Monday, May 27, 2013

Writing This Novel part VII (submissions)

I’ve been in the tiny universe of erotica long enough that I understand the niches publishers inhabit, but you might not. Perhaps you wrote your story with a publisher in mind. If you didn’t, you’re going to have to do some research. Go to the publisher’s website and check out their newest offerings. Read their submission guidelines. If possible, read a couple of their books. Don’t waste their time and don’t waste yours sending the wrong book to the wrong publisher.

Just as you wouldn’t submit a book on puppy training to a publisher of cookbooks, you shouldn’t submit your erotic romance novel to a publisher of (literary) erotica. If you don’t know the difference between erotic romance and literary erotica, don’t feel bad. It’s not a simple distinction and the line between the two is blurry at best. As a generalization, erotic romance is written in the genre style of romance. It absolutely requires a happy-ever-after or happily-for-now ending, and focuses on the relationship between two (sometimes three) people. So yes, there’s graphic sex but it’s about bonding the characters emotionally. 

Literary erotica is written in the genre style of literary fiction, but it can have a happily-ever-after ending and it may focus on a relationship. Rather than emotional bonding though, sex scenes are (normally) used to define or change a character. 

Still don’t know where your book falls in the spectrum? Erotic romance sells better than literary erotica, so if you have a novel that dances on the foggy boundary (with requisite happy ending), and sales matter to you, you might want to call it erotic romance and seek out those publishers.

Before you sign with any publisher, send emails to several writers with books at that publisher. Ask them if their publishing experience was good. Ask them if they get paid royalties regularly and on time. Find someone who used to publish through them who doesn’t anymore and ask why. Check Predators and Editors. If you’ve hung around writer’s lists long enough, you’ve seen the horror stories of unpaid royalties, rights being tied up in court, unprofessional and unscrupulous business practices, and a host of other problems. Experienced writers place their books with several different publishers to mitigate exposure to their publisher’s business problems, but even a good shop can go to hell overnight, especially if it’s small press and the owner is essentially the entire company. All it takes is a car accident or sudden illness. I’m not saying be paranoid, but be aware of who you’re entering into a contract with. It’s called due diligence. Do your homework. Protect yourself.

Also check the terms of the contract thoroughly and know what each paragraph means. There are websites that will warn you about bad contract terms. Things I’ve turned down contracts for: a clause that said I could never speak ill of the publisher or its employees. First look rights (this sounds good but it isn’t for YOU). A contract that meant they had my rights forever. A contract that demanded I prove my gender. Lousy ebook royalties.  The right to use 100% of my story for “advertising” with no additional compensation in any publication or website the conglomerate owned.  And yes, I tried to negotiate those terms because everyone says you can negotiate. “Everyone” is either a writer with a lot of pull or a liar because for the most part you’ll be told to sign it or go away. Only you can decide what’s right for you and how desperate you are to be published.

Five or six years ago, a large erotic romance e-publisher bought a novel from me. (Yes, I wrote a book that could pass as erotic romance. It happens.)  Three months after the contract was signed, they sent an email that they tried to back date telling me that my novel was rejected. Yeah, you can type a date from months ago in the body of an email, but the time stamp of when it was received is all that counts, people. For some reason telling me they changed their mind was out of the question, and so was being polite or apologetic about it. I still have that SIGNED contract in my files. Did I try to enforce it? No. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t want to do business with a company that proved they had no morals. So just be aware that even a signed contract means nothing unless you have the means and desire to fight it in court if it is breached.


I had a publisher in mind when I wrote Night Creatures (still playing with the title, I may make it Night Kreatures.)  so I didn’t have to research them. I did, however, have to ask what they like to see in a submission and how they wanted it formatted, because part of being a professional writer is taking the business side seriously. If your writing doesn’t make your story stand out, don’t for a second believe that comic sans font will. Giving the publisher what they want, in the format they want it, and only what they want tells the publisher that you’re a reasonable person who won’t give them trouble over stupid things. (So if your manuscript is accepted, prove it by not being an ass over stupid things. Seriously, writer folk, don't be THAT writer.)  

After I knew what the publisher wanted, I put together my submission package, which in this case was an email. They didn’t ask for a synopsis (joy, rapture! I loathe writing a synopsis) so I sent a simple cover letter (body of the email), formatted like a business email (my full contact info, date, etc.), with all the usual cover letter info: title of the work, genre, word count (complete) in the first paragraph. A brief synopsis of the story (second paragraph). Wind up: thank you for your consideration… in the third paragraph, and a signature block. The full manuscript was an attachment.

Sent it off and waited. And waited… After a couple months I sent a polite inquiry about where I was in the submission process. Polite. Don’t even type with an attitude. It’s a discreet cough, not a temper tantrum. And I got a very nice reply back that basically said “We need a few more weeks.” Not a problem, so I waited.

And here’s where you may expect that I say “And it’s coming out in October!” Well, no. The publisher wants me to rewrite the first two chapters and resubmit. Did I collapse onto my fainting couch? Did I send it off to a different publisher? No. Rejection isn’t personal. It’s an opportunity to learn something. 

Being honest with myself, I know that the first two chapters were the weakest part of my novel. So I’m working on those chapters. I told the publisher that I would resubmit it when I fixed my work, and I will. Now, if it’s turned down after that, I could turn to another publisher, but because I understand the niche markets publishers inhabit, I already know that there are few who would touch this edgy piece. It’s dark and it’s bloody. I could self-publish. I think about those options but it’s far too early in the process to give up on this publisher just yet. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Writing This Novel part VI

I know you want to submit your story as soon as you’ve finished it. So do I.  Writers are under a lot of pressure to churn out work quickly in this publishing environment. I get that. But this is a little piece of your soul you’re sending out into the universe, and polish is the only protection it’s going to have. So please, slow down. Treat your work like a gourmet meal instead of fast food. Make sure it’s presented in the best possible way. You’re the only one who will give it such loving attention.

So. Editing.

Suggested reading before editing: Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne & King)

A line-by-line copy edit helps you find typos, missing words, and grammar mistakes. Below, I share the way I do it, but as always, do what works for you. However, I strongly suggest that you allow the MS to sit a few weeks after you finish your final draft before you plunge into copy edits.  

If you work in Word, you know all about the wavy red lines for spelling errors and the wavy green for grammar.  You probably also know by now that those are often wrong. There are many online sources to help you with tricky, specific grammar questions. Plus, you have writer friends, right? Turn to them. But always verify with a trusted authority on the matter.

I write science fiction so many of my proper nouns are marked as spelling errors in the Word document. Adding them to the dictionary gets rid of so many red wavy lines and Word will flag it if I have a spelling variation (AKA a typo), which happens a lot with odd names. I have yet to figure out how to get Scrivner to accept my world-specific vocabulary.

Despite the weaknesses of Word’s grammar and spell check, it can show you interesting statistics such as percent of passive sentences and reading level. I won’t say that I dumb down my manuscripts, but if the reading level is over eighth grade, I know to look for simpler vocabulary replacements as I edit. I usually run at about 2-4% passive sentences. Despite what you’ve heard, passive sentences aren’t evil, bad things. They have a place in your writing. No editor wants to see 60% passive sentences in your MS, but you don’t have to completely eradicate them either. Another interesting statistic is average words per sentence. If it’s over twenty-five, you may be guilty of too many complex or run-on sentences. If it’s under eight, your writing may have the delivery of machine gun fire. Mix it up to create a pleasant reading cadence.  

After spelling and grammar, I consult my ‘errors I make all the time so you’d think I’d know better by now’ list. I often type prefect instead of perfect. I switch the words from and form. I’m addicted to the word just. Spellcheck won’t catch those errors. Do you have crutch words or phrases? Are you aware of word substitutions you make often? Use the search function in your word processor to search for your recurring mistakes.

After I’ve finished those corrections, I print the MS for the first time. You might be able to see errors on a computer screen but I see many more on paper. I take a green pen and circle every error. If the problem is an entire sentence, sometimes I write the correction on the paper but other times I’ll simply circle it and deal with it later. POV errors, continuity, and plot holes are also circled but with a short note about the problem. This is detailed work so I don’t do too many pages at one sitting.

Next I sit down with the MS and make my corrections in the computer. This is another time when the search feature comes in handy. You can type in a three or four word string and it will find them for you so you don’t have to scroll through the whole MS.

At this point, I print the corrected MS for what I consider to be the hardest editing task. I read my entire MS aloud.

What I think I wrote makes sense. What I actually wrote is missing words or other errors I didn’t catch on my first editing run. What I actually wrote is repetitive either in theme or in word choice. What I actually wrote has weird rhythm. Or it’s a tongue twister. Or what the heck was that supposed to mean? All those errors are easily glossed over when I read mentally, but they’re glaringly obvious when I read aloud.

Reading a sex scene aloud can be embarrassing even though I wrote it. R has, on occasion, poked his head into my office and said, “Bragging about your cock again, dear?” Instant mortification.   

While reading an entire novel aloud, I often get lulled into a mental space where I will start reciting what I intended to write rather than what’s actually on the page. This happens even when it’s been weeks since I looked at the MS. That’s one reason why I limit my reading aloud to about twenty to thirty minutes a day. Another reason is that reading aloud is hard on the throat.  

After I’ve corrected any problems I caught that time around, I may send the MS to beta readers or I may submit it without reader input. That’s your choice.  Sometimes beta readers are more harm than help. Sometimes they try to impose their vision on your story. Sometimes they simply don’t get it. Sometimes everything you do is wonderful and lovely and… no. This is not helpful. You need critique, not ego strokes. Some beta readers have brilliant insights and totally call you on your weaknesses. Love that class of beta readers. Cherish them. They are amazing, wonderful, precious humans.

That’s my method for editing both short stories and novels. Do you have any tricks for catching errors? Beta readers – yea or nay?

Next time: submission. Finally.         

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Guest Blog at Unapologetic Fiction

Sommer Marsden was kind enough to invite me to her blog Unapologetic Fiction to answer 20 questions.

And yes, I really did dismember a doll.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Writing This Novel - "As you know, Jim"

I watched the premier episode of Da Vinci's Demons last night. The historical inaccuracies drove me a bit bonkers, but if I approach it as alternate history/ steampunk renaissance, I suppose I can forgive that. What I can't forgive were the multitude of "As you know, Jim" speeches. Whether its television or a novel, writers should do everything they can to avoid them.

So, what's an "An you know, Jim," speech? If you've watched any of the CSI shows, you've heard these. It's when a character says something along the lines of "As you know, Jim, I'm going to take this piece of crime scene evidence and try to find latent prints on it. I will do this by..."  But Jim isn't a child from another planet. He's another CSI tech and he knows damn well how evidence is processed because it's his job. So why is it being explained to him as if he knows nothing about it?  Well, the other character isn't explaining it to Jim. He's explaining it to the viewer/reader who presumably doesn't know. It's an acknowledgement of the fourth wall. On CSI, Jim usually responds with "Yes, and then you'll match any latent prints you find against our suspects, thus hopefully linking one to the scene of the crime" while in real life, Jim would say, "No shit, Sherlock."

"As you know, Jim" come up a lot in science fiction and fantasy because there's a whole world with different rules that the reader needs to know. A common way around this is to drop an outsider into the world so they can ask "What's that animal?" or "Why are those dudes in red livery shooting arrows at us?" without seeming like an idiot. Even in Harry Potter, he's raised in a muggle household, so everything about the wizarding world must be explained to him. He has a muggle's reaction to the things he sees and frames them in a muggle POV. (at least in the first few books) Later, as Hogwarts becomes his world (and the reader is just as familiar with it) the explanations drop away except when something extraordinary happens. (such as the tri-wizarding tournament). Hermione, in almost every situation, serves as Harry's interpreter. She understands his muggle POV since she comes from the same place, but because she's made a huge effort to understand everything about the world around her, she knows what's happening and why. Someone raised in the wizarding world wouldn't think of such things as extraordinary so they wouldn't know that Harry was unfamiliar with it, nor would they know how to explain it.

But what do you do if your characters are all from that world? How are you going to explain things without resorting to awkward "As you know, Jim," speeches? Not everyone in a world knows everything, so as "As you don't know, Jim" explanation is fine if the information isn't common knowledge. If it is common knowledge, the best way to inform the reader is to show the character lifting prints from crime scene evidence and comparing them to the suspects' prints. Show the second sun, the twin moons, the dragons, or the elves. Show someone breaking a taboo and how the other characters react. Show the magic of technology and what it does. You don't have to explain how it works (unless that's part of the plot) since most readers are willing to suspend disbelief and trust that it does work if you show that it does.

One of the strengths of books over television shows is that you can take your time to explore things. Television shows are about action, not thought. And as you know, Jim, you can take advantage of that.


Saturday, April 06, 2013

Turn it Off!

I've started working on a new novel.

I love this part, where the story is still full of promise and energy. I love how my imagination runs wild with the first draft.

Except that I can't rein it in. Not only am I awake late at night thinking of scenes I won't write until months from now, I'm thinking about other novels! It's sort of like watching a syndicated show on a cable station that splices in extra commercial time.  Did that make sense to you? Maybe not. I've been taking medication for this ear ache for four days now and it's making me loopy. Come to think of it, that might be the reason why my thoughts jump between a damp prison cell in an old fortress and a surreal carnival/party in an abandoned mansion. One moment it's the slow drip of water and unseen things rustling in the dark, the next it's harlequins and fire eaters on unicycles in a house with tilted floors and walls. One character wraps her arms around her knees and contemplates revenge versus justice. Another brushes Sophie's hair from her neck and kisses her. His lips linger. As he lifts his head, a drop of blood wells on her skin.

Yeah, see, this is how it goes. I'm trying to write the first novel and the second one is doing its best to seduce me away. Stop nibbling on Sophie, George! Stop. Do not let her tie you to the chair and... Just cut it... damn, that's hot. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Writing This Novel, part V

Now that you’ve let your first draft sit for a while it’s time to turn it into a second draft. Some writers produce such a clean first draft that the second draft goes quickly then all they have to do is copy edit and submit. I am not one of those writers. I wish I were, but it isn’t meant to be. Night Creatures took five drafts, but I had some unique problems that I’ll discuss later. The first draft is the time to throw everything onto the page. The second draft is when you cut excess or add depth and bring the story arc into its final shape. If you see copy edit level problems, of course fix them, but don’t get bogged down in that yet. 

In each scene, if your characters have moved to a different location, have you described where they are early on to anchor your reader? Good! But are you giving me too much detail? Not good. Your imagination might have constructed an amazing coffee house with the quirkiest baristas on the planet and fascinating regulars, but confession time – as a reader, I scan over this kind of stuff if it goes on too long. Give the reader a quick impression, not a blueprint. It’s an amazing trick of the human mind that with only a few details our imaginations can fill in the rest of the scene. Make your words count. Load them with atmosphere. Blonde wood and steel evoke not just d├ęcor but also a soundtrack and vibe, and it's different than what you'd imagine if I'd called the place dark and cozy.

Have you used at least three senses to make a scene come alive? Think about the coffee shop. Since your characters are probably talking you already have hearing, but add little touches such as an ambulance going by outside or the clatter of dishes as a table is cleared or that weird swooshy sound the milk steamer makes. If you’ve described the setting, you’ve already evoked seeing. Give it dimension by letting your characters react to what they see. Maybe they feel self-conscious when the teenagers two tables over whisper and giggle, or your characters are self-conscious teenagers who whisper and giggle. Since it’s a coffee shop it probably smells like coffee, but what else? If it's raining outside, coats are probably giving off that damp wool smell. If you're out on a patio, you could smell traffic fumes or the herbal scent of a planter or even the doggy smell of the Golden Lab at the feet of the woman two tables away.    

Read through your draft to make sure your characters are consistent. Yes, they change over the course of the story, but there has to be a progression. In the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is comfortable with slavery at the beginning of the story. His entire world tells him is right and he doesn’t question it. By the end of the story, he’s decided that even if it means he’ll go to hell, he’s not okay with slavery and he believes, strongly, that Jim is a man, a full human being, the same as him. That is a huge change. But from the opening lines to the end of the story, Huck Finn is a consistent character. Every action he takes and bit of dialog is absolutely believable as something Huck Finn would say or do.

Everyone comes from somewhere. They don’t spring to life as full grown adults when your story begins. (Well, yes, they do, since you created them, but to make them seem real, you have to pretend they existed before you started recording their story) They have a past that made them who they are and that’s probably important info to share with your reader. However, beware the dreaded info dump! Cramming all the backstory into the first chapter is a sure way to bore your reader. Insert clues to your character’s past along the path of the story and reveal those things only at the point where they matter. Occasionally this will call for a longer passage, but if you can keep it to a line or two you’re better off, because long passages can drag your story to a standstill and it’s harder to overcome inertia than it is to maintain forward momentum. (Law of physics as applied to storytelling)

Foreplay. I don’t mean with your characters (although that’s fun stuff to read) I mean your readers. Don’t just toss them into a sex scene. Seduce them first. Use your sensory writing to evoke a mood then mercilessly push buttons to get them hot and bothered. Tease them. Manipulate them. Make them feel the warmth of a lover’s breath just under their ear so they’ll shiver. Make them want a lingering touch next. Take your time. Do a thorough job of it. It will leave them with the impression of a great sex scene even if you never describe a sexual act.
While you were writing your first draft, your subconscious was lurking in the background. Occasionally, while you were distracted, it slipped ideas into your work. Sneaky. By the time you finished your first draft, you may have become aware of those ideas. Many works in erotica are voyages of personal discovery. The protagonist chooses to find what they want and seizes control of their sexuality and life. That’s an empowering message. I’ve also read stories that are about forgiveness, loss, faith, love, and despair. You name an aspect of the human condition and it can be addressed in erotica. Think about your work from the high-level view. A literary viewpoint. Do you detect an idea or theme? Think about ways to enhance it in the second draft (if it interests you).

Reflecting on your work will give you a lot to tackle in your second draft, and expanding on the ideas your subconscious seeded in the first draft will add depth to your story.

I knew before I finished the first draft of Night Creatures that I had to move a key scene. Talk about painful. If only it were as simple as cut and paste. But no, of course not. Events happen in sequence. One flows into another. By changing the timeline, I had to go through each scene and ask ‘do they know this yet?’ If not, I had to eliminate the reference. In the first draft, things can be wrong. Typically in the second draft, errors are fixed, but in my second draft, I was creating potential errors all over the place.

As if I hadn’t made things hard enough, I also decided to delete two characters from the story. A cast of thousands may be impressive on a big movie screen but too many characters are confusing as hell on the page. Although I already had a limited cast, by eliminating the additional characters I tightened the focus on the main two. A reader once commented that my stories sometimes make her feel like she'd been shoved into a wardrobe with two people and the air is running out. I take that claustrophobia as a compliment.

Deleting characters can cause huge plot problems. Let me restate that. Deleting characters should cause huge plot problems. Everyone on the page should be there for a specific purpose, like cogs in a machine. If you can remove one and nothing changes, they shouldn't have been there in the first palce. (I'm talking about main and secondary characters here, not the extras in the background)  When I removed the two from mine, a key part of the plot suddenly didn't happen, so I had to transfer their actions to one of the remaining characters. Different characters have different motivations even if they do the same thing. (For example: I eat sashimi because I like it. R will only eat it when it’s served to him and it would be rude to refuse it.)  That meant, yes, exploring the motivations of the character and making sure they made sense. That was a lot of work, and typically the kind of stuff you do as you're writing the first draft. Maybe instead of calling this one my second I should have called it First Draft version B.

Between changing the sequence of events and eliminating characters, the second draft left me with a lot of work to do. (Thus the five drafts.) I wouldn’t have made those changes if I hadn’t strongly felt they were necessary. Unfortunately, I can’t explain to you why I felt they had to be made or how you might sense that your story arc needs that kind of revision. (I hope for your sake that it never does. This is why I often say "This is what I do, but I don't recommend it to anyone.") Readers might feel that the way a story was told was the only way it could have unfolded, but writers know that there were many possibilities. More than one path can lead to the same destination. Part of choosing the path is talent, part of it is craftsmanship, all of it is the mysterious (wonderful) process of creativity.         

What are the areas you concentrate on in a second draft? Do you have bad habits you try to catch?

Next time: editing

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Saints and Sinners 2013

It's that time of year again.

With Saints and Sinners two months away, the emails are trickling in. Writers I haven't talked to since last year are asking if I have a room. (Yes). A roommate (D.L. King puts up with me every year. maybe because we're shower compatible.  I shower at night, she does in the morning.) Dinner plans... well, Jeff Mann asked first, so I expect a lovely meal with him and John, but D.L. and I are free other nights. We have our drinking tour down cold by now - bloody marys at French Market, pomegranate martinis for D.L. and scotch for me at the carousel bar at the Monteleone. Feel free to tag along if you're there. We also have our musts for meals -  Deanie's on Iberville for anything on the menu, Gumbo Kitchen for gumbo, chargrilled oysters at Acme Oyster House (D.L. says I make my O face when I eat them) and of course lunch at Clover Grill because while I don't live in New Orleans, every time I eat there I know at least half the customers.

That's my favorite part of Saints and Sinners. Every time I turn a corner in the French Quarter I see someone I know. It feels very old home week. Besides, where else am I going to get this much writer's gossip? Sure, writers are a bunch of depressive introverts, but give us three days in close quarters and we're regular social butterflies. Some of us even make eye contact.  Then we take a year to recover from the effort.

If you're waffling on attending, the master classes every year are amazing and so are the panels. I'm always so energized, brimming with ideas, and ready to write after the weekend. Some writers I idolized have become good friends after we met at S&S. There's the whole networking thing (but crank it down a couple notches. I really hate it when someone shoves a partial in my hands, and I'm not even a publisher! So please... just socialize. You can do the business thing after you get home.)

Which leads us to the most amazing part of S&S - the wonderful feeling of being among your own kind. Who you are is a given, not something you have to explain. Or apologize for. You don't know relief until you experience it.