasn’t an agent round. When I first heard of it, I got so excited by everything else in the explanatory blog post that I missed the one line about how there’s an “agent round”.

A published author will work with me on revising my manuscript? Sign me up!

Oh, agents will look at the pitch afterward? Even better!

I was all set to take my revised manuscript and query it starting in November. Probably do that, anyway, because even if I don’t get picked for the coveted 101 mentee slots (*strokes Twitter* That’s right, precious mentor, favorite my tweets about my MS, favorite them all, love me and my writing…), I’ve found some CPs (critique partners) to work with, anyway. I’ve also learned a lot about what to look for when polishing an MS, and I know that at least one of the mentors I submitted to is planning to send out feedback to everyone who submitted to them. More are willing to send feedback to anyone who asks–and oh, I will ask.

I will covet every scrap of feedback I get. I will read the emails, pout over things I disagree with, let the critique hurt, then do absolutely nothing with the feedback until I’ve had at least one night’s sleep. Then, I’ll read them again. And find how the suggestions fit into how I see my story. How to make them mine. Where they fill in chunks that needed it, and where they add something new I hadn’t expected–and whether I like the addition or not. If possible, I’ll probably have questions and clarification. I think best when words are coming out of my brain instead of percolating inside it, which means dissecting a critique with the person who gave it, if they’re willing. If I like something but don’t know how to fit it into the story, I’ll possibly explain some framework that doesn’t actually appear in the book, but which still creates the context in which the story happens.

After carefully sorting the feedback into what I want to apply and what I don’t, after clarification, I’ll finally buckle down and change things.

And I can’t wait.

On Facebook, I belong to a group that discusses Doctor Who. We made it a private group, invitation-based, so that we could discuss spoilers without all of our walls erupting into riots. I’m a critiquer. I pull things apart and think about them, see how they work and how they don’t. I’m cultivating that reaction all the more so that if I can recognize it in other works, hopefully I can avoid such mistakes in my own.

One of the first threads we had in that group, someone jumped into the discussion of what we saw as the flaws of the episode and ripped us all a new one. He couldn’t stand that we were talking about what the show had done wrong, what it wasn’t good at, when none of us had accomplished anything near as amazing. He condemned us for sitting back and ripping apart someone else’s hard work rather than making our own. He couldn’t see how loving something and criticizing it could exist together. If you criticized it, you must not love it.

love Doctor Who. I’ve devoured every DVD of the classic series that I could get my hands on. I’ve written silly fanfiction, and spent hours and hours discussing the merits of each different companion and Doctor. I’ve never met a Doctor I didn’t like (yes, even the generally despised Six), although I’ve met plenty of companions I can’t stand (yes, even the generally adored Rose).

I wouldn’t put so much effort into picking apart every episode if I didn’t love it. I wouldn’t spend so much time on it if I didn’t love it. If I hated it as much as my criticism seems to suggest, I wouldn’t watch it. There are better ways to spend my time.

So, yes, the edit letter is going to hurt. Of course it will. We don’t call it ripping up for nothing. Those are wounds to my precious book baby. But they come from a place of love. Too much time goes into those letters for them to be worth it if there wasn’t passion, and that’s what I want going into my MS: passion.

The Contest Helps

PitchWars is my first foray into any type of writing contest. I haven’t even begun the process of querying for agents. I’ve sat alone with my book babies or given them to friends to read, maybe put excerpts up on forums for critique from time to time. I speak from a position of someone who has never had to wait in the industry, just from personal endeavors.

Outside the industry, though, I have waited. I live in Japan now, as an assistant teacher in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. It’s a temporary job you can only keep for a max of five years, via renewable one year contracts, and they only hire once a year. I decided in college that I wanted to pursue this job, and applied the first opportunity I got: the fall after graduation.

I didn’t even get an interview.

I deceived myself thoroughly at first. Maybe I’d just mistyped my ID number and not found it on the list. Maybe the email inviting me had gotten lost in my spam folder. Maybe the list was wrong, and I would get an email in the next few days. When all those failed, I had to admit that they weren’t wrong: I was.

My friends and family were encouraging after the first rejection. They encouraged me to look at alternate ways to get the job I wanted–but all the options didn’t look as good. I decided to try again next year, and in the meantime, I worked whatever menial job I could get. At the time: a grocery store.

The next year, I didn’t get an interview again.

My support network started crumbling at this point. I’d wasted a year and a half trying to get this job. Why not make a new goal? If no other program will do, it could be time to accept that staying in limbo hoping for one job isn’t the right choice. This is hurting you so much, maybe it isn’t worth it.

Oh, but to me, it was.

Besides, I’d applied to jobs I actually wanted and didn’t get any of those. The jobs I took just to pay my loan bills ate away at me until I couldn’t even pursue my favorite thing: writing. I had no energy. I couldn’t even do anything about getting that job except one time a year, and I couldn’t find out anything about what I’d done wrong, why they hadn’t wanted me. Policy dictated they would give zero feedback on why they’d passed on an application. I had to guess and cross my fingers and try again.

The third year, I told my mother I was waking up in the middle of the night by the email dings from my phone.
“Why don’t you turn it off so you can get some sleep?”
“It could be JET, though, you don’t know!”
She thought I was nuts.

I found some resources the third year that I hadn’t had the previous two and polished the application to a gleam I didn’t know I had. Almost without exception in my life, if I can get to the interview stage, I can get a job. I just don’t look shiny on paper. My resume is unimpressive because what makes me impressive doesn’t go on resumes.

Applied in October. Heard about interview in February. Heard I’d been picked in April. Heard where I was going in May. Finally left at the very end of July. Almost three years after the first time I’d applied.

So, I don’t know about waits in the publishing industry from personal experience. Just what people tell me. But I know about sending everything you have and getting silence. I know about watching the date, waiting to hear, down to watching the second and timing when the office would be closed and no more news would come that day. I know about trying to distract myself, but ending up checking and rechecking the date every day, hoping it had magically come closer to that time when News would come.

It’s been a week or so. I haven’t counted because it’s practically insignificant. Do I want to hear? Absolutely. I’ll be obsessing over the internet all day on Sept 2nd even though I know I live half a day into the future from the US, and it’d still be Sept 1st for most everyone else. I read the mentors’ Tweets, parsing through the hints to see if they could be about mine, even if the mentors don’t even read my age category! I’m working on a new manuscript, watching Supernatural, making new friends, but I think about little else but PitchWars. Of course I’m obsessed with knowing.

It’s only been a week or so. PitchWars offers a lot more than an answer. With getting my job, it was either yes or no. I’d either fly across the world and live among the rainbows of my dreams, or I’d be stuck in the grocery store for another year. (Or the bakery. Or the restaurant. I was in job-hopping hell those three years.)

PitchWars is swimming in the kiddie pool with all my favorite people. The company’s great, there’s no risk of drowning, and everyone gets a turn.

The goals of PitchWars are: to meet people in the industry, improve your manuscript, and get the best product possible in front of agents. Getting accepted as a mentee accomplishes all those things, of course, but every one of us has already gotten all of those things. What’s more: with five mentors and many promising to give as much feedback to everyone as possible, you’re almost guaranteed to get some feedback. Feedback is what got us all into throwing our MSs into the ring. There’s an agent round, but you don’t get to the agent round without going through the feedback. If you could put your MS in front of agents now, you’re sent along your merry way by the mentors. Go forth and conquer, they’ll say, as they accept someone else who needs them.

Giving up so soon? Haven’t heard any requests for more pages from your mentors? They might already know. Or they passed the sub on to someone else who would fall in love with it. Or it’s just not right for them, but they have some great feedback to send you on your way. Some of them are even talking about offering to CP for some that they can’t mentor due to time restraints. Sure, no agent round, but the agent round is the icing–you still get the cake! Take that cake, and eat it while querying; okay, that metaphor broke down.

I’m not a success story yet. I haven’t been down this road and come out shiny and all the better for it. I’m not a mentor trying to keep spirits up. This is just the way I’m approaching PitchWars, as a hopeful mentee myself starting my foray into publishing. Waiting a week is nothing. Two weeks, little more. Giving up is like getting angry at the trolls. If you feel like doing it, step away from the internet. Read a good book–perhaps a mentor’s book?–and keep your phone close in case your email dings. Wake up in the middle of the night to them, if it makes you feel better. I know it did for me. But the most important emails, those will be on Sept 2nd, whether they’re yes or no. Because those emails might have information about your MS that you hopefully find valuable. If they don’t, it can’t hurt to ask your mentors for some–most are open to it if asked. And use this to make your MS better, then dive at the agents yourself.

We don’t need a contest. The contest just helps.