The alchemy of the intangible

The query letter is an elusive, special kind of witchcraft. It must perform several functions: market your story in one neat package, use an attention-grabbing angle, and offer something that can’t be found elsewhere.

One of the first sentences will serve as the “hook.” This is the most commonly used term, although I prefer to think of it as the “bait” — that juicy nugget that will entice your prospective agent, not the sharp dangly bit that will scare them off. (Please do not scare off your prospective agent.) This is also marketing lingo, because that’s exactly what you’re trying to do: sell a concept.

That hook should give the agent reading it a sense of the story to come, but keep it at just enough distance that (s)he will want to tease the rest from you. Crafting this single sentence is perhaps one of the single most difficult tasks a writer must face.

If you asked me, “What’s your book about?”, the hook is often the follow-up line I use. You, while well-intentioned, likely did not understand how incredibly difficult that question was for me to answer. How to distill so much work into so few words?

Years ago, before having muscled through the query letter like trying to squeeze an artisanal espresso out of a rusty French press, I would have just gone off the top of my head. I would have babbled that my main character is a Strong Female Character (which is subjective even in modern literary discourse), that the plot is based on Ancient Roman mythology but not really (and even the Romans were derivative), or that it’s a serious book ultimately about werewolves (although the word “werewolf” isn’t used once).

“So…what’s your book about?” you’d then repeat, disappointed, but no more disappointed than I’d be at myself. Immediately, I’d go create a shame-space in the corner, sit there, and think about what I’d done (or in this case, failed to do).

As a writer, while your idea might appear fully formed and real as the world you inhabit, it’s intangible to those around you. The entire process of writing it, in fact, is shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Your readers won’t know the lengths of your research or the scrapped drafts that produced the end result, and that’s just fine.

But if your ability to summarize your project is only halfway there, others will inevitably stick their own assumptions on it. “It’s a fantasy, so it will involve dragons”; or, “it’s YA, so there will be a love triangle.” Maybe not in so many words, but it’s human nature to stereotype genre fiction, and we tend to be immensely critical as a mass media consuming culture.

Meanwhile, you (the writer) are in the background flailing your arms. “Wait! That’s not what it’s actually about!” you say. “My intention was to subvert those particular expectations while retaining some intrinsic tropes!” Your yelling is futile, because people are very good at believing what they want about something before being exposed to its true nature.

Your job, then, is to convince without hesitation, and that’s where the hook/bait comes in. It is witchcraft, and more specifically alchemy, because you are transforming that intangible idea, shaping it just so, into an object others can touch (and hopefully relate to, and understand, and even love).

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” readers say, perhaps without realizing the books they hold were each given merit on the judgment of a single sentence.

Further reading on query letters:

Trying To Find a Literary Agent Is the Worst Thing Ever, Ken Pisani, Publishers Weekly

X Meets Y, or the High Concept Pitch, PubCrawl Podcast

The Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters, Lynn Flewelling, SFWA

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The catharsis of “finished”

There is an immense satisfaction in writing this post, as it has been exactly a year since my penultimate update on my novel, The Soft Fall. And I don’t expect these long stretches of silence to continue, due to my reason for posting this now.

The final draft is finished. 

Technically, it was finished before Christmas — a nail-biting deadline I set myself, since the holiday season is the crunchiest of crunch times for us little independent booksellers. This allowed me the foresight to order a personal printed and bound hard copy of the manuscript, stick a festive bow and a gift tag to it, and present it upon the tiny pile of gifts under our tree (which is really just two overwintering potted oak saplings sharing soil).

How seemingly meta to place my tenuous project beneath the brittle and browning twigs of our barely grown little oaklings, Thorin Oakenshield and Professor Oak. Both my book and these plants are lifeforms in their own right, straining against their rooted natures, longing to create breath, reaching toward sunlight. They are so delicate, so susceptible to a cold untimely death. They want to be touched, studied, nurtured into being. They want to live.

This time in my life is the culmination of blood, sweat, and tears: a marathon of research, outlining, editing, hiding in cafes, the frantic jotting of spontaneous ideas bursting through synapses with ink-stained and paper-cut fingers, more editing, crying sometimes, the peaceful gray of a rainy morning with only Alt-J and black coffee for company while trying to tap out turns of phrases on my keyboard. Creating is messy. Creators only hope to shape their ultimate creations into something less so.

And it’s for you.

That is why I wrote on the gift tag: “To: You.” With the addendum, “Sorry.”

This is not intended to be self-deprecating. I’m sorry because between all these messy moments, I have truly enjoyed this experience from which I am beginning to diverge. Of course I am still learning, always. I am crafting query letters to selected literary agents. I am sketching my characters and settings because I don’t want to leave the world I made. This new process could be likened to the joys and terrors of raising a first-born child who is then to be released on the cusp of adulthood. And then you are wondering, “Did I teach you the right things? Will you be safe? What will become of you?”

The draft is finished. These words smack of doubt, because what really constitutes a “finished” product?

To me, you know by your a gut instinct. As Aimes would say, it’s a soft Fall.

 

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The Deadline cometh

The Year of Revision is midway through. I’ve compiled the final beta comments and I’m working on the final changes now.

Expect more silence from me here, for now. I’m going forth, and when I come back, I’ll have a story ready to tell.

A step backward, a breath, and then we fly

There is much to be learned from Icarus aside from the aerodynamic inefficiency of wax.

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I began line edits of my manuscript on my Kindle today, so I can read it in a different format. It is the final buff and polish before I kick it out to my crit readers again by the end of the month. Then, who knows? I write queries to prospective agents. I research the Writer’s Market 2015 for small presses. I get rejection letters. Maybe I get nothing at all.

It certainly wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

There is a part of me that, as soon as it’s finished, will probably open the window and yell at the top of my lungs, “THE WILL OF MACTUS; IT IS WRITTEN,” and probably someone will say “what,” and I’ll say, “IT IS OF NO CONSEQUENCE TO YOU, SIR/MADAM, DON’T EVEN WORRY.”

But here is the story of my life: I am quiet.

When I share my work, it will be like sharing little fragments of me. Handing them out saying, “here, this is my heart. Here, have some more.” And I want to do this. This is the beautiful thing about creating. When the author’s story is no longer private, it becomes the readers’ story. I want that, and I hope other people do, too. And I will never assume the hubris that this project was formed and made real without helping hands — very many helping hands.

For now, though, I get to enjoy a creation that I worked hard to enjoy, that is precious to me, that is entirely mine. I’m mapping a flight path, and I know well to keep my distance from the sun. I tinkered with the prototype, salvaged some pretty-looking feathers, and wove them together. I made my own wings.

You can find me in the woods

I’ve promised husband of mine the finished alpha manuscript by next year as a Christmas present.

No pressure or anything.

The beta draft is marked up to hell (as it should be), and I just finished rewriting the beginning in its entirety over the past week, and I have carved out a wonderful little writing workspace in our new home.

Window view = creative feng shui.

But given the impending deadline for such an upheaval of words, I’ve got much more at stake than NaNoWriMo, and that means I have to be a stranger for awhile.

If you happen to cross paths with me at the designated hour of the day I allow myself to leave the house (going for a run, getting mail, doing laundry, etc.) and I have that glazed, zombified, lost-in-my-head-depths-of-the-plothole-with-a-matchstick-and-a-Thermos-of-espresso kind of look, please forgive me as we exchange greetings and I frankly scamper away like a crazy person.

The truth is, we writers are kind of crazy people. No, no, I don’t think you understand. If I do not make Embracing Homebody time sacred then nothing would get done.

E.B. White said it best:

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”

So excuse me for being entirely elsewhere — I’ve got 88,000~ words and two and half months, you guys, and it’s not over until it comes to life while I’m alive. I am pushing the limits of my creative energies. I am feeling everything all at once.

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Waiting vs. doing

I’d just say to aspiring journalists or writers—who I meet a lot of—do it now. Don’t wait for permission to make something that’s interesting or amusing to you. Just do it now. Don’t wait. Find a story idea, start making it, give yourself a deadline, show it to people who’ll give you notes to make it better. Don’t wait till you’re older, or in some better job than you have now. Don’t wait for anything. Don’t wait till some magical story idea drops into your lap. That’s not where ideas come from. Go looking for an idea and it’ll show up. Begin now. Be a fucking soldier about it and be tough.

— Ira Glass, LifeHacker Interview

I’ve had some really interesting conversations with friends this past week (I say “conversations” like I contributed much to the discussion; mostly I am observing and recording mental notes for later elucidation at the time) about the freelancing life and its differences from traditional career paths.

The unanimous conclusion? Obviously, it’s a risk. Sometimes the risk pays off; sometimes it doesn’t. The outcome is determined by some controllable factors. In publishing, you put out feelers for industry names, but it seems rare that they’ll reach out to you unless you have connections. And to get connections, you have to do busy work.

As a talented artist friend pointed out, sustaining a modern career in the arts requires having other irons in the fire. We’re expected to network, to produce content on a regular basis, and do other projects on the side in our spare time.

But that’s only if we make it a priority. In the early stages of my manuscript, I could have too easily scrapped it and given up. I could have been a waitress instead. I could have said “not now” or “not yet” as time frittered away or ran out.

Active writers take initiative for the work and have to be clairvoyant, because the return for it, while not yet actualized, must be tangible to us. Because art is subjective, an unfinished piece has little value to others, but we have to have conviction that it does have value. It’s belief in an idea or the spark of an idea. We are the investors of our own destinies. Kind of a frightening thought.

So we learn to be fearless. We do not sit and watch and wait for the spark to become a fire. We see a world of open flames and we run through them, and let them catch us and consume us whole.

Ignis fatuus, invisibles, and the ivory tower

My husband and I moved cross-country for several reasons: to establish our professional careers, to spend our first year of marriage being self-reliant (and reliant on each other), and to travel and see and experience living elsewhere while we’re young.

Our year abroad is coming to an end, so we’ve decided to move back.

It’s been amazing to begin our marriage this way. We came here without personal contacts, without pets or kids, without a crutch to lean on. We navigated entirely new places together, furnished an apartment, and learned to efficiently pare down and pack our possessions. Moving is never as easy or less stressful than with the right person, and this time around we have it down to a science.

Our partnership is a fixed recognition of equals, even as our selves are constantly in flux. With many years behind us, I can only reflect that we didn’t get married because we had something to prove. We got married because we had nothing left to prove.

The same principle applies to the work I wanted to pursue post-relocation: building my freelance editing portfolio and client base, and working toward publishing my own novel(s).

I won’t forget when the Mr. told me, essentially, with so much sincerity and enthusiasm: “Well, of course you have to.”

He meant that I had to keep doing what I love because I had nothing left to prove.

It’s an assumption that beginning writers have everything to prove — that they have to publish X works of short prose in prestigious literary journals to secure an inkling of success. But the One True Path to Establishing Yourself as a Writer is a myth.

In an age when social networking and self-promotion is the business norm, I’m content to stay behind the scenes. I actively pursue work that offers no public recognition. And I prefer it.

I don’t blog with an expectation of commentary or “getting discovered” — that’s not how it works. If it can offer perspective, wonderful. But getting published means putting in the hours and playing the long game.

It’s what I love to do, and it’s not “a living” on its own. It is, however, a lifestyle. With a degree in the arts, the education never ends.

There came an epiphanic moment, more a bombshell than a lightbulb, when I accepted that I had nothing to prove to anyone who asks. I only had to prove it to myself, and to do that, I had to dig in deep. To research, study, practice, all on my own time.

That moment came when we set up desks in our apartment, the first writing space I could call my own. It’s where I worked day after day, in an entirely strange place, in solitude. I had my own veritable ivory tower, and I enjoyed it while it lasted. I think Stephen King said it best in On Writing:

Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.

It would have been all too easy not to believe in myself. To think I was chasing an ignis fatuus, a ghost-light, a “hope or goal that leads one on but is impossible to reach, or something one finds sinister and confounding” (Wikipedia). But it’s incredible what I’ve found myself capable of accomplishing with the belief of someone else, and the external support of friends.

It means being unafraid to work in an ivory tower, become invisible, and let that ghost-light lead me where it may.