Heroes and Villains

Whatever happened to stories that distinguished the hero from the villain by the color of their hats? White for the hero, black for the villain. Where are the villains stroking their handlebar mustaches and laughing maniacally while tying the helpless, hapless heroine to the train tracks? And where the heroes galloping up on a white horse at the last possible second to save said heroine?  

For me, reading Sir Walter Scott’s Lochinvar—I think in high school—changed forever my perspective of what a hero could be.   Lochinvar comes too late to the wedding, forcing him to steal the fair Ellen from her family. Is kidnapping heroic?

I’ve written about the character milestones I use as a way to organize character arcs. In my latest work in progress, I discovered—with amazement—that my hero and my villain had virtually identical histories.

Both lost mothers. Both had emotionally unavailable—absent—fathers. Both had conditional love and support from replacement mothers. Both were sent far from home to learn their craft under the same demanding and morally-suspect teacher.  Both were forced to accept culturally defined roles that curtailed their freedom.

The difference between them, what made one the hero and one the villain, had more to do with conscious choices than with nature or nurture. Neither was born inherently good or evil.

Leaving me to ponder—am still pondering—the difference between them. Resiliency? Stubbornness? Positivity? Sheer dumb luck?

The challenge for me is to sort through the little choices they made and will make as I tell the story. I need to sketch their emotional connections to those choices, to get at what motivates them to be hero and villain. I’m a bit daunted.

Meanwhile, the query quest continues. No news on that front, but I hope there will be soon. Please keep fingers crossed for me.

Starting with Character Milestones

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Sitting down with a blank page and just writing. It hooked me early on—maybe around age 12. Many years later I learned the term pantser. Oh yeah, that’s me. A confirmed pantser. No plan except the vague one in my head.

Until I found myself getting to The End and needing to start over. And over and over and over…

I tried half a dozen outlining methods. No dice. For me, writing was all about letting my characters do the talking. When I imposed structure, my characters got sullen and silent, and I got stuck. I needed their voices. If characters don’t—won’t—speak, nothing happens.

But what if I gave each character their own therapy session? What if I just let them speak, telling their life stories, focus on what’s important to them?

I started with my villain and learned all sorts of important things I didn’t know. Most important, it was writing the way I like to write: in the zone, stream of consciousness, inside what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow.

By the time I finished letting my characters dictate their milestones, I earned their permission to do some chapter-by-chapter plotting. They were happy. I was happy. A finished novel was the result.

The how-to is pretty simple. I start with a description of the character, then stay open to whatever they want to tell me. It never seems to matter whether in first or third person, present or past tense. My job is to take what feels like dictation.

Instead of my drudging through their goals and flaws and aspirations and hopes and dreams—making stuff up about them—my characters reveal what’s important to them. What happened at age 6. Age 12. Age 16. Age 25. Childhood. Puberty. Traumas. Struggles. Rebellions. Everything else emerges from those tales.

Nothing works for everyone, and nothing works for anyone all the time. But if you’re stuck with a character or a plot, giving your characters control is worth a try.

Query update: This week, an agent asked to read the full manuscript. It took me a day to get back to normal.

Thanks for your past good wishes and please keep wishing me luck.

Embracing Rejection

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As a technical writer, I didn’t worry about rejection. I worked for mid-sized agencies and companies and, for the most part, helped them grow through grants and business proposals. Rejections came only when the company I worked for decided to compete on the national level. Those rejections were less about my efforts and more about the company’s offerings.  

My life in fiction started off differently. I began submitting short stories in early 2017 and was dismayed by the number of rejections I received. Experienced writers are probably laughing right this minute at my naivete.

My editor/coach/mentor, Anna Yeatts said to think in terms of wallpapering my office with rejections. So, okay, I was trusting her. But I didn’t really feel okay about rejection. I mean—who does?

In January 2019 I got this message on my Duotrope dashboard: “Congratulations: Your acceptance ratio is higher than the average for members who have submitted to the same markets.”

And that’s when it came to me. I was doing something wrong. For a high acceptance ratio—given the number of acceptances I’d had—I wasn’t getting my writing out there often enough. I needed more rejections. I needed to embrace them.

That’s my goal for 2019. With querying agents and getting stories, both old and new, to market, I expect a boatload of rejections. It means I’m ready for my voice to be heard.

Wish me luck.

The Basics: Querying Literary Agents

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The adventure begins. After 18 months and five rewrites, I have a finished, polished novel manuscript. Now, to sell it.

Here are the essentials according to every book on selling a novel I’ve ever read and my mentor/editor Anna Yeatts.

  • The manuscript itself
  • A one-page synopsis
  • A query letter

I put together all three with a lot of help from Anna, an editor friend of hers, and a novelist friend.   

The rest has been research to find the right agents. How to search? Look for agents who want to represent your genre. Or check #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) on Twitter or Pinterest.

And now the fun begins. I started with a list of 13 agents (yes, I also planted 13 trees in my backyard) and started researching. Not just the literary agency website, but also all social media, including podcasts. And found a wealth of helpful information.

What worked for me was to send one query three days a week. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I narrow my sights on a single agent and end by hitting SEND on the email or SUBMIT on the query submission manager. Different agents want different items. A query letter only. A query letter, a synopsis, and the first—five pages, ten pages, three chapters—of the novel.

So far, I’ve received four rejections that say my submission—a paranormal romance—does not line up with the agent’s MSWL

I’m waiting for the email that says, “Please send the entire manuscript.”

Wish me luck. Stay tuned.

Querying Agents

 

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I’ve always been fascinated with the life of Emily Dickinson. A virtual recluse, she wrote almost 2,000 poems, and published only about a dozen during her lifetime. The rest ended up in folios, and she left instructions for her family to burn them when she died.

Instead of a trunk, I have flash drives for my short stories and novels. While I’ve been tempted to have my work destroyed when I’m gone, I began submitting for publication last year. And had unexpected success thanks to a lot of support from Write Stories that Sell  and Anna Yeatts.

Last month, I finished what I’m going to call my first novel. It’s probably closer to my fifth, but it’s the first one I think is publishable. Followed by the decision point. Look into indie publishing? Find an agent? Go the vanity publishing route?

I’d already had a year of rejections under my belt from sending out short stories, so why not query a few agents? All I had to do was overcome my Dickinson-like reluctance to put myself out there. And I’d already done that once.

So how did I do it? Here’s what worked for me.

Self-Talk

Stern with myself, I refused to wallow in prediction. I banned any question or self-talk that started with “what if,” including the positives.

Example: what if the very first agent I queried picked up the book and sold it right off? Banned.

Also banned was the more likely scenario. What if I received a zero-day rejection?

Small Steps

Querying is nothing like writing. It’s more like proposal writing, and to my advantage, I wrote proposals for two decades.

I already had honed the skills of careful reading and adherence to the instructions. And I already knew how much effort and attention it takes.

For me, the question was how many times each day did I want to devote to sending out a proposal? Answer: I’d send out three queries a week, one a day on Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

Procrastination

I like to believe I’m not much of a procrastinator. Twenty plus years of writing to deadlines cured me of that. But I tend to do what I like and leave the rest for later. So no kidding myself—that’s procrastination.

To surmount it, I use trigger activities and a bargaining brand of self-talk.

  • Just turn on the computer.
  • Just look up one agent.
  • Just bullet point the query letter.
  • Just brainstorm the synopsis

Once I get started, I usually keep going until I’m into the next activity. Finding one agent’s name includes reading the submission guidelines. Bullet pointing the query letter means filling in the sentences.

You get the picture.

Results So Far

Today is Thursday. This week, I’ve sent out two queries.

I received my first zero-day rejection. I lived.

Tomorrow I’ll send out a third query, Monday a fourth, and so on.

I’ll keep you posted.