Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Adventures in Querying: Where is the Chubby Hubby Ice Cream When You Need It?

Ben and Jerry's has the most amazing flavor of ice cream called Chubby Hubby. It is a single pint of decadent saturate-your-sorrows in 35 grams of sinful artery-clogging saturated fat and it's-probably-better-if-you-don't-read-the-rest-of-the-nutritional-information yum-inny goodness.

For several years, it was my favorite fallback when things weren't going so well. Call it depression's best friend and my waistline's worst enemy. I could easily eat a pint (or two) all by myself when I was upset. After today's twenty-ninth check of my author email, it is perhaps advantageous for my britches and my overall general health that Chubby Hubby is no longer available in my area.

I just received another rejection for another query letter of my newest book. I know you might be saying "Big whoop....someone else said no to you.....move on." Believe me, I get the sentiment. I tried that approach for about five minutes as I wrote my Thank You letter to the kind assistant who sent the rejection letter on behalf of the oh-so-busy agent. But after I hit the 'Send' button, it hit me. This rejection letter was yet another paving stone in the road of this journey of mine that has been my entire life in the making.

<Sound the dramatic music now, if you please....>

I have read enough blogs over the years to know that most writers are CONVINCED they were destined to be a writer ever since they were knee-high to a grasshopper. Right after they unplugged from their mother's nipple and moved onto solid foods, they picked up the pen and began the path to their future career. At that point, I was still dragging around my bangy (blanket), believing the Cookie Monster was a real person, but what the hey. I was a kid.

As far as my grasp on my future grown-up career, I couldn't say with any level of certainty that I knew what I wanted to be in my adult years as I was learning my A-B-C's and delving into the wonders of easy arithmetic. I was pretty much all over the map with my career options up until just a few years ago.

My aspirations for the future began with marine biology, slid into mathematics, dallied in the arts, and a million other possibilities as I explored the world. I even contemplated becoming a mermaid once, but I heard the pay was appalling and the benefits mere fish food.

The point is, making grown up decisions when you are a kid, especially decisions that affect the rest of your life was neigh impossible. I was impressionable and was tossed around by the winds of other's influence. What I should want for my future and what I was allowed to dream for myself was invariably tainted by the pressures of those around me. Writing - as in being a writer - wasn't even a blip on my horizon.

It didn't matter that I loved it or that I pursued it all the time in the shadows of everything else that swam within the margins of my conscious brain. It wasn't considered a "responsible career." I allowed myself to be pushed in other directions.

All the while I was poking at the possibilities that the future had to offer me, in the background of my uncertainty and throughout my endless exploration of life, I wrote. Stories, poems, ditties. Some were good. Some were not.

Regardless of the quality, everything I did, everything I wrote, had a vast daydream lurking behind it. Even as I pursued the hard sciences and pushed my intellect the brink of utter overload, I brought imaginary worlds into being and hid their existence in the notebooks and papers that littered my bedroom, my car, my backpack, and sometimes the napkins that were my only source of paper. My dreams were my playground and my solace.

I craved those worlds and the promise they offered. I read voraciously, further stimulating the imagination that ran unchecked in my untamed mind. Never once do I remember consciously thinking "I am a writer" or "I want to be a writer when I grow up." Writing was something I simply could not help but do whenever and wherever possible.

In fact, I had teachers, faculty, and friends telling me writing wasn't my thing when they saw me scribbling in my notebooks. I was anything but a writer. So I made sure to write when no one was looking. The thing was, writing was inescapable. Like a fungus on wet, socked feet.

It was like a wooing lover that would not relent its sway over me, until finally, one day the truth dawned on me. I was the little writing crack whore who only felt satiated with a pen and paper in her hand. I could only find that sense of completeness and accomplishment when I was immersed in the written word. It was my burning desire. Let other people embrace the rat race and the corporate ladder.

World building. That was my utopia. It had only taken me my entire life to come to that understanding about myself.

Now back to Chubby Hubby and the consummate 'no'.

I realize that every writer has to make their bones, and usually the road to doing that is paved with rejection after rejection. The platitude is always tossed about that writers need to have a thick skin. While that may be true, part of me says even rhinos with their thick, plated skin can be killed so thick skin alone isn't so great a defense. Having "thick skin" suggests you are not allowed to feel bad when bad things happen, and that is a load of crap. That is how people end up leaping off of buildings....because they believe they have to "handle things" in silence and put on a brave face when they are feeling anything but brave.

Rejection hurts. It's why there are so many songs dedicated to the subject. The best way to deal with it (in my humble opinion) is first, to be honest about it. It sucks. Pretending that it doesn't isn't helpful. Next, have a great group of people who can be there to support you when the rejection happens. I am not talking about people who will tell you to stop feeling what you are feeling, and I am not talking about people who will help you wallow deeper in the sorrow than you would on your own. I am talking about level-headed friends and/or family who will listen and then help you see that the light at the end of the tunnel is hope and not an on-coming train.

For me, it was my family. My mom is a Chicken Soup For the Soul contributing author who has seen her share of triumphs and disappointments in her admirable writing career. My dad is a fellow writer and my faithful morning writing partner who has seen me through many a dry spell. And then there is my sister who is a brilliant blogger and all around great friend. They were all there to lift me out of my Chubby Hubby fog and set me back on my feet again. And let me not forget my faithful little pommies who know that sometimes puppy kisses really are the best medicine.

Whatever you do in this crazy race, don't do it alone, friends, and don't give up. Yes, it is hard. Falling on your fanny sucks, but luckily, fannies are padded so bouncing back from a fall is not as hard as you might think when you have helping hands to lift you up.

A great story will get you far. Perseverance will get you farther. See you at the finish line.

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Next Big Thing: A Raven's Touch by Linda Bloodworth - a new YA Paranormal Ready For Release

Today, I am happy is too tame a word....I am flipping thrilled to support my friend and fellow author Linda Bloodworth spread the word about her new YA Paranormal book release for her debut novel, A Raven's Touch. I have known Linda for many years now, and I have been there to witness the miracle of birth of this incredible book, from the first few chapters to the final amazing product you see below.

I could bubble and gush without end about what a great person Linda is, but it is her writing that deserves our focus today. We all have the chance to ride the wave of the first novel in what is sure to be a fantastic series (hint, hint).

So, without further ado, continue reading below for more information about Linda's book, A Raven's Touch, and don't forget to stop by her release party on December 28th for a chance to win a lot of cool prizes!  

A Raven's Touch cover
Bullied through high school, seventeen-year-old Justice St. Michaels is grateful for the help of her best friend Moira O’Fhey. Their only wish is to graduate high school, leave the sleepy town of Fallingbrook and all that happened behind them. The Heavens have other plans. Between growths on her back and being involved in explosive school fights, nothing seems to make sense. When an unexpected encounter with Darien Raventhorn causes worlds to collide it exposes the truth about Justice's real identity. To avenge a family death, Justice must embrace her birthright, and slay a demon before all Hell breaks loose.
This is a book you don't want to miss! Are you already in the middle of a great read right now? Well, add A Raven's Touch to your Goodreads TBR List.
Otherwise, if you are not currently engaged, take the plunge and treat yourself to this new up-and-coming author and buy A Raven's Touch on Amazon.

Here is a little bit about the author:

Linda Bloodworth loves chips, like really, ketchup to be exact. Ketchup chips are only found in Canada (from what I understand). Luckily for Linda, she lives in Toronto with her husband and three fur babies. In between writing, debating for hours about the Oxford comma, and the misunderstood semi colon; Linda enjoys camping and getting away from the city on day trips.
Want to stay in touch? Visit Linda on her website here, or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+!

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

When 'Thank You' Is the Hardest Thing To Say

Some words come easy to us. Words of tenderness for a loved one. Colorful metaphors. The proper order of terms for the grande triple mocha latte flavored coffee you order every day at the local Starbucks. But there are also those times when the words are not so easy to say. Things like I'm sorry. You were right. Those hot pants make you look great. And in my case today, thank you for turning me down yet again.

Yes, today I received another rejection letter from another agent. My stack of shame letters is beginning to grow, much like the wedgie count for the nerdy kid at school after the first day of classes has come and gone. The most amusing letter to date came a few days ago. It contained so much information on how busy the agent was, offering statistics on how many letters they receive a week. I actually missed the fact that they had even read my query and were turning me down. I must have blinked through that part. Needless to say it made me laugh at first. But yesterday's letter wasn't all that amusing. It was another 'I think am going to pass' letter. Those are the hard ones. Again, it leaves the impression of the unsavory meal.

Sending out query letters makes me feel a little like the ancient penitents of the old church. The ones who wore hair shirts and giant crosses on thin twine cords. The ones who flagellated themselves and walked barefoot in the snow. The more the penitent suffered, the more worthy they were of glory in the end. For a writer, query letters and the flow of unending rejection letters are the penance. It's what making your bones is all about, or so everyone keeps saying.

I always do my research before I send anything out. I learn about the agency. I try to learn as much about the agent as I can. All the things they say you should do before submitting. I was reading one agency website (which will go unnamed) that was kinda snooty on their submission page. Aside from the unusual "look how great we are" part of their introduction, they were really hard on authors in general, as though we as a general breed were lazy and shiftless in our approach to what we did. The "onus of responsibility" lay at the author's feet to "thoroughly research, understand, and implement the current standards of query letters", and any author who had not met this level of "rigorous research" should not bother to submit.

Oookkaaayyy. So here is my problem with that terse little presentation. There is no standard. Not that I can find. Before you shoot me down and start quoting this or that book, hear me out. I have read the books and the blogs and watched the oh-so-riveting vlogs dedicated to the topic. I have read the list of the 50 most earth-shattering query letters ever to be submitted and accepted ever, ever, ever, and why they were chosen by each of the agents who selected them. Do you know what I found in all of it, after all that time and energy? THERE ARE NO RULES!!

What appeals to one agent will annoy another and what draws an agent one day might be the very thing they dread the next. Some loved gimmicks. Others hated them. Some wanted whimsy while others wanted a straightforward, cut-to-the-chase letter. Then there were the frustrating instances where the agents themselves said "This isn't the kind of query letter I normally LIKE to receive BUT...." Even when the agents set their rules in black and white, they broke them, so I say again....THERE ARE NO RULES!! THERE ARE NO STANDARDS!!

There is hope wrapped up into each query letter that is sent out, even though the greater part of you knows a resounding 'NO' awaits you as the last grain of sand falls in the proverbial hourglass. Like little Oliver Twist asking "Please, sir, may I have some more", you are asking for more disappointment, more rejection, more heartache each time you click the SEND button, but that glorious letter is the only way to open the door to the bigger publishers. It is that very act of self-immolation that makes your bones as a writer, and I hate it sometimes. I hate that hopeful feeling of desperation that comes with wanting this so much. Where the desire is so dependent upon someone else's mood. Someone else's whimsy.

But like the fighter who has yet to earn the "prized" moniker, I am undeterred. I keep sending and hoping and writing and dreaming, but it doesn't stop me from feeling the impact of the blows. I would be lying if I said it didn't matter what answer I received. If I said I didn't feel it each and every time when the answer was no.

And to the agent who felt it necessary to expound in the form letter of rejection just how many query letters they receive each week. NEWS FLASH! I get about the same amount every week in my day job as well and that is on top of all of the other work that is required of me in my highly technical career. It is part of what I do. It is how I pay the bills. And after those long, arduous days that sap the life out of me and leave me with little more than mush on the brain, I write and dream and research the very things you demand (as best I can) so that I can land in your slush pile and receive your impersonal rejection. So please forgive me if I seem a little snarky at being told how busy you are while my dreams get to stay in a perpetual holding pattern.

To the agents who have shown kindness and consideration and mercy even in their no's, THANK YOU! And I do mean Thank you. Sometimes it is a hard thing to say when what you want to hear from the other person is "YES. Please send me your manuscript". The way you deliver the 'no' however makes it possible for me to send out another letter and still hold onto the hope that maybe this time, a YES might be waiting on the other end.

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Joys of Editing: It sounded so much better when I was in the shower....

We have all had those glorious moments in the rain locker. There you are...glistening wet skin, the perfect echo chamber, and your favorite song. The need to belt out the words seems as natural as breathing in and out. We are braver somehow in those private moments of utter nakedness. The world seems different. More magical. We take the risk and go for the gusto. Karaoke bar be damned, we have found that inner rock star or dancing diva. Invariably we have the magical moment of acoustical perfection, and we believe for just a twinkling of the eye that we were meant for greater things. We are Maria Carey, Whitney Houston, and John Bon Jovi rolled into one perfect, soapy package. All we need is the record deal and an open road and life as we know it would be perfection.

We step out of our shower dripping with confidence and then the cold air of reality hits us. We sing a few tentative notes in our bedroom as we plaster our dreary day-clothes over moistened skin and realize that perhaps our vocalizations weren't quite as perfect as we thought they were. In fact, the farther away from the humid acoustic hall we get, the more we become aware of our imperfect pitch and quavering voice. By the end of the day, we are fairly certain music is for misfits, and we are hesitant even to hum a few bars of our favorite tunes on the radio. By nighttime, we are curled into a fetal position with sweaty arm pits, a dripping upper lip, and the deepest, darkest dread of ever hearing another note again.

Then morning comes, and we find ourselves in the shower again. In the magical, mystical shower, and suddenly, hope springs anew. The notes appear once more and we are ROCKING! this is a bit of a stretch but you know what I am talking about. We have all been there in some form or another, and in the realm of writing, there is that "place" where everything seems so "right". Where you find your fingers flying over the keyboard of your computer, and you hear the words issue from your lips, "OMG...I am so good!" Tears spring to your eyes. Your heart soars, and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the great masters of literature are MORONS compared to the work you just created. You are the next Steinbeck. The next Shakespeare. The next Jane Austin. You have achieved the height of literary greatness in your disheveled writing nook. All you have to do is find that lucky literary agent who is blessed enough to represent your brilliance.

Then you put the work down for a time. You get busy. You get a call. You have surgery. You pop out a few kids. Whatever. When you go back and read your brilliant masterpiece that will cause the world to weep from its magnificence, you find yourself saying, "OMG...I suck! I can't spell! And what the heck is a schloombov?"

You have just been hit by the cold wind of reality that I call the need for revisory rethought. It is a fancy way of saying you need to edit what you wrote because the first go-round of your glorious master piece isn't going to be perfect. Listen to that again.....It is never going to be perfect the first time around.

All writers get hit by the reality of their imperfection, if they are honest. It is true, some need that revisory rethought more than others, but the need is there regardless of the author. It is why even back in the day, the masters had revisions and multiple editions. They added things. They corrected things. They took things out. We take all of that for granted because the process happened centuries ago, before our great grandparents were glimmers in their parents' eyes. But trust me, those masters of old went through the editing process just like we have to today. And they had their writing "shower moments" too when they thought something sounded grand on paper and then regretted it once they took a second look at it later on. Why do you think we keep finding these "lost works" of theirs? These are the pieces they really didn't want anyone to see.

I have shower writing moments all the time. In fact, they are part of what keeps me humble. I love the writing process and getting lost in the worlds I create, but the editing process keeps me grounded in the reality of how fallible I am as a writer.

I suck at spelling. I catch my own inconsistencies all the time when I go back and edit my stories. I even got the name of one of my semi-main characters wrong once. (Should I even admit that?) ZOIKS!! The fact is, no one is perfect, and that is the beauty of it. But editing can be daunting, especially when the cold, hard reality of your imperfections hit you in the face for the very first time. When you realize that the "perfect" story you just finished writing needs a little work....or maybe a lot of work.

Fear not. Even the best of the best of the best have editors. We all pepper our work with too many adverbs. We often spell like we have regressed to the glory days of kindergarten when we are really on a roll, or maybe we just sound like a Valley Girl from time to time when we are trying to write an authentic Medieval piece. The point is, the editing process helps smack us back into shape. It smoothes out the rough spots, and if we are open to it, helps make our story better than it was when we started.

Here are a few of my rules to edit by:

1. Give your work time to sit once it is complete.

Never start the edit immediately after you have completed the work. You are way too close to it emotionally when you have just finished it. Either one of two things will happen if you don't give yourself enough time. One - you will still believe you are a writing god among men and will find nothing wrong with your Olympian prose, or two, you will think every word of it is crap and will end up deleting it all. I will never forget reading the Twitter of one writer who deleted 64,000+ words after spending weeks toiling over them. BIG MISTAKE! Even if it was crap, there might have been some tidbit worth keeping. Deletes are forever, so let the work breathe for a bit.

2. Find a good editing software to help make the first round of edits more clinical.

Editing is always emotional, so anything that can put it at arm's length is a bonus. I swear by Smartedit. It runs a series of reports against your work and looks for a host of issues for you - repeated phrases, adverb usage, cliches, curse words, misused words. It's great! Each problem is linked to the portion of the story where it can be found. I often find myself editing around the phrases I go to correct. By the time I get to the read through, I have a stronger piece of work. Does it make it perfect. No, but it does a heck of a job for an algorithmic based program.

3. Get another pair of eyes on your work.

For some people, this is hard, especially when they are just starting out. It feels a bit like asking your neighbor to check out that swollen boil on your butt. Once you go down that path of exposure, you can never go in reverse. They have just seen the best and worst you have to offer. Asking someone you know to view your work can feel much the same way. It makes you feel raw inside. They might laugh. They might poke fun. They might not like it. The thing is, once you get out there and published, you are going to have a host of people waiting to take pot shots at everything you put to paper, so you might as well take the risk and ask someone to look over your story. Have them look for the basics....slow points, inconsistencies, things they like, things they don't. The feedback can be invaluable in the end as you work your way to your finished product.

4. Edit more than once.

One read through is never enough. There is such thing as over editing where you spend so much time tweaking the story, you never finish it. Not really. But don't ever stop at "once". That would be like going for your all important driving test having given parallel parking a go "once". Not really a good approach to take if you think about it. For me, I always miss things the first time around. I know even the professionals miss things. I cannot tell you how many times I have been reading a New York Times Best Seller only to catch a typo of one kind or another or even places where I found myself going 'Huh?' because a segment of a paragraph didn't seem to fit what I was reading (copy/paste error anyone?).

The point is, allow breathe-time for your work, get some editing software and extra sets of eyes, and take a repetitive approach to editing. Combined with diligence and care, these things will help mitigate a lot of heartache. Yes, there will probably still be those times when the genius writer is wrestled awake by the reality of their imperfections, but hopefully, when the edits are done and it is time to create again..........

The music of the mind will call to you once more and before you realize what you are doing, you will find yourself blissfully shaking your glistening wet brain and belting out the music that is your next big idea. And in that glorious moment of pure abandon, the notes are perfect, just as they always have been. Just as they should be in the moment of creation.

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

When Being 'A Day Late and a Dollar Short' Ceases To Capture How Far Behind You Are

I used to love the phrase when I was a kid.

"A day late and a dollar short"

It seemed so jingly. So fun. So easy to catch up to if you just tried hard enough. After all, it was only a day and a dollar. How hard could it be?

Well, I am no longer a kid and that jingly tongue delighting phrase holds new meaning for me now that I know just how far behind you can get in this world and how many chances can pass you by without you even realizing it.

I am coming to the publishing game a little later in life than I wish I had. I am by no means Grandma Moses in age, but there are still times when I wish I had "found myself" a little closer to twenty than forty. But life is funny that way, and things worked out differently, so I am adapting and reveling in what I consider my second chance at a happy ending. The thing is, the journey there can be difficult. Just take a look at fairy tales. They are fraught with sticky predicaments and missed opportunities. How many times have you wanted to bop the hero in the back of the head because he or she missed their chance time and time again? Thankfully it always works out in the end, and that is what I strive for. That happy ending. I still, however, am marveling at my missed moments along the way.

Fun example...........

Few major publishers are accepting unsolicited work these days. One must have an agent or face the unending wall of defeat of ever getting published by the big-name publishers. Every so often, though, they relent and open the doors to all hopefuls and allow a stream of submissions without an agent presenting them.

In 2013, Tor Books UK opened their doors in just such a manner. It was unprecedented. This past May (2015 mind you), I happened upon the Tor blog post that announced their brave move. Of course seeing the date on the post, I scoured for any caveat announcing the closure of said opening. Surely to goodness after such a long time, they would not still be allowing such a flood of submissions. Try as I might, I could find nothing on their blog retracting the offer.

I was elated! I had just finished my first full fantasy novel and was starting the edit. I worked and worked to get it polished and was just getting ready to send it to an editor for their review. My hands were tingly with anticipation. I knew I would have to wait 4-6 months before submitting it anywhere else, but this was Tor after all. I couldn't help myself. I went back to the blog post to re-read what had been my beacon of hope for so long.

And there is was........the caveat that wasn't there before. How had I missed it? I had looked. I had read and re-read. I could hear the WHAA-WHAA that all losers hear when they miss out. The sad part is, Tor had closed the door to submissions four months before I found their post. So much for being a day late and a dollar short. I was four months late, and there was no catching up to that one.

This was not the first time that I have found myself in the sad, sad place of discovering just how late to the game I am. There have been other missed opportunities like the writing competition where the benefactor died two months before the winner could be announced. Yes, that competition was ended, and no winner was announced, and is way too depressing and rich to make up. There are others, which I won't enumerate, but what I will say is this.

Sad or not. Ridiculously naive or not, I find myself undaunted by these missed chances. Why? Because at some point, in my modest little hopes and dreams, I think it is possible to catch up. Eventually, I will have a story ready, and I will be there when the window is open and ready. I will be there to submit, and maybe, just maybe, I will be one of the lucky bastards who are chosen to go to the next level. Maybe I will barrage them with the plethora of stories that I will have written and edited waiting for "next time" to roll around. Who knows.

The point is, the race is not always won by the fast runners or even the strong runners, but by the ones who persevere. Sometimes that means us slow pokes that start at the back of the crowd. The ones who keep plodding along, sweating like pigs with red, shiny faces. Graceless though we may appear to be, we keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Yes, I was disappointed by the Tor Books UK discovery. I so wanted to submit to them, but it is not the end of the world, and it certainly is not the only opportunity I will ever have. It just wasn't my time, and I obviously wasn't ready. I am keeping the faith, and in the meantime, I am writing.

There is another phrase I have grown to love as I have gotten older.

Never give up. Never surrender. Whether you are coming to the game early or late, it is a good motto to have because life can knock you on your assets at any stage of the game. You just have to decide whether you have it within yourself to get back up on your feet, wipe off the dust, and get back in there, or give up altogether and walk away for good. I have seen a lot of writers take the second path. I guess I am just a bit too stubborn to know when to give up. Here's hoping you are too.

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Adventures in Querying: Receiving the First of Many Bloody Noses

We've all had that dream. No, I am not talking about the dirty bathroom dream where all of the stalls make the use of an outhouse at the yearly fair seem like a delightful prospect. Nor am I referring to the dream where you are walking naked through your old high school during peak rush hour and you can't seem to find your locker. I am talking about the dream so many writers have about sending out their first query letter. It usually goes something like this.

You send out the letter to the big-wig agent. (It is of course your first attempt.) They read it and immediately call you up and offer a billion dollar contract for your stupendous piece of literary art. You, without hesitation, accept the outrageous offer and within months find yourself on the set of the movie adaptation of your book. Okay, so the dream might vary a smidge for some, but the concept is pretty much the same. There are no disappointments, and there are certainly no bubble deflating rejections.

We writers want to be heard. We want an audience for our stories. The problem is, there is a universe of noise that stands between us and the people we so long to connect with. For many, the agent is the one who helps us navigate through the rivers of crap. The hard part is finding someone willing to take the risk on our work, and timing is everything.

Cold, hard reality check in 3, 2, 1...........

Unfortunately, none of us are clairvoyant. We can't know what the "right time" is for the agent we hope is the "right fit". Oh sure, there is that lucky writer soul that comes along and strikes at the perfect moment just after morning coffee but before the bran muffin hits in all its unforgiving glory. Just like there are people who get record deals because the executive happens to hear them singing in the bathroom stall right next to them. (I am so NOT that person.)

The reality for the rest of us is that luck like that doesn't exist. We have to work our butts off to get noticed. We have to jump up and down, find the right words, and sometimes make asses of ourselves to get any attention. And sometimes that means we are going to get punched in the nose for our efforts at some point in time.

The other night I got one of my bloody noses. Its not really the first bloody nose I have received, and I sure as heck know it won't be my last. It still stung. My heart still hurt a little. My eyes got teary, and for a moment...just a brief little moment, I felt bad about the blow.

I got the email late at night - sent at 10:21 p.m. I was up reading someone else's book on my e-reader when the notice came in. I should have left the email for the morning when I would have been more equipped to handle what I had read. The thing was <true confessions here>, I had been waiting and hoping for weeks, so my curiosity got the best of me. The next thing I knew, my face was bloodied, and I found myself sitting up in the middle of the night wondering what I had done wrong.

The letter wasn't particularly bad, but it wasn't particular good either. It read much like what you would expect from someone returning an entrée they weren't satisfied with. I don't think I will forget the line I am afraid I will be passing. I could almost see the crinkle of distaste in the agent's lip. I have said the same thing after finding a hair in a dish. No thanks, I think I'll pass.

Needless to say, it took me a while to get to sleep. I had to staunch the blood flow before my head hit the pillow. I knew I wasn't going to bleed to death, but when you get hit with disappointment after such high hopes, it is easy for things to spiral out of control, especially in the middle of night. I grabbed my Kleenex, and I started thinking.

The story I am trying to sell is different from the current market stream. There are no vampires, werewolves, or zombies. There is no magic in the story at all. Just a gritty teenager and a really bad ass story with a lot of heart. (Gotta defend the story here folks. Bear with me.) My point is, sometimes "different" isn't what people are looking for. Some of the biggest names in the business got turned down when they first sent out their queries. Their big breaks came during chance encounters at writers' conventions after being turned down time and time again. Or it came when they ditched convention and self-published. So the query letter isn't always a guaranteed win.

So where does that leave me? You might think right where I was before I sent out my letter, but you would be wrong if you took that path of assumption. In truth, I am better off than I was before I hit the send button on my computer. Yes I got a little banged up, but the truth of the matter is, I believed enough in myself and my writing to take a risk. I received a 'no' from the agent, but that doesn't mean it is the last time that agent will ever hear from me. As a matter of fact, sometimes being gracious and a bit tenacious is the best response in the face of a rejection.

The very first thing I did was send a 'thank you' note to the agent while the tears were fresh. That person did after all take the time to read through the stuff that I sent out. Courtesy is quickly becoming a lost art, so a positive response on my part certainly can't hurt. It might even make a lasting impression.

I have a choice in all of this. I can either curl up into a tiny ball and cry until my tear ducts swell shut and cease working, or I can be like the badger dog and hold on for dear life. I like badger dogs. They are tenacious, and they don't give up. It is how they survive. After all, badgers are mean, and they take no prisoners. The realm of publishing that I have stepped into is a lot like the badger....mean and unforgiving sometimes....or so I have heard. I have to find a way to survive as I follow this path to my dreams.

So here's to bloody noses, however many I receive, and here is to never giving up as I count my blows. One of my favorite authors, who has been a great encouragement to me, received over fifty rejections before his first book was picked up. That's a lot of Kleenex. Guess I better go buy a few more boxes because I am in for the long haul. See you around folks!

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Adventures in Querying: The Art of Being Patient....Are We There Yet???

I thought when I saw puberty and all its trappings disappear into the rear view mirror of adulthood, I would somehow gain a greater sense of patience and a zen-like ability to wait for the things that truly mattered. As though impulse control increased the older I got. <Queue the maniacal laughter>

Though it is true I have developed a mature approach to a great many segments of life that require my patience:

- waiting in line at the store
- waiting for my refund check to arrive from the tax man
- waiting for a bathroom stall to open up when the Go-Go Bran Muffin cart is handing out free samples at the mall

There are new areas where patience has yet to become a concrete virtue for me in my adult years, however. Waiting for an answer from my query letters is one of them.

It is reminiscent of my childhood vigil for Christmas Day to arrive. Somehow I just knew that each time I looked at the calendar, it would hasten the approach of that magical morning, as though observation changed the outcome of the principles of physics and what we understood of the passage of time. I was light years ahead of Schrodinger and his crazy old cat at the tender age of five. I checked the calendar half a dozen times a day or more starting the day after Thanksgiving. The weird thing was, Christmas never seemed to get there any faster.

Having sent out my first query letters, one would think I would be afraid to look for an answer (since most people tell me I should expect at least a few dozen smacks in the face before I get my first nibble). Yet day after day, I find myself checking my email incessantly looking for the tell tale response from the agents I submitted to. It's almost sad.

I find excuses to hit the send/receive. I need to clean out my inbox (which I hardly ever do.) I need to update my settings (again, a rarity). The list of "valid" reasons is as endless as my childhood energy once was. I know I have weeks to wait, but part of me can't help it. Even if there is a rejection in the missive, I don't want to miss it - not one, single solitary word of it. Why? The answer is quite simple.

It took me years, decades really, to discover what I wanted to do with my life. I was always a writer, scribbling away on sheets of paper at all hours of the day and night when that was the mode of expression. But in the "real world", I pursued other avenues. I studied math and science. I even excelled in those areas. I got my degree in engineering. I have worked for a software company for almost a decade, but in all that time of going to school and studying the hard, challenging topics that everyone said I would fail at, I never felt that burning passion. I just wanted to prove the nay-sayers wrong, and I did. But that isn't the same as finding your one great love.

I have that passion when I write. I feel that burning ember in my breast whenever the ideas begin to flow. I feel the yearning to create drawing me like a lover, ever beckoning, always ready to embrace me. It is my place of ultimate joy. So with each query letter comes that sense of hope and anticipation. Perhaps this time I will receive an answer that will enable me to remain in my lover's arms indefinitely.

Yes, I expect the rejection, but with it comes an opportunity to learn and improve my craft, and I have a choice to pick myself up and try again. If I can weather all those years of study followed by countless years of working in a job that is not my first love, I can navigate my way through a few dozen rejection letters. I am not afraid to "make my bones". I am just a afraid of never trying and giving myself and my writing the chance they deserve. Getting a rejection letter isn't failure. Failure only comes when I throw up my hands and give up on my dreams.


If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Adventures in Querying: Just When You Thought It Couldn't Get Any Harder...

Since my levels of public humiliation know no bounds, I have decided to share some of my many adventures in sending out the dreaded query letter. There are enough self-help blogs out there to tell you the right way of doing things, so I will not presume to offer such sage wisdoms here. I have none. Nor do I entirely ascribe to the idea that there is an over-arching "right way". I have read enough to know that what tickles the fancy of one agent will annoy the pants off another. What I do hope to accomplish with my self-emulation, if nothing else, is a minor distraction from the stresses of what countless writers undergo every single day.

1. We write.
2. We edit.
3. We summarize.
4. We create our synopsis.

Some writers never quite get to number one. Theirs is always a WIP. Others get to number two and never leave the loop. There is so much to correct, massage, reinvent, re-imagine, and rewrite, number two will sustain them for decades to come. Number three can be hard because what do you leave out and what do you keep without loosing the gist of the story. (The cat on the street corner seemed so significant at the time. Certainly he warrants a mention at the number three stage.) Number four is the nightmare version of number three. No one gets a mention and the witty repartee - lost on the cutting room floor. Five hundred pages whittled down to a few measly paragraphs, but if you make it past number four, the query letter awaits you.

We won't discuss my age. It is as off-limits a subject as discussing the NRA at a church social. What I will say is that when it comes to writing and sending out query letters, there is a part of me that feels a bit like a child. Positively pubescent in fact. I get all nervous. My voice cracks, and I don't even have to actually talk to anyone. That is how jittery the process can be for me. I haven't sent out many and perhaps my inexperience is what causes the quaver, but my super slick professional veneer that exists in my high tech day job shatters at the start of the "Dear Mr/Ms." of the query letter.

Maybe it is because so much of me CARES about the outcome. Maybe it is because so much of me is invested in what I am sending. I haven't quite figured it out. I am an old hand at one through four but the query still has its embarrassing surprises. I will give you an example.

I write professional letters all day long. It is part and parcel of my day job. I am commended on my communication skills in fact. I took technical communications in college, and I know all about the opening and closing of a letter. It is basic stuff. My first query letter and incidentally my first massive snafu was to write a query letter that had everything but the "thank you" at the end.

Word to the wise or the morbidly retarded. Always ALWAYS say "thank you for your time" at the  end of a query letter. You don't have to use those words but find some way of showing your appreciation to the reading agent for them reading your correspondence. That simple token can go a long way and the lack of it can put the breaks on.

I was so nervous about that first letter, I did the double-dog-dare send off and did not make sure that I had everything in the body of the letter that common courtesy demanded. I had what was required in the submission guidelines, but there is more to an agent than that. I sent a followup email and drew attention to my oversight. I apologized profusely and explained how nervous I was. I know it was a gamble, and no, it didn't pay off in the sense of my being picked up by that agency. I did however, receive a personal email back the next day letting me know that I didn't meet the type of material they were looking for at that time, but to please continue to submit. It was a kind letter that didn't need to be sent. I could have been ignored and deleted. Instead, I was acknowledged and treated with respect.

Fast forward to today. I sent out my second query letter for a brand new book for a brand new series. The very first thing I did was write that darned thank you at the end. No sense in getting burned by that twice. Boy was I proud of myself for remembering. I went over every inch of that letter. When I was certain I had everything I needed, I sent it out. I like keeping records so I bcc'd a copy to myself. Then I waited. And waited. And waited for my copy to arrive. A sick feeling suddenly set into my gut. I pulled up my email (set up faithfully through Google) and imagine my considerable horror when I discovered I sent my query letter along with the first five pages of my new book to another author.

Yep. Google apparently has a new and marvelous feature in their gmail system that ties into the email address auto complete. If an gmail account exists that is similar to one that you are entering, Google now offers it as a dropdown recommendation even if you don't know the person, aren't connected to them, and have no freaking clue who the heck they are. I saw author and stephens which are both in my email address and I tabbed to accept. It was the only address that was recommended which made sense because it was the only one like it that I had set up in my contacts. But Google wasn't looking at MY contacts. It was looking out into the world of people I didn't know.

So some other author got my stuff. Maybe she had a good laugh. Maybe she said, "Ooooo, this is neat." Who knows. The point is, I didn't catch it. So there I was sending another letter some time later asking her to delete the query and pretend she never saw it. Fiasco number two of query sendouts.

Tomorrow is a new day, and they say the third time is a charm. I will let you know if that holds true.


If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Dangers of the Digital World

I got a terrible wake up call the other day. It was a bone-chilling, armpit moistening, nerve wracking kind of day that got me thinking about the direction the world is taking. I nearly lost a huge chunk of my library - my digital library that is. For one entire day, I could not touch a single, solitary book that was locked within the recesses of my digital reader.

You may be asking yourself, why get your panties in a wad over that? What is one day when compared to the myriad of days, weeks, and years you have to look forward to? Well, when your digital reader has everything on it from your research materials (as a writer), to the book that you are reading for your own entertainment (the one that is consuming you and will not let you go), to the other collections of books like cookbooks with your favorite recipes, that nifty crochet book with the rest of the instructions on how to finish the project you are in the middle of working on, etc., you can see how NOT being able to access those books can add up to a pretty anxious time. And it wasn't JUST one day. It was a promise of an uncertain forever.

The situation was simple. My reader received an automatic update the night before. The update follygabbled the program that enabled me to open the books I had paid for. I had a LOT of books, which included all of the above named varieties, so I called support to report the problem. I was told the high-powered, uber technical company had no timeline on when the problem would be fixed. For all intents and purposes, that money and those books might as well have gone up in flames.

The thing is, I have always been a bit of traditionalist when it came to the written word. I swore when Nooks and Kindles and all the rest of the eReaders first began to make their debuts onto the electronic stage that I would never succumb to the temptation of replacing my beautiful paper-printed pages with the dreaded, digital usurpers that threatened to replace them. Then I received a Nexus for my birthday. In stepped temptation.

It was just so darned easy and inexpensive. I found free books and cheap books and neat books aplenty. My day job is so entrenching, I oftentimes cannot get to the bookstore. In app searching and purchasing was so simple. I had amassed quite a collection before I even realized I had done so. Then came the crash and my books were no longer at my disposal. I found myself saying those famous last words...What was I thinking?

Don't get me wrong. I am not calling digital books an anathema. As soon as the company fixed their app, I was back in business doing what I was doing before, but it did give me pause. It has even caused me to begin the process of back pedaling to a more reasonable level of digital purchasing. I now know first hand what happens when technology fails, and when it comes to my reading enjoyment, it isn't pretty.

We take everything for granted in this high-tech world of ours until we don't have whatever it is that we need anymore. I for one can't live without books to fill those blissful moments when free time beacons me to my bookshelves, so little by little, I will return to the age-old tradition of buying it in print. Call me a fool or a fuddyduddy. I don't care. Because in the eternity of hours that was my day without my books, it felt as though life as I knew it has ceased to turn. May the same be said and hold true for each respective generation when they speak about the written word.


If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Friday, February 27, 2015

And The Award For The Worst Blogger Goes To......

I am not one to toot my own horn when it comes to much of anything, but in the case of worst blogging awards, I think I have a chance of winning this particular distinction. If you could only see the number of blog posts that I have started but have yet to complete. They are sitting in my "Draft" folder like little lost ships just waiting for a rudder to guide them to their final destination. Each little darling began with a good idea. At least I thought it was good at the time of its conception. A handful of posts matured beyond a title and even graduated to the state of gaining a few paragraphs of text. Yet something invariably came along to stymie their final development. I am not referring to some wondrous, noteworthy distraction or dire medical emergency which would make my reticence somewhat justifiable in the eyes of the rest of the world. I am talking about a nagging doubt that ground everything to a halt once it materialized. A seed of uncertainty that, once planted, prevented me from completing what I had started. Dramatic sounding, I know, but all too true.

Blogs are troublesome for me somehow. They are so different from writing a novel. I find them vexing to be honest. The truth is, I doubt anyone really cares what I have to say about most topics in this overburdened electric world of words we live in, where everyone and there mother has the means to voice their opinions on everything from cat litter to the gray matter that builds up between their toes. I am one, tiny, obscure voice in a veritable sea of voices, and I am less inclined to speak my mind to the outside world than most other people I know. That is saying something significant for someone who is a consummate writer. But blog writing and creating fictitious worlds are two entirely different creatures. The one makes me flounder like a fish out of water. The other makes me flourish like a well-loved plant.

My trepidation for blogging and electronic social media in general was birthed a few years back when I was still tapping away on my first novel. I remember reading a post from a young woman who wrote about her favorite author. She had just found his Facebook page which was at that time, newly minted. Rather than being delighted by her discovery, she was disappointed. Why? Because she learned to her infinite horror that the man, whose work she had loved, was boring outside of his work. He was nothing like his books at all. He wasn't dashing or hilarious or deeply philosophical as she had built him up to be in her imagination. The reality of who he was outside of what he wrote had failed to meet her expectations. I don't know if she ever found the heart to read another one of his books again after that. I didn't have the heart to ask her.

The young woman's perception of the man behind her favorite books was one facet of the endless demands and expectations that are put upon authors these days. It is not enough to write a great book. In fact, there are some who say that writing a great story for an author isn't even necessary to be well-known, widely read, and much talked about. According to some "experts", it is the public persona which will make or break you and so a million and one blogs, books, articles, and self-helps have been created to guide us hopefuls towards the magic formula of public perception which will make us famous. The problem is, none of the experts can agree what that magic formula of presentation is.

Be yourself. Don't be yourself. Be funny. Be serious. Write about writing in your blog. Don't mention your craft. Highlight other authors. Don't mention the competition. Whatever you puppies! (I literally read that one in a 'How to be taken seriously as writer' article.) The conflicting advice is endless. And for someone who is desperately trying to navigate the murky, shark-infested waters of publishing, it can be downright discouraging. I finally had to walk away from all the noisy advice and begin my own small steps towards finding my own voice.

I can never be anything but myself. My books are a window into the inner complexities of my mind and heart. Yet even with such a seemingly intimate view, I am simply me. I love my family. I love my dogs. You will see them often enough in my posts. Look for the ones entitled "Life Lessons From My Dog." Now plural thanks to the addition of Sassy back in October of last year. Yes, I broke that 'no puppy' rule early on in my blogging attempts, and I have never looked back. Even as I type this post, I am affectionately watching my pups dream sleepy doggie dreams while laying spraddle-legged on the bed.

I cry at sappy commercials and laugh at inopportune times. I wear knee-high character socks with everything. In my mind, Hello Kitty is acceptable at any age, and I pray I never get too old to appreciate the child in me who longs to peek her head out at every opportunity. There are times I actually miss that odd orange colored pizza they served in middle school cafeterias that smelled really good from the classroom but tasted like cardboard. I like Nat King Cole and Skrillex, but not played at the same time.

I like my real life to be simple and uncomplicated, enjoying the mini miracles each day brings. Part of me fears the simplicity I bring to the table may not be enough for a world that seeks perpetual stimulation. I am not edgy. I am not rude (that I know of), and I do not have a provocative side that I am just dying to expose to the world, so I wonder if this whole blogging thing is a good idea for me. Only time will tell I suppose. For now, I will do my best and nadder on when the urge hits me (which it seldom does) about whatever odd topics come to mind. I will probably break most of the rules at some point or another. Not because I am trying to. Just because I don't know what they are and I don't care enough to learn them. I suppose in life, sometimes ignorance is bliss. There are puppies to be kissed after all, and the little miracles in life that bring us the greatest joy must take precedence.

Until next time my friends..........


If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.