I have to take a moment and thank John Lawson for doing something wholly unexpected when he inadvertently pointed me toward an old blog of mine that I haven’t updated in years. Out of curiosity (and a little whoa, that still exists), I hopped on over there to see what was there.
The third post on the front page was “Emmie’s Everest.” It was about goals. And as I read it, I started feeling…well. A wee bit blubbery. My throat did that close up thing, my eyes started stinging, my lip started feeling loose on its hinge. Because I wrote the post three years ago, and reading through it, I discovered that many of the goals in it? I’ve met.
I’m going to go through them here.
Who do I want to be as a writer? As Forrest Gump might say, “Aren’t I going to be me?” Well, yes. Essentially, I’m not aiming to be the next Stephen King or Jo Rowling or Stephenie Meyeror “the next” anyone. I want to pave my own way and establish my own niche in my market.
I know that’s a cop-out answer. I hope this one is a little better: I want to be a best-selling urban fantasy author who turns out new books, each better than the ones that came before them. I want a writing career where I am always striving to be better, bolder, and unique.
This remains the same — though for me, I’ve kind of sloughed off the “urban” qualifier in favour of SFF in general. I want to explore new worlds and tell human stories through the lens of magic, the supernatural, technology, and science.
Who do I want to reach? I want to reach the lovers of magic and the supernatural. People who love vampires and shapeshifters and twists on our world. People who love human stories in the midst of all that. My ideal audience is people who love the grittiness of Buffy — or Twilight fans after some of the glitter has worn off the vampires. People who aren’t afraid to get down and dirty and like their sweet with a touch of bitter.
Ain’t nothin’ changed here. I don’t usually write the HEA. (Happily Ever After) Much as I can respect it, I like the complexity of a bittersweet ending and the sense that an ending is the start of something else. I aim to leave my readers satisfied, even if they’ve got a lump in their throats.
What is my definition of success? I will consider myself successful when I can amply provide for myself and my family by the sole means of my writing. When I can quit my day job and still have wiggle room after the squeak of the bills grinds to a halt, I’ll know I got there.
Here’s one of the biggies.
A month from today, I’m leaving my day job behind. That’s not to say it’s forever; it might not be. But my books are consistently earning me enough to support me. I don’t have kids, and I have relatively few expenses. This was the one that made me stare. By my own definition, I have found success.
A big fear I have — an ongoing, pervasive, insidious fear — is of having my accomplishments taken away. I had it happen last year when my books got orphaned after so much struggle to place them. But three and a half years ago, I wrote this definition of success and happened to stumble across it today after all that time, while I have a countdown to my last day of work right in front of me. No one can take that away.
Where do I want to be in three years? In three years, I want to have a book somewhere on the New York Times or Amazon.com bestseller lists. I want to be planning a migration to Scotland and maybe thinking of building our home. Maybe even thinking of spawning some little Emmies.
Well…NYT bestselling is still a long way away for me (if it ever happens), but…all three of my books are tromping around Amazon’s genre bestseller lists. It’s not Twilight numbers, but as I mentioned above, it’s allowing me to quit my day job and live comfortably. And Scotland? After California, that’s my next stop. My final destination. Nine US states is enough. I know where I’m off to next. (As for the little Emmies…that ain’t happening after all. I’d considered it for a long time as something I was Supposed To Do. I don’t think that way anymore.)
Where do I want to be in five years? In five years, I would like my family to be ensconced in our home in Scotland with a charming husky and a fluffy orange cat that meows a lot. I want to spend my days writing in my library and continuing to hone my craft. I’d like to have filled another passport up with stamps from all over the world.
I’d also like to have met an elephant by then.
Two years from now, hmm. I hope I’m at least preparing for my move to Scotland. The husky happened (though she remains with my now-ex husband, and I miss her a lot a lot), and so did the fluffy orange cat who meows a lot. I also have my brown tabby who meows even more. Two years from now, I do want that passport. I want my writing cave. The writing cave thing? That’s happening in 43 days.
I’m having a tough time writing this without crying (happy tears). I’ve spent the last few years working very very hard.
That elephant thing is still a huge priority. Must meet elephant.
In TEN YEARS?! Ten years from now, I’d like to be done popping out kids so I can make my husband get a vasectomy and stop having to deal with foreign hormones clogging up my body. I want to write every day. I want to teach my children to love books and that they can be whoever they want to be. I want to show them the world. I want to share what I have with others and give back as much as possible. Some dreams I have in that sense are to make hefty donations to cancer research (I’ve lost several loved ones to that cursed disease), to Eve Ensler‘s heroic work for V-Day to stop violence against women, and to find some little girls that remind me of myself and make some of their dreams come true.
Again with no kids, and as a sidebar, my ex had agreed that a vasectomy was in the cards when we were done (I’d never MAKE someone do something to their body like that). Anyway, it’s moot now, since…childfree and all. The rest of that? Still relevant. Seven years from now I hope I’m making a difference and doing what I love for a living. Giving back.
What kind of income do I want to make? I would love to have enough to build our dream home (which, by the way, is NOT 10,000 square feet, nor does it have a pool or any columns or more than 5 bedrooms or any other such nonsense), pay off all my debt (including the debt of my immediate family, of which there is quite a lot), and make the aforementioned hefty donations as possible. I don’t care about millions per year. One thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of never having enough of it is that money does not buy “happiness,” but it can alleviate a great deal of stress and improve quality of life. I want my children to have more than I did, but still to know the value of their own work and to take joy in earning something for themselves. I don’t have a specific number of how much money I want to make, just that I want to be able to pay for the things I value: family, books (ha), travel, and causes that matter to me.
By “our” dream home, I think I meant mine. I don’t think it was ever my ex’s dream. Which is fine; he has is own dreams. One of the reasons we didn’t work out is because those dreams weren’t the same. A big part of that was kids. Another part was Scotland. That’s where I’m headed eventually.
I still want to build that home of mine. I still don’t care about millions; I just want to know that my needs are met, my kitties are happy, and my debts are paid off. Anything more than that, I’ll try to steward as best I can while allowing myself to enjoy it as well. I don’t aspire to extravagance.
That is my Everest. Right now I’m at base camp, starting the trek. Took a long time to get prepared for even this leg of the journey, now I’m about to begin my ascent.
Three years down. Funny timing, looking back on this now.
I wrote a long post on subjectivity and craft here for our last Blog and Vlog if you fancy checking it out.
Craft is one of those things that feels like magic when it’s done right, and when it’s not, it feels like you keep shaking that Harry Potter wand you bought at Universal Studios and all it does is frighten your cat.
Find a book you really love and read the first chapter out loud. You’ll hear the rise and fall of words, the cadence of the lines, rhetorical devices you never heard before. (I just used one — asyndeton, which is omitting conjunctions between three or more phrases or list items.)
You might notice alliteration and similes and assonance. (That’s another rhetorical device — polysyndeton, inserting conjunctions between each item in a list.)
Those are elements of craft that, when done seamlessly, will affect you without you stopping to point them out like I just did. 😛
Other elements are dialogue, setting, internalization, tension, emotion, action, and more. Margie Lawson has a nifty color-coded system for training your brain to see those things on paper and how they fit together (and if one is outweighing the others).
I like to think of common usages in three different levels: cliché, trope, and genre convention.
Clichés are done at the sentence level. Margie Lawson says (and I agree) that if a percentage of readers could fill in the missing word in a sentence, you should find a different word. Clichés can also be twisted.
“He looked like a cat that had gotten into the _____.”
I mean, you know I’m going to say cream.
“He might as well have been licking cream from his whiskers.”
That’s a twist on a cliché — we know the cliché itself so well that it evokes the feeling we want while giving a reader something fresh.
One I used in SHRIKE: THE MASKED SONGBIRD was also cat-related and of similar connotation, but I twisted it.
Instead of “he looked like a cat that had gotten the canary” (these clichés often include alliteration, if you notice that), I said “he looked ready to belch canary feathers at any moment.” Or something close to it.
If you must use clichés, try to splash some cold water on them to freshen them up.
Tropesare often done on a chapter or scene level. This could be a damsel-in-distress trope, or a woman in refrigerators trope. The noble savage trope. The “magical Negro” trope. The everyman saves the day trope. There are heaps of them listed at TVTropes, which is a great resource. Tropes are, in many ways, part of consumer expectation. Some tropes have been done so much that they have become clichéd in themselves (I’ve mentioned fridged women as one of them for me). They can be used effectively, but there needs to be an awareness of how they’ve been done before when you want to use them again.
Also, understanding how tropes may portray marginalized people in a stereotypical light is a good thing; there are certainly some tropes out there that do exactly that.
Genre conventions are at book or series level, and they are the underpinning of how books get shelved in one section or another. If you’ve got armies and political machinations in space, you’ll probably be in military science fiction. If you’ve got a second world with magic of some kind and a wide scope, epic fantasy. A love story that focuses on two characters overcoming obstacles to finally be together, romance.
Craft ends up being the overarching tapestry of words (the threads), elements of the story (the colors), genre conventions (the pattern), and voice (how it all fits together). It takes a lot of learning and practice to get those things to all work for you, but again, I say just keep swimming.
A little bit ago, my wonderful agent Sara Megibow was tweeting about subjectivity in publishing, and since this is something I’ve thought about a LOT, I thought I’d try to unpack it a bit myself.
I can look back on the first novel I ever really started and say clearly that the craft aspects weren’t there. There were good moments, and there were some strong lines. There were also terrible cliches and clunky structure and a lot of other things that objectively needed improvement.
I’ve never read the full slushpile, in the sense that agents do, but I read a LOT of queries from new writers, both on fora around the interwebz and people who ask me to look at theirs. It’s fairly common to see people voicing frustration that a query/first few pages don’t really get into the story, but in the number of queries and opening pages I’ve read, even I can see that that’s actually not as true as you might think. You can often tell from the pages or query what you’ll see in the rest of a manuscript. Sometimes that’s easily quantifiable in terms of sentence construction, character development, worldbuilding, or basic conventions of writing. Sometimes it’s more nebulous. The style or tone, etc.
But when agents say they can tell from a query or the first five pages of a manuscript if it’s for them or not, they aren’t being jerks — they read enough to have learned through thousands of case studies that if they see something in those introductory words that doesn’t work, it will almost inevitably continue throughout the manuscript.
So let’s break down this whole subjectivity thing, shall we? When rejections come in, most of the time they are really polite and use language like, “not for me,” or “another agent might feel differently.”
I think these comments can be sort of split into two categories (which will probably compound many sets of neuroses, and for that I’m sorry).
1. Actual subjectivity (This writing is awesome, but the book is — too close to something on my list; not a genre I’m looking for right now; something I would struggle to sell; just not the fit I really need right now; not the tone I am going for right now; one of my clients is working on something similar <– insert one of the above). In these cases, the book could very well go on to do AMAZINGLY! But it needs a champion who clicks with it.
2. Not…so…subjective craft concerns. This is the toughie, because ain’t nobody want to hear that their writing isn’t submission ready. I have heard those words many-a-time, and it is not so much of the funsies. But agents don’t have the time to break this down 99% of the time and unpack it for authors who are in their slushpile. They just don’t. Even if they were to say, “The writing just isn’t quite there yet,” that would open them up to authors responding with, “WELL WHY? TELL ME WHAT TO DO.”
So. Craft concerns. What does that mean when the writing isn’t quite there?
Lots of things. LOTS. It could mean stilty dialogue or incomprehensible worldbuilding. Structural issues. Pacing issues. Repetitive sentence structure. Too many fragments. (See what I did there?) Cliches, either in the writing or the subject.
That part is not really that subjective. Some people may enjoy fragments (though likely in moderation). Others might hate them with a fiery flamey thing. To an extent, you can look at a page of writing and say, “This is great craft” even if it’s not your favorite flavor of it. You can also look at a page of writing that IS your favorite flavor and think it’s not well constructed and they went overboard on the salt.
Agents aren’t going to tell you those things because they just flat don’t have time. Agenting for their existing clients is their more-than-full time job. Reading the slush is something they do in the free time they don’t have. They can’t give each of the hundreds of writers whose work they pass on each month a thoughtful and useful critique of the work they’re not signing.
The craft aspect isn’t always easily quantifiable. But one of the reasons the opening pages are so telling is that they do something immensely important: they establish. When they do that well, they immerse. There have been books that stole me away from the first line. There have been others that took me a hundred pages to feel at home in. I think sometimes this sense of immersion is conflated with action — getting to the action immediately — when to me it’s a combination of worldbuilding and tension. Some sort of disturbance in the protagonist’s world, and making that world something we can slip seamlessly into.
Reading a lot in and out of genre can help with this. A disturbance doesn’t have to be finding a dead body or having someone shoot at you. It can be as simple as this: “When Mary came home at eleven at night, the porch light was not on as it should have been.”
Now. That’s a disturbance because we have no idea why the porch light might not be on. It could be that her partner is always home by then and turns it on for her. It could be that the bulb is burnt out. It could be that her partner got home, but passed out from her migraine meds and didn’t flip the switch before they kicked in. Or it could be that something is wrong — really wrong.
A disturbance is, essentially, twofold. It establishes the world (the porch light is always on at eleven at night when Mary comes home) AND disturbs that world in one sentence. It’s also showing instead of telling. Telling would be, “When Mary came home at eleven at night, the porch light wasn’t on. Her partner always left the porch light on, but tonight it wasn’t.” See how that sort of…double taps the mystery of it?
(Also now I kind of want to write that story. 😛 If anyone else wants to write a bit of flash and post it in the comments with that line as the starter, I wouldn’t say no to reading them.)
From both my experience and what I’ve heard from agents when those first pages don’t draw them in, it can usually be chalked up to just that — a lack of that disturbance. A disturbance forms questions in the reader’s mind — and readers want those questions answered. Those questions are what make someone want to read more.
For the vlog section of today’s Blog and Vlog, I’m talking about understanding category and genre, and how the interplay between genre conventions and tropes is something authors need to take into account. WHEE!
I’ve kind of been in book squee mode the last couple days, but I wanted to share something with you all.
Many or most of you know how hard 2014 was for me. Between an ending marriage, moving, financial issues that almost left me with nowhere to go and no car, changing jobs, some really heavy family stuff, and what happened with my book deals, it was one of the most trying years of my life. I felt so beaten down at the end of it. I felt like each time I tried to get up, I got kicked back down. That’s a pretty shitty way to feel.
I’ve been watching Storm’s numbers all month, because I knew at some point it would pass 1000 sales. For trade publishing, that doesn’t seem like a lot. But for me, I felt really proud knowing it would hit that point because A: I don’t know 1000 people, and B: it felt like a measurable benchmark, like …I dunno. A toddler going poo-poo in the big kid potty for the first time. (Yes, I just compared publishing with potty training…forgive me.)
Storm’s already flown past its February numbers for March, and I knew it’d hit that 1000 number for Amazon alone within a week, and counting other sales from other places slightly sooner…
…but then I remembered something. When I asked for help in December (to this day one of the hardest things I’ve ever done), I said that anyone who gave more than $10 would get a copy of Storm early. No one gave less than that amount. One person gave $50 and wrote in the notes, “One book, please. ” If I count those 80 people in (and I think they deserve to be counted), Storm has already sold over 1000 copies.
It doesn’t feel anti-climactic, not being able to watch that number click over. It feels sort of quiet and present, like a hug when you really need one. Like everything I’ve done from the moment I started writing a terrible epic fantasy at age 17 until now (7 full length novels and 3 novellas later) slowly moved me somewhere even when I felt like I was running in place. And last year, in 2014, believe me. I felt like I was wearing buttered ballet shoes and trying to win a 100 meter dash on an ice rink.
I made dis.
I really, really, really didn’t do it alone. I don’t know what I would have done without this community — without all of you and your kindness and support. You’ve all hung out with me when I was drafting like a madwoman or querying and wanting to yank my hair out or flailingly excited or deeply, deeply sad. Thanks for being people I want to write for, and friends I’m thankful to have.
So. It’s been a really long time since I’ve felt anything resembling optimism about my career’s future. I feel like I did a thing, and that I’m moving forward. Seeing Storm selling so well almost 2 months after release makes me feel many things. I’m very proud and grateful and hopeful and ready to double down and work even harder.
Thank you all for hanging around through all of this. <3
As of writing this, here’s where Storm is ranking…its highest rank ever.
SO! My latest full frontal assault on the query trenches made me want to do a thing. This is that thing. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be trying to help fledgling writers grow their feathers to the point where they don’t fall into the lightning sand traps of the Query Trenches and get eaten by ROUSes.
That’s the Fire Swamp.
Pretty much the same thing.
Anyway! I’m not saying I have the chops to impart ALL THE WISDOM, but as a three time vet of the query trenches, I at least have a lot of experience with the slushy slushy slushpile, and I’d like to help YOU not get lost in it. Ideally to come out of the other side with an agent, and not just Prince Humperdinck.