Wait For It

Blessed be, all! Sit down with me a moment; I want to talk about something that’s near and dear to me right now. Or maybe a couple things. The first of which is the musical Hamilton, which I mentioned back in this post here. The second is taking the time to do justice to the story while also caring for yourself.

But wait! Doesn’t being a writer mean working even when you don’t want to? Even when the inspiration isn’t there or when you’re convinced the work is terrible? Even when you’re tired, even when you don’t have the time? Don’t you have to Write Anyway and keep your hands on the keyboard and all those platitudes?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer, though, is yes, but.

What brings this about is this: an agency that I follow obsessively is going to be holding a Twitter pitch party within the next month. Two of my top-choice pie-in-the-sky dream agents will be participating. And me? I’ll be playing Cinderella, stuck home from the ball.

The reasons I came to this decision are threefold. First, both of the two stories that I’d like to query are in the middle of intensive revisions, and I don’t feel that a month is adequate time to get either of them in shipshape. Second, I know that the month of June is going to be an extraordinarily busy one for me, and I don’t need the added stress of a deadline contributing to my load.

The third reason–and the one I want to focus on–is that you only get one shot to make a killer first impression. Just like with the query letter, you want your manuscript to showcase the best of your ability. While you may be eager to start querying or pitching your project right out of the gate, it’s better to sit back, let it cool, take another look, and then send it out when you’re sure it’s the best you can do.

You’d be surprised just how much your craft will improve between one draft and the next. Things that you’d never thought of before will suddenly be obvious; moments that you thought were beautifully rendered will feel flat. Holding back for just a minute gives you a chance to fix those things instead of realizing after you’ve gotten a rejection from your dream agent that, oh. That wasn’t my best work, actually. And being unable to take it back.

I speak from experience on this. The two top-choice agents I mentioned above have both seen an early draft of my vampire history. One of those being an incredibly premature draft with flat writing, an overdone opening, and–being frank–tons of plotholes that I was too underdeveloped as a writer to notice. Even after extensive rewrites, I will probably never get those chances back again. You can read Danielle Burby’s (one of the agents in question) thoughts on first impressions and if your manuscript is ready here.

All of this brings me back to Hamilton. I have friends who write, especially among my classmates from grad school, who are routinely selling short stories or talking excitedly about their latest novel’s release date or the agent they just landed. I find myself feeling like Burr in the song “Wait For It,” watching as life passes by and wondering when it will be my turn.

In recent days, though, I’ve decided to embrace the core of the song. I’m working to the best of my ability. I’m getting better every draft, honing my skills all the while. Sooner or later, my opportunity will arrive. All I have to do it wait for it.

Five Things: Determining Your Word Count

Blessed be! Hope everyone’s had a great week so far. Me, I’m knee-deep in making notes on my historical fantasy so that I can go into the next round of edits with a road map. Among the changes I’m looking to make, I’ll be aiming to up the audience from YA to adult fiction. With that comes a ton of considerations, including but not limited to what my upper-end word count limit should be.

Authors, especially those working toward their debut novel, are often told to mind their word count. No more than 100k tends to be the standard advice and, in general, I find that to be pretty sound. But then, I don’t tend to like great gallumping books. I want the story in as lean a presentation as it would suit the story to tell it. But there is much more to it than just that.

This isn’t meant to be a hard and fast breakdown of what your book should be, but a tool by which to evaluate if your novel really needs to break the bank where length is concerned. Let’s have a look!

  1. Mind your genre. Not all genres have the same expectations when it comes to word count. Fantasy and sci-fi tend to be more forgiving of heftier books. Since the author has to build a brand-new world from scratch and immerse the reader in it with only their words, it makes sense. Historicals, too, often run longer than, say, a mystery or a thriller which tend to run lighter and swifter. Look at the books that are debuting in your genre and compare your story to it; that will give you a fair idea of how much leeway readers are prepared to give you.
  2. Check your audience and age group. There will always be exceptions but, in general, the younger the audience, the shorter the book. Consider both your audience’s attention span and possibly their available budget. Longer books tend to cost more to produce; think honestly about if your young adult audience is going to be willing or able to drop more money on your book when there’s a shorter one next to it for half the price.
  3. Consider the story itself. I’m sure you’ve experienced this at some point: you’re reading a book or watching a movie. It comes to a satisfying conclusion, and it’s time to move on to something else. And then you find out there’s another chapter. Or still another scene. Or, worse, a sequel. What? But it was over!
    The thing is, not all books need to be as long as they are. Not all novels need to be series. Heck, not all stories even need to be novels! Some stories just lend themselves to being shorts or novellas, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Tell the story in as few words as will do the plot and characters justice. Don’t try to stretch it out for the purposes of meeting an arbitrary “sweet spot” like word count parameters. When the story is over, let it end.
  4. Look at comparable titles. If books are being released in a similar vein to yours, look at what those books are usually running in terms of length. Read them and compare. How does your manuscript line up in terms of pacing and density? How are the other titles performing relative to each other? You may have to make some adjustments if you find yourself way outside of the norms.
  5. Evaluate your word economy. If you’re still concerned with the length of your manuscript, ask yourself: is there anything you can leave out without negatively affecting your readers’ enjoyment or understanding? Are there characters or scenes you can excise or combine? Is your novel a work of precision?

If at the end of all these things your book still weighs in hefty, it might just be a big book. And that’s all right! If the writing and the story is sound enough, you don’t have anything to fear!

Lit Snobs: Judging a Book by its Genre

Blessed be! I survived Valentine’s week (and the chest cold that had me coughing the entire week, though that still lingers). I’m still working on getting my productivity back to where it should be, but I’m being gentle with myself as I recover from both the massive amount of overtime hours and my ill health.

In the meantime! It dawned on me toward the beginning of this month that I’d been a bit of a hypocrite when it came to turning up my nose at books. See, I love YA lit. And I love fantasy. And I love dystopias and fairytale reimaginings, all of which are things that, in my undergraduate program, weren’t considered “real writing.” One of my professors even went so far as to write on my YA fantasy story that I “had good instincts, but [she] wished [I’d] write something worthwhile.” It made me defensive of the stories I adore, perhaps overly so. Any critique of those genres by extension became a critique of both my writing and of me as a person.

So, when I got to my MFA, which encouraged and applauded these sorts of stories, I built something of an echo chamber around myself. My stories were valid! My tastes were valid! The work I did and the novels I loved weren’t of lower quality or lesser merit! And this was a good attitude for me to have. But.

But. I took it too far. Somewhere along the way, I decided that “YA is worthwhile, too!” meant that “Adult fic is universally boring and preachy.” For years, it didn’t matter what you handed me. If it wasn’t YA, I would either not read it or I’d read it grudgingly and use every instance of slow pacing or thematic embellishment to support my prejudices against adult fiction.

I didn’t even realize how deep-set this reaction in me had become until one of my betas and my CP both told me that my vampire history would be better served by treating it as an adult novel. I actively rebelled. I didn’t want to venture out of YA because I had convinced myself that anything else was lacking!

After a long talk with my CP (and a lot of soul-searching) I’ve started trying to deprogram myself. I’ve developed a long list of adult fic recommendations from a group of trusted friends that I’m slowly working my way through, broadening my horizons and undoing a lot of self-brainwashing. I’m rereading my vampire history, as well, looking for places where my blinders-on approach to YA might have hampered the story. I won’t say I agree that the book is best served now by a change of audience, but it certainly won’t hurt to venture outside of my box!

Old Stories; New Beginnings

Blessed be, all! As some of you may know, today is Imbolc, one of the eight Wiccan Sabbats. While I no longer identify as Wiccan, I do still keep loosely to the Wheel of the Year. Imbolc for me is all about new beginnings, cleaning out the old to make room for new growth.

On that note, it’s fitting that I took a fresh look at an old story today. I’ve been actively working on it for five years now, done so many drafts and revisions that I’ve lost count. I think I’m currently on number seven, which is more than I have done on any other WIP. I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve built. But. The more I look at it, the more I can see places where it could be better.

Just today, my critique partner and I started looking at ways to bring some of what I learned in writing the sequel back into the first book. Some of it was obvious: a new motivation for one of my protagonists; a bit of nuance for the other. But now we’re taking this old story and looking at it literally from a new perspective. In the sequel, I introduce two more viewpoints in addition to my two mains. The plan now is to take one of them and run it back through the first book, too. If all goes well, it should be the extra push this story needs!

Swift For the Sun: A Path to Publication

Some of you may remember I mentioned waaaaay back here that a friend of mine from grad school had a novel forthcoming. I asked if she would be willing to share a little bit about her journey to the sale. Enjoy!

What was your inspiration for this story?

Pirates! I very specifically sat down to write a m/m romantic story featuring pirates. Dreamspinner author Heidi Cullinan, a member of my local National Novel Writing Month region, mentioned the press was looking for volunteer copy editors. I did copy edits on ten m/m romance Dreamspinner novels to gain some confidence and learn what the press published, found out they wanted more historical submissions, particularly featuring pirates, and got writing! Important note: This was six years ago. And yes, I had no idea the personal growth adventure I was about to have!

What was your process from concept to query-ready?

At that point, I had already written three NaNoWriMo novels, two fantasy and one science fiction, that were adventures with romantic subplots (m/f main characters and some LGBT side characters), and those were fun (it took me about four months including NaNo to complete each). So I thought it would be easy to transfer those skills and my creative-writing-master-of-the-arts chops over to historical m/m romance.

BOY WAS I WRONG. Here I will discuss how sausage is made. Avert your eyes, faint of heart:

Writing a romance novel was HARD. Writing a historical (i.e. no magic or space ships) was HARD. I created my two male characters whom destiny had brought together on a tropical island, guided them through their internal and relationship problems until they were a couple, then threw some pirates at them. It was good times, but at 27,000 words when complete, it was not a novel. I also knew it wasn’t a romance because there was too much adventure and complicated colonial politics of the 1820s Caribbean taking the focus away from the relationship. I loved it—but I didn’t know what the heck to do with it. After four months (January-April) of hard work creating the ~30k draft, disappointed by how long it had taken me to craft even that much, I thought about the ten novels I’d copy edited and thought it was not what Dreamspinner would be looking for. I had a few false starts of trying to rewrite it and make it novel-sized, or more romantic, but my self-confidence/skill wasn’t up to the task.

So I put it in a drawer. Six years passed, and I would occasionally revisit the draft, have warm, loving feels for my characters and try to edit it, enlarge it, and consider what to do with it, but come up with nada. What I was doing was self-rejection at its finest. I was blocked on this story.

Fast forward six years, six more NaNoWriMo novels, earning an MFA in popular fiction, and publishing about twenty short stories—my confidence grew more and more with each publication. I sent one of my other novels to a press and it was glowingly accepted, though the editor advised me to send it to a larger press because of the high quality (that email floored me! And gave me the confidence to seek an agent for that novel, which is currently under consideration). I looked through my other projects and remembered how much I had loved my 27,000 word m/m pirate adventure, re-read it and found I still cared deeply about the characters. I submitted it to one novella publisher and was rejected. On a whim, I visited the Dreamspinner site to see if perhaps they were publishing shorter fiction now, and noticed they were coming out with a new imprint called DSP Publications that was more LGBT genre focused (fantasy, sf, historical, mystery etc.) rather than romance. BINGO! I decided to send them a query and ask if they were interested in this as a short e-novella piratical adventure.

Much to my amazement and delight they wrote back. *cue party music*

They thought it was an interesting story with two fascinating characters. The editor asked me about my vision—was it stand-alone or part of a series? She said their reviewers recommended it be expanded into a novel. Was I interested in working with an editor to expand the story?

Me of six years ago would have been too afraid to take this challenge. Me of ten novels and an MFA and some short story and novella publications under her belt was all like YES, YES I WOULD AND THANK YOU. They sent me a reasonable contract that included an advance and nice royalties percentage, a beautifully macro-edited manuscript with wonderful suggestions for expansion that dissolved my blocks instantly, and gave me three months to expand the novel.

And how did that process go?

Three months to expand by at least 23,000 words? No problem! I’m a NaNoWriMo kid!

Again, I approached this with my usual odd mix of overconfidence and low self-esteem, but this time I had two very important tools. Someone important (an editor) had read my draft and said it was good and publishable, and had pinpointed for me exactly what I should do to expand it to something novel length.

I decided to get to work right away at the beginning of the summer just in case I had unforeseen obstacles or health issues. I’m so very glad I did. Even with editorial guidance, I felt I couldn’t edit the thing until I’d emotionally reconnected at a deep level with my characters—who were they, what were their hopes and dreams and histories, what were my hopes and dreams for their futures—because in order to incorporate her suggestions at high skill, I had to intimately know my story. If I didn’t agree with a suggestion, I wanted to be able to intuit what the problem was she was pointing out, and what would best serve my vision of both the characters and the story I wanted to tell. This is truly a Karen Bovenmyer story.

It was very, very hard to get that intimacy back. Not only had time passed, but I was a different person now and writing at a much higher level. I worked on editing every day, re-reading the original, making small changes, re-reading her macro-edit letter and all her comments, re-writing here and there, bringing up the skill and craft. It was taking a very long time and I started to get nervous. I took a week off work and called for backup. My 14-year-old niece camped out in my writing room with me for that week, making sure I was not only continually working my way through the draft, but also getting at least 10,000 steps, food, and 10 minute breaks every few hours. When she left, I had managed all the minor edits and a 10,000 word expansion (far short of my goal) but I’d fully re-bonded with the story and characters. The next six weeks, I wrote a total of 35,000 words and did an enormous amount of historical research (even at the vocabulary level because this is a first person narrative—the Oxford English Dictionary helped me select words only used before 1822). The novella I had written is now the middle of the 72,500 word novel and is still the heart of the story, and I am extremely proud of the expansions and how they shaped the character journeys and message of now well-researched book I turned in at the end of July.

What about the process do you wish you’d known sooner?

I’m lucky that I guessed it was going to be hard to re-bond to the work and bring the level of writing up to my current skill. If I hadn’t known that, there would have been a lot more stress and panic. Also, I was lucky that it was summer, and I had the extra time and lower amount of stress to deal with it (my day job is at a university and my family owns and operates a Christmas tree farm). It was the best possible time for me to work on it, and everything just sort of fell into place. Perhaps the one thing I wish I’d known sooner was remembering how useful a writing soundtrack is. After I had all four Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks in a playlist, I cranked that thing on while driving home to write and by the time I was home, I was ready to jump back in that world. I wish I’d thought of that in May rather than in July, it would have sped up my bonding time.

Another important note—I re-read a favorite J R Ward book at the beginning of July and lost valuable work time. I wish I’d remembered how obsessed I get when reading and discovering someone else’s world and how that robs my focus. Next time—playlist earlier and no other novel reading when facing the revision challenge!

Swift for the Sun by Karen Bovenmyer will be released in the first quarter of 2017.

Summer, 1822: Caribbean Sea…

Benjamin Swift imagines himself a smuggler, a gun runner, and an all-around scoundrel. A preacher’s son turned hard-bitten criminal. Sinner extraordinaire. But first and foremost, a survivor.

He’s never considered himself noble.

When Benjamin is shipwrecked on a tropical island, fortune sends an unlikely savior: a blond savage who is everything Benjamin didn’t know he needed. Falling in love with Sun is easy, but pirates have come looking for the remains of Benjamin’s cargo. They find their former slave, Sun, instead.

Held captive by the pirates, Benjamin learns the depths of Sun’s past and the horrors he has been exposed to and forced to perpetrate. Together, they must not only escape, but prevent a shipment of weapons from making its way to rebellious colonists. Benjamin is determined to save the man he loves and ensure their peaceful future together is never threatened again. To succeed might require the unthinkable—an altruistic sacrifice.

Agent Hunt #3: Dealing With Rejection

Hey, all! I know I’ve been away from this series for a while! The summer got a little more chaotic than I thought it would, and something had to give for a minute. Things have settled now, though, so I’m back with more Agent Hunt goodies!

To recap your hunt to date, you’ve written an amazing novel and a stellar query letter. You’ve made a list of agents that you think may be interested in your project, held your breath, and hit send. And now your letters are floating somewhere out in the ether of the agency inbox while you anxiously await your fate. You’ve compulsively hit refresh on your professional e-mail (because of course you remembered to make one, right?) and at long last, a hit.

An unread message has appeared in response to one of the letters you sent out. Your heart pounds. A cold sweat breaks out on your brow. There’s only one of three things this could possibly say. Over the next few weeks, we’ll go through each one. The first we’ll cover, and unfortunately the one you’ll probably see the most of, is the rejection.

There are two kinds of rejection letters, and they’re not created equally. You’ll either receive a form rejection or a personalized one. The first is exactly what it says on the tin, a cut and paste response that says the agent in question isn’t interested in representing this story. Some are more polite than others. Some use your name at least; some just say “Dear author”.

I’m not going to lie to you; these sting. A lot. Why can’t they have said anything more personal, you may cry. Why can’t they have told me what I did wrong? The answer is, it’s not about you. It’s probably not a reflection on your work nor an accurate representation of who the agent is as a person. Unfortunately, with the volume of queries that most agents receive, they just don’t have the time to give each and every person even a sentence about why they’re passing on a project. Unpleasant? Yes. But it’s the nature of the beast.

The other stage of rejection is the personalized rejection. This is when the agent includes a note of encouragement or advice for your novel. It could be anything from, “This isn’t for me, but I love the voice!” to “Strong premise, but I feel like I’ve read this before.” No matter what it is that they’ve said or how badly the rejection hurts, take it as a compliment that they’ve gone out of their way to respond to you personally. Take these little tips to heart; they know what they’re talking about!

So how do you respond now that you’ve gotten a rejection? There’s not really a right way to feel; you can cry if you want to. Yell. Curse the agent’s name to yourself or badmouth them over the phone to your critique partners. You can feel down for a few days or weeks. But what you have to do if you’re serious about writing as a profession is get back on the horse. After you’ve had your rant, dust yourself off, mark that query with an R in your spreadsheet or tracker, and send out the next one.

Now, what not to do. Do not respond to the rejection. Don’t call the agent and demand they take another look. Don’t put them on blast on Facebook or Twitter. Agents talk; you don’t want word getting around to their contacts in the industry that you’re a loose cannon. In this as in all things, be respectful and professional.

Rejections don’t get any easier to receive as the number of them grows, but just remember that everyone has gotten them. There are Tumblr and Twitter communities devoted to building up writers from their rejections and to sharing their war stories of painful ones. I know. it sucks. But you’re just paying your dues to the club. Keep submitting and keep believing! Your future self will thank you for it!

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.