Saturday, April 30, 2011

I couldn't make this up

I have a friend who sometimes teaches classes for adults who have never gotten their high school degree. To protect the innocent, I won't give his name, or even the name of the state. He told me a story about one of his classes, and I can't tell if I should laugh or cry (for the record, I laugh, because that's how my family deals with everything, even death, but that's a story for another day).
My friend, let's call him John, assigned some basic math problems that involved seconds, minutes, hours and days. He gave a little lecture on how to do the problems, then circulated through the class to see if people had any question. The first question: "How many seconds are in a minute?"
Now, that doesn't seem like such a scary thing, what if they were having an off day and just couldn't remember. John smiled and figured that one of the people in this student's group would chime in with the answer. No one did. John waited, but no one knew. He had a class of 20 adults and none of them knew how many seconds were in a minute.
Now John was floored. He pointed at the clock. His classroom had two clocks, one digital (with a seconds slot) and one old-fashioned, round clock (also with a second hand). Still his students couldn't figure it out.
But since they needed to do their assignment, they decided they needed an answer. Instead of looking it up, or calling someone they thought would know, or even just watching the digital clock for a full minute, they took a vote.
A VOTE.
They voted on how many seconds there should be in a minute.

While a part of me is pleased that they thought to be so democratic, my inner child--the one who passed second grade--was screaming because no one knew how many seconds are in a minute.

Oh, and the answer that won the most votes: 35 seconds in a minute.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A facelift

I'm thinking about rebranding my query bait. I love the title, but all the feedback I get is pretty much "I think I've read this book before." I know they haven't, but I've been sort of selling it in a way that seemed familiar (a clear link to the looks like I've seen it before feeling). So I'm asking for help. I've come up with some secondary titles, so let me know what you think (feel free to email, if you don't want to comment).

Alternate Titles

Quotidian Magic
The Settfyrian of Summer
Evil Wizards Taste Like Chicken
A Maelstrom of Magic
Inevitable


Okay, those don't look that great. Clearly, I have a lot of work ahead of me. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

In Love


I know that word counts are boring, but let me just say that I’ve never worked so hard to put 12,000 words onto paper. I thought I’d run out of things to say with the end of The Accidental Godmother, but I had an idea for another story. I started, but I kept feeling like I was done, the muse had taken her pound of flesh and my query bait would just have to do. But I kept fighting for it, kept writing (I’ve met glaciers that type faster than me lately). I feel like I fought for each word, but now I’ve got some momentum. No, I’ve got something better:
I’m in love.
I love my new WIP. No I’m not done, but I dreamt about it last night. That’s always a sure sign.
I guess 12K isn’t exactly champagne worthy, but now I’ve got a taste for it—cherry pie with chocolate ice cream—and I like it. If you want to read about it, I’m posting a rough draft of the query letter for this one under my current projects.  Go take a look and get a laugh.
And the funny thing is that the idea behind this WIP actually came from a fake query letter that I wrote to extol the virtues of holding one’s tongue. As it turns out, people get their ideas from all kinds of crazy places, and this one literally sprang out of a joke.
At the time, I was bemoaning the lack of truth in advertising when it comes to query letter writing (there are certainly aspects of that statement I still agree with), but I was afraid to use my actual query letter as a demonstration, so I made one up. And then after making one up, I figured out how I could really make it into a fun novel. So here is the novel spawning joke.

Warning: what you are about to read is a snarky joke. Truly. I don’t really think agents go around crushing the dreams of aspiring writers. In fact, every agent blog I’ve been to has been filled with some really nice, compassionate people who have great advice. Having said that, what writer hasn’t felt like this?

No Truth in Advertising:

Dear Mr. Agent,
In my paranormal romance novel, THE BETTER HALF, the heroine discovers that she's in love with a half dragon. When he is kidnapped by a ring of dragon slavers, she has to fight her way to the bottom of an ancient mystery, topple a corrupt government, and to make matters worse, she's flunking algebra. Please let me know if I can send you part or all of THE BETTER HALF. I look forward to hearing from you.
Sincerely,
Desperate to be Published

The real letter
"In my paranormal romance novel, THE BETTER HALF, the heroine discovers that she's in love with a half dragon."
What writers want to say:
"My Novel, is really awesome. No one has done half dragons yet. Vampires are way out, and this one will make money like Twilight."
The truth:
"In my novel, the heroine gets her freak on with this buffed out dude who comes to her rescue before ravishing her in a fountain of awesome sauce. Seriously, I need a cigarette just thinking about it."

In the real letter:
"I look forward to hearing from you."
What the writer wants to say:
"Please, please, please, please say you want to read my book, then represent it."
The Truth:
"I look forward to having you crush my dreams."

Weren’t those the good ole’ days, you know, in January. How can that feel so far away? Well back to work, and good luck everyone.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Silence is Golden...

...but duct tape is silver


I have a big mouth, and I don’t mean it’s aesthetically unpleasing. I could stuff both my size 11 feet in my mouth at the same time, usually in the same conversation. I’m flexible that way.
Occasionally even I’ve managed to hold my snarky tongue in check.

After being rear-ended, the other driver got out of his car and kept saying “you just stopped.”
What I didn’t say, but really wanted to: “It’s a stop light, shockingly, people stop at them.”
I’d count that as a solid point of karma in my direction.

When I rushed (no I didn’t join any sororities, but that’s a whole other story), everyone would ask what my major was. I’d answer truthfully, physics. Then their eyes would get bigger and they’d say “Oh wow, you must be smart or something.”
What I didn’t say: “Something, I’m definitely something.”

My favorite observed biting of the tongue was the time I watched a reporter interview a geophysicist after the Northridge earthquake. The reporter said “How many undiscovered faults are in the Los Angeles area?” Then she stuffed the mic into the geologists face. Everyone paused, and the geologist looked at the mic like it was giant slab of chocolate she was dying to take a bite of. Her eyes twinkled as she tried not to say something. I’ve always assumed she wanted to say, “Seven! There are exactly seven undiscovered faults in the LA area, we just aren’t allowed to talk about them. Not until they’re discovered.” 

Ever hold back that snarky response?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Stumbling

I've decided that stumbling is good.
I always get frustrated when my writing doesn't just flow off my fingertips. I feel like agonizing over each and every word is for editing and rewriting, not drafting. Drafting. That's a great word for it, and I like to feel like I'm drafting a racing car when I'm writing. The story just surges ahead, and I'm lucky to keep pace, stuck in the draft of a great ride.
At least, that's what it felt like when I was writing my current query bait. But here I am working on my Shiny New Idea, and I thought I was ready for it. I thought I had a charging forward story, but then...
Then my doubts kicked in.
You know this list:
my characters are like cardboard cut outs
my plot is utterly unoriginal
yes I'm using the real world as a backdrop, but I'm not describing enough of it to capture the world
my voice isn't coming across, I sound like a cranky, sarcastic teenager. The bad way.
and I don't really know where I'm going.
It's no surprise that my WIP faltered right off the bat, but the idea is solid, so I kept going. I was hoping for that magical writing time, you know, before I did any research into publishing and just wrote because the story was dragging me along like some kidnapping victim. My query bait literally hijacked my life.
But I'm not the same person.
I've been rejected, and that's hard to recover from. I've lost that confidence that I had when I wrote query bait (and I thought it was the greatest book in the world--I swear, there is something mixed into first drafts that's more than just crazy love).
By stumbling, I gave myself more time to think, and now I've found some new ideas for the WIP. I can feel the draft starting. I'll probably have to rewrite all of my early chapters, but I think I've found that place again.

Friday, April 15, 2011

...And for my next trick

I've figured it out, all of it. To write the perfect query letter all I have to do is stuff this



into 250 words.
That's all.
No problem. I can do that, just pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (gently wafting, lacy curtains).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Myopia

I’ve noticed something about myself. It’s something I’ve always done, but it’s gotten worse of late. I just can’t see myself doing anything other than exactly what I’m doing right now. I can’t even imagine the world outside of grad school. When I day dream about getting an agent, it’s feels like my daydreams about winning the lottery.
It’s like I’ve built up this idea that I’ll just get an agent, sign for a contract and suddenly everything in my life will be roses and tea time.
What’s wrong with my brain?
I know it’s fake. Even if I were sitting on a bestselling juggernaut that got signed tomorrow (I’m going with the extremes of my delusions), I’d still be well over 18 months from having my juggernaut on the shelves. So why do I let day dreams slow me down? Even at their greatest, they’re years to fruition. Even if I signed tomorrow, I’d still have to get up every morning (often earlier than I’d like); I’d still have to find a job for when I graduate (if I graduate?); I’d still have a mortgage, a floundering WIP, chores, dinner to make, dog poop to pick up and litter boxes to clean out.
In short, even if my greatest, most wild dreams of success were to come true: my life would be exactly the same tomorrow. The only thing that might change (and only briefly, mind you) is a digital number that represents how much money I have in my account.
I tend to be a dreamer (I’ve always loved imagining myself in fantasy worlds, or what would happen if I were cryogenically stored and revived in the distant future—considering how much SciFi/fantasy I’ve read, I think I’d be well prepared), and my dreams of grandeur have always been farfetched, so I guess that’s where it comes from. For the first time in my life, I’ve realized that if all my dreams came to fruition my life would be exactly the same.
In short, I’ve realized that getting published (or graduating) wouldn’t be like winning the lottery. It would change nothing. I’d just have to go back and write the next one.
I just can’t believe it took me this long to realize something so simple. I really am blind in the face of my dreams. Am I the only idiot with delusions of adequacy?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Location, Location, Location



There’s something about New Mexico that just brings out the stupid in people. I don’t know what it is about the United States, but if you waylay a stranger on the sidewalk today (assuming you don’t live in New Mexico) and ask them if New Mexico is part of the United States, a solid third of them will say no. These are our citizens. They graduated from high school. They vote. And they don’t know that New Mexico is a State. And it’s so pervasive, that all of us currently living in The Land of Enchantment (yes, it’s the state motto) have a story about coming across well educated people who should freakin know better.

When a shipment of textbooks was late, one of the profs called up the publisher (academic books are often ordered directly from the publisher) to ask where the books were, the woman on the other end of the line helpfully suggested that they might be tied up in customs. The prof, confused at first asked “Where are you shipping from?” The publisher, “Conneticut.”

A fellow grad student was buying stamps in Tennessee—at a post office!—when the clerk asked her if she was from New Mexico because she was sending postcards there. Grad student said “Why yes I am.” The postperson then asked, “What sort of money do they use there?” Grad student “We have a quarter.”

When I was moving to New Mexico from Vermont (another interesting state, but for entirely different reasons), I flew back and forth a few times. One time, I presented my ticket to the ticket agent (remember when you checked in at the airport? My god, that was a long time ago), she smiled and said, “Oh wow, New Mexico. Are you going for pleasure or business?”

“I’m going to go to grad school there,” I said. 

“How exciting,” she said (yeah, for the record, getting accepted to grad school: exciting. Actually going to grad school, not so much). Then she got a sudden look of consternation and asked: “What language do they speak there?”

I blinked. I couldn’t believe a ticket agent at the airport didn’t know. In my best deadpan I said, “New Mexican.”

She cocked her head and squinted her eyes at me. Mine were laughing, I’m sure. Then without another word, she handed me my boarding pass and beckoned the next passenger.
Recap: To visit New Mexico you do not need a passport (unless you’re traveling from another country, like say, Mexico). If you ever ship something there, it will not get stuck in customs (unless you send it from outside the US). They speak English (well, American, but let’s not quibble over details), and if you hand someone a peso in New Mexico, most of them are likely to ask “What the hell is this?”

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Good enough just isn't

I've been waffling about this post. See, as it turns out, I can't help myself. I can't quite follow Janet Reid's advice. Last night I was lucky enough to put my query in the pot to go through the ringer with Roseanne Wells. It was hosted by the folks over at WriteOnCon, and it was awesome. When she got to my query, she basically said, good idea, but not strong enough to take a peek. I can't thank Roseanne enough. Her take sort of boiled down to: There's nothing wrong, but it could be better. (caveat: I'm interpolating, so don't quote this or pretend that she actually said it).
I think the part here that struck me, is that I've suspected it. No, I've known it. The query that sent to die for my laziness is: adequate, ordinary, run of the mill. I don't know that I'd pick up the book if that was printed on the back cover. I sort of got sucked into the lurking evil thread, and that was bad bad bad. I know better. So it's a classic case of me knowing that there's something wrong, and not knowing how to fix it. I sent it out anyway, knowing that it wasn't there. It's a pretty classic case of jumping the gun. And now, I've rewritten the letter again. Now I think it's great, but I'm convinced that first drafts are actually laced with dopamine.

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's just a jump to the left, and a step to the right


I wasn’t actually planning to post today, but when I saw Liz’s post, I knew I needed to join in the fun. It’s a blogfest being hosted by Elizabeth Poole, and I laughed at the idea of looking back on some previous works. My only regret was that I didn’t have some of my earlier work in digital format (my first novel length piece of fiction was written on an actual type writer, so that fan fic didn’t survive—hey, I was twelve, okay). But I found a worthy piece, and it made me laugh. I still like the idea, but I think it would have a, well, limited appeal.
You see, I had a thing for antiheroes. Call me a product of comic books in the 80’s, but I love movies like Split Second. Our MC is this dark, tortured bad ass whose had one too many run ins with the bad guys and can be summed up by his sidekick’s best line “We need *bigger* guns! To effing small! Bigger!” Seriously, watch the movie, it’s awesome sauce on toast.
But it had this effect on me. I suddenly needed to write a gritty, crusted over antihero with a propensity for violence. And if I’d just gone with that idea, I wouldn’t be laughing so hard today, but I had to meld it with something I know. I was just trying to follow the “write what you know” advice that everyone loves to spout. But what the hell did I know?
I knew about grad school.
After nearly burning out on my master’s degree I was just cresting over the evils of my comprehensive exam (you know, the one where they told me my writing was “Really quite awful. I’m glad your presentation was so strong, otherwise…”). I was hurt, burned, and I felt like an antihero. I brought boxes to my comps so I could pack and leave after they failed me (not a joke). I felt like the undeserving asshole who stars in a gritty 80’s action flicks next to Rutger Hauer. And so I thought maybe it was time to feature a graduate student in a gritty action flick. Unapologetic science nerd meets action hero. Like I said, limited appeal.
So here it is, the opening pages of my trunked novel from early 2007: Grad School Blues (it was a working title). Oh, and it’s completely un-edited, so this is what my rough-roughs look like (note my sincere fear of commas).

***

Grad school just has not been the same since an asteroid scored a direct hit on the capital. For one thing NSF and NASA have started putting their money where their mouths are and any lab with enough clout to garner a mediocre grant from these institutions now have armed escorts and “personal safety devices” for all of their research. Of course, the armed escorts are to protect us weakling science types from hurting ourselves with our big new toys. Oh, and to protect us from the raving lunatics, read: fundamentalist groups with a combined IQ lower than my bra size, who decided that an asteroid striking down the President and all the senior staff was a clear sign from God that it was time to blast the major colonies into little radioactive bits.
At least that is the current theory for why the only martian civilizations still intact are the ones ten feet down in bedrock.
I really hate the Fundamentalists. I really like my personal safety device. I’ve nicknamed it Sparky. It has three settings: “Kill that guy,” “Kill those guys,” and “Run.” Sparky is more reliable than my old advisor, but he is not allowed into public situations any longer. Too much stress…
My boyfriend also suffers from similar stress issues, but Johnny has learned to compensate by mass consumption of two things: caffeine and alcohol. To say that Johnny has a thing for coffee would be like saying a few religious groups have a couple of ideas on how things work. Johnny is not really human until he has had his first cup of joe. If you ever feel like experiencing a point blank nuclear blast just tell Johnny that we’re out of coffee and there’s a Red Level radiation alert.
Today’s radiation alert is a mere yellow, so Johnny and I are currently occupying one of the most rare and distinguished locations on this side of what remains of the Great Rift: a café.
“You going to see the Prof today,” Johnny asked as he took control of his cup of bitter black goodness from the café’s owner. I waited for the sugar to follow. You see most people dole out just enough sugar to take the edge off the coffee. Johnny, however, pours the sugar on and counts to ten.

Sometimes he gets lost between 8 and 9, so he starts over. I watched as the coffee started to threaten the rim of the cup with an overflow before Johnny stopped pouring.
“Yeah, I have some questions about the EDS data that we got from our parts. I think that the lab is trying to short-change us. I think they’ve sent us another contaminated crystal.”
“You don’t honestly think there’s enough left in that mans scrambled brain to help you get the probe up and running?” I tensed. Johnny and I have been rounds on this subject before. It’s not pretty.
“I think there’s enough up top for me to get a degree.”
“Come on, Sophy, how long are you going to stay loyal to Dr. I can’t handle the stress of it all. Dr. Collins says he’d give you a degree if you’d just work for our lab.”
“Sorry, Johnny, I’ve almost got the mass spectrometer up and running. Until we can measure the signature at those blast sites the government won’t know where the nuclear weapon leaks are.”
“You really think you’re going to be able to get those moving?” Johnny stirred his coffee carefully.
“It’s not my original thesis, but all the machines worked when I started. I think I can get the labs back online. You can keep making radiation proof plastic if you like, it’s just not my thing. I’m a geologist, not a chemist.”
“Whatever, Sophy. You’re probably one of the best chemists I know.” Johnny shook his head at me, a sure sign of defeat, and I sighed a bit of relief.
Suddenly I had that feeling; the hair on the back of my neck stood up, time slowed down, and I could tell that somewhere a gun was pointed at a vital part of my body. I did the only reasonable thing: I dropped to the floor in the middle of a café.
As I fell I saw Johnny giving me one of his quizzical looks as he continued to bring his cup to his mouth. Then his cup exploded as the bullet passed through the space my head had occupied a moment earlier and took out Johnny’s cup of coffee. Not Good. Then as soon as all time had moved into slow motion it sped back up to hyper velocity.
“Son of a-“ Johnny yelled as he whipped around his “personal safety device.” Remember how I nicknamed mine Sparky? I call Johnny’s Spike. He fired a self imbedding mine into the wall in the direction the shot had come from.  Air rushed out of my lungs a nanosecond before the blast wave crashed into me with a deafening roar. So much for Café Ole.
I started scanning the area for potential threats and for our escort. I found both with ease. Our escort was smeared across the back wall, and the potential threats were a bunch of fairly tall individuals wearing non-regulation gas masks. I hate fundamentalists.
I set Sparky to setting #2 and cleared a path to the exit with the plasma cone function. I didn’t want coffee this morning anyway. I grabbed Johnny, who was in the process of reloading, by the back of the neck and drug him towards the door. If we can just get to our transport vehicle we’ll be fine. I swear the paranoid rats at NASA made the Personnel Transport Vehicle (that would be PTV for those of you into acronyms) capable of withstanding a direct thermo nuclear hit.  I pulled Johnny out of the remains of Café Ole and saw the fundamentalists scurrying around the other buildings on the street, and one group who were trying to secure our PTV. Morons.
“Johnny!” I yelled over the noise of gunfire and small blasts. “Hit the transport with a type II!”




I stopped after another page of this story telling gold mine when I realized that this story could be told in about another twenty pages. I wanted to write a novel damnit, not some half attempted short story (you know, that might actually advance my career and get me a publishing credit!). I also find it hard to post it unedited. I mean really, were commas just scarier back then? I don't remember having such a strong fear of punctuation.