Five Things: That Make Me Close the Book

It’s time for another Twin Thursday with Rachel from Undivinelight! As always, be sure to check out her post!

So, last week I looked at five things I absolutely love in a few of my favorite books or series, things that keep me rereading them time and again. This week, I want to talk about a few peeves that drive me the other way. Now, none of what I’m about to say means that the books below are badly written or that you can’t enjoy them. It’s simply that they didn’t work for me.

  1. Not feeling the stakes for the main character. If it doesn’t feel like the protagonist has anything to lose or gain, it’s easier for me to shut the book and walk away.
    The first example that comes to mind for this is Matched by Ally Condie. I finished the first book and my literal thought was, “So?” Even though the setting had potential–I LOVE a good dystopia–there wasn’t a real sense of danger for me. The little bit of suspense that I had was so late in the book that it fell flat, and the love triangle wasn’t enough to pull me forward.
  2. Not relating to the main character or their voice. This probably kills more books for me than anything else, and it’s the hardest thing to fix because it’s completely subjective. What one reader likes will throw the next out of the story completely.
    The most recent example I had of this was Swordspoint  by Ellen Kushner. It came very highly recommended from a close friend of mine, and our tastes usually fall very closely in line. I gave the book two chapters, much longer than I usually do for a new read, but the characters just failed to connect to me.
  3. An excess of useless details and asides. I like plots that run like Arabian horses, light and fast. A flood of worldbuilding details or research that doesn’t further the story is like taking that beautiful creature and strapping it to a luggage cart. It slows down my progress through the narrative and makes me want to take a red pen to the whole thing.
    The DaVinci Code did this to me. I’d already seen the movie and loved it, so I knew the plot and most of the twists going into it. I liked the premise. I loved the characters. I was ready to roll! But I soon found that, where the film had streamlined a lot of the narrative, I got bogged down in all the extra details that Dan Brown heaps into the text. I got to the end, put it on the shelf, and never picked up another.
  4. Rape and sexual assault treated cavalierly. Or, worse, romantically. I and a lot of people that I know have personal experiences with this. Most women and a larger-than-reported amount of men have survived terrible things. Now, I’m not going to say that rape or sexual violence has no place in fiction–survivors deserve to see their experiences handled on the page as well as anyone else does.
    But the key is to treat those experiences with respect, and that’s where I’ve seen a lot of books and movies fail. They throw it in for shock value, to titillate, or worse because they legitimately don’t think of the thing they’ve just committed to the page as a crime. I’ve noped my way out of too many books to name one here, but my threshold for it may be lower than others’.
  5. The Trauma Conga. Fiction is a delicate tightrope to walk, because you simultaneously want enough things to go badly that the reader stays interested, something my wife–and TV Tropes–calls a Trauma Conga. The point of the TC is to gain the reader’s sympathies by piling on the misfortune.
    But you don’t want to throw too many problems or abuses at them in a row. Or, at least, you don’t if the reader you’re aiming for is me. At a certain point, the Trauma Conga for me hits a level of “Really? Now what?” and then I stop caring about the protagonist at all. My suspension of disbelief shatters, and the author reminds me that this isn’t a person I’m feeling sympathy for–it’s a collection of pixels on a screen or ink on a page. The character is suffering for no reason other than the author wants them to. I walk away feeling manipulated at best and angry at worst.
    George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire springs to mind first here. I won’t spoil anything for people who are enjoying the books or show, so no worries, but the constant rain of bad things on worse people just didn’t do it for me.

 

Five Things: I Wish I Thought of First!

The original idea for this was to do five things in books that made me sit up and go wow. And this list does fit the bill; it’s a compilation of the things that made me love five of my favorite books or series. In most cases, they’re things that I’ve striven to bring into my own work, too.

  1. Up first because it’s what I’m currently rereading is the Captive Prince series by C.S. Pacat. This was the first time I ever fell in love with a political plot. What sold it for me is that Damen is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. He has no idea what’s going on in the Veretian court, and his prejudices blind him to the real danger until it’s almost too late.
  2. Lady Knight by Tamora Pierce. I already talked a little about what made me love this book in my other posts, but what made me love it above others of Tammy’s Tortall books is how absolutely badass Keladry of Mindelan is, but how understated it comes across on the page. I love characters who don’t make big loud shows of strength or wit. Kel is in command of her own power and secure in her own strength. And I love it.
  3. A Summer to Remember by Mary Balogh. Confession: I don’t like romances. Of almost any stripe. If the book turns on whether or not the two main characters end up together, I’m probably not interested. This book is the exception. I genuinely care if the protagonists end up together in large part because, by the end of the book, their affections are tangible to me. They’re such total opposites, but their slow journey together, making each other into better people, leaps off the page.
  4. Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer and the Beka Cooper books by Tamora Pierce. These share a spot because they both managed to take one thing I HAAAATE and make me love it: they’re written entirely in dialect. Usually, it comes across as gimmicky to me, but these two series made it work. I actually found it a core part of the experience after I got used to the distinct voice it lent to the prose, and then I couldn’t imagine it without.
  5. Harry Potter, because no list would be complete without at least mentioning The Boy Who Lived. There’s a lot to like about the series as a whole or each book in specific, but the thing that kept me reading was the unanswered questions about Voldemort’s rise, the First War, and the night the Potters died. I love stories that have a lot of backstory and don’t feel the need to shove all of it at me from the start.

 

As always, be sure to check out Undivinelight for Rachel’s take!

Agent Hunt #2: Make Your List and Hit Send

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with query etiquette, you can start compiling a list of who you’d like to send your story to. If you’ve been following the suggestions I made in the last post, you probably already have a good head-start on this, but if you haven’t been then now is the time to start putting one together.

  1. Go through Agent Query or similar networking lists and look for agents that represent your genre and audience.
  2. Check their recent sales and see if the writing style that they gravitate toward is comparable to yours.
  3. Set up a spreadsheet or similar way of tracking your queries. You’ll want, at the least, a column for the date you sent your e-mail (or letter, though most agencies seem to be leaning toward digital submissions these days), response, and the date you sent out your partial or full.
  4. Prioritize your list. You can always change this later as things shake out, but you will want to determine in what order you’re going to send your queries out. Make each grouping a mix of top-choice, runner-up, and safety agents. Send out the first batch of five to ten.
    (Tip: Don’t send out queries to ALL of your top-choice favorites right off the bat. I have two reasons for this. First, if all of your dream agents send back rejections or–worse–don’t respond at all, it can be very disheartening. Don’t set yourself up for that. The second reason is that you will, no doubt, be adjusting and fine-tuning your query throughout the process. You want to make sure that it’s the absolute best it can be before you send it to your Pie-in-the-Sky dream agent. Don’t sabotage yourself by sending it out early!)
  5. Every time you get a response, no matter if it’s a rejection, a page request, or a please resubmit, send out the next query on your list. Keeping multiple queries in the air lets you stay active without being overwhelmed.

Five Things: To Diversify Your Fiction

Representation in my fiction, both what I read and what I write, is important to me. I’m not the best at it; it’s a thing that I still struggle with, but I’m trying to improve. If you’re in the same boat with me, here are a few tips that I’ve found to up the diversity of my characters.

Now, before I start, what do I mean by diversity and representation? Exactly what it says on the tin: having characters that fall outside of the straight, white, able-bodied, cis, male default setting. I love having complex female characters. I love having Black characters. I love having gay or deaf or trans characters, and I feel like they add a layer of realism to the text.

Which isn’t to say I don’t also love Harry Potter or Percy Jackson or any number of others. It simply means that I recognize those characters don’t embody all or even most of today’s readership, and it’s time that our fiction reflected that.

That said! On we go–

  1. When including characters who are from a marginalized community–be it race, religion, sexuality, so on–go for quality over quantity. Make them complex; make them capable; make them feel like a real person. They should feel just as distinct as any other character with wants and wishes and a personality that can’t be summed up by “He’s the Black one.”
  2. Avoid tokens. This is sort of a continuation of the above. Tokenism is when an author doesn’t do what I described above. Instead, they give you just one character of a given minority so they can point at it and go, “See? I gave you a gay character? Happy now?” More often than not, it ends with a slew of stereotypes that nobody will thank you for. It’s also how you end up with a story that looks like someone’s been playing Diversity BINGO.
  3. There doesn’t have to be a “reason” for a character to be Black or trans or blind, and the story doesn’t have to revolve around their “deviance” from the norm. The most beautiful moment I’ve had with a story lately was when I realized the character I’d been reading about was a lesbian. No big deal was made of it in the text; it didn’t become a huge plot point or a soapbox for the author. The story would have worked out just the same if the love interest had been a man. And THAT was what made it so memorable and so lovely to read.
  4. Do your research. Read about the kind of diversity that you’re trying to bring in. Read books by authors who walk those paths. Read blogs and autobiographies. Follow social justice sites. Talk to people who have experienced the things you’re trying to bring to the stories. Do the legwork to be sure that your representation is one that does them justice, most especially if you’re writing a group that you don’t belong to. Seek out beta readers who will call you on it when you make mistakes.
  5. Be respectful. Above all else, keep in mind that you are writing about people, probably from a group that you yourself are not. If someone who actually has lived in the experience you’re trying to convey tells you that your representation was offensive to them, listen. Ask yourself how you can do better. Because you’re not doing this so you can point at it and be proud of how much work you’ve put in, not so you can brag about Oh How Inclusive you are. Do it so your readers can see their own experiences in your stories. So they can see something of themselves in your heroes.

As always be sure to check out Undivinelight for the brilliant Rachel’s take!

Five Things: To Heal Burnout

Camp NaNoWriMo just ended, with all of its story-crafting mania. If you met goal and/or finished your story, congratulations! If you made a good go of it but came up short, congrats to you, too! Just trying is worth giving yourself a cookie. But what about the rest, those that gave it a try, pushed as hard as they could, and ended up stressed to the point of tears with your project?

Bad news, you’ve probably hit burnout. Just like overdoing it at the gym and pulling a muscle, you can actually strain your creativity. But the good news is that there are ways to help yourself heal from it. You’ll want to make a plan before it happens, and here are a few techniques to get the ideas rolling.

  1. Close the story. That’s right. Close the documents. Put your notes away. If you have your story saved on the computer, put it on a flashdrive and give it to someone you trust so you can’t open it. Do not look at it, don’t think about it, absolutely don’t work on it. Your brain needs bedrest–you can’t get that if you’re still trying to make it do work. Only you can say how long you actually need to get away, but I know I usually need at least a week. Last time burnout hit me, I didn’t even look at my project for six months.
  2. Find a different creative outlet. Break out the sketchbook. Sing. Dance. Channel your creativity through a different center of your brain than your language regions. Like continuing to lift weights even though you’ve got a twisted ankle, this will give you a way to keep your creative side active while still letting you get some distance from your story.
  3. Find a physical outlet. Much like finding a new way to focus your creativity, doing something physical will get your brain working in new ways. Take up a martial art or a new sport. Go for a run. If intense physical activity really isn’t your thing, try yoga or even just a leisurely walk.
  4. Change your workspace. One thing I noticed the last time I hit burnout was that even just sitting down at the computer sent my brain into panic mode. The physical act of looking at the screen made me think I was about to open up my novel, even if I just wanted to check my e-mail. I felt actually ill. I got around it by changing up my work area. I moved my computer from the living room to the bedroom. I burned incense or candles to create a relaxing atmosphere. I exchanged the Pepsi that my mind associated with word-time to a glass of iced tea. Slowly, those subtle cues made my time at the computer less tense, so I could actually unwind at the end of the day.
  5. Start a new writing project. Maybe not jumping straight into the word-generating aspect if that’s what put you over the edge to start with. But start drabbling or world-building or brainstorming on a new story. Whatever part of that start-up process you find appealing, the thing that makes you excited to sink right into it. Use that as a gateway to remember why you like writing. And then, slowly, you can meander back toward the draft you had to walk away from.

As always, be sure to check out the twin post at Rachel’s blog, Undivinelight!

In Praise of Epubs and Boutiques

In light of some things that have happened in the last few days, I’m going to deviate from my Agent Hunt series and write instead about publishing. Specifically, smaller boutique presses. I will admit, I’ve been a snob when it comes to anything that might be classified outside of “traditional” publishing. I didn’t necessarily sneer at those houses, the little niche publishers or the writers that work with them, but I wasn’t interested in submitting to them, either. If I couldn’t make my story go through an agent to one of the Big Six, I wasn’t interested.

So here’s my change of heart story. It’s been a little bit of a journey over the years, culminating with this last weekend’s exciting news from a friend.

I’d been feeling quite down about my chances of successfully getting an agent. I knew when I started my last major WIP that it would be a hard sell. Vampires just are right now, but I thought I could handle that. The story would bounce around for a few months, maybe a year, but at the end of it, I would have an agent and a contract and be a published author, go me!

Except. That wasn’t happening. As of today, I’ve officially been in some state of working on my last WIP for four years. About six months trashdrafting it, three years querying, betaing, and editing it to the exclusion of any other story. And it had gotten me nowhere. A few partials and full requests, but ultimately each one had flopped. (This was, to be fair, largely my own fault. I sent the story out prematurely and burned a lot of good opportunities.)

Last year, I started another project, realizing even as I did that this one was even more niche and would probably be just as difficult to place. You’d think I’d learn, right? Did I really want to spend another four years with a story I loved but ultimately couldn’t sell?

So I started looking into self-publication. If I couldn’t get a traditional contract, maybe I’d just market the thing myself. I didn’t end up going that direction for a number of reasons, not least of which being the prohibitive start-up costs associated with going it alone. (As a side note, there’s nothing wrong with self-pub. If you’ve got the head for it and the time and money to commit to seeing it through, knock yourself out! It just ended up not being the right fit for me.)

With that door closed, too, I didn’t hold out much hope for ever finding a home for either of my word-babies. I decided that this year would be the make it or break it year for both of them. Either I would find an agent with one or the other, or they would both be set aside to bring out once I’d attracted representation with some other work. I would obviously still love them even if they didn’t sell, but I didn’t like the idea of trunking years-worth of work with nothing to show for it.

Then a friend of mine posted on social media that she’d made a sale on one of her novellas to a boutique publisher. I’ve spent the last few days reading up on them obsessively, and they seem like they’re both professional and eager to work with new writers. They also don’t require agent representation. Best of all, they publish the sort of fiction that I’ve already been writing.

I can’t say for sure if I’ll submit to them or not. They’re a good fit for my current WIP, but who’s to say how I’ll feel in a year or two when it’s finally polished and ready to send out? For all I know, I could magically find representation before then. But in the meantime, it’s an important change in my understanding of how the publishing industry is evolving with the times. And it’s important that I change right along with them.