Reading Debut Novels – 2017

As someone who would like to have a debut novel someday, I read the first book of several authors this year, and tried to read them as a writer.  What was it about these books that first grabbed an agent’s attention, then a publisher’s attention?  Was it possible I could do what they did someday?  My last reading post for the old year highlights debut novels.

Dissension, by Stacey Berg

Stacey is an author I’ve followed for some time on Twitter:  @slbscifi.  (She followed me back, so I’m not a total stalker.)  Berg is not only an author of speculative fiction YA books, but is also a medical researcher.  As a chemical engineer who dabbles in speculative fiction, I look to her as a role model for how one might balance a left brain career and a right brain writing avocation.

I love YA fiction, so enjoyed diving into Dissension.  It’s set in a post apocalyptic world where “the church” has taken over directing the survival of humanity.  The main character, Echo, is responsible for protecting the church and the populous.  Berg has created an engaging innovative world and Echo vacillates between being a heroine and an anti-heroine as the story unfolds.  The story was engaging, so I also read Berg’s second book, Regeneration.

From Berg I’ve learned that if you are a science person, you do not have to write fiction in your non-writer area of expertise.  Yes, there are medical aspects of Berg’s books that are important, but that is not what her story is about.  However, her books have a scientific quality that I enjoy:  they are organized and logical.  Understanding that my background can influence my writing but doesn’t need to limit my writing is a valuable lesson from Berg’s works.

I found Berg through Mary C. Moore, an agent I paid to review the first 10 pages of my novel, because I’m not just stalking authors through this little experiment of mine, I’m also looking for an agent who represents books similar to mine.

Mrs. Kimbel, by Jennifer Haigh

Ah, this Jennifer Haigh lady.  She taught me so much last year!  She taught me to find my keystone works for my own books – books that write the way I want my story told.  Then she taught me how she wrote her first book in a way she would never write a book again.  Mrs. Kimbel is a story is of three women, all married to the same man.  It was written as three discreet longish short stories that Haigh had to cram together into a novel: not a process she recommends.  It’s an interesting book, but outside of my normal preferred genre and style.  If you are a lover of interpersonal stories, I highly recommend it.  If you normally read crazy sci fi, epic fantasy, and apocalyptic fiction, maybe skip it.

Because Haigh was so negative about her process creating this first book, I wasn’t sure what I would learn from it.  But books never fail to inspire.  Haigh is a single woman with no kids and no career other than writing.  In her class I learned that she has eschewed a “traditional” life in favor of being a writer.  Writing is her priority.  So, I was surprised that her book about relationships and motherhood felt true.  Whenever an author believably writes about an experience they have not had I feel permission to write prose outside of my own life experiences.

Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi

I adore John Scalzi.  I follow his blog.  I read his tweets.  I reply to his tweets.  (He replied back once, again proving to me that I’m not a total online stalker.)  I also love his books.  They feel like stories that actually happen.

Agent to the Stars, Scalzi’s first novel, is a funny little book about a Hollywood agent who represents an alien.  The book allows the reader to experience human first contact with a non-threatening new life-form.  True to Scalzi’s other works, it’s funny and unexpected.  The audiobook is a joy to listen to, read by Will Wheaton: one of my favorite readers.

From Scalzi’s first book, I learned about voice.  People have told me that my writing has “a good voice.”  I’ve read that agents are looking for works that are more than just technically accurate: they need a voice.  But voice is one of those nebulous things like love or faith or parenthood that you have to experience to understand.  Because I’ve read so much Scalzi has written I was able to sense his voice even in this first novel, and I think I understand the concept better now.  All Scalzi’s works are irreverent, unexpected, and highlight details other authors might gloss over.  Those details make his stories real, which I love.  From his first novel, Scalzi had voice, and maybe now I understand mine a bit better.

I learned so many different things from my first-book experiment, so am continuing it in 2018.  I just finished Point of Direction, a book by Rachel Weaver who is an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member.  I wanted to read Weaver’s book because she’s someone I can take writing classes from, and even ask annoying questions in person: an invaluable resource for the aspiring novelist.

My second planned first-book for 2018 is Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra.  (She’s a WordPress blogger too.)  I also found Mehrotra through Mary C. Moore, who recommended Mehrotra’s author website as one of her favorites.  Expecting some whiz-bang super-designed wonder, I was happy to see that Mehrotra’s site was well organized and easy to read, but not unobtainable.  I also found her site to be a wonderful resource for potential publication journals and she’s taught me what it looks like to be a more grown-up writer than myself.  Again, I follow Mehrotra on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra – yes, she follows back – and have loved virtually celebrating the publication Markswoman.  (It just came out this past Tuesday, but it’s been so exciting to watch the pre-publication build up.)  I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn from this read.

That’s it.  All my reading analysis for 2017: the good, the bad, and the debut.  For 2018 I’m already 7 books in, and after Markswoman I’m going to dive into an Ursla K Le Guin story or two.  Shockingly, as a lover of speculative fiction, I’ve never read anything by her, and her death this week revealed what an inspiration she was to authors I love.  My bookstack is full, as always, with new stories to love and learn from.  Let me know if there’s anything you’ve read that I should add to the stack.

 

Books that Inspired my Writing – 2017

I am coming up on six years of being a writer.  On February 20, 2012 I put words to paper for my first – still incomplete – novel.  Since then I have not yet published anything (except this lovely blog) but I have finished writing two short stories; finished a second novel;  started three other short stories; and have four rejections to my name.  While my publishing may have been limited, 2017 was a big learning year for me, and from that learning, I am hoping to get two pieces polished in 2018 and start circulating them through the journals I’ve identified as good fits for my work.

One evolutionary writing step happened this year, when mid-book I would switch into reading-as-a-writer mode. As I read, I’d start thinking about what the author was doing, and learn from that new perspective.  Below are 3 works that helped me grow as a writer in 2017.

Slade House, by David Mitchell

I didn’t know reading-as-a-writer was a real thing, until I saw a talk by Jennifer Haigh.  Part of her process is to find keystone works.  Not books she wants to copy, but books that do something well that is relevant to her work, and new to her, such as using the first person point-of-view or being set in the same time period.  Her recommendation was to find this keystone book, dissect it, take notes, and learn how a published author accomplished the task you are attempting.

As an avid reader, this process makes sense to me.  While most writing books stress that you have to read to be a writer – a writing skill I’ve always been good at, the not-writing one – they don’t tell you what to do with all that reading.  But now I know there is a catalog of works in my head that I can refer to as a writer when I’m trying to do something new.  That said, sometimes fate and the muses smile and the right book falls in your lap at the right time.

That’s what happened with Slade House.  I’d just finished reading it when I saw Haigh’s talk.  Instantly I realized that I’d just read a keystone book for my in-progress novel.  Slade House is set in five vignettes spaced exactly nine years apart.  Each section is told in the same setting and has common characters, which is exactly what my book does, but in annual increments.  I was struggling with how to size each mini-story, and keep the pace moving, which Slade House does incredibly well.  There were mini-climax moments in each time period, but the overall plot of the book escalated up to the final climax in the last year.  Again, this is exactly how I want my book paced.  Based on Haigh’s suggestion I got out my note-cards and spreadsheets and analyzed how Mitchell created his story.   I now have a guide for how to move my story along, avoid repetition in my world building, and write something that might work for publication.  Oh, and that elusive comparable title I’ll need for querying agents?  Done.

The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book could have gone on my list of most hated books for 2017.  Bacigalupi wrote a novel about climate change, a topic about which I am both passionate and have close to expert knowledge, and I hated it.  Best of all, I read this for my beloved Apocalyptic Fiction class, so I got to publicly explain my loathing, which is why magic happened.

It’s easy to hate a book.  It’s easy to dismiss the author, say they suck, and quit reading.  It’s hard to sit in a class for three weeks and tease out the exact moments that turned you off, then dissect those moments, then hear other’s contrasting opinions, then have an epiphany, then explain to the other writers in class  your epiphany: real characters and believable interaction are more important to me than plot or world building or theme or language or anything.

The moment when Bacigalupi’s tortured heroine springs from the chair she’s been strapped to and starts cleaning out her rescuer’s bullet wound made me want to throw my Kindle across the room.  People do not act that way.  People do not jump up when they have been physically tortured to care for some person they might have a crush on.  Women do not dismiss off their oozing wounds, throw a shirt on over their naked torso and become ad hoc medical professionals.  I do not want to write unbelievable scenes like that.  I want humanity.  I want you to feel the desperation of torture, experience the burgeoning attraction between the heroine and her rescuer, understand the agony of pulling a shirt on over shredded skin, and realize, with the heroine, that her survival requires that her rescuer doesn’t die.  That is how I wanted the story told, and I am so grateful for Bacigalupi doing it in the completely wrong way, so I can understand my values as a writer and how I want my story told.

I will never read that book again.  If I had a paper copy I would  have composted it to save others from having to read it, but I am a much better writer for having struggled through the reading and understanding.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle

Do you ever doubt yourself as a writer?  Do you ever want to quit and do something sensible?  When this happens, go find Madeline L’Engle’s 1963 Newbery Medal Acceptance speech.  Unfortunately, it’s been removed from her website, but it is published in the back of the 50th anniversary paperback edition of A Wrinkle in Time.  It’s worth a trip to your local library to find it, but don’t read it in the stacks or you might find yourself crying next to children looking for the dinosaur book section.

The section that matters to me begins with a quote that is now hung up next to my writing desk, “Most of what is best in writing isn’t done deliberately.”  L’Engle goes on to talk about her writing of A Wrinkle in Time and says, “I can’t possibly tell you how I came to write it.  It was simply a book I had to write.  I had no choice.”  I read these words – the words of an author I have loved since I was a child, the words of the first author I ever met in person – when I was ready to give up on my stories.  I found the process of editing too hard.  I was never going to be any good at grammar.  I had totally screwed up and published the first draft of my best short story on my blog and no one was ever going to publish it.  I was just wasting my time.  Again, the muses smiled on me when I decided to read one of my favorite childhood books and then thumb past the reader’s guide to find inspiration when I needed it most.

I write like Madeline L’Engle writes.  I write because I have a story I have to tell.  Maybe no one but me and my mom will ever read my stories – and she won’t even read the dentist one – but a Newbery Medal winner feels about writing the same way I do.  Reading her speech kept 2017 from being the year I quit writing.

In 2017 I found a book to show me how to architect my novel.  I found I book where I learned how not to write.  And I found a book that inspired me to keep writing.  What did you read this year that changed you?

A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.

– Madeline L’Engle, 1963 Newbury Medal Award Speech

Rejection Therapy via Twitter

I’ve been dipping my toe into the very scary world of publishing, because writing is a funny thing.  The more I meet other writers, both online and in person, the more I realize we are all different and all motivated by different things.  (Not shocking, since we are all people, who are inherently different and motivated by different things.)  In my heart of hearts, I put words on paper so other people can experience the stories and worlds I create.  It turns out that other writers are happy to write just for the process of writing.  This I find fascinating, even while I’m a little jealous, and a baffled by their opinion.

For the longest time — going on 3 years folks — this blog has served as a way to get my stuff read, but I’ve always known there were other works I wanted to get out there:  the novel and a half I have moldering in my desk drawer; the four short stories in different phases of editing.  I also know that I have a leaning toward traditional publishing.  Even having heard all the horror stories I am a firm believer in the power of collaboration.  In my dreams, I want an experienced team of publishing people behind me and my books.  (Again, guess what?  Not all writers feel this way.  Some are passionate about publishing independently, and I watch their process eagerly, because as I learn I might change my mind.)

Therefore, to achieve my current goals, I need to build a portfolio of published works.  I need to prove to myself and to editors, agents and publishing houses that what I write is worth reading.  Many of these path-forward insights have come though:

  • Reading books (Stephen King’s On Writing is still my favorite);
  • Agent blogs and twitter feeds (I have learned so much from Mary C. Moore’s blog );
  • Author’s sites and twitter feeds (Represented by Mary and Kimberley Cameron & AssociatesRati Mehrotra has a great WordPress blog and her first novel will be out January of 2018.  I’m loving watching her go through the publishing process  I’ve also learned from her, and have mined her past posts for potential places to target my short stories.)

To build my portfolio, I’ve started submitting my short stories to journals, and I’m starting to amass rejections.  (Four so far.)  I found out about my most recent submission site, PodCastle, through Rati’s blog.  In September they were accepting submissions for their Artemis Rising event which celebrates women identified fantasy writers, so I took a deep breath, did some wordsmithing (my story was 1700 words and they wanted at least 2000) and I submit right before the deadline.

Then Twitter provided me with some really amazing facts, because you see, I follow PodCastle and their parent organization Escape Artists Inc.  Here’s what I learned about the Artemis Rising submission process:

Whoa, I’ve got to say, I love this type of information, and appreciate that Escape Artists provided it.  It’s way easier to look at stats like this and accept that your story might be good, but still be rejected.  Then layer on that for PodCastle, which I submit to, there were over 200 submissions for 4 fantasy slots: data also reported on Twitter. My odds abruptly went down to a less than 2% chance of acceptance. Then four days after I submit, my odds went down to 0% with a rejection.

“It’s an interesting story, but it didn’t quite come together for us and we’ve decided to pass on it.”

But that’s a fair rejection.  I dumped 300 new words into what was a lean and mean story to try and make it meet the word-count requirements of Artemis Rising.  In hindsight —  now that it has been rejected — I wish I hadn’t submitted.  I wish I would have waited until PodCastle opened back up for normal submissions, so I could have submitted the shorter version of the story I worked really hard to tune and tone.  But the twitter thread from Artemis Rising continued.

Isn’t that sweet of them.  They made me proud of me, and inspired me.  And you know what? The rejection note continued too:

“We appreciate your interest in our podcast; thanks again for giving us the chance to look at your story.”

That’s when my epiphany happened. Someone read my story. Sure, they read my story and decided that it wasn’t in the top 2%, but they read it. And if you remember way back at the top, I said, “I put words on paper so other people can experience the stories and worlds I create.” Well, someone experienced my story and said it was interesting. Sure, it wasn’t the most interesting, but that’s okay. My first goal is to get a rejection that has some specific direction to how I can improve my work. My next goal is to get an acceptance. But the only way either of those will happen is if I keep letting people read my stories.  Which is great.  Because I want people to read my stories.  So I’ll keep submitting and editing and hoping my work finds a good fit.

(Of course, I’m not a total Pollyanna.  The rejections hurt, and it would be so much better if I got published, because then even MORE people will get to read my stories, but one step at a time.  This writing stuff is a process, and while I #amwriting, I also #amlearning, and that’s fun too.)

#amlearning and #amsharing

The bathtub at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, otherwise known as my favorite place in the world.  I have not yet figured out how to take a bath in this old clawfoot tub, but I did manage to decorate it with a fluffy towel and a bar of Writer’s Block soap.
The past few months have been slow from a writing perspective, but huge from a learning perspective.  I had my eight week apocalyptic fiction class followed by a two week LitFest: both hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member.  In one of my workshops, my instructor, Rachel Weaver, gave me words to salve my guilt for not writing much lately when she suggested we think of the writing process as seasonal:  imagining, writing, editing, learning, and (someday) publishing.  If all you do is sit down and write, write, write you actually will never publish anything.  There are other seasons.  So here on the solstice of my learning season I wanted to share with you readers some of the most thought provoking lessons of the past 12 weeks.

Finding Scriptures

Jennifer Haigh taught me to find my writing scriptures.  These are works that address one of the challenges you, as a writer, have with a particular work.  Maybe you’ve never written in first person before and your story is in first person.  Find a book that reflects your desired point of view and really break it down to understand how the author accomplished what you want to do.  Learn from them and let their accomplishment teach you how you can do the same.  You aren’t copying, they are your guideposts.  That said, don’t use paralyzing books as scriptures – you know, the ones that are so good that you want to quit writing and go read under a bridge.

Wowing Agents

The Nelson Agency sat for an hour and showed a room of writers how agents read the slush pile.  Each attendee was invited to bring 1-2 pages from a work and the agents would evaluate manuscripts live.  The two agents, Joanna MacKenzie and Kristen Nelson, were brutally honest in their evaluations.  In the twenty five(ish) manuscripts they reviewed only one would have even received a second look.  Was it mine, you ask?  No.  Because I learned a hard lesson this day.  I only provided one copy of my manuscript, while the instructions distinctly said two copies.  Only one copy equals no evaluation.  As writers we are told again and again to follow submission instructions to a tee, and I’m normally very careful, but this day I was in a rush so I messed up.  Next time, when it really counts, I’ll do better.  However I learned from other’s works as well:

  • For your first novel you really only have 1-2 paragraphs to grab the agent’s attention so do not:
    • Spend the whole opening in narrative or telling
    • Jump into backstory
    • Change point of view
    • Create unnecessary confusion with the reader
    • Tell the reader how they should be feeling
    • Have the character not do anything
  • Do:
    • Create an emotional response
    • Create something interesting
    • Create tension
    • Make the readers want to learn more
    • Have a strong voice
    • Anchor your character in place and time
    • Put your reader with the characters.  Remove the distance.

For those of you who despise the idea of writing to a “formula” for an agent, Rachel Weaver put things into perspective.  She said that you only have two paragraphs to get your first agent, so do everything you can to make your debut novel as readable as possible.  Then have faith in yourself that once you have an established readership you’ll be able to be more creative.

Random other tidbits

  • Sometimes you don’t need to edit.  You need to rewrite.  That involves putting your manuscript aside and actually retyping from scratch the scenes you wrote the first time, or making a new scene, or combining several scenes into one.  Not everything can be fixed by moving words around on a screen  – Vicki Lidner
  • You have to earn emotional scenes in your work, otherwise you risk sounding sappy, trite, or melodramatic, which will make a reader put down an otherwise amazing work.  Make sure the reader is invested in the character before you create scenes of happiness, love, nostalgia, or sentimentality.  Never forget that tension, even in these sentimental scenes, adds power so layer happiness and sadness together.  – Alexander Lumans
  • When editing, there is an arc where your writing becomes better, then just different, then worse.  Stop when you are in the different stage.  – Rachel Weaver
  • If you write something and it just sucks, don’t stop.  Call that section a “placeholder” and go back and fix it later.   Also know that early dialogue is always a placeholder. –  Rachel Weaver
  • Introduce your characters the way you would introduce yourself.  Don’t provide pages of backstory and details the first time you write a character or risk him/her being the person no one wants to talk to or read about.  – Rachel Weaver
  • What is the difference between showing and telling?  Envision this.  You are standing outside of a house where an amazing party is going on.  A man approaches and says, “Wow, there is a great party inside.  There is a world renowned DJ and all these famous people are joyously dancing to his mixes.  The food is the best thing anyone has ever eaten and it is paired with delicious drinks.  Everyone there is having the best time of their lives.”  That is telling.  Showing happens when you get to go to the party.  Let your readers go to the party.  – Rachel Weaver

Now, with all that newfound knowledge I #amwriting and I #amediting, and I’m doing both in a way that feels more productive and inspired.  The seasons are changing in Afthead-land.

True Happiness

When I am truly happy it’s a warmth that starts in my pelvis and spreads up through my sternum, but never reaches my heart.  My heart does not burst with cliche happiness.  It’s a much more primal emotion, and feels like someone has spread Bengay on my insides and slightly inflated me, but imagine the best possible feeling that could describe, not the torture version of inflated insides coated in Bengay.  Sometimes the happiness builds enough pressure that it seeps out my eyes.  I can describe this emotion today, because I am sitting here feeling it.

Why am I happy?  My life is filled with extraordinary people right now, and those people have caused a confluence of extraordinary experiences over the past two days.

Yesterday I planned a team outing for the amazing people I work with.  We were going out for a late lunch, partially to remember one of our colleagues who died a few years ago, and partially because we just needed to enjoy a good meal together away from the oppressive angst and uncertainty that currently permeates our workplace.  We also needed to celebrate.  An app 18 months in the making was finally approved by legal and went live on the Google Play store.  Funding that I have been fighting to get in the door for almost a year had arrived, and was enough to pay for two of us for a year.  If the looming budget cuts come, that money will save jobs.

Then my team turned the tables on me, morphing the lunch into a celebration of me, complete with a card, gifts, and a heartfelt gratitude for all I do for the team.  I was emotionally wrought and working off of four hours of sleep, so the fact that I did not break out in tears was a remarkable accomplishment.  Compounding the emotion was that because of Tuesday, I finally understood an additional facet of what I provide to the team.

Tuesday was my last Apocalyptic Fiction writing class, and while I never did accomplish my goal of being able to spell apocalyptic without the aid of spell check, I learned so much more.

  • I saw my own struggle in other’s writings, and through reviewing their work learned how I can improve.
  • I learned that I am terrible at identifying if a title is an apocalyptic novel or a death metal band.
  • While reading a book I despise I learned what I value as a reader and a writer
  • I learned that “bestseller” doesn’t mean “everyone likes this book.”  Related, I learned that I respect and value the opinion of people who like books I hate and people who hate books I like.
  • The utter terror I had sharing my work was replaced by the wonder of having people I trust not just enjoy my work, but provide thoughtful criticism on how to make that work better.  I also learned the value of giving and receiving feedback to and from other writers.
  • I learned that my love of maps can enhance my writing capabilities.  Sigh.  I love maps.
  • Through reading my classmates’ work I now understand why tension is important, what it means to have backstory delivered at the right time, how to convey information by both showing and telling, how to see the structure of a story though the mess of a draft, and why a story that has soul can pull readers in even in the early stages.

All of this was made possible, because our instructor Alexander Lumans built a supportive and encouraging environment where risks and experimentation were encouraged.  Couple that with a group of respectful, creative, engaged students and literal magic happened in our classroom for eight weeks.  Time stopped.  Worlds were built and dreams were formulated.  When there wasn’t magic, there was just great conversation.  We debated about the quality of the books we read and learned from our disagreements.  Beverage was not spewed out noses, but there was enough laughter to make that risk very real.

When the last class was over we spilled out of our couch and chair filled stuffy classroom into the real world and discovered that we liked each other as people too, not just writers.  The conversation flowed through writing, reading, television, videos, circuses, clowns, the cat in the hat, jobs, careers, and life’s injustices until the wee hours of the morning.

Walking to my car with one of my classmates I said, “I’m really glad that by the end Lumans became more than just our teacher.”  Those words came back to me at lunch on Wednesday.  I am wickedly horrible at self understanding, but a keen observer.  Often I have to see something in others before I can recognize it in myself.  Sitting at lunch I could understand how my team felt about me, and I could see ways I could make my work relationships richer through implementing what I appreciated from Lumans leadership in our class.

New friends?  A better understanding of how to improve my work relationships?  True excitement about my writing projects?  Hope of my new friends creating a writing group?  What an absolute gift the universe has given me this week in the form of two spectacular groups of people willing to open up and appreciate each other.  I’m filled with joy, trust and hope.  If that isn’t true happiness, I’m not sure what is.