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critique

Finding Good

For my last post, I felt a bit down about the constant ugliness in the world. I didn’t want to link to the specific issues that bugged me because I didn’t want to give them any more coverage. So I challenged myself to find good things happening. People helping people, instead of tearing each other down. Today I want to share two of those Good Things.

One day this week, the person in front of me paid for my latte at Starbucks. It took me by surprise, even though it’s happened to me before, and even though I’ve done the same thing on occasion. Confession: I did not offer to pay for the person behind me. It struck me in that moment that those of us in line at Starbucks, myself included, could afford to pay for our own overpriced coffees. But what about the people who are truly hungry, sleeping on the sidewalks downtown?

My first thought was to take a donation to our local food bank. I came home, researched, and found a partner of our local organization, called Farm Share. Farm Share focuses on distributing fresh fruits and vegetables in bulk to agencies like food banks and soup kitchens with no fees. Farm Share is an exciting organization, and just the kind of thing I want to support. So, no, I didn’t pay for the next latte in line at Starbucks. But it did spur me to make a donation to Farm Share when I got home. For every $10 donated, Farm Share distributes 110 pounds of food. That sure sounds like a Good Thing to me. Please click on the link for more information.

In the world of reading and writing, where this blog usually lives, I found my second Good Thing. The We Need Diverse Books Campaign continues to grow. The leap from awareness to action is now providing grants, support, educational kits, and more. Now we can lend our support through the IndieGoGo Fundraising effort here. From swag packs to agent-offered prizes for writers, you can’t go wrong.

I hope you all are out there finding your Good Things, too.

Music for today: Shiny Happy People by R.E.M.

Fall Contest Round-Up

I mentioned in a previous post that I have a thing for contests. It may be time for me to step back and do things the old fashioned way, but as a PSA to all of you out there in the query trenches, here are a few of the amazing contests coming soon to a blog near you!

1. Pitch Slam

This is Leatrice McKinney’s amazing contest that provides feedback in between rounds. This fall’s theme is Agents of Shield, and I can promise she makes every part of the experience amazing. The entry window for 35 word pitches begins October 4, 2014. You must enter the first round to continue, and the first page window begins on October 6. You’ll get feedback on both, with the chance to revise for the final round on October 9. Click here for more information.

2. Nightmare on Query Street

Michelle, Mike, and SC host this fear themed contest. Along with your query and first 250 words, you must include a short paragraph explaining what your main character is most afraid of. The submission window opens on October 19, 2014. Click here for more information.

3. Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction

Miss Snark’s First Victim, Authoress, hosts this event each year. Submissions include a log line and the first 250 words, and there is a $15 entry fee for this one. There will be three rounds available for log line critiques on September 22, October 6, and October 20. Submission dates for the auction are October 28 and October 30 for adult entries and November 4 and November 6 for YA and MG. Click here for more information. 

4. An Agent’s Inbox

Krista Van Dolzer hosts this contest, with submissions of a full query plus the first page. Not for the faint of heart, the agent provides an honest reaction to what works or what doesn’t. September’s agent is Melissa Jeglinski of The Knight Agency. The contest opens Monday, September 22, 2014. Click here for more information.

5. Operation Awesome Mystery Agent

Operation Awesome hosts a mystery agent contest most months of the year. The October lottery is open now until September 25, 2014. Fifty entries will be selected. This month’s agent is looking for MG, YA, women’s fiction, historical fiction, and romance. Entries include a twitter length pitch and the first page of your manuscript. Click here for more information!

6. PitchMas

Hosted by Jessa Russo and Tamara Mataya, this is an awesome December contest. Dates have not yet been set, but you can click here for more information.

Please be sure to check on all the submission guidelines before entering, and feel free to mention any contests I missed in the comments!

Music for today: Butterflies and Hurricanes by Muse

What Really Makes Contests Worth It

Online pitch events are exciting and addictive when you have a query-ready manuscript. Recently we’ve had WriteOnCon, Operation Awesome’s Secret Agent Contest, Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars, and Adventures in YA Publishing’s Pitch Plus Five. And that was just August!

The primary goal of contests seems to be grabbing an agent’s attention and garnering requests for your work. But these four were fabulous for another reason. Each offered feedback before the judged component, often from many critiquers at once.

The multitude of feedback has been a tad overwhelming for me, but also helpful. In the interest of helping and supporting others, when I landed a spot in Pitch Plus Five, I decided to read every entry and give at least one line of response. If you enjoy entering these contests, I highly suggest you try reading all the entries at least once. Here are a few things I learned:

1. It really is subjective.

You can hear it over and over again, but experiencing it first hand gives you new perspective. There were some amazing, well-written pages in Pitch Plus Five that just weren’t for me. I’m not a huge fan of straight historical, and some jump-off-the-page voices just rub me the wrong way. I get that they’re good. I admire them. But they just don’t fit my personal tastes.

2. Contests take more time than you realize.

When I set out to read all entries, the simple math looked like this:

5 pages X 50 entries = 250 pages

Most books I read have more than 250 pages. I should’ve been able to go through them easily in about two days. But starting at the beginning and trying to immerse yourself in a new story takes more time than reading a book straight through. Then you have to think about what you enjoyed and what questions you had to frame your feedback. I didn’t log my time, but it took much more than I expected. Contest judges volunteer their time on an even larger scale. Even if you don’t agree with the feedback you get, you should always appreciate that someone took the time to try to help you. Time that could’ve been spent on their own writing, reading, or outside lives.

3. Your opening pages need to match the tone of your pitch.

In the first round of Pitch Plus Five, you only see the pages. The pitches don’t come in until the second round. For all of my favorites, I got a clear sense of the genre, tone, and the main character without the pitch. For so many others, I felt like I was missing something. I enjoyed many of those pages. But the ones with the clearer tones stood out.

4. Seeing what works and what doesn’t can help you improve as much as a specific crit on your own work.

My top five submissions were in different age groups or genres, but they all had certain things in common. Each pulled me in from the opening paragraph. They gave just a bit of exposition before jumping into the action. None fell into opening chapter cliches, and I didn’t have to go back and re-read sentences for clarity. As I revise this time, I’m trying to check off these items on the list.

If you’re out there in the contest trenches, I wish you luck and throw my support in your corner. I also encourage you to get the most out of the experience, from finding new writer friends to improving your craft.
There are so many ways to win.

Music for today: All the Rage Back Home by Interpol

The Elusive Voice

Source

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on revisions. While incorporating feedback from various sources on my own work, I’ve also critiqued pages for others from a wide range of genres. The elusive voice, the unique filter that makes a work our own, strikes me as both the most difficult thing to revise personally and to address for writing partners.

I love the drafting stage of writing because of the freedom it allows. The words flow unhindered because they can be tightened later. My voice as a writer is born during this stage. In the next phase, through learning and experience, I sculpt the story and the sentences. We have these rules drilled into us: use more active verbs, cut all the adverbs, stay within the restrictions of your point of view, and don’t pull the audience out of the narrative. These stick out in my mind because not only have I heard them in crits, I’ve used them with other people. But sometimes. Sometimes we need to break the rules to develop our voice.

Let’s take a look at the opening lines of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately. 



Gaiman breaks every one of those rules. If I were giving comments on his first page in a blog contest, I could say:

Don’t open with passive voice. You could cut this first line to say, A hand in the darkness held a knife. Look, you even cut words that way! You could cut not immediately, too. Watch out for those adverbs! And four adjectives in the second sentence–try to cut that down to only the most important one. In that third sentence, you address the audience. You could change it to say who specifically would not know they’d been cut. I also don’t really get a sense of character in your first paragraph. Who is this book about?

I felt guilty writing the above paragraph, even in jest, because Gaiman’s opening line and chapter are my absolute favorites. (Not just my favorites of Gaiman’s, but my all time favorites.) Who cares if that first sentence is passive? The rhythm and the image set the perfect eerie tone for the rest of the book. Chills ran down my back the moment I read them for the first time, and I was hooked. And in the end, isn’t that all that really matters? Being able to hook the reader?

I know we have the rules for a reason. I try to be ruthless with the passive voice and the adverbs. But sometimes we just have to trust our own voice as writers to tell the story in our own way, focusing more on our connection with the reader than on murdering all the darlings.

Music for today: Here Comes Your Man by the Pixies.

Pens for Paws 2014

Visit Pens for Paws here

This year’s Pens for Paws Auction is right around the corner!

This online auction, hosted by my friend Angelica R. Jackson, raises funds for Fat Kitty City, a no-kill, cage-free cat (and dog!) sanctuary in El Dorado Hills, California. She has fabulous items for writers and others in the publishing community.

The auction starts next Monday, July 14, with new items added each day through Friday, July 19. Be sure to check it out! Items up for bid include:

Signed copy and poster of Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins

Crit of 25 pages + package of books chosen by Natalie Lakosil of Bradford Literary

Signed copy of Snow Dog, Sand Dog by Linda Joy Singleton

Autographed first editions of Finn Finnegan and Gideon’s Spear by Darby Karchut

Crit of query+10 pages, & ebook collection by Kelley York

Crit of query (5 separate queries) by agent Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary

Critique of 40 pages by agent Tricia Lawrence of Erin Murphy Literary Agency

 

Critique of query + 1st chapter by Brooks Sherman of the Bent Agency

 

Package of books chosen by Pam van Hylckama Vlieg of Foreword Literary, including:

Longing for Home by Sarah Eden

Never Too Late by Rhonda Helms

Prophecy Girl by Cecily White

Olivia Twisted by Vivi Barnes

Free Agent by J.C. Nelson

 

Spencer Hill Press Package, with books, swag, and critiques!

Entangled Books package!

Critique of query + 1st 15 pages from Jessica Watterson of Dijkstra Literary Agency

Operation Awesome package, including critiques, books, ebooks, swag, and more!

First-print copies of The Lives of Tao and The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

Be one of the first in (the virtual) line to get a signed copy of Lark Rising by Sandra Waugh!

Signed books from the Otherkin series by Nina Berry!

Advanced Readers Copy of Sacrifice by Brigid Kemmerer!

Please join in to help the kitties!