A Turning Point

It’s hard to believe that it’s been only a month since I received my first cover sketch. A lot of exciting progress has been made since my last post.

 I took another look at my decision not to do a print edition—and changed my mind. It’s been a long time since I last bought a print book, and I guess I was behind the times on how competitive my print edition would be. It wouldn’t be against mass market paperbacks, of course, but it seems the big six (are there still six? lol) have taken to publishing in trade paperback sizes. Some of them are so proud of their books, I can actually beat their price by a significant amount and still not be giving the book away. That realization changed everything.

 I settled on a 6” x 9” size, about 406 pages. I now have my own imprint: Meander Creek Books—I can’t resist a pun! My final edit and proof were already done—or so I thought, but the print interior design presented some unique issues and in the course of resolving them, I made a few more tweaks that I naturally carried over into the ebook edition.

 Now that I’m just waiting on the final cover art, I’ve realized I will be able to release my book much sooner than October 31. I plan on doing a book blog promo tour, so I have to allow about a month for reviewers to read and review my story—which means I ought to be able to release it during the month of August.

 After too many decades of closet writing and revising, it’s thrilling to be working on my story as a book and from a different angle. This is all new, coming up with a cover design, distribution decisions, marketing plans, and all the mundane details of setting up a business—it’s a turning point in my life as personally dramatic as any in one of my stories.

 I’ve paid a price getting here that I can’t continue to pay, and that will require some changes on my part. I love to write stories, but the last three years of intensive work (40 – 60 hours of writing a week on top of a full-time day job) have left me with twenty more pounds I don’t need and the physical conditioning of a coma victim—definitely not a sustainable way of life. So, I need to make more time for family and activity away from the keyboard, ie. cut my writing time down to 30 – 40 hours. Maybe with my first book out, the need to write won’t be so obsessive. I’ve certainly learned a lot of crafting efficiencies over the last three years of writing with critical feedback, and with much of the rest of the series already drafted, I’ll be interested in seeing how long the process will take with Book 2, even if I can keep to a more human work schedule.

 But with the rest of the series gnawing at my subconscious and huge chunks of series details shifting and ker-chunking into place, that may be easier said than done!


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Happy day, it’s time to work on my cover!

I just received my first cover sketch for Legend of the Spider-Prince: Rebel last night—and I just about spontaneously combusted from excitement. My cover artist, Kirsi Salonen, has had a lot on her plate, and I’ve been anxiously waiting for my turn­—and now it’s here!

A cover is critical not only for the first impression it creates with the reader, but also for the role it plays in the life-cycle of a novel. Until there’s cover art, there’s no cover design. There aren’t many reviewers who want an eARC without a cover! The book cover also forms the centerpiece of my web site, provides the raw material to create a header element, and plays a role in promotional giveaways. There are timetables that hinge on the cover reveal—not just the lead time reviewers need for the release in October, but it also needs to be ready when I start my weekly release of chapters in July.

Now, to the uneducated eye, a first sketch is about as exciting as reading the first draft of a story—there’s still work to be done before it’s ready to be seen in public. I’m a better editor than I am a first-draft writer, so my excitement comes from having something tangible to work with, at last. I’ve seen Kirsi’s finished work, and I can see the promise shining through the sketch. Now, the challenge lies in finding the right words to steer the cover’s development to the effect I want. I’m more touchy-feely than visual, so it’s not like micromanaging the details so much as sharing a common vision, so I hope I’m up to the job. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but in this case, it may be more like 11K words—which is how many lead up to the cover’s image in the story.

I know in the traditionally-published world, something like this—being able to pick a cover artist and have a say in what my book looks like from its inception—is a rare privilege even for established authors, and it’s an even rarer privilege to work with an artist whose body of work already resonates with my story. I’m so excited!

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An Epic Journey Begins—Becoming an Independent Author

This was a tough decision for me to make. To me, writing is all about telling a story. Ideally, a writing career would enable me to devote more time to writing stories while still eating regularly and sleeping indoors. The sad reality, however, is that most writers won’t be able to live off their writing alone.

That being the case, my concern initially was, which route to publication would leave me with more time to write? Since independent writers run their whole show, it seemed a no-brainer that going the traditional route to publishing would leave me with more time to write, though going independent would leave me with more control over the final product, from cover to content.

I didn’t question those assumptions until a couple weeks ago. I’d completed the first book in an epic, dark fantasy series and was shopping it to agents, and several things were starting to bother me.

The first issue lay with the sheer number of gatekeepers standing between my book and prospective readers. First there are agents—who might have assistants to triage all the queries received. Many of those agents make a decision on representation based on the query letter rather than the story itself. There’s a considerable difference between a sales letter and a novel, or we’d all be avidly reading our junk mail for entertainment! Even the agents admit that a lot of good writers get overlooked—which tells me that this triage system doesn’t work very well.

Another issue was how hard it was to research agents—only a few of them give interviews, and not surprisingly most of those who do say what they’re looking for is “good writing”—however they privately define it. Duh. But in the process of trying to learn more about the agents, I was struck by how none of these prospective “business partners” were forthcoming on how they agented for their clients—not a single interview with an agent talked about how long they averaged to get a book deal for their clients, how long they tried to get one before giving up, how prompt they were in delivering royalty checks and statements, and who did their auditing and how often. Since the author is the last one paid in this food chain, picking a business partner based on whether they like your writing just didn’t seem a sound way of doing it. I couldn’t help noticing how many agents have moved on to partner their clients in self-publishing books if they couldn’t sell the manuscript to a traditional publisher. An agent has a number of clients to minimize his or her risk of starvation, but authors have all their eggs in one basket, and are essentially making serious decisions in the blind, based on a few phone calls—I may be very much mistaken, but I don’t think clients are invited to inspect an agency’s books before choosing to be represented!

The final blow against traditionally publish my work came when I finally asked the right question.

While I was writing my novel, I thought the question was one of control over the production of the book—covers, etc. Once Book One was finished, however, I realized control over the book wasn’t the issue. The real issue for me was that if I managed to get past all the gatekeepers—after the agent, there’s the editor, the editorial board, the publisher’s marketing and sales force, and the bookstore buyers—the book still has only anywhere from 30-90 days to find its audience and sell well enough, fast enough not to get pulled off the shelves and returned to the publisher. That’s also about how long it takes for a search engine to discover the book’s existence! It’s no secret that publishers don’t do much to promote a book by a new author—I’d be expected to do that myself in my scant spare time. If the first book in my series failed to take off in 90 days, it would be pulled off the shelves and set back, ending the hope of the other books in the series getting published. I couldn’t even self-publish it as a backup plan, because the publisher would own the rights to the book, print and ebook forms.

That was the point where going indie became a no-brainer. After so many years of writing, it’s the only decision that gives me peace of mind. I have already committed myself to writing the series, so there’s plenty of time for me to help it find its audience. No one devotes years of her life to telling a story if she isn’t convinced it’s a story worth telling—and reading.

I look at my bookshelves, real and virtual, and am struck by how few fiction books I’ve actually bought in recent years—and I own thousands (more than I have shelf space to hold). I read the kind of stuff I like to write, and I write the kind of stuff I like to read, and there just hasn’t been much out there for me. (I don’t enjoy books with a cast of thousands, no matter how epic the story.) The last epic series I got excited about and bought was The Queen’s Blade series by indie ebook author T. C. Southwell.

The traditional publishing world is made up of editors and former editors-turned agent who know what the editors are buying—but they haven’t been selling much to me. I have to wonder how many other readers are like me, looking for what we think is a good book.

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Query Letter and New Agents versus Established Agents

As I polished my query letter and synopsis for the umpteenth time this morning, I realized something ironic. I query the best of the established agents in my genre first, of course, but they get to see the least succinct and polished version of them. With every rejection, I go back and look for more ways to improve, find them, rewrite the Q & S and send them out again.

By the time I have a truly compelling query letter and synopsis, all who will be left to receive it will be new agents who have yet to make a name for themselves. They get to see the best of the queries and synopses, while the most reputable agents see the first and worst of them. Not that I sent those puppies out prematurely, it’s just another example of “mountain climbing” (See my post, “Mountain-Climbing,” September 25, 2012.)

It’s an inherent flaw in agents using queries to triage the deluge because writing a sales pitch is very different from writing a novel. Those of us still grappling with the finer points of queries and synopses are “the ones that got away,” and a boon to new agents who end up with the final product.

So, take heart, New Agent, my query’s heading your way.

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Editing my YA fantasy novel has been like climbing a cloud-shrouded mountain–I get to what seems the summit, admire the view, and suddenly I get a glimpse of a better view. New possibilities appear and I’m find I’m not at the summit at all. So I climb a little higher, see the vista, and again I see a view that wasn’t there before. So I keep climbing and climbing. Logically, I should reach a point where more editing does more harm than good, but every time I think I’m at that point, I see something more is needed after just a couple days. My family has heard me proclaim this puppy finished more times than I want to think about.

Sometimes the “improvements” are just cosmetic–typos, awkward phrases, etc. Some are dramatic, like changing the POV from 3rd person, past tense to 1st person, present tense. After that last massive change, I honestly can’t imagine taking this to another level, but if I wait a couple days, I know that view may change. There may turn out to be more mountain to go. Luckily, I know it won’t be long before the clouds part and I know the answer.

Part of this frustrating phenomena is that I am not so much looking for how the story reads, but how it feels. I change the words, but it’s the emotional feeling from those words that is my goal, the emotional experience of the story that is more than plot. It’s not so much that I want to read a book, but that I want to experience it, and I expect that from my own writing, too.

So, here I am, once more checking out the view and wondering if I’m there yet.


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An Unexpected Turn for the Riding Page

Well, I guess it’s about time to write about horses.

Funny thing, ha, ha, but shortly after I started my blog and called it the 3R’s, one of the R’s took a turn for the worse.

My last remaining horse, Circe, started dropping weight. Since she gets fat smelling other horses’ feed, this was a clear sign of something wrong. Not teeth, not worms, not off her feed–the fact that she’s 28 figured rather prominently in my anxiety to get the vet out to look at her.

He diagnosed her from 75 feet away. Heaves. COPD for horses. The last thing I ever expected to hear–she’s a pastured horse and I’ve always associated heaves with clover hay and draft-free barns. It’s an allergic reaction to something in her environment, no telling what. She often has to exhale twice for every breath taken. The vet spotted the characteristic ridge of muscle in her flanks that develops from having to make that extra effort to exhale. A steroid shot gave her some relief.

It means she’s no longer semi-retired but truly grounded, and I’m grounded with her. I’d always figured on including a few good stories from the past on this Riding page, but never that there’d be no new stories to add. This is the first I’ve been able to bring myself to write about it.

I’d meant this to be an upbeat page, but every now and then, life kicks like a mule.

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Fighting for Feedback

I spent my “formative years” as a writer working in a vacuum. When I think of how many decades I’ve spent as a closet writer with no one reading my stuff…well, better late than never.

I’m a fairly prolific writer and I get cranky if I don’t write every day–I’ve mastered the part about planting my butt in a chair with my keyboard and writing, but the one thing that I overlooked for too many years was just how important readers are for a writer, and not just after a book is published.

Getting readers and thoughtful feedback is something that is hardly touched upon in my library of writing books. Certainly it wasn’t addressed in college. My craft has improved tremendously just in the past 12 months that I’ve been having my work critiqued.

I’d actually thought I’d finished my YA novel a little over a year ago (and embarrassingly often since then). I knew I needed feedback from readers who read my genre, so I had a brilliant idea–why not get some young adult-type readers to read the story and give me feedback before I sent my manuscript out into the world. The summer reading group at the library seemed a no-brainer, and they certainly seemed enthusiastic about the idea, but only one of the kids actually read the whole thing. I’d forgotten, these were teenagers, and regardless of their intentions, critiquing a book is too much like homework, which is particularly evil in the summer, when teens would really rather hang out and talk.

During my military years, when giving presentations or reports, we were supposed to “fight for feedback.” I never really appreciated just how much of a fight that was going to be! I found a couple other writers willing to exchange manuscripts with me and do that, but there was no hope of getting a consensus of opinions on what worked and what didn’t and why from so small a pool of feedback. Just as I was about to give up and just send the darn thing out to look for a home, I discovered Critters.org, which is apparently the oldest writers’ workshop on the internet.

Needless to say, my first critiques were a shock.

After all, if I hadn’t thought I’d put my best work into the story, I wouldn’t have been ready to send it out. But the problem with writing without critical, constructive readers is that improvements in writing craft are few and far between.

After the initial shock wore off, I realized how lucky I was not to have sent that puppy off prematurely. No one can critique crafting stories like other writers. Not only can they spot that data dump in the first chapter, but they’ll have useful suggestions on how to deal with it. I learned about maintaining a point of view consistently without drifting into an omniscient POV, how to craft a character with a lot of growing up to do without readers feeling the urge to smack some sense into the kid–there’s a difference between an anti-hero and an unsympathetic character. These are all things I’d read about ad nauseum but, while I could recognize those writing faults in others, I was blind to them in my own writing.

In the course of this past year, what I thought was a good story actually became one. No, I’m not going to play the false modesty card–if I didn’t think it was a good story, I wouldn’t have devoted over seven years to writing it. Over the last two years, I’ve been putting over 40 hours a week into it–on top of a full-time day job. You’ve got to be nuts to pursue something that fervently and then claim, “oh, it’s not much of a story, yadda yadda yadda.” If I don’t believe the story’s worth the effort to tell it well, why am I doing this?

Getting good feedback on what works and what doesn’t work is critical. Only another writer can understand just how urgently I felt the need for that kind of feedback. Every problem a critiquer found was one less reason for an agent or editor to turn it down–but never tell me why. I like it when a critiquer likes the things that work, but my focus is always on the negative–what needs more work. I look forward to plain-spoken critiques, no pussy-footing around problem spots–it’s too easy rationalize those kinds of comments. The reader’s experience is the reader’s experience, for better or worse. A story isn’t going to suit everyone who reads it, and it’s no good pretending it works when it doesn’t.

I can honestly say there isn’t a sentence in this 135,000 word novel that hasn’t been raked over the coals and made to sit up and bark–at least three times. A year ago, I thought hand massaging every sentence, forcing it to justify its existence, would be ridiculous on something that long, but I’ve now done that several times over.

Waiting for feedback is excruciating. Between constantly checking my email and going over points in old critiques, I critique books for others, try to stay moderately current in my genre(s), but I’m still as antsy as a kid on Christmas.

I’m waiting on several critiques, so it’s time to go check my email.

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Going With My Gut

Decisions, decisions. About five months ago, I had some feedback on my YA fantasy novel advising me to delete a couple subplots because they weren’t going to be resolved in Book 1 (it’s part of a series). I resisted the notion because I thought those scenes were really organic to the story, regardless of whether or not they bore fruit in the same book. But I know I sometimes resist good advice, and I was also looking at a manuscript that tipped the scales at about 165K. So I started looking for things to cut and couldn’t help but notice those subplots were eight thousand words I could cut in one fell swoop–so I cut it and polished the rest at a more svelte 122K.

But I felt something important was missing in the middle, but couldn’t put my finger on it until last night, when I thought about resuming work on Book 2 and realized I was dead in the water even worse than I’d thought I’d be when I cut those scenes. It pushed my inciting incident back too far, so I had second thoughts about those 8K words.

The first thing I saw was that they no longer fit where they used to be–I filled in the holes they had left very well–but if I changed the order of introducing the two subplots, they both reinforced adjacent plot points and put back that missing something. So the book sits at 130K, but I finally feel happy with the final manuscript. (Though the typo hunt is still on.)

So today, when I put Book 1 aside (waiting on the last couple pre-readers’ feedback) and started work sketching out the scenes for Book 2 (I’d already written a significant portion of it about a year ago) everything just fell into place beautifully–which it could never have done without that 8K back in Book 1 rather than in Book 2.

So today was really exciting–a complex story like this one can be a bear to wrestle into submission-worthiness. I’ve spent the last two and a half years grappling with Book 1, and it’s a nine book series–I really don’t want to spend the next ten years on just this one series. I’ve got a huge backlog of novels I really want to get through, and at one book a year, I’d be 110 before I got them all finished–assuming that I didn’t have more pop up.

Now, if I can finish two per year, I’ll only be 82.

Yeah, maybe two a year is just a fantasy in itself, but my feeling is that I’ve gotten through the worst of the learning curve, at least for this series. I know I’ll always be learning something new, but now that I know what “done” feels like, I think I can get there faster.

So, what’s my point? That sometimes generally good advice can be all wrong for a given situation. Before this, I’ve been fussing at the manuscript, nibbling away with little edits, changing a word here and a sentence there, never really happy with it; now I’m suddenly at peace with the manuscript. It’s a good feeling, and it never would have happened if I didn’t ultimately trust my gut feeling about what was right for this story.


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Technological Indigestion Leads to Something to Feed “the Beast”

Well, I’ve reached a point with my novel where the only thing really left to do is sit and wait for a couple critiques to come in. I need to let my query and synopsis chill for a few days until I can get some distance on them. I’ve finished a couple promised critiques I owed that have been gnawing at the back of my brain (which could explain a lot!), so I thought this might be a good time to wrestle with technology a bit–i.e. make audio from my novel that I can listen to on the way to/from work. (In hindsight, there was already an essential flaw in my thinking–what was I going to do when I inevitably heard things that needed to be changed??? Make an audio note to add to all the other ones I never listen to later?)

What was I thinking?

I was thinking an audio format might make it easier for my mom to “read” and critique, and of course, the possibility of podcasts some time in the future.

One audio software package, eight hours, six .mp3 files, and one car CD player coaster later, I thought, well, I could use the mp3 files for a podcast now rather than later. One measly 5 min sound byte of 9 MB out of 3 GB of storage seemed a no-brainer–until I found out I’d be required to add more space just to use that extension. Not happening.

So what to feed the beastie?

In the course of finding things to record (my only two short stories and four chapters of the novel) I thought of my recently rediscovered first short story, written nearly 28 years ago–when I was a junior in college.

It was, and still is, the weirdest thing I ever wrote–which might explain why it received an honorable mention in a literary contest, despite being science fiction. I’m sorry, despite my English degree, I still don’t “get” literary fiction, even if I accidentally write some. I think some of the judges might have taken it for a political statement, since it might be construed as anti-war (is anyone except Dr. Strangelove pro-war?).

Since I went on to have a military career, and had a couple years of ROTC behind me already at the time when I wrote it, it’s safer to assume it wasn’t a reflection of anything more profound than the need to write a story short enough to be a short story.

You see, the competition was announced right after I had just changed my major to English, (much to my father’s dismay). It seemed a good omen at the time, only there was one difficulty–I didn’t have anything to enter. All my stories are novels–or part of a saga–so the obvious solution to how to prevent that from happening to my short story idea was to kill the protagonist. I didn’t even give him a name, for fear of growing attached to the doomed character and giving him a reprieve! Even better, I started with him already (going to be) dead when the story starts. Since I like SF, something futuristic was appealing,  and Only the Birds and the Bees was hatched–essentially, one long death scene; I don’t hate it–after all, it was my first completed story and the first published–but I didn’t shed any tears when it went missing for 25 years. Someday–soon, I hope–it will have some company.

Until then, check out Margo’s Writing Page for Only the Birds and the Bees

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Burning the Midnight Oil

I’ve been noticing something in my emails from other writers–most of them are sent from the vicinity of midnight. As a confirmed, hard-core Night Owl, driven author, and day job-holder, I understand. I’ve tried every way under the sun (and moon) to find more time to write. I can’t say how many times I’ve fallen asleep in mid-sentence, woke up still typing, and wondered, “Where the heck was I going with that sentence?” I’ve never had a problem with writing every day, it’s more like I go through withdrawal if I don’t. I’d wait for 10 p.m., when everyone else was asleep, and when I’d be able to dive in and immerse myself in my fantasy world–only to realize I had to reread what I’d written the night before because I couldn’t remember it. LOL

About two years ago, I realized I was giving my writing the tail-end of my day, when my mind was cluttered with the detritus of day to day life and not at its best. I had an epiphany of sorts–why not write at the beginning of the day? I’d considered it before, of course, but never seriously. There’s that huge catch–I’d have to get up extra early–and I’m a NIght Owl. But as the years ticked by in that manner, I became desperate enough to try it.

The funny thing is, it works. My writing is demonstratively at its best, I actually remember what I wrote the day before, and my output leaped. Best of all, I found I was so excited about a solid, uninterrupted block of writing time, I only used my alarm clock the first couple days. (Yes, my honey is grateful for that–he’s a light sleeper.) What could be more bizarre than getting up to write at the same time I used to go to bed? LOL The downside is that I’m still a Night Owl, so going to bed by 8 p.m. is always an uphill battle, especially if I get my second wind. But when the story’s really making headway, not only do I still get up at 3 a.m., I start waking up at midnight, 1:30, etc, and have to make myself stay in bed until 3 (and sometimes I cave in and get up and wallow in 5 hours of Prime Time instead of the usual 3.5.).

Now I find myself constantly breaking new ground, learning more about both the craft and the business of writing than ever before. It used to be that completing a first draft was exciting (well, it still is!). The first novel I sent to editors was the first one I’d ever completed–or thought I had. Yeah, I really did send in a first draft manuscript without anyone else reading it first, and only then did I ask someone to read it! I was so mortified, I thought I’d HAVE to take a pen name. Now, of course, I realize no one probably laid eyes on that first draft manuscript after they read the cover (NOT query!) letter. The one I’m working on now–critiqued out the whazoo, revised literally countless times–would never have gotten to the first draft if I hadn’t started getting up with the chickens.(No, I don’t have chickens, but the cat thinks breakfast at 3 is a great idea.)

So, why am I blogging during Prime Time? I’ve had to set my story aside so I can look at the last revision with fresher eyes. That’s always been hard for me to do for more than a day. This time, I realized this would be a good time to try blogging without feeling I’m taking productive time away from my novel. Now when I need to freshen my view of my latest revision, I’ll have time (I hope) for the care and feeding of a blog, as well as visit OP blogs and explore the internet’s reading/writing universe. I’ve resisted putting the story aside and working on a different one–there’s a reason I’ve got 42 novels as WIPs.

So, if anyone else is struggling to find writing time, and trying to write when their energy is ebbing, give Dawn Patrol a try. 😉

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