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The not-entirely-random thoughts of Chris Brecheen about writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Mailbox: Traditional Publishing Questions

Must a writer have an agent? How do you write a good query letter?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And I will take a shot at questions about traditional publishing, but there are obviously better people to ask.]  

Steven asks:

I was wondering, to finalize a story to be sent out to a publisher, what things must I consider (rewrites, research, etc.) Please reply soon. Also, MUST a writer HAVE an agent? I heard agents are somewhat good to have but then they're demanding, needing a piece of work within a period of time.

My reply:

Both of today's questions came through my Facebook page from Steven.

First of all, I'm not the best person to ask about traditional publishing. There are lots of writers who haven't just declared (in their best Cartman voice): "Screw you guys in Traditional Publishing; I'm going home."

But I'll tell you what I know.

Any manuscript you submit (solicited or not) should be the best you can possibly make it. I don't mean "I checked it twice! I even found a missing comma." I mean the best fucking shit you are capable of producing.

For real real (not for play play).

You should have completely rewritten it at least once and revised it multiple times. These revisions may be major. They may involve cutting out whole scenes or entire characters you realize are doing the same thing. They may involve changing up the point of view. They may require completely reworking the entire story. You have to trust this part of the process.

I know what you're thinking. Not MY manuscript. Yes YOUR fucking manuscript! One of the biggest mistakes most young writers make is thinking that THEY will be the exception to this and that THEIR manuscript is ready after only one draft, a quick revision, and some grammar polishing.

Nope nope nope nope nope!!!

You have to rewrite that puppy. Then revise. A lot. And you have to be ready to make some major changes. You can't fall in love with that first draft. You must kill your darlings. That doesn't always just mean those characters you are in love with. It also means the paragraphs you thought were so clever or that whole brilliant secondary plot that really just isn't working. Take a machete to that bastage.

When you're finally ready for editing it (which should happen only after several revisions), you should go through it with a fine tooth comb for every grammar mistake you can, and if you're not good at proofreading your own work (and I mean REALLY, REALLY good), consider hiring a copy editor.

Don't worry about grammar, young writer.
You will be assigned an editor because you are
JUST. SO.
FUCKING.
BRILLIANT!!
Me? A myth? Pfffffft.
The myth that the publisher will edit your book is delicious, but it is a myth.

They will assign a copy editor to go through your galley proofs with an eagle eye, but you will never ever ever ever ever ever EVER get to that point if you submit something with a lot of mistakes.  I've worked on the other end of this transaction. You might think your brilliance will get your grammar errors forgiven, but what actually happens is that the first person to encounter your manuscript will probably be the type of person who will notice you used the wrong they're/their/there long before they notice your brilliance.  Most have some rule like "Error on the first page?  ROUND FILE!" "More than one error a page? ROUND FILE!" "Stupid junior high error that shows me you didn't give this the professional courtesy of someone expecting the professional accolades that you are hoping I will give you? ROUND FILE!"

Round file is the trash, by the way.

As for agents....get one.

A writer doesn't HAVE to have an agent, Steven, but...if you're going to go the route of traditional publishing, I can't stress this enough: get an agent. I could go into the pros and cons of having an agent in the traditional publishing world, but everything I have ever read says get one. Those who publish unsolicited say they should have had one. Those who are famous writers still have one. Those who get one say it was the best thing they did. So even though agents are elusive motherfuckers who spend more of their time trying to build defensive structures and laser targeting auto-cannons that will keep writers at bay, you still need one.

Only a handful of publishers will take unsolicited material, and it usually goes into a slush pile.

Let me tell you a little about the slush pile.

Bottom section.
Left column.
Eight from the bottom.
That one's mine.
I'm sure they'll read it any day now.
It is this HUGE pile of manuscripts that they give either to interns or to very bored publishers to go through at a pace that makes snails look like fucking Speed Racer, and most of them are NaNoWriMo and/or first drafts. You don't want to be in there. Sometimes it can take eighteen months (or longer) before some bleary eyed intern, who just read 20 first drafts in a row that were obvious rip offs of Dresden, Star Wars, or Willow, finally hits your story.

An agent will represent you; they will pimp out your work; they will sell you; they will get you in front of the eyeballs that matter; they know what venues are most likely to find an interest in your work. And they will almost always get you more money than you would get without them–that's even after you take into account their take. They are trained negotiators and your gain is their gain. They know what a good deal and a shitty deal look like, and--unlike you--they won't be wetting themselves just at the prospect of publication and take a shitty deal without thinking it through.

Plus they can help you with your manuscript in a way that a publisher will not. If your book is close, but not quite ready for publication yet, or needs a few tweaks to be commercially viable, they can help you get it to that point.

Steven, your idea of agents being demanding comes later. Usually it is the PUBLISHER setting things like chapter deadlines when an author has something called an "advance" on a book. In today's market, you're not likely to get an advance until you've published a few books. If an agent is harping on a writer, it's probably because the writer has asked them to do so (because they need a little external motivation) and that is a part of their professional relationship. But the agent works for the writer and they've obviously negotiated that ahead of time. The writer can call off the agent at any time.

"You're fired" is remarkably effective as a safe word.


What advice do you have regarding query letters and is there an electronic version of the writer's market book on the net? One where you can fill in a search and it'll bring up a list of potential publishers?

My reply:

Again, there are probably better people to ask about traditional publishing than me, but here is what I know.

A query letter should be formal, concise, and impeccably professional. It should never be informal or familiar in tone ("Hi there! Lemmie tell you about your next blockbuster" ROUND FILE!), and it should never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever EVER be more than one page. (Please fucking trust me on this one. I have known agents who go through their stack of query letters and throw out everything with a staple. ROUND FILE!) Agents get dozens, sometimes hundreds of query letters every week. If you can't even follow the most basic directions, they're not going to want a professional relationship with you.

Before I talk about the query letter, I want to make one thing absolutely, crystal clear. Like mountain lake after a spring thaw crystal clear where there are fucking snow capped mountains in the distance, your face is about to freeze off, and the light sparkling off of everything is a razor blade across your pupil.

DO NOT SEND A QUERY LETTER BEFORE YOUR BOOK IS DONE.

Just don't.

In non-fiction there is something called a proposal which you can write before you're done if you query with a table of contents and sample chapters, but in fiction, you need to be sitting on a final project. Not a few chapters. Not a first draft. Not "still needs some cleaning up." Done. An agent who asks to see more and finds out you're not done will ROUND FILE your query and probably put your name in the "Do Not Reply" section of their rolodex for the future.

Paragraph one is the hook to your story. Describe your book like you would someone you met on a subway who was about to get off at the next stop. Or better yet someone who was about to do their first unassisted parachute jump. This isn't the place for plot points beyond the basic description. In storytelling terms, use one clause to describe "the mundane world" and one clause to describe the inciting event.  ("Chris couldn't hook up a groupie threesome to save his life until one day he met a pair of gothic lingerie models who loved blogs about writing.") Be careful of making it formulaic, but that is the basic idea. This is also the place to mention setting, or any stylistic decisions you've made that you think are very unique.

Paragraph two is a brief synopsis. Let me say this again with the proper emphasis. Paragraph two is a MOTHER-FUCKING BRIEF synopsis. Brief. Hear me on this. Brief. If your whole query letter is over a page (which will get it ROUND FILED) it will probably be because you are trying to introduce too much detail into your synopsis. You don't need to tell the agent the whole story, just get them interested.

Tell the picture finding intern that she can't just Google the big word in the paragraph and pick any picture!
She has to actually read it and know what it's about.

Paragraph three is about you as a writer. Degrees you hold. Places you've published. If you don't have a lot of that, increase the length of your synopsis (paragraph two) but don't bullshit your way through this. You're dealing with professional bullshit sniffers who have epic reading skills. Don't even bother. An agent doesn't care about your job (unless you're writing a story about that job). An agent doesn't care about your education (beyond the fact that you have a degree). If you have a lot of writing accolades, keep it to a few that you're most proud of, and keep it short. Journalism publications, awards or contests you've won, or literary publications.

Lastly, don't forget to thank them for their time and attention and to tell them the full manuscript is available on request. (And make sure that is true.)

As for the Writer's Market, I'm afraid it's not available online--but just about everything in it is. It's one of those books that is valuable because it takes a gillion bits of information that anyone could find out without any trouble and puts them all in the same place. Nothing in The Writer's Market isn't researchable, but when it's all in one place it's damned convenient. If you're looking for particular venues to submit I suggest Googling "Publishing Venues for XXXXXX" where XXXXX is the genre you are writing in.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

So You Want to Start Your Own Blog? My Best--AAAAAAAAAAAHHH!

OM NOM NOM NOM!!
We apologize for the inconvenience, but this entry has been consumed by Project Sanity and it revolving days off. Please join us in one week to find out the best advice for starting your own blog.

Only two days of teaching 4th-9th graders about study skills in a thrice weekly recreation of the battle of Leipzig. (I play Napoleon, of course.) Tomorrow at approximately 4:10 and two seconds, I will cry out "FREEEEEEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOOOM!" in my best Mel Gibson impression.

On Friday we will be tackling some questions folks have written in about the traditional publishing industry. I have some plans for this weekend, but it sort of depends on how quickly I get back into the groove.

On Monday the 28th, Project Sanity will consume its last entry as I violently eschew pants and take a well-needed day completely off from the last six weeks of 80+ hours. Then I will hit the ground running on Tuesday and self-loathe with renewed vigor if I should happen to miss a post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Opting Out: My Dubious Future in Traditional Publishing

I may never see one of my books on a stranger's shelf. Not because I'm not read by strangers, though.

I figured I would stop my weekly whine sessions about teaching summer school to young, budding psychopaths (even though this is my last week ~squee~) and talk about something a little different.

Two years ago, if you'd asked me about my die happy moment, I probably would have told you about "The Dream of a Stranger's Bookshelf™" (I mean besides the other die happy moment involving the Swedish Bikini team being REALLY into blogs about writing.) That is the dream that one day, somehow, either because I'm in a stranger's house for some reason, or I just met someone, or I see it in the background of a selfie or something, I would see a book I wrote sitting on the bookshelf of a complete stranger. That would be....the moment.

That dream is gone. Or at least deferred for a significant hiatus.

A few people who either heard me talk about opting out when I did the Ace of Geeks Podcast or when I answered my hate mail about picking non-traditional publishing, have asked me if I really meant it. And a LOT of people have wondered (some playfully and some in a way that is like sucking lemons) when I'm going to be putting out my first novel.

The answer to the latter is that there is no book coming out because the answer to the former is a big affirmative.

I really meant it.

Really.

I'm currently all in with non-traditional publishing.

If there is a book deal out there it will happen because a publisher will come to me....preferably by sending Michelle Rodriguez to my house with a duffle bag full of hundred dollar bill stacks, some strappy pumps, and a anything-to-close-the-deal attitude.

But despite how many novel ideas are clacking around in my brain like loose marbles in a bathtub, I'm going to be electronic publishing or serial posting all of my longer fiction works. There may be physical copies through self-publishing if demand is high enough one day, but that is more like a pipe dream than something I am working directly toward right this minute. I also hope mayflies lay their eggs in Glen Beck's eye, but...you know.

There are two reasons why. One is more important to me, but it would be dishonest of me to completely leave out the other.

First the lesser reason: there is something to embracing the internet/free content culture. Knowing pirates are out there and that the industry is changing, one can cling to the old ways or embrace the new. I don't condone pirating or the entitled snots who've convinced themselves they're doing artists a great favor by ripping them off or those who can't even be bothered to turn off an adblocker as they gorge on free content, but it's equally ridiculous to pretend it doesn't happen or that there is really anything to be done about it.

A generation of writers exists now who fetishize the physical book as the pinnacle of writing success. They are competing with growing numbers for a shrinking market share of traditional publishing opportunities because physical books, book deals, publishing contracts, agents and such feel more "legitimate" to them. Their route is the traditional route even though it will likely lead to fewer readers, more logistics, less writing time, and less money.

I may have to deal with people who don't think a blogger is a "real" writer, but I've written more, been read by lots more, and at this point made a shit ton more money than many of those with the street cred to look down their noses at me.

What is happening more and more is that artists are striking gold--artists who recognize how the internet is changing the way in which they make money instead of trading away their control for the legitimacy of an increasingly obsolete "middle man" industry. As I write this, Weird Al Yankovic is wrapping up his eight videos in eight days. He released all those videos for free to the internet and let the websites that covered their production costs get all the web traffic revenue. They scrambled to promote themselves as hosting sites including all over social media and basically became a non-stop, EIGHT DAY commercial to buy his latest album. Now he's number one on the charts–that's record SALES if you didn't know.

Genius.

The more artists that are willing to step outside the control of these huge production and distribution centers and the paradigm that they are somehow more legitimate, the more the artist has the power and control and rewards from their art. And that leads me to my real point....

However this is the main reason: The traditional publishing industry is a broken system. It is horribly classist, sexist, racist and still often heteronormative. Gatekeepers are almost always upper middle class white men, and even when they are not, they often carry those "dead white guy" aesthetics and values. Most of the western canon is little else. Even though a few cracks have shown in this hegemony, traditional publishing still has a reprehensible track record with publishing other voices (be they women's voices, people of color, and even a rainbow of sexuality beyond just the L and the G in LGBTQIA).

I'm white. I'm male. I'm middle class. My most non-hetro thought involves high-fiving another dude after we just rocked a woman in an MMF threesome. I benefit from this system of systematic prejudice.

I don't have to give a crap, and in fact, it would be better for my career if I didn't. I have the opportunity to blow it off or mansplain it away or to care only in a beard-stroking way like I'm some fucking Berkeley soccer parent with one kid, driving around in a passenger van that gets 14 miles to the gallon on my way to a global warming rally.

The "problem" is that my concern doesn't end as soon as it actually affects me, and my activism goes beyond arguing with friends of friends on Facebook. I don't just do that lips pressed half smile and say "But what can we do?"  I've listened to the people who have told me what we can do.

An ally's most powerful action of genuine support is to opt out of those systems which advantage them because of the unearned circumstances of their birth.

Essentially if you are accepting the status quo and the advantages that it provides, you are part of the problem, not the solution. No matter how many links you share from The Social Justice Warriors website. I don't besmirch any white males who got themselves a book deal, and please don't think I do. I don't think anyone is less of a person for not torpedoing themselves out of spite. But I see this system as broken, and if I can work around it, I'm going to.

I'll admit that I did not always think this way. I started in non-traditional publishing because it looked like that might be the quicker, easier, more seductive route to building up an audience that could then be yoked for marketing in traditional publishing contexts. ("Hey blog readers! Check it out, I have a book out!!!")

But my position evolved over the last couple of years.

As I've gotten further involved in researching the publishing industry, read lots of writers who wouldn't be viable candidates for traditional publishing, seen the kinds of ideas that can only prosper on the internet, encountered the deep seated prejudices and value judgements of traditional publishing, and witnessed how damaging this system is for talented voices outside their schema, I have begun to realize that FOR ME, for MY moral compass, publishing a book through the traditional route would be like buying shares in Hobby Lobby, taking an executive job at at Chick Fil A, or making a fortune selling Duck Dynasty merchandise.

If the publishing industry can get its shit together in my lifetime, maybe I can revisit this question, but they suffer pretty badly from being blind to it right now–to say nothing of addressing it.

I know I'll do other things with inadvertently problematic outcomes, and I know some advantages I have for being white and male (and het and cisgender and able bodied) are not systems I can opt out of, but letting my career flourish within such an unequal system is one place I can opt out.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Myriad As a Noun?

We also require all our authors write only "missives"
instead of letters, and ask everyone how the 
"day/afternoon/evening finds them"
instead of just saying hi.
It's a small price to pay to have a
"Simply The Best"/"You're The Best" mashup
play over the P.A. system whenever one of
our writers walks into the clubhouse.
Yes, Virginia, you CAN use myriad as a noun! (And not just like that.)  

I love The New Yorker. I do. Though I especially their weekly offering of short fiction, TNY helps me look like I eruditely understand the nuance and complexity of news in a world where most people's current events awareness comes from Facebook macros (posted by an insular bubble of their friends...who haven't blocked or been blocked by them....as part of an algorithm that shows you more of what you "like.") The New Yorker offers smart writing and good journalism.

However, sometimes The New Yorker is on the "chic" side of linguistic kerfuffles lest their reputation for being the biggest ponces in periodic literature be endangered. The apparently react to the accusation that linguistic elitism is classist (and often racist) by hopping into their Audis and driving off to play tennis. Their recent very noticeable scourge of any forms of myriad as a noun is a pretty good example. Every issue has myriad incidences of the word only ever as an adjective, even though as Merriam-Webster attests, there are a myriad of precedents for its use as either noun or adjective:

"Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase 'a myriad of,' seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective.... however, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English."

Maybe they're all too busy sipping brandy in the cloakroom to bother investigating the actual origins of their snobbery. Or maybe they know that they are just SO. FUCKING. GOOD! at print journalism (in a world where it is very nearly dead) that we just won't be able to quit them, no matter how eccentric and anachronistic they become.

My myriad proclivities are redeemed. (See what I did there?)

Or as I say when I'm NOT reading The New Yorker: "Neener neener!"

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Word Crimes?

Morans are the worst!
Weird Al Yankovic has included a song about grammar in his latest album. 

The reason I know this is that last Tuesday, no less than half the posts on my Facebook wall were people sharing this video. Seriously, it was cat meme, Word Crimes, passive aggressive message to an ex, word crimes, what level someone unlocked on Zombiepirates, Word Crimes, a rant about progressive social justice*, Word Crimes, a post from someone I don't even know that keeps showing up in my feed because someone I do know keeps commenting on it, Word Crimes, an inspirational quote (maybe on a macro of a picture of someone who didn't say it), Word Crimes.  Then another cat meme.

You get the idea.

*There is a no less than 71% chance that the rant was actually me.

Also, my friends know I'm a word nerd, so I got a lot of private messages too. "Hey, I totally thought of you." "Hey did you see this?" "Hey this seems up your alley." I don't want them to stop thinking of me when they see these sorts of things, and I promised to stop self-immolating (no matter how frustrating Facebook became), so I spent part of the day twirling a tiny Phillips head screwdriver between my thumb and forefinger and contemplating the logistics of self-lobotomization. 

Of course, Word Crimes isn't the brilliant manifesto on language that some of the more pedantically oriented are hailing it as. Many of these "crimes" aren't even wrong in formal usage anymore, much less in colloquial settings and the lyrics belie a tenuous grasp of linguistics at best. What made me wince was far less the song itself (which I will get to) and more the people lauding it as a genius grammar lesson.

Most rules like these, from fish forks to fashion to grammar, are "proper" primarily to create an artificial social barrier between classes and "other" cultures, and the "proper" making fun of the "improper" for doing it wrong is a long and illustrious tradition in our society.
That burrito you microwaved in a paper towel yesterday might as well be a split infinitive, peasant.

When I teach English to my college students, especially when I get native speakers who use dialects like AAVE, I tell them that I am not teaching them the "correct" or "proper" English. As a country without a national language academy, that doesn't even mean anything. Most pedants in this regard have appointed themselves lords of language (even though they can't seem to agree with each other) and who spend their days tilting at the windmills of linguistic drift and being elitist about their dialect without realizing how classist (and often racist) that makes them seem. (Especially when they do their pedantry thing without regard to context like informal settings or colloquial usage.)

What I tell them is that I am going to teach them the rules that a very narrow group of people in power have determined is proper and who insist that if you can't follow THEIR rules of communication (even if they knew what you meant) that you will not be listened to and/or taken seriously. The powerful have a proclivity to demand THEIR rules be followed in order to parlay (anyone from social justice will instantly recognize as a derailing technique known as the tone argument) and what I am teaching them isn't "right" so much as it is the version that powerful people demand.

The reason I like Word Crimes is the same reason I like Nabokov or Frost even though they portray a pedophile and a self-deluding hypocrite respectively. I consider their work to be reflective, not didactic, and through the lens of a character. I mean I don't REALLY think Weird Al committed incest when he parodied Avril Lavine, stalked people like in Melanie, has a zillion guns like in Trigger Happy, or was ever a surgeon. I'm not even sure he likes rocky road or bologna or has spent significant amounts of time in a drive through. He is singing through a persona.

And frankly, there's reason to suspect that he's singing through a satirical persona. Weird Al does this A LOT. His lyrics are cute and funny and usually hilariously clever, but there is almost always a second level of irony going on as well. The characters who sing Weird Al songs are often more caricatures of some dubious belief or philosophy (from coupon clippers to TV zombies to belief in the paranormal to crusty old parents who had it worse when they were your age). In fact, one of the reasons Weird Al stands out among so many who do song parodies is because it's generally harder to find a song where he doesn't have a layering of additional irony, humor, and social commentary. And even though Yankovic has definitely punched down during his career, I don't think that's what's going on here.

Some of the rules he insists upon in Word Crimes are so anachronistic by today's standards (prepositions at the end of sentences) as to be absurd. The fact that he calls them "crimes" and demands people go back to pre-school or were raised in a sewer, as well as the entire raging tone, hints at the fact that Weird Al doesn't believe this is a legitimate position so much as the persona of the character singing the song is mocking the red-faced, frothing mouthed pedants who are (extra ironically) calling this song genius.

ETA: He even admits to putting "improper" grammar in the song intentionally to cheese off the grammar wanks. (It's in the first few seconds of this clip if you're interested.)


To put it bluntly, I'm pretty sure the pedants declaring this the most educational song ever--and lauding it as brilliance incarnate--aren't actually getting the joke. Weird Al punk/trolled them. Hard.

What's not to love about a near perfect reverse ironic pedant trolling in a fricken hilarious song that explains the difference between "its" and "it's"? Plus nothing is funnier to an English nerd than a good dangling participle joke.

Oh, and if you haven't seen it yet.......