Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Tale of Publishing, Part I

This morning, an enormous padded envelope arrived on my doorstep, containing the first printed pages of The Star Thief. For those who don't know (as I didn't, until just a few months ago) at some point before your manuscript becomes a book, all the pages are formatted, printed out, and sent to the writer for a proofread. I don't print out working drafts of my manuscripts. I've only done it once, at the request of the agent. So to see the work as a physical thing, rather than just a file on a computer, is super exciting!

As I get closer to The Star Thief being a real live book, I've decided to go back and do a few posts about how I got here, from the beginning.

I'm one of those writers who's been crafting stories since I could hold a pencil. But when it came time for college, I picked theater and fine art instead of English as a major. Still, by the time graduation rolled around, I was starting to think I really wanted to try writing something for publication.

But... what???

I did very little writing in college, simply because I didn't know what I wanted to write about. So I did what you should do when you want to write, I started reading as much as I could. I graduated in spring 2002, and then got married at the end of the summer. On the way home from my honeymoon, I picked up a few books in the airport. One was the paperback of Prisoner of Azkaban. By the time I got through the first chapter, I already knew. I was going to write for kids. I started to recall all the wonderful fantasy stories I had loved as a kid, but had left behind when I became Serious about Art. But once I rediscovered children's books, and middle grade in particular, I suddenly had All The Ideas. I had characters and plots and settings and adventures, and I went home, got a job at a Barnes & Noble, and started trying to write a novel.

And yes, that was quite a few years ago. There was a bit of a learning curve!

How about you? Did you always know what you wanted to write? Did you find your niche? Or are you still looking?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Love Stories vs. Not Love Stories

So, I'm in the middle of my pre - publication year. My debut novel, The Star Thief, is still many months away from it's big premiere. There is plenty to do to prepare, but in writing life, it's time to get into new projects. 

One of these potential new projects involves a love story. I've been ruminating on what kinds of love stories I find interesting, and what I do not, paying attention to anything that stands out as wow or eeewww. These all apply equally to books as well, but for this post, I've given some examples from films. 

What's Wow?
Genuine connection. Two characters with enough in common that you can see the bond growing between them even before they realize it? And not just matched-on-paper, but with fully realized personalities that would (or already do) compliment each other? Yes. I'm on board. I will cheer for this couple.
See: Drinking Buddies, The Drop, Before Sunrise, Sideways, Defending Your Life

Longtime love. This one is hard to find, because Falling in Love stories are just so much more exciting than Staying in Love stories, but there's something wonderful about a deep connection that has survived a real duration of time. I love a pair with enough history together that they really know each other, and accept one another, even through conflict. 
See: Only Lovers Left Alive, Before Midnight

Mutual attraction. When a pair is really right for each other, and they both feel it, however long it takes for their feelings to be revealed, even if they don't end up together. 
See: Before Sunset, Tin Cup, 10 Things I Hate About You (even though it treads dangerously close to many of the Eewws, but we can blame that on Shakespeare. Once they spend time together, they do really like each other)

Authenticity. Do these seem like real people? Can the reader or viewer relate? Are they experiencing real human emotions, instead of pantomiming chemistry and connection that isn't there? If an on-page or on-screen couple has a moment I can relate too, or that reminds me of something I've experienced, I'm that much more invested in their story. 
See: Adventureland, Last Night, and Drinking Buddies (again)

What's Eeww? 

Insta-Love. Sigh, boo, shrug. Especially with underdeveloped characters. Instant Attraction or Instant Interest, sure. Absolutely. But to portray that as True Love before the characters even know each other is lazy and kind of gross, if you try to apply that idea to real life. 

Relationships as the Defining Character Trait. Does the hero/heroine ultimately exist only to be In Love or part of the central couple? Booooooring. Not fun. Even pretend people need to be a little complex, or why are we bothering to watch their story?

Stalking, Coercion, Ignoring the Concept of Consent - basically most things that go on in Romantic Comedies. When one person A is in love, and person B is not or doesn't know how A feels, but B's feelings and what they want is completely ignored for the sake of the plot. For instance, when the girl is with a gigantic jerk, but doesn't know it until Hero Guy explains this to her? Hate this. When girl and guy clearly don't like each other, but just don't realize they're destined to be in love? Hate This Too. When protagonist hears a firm "No." from Love Interest, but proceeds anyway, sometimes aggressively, sometimes at Love Interest's expense, this is once again gross. "Convincing" someone to be in love with a speech or a Grand Romantic Gesture? Equally gross. Breaking up someone's wedding? Go to Romance Jail until you learn to act like a person.
Surgically Sterile Breakups. This is one of the overlooked deadly sins of romantic entanglements in fiction, which is weird, considering how often the Love Triangle dynamic is invoked. When character A spends an entire narrative torn between B and C, but then the alternate graciously steps aside at the last minute, so that the True Lovers can be together? This may be the biggest fantasy of all. Breaking up is often hard. The only reason to make it painless is to avoid making the protagonist look bad. But this is also avoiding a way to make a character complex and real. 

Petty Misunderstandings. I have a hard, nigh on impossible time caring about a couple if they are so terrible at communicating that they are kept apart for long stretches by something that could have been resolved with one conversation. (Single exception being Jane Austen, as rules of social etiquette from the 18th century are about the only legitimate reason for these kinds of misunderstandings.)

Anything else? What makes a good love story for you? Any you'd love to recommend? 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Good, the Bad, and the Published

Good Afternoon, whomever happens upon my badly tended blog!
I've been busy finishing edits, trying to be a runner again, and finally learning how Twitter works.
@lcatebecker, if you're over there. I have to re-find all my scattered writer people again!

So, back in May, I turned in my final, official draft of The Star Thief. The first 6 months of this year were devoted to edits, more edits, and then, after editing, a few quick edits. It's now been through copyediting, and is off somewhere in NY getting formatted into an actual book. So, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the whole process so far, and look at the Good and the Bad when it comes to this publishing thing.

First, the Bad.

Writing a book is hard.
It just is.
Shortcuts are not really a thing. You will probably find/develop/steal some kind of process that helps you work, that makes you feel more productive, but the actual work of sitting down, writing the book, and then taking the time to revise and polish is always going to be hard.

And that's just the beginning.

Every step of the process is hard.
Revising is hard.
Querying is hard.
Revising and resubmitting is hard.
Revising on editorial notes is hard.
Copyediting is hard.

All of it, every step, is a challenge. There are ever more people out there willing to "help" with the process, for a fee. There seem to be a growing number of people trying to hang their professional shingle on the idea that publishing is an impossible system, one that you can never, ever break into without some kind of magic pass, or costly service they happen to be providing. There have been vanity publishers and scammy agents for a very long time, but lately I've started to see a different kind of pitch altogether, in which some ambitious yet misguided souls are trying to create a third tier between the publisher - agent - writer system, by offering services to find agents, for a cost, of course. Be wary, writer friends. There are legit reasons to hire a professional pre - publication. For instance, getting a good, pro editor to look over your work and give you notes can be well worth the cost.

But you don't NEED it.

Because here's the Good.

It's all up to you.
You can do this on your own.
There are plentiful resources out there now, full of great, reliable information on writing and publishing, and you can do it all on your own. Writing the book, getting reader feedback, editing, querying, revising, submitting. You can do most of this without paying anyone, without an "in" with the industry, without paying for an expensive service, or getting an expensive degree, or attending conferences.

Now, some of those might still be super helpful. I have a degree, just not in English, or any kind of creative writing. I would love to start attending conferences, but time and finances have been an issue for, well... always, so far. But hitting some conferences, and - especially - a writing retreat or two, is on my dream list for the immediate future.

In the mean time, I managed to find an agent without getting the coasts for one of the SCBWI's big awesome parties, or going back to school to focus on writing. And my agent managed to sell my debut novel without me having any credentials, or a great platform, or any connections to the business.

This is all Hollywood speak, btw. If you're a filmmaker or a screenwriter, you absolutely DO have to have ins, have to make connections, and network, and paying someone to get your scripts in front of studios is an actual thing. But that's film and TV. If you're in the novel writing game, you still just need one thing. Good writing.

The rest, you can do with a little research.

Here are some starter links,

For Querying any kind of novel.

Janet Reid's blog is invaluable.
Also, her Query Shark blog.

For finding an agent

Literary Rambles is solid gold. Lots of agent interviews, and a comprehensive list of children's book agents all in one spot.

Querytracker is very popular, though I never used it myself. Many fellow writers have found their agents through this route.

Also helpful, a plain old search for Literary Agency and the sub genre of your choice. There's plenty of ways to cross reference legit agencies with questionable ones.

For general writing talk and industry info

SCBWI boards, (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) You can join, for a membership fee, but there is still also an open message board to commiserate with other writers even before you join.

Absolute Write Water Cooler is huge, but full of lots of general industry knowledge, and a fine place to ask questions.

Harold Underdowns' The Purple Crayon has resources all over the board, from writing to querying.

Get on the FB and join a writer's group. I have to confess, I find this less useful than targeted writing only forums, but it is still a great resource for finding fellow writers, asking questions, and getting information.

I'll add to this list as I find things - It's been a while since I was querying.
A future post will be devoted to the query process, and my personal experience.

So, to sum it up - the only things you need to become a published writer are a well written book, and a little bit of research. You can do it. It may take some time. It may take a lot of time. I think we all would love a guarantee that all the work and effort will somehow, someday, pay off. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees, no matter what stage of process you are working through. But the good news, the very good news, is that the only thing you really MUST do to be a writer is... write.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Starting the New Year with - A Book Deal!

So here it is, the reason this blog was created, back when I sent my very first queries into the world. Today it's all official. The word has gone out into the ether where Official Words live, and so now I can share it here, too!

My debut middle grade novel, The Star Thief, is scheduled for publication by Little, Brown, in Spring 2017!

Ben Lewandowski
Deirdre Jones at Little, Brown has acquired debut author Lindsey Becker'sThe Star Thief, a middle grade fantasy adventure in which an orphaned girl is caught in the crossfire of a feud between a master of mythical constellations and the captain of a spectacular flying steamship – and doesn't know whose side to join. Publication is slated for spring 2017; Natalie Lakosil at Bradford Literary Agency negotiated the deal for world rights.

 And if that wasn't awesome enough, the deal was finished by my fabulous agent Natalie Lakosil, while she was in labor with her first baby! That's dedication!

I'm now working with my editor, the brilliant Deirdre Jones, on the process of turning a manuscript into a book.

 More news to follow, of course. For now, it's back to the very glamorous work of revising, more revising, and then a little revision to cap off all the revising.

Cheers to a happy 2016, and a million thanks to everyone who's helped along the way!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

In Which I Have Not Written The Wrong Year On Anything - Yet

Five days in, and I have remembered that it is a new year every one of them.
Probably the first time in my adult life that has happened.
This is the place for the obligatory end of the year wrap-up, and new year goal setting, so let's knock them out in one post, yeah?
Last year, I did not read as many books as I wanted to. I did not write as much new material as I wanted to. I definitely did not put as many miles on the running shoes as I did in '14.
I did make some fantastic progress on my writing that already existed.
I also spent much of the year with the company of my husband and little son, as both of the gainfully employed adults here are now working from home. I have to say, I love it. We might be turning into a collection of hermits, but we're happy little hermits, for the most part.
We also got ourselves a shiny old dog. I highly recommend. He gets us out of the house and onto our feet every few hours, adds extra warmth to all snuggly locations during cold winter times, and dutifully alerts us to any knocks and doorbells, even if they are coming from the television or computer, because you just never know.
Goals for the coming year include Finishing Many Started Writing Projects, breaking in my brand new running shoes, refinishing a few pieces of old furniture (for which I have all of the supplies, but none of the motivation...)
I've already read 2 & 3/4 books. So just, keep that up.
And that's about it. Things are going well over here. It would be lovely to have another year just like the last one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Hardest Left Turn a Series Ever Took

Long ago, I was a horse crazy kid living in the suburbs, where horses were scarce, but books were abundant. I don't remember the exact moment I met The Black Stallion, but I know that somewhere between the end of the 80s and the first few years of the 90s, I read all 21 books in the collected stallion-related series by one Walter Farley, with help of his son Steven to finish the final installment. And I adored every one of them. 

The first book deals with the titular stallion being stranded on a desert island, along with the only other survivor of a shipwreck, Alec Ramsey. Together they learn to survive, form a lifelong bond of friendship, and are eventually rescued and brought back to live in the suburbs of 1940s era New York, where the horse is discovered by a retired thoroughbred trainer named Henry Daily, trained up as a proper racehorse, and entered in a match race against the fictional racing stars Sun Raider and Cyclone. (Probably a take on the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, which took place just three years before The Black Stallion was published.) Spoilers - The Black Stallions wins. 

It's a fantastic story, later adapted into one of the most beautiful films ever made, staring Kelly Reno as a much younger than the book version, but brilliantly cast Alec, Mickey Rooney as Henry, and Teri Garr, who I absolutely adore. With cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (yep. Zooey and Emily's dad.). Again, a great story, with distinctly fantastical elements. 

The Black Stallion was followed up by 20 more installments in the series, mostly about The Black and a select few of his offspring, his sons Satan and Bonfire, and his daughter Black Minx, all, of course, following in their great sire's hoof prints and becoming world champion race horses. There is some broad artistic license throughout the series, starting with the Black's first son being trained as a racehorse, and entered in the Triple Crown (which he wins, off stage. A bold move for Farley, considering that at the time of writing and publication, thoroughbred racing was in the throes of the second longest dry spell between Triple Crown winners since the 37 years separating Affirmed and this year's American Pharoah.) Black Minx then goes on to win the Kentucky Derby. 

You can't do that in real life. Maybe The Black would be allowed special exception to enter the one off match race, but to enter any of the traditional stakes races, including the Triple Crown, your horse is going to have to be a Jockey Club registered Thoroughbred, which The Black and any of his potential foals would simply never be. Not to mention Bonfire, the who is a harness racer in the series, which is, again, an entirely different breed, with very specific skills and traits. 

But this is all curmudgeonly nit picking of the pickiest of nits. This is a fictional series about racehorses, after all. Readers want to read about champions wining races.  Some smudging of the boundaries of reality makes it all the more fun, even into the sort-of companion series about The Island Stallion. 

In The Island Stallion, Farley reworks the same basic elements of his first novel - boy, horse, hidden island - but instead of leaving, all the action takes place on the island itself. A kid named Steve finds a band of wild horses, descended from abandoned steeds of the Spanish Conquistadors, on a supposedly desolate rock of an island. And that's about it. He names the chestnut stallion on the island Flame, and he tames the horse just enough to ride him around inside the confines of the natural stone fortress that the horses call home. A little bit more fantasy, and 0 horse racing. Fine. Eventually, the reader assumes, Flame is going to become some sort of racing champion as well, and indeed that does happen, because 

- wait for it - 

Yeah. I'm absolutely not kidding. 
In The Island Stallion Races, published in 1955, aliens visit earth. Aliens who are so obsessed with horse racing that they offer to whisk Steve and Flame away to Cuba to participate in an international competition against the best race horses in the world. Aliens who dress like Nathan Detroit from Guys and Dolls, no less. There is a scene where the horse is loaded onto a spaceship, and flown across the ocean to an international race track.  

All the corners cut in the earlier tales of Farley's fictional horse racing dynasty are instantly erased by freaking ALIENS showing up to help some kid take some horse to some race in CUBA. If you're going to take a risk, why not? They'll read it. I did. I bought a copy, which still sits on a shelf above my desk, because I love that series, even with the bizarro  alien horse racing element tossed so casually in. The very best part? If you read the copy on the back of the book, there is absolutely nothing so much as hinting at the insanity within. All that's mentioned on the cover copy is that Flame is going to race, and that's going to be dangerous, with him being an untamed wild stallion and all. The Aliens come screaming out of left field in the first 50 pages of the book. And... that's it. They take Steve and Flame to race. Flame wins race. Flame goes home. Steve shrugs and pouts about his horse being faster than the legendary black stallion, racing up north in the US. Yes, The Black exists in this world, and one day goes on to meet Flame both on his island home, and later on the track in a legitimate race. 

So the next time you watch the movie, or just see the majestic image of the Black galloping down the beach, just remember that somewhere else in that same world, aliens are traveling to the Caribbean Sea to find Earth's Best Racehorse. 

Actually, this is mildly disappointing, now that I think about it. Why wasn't there an intergalactic horse race for Flame to win? Why stop at racing the Black, when he could be pitted against the fastest horses IN THE GALAXY???

Somewhere out there, is a true match for Flame, the magnificent Island Stallion*.

*this is still a book about horse racing.
So, what about you? Ever read something that was just completely bonkers, based on the cannon of the series up to that point? 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Old Dog, New Tricks, and Titles.

So, Otis is officially the Best Dog Ever. 
He highly recommends you consider adopting an older dog. They come with all Good Dog Software already installed. 
 Housebroken? check. Socialized? check. Gets along with household felines? check. Likes kids? check. Good manners when walking on a leash? check. Knows how to give high fives? check. Seriously, just bring him home and you have an Instant Best Friend, no additional hardware required.
Here he is being all cute and relaxing on his blanket after a visit to the dog park.

"You are not currently petting Otis, or feeding him treats.
Let's try to work on that." 

After a few months with us, he's very settled in. When he first arrived, he had a bit of anxiety during thunderstorms, but now even that seems to be relaxing. A few days ago we had a rather loud afternoon storm, and he just hung out on the couch, instead of trying to cram himself under my desk as he had on previous occasions. 

The one thing he hasn't been very helpful with is picking out a title for my manuscript. 
That is one of the most aggravating parts of writing, I find. 
I walk through the book store reading spine after spine, thinking, "Wow, that's brilliant." and then I get back to my own project. I stare at my list of potential titles. And they are all somehow, in their own ways, completely terrible. 
I was never especially intimidated by queries - condensing my manuscript down into a little less than a page is one thing. Coming up with five words or less that can grab a potential reader and make them want to read the jacket, or better yet, open to page one? Eeek. 

So that's where I am in the writing world, fellow scribes.