Friday, July 29, 2011

Month of Reading All the Books

I've learned by now that life-changing things don't happen all at once, but it's especially noticeable this time. Last week I was scheduling appointments for myself and my future. And this week I'm back to scheduling appointments for my bosses. Pair that up with the natural come-down from a good vacation, and it has a bit of a whiplash effect!

I have a bit of a wait until the next step of the process, but that's not a bad thing. It'll be nice to have a break to detach myself from checking my phone and e-mail every fifteen minutes. But I don't want to use this time to jump headfirst into a new project, either. Once I start something, I like to keep a good momentum throughout. And besides, something tells me I'm going to learn a lot - I want to apply those skills to the new MS!

So instead, I'm going to use my break to do something else very important. I am going to READ ALL THE BOOKS!

... well, okay. Not ALL the books.

I think you guys will understand when I tell you I have a Problem. A Book Problem. In that if I see something I want, I will snatch it up, regardless of how many more books I have waiting for me. This leads to a sizable backlog in my To Read pile. And between a trip to Chamblin Bookmine (pictured above) with my mom, all the free books I snagged in San Diego, and the inevitable trek to the Borders sale, my pile is getting bigger and bigger.

So basically, the Month of Reading All the Books will focus on putting a huge dent in my To Read pile. And personally, I can't wait! I hope to recommend some of my favorites on here, but I am notoriously bad about writing coherent reviews for books I love. It usually ends up as me saying, "This is the best. THE BEST. ashgfjksksgl;dsd." But I will certainly try!

Feel free to join me!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

I don't believe in fairy tales

At least, not where publishing is concerned. True, some people have those fairy tale-esque success stories, but those stories have a lot of hard work behind them. Those people wrote, completed, and edited a novel. It's not something that just happens to you.

As for me, I've had just about as many failures as successes. One of those successes even involves a failure. I chose the college I attended partially because they had a creative writing thesis program that focused on writing a novel - I had a trunk manuscript under my belt at that point, but I couldn't wait to work with someone who really knew what they were doing. I started gathering up my required workshop credits right away, but when I tried to get into the fiction workshop during the second semester of my freshman year, there were 40 applicants and 12 slots. After the "audition class," I found out that I didn't make the cut.

I sent a thank you e-mail to the teacher for the fun class, and he told me that with all the upperclassmen applying, it wouldn't have been fair to pick a freshman. "Try again next year," he said. "I won't say no again."

I did. And he didn't. And it was a little bit sweeter because I knew I'd worked for it.

I didn't have a lot of other successes in that program. I was turned down for the thesis program, and their reasons were as follows: because I chose to study abroad for a semester in junior year rather than take another workshop, and because my work was too 'plot-driven.' Once I finally picked myself up off the floor, I discussed it with my (awesome) fiction teacher. He told me, very gently, as if he was trying not to offend me: "I really think you're more of a commercial fiction writer."

I count that as a success, since I took it as a compliment.

In any case, I didn't want to stall just because the program wouldn't take me. I went to Tokyo, and I wrote another manuscript. I finished it a few months after returning to America, and started sending out the query with dreams of those fairy tale success stories I'd always heard about...

... and was promptly smacked in the face by five back-to-back form rejections.

Thankfully, I was at least smart enough that it only took five. I took my query to my awesome fiction teacher to tear apart. It was a fabulously helpful and torturous experience; he's not a fan of fantasy, so to even explain the book to him made me very self-conscious. But it worked. I sent another round of queries, and I got my first full request from one of the top agents on my list.

I knew it wouldn't work out from the beginning. This agent was so far out of my league, he was in the stratosphere. But again, I remembered those fairy tale success stories and dared to hope.

He decided to pass, but with some of the most dizzying compliments I'd ever received. I sent a thank you e-mail. He didn't say "I won't say no again," but somewhere in the back of my mind, it echoed.

That was the highest point of the submission process. On some level, after his rejection, I knew this wouldn't be the one, but it took me five months and many more rejections to accept it. I had other requests, but his comments were still the nicest and most enthusiastic. I wanted that first agent to see my next MS. I wrote another novel, one that I really loved. I sent it out. I got many more requests within 20 queries that I'd gotten within 70 last time. But I was very careful not to get carried away. I took a much more philosophical approach: I was going to go with whatever happened, and keep working at it regardless.

Two weeks ago, things finally started to move - but not in that fairy tale, "seven offers within a week" way. I actually got an offer for revisions. Since I couldn't find many accounts of what to do in that case, I didn't have many guidelines. Afterward, I saw a post saying you shouldn't nudge other agents if you get a request for revisions, but I did, and I don't regret it at all. Even if they rejected me, I would feel more comfortable with that than yanking the manuscript out from under them if they were still interested. And as it turned out, none of them did - they all wanted to revise with me. And at the same time all of this was going on, I ended up with another request for material, so it ended up turning into chaos. Very flattering chaos.

I don't want to name names, but everyone I spoke to that week was amazing. Absolutely amazing, professional, and utterly made of class. It was such a hard decision, I can't imagine how people sort through multiple offers. But there was one agent in particular who was the most enthusiastic, not only to work with the project, but to work with me. It was that first agent, who requested my first MS over a year ago.

I may still believe in fairy tales a little after all.

I've been given such a wonderful opportunity. I can't wait to see where it leads!

(And by the way - those of you who know who I'm working with - I'm keeping it quiet on here for now. Superstitious, I know, but it would feel like pushing my luck!)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My query!

Hey guys! Sorry for the long radio silence. I was on vacation for two weeks - one week with my parents in Florida, and one in beautiful San Diego, California. And also, some of you may have seen my various cryptic comments about good news. There have been many more developments since my last post. Expect to see a post about that within the next few days. But know that it's pretty awesome stuff!

And in the meantime, I wanted to share my query with you all! It is certainly not perfect, but it lead to my... good news. (I know, I'm such a tease.) Also, compared to the query from my last project, the difference in request rates was about 40%. Maybe that means the premise was more intriguing, but I like to think I got better at queries? Maybe? I will still always be jealous of people with the ability to write kickass queries, though. (THE LIAR SOCIETY, SOULLESS, Gennifer Albin's upcoming CREWEL... I could go on, but we'd be here a while.)

Anyway. Here's mine!

Dear [Fabulous Literary Agent],

The city of Surya was devoured by the ground itself. Sixteen-year-old Kalinda grew up hearing the story, but she doesn't believe it - no one does anymore. And even if it were true, no one’s been down to the ground for hundreds of years. They’re supposed to be safe.

When the entire population of a nearby city vanishes overnight, Kalinda sees the parallels to Surya, but she volunteers for the search team anyway. Her dream of joining the prestigious Inspectors force might be out of her reach - young and female isn't a winning combination, and her own self-doubt isn't helping - but maybe this way she can help someone. That is, if there's anyone left to help. The city lies undisturbed, as if everyone suddenly stood up and walked away.

But the city isn't empty. Its people reappear at sunset, replaying the moments before their disappearance. Piecing these echoes together may be the only way to figure out what happened that night. But the more Kalinda learns, the more she suspects that someone tried to recreate Surya - and she knows how that story ended. The missing people might be beyond her help after all. But to run away means proving her worst fear true: that she's as weak as everyone thinks she is.

At least she got her wish. Someone's finally noticed her.

THE HUNGRY GROUND is a young adult fantasy manuscript with elements of horror. It is complete at 74,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Now, this is obviously the bare bones format, but that last paragraph has lots of space for personalization.

I think this is probably the eighth draft or so. I stuck fairly close to the first draft for the first six revisions, until I was told to start from scratch. My first reaction was, "But... but it took me so long to get even this far!" But as soon as I started rewriting, it really clicked for me. So if you struggle with queries like I do and find yourself repeatedly hitting a wall, definitely try starting over. It really frees things up.

That's it for me today. Stay tuned for the good news!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Music and writing

Wow! It appears that I have followers all of a sudden! Welcome, guys!

Sorry for the radio silence on this end. Had a fairly intense couple of days at work last week, but now I am on VACATION and everything is beautiful! I also got some good news on the submission front yesterday... not an offer, but definitely some interesting and exciting things ahead, and a lot to think about this week. I can't wait to tell you guys what pans out.

In the meantime, I thought I would post about one of my favorite aspects of brainstorming: the soundtrack. I love making playlists for my stories. Sometimes I have specific character and relationship songs, but they generally follow a feeling more than anything else. The Grandmaster Draw playlist was surreal and creepy, and The Hungry Ground playlist had some dark, moody songs and some fast-paced chase music. My current project... mostly steals from the 'surreal and creepy' playlist, actually, but since it takes place in Tokyo, I got to use a lot of Japanese pop, too.

But there's always one song that I can play on repeat for days while I brainstorm for a project - the unofficial theme song. My favorite project theme song from my Hungry Ground playlist: Howl, by Florence and the Machine

What's your project's theme song?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Writing primal fears

Have you seen the trailer from the upcoming movie Are You Afraid of the Dark yet?

I wasn't aware of it until the other night, when I had the TV on while typing up a scene I wrote at work. I was really just using the TV for background music, and I wasn't paying very close attention. At that point, a truncated version of this trailer came on. (Or maybe the rest of the trailer played and I just didn't notice it? It wouldn't be terribly surprising.)

Anyway, I saw the last 30 seconds or so of this trailer here, where the young protagonist is crawling under her bed, you see her pushing her way through the sheets, and... well, after that, I was definitely paying attention. My mom and I actually texted each other at the same time to say, "Uh, did you see that?"

It all made sense when I saw that Guillermo del Toro had a hand in it. The horror auteur is best known for nightmare-inducing movies like The Orphanage, The Devil's Backbone, and of course, Pan's Labyrinth. But it got me thinking about writing horror.

Of all fiction, I think horror is the most subjective, because fear is one of the most subjective emotions there is. As a lover of all things creepy, I can't tell you how many times I've watched/read a scary story and thought, "I wish there was more of [this] and less of [that]." I complain about it so often that when I got that reaction to my own manuscript recently, it made me laugh. It's karma!

But there's a vein of horror that runs through almost everyone: primal fears. Stories that tap into the nightmares of our childhoods and bring them back in full force. A primal fear turns the familiar into the unfamiliar, and turns our safe places into the most dangerous. Here are some of my favorite uses in books and movies. (Beware of spoilers!)

Coraline: The entire premise, full stop. The most terrifying thing about the world behind the door is that it's so similar to Coraline's own, even better - but the sinister undercurrent runs through the story from the beginning. The movie is great for the chilling visuals, but I love the tension in Gaiman's rich prose.

Ju-on/The Grudge: This movie scared me so badly in high school, I watched it over and over to inoculate myself to it. Nowadays I generally just torture people by imitating the onryo-style death rattle, but there's one sequence that I still admire for how thoroughly it terrifies people. One of the characters is chased home by the vengeful ghost, and to calm herself down, she climbs into bed and turns on the TV. The news reporter's face slowly distorts into a twisted, horrific image, and when the character hides under the covers, she finds the ghost in her bed with her. I feel like every other J-horror movie is just trying to recreate this scene.

The Monkey's Paw: In this classic short story, the main characters come by a talisman that grants their wishes in all the wrong ways. When one wish takes the life of their son, the mother wishes him back to life, but the father, knowing that their son has come back wrong, uses their last wish to send him back. There are two things about this that still make me shiver: the idea that someone you know and love can be changed that way, and the fact that the protagonists never see their 'resurrected' son. It's really no wonder that the climactic scene has inspired so many homages, including a Buffy episode.

The Orphanage: On the whole, I find this movie more sad than scary, but it has a few classic scares (read: Tomas in general, my God.) But I think my favorite part is when the protagonist plays Red Light Green Light with the spirits of the orphans. Childhood games in general are a goldmine for traumatic scares - especially since so many of them have darker undertones.

Lake Mungo: This littler-known Australian horror film is much more low-key than the others on this list. The focus of the faux-documentary is mostly on the grief of a middle-class family after their daughter drowns. But the movie's implication that death is something that follows you stayed with me much more effectively than any scene in Final Destination ever did. And the personification of death... I won't spoil it, but it's a perfect example of the familiar turned unfamiliar.

The Shining: If you're about to tell me that you can turn a corner in a quiet hotel without hesitating a little, you are such a liar. "Come play with us, Danny. Forever... and ever... and ever..."

Oops - that got long. As you can see, I'm a little passionate about horror! If any of you are still with me, what are some of your favorite primal fear-related scares in fiction?