Saturday, December 31, 2011

Humdrum Silliness

My favorite ever cartoon short on YouTube. I cannot tell you how many 
times I've watched this thing, and laughed myself silly.

Seriously - a couple shadow puppets playing at shadow puppets? 
What's not to like about this??

Oh ---- and Happy New Year!!!

Friday, December 30, 2011


How do you make a writer feel important? Interview them for a well-trafficked blog about what delights them most - their writing.

I have been paid just such a compliment. The marvelous Daniel Swensen interviewed me not long ago about my manuscript, blogging and Twitter endeavors, and what that means for my writing trajectory. The interview is now up on his blog, the Surly Muse. Head on over to check out the interview, and then stick around and explore his website - there's lots to read and catch up on!

Thanks, Daniel, for such an awesome opportunity!

Keep on writing!

- Angela

Thursday, December 29, 2011

AT: Hard Yet Encouraging Truths, Pt 1

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Agent Tweets, a weekly post that highlights and responds to
 publication-centric comments from agents and editors, gleaned on Twitter.

NOTE: I will not put up the names of said agents and editors, so don't ask who they are. 
The tweets posted here are indicative of what I am seeing across the spectrum.
These tweets happen to be the most compellingly worded variations. 


A few weeks ago I announced my intention to roll out this weekly review of revealing tweets from editors and agents, and received a tremendous amount of feedback. Based on your responses to the topics presented, I decided to begin our AT journey with the topic: "Hard Yet Encouraging Truths" for writers. I'm glad, because I think all of us not-yet-published writers could really use some encouragement right now - even if it stings a bit in the application.

So let's cut to the chase, shall we? Here is the first installment of at least two "Hard Yet Encouraging Truths" episodes for the would-be published author.

Hard Yet Encouraging Truth #1: Sometimes you still hook ‘em – even if you still get a rejection.

Sometimes when I am reading a ms, I know it will be a no but I still feel compelled to keep reading & see how it ends.

There really are times I stare at a query, totally on the fence, torn between rejecting and requesting. Make your query the BEST you can.// I just don't have the time to request everything that sounds "pretty good." I want projects that get me SUPER excted!

I find these two tweets to make interesting bookends. The second one addresses the query; the first one addresses the manuscript itself. This means that would-be writer #2 got as far as the query process and almost got a request for a full manuscript. Would-be-writer #1 did get the request for a full, and then the effort sagged.

Why this is hard: There's probably nothing more frustrating than knowing you "almost" had an agent hooked (which is probably one of the reasons behind form rejection letters).

Why this is encouraging: Both tweets indicate the book ideas were good, even excellent - just not compelling. But the very indecision of the second agent, and the fact that the first agent felt curious enough to read through to the end of an "okay" manuscript - such responses hint at manuscripts that, with a little hard work and meticulous revising, could go from "pretty good" to the "super excited" quality work they're looking for.

Bottom line: How to improve the manuscript itself is fodder for a thousand other posts, on this blog and elsewhere on the web. But the query? The secret to overcoming that obstacle lies in the second tweet - the urge to make your query the best it can possibly be. For more hints on how to manage that, you can visit Query Shark, Query Tracker, or this thread in which twenty potential queries were critiqued openly by an agent. (NOTE: This link will take you to the first entry; use the side menu to access the others.)

Hard Yet Encouraging Truth #2: There is life after failure.

Sometimes it takes a while to discover the story you're trying to tell. Sometimes it takes an entire failed book. Sometimes two. That's OK.

Persistence isn’t an issue when you’ve just started - it's needed after the 20th & 200th rejection

If you're struggling with rejection, repeat after me: I have what it takes, and will not be discouraged. People are rejected for many reasons//And as an an agent, ONE THIRD of my clients were rejected at one point.... by ME. They revised and wowed me with their work.

I'm rejecting a lot of really great manuscripts this week. Just because it isn't The One for me doesn't mean it won't find that perfect home

Why this is hard: Two failed books? 200th rejection? What? ....ouch. Just....OUCH.

Why this is encouraging: No one likes to be told up front that you might have to submit multiple bad books before unearthing your winner. Even more unsavory is the idea of getting 200 rejections without a single offer. Yet none of these agents (four different ones, by the way) say to give up after multiple flops, or 200 rejections. The fourth tweet, specifically, indicates that rejections are sometimes a matter of preference or situation - that they really are great manuscripts, but just haven't yet found the right home.

Bottom Line: The third tweet, I think, is the key. Therein lies buried four important steps for pushing past failure (real or perceived) and on to success:

     (1) Don't lose your vision, and don't get discouraged. This is easier said than done, but those who persevere are the ones who eventually see their work in print.

     (2) Remember that many factors may have played into your rejection. A rejection does not necessarily mean your work is inherently bad. It may be that it is an "out of season" text (more on that for a later Agent Tweets report). Perhaps that agent just signed someone else with a similar idea. There are other reasons, I'm sure. (NOTE: For more insights into the agent mindset, I would recommend following @agentgame on Twitter - they are an agent's assistant, but they often tweet valuable insights on the book agent industry.)

     (3) Rejection is an opportunity to grow, not to sulk. If I posted all the tweets about ill-mannered writers who responded to rejection emails with profanity-laced fury, you'd be reading from now to Easter. Dabblers throw temper tantrums. Writers recalibrate and act accordingly. And then they get published.

     (4) Sometimes you may still be accepted by the same agent - if you bide your time and do what is wise. Please note that agents generally will state specifically if they'd like you to revise your work and then resubmit. Make sure that you check submission guidelines for any agent you query.

Questions? Comments? Insights?
Feedback is appreciated!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sorting Ideas

Prioritizing writing projects is never easy.

Next week, life returns to normal - at least a working sort of normal (if "normal" is something that ever happens around here). One of the good things about returning to the "normal", however, is the fact that my schedule will be structured enough for me to return to a regular writing schedule.

Back to work - so now I get more creative writing done? Yes. This is the paradoxical dilemma of how I operate when it comes to my creative writing: I write best - and I write far more - when I have other responsibilities demanding my time. When I have the leisure to spend time as I please, I do it on almost anything and everything - except writing. When I have other pressures, or things I would rather procrastinate, writing becomes my escape hatch.

And, because I know I can only afford so much procrastination, I make that writing time count.

I promise - I wasn't a Writing Slug during Christmas break. As I reported last week, I recently finished a first hard edit on a manuscript that I began at about this time last year. I also:
     * completed a rather detailed interview for another blog
     * made an initial pass at a query rough draft
     * began an edit of my 2010 NaNoWriMo manuscript
     * sifted blog topics for my new "agent tweets" series
     * made a "tour" of my current working projects - where they are, where they're going, etc
     * made the painful decision to break one project into two smaller ones
     * prioritized said working projects: revising, editing, original writing, which is top of the stack

A paper whirlwind - usually trapped inside my brain. :)

So I haven't written but about 500+ original words on any manuscript since I crossed the NaNoWriMo finish line on November 28th. But I've still had plenty to occupy my time - and structure my writing future.

2010 and 2011 were the years of knuckling down and getting the stories out of my head. 2012 appears to be the year of editing and querying while not losing my grip on my new-found confidence in "writing to completion."

Anyone else find this daunting, or is it just me?

For any unpublished writer getting down to the serious business of the Writer's Life, learning all the aspects of writing in its various permutations is daunting. It is, moreover, a learning process that never ends - not even when that long-awaited book contract finally comes.

Which means I'll be taking many more "sorting days" over the coming months, to stay ahead of the new lessons the Writing Empire has to throw at me.

What's your plan of attack to make your writing dreams work?
Are you stuck in one part of the process? Juggling it all?
Any secrets or tips to share?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Double Anniversary

Today has double significance for me, in terms of my writing trajectory.

Anniversary #1: My blog is officially three months old today. With 35 members, almost 4000 hits, and readers from across the globe, I am downright pleased - even shocked - at how my first foray into blogging has unfolded for me. I still have a long way to go, and a LOT to learn, but so far the blogging challenge has been right up my alley. If you are reading this now - I thank you. Even if you don't leave a comment or click the "join this site" button, your readership matters. Thank you for reading.

Anniversary #2: On this day a year ago, I had a crazy idea for a book - which I saw through to completion in just under one year. Never mind that most established authors say that a story idea should go from "aha!" to "let my editor look at this" in three to six months. Heretofore I have spent literally years spinning my wheels on one project or another, never finishing anything. The first manuscript that I did finish was in June 2010, after several years of getting hung up in the opening chapters. It's inception? Twenty-five years earlier. There is no excuse for that.

To take an idea to completion in just under a year is a personal record for me. Not only that, but I got through about a third of the sequel during NaNoWriMo this past November, which means I now have plenty of material to complete the proposed series that is running around in my head.What started off as a silly daydream while driving home from a post-Christmas dinner with friends last year has turned into a vibrant tale with a life of its own. Hopefully it will be a legacy that future reading audiences will love.

So....I am very pleased with 2011, at least so far as my writing is concerned. I won't hazzard a guess of where I'll be at this time next year; but I certainly hope that "queries to agents" will be among the "finished" lists for 2012. There is always room to grow, after all - and hopefully that growth will continue as it began: gradually and with steady footing, and a wonderful online community of readers and writers to see me through.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if there is anything you think 
I can do to make the blog more engaging, pertinent, or user-friendly.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Warm Wishes

May you and all those you hold dear
have a Merry Christmas and a
blessed holiday season.

Regular updates resume here next week

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

#stabbylove carnage

Last night I crossed a serious milestone in my writing career. I took a story idea from the "I wonder..." stage to the "finished first edit, now hit PRINT" stage in just under one year. 359 days, in fact.

With my first manuscript, I spun my wheels for five years in the opening three chapters. My current work is 1/3 the size of my unwieldy first manuscript, was written in 1/7 of the time, and seems (so far, at least at the outset) to have far more marketability. So of course I'm giving this thing all I've got.

Last night I finished my first "hard edit" on my novel. It will need several more. But I know the first edit was a success because, not only did I attack the Passive Voice Monster like a maniac, but I cut twelve thousand words from my manuscript. My novel fell from 68,000+ words to just over 56,000. Now that's what I call showing the manuscript some #stabbylove.

(Don't know what I mean by #stabbylove? <<< Check out earlier post on that topic.)

My novel still has a long way to go, of course. In some ways it's still bloated, and needs more trimming. In other ways it is deathly skeletal, with neglected corners in desperate need of some flesh and sinew. But overall I am very, very pleased.

I also need a break.

Not a break from writing, of course - just from this one manuscript. For a while. Maybe until mid-January or so. That will give a couple beta readers a chance to sift my first draft and tell me where my biggest plot holes are, because I doubt their list will match up exactly with mine. A bit of distance from this work will also enable me to give it the "cold read" it deserves before I start implementing any suggested changes.

In the meantime I will celebrate this milestone by coming up for air a bit, and spending the holidays with friends and family. This means I will take a short hiatus from my usual writerly updates until the new year. This will allow me to rejoin the Land of the Living, spend some much-needed time with loved ones, as well as get ahead on the kind of substantive blog updates that my followers seem to appreciate.

Oh, and the Agent Tweets idea, that I posted about last week - gotta get started on those too. :)

Till then - have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

What milestones have you crossed with your writing lately???

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Every Writer needs a tool box. There are many drawers to it, of course, and many skills are needed to fill it. In his book On Writing, Stephen King gives several great ideas about the Writer's Toolbox, and what should go in it. Sound writing skills are the biggest one, and of course those come only with practice. Only slightly farther down the list - but still on the first tier of the tool box - are books on writing itself.

I know, I know - there are thousands of books on writing, and many of them aren't worth the paper they're printed on. But, as with On Writing, there are many books on writing that are absolute gems, and deserve a place in a writer's tool box. I do not often spend money on books about writing, but those I have purchased I consider my best friends - at least when it comes to pursuing my craft.

My "tool box books" include the following (with links to more info on Amazon):

The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, by Noah Lukeman

The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman

Writing Dialogue, by Tom Chiarella

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them), by Jack M Bickham

Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary (Third Edition), by Marc McCutcheon

On the Art of Reading, by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

On the Art of Writing, by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

A few things to note about these books:

The First Five Pages, though published in 2000, may seem a bit outdated in the fact that it does not address the place of electronic submissions at all. At the time, emailing query letters was not on the radar. Now they are the norm, as most agencies and publishers have gone to a "no paper submissions" policy. Even so, the message delivered in this book is sound, and only needs a slight mental "tweak" now and then to transfer its lessons to modern practical use.

The three most practical tomes in the list (for me) are 38 Most Common...(etc); The Plot Thickens; and the Descriptionary - which is a brilliant way to look up something when you know what it is - just not what it is called.

The last two titles, by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (he who originated the now widely revered Oxford Book of English Verse), are more likely a matter of personal taste. I've said in recent posts that I come from a more classical tradition, with older tastes in literature, and these last two books reflect that preference. The two books are actually a compilation of lectures that Quiller-Couch gave at Cambridge University between 1913 and 1917. While the delivery is rather dense for modern tastes, his lectures on Jargon, The Practice of Writing, and On Style (all taken from Art of Writing) are three to which I continually return, to rejuvenate my vision of what it means to aspire to truly great literature - and then work for it.

I am sure there are other books that I ought to have in my tool box;
What do you suggest?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Good Uses for Bad Habits

There is a running joke in my family, pertaining to two of my most irritating quirks: (1) I speak very loudly,  and (2) I constantly talk with my hands. If the first bad habit won't clear a five foot radius around me at any given time - for fear of your eardrums bleeding - then the second will, if only because you never know when I might inadvertently shove my elbow in your eye, or under your jaw, or something.

The humor in this situation, however, is the fact that when I went to university, I majored in Deaf Education. Suddenly my most annoying quirks were exceptionally useful. If I am to help my deaf students learn how to enunciate certain words correctly, or carry over instruction from their speech classes, then projecting my voice at a very specific pitch and volume is important. Furthermore, if speech wasn't appropriate for that student or classroom situation, then I needed to be well versed in American Sign Language.

And so my worst faults became my greatest assets. Talking loudly and talking with my hands became something I actually got paid to do on a regular basis. My family makes a joke of it; but the punchline is that I finally learned how to put all my bad habits to good use.

But this isn't a complete assessment of my quirks. I'm afraid I have one additional quirk that is equally annoying to most people but which, in turn, I have learned to work for my own benefit.

That quirk is simply this: I talk to myself. Not all the time - but I do.

And no - I'm not senile. I'm a Writer.

Is such a behavioral oddity helpful? Oh yes. In fact, I would call it my secret weapon - especially during the editing process, when I'm up to my eyeballs in bad writing and really need to clear a path through a rough scene or chapter.

I stumbled across this helpful anomaly a few years ago when I read through Lord of the Rings for the first time. Now don't get me wrong - I adore Tolkien. I really do. But I learned through the exercise that while I could enjoy his books while reading them, I delighted in the books when I heard them (unabridged!) on audio CD. For me, Tolkien came alive more when I heard his work read aloud, than when I read quietly to myself.

That's when I learned that the real test of a strong story is how it falls on your reader's ear. And if you're like me, and are going to mumble to yourself now and then anyway - put it to good use! Read your tale aloud to yourself. Following this little tip will do several things:

     * You'll catch ordinary typos that you won't see and the computer won't catch. You know the kind of thing I mean - embarassing typos. Misspellings that actually spell other real words. Homonyms. Using the wrong character's name at a critical time. Little nagging details that will slip by you otherwise.

     * You'll catch semantic typos. By "semantic" I mean word meanings and word choices. Put another way: is ______ the best word for that sentence? Sometimes I find myself reading aloud, and saying a word that is actually not on the paper. It stops me short, because inevitably I find that the word I said is a better fit to the one I printed. It flows better. It says more or directs the action in a more meaningful way.

     * You'll get a good read on the "flow" of your novel. Reading aloud your work is also a great way to catch any hiccups in the overall fluidity of your tale. It forces you to view individual sentences not as a simple grammar construct, but as a collected bouquet of meaning. Does each sentence flow effortlessly into the next? Is any given sentence too short, too clunky, too long? When you stop to read your work aloud,  you actually hear things that are "wrong" in the rhythm and slant of the words, like a song whose tempo is just a bit off. Reading your novel aloud in the editing stage allows you to reset your metronome so your novel can "sing" the way it was intended.

Often we make the mistake of inferring that reading aloud is somehow an unsavory "chore" of academics, like learning your times tables or how to draft an outline. It can actually be your best friend, especially to writers. All you have to do is be willing to talk to yourself a little. Your readers will thank you later.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Well-Crafted Hook

Hei Matau Hook Pendant

I once read a book by a wise author who gave prospective writers this piece of advice: Don't worry too much about your opening five pages, let alone your opening paragraph, when you write your initial rough draft. Then she added the zinger: Your opening will be the last thing to fall into place.

In some ways an opening line is something that we ought to mull over and think upon as we write the whole manuscript. Perhaps we think we know at the outset what that opening will be; but more often than not, our opening line ends up as the finishing touch.

I think we often must come full circle in our manuscript before we know where the tale must truly begin. Then we must polish that beginning so that the opening line - often known as The Hook - does just that: hook our readers and pull them irresistibly into our tale.

What makes a good hook? For me, an excellent hook is like the stylized Maori fishhook shown above - simple, purposeful, but with the promise of meaningful intricacies to come. But sometimes it is more vague, if not impossible to define, since what entrances one person often repulses another. Right now it seems all the rage to begin a book at a point of intense action or violence. Those are the books I put down immediately, without ever getting off the first page. I'm from a more classical tradition, I guess; I want to know my characters before they plunge into their first fight.

A good way to judge a strong opening "hook" is to peruse famous opening lines. There is, of course, an abundance of material to draw from; but I have taken the time to compile a short list of famous first lines from literature. Some of these seem old and stuffy to modern readers. The third has been touted in some circles as the worst opening line in literature ever. Yet many of these books have remained on reading lists for decades, even a century or more. I think their opening lines are part of that overall allure that keeps these books in our mind's eye, even when current tastes would toss them out in favor of other tomes.

My personal favorites, and what I consider perhaps the best openings to any book, are the first two samples listed.

NOTE: This is not an exhaustive list - not by a long shot. Below is just a sample, to read over and to think on....and perhaps, even to learn from.


One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery. No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from. (The Boxcar Children)

If I had cared to live, I would have died. (Silverlock)

It was a dark and stormy night. (A Wrinkle in Time)

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful… (Gone with the Wind)

Kino awakened in the near dark. (The Pearl)

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live. (Make Way for Ducklings)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984)

It was a pleasure to burn. (Fahrenheit 451)

Even in high summer, Tintagel was a haunted place… (Mists of Avalon)

It was Wang Lung's marriage day. (The Good Earth)

All children, except one, grow up. (Peter Pan)

Now, what I want is Facts. (Hard Times)

Marley was dead, to begin with. (A Christmas Carol)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice)

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. (Madeline)

The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail. (Jaws)

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep… (Pilgrim’s Progress)

I am always drawn back to the places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do. (Alice in Wonderland)

These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr. Bucket. (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon. (Lord of the Flies)

This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it. (The Princess Bride)

Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. (Their Eyes were Watching God)

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. (To Kill a Mockingbird)

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.  (The Scarlet Letter)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way… (A Tale of Two Cities)

Like I said --- a very basic list, which could easily be expanded into the hundreds.
What do YOU consider the best opening line of a book?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Straight No Chaser II

Staying true to my habit for weekend silliness...

Merry Christmas!

Straight No Chaser performing The Christmas Can-Can (2009)
Video courtesy of YouTube

Friday, December 16, 2011

Brutal Compliments

This past week I was paid a very high compliment by a fellow writer. She offered to do a "cold read" of the opening five pages of my current manuscript. I let her.

The compliment? She went through those five pages with a scalpel.

By the end, my five pages bore the scars of a literary knife-fight. There was hardly a line in those 1400 words that didn't have some kind of deletion, highlight or other detritus of relentless trimming.

And to tell the truth - her handling of my manuscript made my day.

Her knife-fight with my opening pages was itself a high compliment. She cared enough to not only read what I had to share, but the gumption to show me what stood in my way of getting published.

We all know what it is to be criticized. It's that awkward moment at work or the family get-together, when someone pulls you aside and says: "You might not want to hear this, but do you realize...?" Then they tell you something about yourself (or spouse/child/final project) that you really don't want to hear.

But consider: What doesn't kill us really does make us stronger. In that sense, for writers to take constructive criticism on their work-in-progress is tantamount to taking literary vitamins. It strengthens your bones. Clarifies your skin. Flushes out impurities. Bolsters your immune system. If you're a serious writer, you want this - even if it hurts. More often than not, criticism does hurt. But as the poster suggests - if you avoid criticism entirely, then why should anyone note what you're saying or doing? Are you doing anything of note, if you cannot endure criticism?

My friend's critique was a litmus test for me. Though it was initially a shock to see "my darling" all marked up, it was not a crippling event. The exercise showed me several things, all of which were encouraging in their own way.

     * It showed me criticism is temporary. After a momentary "Oh!" and the eyes-round-with-shock moment, I found myself rolling up my sleeves and readying for the next round of work. I quickly went from the oh-my-what?? moment to the "I can do this" moment; and once I crossed that line the discomfort was behind me.

     * It showed me issues I would never have seen myself. I knew I had a problem with passive voice, and had even cleaned up those five pages tremendously, with that error in mind. But my friend, who has a much more grammar-ish mind than I do, saw other incidents of passive voice (and run-on sentences, and other embarassing faux pas) that I had entirely missed.

     * It showed me how a reader coming "cold turkey" to my book would respond to the introduction of my world. Once I narrowed my attention on her individual comments, I realized I had not done a thorough job of establishing my world from the outset. She showed me how a new reader would interpret the opening scene, and in so doing showed that the opening five pages still needs a LOT of work.

     * It proved my tale was battle-worthy. In spite of all the slicing and dicing, my opening premise seems to have weathered the storm quite nicely. This was the most encouraging thing for me: the realization that I likely have the right beginning point, even if I did word it rather shabbily.

Brutal compliments are part of the Writing Life. Sometimes the compliment is in the actual words; sometimes in how your tale holds up to the beatings it receives. Sometimes the compliment is knowing someone cares enough to tell you when you're capable of more.

We are all capable of more. The question is whether we will endure the criticism needed to get there.

What about you? What are your critique experiences?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Names We Give Ourselves

Last night an editor on my Twitter feed put up the following status: " --you're either a writer, or you aren't. 'Aspiring' doesn't cut it; that word is a turnoff. ."

That line struck an instant chord with me: What do I call myself? The names we give things are always important; and the names we give ourselves even more so. If this particular tweet to is to believed (and it should be, as it's coming from an editor), then adopting the label aspiring writer actually hurts our professional image more than it helps.

So why do we do it? For a rather basic reason, actually. If you're like me, the seemingly logical reasoning  runs through our heads more or less along these lines:

There's the inevitable question. How do I answer?
- Do I call myself an author? 
Well, I'm not published yet. 
- Do I call myself a hobbyist? 
Don't be silly. This is far more important than a mere hobby. 
- Do I call myself a writer? 
Isn't that the same thing as an author? So - no, because I'm not published yet. 
- Do I call myself an aspiring writer? 
Yes - that must be it. A not-yet-published writer working to make it official.
"I'm an aspiring writer, working on..."

That is more or less my own thought process, at least. Tacking the word "aspiring" to the label somehow seems more humble and truthful, since calling yourself simply a writer inevitably stirs up the question: "Where can I find your book(s)? I'd like to check them out." 

So how do we correct whatever damage (albeit unintentional) we've done to our professional name? The steps are very simple, though sometimes they require a good deal of "un-learning" on our part.

Call yourself a writer. Period. Nothing else. Either you're serious about attaining the Writer's Life or not. If you are, then name yourself accordingly. You're not a published author yet? Okay. You can live with that. It's temporary, after all. Just don't do yourself a disservice by calling yourself by a title that means, at an inferred, subliminal level: "fake writer".

Call your work a manuscript, not a "story." This is a serious pet peeve with me. I am constantly exhorting my students and fellow writers to call their work for what it is - a manuscript. Calling it "my story" or "my idea" or "my little project" does the same damage to people's perception of your writing credibility as does mislabeling yourself entirely. 

Make it habit, not hobby. With the mindset of calling yourself a Real Writer with a Real Manuscript, comes the Real Work. Don't just dabble at your manuscript - work on it. Real Work. Every single day. This is such basic writing advice it almost seems a moot point; and yet it is the one thing of which we must be reminded over and over. Why? Because jealously guarding that writing time every day is HARD. But a die-hard habit is the only way to override this weakness.

Have a ready answer. So what do you say when someone asks to see your work? Especially when you're not published? Direct them to your blog or website, for starters. Or have a ready writing sample available "upon request" - a short story, or a first chapter that you don't mind handing off for curious eyes to peruse. If they're serious about wanting to read your work - they'll accept the offer. If they read your work and want to see more, they'll tell you. Perhaps you'll find a good Beta Reader along the way. You never know.

In short: Don't minimize yourself or your dream. It's your manuscript. Your habit. Your inner world. You are that world's creator. Its author. You are the writer. No other name will do.

What do you think? Are you faced with a similar "naming problem" as regards your work?
How do you handle those labels and expectations?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Snowed Under!

Okay - so I'm not managing economic bills or labor troubles (thankfully), but I am rather snowed under with papers that must be graded in time for grade reports to go out which matter of hours?

Burning the midnight oil indeed.

Real update tomorrow. In the meantime - THANK YOU to everyone who left feedback on yesterday's post about my upcoming series on Agent Tweets. (And take a look if you missed it!)

Also: My favorite webcomic Kukuburi has been updating semiregularly lately, including another magnificent (and intriguing!) page yesterday. Check it out.

Also also wik: Sirra put up a nice compilation of most commonly misused words and phrases. She's an editor, so she should know. Be sure to check out that list as well.

All right then - back to grading exams and research papers! Later, taters!!

~ Angela

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Writer Feedback (Need some!!)


No - this post is not about cooking. (Although I may do a couple of those along the way. You never know.)

Remember those "what if" games you played when you were kids? You know, the ones where your friend asked: "If you were any animal, what would you be?" And you said: "A wombat - of course!" (Or a blue-footed booby. Or meerkat. Or whatever animal had caught your fancy.)

Lately I've been doing the crockpot routine, so to speak. The idea in question? I've been "mulling over" an idea for a regularly posted "series" on my blog. The inspiration came from the time I've spent on Twitter, poring over the rather insightful, and often very specific, tweets from the agents and editors I follow. As I came across different nuggets, I'd think: "Ooo! Need to remember that one" - and tucked it away in a Word file to peruse later. The document got longer...and longer....and longer.

Moreover, a pattern soon began to emerge. Yes, most of the tweets had to do with (a) queries,  (b) dos/don'ts of writing and (c) overall publishing industry. That's no surprise; if you're a wanna-be author, you're gleaning little nuggets for yourself. But a far more intricate pattern emerged within the pattern, that I did not see until my Word document had grown to four or five pages. I broke my "nuggets" into smaller and smaller categories, with more specific titles. I found myself wondering how I was going to properly assimilate all this wonderful information - not just the pithy sayings themselves, but the inferred logic of what they really mean, when you get down to it. Then I wondered if perhaps others might want to read and ponder the same things. 
So - I'd like to do a series of "agent tweets" posts beginning in January, about once a week or so. My problem? These are all such great statements and insights from those who scrutinize our queries, and then our manuscripts, that the statements have a very wide, yet nearly circular pattern to how they're connected.

In short: I'm not sure where to start. Which topic? At which end of the elephant? (Or wombat?)

This is where I need your help. Below I have listed the various categories into which I've divided the tweets. I would like to know what YOU would consider (a) worth your time clicking back over to read and (b) which topic you'd like to see first.

Please take a look at the list below, and tell me which ones really stand out to you. And if you think any of these are pointless, even intuitively obvious - please tell me! I don't want to spend my time on some topic you've heard discussed ad nauseum.

At the same time, I think some of these topics will never (or ought to never) grow old....

Categories of agent/editor tweets I've compiled:

Time It Right
Hard (Yet Encouraging) Truths
Blunt Honesty
In Season/Out of Season
Beta Readers
Mind Your Attitude!
Ready? No, really....are you??
General Requests and Advice
Writing Do's and Don'ts
Queries: TMI or NMI (Too Much Information or Need More Information)
Query Uh-Ohs: Logistics
Query Uh-Ohs: Content
Query Uh-Ohs: Format
Using Social Networks
BAD Ideas
Be Honest
This Screams "Bad Writing"
Know Your Limits

NOTE: I have no intention of pointing out which agent or editor made which comment, for several reasons. Besides, what I've gleaned is only a cross-section of tweets, but they are all regularly recurring themes that I'm seeing on Twitter over....and over....and over.

I figure we who intend to submit our work ought to sit up and pay attention.

What do you think? Anything grab your attention? 
All of it? None of it?

Thank you for your feedback! 
Everything will help me make this blog a more 
user-friendly place.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Backward (Reading) Glance

2011 is near its end. With it comes the requisite backwards glance at where we were this time last year, and what that means for the coming year.

If you're a writer/bibliophile, then your inventory of "books read" is a part of that backward glance. I was inspired to compile my list of "books read" by the fabulous Elizabeth Holbert, who put out her own list on her website. Below is my own list of books I've read during the past twelve months.

NOTE: I am a teacher of American History/Literature and Modern World History/Literature, and that profession is definitely reflected in the bulk of my book choices. Admittedly, several of these were read for the express purpose of teaching them for school. But hey - I read them. They count.

I did not count books that I reread every time I must teach them (like The CrucibleThe Scarlet Letter...etc); only those that were first time reads are included here.

My 2011 Reading List                            

Silverlock by John Myers Myers
The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, by himself   
Wren Journeymage, by Sherwood Smith
The Portable Patriot by Miller & Parrish            
The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo
Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
The 5000 Year Leap, by Cleon Skousen
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madame L'Engle
On Writing, by Stephen King

Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by himself
 The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
More Than Dates and Dead People, by Stephen Mansfield
Mary Chestnut's Civil War Diary, by herself
The Confidence Man, by Herman Melville
The Pilgrim's Regress, by C S Lewis    
The Annotated Pride and Prejudice (annotated by David M Shapard)  
Journal of Madam Knight, by Sarah Kimble Knight             

I don't know about you - but that list seems woefully short, even with my adding in those academic tomes that I perused in the spirit of teaching history and literature. Without them, the list would be dismally short.

As for the books that made the biggest impression on me, here are my top three picks for the year:


My goal for 2012 is to read twice that many titles. I think this is very doable, as I am coming up on a Modern History/Literature year in my teaching cycle and am actively reading through several titles that I ought to be acquainted with, and possibly teach, next year. Add in the "fun reads" that I intend to make time for, and I should make my proposed goal of 36 books easily. That's roughly a book and a half a week. That doesn't sound too daunting, does it?

What books made YOUR 2011 "read it!" list?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Straight No Chaser

Merry Christmas!!

Straight No Chaser performing their original 12 Days of Christmas mayhem (1998).
Video courtesy of YouTube.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Roll Call

Some weeks I write more, other weeks I read more. That's the natural pulse and rhythm of my life.

This week has been more for reading than writing - of books and papers for school, of fun reads I want to catch up on (you can see my Goodreads profile for what's caught my fancy just now), and of blogs that really strike a chord with me.

Listed below are several of the blog posts that really stood out to me this week, including one open competition you ought not to miss (though you need to get your entry in before the 12th!). Take a look at the links below for some great insights for writers.

How to Lose Readers and Alienate People, by Daniel Swensen

When You're Drowning in a Sea of a Million Blogs, by Jeff Goins

Passive Voice in Creative Writing, by Sirra

A Collection of Writing Tips, by Sirra

Age- Appropriateness in Historical Fiction, by Amanda McCrina

Breaking Into Publishing, by Rachelle Gardner

Christmas Open Cold Competition, hosted by Krystal Wade and Derek Flynn

What recent blog posts do you think I should check out?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Kukuburi Love

Time to pimp one of my favorite webcomics.

I used to be a webcomic junkie; but time constraints and a difference in preference as various comics went off on new tangents led me to narrow the field just a little bit. There are a couple I check in on a couple times a year, but only a very VERY few that I follow diligently each week. As in, I can count them all on one hand and still have fingers left over.

Today I present you with one of those exceptions.

Kukuburi is the imaginative progeny of the magnificently creative Ramon Perez. His fabulously crafted tale revolves around Nadia, an independent gal with a tragic past and a quirky-going-nowhere present-day life.

Of course, her life doesn't remain in limbo for very long. When she walks through the wrong gate with the wrong box (or the right gate with the right box, depending on your perspective) she finds herself in an intricate, inside-out, sunny-side-down alternate reality that makes Alice's Wonderland look like another cubicle in The Office. Nadia's subsequent journey throws her headlong into a calamitous war like no other, where sting rays, snails, and flying whales are just as likely to be your nemesis (or ally) as a talking iguana or a scheming skeleton.

If you're looking for spoilers on the plot - I can't give you any; leastways not yet. This is because Ramon is such a meticulous storyteller that he has crafted the tale along very specific lines, drizzling pertinent facts in odd places, so that the whole thing plays out as a sort of living Rubik's Cube. This means that, at 175 pages (so far), readers are only now coming to the cusp of long-promised answers to some of Nadia's most pressing questions.

If you haven't discovered Kukuburi yet, I heartily recommend you go back to the beginning and work your way forward through the whole fantastic tale.

Note on updates: Because Ramon is such a wonderfully talented individual, there are times where he must hit the pause button on Kukuburi so he can keep his day job in order, so to speak. But he always communicates with his readers, and he always comes back. He's made no bones about his love for Nadia and her compatriots, and his commitment to finishing her story; and after following his comic for over two years, I can honestly say he always makes good on his promises.

Updates are currently happening in a somewhat regular fashion - about twice a week. But whether he updates twice a week or just once, you'll want to stay tuned.

Trust me on this one.

What are your favorite webcomics?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Visual Stones, Mindful Dares

Today I've put up three more photos for another installment of Visual Dares, which is my little challenge for authors who need a boost to get through a current scene in their writing. Look at these and incorporate one, two, or all three into your scene, chapter, or overall tale.

And today, these three pics come with an added challenge. 

I've watched the past few weeks as the lovely @Fiona_Robyn and her tweeps count down to the "river of stones" challenge in January. She explains it so much more eloquently on her website, but the short version is this: It's an exercise in which writers are challenged to completely unplug from their 21st century wiring for at least a moment, and completely connect to the Real World so they can "precisely capture a full moment" (to quote Fiona). Aside from the obvious boost it will give to your writing prowess, it behooves us all to "unplug" once in a while, even momentarily.

Can't get away from your computer? Understand. It's still December and we all have deadlines. But you can participate in "capture the moment" practice. 

If you don't have a current "work in progress" in which to infuse the following three scenes, use them instead as practice for your "small stones." Just a few lines, an impression, a spontaneous haiku or two.

Then learn to do it with Real moments. Then do it often. Then do it for life.

Up to the challenge? Sure you are.

Here are your Visual Mindful Dare-Stones:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pulse Check

As a teacher, I constantly give pulse checks to my students. In my classroom, a "pulse check" is a start-up activity or pop quiz, in which I ask broad questions that let me know where the students are - how they are progressing with projects, what they are reading (or not reading), what has overwhelmed them, what has surprised them, and what they think adds or detracts from the class.

I do these every other week or so; and over the course of the semester these pulse checks tell me something  that the individual papers cannot. Collectively, they show me how far my students have come: in their thinking, their writing, what they find important or unimportant. One pulse check tells me details of the moment they're in; an accumulation of pulse checks shows me their trajectory.

Last Saturday night I got a pulse check of my own, and when I least expected it. I was printing out my NaNoWriMo script when I found I was in need of some divider tabs. I fished around in a desk drawer and found them, buried underneath an avalanche of construction paper. When I pulled them out, however, I discovered the tabs were already labelled with old story titles. Story titles, moreover, for book ideas I had not thought of since college. Book ideas that, at the time, I thought would launch my writing career.

Need I say it? The titles were horrible. Every one of them.

Don't think so? Then let me tell on myself for a moment. Here is the full list of what my College Self considered "promising material" for future publication:

Haley's Comet
Devil at Death's Ridge
The Unpredictability Factor
The Pirate Conspiracy
Summer of the Vikings
Flight of the Predestine
Raising Cain in East Wigging

The worst part of discovering these labels was knowing that, once upon a time, I had a working rough draft for every one of these underwhelmingly banal ideas. Every. Single. One.

Now, if you're not laughing at me, you might be tilting your head to one side and thinking "Well, that one doesn't sound so bad; I'm pretty sure I've heard of that title elsewhere - or something similar to it..."

Which is one of the reasons I find all of these titles so cringe-worthy: first, because they are all so neutral and generic sounding; and secondly because I remember the general concept behind each book, and they were all monumentally bad. Even if the titles themselves were all right (only the East Wigging title still makes me smile a little bit), the stories would not have lived up to any marketing hype. Not even close.

I looked at the divider tabs, and thought about the ideas they represented. Then I glanced back at my NaNoWriMo manuscript, for which I needed the divider tabs in the first place. I hardly knew whether to laugh or blush. In the end, I was encouraged, not the least because the reminder showed me a couple things about myself:

* I'm glad I wasn't published while I thought I was great. Obviously I was infected with some serious "delusions of adequacy" at the time I wrote those labels. I thought then that I had grand, new, cutting-edge tales to tell. Ideas that no one had ever considered. I, with all my inherent creativity, would write those books and wow the world. My Present Self looks back at that season of life and says an earnest thank-you prayer that the Almighty prevented me from taking any of those manuscripts through to the end. I shudder to think of the consequences, had I tried to seriously submit any of those earlier ideas.

* I'm glad I lived a little before I truly knuckled down with my writing. Since making those dividers, I've traveled to five continents, been a sign language interpreter, and learned how to cook hard-core vegetarian and vegan food. I've played flag football in the woods at night (and got a killer bout of poison ivy as a result). I've had an herb garden, been mistaken for Sigourney Weaver, and helped take apart (and reassemble!) a Chevrolet motor. I've been cussed out over the phone by an irrational customer. I've skied in the Andes and hiked in the Alps, been camping in a snowstorm, and read copious amounts of Viking sagas. I had a pickle-canning fiasco that ended in stitches and a tetanus shot. I've played poker for Skittles and won.

Such experiences gave me a wider view on the world than ever before; and when the time was right, those experiences didn't just trickle into my writing - they leapt and flew and wrangled and erupted onto the page. Marvelous eruptions, in ways my Present Self still can't fully understand or explain.

But I have a hunch my Future Self knows very well how it will end. And when that Future Self sees what sort of literary litter I am leaving behind now, she will take another pulse check, blush a little, and say "My, how far I have come...."

Monday, December 5, 2011


If you're a writer who is active on Twitter, you already know where I'm going with this.

If the moniker #stabbylove is foreign to you, allow me to clarify: It has nothing to do with vampires, sparkly or otherwise. Nor is it a reference to mass murderers, zombies or mosquitoes. For committed writers, #stabbylove is a way of life.

As you may already know: In the world of Twitter, a hashtag (#) prior to any word or phrase (always written as one long word) will list a person's status line in that thread. #stabbylove is a thread directed specifically to writers.

The gist of #stabbylove is simply this: We, as writers, all love our manuscripts. Of course! If we didn't, we wouldn't write. During that tenuous first draft, we must cling to that bookish affection like a lunatic if we wish to finish what we started. But at some point you must, in the words of Sir Thomas Quiller-Couch, "kill your darlings." In other words, we must stab our manuscript where it hurts, in order to further our craft. Every manuscript needs several layers of #stabbylove before it's finished.

Courage to "kill your darlings" is part of the writer's life. To #stabbylove your manuscript means to take those passages of which you were initially very proud, maybe even ludicrously proud, and realize those "darlings" do nothing to further the story. Readers can spot when a writer is full of himself. It is our responsibility as writers to recognize that same tendency in ourselves, before our final product goes to the presses. If we don't, our manuscript will settle into the literary sediment at the bottom of the Everchanging Book-River, along with thousands of other books which were equally printable and forgettable.

How can I show #stabbylove to my manuscript? Editing is such a necessary, bittersweet pain for every writer. Once you endeavor to treat your manuscript seriously, one of the things that should evidence itself is the need to edit your work not just once, or twice, but several times.

     * Accept up front that your manuscript will need several edits. This is non-negotiable. No matter how savvy and polished you think you are, there is always a way to improve your work. You don't want to edit endlessly, but don't make the mistake of thinking you're above the need for correction.

     * Line up several beta readers to critique your work before you start querying. Close friends and family are good for an ego boost when you first want someone to read it, but they should not comprise the sum total of beta readers. Be sure to enlist people who not only have a strong grasp of grammar and story structure, but who also don't feel quite so obligated to praise and applaud. You want to know what you're doing well, of course; but not to the neglect of receiving that hard-but-necessary constructive feedback.

     * Kill your passive voice. Of all the suggestions I'm seeing from editors and agents on Twitter and blogs, this is the one that is repeated the most frequently and fervently. For a great short primer on passive vs active voice, see the post by @sirra_girl on her blog that went up just last week.

     * Follow the #stabbylove thread on Twitter. This thread doesn't move as quickly as some others, but there are a few people who post great tips there from time to time, editor @sirra_girl being one of them. (And if you haven't already, be sure to add her to your list of Tweeps!)

    * Learn to walk away from your manuscript once in a while. Put it in mothballs and let it marinate a couple weeks, maybe even a month or two. Start another project while you wait. Then go back to it, and give your work a cold read. You will likely find that some of those "darling" passages you thought were so phenomenal before actually need some serious work.

     * Above all - never give up. This part of the editing process is when writers often get frustrated, think they're in over their heads, and quit. Don't do that. Remember - the only difference between a published author and an unpublished one is that the published author never gave up - not even when the going got tough, then brutal.

Brutal editing is the writer's crucible. If we want our literature to be proven as gold we think it is, and shine out among the collected heaps of forgettable books, we must go through it.

Those who endure #stabbylove survive. Their books are published. Those books are remembered, and stick in the guts of those who read them. That's why we're doing this, after all - isn't it?

What about you? How do you show your manuscript #stabbylove when editing?


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Book On, Brontes!

Welcome to the weekend! Here, weekends mean silliness.

Today = LOTS of silliness.

And before you ask: The action figures shown here are (unfortunately) not for sale. This makes me sad. How could you NOT want a Brontesaurus for your writer's den?

Thanks to YouTube for the link. Enjoy!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Spotlight

It's the end of the week. I'm still running a bit ragged (and exhilarated) after my big NaNoWriMo writing adventure. A lot of you are, too. Many of us made our word counts, a lot of us didn't. Either way - it is all a win, even if NaNo only pushed you a couple thousand words into your next big project. Or maybe you bailed because NaNo was enough to show you that your great literary work actually lies elsewhere, down a wholly different garden path.

So here we are in December: the month of NaNoWriMo Fallout. This is when we gather together, look at what we have (whether it amounts to 50K words or not) and say: "All right, then - what next?"

There is an abundance of NaNoFeedback circling the blogosphere just now, and more is showing up in my Twitter feed every day. I have some great ideas for "what next" posts that I plan to air as early as next week, including a great editing tip that I stumbled across just tonight. But I've also run across some great blog posts on the winningness of NaNo, despite (or because of) an anemic word count. Two I discovered just yesterday:

Lost NaNo? Feel Bad? Turn It to Your Advantage, by Daniel Swensen

Winning Without the Word Count, by Sean Madden

As a reminder of how vast our collective writing legacy truly is, I highly recommend you also check out The Email That Launched NaNoWriMo, by Chris Baty.

Be sure to check back this weekend for my usual "wacky weekend link"; and above all - keep on writing!

~ Angela