Absolute Write and Query Lessons: Heaven or Hell?

A couple months ago, I joined Absolute Write so I could read the posts in their Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check forum. A few small presses had requested my work through twitter pitch parties like #DVpit, #PitDark, and #pitmad, so I wanted to do my homework before submitting. I was warned away from a few publishers, but discovered a couple were legitimate.

I didn’t explore the site too much at the time. There threads seemed to go on and on, and debates got heated enough to scare me away. It wasn’t until a few months later that I discovered the true gem of Absolute Write: Query Letter Hell.

I’ve querying novels for a little over 6 months now, and the first one is getting close to 100 agent rejections. After getting feedback (from agents) for a new project/query on Operation Awesome’s Pass or Pages, I started wondering how many of the agents who rejected my work made it past the query to the sample.

At this point, my second novel was getting more interest in its first 11 queries than the other had gotten in 50, so I was obviously doing something a little better, but those request became rejections, and the new queries I sent out came back as rejections.

I decided it wasn’t enough to have my husband and critique group read my query. I needed to throw it into a tank where the sharks would tear it up, or, let it burn in hell.

I did some searching, and found the Query Letter Hell forum, but there was catch. I couldn’t post anything in it until I had posted at least 50 in Absolute Write.

I posted in the newbie forum, added my two-cents to some “Beware” threads, and then I started critting. From the few weeks I was reading queries, their critiques, and adding my own, I learned more than I had from any article or blog I read about queries. I identified a lot of my mistakes and revised my query.

When I hit 50, I posted it with a surprising amount of confidence.

And guess what happened?

They loved it!

Just kidding.

The critters tore into like raccoons on a food-filled trash bag.

My query sucked, but I was thrilled with the feedback, so I revised. Someone else commented and I revised again. I revised four or five times in maybe a day, but instead of getting better, the comments were telling me my query was getting worse. Finally, someone spoke up and told me I was revising too fast, not giving myself a chance to process the feedback.

I waited, read, waited and tweaked my query. I waited to post it, revised and waited some more. When I finally did post it again, it was still flawed, but people were saying a mix of good and bad things. The overall structure was working, but details and wording needed work.

It was feedback I could work with – feedback that asked me to fix things within the query, not rewrite it from scratch. I haven’t sent that query out yet, and am still waiting for feedback on another revision. However, I know the query is better than what I started with.

The MC is introduced in the first sentence. The main conflict is introduced in the first paragraph. I show as much as I can in a couple hundred words. I use active verbs. I’m specific. The stakes are clear at the end.

Does this mean every new critter who comes along is going to like my query?

Hell no. Writing is subjective. One could post forever and there would always be someone with something to critique. Sooner or later, I’m going to need to decide that I’m done with it and send it off. #SFFpit is coming up this week, and I plan to pitch that novel.

They call the forum query letter hell because people go crazy commenting. They don’t bother with tact. Often, people will even disagree with each other. However, it’s also heaven because it is a treasure trove of feedback and publishing know-how.

If your planning to query, and if your skin is thick enough to handle the critter’s claws, send you query to hell before you send it to agents.

 

Collaboration Makes Editing Better By Sara Codair

Editing can be fun when done collaboratively. However, it is torture to do it alone.

Back when I worked for a newspaper, my editor was my boss. He assigned me stories, approved the ones I came up with myself, and he edited them before they went to print. Once I sent a story to him, I usually didn’t see it again until it ran in the newspaper. It worked the same way when I edited the student newspaper at my college. People would send me the stories, I’d edit them, do the layout for my section, and pass it on to the copy-editor. It was a very distant, tedious process, and I never liked it.

Editing my own writing has always seemed like a chore too. I love making up stories. I enjoy revising them, honing my ideas, altering sentence structure or word choice, and rewriting dialogue to make it more natural. I don’t mind cutting and rewriting scenes, or altering my plot. However, when it comes time to find misplaced or missing commas, I procrastinate like I’m still in high school.

This is partially because I’m not good at self-editing. I don’t always read whole words, so sometimes I don’t see that a to has an extra o, or that I put an apostrophe in a possessive its. I know the rules; I know how the sentence is supposed to look. I can teach people how to be better editors than I am. However, my eyes and my brain don’t communicate. I see what I think I wrote and not what I actually wrote.

At this point, I think I’ve tried every editing strategy in the book: I read out loud, I read to people, I read on different mediums, I read backwards, and I use control f to find errors that repeat. I still don’t catch them all. It’s awfully time consuming, so sometimes, if I know I’m not going to get paid (like for posts on my blog) I don’t bother because I know I won’t catch everything anyways.

The only way I can truly eliminate all the errors in a work I wrote is by collaborating with another person. Google docs and track changes make this easy. They’re not as harsh as letting someone scribble all over my precious story in red ink, and they give the author more agency in deciding what edits to accept or reject. I seldom reject edits, but having the option too reaffirms my ownership of the piece.

Today, I received a document marked up with track changes for a novelette that is going to be published by NineStar Press. Not only did I have a choice in whether or not to accept the edits, but the person who made them even explained why certain things had to be hyphenated or why she added a comma. Some of the explanations were things I already knew, and some were specific to Chicago Style, which I am pretty rust on.

Because this editor took the time to turn on track changes and explain some of the choices she was making, I was engaged in the process. I wasn’t blindly hitting accept. I was thinking about each edit, and paying enough attention to notice things we both had missed at some point in the process.

I’ve also worked with editors through Google docs. This is my favorite. It does all the things that track changes does, but allows the writer and editor to see each others work in real time, and serves as a platform for discussion.

Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 5.41.34 PM.pngLast week, a friend of mine was reading a piece of my flash fiction. She thought I spelled a name wrong. She changed Noemi to Naomi. I was able to reject the change and reply telling why I choose the spelling I did. Earlier in the year, if when editor suggested a change I wasn’t comfortable with, I was able to directly reply to her comment, starting a conversation that resulted in a change we were both happy with.

Over the past two years, I’ve learned that I can’t edit alone, but with technology, the help of friends, and the editors of the publications I sent my work to, the process can be more engaging and less tedious than it was when I was a reporter.

 

 

 

The Hiking Writer and Speculative Fiction

The Hiking Writer and Speculative Fiction

By Sara Codair

Even though a majority of my stories are speculative in some way, they are often inspired by reality. Sometimes it’s a question begging for an answer, sometimes it’s a piece of news too dark to keep inside me, and often, the seed for the story was found somewhere on a hiking trail.

On Labor Day weekend of 2016, my spouse and I went on a hike in New Hampshire’s Belknap Range. I hate crowds, and the parking lots for the better-known trails were overflowing onto the road. Thankfully, we had done our research and located a more “off the beaten path” trail.

The directions took us down a handful of side roads, the last of which wasn’t paved. I thought we hit a dead end and were in someone’s driveway when Adam rounded a corner and pulled into a tiny dirt parking lot with a trailhead.

Happy that we found a way to avoid mobs of tourists, we checked our gear, traded out sandals for boots and started walking up a steep, rocky fire road.

“I’m not sure any fire truck could actually drive on this,” said Adam.

His words were like a horn starting a race. As the hill got steeper, my legs and lungs burned with effort, and my mind was running, making up histories for the road and stories that could happen on it.

DSC_0147When we reached the secluded mountain pond at the top of the road, my mind was racing faster than my pulse. This lake would be a perfect home for a wizard in a fantasy novel, a hide out for the demon hunters in my YA novel, a good hike for my parents to do with their puppy, and a place to pump water if a flock of phoenix’s or an angry mother earth started a forest fire.

We took a break. Adam consulted his map while I devoured cookies and made up stories. The next part of the trail was a loop, but I was too lost in imagination to pick which way we would do it, so he choose, and soon, we were making our way up Mack Mountain.

Just shy of the summit, we reached a scenic overlooked where two trails merged. A large cairn, painted in the colors of the trail blazes, marked it. For some reason, there was a fork balanced atop the cairn, and there was literally a keyhole on the fork’s handle.

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My mind went crazy, and by the time we were done the hike, I had mentally written a complete story. After a swim and dinner, when I finally got home, I sat down and wrote my first draft. Over the next few months, it endured a cycle of revision, rejection, shortening and expansion. Finally, it found a home on Theme of Absence.

Stories, no matter how realistic or surreal, are everywhere. We just have to keep our minds, hearts, and eyes open, so that when we find them, we can catch them.

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Here is an excerpt from my story, “At The Fork.” Just click on it if you want to read more – it is hyperlinked to Theme of Absence.

The way to the alternate world isn’t through a wardrobe, rabbit hole or a non-existent train platform. You won’t get carried to it by a tornado or by falling through the “gap” you must mind when using the London Tube.

©2017 Sara Codair

Micro Fiction: Mr. Meowsker’s Bright Idea

Here is a little story, inspired by a prompt from Cracked Flash, to start your week:

Mr. Meowsker’s Bright Idea

By Sara Codair

“You’re my favorite monster,” said Annnaly, running her fingers over Gruffer’s fluffy face. Her black cat, Meowsker’s, was perched on here shoulder. He leaned forward licked the bridge of Gruffer’s nose.

Gruffer made a noise – a cross between a grunt and a huff. It was the only sound he ever made, but Annnaly imagined that if he was capable of human speech, he would be saying “Was?”

Nerves twined through her chest like poison ivy. She leaned her forehead against his, cupping his flat face in her hands. “The government says I can’t keep you. The made monster collections illegal. They…they want me to put you down.”

Tears streamed out of Annnaly’s eyes, dragging a river of black and blue cosmetic sludge from her face to Gruffer’s. She held his face, sobbing, not caring that Mr. Meowsker climbed off of her and onto Gruffer. She didn’t know what he did until she felt two enormous paws patting her back.

Looking up, she saw Mr. Meowsker proudly perched on Gruffer’s hear with his restrains dangling from his mouth. A smile cracked across her lips. “You brilliant feline.”

Mr. Meowsker purred like a motorcycle.

When the inspectors came to make sure Annnaly, the lady with the largest monster collection on the planet, had put down all her monsters, they were greeted by a hoard of hungry teeth and claws, not the taxidermied monster-corpses they expected.

Annaly wanted to taxidermy the inspectors and keep them as trophies, mementos from the first day of the coup, but there was literally nothing left by the time the monsters were done with them.

Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

By Sara Codair

It’s the last day of class before finals. While some students have their notebooks and netbooks open, ready to take notes, others are glancing at their phone, counting down the minutes until I give them permission to leave. They’re all exhausted. Most have been working all day, yet they still showed for this last class, hoping to learn something, or get the extra-credit for perfect attendance.

Phrases like “C’s get degrees” and “Night students just want to get their A’s and get home” float through my head as I try to focus on framing the wrap up discussion.

I don’t remember how it began, but the bookworm in the back row declared that every essay she ever wrote, from elementary school through my  English Composition II, class was completely bull-shitted.

I stared for a minute, mentally rereading her essays. She was one of the strongest writers in my class, and an avid reader. She’s someone who, if I met under different circumstances, that I could have been friends with, and I don’t say that about too many people. We could read and talk about books for hours if life didn’t make us do other things.

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Goose thinks writing is snack…

I smiled. “Isn’t all writing bullshitted?”

 

The class stared at me, probably thinking I had lost my mind.

“What’s a novel?” I asked. “Isn’t it just stuff people made up? Isn’t that bullshit?”

And she thought about, and tried to explain that novels are things people are passionate about. Yes, they are made up, but they are crafted and polished before they are sold to people who live for them.

I asked her about her last essay, one exploring and defining dystopian young adult novels. She admitted she actually liked that essay, so she spent more time writing it

I smiled again. “Well, writing is better when you care about your topic. I wish all essays were open topic, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.”

The debate went on, growing from the concept of “bulshitting” essays to the kind of writing we do in college and its usefulness, or lack thereof, in the “real world.” While no one won it, I hope that the students left with a few insights.

The students who claim they bull-shit their papers do not give themselves enough credit. They can sit down, and think, and make words appear on the page. They can generate four or five pages of half-decent prose a couple of hours. Believe it or not, that is a big deal.

 

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Writing might be easy for the students who are over 21…

The most challenging obstacle I often face when teaching writing is getting students to
actually write. Many will stare at the screen, agonizing over each word and sentence, afraid to make a mistake or just unsure how to convey their ideas.

 

I told my students that if they could bull-shit a paper, then they had taken the first step to becoming a good writer. In order to write, first, people need to be able to dump what they are thinking onto the page. Second, they need to shape into some kind of genre or convention. In the case of the students, they need to revise their ideas into an introduction, thesis, body paragraphs and conclusion. Third, they need to edit it and make sure it follows the format their teacher wants.

They are generating ideas inside and putting them outside.

While I didn’t go into any gross details in class, I often compare writing to bodily functions. When I say writing is shit from bulls, I take the metaphor quite seriously.

 

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Horses are good at eating and shitting too.

We consume information like bulls consume grass. We digest it, just like they digest grass. We break it down and use it up. We excrete what is left in the form of words.

 

In a more advanced class, one filled with people who were there because they wanted to be, not  because they were required to take the course, I might get into the nitty gritty details of crafting sentences and fine-tuning arguments. However, in a first year writing course, I am happy if my students leave with the ability to put ideas on the page in a coherent manner, and follow guidelines when they turn it in.

When students get an A’s on bullshitted papers, it’s not because they fooled their teachers. It’s because they weren’t censoring themselves like the students who agonize over every sentence. Getting words down on paper is the first step to developing as a writer. Being able to bull-shit a paper is a sign that  students are already halfway up the mountain.

I can’t make someone a master writer in one semester. What I can do is give them the tools to get words on the page, and empower them. I can help build a grain of confidence.

I can  plant seeds in their bullshit, and hope that one day, there is enough shit their to make the soil fertile so their ideas grow.

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©2017 Sara Codair

Alternative Truths: An unexpected-success story

Another great post about Alternative Truths!

Writer Way

Alt truths cover The cover of the Alternative Truths anthology

Just over 100 days ago, on Jan. 23, science fiction author Bob Brown issued a writing challenge: Imagine the future during or after the Trump presidency. Write a story. Submit it to an anthology to be called Alternative Truths.

“This is an anthology about the future in an alternative fact world,” Bob wrote. “What does the future hold? Endless alternative facts? Brilliant leadership? Alien invasions? Zombies in the White House?”

Bob set about co-editing the anthology with Phyllis Irene Radford, vowing to publish the book within the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

As submissions came in, Bob formed the private Facebook group Alternative Truth (now public) so the participants could discuss the project. In a field where submissions generally vanish behind a curtain from which editors issue cryptic rejections, the decision to open-source the anthology project seemed both odd and courageous. Did these people know what they were getting into?

I submitted a dystopian story, “Patti…

View original post 512 more words

A few words about Alternative Truths

I’ve been in my fair share of anthologies, but none of them compare to my experience in Alternative Truths. I’ve worked with good editors and great editors. I’ve been in the company of writers better than me. However, I have not previously had the pleasure of working with a group as engaged and enthusiastic as the Alternative Truth team.

Every time I log onto Facebook and see a new notification, I hope it is for this anthology’s Facebook page. I love knowing that even in the face of a political disaster, people are still writing, and using that as a way to resist.

The writers and editors are committed to this book. They do so much more than share it on social media. They brainstorm places that might review it, they help write press releases and go out in the world and do readings.

Because of the timing, I haven’t been as involved as some of the others, but I have tried to read and participate in comment threads between students and share it on social media when I can.

I haven’t even read the whole anthology yet. I haven’t read much that wasn’t written by students in a few weeks, but I’m trying to sneak stories from this anthology in whenever I can.

The first story is absolutely brilliant. I can’t wait to read the rest!

The groups’ enthusiasm, dedication, talent, and love for the work has made this a success. Please support us by buying a copy and leaving a review.

I’m honored to have my story surrounded by the words of these amazing people!

Potatoes in a Barrel

I used to think that potatoes were a lot of work to grow and took up more space than my garden had to offer. About two years ago, I picked up a copy of the Farmers Almanac while waiting in an accountant’s office – the last place I expected a garden revelation. I ended up reading a brief how to article about growing potatoes in trash barrels, and have used that method to successfully grow potatoes for the past two seasons.

The process is fairly simply. First you need to drill or poke holes in the barrel so excess water can drain. DSC_0449.JPG

Next, put rocks in the bottom of the barrel. This will not only provide better drainage, but it will also help keep the barrel in place.

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Once you have your rocks in place, you will need dirt for the potatoes to grow in. I’ve found that buying a bag of “garden soil” or “raised bed” soil.

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Empty a bag of dirt into the barrel, filling about a third of it  up, and then go get your potatoes. The ones that have been in the fridge for a long time and are growing eyes or sprouting roots are good candidates. Keep in mind that whatever kind of potatoes you plan are the kind you are going to get. It’s not necessary but it is a good idea to cut them in half. DSC_0453

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Burry your potatoes under two or three inches of dirt. Then water them. DSC_0455.JPG

Keep the soil moist, and as the green tops grow, “hill them.” This means adding soil and burying some of the leaves, always careful to leave at least five inches of green exposed. When the plan flowers, the potatoes are ready to harvest. The most efficient way to do this is to just dump the soil and sift through it. I usually add it a raised bed that looks like it is getting low on soil when I am done.DSC_0457.JPG

Anxiety in the Margins

 

Lately, I’ve been participating in opportunities to help marginalized writers get published. Sometimes when I share this with my writer friends, they give me funny looks. They don’t say anything, because I’m a pain in the butt to argue with, but I can see their discomfort, see comments lurking in their eyes.

What is a white, middle-class girl like you doing taking advantage of those things? You always get your way. You’ve published more short stories than anyone else in our group. You’re so sneaky…trying to take advantage.

When I see agents and authors tweeting about how many non-marginalized participants they saw, I wonder if they mean me. When I ask how they know people are not marginalized, I get answers that seem like they think I am stupid for asking.

Or

Maybe I can’t see those words dying to escape their lips and those comments are not directed at me. Maybe my anxiety is just making me think they disapprove. It’s hard to tell, because anxiety makes me think I’m a failure, that I’m a monster, and that sooner or later, I am going to ruin EVERYTHING but it never tells me what everything is.

It does make it hard to breath every time I send out a query letter or enter a pitch contest or submit a short story. It makes it hard to get up and go to work where I have to interact with people. It makes it physically painful to go food shopping, walk through a crowd, or go to a conference.

I called in sick today because I have an upset stomach. The thing is, I honestly can’t tell if it is a virus or my anxiety.

Anxiety makes it hard to not only do things are necessary, but it also holds me back from things I love. Anxiety is a disability.

It’s not the only reason I enter things like #DVpit or submit my work as #ownvoices.

I have a freaking master’s degree in English, but time and time again, I fail catch the most random, stupid errors in my own work. I’ve probably tried every proof-reading strategy ever invented, but in the end this is what it comes down to: I don’t like grammar, therefore I cannot focus on it. I also cannot have someone re-read a query or story EVERY SINGLE TIME that I make a change, because I never stop editing and revising.

I’ve over a decade of my professors and mentors complaining about my errors, and after successfully teaching other people to edit, I have come to realize I cannot produce error free prose anymore than a paralyzed person can walk.

And I KNOW I’ve gotten rejections simply because of errors in my work.

OK – maybe if took Adderall or Ritalin, things would be different, but just writing the names of those drugs makes the anxiety monster roar. Drugs scare me, even the ones I already take for my anxiety. I’ve found other ways to cope, but they can only get me so far.

Even if I did overcome my anxiety about certain medications, I would still have to get an official diagnoses to get the prescription. Two years ago, my primary care physician recommended a neuropsychologist who did ADHD in my area. Have called to make an appointment? No. Why? Anxiety.

It’s a vicious cycle that always holds me back one way or another, keeping me in the margins of the places I want to be.

In many ways, I am fortunate and privileged. My parents loved me. They always found a way to get me the things I wanted. I never went hungry. I’ve always had at least one or two good friends. However, I’ve also faced barriers and fallen through cracks.

I wasn’t poor enough to get financial aid, but not rich enough to afford anything but community college and state schools that offered transfer scholarships.

I was too smart and proud for extra help in school, but my GPA wasn’t high enough to get into top colleges, let alone get scholarships.

My parents did their best to research college, but they did not have the inside knowledge of people who went and graduated.

My anxiety makes in-person networking almost impossible. It keeps me out of writing conferences and most Academic conferences.

I may be more privileged than someone with a different color skin, but I do feel like it is ethically okay for me to participate in things like #DVpit, and #ownvoices when it’s relevant because I need the extra boost to even the playing field.

Should I worry every time someone tweets about privileged people posting where they shouldn’t ? No. Will I worry? Yes.

Perhaps the day I stop worrying that I don’t belong in events for marginalized writers will be the day that I actually don’t belong.