In Praise of #MSWL Day

Tomorrow is another Manuscript Wish List Day on Twitter, and I just wanted to take a moment to praise this concept. I cannot recommend highly enough that aspiring writers follow the #MSWL tag. Without it, I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to find Connor. I’m sure I would have, eventually, through sheer process of elimination as I worked through everyone in the industry, but #MSWL led me to him a lot faster. Though I didn’t end up sending a query letter to him until several weeks later, as I was in the process of re-drafting my query letter, following him during that time really cemented my feelings that we would be a good agent-author match. What he tweeted on #MSWL day not only told me that he might be interested in my manuscript, but also that our senses of humor were compatible, which was, to me, a good sign. (Fortunately for me, he agreed!)

#MSWL also led me to follow some agents who I either didn’t submit to or who ended up rejecting my query, but that makes for a great resource, too — it’s nice to see what’s going on in the industry, who’s talking about what, and what sorts of tips and tricks you can learn just by following a lot of agents, even if they’re not necessarily right to represent you. For example, the tag led me to follow @SaraMegibow, who does the fantastic #10queriesin10tweets — a wonderful insight into how agents evaluate query letters. There can be a lot to learn even from agents who aren’t in your genre, or even if you’re looking to self-publish rather than go the trad route.

#MSWL can be overwhelming , though. The tag fairly erupts with not just the agents, but with conversations and other add-ons. So, here are my tips for navigating the madness:

  • Actually follow the tag on Twitter.com, not on something like Tweetdeck. I admit this is personal preference, but it’s because I find the auto-refresh on Tweetdeck impossible to keep up with in a busy tag. Following it via Twitter allows you to get through a number of updates, then choose when to refresh and see a new batch, which I find much more manageable.
  • Favorite Tweets from agents you might want to follow up with later. Don’t worry about trying to locate their detailed information right now or about contacting them right away. Favoriting the Tweets will give you a nice list to follow up on at leisure. You can research them, prioritize who you’d like to go after first, and make sure you’re targeting your queries well.
  • Check the blog. If you’re worried you’ve missed something in the throttle (or if you, not unreasonably, just can’t spend your entire day watching a hashtag feed), there’s a Tumblr blog that aggregates all of the wishes from agents, not just from this #MWSL day, but from previous days as well. It’s organized by genre and by agent, so it’s well-worth the look.
  • Don’t write to the trends you see on the tag. Alternately: Look for someone who wants what you’ve already got; don’t change what you’ve got to fit what they’re looking for. Writing to fit a trend won’t actually get you anywhere, not least because by the time you’ve finished something, the trends will have changed. I know it can get a little frustrating if it seems like no one’s looking for what you’re offering, though, so…
  • Think outside the genre box. So maybe you’ve got something a little quirky and odd, and no one’s asking for precisely that. That’s okay! Agents who are wishing for something similar but not quite spot-on might still be interested. Think broadly, and think about what their wishes might have in common with your work. If an agent says she’s looking for, say, “urban fantasy set in Istanbul”, and you’ve got historical fantasy set in British-controlled India, it might be worth going for — you’ve got the broad genre correct, a non-Western-European setting, potential culture clashes, etc. I think the #MSWL tweet that led me to Connor basically said he was looking for a diverse cast, powerful but flawed women, and SF/F with a political edge. Did he specifically say he wanted epic fantasy set in ancient Rome? No. But Aven had elements of what he was looking for, I liked his Tweets on the tag, and further research indicated that, yeah, he might just be interested, so I took the chance, and it paid off.
  • Remember: the worst thing that will happen to you is a rejection letter. And that’s not the end of the world. If you do take a chance on an agent and it doesn’t work out, c’est la vie. I’ve written before about the element of serendipity there is with querying. Obviously you want to target your queries as best you can, but you might take a shot and miss. In fact, you probably will. The nice thing about rejection letters is that they’re private. No one will publicly humiliate you for having taken a chance. And besides — you won’t know unless you try. It also might be a signal to re-evaulate your query letter. If you think your story really is exactly what an agent said he or she is looking for, then you might need to make sure that your query letter is accurately representing your manuscript. (Query letters are bugbears, and I can’t even tell you how many drafts mine went through).
  • Do. Not. Pitch. On. The. Tag. There are other days on twitter when pitch tags are a thing. This isn’t one of them. It’s bad manners to invade a tag that has a specific purpose (which is part of why I’m posting this blog the day before, not the day of!). Just sit back, relax, and see what the agents have to say.

So — Happy hunting, everyone!

Women’s Voices in History

I read an article earlier today discussing the historical silence of women. It addresses both past and present, in a way, drawing from many of the current issues where women are verbally abused, insulted, and threatened (especially on the internet) if they dare speak up on “men’s matters” — whether that’s politics, video games, comic books, or anything else men have decided is theirs. I certainly know how this feels. I have a bad habit of getting into political discussions on Twitter, which pretty much just puts a target on you for sexual slurs and vague death threats. The article, however, delves into the historiography of women’s voices, and seems to posit that not only have men always attempted to silence women from participating in public speech, but that they have always succeeded in doing so.

L'Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

I disagree.

Yes, women have historically been discouraged from public speech and from publication. But there have always been women who spoke. In defiance of their cultures, in defiance of stereotypes, often even in defiance of the law, there have been women who spoke. And what’s even better — they were not, as the article suggests, always derided as freaks or androgynes. You need only look at what was written about Hortensia the Orator, as I discussed a while ago, to prove that.

But you want more? I got more.

  • Sappho was one of the most popular poets of the classical age; Horace named her as “worthy of sacred admiration” and Catullus used her as inspiration for his own works.
  • The women of Sparta were famous throughout the classical world for having razor-sharp wits.
  • Agrippina Major not only went with her husband on campaign (and once held a bridge against an attacking force), but when Germanicus was murdered, she publicly pursued justice for him. It was dangerous and ticked off Emperor Tiberius, but it won her a lot of acclaim from Germanicus’s supporters.
  • Cleopatra spoke somewhere between six and nine languages, depending on the source you’re looking at. She was definitely the first Ptolemy to actually speak Egyptian, and she also spoke Hebrew, which came in damn handy when dealing with her Judean neighbors. Yes, the surviving Roman sources condemn her for it — but of course they would, they were her political enemies. She held the Egyptian throne for a damn long time against incredible odds, and very often she did it because she could talk her way into or out of just about anything.
  • Empress Theodora, a much stronger ruler than her husband, began her career as an actress, but after marrying Justinian, went on to participate in Byzantine government councils, shaping many of the empire’s legal and spiritual policies. Famously, during the Nika riots, she told the men (including her husband), who wanted to flee, that “purple is an excellent color for a shroud”, which shamed them so badly that they stuck around to get things under control. She is a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. (How there has never been a major movie about this woman, I simply do not understand).
  • Not only was Wu Zetian one of the most impressive rulers of the Tang dynasty, but most of the stories about her, especially in her early, pre-imperial life, start with her standing up and saying something unexpectedly in public. Often suggestions about a better way to do something. And mostly people went, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive, let’s let her try that.”
  • The key diplomat behind China throwing off the rule of the Huns? Also a woman. She was working with her husband, a military strategist, and a scientist, but she seems to have done the bulk of the talking. And yet we’re now not even sure of her name.
  • When Oxford and Cambridge told Mary Sidney Herbert that she couldn’t contribute to their elegies for her own brother, she took herself to a commercial printer in London instead. She went on to publish more of her own works, her brother’s works, and her translations, as well as funding poets and scientists to work in her home.

And those are just a few of my favorite ladies.

That list doesn’t even touch the myriad voices heard by never written down, and so unknown in the modern age. Some times and places have been more friendly than others, to be sure, but social history reveals a lot more than traditional, chronological, top-down history does. Women have always run businesses, participated in politics, and influenced religion — officially or not, sanctioned or not, recognized by textbooks or not.

I whole-heartedly agree that more needs to be done to address the disproportionate representation of male voices in media, and I really enjoy the part of the article examining the words used to describe female speech, particularly those which are dehumanizing. Gendered slurs are a horrific but sort of linguistically fascinating study. In fiction and in life, women have so often been and so often continue to be the targets of belittlement, gaslighting, dismissal, and violence, all in the name of shutting us up.

But erasing the wonderful women who have made their voices heard throughout history does them — and us — a grave disservice, not least because it also erases the reasons it’s sometimes so hard to hear their voices, and ours.

And it isn’t because they weren’t speaking.

New Draft, New Word Cloud

AvenWordle4

Binge Writing

This week, the New York Times published “Impatience Has its Reward: Books Are Rolled Out Faster“, an article discussing the trend towards releasing book sequels faster and faster, three within a year or even all at the same time, to encourage “binge reading”. It’s a response to the way Netflix encourages binge watching.

A lot of people have been scrambling to frame this as a good thing, but I’m far from convinced. From a reader’s perspective, it is perhaps good, in that “instant gratification” sort of way — but, as a reader, I worry tremendously that it will mean sacrificing quality in favor of quantity. People are holding up GRRM as an example of what happens when there’s not enough pressure on a writer to get a story completed. I don’t think he proves their point as well as they’d like, though. A Dance with Dragons may have taken him six years to write, but then they seem to have skimped on the editing. I understand the impulse — people had been waiting so long, they wanted to turn it from pen to profit as soon as possible. I got it the day it came out, and the first edition had at least five typos, not to mention that it just plain seems to have needed at least one more round of revisions, to scrape out some of the unnecessary repetitions and extraneous bits. Neither a fast nor a slow process guarantee you a good book — only good writing and good editing will do that.

I also know plenty of readers who “binge read” already. Just not in the same fashion. When I first started reading Julia Quinn’s romance novels, it was two books into her Bridgerton series. There were six more yet to come. I didn’t mind waiting for those — but in the meantime, I had her entire backlist to tear through. And then I started looking at the authors she liked, and the ones who liked her — Lisa Kleypas, Suzanne Enoch, Kat Martin — and then I got to tear through their backlogs. I’ve done the same thing with fantasy authors, with historical fiction, with thrillers. That’s part of the joy of exploration, and I worry about discouraging that.

And, I worry about what this sort of release schedule will do to a series’s ability to build a fandom. Part of the great joy of being in the Harry Potter fandom while the books were still being released was the waiting. It gave everything time to percolate — time to re-read and find new hints, time to speculate, time to introduce the series to new readers, time to adjust to new canon once it did come out. I feel like, if everything comes out so quick, new series won’t have that chance to grow. Many may just find themselves as flashes in the pan, hot for a brief time, then quickly fading and forgotten. And how sad that would be.

As a writer, it concerns me even more than as a reader. One commenter on the article’s breakdown on Jezebel characterized it as pretending to encourage binge reading, when really it’s encouraging binge writing. I think that’s precisely the right way to put it. Another expressed suspicions that this is more to cater to the movie industry than to readership, which is certainly not out of the realm of likelihood. Whoever’s benefit it’s for, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the writer’s.

Now, if an author really can turn out good work that quickly, and have it revised and edited and properly prepared for publication that quickly, then so much the better. But not everyone can. I would argue that most can’t. Many of those authors who do have multiple books appear in a year have a team of ghost writers assisting them, from my understanding. I’ve been reading romance novels long enough to have seen that, when authors who’ve been on a book every 12-18 months suddenly start pushing to every 6, the quality suffers. I’ve actually really enjoyed watching Gail Carriger’s career the past few years, because she’s outright admitted when projects need more work, when trying to put out multiple books in a year has been damaging the quality of her work. I like that she’s pushed back against the pressure.

More concerning still, this model would do a lot, I suspect, to push out those writers who cannot yet write full-time — ie, most writers. Under these expectations, your option is either to have a full trilogy finished before you start querying and then be able to devote the time to revising it as a whole as your agent and editor deem necessary — or else to sell the first book and know you’ll be able to finish the other two within a year. If you’re working a full-time job (or more) as well to pay the bills, that’s less likely.

I’ve learned that, under optimal circumstances, I can write 3000-4000 words a day. I don’t get optimal circumstances very often. Optimal means that I’m on vacation from my other two jobs, free of all other obligations. But even if I had the liberty and leisure to do that six days a week, even if I could turn out the minimum word count in a month or two, the book would still need further attention. Not all of those words would be good. Not all of them would be serve the story. The book would still need rounds of revision. Even if you’re quick at that — as I believe I am — it still just takes time, going back and forth, re-reading what’s there, making the changes. And I would still need to research at some point, and to read — because a writer has to read, to be a good writer. And all of that takes time.

Books take time. Books should take time. That’s my thought on the matter.

Podcast Recommendation: The History of Rome

The History of Rome

This podcast, apart from being a wonderfully entertaining and comprehensive documentation of the Roman Republic and Empire, was also a major source of inspiration for me before I began writing Aven. In that October before NaNo 2011, I discovered this podcast and listened up through what had been posted at the time. With that percolating in the back of my brain, Sempronius Tarren and his schemes were born. The world took shape, the alliances and rivalries grew, and the echoes of the ages resounded in my mind.

Writing as an Extravert

My agent, Connor, took part in a video panel today for #talkwriting, focused on the question of personality type when it comes to careers in the writing and publishing world. It’s a topic I find super-interesting, and the conversation pinged a couple of things for me, so — I blog!

A lot of the panel dealt with the stereotype versus the reality. It’s one of those things that I feel like everyone knows, and yet the internet still perpetuates the worst case scenario. (The internet is, admittedly, good at that). There’s this prevalent idea that introverts are gentle fragile flowers who must be sheltered from the harshness of the world, and extraverts are shallow drunken party-crazed egomaniacs — and people reblog cartoons to this effect and lol all over the place, and it makes you wonder what’s going on in their heads. For example, one of the introverts on the panel gave voice to the prevalent idea that extraverts are extraverted because they’re “not afraid of people”. Which just sort of makes me laugh. I’m an extravert, and I also have some social anxiety issues. These things are not mutually exclusive, as I think the stereotype would render them. In a lot of ways, I have the issues because I’m extraverted. Because I want to be around people and because that’s where I get my energy, I also worry tremendously about what people think about me. I don’t just desire but require positive feedback in order to function optimally. It’s not a crippling problem, and I tend to master it well (by now, through years and years of practice), but it does exist. I don’t know if I’d call that “afraid of people”, exactly, but I maintain a constant awareness about how I’m presenting myself and how that presentation is being received.

I also know what I was like when I was living by myself at the beach during the off-season. It was not pretty. That’s the most secluded I’ve ever been in my life. I was by myself on the Outer Banks of North Carolina during a time of year when there was no one on the island. I was working at a bookstore and lucky if I saw two customers in a day. The isolation was staggering. By the end of my time there, I was talking to my cats a lot more than is appropriate even for someone who talks to her cats anyway. I once went eight days without physically touching another human being, and I was in a really despairing mental place by the end of that.

I live alone in Staunton now, and have done for about three and a half years, but it’s tolerable mostly because I do see people every day at work, I get plenty of physical contact, and I have friends I can go see almost whenever I want. I do wish, though, that I had even more of that. I tend to see the same people under the same circumstances, and I wish those circles were larger. I have a lot of internet friends, or real life friends who are now long-distance, and I’m very active on social media. That acts as a sort of placebo, but it isn’t the same.

I wish there were more parties in my life. I miss there being lots of parties in my life. It’s part of why I love going to cons so much — I know what I’m like at cons versus what I’m like in my usual, more secluded daily life. It’s not just about it being a party, as the stereotype would have it. I’m way, way happier when I have more engagement with more people. I feel more myself that way. I love to talk. I love to teach. I love to play games. I like organizing events — which is how I ended up in charge of so many social clubs in high school and college. I like finding new friends. I’m almost literally incapable of keeping my life to myself — I can keep other people’s secrets, but not my own. I have to share what’s going on in my world and in my heart, even if it’s just with a select few people. I look outside myself for help and for feedback. I don’t feel comfortable making major decisions unless I’ve talked them out with at least one other person.

I do hit a point where I need time alone, and that’s been the case since I was a small child, as my parents can attest. But until I hit that point of overstimulation, I want to be around people (and I tend to hit that point of overstimulation because I’m not always great at knowing when to pull myself away from festivities until it’s too late).

And no one’s 100% one thing or another, really. This is a point both of the extraverts on the panel made — it’s not that you want to be around people 100% of the time, any more than introverts want to be alone 100% of the time. There’s a spectrum. When I take the personality tests, I definitely skew extraverted, but it’s a moderate skew, not an extreme. But I more easily get energy from people than from being alone. Being alone tends to make me sluggish and lethargic, whereas being around people pumps me up. I’m more productive the more I have to do and the busier my schedule is — otherwise I just loaf. I tend to end nights of partying more energized as opposed to more tired (which is why if I’m having a good time and getting good positive feedback, I can cheerfully stay up and out until 4am). The exception is tied to the social anxiety — if I’m in a situation where I feel like I’m not wanted, like I can’t contribute, or where I’ve been awkward, then it all crashes.

So what does this mean for me as a writer? I… don’t know, exactly. I know I don’t fit the stereotype of the secluded introvert writer who spends all of her time staring off into the middle distance, wearing pajamas and drinking tea. It’s nice to get affirmation that there are plenty of other writers who also don’t fit that mold. I don’t write around other people much, but that’s more because I can’t afford to drink the number of lattes it would take to keep me in coffee shops for extended periods of time. I do need noise while I’m working. Silence disagrees with me. I like talking about my work — though I like to have things down first, because I sometimes feel like talking about it can bleed out the energy that fuels the impulse to actually write it. But I’m not shy at all about telling my stories out loud to people.

Does the extroversion come through in my writing? I think so. When I look at what I write, both Aven and other projects, I know that I definitely do not write loners for my main characters. The Vitelliae enjoy a lively and varied social life — the dinner parties and afternoon outings that they host and attend form large portions of the plot. Other characters in other stories leave that sort of structured social life behind — but it’s to join up with some new group of people that they then spend all of their time with, for some reason or other. All of my heroines, whatever the challenges they face, learn and grow through their interactions with other people, not through introspection. So I guess my own personality comes out in that way.

The #talkwriting panel wrapped up their conversation by discussing Myers-Briggs types, and whatever you think of that test in particular or personality testing on the whole… it’s a nice shorthand. I’m an ENFJ — which is a shift. I used to be an ENFP, but I’ve drifted over that P/J line in the past few years. Definitely an NF, though, and stronger E preference than J preference. For what that’s worth. 😉

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” — Terry Pratchett

In the past ten days, I have created a villain, orchestrated a sex scene, and killed half a dozen people who didn’t exist in the first place. I’ve been editing, and I think can count the number of chapters left un-tampered with on one hand. Something like seventeen chapters saw substantial alterations, two of those were re-written entirely, and most of the others got continuity tweaks.

As it seems, January and February are “Now What?” months over at NaNoWriMo. As I just finished my third round of revisions for Aven since signing with Connor back in October, I’ve been following the conversation pretty closely, since it’s relevant to my current headspace. There’s been a lot of great advice, both from the pros and from the community. There’s also been a fair bit of, well, whining — from people who think revision is too hard or too depressing. From people who find accepting criticism to be stressful. And from people who have realized that being melodramatic on the internet, particularly about artistic endeavors, is a good way to get attention. (An unkind assessment of the population of the web, I know, but not, I think, an inaccurate one).

And in some ways, I get that. It is hard work, and in a lot of ways it’s the exact antithesis of what gets people through November, especially those who are new to writing, or new to writing such long projects that they might actually want a future for. Now is not the time to throw everything at the wall. Now is the time to hone in, to admit that a lot of what you flung earlier isn’t working for you, to scrape that stuff away without mercy, and to figure out, with precise vision and control, what you need to add in its place. And misery does love company, so I thoroughly see how this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle when Nano openly asks people to talk about their experiences.

My opinion of editing? I find it fun. It’s like a puzzle game — you have to figure out what doesn’t fit, and what new piece might fill in the gap. Maybe something just needs to be twisted another way, or turned upside down. If you move something, it might create a gap elsewhere, and then you have to figure out what to do about that. It’s definitely intellectual exercise, and the workout can be exhausting. It can sometimes melt your brains and make you a little crazed, especially when you plunge in deep and don’t come up for air for hours on end. But then it feels so good to know when you’ve nailed it! So some days, it’s a little like this:

XenaIwin

I just happened to run across the Pratchett quote in my subject line today, and I quite like it. The first draft is where you find the characters and get a sense of the shape of things, but it won’t have the sharp definition or the right energy. Aven began life during Nano 2011. I think there might be a couple of scenes that are sort of intact from that first draft. A lot of material got shuffled off and will hopefully appear in a later book. A lot of material got extracted completely. Maybe it will come back, maybe it won’t. But it doesn’t stop existing just because I had to take it out of the working draft. It doesn’t get unwritten just because I do that — because I don’t delete anything. I make copies and shove the old material into different files, so that, should I ever want to revisit it, I can. But even if those fragments never come back to life, either in this or a future project, that’s okay, too. I still had the joy of writing them. And they still helped shape the novel into what it is today. If I hadn’t written those words, I couldn’t have gotten to this point.

I can look back and know that I’ve always been this sort of writer. I find new things through continuing to play with the story. Back when it was all OC Star Wars fanfic all the time, I wrote and re-wrote some key scenes over and over again, across months and years of living in that story. My problem tends to be more that, if left to my own devices, I’m never satisfied. I’ll keep fussing and tweaking forever. I always feel like there’s something else I could say, something more, some new angle worth exploring. (Neil Gaiman, according to his blog, sometimes has a similar problem, which makes me feel better about it).

And that’s a lot of why I feel like the best part of having an agent so far — beyond just, y’know, having one — is having someone to help focus and direct my edits. I’m fortunate that Connor is an editorial agent — not all of them are, and not all writers want their agents to be editorial, but this was clearly the kind of relationship I had to be able to have with an agent. His eagerness to work with me and to develop the product from something good into something great has been magnificent. It’s wonderful to have friends and family members who are willing to read what you write, but even if they are willing to be constructively critical, they don’t have the insider knowledge of the publishing industry. They can’t tell me how certain popular series have changed the expectation for the genre. They don’t know how the trends are ebbing and flowing. And, frankly, they tend to not be great with the kind of revising help I need the most — they’ll either just think everything’s great because I wrote it, or their advice will be so super-specific as to not be helpful, more line edits than conceptual. Working through it with a professional in the industry gives me much better ways to focus that energy that drives me to pick and twiddle and micro-adjust. It gives me things I can really lock my jaw around and shake the life out of — which is great, because it’s so much more satisfying than those vague micro-adjustments I’m otherwise prone to. It’s like how you feel better after eating a really great meal than you do after snacking indiscriminately all day.

All of which is to say that, as I stated on Twitter last week, I’ve been enjoying a lot of deep and artful thoughts about sex and murder.

This is just a quick note to say that it’s really fun to be writing a heroine with sexual agency, one who demands rather than surrendering, and I don’t know why more people don’t do it.