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Authors, your query is your book’s dating profile

I put off writing my query letter for Community Klepto for way too long. After all, it feels almost reductive to turn years (many years, in my case) worth of work into a three-paragraph sales pitch some acquisitions editor at a publishing house who doesn’t give a crap about my work. It IS reductive. And it’s hard. But it’s also necessary, and will make or break you as an author. So, I made myself sit down and do it.

On some advice from the brilliant Rachelle Gardner, I pulled a couple of my favorite books off the shelf and took a look at the back cover. I was able to get a few lines out but still struggled with how to write about myself. At one time in;  my life, I had a side job as a freelance writer, doing other people’s online dating profiles, so I am intimately familiar with people not being good at writing about themselves. The more I spun my wheels with writing my query, the more I felt like I was trying to write an online dating profile…

So I did just that. I started applying the same principles that I employed as a profile writer to my query; and you know what? It worked. I was able to step out of my hamster wheel and actually come up with a pitch that was worth a damn. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that the query letter was really just a dating profile for my book. So if you’re struggling with how to write a really good query, try applying some of these dating profile writing techniques –

ADJECTIVE LISTS, NO.

No one wants to read a dating profile that’s just list of boring adjectives that you think describes you. Likewise, no publisher wants to hear you talk about how your book is visceral, humorous, horrifying and uplifting. It’s just not convincing. What is convincing, though, is humor that comes through in your voice when you talk about your book’s plot, its characters, its setting.

PAINT A PICTURE

Reading is an experience. A publisher can’t get a feel of what that experience will be like for a reader if you don’t give it to them in your query. Rather than describe or summarize your work, paint a picture of what it’s like to be inside your book. Pick out a specific scene or character trait that can take the place of those boring lists of adjectives you’re supposed to be avoiding.

KEEP IT SHORT

Yes, publishers and agents read for a living. That doesn’t mean they want to open a query submission only to be confronted by a wall of text. Keep your query to three paragraphs – four max. Here I employ another freelance writing gig’s strategies: Groupon. First paragraph, introduce the concept and create an experience the publisher can be a part of. Second paragraph, tell the publisher what they’re buying if they get your book. Third paragraph, talk about you. You have to do it at some point and this keeps the focus on the work. (Of course, these rules are completely different for non-fiction authors.

Of course there is a lot more advice on query letter writing out there, but the dating profile strategy really helped me make my query into something I can be confident putting in front of publishers and agents. Now I just have to actually do that… stay tuned.

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Are academia’s literary journals worth saving? #MondayBlogs

Yesterday, I received a rejection letter for four poems I sent as a manuscript submission to a literary journal. It had been a while since I had submitted anything – I’ve been heads down focused on getting my third novel ready for primetime – so I went and checked the submission record. Turns out there was a reason memory of this poetry submission had receded to the dark depths of brain nothingness; I had submitted it all the way back in February. For those counting, that’s nine months (and one day, to be exact).

By comparison, it only took Bank of America seven months to issue me the escrow refund from my refinance, but I digress…

I won’t name names or anything, but it’s a literary journal run by the graduate creative writing program at a college you would probably not know by name. They do have a couple things in their favor: they allow simultaneous submissions (so I didn’t have to have the poem under their sole consideration for the same length of time as a human pregnancy) and they do online submissions (so I didn’t have to send in a self-addressed stamped envelope in the frigidness of February). But looking at the auto-response I received when I submitted my poems way back during the last winter, it read: We’ll consider your work carefully and get back to you in as timely a manner as we can. Apparently the better part of a year is the timeliest a manner they can muster.

Not 2 minutes before I received this email, I also got one from another academia-run literary journal I have submitted to in the past (since once you submit, you receive their spam forever), asking me to donate so that the journal can be saved. It’s not the first journal to ask for “save us” donations, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But it did make me stop and ask the question – are these types of literary journals really worth saving anymore?

No one reads them anymore.
Content in all forms has moved online and the departments still putting out annually published print journals are relying on smaller and smaller audiences of circulation. Even the journals I have been published in, I rarely read the other works that are included alongside mine. Everyone will say that if you’re going to submit to a journal you should also subscribe to it, but who really does that? I certainly don’t, and I don’t know anyone who does. Besides, if I subscribed to every journal I submitted to, I would go broke.

There is no money in it anymore.
In fact, many journals have taken to charging writers to submit to their journals, sometimes calling these “maintenance fees” to defray the cost of taking submissions online. Some journals say they will pay writers with copies, but (like I said) no one reads these copies and last time I checked, the self-checkout lane at my grocery store doesn’t have a slot that accepts literary journals as payment. Few of the journals that once paid writers for their work are still doing this, if they are even still in existence.

There is zero incentive for the writer.
Why would anyone spend the better part of a year trying to find a literary journal to publish his or her work for zero dollars’ worth of reward? Especially when they can publish a piece or a collection of their work on any number of online publishing platforms in minutes, not months, and sell it for more than zero dollars. For prestige? Of the literary journals I have been published in, very few of them are around anymore, and apart from the academic creative writing elite, no one has heard of them anyway.

Maybe you disagree with me and think we as writers need to do everything in our power to save the grand old institution that is the Clever Name Review, courtesy of the MFA program in creative writing at Nowheresville University. Or maybe I’m right, and we need be thinking about what we can do to usher in the next technology that will replace these outdated mediums. What do you think?

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Those poems I had accepted 3 years ago? Finally in print!

215311_10200854804393258_414926138_nIn the before time, the long long ago (circa Feb 2010), Kelly I. Hitchcock had her first two poems accepted for publication by Clackamas Literary Review. These poems were Crayola Caste System and Skipping Stones. Many moons passed and Kelly began to wonder when the journal would be published and whether she should start sending some of her work to other journals. After all, this was one of those ancient texts which operate on mailed in submissions and federal grant funding. She at one point even used a telephone device to contact the Clackamas English department after several electronic mail pony expresses went unanswered; she just wanted to know if and when the fruits of her labor would appear on the page of this mysterious volume.

Well, just three short years later, that day is finally here. As of May 2013, the 2010 edition (I know, right?) of Clackamas Literary Review is finally published, along with the two poems that were accepted all those years ago. You can even purchase it on this newfangled thing called Amazon.

Okay, I poke fun a little bit. It’s certainly a poorly kept secret that the publishing industry is slow-ass-slow. Even so, a three year publication timeline for work that was already submitted by contributors and accepted by the editing staff is embarrassingly slow. I mean, in over three years, the following things have happened:

The work computer on which I wrote Crayola Caste System was two work computers ago.

The guy I was seeing (?) at the time I wrote Skipping Stones is now engaged to someone else, and I am married to someone else.

Obama was elected to a second term.

I had ten other poems and short stories get accepted and published by other literary journals.

I published one novel and wrote another.

Still, I never take a publication for granted. Any time I can have my work be accepted by a journal, it is a distinct honor, and having these two poems appear in Clackamas Literary Review is no exception. We all know it’s tough for print journals these days, but I can’t help but look at this situation with an adapt-or-die viewpoint. If it takes a publisher three years to go to print, eventually its reputation for slow-ass-slow publication timelines will supersede its reputation for quality contributions. Also, if you’re going to charge people to buy the print journal using online retailers such as Amazon, wouldn’t it be easy enough to offer it for electronic reading and open a new revenue stream?

But hey, that’s why I’m the writer and not the business person. And if you have $10 to spare, feel free to grab yourself a copy of the 2010 edition of Clackamas Literary Review. And maybe the 2011 issue in  2015, or the 2012 issue in 2025…

 

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2012 is gone… what did I do?

It’s that goal-reflection and goal-setting time of year. The time when the whole world reflects on its activities completed in the year as it comes to a close, and determines what activities will transpire in the year to come. And buys a gym membership they use a lot in January, sparingly in February, and completely give up on by March.

I, for the record, spent far more days of 2012 in the gym than skipping it. So, what writerly activities did I complete in the last year?

I read 60 books.

Not to be all braggy, but that’s more than a book a week. The secret wasn’t having more time, although quitting my shockingly low-paying freelance gig did free up a little bit more time, the secret was having more access. I started volunteering for the library, which meant I could bring something home every week, download audiobooks to my iPod Touch, and borrow Kindle books. I had never really gotten into audiobooks before, but I found it to be a great reading addition for certain activities like lifting weights, putting away laundry, and walking to the bank.

I finished writing my second novel

It was a collaborative effort between an academic, eleven women with tattoos, and a handful of tattoo artists. The writing part was great; in fact I think it’s one of the best things I have ever written in my lifetime. Getting a publisher was a bjillion times easier than what I experienced with my first book, but boy howdy going through the hoops of the book deal process is hard. I’m not sure if it’s actually hard, or if it just feels that way, but stay tuned because it’s going to be hitting the shelves before you know it… I hope.

My first novel celebrated its first birthday

And in its first year, it got over 5,000 promotional downloads, and had significantly far less paid copies sold. It got 14 reviews on Amazon, only one of which was a 1-star-er,  3 reviews on Barnes and Noble, and 18 ratings on Goodreads. It made it to the semi-final round of The Kindle Book Review best independent book of 2011 contest. It also pissed off my mom.

I started writing my third novel

Full disclosure – it’s barely one chapter at this point, but it’s going to rock. It’ll also be my first novel-length work that uses true chapters instead of a series of short stories. We’ll see how the long form story works out for me.

I wrote other stuff

A handful of poems, a couple flash fiction pieces, nothing too crazy, and not nearly as much as I should have written. I only got a couple of things featured or published, which I again should have hit harder.

Yep, that was 2012. So what’s 2013 going to bring, besides more steady gym time (I do, after all, have to fit into a wedding dress)? Here are my goals, in no particular order.

  • Publish novel #2. This one’s at the top, because it will with any luck happen first. Stay tuned.
  • Finish writing novel #3. If I can write, edit, and publish novel #2 in a little over a year, I should really try to do that every year. Even with a full-time job.
  • ABQ. Always be querying. I need to keep all my poems, short stories, and other crap in constant rotation.
  • Start expanding my freelance portfolio, because I might not want to work for the man all my life.
  • Write more stuff.
  • Keep my workshop group going.
  • Show nothing but love for other authors (but still make fun of ridiculous library finds).

Authors – always be looking to improve your writing, your platform, and your abdominals. My New Year’s Resolution, for the record, is to schedule my tweets each week so I am consistently building my platform. And to floss more.

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Meanwhile, in the traditional publishing world…

Despite my literary fame and bestseller rankings exceeding 50 copies sold, I still make time to submit my shorter works to literary journals the old-fashioned way, including my poetry and short stories. Well, to a certain extent. There are still some journals that are SO old-fashioned with the way they do business I won’t even bother. This includes:

  • Ones that don’t accept simultaneous submissions. If you don’t want my work to ever be under consideration with another journal, but you won’t respond to me unless you accept my work, and it’ll be at least six months before that might happen, have fun.
  • Ones that don’t accept electronic submissions. You want me to print my work? On paper? Then send it… in the mailbox? Okay sure. But first, let me fly on back to 1989.

Last week I had a poem get accepted by a literary journal. I’m always excited and thankful when a journal accepts my work, despite the fact that none of them pay anymore, but I always lament having to withdraw my work from consideration from every other publication I sent it to. For this particular poem, I only had five other journals to inform, and this was how it all played out.

  • The publication that accepted my work received it back in May.
  • Two of the publications I submitted to required that withdrawing one of my poems meant withdrawing them all.
  • Three of the publications I submitted to just earlier this month.
  • One of the submissions I actually had to pay for, just like a contest with an entry fee.
  • The publication that accepted the poem has published my work before.

Compared to the last time I had to inform a bunch of journals that a work of mine was accepted elsewhere, this was much easier. Why? For one, I only submitted electronically, so there was a digital paper trail I could follow just by searching my email and logging in to my submission manager. For another, most of my submissions were done through an electronic submission manager (the costs of which some journals are defraying by passing the cost on to their submitters – see above) so withdrawing from submission was as easy as clicking a button.

Oh, and the number of times I submitted this poem to other journals before it was accepted? 19, as best as I can tell.

Keep your eyes peeled for my poem Culley’s Pub: An Elegy to appear in the next issue of Foliate Oak Literary Journal – whenever that may be.

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Why I Turned Down My First Book Deal

Loyal fanbase, you are, I’m sure, already aware of the fact that it took me seven years from the time I wrote my first word of The Redheaded Stepchild until I published it.  What was I doing in that time besides getting divorced and attending wine and cheese parties for one?  I was querying publishers and agents, building up an impressive collection of rejection letters, which I often used to line the litter box back when I could stand cats.  I had my copy of The Writer’s Market and I was going to go through every entry in the book until I found that rare Prince Charming gem all writers hope for: the right publisher for my book, and one who was willing to take a chance on me.

Five years from the time I wrote the first word, I finally got an email from an acquisitions editor at a publishing house, while playing pool and drinking beer in a dive bar on a visit to my hometown.  My book was in the batch they were going to accept during their next publication period.  I probably played my best lifetime game of pool that night, because I was over the moon, thinking I’d finally gotten the big break I deserved.  I won’t say who it was – because as you can tell from the title of this post, I turned them down anyway…

The happiness ended the minute I started digging deeper into the company and I got the contract.  For the most part, it was pretty standard for what I read in the reference book, except for the following teensy line items:

  • They weren’t going to let me have any input on the cover.  They were going to throw my book over a wall to their creative team and give the nod to whatever came back.  Still, the covers I saw looked pretty good, so I was willing to go with it.
  • They weren’t going to give me any marketing support.  Sorry, but my minor in advertising in promotion did not prepare me for how to successfully market my book.  When I asked about this, they gave me a stock response about how the author is the best person to do the marketing because they are closest to the project.  Okay, true, but don’t you guys do this like, professionally? I’m just a wordmonkey.
  • And here’s the kicker… they wanted me to pay them a “non-refundable deposit” as remuneration for taking a risk on my book.

Um, yeah… that was the red flag for this redhead.  When I told them I was uncomfortable with this, they sent me a list of their author references as a way of reassuring me that I would be happy, successful, and quickly earn back my “refundable deposit” if I took the deal.  I read all the references, but then I went and found the authors’ websites.  Most of them had long since given up on their books from this publisher or hadn’t published any more books, but there were a few still kicking around, so I contacted them.  They all told me the same thing… it was not the greatest decision they’d ever made in their lives.

But still, this was a book deal, a real one, the thing I had been waiting for for five years of my life.  Who was I to say it wasn’t good enough?  I’m a nobody, and they want to take a chance on me.  I did what any girl would do – I called someone smarter than me.  Specifically, my most-likely-to-succeed counterpart from high school (or would have been, if I’d been popular enough to even make that section of the yearbook’s radar), a lawyer pal with a lot of contracts experience.  No, he’d never seen a book deal contract, but a contract’s a contract, right?  And yeah, he said it sucked.  He wasn’t going to tell me what to do, but he didn’t mince words about the drawbacks of the contract.  He was even kind enough to draw up a list of suggested revisions, reminding me than any contract is just a starting off point for negotiations, and that if I really wanted a book deal, I should fight for one that worked for both me and the publisher.

Well, negotiation must’ve been Swahili to them.  I emailed my carefully crafted list of negotiable revisions to their people.  And waited a week.  And emailed them back, asking if they’d had a chance to view my revisions, to which they assured me their legal team was giving it “careful consideration.”  Then I waited another week.  And emailed again.  Finally, they came back and said they weren’t willing to make any concessions with their standard contract (gee thanks… you coulda just told me that 2 weeks ago).  I wanted a book deal.  I really did.  But this one smelled an awful lot like the rejection letters after the litter box got a hold of em, so I politely declined, determined that I had not yet found my Prince Charming of publishing. And had another wine and cheese party for one.

But… that’s not the end of the story… tune in next week, when I tell the story of “Why I Self-Published.”

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“The Pollen Bath” coming soon to a Line Zero near you…

Well, it would seem my second published short story is going to be in the same publication as my first published short story. No skin off my back; I’m just glad it’s being accepted anywhere. This will be the third issue of Line Zero, and the first publication of The Pollen Bath. Getting something published is always happy news, but it also comes with the unhappy task of contacting every single publication where I sent it for consideration and notifying them, some of which get all pissy about it. Funny enough, I had a pollen bath on my car yesterday and the air made my eyes catch on fire.

Still, it can’t compare to seeing your name in print…

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2010 in writer review

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is always a time of annual reflection for me, and as I was reflecting on the year that was 2010, I realized how much of a success it has been, and here’s why:

  • I had a total of seven manuscripts published in either print journals, online magazines, websites, or some other medium. Before this year, I had none.
  • I had nine works get accepted for publication. Two of them (ironically enough, the first two) have yet to go to print, so I can’t really count them in the “published” category. What can I say? The world of traditional print publishing is slow.
  • I got a book deal. I didn’t take the book deal, because it was really crappy, but if I can get a really crappy book deal, chances are I can get a less crappy book deal if I keep at it.
  • I started reaching out to other writers, booksellers, and other publishing industry people on Twitter. My relationships on Twitter are directly responsible for three of those seven publications.
  • I pimped my writing – mainly my novel – at South by Southwest and reached out to industry people at the trade shows. This led to two of my publications, both of which were accepted for the site’s best-of-the-year collection.
  • I got a Kindle. This is going to help me understand how writing for this medium is different and will also give me instant access to other independent writers like me and their work.
  • I read. It should be common sense that all writers are readers, but I think we take it for granted. Every time I read something from another author I learn something new.
  • I began participating in an organization to help me with better public speaking skills. I have this pesky slight stutter that comes and goes, and I am an introvert like most writers, and feel uncomfortable talking about my own work, like most writers.
  • I wrote more than 1o new manuscripts. I started far more, but part of a writer’s work is killing the crap.

So, I would say that on a semi-professional writer’s level, the year was a wild success. But I have to keep getting better. Since resolutions are just imaginary, unattainable pipe dreams, I set yearly goals instead of New Year’s Resolutions. Here are my writer’s goals for 2010:

  • Join a writer’s group. I didn’t do it this year because I am not sure if I will be in Kansas City for an entire year, and I didn’t want to pay the year’s dues if I wasn’t going to be.
  • Attend book tour and other events at local bookstores. I’ve already signed up for Pitchapalooza by Rainy Day Books next month, and I attended my first book tour event this year and couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it before. The more I see how other people talk about their work, the better I’ll know how to talk about my own.
  • Give out more business cards at South by Southwest than I did last year. It was my first attempt last year, and I have to get more shameless about it.
  • Write something new, even if it’s just a sentence, once a week, for a total of 25 new manuscripts.
  • Read more books, with 50% of them being independent authors. The Kindle will come in handy here 🙂
  • Publish 10 manuscripts. If I can get 9 accepted manuscripts in one year, I can get at least 10 more if I try harder.
  • Submit something every week. This is always the goal, but I don’t always reach it.
  • Start submitting my novel to both agents and independent book publishers, especially those who specialize in e-print.

I think this is a good set of attainable goals, and I look forward to all that 2011 will bring.

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