Archive for February, 2008

My manuscript is no good. It’s not finished. It needs work. This is the feeling that has been dogging me lately. As I come closer to sending out the first query letter, closer to possibly sending the manuscript itself out, the voices of self-doubt have grown steadily louder.

I was paging absently through the book last night, counting the number of words in a few random lines, so I could get an average words-per-line and multiply it by lines-per-page and then by the number of pages to get a decent estimate of the word count. Once that was finished I started reading the page that was up. It happened to be right before one of the scenes that was bugging me. There was one sequence of events that felt forced, as I recalled, and it has been on my mind. As I read through the scene, I discovered something unexpected.

It was fixed. There was a break, the start of a new section, a shift in the point of view, and an introduction of one of the main characters that not only felt natural, but also revealed an important character trait of hers.

Damn. I totally didn’t remember fixing that. Once I read it last night, it all came back to me. So I can laugh now at how wound up I’ve been getting. The manuscript is done. I’ve revised it enough that I just need to trust myself to have fixed anything that needed fixing. I’ll probably go through it once more to weed out any remaining typos, but I’m going to relax; I hear it will help me live longer.

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The query letter is almost done. There’s one sentence that needs a little tweaking, and I have to tabulate an appropriate word count (can’t use the word processor’s number, of course.) I’ve even found one particular agent that I would like to work with. Of course, it’s difficult to tell whether you can work with someone just from studying their accomplishments and the positive things people say about them. I plan on mailing the letter this week. I’m sending it snail-mail because the agent’s web site makes it pretty clear that they prefer that over the e-mail variety. Though they do provide email addresses to send queries to. Perhaps they just want to see who’s really paying attention.

On an unrelated topic, yesterday while browsing the Fantasy / Sci-Fi aisles at B&N, I noticed that there are quite a few books (and series) about vampires and vampire hunters. I thought it was interesting because while leafing through the Writer’s Digest Novel & Short Story Market, it seems the most common note under the now accepting this stuff section is “no vampires.” I would have thought that given the apparent popularity of the genre of novels, that the short form would be similarly in-demand.

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OK, I finished the “hook” portion of my query letter. It took about a dozen rewrites, but it’s at the point where it gives the gist of the story, but not the whole thing, with a cliffhanger question of how the story will turn out. I modeled it after the sample in the Writer’s Digest Guide To Literary Agents and pulled a few sci-fi paperbacks off my shelf to compare it to back-cover copy.

Now I just need to work up the part of the letter that goes around the hook. That’s my weekend project. Then, if I can convince myself not to trash the manuscript and write the whole thing over, I’ll send the query to a few agents and see what comes of it.

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Unintended Consequence

I’ve been working on the “hook” for my query letter, the part where I describe the story in such a way that agents won’t be able to resist becoming utterly captivated. It’s kind of fun (in a masochistic way) to try boiling the essence of a novel into a short paragraph. It’s actually going better than I expected, though I’m still not sure the final product will be the gem I would like so much for it to be.

A couple of interesting things have happened during this exercise. One of the sentences I wrote made it sound like a character had been killed by a bullet that had only wounded him. That character dying from the gunshot would have thrown a huge wrench into the story. The thought of making that change and re-working the rest of the story (and the sequel) is quite appealing, because it would have really complicated the hero’s life. But I’m resisting another revision.

Which brings up the 2nd thing that happened, and is still happening. I’m fighting an increasing urge to open the first book and start editing again. Off the top of my head, I can think of two changes I could make. How many more would I find if I were to scour the manuscript? Dozens, maybe. Hundreds, perhaps. I’d hate to start working on it again, because pretty much everything else will come to a halt.

I can’t decide if I should listen to my inner critic because it alone will know when the story is truly finished, or if I should ignore it because my obsessiveness / anxiety / fear will doom me to a lifetime of “it’s not good enough.”

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Trial By Fire

I spent the afternoon doing writerly things that unfortunately did not include any actual writing. I figure that I should spend some time gearing up for the business of writing, or I’m never going to get anywhere. I read up on the process of finding an agent, tips on crafting a query letter and a synopsis, and what to expect if an agent responds positively. Last time I queried some agents, I received the standard form letter rejections from all of them except for the one who didn’t respond at all.

Taking a break from that, I spent some time searching out potential magazine markets for short stories. One of them I found, AlienSkin Magazine, offers an intriguing alternative to the standard rejection letter. For those souls hearty enough to withstand outright humiliation (in the interest of learning how to be a better writer, ostensibly,) they offer the Zap Room. Simply mark your submission with the phrase “Zap Me” in the subject line or on the cover page, and if your story is really bad, they will provide a thorough critique. The catch is that the critique is posted on their web site, along with the story itself.

It’s sort of like appearing on American Idol, where your humiliation may be shared with the world. Why would someone sign up for that treatment? Well, it does offer the chance to receive actual feedback on your rejected story. The question is whether that sort of feedback is better than none at all. I’m leaning toward “yes,” but I’m a glutton for punishment.

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While preparing to send stories out in hopes of finding publication, I’ve searched online for advice on constructing a cover letter and general tips for submitting fiction to magazines and journals. Along the way, I happened across a number of lists of things not to do and stories not to write. For some reason, these lists amused me, so I thought I’d share. The following examples are from Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine.

From the non-horror list:

17. An alien observes and comments on the peculiar habits of humans, for allegedly comic effect.

a. The alien is fluent in English and completely familiar with various English idioms, but is completely unfamiliar with human biology and/or with such concepts as sex or violence and/or with certain specific extremely common English words (such as “cat”).

b. The alien takes everything literally.

c. Instead of an alien, it’s people in the future commenting on the ridiculous things (usually including internal combustion engines) that people used to use in the unenlightened past.

It’s funny because I’ve seen a fair number of stories like that. It’s also funny when something that I’ve done makes the list.

13. Office life turns out to be soul-deadening, literally or metaphorically.

But my story about that was really good!

They also have a list for Horror:

5. Person sees mysterious things that nobody else can see.

c. In the end, it turns out the person is crazy.

Yeah, but my story like that was really good!

Anyway, check out the entire lists. They helped me gain a little perspective on my own writing and (hopefully) will steer me in the right direction. (Note: I realize that these lists are the opinions of the editors of this one particular magazine and aren’t some sort of gospel of story ideas to avoid.)

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