Public Access

So, I've been watching Amanda Fucking Palmer's glorious TED talk "The Art of Asking" over and over. It's profound and speaks to my hippy dippy crowd-love soul. It's 15 minutes well spent and should be required viewing for all artists,performers, musicians and storytellers across the world. Not because it's The Way or anything, but because there is wisdom there and it raises some fantastic questions that we need to ask ourselves about what we do. Check out the video (linked above) and meet me after the jump for my thoughts.

In her TED talk, Amanda shares stories about her time as a street performer and the human experiences she had with other people. She discusses crowd-sourcing a couch to sleep on while on tour, and her propensity of finding artists and performers to share at her shows. (Fun fact: my last professional poi gig was spinning glow/sock poi for 3 consecutive hours at a Dresden Dolls show in Tempe '08 as part of the call for artists. Hella fun.) In all the stories of personal connection there are lessons about what we as artists/creators do on the person-to-person interaction as well as profound questions about how we move forward in the digital age.

"I maintain that crowd surfing and couch surfing are basically the same thing. You're falling into the audience and trusting each other." - AFP

I've said before that writers need to write from a place of truth if they want a good story. We need to be able to be vulnerable and be unabashedly human and real within our stories to lend them a visceral truth that is recognizable by the reader. We have to fall into our audience and trust that they will accept our gift to them in the spirit in which it was given. And you need to similarly build trust with your reader. They need to trust that you will lead them through the story. That you will answer the questions you ask in the story and make good on your end of the connection. Putting a book out there isn't just a monetary exchange. You are connecting with someone, inviting them into your story to introduce them to a world of your creation. You're opening yourself up to be ripped apart on the Internet for writing drivel. You're allowing yourself to be seen in a very special way when you put it out there. Even if it's just a short story on a blog, you're taking what some see as  a risk. You open yourself up to criticism as well as compliments. (Compliments are just as hard to take sometimes as flame comments. I'll get to that in another post.) At the end of the day, making your writing public is crowdsurfing. You're falling into an audience and trusting each other.

"Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance...but {being an artist} is about a few people loving you up close and those people being enough." - AFP

There's something else going on here, though. There's an openness that isn't just the vulnerability of telling a story, but also of being accessible to your audience. The past decade has seen a major change in the way artists can react with their fans. I can have a late night Twitter conversation with Steven Brust or get into a giggle fit with Christopher Moore. Thanks to the internet and email I have damn near instant access to not just other fans but a direct connection to the artists, actors, musicians and authors that I admire. Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, blogs... all of them help us connect with each other, our audiences and our heroes.

Right now newb authors are being coaxed into diving into the social network pool head first. It's part of building your platform, right? Well, I know it's not for everyone. I was talking with a friend once who is a damn fine storyteller. He said, though, that if he ever wrote those stories down and tried to sell them he would be a recluse. He wouldn't be a social media maven with live Tweet chats or blog tours or any of that. He's too private a person and shuns that kind of exposure. Right now, that approach is a difficult one to make because we as an audience want that kind of access. That connection is a sacred one and I think it's something we've lost, but are finally getting back.

It's a question you need to ask yourself as an artist: how accessible do I want to be to my audience? This will determine the content of your online presence and your interaction with your crowd. The question is largely about trust and the answer has everything to do with your comfort level and your life.

Personally, while I do keep certain parts of my life veiled, I've been an open book here. I prefer it that way. By showing you my stories, you've already seen me naked and bare. I've left myself open to whatever you can throw at me. The more public you go, the wider that scope is and the more risk there seems to be. There's more of an opportunity for rejection and vitriol, more of a chance that someone will shout words that trigger your softest spots. We want people to like us and our words, we don't want to hear our own insecurities made real. It's bad enough that we have those voices blaring in our heads, but to hear those words come from someone else's mouth? There is a risk. But there are rewards. Great ones that hinge on the connection made between author and reader. To be open to those experiences is to be vulnerable and accessible to strangers. It takes trust.

This is why when I see an author/musician/performer behaving badly that I get up in arms. It's a breach of the unspoken contract we build, an abuse of trust.

Anyway, I really don't have a good way to wrap this up today. So, I'll say thank you. Thank you for coming here, sitting by my fire and talking story with me. Thank you for letting me share pieces of me and my writing with you. Thank you for seeing me.

Prepare Yourself

The end is nigh! Or not... Anyway. I've been remiss for a while with updating the blog. I've been sick of late and went on a three day binge of DayQuil, orange juice and episodes of Say Yes To The Dress. Honestly, other than the rise and fall of my temperature there's not much to report here at the moment.

My family and I are watching Avatar: The Last Airbender together in the evenings. Love it muchly. If you've not seen it, check it out on Netflix.

Um...yeah. I've got nothing. OH! Right! So, in the next few weeks we'll (and by we, I mean me, the voices in my head and a monkey in a fez) be rolling out a brand new website for yours truly. An honest to Loki website with my own domain and everything. So yeah, watch this space for details on that.

I need chai.


Today's Muse

For a writer and audiophile, I can also be a very visual person. When I'm working on a piece, I often cast the characters with known actors. Sometimes it's just for their voice--so in my head it reads like an audio play--but other times I have a full movie in my mind. I'll go looking for pictures that capture a character or a line.Sometimes I need pictures of settings. Sometimes my muse is aural and lives in a song or sound.

Today I started working on a short story that has nothing to do with trickster gods or technomancy. There was the usual struggle with the beginning. The story fought with me a bit and for a few hours the only things we agreed upon were its setting (a hospice) and the fact that the male lead looks like a particularly nummy actor. I've already got a few pictures of him in my casting files, so I went through them, certain that I have a picture that fits this character.

Found it.

Today, this picture has been my muse.

Thank you, Mr. Hiddleston, for being so right for this role.

Local Flavor

A couple of weeks ago Steve Weddle over at Do Some Damage penned a post about things that can knock a reader out of the narrative. He talked about things like figurative language, bad historical research, physical description as things that can yank you out of a story. Comments added bad dialogue and spelling/grammar issues. Today, I'd like to add something else to that: lack of attention to detail for your setting.

When we write a story, the setting is the 6th man on our basketball team. It is the landscape where all of your action takes place and has very real effects on your characters. In a way, it is its own character.

Authors, if you choose to use a real place in your story, you need to do your research on that place. Someone who called that place home will inevitably read your story. If you haven't written a narrative true to that setting, that reader will know, will call you out on it--at least mentally--and from then on, they are reading a book. That reader is no longer immersed in your story because they know you're lying. Disbelief is no longer suspended.

So, as an author, you need to think about this. You need to make sure that not only are you writing from a place of truth as far as your characters are concerned, but you need to write from the truth about the place you use as your setting. And in the day and age of Google, you have no excuse not to give a shit about the devil in your details.

For fun, let's say that you're writing about Terre Haute, Indiana. Now, this is a smallish town in the armpit of Indiana. It's a college town and its most famous alumnus would be Larry Bird. This is the general knowledge that most people would have about this place--assuming you've heard of it in the first place. A quick Google search can bring up a map, the names of local businesses and the mascot of Indiana State University. You can pepper your manuscript with these things, thus thinking that you're writing about Terre Haute, but that doesn't make it authentic.

For starters, Terre Haute residents (aka Hautians) live under a constant brown cloud, a funk that can only be described as, "Ah, smells like Haute." Why? There's a paper mill there. The place reeks. Locals may not notice it after a while, but a visitor can't help but notice. Hell, when you're driving into town on I-70, you can literally see the brown cloud over the city center!

Other than the funk, there are 3 colleges in this town: Indiana State University, Rose Hulman Institute of Technology and St. Mary of the Woods. Very different student bodies, different curriculum and attitudes. This also means you have a transient population. This will shade a story depending on how your characters interact with locals.

I'm not sure why you would want to do this, but for fun let's say that for some reason you're having a car chase through the streets of The Haute. Anyone who has ever driven a circuit just around the ISU campus will tell you that the number of one-way streets in this town is insane. Damn near every other street is a one-way. So, if you look at Google Maps, glance at the street names and just pick where you're going to lead your pursuit, you need to pay attention or else your protagonist's ride will be going to wrong way up 9th.

If you're going to go to a bar in Terre Haute, they will probably have Champagne Velvet on tap. Sure, you can get other stuff, but CV is a local brew with its own claim to fame in the area. Look it up and you'll understand the caption above. Bonus points if you can tell me in the comments.

Also, the ISU campus has a railroad track on every. single. side. There are train tracks EVERYWHERE in Terre Haute. When I lived there, I'd talk on the phone with my friend Patt in Arizona and he'd always ask, "Christ do you live under an El?" because he could hear the trains. Seriously. So. Many. Trains. That car chase is probably going to get stalled by a goddamn train.

These might seem like insane details. You might think I'm nuts for saying you should know them. But, when you've got a real place on a map there are people who really live there. You need to know. Even a little place like Terre Haute, Indiana where people can't agree on how it's pronounced. (Terry Hut? Tear Hot?)

For the better part of 5 years, that was my home. If someone writes about it and doesn't include at least some of these above details, I'm going to call bullshit. I'm going to know that this person has never been there, talked to anyone who did live there. I'm going to think they just threw a dart at a map to choose their setting.

And this is just a little town! What if you want to write about one of the big names? Phoenix, Vegas, New Orleans? These places all have a national reputation, but there's more to them than that. If you can't go there and physically walk the streets, you need to spend days on Google maps. Use the street view. Talk to people. Socially network and figure out how you can write like resident, not just a tourist.

An Offer I Can't Refuse?

As most long-time readers know, I've been actively questing to build a writing career since 2008. In October of 2010 I signed with a literary agent for my zombie novel. That ended abruptly in June of 2011.

For many reasons, I put that book away and wrote another one, the start of my Etudes in C# series. In December, 2011 I started querying it.

Here it is, April of 2012 and I can finally share with you what this latest foray into querying has been like. Sit back (this one is long) and let me tell you a tale, a tale of a fateful trip....

I started querying TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES in early December. That month, I saw a lot of rejections. I revamped the query letter a couple of times, but other than a single partial request from one of my dream agents (awesome!) December was uneventful. Right up until the end. I found out about open submissions going on at a small press. The acquiring editor there is someone I've followed on Twitter for a while and I really respect her work. The chance to get my manuscript under her eyes was priceless, so even though it's generally frowned upon to sub to both pubs and agents, I took the shot. A couple of days before 2012, I sent a partial and a query to Editor A (a is for AWESOME!), just barely skirting the submission deadline.

January opened with a bang. The year was only two or three days old when Editor Awesome requested the full manuscript. Two days later, Agent A requested the first three chapters of the book. An hour later, she emailed back saying, "That was fun! Send me the rest!" Yeah. An hour. My flabber was well and truly gasted on that one, so I sent it to her tout suite. The next week? Agent B requested a full and Editor Awesome made me an offer of publication.
Seriously, we weren't even 2 weeks into the year and already I was spazzing out with epic loads of fantastic.
Ultimately, I passed on the offer from Editor Awesome. I know. I can hear the screech of tires as you go back to re-read. You did what? You rejected an offer of publication?! WHY? Look. She is fabulous and her feedback was priceless. I really hope she and I can work together on other projects in the future because she really is that awesome. However, I had to make a decision based on what I want for this series of books I'm writing. So, I passed.
Agent A requested some minor revisions to the manuscript, and I got them back to her at the end of February. Honestly, February passed much like December: nothing to report. In March, Agent B left the agenting biz, but the agency said they would still review my manuscript and get back to me. Meanwhile, Agents C and D requested partials. With the revisions done, I decided to try again with a few agents who had rejected the piece in December. I sent out four requeries and got a partial request from one that ultimately ended in a no. While I'm doing this, a rocktastic friend of mine who is multiply-published sent me a private message asking if I'd queried her agent. I told her I had in December and got a form rejection within a couple of days. My friend was adamant: query her. Query her right now. So, I checked the shine on my query and fired off one more to her. We'll call her Agent E.

Flash forward to my birthday, April 6. Agent A gets back to me saying, "I love the revisions. Can we talk on the phone next week." *blink* Really? Did I just get the "Let's set up a call" email on my birthday? Woot! I did. We did. And on April 9 that phone call ended in an offer of representation. I hung up the phone, ate the last piece of leftover birthday cake and sent out a barrage of emails to all of the agents who still had queries or submissions. Agent B (or rather her agency) bowed out immediately and I can understand why. Agent D also bowed out saying that while she and her colleagues enjoyed the writing, the manuscript just wasn't a good fit. Which is more than fine. (Remember: Having no agent is better than having the wrong agent.)

A lot of people might think that getting The Call makes the decision a simple one. Why query if you're going to say no to an agent? Well, I've learned the hard way that it is something to think about even longer than you imagine is necessary. That experience has made me gunshy, perhaps excessively so. I stayed up late April 11 with a brain that wouldn't shut off. I kept mulling over the hesitations I had. Now, I've talked about going with your gut. Part of that, though, is learning when your gut is talking and when it's just your gutless fear. Fear is the killer. Don't mistake it for instinct. I talked to myself, tried to untangle all the knots that snagged my thinking process. When I came to a conclusion, I slept on it. The next morning, it still seemed clear as crystal. So I slept on it again just to make sure.

I woke up Friday the 13th ready to make my decision and act on it. I just had to wait on confirmation from Agents C and F that we were not going to move forward. When they both got back to me, I emailed Agent A to tell her my decision.

Many were the squees heard that day. Had to wait a bit to bust out with the good news so that ink and paper could make their way across the country. But now? Now I can officially announce that I am represented by Jennie Goloboy at Red Sofa Literary Agency. I am beyond excited to work with her and can't wait to see how both of our careers grow.

What really made the decision easy? Jennie's excitement for the project is palpable. She really loves the book, believes in it and I believe she will do everything she can to make sure it's sold. That enthusiasm is paramount. As I've learned, contacts can be built, but a genuine love of a story is golden and damn necessary. Otherwise, what's the point?

To recap:

Between December 5, 2011 and March 27, 2012 I sent a total of 75 query letters to 68 literary agents and two publishers. (Yes, five of those agents received two queries from me because they rejected an earlier draft and I wanted to try again. I'm tenacious like that.) Of those 75 queries:

14 went unanswered. This happens for various reasons. Maybe my query got stuck in cyberspace somewhere. What's more likely, though, is that these agents have a "no response means no" policy. 9 came back with requests for pages.

  • 4 requested a partial manuscript
  • requested a full manuscript
  • 1 partial request escalated to a full request
Out of those requests:
1 publisher made an offer of publication.
agent made an offer of representation.
The rest were all rejections. That tells you what you should've known already: I'm batshit insane to put myself through this kind of thing. BUT, in the end it's those last two numbers that count, isn't it?Keep moving forward.