Saturday, December 18, 2010

Congrats to the Winner of the CSN Stores Gift Certificate selected comment 52, which was from Shellie & Brutus. Congrats!

CSN also gave me a gift certificate that I used toward the purchase of this Wildon Home sheet set. I have a tall mattress, and a stupid propensity for picking fitted sheets that shrink, so lately, the fitted sheet and I have been having a knock-down battle every time I change the linens. Three corners I can manage, but that damn fourth corner turns me into a red-faced, panting, sweating person who hollers, "Come on! Get on there! You jerk!" and hopes nobody ever walks in and sees me in this condition.

So you can see that I was due for some new sheets. Anyway, I've never owned 600 thread count sheets as far as I'm aware-- I mostly pick up whatever's on sale-- and I wanted to see if I could feel the difference. I couldn't. I would fail the Princess and the Pea test, too. But that's okay. They were totally comfortable, but I didn't really get the "ohhh, so this is what it feels like to be on really good sheets" kind of epiphany I hoped for.

These sheets look nice (white, but not too white), feel nice, have a true deep pocket, and are affordable. Thumbs up.


Monday, December 13, 2010

On Searching for Validation

The thing about writing is that there's no multiple-choice exam you can take to find out if you're doing it right. You know if you're good at math because either you get into the honors classes or you don't... you pass the finals or you fail. With writing, the closest barometer you get in school is to see what kind of grade you get in English class-- or if you're lucky enough to be in a school where "creative writing" is offered (mine didn't offer that), you can check out your grade in that. But it's not objective the way math or science are. Your grade is largely dependent on a single teacher's taste.

A competent teacher can tell you if your grammar stinks, if your writing is full of holes or redundancies, or if you're making common errors-- but there are many areas that teachers can't reliably grade. Your writing style, primarily. Like what I did just there. "Your writing style, primarily" is a fragment, and an English teacher might have red-pencilled it and tried to beat it out of me if I kept writing in fragments. She might have succeeded. Then I would have learned to write in a standard style to please that teacher, but it would have removed some of the flavor from my writing. Sure, fragments aren't technically correct, but that doesn't mean you can't use them in your writing. Plenty of "incorrect" things can be used effectively in your (non-academic) writing.

Some people get so giddy over that fact that they wind up overusing these devices, which is why we have a current crisis of over-perioded sentences, such as:

Best. Day. Ever.


I. Am. Not. Going.

We're just rebelling against our English teachers, see. Someone did it first, and we saw it and thought, "That's so rebellious! Cool! I'm going to try it, too!" And then we all did it, and then it got old, but people kept doing it anyway, and here we are today.

*Tangent: I have just discovered Pandora Radio. Heart!*

Anyway, so we all leave school having only the vaguest notion of whether or not we can actually write, and then we write a short story or an article or novel or some other thing and we try to get it published.

We mostly get a resounding lack of response. We sit by the computer and play stupid games on Facebook to distract us from the fact that 624 editors have managed to utterly ignore that our brilliant masterpiece is sitting right there in their inboxes at this very minute. Putzes.

Then we get some rejections, and we realize maybe we aren't the Best Undiscovered Writers on the Planet, but by golly, someone is going to recognize our wonderful just-shy-of-perfect masterpiece. Right?

And maybe there's a small success along the way to keep us going-- a website that wants to publish something we wrote, or a literary magazine, or whatever. See? we say. We are brilliant after all. By two weeks later, though, we are dirt again. No one notices our success. It was probably a stupid website anyway, one that no one reads.

Maybe we have been deluded about this talent. Maybe we really and truly stink, and those form letter rejections that say patronizing things like "Doesn't fit out list at this time, but this is no reflection on your writing talent" are really written just so the sender doesn't have to feel responsible if you toss yourself off your roof because that was the last straw. Which, maybe, does mean that your writing stinks that much that the editor is afraid you're going to off yourself when you realize it.

Here is where there's a divide. You may then go all anti-establishment and decide you're going to self-publish and prove to those big NY houses what a great thing they missed-- at which point, you'll run off with your trumpet and toot away until you realize that, no, you're not going to be the exception, and the 75 people who buy your book will all be people who are related to you or who work with you. (Cue: despair.)

Or you keep at it and keep at it and eventually find a publisher, get giddy with excitement (see? GENIUS!), sign a bunch of contracts you vaguely understand, while being completely convinced that this publisher thinks you are very special and your book is very special and it's going to be on the New York Times Bestseller List, of course.

Then, 3 months before your book comes out, you realize you don't even know your publicist's name, and shouldn't you know your publicist's name? So you find out, and you e-mail her, and she says enthusiastic things like, "Hello!" and "I'm so eager to work with you!" You love her! Within the next six months, you will hate her. You will think she is probably spending all day painting her nails and talking to her boyfriend on the phone when she's supposed to be out there pitching your special, special book! Does she not like having a job? Surely someone will soon fire her for incompetence, no?

Your book is released and you and your family run all over town to take pictures of it on real live bookstore shelves. Only it's not on a lot of them. You tell the bookstore manager that you wrote this here book and you'd be happy to do a signing here and autograph as many copies as he likes, and he hands you a Sharpie and tells you to sign just two, in case he needs to return the rest. Ouch.

Where is your book tour? Where is your Oprah appearance? The personal driver? The private jet?

Feh. No matter. You will move on, because you are a survivor, and if this book helps just one person...

Oh, who are you kidding? If only one person likes your book, you're going to be devastated. You want thousands of people to like your book. But the professional reviews are... well, where are they, anyway? You lucked out and got one. Didn't that lazy publicist send out your galleys to the others?

She did? Oh. Well, she probably forgot the cover sheet, then.

And you wait for your Amazon reviews, which do come in, but much slower than you expected, and even though they're pretty good, they don't seem to do a whole lot for your sales numbers, which are less than what you had hoped.

And so you're right back to where you started, wondering if you're any good at this writing thing after all. Because if it's a great book, shouldn't people be reading it? Shouldn't they be telling others about it? Shouldn't it naturally rise to the bestseller lists based on merit?

Kinda. And kinda not. There really and truly are great books that don't even get published, let alone make it to bestseller lists. Which is not to say that it's total anarchy out there and the odds are random. No, publishing is still skewed toward those who actually do write good books, thank heavens, but it's not perfect. Some writers get lucky and their books, for whatever reason, wind up attracting lots of media attention. Others remain just as talented but largely invisible.

So it is that you never really know if you're any good. Even the bestselling writers don't know for sure. Many of the top sellers are regularly insulted by writers in the trenches-- partly out of jealousy, of course, but also partly because sometimes popular writing isn't the pinnacle of beautiful writing.

And maybe you hang in there long enough that one day, it no longer matters if you know for sure where your talent lies on the overall scale. Maybe you keep improving and learning and wind up with a loyal following, and you get book deals that make you happy, and you get to spend your career doing something you love and not eating Ramen noodles exclusively. Maybe you learn that you love what you write, and that's enough, too.

All of the things that seem very important for validation when you're at the start of your career will continue to matter to you down the line, too-- but they won't seem so life-or-death anymore. Reviews and appearances and awards and all those things are still meaningful to me because they influence my career options, but that's what they are now: they're part of a much bigger picture. My "forest for the trees" is that I want to have a writing career for the rest of my life, and my ego is fairly irrelevant to achieving that. Do the best work you can. Do work you care about. Find good people to work with. There will be disappointments along the way, but there will also be joys. Cultivate the latter and forget the former. Validate yourself. And not in a dirty way, either. (Perv.)


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

An Open Letter to the Twitter Agents (And Writers)

I have pissed off the Twitter agents. It all started when one was lamenting the fact that writers sometimes accept offers of representation without checking in with the other agents they've submitted to first, and I responded with my view on why writers might do that. Ugliness ensued. And because I can't adequately respond in 140 characters or less, I figured I'd respond in an open letter here. (I was in the middle of a completely different post for writers, but that'll have to wait a bit. It'll be awesome, I promise.)

This is the actual exchange:

literaticat: For the third time this week, somebody has accepted representation from another agent without giving me the chance to respond. Grr.

If you don't want me to even have the chance to be your agent WHY ARE YOU WASTING MY TIME & FILLING MY INBOX IN THE FIRST PLACE?

I'm not MAD, just, why not give yourself options? Get an offer, tell the other agents - chances are one of them might be interested too.

Me (GhostwriterJG): Hope this isn't rude considering circumstances, but if my #1 pick said yes, I wouldn't feel the need to wait for other answers.

Plus, it feels mean to tell an agent who's loving you and offering rep, "Great! Let me see what your competitors say first."

Without rehashing all the responses, there was a resounding POUNCE! sound, and comments such as that writers like me have no basic business sense, are being dumb, that I've rebuked a smart agent's advice, and "when I see an experienced agent trying to educate people and being slapped down for it online, it pisses me off."

To give this context, I'm primarily a ghostwriter, working in adult nonfiction. I've just signed my 20th book publishing contract. You can see many of my books over there in the sidebar. ---> I don't work with one agent exclusively at this point. I used to, when I was mostly writing my own books, but now, several agents refer their clients to me when they're looking for ghostwriters. (And several editors call on me directly.) There's plenty more in my background about the massive amount of time over the years I've spent helping to educate writers. You can find that out if you care to do basic research.

But back to the current issue. I do sometimes take on clients who don't yet have agents, and I help them with that process, so I've been through the agent search many times for many people. This is approximately how it works:

Client and I are working on a book proposal in the self-help genre. I prepare a list of all the agents I can think of who might be a good fit. To do this, I search (a) the acknowledgments sections of self-help books that are similar, or that I know sold very well; (b), where I do searches by genre to see who's sold what; and (c), where I can also do genre searches.

As I go along, I narrow my list. My priorities look like this:

1. Track record in the genre: Has this agent made many sales in this genre? Does PublishersMarketplace list them as "nice" sales (low advances), or does the agent have any big deals?

2. Overall track record: Has the agent been in business for long? If not, does the agent have other significant experience-- such as editing for a major publisher?

3. Client recommendations: Does the agent's clients rave about him or her?

4. Personal instincts: Sometimes, you can just feel that an agent would be a good fit for the book based on things like the agent's writing style, personal hobbies or causes, or other factors.

At this point, I probably have a list of less than 10 agents who I feel would be a good match for the book. Among those, one or two are probably my "dream agents" for this project-- agents who've made multiple big deals in my genre, and whose clients love them.

So I send out the proposal. Now that I'm an experienced writer, I may only send it to one or two at a time because I have personal relationships with agents and try to give the ones I love first-look opportunities. Even when I don't know the agents, though, I know that I have the clout to get an answer quickly and that my proposals almost always sell. But when I was newer, I would have sent my query to all of those under-ten agents at once, because it doesn't make sense to wait and wait for individual answers to queries, further slowing down the already slow pace of the publishing industry.

Let's say that I query nine agents, and four ask to see the proposal. Mentioning that it's a simultaneous submission, I send to all four and try not to chew my nails off waiting for responses. I work on something else in the meantime.

A week later, I get a call. It's my dream agent, bubbling over with enthusiasm about my project. "I love it and I can sell it," he tells me. We have a great chat and I feel confident that he has the contacts and experience to back up his words.

This ends my search. I write to the other three agents and say, "Thank you so much for your interest in my work. I'm writing to let you know that I've accepted another offer of representation."

This, to me, is the most decent and sensible approach. If I already know that my top pick said yes, I don't want to waste anyone's time by having them read my proposal while I know I'm not going to accept their offer if they say yes anyway. And I want to give that top pick the respect he or she deserves by being definitive about my answer.

"But what if another agent were more enthusiastic about your work? You'd never know!" Enthusiasm-- while terrific-- is not the main factor for me. Agents with no credits at all can be very enthusiastic, but their enthusiasm will not sell the proposal. So it's track record first, enthusiasm second. (I want both, of course.)

If there is no clear frontrunner among my four interested agents (or if I wasn't utterly positive that my first-responder really "got" my book or my goals), then I'd say to that agent, "Thank you so much! I have a few other agents reading it at the moment. Can you give me a week to respond?" Then I'd write to those other agents and tell them, "I've been offered representation, but I'd like to hear back from you before I accept it. Do you think you could read my proposal and get back to me by Friday?"

Then I'd hear out any offers, go back to my list of priorities, and try to determine which one I think might be the best match for me or my client.

This is the process that has worked for me, and I have long-standing relationships with many terrific agents and editors, so I don't plan on changing it. I also know that agents and editors are not the only people who know anything about publishing. Indeed, there are plenty of smart writers out there whose advice should be considered as well. I don't accept that I should not dare to question or offer another viewpoint because I am not an agent.

Searching for an agent is a different process from searching for a publisher, which I think is obvious enough that I'm not going to bother defending myself against the "how would you like it if your agent accepted the first publishing offer that came along" comparison.

It bothers me that it seems even agents can get caught up in "groupthink." And that the nastiness I received to my response (which was not in any way "rebuking" or disrespecting anyone) has distracted me from my real work today. So I'm going to get back to it now.


Sunday, December 05, 2010

Great Holiday Gifts for Preschoolers

'Tis that time again, and I have to admit, I'm really excited to see the look on Sarina's face when she opens up her gifts this year. This is the first time she was able to make a "list" for Santa, so I know I've done right with most of the things I've bought her. For those of you who are looking for ideas for a preschooler, I thought I'd share with you some of the best toys and games we already own or I've already tested out:

1. Mobigo

Sarina has owned the Mobigo since last summer, and it's been a steadfast companion whenever we have downtime. It's a terrific little handheld gaming/learning system for young kids (they suggest 3-8, and I agree). Simple to use, with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and the game it comes with is very good quality. My daughter has just one other game so far, and it's kept her entertained for months. Every time she finishes a game, she rushes over with excitement to show me her new score.

2. FurReal Friends Lulu

The same size and softness as a real cat, this one's the next best thing. It purrs, it rolls over to have its belly pet, it meows, it blinks... it can sense when you walk by or wave your hand in front of it (it meows for your attention). In short, it's a great option if you have a child who loves cats, but can't have one due to allergies or other reasons. Or in my case, a child who wants another cat, but Momma really doesn't. About the only negative is that you can hear a mechanical noise as it moves around, which does take away a bit of the mystique.

3. Pillow Pets

This was the first item on my daughter's Christmas list this year, and I knew it was going to be one of the "hot" toys, so I bought it way early in case it sold out. Well, it hasn't sold out by any means, so you can still grab one if you like. It's a stuffed animal that doubles as a pillow when you "un-Velcro" the bottom. My only issue was that the unicorn my daughter wanted has inconsistent quality-- many of them have fur "growing over" their eyes, to the point where you can barely see any eyes at all. But I took my chances with the scissors, and found that a good haircut was all that was needed. These Pillow Pets are a good size (unlike some smaller knock-offs), soft, and very kid-approved.

4. Step2 Deluxe Canyon Road Train Table

One of my best purchases-- I bought this before Sarina was even 2 years old, and it's still going strong. What's so great about this train table is that it's all built in-- there are no little parts to lose. It's molded plastic, so you don't have to worry about it falling apart. It's very durable, and good for playdates for both boys and girls. You can use Thomas or other trains in it, as well.

5. Baby Alive 1st For Me

Although it's marketed for babies, this "first doll" is also perfectly appropriate to preschool girls who are going through a mothering phase. Right now, my daughter is all about taking care of babies, and this one is a wonderful pick. It makes appropriate cooing and giggling noises, and there's a fabric bottle attached to her hand that you can use to "feed" her-- there's also a sensor, so the baby makes sucking noises during feedings.

6. Monster Feet

The price varies on these on Amazon. I bought mine for under $10. Pretty self-explanatory: they're plastic "monster feet" steppers with rope handles to hang on to. Like mini-stilts. They're recommended for kids age 5-8, but I think a coordinated 3 or 4 year old would do fine with them, too. I'm presenting them to Sarina as dinosaur feet, so she can clomp around the house while singing Laurie Berkner's "We Are the Dinosaurs."

7. Shake 'n' Go Buzz Lightyear

The simplest racecar I've ever seen. All you do is shake it up, then put it on the ground, and it goes. The longer you shake it, the further it drives (up to 20 feet). Great for little ones who haven't mastered the motor skills needed for fancier remote controlled cars. It also makes engine sounds and says a few of Buzz's favorite phrases.

Happy shopping!