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.
Something crazy happened to me this month, guys. And it’s certainly something that has never happened before. If you missed the news before, I am now represented by the amazing Sara Megibow of KT Literary!
The something crazy is that I started querying this month and ended up with seven offers of representation before signing with Sara, and I want to tell you about it, not because I feel like tooting my own horn, but because honestly, it was really effin’ scary and I want to demystify it a little in case you find yourself in that (enviable/freakishly terrifying/oh-my-dog-what-do-I-do-they-are-all-looking-at-me/*breathes into paper bag*/WHAT IS HAPPENING/HALP) situation in the future.
Me, IRL, three weeks and five offers in. Jk, I only WISH I were that hot.
And those who are thinking, “Oh, pobrecita…*plays tiny violin*”….well. I hope this happens to you. I really do! Because A: finding the right fit agent is important, and B: because I want to sit back and eat popcorn while someone not me goes through it. #sadist
(My wonderful former agent, Jes Negrón, has left the business for personal reasons, and I’m going to make it 100% clear to all of you right now that there are no hard feelings and she is one of my best friends, so….any ill will toward her will be greeted with fisticuffs.)
Jes told me she was leaving in early January, and my manuscript of the epic I was working on was only half done. Needless to say, I hopped into my harness, fired up the jet pack, hit the warp drive, and finished that shit in two weeks. I wrote an atrocious number of words, guys. One weekend I wrote 45,000 of them. Why. Slap me with a carp the next time I try to carpe that particular diem.
I was super floored and flattered to almost immediately receive a preemptive offer of rep from a fabulous agent. She told me to query widely and take my time, which…I mean, wow.
Going into querying after two years of decidedly NOT thinking about that year I spent in the trenches was…unfun even knowing it would have a timestamp from the start, though. Querying makes me a madwoman. The idea of doing it again was less than appealing.
Scratch that. I was terrified. The book I was querying was the book of my soul. I’d written it HELLA fast. I loved that book and feared it, even though it got stamps of approval from my betas within days of them getting their paws on it. (It’s also a beast at 140K and around 700 pages.)
On February 4 when I sent out my entire batch of 37 queries in one night, I had about 150+ rejections to my name from the past three years. From face to face pitches to queries to submissions to editors, I’d heard the word no enough times to kind of get desensitized to it. Subjectivity, yadda yadda. And I didn’t REALLY expect this time around to be any different.
I fired off queries (Thanks — BIG THANKS — to feedback from Spike Cordiner, EC Myers, Lyra Selene, and Bosom Buffalo Kristin McFarland, I had one that I thought wasn’t too insane). I’d already queued them up in my drafts folder, researched and personalized and ready to go except for whatever additional material they needed — I had synopses of various lengths and the full manuscript open in Word on my computer as I worked) like a little….query submachine gun. (I’d much rather be on the receiving end of a query than a bullet, and I wouldn’t shoot bullets in the direction of people…why did I use that analogy?)
Imagine my shock-face when by the time I was halfway through sending those things, I had two full requests. I sent off the requested material and then kept sending queries. I got another full request. I blinked a bit, because I really wasn’t sure what was happening.
I woke up the next morning to another. Within a couple more hours, there were another two. By the end of February 5, I had 12 full requests, which was officially more than I’d gotten the entire six months I’d spent querying SHRIKE: THE MASKED SONGBIRD. I ended up getting eight more on top of that.
This was a very new experience.
And then the offers started. Within two weeks, I had five. The last week of February, I got two more. I was standing down in a ring with my book, hugging it to my chest, and suddenly people were chucking their hats at me.
And holy shit, was that terrifying.
For the past three years, I was used to the publishing world sort of looking at me and going, “You’re cute, but nah.” Jes was my sole champion on that side of the gate for a long time.
I’d gotten so used to knocking at the door that when suddenly it was flung wide open and there were people LOOKING AT ME with extreme interest, I wanted to run away and hide.
This is the unicorn queriers chase — this whole multiple offers thing. Lemme tell you something: IT IS FRAKKING NERVE WRACKING.
This was my diet for the entire month:
I was hardly sleeping. Way back in junior high when I was being bullied all the time and constantly anxious (especially during lunch times), my upper lip used to swell as a response to the stress. Yeah, it started back up this month.
I don’t drink, but BOY HOWDY DID I EAT. You don’t want to know how much McDonald’s I ate or how many bags I found in my car.
Fourteen. Fourteen McDonald’s bags. I also went to Taco Bell. I eat my stress, yo.
I also ate an entire carton of ice cream. And I think an entire box of wild berry Pop-Tarts over a weekend. And an entire Hawaiian pizza from Domino’s (extra extra extra pineapple) along with an order of buffalo chicken and some spinach feta cheesy bread. Over a WEEKEND.
I gained six pounds back. (I’m honestly amazed that’s all it was.)
This. Month. Was. Hard. People don’t talk about how hard this is. I think because yeah, it’s certainly wonderful to know that a bunch of really freaking amazing humans who are agents want to represent you. That IS wonderful. It’s also really scary because A: they’re wonderful, B: you aren’t allowed to be repped by all of them, C: you have to tell some of them no, and D: we all know it’s a business decision but agenting relationships can last decades and it’s a really huge deal. NO PRESSURE.
I found some blog posts about it, and basically, the moment I saw the one that said something about “not enough gin,” I wanted to wear it like a comfort blankie even though I hate gin and barely drink at all.
But it’s March now! And as I said at the beginning of this post, I signed with the fantabulous Sara Megibow. She is fantabulous. She was ecstatic about my book — and about me. She articulated a clear strategy for selling the book — and for developing my long term career. And she and I totally fangirled over my friend Max Gladstone’s books (hi, Max!), so that was also super fun.
The other agents who offered were ALL absolutely wonderful. Just…amazing people and great at their jobs and their clients all spoke glowingly of them. It’s really hard to tell people no. It sucked a lot. That was not wonderful or delicious. I also had a migraine that day, and I had just finished my last acting class. My face was frozen in this weird rictus that was a combination of absurd glee to be signing with Sara and this macabre grimace of WAH for having to write those emails to the others who I GENUINELY LIKE A LOT and wish many NYT bestsellers upon them. (I coped by eating donuts, a burrito, McDonald’s, bubble tea, and chicken tikka masala with roti and garlic naan and pakora. All in one day. Yep. That happened.)
And to anyone still playing a tiny violin at me right now…well…this is the worst thing I’d ever WISH on a friend. It was really, really stressful to go through…and that whole wishing it on friends thing is one part sadism (I will sit back and eat popcorn, then hand them some coping mechanism of choice) and one part real hope they find great representation.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Agents are pretty damn cool people. They really do want to love your book. They really, really do.
2. Communicate when you have offers. Some will want to know as more roll in. I nudged once when I got the second offer (they all knew going in that I had one on the table) and said something like, “I know agents tend to vary on how many updates they would like at this point, so if you would like to be kept apprised of any additional offers, I am happy to do so.”
3. Talk to clients. Read agency agreements. Hop on PM and look at sales. (It’s month to month, so you can buy a month and bail if necessary, but I’ve found it a worthwhile — and tax deductible — investment.)
4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is a business arrangement, though a nuanced one that often becomes a friendship and CAN span years and even decades. One agent who offered sent me to talk to a client she’d been working with for fifteen years. They have an AMAZING partnership and are both phenomenal people. That’s the dream, folks — and you find it by asking questions to find out if their vision for representing you matches your vision of representation. One book? Whole career? Multiple genres? Hybrid? Trad only? Ask, ask, ask.
5. Reach out to other authors you know who have been through this. (That includes me. You can reach me here if you’re in this sitch — or even if you’re not and just need to talk about the biz.) And read….these….blogs. Seriously, as the hours ticked down and I was approaching Defcon 1 of EVERY POSSIBLE EMOTION EVER, those conversations and those blogs helped me realize that what I was feeling was totally normal. I could be simultaneously totally freaked out and totally grateful for the ability to find an agent who was really right for me. (I would have been honored to sign with any of the agents who offered. They were all top notch professionals in our interactions and all just really cool people.)
Me with each of them, IRL. (I’m Toothless.)
6. Be professional yourself. Be kind. Be gracious. Shit happens at all levels of life and this business — don’t burn bridges.
7. Breathe. A lot. Regularly. Don’t stop doing that.
8. Give yourself a break if you can.
9. Go with your gut AND your head. Seasoned or brand new, big agency or boutique, editorial or not, huge sales or just a few — there are plenty of reasons to ask lots of questions. Your mileage may vary, so find out what attributes are important to you and keep them close. Personality is often part of the gut aspect, so listen to it, but don’t let it overwhelm the rest. You might have offers from several people who fit what you’re looking for. That’s where these things come in handy.
10. It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling.
11. Remember to officially withdraw your query from anyone who hasn’t yet responded. If people with the full don’t respond, send a polite email thanking them for their interest in you and your work and letting them know that because you had promised a decision to X Agent by that day, you had to notify the other agents and make your decision. I had two people who got swamped and didn’t have time to finish/respond, and they replied with very nice emails congratulating me and wishing me well.
12. When it’s over, CELEBRATE.
Okay. Some more real talk, mmmkay? For those of you who are just tuning in and don’t know me from that weirdo angel in the trenchcoat above? HI, I AM EMMIE, AND THIS TYPE OF POST IS NOT NORMAL FOR ME.
Here’s the sitch from each of the times I queried:
The point is…this crazy ring of hats is not without context. To anyone who might feel jealous of what happened for me this month, well, you’re allowed. I certainly felt that way when I saw it happen to others before me. But…remember it has context. I didn’t scribble one manuscript, waltz into the query trenches, and pirouette away with a bunch of offers, scampering into the sunset with a cushy seven figure book deal. Not even close. I thought I was done querying two years ago. I sold three books and had a contract on a fourth. Then all of that went away within three weeks. (Seriously, guys, October freaking sucked.)
This business is not easy. I’ve passed 200 rejections at this point. You hear no a LOT more than you hear yes. At this point, like…almost 100 times more. Sometimes even the yesses fall through for whatever reason. Just. Keep. Swimming.
I’ll be starting a little series soon called Emmie’s Vlog and Blog, in which I help you navigate the query trenches, because frankly, it’s a painful journey and I wanna help. Because after all this, if traditional publishing is where you want to be? I still think querying is a great way to find an agent. Slush works, guys.
Now. You’re all very cute, but I need to go feed my cats.