Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Tip: Rejection Is...Good

Okay, so maybe it's not good. I mean, no one likes rejection. Why, just the other day I was informed that my lemon meringue was "dry and unpleasant, with the taste of a dirty sock and a texture not unlike the gravel one might find on one of West Virginia's more hazardous roadways." To which I responded by crying "Rapscallion!" and challenging my great-aunt to a duel.

But I digress.

My point is that rejection in the publishing industry, while it might not feel good, is by no means bad. In fact, it's often a blessing in disguise.

You see, the fact of the matter is that most people just don't know how to write saleable books. This has nothing to do with talent. One of the sadder truths of publishing is that the most gifted writers are often the least likely to see their work come to light. That largely derives from the fact that the publishing industry is in essence part of the entertainment industry and, as anyone who's ever seen the Grammys can tell you, the entertainment industry is not a talent competition.

Take Kesha. Oh, sorry, Ke$ha.

You see, this is what you want to be. Sparkly, gauche, a little bit sticky, and likely of questionable personal hygiene. Well, at least in spirit. Can the young woman before you dance? No. Can she sing? Hell no. But she knows the formula, and as a result she's sold 3 million records.

So it is in the publishing industry.

You may be the most talented writer ever, but if you don't use that talent to write about something people want to read about, and in a way that makes it easy for them to do so, you're not likely to meet with success.  I know from personal experience. As a writer myself I made the mistake countless times (and have the rejection letters to prove it) and as an agent-in-waiting I can recognize it in others (my newer work, as you can imagine, is much different than what I was writing two or three years ago).

Now, granted, the whole music-industry analogy is limited; you can become a pop star without being able to sing, but if you can't string a coherent sentence together there's no way you're going to get published no matter how great your premise is. Still, the conceit has its merits. There are certain conventions within publishing that, when honored, make the likelihood of success substantially higher.

In YA, for instance, relatability is key. Your protagonist should speak in a straightforward, distinctive voice that teenagers will find easy to empathize with. Humor in the narrative voice is a big plus, also; I've read manuscripts that hooked me on their wry, zany observational tone alone.

Genres and sub-genres aside, there are some rules that apply across the industry. Be concise. Get to the point. Keep the plot moving so the reader doesn't lose interest. Accessibility is essential and wordiness is accessibility's arch-nemesis, so cut down on the adverbs and never use a ten-dollar word where a five-cent one would suffice.

And be thankful for your rejection letters.

One of the common misconceptions about literary agents, and one I had as an aspiring writer, is that they sit around all day cackling maniacally as they use writers' submissions for kindling. It's not the case. Very few literary agents take any joy in sending out rejections--though there are some choice superstars--and for most the process is difficult, not just because they're delivering a blow but because often they know a project is viable.

Why would an agent reject a viable project?

Because there are only so many hours in the day. That's really what it boils down to. Any agent worth his salt devotes a tremendous amount of time and energy to manuscripts he takes on, and given the level of commitment required it's impossible to manage more than a handful at once without doing a disservice to the client. Most of the stories I've rejected (and there have been hundreds of them) haven't been clearly unfit; most are good, very good even, but not as good as the best thing I've gotten, and that best thing must take priority.

So take heart. A rejection letter does not make you a bad writer or even make your project a bad project, and oftentimes a manuscript that doesn't work for one agent will work for another. Plus a rejection, if it comes with feedback, can be one of your greatest tools in your development as a writer. Keep those chins up.

And for goodness' sakes be gracious.

The publishing industry is small--my literary agent supervisor had the daring to call it "incestuous"--and nothing rankles its members quite so much as the author who pours venom back at an agent. Trust me, you don't want that reputation.

Speaking of letters, both of rejection and acceptance, I'm close to choosing my May 2012 Author of the Month! Thanks to everyone who submitted and wish me luck for an awesome read to come!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Do You Want to Be My May 2012 Author of the Month?

I'd like to begin by thanking all of the people who read and commented on my interview with Yvonne Osborne. Yvonne is a talented author and if my post drew any attention to her work I’ll consider it a job well done.

I’ve never been one to rest on my laurels, however, and while launching Ms. Osborne to heights of literary superstardom heretofore unknown by even the most august authors was quite an accomplishment, I must turn my attention now to molding a new giant.

Do you want to be my May 2012 Author of the Month?

I know, I know, the attention can be daunting. Being featured on my blog, after all, catapults you onto what is arguably the largest platform of any kind in popular culture. But, hey, you’d get some free editing feedback out of it. So whether you’re a novelist, short-story writer, or have the next Fifty Shades of Grey cooking up on your laptop, send me your project. I do have a particular penchant for fantasy, YA, and historical fiction, but, as my experience with Yvonne demonstrates, can see great value in manuscripts from other genres.

If you’re interested in being featured here please send a query-style letter and the first chapter of your project to evaughanmail@gmail.com. I will choose my favorite in the first week of May and request a full manuscript from the selected author. After that I’ll read the entire book, provide the author with a reader’s report and detailed notes, answer any questions they may have, and finally conduct an interview that will be printed on the blog in late May.

It’ll be fun for both of us.

Plus, it’ll save you a TON of money. I mean, not to brag or anything, but editing doesn’t come cheap and when I’m not blogging or wearing silly hats I’ve been known to charge a little bit of money for what I do for free on the site. Just sayin’.

So bring on the manuscripts! I know you guys have some great projects in you and I’m very excited to see what those are.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

April 2012 Author of the Month: An Interview With Yvonne Osborne

Yvonne Osborne is a self-described "organic writer" whose work encompasses traditional themes like romance and rivalry while also incorporating environmental themes. I recently had the pleasure of reading her debut novel-in-progress, Black River. After I'd completed the manuscript and offered my feedback, I asked Yvonne to speak with me in-depth about the project. The results were revealing:

Your novel, Black River, takes place in Michigan and is heavily steeped in that unique northern environment. How did Michigan influence this book and what impact has it had on your other writing?

The Michigan landscape and environment has had a huge impact on my writing. I grew up running barefoot around the farm. I learned to swim in Lake Huron which we just called the lake, and we vacationed “Up North” in a modest cottage on a little lake with a fishing boat and a dock. My father instilled in us a love of nature, from driving around the countryside and pointing out a dairy herd or a field of rye to walking the lane and remarking upon the unique beauty of a pheasant and how to listen for the sound of a quail.

From the predictable migration of the Canadian geese to the ever-changing landscape, Michigan is a part of me I can’t separate myself or my writing from. Though I moved away for a while, I never really left, and my writing is influenced now by what I see going on around me. This seeps into Black River. Since nothing is truer than fiction, writing fiction is an outlet for my emotions. I can plant them in my fictional characters and they act them out in ways that I can’t.

The main family in the book, the Sopals, are organic farmers who are closely in touch with the rhythms of nature. You write about their agricultural life with a great level of detail. Do you have a background in farming? If so, how do you feel your roots are reflected in your work?

I grew up on the family farm where my parents still live. It has been in the family for almost two-hundred years. We are certified organic and have had to face some of the same issues the Sopals face. Sustainable farming is a way of life. My brother is simply farming the way my father did fifty years ago, before the invention of agricultural chemicals and petroleum-based fertilizers. My roots are reflected in my work in every way. Memories I forgot I had come out when the writing begins.

Black River tackles a number of hot-button issues, including wrongful imprisonment, climate change, murder, incest, rape, illegal immigration, and the pervasiveness of the military-industrial complex. Which of these did you consider most important to write about?

Do I have to choose one?

Climate change is real and is beginning to adversely affect us here in rural America. For instance, planting zones have changed, and as farmers, we have to rethink seed varieties, switching from northern staples to longer-season crops.

As an example: our favorite varieties of garlic no longer do as well here. Crops like hardneck garlic and winter wheat need a long cold winter and snow cover. We aren’t getting that anymore. We’ve reached the point of irreversible damage, yet as a country we continue to ignore it. Thus, I think it is important to write about.

Secondly, I see chilling similarities between what is happening here and what happened in Germany in the 1930s. Fear of immigrants, isolationism, and a rising military industrial complex that is revered and can do no wrong in the prevailing view of the public.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as patriotic as the next person, but patriotism is not about isolationism and hiding your insecurities behind the flag. It’s not about wearing the flag backwards on your sleeve. It’s about flying the flag on a pole and taking it down at night. It’s about welcoming strangers. If I had to choose, I would say that this is the most important thing I could write about.

In Black River you take a highly critical stance on both the American justice system and the U.S. military, to the point that one character's decision to enlist as a servicemember is regarded by the others as a major crisis. Some readers will doubtless take affront to your positions here. What motivated you to include them?

I’ve had military recruiters knocking on my front door to take my son out to breakfast only to find him recalcitrant in his bedroom, having changed his mind.

"Please tell them I don’t want to go."

Two grown men in dress uniforms are hard to stand down when you’re only seventeen. They entered the high school, hunting him down, but the principal had the balls to kick them out. Believe me, this felt like a crisis. More recently I’ve seen them on the farm looking for my nephew. They’re like bloodhounds on the scent of vulnerability. I see it as preying on susceptible youth with promises of money, travel, and education. I see them as Jehovah Witnesses on the doorstep, and I know a lot of people will hate me for this, but I don’t like anyone on my doorstep trying to sell me anything, whether it’s vacuums, salvation, or heroes.

It’s important for us to have a viable military but when the culture starts to permeate every aspect of society and enlistees are treated like heroes when they haven’t done anything other than make a career choice, an unhealthy situation arises. Military recruiters have argued successfully that they be allowed on campus just like any other recruiter. Okay. Fair enough. But why is the kid they recruit any more of a hero than the kid who decides to go into Medicine at his own expense? Or those who select the Peace Corps or Agricultural Science or Biology? (With growing antibiotic resistance, we are going to need a lot of them.) Or the kid who decides to farm and provide clean, healthy food for his/her community? Who are our heroes? Who will make the more important contribution to society? When undue acclaim is given to the military career over all others, the balance in society is upended.

Finally, I work at the airport and I see the welcome-home banners and the honor guards and the flag-waving and the cheering. I see young people coming home, conflicted by the attention. I remember one youth in particular who walked off the airplane by himself and was met by his parents shyly waving little flags. He shouldered his rucksack and said, “Put those away. I need a cigarette.”

You experienced some success in a writing contest sponsored by Amazon. Could you tell us about that?

Some very modest success, I would say. My novel was one of 10,000 entries. The first round judging was based solely on the pitch, a 300-word query. From that the field was narrowed from 10,000 to 2,000, a drastic lowering of the boom. So when I made the cut, I was ecstatic. Then came the reading. In the second round each 5,000-word excerpt was read by two Amazon reviewers and from those two reviews 500 advanced. My two reviews were rather tough, and I did not advance. But I have taken away something positive from the experience. And I added another layer to my epidermis.

What do you hope readers take away from Black River?

That it isn’t always easy to be good in the country. There’s a lot of passion out here in the country. We have opposing views on methods, but farming is the backbone of society, and we believe that sustainable farming is the future.

I hope that readers of Black River take away a desire to help find a solution to the migrant worker/immigration dilemma and that they will at least entertain the ideas that growing food is more important than waging war, and forcing women to give up control of their reproductive health to a government controlled by men is not a healthy way for society to advance. Finally, I hope that readers will just enjoy my story, the twists and turns, the subplots and the romance.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Simple Tip: Introductory Dialogue

Something that's true in writing as in life is that the smartest solutions often get overlooked because they're so obvious. Who would think, for instance, that you can improve your gas mileage by watching your tire pressure? It's too easy a fix.

One thing I see constantly in short stories, unedited manuscripts, and even published books is a scenario that plays out like this:

The man in the suit stepped forward.

"I'm sorry," he told the other guests. "I'm being so rude. Anna, this is Adrian Adams."

A college-aged man with long hair nodded his head in Anna's direction.

"Adrian, this is Anna Smith."

Anna waved shyly.

"And this," the man said, indicating a well dressed woman of about forty. "Is Dr. Susanna Hudson."

"Good evening, Dr. Hudson," Anna said.

Can anyone tell me what's wrong with this picture?

Let me put it this way: when is the last time, unless you were conducting a seminar, that you introduced yourself to anyone using both your first and last name?

It just doesn't happen, at least not at a casual dinner party, but for some reason authors consistently ignore this basic tenet of social interaction. Having your characters introduce themselves by first name only--unless, of course, they're in a situation where the use of the last name would be appropriate--is much more true to life and can give the manuscript a more realistic feel.

The man in the suit stepped forward.

"I'm sorry," he told the other guests. "I'm being so rude. Anna, this is Adrian."

A college-aged man with long hair nodded his head in Anna's direction.

"Adrian, Anna."

Anna waved shyly.

"And this," the man said, indicating a well dressed woman of about forty. "Is Susanna."

"Hi," Anna said.

"Susanna's actually a surgeon at the medical center."

"Oh, wow," Anna said. "What kind of surgeon are you?"

Note that this establishes Susanna's role as a doctor without having her awkwardly introduced as "Dr. Susanna Hudson."

I hope this is helpful. I'll continue to post these little tidbits as I think of them.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I'm Back

Well, this is embarrassing. Here I'd promised you a path to fame and fortune, plus a conduit through which you could bask in my literary brilliance on a regular basis, and then I just disappeared for four months. If you ask me it was a bit of a tease.

Of course, I had cause.

The life of a recent college graduate, though slow when compared to the lives of those who, say, are still in college, is by no means a leisurely stroll. In the months since George Mason conferred upon me a bachelor's degree in government and international politics I've been stretching myself so thin and in so many different directions that I'm beginning to think I should give up agenting and become a contortionist.

First there's the internship.

I quite enjoyed, as some of you may remember, interning in New York last summer and so in the months before graduation began searching for another opportunity. I've now been interning with a California-based agency since December and have, under my patient and friendly boss, been entrusted with a great deal more work than I was in my previous position. I never, for instance, interacted directly with authors while in New York but in my current role do so regularly. It's nice.

Beyond that I've lent my alleged expertise to some prospective authors who've paid me to edit their manuscripts and have contributed a series of music reviews (most of which seem, in retrospect, designed to call into public question my taste and good judgement) to the Loudoun Times-Mirror, a local newspaper.

But enough about me.

Let's talk about you guys.

I will, as of this week, be accepting manuscript submissions once again, though I won't be able to feature select authors as often as I'd like. Back when I started this blog, I aimed to feature one author per week. What a quaint notion.

Instead I'll be choosing one manuscript a month to showcase and, in the meantime, will post on books and practical tips for writers. In my capacity as an intern I see hundreds of manuscripts, the overwhelming majority of which could benefit from the same kinds of basic edits. Hopefully posting them will help this site's readers as you work on your projects (and save you editing expenses as well).

So send in the manuscripts! I have my first featured author ready to go and I need a second one for April. And meanwhile keep on writing. I promise I won't abandon you.

This time.