Still Revising — a conversation

Hello, Friends.

I’m still revising. The good news is that I’m in the final act. Here’s my favorite sentence:

If Scott was right that energy paths ran across the lithosphere of the earth connecting land forms and significant natural monuments, and Emesh was right that the earth was overflowing with antediluvian energy activated by Shamash’s dying body, and The Weatherman was right that energy was the key to understanding the post-firestorm changes, then…Rachel’s mind stopped here. She didn’t know exactly what it meant, except that this LaPorte place was something like a nuclear reactor.

It gets readers all on track for Act 3 when everything both falls apart and pulls together, based on the clues and action in the preceding acts. No pressure.

Here’s my bad news. IT’S HARD. You want everything to SHINE and MAKE SENSE and just because a scene is fun or develops character, it doesn’t get to stay. It has to WORK. And sometimes that’s hard to decide.

I agonized over a chapter (chapter 30) this weekend, used my agent’s feedback, talked to everyone I encountered about it. Then, I send my revision off to my critique group. We meet this Friday to discuss and exchange notes.

This morning I realized that I can cut the scene. Just cut it out. Skip the agony. Boil the scene down to the three things I need to keep and move that to a different chapter. But, I’m scared. I’m over-thinking. WHAT IF THAT WAS THE CHAPTER WITH ALL THE BRILLIANT WRITING THAT READERS WERE GOING TO UNDERLINE ON THEIR KINDLES?

(It isn’t)

WHAT IF THIS IS WHERE READERS FALL IN LOVE WITH MY PROTAGONIST?

(If they haven’t by chapter 30 then you have a problem that revising chapter 30 isn’t going to fix)

BUT THIS IS THE CHAPTER WITH A HISPANIC CHARACTER WHO SPEAKS SPANISH AND I CONSULTED BOTH MY HUSBAND AND GOOGLE TRANSLATE TO MAKE SURE I GOT IT RIGHT. I NEED TO BE DIVERSE.

(There are many languages used in this world. Many languages that have been used. Many that will be. Are you going to have each one represented in this particular novel? You might want to check both the word count and your readers’ patience if this is your project. Instead, maybe concentrate on the story?)

BUT NOW I HAVE TO WRITE THAT CHAPTER, AND THE BEGINNING OF THE NEXT, ALL OVER AGAIN.

(Yeah, that’s called revising.)

Next month when I post, I hope to tell you that I’m finished revisions and have sent to my agent….then I get to attack my next novel that is almost there. It just needs some….wait for it…revisions.

Love,

Sherri

Character Development and Revision

Hi Friends,

Happy Holidays. Be safe. It seems like December, for a month devoted to peace on earth, is awfully stressful and full of angry people. Maybe that was just the lady in the car next to me last night while we were stuck in a traffic jam. Please don’t be that lady.

I’ve advanced through the QUERY TRENCHES into the COURTYARD OF REVISIONS. I’ve pulled up a little bench and waved at my new comrades. Some of them I recognize from the DESERT OF DESPAIR. Too much Pilgrim’s Progress, literary style?

Anyway, I’ve been working through my agent’s revisions. First, I really appreciate her thoughtful and insightful questions and comments. The concrete suggestions were, in many ways, easier than the overall questions: How can you weave Adam and Rachel into the bigger story of what’s happening? Why are they important?  And, of course, the character arcs.

So, here’s my confession. I made a mistake at the beginning. The conceit of the novel was: What happens when an ordinary mom and boy who already have medical problems find themselves in the middle of an apocalypse. The story grew from there. I answered questions about what caused the firestorm, what the world looked like after, started stringing images together. What I didn’t do was make my ordinary mom a real person.  That was a mistake. Yes, she is not a superhero in a world taken over by ancient gods, yes, we see her acting and reacting in the new setting, but my wonderful critique partners pointed out this week that they don’t KNOW Rachel any better than they would know someone they work with or someone in their class or a neighbor that you wave to. That is, they’ve seen the outside of Rachel, heard some interior monologue, felt the love she has for her son, Adam, but aren’t FRIENDS with her.

Huh, I said.

All the mannerisms. All the stomach holding (stress has her on the verge of ulcers), all the headaches (verge of dehydration due to lack of self-care and lack of clean water), all the jaw clenching when she’s scared. They don’t have meaning. They are actions that don’t reveal character. ANYONE could do those things.

“So what does she DO?” I asked.

Like sages on the mountaintop (I have a very wise literary critique group), they told me only I could answer that. I frowned at them. Because I wanted a quick answer. I’m on track to get these revisions done by the end of January. I’m ready to move on to my other novel. I’m ready to work on short stories for awhile. I don’t want to go back and do character exercises.

Then they frowned at me.

“Fine,” I said. Which leads to 35 Questions to ask your character. We did something similar in Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s writing class, but my friend Sarah is not here to interview me pretending to be Rachel. Guess I’ll be talking to myself. Which I do anyway, so now I have an excuse.

Here’s an example:

  1. What trait do you (Rachel) most deplore in others?   Being devious and complicated, keeping secrets
  2. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Culture. I love food, music, art, concerts, perfume, fancy clothes, and snuggling in front of the fireplace with a movie at home.
  3. What is your greatest fear?  Failing. I’d rather quit rather than fail. I feel the pressure to succeed and it creates such anxiety that I give up. Like art school. I quit and changed my major to art history. I never opened the gallery in New York like I planned. I never even tried. I blamed the death of my parents, but I know I wimped out.
  4. What do you like about yourself? I like my curly, auburn hair. It secretly reminds me of John William Waterhouse’s painting “The Lady of Shalott.” Did I mention that I’m a hopeless romantic?
  5. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? I second guess everything, trying to figure out what to do. I know it makes me look indecisive. I hate it, but I’m afraid of messing up. I need time to figure it all out.
  6. Extrovert or introvert? Definitely introvert. I’m reserved with strangers, modest, and need alone time to work on my drawings. It’s how I figure out what I think — by letting my work come through my subconscious.
  7. What do you most value in your friends? I value loyalty and honesty. With my friends, I can make fun of myself, relax, and drink some wine. After Adam was diagnosed, Nurse Naomi became my best friend because I could always count on her to tell me the truth and because we were on the same journey: save Adam’s life.
  8. What is the quality you most like in a man? A man who can appeal to my senses. I want candlelight, romance, and a phone call or letter after the first date. I want to be swept away with emotion, but it will take time and effort from him! I don’t like drama, but if he can convince me to choose him…I won’t change my mind.

 

The list, of course, has a great many other questions, but you get the point. Fell0w writers — would love to have you answer some of the questions from your character’s POV in the comments.

Love,

Sherri

 

 

 

Capclave

 

 

I had to be convinced to drive down to D.C. for Capclave 2014, by both a member of BSFS and by my husband.  It’s that blend of mothering and writing that burns beneath this entire blog.

And yet, I am so glad I went. After I arrived, the guilt dropped away and I could enjoy the workshops, interviews, and readings. Also, Capclave  –the Washington, DC literary science fiction convention — was my first conference dedicated only to speculative fiction. It was a productive, inviting day of professional development with outstanding guests of honor:  Paolo Bacigalupi , Holly Black , and Genevieve Valentine.  It was also the first time I saw a public hospitality suite.  Very nicely hosted, Washington Science Fiction Association.

I was part of Saturday’s evening reception.  Yes, my name is misspelled.  No, I don’t care. The spelling on the check is right  🙂

photo

BSFS Contest Winners

 

Tom Doyle (wsfa) and Karlo Yeager (bsfs) prepare to give awards.

Tom Doyle (wsfa) and Karlo Yeager (bsfs) prepare to give awards.

Me accepting the award -- I think I'm doing okay at this point.

Me accepting the award — I think I’m doing okay at this point.

An audience member asked the name of my winning story.  I blanked.

An audience member asked the name of my winning story. I blanked.

I remembered.  "Very Happy and Very Productive."  I am adjusting my shirt -- apparently to show that I'm back in control?

I remembered. “Very Happy and Very Productive.” I am adjusting my shirt — apparently to show that I’m back in control?

It was an altogether lovely experience and gave me a renewed appreciation for the need for writers to gather together to improve craft and be inspired and for those mothers who must travel while their children are young or who work outside the home and are crippled by guilt.  Moms!  You are providing for your children.  Either as a breadwinner or as a model of a happy, passionate human being. Feel free to say this back to me!

To be gone for Saturday, October 13th, I had to miss:

1) my son’s soccer tournament , 2) my three daughters’ soccer games (and reserve babysitter, luckily they were all local) 3) my niece’s senior homecoming, and 4) a restaurant dinner with our niece from Germany who was going home after visiting us for two months.

This answers, I believe, my statement in the previous post that I would sacrifice a chicken to get into a prestigious literary journal.  It’s not chicken blood that’s required.  It’s time.  Blocks of time to work, a sense that writing is a mission not a hobby, even, sometimes, important family time, and the faith that the story, novel, essay needs to be told.  The blending of mother and artist…

Much love,

Sherri

Query Trenches

Hello Friends,

My story story “Fusion” is out in Apeiron Review, Issue 7.

Aaannndddd, my short story “Very Happy and Very Productive” won second place in the Baltimore Science Fiction Society contest.  I had time to read the judges’ comments, make cosmetic changes, and then the three winning stories were submitted to the editor of a prestigious magazine so CROSS YOUR FINGERS AND SEND UP A PRAYER.  Offer a goat if you should feel so inclined. I was going to sacrifice a chicken, but all I had were frozen nuggets.

In the meantime, I am still in the query trenches with my two novels, but exciting things are (slowly) happening. Each novel is having a very different experience.  But, Child of the Moon and Sea is ready.  It’s been through beta readers and I’ve made more changes to flesh out the character and I even (per a CP) took off Sean’s shirt more often. Twice instead of once. I’m proud of the manuscript.

I already had a list of fantasy agents from when I queried with Firestorm so I started e-mailing in August. I queried 18 agents and had 1 full request (still pending).  I had some ‘no’ answers and I had a whole lot of silence.  My query had been through my critique group, but it still wasn’t getting attention.  So I took a breath. I set querying aside because I didn’t want to blow through all the agents on my list.  I was sad because there were a couple I’d followed on Twitter and felt would be a good match, but my query didn’t spark interest.

Then, I won $100 for the second place story. A few days later I saw Janet Reid’s tweet that she would offer a query critique in exchange for a $100 donation to the Eldin Memorial Fellowship.  Win-Win.  My money would help other writers and I’d get a critique from THE QUERY SHARK.  If you are a writer, you know (and should follow) this site.  You know that she is fierce, mean, bloodthirsty, cold, calculating, and eats writers for breakfast.

You may not know that she is an absolute dream.  Her e-mails were fast, helpful, and direct. And, she went so far as to read the first revision.  I’ll post the before and after samples below.  The only downside of this experience?  Bear with me.

You know how critique groups are encouraging, but then you get home and you’re looking at the notes and you’ve gotten way different feedback.  One says, “Character A is too strong.”  And another, “Character A is too weak.”  And then, “Character A should be taller” and you’re like, he’s a gnome.  I’m not making him taller.

The downside of working, however briefly, with Janet Reid is that I’m now ruined.  And not at all addicted to hyperbole. I’ve experienced having ONE professional person’s instant feedback and then approval. I wasn’t alone, guessing which feedback to incorporate. I want an agent who is as invested in my novels as Janet Reid was in my query letter.

I’m taking the first ten pages of Child of Moon and Sea to critique circle tomorrow night to make sure that the pages keep the interest I’ve (hopefully) tweaked with an improved query letter.  Below are the two samples of my query. What do you think?

Before:

Dear Agent,

I thought you might be interested in my NA fantasy novel, CHILD OF MOON AND SEA. It is a style of fantasy similar to Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. It is complete at 90,000 words.

Vivid dreams and bouts of insomnia have been part of Dr. Elsa Dahlquist’s life since childhood.  After a disastrous crush on her professor, Elsa’s nightmares return worse than ever. During a vacation in North Carolina, her dreams become alive with visits from Tursas, a shark spirit.  Staying at the ocean to investigate, Elsa finds another victim of night terrors. Cassie, a 15-year old orphan, is being stalked by her own nightmares. Nightmares that leave bruises and cause panic attacks.  To save Cassie, Elsa will have to hunt the dream hunters.

Cassie is not the first victim.  Two other children are damaged after these nightmares, one dead by suicide and the other driven mad.  A ball of fishing line and an extinct flower have been left behind both times. Same as in Cassie’s bedroom.  By researching ancient Finnish myths and deciphering clues delivered by the mysterious and sexy Tursas, Elsa discovers a dream realm outside her psychology textbooks.  When Elsa finally comes close to unraveling it all, the trail of pain leads back to an ugly secret thousands of years old.  Elsa must use all her empathy and courage to prevent an inevitable war between dream hunters and humans.

A section of CHILD OF MOON AND SEA was published as a short story by Abyss & Apex earlier this year. My fiction has appeared in Third Wednesday and Bewildering Stories (winning the 2013 Editor’s Choice award), I was a finalist in the 2013 Baltimore Science Fiction Amateur Contest 2013, and I am a current finalist in the 2014 contest.  My M.A is in English with a focus on comparative mythology.  I am an associate editor at The Potomac Review.

Per your submissions guidelines, I have included the first ten pages below. A full manuscript is available upon request. I am currently querying other agents at this time. I appreciate you taking the time to consider my work.

After:

Dear (fantasy) agent,

Recent grad Dr. Elsa Dahlquist wants to help patients with sleep disorders, but her first case is different than anything she’s read about in her psychology texts.  Cassie, a 15-year-old orphan, has night terrors that leave bruises and cause panic attacks.  She claims to be stalked by a dream hunter – a vengeful nature spirit who preys on human dreams.  Elsa would think that Cassie is crazy except that she had a similar experience after nearly drowning. When Cassie ODs into a coma, Elsa will have to sacrifice part of her humanity to go to the dream realm or Cassie will never wake up.

Some dream hunters, including the sexy and mysterious Tursas, are willing to help Elsa as she researches ancient Finnish myths. Others send the hunting hounds after both Tursas and Elsa for breaking the rules of secrecy. When Elsa finally comes close to unraveling it all, the trail of pain leads back to an ugly secret thousands of years old.  Elsa must use all her empathy and courage to prevent an inevitable war between dream hunters and humans.

CHILD OF MOON AND SEA is an NA fantasy novel complete at 90,000 words.

A section of CHILD OF MOON AND SEA was published as a short story by Abyss & Apex earlier this year. My fiction has recently appeared in Apeiron Review, Third Wednesday and Bewildering Stories (winning the 2013 Editor’s Choice award), and I placed second in the Baltimore Science Fiction Amateur Contest 2014.  My M.A is in English with a focus on comparative mythology.  I am an associate editor at The Potomac Review.
Per your submissions guidelines, I have included the first ten pages below. I appreciate your time in considering my work.

Anyone going to Capclave in Washington D.C. this weekend?  Please come and say ‘hi’ if you are there.

Love,

Sherri

Driving myself crazy

I’m a mom.  I understand that I’ve moved into the minivan phase of my life and  will spend a great deal of time driving around. There are birthday parties and play groups, ice skating lessons and spring soccer, bike outings, and “I want to go to the park” days. Every Sunday night I have to write out the schedule in an elaborate system to make sure that my kids get to their activities. But, I wanted to go to a critique group in Baltimore and I couldn’t fit it in.

I drove to pick up my son from flag football.  I drove my daughter to her lacrosse practice.  I drove my daughter to another site where her practice actually was (and was glad to meet another mom who also hadn’t gotten the message). After I finally got my older daughter to the right place, one of the twins was in the back seat crying because she had brought a drink for the trip and now needed to use the potty.  The other twin was blowing her nose and throwing the resulting snot bombs  through the air.

I was done.  I was mad.  I had driven myself crazy.  I needed another adult.  I needed a creative outlet.  I needed to do something that wasn’t for someone else.  But, my babysitter canceled.  In fact, we split ways because she cancelled often.  The next day — the critique group day –I had to get my son to and from practice, my daughter to and from a game, at the same time in two different directions, no less, and get the twins’ homework done.  Oh, and dinner.  Don’t forget dinner.

I felt resentful of my children for taking up my time.  For preventing me from one little eensy-weensy activity. And then I felt defeated because if I’d gotten an agent and sold tons of copies of my novel, then I’d be a *real* writer and not just be wasting time and giving myself carpal tunnel at the computer every day.

I texted and called and e-mailed to see if I could find another babysitter last minute.

The mind works in convoluted ways.  As I stopped at red lights and switched lanes, I also began turning around events in my mind.  Maybe I’d be a fantabulous writer if my child didn’t have lacrosse practice.  Maybe if I didn’t have to make dinner for everyone every night and pack lunches and scramble for breakfast before the bus comes, maybe I’d be able to write the Great American Novel.  Virginal Woolf didn’t do laundry.  Jane Austen didn’t wonder if she’d defrosted the chicken.

Well…they weren’t the mothers of their family.  I wouldn’t go to the writers’ circle.  I’d be responsible and maybe I could go to the next meeting.

My family — the ones I was busy resenting — realized that this was important to me.

My older daughter said she’d miss her game, babysit so I could go. My heart melted a little.  My son said he’d read the story for me and give me advice.  The twins came to me, held my hands, and told me they’d be very good.  I gave them all a hug.  Dog-pile, we call it when we all smush together.

I felt okay with my decision not to go.  Family comes first.

That night my husband told me I was going.  I said, “It’s just a critique group.”  He repeated that he’d come home from work early. I was going.

As quick as I became angry and frustrated, as quick as I was to blame others, love humbled me.  It’s always the right answer.  My family isn’t a burden around my neck, pulling me down to drown in an indifferent ocean.  I had it all wrong.  They are the ones gathering around me like dolphins with sailors, supporting me and carrying me forward when I’m out of hope and strength.