Saturday, January 31, 2009

Writing Group, Week Two

I've attended my second week of writing group now. There are eight of us, with between four and six people submitting work each week.

There isn't a lot of socializing beforehand, which is appreciated. I made a few comments on other peoples work. I do feel a little lost as I'm jumping into some of the stories part way through.

It's nice to have experienced writers tell you what they think. The other authors seemed interested in my work and their feedback was positive and thoughtful changes and tweaks.

To get into the writing group, I first met Nancy Brown, author of a book about her battle with substance abuse called Facing Life. Nancy introduced me to Maureen Garvie, another Kingston author, professor, and respected editor.

In being introduced to Maureen I had two hopes. The first was to get into the writing group. The second was partly hoping that she might take on editing my story. She hasn't said "no," but she seems busy with her work schedule. I think she's also feeling out my writing style.

Having been critiquing writers for five years, it's hard to tell someone outright that they need A LOT of work to ever get published. It really is a waste of time line editing their work. The most valuable thing they can be told is they need A LOT of practice to be publishable. I don't think I'm at that stage, then again, most writers don't. I'll admit, I have a scene here and there that I reread and cringe at why I didn't change it.

It hurts to hear harsh criticism. I've heard it early in my writing days, but over the years, those same harsh critiquers were praising my progress and suggesting I enter certain pieces into competitions. Now, I feel I'm hovering at the publishable level, and with a decent editor I can get pushed over it.

Unfortunately, getting an editor can be a tricky business. For one, there are a lot of frauds out there. The website Preditors and Editors is a good place to look into the dangers of frauds, from agents and publishers to bad editors.

Through Critique Circle, I've had my work edited by other writers, which helps bring it up to a higher standard and weed out 95% of the little errors. Through the writing group, I'm proceeding at a snails pace of about five pages a week. At the current pace, it would take two years to scour through my entire manuscript with them.

It's an enjoyable experience and one where I'm learning quite a bit. Week three is tonight.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Is finding an agent like finding a job?

My wife and I are both well educated. Job searching is frustrating. I'm at the point where I feel you need to know someone to get anywhere.

A friend of mine in Quebec was recently put through a hiring process. He knew someone in the company and got the pre-screening test questions in advance. There were several situational questions. He had thirty minutes to answer all of them, and he raced through his prepared answers, barely finishing on time.

It was a job he was overqualified for, but needed something in hopes it would lead to something better.

"There was almost no way someone could have finished the test in the allotted time unless they'd read and prepared the questions well in advance," he told me.

One of the dozen applicants scored higher than him on the test. The only plausible answer could be that he wasn't the only person who got the test in advance.

The same thing happened in the interview. He finished second again and just missed getting the job. His friend that provided him with the test and interview questions wasn't on the selection committee unfortunately.

He was sure that the person who got hired had a friend on the selection committee or had some sway with it.

But you can't complain that someone else cheated when you cheated too. It's like going to the cops when someone ripped off your stolen merchandise.

It got me wondering though. How many jobs have I wasted my time pursuing because someone else had an in? How often was I just another chump sitting in front of a group of insincere interviewers to make the process look legit?

Now, as I search for an agent, I'm wondering if my efforts aren't the same on some level. It's much better if you know someone. Many agents say that outright, others publish scary statistics.

Let me say that a good agent won't represent crap just as a respectable publisher won't publish it. That's a given. Even if JK Rowling herself recommended a friend as a writer, an agent could quickly pick up if the writer was good or terrible.

But having someone, an editor, an established writer, a publisher, someone whose opinion means something, introduce you and push your work, is probably worth a hundred query letters and partial submissions.

It puts the agent or publisher in a positive mood, someone they respect is giving a good word. In essence, they are reading something they assume will be good, which may be the opposite to their expectation with a random submission.

I don't have the wit of Bill Bryson, nor the descriptive and literary flair of Paul Theroux. Like every writer, I have my own voice, honed and practiced and edited for years. I have a story I believe in, and writing that I feel finally makes the grade after years of the critiquing and editing learning curve.

I've sent off nine queries. I've been rejected by three agents. That's just the query stage, so it says a few things.

Sometimes, no matter how well a letter is written, if an agent isn't taking clients, or representing your genre, they'll fire off a letter saying they're not interested.

It also says tweak the query letter. So I have. I've run it past other writers, and come up with something that I feel is quite good now.

I'm sending two or three queries a week. I'm also working on my second book, which I'll announce in the next two weeks whether I'll pursue the story or not. Several third book ideas are in the works as well. All are non-fiction at this point.

If I do ever come out with a fiction, it will be something that builds and builds over years, with scenes drawn from different inspirations and gelled together over time. Which reminds me, I should get a notebook just for scene ideas and character building that I might one day use.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An International Collective Sigh of Relief.

Bush is gone, and while the despair he caused to hundreds of millions of people lingers on, a new era has dawned upon not only America, but the world.


The following snippets of Obama's inaugural speech have done more to derail terrorism than the trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives wasted by the Bush Administration.

"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."

...followed by...

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Agents? Publishers? Which road to take...

Many agents want previously published authors. Publishers want agented authors. How's a guy supposed to break into the industry?

I have a thick 1200 page book in front of me called Writer's Market. It lists agents, publishers, magazines, and everything you need to know about where and how to sell what you write. I borrowed it from the library because I'm too poor to buy my own.

The above isn't entirely true. Some publishers accept unagented material. Here's an example of one:

Boyes Mills Press. Receives 10,000 queries and 7,500 manuscripts per year. Publishes 50 titles per year.

They publish one in every 150 submissions they receive. I'm wondering, should I even waste the twenty dollar postage and twenty dollar printing fee to sent them my manuscript?

Assuming some agents do approach them, while other writers are recommended through colleagues, the chances grow even bleaker.

The scenario is equally confusing when going the agent route. Some agents despise multiple submissions. They demand exclusivity. Yet they take up to two months to respond to a three chapter submission and demand that you snail mail them every step of the way.

Come on!

I can understand agents don't want to waste their time reading something that will be sold to someone else. But requesting more than two weeks of exclusivity at the query stage, or more than a month at the first three chapters stage? As a writer, that's a painfully long time, especially if the answer is no.

As a writer subbing queries, long response times scream, STAY AWAY. While exclusivity coupled with long response times is a definite way off my short list. Two months to respond to a query? I don't understand.

Here's one example of an Agency: How to Contact: Query with sample chapter, outline/proposal, SASE. Accepts fax queries. No email queries. Considers simultaneous queries. Responds in two months to queries. Obtains most new clients through recommendations from existing clients and editors.


It takes a minute to read a query letter and five seconds to decide, 1) This is/isn't a type of story I'd represent. 2)The query letter is/isn't written well enough for me to want to see more from this guy.

Same with the first couple pages of a novel. Either they're into it and ploughing forward, or it doesn't appeal to them and the names and titles are put into a rejection template and printed off at the end of the day.

The ideal agent:

They accept email queries and one chapter submissions and respond quickly as to whether they are interested or not. They then either ask to be mailed or emailed partials and whatever else they want; a synopsis, an autobiographical note; a proposal.

I think it's safe to assume agents open to unpublished authors without referrals reject the majority of unsolicited material after the first page. They probably reject the all but about 5% after the first chapter.

How much paper, money, and time could agents would save writers if they accepted the first chapter by email?

I'm going to tweak my synopsis, outline and bio now.

I've made a list of forty agents who might be interested in a travel novel. I've graded them, from A+ to C-, depending on their submission criteria.

To get an A grade, three criteria are necessary.

1) accept email queries
2) seem open to travel memoirs
3) don't sound intimidating, (we prefer referrals, we take two months to respond to queries, etc.)

Eight of the forty on my short list made the A grade.

One last note:

I'm meeting with a new writing group tonight. I've been in online writing groups with Critiquecircle.com for four years now. This will be my first live writing group.
I'm also looking into a professional editor to go over the book with me while I query agents. She has my first chapter. I hope she sees enough promise in it to take me on.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Who says spend?

The Globe and Mail wrote that Canadians are telling the government to spend. Who are these Canadians and why are they telling the government to spend?

Now is a time for fiscal competence. If the government wants to spend their way out of trouble economic times, they should do so very carefully. I'll even suggest they look into where they can eek out a little more money in taxes to cover the bill. Why not increase the price of gasoline a tad, or increase the GST back to competent levels.

In a typical year, Canadian citizens pay billions in capital gains taxes. In a typical year, the stock market increases 5-10%.

In 2008, the stock market fell about 35%.

Instead of capital gains boosting incomes, which translates to higher income taxes, you'll probably see limited gains in 2008, while 2009 could see some huge losses dragging Canadian's income tax payments down.

Which is why we need higher GST, and why we need higher gas taxes. They are two areas where a few cents can be taken without too much pain.

The government should act competently and not try to spend our way out of trouble like the Americans are doing. If Canada wants to spend, do it on things we need and that provide longer term assets such as infrastructure and development.

Spend?

As a person searching for a job and in financial trouble, the greedy self-seeking side of me hopes the government spends and gives me some stability. However the logical side of me says be frugal. We are already paying 25 billion a year in interest, predominately from our last incompetent Conservative government spending spree. I don't want that to jump to fifty billion a year as a burden for the next generation of Canadians to bear.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The intro conundrum - on writing

In previous blogs, I've talked about an editor I once called. At the time, I was green to writing. Essentially, I sucked. I had no direction, no concept of powerful writing for an audience, I just spewed out my story and thought it would get eaten up.

The editor left me stuttering. "Why would anyone want to read your book?"

It was a simple enough question. But I didn't have the answer. I wasn't someone famous, like Michael Palin. I wasn't extraordinary in any way, except that I'd done something extraordinary that nobody knew about... or cared about?

What the editor wanted was something I could write on a matchbox that would make her salivate over the book.

I have it now.
A spiritual, against-the-odds African journey, in a broken old Beetle.

I can tweak that here and there. But that's my story.

Spiritual is an aspect I didn't have before. I didn't see myself as a spiritual person. It reflects religion and faith and hope and all the things a practical person like me tries to keep in a box of personal feelings.

But it's what readers want. They want to get in touch with my feelings as I went through this amazing journey. The trick is, keeping it simple. Showing them tidbits of my inner self while not ranting about them. Sharing a deep, honest emotion can often say so much more than a rant can.

One of my many challenges in this book has been writing a catchy intro. I tried a hundred different angles:

My going nowhere bank job before the journey;
A breakup pushing me to travel;
Searching for my inner self; (It sounded cheesy.)
Starting with one of the most intense parts of the book; (but it ruined the later buildup to that part)
A Paul Theroux type overview of the negative of Africa;
A positive outlook on Africa;
A description of Cape Town;
A taxi ride;
My first AFrican journey; (It was confusing)

They were all just okay.

Finally, I was back in Canada just this past summer. I spent a week at the family's old log cabin. While there, I recalled that this was the place I'd first learned to dream. It was a place of inspiration, where I'd read my first African Adventure novel and watched my first movie on Africa.
My inspiring grandmother had gone against the odds and bought the cabin in 1939. It was built during World War One. She too had travelled in her youth, and her stories put the travel bug in me. Put two and two together. And bang, I had my spiritual intro, a dedication to the memory of my wonderful, inspirational grandmother.

It was the deepest. It was the most personal. It was the most honest.

It's done, and I feel good about it.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Time to find an Agent for my book

My writing journey has taken me five years to get to this point. I originally thought it would take me six months to get this book out, and that it would be bought up like wildfire.

I was wrong on so many levels.

First of all, it took a year before I even had a manuscript length novel to submit, and 80% of that time was spent doing revisions.

I worked on proposals and cover letters and synopses and outlines. I submitted it to half a dozen agents, and got half a dozen rejections.

It was then that I found two things.

The first was that 99% of writers who produce manuscript-length work won't ever get published. This is because either they aren't good enough, or there's not a big enough market for their work.

The second was about the critiquing world. I joined the wonderful website www.critiquecircle.com

Critique circle was an eye opener. My writing was awful. It was all tell and no show. There were grammar mistakes everywhere. It was boring. I came across as arrogant and selfish and traipsing from one place to the next like a spoiled shit.

I worked and worked and worked on edits, submitting my stuff for critiques, and critiquing hundreds of other stories in the process.

After the second year, with all the critiquing, and having read how to write books, my writing got to the level where it was publishable. Each chapter took from a week to a month of hard editing to get to that level though.

Marriage caused a major slow down in my work. I was just getting into a groove as a writer and found that I wasw no longer able to lock myself away and focus entirely on progress with the book.

A year later, a baby arrived on the scene. The demands on my creative time went from slim to almost none, and for over a year my work all but stalled. The little progress I made was often undone by scatterbrained edits, where I'd work on a section only to make it worse, or repetitive of a previous chapter.

Then, one day, I worked my way to the end of the book. A complete first draft of the entire manuscript lay in front of me. I decided to leave home for a week and just edit everything.

I took trains and boats and buses up to Spain. I returned after a week with 400 marked up pages.

I made the corrections over the next month. Then, I gave the manuscript to an editor/friend who scoured over the story.

I revised her edits and rewrote the first two chapters.

The first two chapters still make me grit my teeth. They were a nightmare. I wanted the writing to be perfect and enticing and engaging. The problem was, I didn't enjoy writing them. It was a monotonous start to my journey. It was a backpack journey across a first world country, where the meat of the book was in the third world ahead.

So I pared it down. I focused on buying the car, forshadowing on the excitement ahead, and creating a little tension by playing up any problems I had. One of the challenges of the first chapters is they differ so much from the rest of the book. The events aren't as impacting on me as other parts.

I edited and edited and edited. I took parts out, I put parts back, I tweaked and overwrote and underwrote. Finally, I had something not brilliant, but passable. The best I felt I could do for the lacklustre circumstances surrounding the beginning.

I learned a lot about writing on my journey to the finish line. For example, a cliche error the majority of new writers make is starting their book with a character waking up. This was the case so often in the critiques and edits I made on other people's work that I saw it more often than not. This doesn't necessarily mean the writing is bad, it is often quite good. The beginning simply shows lack of imagination, and if a writing cliche, it can be a warning sign for agents and publishers.

So, with the help of countless other writers, ups and downs, and persistence, I have a finished manuscript again. It's been five years since I began writing. Two years of learning the craft, and another three years of constantly interrupted progress to the finish line.

Using the Preditors and Editors website to scour through agents, I sent my first query Sunday, and received a response saying they were too busy to take me on. I take this two ways.

One: They are busy, and my query letter didn't quite turn them on enough to really want to see my book.

Two: Improve the query letter and try another agent.


Yesterday I went to the local library and checked out the book "2008 Writers Market." I made a shortlist of fifty agents to target, and from them I pared it down to a shortlist of around five to start with.

I was going through my shortlist, and clicked on one of the websites. It said for non fiction submission procedures, "Follow the guidelines in the agent's book, (How to Write a Book Proposal). By Michael Larsen.

It was coincidentally on my lap. It was a book I bought during the 'So I think I can write' stage.

Three or four years ago now, I went through the book page by page and wrote a proposal. The proposal is actually quite good, although parts of it need to be updated.

So I'm working on the book proposal now and will send a query letter to Mr. Larsen's agency today.

The proposal includes a theme for my next book. A gamble, considering I'm waiting for circumstances to pull together in order to even write it.